Saturday, May 20, 2017

Penang Blues

We sit watching a young Chinese guy getting drunk in the restaurant on Penang Road where they serve fried eggs and chips. I feel weak and sick. The past few weeks of high speed travel and junk food combined with the humid heat and heroin is causing my stomach to flare into violent nausea. Every quick movement, each meal, causes it. I=ve lost so much weight after four months in Asia, I spear another greasy chip, rub it in the yolk and force it down. The Chinese guy drinks his beer with a flourish and makes a show of smoking his Pall Mall. He plays western rock on the juke box. He sits with his elbows on the table, stares at the bottle cap twisting between his fingers and casts pugnacious glances at the surging noon hour crowd around him. Like thousands of other young Asians we=ve seen from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, he wears a neat white shirt, stylish dark pants, leather shoes, well groomed long hair and shades. We rise to pay for our breakfast and make our way back to the hotel. The Chinese guy orders another beer. When we reach Chulia Street, the clamour of trishaws and blaring cars and trucks which assaults us from every direction on Penang Road, changes. It becomes a less frenzied throng of Indian and Chinese pushcart vendors, labourers carrying huge loads and children playing in the street. Food wagons strung along half the length of Chulia Street display bowls of rice and noodle soup, deep fried snacks and roti. They waft food smells over us mixed with the ever present tang of boiling coconut oil. My stomach begins to erupt when we pass by the small crowds seated at rough tables which surround the more prosperous wagons. We hurry to the far end of the street, our refuge in sight. The old Chinese custodians glance up from their newspapers in the lobby of the Yeng Keng Hotel to watch us make our way into the courtyard and on to our ground floor room. The grey day bursts into a violent downpour. I lay gingerly on the bed waiting for the nausea to pass while Joyce goes to get some cold soft drinks. The old Chinese manager appears at the door with a quiet knock and a handful of Sumatran weed, tied in sticks. We haggle. I pay for them, and lay down again to sip a Fanta and watch Joyce roll a joint. We smoke the joint watching the ceiling fan turn slowly. The lizards dart after flies on the walls. The marijuana helps. It started a few nights ago when we stepped out of the Yeng Keng and walked up to the first trishaw driver we saw. He hadn=t even begun his spiel, the spiel every trishaw driver in Penang sings softly from the side of his mouth, on every street corner, near every hotel which lodges Western tourists, AYou want to smoke opium? You got any problem? You need something? You want smoke? Buddha? Number one! You want smack? You want to smoke opium?@ As he opened his mouth to begin his pitch, we stepped into the trishaw. AWe want to smoke opium@ He hesitated, surprised and broke into a wide grin as he hopped onto his bicycle seat. He pedalled in slow circles around some busy, bright streets as we negotiated the price. It was a little higher than what we expected, but still cheap. We stopped in a dirty back alley. It was lined with small, crowded hovels built of boards, signs, sheet metal and tarpaper. The driver jumped down, greeted by a throng of young children and dogs. He looked over the crowd, chose a little ten year old girl, charged us a small fee for the ride and left us with the child. She led us, by the hands, to one of the ramshackle buildings where we were greeted at the door by a teenaged Chinese boy. He informed us of the prices in a bored, professional manner and showed us into a fifteen by twenty foot room. We sat on a wooden bed without a mattress. This opium den was made of tin and tarpaper. It was lit by flickering kerosene lamps and contained a tidy arrangement of meagre furnishings. There was a small wood stove, some dishes on a bench and the bed we were sitting on. In the darkness, at the rear of the room, two ancient Chinese men reclined on a large, wooden bunkbed. They were withered up, old, opium addicts with shocks of white hair and emaciated faces. They indicated, by their manner, that they were the bosses. When the boy spoke to them, they produced a wooden box from the darkness and put our money into it. They spoke to him quickly and lapsed into silence, not uttering another word while we were present. Occasionally one would light a large, old pipe for the other, but neither moved from the bed. The opium came on small squares of paper across which it had been painted like an ebony brush stroke. The boy indicated that we must lay down, one at a time, on the bed. He produced a wooden head rest which looked like a miniature pulpit. Joyce laid on her side first, head propped up on the slanted board. The boy scraped some of the gummy opium from the paper with a small stick. He held the stick over an ancient kerosene lamp