Smashed! That’s the title of an article in the latest edition of the magazine Positive News. It talks about the Granby Workshop in Liverpool England which makes new dinnerware and decorative tiles by recycling discarded ceramic crockery. About 68 million tons of ceramic waste is sent to the landfill each year in Britain. The Granby Workshop is trying to reduce that number.
The Granby Workshop reminded me of my visit to the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok, Thailand. It is covered with millions of pieces of smashed ceramic bits that skilled craftspeople have turned into works of art on the exterior of the temple.
The Temple of Dawn was built by King Taskin in the 1700s. He wanted to find a way to use the millions of broken bits of beautiful china that had to be discarded when ships arrived from China with ceramic dishes. Some of the dishes always smashed in the ships’ holds on the journey to Thailand.
The article about the Granby Project also reminded me of my cousin Sharon Loeppky who makes these absolutely stunning pieces of art from discarded bits of smashed china and ceramics she finds in rubbish heaps.
Isn’t it lovely and interesting how the bits and pieces of broken things can be turned into something new and beautiful?
This Christmas will definitely be memorable as I watch my grandchildren open their stockings on a computer screen instead of in my living room. I’ll remember it as the Christmas I didn’t attend concerts or parties and the only person I hugged was my husband.
There is however another Christmas that was just as memorable for me, the Christmas of 2004. We were holidaying in Phuket Thailand when the tsunami hit. I learned two lessons from that experience that are helping me navigate the pandemic.
What if? I asked that question countless times after we escaped the tsunami. What if we hadn’t changed our resort reservations at the last minute? The first resort we’d booked was destroyed and five hundred people died there. What if we had gone down to the beach the morning of the tsunami as planned? We rescheduled because our kids slept in. What if we’d been out on the snorkeling trip we’d booked for the next day?
At first those what if questions crippled me. I wanted to stop traveling. I was over-protective of my children. I was hesitant to take chances. With time I realized continually revisiting what if questions wasn’t helpful. I needed to stop looking back at what could have happened and concentrate on the present and future.
What if? We can ask that question countless times this year when COVID has touched our lives in difficult ways. What if we’d chosen a career that thrived instead of ended due to the pandemic? What if we’d taken care of our parents in our own home instead of placing them in a care facility? What if we’d followed the guidelines rigorously when the pandemic first started?
From my own experience and observing the people around me I am learning that asking what if questions during COVID-19 is not helpful. We are living in the here and now and we can’t let what ifs cripple us in a way that makes our current situation even worse or prevents us from learning and looking forward.
Life goes on. Six years after the tsunami we revisited Phuket and were surprised at how little evidence we saw of the tragedy. Beaches littered with debris in 2004 were now dotted with sunbathers. Roads packed with trucks bringing in relief supplies in 2004 were now dominated by tourist buses. The airport which in 2004 was filled with injured people who had lost everything in the tsunami was now full of happy families beginning or ending holidays.
During our stay in 2010 I did manage to find one small plaque on a building that paid tribute to the thousands who died in Phuket during the tsunami. But life had gone on for the people there.
Life goes on during a pandemic too. We welcomed a new baby granddaughter to the world in November. Although we can’t see her in person she brings us great joy. My nephew and his fiancée cancelled the larger family wedding celebration they’d planned and instead married in their backyard with only their parents present. But they are busy building their future. My son is a school principal and has just safely shepherded the teachers and students in his care through the first semester of the academic year. Life goes on despite tsunamis and pandemics.
I don’t want to ever relive my tsunami experience, and no one would want to relive what we are going through right now. But we can make the best of what is happening by not looking back and asking too many what if questions. Instead, we can remember that life goes on and set our sights on the future ahead.
This past week Dave and I have had a houseguest from Bangkok staying with us here in Winnipeg.
Joop in high school in Manitoba in 2007
We first got to know Joop Rathlertwongse in 2007 when he was an international exchange student at the Steinbach high school where Dave and I were teachers. He was living with a host family but when they went away on a trip Joop came to stay with us for a while. During his year in Steinbach, Joop learned to love Mennonite food, got to try skiing, ice-skating and snowmobiling. He even learned how to build a quinzee. Before coming to Manitoba Joop was attending an all-boys school during the week and spending weekends at his family home in Bangkok. Joop enjoyed learning about Canadian culture during his year in Manitoba. He made lots of friends.
