1. No Pants
I'm on a trekking tour and we are visiting a Karen village in western Thailand. These people are refugees without status. They have a sad story. Through cooperative behavior they manage to survive. We watch a weaving demonstration, they dance for us, and then we visit the school. When I step into the school I am stunned. There so many, many children. This village is really a village in name only. Mostly it's just a hiccup on the side of the road. And every woman is churning out kids on a yearly basis. There is no concept of responsible family or fiscal planning, no notion regarding birth control. It is dispiriting. My sympathy starts to wane. I show the kids how to make and fly paper airplanes. It becomes happy childish bedlam. The air is filled with paper airplanes and happy kids. We hand out fruit we have bought as gifts.
Then I notice him. One of the children has no pants. His mother didn't care enough about him to send him to school with pants. He is naked. The teacher doesn't care enough about him to get him some pants. Lots of kids. Not enough love. And there are way too many kids for one teacher. There is no teaching going on. The school is just a holding tank until mom and dad get home.
When I get home to the US I buy a large laminated map of the World and a large laminated map of Thailand and I ship them to the tour guide and the trekking company. I ask the guide to take the maps with her on her next visit and to please see that the teacher mounts them on the wall. And to show the kids where Thailand is and where their village is. And to mount the maps at floor level so that the children will have them at eye level.
On my next trip to Bangkok I stop into the organization's office in the Vientai hotel to find out if they put up the maps. NOTHING WAS DONE. These right thinking, holier than me, Greenspeace, politically correct, whale saving, tree hugging, obnoxious simps hadn't done anything. And the kids still don't know anything. And the teacher still has nothing to teach. And the unloved little boy is probably still in class with no pants.
2. Secret Agents
Across from where I stay in Bangkok is an ice cream girl selling that Italian ice cream. I'm hooked. I go out of my way to buy from her. The ice cream is fabulous. And as we exchange the money and the cup she tips her head and smiles. It's the smile I fly half way around the world for. The smile I never get in the US. One day I had my camera so I took her picture.
Now we fast forward a week. Noi and I have just picked up our photo album of pictures. We will look at pictures of ourselves in the hotel room. I have forgotten that I took the picture of the ice cream girl. In the hotel room, when her picture shows up; we are both surprised. I explain it all to Noi. There is no reaction. Twenty minutes later I am leafing through the photo album again and the ice cream girl is gone. The picture is missing. I never saw Noi do it. Women should be secret agents. I never even saw her. Amazing.
3. Spitting Seeds
I am in the entrance of the Nana Entertainment Plaza in Bangkok and I see a small perfect woman in front of the Buddha. She is offering fruit, and she is offering flowers, and she is lighting incense sticks, and she is having a private Buddha moment with her hands together. I fall in love. I follow her up the stairs to the second floor. I'd have followed her over a cliff. I'd have crawled over glass with my ass on fire to get to her. I am naming our kids. She goes into the Cathouse bar. I order a drink. When my drink comes I turn around. She is in the arms of a drunken soccer lout. He is an ignorant pig and she seems content. My heart breaks.
Why can't these stupid women see that I'm the one? I'm the man. I'm X marks the spot. I'm it. I'm the buried treasure. I'm their every dream. I'm their future! Do I have to know soccer scores and dirty words to get their attention? I leave the bar. I go out to the street to get some chicken breasts and some fruit. It's hot, and dark, and crowded, and noisy, and filthy. I stand there eating brazed chicken breasts, and watermelon slices. I'm spitting seeds and smiling. I have already forgotten her. I love it here. When I finish the chicken; I wipe my hands on my pants and go into another bar.
4. People Gotta Go
Where I live in Boston every other person that you meet has more degrees than a thermometer factory. Harvard University is here, and MIT, and Northeastern University, and Boston College, and Boston University. Etc. Everyone is smarter than me and they don't mind taking time out of their busy day to tell me how smart they are. And a lot of them have studied Urban Development, and City Planning, and Infrastructure Analysis, and City Social Dynamics, etc; blah, blah, blah! But not one of these brainiacs can answer this question: the urban train wreck known as Bangkok has eleven million people and no public restrooms; where does everyone go to the bathroom? If you just take Sukhumvit from Soi 4 to Soi 23 as an example of any representative part of the city, the number of people on the streets is staggering. Which means that when you are outside on the streets, you should be overpowered by the smell of urine and by the oor of feces. I mean, people gotta go. But you are not overpowered by these smells. If there was any excess human despoilment the sun would cook it. It would be obvious. But even though Bangkok can be faulted for a lot of visual, and audio, and olfactory pollution; no one ever complains about this. Can anyone explain this to me?
