Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sitting on a Computer Monitor

In an entryway to the terracotta building across from me someone last week put an ancient computer monitor with a sign taped to it saying "Free." It's still there and on this drizzly morning a man has used it as a chair for the past two hours. The monitor is sheltered and dry, and as he sits on it, so is he. He smokes and stares, gets up to drop his cigarette butt in the street, goes back to his seat and lights another one.

I watch him from the luxury of an apartment, realizing the very tentative and fragile separation between us. It's a cliche that most Americans are one paycheck away from being homeless and the gap between this man and me is much smaller than the distance provided by the street that lies between us.

For the past month I've done my best to make one hundred dollars last for thirty days. My rent and telephone bill are paid, I have--thanks to a good friend--a bucket of dried catfood in my closet. I have rice in my kitchen, both jasmine and glutinous. I have fish sauce and tea and the water that comes from my kitchen faucet is potable. A store across the street sells pork and chicken in two-dollar packages. I have so much more than so many people in the world-- or in this city.

I think of how long one hundred dollars--three thousand baht--would keep me going in Bangkok. My conclusion surprises me--not as long as it does here. In my other home, my rent and internet and utilities were well under half of what I pay for an equivalent space in Seattle. But I paid thirty dollars a month for bottled drinking water, fifteen dollars a month for the pickup trucks that took me to the end of my street where most of the shops were, sixty dollars a month for food--at this point I'm already at one hundred and five. That doesn't include catfood, catlitter, coffee beans, Skytrain and Underground transportation, coins for the washing machine in my building, a meal in a place with airconditioning, a riverboat ride, or a bottle of beer at night at home. Barebones living for this farang in Bangkok cost at least two hundred dollars a month; it wasn't fun but it was functional. And the Thai people who surrounded me would have been appalled to know that a farang lived that way.

I have to confess that I usually didn't. There were things that nourished me in Bangkok--meals with friends outside of my neighborhood every two weeks or so, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic magazines, the Bangkok Post every day, the International Herald Tribune once in a while, a carefully chosen book from Dasa Book Cafe or Kinokuniya, shoes which never seemed to last more than a month, haircuts when necessary, and the essential trips out of the country to keep my visa going. My Bangkok life was far less luxurious than that of many of my friends--farang or Thai--but it took every baht I made to maintain it.

I came back to the U.S. with no idea of how much my daily life would cost me--I was deeply relieved to find an affordable apartment and get my internet access within it. But deposits and installation charges dug deeply into my financial resources and now I find that my dabblings into barebones living in Bangkok are helping me to move on in the U.S.

Next month will bring another paycheck--or so I hope with every fiber of my heart and soul. Meanwhile I feel true gratitude every time I get drinking water from my faucet and books to read from my public library and a movie to watch at the end of a day from And I offer a quiet little thanks that I really enjoy rice and fish sauce.


Dr. Will said...

How amazing that, exclusive of housing and utilities, you can live on $100 a month! I was never able to do that in California. Something's missing in your account but I can't figure it out yet. Biggest shock was that you paid 1000 baht a month for water here. However?!? Nan and I spend about 300 with lots to drink (and Jerry I believe is certain Bangkok tap water is drinkable). This is a grand experiment, Janet, and I hope it continues to satisfy. But we miss you.

janet brown said...

Three bottles of water a day for drinking and making coffee--I bought Polaris most of the time but sometimes the higher priced Minere or the lowest priced Tesco. Average of 36 baht a day which comes to 1080 a month. I didn't buy the water from machines because it didn't taste clean to me and the big bottles got stale too quickly.

This month isn't over yet--and I bought the rice the month before. It's an experiment through necessity--not for fun, believe me.It helps that Seattle is a pleasure to walk in--and the buses are free downtown.

It's interesting, though,like a weird game, much like the one I played after the baht fell long ago. Some skills just don't go away.

janet brown said...

And I miss you and Nan, too. And Bkk tap water may be drinkable but I don't trust the pipes it travels through. When I first got there, I asked every class I had if they drank the tap water--only if they boiled it first.

janet brown said...
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Ebriel said...

We alternate between Singha (soft) and Minere (salty) waters. They are more hydrating than distilled waters so we drink less of them-and they taste good.

Roy the water engineer has this to say about water in Bangkok:

1. Tap water's probably fine when it leaves the processing plant, but probably not by the time it gets to your house. Boiling is good, but if the pipes are lead, boiling's not enough to ensure water's drinkable.

2. The big machines on the street are cheap but none we've used have their filters cleaned frequently enough. A machine with dirty filters is actually worse than regular tap water: it's an ideal place to trap diseases etc.

Ebriel said...

...and Janet, I appreciate the candor of your post.

janet brown said...

I'm fascinated by the different COL in places I live(d). I recently bought two pairs of shoes and a warm jacket here in Seattle--shoes were 600 and 700 baht and the jacket was around 650 THB. Not hugely different from what I've spent in BKK for items that would last for more than five minutes. It helps to shop at places like Ross and shops in Chinatown.
The killer of course is rent and wifi--but no place in the world is cheaper than BKK for those things.