Thursday, 31 May 2007
On coming back from Thailand to England for a brief visit, it’s always interesting to note the slow, incremental changes that always seem to be happening here. Only if you’re away for a time are these really discernible.
I notice, for example, that life is getting faster and, it seems, more unforgiving. The demands on employees to be more productive and to work longer hours are ever-increasing. As living costs go up and aspirations for the good life add to the pressures, the worst features of modern western society are being exacerbated.
Sadly the societies that work the hardest are often the wealthiest… one thinks inevitably of the USA, Germany, Japan and now England. In America their macho work culture means that annual holidays for workers are about half those generally enjoyed in Europe and this yields dividends, but it’s a sad reflection on national priorities. As individual wealth increases, you’d think people would be able to demand more leisure time and thus a better quality of life.
France is a country that has consciously looked for a proper balance between work and leisure. With their tradition of the two hour lunch break and the closure of many work places for the August break when families can spend four weeks together, they seem to have got their priorities right. Yet sadly their economy is now in a mess, though I’m not sure if the one thing has caused the other. If they dispense with their heroic but naïve policy of a thirty five hours working week, if they can liberalise their labour markets to allow businesses to expand and take on new workers, then maybe the economy can grow again while preserving their lifestyle.
The new president, Sarkozy, somehow has to persuade the young that liberalization is their greatest hope… the most important thing is not job protection but a thriving economy and the chance of finding new employment. With entrenched attitudes about social protection, it’s going to be an uphill task though.
The other more striking change I notice in England after a year away is the high level of media hype about global warming, the environment and conservation. This often focuses on energy efficiency and the recycling of domestic waste such as plastics, paper and glass. There are now more incentives to make homes more efficient with better insulation and local councils are devising new schemes to increase the amount of refuse that is recycled and so not dumped into scarce landfill sites. The planners are coming up with dream scenarios in which householders will be rewarded for separating vegetable waste which is then collected and used to generate combustible gases while other non-recyclable waste is burned to generate energy.
Tescos, the big supermarket chain has announced plans to put a label on all its 70,000 products stating a ‘carbon footprint’ consisting of all the fuel, transport and other costs incurred in its production. Unfortunately today’s newspaper tells me that they have hit all sorts of problems in defining the scheme. For example, should the methane produced by a cow’s belches count towards the carbon footprint of a joint of beef, to say nothing of its farts.
The price of petrol and diesel has been going sky high, making Thailand look relatively cheap, but nonetheless the English suburbs are still teeming with ridiculous gas guzzling 4X4 ‘Chelsea tractors’. Popular vilification of their owners may in time change this strange fashion as the collective interest demands increased fuel efficiency, but still the demand for fossil fuels is ever increasing with living standards and expectations going higher.
Nonetheless, people are using energy saving light bulbs, there are campaigns to limit the use of disposable plastic bags in shops and one small town in Devon has even become bag free, with its retailers agreeing to stop handing them out to customers. Plastics is always a huge problem, but ironically a major use is the proliferation of green plastic water butts that householders use to save water for their gardens. Cut down on the watering, only flush the loo when you have to and shower with a friend, we’re constantly told.
To reduce ‘food miles’, buy the product that has been produced locally rather than flown in from South America and choose the ones with the least disposal packaging. Take holidays locally rather than fly long haul at great environmental cost and generally monitor your own personal carbon footprint. Conservation and global warming has thus become an obsession, percolating into the national consciousness and the individual way of life.
I can only applaud this development so long as the choices we take genuinely minimize the use of fossil fuels and reduce pollution and carbon emissions. Unfortunately, attractive policies can have unforeseen consequences. The drive to substitute vegetable oils for petrol and diesel fuels and the extensive planting of oil palm trees, in Indonesia for example, could lead to the clearing of huge tracts of rain forest and cause an ecological disaster.
So where does this leave me… as an eco-friendly tree hugger or a carbon hungry gas guzzler? How large is my own carbon footprint? Well, I’ve just flown across the world from Bangkok to London and I’m driving a considerable number of miles to see friends in my fuel inefficient old MGB. Then again, as the production of a new car represents forty percent of the pollution caused by its own lifecycle, my MG now being thirty three years old shouldn’t disgrace me too much. It is British racing green after all, and I hope I can be allowed the luxury of a classic car without too much self-flagellation.