5. Timing Is Everything
I am walking down Soi 11 on the way to my tailor's. You can't walk on the sidewalk because it is choked with sidewalk food vendors. So you are forced into the street. It is a narrow street and the cars go too fast. There is no room to make an error. I make an error. I am too much in the street. As a car goes by the side mirror smashes into the back of my elbow. The force is so gunshot quick and great that it nearly throws my whole arm out of my shoulder joint. But there is no damage because my arm and elbow was moving forward at the time of impact. If my elbow had been moving back at the time of impact, it would have been smashed into a hundred pieces. Timing is everything.
So now I have been christened. I have been struck in Bangkok traffic. I am slowly but inexorably moving up that curve from tourist to experienced tourist. Ahead on the curve is tourist who can say 50 things in Thai. Then Farang that gets cheated less often. And finally; old man. So, if you are a newby who has just gotten off the plane; don't mess with me. I've learned how to squat without falling in; and I've been hit in Bangkok traffic. We are not equal.
6. Please Contact Me
I am walking down Walking Street in Pattaya and I am green. It is my first time. The girls in the open air bars are shouting out. It is early, about 9 p.m. Not too crowded. I step up to a bar. A woman serves me and starts to talk to me. Her name is Mel. She is really pretty. Her hair is long with tight waves, kind of Polynesian style. Her body is all curves. After a while I realize that all the questions that she has been asking me (Where you from? Where you stay? You on business or pleasure? You single or married? etc.) are the standard hooker questions.
Boy was I a dunce. I thought she was just a bartender. I barfine her. 200 baht. We go to the AA Hotel. I am a little unsure. She could have so easily taken advantage of me but she doesn't. I'm a little inept and not too experienced at this and probably a little boring, but she just goes with it. She is gentle and loving and I don't hear the word "No". When we are done she asks if I would like her to stay the night. I am unsure of myself and unsure of the game so I say "No".
Boy what a mistake. As she is walking away from the hotel, she turns and smiles at me. I wave back and smile, and the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. That is God's way of telling me that I just made a huge mistake. I had the biggest fish of my life in the boat and I threw it back. No wonder God visits so many plagues and woes on mankind. He is probably disgusted. If I am an example; we are unbelievably stupid.
Six months later I am back in Pattaya and I am a man on a mission. I have the nice front desk lobby lady in my hotel write out in Thai:
"I am looking for someone named Mel. Do you know where Mel is?"
I go to 20 bars and show the message to probably 100 girls and mamasans before I give up. She is gone. Letting Mel get away was the mistake of a greenhorn. God what a big mistake. I still think of her years later. She was the kind of woman you imagine you could look up every year forever. Age would have nothing to do with it. Every six months you would meet again. She would stand in the shower with her arms held high, and her hands flat against the tiles. And you would wash her all over. And neither of you would be in a hurry. "Mel, if you are out there. Please contact me." Love, Dana
7. Reliable Customer
Twice a year I go to Thailand and I always start in Bangkok. And I always get some custom tailoring done. By now it has become a healthy amount of business. It is a ritual of mine. On the 2nd day of my arrival in LOS, I'm not good for much else because I still have travel illness woes, but I can at least get out of the hotel and stagger around from store to store. So my 2nd day in Bangkok has become a ritual. I go to the 7/11, and I go to the camera store, and I go to the ice cream girl on Sukhumvit Rd., and I go to Bookazine, and I go to the pharmacy, and I buy some fresh squeezed orange juice on the street as well as some chicken, and I look at some souvenirs, and I go to my tailor on Soi 11.
