LIFE CHANGING MOMENTS:
IN PURSUIT OF DESTINY

PREFACE

Over the years, many people have asked me how our daughter, born in Burma in 1996 and adopted by my husband and me in the same year, came into our lives. Below is a close rendition, albeit with names and a few details changed, of how it all came about.  This was indeed the singular most important event of our lives, and remains so to this day, as I am sure many parents would also say. From the moment I held that three-month old bundle of joy in my arms to today, it has been a marvellous life journey together.  Destiny, or the Divine, smiled down on us on that fateful day, for which I shall be eternally grateful.  LMP

CHAPTER ONE

IN THE NEW YEAR
Chiang Mai, Thailand, 1995

In the dark corners of the temple grounds, the high-pitched wailing of the metal horn rose sharply in the hot, thick night air.  A soft, full, crème-coloured moon shimmered above, silently surveying the empty courtyard below.

A scene from another far-away time unfolded, as beautiful maidens - outfitted in long, hand-woven skirts and high buttoned, long-sleeved blouses, colour coordinated scarves passing under their arms and over their shoulders and copious piles of hair rising in crests upon their heads and festooned with fragrant flowers - emerged from the darkness, stepping to the clashing rhythm of symbols.

The nearby massive chedi – jutting insistently into the heavens - stood sublime in its symmetry and beauty. And the wiharn – its awnings, wooden roofs and stairways - carved with mythological figures in intricate detail, exuded the serenity of the many Buddha images contained therein.

The young women had golden replicas of preposterously long ‘nails’ on their fingertips; and they tapered into thin fineals that curved outrageously into the air. They were about to perform the fawn lep, a traditional dance of the northern Lanna kingdom associated with the sacred rituals of the Thai New Year.

The epitome of femininity, they moved in a small circle, around a softly glowing lantern, seemingly entranced by the persistent wailing and drumming. Their movements and the instruments of the traditional orchestra – cymbals, drums, bells, gongs, horns and flutes – together created a scene that ignited the senses and touched the soul.

In the dance, hands and fingers took prominence over foot movements; and as the women bent their knees in perfect time with the crashing cymbals, swaying gently from side to side, they were a picture of perfect grace and elegance.

 There were no spectators, the dancers and musicians performing not for others, but out of a need to recreate and live their culture, and thus to bond together in that cultural expression. They cast away in a world of their own, held hostage by the hypnotising music, the repetitive, rhythmic movements and the entrancing ivory moon overhead. They were re-enacting an ancient tradition that was part of the complex rituals surrounding Songkran, the Thai New Year – a time of ritual cleansing and renewal.

As the pace quickened and the music intensified, a middle-aged European woman emerged from the shadows of the gabled wiharn. She too seemed totally taken up with the dance, transported to another time and place.

The performance now over, the ensemble dispersed through the ornate gates of Wat Phan Tao and joined the streaming crowd outside. The woman followed from behind, into the cacophony of noise and commotion.

In a moment, she was enveloped in a mass of human bodies, swept along by a crowd pushing hard against her. So tightly bound was this surging force of humanity that she found it difficult to place one foot ahead of the other to walk.

It was a happy, well-intentioned, wholesome and not at all menacing, crowd, a mixture of Thais and tourists from Europe, America, Asia, even Africa - chatting, joking, having fun, stopping to check out this or that item for sale, and of course, snacking - the favourite Thai past-time.

The woman was now in the thick of it – Chiang Mai’s Sunday Walking Market at Songkran - the nation’s biggest festival in an annual calendar packed full of festivals - a colourful panoply of religious observances, beautiful processions, temple prayers and offerings, rituals and water-throwing merry-making.

The Sunday Walking Market, an area in the Old City which dated back more than 700 years, had been cordoned off to vehicles; it was a canvass of  colour and movement - of vendors and their wares, many of them traditional arts and crafts, food stalls, and local musicians and dancers, many from outlying villages.

