Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Back in Bangkok Again

The morning air is still cool at 8:30 and the bird sounds are soft. The pale gold beyond the rooftops of my neighborhood is slowly brightening into the blaze that will soon have me closing both my window and my curtains. My room this time around faces east so my mornings quickly become warm.

I'm right behind a school and children's voices are beginning to sing, which is the way they begin the day. One of them is the granddaughter of the women who have my favorite noodle shop. She's a full-fledged student now, in her second year of academia. She's four.

I love my mornings on Chokchai Ruammit.

It's a long street that runs between two major arterials, one of them blocked by protesters. They have sent a stream of traffic our way which has made going for breakfast a lengthy enterprise. Private cars, taxis, even a bus or two have come through the spider maze of lanes that connect residential areas to find a way to the unblocked road of Ratchadapisek. Except for the crowds of parents who bring their children to school by car in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon, this neighborhood isn't used to traffic jams. It's a source of amusement now but will soon become boring, which is the word in Thai for annoying.

Almost within walking distance are tents, vendors, a small crowd of people, and barricades of tires and sandbags. Seven major intersections are blocked in Bangkok and my friend Mrs. Nupa says the one near us is the "most dangerous" because of its proximity to government buildings. Four mornings ago, on Sunday, a motorcycle taxi driver took me past the barricades to get to the sky train. "A party," he said, nodding toward the stalls selling brightly colored tee shirts and accessories in the red-white-and-blue colors of the Thai flag.

But it's a party that can turn lethal without warning. At various intersections, grenades have been thrown and people have been shot, Two days ago a man was shot in the abdomen by a plainclothes policeman. Demonstrators chased him, caught him, and smashed him in the head with a brick. In the same area a body was found yesterday, wearing the armband that is found on most of the demonstrators and a black tee shirt with a slogan "People's Revolution." The police say he may not have been a demonstrator because the tee shirt could have been put on his corpse after he was killed.

The demonstration sites near the main shopping area of Siam Square and Central World are filled with food stalls and vendors selling everything from toys to intricately cut paper designs that pop up when the cards are opened. Clothing is for sale that has no political overtones, pretty clothes for tiny women. The major shopping malls that sell Louis Vuitton and Cartier close at 8 pm "for safety reasons" and then the area outside their walls becomes a market. It's difficult to tell if the influx of people that come after dark are drawn by politics or the joys of shopping or perhaps the chance to buy snacks that normally can only be eaten in the south of Thailand, made by southerners who have come to Bangkok to demonstrate against a government that they abhor.

They are breaking the law by coming to the protest, regardless of why they are there. The Prime Minister has declared a State of Emergency, which bans gatherings of more than five people in a public place. The demonstrators, who say the government is an invalid one, ignore the law. The police ignore the acts of violence that take place at the protest sites. Fortunately volunteer medical personnel are on hand to get the wounded to hospitals when necessary.

There are scoffers who laugh at the scanty numbers of people at the demonstrations. Usually such affairs are peopled by the hundreds of thousands, not the hundreds that are protesting now. But the point is that these hundreds of people have slowed traffic, both on the streets, in the shopping centers, and on the roads, to a trickle of what is usually there. Bangkok may not be shut down but it certainly is very, very subdued..

For people who go out into the world, it's a fine time to shop. Vendors outside of the immediate protest area are more than willing to bargain. The Indian Emporium at Pahurat was almost empty at high noon yesterday and when I bought a scarf in the Nana district, which is usually packed with shoppers, the vendor told me I was "lucky," her first customer of the day. It was two in the afternoon.

I've never seen Bangkok so empty before and it's unnerving. Tomorrow begins Chinese New Year and I'll be on Yaowarat, which is usually crammed to the point of madness. If it is quiet, I'll know the second coming is at hand.

At the end of next week, I'll be on a train out of town. By then the controversial election will have taken place and either this will be over or it will be much, much worse. Either way, the loser will be Bangkok.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Today, boys and girls, something inside me broke. I went to an ATM and withdrew as much cash as I've had to spend in the past two weeks (room rent excluded). I had ginger honey tea with my assorted cart noodles, bought a lemon muffin for lunch at Marks& Spencer's, put 100 HK on my transit card and rode the upper deck ferry back and forth across the harbor. I went to Swindon's and bought the only Jo Nesbo I haven't read--Harry goes to Bangkok--and read the first few chapters at the Holiday Inn wine bar over a glass of pinot noir. Living large, I tell you.

