Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Which I Dream of Mattresses

Sorry for the cliffhanger there. Because I know you've been on the edge of your seats for the last 24 hours. Will Amanda survive the weekend? Did she bring her snake umbrella for protection from other wildlife? And, what could possibly be making high-pitched squeaking in a bat cave?

Yeah, so you're not idiots. But I'm going to tell you the answers to those questions in great detail.

So, humming the theme song, I and the others followed Phra Den to the mouth of tunnel that the squeaking was coming from. As Phra Den stopped to hold up a chunk of bat guano, the main source of income for the wat (5 baht/kilo), I put up my umbrella. He laughed gently at me, saying "Very smart, Amanda."

Smart indeed. Ahead of us, we could now see the bats. Hundreds and hundreds of them hanging, swooping, only somewhat visible in the twilight of the back cave. I got as close as I felt comfortable (i.e.: not at all close), and we all listened to the squeaks of so many freakin' bats.

Which is when Sean looked up and said, "Whoa." I looked up. Hundreds and hundreds of bats were hanging from the ceiling directly above our heads. Ew, ew, ew!

Phra Den picked that moment to beckon us further - "Come, I will show you where I stayed the first time I slept here."

And he walked into the hoard of bats.

And the others followed.

And I stayed oh so very much behind. As did Sean. "Claustrophobic?" he asked.

I shook my head. "Not really. I'm pushing myself a lot by being here this weekend, so I'm being very careful of my limits."

"Ah," he said. He didn't get it.

When the others emerged from the back room ("Which only had a few bats in it, not like the entrance," Paul said to try to get me to go inside. Yeah, no.), Phra Den took us to another cave to the left of the bat cave. This one had a brick wall and a door set up on the outside. It was actually Phra Den's cooti (hut - the little rooms the monks sleep in). He welcomed us in, shut the door, and had us spend a few minutes contemplating the silence. He then invited us to use the cave as we wished that weekend to meditate. Like I said, a very generous man.

To our delight, he then took us to dinner at a place that served hamburgers! Hamburgers! J.J.'s is apparently owned by a guy who married a Thai woman and moved to the beach here. It wasn't quite American, but it sure felt nice to get close to it.

When we got back that night, the workers at the temple were busy hauling driftwood to a pile on the beach near a bunch of tents. They were making a bonfire for the night, which just made Jessica's heart break more when Phra Den said that the ladies were going to sleep in the chapel.

As far as we could figure, it was about propriety. Phras Bart, Den, and Sanjoy were all sleeping on the beach along with Paul, Sean, and Oscar. Because of that, I don't think we women could stay out there. I was not the least bit disappointed.

Phra Den showed us to the chapel. The building consists only of a large room. At the front of it was a platform extending the length of the wall with dozens of different Buddha images set up on it. All around the room the walls were painted with brightly colored scenes from the Buddha's life while the columns in the room had characters from the Ramakien painted on them. Along the left wall, the workers had laid out mats, a pillow, and a thin blanket underneath blue or pink lace mosquito nets that look like rectangular food-cover domes when opened and close up like beach umbrellas. All around the room, they had set up fans aimed at the bedding.

The men bade us goodnight, shut the doors to the chapel, and left. I looked around at all of the pictures - it was like sleeping in the middle of a book of fairy tale illustrations! Jessica and Eunice were dismayed, though. This was a sacred space to them, and they did not feel at all right about sleeping there. They tried to assuage their discomfort by kneeling and praying to the Buddha images at the front. While they did that, I knelt facing to a different angle, said my own prayers, and then tried to think about whether I would feel similar discomfort if I had been invited to sleep in one of my church's buildings. I don't think I would, not if an authority figure had made the suggestion. Interesting.

I didn't sleep that well. The floor was concrete and linoleum tiles, and the mat was no thicker than a typical blanket. It was also hot, despite the fans, so I shifted from back to side to side in a puddle of sweat most of the night.

We got up at 3:45 to do morning meditation as the sun rose. Watching the sun rise is not all that special to me, since I see it every morning over the mountains and forests on my drive to MTHS. We slept in our clothes, so we just took our straw mats and towels out to the beach and set them up facing the water near the dying embers of the boys' bonfire. Eunice and Jessica went straight into half-lotus positions for meditation. I sat there for a moment, but then gave in to the stars. I laid down on my mat on my back at watched all of the stars above me. The constellations were in different places here, and as I started to doze in and out of sleep, I would open my eyes and find that they had shifted a little bit.

When the orange glow of the sunrise started over the water, I sat up and assumed the cross-legged position. Which is when the sandflies and mosquitoes really started going to town. I shook out my towel and pulled it over my head, wrapping it around my face like a burka. Even still, anytime I shifted, a cloud of bugs rose up from all over me. Ew, ew, ew! Doesn't make for very good meditation.

Phra Den took us to a rubber tree plantation, where I had the song my dad used to sing to us when we were little stuck in my head the entire time ("Have you seen that silly old ant/thinks he can move a rubber tree plant?/ Everyone knows and ant can't move a rubber tree plant/But he's got high hopes/he's got high hopes/he's got high-in-the-sky-apple-pie hopes..."). They made lunch for us there, which we ate around a big wooden table outside under a durian tree (talk about putting your life at risk!) with a stray cat weaving between our legs, meowing for the fish we were served.

