Thursday, September 30, 2010

On and Off the Train

My friend the Cosmopolitan Dutchman is a catalyst--when he's around, things happen. He has the energy of an elegant jumping bean in human form, tempered with a delightful sense of humor and amazing kindness. He is always sheer pleasure to spend time with, so since my train was passing through his hometown of Hua Hin, I asked on facebook if he would come to wave me out of Thailand. "I'll be there," was his monosyllabic response, leaving me to think that he would probably wave at the whistle of my train from the balcony of his apartment.

Leaving Thailand was harder than I expected and I was in tears for the first half of my departure day. By the time the train pulled out, I was in a state of emotional numbness, in no mood to chat with the friendly Muslim lady who sat across the aisle from me. She was part of a tour group, all Muslim, all aging, all from the same Malaysian town, so my community for the next twenty-three hours was, I knew, abstemious and conservative.Get used to it, I told myself, and refrained from ordering my customary beer with my supper.

I was too preoccupied to notice that we had stopped at Hua Hin, but not too stupified to be unaware that there was loud pounding on the Malaysian lady's window. She peered into the darkness in some confusion and I shrugged. I had been on a train once in Thailand where someone threw a rock at my open window and that was in far less volatile times. Whoever was pounding was not my concern, I thought, but I was wrong.

Seconds later there was the Cosmopolitan Dutchman, smiling, dressed in only slightly rumpled linen, with a plastic glass full of beer in one hand and a long-stemmed red rose and a bag with two cans of beer in the other. "I told you I'd be here," he announced, "Why didn't you come to the window?"

He saluted me in European fashion with a kiss on each cheek and the Muslim lady's eyes widened to the size of those on a Blythe doll. "They got me," he told me, "Look, my shoulder is broken," and he pulled his shirt to the side to reveal a hefty bandage, "Seven stitches," he continued, pointing to his head.

"How?" I demanded and he looked toward the door, "Hell, the train is moving," and he rushed to the exit but with no luck. Inexorably, the International Express to Malaysia was in motion and there was no way to stop it.

There was only one thing to do and we took our beer to the dining car, far from the Muslim village, and began to interrogate train staff about the next stop. They were quite insouciant that the C.D. would have to travel three hours before getting off at Chumpon until they discovered that he had no ticket. Then somehow a stop was pulled out of a hat and his impromptu journey was cut to one hour instead.

This was just about long enough to discover who "got" him and how. He had gone to an ATM one evening and was aware that a woman was close behind him but thought nothing of it. Pocketing his cash, he started to make his way down a dark and untrafficked street, when the blow struck and took him to the ground. Two Thai women stood over him, methodically bludgeoning him with a baseball bat. He lost consciousness and woke up without his cellphone or wallet. When he was able to investigate further, after several days in the hospital, he found that they had also managed to get his PIN while standing behind him and his bank account was considerably less than when he had made his last transaction.

And yet, with seven stitches and a broken shoulder, the C.D. had still come to my train, rose in hand. There are far too few men like him in the world and I'm lucky he's my friend. At least I think he's still my friend--the train that was meant to take him home was two hours late and he wasn't in bed until after 2 am. The message that conveyed that information was a bit terse.

The next morning the Muslim lady peered into my sleeping space the minute I opened the curtains. "Where is your friend?" she asked. "Oh hiding at the foot of my 5'6" pallet here," I didn't say. She was charmed to hear his travel tale and so was everyone else on the car who asked me about him during the remainder of our journey. The rose cheered me all the way to Penang, where the Cosmopolitan Dutchman has promised to come for a visit. I know he will--he is a man of his word--but heaven only knows what will happen when he does.

All I know is it will make a good story and we'll have a good time.

Mutton with Michael

Penang's fruit juices and lassis are beyond anything I've ever had before. Earlier in the day I ordered an orange juice, took one sip and immediately asked for another. At lunch my mango lassi tasted as though it had been made from an entire, perfectly ripe mango. So this evening what drew me from my room was the thought of something to drink. None of the stalls I passed had a blender and the restaurants boasted either coffee or Carlsberg. I was a little surprised to realize that I didn't want a beer and kept on searching.

Close to my hotel there are a cluster of food stalls and at one of them a man was making chapatti. There were a line of people waiting for him to make theirs and quite a few eating under a tarp near the street, so I figured they had to be good. As I waited, I watched and noticed the woman helping him had a big pot of yellow curry; when it was finally my turn, that was what I ordered.

"This pot?" the man asked in damned near perfect English, "this is mutton head curry. Wouldn't you rather have something else? Here, this one is chicken."

Maybe it was because he looked quite a bit like Michael Ondaatje twenty years ago, but I was damned if I was going to change my order, even though my stomach clenched just a little.

"Are you sure?" he asked and I said, "I want to try it. If I don't like it, I won't eat it."

As I watched the woman ladle it out, I felt a little annoyed. Why did he have to tell me? I would have been quite happy to eat in ignorance, as I often had at street stalls in Thailand. Perhaps, I grumbled to myself, this sharing a common language wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

There were four chunks of flesh and bone in the curry, which I thought was overly generous, and a plate of very beautiful rice. I poured a spoonful of curry over the rice and tasted it--so far, so good.

