Nong Chit, Northeast Thailand. A very small farming village in the midst of rice fields. Wooden houses on stilts. Rainwater not running water. Sporadic electricity blinking from bare light bulbs. Chickens scratching in the dirt. Ducks marching around – quacking, staking their claim to their territory. Ever-present dogs scavenging for their right to stay alive. Everyone related to everyone else. No secrets.
We arrived late one Friday afternoon, Jack and I. The beginning of the dry season: searing heat blazing down from an unshadowed sun. One hour in a taxi, seven hours on two buses and a bit of a walk from Bangkok. Jack being my Thai ‘nephew’: twenty years old, part of my Bangkok family. Going to university in the big city but a country boy in heart and soul.
The seed of our adventure had been planted two months earlier with an invitation from Jack to accompany him to his village, to meet his family. I accepted in an instant, always happy to embark on travels to places unseen.
Not many white faces stay in Nong Chit. Long years since the last one. Instant fascination – within an hour of our arrival almost all the women in the village had come by, along with many of the men and all of the children. There was excitement and just a little curiosity to see this foreigner who had arrived in their midst; and unbounded happiness to see Jack back home.
Conversation, as always in Thailand, began with how old I was and how much Thai I could speak. There was much delight when It was discovered that I was the same age as Jack’s mother and that I could speak a little of the language. Next question…what do I do? A teacher, amongst other things. Very good. And do I have children? No. Oh, very sad. And, of course, the inevitable question about food. Do I like Thai food and can I eat chillies? Affirmative to both. The hotter the better. Excellent. No problem there then.
The next issue at hand involved me. More precisely, the size of me. After much pinching of my flesh, that made me feel a little like a yearling in a sale, it was decided by the older ladies that I was thin. Apparently this was good. But certain parts of my anatomy that distinguish me as a female were considered small. This, apparently, was very bad. The ladies shook their heads and laughed. Oh well. Can’t have everything I guess.
Jack was so happy to be home. He talked late into that first night with his mother about the farm and the imminent need to harvest the rice. His father was away working and his mother was tending the family’s land alone. I retired to bed long before they did. A rush mat on the wooden floor of the only upstairs room, the communal bedroom. As in many Asian countries, all members of the family sleep together. Slatted wooden walls, an eighteen inch gap between the top and the corrugated iron roof the only ventilation. No windows – glass an expensive and unnecessary luxury.
The air was stuffy and hot. I had a special pillow and bedcover, and a new bright blue mosquito net: a welcome gift as the mosquitoes were attacking in squadrons. I slept a deep, dreamless sleep despite the fact that we slumbered in the glare of two fluorescent lights – to keep the ghosts away.
I awoke just before dawn. Cockerels crowing. Dogs barking. The ubiquitous ‘bok bok’ sound of spices being ground in large, grey stone mortar and pestles.
Jack and I went out, balanced on rickety old bicycles held together by rust and the occasional prayer. Tyres completely without tread. My bike had brake levers but no cables. What do you need brakes for when you have got feet? The chain hadn’t seen oil since the day the bike was bought when Jack was still a young boy. I lost count of how many times it came off the chain wheels as we pedalled out to the land his family farm. It didn’t matter. We were in no hurry. The pace of country life had seamlessly recalibrated our body clocks whilst we had slept the previous night.
We left home as the sun was just rising above the rice fields into a cloudless pale blue sky, casting a liquid golden-silver light across the landscape. Gentle. Warm. No hint of the heat that would arrive within the hour. A slight breeze. Barely a whisper. Not enough to make the rice stalks nod. Our route a red dirt track. Dust rising from our wheels, suspended crimson particles catching the sunlight. We met a herd of white, heavily-dewlapped cattle, their tails twitching across their flanks, unsettling swarms of irritating black flies. They were driven by a stooped lady, her head swathed in countless scarves to protect her from the sun. Couldn’t see her face but her posture and gait suggested an age beyond youth. We cycled through the cows. Their liquid brown eyes inspected us with innocent interest as we passed, their wet pink noses twitching as they gathered our scent. The sweet, earthy, grassy smell of them hung heavy in the air.
As we cycled, Jack explained what was growing around us. Tapioca. Eucalyptus. Chillies. Sugar cane. Coconuts. Numerous vegetables. And acres and acres of rice: golden heads hanging heavy with the precious grains that are the staple food of Asia. All the land around seemed to belong to Jack’s extended family. In Europe such extensive landownership would usually signify wealth. Here it was a lifeline. As long as the weather was benevolent and the crops grew, the family would eat. Subsistence farming. Some would say a meagre existence.
After three kilometres or so we stopped at the family farm. Planted on mounds within the rice were vegetables and chillies. Jack and I gathered what was needed for that day’s food. Nothing more. Every bean, every aubergine, every finger of okra valuable. Nothing but nothing goes to waste.
We cycled back by the side of a narrow river choked with water lilies. Large, shocking pink flowers with egg yolk yellow stamens, their faces turned to the sun. Butterflies danced amongst the plants, living their short lives to the full in the simple beauty that surrounded us.
Back at home communal cooking was soon underway. Rice, of course. Mountains of it. Eggs and two curries. Sweet, salty, sour and hot. My tongue danced a taste tango as I ate, sitting cross-legged on a bamboo platform raised eighteen inches above the ground to keep us cool and crawling insects at bay. Without a doubt a feast more sumptuous than would normally be eaten. But that is the Thai way. Hospitality and generosity that knows no bounds. Everything we ate had been grown on the farm. It had been many a year since I had experienced that. It was a good feeling.
I got to thinking about the endless struggle that was life for this family. Living from hand to mouth. Day by day. Year by year. At the mercy of the elements. And yet they were filled with light. Overflowing with love. They endlessly laughed. They shared everything they had. Their possessions, their food, their love. Unconditionally. No expectation of reward or return.
Theirs is far from a meagre existence. It has a richness rooted in the soil they farm. In their hearts and souls. In the essence of their beings. A richness that is vanishing from much of the world as man strives for ever-greater financial wealth. A financial wealth that so often lives side by side with spiritual poverty.
I know what I would rather have. Give me spiritual wealth over its financial counterpart any day.
But unlike Jack’s family, and millions like them, I have a choice.
A humbling thought.
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© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2007
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