30 January 2011

The Devil and the Wizard

At 3am on New Year’s Eve a fifty-something man dressed as a Wizard danced recklessly with a twenty-something girl from the Midwest wearing nothing but red body paint and Devil horns.  Back home the man is probably an accountant.  But here, in Thailand, he is a psychedelic drug munching Wizard.  People come to Thailand thinking they can do whatever they want, and in certain places they can.  But, outside of those places where Thailand is itself life is familiar.

If you were to walk down the streets of Surat Thani you would recognize life.  You would see children being picked up from school, families gathering at restaurants, people exiting convenience stores with minor essentials.  Imagine coming home and finding your living room rearranged and painted in colors you’ve never seen.  At first you would be overwhelmed by the newness of the space, but eventually the familiar would come into focus and you would realize that despite its differences the space was still home. 

My life here is different but not as different as you might think.  If you blur out the edges where places like Ko Samui and Bangkok lie I am a man who wakes up on Monday morning, drinks a cup of coffee, goes to work, comes home, eats dinner and settles in for the night.  Tuesday repeat.  Wednesday repeat.  Thursday…  The biggest differences are not related to language or location.  The biggest differences are time and convenience.

At home I spent two hours a day getting to and from work in my nice expensive car.  Here I spend ten minutes a day commuting via scooter.  At home I sat in an office for 8 hours a day staring at a computer.  Here I stand in front of a class for 4 hours a day talking to students.  At home I settled onto the couch at night and thought about reading and writing while watching TV.  Here I settle onto the couch at night and read or write with no concern for TV.  Life was easier at home.  Life is simpler here. 

I love California.  It has my family and my friends.  It has perfect weather.  It has beaches and mountains and great cultural cities.  It has some lucky SOB riding my sweet-ass cruiser bike on the strand.  California is my home.  But, California is too easy.  In California I am distracted.  In Thailand I am focused.  In the three months I have lived here I have read dozens of books, I have written more than I did in the previous decade, I have seen new places, I have learned new words.  I miss California and all it contains.  But, I feel like this place with its abundance of time and its lack of convenience is healthy for me.  That is why I have decided to stay awhile.

My initial contract is up on March 31st.  I have agreed to work for a different school here in town starting on May 9th.  Which means that I have a five-week vacation quickly approaching.  For less than cost of a weekend in Vegas I will be able to spend those 5-weeks traversing Vietnam, Northern Thailand or anywhere else in South East Asia I choose to go.  Abundance of time is a beautiful thing. 

Cute Thai Student Moment of the Week
Me:  Fluck!  Stop looking at Jet.  Turn around and face the front of the classroom.

Jet:  Teacher Michael!  Him looking at me because me is hamsome, hamsome! (He says posing and profiling)    


Why would they bring a knife to see the baby Jesus?

(Published 25 December 2010)

Merry Christmas everyone!  It is Christmas day here is Surat Thani, Thailand.  In the morning you will wake to presents, cookie crumbs, the smell of pine needles, the sounds of ripping paper and those familiar songs you dust off once a year.  I woke to drink a cup of coffee, clean the house, run errands, workout and write a blog.  Such is life on the other side of the world.  Christmas is known here but its emotional and cultural significance is not truly understood.  I take that back, the kids get it; presents, no class, sweet stuff; these are things deep-seeded into the language of the little ones.

There were no classes yesterday at Joy Bilingual School, just celebrations and gift giving.  I got my very first teacher coffee mug.  Weird.  Happy.  I don’t always love being a teacher.  Sometimes it is frustrating.  Other times it is brilliant.  Yesterday was brilliant.  I didn’t have to be strict I just got to slip into Uncle Mike mode and play around.  I got to watch my students perform dance routines and sing songs and play games.  They are adorable kids, especially when I don't have to Shhhh! them over and over and over and...

As part of the show the Farang teachers performed a short play about the Nativity scene.  (We were going to do both a Nativity play and a Father Christmas play, but we realized that the "So Jesus got fat, flew deer and moved to the North Pole with midgets?" questions would be both assured and impossible to answer.)  In the Nativity play I had the role of the “Little Soldier” a Roman soldier who witnessed the whole Jesus in the manger thing.  I didn’t have a full costume, just a green and gold plastic sword slung through my belt.  After the performance one of my students called me over and asked, “Teacher Michael, why would they bring a knife to see the baby Jesus?”  What I wanted to say was, "Jesus Christ kid what kind of Christmas question is that?"  However, the irony of the statement was apparent even in my inner monologue so I went with something equally ridiculous, “Knife?  It’s a sword!”  (Then the Little Soldier ran away. )

Remember MadLibs?  I loved MadLibs.  But, even at the height of my 10 year-old creative powers I couldn't hold a candle to the accidental fill-ins of ESL students.  I was grading Science midterms this week and the final question (referring to Magnets) was, “When two objects________ they ________ each other.”  Grasping at straws a Thai fourth grader added the only two metal objects she could think of, scissor and fork, making the sentence, “When two objects scissor they fork each other.”  I marked it incorrect and laughed for five minutes straight.

I am going to keep this one short, it is Christmas after all.  I hope everyone has a wonderful day.  Enjoy spending time with your family and friends, enjoy your new gifts, and know that here on the other side of the world I will be bombing around on my scooter singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer at the top of my lungs, happy and in the holiday spirit!

Hello Teacher!

(Published 28 November 2010)

When you are traveling today is the only unit of time that matters.  Too much is happening, changing, moving, the days need walls to keep experiences separate and unique.  As you move from day-to-day you don’t concern yourself with months.  Like decades in the real world months are far off things that you only notice when you’ve crossed into the next and turned back to reflect on where you have been.  

I am no longer traveling.  I am traveled.  My clothes are in drawers.  My backpack has disappeared beneath my bed.  I have a bed.  A few days ago I was stacking chairs at Joy Bilingual School with Keith, a transplant from Ohio, he turned to me and casually said, “Crazy that we’ve been here almost a month huh?”  I looked at him like he had just crapped in his hand and flung it at my face.  Come on!  A week maybe, but a month!?  As jarring as it was, Keith was absolutely right, we had been here almost a month.  I blame routine for my dismay.  Somewhere in the midst of making friends and buying sheets and training to teach and starting to teach I slipped into routine.  Routine is like speed reading, your brain starts to recognize patterns and hits the gas because it knows what’s coming.  Routine kicks down the walls of today to make way for this week and the months pass quickly.