We next saw Joop when we made a trip to Bangkok in 2010. Joop picked us up from the airport and spent a day showing us his home city. He took us to a water market and…down to the riverfront, and out for a great Thai dinner.
Joop also took us tothe Mahidol University where he was working on a social science degree. At the time he was hoping for a career in international relations and was about to go to Myanmar to do research for a paper he was writing on the elections there.
In 2011 Joop came to visit us in Hong Kong just before we moved back to Canada. I took him to visit the famous Che Kung Temple. We went out for Italian food one night and we took Joop along to our final karaoke night in Hong Kong.
Fast forward to 2019 and Joop is back in Manitoba this time to attend the wedding of the daughter of his host family in Steinbach. He decided to stay for ten days or so to meet up with old friends and that included us. We have hosted him for several nights. Last night he took us out for some great Thai food at the Sabai Thai Eatery. Lots of things have changed in Joop’s life since we saw him last. He has graduated from university and has established a successful career in procurement with a major oil and gas company. His job takes him regularly to Papua New Guinea and he works closely with colleagues in other countries. He has his own condo in Bangkok now and drives out to see his parents and two brothers on weekends. He is still looking for adventure and thinks about taking a job posting in another country or continuing his studies in Canada.
Joop will be here with us till Monday. It is interesting how often our paths have crossed with Joop’s in the last fifteen years. I’m wondering if they won’t again in the future?
For several weeks now the media here in Winnipeg has carried stories about a woman who simply disappeared one morning when she went for a walk.
The news story reminds me of my visit to the Jim Thompson home in Bangkok, Thailand. Jim too simply disappeared one morning while going for a walk. Thompson, an architect from Delaware, was sent to Thailand as a military intelligence officer during World War II. Enamored with the exotic locale, he returned there immediately after being discharged.
During the coming years, Thompson would successfully revive a dying art in Thailand. Colorful hand-woven silks had once been a prized part of Thai culture but by the late 1940s were gradually being pushed aside by mass production. Thompson set out to change that. Armed with samples of genuine silks made by local Bangkok craftswomen he went to New York where he caught the eye of major fashion designers. Soon Thai silk was all the rage. Valentino, the dress designer began fashioning clothing with the material, raving about its luster and texture. The costume designer for the movie The King and I used Thai silk to create the outfits for the all the actors. Big hotel chains like the Hilton and Savoy featured draperies made from Thai silk. The industry took off and continues to flourish. Today more than 20,000 families in Thailand make their living weaving silk for an international market
Jim Thompson with some of the art he collected
Though busy with his new enterprise in the fabric industry, Thompson was still an architect at heart, and set about fashioning a unique home for himself in Bangkok. He purchased six old teak Thai houses decorated with hand carvings and designs. He connected them all together on a thickly- treed area of jungle land he purchased right on one of Bangkok’s famous canals. Like all traditional Thai houses his stood on stilts high above the ground. Thompson proceeded to use the substantial wealth he was accruing from his silk business to fill this home with Asian art and antiquities. Soon his collection was to be envied world-wide.
Jim Thompson House in Bangkok
Then in 1967 Thompson was vacationing in Malaysia with friends. One afternoon he set off on a walk and never returned. No evidence has ever been found to suggest what could have happened to him. Theories abound of course. Was he eaten by a tiger? Did slip down into a ravine and drown? Was he kidnapped and died before a ransom could be demanded? Did he just want a new life? His military intelligence training would have served him well in a bid to simply disappear and re-locate. The mystery has never been solved and adds an extra air of intrigue to the Jim Thompson house.
These women welcomed us to the Jim Thompson house and happily posed while I took their photo
Today Thompson’s home has been turned into a museum by the Kingdom of Thailand. Lovely young women, wearing Thompson designed silk skirts and blouses and fluent in many languages, guide you through the carefully preserved series of houses.