The rest of the time I dodged people with rolling suitcases that were undoubtedly filled with butter cookies and chocolates and made my way through clusters of Filipina maids on their day off. I took no pictures, did nothing eventful, and soon I'll be immersed in my Nesbo novel once again.

As I made my way past the block-long line of people waiting to get into Janny's (or Jenny's, I've seen two different spellings) Bakery for their ration of five cans of butter cookies, I suddenly had an exultant thought that still has me lighthearted. Next Sunday I won't be here!

Hello, Chokchai Ruammit. I've missed you, dear.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Paper Queen

Chungking Mansions has changed. The ground floor is almost wall-to-wall with currency exchange booths and the elevators are full of Chinese people with big suitcases, a group that was almost nonexistent when I first began to stay here in 2010. It holds many more Western travelers too, enough that I no longer stare at them, but they're still a minority in this place. It wakes up before 10 am now, and the halls are more crowded in the daytime than they were in years past. But one thing remains unchanged.

Ever since I first arrived, an old Chinese lady has dominated the elevator of the E block with her loads of salvaged cardboard and black garbage bags full of paper, always going up, taking her recyclables heaven only knows where. She's still here, more stooped than when I first saw her, but still dragging her black garbage bags down the hall toward the elevator.

Tonight she had two big, bulky bags, not heavy but making a wide load that bumped into displays of goods and people's feet while she chugged on, oblivious to any barriers that lay before her. I was stuck behind her, unable to get past and unwilling to linger at any of the shops while she forged far ahead of me. She was approaching a narrow section of her route that seemed to court disaster for someone--but probably not for her. So I picked up the back of the widest bag and lifted it above the obstacle.

It seemed stupid to put it down; she was moving more rapidly now that I had part of her load and that was good for me too. So we proceeded along our way until she realized her load had been assumed by someone else. Without a backward glance, she let go of her end and scurried toward the elevator line to secure a spot near the front. When I joined her and dropped my black plastic bag beside her own, she received it royally, with a flicker of expression in her eyes but no other acknowledgment.

And I love her. Singlehandedly, she both raises and lowers the tone of Chungking Mansions; long may she scavenge.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Without a Camera

Some days you just cannot win. I was so happy to find that I could recharge my camera's battery without setting it on fire in a Kowloon outlet (no way is that going to happen in Thailand), only to discover when I was far from home that my little Nikon had devoured its memory card.

So I can't show you the winding staircase lined with gold-painted Buddhas that I climbed today. Ten thousand of them lead to a temple/monastery complex, which I'm sure is true because the compound is called the Ten Thousand Buddha Monastery. It is on a hill overlooking Sha Tin, not as high up as the place I visited yesterday but lofty enough at its apex that I felt more than a touch of vertigo as I neared the end of the trail. The miniaturized view of Sha Tin's highrises and highways was rather spectacular, but I wished I had been there back in the days when the hilltop had an unobstructed view of the mountains across the way.

After descending, I went to the river, and walked through the park that runs along its banks, wondering why I was persistently pulled back to this small city. Its pleasures are quiet ones, and after a week of Nathan Road, that may well be why. The pace is slow and people there seem to enjoy the park, the town plaza, the singers  who were putting on a concert there. Old men played cards by the river, some of them sharing a large beer poured into small plastic cups. Arching bridges cross the river, connecting the divided sides of Sha Tin. In spite of the forest of highrise buildings and the malls that rival any that I've seen anywhere, this place has a lovely small town feel to it and I really like it a lot.

I'll go back with a camera next time, so I can try to show you just how nice it is.

In Tsim Sha Tsui, at a supermarket whose prices make me gasp, there are people who treat it like a Costco. Tonight I saw a girl with a bungie-corded trolley full of giant packs of Huggies pack a supermarket cart full of luxury items like mammoth packages of fresh grapes and super-sized packs of imported chocolates into an already well laden suitcase. It was a humbling sight, as I clutched my bag of ground coffee, a bottle of water, a small chocolate bar, a package of tissues, and a minute bottle of red wine.

It's sights like these that make me feel as though I'm visiting from the Third World with devalued currency. To me, Hong Kong is very expensive and I watch every cent I spend here. To others, it's a supply station where purchasing of high-end goods is done in bulk.