Pick up your remote and hit rewind.  It is late October.  I am wearing a clingy sweat-beaded Beer Lao tank top.  My unholy trekking shoes are tied to the outside of my backpack.  The Tuk Tuk driver swears this is the bus station.  I am not convinced.  I don’t see any buses.  I am squinting into the bright sun, looking for Emma, my future boss.  I wonder if she has a car or if she is picking me up on a scooter.  Neither would surprise me.  I look ridiculous.  I have a backpack on my back and another strapped to my chest.  I scream tourist.  I am not a tourist.  I am home.  This is Surat Thani, Thailand.

I really like Surat, it is a true Thai town.  Out of 100,000 residents 100 are foreigners.  In Thailand foreigners are known as farang and it is well known that farang come here to teach.  A few hours after arriving I stopped on the sidewalk to allow a woman to pass, she paused, quickly shook off the “holy shit it’s a white guy” look and cheerfully said, “Hello teacher!”  Surat is small enough to get around by scooter or Tuk Tuk, it has a water front and an island park surrounded by the Tapee River.  It is nice, but it is not tourist nice.  It is a Thai town meant to support Thai people.  The beauty of Surat to the farang community is its access to postcard Thailand.  Surat is surrounded by postcards.  The gulf islands of Ko Samui, Ko Phangnan and Ko Tao are weekend destinations.  Kaoh Sok National Park is a weekend destination.  The jewels of the Andaman Sea, Phi Phi Island and Railay Beach are weekend destinations.  You know that swell of anticipation when you land at the airport and realize that you are baggage claim away from paradise?  That is what is like living here.  In Surat we live arrived.

I really need to learn how to speak Thai.  When I arrived in Surat I knew how to say exactly two things, hello and thank you.  Two phrases should not be difficult to absorb but occasionally I managed to mix them up.  A nice Thai person would walk by and say, “Sawadee-kap” (hello!) and I would respond “Cap-koon-kap!” (Thank-you!).  I am starting to learn the basics.  I can count to a hundred, albeit with dramatic pauses.  I can order a few of my favorite Thai dishes.  And I no longer mix-up hello and thank-you.  But, I am a long way from assimilated.  Imagine trying to explain to a Thai laundry lady that half your clothes are missing with only gestures and pantomime.  I started Thai lessons this week.  If all goes according to plan my days of missing shirts and clucking to add chicken to a meal will soon be at an end.  I do have one concern about learning the language.  Scooby Doo dubbed over in Thai is brilliant.  Even Scrappy is awesome when he is speaking Thai.  I wonder if I will still enjoy it when I realize that “Zoinks Scoob, to the Machine Machine!” has been translated as, “Attention large brown dog, follow me to the colorful American vehicle!”

I almost forgot what its like to be a kid.  I am a 32 year old man.  Any emotional reaction I have gets swiftly punched in the face by logic.  But, kids?  Kids are puppets made to dance by the strings of happiness, sadness, sugar-rush, and energy overflow.  I have been a teacher for two weeks and I have spent every day fascinated, frustrated and bewildered by the complete unpredictability of 8-10 year old Thai children with nicknames like; Peach, Arm, View, Guide, Jet and Ink.  I have made these children smile, I have made these children cry, I have been the coolest, I have been the worst.  Every time I think I have a pattern figured out they remind how foolish I am to think such things.  This is the folly of men, we think that every problem has a solution.  Our unwavering belief in logic and reason blinds us to the fact that emotions don’t give a flying f--- about logic and reason.  I may not always understand them, but I genuinely like my students.  Every class is a pinball game, occasionally the ball falls into the gutter but most of the time it bounces and pings in a bright shiny display that is a joy to watch.

My Mom likes to tell this story about my little sister Jenny, when Jenny was a kid she had the magic ability to make my Dad melt.  Harsh words from Dad would crush Sarah and I, but not Jenny.  Jenny would give him a brief flash of sad so that he felt effective then she would crawl into his lap, bat her little eyelashes and say, “I love you Daddy” knowing full well that he was incapable of staying mad in the presence of her overwhelming cuteness.   I think of this story often, as I am so often overwhelmed by cuteness.  Earlier this week a boy named Ny could not sit down.  I asked and asked again but he kept standing and spinning and jumping and running.  I told him to spend the rest of the class standing at the back of the room.  Tears moistened his eight-year-old eyes, his chin dropped to his chest, his chest heaved.  I ignored instinct, I didn’t reach out and hug him, I kept my stony teacher resolve.  The next class period Ny came bouncing into the room.  He had connected two straws and bent them to look like a phone receiver. He held his creation to his ear, “Hello, Teacher Michael!”  I answered with an eraser, “Hello Ny, how are you?  “I am happy!”  “That’s good, Ny.  I will see you in class.”  “Ok!  Good bye teacher Michael!”  We hung up our phones.  I had been Jenny-ed. 

It amazes me how much of men and women you can see in boys and girls.  Sometimes it is accidental, sometimes it is on purpose, but the seeds of adult behavior are breaking through the surface even at eight and ten. With the boys it is bravado and ego.  If I am really stern with the agitators they will listen to me, but often times there is the briefest squint, an ego flash that says, “Bitch if you were three feet shorter we’d take this outside right now!”  With the girls it is the understanding that they have power over boys.  When I am stern with the girls, the cutest ones, the ones who know they are cute will look up at me and smile sweetly expecting me to crumble.  When I say, “The smile isn’t going to work go sit down” they respond with pouty looks of disbelief.  There is a girl in my eight-year-olds class named Poon.  She is impossibly adorable.  The outgoing Teacher gave me notes about all the students and for Poon he wrote, “She is a troublemaker don’t let her fool you with her cuteness.”  On one of my first days teaching Poon was acting out and talking with her friends so I moved her to a different table.  She did not like that.  She spent the rest of the class glaring at me with a look that said, "I am sad and I am mad and I want you to know it!”  I saw the future in her look and I thought, damn that is scary.  At eight that look is the innocent reaction of child who feels wronged, but one day she will become a woman and realize the power of that look.  She will practice it, hone it, perfect it with welled-up tears and use it to absolutely cripple men in her life when she feels they need crippling.  Watch out little Thai dudes.