Thompson is something of a hero in Bangkok. He was instrumental in boosting the economy a half century ago by introducing Thai silk to the world. Despite of, or perhaps because of, his mysterious disappearance he continues to be a financial asset to Thailand as his art collection, lovely home and interesting life story draw people from around the world to Bangkok.
My friend Michelle, who lives in Hong Kong often posts photos of abandoned places she comes upon in the city. Another Facebook friend Jim from Pennyslvania, takes photos of abandoned buildings. Jim and Michelle inspired me to look back through my photos searching for abandoned places I have photographed.
I was visiting Herschel Saskatachewan doing research for a novel in the fall of 2012 when I photographed this abandoned barn
This is only one of many unfinished and abandoned homes I photographed in Jamaica in January of 2014
On a trip to Savannah Georgia in 2006 I photographed this abandoned house
I chaperoned a student trip to Cambodia in 2011 and photographed this abandoned temple in Angkor Wat
Of course the buildings in Pompei Italy were abandoned for good reason as I discovered on a 2010 trip to Italy
While biking in Yangshou China in 2005 I photographed this abandoned house
We drove by this abandoned windmill in 2011 in Ukraine. It was built by Mennonites.
In 2013 we visited the abandoned cliff dwellings of the Salado people built in the 1300s in the Tonto Forest area of Arizona
In November of 2010 we visited Bangkok and I photographed this abandoned graveyard overgrown with weeds
I thought I’d never reach the top when I climbed the huge tower at the centre of the Temple of Dawn in Bangkok. Built in the 1700s by King Taskin the tower reaches more than 79 meters upward and features steep stairs that are said to lead all the way to heaven.
Me standing outside the Temple of Dawn
The outside of the tall tower is covered with millions of broken bits of porcelain. They have been arranged into intricate patterns and pictures in a way that is incredibly lovely and required gifted artists to design.
My friend Anna and I pose in cutouts at the Temple of Dawn
I learned that ships coming to Bangkok from China centuries ago carried two valuable exports for sale, tea and silk. The tea and silk needed to be carried in the middle sections of the ships because they were sensitive to the water damage that could occur in the upper and lower sections. But to balance the boat so it could sail properly about half of the cargo’s weight needed to be below the waterline in the ship’s bilge. Chinese porcelain dishes were the perfect solution. They were not susceptible to water damage. They were sufficiently heavy and could be produced cheaply. Often however storms and high waves caused the porcelain to break, leaving the boats’ holds filled with mountains of pottery shards. What to do with the pieces? King Taskin knew. He had his royal artists and craftsmen use them to decorate his now famous temple tower. They put wet plaster on the exterior and then imbedded the porcelain in complicated designs and patterns. They also created beautiful nature scenes with the bits of colorful pottery. Taskin had probably never heard of recycling but he certainly knew how to do it in a big way.
Walking slowly around the temple’s first level and looking at all the lovely artwork that had been created out of the colorful porcelain it was almost impossible for me to imagine the endless hours of labor that would go into such a project. What an amazing recycling project!
The pages of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala grew heavier and heavier. Half way through the book I almost couldn’t bear to turn them. Sonali’s grief is palpable in every sentence and the weight of her anguish made it impossible for me to read more than a chapter of her story at at time.
We learn right from the beginning of the book that Sonali, a professor at Columbia University in New York, lost her parents, husband and two young sons in 2004 when the tsunami swept through the Sri Lankan resort where they were holidaying. She survives by clinging to a branch after being swept for miles in a torrent of water. Later she can’t fathom why she ever grabbed onto that branch. With so many people she loved dead, she wishes she was too. Her friends and family are on suicide watch for many months.
Photo I took of a Thai family on the beach in Phuket after the tsunami
The section of the book that resonated with me were the passages of ‘what if’s.’ Sonali thinks of all the alternate decisions she and her family could have made leading up to the tsunami that would have kept them safe. My family and I were in Phuket when the tsunami struck and I too spent months grappling with the ‘what if’s.’ There were so many decisions big and small that we had made which kept us safe. Any one of those many choices, which seemed unimportant at the time, could have placed us right in the path of the wave like Sonali’s family.