Bangkok in nine more days, where my room will be much larger than a postage stamp and I won't pay six US dollars for a bowl of noodle soup. I'm looking forward to relinquishing the persona of the Little Match Girl.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Place for Pilgrims

I've always liked Sha Tin, a town in the New Territories, because it has a river that is bordered by a lovely park, and it holds one of my favorite museums in the world. It has a race track too, that I haven't yet been to, and a hillside temple that I plan to go to soon. So when I read in Lonely Planet about a guesthouse that was quite reasonable and was perched up in the hills behind the town, I jotted down the directions on how to get there.

They were like something out of Grimm's Fairy Tales: climb the stairs to your left and then follow the path. I began to climb, walking through a jungle of leaves and blossoms that canopied the steps, up a never-ending staircase that took me high above the highrise buildings of Sha Tin. Then there was a paved road that continued the upward slant, bordered with trees and mammoth elephant ear plants. It passed a few enticing looking buildings, but none bearing a sign that said Pilgrim's Hall. I began to hope that when I found it, there would friendly backpackers and a table where I could sit and have a bottle of very cold water.

Then there was a sign. This didn't seem promising, except for the part about keeping silence. Quietly, I kept going..

Then I found this. It was more than I had hoped for--quiet and a view, besides. I swallowed my agnostic reservations and wandered through a place that seemed uninhabited, until an elderly couple emerged from a nearby staircase. The woman stopped to exchange pleasantries and she explained where I was.

In the 1930s, a Danish architect with an interest in Chinese building and design came to Hong Kong. A devout Christian, he was curious about Buddhism and how it related to his own creed. He found property and began to create buildings that linked Danish and Chinese characteristics. When missionaries streamed out of China in the '40s, he gave them a refuge,continuing to build and create a sanctuary for all who would respect it. 

This is the Pilgrim's Hall. It is one of the most serene places I've ever seen. I don't think it's meant for me but Thomas Merton would have felt very much at home here, I'm certain. Down a short flight of steps is this.

And across from it is this chapel.

And through the trees, almost unreal, float the towers of Sha Tin.

When I left, I felt almost like Rip Van Winkle. Would the world I left when I climbed to this silent refuge still be there? But within minutes I was surrounded by Zara and H&M and MotherCare and all of the other joys of civilization. This is my world, as much as I love to decry it. But I also love knowing that on a hilltop overlooking the malls is a place that exists out of this time. Or did I imagine it?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Where am I?

I travel to find a sense of place at the spot where I land, and once I leave an airport for my real destination, every sense I have concentrates on that search. Sometimes it leads to places that are unpleasant or uncomfortable, but life is like that, isn't it? And my greed is for the life in the places I visit.

When I entered Chungking Mansions at 1 a.m. on Monday, the hall that used to be empty had become an African street, with men and women hanging out and chatting. This used to take place in front of the 7/11 on the next block, but there's some kind of obstruction there that's big and apparently permanent, so the village square has moved. The 7/11 itself now has a large, empty space where Africans stand, eat, drink, and chat during the day; it's like a club of  which I'm not a member. It looks a lot more viable than standing near Nathan Road, breathing traffic fumes, and I like this change.

But the news vendor at the end of one of the alleys that connects Chungking Mansions with Nathan Road no longer has the cats that used to take turns presiding over his stall and the friendly old lady who used to do my laundry  seems to have retired. The elderly gentleman who sold skin magazines and paperbacks in English has expanded; he now stands behind a glass counter and sells DVDs and electronic gadgets too. My friend Hari is ready to return to Nepal; while he waits for his departure, he stands at the front entrance to Chungking Mansions with the other Nepali guys who work as impromptu guides for guesthouses and restaurants. It's a comedown for him but he still looks immaculate and cheerful.

On the street the men who hand out cards for tailorshops and counterfeit handbag emporiums are more aggressive than they used to be and frequently my response is "Don't touch me." Starbucks in ISquare is more crowded than ever, but has set up a little sidewalk cafe arrangement of tables near the main shop, close to the escalators. It's packed and noisy and often cluttered with used cups and leftover napkins. I miss the old Starbucks with its armchairs and personal service.

This part of Kowloon is for tourist-shoppers. I prefer the parts that cater to resident-shoppers--the fruit market, the textile street, the hardware stores and cookware shops. They are on the other side of Nathan Road, the downmarket side where people actually live. There are days when I wander through and wish I were one of them. It's an area with character and personality and a community history that hasn't been erased by high-rise apartments and luxury hotels.

