musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

October was a tough month for me, both financially and emotionally. My good friend is still hospitalized and back in ICU again. Lots of tests and conjecture, but there is still no clear prognosis. Earlier this week they transferred him from Paolo Memorial Hospital to the Bangkok Hospital Medical Center. I take that as a positive sign, at least in regards to the care he’ll be getting. The nurses and a doctor I talked to at Paolo were very kind and keep me updated on my friend’s condition, but BMC seems to have better facilities with which to treat him. I won’t go into specifics on his health issues, but it’s very serious. Right now, I’m just pulling for him to survive this ordeal.

So, lots of hospital visits, plus weekly dental appointments for myself, taking care of a broken filling and another tooth that’s cracked and needs a crown. All of which costs more money. October was also when my annual Thai visa had to be renewed, so that process cost another bundle of baht — and a stack of paperwork, all of which had to be signed and stamped — plus a visit to the remote immigration office at Chaeng Wattana. Man, am I glad that torture is over with for another year. And before the month was out I had to wire some money to a friend in Cambodia who needed some help. So much for trying to save money this month.

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Amidst all those dreary and costly events, I was granted a ray of sunshine — let’s call it Japanese sunshine — in the form of a visit earlier in the month from the lovely Kazuko. I first met Kazuko about three years ago, out in the rolling hills of Shan State in Tat Ein village. Kazuko is one of the main donors to projects in that village, including the building of the primary school. Like me, she’s fallen in love with the villagers, students, and monks who live there and visits often. But she’s got me beat as far as the number of visits, returning five or six times each year. Naturally, she is well regarded by the villagers, so beloved in fact, that they affectionately gave her the nickname “Ma Zabei.”

I missed seeing her when I was in Shan State back in late August, but she managed to make a visit later in September and spent several days in the village. I received an e-mail from her, telling me that she was in Myanmar, but headed to Bangkok afterwards. She also attached a photo and added this message:

All are fine at school! Do you remember him? He is out of monk. He is also remembering you.

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I looked at the photo: Did I remember this kid? I wasn’t sure at first. Owing to the fact that he’d been a novice monk at the monastery, I’d never seen him before with hair! But he remembered me, so I must know him. I looked at the photo again and finally figured out who he was. I’ve never learned his name, but he’s been one of the regulars who I’ve taught in he school the past couple of years, and he’s been a staple at the monastery during that time. The photo below is one I took of him at Kakku earlier this year during one of the field trips that I took with the students and monks.

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But the strange thing is, he wasn’t anywhere around when I visited the village in August. According to Kazuko’s note he’s left the monastery and is now living with his family in the village. But where was he two months ago? No idea, and Kazuko wasn’t sure either. Now that he’s finished his studies at the primary school, is he attending the secondary school? If he was, I think I would have seen him with the other kids after school, but he wasn’t with any of the groups I saw this time, either at the school or at the monastery. It’s all a bit of a mystery. But hey, at least he’s back in the village again. I really need to find out more about kids like this boy and if they are able to further their studies after they finish primary school. In some cases, it’s not feasible or practical for the family. Some of the boys are novice monks for a year or two — or three — and then they leave for other monasteries, never to be seen in the village again. Some of the monks at the monastery are actually from this same village, but it’s not clear to me why some stay longer than others. More tales of mystery to try and solve!

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Anyway, Kazuko finally made it to Bangkok and we managed to meet a couple of times. We met at her hotel in Pratunam one rainy night and with umbrellas in hand we walked a few blocks to Central World Plaza and had dinner at a Thai restaurant there. She had an iPad with her and showed me more photos from her trip, including pics of the mystery monk and other kids from the village. She also showed me some other projects she’s involved with, including a monastery in Bago and a village near Pakkokku. She is helping to fund construction of a new school in that village after the last one literally washed away in a flood last summer. In one photo she showed me, all that’s left of the school are some stone steps. Next time, it was decided, they’ll build the school a bit further from the river! Before she left Bangkok, Kazuko and two of her friends paid a visit to my bookshop. I made sure to take a few photos of the occasion, ones that I can show the kids back in Tat Ein village the next time I visit. Having “Ma Zabei” visit my bookshop will definitely earn me bonus points and added prestige in the Shan State rankings!

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