Sunday, November 29, 2015
We left Bombay on one of those trains you see on tv. Guys hanging off the sides, people sitting on the roof. We were travelling third class, the cheapest form of rail transit in India. Everyone in our class was packed into passenger cars with wooden bench seats which were quickly occupied by mothers with their children and a young Sikh military officer, off duty, to whom a crowd of young men passed a strong looking metal trunk through the open window. He had been smart, boarded the train, ruthlessly knocking old women out of his way, without his luggage, secured a window seat. The rest of us defended what little space there was near us and stood our ground through the swaying departure. Joyce found a piece of floor near our backpacks where she could sit. There was no point in talking. We were in for twenty straight hours, travelling third class from Bombay to Goa. I stood leaning against a window, bending over to watch the endless slums roll by as we left the city. A pair of Australian women began complaining as we entered the countryside. The difference stood out between the pampered Aussies and the stoic Indian mothers who sat on the floor for hours without uttering a bad tempered peep. The whining grated on my nerves. Chai wallahs appeared at the windows on the platforms of every stop along the way. You passed the money out, they passed the chai or sweets or Fantas, in. The Aussies loved the distraction, but their greed showed. They bought more of everything than they needed, shared it only with each other. They could not sit still and nothing was good enough. We somehow slumbered a little that night. I found myself standing at the window again as the morning appeared. Water buffalo looked up from wet paddies as the train sped by. “Hello, how are you? Where you from? I am a salesman from Bombay” I looked up to see a chubby, sweating Indian in a wrinkled suit and tie. He was smiling at me. When I told him I was from Canada, he laughed loudly. Leaning close, he waggled his forefinger in front of my nose. “Never trust an Indian”He winked, proceeded to outline the steps the Indian government had taken to obtain a nuclear reactor from Canada, all the while swearing it was for peaceful reasons, then produced a nuclear weapon from it. It was vague to me, I had heard of it, it had happened, but it was vague. I didn’t think it as hilarious as my Indian friend did. I felt embarrassed when he called Indians untrustworthy and thought, to myself, that I had about as much to do with the government of Canada as he did with the government of India. He talked with his hands, demonstrating telling signs of the naivete of Canadians and Westerners in general. He used comical facial expressions to emphasize slyness and brilliance. We chatted till he got bored and moved on. The vegetation grew lusher as we travelled toward the equator. The Aussies had been reduced to tears, then exhaustion. I was just glad they shut up. Joyce imitated the longsuffering Indian women. We didn’t find out till we were installed in a farm house, with a family, near the beach, that Goa was a European vacation spot. Famous celebrities from the West, rock stars, film stars, those in the know in Europe, with the means to travel to India for a one or two week stay, populated the seaside town during the European winter. I soon became addicted to the bean baji they made at the little restaurant in the main square where the buses stopped. The square was a leisurely stroll down the beach and dirt road from the farm. The Aussie couple who arrived in one of the local buses had “gone native”. They introduced themselves to us in the restaurant. She was the chai wallah and he was the chapati wallah. They explained that they had left home two years before and as far as they could tell, from the letters they kept receiving, their families were on the verge of hysteria. They were supposed to like India and travelling, but enough was enough. They weren’t expected to like it this much. They wondered if a family member would come over from Australia to try to find them in the teeming masses of India and take them back. At the moment, they were perfectly happy in India. They dressed like Indians and spoke to Indians in their own language. They liked the pace of life, the people, the country, the craziness. The guy pronounced “Boom shanka” in an experienced manner when someone shared a pipe of Manali hash. Goa had been a Portuguese colony until the 60s so they didn’t approve of dope smoking. There were less beggars there than in the rest of India and the locals still retained some Christian traditions like church and drinking scotch. Goan cops didn’t allow nude sunbathing. They took their time, walked slowly down the beach, looked carefully before telling German and Scandinavian