Life is hard in Thailand. I’m not talking hard as in difficult or arduous, although at times it is. I’m talking hard as in rigid, firm, even unyielding. And more specifically I’m talking about the furniture. When my fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and friend, Carlos came to visit he plopped himself down on the faux-leather sectional couch in my living room and almost cracked his coccyx, his tail bone. He visited at the height of rainy season, so in the dim gray light seeping in through the windows on that rainy morning it looked vaguely comfortable. After all we come from a country where couches and chairs come as overstuffed as the sandwiches at Carnegie Deli. But it was anything but. Indoor furniture is sparse and spare. Chairs are hard, couches are hard, mattresses are hard. Homes are furnished with plastic or folding chairs; thickly varnished hardwood benches; paper-thin mattresses, if any at all. People sit on hard-tiled floors to pray, old women sleep on wooden platforms, laborers build bamboo and palm-thatched shacks and retire to straw mats. Most outdoor furniture including the tables and chairs at some local restaurants are concrete, unforgiving concrete. Thailand is not a soft country.
And Thais tend to like rigid order. They like things placed up against the walls and in straight lines. When I walk around town and glance into people’s front rooms, I never see a table or a couch or a chair sitting in the middle of the room, they’re always up against a wall. Everything sits straight and parallel and perpendicular. The empty space in the middle of the room is reserved for parking the family’s scooters and motorbikes at night (and the occasional coffin).
When Bruce and Myrna left Thailand, they left me all sorts of goodies. They didn’t want to just abandon their stuff at their rental house they knew they wouldn’t be coming back to. For some reason they took a shine to me and knew that I was just a poor Peace Corps volunteer who was making next to nothing. To be honest, I drilled that last point home. They were Westerners and had a penchant for softness and comfort and they had a soft spot for me. They gave me a second mattress and bedding so I can entertain company properly. Now all I need is company. I got a comfortable couch that folds down into yet another bed. I got pillows—four of them—and a couple of comfy plastic chairs. I got two end tables and an additional fan. Living without air conditioning, I’ll take all the fans I can get. I got lots of kitchen supplies and an actual oven, which, after 2 months I still haven’t used. Bruce left me two of his paintings (both he and Myrna are artists) and I got a great selection of hanging plants for my patio. And I couldn’t be more grateful.
On my patio I have a hammock, two of the hand-me-down chairs and a metal frame table with a patchwork top made from odd pieces of sheetrock. The table sits solidly beneath the two front windows and I keep one of the chairs next to it, at a 45 degree angle, to more easily reach my mug of coffee (mornings) and my ever-present bottle of water (afternoons). I’m not a right angle kind of guy; I skew things. My landlady doesn’t much care for that.
My landlady doesn’t come over as much as she used to. In the beginning she’d come over to sweep the patio after I left in the morning. She quickly saw that I occasionally kept the patio clean on my own, so she didn’t need to come over as often. She still comes to wash out the spirit houses every week or so and less frequently to pull weeds that grow in and around the yard. And every time she does she moves my chairs. After every sporadic visit I find the chairs with their backs solidly up against the wall, parallel and perpendicular an edge.
But it’s not only the chairs. Over the past year I bought a few potted plants to decorate the patio with and to bring nature into my little outdoor sanctuary. My landlady saw what I did, was obviously pleased and brought over some additional plants from her yard across the street. But then I noticed things moving. If I put 3 plants on the left, she’d move them to the right. If I placed a cluster near the pillar, she’d move them to ring the concrete pool. If I clumped a couple plants near the pool, she’d string them out in a line next to the pillar. Bruce and Myrna’s donations included a nice selection of hanging plants, including some orchids. Orchids grow well in this rain forest-y part of Thailand. I’ve strung the orchids up from the front beam of the covered patio to bring the greenery closer to me and as a visual reminder that I need to duck or I’ll bonk my head. She’s gotten to moving them off of that beam and into the tree that’s 15 feet from the patio. One day she’ll move one, the next day another, as if I won’t notice. I always notice.
She’s a right angle kind of woman and I’m disturbing her sense of order. We are in a silent battle of wills as well as a battle of aesthetics and cultural differences. This patio is my retreat, my refuge and safe harbor and on these points I will be hard and unyielding.