Friday, October 24, 2008

Crossing Bangkok

I don't live in the sticks, or even in the suburbs. My apartment on the 10th floor of Lumpini Place is two bus stops beyond the Pinklao bridge over the Chao Phraya River. Bangkok has no one major city center, and to reach my friends in Sukhumvit across town takes patience and a sense of adventure. On Wednesday as rain clouds gathered I waited in front of my building for the air-conditioned 511 bus which came fairly quickly. There are a couple of poor women who seem to live at my bus stop and one of them was dozing as I got on the bus.

I was on my way to meet Jerry and we were going to Bumrungrad Hospital on Sukhumvit Soi 3 to see George who had gotten his right knee replaced the day before. I allowed an hour for the trip which is what it has averaged in the past. On the other side of the bridge entering Ratchadammoen Road where the Democracy Monument is located, the bus stopped and traffic froze. I had heard that a rare pro-government rally was being held by the King Rama V statue and assumed the demonstration had impacted traffic, as they usually do. After ten minutes of no movement (except for the motorbikes that weave around the vehicles freely), I got out and headed toward the river to take an express boat taxi. But the pier next to Thammasat University only serviced cross-river ferries. So I took one to Wang Lang Pier where a I got on a tourist boat as the sky darkened.

A couple of tattooed ladies with dreadlocks were taking pictures as the rain begain to fall. Soon the crew was rolling down the plexiglass side panels as passengers rushed to the middle of the boat to avoid getting wet. I tried to read my novel. Before long the water was pounding the roof of the boat and pouring off the side. The sky behind Wat Arun was now almost black and the wind was whipping up whitecaps on the normally flat river, now a chocolate brown from rainy season runoff upcountry. As we left the pier near the flower market and approached Memorial Bridge, a mighty gust hit the boat and pushed it backward. We felt out of control as the boat drifted backwards, and then slid around and backed into a pilon of the bridge with a loud crash. Passengers began looking for the life jackets which were stored under each seat as the tour guide (this was one of the slower and bigger river taxis for tourists) called on us to be calm. The boat was able to turn back to the nearby pier as the storm raged (have I mentioned the spectacular lightening and thunder?), and the crew lashed us to another boat that had stayed behind. Just as quickly as it began, the wind and rain subsided, and we resumed our journey downsteam to the Takhsin bridge where I got off to take the Skytrain to Sukhumvit. I met Jerry at the head of Soi 8 and we talked up to the mammoth medical facility to find and console George. The journey for me from one side of Bangkok to the other had taken over two hours. (The excellent photo above of Bangkok's skyline during the storm was stolen from The Bangkok Bugle blog.)

George was not in good shape and he gave a pale imitation of his usual bon vivant self. He had been an NGO lawyer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for nearly ten years and left almost a year ago when the stress of fighting for justice against the corrupt government finally overwhelmed him. We met at the wedding of Jerry's stepson in Surin in January and quickly became close friends. On his healing journey around the world this past year, George had attended the funeral of his mother in America, explored job possibilities in Europe and Africa (an ex-Catholic, he searches for social injustices everywhere (Jerry says he's an ageless Boy Scout), and sought a cure for a teenage knee injury in Eugene, OR, runner's capital of the world. When an operation was deemed necessary, he returned to Bangkok where medical care is still affordable. While he praised the beauty of his physical therapist (I said I was interested in a consultation), he told us of a restless night with insufficient pain medication. His leg under the bandages appeared twice its normal size, and a tube drained fluids into a bottle beside the bed. We sat on a couch designed to provide a bed for family members who typically remain around the clock in Thai hospitals to supplement care. I took him 2000 baht worth of phone cards (George is the fastest SMS typist I know and writes longer messages than anyone; he has friends around the world).

"I'm feeling my age," said the 60-year-old athlete who wanted a new knee so he could continue to run, swim and climb mountains. Jerry, the senior member of our triumverate, had open heart surgery in the same hospital a couple of years ago, and he is putting together a humorous book on aging. You have to laugh, for there is nothing more boring than a conversation about the physical challlenge of advancing years. Until George spoke up, I was feeling pretty chipper about being a 69-year-old farang in a country were age is honored, not least by beautiful and still vigorous women in their thirties with young children and extended families to support. My online search to find a maid who liked to snuggle had been drawing a substantial number of hits. But if I went down the road behind George, it was likely that I needed a nurse instead.

Since my return from the islands to an empty nest a week ago, I've been in the doldrums. I haven't blogged since then. It's all I can do to leave the apartment to buy bread for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drink a cappuccino at Starbucks in Central Pinklao (yes, I'm paying for the comfortable chair), and buy the copy of the Bangkok Post saved for me by the newsseller who is encouraging me to speak English to her two children, Mime and Belle. The crosstown jaunt was a rare exception. I watch BBC-TV news until I've memorized the stories, chuckle at last years episodes of "30 Rock" and "The Office," water my few plans which are looking pitiful, and stare at the gorgeous view of Bangkok's suburbs to the northwest from my balcony.