We stopped by a market next, did a little shopping, then drove to this massive wat on a hill. The wat was much more for show, but they had this giant (GIANT) Buddha statue facing the ocean, and the actual temple building was quite lovely. Phra Den told me it took 10 years to build. They had some ceremonies going on inside because it was the day of the full moon (which is also when the monks shave their heads, so I was startled by the change in the Phras appearances when they appeared with no stubble and no eyebrows!). We could walk around the balcony that runs along the perimeter, though. I did so, reaching the doorway at the same time that a group of a hundred or so school kids started filing out from the main hall. I was standing in the corner, hidden partially by a wall, and got a big kick out of the girls. Over and over again one would suddenly see me, this big Western white woman in all white, standing quietly in the corner watching them. She would start, giggle, then poke her friends in front and behind her to point me out. I would wave or wink at them, and they would all giggle and wai to me. Every so often one would be brave enough to whisper "Hello how are you?"

That evening I went to chanting for the first time. I had heard it the night before, but I had not experienced it firsthand, even at my "home wat" yet. We laypeople entered into the temple through the back doors and sat on the plastic chairs they had set up for us at the back. The room was simple - white walls, a large gold Buddha at the front in the typical pose (half-lotus with the left hand resting palm-up on his lap and the right hand draped over the leg with the fingers pointing down). All over the walls were little gold frames/altars. About 2/3 of them had little Buddhas on them - donations, perhaps? The 15 or so monks were all kneeling on blue mats on the platform that took up the first half of the room, all facing the Buddha. The one nun at the complex knelt to our right on her own mat.

And the chanting began. It was higher-pitched and much faster than usual and they used more call-and-response effects. It was amazing; the sounds just rolled over you from all sides and I just closed my eyes and let it carry me like a river current. Think of the Gregorian chants, speed them up, and imagine being in a small room with the monks while they sang and you'll get some idea of it. I filmed about 45 seconds worth, which I'll post when I can.

Being a sweaty, stinky mess by that point (Jessica had apologized to us for her smell when we sat down to dinner. I told her it was like eating garlic - as long as everyone's doing it, no need for apologies. We'll just all stink together), I decided to brave the "showers".

Although the wat had Western-style toilets, you still flushed them the Thai way - by scooping up a bowlful of water from the bucket next to the toilet and pouring it in. The showers were similar - there was a big bucket, a little bucket, and a faucet. You fill the big bucket with water and use the little one to pour water over yourself. I washed myself as best I could, then headed off to an early bed.

I must have fallen asleep reading, since the next thing I knew Jessica was looking down at me through my blue mosquito netting, repeating my name. "We have to move," she said when she saw me open my eyes, "someone's died and they're bringing the body here."

Which is probably the strangest thing I've ever heard upon waking.

We quickly gathered up our stuff and the workers swooped in to carry the bedding to Phra Den's office. We found him in the back storage room, sweeping the floor for ants. We set up again, this time amid boxes and monk buckets and incense sticks, and I went back to sleep. I dreamed alternately of mattresses and that the blanket flapping on the box above me was the dead person's shroud.

The next morning, we heard a few more details while we watched people set up for the funeral. It seems the person who died was the village leader. Throughout the day we watched them put up a reception tent-cover in front of the chapel, set up a sound system, and decorate the coffin. The Thai sure do like their bling - the coffin was decorated with the silvery holograms I remember from my sticker collection in the 80s and bright fake flowers.

The second day was much quieter - we did spend part of the morning picking up trash along the beach. Oscar came up with the idea as a thank-you gift to Phra Den, since the beach was covered with all kinds of washed-up trash. We did that for about an hour (a sweaty, sweaty hour), then went for a group meditation in the cave. I was not too fond of it - too stuffy, quiet, and hot. After lunch, a smaller group of us went into town to visit a street market and pick up some food for dinner.

We left after lunch the third day (where the kitchen people had very sweetly prepared a special treat for us - fresh crabs! I stuck to the rice and veggies, since, as you know, I don't do too well when my food is looking at me).

I was oh-so-glad to be back at the Trina House. I took a nice, long cold shower, counted up my mosquito/flea bites (three on my left index finger alone! Including two in the little space between the knuckle and the cuticle. Stupid bugs) and went to bed grateful for the thin little mattress on the bed there.

P.S. I forgot to mention the animals at the beach wat. Aside from the bugs, there were several dogs. Poor things, they were all mangy and flea-bitten and ragged looking, but they were faithful! A few adopted us, including one little guy who was skinny enough to sneak through the gate into the cafeteria, who curled up on the chair outside the women's restroom to wait for me when I went in at night, and who's face looked like a little old Chinese man.

There were also several roosters, for whom dawn could come anywhere from 3:00 AM - 11:00 AM.

And two water buffalo who enjoyed their own personal campfire every night in the jungle. We'd see them as we drive in from town, standing, looking at their fire, chewing their cuds, with not another soul in sight.

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