Saturday, January 26, 2008

Road Runner

"I flunked my Thai written driving test today," T, one of my coworkers confessed early Friday evening. It was beer o' clock and we were bitching about work at "Eva's Krug", a small homemade Swedish beer and food garden of sorts very close to work. "Eva" is the Thai wife of the Swedish owner who has retired here on generous Swedish medical pension for a "bad, oh, very! bad back" to grow a stringy blond ponytail, wrap himself in sarong and cook Scandinavian noodles and offal in thick sauces with 17 syllable names for other Swedes who can find the place. Though we are non-Nordic interlopers, we are tolerated because of beer o' clock Fridays.

Flunking a Thai driving test would seem impossible. Though the Thai drivers are nominally more skilled and more disciplined than say, mainland Chinese motorists or a 10 year Congolese child soldier on crank, they aren't up there with the automotive greats, like, oh perhaps, Bobo the Circus Bear Scooter King.

Being callous wannabe Alpha males on beer we hooted. "Sign him up for the Thai Expat Hall of Shame!" I suggested. "Along with K." K is not a coworker, but an English expat with no visible means of support, a Thai wife and bad alcohol habit who recently gained local ignoble status by having the bejeebus kicked outta him by a "katoi" or ladyboy whose new breast job he'd foolishly derided.

T took our taunts well, though and began describing the test questions. There were 28 (in English) and he had to answer 24 correctly to pass. He'd missed five however and described several of them.

"One asked which vehicle is illegal to drive on the road. 1: A farm vehicle. 2. A vehicle with no windshield. 3. A stolen vehicle 4. A tank."

"So what'd you pick?"

"I see farm vehicles and cars with no windshields all the time. A stolen car is obviously a wrong answer. So I picked a tank."

We snorted again. He'd been here longer than several of us, is on his second Thai marriage, speaks semi-fluent Thai but even I knew that after something like 18 military coups since 1950something, it's obviously legal to take the wife and kids on a spin in the M60 Patton to Phuket or wherever the hell you want as long as it's not across the Burmese, Cambodian or Laotian borders. The right answer? No windshield.

What else? "This one even you guys would miss, I think. 'When is it illegal to drive? 1. After consuming alcohol. 2. When you are speeding. 3. As you are having a heart attack and going to hospital.' "

Like him, we assumed alcohol. No. If you believe the test you can get blind drunk and speed - but don't do it during cardiac arrest or you'll be under arrest.

His wife had joined us and laughed when we told her why we were messing with him. She'd taken the test too and had passed with only one wrong answer. We asked how she knew the tank answer was correct. "So many tanks, so many governments," she said. "Tank is law. Can drive anywhere no problem."

Friday, January 11, 2008

Milk Cow Boogie

"I gotta run," said a new coworker, an American guy recently arrived from Cambodia. "Gotta send some money to my girlfriend." We were on the patio of our rented office - an older, cool home in a residential soi of Hua Hin. It was about an hour til quitting time Friday afternoon, another slow, warm and soporific kinda day. I was taking a smoke break between editing the usual titillating stories about aluminum production and sales lawsuits involving Norway, Russia and one of the 'Stanizan countries.

Either that or something filed by a breathless Indian freelancer on an obscure provincial clash between rival political factions in which only surnames and initials were used and that ended with an obscure joke made by a "puckish wag" from Uttar Pradesh about a "rascal" from Uttarakhand. Ha. Ha. Jolly, jolly!

"What's the emergency?" I asked. "The bank is closed. Do they have Western Union in Cambodia?"

They do, he said. But, you see, he had to wire her money immediately so his girlfriend could buy a cow for her mother. Now. At the Phnom Penh airport.

I had one of those "I've been overseas too long" moments when I realized that it seemed perfectly normal for a coworker to leave the office early to wire money to his girlfriend so she could buy a cow for her mother at an airport. And I thought I was on the cutting edge of exotic girlfriend gift fulfillment territory when I bought several grams of birds nest for C's grandfather at a Hong Kong Chinese pharmacy...but a cow. This was a whole new zone. I tried to imagine buying a cow for either of my ex-mothers in law or C's mother. No. Especially Selma, my West Hartford, Connecticut Jewish ex-mother in law.

