Our rental car is rolling slowly down these narrow side streets. So narrow, in fact, that we often have to pull all the way over to the side and stay still while another car eeks past us, the mirrors threatening to brush each other as each driver cranes their necks to watch whether or not it clears. I’m in the passenger seat, rolling the air-conditioning vents closed on my side of the car because I’m freezing and Kevin is always hot. Jaidee is panting in my ear and my whole body is sinking into the imitation leather seat with a gradual understanding that I’m not going to be moving for a while. My body is happy with this. I’m incredibly tired and sore.
We just finished a private lesson with Thailand’s “Golden Boy,” Samart Payakaroon, at his gym in Bangkok. Samart’s isn’t a smash-the-pads kind of guy, but he’s all about balance and anyone who has done any kind of stability ball exercises can attest to how much harder that makes everything, to have to use these micro-muscles to correct yourself while performing dynamic movements. It’s exhausting and it makes things hurt that you didn’t know could hurt. But we’re on our way to see another legend, although probably not to train with him, and I’m doing this thing where I’m trying to pace myself mentally so that I don’t just fall asleep right there in the car. As we’re creeping along this road Kevin suddenly pulls over to the side, inching up on a sloped concrete walk to look out the window at a table full of small statues. Mostly Ganesha (in Thailand Phra Phikanet), but a few other familiar deities as well. Kevin is excited. One of the Ganeshas caught his eye and he’s telling me we have to get him. These stone, clay or plaster gods are usually meant for the garden or outside a shop, and when you see them out on the open highway not expensive at all. I can feel how hot it is outside by this radiation off of the window. The last thing I want to do right now is get out of the car, find someone to talk to about buying the Ganesha and then perhaps being “faranged” on the price and being offended by that. This always falls to me because Kevin doesn’t speak Thai, at all.
We end up having a pretty long back and forth in the car over whether or not I’m even going to get out and inquire about the figures. I’m feeling even more tired as we’re talking about it and Kevin is actually getting more excited; his face is bright like a little kid, his voice hushed in that “please, please” way that you try to convince someone. Finally, I pull the lever on the door to pop it open and step out – uphill, which I note because my body is saying, “what is this shit?” as I do so – into that blaze of midday heat. The table is out on the sidewalk about 20 feet away from the shop itself which is like a storage locker that’s open and has a few shelves at the mouth, arranged in such a way you can’t see how deep it goes. But the business next to it is a small, empty restaurant, so the front part is all tables and a tiny kitchen, while inside is the rest of the tables and I can see it’s pretty deep. There’s nobody at the shop that has the statues and, indeed, looking at the shelves on either side of the opening indicates this is not their primary merchandise. I make eye-contact with the lady who runs the restaurant next door and ask her, “yoo mai?” which is shorthand for whether or not anyone is present at the business I’m standing in front of. She affirms that there is someone there, then shouts a name 4-5 times in rapid succession, which is a very Thai thing to do when calling for someone, and this little girl pops her head out from a desk I didn’t even notice behind one of the shelves. The name being called is not her name, I can tell by her response. It’s her mom’s name. There’s a bit of panic in her face as she looks at me, as I’m a westerner and thus far have only uttered a single question in Thai, so the assumption of course is that I’ll want her to speak English to me. The little girl disappears behind some of the shelves and I turn to my right to inspect some of the other figures that lead up to the shop. They’re clay, some have a little bit of paint, and most are more or less the size of lawn ornaments in the west. There’s this one Ganesha that’s quite large, like the size of Jaidee, and he’s sitting on a crescent shape of some kind with this long snake arranged around his body. That one is incredible. But far too large.
From out of the darkness of the shop’s depths comes a little boy, slightly older than the girl (both are about 12-14 years old) and barefoot. He strides out confidently, but unsure of what I want, and I meet his assured posture with an immediate question as to the price of two different Ganeshas on the table. He comes out to look and is smiling, but then he says he doesn’t know and he’ll have to call his mom. She’s not at home. So he excuses himself and shouts to his sister, who is already staring at the face of a phone. I can feel the sun’s heat as if it’s grabbing me with soft hands, or being wrapped in a blanket of light. I smile at Kevin through the tinted window of the car and I can only see part of his face when he smiles back. Jaidee’s ghost face appears behind the back window. I remember the chill of the air-con in the car and decide I like the blaring heat outside slightly more, but probably it will feel good when I get back into the car. The little boy appears again, talking on the phone and describing the situation. I point to the two Ganesha’s in question again, to help him identify them to his mom on the phone. I hear him pause for a second before adding, “falang,” clarifying for his mom that it’s not a Thai person asking the prices. Strangely, the way he answered was somewhat resigned, like the specification wasn’t important to him, which kind of mollified the annoyance I had in knowing that the answer to that question was certainly informing the answer to the question of the price. The phone call drops out and the kid wanders away again to borrow the lady next door’s phone. What I love about this exchange – this whole rigamarole that I wanted to avoid the very moment Kevin suggested we ask about the Ganesha – was that these kids were in it with me. They clearly don’t sell a lot of these figures – we were not in any sort of commercial district, this is just a squeezed neighborhood side street – to not even know what they cost when left to take care of the store while their mom is away. But we were all figuring it out together. These kids got to take on the role of making a significant sale from their shop – I’m not sure what else they sell but it’s small enough to fit on the shelves that the little desk was tucked behind, which probably means 20-60 Baht things like packs of straws, spoons, plastic bags… the things that food carts and stalls need for daily business. This little boy got to be polite and assured in his task of helping me, I got to be polite and assured in my task of being a customer. These interactions, mundane as they are, are actually really meaningful to me in all these years I’ve been living in Thailand. It’s the ability to move through space and have exchanges with people with a kind of familiarity that is far, far more precious to me than the exoticism it has replaced.
When Kevin and I had been arguing in the car about whether or not I’d even get out to ask the price, I’d offered that I didn’t really want a big Ganesha for our room. “When else are we ever going to be here, having just trained with Samart and on our way to see Somrak and maybe even Karuhat after that?” Kevin had argued. “Every time we see him, we’ll think, that was the day we trained with Samart.” He had a point, but I hate giving Kevin points. I did acquiesce, of course, but what’s interesting is that every time I look at this Ganesha on the shrine that faces where I sit on the bed to work, I think of those kids. I also think of Samart, and Karuhat (who we saw later that day), but mostly I think of standing in that hot sun and waiting patiently for the three of us to navigate this situation as champions of other people’s intentions. For me, I’m speaking for Kevin’s intention to bring home the Ganesha figure; the kids are champions for their mother, whose intention is to sell that figure. It’s not a huge accomplishment for any of us, but it’s the smallness of the accomplishment that makes it meaningful. As someone who is painfully shy, in my first years in Thailand I’d avoided talking with countless – countless – people because I didn’t know how to say one word out of the 10 words I’d need to ask a question or order a cup of tea or whatever. I’ve missed opportunities due to my shyness. It’s an expensive habit. So when I look over at this Ganesha in our room, I see him as a symbol of hidden wealth that I’ve made for myself, by facing those uncomfortable moments over and over again until they don’t feel so costly. Ganesha is the placer and remover of obstacles and many devotees go to him with wishes for wealth and success. The wealth this Ganesha gave me was removing the clamp from my tongue, the shyness from my heart. Slowly, yes. But surely.