girls to put their clothes back on. The “Boom shanka” was part of a religion which included sharing pipes of hash. We had seen, in the train station in Bombay, an Indian all dressed in red, red robe, red in his long hair, red paint on his face, sharing a pipe with a blond Westerner with thick dreadlocks down to his waist. They went through the boom shanka chants and held the smoking pipe up in front of them, as if offering it, before they smoked. The barefoot Indian looked fearsome, wild eyes, many necklaces of nuts and baubles, carrying a red trident. They said he was a worshipper of Kali, the goddess of destruction. The family matriarch, the grandmother of the family, questioned us one day. She gave Joyce a pitiful glance when she found out that we had no children. I had to admit that no, neither my grandmother nor my mother owned her own sambas. The grandmother was proud of her palm sambas. We lived among them. They were large plots of land like farmers’ fields full of tall palms bordering the beach. They produced enough wealth to keep the family independent. Women bent double in adjacent rice sambas for twelve hours, two dollars per day. Other women, those working for the grandmother, carried huge piles of palm branches to the walled in yard at the farmhouse. The branches were trimmed for firewood. The women, barefoot, casually killed the large rats which scurried from beneath the branches where they had their nests.. They were in a concrete trap and every one was killed. Those that weren’t crushed by the ends of branches wielded by the laughing women, were slapped sharply on the ground by the tail. When bullfrogs are hunted for frog’s legs, the same killing slap is used on the water. We wandered over mud paths atop the dikes which bordered the sambas by the white beach of the Arabian Sea. The wind rattled the palms and bent each stalk of rice. Spots of bright colour in the distance pinpointed women’s blouses. Luminescent blue and green birds darted through the dappled sunlight. For people used to traditional North American fare at Christmas, the shark steak dinner at the seaside restaurant was different. The cruel realities of the sea were displayed along the beach where we walked every day. Piles of sunfish lay rotting in the sun beside dead sea serpents, many poisonous. One of the indelicate but necessary realities of travelling in Asia is checking your shit. Yes, it’s unpleasant, but a tendency toward diarrhea, called “loose movement” by the grandmother, is a good indicator of illness. Travelling with a woman was much better than travelling with another guy or alone. The advantages were innumerable. Women related to women in the kitchen, food preparation was a common part of their lives. There were a lot of things which an Asian woman could never say to a Western man but which she could share with a Western woman. Joyce was learning to bake something from the women of the house just as we were leaving. It tasted good when we ate it for supper, but they left it out all night and I got the runs from eating more of it in the morning. We had to be very careful about cooking utensils in Goa because, as the women demonstrated, anything left out in the kitchen is an object to be examined and crawled over by the same giant cockroaches which hung around the toilet. The toilet was even scarier than the kitchen. When you crouched to defecate into the darkness below the little room beside the kitchen, the giant barnyard sow in the back yard could be heard grunting and trying to climb the concrete chute below you, to meet your turds halfway. When I started squirting brown juice, I couldn’t stand the sounds emanating from the depths of the toilet. I visualized a fat septic tank with teats waiting for my diarrhea. I found a place in the bush where I squatted, wishing for the cool Himalayas. The monsoon season was approaching, it was time to head north before the world was submerged.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
We escaped the desperate hordes of Bangkok to the small island of Ko Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Its main industry was the export of copra from the millions of coconut trees on plantations. The labourers earned a dollar and a half American per day. There was a little tourism, a little fishing, a lot of houses with self contained environments. Each house had pigs, chickens, water buffaloes and a garden. There were free coconuts: pineapples and bananas cost pennies. We headed across the island to a village called Tongkien where you could sleep for free under a bamboo canopy in front of a restaurant. You ate whatever the fishermen came up with that day. A few kilometres away was Lamlamai, the beach. It had pure, white sand, warm, light blue, translucent water. In the sun it was almost too