Unforeseeable Changes

It seems as if I live in a vortex of an eternal summer. I feel like the world has stopped rotating around the sun, and I have just been living in the month of July for the past 9 months. It is hard for me to imagine that back home, they have experienced winter, spring, summer (which is not hard to believe) and are now moving into fall. I miss fall. I miss the changes that come with fall–the general increase of clothing layers, short sleeves to long sleeves; the green leaves to red, yellow, or orange. I miss fires in the fireplace, the more common intake of hot chocolate, pumpkins and driving through the golden corn fields. Here everything seems the same; the trees are still green, it is still hot, wearing long sleeves is still unimaginable, and I still sweat buckets if I go biking for a long time. The only way I can tell the earth is tilting is the sun goes down about 30 minutes earlier than it did in July, and even that is not that big of a change. In short, I miss the anticipated changes that comes with the change of seasons.
Since I am stuck in this ongoing summer, for some reason I don’t think things should change–partly because I am just getting used to the culture, but also because Thailand does not have the feel of change. However, situations suddenly, and unexpectedly, change here.

Probably the most recent sudden change is a week ago, my Nioke (the equivalent of a mayor) went to jail. As I told my parents, it is probably not that different than working under the mayor of Chicago. However, I think this is a rare case in Thailand. People in Thailand are conflict avoiders to the extreme. They don’t like to bring up touchy subjects, which means some people can get away with a lot. Also, Thailand does not have the thriving court system America does. A beginning lawyer in Bangkok makes only a little more than a waiter (starting lawyer salary=$16,000). According to the internet, most people are in jail because of involvement in drug trade.

My Nioke went to prison because six years ago, during his initial election, he engaged in illegal political activity with another town. From what I can understand, this case has been on trial for 4 years. The decision was appealed two times. This month it went to the equivalent of the State Supreme Court. They found him guilty, and since he could appeal it no farther, he went to jail. The Nioke will be one year in the equivalent of state prison, and then he cannot run for a public office (such as he previously held) for another 10 years. Now I should state that corruption is nothing new in Thailand—it just doesn’t usually get punished.

I think the Nioke was really liked in the town. On Wednesday, I was delivering the social security money to the old people. At one of the stops, the former assistant Nioke had pulled up to read a letter the Nioke had written. Tears welled in her eyes as she read it—which is extremely, extremely rare in public.

The next day, the whole tessaban staff (40+ people) and I went to the prison to visit him. My thoughts on this were “When am I going to have the opportunity again to visit a Thai prison? Better take advantage of this.” It was a very interesting experience, and it reminded me of visiting a zoo. The building was once white, but now covered with many years of rain stains. I guess it was built in the late 70s. It reminded me of the old monkey exhibit at the edge of a zoo that needs to be redone or at least repainted. The visitation area where we stood and waited was all outdoors. A courtyard surrounded the jail building. There was a soccer field and a rusty playground for kids. Then, of course, there were all these food vendors with their little carts. You could buy your café yen (iced coffee), or any other of the regular sweet snacks Thailand offers. I have never been to a working American prison so I don’t know how this compares, but it seemed a little odd to me.
There was a seating area outside, then you could enter a small room surrounded on the outside by bars for a closer look through the clear window (only 4 people were let into this room at a time), and then you could enter the room where you sat down and spoke on the 80s style telephones to the inmates in the jail (I did not enter this room).

When it was time for the Nioke to came into view and his side of the telephone room for his visitation, all of the tessaban workers pressed against the bars on the outside dividing them from getting closer to him. They had their hands placed on the bars so it looked like they were hanging from them. It reminded me of the gibbons at the Des Moines zoo wanting to get out of their exhibit. I don’t think they are used to people going to jail.

One thing I that particularly surprised me was how the Nioke acted…he acted like he was still the superstar of the tambon. He would stand up and wave to all the people during his talks to the head tessaban workers. He would stand up and give “vote for me” finger sign like a person running for office (I guess his soccer number was #2). He had this huge grin and acted like his jolly self. The tessaban workers ate it up. Even in jail, the nioke could really raise spirits. I don’t know if the nioke was just putting on an act, or if he was genuinely happy that all the tessaban workers had come to see him.

After visiting there I had so many questions that if I was not a girl, could speak better Thai and it would not be weird, I would ask. Do prisons have Buddha’s teachings just lying around? How much do they feed you (he was quite a large guy)? The people were wearing light blue shirt instead of orange. Are you enjoying life? (He would sometimes come up to me in the tessaban and ask “You enjoy?” I would say yes and ask the question back. His response always was “Yes! Everyday, [I] enjoy!”)

That has been the biggest change since I have come to Thailand. We are going to have an election for a new nioke the first week in December. Right now, I am listening to political adds outside my house which are speakers on the back of pickup trucks with background music of “We Don’t Speak Americano”. There have been other unforeseeable things in my life. Peace Corps funding has gotten a bit restricted, my nearest friend moved across country, people I wrote about earlier have moved, etc.

Everything can be changed in a blink of an eye, and in the land of eternal summer it is easy to forget that. I have learned to take things as they are and adjust. I don’t like unforeseeable change but it is inevitable.

Other news: During the goodbye party of some of the tessaban workers who were leaving, I saw the most practical goodbye present… an electric fan. The person that had worked here 4 years got a standup fan, while the other two just got table fans.


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