Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Down This Road Before

Down This Road Before

Bangkok, Thailand – Land of Smiles. That’s what they call it. And for a city of twelve million, give or take a few thousand souls, the people maintain an ease and childlike openness that would be hard to match in another country’s capital.

Across the street from the Royal Hotel, tens of thousands of people gather on the big parade grounds, the Sanam Luang, where workers are constructing a series of huge portable pavilions, tents, stages, and elaborately ornate…I don’t know what you’d call them…temples?...for next week’s cremation ceremony of the King’s sister, who has been lying in state for the past six months or so.

It’s a huge national event, diminished only by two weeks of recent street protests against the Prime Minister, requiring troops, tear gas, and the hospitalization of hundreds of people before order and tranquility was restored.

The workers have planted thousands of beautiful temporary flower arrangements all over the grounds, where people from around the country stand behind yellow tubular metal barricades to have their pictures taken with the Grand Palace and ceremonial preparations in the background.

It is a festive atmosphere, despite the occasion being somber, with children flying kites, families picnicking on plastic sheets, and all the old ladies dressed head-to-toe in black, as if the sister of the king were their own.

Vendors abound, selling food, chicken and squid on a stick, drinks, commemorative photo packets of the royal family, Buddha amulets, massage, fortune-telling, and t-shirts marking the event, which I didn’t want, but bought one anyway, from a man who insisted I must have one at his discounted price. “Cheap cheap. Same same Thai price,” he assured me.

Outside the hotel, I took a page from Powder’s Harvard ‘Pimpology 101’ class and showed the assembled cab drivers the pimp-walk and how to crip-step. Black folks in the States might say I was doing it all wrong, but the Thai? would they know?

After the demonstration and dinner, I sat on a sidewalk bench at nightfall and watched the fireworks over the parade grounds, and the bevies of western tourists attempting to cross sixteen lanes of traffic. A young girl, either out of her mind or high on something, walked by and pounded my arm, saying something I didn’t understand.

A few minutes later, she returned and proceeded to give me a lap dance until I remembered I was wearing my Rong Po Thuot amulet and pushed her away before she defiled him. He wouldn’t care for any of that action, and his protective powers are diminished by such activity. I assumed she was slightly mad, perhaps having been traumatized in some way, or maybe just born daft, predetermined by a previous incarnation.

Earlier in the day, down at the Buddha market, I made one last trip down the hundreds of vendors lining the packed sidewalk to see an old friend and pick up a few giveaway amulets, when a toothless old man waved me over and, drawing the attention of his friends, challenged me to a Thai kickboxing match.

‘You and me, let’s go,’ he said in sign language, laughing, while playfully striking me in the stomach a few times with exaggerated theatrical blows. I played along with the old geezer, laughing with him and his crowd until he kneed me in the nuts, causing me to momentarily lose my bearings and my breath, with dots appearing before my eyes.

At that point, I felt like laying him out cold with a left-hand uppercut, followed by a right cross, ‘the old one-two’, but that probably would have caused a sensational public stir and reinforced the image of the aggressive American, which our president-elect, whom they now know, saying ‘Bracko Ba-MAH’, is trying to reverse.

On top of it all, I lost my favorite one-of-a-kind handcrafted silver lighter case in the back of a tuk tuk taxi on my way to the Grand Palace for a pair of those temple pants for bro Tom Cook, who wanted a pair to dance in at next year’s sun dance. “Get me two pair,” he said.

Size ek el. They can’t say ‘X’. Extra large for a Thai, is medium for an American, and small for a German or Scandinavian. They can’t say ‘excuse me’, either, trying to twist it off their tongues, and in six English classes over three years, I’ve only had one student master it. A girl from Singapore, who’d learned English as part of the curriculum before moving to Thailand.

So, I was pissed at myself for having lost my lighter case, which can be obtained in only one place in the whole of Asia, necessitating a trip to Laos, and aching from the knee in the nuts from that old man, and still slightly annoyed by the loud yackety-yacking American woman, clearly from New York, like Brooklyn, sitting behind me at dinner telling ALL her business and where she’d been and where she was going, and the waitress who brought me tonic water instead of the ginger ale I ordered, when I thought maybe I needed to just chill, just chill, and go have an after-dinner smoke on the bench I was telling you about.

Realizing I had forgotten to find gifts from Bangkok for two small children, I returned to the parade grounds, crossing the canal, which reeked strongly of urine, overpowering everything else in the air for twenty or thirty yards.

People piss in public here, right out in the open. Women, too. You’re not supposed to look. And while shopping on the street, vendors encourage you to go ahead and try it on, right here, ‘Nevva miiiind’, so you’ll see people strip down in public, like that guy buying the temple pants across from the Grand Palace, and that European chick squeezing into a bikini today on Khaosan Road, showing her buttocks and baby blue thong to Buddha, God, and me. Never mind. Itdontmattertojesut.

Unnn-bereave-aber. And they say the Thai are shy.

How do you know a Thai girl with a foreigner is a wife and not a professional prostitute? They aren’t holding hands.

And they don’t look like they’ve been shop-PING. And they can talk to one another in a common language. Typically, the man with his rent-a-wife don’t have much to say at dinner. “Do you talk while make lub?” she replied, when asked by her friends, “How you communicate? He no sa-peak Thai, and you no sa-peak Englit.”