A month has passed.  I didn’t see it going, but it went.  While I was adjusting to a new normal routine tore down the walls of today and pushed life into the patterned and predictable this week.  In a month I have moved in, started a new job, bought a scooter, made new friends, began to learn a new language, attended festivals, explored new streets, settled.  It took a month but I have built the foundation for my life here in Thailand.  Time will not get away from me again.  I have caught up.  I am ready to teach and explore and read and write and build the adventure that I came here to build.



Mr. Hong

(Published 28 October 2010)

Mr. Hong gingerly flexes his arthritic fingers.  He has his mother’s fingers.  His mother was Cambodian his father Chinese.  His father used to make his mother tea from roots and herbs and the ancient magic of Chinese medicine.  But, his mother always refused to drink.  She said she had field fingers.  She said her hands were bent from a lifetime of bending and no foul tasting tea was going to cure that.  Mr. Hong does not have his mother’s stubbornness.  His fingers are his livelihood.  He takes Western pills and drinks Eastern teas and hopes that one will untangle his betraying hands. 

Mr. Hong fixes things.  When he was a young man it was watches and cyclos, today it is electronics that become smaller and smaller as if they are trying to disappear all together.  The smaller these machines become the hotter the flame in his bulging joints.  The burning is intolerable but without the burning he cannot afford to eat.  Phnom Penh is no longer hidden.  The world is coming.  He thought the outsiders money would ease the burden of his hands but instead the city has swallowed their money becoming fat and bloated; so bloated that old men with tangled hands can barely hang on.

Today he received a package from Sihanoukville, another small machine with instructions that read only, “Won’t turn on.”  Mr. Hong wonders why people who do not understand machines trust so blindly in the abilities of those who do.  The package was sent by the boy who used to live downstairs.  The Boy is a man now and sells machines to sea side tourists with too much money.  When he was young The Boy would sit in Mr. Hong’s shop and watch the fixing.  He asked many questions and wanted to become a fixer himself, but he did not have the gift.  Mr. Hong appreciates the business The Boy sends him.  He knows that he should tell him about the burning, but he cannot bear it.  The Boy still believes that he is capable of near illusion.  He still believes that his fast and nimble fingers can breathe life into copper and spark.

Mr. Hong remembers the day they were allowed to return to Phnom Penh.  The soldiers from Vietnam lined the streets.  He was happy for the fall, but he did not trust their smiling foreign faces.  Before he had reached the old apartment The Boy’s mother came running towards him with tears streaming down her narrow weathered face.  “My boy.  My boy.  He is gone!” she screamed.  He suspected the Vietnamese, he wondered if her mind had been damaged by the camps, but no.  He shook her shoulders and slapped her face sharply to break the hysteria.  “I know where the boy is," he told her.  Mr. Hong led the gasping woman up the steps to his old shop, steps he had not climbed in more than five years.  Inside the dusty, bullet ridden room they found The Boy sitting in the chair he often occupied before the Angkar.  The Boy was older now and he looked unwell, but as he twisted together copper, bridging energy, Mr. Hong could still see the wonder in the eyes of the boy grown into a man.

Mr. Hong looks at the job The Boy has sent him.  It is a small digital camera, a picture machine.  Mr. Hong prefers film.  He likes that there is a process behind bringing images to life.  He thinks that these new machines take the art out of photography.  It was good of The Boy to send him work but Mr. Hong does not know what to do with this machine that “Won’t turn on.”  He turns the machine over in his aching hands.  Its lens is out, A final picture.  The machine knew it was dying, he thinks. 

In the days when The Boy sat in his shop, Mr. Hong believed that nothing was ever broken.  He believed that he could take anything apart and reassemble it with life.  The old belief tugs as he looks at this camera with its lens out, but he knows the burning will not allow for the accomplishments of the past.  He wonders how he is going to tell The Boy that this thing cannot be done.  He has lied to The Boy before.  He told him that an unfixable watch never arrived.  He threw a music machine against the wall in frustration and spent a weeks earnings to have a younger man fix it.  He is ashamed of these lies.  He hates that he has to make excuses to The Boy, but The Boy’s belief is his only connection to the man he once was.  In the safety of The Boys belief there exists a place where his hands do not ache and burn.

The Boy called.  The owner of the camera with its lens out is on his way to Phnom Penh to pick it up, an American tourist.  The Americans are always impatient.  Mr. Hong knows that someone large and loud will be knocking soon.  Mr. Hong keeps the camera with its lens out in front of him while he takes his dinner.  He drinks rice wine instead of his father’s tea.  It will dull his senses but it will dull the pain too.  Bite by bite he stares wondering if he has one last trick in his bent and twisted hands. 

Mr. Hong places a small screwdriver beside the camera.  This is his scalpel.  If he can remove two hard-to-see screws he can expose the guts of the machine and if he can do that there is hope for a final fix.  Pulling in breath Mr. Hong reaches for the screwdriver.  He holds it delicately in his right hand.  He lowers it toward the first of the hard-to-see screws.  His hand shakes and burns; it seizes and the screwdriver drops to the floor.  Mr. Hong slumps in agony, his eyes drawn to a far unseen place.  Mr. Hong bends to pick up the screwdriver.  Again he holds it delicately in his right hand, but this time he steadies it with his left.  It is a struggle to get the screwdriver’s tip to join the grooves of the hard-to-see screw, but he manages to guide it into place.  Mr. Hong breathes a sigh of relief and begins to take slow searing counter-clockwise turns.

Mr. Hong works for hours trying to resurrect the camera with its lens out.  It is after 4am when he makes the final clockwise twist.  His hands burn so badly that he cannot find the strength to check his work and see if any magic remains in his betraying hands.  He pours ice and water into a bowl and submerges his hands.  He knows that the burn builds from within but the shock of outward cold is enough to pull his focus away from the fire.  Sitting on a couch with his hands in frigid ice, Mr. Hong falls asleep and dreams of doubt.