bright to look at. There were sand dunes between the sea and the coconut trees. The Thai sun baked everything in vibrating shimmers, the sea breeze blew. The only people who didn’t seem to be affected by the blazing sun were the fishermen who stalked invisible prey with their coolers, Chinese hats and wet sarongs. They stood still, waded in the shallows with their nets, looked like outgrowths of the shore. The Thais appeared out of nowhere, two of them, sat beside us in the sand. The sun, breeze and salt water dehydration drove us up into the trees to sit in the shade and drink coconut milk Sante, “peace” in Thai, and Anothai, hacked some coconuts open, we all drank. Joyce liked the mature yellow coconuts, I preferred the yellowish brown ones, older. Some people liked the young, green coconuts, no one ate the old, brown ones. Anothai, tall, well developed above the waist, skinny below, challenged me as we sat. He was dark skinned, full of energy, knew English because he worked for the Americans who were stationed there. I was forced to respond to his pushing me, using me for a Thai boxing punching bag. The kids in Thailand knew Thai boxing like Canadian kids knew hockey. It was their national sport, on tv all the time. He flopped out some lazy jabs, then surprised me with combinations of whirling knee kicks and high kicks. Most of them landed on my shoulders and upper arms. My rudimentary karate training bluffed Anothai into giving up after a long sparring session. Sante and Joyce watched with forced smiles until we mutually backed off. I made sure our hatchet was in plain view in our pack when Anothai flourished his curved coconut knife. Sante said that he was educated in Bangkok, taught school on Ko Samui, but decided to give it all up and grow coconuts instead. We sat in the sand facing the beach, comfortable in the shade and the breeze. Sante and I talked of education, work, money, our respective countries, considered religion and meditation. Sante exclaimed “Ah, not think!” He demonstrated by sitting up straight, looking ahead with eyes closed, pointing with his index finger from the middle of his forehead to the horizon. He wore an intense expression of concentration and made no sound until he was finished. He said that meditation was taken for granted in Asia, everyone knew how to meditate. It was simply the emptying of the mind, the absence of thought. We slept under the canopy of the restaurant that night, returned to the ferry dock in the morning. Anothai was after our money, Sante tried to cadge whiskey. We bought coconut palm bongs from them, went back to the ferry dock. A man on a neighbouring island grew powerful ganja, the Ko Samui crop was rough, less powerful, plentiful, cheap. Two brothers, trying to escape the heroin addictions which they had picked up in Bangkok, stayed at the same hotel. They were from New York City, wired to China White and oriental women. Both swore they would take an oriental woman over a westerner any time. They apologized to Joyce, told me of the wonders of living with a Thai girl. They knew that they had to get out as soon as possible. They knew that they would inevitably be statistics on the list of heroin casualties if they didn’t. They smoked a lot of local weed to help them get through their withdrawals. We rested, let the tension of Bangkok drain away. We walked down long, white beaches radiated by the sun. The salt water and wind sucked the moisture from us beneath the blazing sun. We drank soft drinks constantly. Heavy punching bags tied to trees in back yards and farm yards were used for punching and kicking practice. The whole country was filled with Buddhist monks who survived on what the population gave them every day.
Monday, November 16, 2015
I awake to the hum of the air conditioner vibrating a fast, funk beat, green curtains opened a foot in the middle. There are white clouds on a powder blue sky, sunshine on the palms and slanted roofs. I slumber for twenty more minutes. Groping and squinting, I light the first cigarette of the day, lay back to smoke it. White sheets outline the pleasant hump of Joyce’s hips in the bed across the room. Henry Miller’s Plexus lays open at my feet. I try to recall the last bit I read, but several incidents jumble together, it’s not clear. The small speaker in the wall begins to crackle. An old rock tune wheezes through. The Malaysia Hotel, Bangkok, Thailand. We have the steaming chaos of Bangkok to travel through, to the photo shops of the Siam Centre, then the Indonesian Consulate, for visas. We need passports, return tickets, whatever other paper we have to pay for. Old Siam? The mysterious East? Bangkok is another Tokyo or Hong Kong, another filthy, polluted, high speed, hot city. Bangkok is downright depressing. I rise, run to the shower. The tepid