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Peanut Butter Sticky Rice

Each weekday, Camilla, Ascher, and I head out the doors of our building to walk to school.  This is what we see.

On our way to school, there are several people for whom we stop and wai.  This police officer, stationed at the intersection next to our building, is the first.  Unlike Bangkok policemen, who often drive flashy cars bought with bribes and kick-backs, this kindly fellow parks his bike behind the traffic stand.  The helmet-shaped roof to his kiosk is standard issue across town, as is his skin-tight uniform.  He sees the children across the intersection every morning and every afternoon with as much kindly attention as Officer Michael in Make Way for the Ducklings, and we share the same six comments about the weather, the possibility of the river flooding, and whether it would be hot or not.  Once our shared vocabulary in Thai and English is exhausted, we smile and nod a lot.

Most of our route to school is down Kaeo Nawarat, a major thoroughfare that leads eventually to a major bus station and out of town.  The traffic at that hour of the morning all belongs to the Prince Royal’s College, a private Christian school for middle-class Thais.  They arrive by car, motorbike, and the occasional minivan that doubles as an informal school bus.  The earlier we leave, the less exhaust we inhale.

This construction site is being worked on very slowly by a single middle-aged couple, who spend their days mixing and laying concrete together.  They live on site in this tent of plastic tarps, and supplement their income by collecting and redeeming Bia Chang bottles.  They are still asleep when we come past in the morning, but enjoy the kids when they see them on the way home.

I am particularly fond of the little imitation kraft-paper patterns that are taped in the window of this tailor’s shop.  I’ve never seen a customer come in or out of it.  They also have a sideline selling “Oil-Oad Sandwiches,” which feature flavors like strawberry and cheese, tuna and sweet corn, and sweet pork, all on spongy white bread.

The other side of Kaeo Nawarat is lined with more businesses, including an imitation Western coffee house and bakery, a very macho motorcycle shop (where the spirit offerings are always rice whiskey and betel-nut cigarettes), and a variety of convenience stores.  The Chinese coffins for sale here are one of the many signs that this neighborhood used to be part of a much larger Chinatown, now constrained to a few streets of goldsmiths behind Warorot Market.

This business is one of the busiest on our route to school: they sell industrial adhesives and install polyurethane covers for tuk-tuks, motorbike side-cars, vendor stalls, car-canopies, and the like.  At any time after 7:30 AM or so, there will be men welding the metal frames together in the courtyard, cutting and measuring the fabric from enormously heavy rolls, riveting them to the frames, and sealing them water-tight.

This is the infamous “dirty corner” found at the entrance to a muu baan (neighborhood) tucked behind Kaeo Nawarat.  The muu baan’s garbage is usually parked here for pick-up, but even when it’s been swept away, there’s a foul stench and liquid left behind it that attracts every fly, cockroach, and pissing soi dog that comes along.  To worsen matters, very devout Buddhists live in the house behind it, and they insist on feeding their left-over rice to enormous flocks of pigeons, who add their droppings and feathers to the usual foul residue.  In this act of kindness, they also attract rats.  The flat black plastic box at the base of the pole is actually a rodent sticky-trap, and on the day I took this photograph, there was a rain-drenched and glue-coated rat stuck into it, feebly raising and lowering its emaciated head and waving a pathetic paw, just visible in the opening of the box.  I hustled the children past the corner even more quickly than I usually do, thinking that trap to be truly the stuff of nightmares.  It took the rat about three days to expire and to be swept up with the garbage.  I’m still confused as to how it’s all right from a theological point of view to set a trap for a rat that you know will bring it a prolonged and cruel death, but not all right simply to kill it outright.

There is yet another school immediately within our neighborhood.  This sign advertises the Buddhist school on the grounds of Wat Chetupon, right next door to CMIS.  So in addition to the privileged international mix at CMIS, and the middle-class Thai kids at PRC, are also about one hundred poor boys from the countryside, who wear their orange novice robes and walk barefoot to collect their breakfast alms up and down Kaeo Nawarat and along the market streets.  They are very abashed at the sight of Westerners, and usually pretend not to see us.  Given their shyness, I don’t like to photograph them.  When we walk to school, the last of them are hurrying back to the temple with their silver bowls of breakfast.  Occasionally, a few of the bravest will join the PRC and CMIS kids at the after-school snack vendors, but they mostly stick to themselves.  I love the day every month when they get their heads shaved down, eyebrows and all, and walk around absently rubbing their hands over their newly-exposed heads.

This policeman’s sole responsibility, Monday to Friday, is to direct traffic in and out of the Prince Royal’s College: yet this is only one of the school’s three gates.  He doesn’t smile like the one in front of our building or squeeze Ascher’s upper arm affectionately.  He’s too busy trying to keep everybody alive and moving.

PRC is enormous, with at over six thousand students between kindergarten and twelfth grade.

The brightest spot of our trip to school is Pi Ae, the merry and joyous security/crossing guard that sees the children across the PRC traffic inside the campus.  Every day, he stops to chuck Ascher under the chin (who, by this time, only wants to get to school and to play with his friends), and then bends down to take Tookita’s hand and give her a personal escort across the sidewalk.  No one enjoys the humor of her Thai name as much as Pi Ae, and he treats her like the most delightful and amusing doll that ever crossed his sidewalk, pinching her cheek, crooning at her, and, if traffic permits, squatting down next to her to questions in Thai she doesn’t yet understand—“Tookita, is it going to rain a lot today?”  “Oh, Tookita, where is your umbrella?” “Tookita, have you eaten rice today?  Was it delicious?”  Camilla giggles, and giggles, and giggles, and on the strength of that delight, skips the rest of the way to school.

Most days, the PRC kids wear their ordinary uniforms: white shirts with the name of the school embroidered across the chest, blue shorts for boys and long blue skirts for the girls, white socks and black Mary Janes.  The girls must wear their hair in two braids.

That boys have close-cropped hair goes without saying.  The boy on the left is wearing his clothes for PE.

On Thursdays, however, PRC students wear their scouting uniforms.  Scouting is huge in Thailand.  Brought back from King Rama VI from his English education, it is supported enthusiastically by the royal family, and is part of the school curriculum, albeit not mandatory.

Scouting is open to boys and girls.  We see Scouts in their beige uniforms (trimmed in hot pink), Rovers in their dark green uniforms, Sea Scouts with their naval uniforms (supported by the Royal Thai Navy) and Air Scouts (supported by the Royal Thai Air Force).

After smiling and wai-ing every PRC teacher we see (teachers get the wai with the children’s thumbs to their nose for higher respect), after smiling and wai-ing the PRC crossing guards who take us across Thanon Chetupon to the school gates, after smiling and wai-ing the CMIS crossing guards, we finally arrive.  Ascher hugs and kisses me as fast as he can and runs off with his pals; I walk Camilla into the gate of the preschool yard, where she wais her teachers, drops her backpack, kicks off her sandals, and runs off to play.  Then I return by the same route, and regardless of whatever is on my mind, continuing doing like a proper Thai, smiling and wai-ing at every grown up I pass, and returning them to those PRC children still old-fashioned enough to automatically snap a wai at any adult they see.

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