"You know," I said. "You'll need your passport." Western Union - and banks here - won't wire money elsewhere for foreigners without passport ID.

"Shit," he said. "It's at home." His place is about 10 kilometers from the office and , like me, he walks or uses motorbike taxis. He sighed. "She'll think I'm not sending the money now cuz I don't love her."

"Relax," I said. "Cows don't spoil overnight. Text message her. Tell her you'll send it tomorrow. The cow will keep. It's not every guy who gets to buy a cow for his girlfriend's mother, you know. Savor the moment."

Friday, January 4, 2008

"Supposed to be a funeral, it's been a bad, bad day..." - Gram Parsons, $1,000 Wedding

Actually, it's been a four day funeral outside my rooming house on Soi 51 this week. There's a large, Thai middle class street front restaurant about a block away that has suspended business for services for a woman who was probably an owner. Whoever she was she was "important," say colleagues who've been here much longer than me and attended a few lengthy Thai funerals themselves.

"Anything longer than two days means the stiff was a big deal" said one. Monday evening I initially thought the traditional Thai music snaking into the street and rows of plastic white lawn chairs on the sidewalk and somber looking Thais in dressy casual wear that I threaded politely through in an awkward effort to get into the mom and pop store next to the restaurant for two bottles of water and some toilet paper was some sort of entertainment event sponsored by the eatery. But glancing up into the (empty) restaurant without trying to look like I was gawking, I noted a large color photo of a hefty woman in a bouffant hairdo surrounded acres of garlands as well as about 8 or 9 monks sitting near the display.

After returning to my room the music stopped and the almost atonal, yet sonorous, chanting of the monks began ceaselessly it seemed. That was followed by what may have been spoken blessings and eulogies - all until almost 11pm. The pattern has been pretty much the same all week except last night I was heartened to see a bored boy and girl, maybe 5 and 6 years old, who'd snuck away from the funeral and were dancing to the chanting behind a pickup truck. Walking back into the lobby of my place there was another surprise. It's an large open area that used to be a bar, now with only two large stuffed blue gray vinyl arm chairs. Sitting in one was a stranger, a young man sobbing into his hands. I had no clue. Was he a mourner? Or just a random stranger off the street who just needed a place to sit and cry for a moment?

"Sawahdee krup," I mumbled in greeting and went quickly upstairs. When I came back out 20 minutes later he was gone.

About two hours later I was in a bar with several coworkers watching what one Brit pal calls "Zed-Zed" Top (ZZ Top) videos while a drunk German began lambasting American rock 'n' roll and the varied ways we use the word "fuck." "Eeez digusting!" he opined. "Like your rock and roll. Rude stuff!"

I tried the rational approach first by explaining that the f-word is actually a linguistic marvel. It can express any emotion from hatred: "Fuck you, Wagner, Beethoven, Scorpions and Kraftwerk!" to sheer admiration: "ZZ Top is fuckin' great...Top kicks fuckin' ass!"

I continud. "You see, Franz, it can be used as a verb, both transitive ('Hans fucked Greta') and intransitive ('Marta was fucked by Klaus'). It can be an action verb ('Heinrich really gives a fuck'), a passive verb ('Eva really doesn't give a fuck'), an adverb ('Heidi is fucking interested in Rudolf'), or as a noun ('Gretel is a terrific fuck').

"It can also be used as an adjective (ZZ Top is a fucking great band) or an interjection (Fuck! I'm late for the ZZ Top concert). It can even be used as a conjunction (Heinrich is a fool, fuck, he's also stupid and doesn't recognize how ZZ Top fuckin' rocks)..."

Franz was not impressed and switched the topic why Americans also suck due to George W Bush.

I lost it then. Not cuz I'm a Bush lover, of course. Just sick of sharing the blame and shame overseas. "I'm no more responsible for Bush than your grandfather was for Hitler! Hey, by the way, Franz, what did your Grandfather Schickelgruber do during the war?"

"Phook you, jah!" Franz replied. I foolishly pressed on. "Oh wait! I know! Your grandpapa was a simple shop keeper, right? An unsung ubermensch? But with no clue as to what was going on? Six million, Franz! You know what that number means?"

"Your Red Indians! You Amerikanz killed them too!" he spat back. "Yeah, we did," I snarled as a coworker began to separate us. "But we didn't build factories for it."