Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After the Flood

It's moments like last Saturday night, early Sunday morning actually, that make me wonder why. While the rest of the civilized world was presumably fast asleep or 12 or more hours in the past on a U.S> Saturday afternoon at cozy family gatherings, soccer games, gardening, shmoozing,cruising through the Colorado foothils and mountains or running errands for charcoal, fluid, a 24-pack of industial strength toilet paper and cases of beer and diet soda at the JumboMart ,why, exactly, was I trapped by flood waters in a small Hua Hin bar at 3am listening to a Jack Daniels-besotted coworker's near-incoherent monologue about shoving Q-tips up his nose.

It's nobody's fault but mine, I know. Nonetheless, allow me to continue...

Peering through door at the 6-inches of filthy water streaming down the small deserted street, I looked up from the floating carcass of a dead white chicken caught on an orange plastic bag to see a long-haired Thai bar girl at an establishment across the way ecstatically dancing in the doorway, arms flung to the air, to music I couldn't hear. Inside my shelter, The No Name Bar, my inebriated pal, a Chicago-native JT, continued to hold forth as the rain came tumbling down.

"Q-tipshh! Ya' know Q-tipshh? Keew tipshh," he slurred leaning into the face of the baffled bar owner, a polite, civil English chap named Paul. "So, so, so...like, I smell bad, you know?"

"You smell fine to me," Paul replied backing away. "Whiskey and cigarettes, but otherwise fine."

"NO!" JT replied. "I mean, I can smell it but, so, I figure, quite honestly, it's nose cancer. Nose cancer! The smell ... so Q-tips. Ya know, Q-tips? So, I sit on the toilet. Sit on it. I mean, the toilet. 'Starkers', is that what you guys say?"

" 'Starkers'. yes ...why do you need to sit on the toilet naked?" asks Paul. "Starkers with Q-tips?"

"So, so.. so I can put them up my nose and get a sample. To smell. To see if I have cancer. With Q-tips."

"Why don't you simply go to a physician?"

"Weren't you listening? I had the Q-tips!"

Suffice to say, I was relieved to finally leave the No Name, Q-tips and cancer talk about 40 minutes later when the rain slowed and a covered three-wheeled motorcab was enlisted by a Thai waitress to try to haul me through the waters home. A pot hole the size of a small swimming pool forced him to cut the ride early, so I slogged the last half mile on foot, 12-year-old khaki pants rolled up over hairy white calves muck and mud stained by the time I had the key in the lock.

A 20-minute shower and not enough sleep later I awoke. I had a date. Not a serious or even real one, but a combo waitress/maid at my hostelry named Tai had the day off for her otherwise Draconian 6-day, 12 hour schedule and owned a 100 cc Honda. She'd offered to ferry me around Hua Hin in exchange for gas and lunch. By the time we rendezvoused she'd picked up her 5-year-old niece who sat confidently in front, with me perched somewhat percariously behind Tai. We slowed behind a creaky combination food stall, motorized cart that I thought she was telling to move over but instead it and we came to full halt at the side of the rural road.

"My niece, she eat," Tai said. I nodded, having no idea what was on the menu and watched fascinated as the vendor, a wiry, dark skinned guy about 30 or so hit a switch for a spinning griddle and began to gracefully, daintily pour a batter on it. He gently thinned the batter with a thin metal spatula, spinning it into a pancake. It all looked sort of familiar, but... "What is it? What is he making?" I asked Tai.

"I don't know farang name. Thai name: '"crape.'"

"Crape? Crape?" The chef reached into a plastic bucket and pulled out some chocolate chips and from another scooped some powdered sugar. "Oh!," I said. "Crepes! French crepes!"

"No," Tai said. "Not France. Thailand food!" I didn't argue. We puttered further around the outskirts of Hua Hin to drop off her niece, past rows and blocks of unoccupied, freshly built identical suburban looking tan and buff homes. There's a property boom here of sorts but it's obvious a lot aren't selling and they looked oddly like any US insta-kit development. "Her father make," Tai said, pointing to the homes. "You want to buy?"

I assumed she meant he was the developer, and politely declined. Then we left the road and turned into a muddy, semiflooded patch of scraggly near-marsh land occupied largely by stray dogs and a small, shaky shanty town made of abandoned corregated tin and wood scraps. A few 60s-era TV antennas sprouted from the shacks but I couldn't imagine what use they might be.

"Her home!" Tai said smiling. "Her father, grandfather! Come meet."

