Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The beginning of an international diatribe

When I was a sophomore in college, I chose to do a travel abroad program in Thailand. Basically, as far from the norm, and the US as possible - my parents were convinced I wanted to give them a coronary, but that wasn't the main reason. I figured, when else am I going to be able to spend six months in southeast Asia? I could go to Europe anytime. I imagined Thailand as a hot, sensuous country filled with resplendent greenery and beautiful fabrics, clear water in the canals for the teak boats to travel upon, and friendly smiles. I couldn't have been further - While it was hot (we were drenched in sweat the instant we exited the plane), it was also extremely humid - not the sexy, glowing type of heat. It was the type of heat that made you want to kill yourself, permeating every pore, and leaving your belongings hot to the touch when you went indoors. Rarely was there air- conditioning, it being considered a luxury and only present in large shopping malls and western hotels. The only green present was the fruits and vegetables sold directly off of the steaming, putrid streets. There were almost as many beaten-down cars as people, both clogging the streets and sidewalks with the efficiency of a large sponge. The canals were sewage passages filled with decaying animal bodies, garbage, and human waste, and the boats used to travel down them were rickety, broken affairs with detachable plastic awnings. The smells were unreal, causing retching from more than one visitor.
As disgusting as I've made it sound, it was also incredible. It was a cultural slap-in-the-face - it made you appreciate convieniences of your home and covet the rich history of Thailand's immense religious and national pride. I was left speechless after visits to the many temples, adorned with intricate and expansive glass and mirror mosaics, left entirely speechless when asked by a homeless man to take his kitten at one of these wats, thinking that I could give it a better life than he could. Which was true. I loved the strands of flowers used as offerings, their bright purples and reds and thick whites. Thailand is a country full of colors - gritty gray and black of the streets, rich tan of the people, bright oranges and saffron yellows of the monks' robes, and heavy gold of their offering bowls. It was not unusual to see a monk walking barefoot through the street, holding in front of him the bowl used for collecting the kindnesses of the people.
The country itself is a living contradiction. Its beauty and its ugliness are in stark and visible contrast with one another. The loveliness and hospitality of its people were contradicted by their treatment of animals: as lower beings, there was little regard for them. It is a city populated largely by homeless dogs, who scrounge around on the streets eating whatever is deemed inedible by the many homeless people. I was irate one day after hearing a rumor that one of the guards at our school had poisoned some of the dogs by offering tainted meat, as a way to clean up the problem. It was horrifying and a wake-up call. I saved that kitten, though. She was covered in fleas in ticks and skinny as a little noodle when I got her. I picked the ticks and fleas off with a tweezer and brought her to the vet. She lived in my room until I could find a home for her. I proudly report that she is a fat, happy cat that's spoiled rotten by her new owner. Go, me.

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