With my skin blotchy and blistering in the monsoon humidity, I set off on an ill-advised journey. The destination of this journey lay in a small box on the end of a line on which stood an errand, and thus marking the completion of my to-do list. In my anticipation I could almost hear the smooth scratch of ball on paper, dispensing ink in shapes signifying my triumph. I took one last cold shower and set out in the air-conditioned pick-up truck. The only other item I could bear to weigh myself down with in the close, forty-plus-degree heat was a little perused phrase book. You see, I had moved to this rural town in far, far northern Thailand just two weeks previously to work with a charity foundation and save the world. I had not a word of the local language or customs in my head, which was starting to pound already as the air conditioning struggled to keep up.
Traffic Jam in Thailand
The other thing I should mention about this town is that very, very few people spoke English and most still regarded my pearly white skin as an object of intrigue. I had yet to make more than acquaintances with some of the handful of foreigners living locally. Nonetheless, I reasoned all that was insufficient to quell my skill in ticking off a list and handing in a successful days work. Two sweaty and unsuccessful stops later, I joined the day´s only traffic jam: schools out. Police are employed to direct the traffic as vendors spring up along the sidewalk, filling schoolchildren with sugary treats and refreshing icy concoctions on their way to small buses. There always seemed to be music pounding, and groups of girls and boys jeering shyly at each other. It was here, right in the middle of the road, astride two lanes and outside a throbbing school gate, that I learned the lesson of ʺNon-Attachmentʺ.
I suddenly realised I should have hired a reliable Thai rental car, instead of the old bomb that I had obtained from an acquaintance.
Lesson of “Non-Attachment” Thai Style Living
In one swift motion the clutch fell from its rightful place and lodged at a more awkward angle. I stalled repeatedly. After a while I got out of the car, peering into my phrasebook as if I could pluck out a tiny mechanic. Several kindly souls from the queue forming behind helped to push my stricken vehicle into the school grounds, and ensure that I parked in an appropriately designated parking space, which at the time seemed overly pedantic to me. My multi-lingual savior was more than thirty minutes away. A crowd of concerned adults gathered about me trying to help with their gibberish; I understood only when they laughed at my feeble attempts to correctly pronounce the word and appropriate tone for “friend” and indicate that he was coming. My best attempt, in hindsight, most likely came out as, “my friend is a dog, a dog!”
Hours later I returned home on the back of his motorcycle with a preliminary mechanics estimate and a phone number to call in three days for a status update on the repair. There had been no ticks on my to-do list. The universe itself seemed to be mocking the urgency I imbued in the now soft and slightly smudged symbols. When I think of the ensuing years in Thailand, this day always stands out as a telling analogy for survival. The Buddhist theme of “non-attachment” permeates the lives of the faithful and otherwise affiliated people alike as a cultural mainstay, known by most expats as – here accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders wavering somewhere between c’est la vie and I give up – “Thai Style.”
The changing or complete halting of any purpose is met with a looking to the next difficulty. Sure, people plan, experience regret and hope, wish and miss things, seek out long lost friends and run sobbing towards their arms, but there is an acceptance to the way things are that at first seems distant. And yet, somehow, the task is completed; life goes on successfully towards the climax. So too eventually my to-do list was covered in crossed out reminders, hastily inserted supplies on a shopping list and those coveted ticks. The list became a guide for opportunities to look out for in my days and grasp when conditions presented themselves. I learned how to adapt my way of living to include the heat and monsoon storms. And when the rains ended I looked towards the oncoming cool weather and the feeling of morning toes in cosy socks.