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      Volume 11 |Issue 24| June 15, 2012 |


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The Buffalo Matter

Andrew Eagle

Chinese temple in Suphanburi, Thailand. Photos: Courtesy
Banharn-Jamsai Tower, Suphanburi.

Travel grants time for introspection, a valuable opportunity to learn new things about oneself. For example, it was on my first trip to Thailand I learnt that I'd once been a buffalo farmer. The revelation surfaced on the day I'd gone with Pa to Suphanburi and it was curious because, to be frank, I have no recollection of ever having partaken in buffalo husbandry, not in any manner, not at any time.

And of all agricultural endeavours one might assume that an activity involving heavy beasts like the buffalo would be one of the more difficult to forget. I mean, while it might be understandable to overlook a strawberry-growing past or even a short stint tending potatoes, buffaloes ought surely to be remembered.

I was twenty and everything was new. Thailand was my first sojourn in the 'third world', and all these years later I'm no more enlightened as to what that term really means. Back then it seemed mildly frightening. There'd been the advice of non-travelling Australians, who equated arriving in Bangkok with contracting an unpronounceable tropical disease, probably spread by mosquitoes. There were warnings of people hiding drugs in your luggage which would inevitably lead to the death penalty. 'Millions of people live in Thailand,' I'd reasoned, 'Such events don't befall all of them, surely, at least not all the time.' Nonetheless, with a resolution not to be bitten by a single mosquito, I was cautious.

I was fortunate to have not only a Pa but also a Maa waiting in Thailand, who actually belonged to my Thai friend Gaew. Gaew had lived in the same Norwegian town as I had, and the three of them were waiting at the Don Muang terminal when I arrived. I didn't know how to greet them. I'd read about the Thai greeting system, the wai and that Thais don't favour physical contact such as shaking hands in greetings. Perhaps it was best to just say hello?

Crouched alongside Gaew in the boot of their wagon we rumbled home along bumpy, massive freeways of up to three levels, while from Thai into Norwegian Gaew translated the conversation concerning my western bulkiness in relation to the chances of my head meeting the vehicle roof in response to the bumps of the road. Gaew and I always spoke in Norwegian. It was the language that'd settled in as standard between us; it was before she spent about a million years in the States becoming the world's most educated person, or something similar, and her English was less fluent then.

The first stop at home in Ayutthaya was a night food market beside the river. Unfortunately the scattering of mosquitoes there didn't agree to my plan not to be bitten, so within hours, my health plan was foiled. Fortunately, sometimes mosquitoes keep their unpronounceable tropical diseases to themselves.

The Thai house was modest in those days. A downstairs portion of a larger house, the singular main room had green vinyl flooring with piles of books populating the corners and a whiteboard on the wall, primary evidence that Maa and Pa were schoolteachers. The bedrooms had floor mats and the bathroom plumbing consisted of a large earthen pot and a hand bucket in pink plastic, shaped vaguely like a frying pan. It was all new to me.

The 15 m Buddha in Suphanburi.
Photo: Courtesy

The first days covered the sites of Ayutthaya, an ancient capital of Thailand, and of Bangkok, with a little shopping. In Australia everybody said Thailand was full of bargains. With a few clothes in hand and a watch, Gaew asked if there was anything else to buy. I was about to say no, but out of my mouth came instead, 'There is one more thing. I really need a kjøleskap.' 'A kjøleskap?' she said, surprised, and she knew that in Norwegian it means refrigerator, and what a nightmare that'd be to take home on the plane! As Norwegian was a first language for neither of us, in such circumstances when I repeated the word while giving my most sincere face, it was only natural that instead of doubting me she began scouring her brain to see if kjøleskap really meant fridge, or if it had some other meaning. After some moments, still puzzled, she attacked the problem head on. 'But kjøleskap means fridge,' she challenged, using English for the final word. I started to laugh!

Meanwhile Maa and Pa had been facing their own communication hurdles. Sometimes Maa started teaching Thai. 'Tang moh' is watermelon and 'nam' means 'water.' Sometimes there were scribbles on the whiteboard. Still, at times when Gaew was at university we'd sit around the table staring blankly at each other. It was an activity that was sufficiently ridiculous that once, after several minutes of silence, Maa bursting into sudden laughter, followed by Pa and then me. It was hysterical, side-splitting, falling-of-the-chair laughter at the utter futility of our communication predicament. And when Gaew was there, they were still frustrated. 'Speak English!' they would say, hoping to catch a word or two. But after a few minutes, instinctively, there'd be a switch back to Norwegian.

Suphanburi is a typical regional town, hardly a tourism magnet, but with all the nearer sites seen and Gaew in class… Pa had business to do in Suphanburi and the night before our day-trip there'd been a bit of jest at how the two of us might communicate. If I spoke English really, really slowly, was the advice…

The drive was completed in silence, unsurprisingly, and we seemed to get around the few sites: a fifteen metre Buddha in a temple and a tower from where you could survey the entire town, without adding anything to the sounds of traffic and life in Suphanburi. Then it was time for Pa's lunch meeting, not that I knew it. I just followed him into the restaurant where he'd parked the car.

It turned out he was meeting someone from the army, although in Thailand teachers sometimes wear military-style uniforms so they might've been from the education department. Regardless, the two of them talked for a very long time. Lunch came and went and I sat at the table with nothing to do but sip water, and with the conversation in Thai there was no telling if it was wrapping up or just getting started.

Even the 'nam' drinking became a strange and foreign experience. Pa's associate had an associate who stood beside the table and whenever I took a mouthful of 'nam', from the 'nam' jug he'd promptly re-fill the glass. I wanted to leave the glass empty. I wanted to be polite. So after he'd refill I'd drink a bit more. It was refill, drink, refill, drink. Pa's associate's associate was very efficient and I was slow. In Australia I'd never seen a water glass refilling guy quite like that. It became a challenge. I kept drinking and by the time Pa finally indicated it was time to leave, I felt like a fish. My stomach ached, not that I could say anything about it. I'd wager that when we left the restaurant that glass remained full.

It was on the way home to Ayutthaya the buffaloes came up. We'd stopped at a ring of large wooden poles called the elephant kraal, where Thai kings presumably once hosted elephant tournaments. Thinking to make conversation rather than complete the whole day in silence, and with nothing to say about the kraal, my attention turned to a buffalo in a nearby field. 'That's the first buffalo I've ever seen,' I said to Pa, slowly, very, very slowly. Pa was smiling and nodding and I arrived home with the satisfaction that we'd made at least one linguistic connection. It was after Gaew returned she said to me, slightly puzzled, 'Pa says you used to have a buffalo farm?'






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