Far above my usual cat track is Kai Tak, the old airport site which now is thought of as Thai Town. I went there yesterday and was delighted to see signs written in Thai. A little neighborhood store had look choob, which is a confection that looks like this.
The ladies who sold it to me were sweet enough to indulge my bad Thai and lied about how good it was--the day I'm not told that, I'll know I might be getting better at this language.

There were many restaurants and beer bars and massage shops. There were no street stalls; the sidewalks were wide, clean, and empty. There were no Thai newspapers or magazines in sight. All that made me feel as though I was in a Thai neighborhood were the signs, the posters for the new Tony Jaa movie, and the dogs--the only unleashed canines I've seen roaming in a Kowloon neighborhood, all strutting with the territorial pride of their Bangkok counterparts.

It was Thai but not enough. Suddenly I missed Bangkok more than I have in a long time. Tears rose up hard, stinging behind my eyes. I left.

No city in the world has the sense of place that Bangkok possesses, and it can't be replicated.Although Thailand is amazing at duplicating almost anything in the world, no place in the world can duplicate what that country so effortlessly is. When I'm in Kowloon, I'll look for what makes it unique. As for Bangkok? It's worth waiting for.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Settling Into Another Life

I really don't travel. I change from one life to another in the space of fifteen hours. I get on a plane, land in another place and feel the life I just walked away from ebb into a kind of fog. It feels so far away, it's hard to believe that a few days ago it was my reality.

I know this is going to happen before I pack my suitcases, which might be why I always leave that task for the last minute. During my last days at home, I look at everyone and everything I love through a filter of longing, wanting to stamp them deeply into my mind and heart before I'm claimed by another corner of the world. Leaving is not entirely pleasant.

There's an alchemy that occurs when crossing the International Date Line that has nothing to do with clocks or calendars. It's enhanced by sleepless hours in a small space, nodding off occasionally and jerking back into wakefulness. Sitting still and trying not to think that zombiedom lies right around the corner, flying across the Pacific is probably a lot like having an extended MRI, except with that procedure you can lie flat on your back. When the plane finally touches down into an airport, you're so far removed from life as you knew it that you're more than willing to take on whatever existence is offered.

In my case, it's a room in Chungking Mansions that is the size of a walk-in closet. It is narrow enough that I can touch both sides of the room with my outstretched arms. It's essentially part of a hallway that has been partitioned off with a door at one end and a window at the other. Less than half of its width at the entryway has been turned into a water closet, with a sink, a toilet, and a shower head. I can only turn around while showering by maneuvering very carefully.

Beside my bed is a stand that covers a small refrigerator and a safe; on top of it is a phone and a hotpot for boiling water. A TV is attached to the wall at the end of my bed. On my first morning, the housekeeper gave me the world's tiniest hairdryer to use while I'm here. And there are enough (wire) hangers on the small clothes rack on the wall near the door. Best of all, the wifi is fast and reliable.

It's  a place that could easily reawaken my claustrophobia if it weren't for the window. Unlike the one in my usual Chungking Mansion hostel, it doesn't look out onto an airshaft encircled by other blocks of the same building. It doesn't feature a view of airconditioners that are topped with mounds of garbage. There is real air and daylight between me and the building across the alley and that is a true saving grace. I can't see the sky but the light isn't the trapped, muddy sort that I used to gaze at. This has a dim radiance to it.

In my previous stays at Chungking Mansions, my mornings consisted of rapid showers and a flight to Starbucks for coffee. Now I wake up slowly, the way I do in Seattle, with freshly made filtered coffee and checking in with friends and family on the internet. Then I go out--for congee at a place where many of the customers are Thai and we all perch on small stools that don't encourage a leisurely meal or noodles served in a small, hot wok at a restaurant where the booths are comfortable and I seem to be (amazingly) the only laowai, Then I explore for as long as my energy holds out, jamming my senses with new sights and tastes until I come home exhausted in the late afternoon. Too tired to find a meal in the outside world, I eat fruit or nuts in my room, wishing it were large enough that I could sit somewhere other than my bed. I'd like to have samosas again, but the effort of keeping crumbs from where I sleep isn't relaxing.

It doesn't feel like home this time around, but it feels as though it could be, as soon as I've settled in. Now that I start my second week here and I no longer am wide awake at 2 am, I'm eager to see what shape my Kowloon home will take this time around.