LEADERS - not followers

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sunday Scribblings Pilgrimage


PILGRIMS

If the aesthetic nature of Nongbualamphu province was pleasing enough to the eye, then Loei was more beautiful still. Set high in the northern hills, close to the border with Laos, it is surrounded by even higher mountains. The scenery is quite breathtaking and if the poverty appeared a little less evident than in the villages around Non Sang, the lifestyle was equally relaxed.
It was an emotional visit for Mok who was being re-united with her real mother for the first time in quarter of a century.
Long, as ever, had driven us the hundred or so kilometres and we arrived to a welcoming party of Mok’s mother and four children. The children, two girls in their late teens or early twenties and two boys aged six and nine, were not as intrigued by me as had been the case in Nongbualamphu, but they were just as eager to hold and cuddle our son Changnoi, and introduce him to his new surroundings.
The house, again a traditionally styled wooden construction, was quite different to the one we’d stayed in the previous week. Inside, it was partitioned off into individual rooms and the ground floor area was completely enclosed. One of the typical low-slung tables; timber framed with split bamboo forming the surface, stood under the porchway at the front of the house. Mok and I sat and joined the family, who had invited us to share the food that had already been served prior to our arrival.
We spent a relaxed week, visiting, or being visited by, relatives and friends, enjoying lakeside picnics and walks into the hills. Bangkok and the rest of the world seemed a million miles away, and I could tell by the sparkle in Mok’s eyes, as well as the sheer pleasure she took from showing me around, that Isan was where her heart really was. It had me enchanted too and I couldn’t have asked for more from a region of unspoilt natural beauty.
The people I met always seemed so genuinely pleased to see me and nothing was ever too much trouble for them. The knowledge that every single ingredient in every meal I had eaten had been grown or reared by the same hands that had prepared, cooked and served the food, added an extra dimension to the chore of eating. The children, old and young alike, especially impressed me. It was their willingness to accept their circumstances without complaint, that shamed me into realising I’d grown up abusing many of the privileges that I’d come to expect as of right. An incident, which served as a poignant example of this, occurred the day before our departure.
Next door, other members of the extended family were celebrating the return home, from working in Bangkok, of their eldest son.
The twenty five year old had made his own personal pilgrimage, for the first time in three years, bringing with him the customary collection for the temple that served the village.
The money he had collected from friends, neighbours and workmates in Bangkok was still inside the sealed envelopes, the village monks had sent to him. These envelopes had, in turn, been placed into a small bag which was now being emptied out onto one of the low bamboo-surfaced tables in front of his family home.
His mother was carefully knifing open the envelopes, most of which appeared to contain multiples of the twenty Baht minimum required donation. Much of the cash was in ten or twenty baht banknotes, but there were also several fifties and half a dozen hundreds, in the collection. A few of the envelopes only contained the bare minimum, twenty Baht, in loose coins.
Once again, a young banana plant, dressed with coconut palm leaves had been prepared for the offering. This one was bigger than the standard size, most of the other villagers would offer, due to the number of people who had donated. It was much more ornate, with jasmine petals, speared to the tips of the palms. It was mounted on a four legged support, constructed from bamboo. Further strips of split bamboo, had been arranged in tiered fans, forming a focal point, on which to display the offering. The finished structure, measured almost two metres tall.
Once all the envelopes had been opened, the family began counting up. On average, the contributions worked out at around sixty Baht per envelope, with a grand total of just under six thousand Baht.
Family, friends and neighbours, gathered to add their own collections to the total, and a quick whip-round, made the final figure, eight thousand Baht. Mok and I contributed a further one thousand Baht apiece, rounding off the sum to ten thousand.
Banknotes were arranged, from the centre, in order of value, onto the spliced bamboo strips. Our two, one thousands took centre stage, followed by the hundreds, fifties, twenties, and finally, on the extremities, tens.
The loose change, totalling one hundred and eighty four Baht, was deposited inside a silver fruit bowl, along with the empty envelopes, which bore the names of the donors. The whole display would be paraded through the village, where similar groups of collectors would join in, with their own offerings, in order to process to the Wat and make the presentations to the monks.
The carnival atmosphere, which always seemed to accompany such processions, was once again in evidence, as we made the now familiar, tour of the village, picking up more people at every turn, until it seemed the entire population was in attendance.
Three circuits of the main temple building, gaily festooned with colourful depictions of Buddha’s travels, were completed, before moving inside, to attend a service, in which all the fundraisers would receive special attention and blessings, from the saffron-clad monk, leading the ritual.
Mok had been unusually quiet throughout the day; our last day before returning to Bangkok. I could see that she obviously had things on her mind, and I already knew how much she disliked being away from her home and family. I would wait for a conveniently quiet time, before tackling her, and finding out if she was thinking the same thoughts that had begun to spark conjecture in my own mind.
We’d opted for the overnight bus journey back to Bangkok; leaving the village’s tiny bus station at seven ‘o’ clock. Estimated arrival time at Morchit was four thirty in the morning.
Although I’d have loved to stay on for a further week, the visit was over, and also it seemed, yet another phase of my life, as the bus rattled along Isan’s highways.
I turned towards Mok, who was cradling the sleeping Changnoi, staring pensively, out of the window, gazing at the stars.
I came straight out with the question that I hoped she was burning to ask of me, but dare not, for fear of disappointment from a negative response.
“When do you want me to take you home?”
She stared deep into my eyes, exploring my features for any trace of irony, but could find none. Tears welled up in her own eyes and fell, silently, caressing her cheeks with the warmth of their moisture. She swallowed hard and managed;
“Soon;” sniffing and swallowing once more, as her face brightened into an angelic smile; “very soon.”