Sunday, June 30, 2013

Goat Story

When does a goat story become a ghost story? In Thailand, of course, where belief in ghosts and spirits is so widespread it influences most aspects of daily life.

Actually, to say that Thai people believe in ghosts is an understatement of monumental proportions. Belief in ghosts is such an integral part of the culture, it is as though the Thais themselves manifest spirits whether they exist in "objective" reality or not. Oddly, as a Westerner who does not share Thai ghost beliefs, I am not immune. Upon moving to Chiang Mai exactly one year ago, I sometimes sensed unseen presences or caught glimpses of shadowy figures out of the corner of my eye in my condo.   

But the ghosts have since moved. After becoming more acclimated to Thailand, my unwelcome guests and I had a polite but direct conversation. I asked them to relocate to the condo building's san phra phum (spirit house). They obliged. Because I was a farang (foreigner), the ghosts assumed that I didn't know Thai cultural rules so they had pushed the boundaries.

There are spirit houses near all Thai homes, temples, hotels, condominiums, car dealerships, fitness centers, shopping malls, etc., etc.. The spirit houses are usually elaborately painted wooden structures the size of large doll houses on big pedestals with miniature replicas of people, furniture, and animals inside and around them. A Buddhist monk typically advises about the optimum placement of the spirit house on a property.

Traditional spirit houses 
Spirit house figurines
Modern spirit house near trendy Bangkok hotel

I will get to the goat story. Promise. 

But first it's important to know about the most popular form of transport in Thailand. There are thousands of motor scooters here. It's not uncommon to see two or three people riding on a scooter while also juggling a baby or a ladder. 

But not to worry. There are helmet laws. They are enforced in a relaxed way but they exist nonetheless.

While eating dinner one evening with a group of Thai friends from my Rotary club, I told a story about my visit to a town in southern Spain where there had also been many scooters and helmet laws. Regarding the latter, however, frequently only the driver wore a helmet while the passengers did not.

One day in the Spanish town, I saw three people on a scooter--a man, a woman, and what appeared to be a child wedged between them. Only the child was wearing a helmet. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that the helmeted child wasn't a kid in the human sense. It was a goat. This I thought was pretty funny. "That goat must have been important to those people," I told my Thai friends, expecting laughter.

Instead there were incredulous stares and silence. Finally, Suparie, a woman who has spent a lot of time in New Zealand, America, and Europe and who is comfortable with the questioning ways of Westerners asked, "How did you know it was a goat?"

What a weird question, I thought. 

"Well, it had hooves and long spindly furry 'arms and legs'," I sputtered.

"How do you know that goats look like this?" she demanded.

"Well, what do goats look like in Thailand?" I had seen goats in the villages around Chiang Mai. They looked very similar to their Spanish counterparts.

There were more blank looks and silence as my dinner companions seemed to be wondering how I knew what goats looked like.

Then it dawned on me. Although my friends and I speak English, we pronounce many words  differently. They thought I was saying that I had seen a helmeted ghost on a motor scooter! "You know that I am talking about the animal that makes the 'baa baa' sound?" I started bleating. A waiter walking by the table looked dismayed. 

Suddenly, smiles flashed all around.

"Ah," said Suparie. "We thought you were saying that you had seen a ghost with a helmet on a motor scooter. Now we know that you saw a goat. You were trying to make a funny story!" She smiled. Everyone else smiled, too. No wonder they had reacted so coolly. Who ever heard of a helmeted ghost on a motor scooter? Clearly, a ghost wouldn't need a helmet!

And then it suddenly occurred to me that maybe some Thais, just like some Spaniards, put helmets on their goats when they take them for rides.

I made a mental note to self: do not tell any more goat stories in Thailand.

So far, this has worked well.


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