until the opium began to bubble and move. A cloying sugar smell filled the room. The opium pipe, rubbed smooth by use, had a glass bowl stained yellowish brown and a long, dark, wooden stem. When the opium reached the proper temperature on the stick, it=s constituency a delicate balance of solid and liquid, not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to work with, the youth placed the pipe stem in Joyce=s mouth, the bowl upside down. As he rolled the stick around the inside of the bowl, all she had to do was lay still, steady the pipe with one hand and inhale. The opium peeled off of the stick onto the inside of the bowl. He lit the stick on the lamp flame, held it to the bowl and told Joyce to smoke. He got three pipes from each paper. Joyce smoked two pipes, I smoked two papers. It became easier to draw on the pipe the second time around. I elicited the only reaction from any of the Chinese that night as the two old men smiled with the teenager when I got a good enough hit to burn one whole pipe without pausing for breath. I waited for him to make the sixth pipe. The small lamp burned black and orange, feet from my eyes, the sugary smoke filled my lungs, a lethargy settled through me, a feeling of well being. A flickering tar paper shack in a remote Asian city. Coleridge came to mind. It was at this moment that a young Malay woman appeared at the door and began talking to Joyce. She had beautiful, brown eyes and a radiant smile, despite large holes in her front teeth. She was the mother of the little girl who had led us there, asked if we would like to smoke some smack. I finished my pipe, Joyce inspected the vial of white powder and tasted it. The woman borrowed a cigarette, emptied the end, refilled it with a tiny amount of heroin and twisted it closed. We were already stoned on the opium but a few puffs of this legendary China White produced a weakness in the knees and a tingling in the groin. We decided to buy a small amount of powder from the lady and bid our inscrutable hosts farewell for the night. As we left with the young woman, she whispered to Joyce that we should return to her place next time. She said that she gave better prices for smoking and buying. Back at the Yeng Keng, we smoked a small amount of the white powder. Greed made us snort two little lines each. The euphoria of the opium and the venerable reputation of this particular kind of junk made us collide at the sink in our room at least four times. We were vomiting and spewing all over the place. I lost count of my own retches at an even dozen and fell into an exhausted sleep. The next few unsteady days were spent fasting, mailing home letters and presents and doing a bit of wobbly shopping. It was time to push on to Sumatra. We decided to pay one more visit to the smiling lady. By now we had realized that the circuitous route which the trishaw driver had taken on our first visit ended up a few blocks from the Yeng Keng. We walked slowly through the dusty streets in the tropical night. A trishaw bearing a western couple passed on its way to the opium alleys. Another came from the alleys carrying a couple. We acknowledged their knowing smiles with a wave. A crowd of children descended on us when we reached the alley. They tried to take us by the hand as they imitated the sales pitch of the trishaw drivers in their musical, broken English. The little girl from our last visit dragged us to her door. We were greeted with open arms by the smiling lady. She hugged Joyce like a long lost sister. Her husband appeared in the doorway behind her to welcome us with a hearty handshake and a glowing smile. Their one room home was too small to accommodate more than two visitors. We got the chairs, the lady sat on a box, the man on the bed, an infant asleep beside him. We sat in semi darkness for a time, their kerosene lamps barely working, listening to stories of the many western friends they had entertained. They said they had done business with a lot of westerners and showed us a collection of snapshots and visa pictures with, >To my friends=, >Love= and >Thank you for everything= written on the backs. We couldn=t see much until one of the children who had been scampering in and out produced a bright kerosene lamp. They wanted us to smoke some opium, but my stomach was still in a shaky state. Joyce didn=t want to spend the money on opium so we bought a vial of white powder. The lady apologized for charging what she considered a high price, but explained that the dope came from the old Chinese men next door. They were her landlords and forced her to charge high prices to tourists on the threat that she and her family would be evicted. The prices were low by western standards. We had to have a sociable smoke before we left so the man made a joint with one of Joyce=s cigarettes and her dope. He recounted stories of the trade. We found ourselves charmed by his sincerity and open smile. He spent long minutes telling us he liked