Mr. Hong wakes suddenly.  He is damp from spilled water and aching from sitting sleep.  His attention is immediately drawn to the camera.  Mr. Hong ambles over to his work bench.  He stares down at his project.  He badly wants to experience the rush of success.  He is terrified of failure.  He reaches down and presses the power button.  A green light on top of the camera blinks.  The phone rings.  Mr. Hong looks from phone to camera, tormented.  He answers the phone.  It is The Boy, “Mr. Hong I have some bad news, the American is not coming.  But, don’t worry Mr. Hong I will still pay your fee...and Mr. Hong, there will be more jobs, I promise.” 

Mr. Hong hangs up the phone.  He returns to the work bench.  The camera’s display screen shines bright.  Its lens points forward.  Mr. Hong gently presses the photo button.  A flash illuminates the room.  He looks down at his broken hands.  Tears moisten his eyes.   

         

Pristine

(23 October 2010)

Thailand is a land of escapism.  It is beaches of heartbreaking beauty, mist shrouded mountains, spicy food, cocktails served in sandcastle buckets and hedonism in all its forms.  In the most visited areas of Thailand, Bangkok in particular it is possible to obtain anything in this world.  I have a friend who once bought a baby flying squirrel no bigger than your pinkie from a Bangkok street vendor.  He named it Mowgli.  He fed Mowgli milk from a soda bottle cap and let him ride in warmth and comfort in his pockets.  If he wasn’t in the mood to play he would gently toss Mowgli into the air and watch him slow float to safety.  He was always careful to check any room for open windows and walls with holes, but despite his best efforts Mowgli wandered out through a tiny crawl space in a Bangkok guesthouse.  To this day whenever my friend visits the big city he looks to the rooftops and clicks and coos the way he used to hoping Mowgli will float home.

I missed this crazy place--this beautiful woman I covet despite her cracks and flaws.  After nearly two months of traveling alone I needed the comfort of familiarity.  I scrapped my plan to go to Sumatra and instead hitched a ride on a bus bound for Krabi.  Krabi is a province off the Andaman Coast and home to some of the most stunning beaches in Southeast Asia.  There is no place in the Andaman Sea more beautiful than the Phi Phi islands.  The Phi Phi Islands are impossible.  Drops of jagged limestone and tangled flora on blue green seas, the islands make you feel as though you are charting the undiscovered, stepping into beauty never before seen.  This makes absolutely no sense because Phi Phi is full of tourists.  But, that is the power of its beauty.  It is so overwhelming it makes you want to sip your fruit shake, tap the tourist on the chair beside you and say, “Look what I found.”    

On Phi Phi Island I saw familiar faces.  Three Canadian faces to be exact.  I had been on the island no more than 30 minutes when I ran into Leslie, Lisa and Andrea, three hard-charging Canadian girls I met tubing in Laos.  “We’re going on a booze cruise!” they said.  “Of course you are,” I said.  “The Captain’s name is Bob.  He’s Canadian!” they said.  “Of course he is,” I said.  Captain Bob has a good-looking boat that he sailed out of the Vancouver B.C. harbor a decade ago and never turned back.  Along the way he made stops both short and long in Mexico, Central America, Tahiti and Fiji.  “You’ve been to a lot of beautiful places, what made you decide to settle in Phi Phi? I asked.  “Dead broke.  Needed to work,” replied the good natured but quiet Captain Bob.  The cruise was excellent.  We cliff jumped, snorkeled, and swam in the warm waters of Maya Bay.  We also drank a lot of Chang beer.  So much Chang beer that as Captain Bob steered us into the harbor with the sun setting in the distance everyone in the boat sang loudly and in unison “Sex on Fire” by The Kings of Leon and I thought, “Hey!  We sound pretty good!” 

I know what you’re thinking, “Look at these pictures!  It really is beautiful!”  These pictures suck.  They look like some asshole hired the DMV to be Phi Phi’s official photographer.  Every time you take a picture of the islands you look down at the display screen on your camera and think, “No! No!  That isn’t it at all!”  The island’s have a beauty that can only be captured by experience.  If you have any interest in stunning vistas and beaches too beautiful to be believed, any interest in nights spent dancing in revelry on floors-of-sand while sipping cocktails the size of your face, then you need to add the Phi Phi islands to your bucket list.

Before my travels all I knew about Phuket was that it was a famous place.  Well, that and my good friend Chris Kelly told me I had to do John Gray’s Sea Canoe tour.  Since, Chris has impeccable taste (with the exception of always ordering the grossest thing off of any menu) I took this as a sign that all of Phuket would be great.  But, the closer I got to sailing from Phi Phi to Phuket the more I started to wonder what kind of paradise I was stepping into.  First Diana at Viking Scuba Tours told me, “Don’t spend more than a day there its nothing but lady boys and neon.”  And then an Englishman named Dave I met on Captain Bob’s Booze Cruise told me that he had been to Phuket and that it was “Mad.  A massive party.  Full of lady boys though.”  I said, “Again with the lady boys?  The way people talk I’m half expecting every woman on the island to be square jawed.”  What I wanted to hear from Dave was, “Don’t worry Mate, plenty of lovely girls as well.”  What I got was, “Me and my mates met this lady boy at one of the bars.  She was piss drunk right.  Starts telling us how she had the full snip-and-tuck, the whole deal.  And we was like ‘show us then, let us have a look, yea.’  She did!  She showed us!  And mate…listen…it was…PRISTINE.”

Overly Descriptive Dave unknowingly summed up Phuket perfectly; sure parts of it are pristine, but do you really want to see it?  Travelers are always in search of the undiscovered because they know that eventually tourism is going to take a giant steaming neon dump on the places they love.  I’m sure Patong Beach was beautiful once, but to quote Army of Darkness, “Baby you got real ugly.”  In its current form Patong is traffic and noise and crowds and massage parlors and go-go bars and every other kind of tourist vomit imaginable. Including guys trying to sell you suits, “Hey man, you come inside, take a look at my shop, I make good price.”  Listen Suit Seller Guy, I am wearing nothing but board shorts and sunglasses.  There is a book in my left hand and a fruit shake in my right.  What makes you think I want to go into your f----g shop and talk about fabrics and buttons and shit?  I’m going to the beach man.  When I need a suit I will come find you.  Suits are not on a whim purchases.  Light-up whirly things maybe, 8-inch Zippo lighters sure, but not suits!  Have you ever heard anyone say, 'I got so wasted last night I ended up at the tailor.'  Of course not.  That would be ridiculous!  Go inside.  Go inside and play with your buttons.  And if you try to pretend like you don’t remember me when I walk by again, if you try to push me into your shop I swear I will beat you with a cummerbund."