I have to admit doing something pretty outrageous though. I’ve just spent a morning belting an E Type Jaguar, an Aston-Martin and a Cobra round the race track at Goodwood, burning rubber, fuel and far too much cash. This was a sixtieth birthday present from my kids and I hope you’ll not begrudge me this one indulgence. Approaching the bend at the end of the Lavant strait doing ninety miles an hour, my instructor begging me to brake, was quite an adrenalin rush. Now I shall have to wear a hair shirt for a bit and I promise not to do it again… well, not until I reach my seventieth birthday.
Finally, I think back to Thailand where in contrast to England there’s a total absence of environmental awareness among ordinary people. The Thais say they love their country but they trash it mercilessly with uncontrolled developments and rubbish thrown everywhere. Plastic proliferates and their food packaging is prodigious in its extravagance.
There is some recycling of bottles and plastic but this is only ever done to make money and the idea of doing it as a social obligation is light years away. In our village, there’s no waste collection whatsoever… rubbish is just chucked away and left in squalid heaps. In the cities, especially Bangkok, how they cope with the mountains of waste generated by ten million people, I have no idea. This must be a growing crisis of huge proportions.
I’m sure I have the beginnings of a partial solution though, namely that schools should tell the children that it’s their clear duty as a patriotic Thai to minimize their use of plastics and packaging and to recycle waste on principle as well as for profit. Thailand’s environmental problems are horrific and a dreadful contrast to the serene neatness of rural England that I can see here from my window.
When will the Thais hear the wake up call?
Thursday, 24 May 2007
Our new wooden house... what's it going to be like?
I’m writing this early one morning sitting on the sofa in the house of my daughter, Anna who lives in Petersfield, Hampshire in the rural south of England. It’s early summer and as I look out at the garden, it’s clear and bright, the first decent day for weeks. I’m here for my annual trip to stay with Anna and Will and Mike and Tamsyn, and to see my older sister, Diana and her husband, Michael.
The last three summers Cat has come with me and together we’ve spent almost a year and a half in England, the first time in London and then in Petersfield. Sadly, this time she couldn’t come for family reasons so I’m making a short trip here on my own.
A few weeks back, we took the bus from the village and spent a few days at our bleak, concrete room off Sukhumvit soi 71 in Bangkok. We’d suffered eight very hot hours in the bus and swore not to do the journey by day again. Parting crept up on us insidiously, but Cat did her best to lighten the mood as we looked round the new Suvarnabhumi airport before the flight. There’s nothing I hate more than separation but having become wedded to the other side of the world, I now have to deal with it all the time.
As we ate at the airport, the chill of parting hanging over us, I almost longed for it to be over and done with. I knew there could be no display of emotions because that’s not the Thai way, though under Cat’s cool exterior, I knew she was feeling it too. As I finally walked away into the departure area giving her a last backward glance, our worlds split apart and I told myself I’d never willingly let this happen again.
I wasn’t enjoying this at all, though strangely, I quite enjoy flying. Passively cosseted in a luxury sardine tin, I was to be propelled across the world, risking fiery eternity and a stranger’s elbows and snores.
I always ask for an aisle seat so I can make regular trips to the facilities. In the toilet mirror my hair’s standing on end and I reflect that while I’m traveling stupidly fast at 30,000 feet, Cat’s about to board a smokey old bus at Moh Chit for the long trip back to the village. Her journey’s only a few hours shorter but it’s infinitely more dangerous.
I’m not knocking the long distance buses in Thailand as really they’re pretty good. The seats recline, the air conditioning sometimes is okay and hostesses bring round drinks and free nibbles. Four pounds for four hundred kilometers isn’t bad either, but on the buses it’s not like the jet set… it’s a world where your fellow passengers are migrant labourers dismally travelling between village and Bangkok in search of work. Thailand looks glossy and smooth but for the Thais, life can be tough.
Here in the aircraft toilet I look at the row of luxury creams and fragrances and at the sterile cleanliness of the brand new plane, reminding myself that the air ticket back to the West has cost me a hundred times more than Cat’s ticket for the bus. But then I’m burning oceans of fossil fuels. I’m in a time capsule, the screaming engines spitting pollution into the upper atmosphere just so I can see my family. My carbon footprint must be size eleven at least.