foreigners, tourists, westerners, always did his best to help them out and tried to keep his dealing fair and square. They talked of the black American who lived with them for some months while he was stranded in Penang with no money. A short time after he arrived, he hit up the white powder against our friend=s advice and was unconscious for days. He slept in the chair on which I was sitting and was treated like one of the family. They had, just that day, sent him a shipment of junk back in the States. My system wasn=t ready for more dope so I declined the joint after one hit and sat watching the others smoke it. The lady had a great fondness for Joyce and rummaged around at the back of the dark room to find a bunch of clothes which she gave her. They were Chinese in style and didn=t fit Joyce so she never wore them. The idea of accepting gifts from these people while we sat in the smallest house we had ever been in, in the midst of the worst poverty we had seen, seemed logical at the time. When the joint was finished, the man announced that we were lucky because we=d arrived just at the time of day when he fixed up. He offered us a hit but added in the same breath that he didn=t want us to partake because he knew we wouldn=t be able to cope with it. We declined, grateful for his honesty and watched as he unrolled his outfit. He cooked some powder in an old, battered spoon, cleaned his eyedropper squeeze syringe with water and a cigarette filter and tied off his right arm. The dark room filled with that electric silence which descends when a person ties a band around their arm and pumps their hand to swell the blood vessels. The meticulous, gentle care he takes in finding a vein and pushing the needle in, the blood drawn back into the tube of the syringe, the careful surveillance of the two liquids. The whack, bang, crank which follows. We watched the dark vein pierced, the concentration and perspiration on the dark brow. The smiling lady smiled with her arm around a small girl. The baby, the only son of the family, breathed softly on the bed beside his father. The tiny room was heavy with the smell of burnt heroin. He began to tell us again of the many foolish tourists he had seen shooting the drug, coming close to overdosing or dying, full of confidence before, switching to smoking or snorting after. Then, in the sad, soft light of the kerosene lamp, his eyes glazed over. He stopped in mid sentence to allow his moment of ecstasy to rush through him and forgot what he was saying. I thought frivolous western thoughts of Clapton and Neil Young. We sat in silence in the sweaty Penang night. We left their house amid fond farewells and walked back to the Yeng Keng. I was still too sick to do any heroin. I smoked a joint of Sumatran and laid on the bed. The little green lizard darts like an arrow and gobbles up a lazy fly with a lightning tongue. A peal of laughter rings from an upstairs room of partying Australians. The ceiling fan turns slowly.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Two Dogs

He’d been alone a lot. Not lonesome in the sad sense of the word... he was used to it. There was that woman, once. She stayed for a while but, eventually, she drifted away. There were the two dogs, of course, so he wasn’t really alone. Just no people around regularly. He wasn’t sure if he owned the dogs or they owned him. He didn’t think about it like that, anyway. Ownership, laws, rules. Like the soldiers and media types in the boat who came by. They were so sure that it was necessary, mandatory, even, that he leave. They tried to convince him to join the rest of the evacuation. They could shout and roar and threaten but they’d never catch him. They wore gloves and masks and worried when they got a bit of water on them. And here he was, paddling, belly down, his inner tube and plastic container, to the grocery store. The water stank and there were turds floating by, but he’d seen the kids of Bangkok swimming in the filthy canals when he was there on R&R from Nam. They survived. In fact, the Thais were some of the strongest. Some of the toughest. He paddled with his right hand to turn left. Up to the park where the tops of the swings were still visible and across the submerged boulevard to the mall. All but the hardiest and most determined had given up shopping here. It wasn’t really shopping, you didn’t pay for anything, most of the valuable stuff was gone, looted. What were they going to do with the electronic appliances and games, anyway? There was no power. He drifted in the door of the grocery store. There were a few pet owners still making regular trips to the store but he doubted that many, if any, had tried the dog food. He found that it didn’t taste so bad. The cans were safe and the dried stuff, though it was hard to get down from the top shelf without wetting it, was tolerable. Full of vitamins and raw protein. Not processed to taste good for humans like everything else. The dry stuff made up for the lack of vegetables