Sonali’s story goes forward year by year after the tsunami and with each passing one she is able to resurrect more memories. But the story also goes back because as she remembers we are given a window into what her life was like before the tsunami and we come to know her husband, parents and children with all their gifts and foibles in an intimate way. This makes their death seem all the more tragic and Sonali’s grief becomes even more real to us.
Workers cleaning up in Phuket after tsunami 2004
For many years after 2004 our family members were frequently identified as tsunami survivors. Even now a decade later people will ask us about it. I suspect being a 2004 tsunami survivor is something that marks you for life. It certainly has marked Sonali with a heavy burden. It is a burden that weighs down anyone who reads her book because Sonali’s evocative and spare writing style leaves you no choice. Hopefully sharing her story with others has lightened Sonali’s burden at least a little bit.
Here’s a piece I wrote after a visit to Chaing Mai Thailand a number of years ago.
A woman making paper umbrellas for tourists in Chiang Mai
“Asia is no longer authentic. Modern barbarians and mass tourism are destroying it. “ Denis Gray, Associate Press Bureau Chief in Bangkok made that comment during an interview with a reporter from the Bangkok Post. I read the article about Gray during my visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Mr. Gray has had a vacation home in Chiang Mai for twenty years and bemoans the fact that Western business interests have completely taken over the area with their “ relentless greed and materialism.”
I can understand what Mr. Gray is talking about. I went to Chiang Mai on a golfing holiday and noted the ‘westernization’ and altered landscape of the area. Acres of jungle have been hacked down to create space for fairways, clubhouses and high- end spas and golf resorts.
Friends who traveled to northern Thailand decades ago say it was a jungle paradise. You could hike just outside Chiang Mai and find hill tribes villages where people lived much as they had for hundreds of years. Each tribe had its own unique dress, customs and was self-sustaining. In the last ten years, literally millions of tourists interested in seeing the traditional way of life in these hill tribes’ settlements have altered that way of life forever.
Performers at the Loy Krathong show
Chiang Mai now has a Starbucks, a McDonalds and a Holiday Inn. It also has a great deal of street garbage and its river is black with pollutants. Many of the rituals and ceremonies of the local people have become commercialized performances which tourists are charged money to attend. The tribal women come into Chiang Mai to sell their hand made products to visitors from around the world. Crafts are now produced in ‘factories’ especially set up so tourists can watch as they are created step by step. We were on a ‘packaged’ golf tour in Chiang Mai. Consequently we were ferried to several of these ‘factories’ before each round of golf to watch the staged production of jewelry, silk, ceramics and paper umbrellas. I felt uncomfortable viewing these talented people give a ‘fake performance’ of their skilled labor, staged primarily to convince potential customers to buy their wares.
Female golf caddies in Chiang Mai
The golf courses in Chiang Mai were lovely. Each golfer was provided with a caddy, a local Chiang Mai woman, who had been taught enough English to tell you your yardage after each shot, and whether your ball would break to the left or right when you putted. The women were dressed in immaculate mauve and white uniforms. They smiled politely and helped you select which golf club to use for each shot, and carefully cleaned your club after every use. I wondered if before becoming golf caddies these women had lived an agrarian existence in a village attending to the needs of their families and participating in the traditions of their tribe. Were they happier then or do they prefer their present life with more modern conveniences and a steady source of income to support their families? people say tourism has been a boon to Thailand, improving the economy and the transportation system. Tourism however has also brought a thriving sex trade, AIDS, pollution, a depletion of natural resources, a changed landscape and has permanently altered the traditional way of life of the hill tribes people of Thailand.
I wonder if I a few years from now Chiang Mai will be distinguishable from any typical American tourist spot. Will there be a theme park or museum you will need to visit if you want to see how traditional Thai people lived?
On one of our many trips to Thailand, I spent time chatting with Puttatammo Photilath, a monk studying at the Buddhist University in Chiang Mai. The university invites students who are learning English to take turns sitting outside Wat Prah Singh, a Buddhist temple. Visitors can join the monks and ask questions about their life. It’s a great way for the monks to practice English and for the tourists to learn more about Buddhism. Monks in Thailand are easily recognized because of their bright orange robes and closely shaved heads.