Now back in Hampshire, all is English and idyllic… clean air, hills and countryside, a manicured market town full of pavement cafes and shops that line every high street in Britain and I’m finding it mildly boring. The town centre is busy but the surrounding streets are deserted and I meet and speak to nobody all day. It’s a dormitory town and they’re all too busy, madly working to pay the mortgage and all the bills but with no family elders around to help raise the babies and lighten their load. Exhausted at the end of the day, they go inside and shut the door, switch on the television and open the computer. It’s time to do the weekly online shop at Tescos. Such is life in the industrial society!
I think back to our village in the North East of Thailand, where in contrast to England, our Thai house is always full of people. Everyone wanders in freely at all hours, usually with a baby or two, taste whatever we’re eating and then wander off again. The Bangkok soi where we have the room is dirty and chaotic and choked with traffic, but it too is always alive with people. It’s a hubbub of markets, construction sites and food stalls, of prowling cats, cocks, colour and laughter. When Cat orders her favourite chicken feet in volcanic sauce from the old lady, she’s greeted like a long lost daughter, though we haven’t been back there for months. It’s an urban village, a community that against all the odds is vibrant and alive, a corner of Isaan uprooted in chaos to Bangkok.
I’ve just been staying with Anthony and Sue in Somerset, Anthony who I was at school with and with whom I smoked my first illicit Woodbine, down the side of the railway bank beyond the cricket field more than fifty years ago. There’s an old cider house next to their farmhouse and they’re having it converted into two units for holiday lets. I told Anthony that Cat’s building a big wooden house in our garden, and he asked me how much a carpenter costs for a day’s labour. He’s astonished when I tell him… the normal rate is about two pounds a day. He’s had to pay his workers about a hundred times more than that.
Yes, Cat’s busy building again and because I miss her and want to know what’s happening with her new house, it’s a relief that I can phone Thailand and talk to her. It’s a strange experience as, though we are in different worlds, the line’s so clear and her voice so strong. I always ask her where she is, in the kitchen or outside, so I can visualize what she’s up to. She’s never in our bedroom and she tells me she’s sleeping downstairs with her Mama and Nan. She can’t go upstairs, she says, because I’m never there and I ought to be.
I left her some money in her bank account before I left as she’s been longing to build a small wooden house in the garden for the children to play in and as an occasional overflow for visitors. We only have two bedrooms and occasionally it’s been a problem. I imagine the tiny beach huts on Koh Chang and on the phone, I ask her how it’s all going.
‘Work, work, work every day,’ she replies breezily. ‘Now nearly finished. Cannot finish toilet as someone steal sangasee for roof.’
‘That’s a nerve stealing the corrugated iron… noisy too. Soda didn’t bark? But Cat… I’d no idea it’d have a toilet!’
‘Of course there’s a toilet. It has a kitchen, big, big verandah, museum room and three bedrooms. Many people stay… must have toilet.’
‘Three bedrooms? Cat, you’re crazy!’
She’d talked to me about her ‘museum’ before, a special room to put my beloved buffalo cart in so as to get it out of the house, but I never thought she’d actually do it.
I now imagine Cat beavering away, in no way a butterfly, hyperactively planning her wooden house with neat drawings, costing the materials, finding workers, ordering truck loads of soil to make up the land and pitching in to help digging the post holes and scraping the timber.
The wooden posts must be pretty dirty because, as is normal, they’ve been stored at the bottom of a pond for some time. Cutting trees down is a serious offence and you can go to jail for possessing newly cut wood. The police are alive to this and, like minor traffic offences it must offer a lucrative sideline for them. Forest cover in Thailand has suffered terribly in recent decades but with people desperate for wood to build their homes, Canute could as well hold back the waves as save the remaining trees. Really it’s all just a game, but sometimes with high stakes.
Cat’s been playing the usual cop and mouse game and she tells me the police have been sniffing round the house, knowing exactly what’s been going on there. The rules mean that the wood has to be delivered at dead of night and there’s then a race to nail it to the house before the police arrive.
It’s a bit like cricket and if you can get back to the crease and finish hammering before they get there, it seems it’s too late for them to nail you. Our wooden house is obviously brand new, but you tell them that it’s been there for ages and humour them with a drink or two and then it’s okay. I beg Cat to be careful though, because I don’t want to have to visit her in jail.
The core of the new wooden house is an old rice barn that Cat’s recently bought and had reassembled, but then comes the dangerous bit as the rest of the walls and floors are of newly cut timber. Her idea is to build a totally wooden house of traditional materials, including a grass roof on top of corrugated sheets and so she’ll just have to risk handling red hot timber.