in his diet. He arranged the bags of dry dog food on top of the cans in the container. He pushed it up the aisle in front of his inner tube. The Saint Bernard breeder was struggling with a large bag, trying to squash it into the bow of her canoe. He stopped to help the woman. They exchanged nods without words. There had been nothing to talk about after the first few days. The latest gossip and rumours had become meaningless. Especially when they realized that they were stuck with the bodies. Some neighbours didn’t get along with each other, but to see them like that. Talk became trivial, unnecessary. He nodded goodbye to the Saint Bernard breeder, paddled up the aisle, out the door. The sun was hot as he headed for home. The dogs’d be waiting. It was kind of ironic, he mused, as he paddled along. There was Eric Clapton explaining his long fascination with Robert Johnson. That had been the DVD on in the living room when the water started rising. The hurricane caused more damage than usual. The generator he’d hooked up conscientiously after the last hurricane, was doing fine, until the flood. An earnest guy from England, an ex junkie, probably one of the best white blues players ever, sitting in a deserted building in Dallas, fifty or sixty years after Robert Johnson recorded there. Max wagged his tail in time with the drumbeats. Brutus perked up his ears, howled along with the song when the guy accompanying Clapton launched into the electric slide solos. Then the generator quit because of the rising water. Darkness enclosed them until he found some candles and lit them. The dogs knew right away. They appeared more anxious every time he looked at them. From the moonlight reconnoitre, the water first approaching his knees, then rising to his hips, things started looking very bad. There were the sounds of shots and shouting that night, but nothing out of the ordinary for that neighbourhood. The storm surge had lifted his van onto the roof of his stilted house. They found it a dry place, high enough to escape the water. He knew that the accumulation of a twice divorced, twice-estranged father disappeared that night, below him, saw the evidence of it the next morning. Clapton and the DVD player were under water with the tv. At least they had some bottled water and provisions. Once they had settled in the van, the dogs were their usual happy go lucky selves though they didn’t like it when he made them accompany him to an empty neighbour’s house to do their business. They smiled as they shook all over him upon their return. It was the only cheerful note on a depressing first day of the flood. More bodies appeared, floated by. The destruction reminded him of Nam. The memory rekindled the spirit of those days. They were “can do” days. Days when he and his buddies did whatever had to be done. No arthritic complaints at the size of the job. They did it then and now he felt that spirit return. They needed food and water for the future. The idea of taking the inner tube and the plastic storage container to the grocery store came to him when an old man’s body floated by, turned toward the park. No use sitting, feeling sorry for himself. They needed supplies. Thirty years ago he would’ve just got them. Now, he would do the same. They see a pathetic old man paddling an inner tube through the shit. They see long grey hair sticking out of a battered old hat and a grin with some teeth missing as he looks up at them in their boat. Some had life jackets on, some, with weapons, wore kevlar vests. Who was going to attack them? Some of the young ones with their bulging muscles and square chinned aggression were probably glad that he refused their help. They couldn’t understand his smiling replies, his rapt attention as he listened patiently to their many reasons why he should join the evacuation. Maybe he was judging them too harshly. But they didn’t look like they wanted him near them when they heard his refusal. No way they would take the dogs. He realised that he was smiling at his own joke: it was an evacuation all right. Like everyone in New Orleans had a dump, relieved their bladders and puked at the same time. Then left. Or maybe it was God. Or Mother Nature. He preferred to think that the earth was taking back its own. Like weeds that grow up through neglected concrete and asphalt. The older guys in the boats frowned disapprovingly when he refused. They warned him that they’d be returning with a body bag tailor made for him. They couldn’t help it. Saving people in emergencies was their job. They did it every day, all year round. They had to believe in it. Mr. Johnson’s tv, at the corner, way up in the attic, gave him a glimpse of the situation as it was portrayed by the media. It ran off a car battery for a while. Mr. Johnson had gone with the rescue workers in the boats. He was a stubborn, old pain in the ass most of the time. He complained all the time he was being rescued. He put his faith in the system and its compassion for