Health, fortune, fame – they are all illusion.
Prosperity is only a game played by fools.
The fruit of success tastes sour in the mouth.
Soon you will mourn your dreams of worldly glory.
Helena was not pleased. We were in Chiang Mai at the Maesa elephant camp visiting a small Buddhist shrine, a little hidden gem within the camp that most touri pass by in favor of the giant pachyderms. She’d just tried her hand at a set of Chinese fortune telling sticks and was not happy with the result. Earlier in the week she’d drop $40 at the Mahathat Amulet Market in Bangkok on a necklace full of charms to bring her wealth and prosperity. And now, by the same Thai gods, she was being told to fuck off.
Running across Chinese fortune telling sticks at a Buddhist temple in Thailand was not a new experience for me. When visiting a wat they make for a nice hands-on touri experience, especially for those unwilling to kneel and pray to Buddha. Whether you believe or not, few pass up the chance to have their fortune told. The bamboo sticks, usually red in color, are bundled together in a canister that looks much like the check bins used at gogo bars; a different kind of fortune, a different degree of luck. Each has a number written on it. Kneel, say a prayer – or fake it – shake the container between two palms, and one of the sticks will rise and pop out. The number on the sticks corresponds with those on paper leaflets piled in stacks nearby. Find your match; the paper bears your fortune. As predictions tend to be, they’re vague and ripe for interpretation. Usually. Helena’s didn’t leave much room for conjecture. It was rather specific. And spot on.
The first time I ran across the fortune telling sticks was with a buddy, Damen, a practicing Christian from a Islamic country visiting a Buddhist temple in Bangkok (while participating in the scam the scammer game – scamming tourist being yet a fourth religion to pile onto the heap of faiths). He’d noticed a group of locals kneeling, bamboo cannisters shaking in hand, and after watching for a few minutes figured it out. Damen was game. He took a spot in front of the altar, his dark skin and Asian features blending in well with the locals. His level of skill: not so much. A novice, he was not adept at the shaking part and moved from a long period of rattling the sticks about with no result to an over-zealousness that caused the whole bundle to launch into the air. Persistent, he finally got it right and coaxed a singular stick out of the container. I don’t remember the number, or the wording of the fortune, but do remember he decided it referred to his relationship with his current boyfriend, an older, closeted, married Italian gentleman who he was in Bangkok to visit. But wasn’t sure if the message was positive or foretold disaster.
The fortune telling sticks are based on the I-Ching and are called Kau Cim in China. The Thai version’s name is a bit more vague: Seam See, Sium See, Sen Sai, and Siam See all seem to be used. There’s an app available for your iPhone now; they’ve gone with Seamsee. Thais use the sticks for fortunes and to divine lucky numbers for the lottery. They tend to hold to the number for lottery use, picking out a ticket bearing those digits. But if the fortune isn’t quite what they were looking for, they’ll discard the leaflet and try again. Helena decided to go with local custom. Frustrated, pissed, and not happy with being told she was greedy, and that that wasn’t a good thing, with much disgust she claimed, “That didn’t work”.
The fault was with the gods, not with her motivation in life.
“I want to try again.”
I suggested maybe this time she might want to give it a go without a lit cigarette in her mouth. It might not help her luck, but it’d make for a better photo. Patience is not one of her virtues either, but she had to wait her turn: Noom, my bar boy friend and current love of my life, was busy at the altar molesting a little Aussie girl.
Noom has a fondness for kids. The feeling is mutual. I can’t fault their taste. He’d just finished helping the little Aussie contort her hands into a proper mudra, and now had his arms wrapped around her, helping to shake a fortune telling stick out of its holder. The mom, as mothers tend to do, thought her precious was especially so. And evidently saw no harm in Noom’s attention. I don’t remember what the little girl’s fortune was, it doesn’t matter with a kid. They have years ahead to do good or evil setting a new life course with each decision they make. But both she and her mom wanted to know what the gods had in store for her and turned to Noom for clarification.
Noom’s ability to read English has always amazed me. He carefully sounds out the words and usually gets the pronunciation correct, even those that native English speakers stumble over. Comprehension is a different matter. He read the fortune for his new Aussie friends and then had a moment of panic when they looked expectantly at him for it’s meaning. No problemo. He laughed, reached down picked the little one up and threw her into the air. She squealed with delight, moms smiled, fortune and fate forgotten. And then Helena got her chance at round #2.
Her initial attempt was haphazard, more of playing along since everyone else had given it a go and gotten wise words that promised them the things in life they cherished. She put her smoke out on this try, spent a few extra moments silently praying – or pleading – before giving the canister a firm shake. The gods were ready for her and sent their message back with no delay:
Why bother with the pains of hate and greed?
Just as the full moon lights up the traveler’s path,.
So too can your conscience guide your life.
Let your heart be like that moon: full, bright and clear.
Maybe there is some magic in those sticks. They sure seemed to have Helena’s number. She’d have liked to dismiss the whole thing, but the two messages were just a bit too similar, and just a bit too familiar to ignore. Like her fortune, her mood did not improve. The rest of us lost all sense of reverent decorum and were laughing uproariously. Noom made a poor attempt of explaining to the Aussies; moms decided it a good time to flee but first tried to pass a 100 baht note to Noom. A tip. He was confused. Helena, giving substance to the divination of the gods told him to take it. But Noom waved the money off, gave the little one a farewell hug and we waited to see if Helena was going to brave a third attempt.
Not willing to tempt fate further, she passed and we made our way out of the camp to where the red baht bus we’d commandeered waited. The Aussie duo waited nearby. Moms came over to beg a ride; they’d rented a taxi and the driver had left them stranded. Since we’d paid for the truck, not by the head, it was a no brainer. I invited them along for the ride back into town. Everyone piled into the back, Noom boarding last and moms got a look of realization and embarrassment in her eyes. She hadn’t known Noom was part of our group. She thought he worked at the shrine. And now was embarrassed that she’d tried to tip him. We all had a laugh. Noom didn’t quite understand, but pulling the little girl onto his lap for the ride home, he was happy; his new friend his good fortune for the day.
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