Did you know that Connect Four is an aphrodisiac?  Yeah, neither did I.  On my one night stop-over in Krabi I decided to grab a beer at a bar near my hotel.  It was early so the only people in the joint were two couples, me, and a call girl.  How did I know she was a call girl?  Big hair, bigger heals, a dress short enough to reveal the gecko tattoo on her thigh, all signs point to…  She was sitting next to me before I had finished sitting down.  She asked a few “Where are you from,” types of questions that I one word answered.  Then she asked me if I wanted to play a game.  “Ha! Game” I shook my head in decline.  She held up the wait-a-minute finger and soon returned with Connect Four.  “Oh, that kind of game” I thought, “Why not, that’s harmless enough.”  So, for the length of a beer I played Connect Four with a call girl in an empty Thai bar.  I thought of it as a funny quirk of solo travel and nothing more.  Then I got to Phuket.  On Patong Beach I saw several pretty young things playing Connect Four with lonely types.  It may not have been their go to move, but it was definitely a move.  If Milton Bradley knew that after a certain age Connect Four became the Viagra of board games we would see much different kind of packaging back home.  God forbid these wayward women ever discover Candyland.

There is no form of hedonism in Thailand that draws more ire than the sex tourists.  Prostitution is illegal in Thailand, but illegal like jaywalking a country road in Kansas is illegal.  Older men come here without shame or concern to consort with beautiful Thai girls decades their junior.  Even without girls by their sides it’s easy to spot these men.  They don’t come in handsome well-adjusted packages, they come dressed in head-to-toe creepy.  It is nature’s way of making them own their perversion.  It also makes for really interesting people watching.  You can sit on a beach looking at the passersby and if your inner monologue sounds anything like mine think, “Oh there’s one!  Sexual predator!” 

Speaking of which, I met this guy on a snorkel cruise, Mr. ----- from America.  Mr. ----- from America was 64 years old and took a liking to me because he had a son about my age that lived in Hermosa.  Mr. ----- from America started talking about his girlfriend and how he comes out here every eight weeks or so to see her.  He decided he wanted me to meet her, he was clearly proud of his lady love.  He sent someone down to get her and up walked a 23 year-old local girl.  Did I think, “Oh this must be his lady’s lovely daughter?”  No, this is Southeast Asia, I thought, “Sexual predator!”  I would assume that most SP’s are cagey about their nefarious activities.  But, this SP liked me.  This SP trusted me.  This was my chance to find out, what's up with that?  I asked as casually as I could, “So how did you two meet?”  Mr. ----- from America was more than willing to talk.  “Well” he said, “I’m not much for the bars, but I was walking by the bar she was working at and I was just taken by her.  Let me tell you something about this girl’s life.  She has never met her father.  Her mother had boyfriends in and out of the house.  At 14 she was forced to get married because her mother could no longer take care of her.  Her husband beat her, so at 15 she ran away and started working.  Doing laundry, dishes that sort of thing and ended up as a bar girl because that’s where the money is.  I went into the bar and of course had to pay.  The next day I walked right back there and bought out her contract, it was nothing $300 or something.  This was three years ago.  I’ve been coming back ever since.  I put her through school.  Bought her a house.  Cost me three grand.  Her brothers showed a lot of promise so I sent them both to private school as well.  My only rule is I don’t want her mother’s ex-boyfriend in the house.  As soon as he found about the rich American boyfriend he was trying to weasel his way back in.  I’d really fly off the handle if I found out that guy was in the house.  She is a great girl.  We have a lot of fun together.”  I took a moment to let it all sink in and then said something completely asinine like, “I’m sure your support has gone a long way.”  But, what I was thinking was, “Jesus Christ!  I have gone to extraordinary lengths to get laid, but I have never supported a village!  Make better decisions!” 

Mr. ----- from America is an easy man to judge.  But, his openness gave me a unique opportunity to see the depths of the denial, the grandeur of the delusion.  “I could never bring her to America” Mr. ----- from America said, “Here it is accepted, there too many people would judge.”  “No!” I lied, “Bring her.  You’re in love!”  And the wrath of American women sounded in the far far distance.  

At its heart Thailand is a country of kind, free-spirited people living mostly rural lives. But, in its most visited areas it has created fantasies both light and dark that captivate the world.  “Oh you’re going to Thailand,” people say, their words dripping with subtext.  There are visitors who come to this country seeking the extremes of light and dark, but most I think are like myself, people looking to escape into a world between. 

The Thailand I know and love can be found in places like Railay Beach where I am typing these final lines.  Hidden off the coast of Krabi in the Andaman Sea, Railay Beach can only be reached by longtail boat.  It is low season now and there are more Thai people here than tourists.  It is quiet and slow and beautiful beyond words.  Surrounded by limestone cliffs, dense jungles, and seas of the deepest blue, Railay is a dream made real.  Days here are spent rock climbing, scuba diving, hiking and relaxing on hidden beaches.  At night there is dancing and drinking and fire shows, but is done at bars with wooden floors that stop at the edge of the sea.  Railay is my fantasy.  My perfect escape.  And that is the mystery and allure of Thailand; somehow they knew.







 

“When life gives you lemons, just say 'F--- the lemons,' and bail.”

(Published 13 October 2010)

Yesterday I was lying on a beach chair using my right foot to flick sand from my left when I thought, What day is today?  I let the thought spin slow and answerless before turning to the four or five people lying on the beach next to me to ask if they knew.  They didn’t.  They each responded with a disinterested shoulder shrug.   Before I could think of a new tact I got distracted by something else, storm clouds, passing tourists maybe, I don’t remember.  I’m glad I didn’t figure out what day it was though, if I had I inevitably would have started wondering what time it was, and who needs all that?

This thing I’ve got going is pretty sweet.  You know life is trending toward extraordinary when you have the luxury of forgetting the day.  But, I don’t want you thinking my life is all warm seas and sweet drinks.  The road has its pitfalls.  Here are just a few:

Toilets - Toilets in Asia are an unmitigated disaster.  The nice ones are awful, the awful ones are a horror writer’s dark place.  There is no toilet paper.  I don’t mean the roll is always empty, I mean it doesn’t exist.  TP is a weirdo westerner thing here.  That leaves you with one of three options:

#1  Western style toilet with a bum gun.  WTF is a bum gun?  It’s a short hose next to the toilet with a pressure handle on the end.  When you’re finished you aim the gun, squeeze…don’t pull…squeeze the trigger and jettison yourself of what may come.