Inside the dirt floor was still wet from the rainfall through the leaky, psuedo roof but her aunt gave me a polite wai and said, "Welcome," in English. Drying clothes were draped over every available edge, as well as on tree limbs outside. Two soggy looking mattresses were stacked atop each other. "Last night, water up here," Tai said, pointing to a dark spot about 3 or 4 inches up the bottom mattress.

Amidst all this squalor, mud and poverty, though, were two signs of semi-affluence. A working flat screen Sony TV, better than any model I'd ever owned, and a recent model bright blue washing machine. Electricity seemed to be jury rigged from some nearby power lines with a long, winding, tangled plug set-up. I don't think the Royal Thai Power Company had authorized it, but it seemed to do the trick. "Josie and the Pussycats" dubbed in Thai was playing on the TV.

"Do you get Scooby-Doo, too?" I asked. Tai didn't understand so I pointed to one of the scrawny dogs. "Dog detective. Grrrrowwrufff!" I tried my best Scooby imitation but to no avail. Just another old American guy standing in a flooded Thai shanty town imitating a cartoon dog on a Sunday afternoon...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Deutschland über alles
When I was still a callow lad basking in Thailand's relatively unknown glow, I recall being awakened by two sounds: a distinct bird call that I can still feebly recreate today given enough alcohol, and the cries of a wandering hawker peddling mangoes and cooked duck.

Forty four years later, I am happy to say that the same sort of bird still seems alive and well in the early Thai a.m. hours but the cries of the barbecue duck man have been replaced by Germanic folk songs and Odes to Odin and the sounds of wood being lustily chopped. I currently live next to a pair of elderly, extremely fit, gay German twins whose Pure Aryan appearance brings the term "Dr Mengele's experiments" uncomfortably to mind.

My racist, alcoholic British landlord of the moment who habitually refers to Thais as "nig-nogs" and claims to have dropped LSD with Leonard Cohen and been chums with Mick Jagger, the Cray twins of British crime fame and Tom Jones, among others, refers to them simply as "the poofta Nazis", which is probably stretching the point. Nonetheless, it's tempting to join him on this one especially when they stride like Nordic hikers, bare chested, bald headed and blue eyed in tandem singing what sound like Hitler Youth songs while hauling buckets of what appears to be mud or odd chemicals from some unknown site back to their home.

Physical fitness is big for them, less so for the rest of us. I mean, these guys haul buckets of mystery muck and chop chords of wood purely for the sheer fun of it all. At night they can been seen sitting in matching lounge chairs, occasionally with some demure Thai ladyboys, on their porch sipping clear beverages and apparently regailing their transvestite guests with tales of their father's heroics in the Waffen SS.

I miss the duck man.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Son of SZ Zen: Hua Hin Hoo-hah (Thailand Remix)

And so, with the snapping, slavering jaws of the Hong Kong tax hounds and his landlord behind him our fearless narrator finds himself in Hua Hin, Thailand, a locale popularly described by low budget travel journals and airline magazines as an "unspoiled beach resort" 2 or so hours (depending on transportation and road repair conditions) south of Bangkok.

He had last been in the "Land of Smiles" as a tender youth of 9-10 years of age and remembered a curious, friendly, idyllic existence that in retrospect probably depended more on the naive undeveloped Thai economy, three servants, and his father's privileged status at the time as Fulbright Scholar and lecturer at Bangkok's distinguished Thomasat (sp) University than any tourist bureau dogma.

What he finds in June 2007 is himself servant-free, ass down, right leg shredded at the knee and foot and pinned under a rented 120 cc Honda on a dirt road that he has foolishly tried to navigate in an attempt at personal transportation. That he has no more business on a motorbike than he does piloting an F-18 did not factor into his rash decision. Born to be Wild had been thrumming through his head as he twisted the plastic throttle grip and had died as he swerved and spun wildly to avoid hitting a meandering 1/4 ton calf in his path.

Looking up he saw the smirking face of 10 or 11-year-old Thai boy, a smoldering hand rolled cigar clenched firmly in his tiny tight mouth. His leathery cow-herder father was beside him. Both smiled at each other, conferred briefly in Thai, of which he understood one word "farang" (foreigner) -- as in "that witless old foreigner almost hit our life savings; too bad we can't collect and cash in"). Then they heaved the bike off his leg and stood there barely giggling until he wobbbled away in a bleeding, palsied cloud of dust.