water on my skin diverts me. We smoke a joint of Buddha weed, I eat the yogurt Joyce has gone out for earlier, we gather up all the necessary papers. Our packs sit on the floor beside the dresser. In this room there are two single beds, a hand shower attached to the bathtub. I got a four inch cockroach in the bathroom with the flick of a towel rolled up. The room is air conditioned by a central unit that services the whole building, at times. It all costs two dollars American per night. Long before there were guide books on the subject, before Rolling Stone magazine ever suspected, restless western souls explored the vast continent of Asia. The first wanderers grew to gigantic hordes of travellers. Political policies and wars set down the route: from Europe to India, from India to Bangkok, from Bangkok to Australia or America. All of the modern roads of discovery converged on Bangkok. In every city, in every country, there are hostels, hotels, guest houses, with cheap rates, basic accommodations, services for travellers. By word of mouth, later through travel guides, the locations of these places are revealed. The Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok is a venerable institution on the trail around the world. Perhaps, she’s the grandmother of them all. The Malaysia is a haven of sleazy, relaxed decadence for westerners. She’s a modern hotel, by sixties standards. She rises six stories with a grimy little swimming pool, a cafeteria and bar. The loud juke box is full of rock. There is one blues song. The lobby contains a travel agent and a second hand book shop where you can trade two of your pocket books for one of theirs. On the notice board, by the front door, we read, ‘The Dutch girls I met in Burma, I am in room 202, would like to see you again, Rob’ and ‘Don’t pick up Thai chick outside of the Pussycat Cabaret - she’s a rip off. My friend and I lost $2,000 and got badly beaten up by the guys she works with. She offers massage and takes you to Oriental Hotel on Rama 5. The police won’t do a thing - beware!’ under which is written, in another hand, ‘Too bad, you ole smoothy’. There is an abundance of drugs, prostitutes and opportunities to encounter Bangkok’s thriving underworld at the Malaysia. We were told of the Malaysia in Seoul, getting drunk on Soju and eating bulgogi beef with an American couple. A veterinarian and his wife who were heading home after doing the circuit from Europe to Asia, told us, “Everybody stays at the Malaysia” We make our way across the street to the Blue Fox. I begin to sweat. My body is adapting to the tropics. It’s affecting my mind. I think evil, violent thoughts in Bangkok. I wake up from dreams of being attacked in the street by Thais. Lots of travellers go through it. I think of the marine I talked to, who was raised in Connecticut, posted to the Philippines. He went through a painful sickness which acclimatized him to the heat. When he returned to the States, he couldn’t stand the cold. The physical effort of a Canadian or a northern dweller confronting the heat must be more strenuous than that of a person from the south. Coldness is a way of life in Canada. Heat is a vacation. All I thought about for the past three winters, working in the cold, was escaping to a hot climate. Now I was suffering because of the heat. It is cool and dark in the Blue Fox Bar, where we find an empty booth, order breakfast. The owner is a pleasant looking Thai who works behind the bar in blue jeans. He smiles, says hello. His two pretty daughters are serving beer to a few die hard Australians at the bar. We smoke cigarettes, drink strong coffee while the loud juke box kicks out an endless stream of Beatles, Stones and Bad Company. The daughters only understand a few words on the menu, but mouth each word of the rock songs. The regular westerners are there every morning at quiet tables, with cigarettes and coffee. Some are guests of the Malaysia, some from the surrounding hotels. The same westerners spend most of their time in the Blue Fox. As the day progresses they switch from coffee to beer or liquor. Most can be found there around closing time. One guy looks like a French gangster. He is dressed in a tight, black T - shirt with tattoos on his skinny, big veined arms. He wears dark shades, has slicked back, greasy hair with a small, black moustache. Joyce checks out his jewellery, watches him deal. A pretty, young Thai girl hangs by his side. She disappears, returns with strangers with whom he converses. Sometimes he slips outside with them, to do his deal. He is sitting with two large Americans who look like they just got out of the service. All three stare at the cartoons on the colour tv at the end of the bar. When breakfast is finished, we can’t put it off any longer and we plunge into the streets