From afar, I have to admire this little brown dynamo who’s beavering away in the heat, passionately building something very special for both of us, while all I do is write silly blogs about it from far, far away. Yes, though I’ve totally lost control, I do like her idea of a wooden house, but why’s it so big?! What’s it for exactly, I ask Cat over the phone, but I get no clear reply, at least not one that’s fully comprehensible to a farang.
Even so I can’t wait to see the next photos of the building work. Cat tells me she’s had big problems sending me the picture from the internet café in Sangkha, but I’ve begged her to try again with some more recent ones. It’s tantalizing to be away at this time for all sorts of reasons and I want to see the latest progress with the final stages of our new wooden house. It sounds so nice, I might even move in myself!
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
Thai girls - the truth is out
A number of friends have told me that they find it difficult posting comments to my blogs and so they send me emails instead. The one that follows is by far the longest and the most striking I have received.
In an earlier blog I told you that two of my recent visitors at our house in the village were Australian Bill and Canadian Bill. Shortly after writing it, to my considerable pleasure I had a call from American Bill to say he was only two hours away in Buriram and that he was coming to see us.
American Bill is a compulsive writer but it was Australian Bill who was to surprise me by sending me a gem of an email about ‘beavers and butterflies’.
Bill has had a long love affair with South East Asia over many decades. He lived here for many years many decades ago and he still visits Laos and Thailand regularly. An economist such as he, incarcerated in academia, should be a dry old stick, but recently Bill has, like me, taken early retirement. The pupa is hatched, the butterfly spreads its wings and flies away.
Bill's musings that now follow are insightful and full of colour… once you get past the inevitable economic stuff. He’s always entertaining if you can stomach the economics!
“Andrew, I’ve looked at your blog site a number of times but have just revisited it as a form of light relief from my rather humourless studies in exchange rate economics in Laos. The break didn’t help much as it only made me more aware of the fun I’m foregoing by soldiering on here.
To use economists’ jargon, the opportunity cost of working here in Sydney, measured in terms of the best forgone alternative, is very, very high. I also believe that I suffer from a high and rising marginal rate of time preference. In simple terms, as I age, I place greater weight on current pleasures compared to promised and postponed future rewards. In short, the present is reality and reality is all.
So I tell myself, ‘fuck prudence!’
Now there’s a sentiment the Thais readily understand and put into practice with astonishing virtuosity. It goes a long way to explaining why your Thai neighbours in the village so casually take out a loan to finance a purchase that gratifies a want (such as a brand new pickup) without considering the prospect of repaying the loan and all that entails.
I now feel bold enough to take this observation into the realms of sociology. My theory is that this is one of the great differences between Thai and farang attitudes. Ours, if you will permit, is a ‘beaver’ society and theirs, a ‘butterfly’ society. Each such society cultivates the values consistent and appropriate to its structure, contending with the changing currents of the moment, floating, if you will.
We beavers build for the future in our dour, somewhat cranky and humourless way. Futurity is our gift to civilization, while the butterflies have no sense of time at all. You have of course noted how infuriating is the Thai attitude to measured time.
This is righteous beaver anger! After all, we beavers perfected the clock and set it ticking, but it is the seasons that the butterfly understands.
Now, and this is the key point, beavers have begun to travel into butterfly cultures and butterflies are playing host(ess) to beavers. It is an exhilarating experience for both beavers and butterflies but bound to cause all sorts of misconceptions, confusions and frustrations. We beavers are dazzled by their colour and movement, while they are dazzled by our wallets, filled by our constant beavering.
I think this analysis can be taken onto a higher plane of generality. There are two great contending principles in the minds and bodies of human kind… logos and Eros. Beavers are strongly orientated towards logos and recent trends in beaver society have strengthened this tendency. Butterflies live in Eros. Beavers love butterflies because it provides them with the needed counterpoint to their otherwise fatally one-sided nature. It is a largely unconscious search for completeness which draws them to Thailand, though they have no knowledge at all of what lies in store for them.
Have you ever noticed how beavers start to do the silliest things when they fall amongst butterflies? This phenomenon is now easily explained. Beavers must not simply only learn new tricks to survive but must adapt their minds as well to the demands of Eros. It is bound to cause trouble because beavers will always remain… well, beavers.
