Auld Lang Syne

Auld Lang Syne 

   One day to another year, time for reflections, the memories, highs and lows. Reflections: thoughts are but painted shades of experience. My last day of school is coming to a close and the morning had seen a thank you from students in the form of song and dance routines. A lovely tribute, but one I feared slowed responses, and leave them drained for the lessons to follow. 

My fears seemed justified, as after lunch the class appeared listless, succumbing to the heat and the hypnotic drone of the overhead fan. However, the students sprang into life when a documentary on the blue whale, that colossus of the oceans, appeared on the screen. Buddhists love the natural world. 

   According to National Geographic’s Dr Frank Christensen, the Blue Whale is the largest animal to have ever lived on Earth, and can grow to over 30m long, weighing in at more than 130,000kg  (that’s longer than three buses and heavier than three lorries). Its tongue weighs as much as an Elephant, its heart the size of a car and their blood vessels are so wide you could swim through them. Wow! 

These facts engaged them, and my smile encapsulated their focus and wonderment. Until I mention the smell from the whale’s blowhole. 

Dr Christensen says, and I quote, ‘the odour is blunt and pungent, almost a taste in the mouth, an unholy mingling of fart and fishiness.’  Cue bellyaching laughter. 

As I prepared to restore calm, the school director appeared at the classroom door. His voice filtered through the laughter.                  “Alan, come, I have people waiting to meet you.” 

Within minutes, we are driving along a dirt track through a bamboo grove. The scent of Royal Jasmine fills the car with a sharp, sweet fragrance laced with a hint of nutmeg, and thoughts of Blue Whales disappeared. The house is large, the courtyard decked with yellow covered tables, shaded by coconut palms and banana trees. One table comprises of six men, conversing and drinking. At the head of this table, sits the Chief of Chiefs, head of the thirty outlying villages. I estimate that he must weigh 20 stone, and his black eyes are unflinching as he observes me. A fat finger points to a chair next to him and my thoughts are confirmed when he slaps the seat. A glass of whisky and ice is prepared and proffered. Experience has shown me that accepting Thai whisky can degenerate into a prolonged session of strained ears and misunderstandings. This I am eager to avoid, besides, I know later this evening the school staff party will involve yet more alcohol. The offer of a beer opens an unforeseen avenue. 

Bowls of food arrive, (Thai’s always combine eating and drinking alcohol). The contents are a deep red colour, the surface broken only by the odd flash of silver as a piece of chopped onion breaks surface as if gasping for air. The shredded meat is hidden beneath a crimson sea of freshly drained blood from an unfortunate pig. Blood, the fluid that allows all animals life-giving properties, has always been a source of trepidation for me. Whilst having no problems with the sight my own, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship towards blood: a raw steak, an injured person, or as now, faced with blood confined within a bowl. Blood has the oddest smell too, an acrid, heavy scent, difficult to express in words. When invited to drink, my stomach churns, as these offerings reek of ghoulish properties. 

My problem is as much cultural as personal. In rural areas, they often see rejection as a slight, so, not wanting to offend my host, I bring the dish to my lips. The blood has coagulated around the edges and I sense the gaze of everyone upon me. All I need is a drum roll. With a pulsating heart and sweaty palms, I begin to drink. I taste a thick, salty, warm sensation as I swallow. My stomach heaves, leaving no time to excuse myself. Propelled by tightened muscles, blood and phlegm arc through the air and splatter the table cover, as the stomach-acid stench of vomit fills my nostrils. 

The host’s reaction is most unexpected. Feet stomping, arm waving, thigh-slapping guffaws, deep and loud with the free-flowing of tears that follow. Laughter echoes around the courtyard as the guests are unable to contain their merriment. As I survey the mess through watery eyes, the Chief leans over and slaps my back. Bravery has its rewards. The next few hours pass in a haze until daylight flows into dusk and pinpricks of bluish-white form a blanket overhead. I could do with a stiff shot of the grain, but another appointment beckons. Not a moment too soon, as the karaoke machine crackles into life. Bloody Mary’s will never seem the same. 

A 30-minute drive brought us to our next destination, an upmarket restaurant adjoining a lake where the New Year party is being staged. The time of arrival coincided with a gorgeous late afternoon haze, the effect bathing the area in a warm pinkish glow, highlighting the surrounding trees, flowers and carefully cultivated pools, whose surfaces were liberally sprinkled with purple water lilies. The spot we have been appointed was, as yet, bare of tables and chairs, although a stage has been assembled. As one of the first to arrive, this allows me time to explore a little. Basically, the restaurant is located in the centre of land surrounded by water, into which have been built eight little islands, each connected to the centre by bridges, a novel and well-designed idea. It is like each island has its own moat, and it is on these that the water lilies float (or appear to). Trees line the island edge, and a variety of bushes and shrubs add colour to the setting. 

Soon the staff began to arrive, and the preparations began in earnest. Banners get hung, balloons inflated (wheeze), tables assembled, crockery and cutlery laid, water, soft drinks, beer, wine and of course the inevitable crate (yes, crate: 12 bottles) of Thai whisky. The school handyman arrives, his pick-up truck laden with speakers, amps and a karaoke machine (the Japanese have a lot to answer for). I offer to help unload but no need it’s the school version of a mobile disco. Food arrives, and the party kicks into overdrive mode, as drinks flow, chatter abounds, and music plays. 

Within forty minutes the show begins with each of us having to perform songs. Dancing ensues, and the whisky, beer and wine continue to flow unabated. The difficulty for me (if you can call it that) is that there are only a few tracks with English words so I am limited to songs that don’t really suit my key: haha – as my mother used to say, “Alan, you’ve got a voice only I could love.” Hotel California probably never sounded so bad, but old Elvis came to the rescue. It is worth noting at this point that both the Director and I had been drinking during the afternoon at the Chiefs house, and while I had been fortunate (or wise) enough to limit myself to a couple of beers, the director had been ‘giving it laldy’ as they say in Scotland, and as a result he was seat-dancing, swaying to and fro in his chair. As hours flew by (they always do when you’re having fun, don’t they?) we were soon joining him, and before we knew it, the time had arrived for the speech session – well, slurring session really – and before we all parted for the evening, just time for me to show them how to join hands in a circle and give them my version of Auld Lang Syne. Now, it was a good job no Scottish bobbies were around, for almost everyone proceeded to drive home. I was the pillion passenger on a bike, but hey, when you’ve had a few, there isn’t much better than driving home with stars in the sky, the warm wind in your hair, and giving Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run a right old battering…Happy New Year.

Final blog – All roads lead to Bangkok