#2  Western style toilet with a hose.  The same as the bum gun scenario minus the pressure handle.  If you feel as though the situation warrants pressure you’ll have to partially block the end of the hose with your thumb.  Be careful, if not properly aimed this can necessitate a change of clothes.

#3  Squat toilet with a water scoop.  Basically a porcelain hole in the ground, the squat toilet is a big hit here in Asia.  Squatting takes all the leisure out of dropping anchor.  You will never experience the joy of discovering that someone has left the sports section in a squatter.  And when you’re done and ready to stretch your creaky knees the only finishing product is a water trough and small bucket with a handle.  Get your head around that. 

It’s a weird feeling the first time you walk into a bathroom and think, Damn!  No bum gun.  But, I suppose it could be worse.  I met a Dutch man named Neils who told me that in parts of central Asia people squat into a river and wipe with a rock.  Neils has tried this and swears that a good smooth stone is far more effective than leaves and grass and such.

Unholy trekking shoes - After my trek in Chaing Mai I put my muddy, rain drenched shoes into a plastic bag and tied them to the outside of my backpack.  I left them sealed up and tied off for three days.  What crawled out of that bag was not shoes; they had become something unholy, something foul.  Over a two day period I doused them with an entire bottle of Lysol.  I had to.  Every time I walked into the room I got hit with a swamp stench uppercut.  With spray can in hand I attacked them with reckless abandon.  I must have looked like someone trying desperately to finish off a cockroach that refuses to die.  Did the Lysol do the trick?  Imagine throwing an orange peel on top of a heap of hot garbage and shitty diapers.  Doesn’t accomplish much does it?

First Bed Syndrome - The Lonely Planet guide isn’t foolproof.  Sometimes their suggestions suck.  But, their guides are the backpackers bible so you always start there.  Occasionally on your travels you will get off a twenty hour bus ride, go straight to the Lonely Planet “Our Pick” guesthouse and find that the room looks like Satan’s outhouse.  Your mind will be screaming, “NO..NO..and HELL NO”  Meanwhile your mouth will calmly say, “Yeah this is fine, thanks.”  When you’re carrying two backpacks and coming off a long bus/train/plane ride the last thing you want to do is shop around.  You just want to set your bags down and shower off.  I’ll find a better place tomorrow you tell yourself.  No, you won’t.

Missing - It’s different that you think it will be.  You don’t miss being home.  You miss home being with you.

Broken flip-flops - The pain fades quickly enough, but it stings something fierce the moment your good friends pass.

Cambodian Pop Music - An endless stream of videos with beautiful Cambodian people dressed in horrendous 50’s era nightclub attire singing songs (which to the western ear sound indistinguishable) with the words scrolling across the screen.  It is choreographed karaoke.  It is current and yet comically out-of-date.  Oh, and it plays over and over and over on every bus in Cambodia.  It plays at 4am on “sleeper” buses.  All of the songs on my iPod are now tainted by the memory of faint Cambodian monotone sing-song in the background.  I love it.  I love it so much.  Actually there is one song I do like, but that is irrelevant.  You’re tempted to download it or at least youtube it.  I know you are.  Don’t.  Do not. 

Textless - In the beginning I often reached for my phone to send the boys a “you won’t believe this!” update only to find my pocket empty.  I no longer reach, but I do still wish I could thumb-type with brevity and exclamation marks the moments that don’t belong on Facebook or this blog.

Skol beer - 5% alcohol.  95% laxative.  All vengeance.  I hate you Skol.

Sleepless nights - Life on the road is not always a well rested life.  Reasons I have tossed and turned include:

Pigs squealing
Roosters roostering
Dudes building a new porch on the next cabana over
Dudes putting a new roof on my cabana
Pillows that seem to be stuffed with Styrofoam blocks
The chilling realization that I am actually staying in this room
Rain pounding on a metal roof
Drunk people coming back even later than me
A couple not coupling as quietly as they think
Cats brawling against my door
Sweat.  Lots of sweat.
Skol beer

So you see it is not all splendor on this side of the blog.  I have things.  Now if you will excuse me it is a beautiful day, whatever day it is, and I have warm seas and sweet drinks to attend to.

Same Skin. Same Bhudda.

(Published 10 October 2010)

I am 32 years old.  If I were Cambodian I would have been born into the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.  In all likelihood I would not be alive today.

“Then Ma hears the slush of mud as a soldier moves his position.  Her heart pounds as if it will rip through her chest.  One soldier slings his rifle across his back and walks toward the group.  Ma feels the ground beneath her become warm and wet.  Glancing to her side, she sees that the man next to her has wet his pants.  A soldier approaches the group.  He walks straight toward her.  Ma’s eyes widen with hope.  Her heart palpitates with fear.  The soldier reaches down and grabs Geak’s shoulders.  The two of them scream a loud shrill scream that echoes through the air.  But the soldiers do not stop and pull Geak out of her grasp as they cling to one another, yelling to each other not to let go.  The soldier tears them apart until only the tips of their fingers hold them together, then that chain too is broken.  All the villagers cry and beg and start to get up off their knees.  Suddenly the rattling sounds of rifles go off and bullets pierce through their bodies, silencing their screams.

Geak runs over to Ma’s slumped-over body with her face in the mud.  Geak is only six-years old, too young to understand what has just happened.  She calls Ma and shakes her shoulders.  She touches Ma’s cheeks and ears, and grabs her hair to try to lift her face out of the mud, but she is not strong enough.  While rubbing her eyes, she wipes Ma’s blood all over her own face.  She pounds her fists on Ma’s back, trying to wake her up, but Ma is gone.  Holding on to Ma’s head, Geak screams and screams, not stopping to take in any air.  One soldier’s face darkens and he raises his rifle.  Seconds later, Geak too is silenced.”*

On April 17, 1975 the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city of Phnom Penh and all other urban areas of the country.  “The Americans will bomb the city” they said, “You can return in three days.”  The people believed them.  Cambodia was never the same.