How do you know that’s a for-sure girl and not a ladyboy? She doesn’t have an Adam’s apple. If you’re not sure, it’s a dude, man. Sometimes you can’t tell by the shoulders and hips, and the Thai surgeons can do all their magical anatomical transformational work to dismay even the most suspecting.

In one particular case, an extremely convincing and attractive ladyboy had made arrangements to get married and travel to England with her young boyfriend, who had no idea of who his fiancé was before he was she, and she told my friend, who knew her, ‘Shhhhhhhhhh. Don’t say a word,’ pantomiming a zipper across the lips.

However, the Thai government will not permit an official name change, so the name he was born with is the same name that would appear on a visa application, passport, or marriage license. It seems that somewhere along the line, the young Englishman might wonder why the nicknamed Lu or Lin appeared officially on the visa as Wan or Somdet.

This is another city that never sleeps. At 2 and 3 a.m. the streets are still active, and at 5 a.m., at my wake-up call, the world has already begun anew, already hot hot, breaking me out into a drenching sweat after two minutes on the street, like I had just emerged from a sweat lodge.

The big-bellied, turbaned man from India stopped me on Khaosan Rd. at midday, introducing himself as a holy man. “How coincidental,” I replied. “Me, too. Where’s your badge?” I asked.

He ignored my remark and began his automatic spiel, telling me he could see things unseen, and tell me things I didn’t know, if I’d just follow him down that side street, that alleyway. I asked him if he could tell me if I was born last night. He said, “No. You were not born last night.”

“You are correct,” I said, walking away.


You The ‘Go To’ Guy

Old man still likes to look at ass. I noticed that about myself at the airport, especially on the staircase leading to the aircraft, with that chick’s ass at eye-level. I still enjoy looking at ass. If not, there’s something wrong. Or maybe, same same Buddhist monk. Monk cannot have election. Monk cannot look at ass. Monk cannot glance at titties.

Aboard the plane while people were strapping themselves in and the last passengers were cramming their carry-on into the overhead compartments, the semi-lovely flight attendant gave me the briefing for my role as hero, should the plane go down.

I was to be THE MAN, there on the extended leg-room exit aisle, with everybody’s life depending on how well I should execute my duties in popping open the 40 lb. emergency exit door.

I informed her I was familiar with the procedure, and if she could tell the captain that if anything…if he encountered any problems…to come back and get me. I think I could safely land the Boeing 777-110 aircraft ‘by the seat of my pants.’

She wasn’t sure if I was serious. Also, could she remind the pilot to be sure to fully extend the wing flaps on takeoff.

In the pre-flight briefing many of you may know by heart, they’ve got this lady calmly placing the life vest on her child and securing the proper straps, as shown. Your life vest is under your seat. You are told life vests are available for children, but they don’t say where.

So, we’ll be flying at 500 miles per hour, and in the ‘unlikely event’ the plane should go down over water, you’re going to be impacting the sea at an even greater rate of acceleration, and then, the plane is supposed to float, right?

In the demonstration, everything is calm and orderly, devoid of hysteria. And of course, the plane is level, and right-side-up. No nose-diving, cork-screwing, or coming apart at the seams. The flight attendants perform their demonstration with the utmost serenity. Inflate the vest by either pulling on the tabs, like this, or, by blowing into the red tubes, like this.

Or, you can lean way forward in your seat, pray intensely, in preparation to kiss your ass goodbye.

The wannabe cowboy, looking like Hopalong Cassidy, was wearing seven or eight Buddha amulets. He must REALLY be superstitious, I thought, doing the overkill with protection. The lady who sold me mine the previous day made sure I understood. “If you hab car crash, you no die,” she said. “You hab accident, you no die.”

If your pilot flies airplane into building, you no die. So, sure, I keep one close, not just on the rear-view mirror of a rez truck, but especially on aircraft. Takeoffs and landings, checking to make sure Rong Po Thuot is still there with me, around my neck, chillin.


Wai The Sea

In this culture, a person offers the hands-clasped wai to monks, elders, and in common greeting. As the protocol determines, the younger person offers the wai first, to which the elder responds. To the king or a monk, the tips of the fingers touch the forehead. To an elder, you touch your nose, and to anybody else, the chin.

Down at the edge of the sea, in remembrance of Michael, who lost his life while with me in the South China Sea forty years ago in Vietnam, and with respect to the immense power of the sea, I offered a wai before entering the water, as I always do.

One of the kids in my swimming class laughed and told her brother, "Look, P' Yai (my Thai name) wai the sea."

To the sometimes wonder of the Thai, I also wai my food. My father taught me that. Not the wai, but to give thanks for my food, for as he said, ‘something had to die for you to live.’

As a professional photographer, I learned the magic of capturing a moment in time, as we often do, suspending reality, touching a fragment, freezing a life at 1/125th of a second, and commonly, only in moments of gaiety, full of joy and love. What comes before or after is unknown.

Sometimes we’ll tear pages from the scrapbook and toss them to the fireplace, ripping up the photos in anger, fear, or pain, representative of a torn heart.

Sometimes this place is lonlier than the reservation, where the truly desperate live. At least there, one had the support group of the bros and spiritual family circle. I looked out across the Andaman Sea and fleetingly wondered how far I could make it. The Similan Islands were 60 miles out. India, just a bit further, a thousand or so nautical miles. One could go until exhaustion, then down, down, down, becoming food for mussels, mollusks, sea urchins and snakes.

- end