I did manage a trip to school (10 minutes by a bus and brief walk) to inquire about the next term. Information has been hard to come by. I have to go to the administrative office of the Humanities Division and hang out with Dr. Subodh from India who teaches psychology and some of the other teachers who speak only a smattering of English. This time I learned that I teach the same two groups of students on Wednesdays and our first classes are next week, Oct. 29th. One of the clerical monks gave me a class list and I spoke with two of my students who seemed very relieved to hear that I was coming back. But once again I was unsuccessful in getting paid. They've given me money for half the classes I taught, up through Aug. 11th. But when I ask about the remainder, everyone forgets their English. My boss, Dr. Suriya, makes promises on the phone to look into it, but he was out of town when I visited. I know they're good for it, but I'd like to get paid before next month's rent is due.

In all of my subjects -- religion, sex and politics -- I'm failing. The Little Bang Sangha is on hiatus through the Christmas season and I can't seem to meditate on my own. My attempts to find venues for Cyprian when he comes here in February have so far gone for naught. Sister B did write to ask if I would lead another pilgrimage to Shantivanam in a year's time, and, although willing, I feel far removed from the ethos of Sangha Shantivanam, my friends back at Holy Cross in Santa Cruz. Hopefully, Meath will come to my aid. A former priest, disciple of Father Bede's, a participant in interreligious dialogue (he knows the Dalai Lama), and an experienced tour guide in India, his help will be invaluable. As for sex, that should be embarrassingly obvious. And politics, well...

I've sat on the paperwork for getting an absentee ballot until it's clearly too late. I just didn't feel like voting, even though I know Obama is infinitely better than McBush, and the well-dressed (have you read what the RNC spent on her clothes??) Ms. Palin. Since California will undoubtedly go for Obama, my vote is not needed. If I was from Florida or Ohio it would be a different story. And I'm also not excited, not motivated, by all I've read of Obama. He was lackluster in the debates, doing just the minimum to make McCain look frantic. I think he's just another Clinton: sounds superficially good but controlled now, hand and foot, by the corporations and special interests that have financed his campaign and will control his future. While the "free" market melts down, Obama will not look for a substitute for capitalism as an economic system. While the economy can only be kept going by government intervention and tons of taxpayer money, he isn't making a case for stronger government. The McCain-Palin thugs who shout "terroris!," "socialist!" and "kill him!" at their rallies scare me, and it's quite possible that a white backlash will defeat the first half-black candidate. If so, America is doomed (and I'm not that hopeful it will make it even with an Obama administration that will be buried in debt and war commitments).

I can't begin to explain what's happening in Thailand. Even the bloggers on whom I depend seem to have given up. As we enter the season of celebration (loi krathong, the funeral of the King's sister, and the King's birthday), the anti-government and pro-government forces seem more polarized and prepared for confrontation. The police, shamed by two failed efforts to dislodge protestors from the seat of government, is ineffectual. The army, defender of country and monarchy of last resort, claims that present office holders must be responsible. The courts continue to find Thaksin and his successors guilty of various counts of malfeasance. I cannot understand the laws they broke and the significance of convicting an exiled ex-prime minister. Troops from Thailand and Cambodia face-off on the border over an ancient Khmer temple and land both countries claim. I tried to find a PAD demonstration last week but the hordes of yellow-clad shock troops passed through Siam before I got there. With Pim gone, I no longer watch the Thai news channels nor receive her explanation of events. I feel more isolated.

After visiting George, Jerry and I went to the luxurious Face Bar to see an exhibit of photography by farang Tom Hoops who apparently took up the craft a year ago. The large b/w photos of people, mostly heads, were gloomy and sometimes shocking, nothing you'd put up on your living room wall. The place was filled with tall, very tall, farang men and women. We left for another bar, The Penalty Point (a sports bar, obviously) where his friend Richie was suppose to be singing. But another fellow, bald with a Tom Jones set of pipes, was trying to entertain the sparse crowd. Thai ladies in cocktail dresses tried to catch the customers' attention. After one beer we walked two blocks to the Cactus bar in Soi Cowboy where four bored naked ladies danced minimally for the three men watching them. Although it was a depressing evening, Jerry and I enjoyed each other's company, particularly now that it is so difficult for us (me) to get together.

2 comments:

The Bangkok Bugle said...

Hi. Thanks for your compliment about the photo and for your mention of my blog. Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

I found your blog while looking for guest house in Luang Prabang, I don't usually read blogs randomly but just had to say I'm enjoying your "story" and will be back to read it all!
Thank You!
Linda