Twice a year like clockwork I show up at this tailor shop. My individual tailor is always there. I have never gone to another tailor shop. I believe my tailor knows this. To get to this shop on Soi 11 you have to run a gauntlet of many other shops and anxious to please sidewalk tailors. All with a winning face and smile. But I am loyal. I soldier on and go to my shop. I am now also getting shirts made for my boss. I have had ties made. We have talked about suits. I am exploring the possibility of getting 3 suits made. One in blue goatskin.
I show up with color samples, and fabric swatches, and ideas, or pictures, or drawings on how I want my shirts made. If it is ties, I have paper patterns. I am not by personality made for bargaining. They are making a profit. I have met my tailor's wife who offers me coffee. I know that one of the younger tailors is his son. I know that the old man in the office is his father. I am a familiar face. I am a good and reliable customer. I show up on time with the balance due.
And never once have I gotten a smile.
8. Less Prejudiced
It is a hot, calm, sunny morning and the longtail boat is being loaded off the beach in South Pattaya. We have all signed up for an all day beach and boating and parasailing and lunch trip to Ko Larn island. My girlfriend and I are there and a few other westerners from Estonia and Germany; but the majority of the people are Indians from expensive hotels. And apparently, not one of the Indian mothers, or fathers, or grandmothers or grandfathers has read the trip brochure.
The women show up for a beach and boating and swimming and parasailing day in the full sari and shawl getup complete with bangles, and bracelets, and beads, and jewels, and painted hands, and ringed toes. The men show up in business suits and shoes and socks. One guy has a briefcase. It is comical, maybe even a little sad. These people are just completely out of it. They have no idea what is going on. Getting them to wade out to the longtail boat and then climb the ladder takes more time than Eisenhower organizing the assault on Normandy.
And they are completely inept in the boat. They appear to have no natural internal gyroscopes or normal balance mechanisms of any kind. They move with the speed of a glacier. There are many conferences and much talking. They stumble and trip over every boat part that the boat has. A more unhip group of human beings it would impossible to find. Not one of them manages to get to their seat without looking like drunk three legged cattle. I am disgusted. And to think, these are the software geeks that are taking over the world. I don't get it. These people don't look like they could find a trunk on an elephant. Not one of them appears to even take notice of the beautiful maritime surroundings that we are in. They would be just as happy being loaded on trucks to go tour a sandal factory. I'm an expert boatman, a nature enthusiast, physically capable and aware; and not without my prejudices regarding other peoples and cultures. So before the boat even gets under way, I have already formed an opinion of these Indians, individually and as a group. The word IDIOTS comes to mind.
Eventually, we are loaded and off we go. Three quarters of the way to the island, the boat pulls up to a big barge and everyone is off loaded. It is explained that here we will have an opportunity to go parasailing. Now, if you have never gone parasailing; let me explain it to you. You let complete strangers strap you into a strange and uncomfortable harness and jerk the straps up into your crotch. There is lots of yelling, and running around, and people pushing you and dragging you; a hook is attached to the harness, and then a bunch of Thai hoodlums yell "RUN RUN RUN". Under the best of circumstances you are then jerked into the air. Or you are dragged off the barge like a tree behind an elephant. The fools and the risk attracted actually open their eyes in the air and have a good time.
The landing involves crashing into the waiting arms of men you wouldn't allow your daughter to date. Well, on this trip I was a veteran. I had done this twice before. I knew the deal. So when all the over dressed, under coordinated, risk adverse Indians are off loaded onto the parasailing barge; I figured none would do it. THEY ALL SIGNED UP. THEY ALL WENT PARASAILING. You could not have shocked me more if you fired a handgun off next to my ear.
Grandmothers and wives took off in full sari and shawl splendor. It was astonishing. I looked on open mouthed. I saw all the men flying around wearing their shoes and their socks as if they were going to a business meeting. I saw the briefcase guy go up with his briefcase. I saw very little children go up. The Thais sent someone up with them who sat in the harness above them; a real feat of athleticism. And I saw a grandmother and a grandfather go up who had to be in their 80's.I introduced myself to the grandfather and had a good time talking to him. He wasn't a geek. He was a regular guy. We watched his wife fly around. She had so much fabric flying around she probably didn't even need the parasail. To him she probably looked the way she did the day he married her. I had a good time with these Indians that day in Thailand on that parasailing barge. And maybe I came away a little less prejudiced.