Sunday, January 22, 2017

Strange Stranger in a Land

I learned something very important today - several things, actually.  It was mainly about how even after 6 months of living in a new country and after having had to make a lot of adjustments to my outlook on life and the people around me in order to feel comfortable, I can still feel like a fish out of water.  This morning, I felt like a fish removed from the pond and dropped in a Dr, Seuss book.  But in a good way...

One thing that Thai people like to do is organize "Sports Day" for the kids at their schools.  They divide the students into teams and they compete in silly games and races and generally have a great time.  I actually wrote about the Sports Day at Pitisuksa  few months ago.  It was fantastic and I think all the kids, parents and teachers had a blast.  Afterwards, I chalked that day up to a one off for me, since as far as I knew, Sports Day comes but once a year.  I was so very wrong.  Because today, Jess and I went to Sports Day for private school teachers.  Enter Dr. Seuss...

The morning started with the kids, Jess and I arriving at a large private school in downtown Chiang Rai at 8:00 AM.  We were the only ferang and already, at 8 AM, there was an MC yelling in Thai, cracking jokes (presumably) and blaring dance music.  Slowly, people started trickling in and taking their places under large tents on the perimeter of a dusty football pitch.  The teams were already set: pink, purple, white and blue (our team).  About 8:30, the MC called everyone to gather in their teams to begin the day with some kind of ceremony.   So there we were, standing in a large group listening to speeches that seemed quite serious, despite the festive mood of the teachers.  Of course, we had no idea what the speakers were saying.  Standing there listening, or trying to look like I was listening, I felt a tap on my shoulder.  Turning around, I saw a strange creature wearing a blue plastic colander on her head, with about 10 blue plastic garbage bags tied on and draped around her head, while blue balloons were twisted and jutting out of the colander.  She wore huge sunglasses and a cape too.  She grabbed my right hand and shook it.  Immediately afterwards, she withdrew her own hand and sniffed it enthusiastically.  I had to turn around quickly and just gather my wits.  What just happened?

 After the speeches, we began to drift back to the tent when we were suddenly called back to the field. "Why? What's happening now?"  No idea - just follow along...  It was time to exercise.  So the MC turned into a DJ and played some goofy song that apparently told us to dance as though we were ironing clothes, hailing a taxi, and several other actions that I couldn't interpret.  Everyone was having a great time, though I admit that it was at this point that I started to feel lost and ready to go home.  This was before the games even started.

After calisthenics, the first event began.  "Oh! I see! It's a potato sack race!"  I'm not even kidding.  I was grabbed (not gently) and shoved to the front of the line and told to remove my socks and shoes.  Someone explained that I was not to jump, but run taking tiny steps.  At least that's what I think they said.  Anyway, the race started and I took off.  Though I felt confident in my athletic abilities, I soon realized that I was no match for young women who had done this activity most of their lives.  You could see that they truly understood the subtleties of the sport, the minute kinetic tricks of manipulating the potato sack with their toes jammed into the corners.  I, on the other hand, waddled awkwardly toward my teammate on the other side of the field who was ready to take the sack from me as soon as I could reach her.  I believe I was the last one to do so.  I tried though.  I tried running with tiny steps.  I tried hopping quickly.  I tried galloping.  Nothing I did seemed to help me gain on the potato-sack Jackie Joyner Kersees on the field today.  Fortunately my teammates kept us from last place.  We took 3rd, which was our lowest place finish for the day.  Afterwards, I felt defeated and went to sulk in the tent.

The next event was some kind of balloon popping race which we won, though (or possibly because) I didn't participate.  Then came a race that had 10 people straddling a 10 foot blue PVC pipe and running across the field, turning around a cone, and running back.  We got second.  After that, some of the teachers beckoned me to the field saying that I should run the next race.  "OK.  What is it?"  You have to put on these "granny panties" and a bra and run around the field.  I went back to the tent.  Next was a jump rope competition to see how many people you could get jumping together.  We lost quickly.

I should also mention that after each event, all 4 teams walked to the middle of the field for pictures and the award ceremony.  "Awards" were plastic-wrapped arrangements of snacks.  Bags of chicken flavored peanuts.  Spicy chili flavored dried fish floss.  Lays potato chips.  1st and 2nd place teams also got bags of small brightly colored stuffed animals.

Finally, I was grabbed and shoved again to the front of a line to run a race where I had to roll a bike tire and push it with a stick like it was 1717.  We did win that one, fortunately.  The last competition was the tug-o-war.  I thought this one was in the bag because we had the most men on our team, but when we got to the rope, we were told that only two guys could pull.  So it was me and the PE teacher, who is a big, strong, and young dude.  Again I felt confident.  We won (barely) against the first team but lost to the winner of the next heat.  Oh well.  At the end of the competition, we took first place overall, but we weren't finished yet.  The day wouldn't be over until we gather together, probably 300 teachers strong, and help hands while singing some Thai song that sounded exactly like Ol Lang Syne.  More speeches, a lot more photos, many more awards being handed out, some more dancing, another speech, and then lunch!

We ate quickly because we still had a bunch of things to do in town and had plans for later in the afternoon (which was so cool it will be a separate blog post).  But when we got in the car to leave, we discovered the battery was dead.  I had left the lights on, and with the stripped down go cart we have, there is no alarm to tell you that the lights are on.  Fortunately, one of the teachers at our school had a set of jumper cables and was able to quickly pull up to our car parked on a busy street, and give us a jump.  We were on our way in 10 minutes.  Maybe it was a fitting end to a bizarre morning.  And it was only 12:00 PM!!!  What would happen later was almost as strange and a lot of fun.

Stay tuned for that story!


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