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Buying Life

Stepping out into the day for the first time, into real Bangkok life on bustling Prachasonkra Road, my senses instantaneously are overwhelmed.  The smile of a Thai student flashes by on the back of a pink mini bike; it’s a vibrant, colorful day in this chaotic, sun-filled sanctuary of life.

Traversing the sidewalk beside a narrow canal like street, I watch as agile pedestrians dodge speeding motorcycles that weave through every crack they can find in the bright, noisy traffic.  Bandana-masked workers hammer the concrete next to content, napping street dogs.   Locals avoid the heavy sun, lounging at endless open-air storefronts and kitchens.  The scents of the street, innumerable, unfamiliar and complex, mix with dust and thick heat in the constricted air above me.

Breaking from the chaos, I stop at an umbrella shaded street cart to buy a mango.  There in the short conversation I have with the vendor, I find the spirit of Thailand.  “Kop khun krop” (Thank you), I say.  The weathered woman turns with a laid back grin and softly replies, “Mai pen rai.”  The phrase with a thousand meanings… “Never mind”; ”No worries”; “Give, take”; “Forgive, forget”; “Enjoy the mango”; ”Enjoy the moment”; ”It’s all good.”  ”Mai pen rai.”

After another dirt cheap but remarkable Thai lunch, a hot bus ride leads to a cool longboat ride on the San Sab canal, leaving us at a typical but amazing Thai market in Bang Kapi.  Neither of my travel companions, Tea and Sai, both from Bangkok, had told me what we were doing until Tea nonchalantly says, “Dave, man, we’re gonna buy life.” Not knowing what she means, I give her a curious smile as we wade deep into the crowded market.

The vibrancy is breathtaking.  Life, so bright, out in the open and full of energy, bursts out and the colors, like off Van Gogh’s pallet, fit together in a wildly perfect way.   We walk around, buying a few things: dried squid, fresh fruit, live fish.  When Sai buys the three small fish encased in plastic bags filled with water, I still don’t know why.  “Maybe Miss Tea’s gonna cook up some fish,” I think.

These fish, however, are not to be fried.  As we head back to the canal, Tea explains how we’ll set them free as a blessing. “This is how to make life interesting,” I later remark…  Take an everyday trip to the market and combine it with a mission of infinite importance.  We’d already bought life – three small fish, which Sai carries with care as she steps, and soon we’d set life free, sending compassionate energy back into the water, the world, the universe.

Extending from a dock high above on the bank of the canal is a small, narrow, slippery footbridge with no hand rail that leads down to a tiny wooden platform perched directly above the greasy water.  Apparently, this is the best place to set life free.  Tea “walks the plank” first as though she could do it in her sleep, gracefully crouching and blessing the fish before letting it slip gently out of her hands and into the ripple below.  After Sai makes the ritual look equally tranquil, they hand the last fish to me.  I take a deep breath and quiver onto the wobbly wooden planks.

As I make my way downward, at about ten feet above the water, two motorboats come scrambling by, causing the tiny bridge to move and shake as waves splash from underneath.  Tea and Sai yelp in suspense when I lose my balance and nearly drop the plastic-entangled fish – and myself – into the canal.  This would have certainly killed the fish in a slow, torturous manner and, worst of all, make me look like a clumsy idiot in front of these two lovely ladies.  Somehow, though, I hold on to the fish and my footing and continue down to the platform.

Now the fish, sticking tail first out of the crinkled, twisted mess the bag has become, begins fighting, flipping and flapping in my hands.  I kneel down, start untangling the bag and make my very first Buddhist blessing while setting a living thing free.  It’s something like, “Okay you damn fish, I feel your pain right now and I want to make this happen just as much as you do and…whoops…” when suddenly the fish (which truly was a fighter) frees itself from the bag, slips out of my hands and falls with a bang at my feet, smacking into the platform before propelling into the water.  I watch the whole time and I swear I see the fish swim away unharmed.  It wasn’t hurt.  It was fine, I swear.  At least that’s what I tell Tea and Sai, who get a big kick out of the whole thing.  Thoroughly embarrassed, I chuckle, “kor toht” (sorry) to which Sai replies, “Don’t worry…  Mai pen rai.”

First written: 21 January 2006

Posted by David Luekens on August 17, 2011

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