Feeling optimistic, I selected one of the chunks. Little bits of meat were in between bones that looked like part of a very small spine; I extricated some and was happy to discover it tasted like very tender goat. I managed to eat every elusive little scrap, only occasionally encountering a stray bone in my mouth. And when Michael Ondaatje came to see how I was doing, I was able to truthfully tell him it was good. He looked skeptical.

The second piece was a long bone with something along its side that looked--well I could say challenging but it was more like revolting--something with a greenish black color. I put it with the remnants of the small spinal cord and reached for the next. More little bits of meat but some of it looked a bit like tallow and tasted like fat. It also joined the pile of bones rather quickly.

The last chunk was the biggest and when I cut into it, it was gelatinous and an unappealing shade of pink. I tasted it, hoping it would be chewy like cartilage. It wasn't. The softness of it completely defeated me and I asked for my chapatti which at this point tasted like the most comforting and delicious thing I had ever eaten. I tore off bits and used it to scoop up my rice and curry without any cranial delicacies. If nothing else, I consoled myself, at least I can practice my using no tableware skills.

A flower stall across the way glowed on the dark street with garlands of marigolds and roses and orchids and jasmine. I watched men fashion loops of flowers and tried to make my mouth forget the texture of the gelatinous bit. It was orb-shaped and I remembered my friend Thanegi talking about goat's head and how she always ate the eye. I hoped I hadn't eaten part of an eye.

The rain that had been hovering over the city had burst when I was half-way through my meal and now was dripping through holes in the plastic tarp and bouncing back up when it hit the street. A coffee server was now using only one hand because the other held his umbrella. I paid and ran to my hotel, hearing the call to prayer from the nearby mosque and praying that Michael Ondaatje would think my pile of untouched mutton head was due to the raindrops dripping on my food and not because I am in fact a gustatory wuss.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Relax! It's Personal, Not Political!

If you found an object you suspected might be a bomb, would you call the police and have them take it away or would you put it in a garbage can and forget about it? A shopkeeper in Bangkok chose the latter option and the result was several other people found what appeared to be a perfectly usable mobile phone which then blew to bits and left them injured.

Later that same day a less sophisticated explosive device, which one paper described as "made with knotted rope and nails" and another dismissed as "a giant firecracker" went off in another part of town and "damaged two cars and a nearby building." I'm no expert but I would say that was one hell of a firecracker.

But tourists and would-be tourists have no reason to worry--police have declared these disturbances are the result of "personal conflicts," not civil unrest. I'm sure the two teenage girls and the middle-aged man who were injured by the exploding phone will be happy to hear that--god knows I will sleep much better after this diagnosis.

So no problem--all is just fine. Yes, there are still bombs in Bangkok, but it's not a matter of Red versus Yellow. It's just neighborliness gone wrong--happens everywhere right? Even in the Land of Smiles.

Oops! A change of heart and opinion was reported in this morning's news--an explosion near a mom-and-pop grocery? Personal conflict. An explosion that damaged cars and a nearby building? Personal conflict. A bomb goes off in front of the Royal Turf Club? Nothing personal, bring on the demolition experts!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Saying Goodbye

If I had first come to live in Bangkok two years ago, I would have loved it. The confusion I felt on so many levels when I arrived here in 1995 would never have arisen. The frustration that so often racked me as I tried to learn this city would have been a minor irritation, not a constant tsunami wave that battered and receded with brutal regularity. Bangkok has become a user-friendly city for farang--and that's a good thing, isn't it?

It took me three months to begin to get a glimmer of understanding about Bangkok, but what I understood from my first bewildered day was that I had entered another form of reality--that the world as I knew it had been knocked askew. Now that world seems as distant to me as the former glories of Ayuttaya.

I sat in a bar off Silom Road the other night waiting for people who never showed up. They were at the Sukhumvit branch of a Tex-Mex chain that serves up Cadillac margaritas, taco chips, real salsa and a passable guacamole--things that were available only at 5-star hotels on Mexican Night when I first arrived in this city. That there were now two of the same of this spot in Bangkok made me feel like Rip Van Winkle in the 21st century. And as I sat and ate over-priced guac, I felt out of place in its truest sense. In that bar, I could have been anywhere in the world--Seattle, Hong Kong, Fairbanks Alaska--it was like an upscale airport lounge.

There is so much of that international anonymity in Bangkok now. Unimaginative buildings reach for the sky and do nothing more than block the horizon. Under and above ground transit whisks people in clean, rapid capsules above the streets that in response are becoming blander and emptier. Food courts are rapidly supplanting ladies with woks who filled the sidewalk with fumes from frying chili and garlic at incendiary temperatures. Generic merchandise from China fills street stalls and markets. The city whose charm lay in its unpredictability is well on its way to becoming predictable. A place that was difficult to love but then became irreplaceable has become an easy lay--good for a night or two and then quickly forgotten. "Oh yeah, Bangkok, good hotel, bad air, great Italian meal at--what was that place anyway? You know, we found another branch of it when we were in Singapore..."

