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By Tom Holmes
Editors note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
Kampan's house is on a soi (lane) in what I'll call a sub rural area thirty minutes from the Old City in central Chiang Mai. The soi is flanked by middle class homes interspersed with groves of langkom and rice paddies. Ten minutes can go by without a car or motorbike passing.
Nicky, who had slept overnight at her future mother-in-law's place, M and I ate a breakfast of rice soup and fresh fruit seated on a reed mat on the floor of their outdoor kitchen. It was Monday morning, so both got ready to leave for work after cleaning up the breakfast dishes.
I asked M to drop me off at the local Buddhist wat (temple complex) on his way to work. I wanted to snoop around the wat and then stroll back to my temporary guesthouse, taking pictures along the way.
As I was leaving the wat, I was greeted by a Nong Bua Sam member who lived right across the soi from the temple. I figured out that M had told her to look after this farang who might get lost. She did her duty in greeting me, but what she really wanted to do was show off her home. I took a picture of her standing in front of the house and said it was sawai (beautiful) in my best Thai which I think she understood. At any rate, we smiled a lot which communicated more than my bad Thai.
I took pictures of coconut palms, front yards full of flowers and the one or two picturesque homes on the lane made of wood instead of cement. About half a mile down the soi, another church member came out of her home with a glass of water on a silver tray. M had been busy. We smiled a lot—Thailand is billed as the Land of Smiles by the chamber of commerce—and I thanked her for her concern.
Ten minutes later a man on a bicycle stopped and, I think, asked me if I was OK. This guy was not recruited by M. He apparently had not heard via the village grapevine that this old farang was staying at M and Kampan's place. I think he eventually understood me when I explained where I was going. Smiles again.
By this time of the morning the sun was hot, so after downing half a bottle of water, I quickly found a comfortable place to sit on the front porch where I could do my morning prayers and read. Kampan's front yard was really a garden filled with flowers and ferns and shaded by a huge tree.
At first I felt some restlessness. In my adult life I'd been able to travel to Rome, Austria, Germany, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska. In every case I would get up and be out the door early in a frantic attempt to see "everything"—motivated by a kind of neurotic fear that if I missed one of the attractions listed in the guide book as "must see" I'd never be able to forgive myself.
Kampan's porch and front yard are not listed in any of the guide books. Was I missing something by being stuck out in the country for a few days?
I looked up frequently from my reading, sometimes to watch a man on a motorbike passing by, at other times to simply enjoy the flowers. I felt my muscles relaxing. My mind shifted into a state in which I wasn't thinking about anything. I watched a gecko on the wall. I gazed at the flowers in the yard. I watched a neighbor ride his motorbike into his driveway. When he noticed me he made a wai (Thai greeting gesture with palms together) to me and I waied him back.
The neighbor went into his house, but his cat decided to come over and check me out. He took his time, making it clear that he could take me or leave me. When he got about fifteen feet from me, he stopped and with his tail twitching started to look me over... until a movement in the canopy of the big tree distracted him.
Spotting the squirrel, the cat transformed from the neighbor's pet into a ferocious predator. He was channeling, I think, the tiger he had been in a previous lifetime. This was, after all, a Buddhist cat.
The squirrel in the branches above being more interesting than the farang on the porch, the cat began to climb the tree. Although I'm sure the squirrel was aware of the cat's approach, he continued playing in the branches. By now the cat was really into the hunt, slowly, carefully creeping towards what promised to be a delicious dinner.
When the cat got within ten feet of his fantasy meal, the squirrel decided to end the game and scampered down a thin branch, leaped to the roof of Kampan's house and disappeared from view.
By this time, the cat was two-thirds of the way up the tree, and it suddenly dawned on him that while his claws were formed in a way that made climbing up the tree relatively easy, getting down without slipping was an entirely different matter. The cat froze. It was one of those "oh crap, what do I do now" moments.
The first challenge for the former tiger was simply turning around on the slender limb he had gone out on. It reminded me of the situation many politicians have found themselves in recently. After tentatively trying different contortions, he finally got his body going in the right direction, and for a good five minutes I watched one vulnerable, scared feline extricate himself from the predicament he'd gotten himself into.
By that time I had lost track of time. For I'm not sure how many hours I had not thought many thoughts, and that felt good. I had just taken in what had been going on around me. I felt embarrassed when I realized that in my younger days I would have called this a wasted day.
I recalled that during my prayer time that morning I read the beginning of the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, the last verse of which declared, "They who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength." It was still the season of Advent which in liturgical churches is a time to focus on, among other things, waiting for the surprises God has in store for his people.
What I had experienced that day on the soi and on Kampan's proched made me think of a passage from one of my devotional books:
"Why are you rushing so much?" asked the rabbi.
"I'm rushing after my livelihood," the man answered.
"And how do you know," said the rabbi, "that your livelihood is
running on before you, so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps
it's behind you, and all you need to do is stand still."
Tale about Rabbi Ben Meir of Berdichev