of Bangkok. It’s hard to deal with the unrelenting discomfort of a place like Bangkok. The streets are jammed with traffic which raises an unbearable decibel level of sound. There are the noises of broken mufflers on buses, motorbikes, trishaws, shouts over them. The sound hits you like a wall. We cringe at the loudness on the sidewalks. On the main streets the air is blue from exhaust fumes. Tension stalks the faces on busy, steaming corners in the heat. The smell, noise and visual spectacle contrast with Buddhist monks who walk around silently, in saffron robes, with empty begging bowls. The population is expected to fill them with food. Everything and everyone is bathed in wet, glaring light. We walk a short distance to Rama 4, one of the main arteries in Bangkok. There’s Rama 1 to Rama 5 all aiming, like spokes in a wheel, for the centre of town. Rama 4 is a wide six lane boulevard, lined by hotels, stores, wots and parks. It gets worse as it gets closer to the centre where it becomes another high speed, raucous, dirty street. We walk the two long blocks of Rama 4, turn left for more long blocks, decide to take a trishaw. The sweat, noise and pollution is overwhelming. The trishaws are the worst polluters but cheap. The buses and trucks are bad, but the trishaws are driven till they drop. Mufflers don’t matter. The smoke from their exhausts ranges from black to sky blue. We flag down a trishaw driven by a tough looking, unshaven Thai, his picture in his i.d. taped to the ceiling. There is a mandatory bargaining - pleading session required before we get in. He starts high, we start low. He lets us stand, sweating in the heat, drinking in his fumes. He is surviving on the streets of Bangkok. We are haggling over small amounts of money. His trishaw almost doesn’t reach the Siam Centre. He revs the motor all the way. The machine coughs a lot, but makes it. The Siam Centre is a big, air conditioned complex of businesses like American Express, banks and expensive grocery stores. We make for the coolness as fast as we can stagger. We drag ourselves up the stairs, breathe the cool air. We don’t need to come here, but it’s well air conditioned, so we walk around the grocery store, buy some soft drinks. We have to go across the street to one of the small photo shops, to get a dozen pictures each, for the visas. We drip dry in the cool air, cross the boulevard to the warren of little streets filled with restaurants and shops for tourists. There is a good six story book store there. A spiral staircase winds up the middle through all six. The sidewalks are steps down the hill, between stores and cars. There are turds and gray sludge floating by, in open sewers. The kids swim in the filthy canals. There are thousands of monks in saffron robes, bald men and women who walk around, all day, with begging bowls. It used to be compulsory for young men to become a monk for a year. Now you have a choice between becoming a monk or a soldier. The army is winning. The soldiers look like the best dressed people in Bangkok. The soldiers look clean, healthy, purposeful. The monks live in wots and beg for food. They go out early in the morning, the public fills their bowls. The crowds consist of thousands of people, oriental with western dress, many very poor people, businessmen, big, rich cars with chauffeurs, ordinary people shopping, groups of guys hanging around, hiding from the glare of the sun. They aren’t a friendly crowd. The boys in Viet Nam did their r&r in Bangkok, so the Thais know the hustle and con. They aren’t impressed by foreigners. Their national sport is kick boxing. We watched it, like hockey at home, in the Blue Fox, all day Saturdays. At the Indonesian consulate we buy visas for twenty dollars each. They insist that you buy return tickets from Malaysia to Indonesia. We hit the street again, walk all the way back to the Malaysia, to save money. I buy cold drinks in the lobby of the hotel before we collapse in the room. The pool scene at the Malaysia is weird. English and Australian guys make fun of Thai girls who withstand everything. The guys drink, put on spectacular diving displays from the railing of the balconies above. The girls stare into space, in silence. We are stoned on Buddha weed, the whole thing is in slow motion. Bangkok is everything that’s wrong with Asia. While we are in Thailand the police have a feud with the army, three district police chiefs are shot. There are three different guerilla groups in the south, more in the north, mixed with communists, drug lords and the Golden Triangle. Bangkok is the capital of it all, the centre. It tears along at its own breakneck speed. People there are on the edge of hysteria. We leave on a train which is guarded, near the border of Malaysia, by soldiers with sub machine guns and radios.