On the other hand butterflies don’t have to change much at all. This is just as well for beavers because many beavers are in full flight from other beavers at home. The last thing they want (or need) is for their butterflies to turn into beavers. At the very worst, some minor aspects of butterfly behaviour becomes beaverish, although the attempt is reassuringly laughable to real beavers. That is why beavers are largely insincere in their criticisms of butterfly culture. The enlightened beaver wants simply to ‘understand’ butterflies.
Butterflies are the floaters so they can easily accommodate and adapt to the new, but they don’t want their beavers to change too much as there are already far too many butterflies in Thailand. On this final point, we beavers will never agree.
Long live these mutual misconceptions because they are the rock on which these relationships will continue to thrive across the cultures.”
So there you have it… Bill’s amusing insight into the cultural differences between Thailand and the West.
Nonetheless, as I ponder awhile, I try to apply what he has said to my Thai wife, Cat and to her mother and aunts. The butterfly in Cat is a joy to share my life with, but it is not the whole story. On the other hand, she is constantly planning our futures, definitely a worrier who thinks of all eventualities, including beaverish things such as medical insurance. She is always restless to achieve and to improve herself.
When first I met Cat, she was flogging her way through an external degree which she started while earning almost nothing working in a shopping mall in Bangkok. Now she’s married to me, all her immediate needs are supplied, but she’s still active from dawn to dusk, planning, organizing people and building things and the rest of her life. My next blog will tell you a bit more about the recent frenetic activity of this small and beaverish dynamo.
I also think of Cat’s mother whose life has been one of hard work and achievement raising seven children into responsible adulthood from the poverty of subsistence rice farming. Likewise her two sisters are a fine example of people who have led good and productive lives and who do not drift like butterflies in the breeze. Nonetheless, they have kept their ability to relax and to enjoy. Life can be ‘sanuk’, irrepressible fun, despite all the pressures. At the three day party to dedicate our new house, Cat’s auntie whose life has been founded on selling noodles, walking miles carrying them to nearby villages, danced non-stop for hours on end, despite being the oldest of the three.
We beavers in the west have somehow lost that necessary balance in life as we pursue our careers in the claustrophobia of our nuclear families. A crippling mortgage, penal taxation, two jobs, two kids and mother-in-law three hours away makes for beaverish burnout.
Thai society sometimes looks slow and indolent to the critical expat, but perhaps our gracious hosts are more capable of finding the beaver/butterfly balance that we westerners most definitely have lost in our fast and materialistic society.
Monday, 21 May 2007
Cat and Eros, Piccadilly Circus, London (except it's dark and you can't actually see Eros).
Having the so-called skills of an English lawyer doesn’t help me very much in Thailand. This isn’t a rule-based society and power’s derived from status and hierarchy as much as from the law. The Thais just have to respect authority and do as they’re told. To question is to confront, to cause loss of face.
If the police think they’ve found a coven of drug dealers, they don’t apply for a warrant; they mow them down in a hail of bullets. Nobody likes drug dealers, so this has to be a good thing, doesn’t it.
For me in Thailand, I can’t access the law anyway as I’ve become illiterate and might as well be deaf and dumb. I can’t read or write Thai and I’m incompetent in all but the basics of the oral language.
When an official form or legal document is put in front me, I can’t read it and, contrary to all my instincts, I just have to sign it and be damned. When they say I can’t register my car in my own name though I know I probably can, when the visa rules make an ass of me or the traffic policeman tells me to slip a few baht into his back pocket, I’m as helpless as a baby. And sometimes I find it truly, madly, deeply, mega frustrating!
This loss of control over almost everything in my life is one downside that every farang suffers by living in Thailand. In my own country it’s my language, my system, but here I find I’m subject to the arbitrary whim of every bureaucrat or petty tyrant who seeks to assert an ounce of authority over me. No, I’m not getting paranoid! Am I?
Back home in England, my legal training can be a real advantage in many different ways. First, despite the Bard’s exhortation to kill all the lawyers, solicitors always score well in Cosmo polls of the professions women find most attractive. Is it because of our money or our verbal wit… or do women just like obnoxious men?
Next advantage is this… though I admit to apoplexy when faced with a video timer or computer manual, I’m never at a loss with an insurance policy, consumer guarantee or title deed. For we lawyers are blessed with an amazing facility construing the precise meaning of words, a great benefit in life’s perilous journey. Let me give you a recent example.