veterans and seniors. The dogs greeted him with a tail wagging, slobbering frenzy until he yelled at them. They all enjoyed the dog food as the night fell. He had been living under the radar, out of sight of the system, for so many years now, that it wasn’t a great strain on him. He would have paddled around the city to see how old friends were doing, but from the dying images on Mr. Johnson’s tv, it was obvious that there were too many nosy media types, soldiers, national guards and cops. Too many guards guarding untouched neighbourhoods. Those who believed in the system were now stuck at the Superdome and Convention Centre. Viet Nam cured him of “my country right or wrong” patriotism. He learned, by experience, that smooth assurances from the powerful weren’t to be trusted. His doubts were confirmed many times over the years. People with power often deceived in the name of freedom. He contemplated the devastation of New Orleans. Only fools believed them. He surveyed the interior of the van, lit a joint. Billy would have been making his run just when the flood hit. He wondered if the shipment got through.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Journey to the East: Kathmandu

I am walking across Ratna Park in the middle of Kathmandu on this early, sunny morning, the smell of beadies in the air, the sounds of broken mufflered vehicles in the distance. I step around a pile of shit, not dog shit, human shit. This city is just an adjustment for the people of the mountains. Some of them shit here as they would in the meadows and hills. “God made man, man made money, money didn’t make man, don’t think about money” chants the fortune teller. He is a student of the occult from India. Dusty, dirty, selling glimpses of his truth to lazy, stoned Western travellers in sunny Ratna Park. We sit down on the grass, cross legged, facing each other. He presses a glass bead into my palm. “It is from Kashmir. Never let any but your loved one see this and it will bring you luck” My loved one. We stay outside of the city in the Chobar Valley in the second story of a house owned by a family who lives on the first floor. Last night, like most nights, we smoked a chillum with the father, man of the house and his smiling wife. By candlelight they giggled in disbelief when we told them that it was against the law to smoke hash in the West, that they put you in jail for it, went to great lengths to stop people from doing it. The husband and wife talked Nepalese to each other, gave us looks of sad commiseration when they concluded that we were telling the truth. On the road, in front of the house, we can catch the bus a few times a day. It takes about a half hour to take us to the centre of Kathmandu. The fortune teller continues his singsong spiel for ten rupees, his eyes unclouded by freeways, supermarkets and luxury. “Your heart is open and sometimes goes up and down. You will live to be eighty four, no sickness, no disease, no hospital, eating and sleeping, good health until you die” His stare holds my eyes. “Now, pick a number below five, sit properly, do not lie down” He presses a piece of paper into my hand. Led Zep music comes floating across the park from Freak Street. “Four” I pick. “Another, please” “Three” “There, I will write them down” He takes the paper from me, writes on it, gives it back to me. “Now, blow on the paper. If it is the same number, you will pay my fee?” “I already paid ten rupes, ten rupes is your fee, that’s it” It’s not hard to be firm and suspicious when you’ve been in Asia for six months and had almost everything stolen. The fortune teller is exasperated by my attitude. He decides to give me a break. “If the number is the same, you give me what you like. Don’t think of money. Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think of money” He takes back the paper, unfolds it. It reads thirty-one. “There, you see, the same. It means long life, happiness, a large family” “But they’re not the same, I picked forty three” He points to some other pencil marks on the piece of paper. “See, forty-three, the same. Give me what you will” He holds out his hand, waits. Some men near us, sit cross legged facing the barbers who shave them with long, straight razors. Kids wander over to us. A small crowd begins to watch. I give the fortune teller five more rupees. In better days, somewhere in the South, in the huge, teeming world of India (who knows how he got here?), he didn’t feel the humiliation of poverty and begging. He didn’t think of selling his truth to sceptical Westerners worried about rupees. I rise, make the namaste sign to him, walk toward the street. There is rice and milk to buy and the bread’s only available in the mornings. We’re meeting at the Tibetan restaurant where they make good lassi. Once we saw the smile on the Tibetan woman there, an unforgettable, beaming smile, we made that restaurant our regular rendezvous. Tomorrow we would begin our trek to Annapurna. Joyce has become friends