Puttatammo is twenty-two years old and was born in Laos. He left his parents’ home at age seven to become a temple assistant. He lived and worked at a Buddhist temple for three years until he was old enough to become a novice monk. He was ordained at age ten. The country of Laos does not have a Buddhist university so Puttatammo came to Chiang Mai to further his education.
Puttatammo’s parents live in a small Laotian village far from the temple where he trained to be a monk. He has not seen them since he was seven. He can’t write them letters because his parents, who are in their sixties, are illiterate. He phones them periodically and after he graduates from university he will finally be able to visit them. His parents have a small rice farm. They are very proud of their son because as a monk he has the opportunity to get an education. Puttatammo tells me in Laos only the children of poor people become monks. Parents know if their son is a monk he will have a good home, enough to eat and get a good education. Puttatammo majors in English at the university but is also studying economics and politics. He lives at a temple in Chiang Mai with fourteen other monks and meditates and prays with them for two hours every morning and evening. He spends about three hours a day studying the teachings of Buddha and six hours a day at the university taking classes. He has only two meals daily, breakfast at 7 am and lunch at 11:30. He eats noodles and sometimes adds a little chicken or a vegetable. I asked where he got the money for his university tuition and food. He told me he begs for money for two hours every day. He walks around with a small bowl and people give him donations. He collects around 50 baht or $1.50 Canadian a day. His university costs $50 per term. Puttatammo says all monks are required to beg.
Puttatammo does not plan to spend his life in the monastery. He wants to be a tourist guide someday. He also wants to go back to Laos so he can look after his ageing parents. He says in Laos professionals and business people need rich parents and government connections in order to succeed, so those careers won’t be open to him.
He told me one thing he appreciates about being a monk is the rules for good living he has learned. Monks must not kill or harm living things. They must not steal, lie or use hurtful speech. They need to eat simply and avoid drugs, alcohol or anything that interferes with the clarity of the mind. They are not to engage in frivolous entertainment or irresponsible sexual behaviour. These are rules Puttatammo feels will serve him well even after he is no longer a monk.
I was sorry when it was time to leave Puttatammo. I thanked him and told him I’d learned many new andinteresting things from our monk chat.
As we prepare for the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013 I am reminded of two rituals I participated in during our visit to Chiang Mai Thailand.
Beautifully decorated Loy Krathong rafts on display in our Chiang Mai hotel lobby
Loy Krathong came first. ‘Loy’ means to float and a ‘krathong’ is a raft. Thai people make little rafts or boats out of banana leaves. They decorate them with flowers and burning incense sticks and set them afloat in rivers. Before you set your krathong to sail downstream you stop for a time to remember all your sin and suffering from the previous year. In your mind you load all those negative and sad thoughts and experiences onto the raft so when you release your krathong you are essentially floating your troubles away.
Once your problems from the past are released with your krathong you are ready to make wishes for the future with a khom loi– a large hot air lantern created from rice paper. You light a small burner suspended on a metal brace at the bottom of the lantern and launch it into the sky at the same time as a fireworks display begins its colorful explosions. The khom loi carries your hopes and dreams for the future up to the heavens.
Here is my husband Dave getting our khom loi ready for launching. As the lantern filled with hot air we had a hard time holding it down and finally it just whooshed out of our hands. It got caught briefly in a tall tree. My heart stopped for a minute because I was sure the branches would start on fire, but just then a gust of wind lifted the lantern and it went soaring up higher and higher. We watched it for a long time before it disappeared from sight.
The sky was peppered with hundreds of pinpoints of light as the people around us sent up their lanterns. Then the fireworks started exploding in the black sky.
Most of the prayers I sent up with our khom loi have been answered.
The rituals of Loy Krathong and Khom Loi are a meaningful way to reflect on the past year and make plans for the coming one. Although this year I won’t be floating a flower bedecked boat down a frozen Winnipeg river or letting a lantern loose in the middle of a chilly prairie winter I do want to make time to say good-bye to any negativity of 2012 and welcome 2013 with joy and hope.