Two columns of people moved in contrary directions, and in the middle stood performers of every persuasion. A husband and wife team, probably in their fifties, dressed in traditional Lanna clothing, he breathing life into a long and upright mouth accordion, she looking elegant in pastel-coloured traditional clothing, flowers and trinkets adorning her hair, doing a traditional dance she had probably learnt as a child, with obvious pleasure and at times even abandon.

Not far along in this ‘entertainers’ middle lane, a young girl, not more than eight years old, dressed in golden laced skirt, top and head-dress, played the ranak, an exotic Asian version of the western xylophone.

Further along, a group of blind boys and young men from a local school for the handicapped pounded with abandon drums, symbols, guitars and wind instruments, in their blend of Thai and western sounds – the ubiquitous Thai pop music.

At the main market intersection, flanked on one side by a City Pillar and on the other side with glittering temples, young artists sketched in charcoal the images of subjects who sat and posed with seriousness, or playfulness, and much anticipation. In this most artistic and dynamic of cities, artists of every persuasion could often be seen at such events, nearly at every turn, selling fine, hand-made arts and crafts.

 On both sides of this moving mass of humanity, vendors plied every manner of ware – from traditional musical instruments, celadon, hand-woven silk, hand-carved wooden Buddha images, Buddhist amulets, laquerware, silver jewellery, leather hand-bags, clothing, silk ties, t-shirts, shoes, paintings, weaving, embroidery, to trinkets and baubles sold for 5 or 10 baht. Many of the items were made by the vendors themselves, who hailed from villages and settlements surrounding Chiang Mai.

Food stalls were everywhere, and one could literally ‘eat one’s way’ through the market, so savoury and tasty were the foods on offer.

And representatives from schools, NGOs and other charity organisations gently approached shoppers for donations for this or that cause, their entreaties usually promptly rewarded with a 20, 50 or 100 baht note, demonstrating well the Thai propensity to give instantaneously - so strongly engrained in their identity and collective character.

At the centre of this swirling, sensual delirium stood the temples, some having been built centuries ago, still very much in use and highly revered by the Thai people.

Embellished in fine and minute detail, their multiple curved roofs drifted upwards, their chedis soared to the heavens; they were now softly illuminated by candles and the smoke of incense, acting as magnets for the devoted. Hordes of people streamed through their open gates, wai’ing Lord Buddha images inside and outside the wiharn, pouring lustral waters over the revered images, in an act of ritual cleansing and transformation, praying and placing offerings of flowers, candles and incense at the alters.

The chanting of monks wafted over the temple grounds and drifted into the market streets, lending a note of religiosity and antiquity, for they sang in the ancient Pali language, spoken by the Lord Buddha over 2 500 years ago.

This riotous display of human artistry, creativity and activity – a 20th century extension of the markets of old - took place twice a week, in this enormously diverse melting pot of peoples and cultures, an ancient crossroad of trade.

The dancers and musicians who had released themselves into this New Year’s world within a world most probably would not have seen any of this as remarkable; it was just part of their everyday environment, part of living, part of what made their lives interesting, pleasurable and fun. That was what made it all the more extraordinary.

For the middle-aged woman who was new to the Chiang Mai community, and who  now moved through the crowd - inspecting, sampling, tasting and absorbing it all, it did seem extraordinary, moreover that this was re-enacted each and every week of the year.

Now wilting from the oppressive heat and humidity, she finally sought a reprieve in a small restaurant - its giant whirling fans spurting streams of water to cool the air - and began to write.

Dear Chris:

Happy New Year, my darling. Where are you on this special night. At one of the refugee camps at the border?

The sights and sounds of this holiday are amazing. How I wish you were here to share this with me!

The start of the New Year has put me in a pensive mood. What is coming up for us this year? What does fate have in store?  I am trying to get a feeling for it. Perhaps a big change. Who knows, I could be wrong.

Please send me a tape as soon as you can.

As always, your loving wife, Juliana

© copyright: Linda Pfotenhauer

Posted in LIFE CHANGING MOMENTS.

3 Comments

  1. I loved this section, as you would probably guess. I loved the depth of emotion and all the personal details.

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