"Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient"

Powerhouse Gym, Chiang Mai - click on pic for full-size imageThumbing the 'Quick Start' button, I began a slow acceleration...

I couldn't help thinking that if some natural disaster on a global scale were to strike, we Westerners would clearly be ill-equipped to survive, the least able to cope and adapt. For the majority of us, even for those claiming to lead 'simple' lifestyles, these are usually cushioned by a few luxuries - such as having a raised bed to sleep on, a mattress, a shelter with walls, a shower, flush toilets, etc...

Powerhouse Gym, Chiang Mai - click on pic for full-size imageSuch was the drift of my thoughts as I broke into a 6 mph sprint on the running machine at the gym today in Chiang Mai, care of an American outfit called Powerhouse. I was rapidly lapped twice by Paula Radcliffe. Powerhouse is mostly frequented by a motley crew of farangs, with the addition of a few assorted Thais. A fair number of the former are clearly well beyond salvation in fitness terms, haggard-looking borderline pensioners, with large bellies; going out of their way to avoid an accidental glimpse of themselves in the wall-to-wall mirrors. It makes for an odd mix alongside the few mostly American and occasionally Thai muscle-bound body-building fanatics, who - unlike the pensioners - have developed an impressive technique that allows them to walk around without ever looking directly where they are going (with the aid of said wall mirrors). Plus one skinny British guy who could work out for a lifetime and always weigh exactly the same. Me, of course.

So where was I... if the asteroid strikes, we soft and mostly flabby Westerners wouldn't last a week. Should any of humanity survive, it would be those better suited for the purpose... that's evolution for you. For example, those who actually know from which animal different cuts of meat originate, having happily dispatched a fair variety themselves. Unlike many Anglo-Saxon urbanites, unaware that the process resulting in supermarket shelves stocked with cellophane-wrapped, bland, bloodless, unrecognisable and usually tasteless homogeneous slabs in the meat section, actually originates with a living creature at some point...

Powerhouse Gym, Chiang Mai - click on pic for full-size imagePaula looked back at me with a condescending smile as she lapped me for a third time. Enough humiliation - it was time for a few symbolic reps on the weight machines, followed by a sauna, a shower, and a powerjuice.

Back home, I showed concern at seeing my eight and three-quarter months pregnant girlfriend stretched out, apparently at ease, on a hard, cushionless, teak bench. This gave rise to considerable amusement. "Darling... I sleep like this many year in home Isaan. No problem. Why... you not like?" I not only not like, but I only last five minutes before developing cramp, pins and needles, red blotches and lumbago. But I'm too embarrassed to tell her...

Clothes hang out to dry after the rain of the night before - click on pic for full-size imageSome of the bric-a-brac that arrived with tools and building supplies - click on pic for full-size imageWhat had sparked this vaguely uncomfortable bout of introspection in my case on the benefits or otherwise of Western civilisation, were the recent events on our neighbouring property.

A couple of months back, the ramshackle collection of corrugated roofing and rickety bamboo supports that represented a storage facility of some kind next door to our rented house was demolished, and replaced by a hole in the ground; one which had gradually been filling with stagnant rainwater ever since. The only thing left standing was a tiny lean-to shed up against our wall. The whole site had quickly developed into a mosquito-infested health hazard; ever since I'd been crazily dashing around the house with my electric racket swatter each time one of the little blighters zings past. Much to the amusement of my girlfriend (at least I keep her entertained).

Damp bedding and cuddly toy dry in the sun - click on pic for full-size imageIn Thailand, labouring isn't just a man's job - click on pic for full-size imageThen last week... at 2 in the morning of course... a truck reversed into the muddy bog. Other than run of the mill building tools and supplies, it was topped off with a collection of incongruous items; sodden bedding, two cooking pans, a large umbrella, one of those three-wheeler bicycles with vending contraption attached, a large and rather damp cuddly toy. For what seemed like an age there was much shouting, crashing and banging, not to mention the crying of an unhappy baby, which - combined with the gnashing of my teeth - meant that we didn't get much sleep that night.

Daylight came, along with the sight of a couple, the mother with baby attached, picking over the pile of debris delivered overnight; a little like those scenes of Brazilian orphans digging through a Rio rubbish tip in a search for edible trophies.

Afternoon snack in the shade - click on pic for full-size imageSince then I've been fascinated; surreptitiously following the lives of this newly-arrived family. They sleep under an inadequate shelter open to the elements on two sides, with a tiny sheet of corrugated roof that doesn't even begin to protect them from the driving torrential rains we've had these past few days. The sun hits early, at which point they rise quickly to dry off, before going to squat in the shade on the far side of the site. They sleep, eat, and live, with no electricity, no mains water, caring for their baby as best they can.

Healthy baby, 10 months old - click on pic for full-size imageWhen I told my girlfriend that seeing how they lived made me feel slightly 'uncomfortable', she laughed at my foolishness. "This is Thailand! Man go work, lady follow!" She had chatted to them earlier; they are from Surin, he is a security guard whose main job is to stay on site - for a year or so - keeping an eye on the equipment and materials that would otherwise be left unattended during the building of a new six-storey condominium building. Earning a couple of hundred baht a day. Rent-free, of course.

Such simple lives. None of the paraphernalia that has somehow transformed itself into 'absolute necessities' for our survival. Just each other's company, enough money to buy food for daily needs, and to take care of their baby. And although the husband's face is lined by years of hardship, when he smiles, it's as if he hasn't a care in the world...

"Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient" (Aristotle)


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1 comment:

Thai Girl said...

Exercise bicycles can be extremely expensive and it's always struck me as slightly obscene that we overfed westerners pay so much for a machine with only one wheel that doesn't go anywhere while so many people could really do with a decent bike that actually works.

Yes, the family you describe and picture so well make one feel humble. Living as I do in a Surin village I know just how poor they can be... though I cannot truly relate to the experience. Only the poor can know.

Andrew