When last in London with Cat, giving up on finding any decent Thai noodles in Gerrard Street, we decide to head for those truly awful Umbro and Donnay sports shops on Oxford Street. One of the Chinese merchants in Sangkha has asked Cat to bring him back an Arsenal tee shirt. You can get perfectly good copies in Bangkok, but he wants us to buy him the genuine article. Costing a bomb and made in China, it’s a priceless artifact nonetheless, bought near hallowed ground.
As we fight through the Oxford Street crowds, playing ‘spot the Englishman’ with little success, it begins to rain; not real rain but the half-hearted, drizzly British sort of rain that soaks you insidiously. It’s time to get under cover. We’re hardly mid-way on one of Cat’s retail half-marathons, so I’m in need of a break anyway. Footsore and weary, I dream of the comfort of my favorite Starbucks on Soi Langsuan in Bangkok.
Sure enough, as always there’s a Starbucks within spitting distance but the one we find ourselves in is crowded and dirty, the walls chipped and peeling, the carpets worn and ingrained with food. After interminable queueing, they interrogate me about the sort of coffee I want.
‘No, I don’t want a Larty or a Mocker or whatever. Just an ordinary coffee for God’s sake… white with one sugar!’
Finally I get it and Cat has some funny sort of Italian bread with tuna in it, though the bill would feed a Thai family for a week. Then there’s nowhere to sit as the place is packed with steaming people. We find a corner and eat miserably.
I’d like to complain but the counter staff were all perfectly pleasant and I daren’t confront them with Cat watching. None of them’s English of course, just minimum wage fodder in a down-at-heel dive that’s far too busy raking in the cash to close for a refit.
Any thought of complaining is soon displaced, however, as my bowels begin to surge and grind angrily. I can’t blame the Starbucks food as I’ve only just eaten it, but an immediate evacuation is now as urgent as Dunkirk. I leg it for the loo, but in its dank confines am confronted by a dire notice.
“Only paper may be put down the toilet.”
Only paper?? No shit, Sherlock?! I’ll just have to hang onto this first increment of excrement and find somewhere else… and fast! At least being a lawyer, I understand Starbucks’ clear injunction.
Buttocks clenched, I make it with Cat to the nearest department store, but as usual the customer loos are on the top floor. Things are getting critical now and, to my dismay, next to the lift there’s another sign.
“Do not use the lift in case of fire.”
The reason’s again quite clear and for some good reason, we mustn’t use the lift in case a fire breaks out. It’d be different if it said, “Do not use the lift in the event of fire”. But thank goodness… we’d have been in hideous danger if we’d used the lift like everyone else.
I walk stiffly to the escalator, but to my horror see another wretched notice.
“Dogs must be carried on the escalator.”
But I don’t have a dog!
Glancing round for a branch of Rent-A-Dog, I analyse the wording. If they’d meant otherwise they’d surely have said, “Any person in possession of a dog shall carry it on the escalator”.
So now I’m totally shafted! I could carry Cat of course, but no, being dogless, the escalator’s out of bounds to both of us.
Then, as I stagger to the stairs, I spot yet another notice.
“Customers may use the toilets on the top floor. In the event of emergency, please use the stairs.”
Once again, the wording’s crystal clear to my legal brain. Or is it this time? Either they or me, or everyone round here’s going stark staring mad!
Funny thing is, in Thailand where I can’t begin to read the signs and sometimes end up in the ladies loo, life’s much more pleasant and easy. I never bother about legal things and somehow can switch off like everyone else and go with the flow.
‘Hello Khun Farang,’ they’ll say. ‘You like holiday Thailand? Have Thai lady? Thailand sanuk, Thailand freestyle! Why you go England? England cold, ekpensive. Better you stay here Thailand, can enjoy, no probrem!’
And yes, I think they’re right. When I go for my next face lift at the Bumrungrad, I’ll have all the legal bits excised from what’s left of my brain. Life would be much easier without them.
Friday, 11 May 2007
It's an urban jungle out there
In some parts of the world, every shifty-eyed lad on the street is just waiting to steal your bag or grab your camera, given half a chance, and sometimes it’s far more elaborate than simple theft. Scams against tourists and trippers can be heroic in their ingenuity.