with a Canadian girl, one of two sisters, who stay in a youth hostel on Freak Street. Shirley confides to Joyce that she is having an affair with Jay, the Nepali who runs the place. I hear later that the Nepalis do everything else in a crouch, on their haunches, so why not sex? The half sitting, half crouching position becomes comfortable after a while. It is not normal for North American knees, but becomes natural with practice. The feet splayed, tip of the rear grazing the ground, the convenient knees to lean on, quite natural after a few times. Seems a bit strenuous for sex to me, but to each their own. There are two main treks in Nepal, the one to Everest and the one we were taking, to Annapurna. The birthplace of Buddha is just a few miles away. The small, walking path winds upward through rhododendron forests, past spectacular waterfalls and impossible terraced paddies. Our eyes bulge at the sight of the huge burdens carried by the Sherpas. We look away from their thick, muscular legs as they pass us when we stop to wonder at the little building beside the path. It is a Nepali version of a Legion for Ghurkas. The silent, fearless killers, so admired by the Brits, deserve a Legion. Just didn’t think I’d see one here. Some travellers hire the Sherpas to carry everything so their hands are free to take pictures. They can’t survive without toilet paper and corn flakes with milk in the morning. The Sherpas are stolid beasts of burden. At the far end of the trek, as far as you can go, unless you intend to climb Annapurna, there is a windswept airstrip on a plateau. The same travellers who hired Sherpas to carry everything, take a plane back. They have other destinations to photograph, no use wasting film walking back. We stop at Pokhara as we descend. Many Western travellers just go there and stay there. The shore of the lake beside Pokhara sports restaurants with ‘Western Chinese Food’ and stereo speakers mounted in the outdoor dining rooms. The rock n roll never ends. Hostels are full beside the beginnings of a hotel there. The attraction, though, is the silent beauty of calmness, peace, as one floats in dugouts rented by the locals, by the hour. On sunny days, in the middle and all around the lake, float silent dugouts, some with two occupants, some with one. Snow capped Himalayas rise on all sides of the lake, descend from grey to brown to green. Valleys which end in the lake are carved by tributary streams descending from the hills. Giant white clouds float above terraced paddies built with patient hands and mud. Like some times and places in the Rockies, moments there are perfect. Back on Freak Street, in Kathmandu, we meet Billy Bob from Kansas City. Every year he manages to get his holidays and enough money to spend two weeks in Nepal. It is always coordinated with the arrival in town of the famous Manali hash from Northern India. This straight looking, short haired American was the stonedest of the stoned. He shared chillums with all who approached his gregarious presence on Freak Street as he spent his two weeks enjoying the stories of the travellers, the news of old, Nepali friends who he saw every year. He didn’t hesitate to demonstrate, with his passport, that Billy Bob was his real name. We had never met one before, must’ve blurted out our curiosity in a Led Zep soaked burst of coughing laughter as the chillum passed. Where the Bagmati River has flowed for ages in its journey to join the Ganges, a valley has been produced. The valley is below our house. When we sit on the balcony attached to our room, we can watch every day activities on the road in the distance, see the green, yellow, brown after harvest colours in the fields below, watch the cow and goat blink at the hawk circling above them. I was reading Henry Miller’s, Night of the Assassins, then. A combination of what he wrote and what I was thinking at the time, convinced me that constantly pursuing experiences so that you weren’t only thinking and talking about the world is, in the end, useless. As useless as the attitudes of people who think and talk about the world, but never experience it. Sitting on our rough balcony, getting ready for our imminent departure to Goa in the far South, I realized that I had come all this way for nothing. I was convinced that all the travelling, the learning, the questioning, was a waste of time. As addictive as it was, there was no more value in it than in staying safe and secure at home, watching it on television. Krishnamurti had something to say about that, too. It was a little surprising and humbling, but it made sense there, at that time. We stop in the Tibetan restaurant on our way to the train station. The smiling woman gives us lassi. We walk down Freak Street, saying goodbye to old and new acquaintances, cross Ratna Park. As we leave the park, I see the fortune teller again. His words rise above the Led Zep and muffler sounds, “Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think about money”