Saturday, January 29, 2011

"One word for you, my boy--"

It's been a long time since The Graduate and if Benjamin Braddock had listened to the sage gentleman at poolside, he'd be a wealthy man today.

Am I the only one who remembers the thrill of having Baggies replace waxed paper? The smell of baloney no longer wafted from my brown-bag lunch and nevermore did I suffer the humiliation of finding that my sandwich had escaped the confines of its wrapping and was in discrete and inedible pieces within the bag. Baggies were clean, modern and required no arcane origami skills--what was there not to love?

Almost half a century later, there's plenty not to love about plastic bags, no matter what size they come in. And I live in a country that is choking in them--

When I first came to Thailand, I went out one morning, asked a vendor at a coffee cart for a cup of hot, black coffee, and was handed a small plastic bag, held tightly shut by a rubber band, and a straw issuing from the rubber band closure. It was filled with hot, black coffee. I was terrified.

But the bag held and I eventually emptied it and threw the receptacle away. It was the first of hundreds of thousands of small sandwich bags that came my way and went into the garbage--as Karen Coates says in the post that is linked above, a meal from a Thai market can easily involve a dozen plastic bags. If it's a group dinner, there might be a hundred.

Just buying a simple meal of grilled chicken and sticky rice involves a bag for the chicken, a bag for the rice, and a bag for the spicy sauce that is the artform that transforms this food. Braised pork leg is even worse--a styrofoam box for the pork, greens and rice, a plastic bag for the broth, a plastic bag for the seasoning sauce, and still another if you add the raw chili and garlic cloves that are eaten with this meal. This is the reason why I rarely bring food home--if I eat it on a plate, no bags are involved.

Penang and Hong Kong, both islands with limited space, are launching a war against plastic. In Hong Kong, if you don't bring your own bag to a store, you pay for a plastic one. In Penang, this is the case for part of the week and there was a strong rumor that it would be an everyday occurrence after the first of the year. Supermarkets sell fabric bags and some of them made it back to Bangkok with me.

I use them when I go to 7/11 or a supermarket or a bookstore. When I go to the markets that I love, I still use it but it's a vessel for plastic bags--one for the oranges, one for the bananas. Fruit vendors weigh the fruit in a plastic bag before figuring the price and even if I dumped the fruit in my cloth bag, the plastic would still be discarded--I don't have a solution for that yet.

Things are changing here--supermarkets have signs that ask customers to bring their own bag. Plastic cups with dome-shaped lids have almost supplanted the bag and rubber band combo. I'm not sure that's an improvement, but Thailand still has "gleaners". People rummage through garbage looking for items that can be sold to recyclers, and factories are turning out items made from recycled plastic. It's an imperfect solution but it's a step away from a plastic-clogged world.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Catching Up

I realize I'm getting old when I return from a long trip, never when I'm on one. It's when I return to Bangkok that I fall into the lassitude I refuse to succumb to when I'm exploring a city that I don't know. In the same way that a bad break-up is supposed to take a month for every year that you were immersed in the relationship--or is the reverse true?-- it takes me a week for every month I've been away to bounce back into my life as I once knew it.

Part of this is a sort of mental digestion process. I take photos and keep a wretched set of notes when I travel but mostly I wander around in silence and look and observe and feel as hard as I can. I try to encode what I experience in my cells, release it all when I begin to remember, and then select what's useful to me as a writer. This process all takes longer than it sounds and makes me a hell of a dull traveling companion--a lot like a python in human form--as well as someone who needs lots of silence and solitude when I get home.

Another factor in my slow reassimilation process is Bangkok does not stand still when I'm gone--and an absence of three months guarantees I'm going to find a lot of changes when I return. People leave, buildings dissolve, foodstalls disappear, new houses emerge like frogs after a rainstorm--and that's just in my neighborhood. It's what makes this city an exciting and vibrant and frequently unsettling place to live--and for me, a woman who thinks of routine in the same way that the devil regards holy water, it's what makes it a place I always am glad to come back to.

A few days ago, I went out into a street that has always bored me senseless and found a one-storey deep purple building with no windows and stylized, twisted trees embellishing its metal exterior, sprawled along the sidewalk. It looked like the sort of rock and roll club where hair metal used to flourish in this city a decade or so before.

I walked in to a cavern, a space that was dark and surprisingly, in this land of perpetually frigid air-conditioning, not cool. Little shops dotted the center like mushrooms on a tree trunk, selling the sort of thing that upscale teenage girls love: ballet slippers, short and skimpy dresses, costume jewelry, slouchy handbags in primary colors, ice cream. Taking up almost as much space as the shops were tables and chairs scattered about, festooned with stylized spiderwebs and overturned wine goblets, as though wedding guests had suddenly realized that Miss Havisham wasn’t going to be married after all.

Small enclosed restaurants of the bistro variety lined the inner perimeter of the building and running the full length of the back wall was a Goreyesque exterior of a Victorian mansion, complete with baroque and mythical history on a bilingual sign. For around six dollars, mall visitors were invited to enter and be terrified. “Do not harm the actors in any way,” the sign cautioned, making me feel terrified without even paying an entrance fee.

Walking back towards my apartment, I began to notice all of the brand new apartment and condos that are so lavishly advertised on walls of the Skytrain and Metro, and suddenly there was a market that filled the edges of boring old Ratchadapisek Road with food and clothes and the newspapers in English that have disappeared from my soi. Trees sprouted in dusty optimism at the sides of the street and to my surprise I realized this thoroughfare had been filling in the blanks during the two years that I had ignored it. Bangkok’s irrepressible life and spirit is taking hold, moving from the sois nearby where it has always been to a larger staging ground. In this most unlikely neighborhood, one that had never held interest for me, Bangkok's surprises welcomed me home one more time.