Once in Lagos, the teeming capital of Nigeria, I parked my brand new Volkswagen Beetle in the street to go to the Ghanain Embassy to beg for a visa. When I returned some hours later, I started the car but it ran only a few hundred yards before spluttering to a halt in the heavy traffic. Three big men in long robes appeared from nowhere and pushed me into the kerb. One of them, a delightful guy with a smile as wide as a tiger’s, asked if he could help as he just happened to be a car mechanic.
I was now totally stuck, a stranger in this wild place, so this was an offer that was hard to refuse. Retrieving his tools from out of his robes, he soon had half my engine scattered in bits by the side of the road, and with a friend cranking the engine, he showed me that the coil was defective as there was no spark. His brother worked at the local VW agents, he said, so he could go and get a new one for me if I wanted him to. With the car’s innards lying in the dust, he had me between a rock and a hard place. With no way to wriggle out, I could only accept gratefully and wait while he disappeared into the crowds. All the while a policeman directing the traffic had been watching what was going on, laughing to himself about something that had amused him.
Within half an hour, my strolling mechanic had fitted a brand new coil and put everything back together again. He gave me my original coil back and after a token haggle, I parted with a little money and went on my way, heading for the border with Ghana. The car then covered many thousands of miles over broken roads and rocky deserts at high speeds, and never again missed a beat.
When I got back home to Zaria, I had the old coil checked and there was nothing whatsoever wrong with it. As I suspected, he had probably tampered with the fuel lines when the car was parked in the street and, on false pretences, had sold me a stolen coil for a very reasonable price. This was a time-consuming and elaborate scam and it seemed sad to me that a salesman of such charm and ability did not have more useful opportunities in his life. In England he could have been a very successful estate agent.
Rip-offs can happen to you in Thailand too where the huge differential between foreign visitors and locals almost justifies some informal transfers of wealth. Nonetheless, instances of theft and dishonesty are relatively rare. You can leave your bags lying around in hotel lobbies and in the luggage space under the long distance bus and generally they stay there untouched. Whether this high standard of honesty can be put down to Buddhism, I have no idea, but it’s one of the pleasant aspects of being in Thailand. I well remember the boy at a food stall on Koh Samet who came looking for me one night when I’d given him a five hundred baht note in the dark instead of a hundred, and I’m sure that honesty such as this is one of the main reasons the tourists keep come back.
Cat has locks on everything and wants to put steel bars on the windows of the house like everyone else and she’s paranoid about theft, but we’ve been reasonably lucky so far.
Once in crowded Chatuchak market, we were standing looking at some trinkets on a stall and I felt something brush against my leg. Looking down I saw that the zip of the leg pocket I keep my wallet in was wide open. Glancing round I saw a youth slipping away into the crowded alleyway, looking as guilty as hell. In the split second before I lost him, I wasn’t sure he was a pick pocket, though I now have little doubt at all.
If that attempt on my property was thwarted, the Pantip Plaza laptop heist was to be more audacious and successful.
I was quite fond of the old black Toshiba laptop I’d bought secondhand in the early days and it had followed me everywhere, faithfully recording every word of my beloved story, “Thai Girl” on its dear little hard drive. The whole novel was still on it along with all sorts of other precious stuff I’d probably forgotten to back-up.
Thus I was somewhat distressed when the Toshiba began refusing to type the letters ‘g’ and ‘y’. For a time I developed a writing style avoiding all words with these letters in them, though it became tedious constantly thumbing through my thesaurus. I thus decided I’d have to face getting the damn thing mended. As nobody in Surin seemed to know how to do it, this meant nine hours on the bus back to Bangkok and a hot and smelly sardine ride on a Klong San Saap canal boat to Pantip Plaza in Pratunam to get the damn thing sorted.
Now Pantip Plaza, as I’ve already mentioned, is Bangkok’s crazy six story computer mall. If instinctively you hate computers, as I do, and cannot begin to communicate with a computer salesman even in your own tongue, a glittering tower block packed with stalls selling every kind of computer and electronic gizmo imaginable and seething with touts and computer geeks must be your very idea of hell on earth. How would I ever manage to get my laptop mended across the double language barriers of technology and Thai?
First, to fortify myself, I decided to have something to eat at the upstairs food stalls. With my laptop securely slung across my shoulder, I bought a plate full and found a table where I wedged myself tightly in the corner, placing the laptop on the floor up against the wall. I hate eating in places like that and kept my eyes down as I shoveled in the khao phat ghai. It was crowded and noisy and I didn’t like the intrusive way the boy wiped the table around me as I ate.