In the subway stations, where the passengers are largely all residents of the city, a promotional film plays over and over on a madness-inducing loop. A young Western couple is shown experiencing Thailand in a series of quick images--from a welcome at a luxurious Bangkok hotel to sunrise at Phanom Rung to a visit to the Crocodile Farm to many expensive spa shots and overlaying it all is the crooning theme of "Thailand Once in a Lifetime." For many people who watch it, Thailand is their entire lifetime and as they live it, they will never have the opulent experience shown to them over and over as they wait for their train. The message given to foreigners who see it is clear: "Come. Spend Your Money. Leave. You've Seen Thailand."

I think of what I have seen in my years here and what lingers isn't luxury. It's seeing a woman watching dogs lick her food cart clean at the end of a long day; it's riding in the back of a song-tao in Surin where most of the fellow-passengers spoke to me in Khmer; it's walking through Wat Po at sunset and watching men come in through the gates with cases of beer at the end of their workday; it's the voices of small children calling "Miss Janet" as I walked through a school yard in the morning; it is kindness beyond anything I ever knew before I came to this city. I leave holding memories that are good and bad but never indifferent--and the best of them all happened in the last century, not this one.

On to another country--and for the first time I leave Bangkok without taking pictures of everything I will miss. When I return, I will experience it as a short-term guest, visiting people I care for, but no longer searching for the place that I love because it's no longer there.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Waiting for the Weekend

To commemorate the coup of 2006 that deposed Thaksin and set democracy back in this country, the dissenting forces otherwise known as Red Shirts are planning peaceful demonstrations from Friday until Sunday. In response the Prime Minister has vetoed a plan that would have given amnesty for "general protestors" who took part in the civil unrest of April and May. The timing of this almost guarantees a weekend that will end badly.

5000 police and military troops are "on standby" in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and and demonstrators are estimated to be around 10,000, gathering to place flowers and release balloons in front of prisons that hold political dissidents. It all sounds very placid and peaceful.

But this is a country teetering on a flashpoint. Schools in Narithiwat, the Southern province where two teachers were recently assassinated, are either half empty or half full, depending on the level of optimism that looks at it. The Bangkok Post headline reports "half full."

In the same paper, an op-ed column discussing income disparity in the Kingdom says the "average self-employed household in the Northeast earns about 58,000 baht annually." For self-employed read farmer--there is no indication of the average number of people in this average household, but the income averages out to 4833 baht per month, which is $161.11.

In that same area of the country, "the provinces," another columnist in the same issue of the paper reports there is one doctor per 5,316 people. Another discusses a temple recently built in one of Thailand's "poorest provinces that cost 300,000 million baht to build. This, the columnist Sawai Boonma says, "troubles me when I compare it to my experience in fundraising to promote reading in elementary schools and to repair school toilets."

Is there any connection between these columns and the protests of this past spring and those coming up this weekend? Who knows? Not this farang--I could never presume to attribute causes for civil unrest in a country not my own.

But yesterday I walked down a major thoroughfare where I saw a large truck frozen in traffic. The back of it was filled with seated men, all wearing olive green uniforms and purple neck scarves. Some of them sported berets tipped at rakish angles; most of them were middle-aged. All of the faces I saw looked hard and grim. The usual Thai capacity for camaraderie and joie de vivre was nowhere in sight and as I looked at these men, I decided this is a splendid weekend to stay home, edit, and practice the fine art of avoidance.

In the next few days, this will not be the Land of Smiles.

Friday, September 10, 2010

My Love/Hate Relationship with Facebook

Every time I think Facebook simply cannot get any more annoying, it manages to surprise me. Going from a comment field to a like/dislike button was almost the fatal step in our relationship--now we can all communicate without words, hooray for us.

But...I live thousands of miles from my family and friends and what I often miss most are the small conversations and details of daily living. Facebook gives me that. I just read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen because my bookselling friend Laurie mentioned it so often in status updates when she read an arc of it this summer. And Laurie and I, although we worked together in the states quite amicably, have forged a friendship based upon what I think is a year of playing Facebook's version of online scrabble. Another woman with whom I have had an acquaintanceship for a couple of decades has become someone I have an affinity for based upon a shared passion for obscure corners of Asia. My sons and I can have the off-hand comments that usually only occur when you share a physical space. That is worth a lot of collateral silliness from Facebook--the farms and mafias and pokes--as far as I'm concerned.

Today I was able to see a photo of Seattle performance art that some friends are taking part in, seeing it at the minute it was occurring, thanks to Laurie, and have albums upon albums of family photos to look at whenever I like, without having to lug them around the world in a suitcase. I can hear music that people I love are listening to and can have weird, disjointed little conversations in almost real time on Facebook chat.

It's an imperfect form of communication but overall, I *LIKE* it. It is, I've decided, a personalized version of People magazine, full of people whom I really care about. Facebook, you're a keeper.