Lead by Pol Pot the Khmer Rouge renamed Cambodia, Democratic Kampuchea.  Their mission was to radically reshape Cambodia into an extremist communist society supported by agriculture and beholden to no foreign nation.  The people were driven into forced labor camps where they toiled in the fields, planting, harvesting and digging irrigation ditches.  They were to follow the commands of the Khmer Rouge (or as they preferred to be known the Angkar) or face execution as enemies of the state.

Pol Pot’s Angkar did away with the country’s monetary system, outlawed modern technology, and systematically executed all doctors, lawyers, scientists, teachers and other learned people, including anyone who wore glasses, a perceived sign of intelligence.

People in the camps all wore the same black uniform with red and white scarf.  They were allotted meals based on the availability of food, which was often determined by how much rice needed to be shipped to China to buy guns.  Despite their communist claims to equalize the people, life in Democratic Kampuchea was not equal.  The soldiers were the elite.  The native villagers were given a small modicum of leniency because they were seen as pure representatives of the state.  And the former city dwellers were distrusted and abused.  The abuses varied wildly from region-to-region but one abuse was universal, the people were starving.

“I never eat my soup all at once, and do not want my own family to take mine away.  I sit quietly, savoring it spoonful by spoonful, drinking the broth first.  What’s left at the bottom of my bowl is approximately three spoonfuls of rice, and I have to make this last.  I eat the rice slowly, and even pick up one grain if I drop it on the ground.  When it is gone I will have to wait until tomorrow before I can have more.  I look into my bowl, and my heart cries as I count the eight grains that are left in my bowl.  Eight grains are all I have left!  I pick up each grain and chew it slowly, trying to relish the taste, not wanting to swallow.  Tears mix with the food in my mouth; my heart falls to my stomach when all the eight grains are gone and I see that the others are still eating theirs.

The population in the village is growing smaller by the day.  Many people have died, mostly from starvation, some from eating poisonous food, others killed by soldiers.  Our family is slowly starving to death and yet, each day, the government reduces our food ration.  Hunger, there is always hunger.  We have eaten everything that is edible, from rotten leaves on the ground to the roots we dig up.  Rats, turtles, and snakes caught in our traps are not wasted as we cook and eat their brains, tails, hides, and blood.  When no animals are caught, we roam the fields for grasshoppers, beetles, and crickets.”*

On January 7, 1979 Vietnam liberated Phnom Penh bringing a shaky halt to terrors of the Khmer Rouge.  Under Pol Pot’s reign 2 million Cambodians died of starvation, sickness and murder, more than a quarter of its entire population.  The liberation of Phnom Penh did not return Cambodia to what it was, but it did mark the end of a living nightmare and the start to a tumultuous recovery that over the last decade has finally given Cambodia and its people a comfort and belief in tomorrow.  

Today Phnom Penh is a wonder.  It is bright and vibrant and proud.  The shimmering colors of its palace and its French colonial past are framed by skyward reaching construction projects that symbolize the city's growing strength and global importance.  It is sad that in a city with so much life the outside world comes to see death.  The festering wounds of the Khmer Rouge are on full display in Phnom Penh.  These “tourist” sites are advertised in every guesthouse and in the back of every Tuk Tuk.  Paying to see death feels exploitative, but as a visitor it is a truth you must see.  To truly appreciate light you must understand dark.

Our Tuk Tuk drops us off in front of an orchard.  It is beautiful.  It is quiet.  It is lush.  It is nature’s veil pulled across the blood and bone and agony that lie beneath.  It is Choeung Ek, The Killing Fields.  During Pol Pot’s reign unspeakable atrocities were committed at Choeung Ek.  The executed were buried in mass graves by the hundreds. Women were buried beheaded and nude.  Babies were smashed against trees.  The still breathing were covered in corrosive chemicals to silence their screams and stifle the coming stench of their decaying bodies.  In the center of Choeung Ek a beautifully constructed stupa displays the skulls of more than 8000 victims.  The skulls all bear the marks of the Angkar; puncture holes from pick-axes, gapping holes from hammers, bone split from the sweep of a scythe.  Bullets were a precious commodity in Democratic Kampuchea; blunt force trauma was the preferred method of extermination.  Thirty years later the dark secrets of Choeung Ek are still worming and climbing their way to the surface.  During the monsoon season rains wash away the veil exposing the skeletal tales of genocide.  

It is in our nature to survive.  It is in our nature to seek the success of our species.  We never see genocide coming and we never act quickly enough to stop it because we foolishly believe that there is a limit to man’s capacity for evil.  Alfred Nobel famously defended the potential use of his new invention dynamite for purposes of war by saying, “My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions.  As soon as men will find that entire armies can be utterly destroyed, they will surely abide by golden peace.”  Nobel made the mistake of believing that there is a difference between man and men.  He made the mistake of believing that evil can be uncontained in a person, but that people will always protect the species.  As we have seen too many times the masses have no such boundries.  Pol Pot did not kill a quarter of Cambodia’s population, the Khmer Rouge did, thousands willingly and purposefully starved and murdered millions.  How did people, a collection of individuals, commit such heinous acts for so long?  That is the absurdity of genocide. It should be impossible.  Instead it is impossible to deny.  

Sickened and doubting the necessity we next went to Tuol Sleng or as it is better known Security Prison 21 (S-21).  S-21 was originally a high school.  Given the Angkar’s disdain for education it is not surprising that they chose this site as their epicenter of torture and imprisonment.  If you did not know the significance of the site you could stand on the fringes and imagine what a brightly painted, student buzzing version of the facility might have looked like, but history has made that impossible.  Instead what you see is cold cement and barbed wire and death.  Inside the classrooms are separated by temporary walls.  With so many to torture walls needed to be built.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers working at S-21 kept detailed records of their activities, diligently recording the unspeakable.  Their exact methods do not matter.  The frightened and bewildered faces of the prisoners in photographs displayed throughout the facility say it all, “This isn’t real.  This can’t be real.”   