When I’d finished and was ready to go, I glanced down and there was my laptop, gone! It had inexplicably disappeared. This was one of those awful moments of realization when adrenalin and raw anger surge, anger with the bastard who’d crawled up behind me while the table wiper distracted my attention and also with myself for being only ninety percent watchful. Why, oh why can’t I turn the clock back a few minutes and be more careful a second time.
But all is not yet lost. I must report the theft to the Pantip security men. I leap up looking slightly deranged and find a boy dressed as a guards officer in smart uniform and cap who’s sprawled against a rail, looking down into the central lobby where the Chevrolet pickups are on display. In my best Thai I tell him I’ve just had my laptop stolen, but somehow he doesn’t understand how very tragic this is.
Eventually he leads me away to the bowels of the building and shows me what appears to be a security office as it’s filled to bursting with at least ten uniformed security officers. Fortunately one of them speaks a little English, but he tells me the office is closed, that there’s nobody here as it’s Saturday and I can come back on Monday.
Yes, but… I protest in anguish! If my eyes are not deceiving me, the office is open and it’s full of real live security officers in gleaming uniform. But no, he insists, it isn’t. It’s Saturday and it’s closed!
I try pleading with him that at this very moment the thief is selling my laptop with its precious hard drive to some bent stall holder who buys museum quality laptops and could he please come with me and help me find it?
My delightful security officer quickly agrees and we head off on a wild goose chase. ‘Have you seen a laptop in a black laptop case,’ he asks everywhere, to which the answer is always yes. The whole place is crowded and bustling and everyone seems to be carrying my black laptop. After half an hour I get the feeling I’d better give up and call it a day.
Back home I begin to think about insurance. That’ll mean getting a written report from the Pantip security office on Monday and then finding a police station and asking for a formal police report. How long will that all take? A week? A month of endless waiting in traffic jams and offices? Once more my insurers win hands down and I face up to my loss.
I am thankful at least that the laptop was stolen before it was mended and quite gratified that the sneak thief hasn’t done too well out of it. He’s got away with a ten year old laptop which runs Windows 3.1 and Word, except of course for the letters ‘g’ and ‘y’, so perhaps I’ve been luckier than him. He’s just risked his liberty nicking something worth a few hundred baht and he’s saved me the cost of getting it mended. Lucky man that I am, I’d better bite the bullet and buy a new one.
Apart from my lovely secretary Monica, that old Toshiba was my very first laptop and I’ve often wondered what happened to it. I haven’t taken to my new one though and can never love it in the same way as the Toshiba, but at least it still does ‘g’s and ‘y’s. Most importantly, I haven’t had to take it back to Pantip Plaza, not yet at least, though I dread the day!
Tuesday, 1 May 2007
I've just had the experience of walking round Bangkok with my face made up like a tart. My lips were bright red, my skin plastered with pink paste. I went into Asia Books to ask about current stocks of 'Thai Girl', I had a coffee in Starbucks and I rode the Skytrain cheek by jowl with teeming crowds of Thais, but nobody even gave me a glance. I wasn't wierd at all. I was just another farang.
It happened like this. Two hours before I'd sat for five self-conscious minutes gazing into the cleavage of a statuesque and striking Thai woman with a very deep voice as she brushed make-up onto my face and painted my lips blood red. It was a very strange experience.
I was about to be interviewed by Dr Valerie Mackenzie for her TV programme, Morning Talk. (Showing in Thailand on 11 May at 8.00am.) Ten minutes of interview was quickly over as I enjoyed chatting with Dr Valerie whose interest in my work as a writer seemed genuine and warm. After we'd finished, we kept chatting for a time and I then ejected myself from the cool of the air conditioning into the swelter of a Bangkok street. I had totally forgotten the makeup.
What now disturbs me is that nobody even seemed to notice. Nobody said, 'Hey mate, why've you got all that stuff on your face?' Not one funny glance warned me that I looked an idiot.
Thai people always take the farang as we come and treat us the same, whether ugly, grotesque, wierd or ordinary. I always thought I was ordinary and acceptable and that that was why people are always nice to me. Now I'm not so sure because being wierd made no difference at all.
Maybe they think we're all wierd, that we're all just a load of monkeys. Maybe in Thailand I can get away with being a monkey after all! So maybe I'd better stop being so flipping British and enjoy being a monkey instead.