11 October 2008

Letter 3.61

Bangkok's not a healthy place. You walk around the city for a couple hours and you're covered with a gray film. The city strangles on its congestion, which it brought on itself by rapaciously robbing the countryside of its wealth and, subsequently, becoming filled with rural migrants who can no longer survive. (Farmers are required to sell their rice at government controlled and artificially low prices. This is only one of many techniques by which Bangkok middle-men get rich.) The result is that the city can't keep itself clean: the air is full of garbage, I invariably get minor ailments here, infrequently in the countryside.

If my visa hash is ever settled, and I'm allowed to stay on, I expect to find a fairly remote area, so some knowledge of Thai will be necessary. Consequently my intermittent and floundering efforts to learn the language have been revived. Unlike in Sri Lanka, it's rare to find any Thais in the country -- side who are competent English-speakers; in spite of the fact that they are required to study English for 5 years in school, few of them seem to have progressed beyond 'Hey you', 'Was is your name?', and 'Where you go? Where you go?' -- This question being, in Thai, the cultural equivalent of 'How are you?' -- i.e. they don't really care where you're going, they're translating their form of greeting -- 'Pai nai' -- literally, not understanding that to a Westerner they could be giving an impression of rudeness or nosiness, arousing suspicions in this bandit-plagued country rather than allaying them. Some countries -- e.g. Pakistan -- have exactly the opposite sort of greeting: 'Hey, you! Where you come from, huh?'

Thai script is incredibly complicated. Some of the complication is due to the necessity to indicate which of the 5 tones in Thai is to be used, but a lot of the complication is just plain complication. For example, there are 7 ways to represent the short vowel a (irrespective of tone) and the short vowel a is the most common vowel in the language. The various tone markers, or absence of them, affect different letters in different ways, and also the rules change according to what letter a syllable ends with as well as the letter at the beginning of the syllable (which is the letter that has dominant rule over the vowel and tone markers, although these markers are not necessarily written together with that letter. Got that? OK. Vowel markers are written before, behind, above, below, or in various combinations of these positions, and are sometimes not written at all. A final consonant can change the tone (and change itself; if it's a d, for example, it can change to a t). Also a low tone can be made by a tone marker. Etc., etc.

Probably there are exceptions and further complicating factors to these rules that I haven't learned yet, so I wouldn't place too much trust in the above brief explanation. Also Thai writing doesn't separate words, only sentences, so not only is it uncertain, unless one knows the words already (shades of Hebrew), where one word ends and the next begins, it's also uncertain, sometimes, which word, or which syllable within a word, a vowel marker belongs to. Does it follow the preceding letter or precede the following letter? There are 44 consonants. The number of vowels is indefinite, depending on how they are counted, but at least 9 and as many, perhaps, as 33, in addition to which are 4 tone markers. I'm trying to learn to write 'Which way out of here?' and to learn to read the directions.

Recently stopped off at the USICA library to see what's been happening in the world, and was shocked to learn of the murder by the Guatemalan government of a U.S. priest in the town of Santiago Atitlan, where I lived for about 3 months while in the country. It seems, from the report (in Time Magazine -- hardly a radical rag) that the priest was put on the death list for having reported the Guatemalan army's previous murder of about 30 villagers (although that incident doesn't seem to have been previously reported in Time) for having 'wrong' political views. I've written, while in Guatemala, of the fear and repression I saw around me; it seems, though, that the situation is far worse now than it was then (at which time there was a change of power and a new president was just coming into office: though the various presidents are carbon copies of each other and there is only one political party with any effective power, a transition of of government every five years usually means a pause in the machinations of the powers-that-be). At that time there were about 4 political murders per day. Now, according to Time, the figure is about triple that. The situation in Thailand, though always tentative, doesn't seem so bad as that, though this country has to have one of the highest murder rates in the world (everybody seems armed). Even a town like Chiang Mai, with perhaps 500,000 people, has about 3 murders per day, and certainly individual police do a good share of the killing, they being by far the most corrupt people in the country; and yet none of this seems approved of and directed from the top, as it certainly is in Guatemala. When I leave Bangkok, by the way, it will probably be for a spell of wandering in the hills around the Chiang Mai area.

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