One Foot at a Time

Lantau is Hong Kong's largest island and houses the airport, Disneyland, and more than a few shopping malls. The ferry that took me there on the early morning of New Year's Day embarked at a pier that looked quite a bit like a beach community in southern California, complete with lattes. But my friend Jennifer had promised me a hike with light and silence, so I suspended my disbelief and followed in her wake.

In a surprisingly short time we were on a coastline that was filled with fishermen's cottages and small well-tended vegetable gardens. This, Jennifer explained, was where the Filipina maids who worked for island families lived, and as we passed open doorways, we saw young women cooking, chatting, primping, as cd players blared music onto an ocean view. I thought of the Hong Kong Filipinas who take to the streets in search of their own space on Sundays and holidays, giving each other manicures while sitting on cardboard-covered pavement and began to understand the advantages of island living.

As we left the houses behind, Jennifer stopped still and whispered, "Listen." An echoing whisper was the only sound as waves washed onto rocks and then whooshed away.

A road led us past a Trappist monastery and then into a forest dappled with light. A narrow path took us along the edge of a towering hill and the cool, clean, sharp odor of berries and dew-moistened leaves hit my nostrils like a drug. The whisper of waves had been replaced by a soft rush of wind moving the surrounding trees and for a minute I greedily longed to stand in this place during a storm.

A steep staircase with concrete steps and a well-anchored railing led straight down the hillside to the water, a small town that had once been a silver-mining community, and ferries and buses back to the city. A Turkish restaurant there was the spot where Jennifer took me for lunch and I tore into the fresh bread that was brought to our table with the sort of appetite that only comes after lungs tarnished with urban grime have been thoroughly bathed in fresh air.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Chungking Year's End

I took sushi up to the Holiday early on New Year’s Eve, enough to share and be festive. It became a potluck picnic, with bite-size pieces of Hari’s supermarket pizza, and chunks of guava and oranges. A Polish sushi restaurant owner emerged from his room to evaluate and identify what I had bought, then went off into the night early with his bottle of champagne, goblets and a pretty girl, all brought with him from his native land. “You should leave now if you want to see the fireworks at the waterfront,” he warned me, but it was only eight o’clock.

I’d seen fireworks before. What interested me more than pyrotechnics was how CKM and its neighborhood celebrated the turning of the year. “More people than on Christmas Eve,” Hari told me, “because on Christmas the Muslims don’t come out but for the New Year there is everybody on the street.”

I was the only one from our little impromptu feast who was curious about what was going on outside of our walls. “Too many people,’ my companions shuddered and turned to their computers to be with friends in other countries.

Lines of young Chinese dressed in party clothes waited at the elevators and the halls of CKM were already almost empty at nine p.m. The streets outside were possessed by pedestrians once more but the shops were all open. It was business as usual in lower Kowloon but with an extravaganza of customers.

Christmas Eve had been a moment when all real life was suspended in favor of magic, with people out to see the lights and decorations in a long and delighted parade. What filled the area now was an ocean of shoppers participating in what looked like the world’s hugest midnight madness sale.

“It’s too early,” I said when I returned to the Holiday. “There are two things to do out there, shop or go to a bar and drink and I’m not in the mood to do either one.” But an hour later, I put on my coat and my ugly, newly purchased market gloves and went out in the world once more.

The street to the waterfront felt as though it was full of one massive, pushing, crawling organism, rather than a crowd of people. It was packed solid with bodies that moved a sixteenth of an inch at a time and it seemed obvious that even if we reached the waterfront, all we would be able to see would be backs and heads. There was a grim quality about the collective determination that surrounded me that made me think of how little I wanted to be trampled to death.

Before claustrophobia could gain the upper hand, I made my way to the sidewalk, which was almost empty in comparison to the maelstrom of people I had just left. Other cowards had placed themselves next to buildings and a group of Sikhs were quite industriously applying themselves to bottles of Chivas Regal, with a remarkable lack of celebratory spirit, almost as though they were getting ready to go to work.

They moved off toward CKM and then suddenly I heard drumming. By the time I reached the spot where the sound came from, it had taken on an insistent and wild rhythm and I wasn’t surprised to find the men who surrounded it were the scotch-drinking Sikhs.

It was a double-sided drum, hung around a neck by a strap, which must have been irksome because the drum wasn’t small. Men took turns playing, passing it around, dancing with abandon that Zorba the Greek would have envied, some still holding bottles of Scotch.

They were all men, until a short, plump Western woman who was far from glamorous broke into their circle and joined them. The dancing became wilder in response and downright lewd as one man stood beside her with energetic pelvic thrusts. I couldn’t see her face to gauge her response; the circle of dancers grew so tight that I was afraid she’d be trampled but she emerged in one piece, with an incredible New Year’s Eve story for the folks back home.

The crowd around the dancers was now so thick that I could only see hands moving to the drumbeat over the heads and upheld cameras of people around me. The drumming was loud and compelling and when the distant boom of fireworks began to echo through the buildings around us, none of us turned to see, although the glass walls of hotels and shopping malls took on an eerie, apocalyptic glow.

And then all of us were swept up in a push that began to carry us down the street toward the subway station entrances. I broke free from the surge and managed to get to the steps of CKM, where a group of young African women smiled and made room for me. In the street was a mass of moving darkness, pressed so closely together that it looked like a carpet of heads. And in the middle of it all, moving steadily away, was the sound of drums, swimming down a river that only comes to life to mark the passage of time.

As I went back to my room, I knew somewhere the party continued but I was too old to care. “I came back at five this morning,” Jun told me on the first day of the year and I knew I had missed the real story but it was no longer mine to tell.