The Buffalo Matter

Buffaloes ought surely to be remembered


Travel grants time for introspection, 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 were one 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 the first sojourn in the ‘third world’, although 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 Australians of the non-travelling variety, who equated stepping off a plane 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.  ‘But millions of people live in Thailand,’ I’d reasoned, ‘and 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 during my stay, I was cautious.
15 metre Buddha in Suphanburi

I was fortunate enough to have not only a Pa but also a Maa waiting in Thailand, and I should mention that transcribing these titles into western script as they are actually pronounced in Thai is no easy feat.  Maa and Pa actually belonged to my Thai friend Gaew who’d lived in the same Norwegian town as I had for a year, and the three of them were waiting at the Don Muang terminal on the evening I arrived.

I didn’t know how to greet them.  I’d read about the Thai greeting system, the wai and how it was 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 potential for my head to meet the vehicle roof in response to the bumps of the road.  Gaew and I always spoke in Norwegian.  It was the language that had settled in as standard between us; and it was before she spent about a million years in the States becoming the world’s most educated person, or something similar.  Her English was less fluent then.

The first stop when we reached the home town, Ayutthaya, was a night market beside the river for some food.  Unfortunately the scattering of mosquitoes there didn’t agree to my not being bitten, so within hours my health plan was foiled.  Fortunately, sometimes mosquitoes keep their unpronounceable tropical diseases to themselves.

Suphanburi temple building
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 and a chart of the periodic table on the wall, primary exhibits that Maa and Pa were schoolteachers.  The bedrooms had floor mats to sleep on 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.

Gaew's place, back then!
 The first days covered the sites of Ayutthaya, an ancient capital of Thailand, and of Bangkok, and a little shopping.  In Australia everybody said Thailand was full of bargains.  With a few clothes in hand and a fake Tag Heuyer watch that my sister had ordered, Gaew asked if there was anything else to buy.  I was about to say no but out of my mouth came instead, ‘oh, there is one more thing, I really need a new 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 she’d forgotten.  After some moments, still puzzled, she attacked the problem head on.  ‘But kjøleskap means refrigerator,’ 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 class we’d sit around the table staring blankly at each other, Maa, Pa and I.  It was an activity that was sufficiently ridiculous that on one occasion several minutes of silence were broken by 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’d still be frustrated.  ‘Speak English!’ they were always telling us, on the off-chance they’d catch a word.  But after a few minutes, instinctively, there’d be a switch back to Norwegian.
Suphanburi streets, back in the day...

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

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 seemed to sometimes wear military-style uniforms so it might’ve been someone from the education department.  Wherever his associate was from they talked for a very long time.  Lunch came and went and I sat at the table with nothing to do but sip water from the glass in front of me.  And with the conversation in Thai there was no telling if it was wrapping up or just getting started. 

Even the water 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 thought 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 too slow in trying to tell him not to refill it again, plus I had no words for it.  In Australia I’d never seen a water glass refilling guy.  It became a challenge.  I kept drinking and by the time Pa finally indicated it was time to leave, I felt rather like a fish.  My stomach ached and I’d wager that when we left the restaurant that glass remained full.

Pa at temple gate
It was on the way home to Ayutthaya the matter of 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.  Still thinking to make conversation rather than complete the whole day in silence, and with nothing particular 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.  It was true, for while Australia has buffalo in its north, I’d never been there.

Pa was smiling and nodding and he might’ve attempted a reply, and I arrived home with the satisfaction that we’d made at least one small linguistic connection.  It was after Gaew came home that she said to me, slightly puzzled, ‘Pa says you used to have a buffalo farm?’

But as nice as the buffalo is, a life cannot only be about livestock, surely.  There also should be an ink black sea, wild lemon trees and a bit of Chinese.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: The Buffalo Matter

Maa, ironing and smiling and wishing I wasn't taking this photo

Temple bell
With Gaew, Maa and Pa

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