Leaving S-21 I was hit hard by the recentness of the Cambodian genocide.  As I walked towards our Tuk Tuk I saw two local vendors talking and laughing.  They stood within a few feet of the entrance.  They were older than me, probably in their mid-forties.  I half turned and watched them out of my peripheral.  I did not want to stare but I was too absorbed to break my line-of-sight.  As I watched them my pulse beat slow and thick.  I could feel the blood stretching and forcing its way through my veins pulling the moisture from my mouth and the strength from my joints in its wake.  My blood had become my thought made physical in all of its staggering seeping sadness, they know.

They are older than me.  They were there.  The starvation, the death, the separation and loss, they know and yet here they stand inches from tortures ghost laughing and living.  How is that possible?  The things they endured can crush and bind the soul until it is charred and lightless.  How did they resurrect their sense-of-self after all that they have seen?  I found the answer in an unexpected place, the bumpy confines of a Tuk Tuk.

Our Tuk Tuk drivers name was Mr. Call, real name Ouk Thearea.  Mr. Call was 40 years old, outgoing, and immediately left me wishing I had brought a pen.  I knew my memory would never capture all the words I wanted.  As he drove us through the city, I leaned forward to hear him over the buzz of motobikes and city hum. 

“Michael, you are American?”

“Yeah”

“I can do a good American accent, ‘What’s up dude’  ‘How’s it hanging bro?’  ‘Long and (censored)”

“Who taught you that?”

“Americans.  Very funny.  They also teach me (censored) (censored) (censored)”

Mr. Call laughs hysterically.  He appreciates the jokes Americans should not be teaching him.  This was on the way to the National Museum, our first stop.  On the way to The Killing Fields his choice of topics shifted.

“Michael.  I am 40 years old.  I was 10 when the Khmer Rouge.  Little kid.”

“Were you in Phnom Penh?”

“Two hours to the north.  I was working all the time.  Everyday.  I was very scared.”  

“And Michael, when I was very young.  Less than five, America was bombing Cambodia.  B-52s dropping bombs (exploding sound effects) like rain.  Fire.  I was very young, but my Mom tell me about it.  Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos borders, America fly b-52s, many bombs”

A United Nations truck drives past.  Mr. Call watches it with interest.

“United Nations.  They are helping the trials.  Trials for Khmer Rouge.  But they are only interested in the leaders.  The Khmer Rouge soldiers, the young soldiers they are everywhere now.”

Mr. Call points out at the bustling streets to illustrate his point.

“Young Khmer Rouge were cruelly.  Illegal.  So cruelly.  Illegal.”

Mr. Call says the words “cruelly” and “illegal” with deep emotion.  He wants these words to stick.

“The young Khmer Rouge change.  They no longer believe.  You cannot point them out.  Too many.  Trial is only for the leaders.  Young Khmer Rouge still everywhere.  Different.  But, used to be so cruelly.  Illegal.”

“Michael, maybe I am Khmer Rouge, huh?  Maybe Mr. Call, Khmer Rouge.”

Mr. Call laughs.  He was a little boy, five when the Khmer Rouge took power, ten when Phnom Penh was liberated, but his point is made.  Where did the soldiers go?  No where.  They are still living in Cambodia, forever unpunished for their crimes.

Driving through a part of the city with dense chaotic traffic, Mr. Call points at the sea of motobikes, most of which are driven by teens and young adults.

“Before Khmer Rouge, Cambodia no educate.  People working, don’t go to school.  Now the young people are smart.  They educate.  Before big companies take advantage, Cambodia makes bad deals.  But, not now.  People are learning.”

As we got in the Tuk Tuk after S-21, Mr. Call could see that we were gut punched.  Rather than getting on the bike he leaned against the side and pointed to his hands, to the color of his skin.

“Khmer Rouge…same skin…same Buddha…why kill?  This I don’t understand.  Why kill?  I don’t understand.”

“Michael.  America help the Khmer Rouge”

“What?”

“My teacher when I was in school tell me this.  America have election.  Democrat?  Before many American soldiers.  After election all the soldiers leave.  But, America still watching.  CIA is in Cambodia.  They make General Lon Nol in charge of the country.  This made the Khmer Rouge mad and they are fighting.  The Khmer Rouge win.”

When he dropped us off that afternoon Mr. Call posed for a picture and agreed to take me to the airport the following morning.  He was a friendly guy.  I am sure he talks effortlessly to all of his passengers.  He probably tells them some of the very things he told me.  But, I wonder how many people actually listen to the beauty of what he has to say?  I wonder how many make the mistake of letting his voice drown into the buzz of the motobikes and the hum of the city.  I am glad I leaned forward.  I am glad I listened.  Because, later as I thought about what I had seen it was Mr. Call’s words that helped me understand how a people ravaged so completely can smile so genuinely.

Buddhism encourages calmness and understanding.  There was no subtext to the things Mr. Call said to me.  He was not trying to elicit a response or take a shot at an American.  He did not want my sympathy for the evils he has suffered.  He was simply, and in his own way eloquently describing the world as he knows it.  As an American it is hard not to jump into a debate.  We use statements as opening shots.  But, the world is different here.  Here a modest man, a Buddhist man told a stranger from America the things he knows because the stranger seemed interested.  That is all.  Words in their purest and most honest form.

I realized that whether it is through Buddhism or practiced recovery or both, the Cambodian people have a unique ability to live life in the linear.  The past is there, but they do not scratch open old wounds.  It took them a long time to get their country to a place where the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation were not at the forefront.  After more than thirty years of hardship they are finally starting to emerge and reclaim their vibrancy.  Why would they look back now?  If you want to know what happened here they will tell you, but you better walk fast because they are moving forward.           

One last keeper from Mr. Call:

Mr. Call: “Michael.  Look at all these girls.  Cambodian girls are so beautiful.”

Michael: “Don’t look at too many girls, I need you to drive.”

Mr. Call:  “Mr. Call can drive and look at many girls, its okay!”

A comically overloaded scooter drives past.

Mr. Call: “Look!  Five Cambodian people on one scooter!”

Michael: “You could never put five Americans on a scooter.”

Mr. Call: “Why not?”

Michael: “Americans are too fat”

Mr. Call laughs

Mr. Call:  Cambodian girls very small.  American girls very big ass!”

I smiled at this, but didn't laugh.  Mr. Call was looking forward and didn’t catch the smile.  Worried that he might have offended his new friend, he offered.

Mr. Call:  “America has pretty girls too.”

*Source: “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung