Tuesday, February 27, 2007

And the Winner Was...

Since my return home to California 13 days ago, I've been out to theaters to see seven movies and I've watched six videos from the comfort of my couch. I've walked in the rain, been to mass three times (once as commentator on Ash Wednesday and again last Sunday as lector), eaten lunch from the buffet at Sitar, the new Indian restaurant at the end of my street, walked in the rain, attended two 70th birthday parties, read three books, drunk cappuccinos at my three favorite neighborhood watering holes, walked in the rain again, and missed the Academy Awards.

Shirlee and I did go to hear the pre-Academy Awards discussion at the Nick with local movie reviewers Lisa Jensen, Morton Marcus and Bruce Bratton. They attracted a big audience of mostly white haired movie buffs like ourselves, and talked about the awards they thought would be given and the ones they believed should be given. All agreed that "The Departed" was one of Martin Scorsese's least successful films, but predicted he would get the Oscar more for cumulative achievement than anything else. According to Marcus, Scorsese had lost control of his actors, led by Jack Nicholson's over the top excesses, and the film was a mess. No one thought it would win best film.

I only predicted two winners: Alan Arkin for his supporting role in "Little Miss Sunshine" (my pick, along with "Babel," for best film) and "An Inconvenient Truth," a no brainer as best documentary. I'd seen all the films mentioned, except for "Little Children," which the reviewers hated and which won nothing, and "Dreamgirls," so I couldn't judge Jennifer Hudson's winning performance. For me, Peter O'Toole's portrayal of a dying lover in "Venus" was far and away the best of the bunch, and Judi Dench's role as a misguided lover in "Notes on a Scandal," could not be topped. I believe there is a fine distinction between acting and impersonation, and winners Forest Whitaker and Helen Mirren were merely fine impersonators. "Pan's Labyrinth," which should have been in the running for best film, was passed over in favor of "The Lives of Others" for best foreign film; it opens next weekend at the Nick and so I will see perhaps why Guillermo del Toro's wonderful cinematic myth was denied its due. Besides the quirky "Miss Sunshine," I would like to have seen the innovative and emotionally powerful "Babel" take the prize, or even the un-nominated "Children of Men." But Scorsese can now join the greats in the Hollywood pantheon with his double Oscars.

I emailed a fellow pilgrim from the trip to India that since my return I've been rethinking all of my former activities and withdrawing like a turtle into my shell. She replied that she'd been feeling "a bit paralyzed" between her return from India and "all the pieces that seem to be unravelling a bit around the edges of life at Holy Cross." In our absence there was a very successful ecumenical New Year's Eve Vigil for Peace that drew perhaps 300 to the church parish hall, and the installation of the new bishop for the diocese of Monterey. Richard Garcia is one of a handful of Hispanics in that office and his appointment by the Vatican means a renewed focus on immigration as the place of social injustice in our community. Why aren't these two events signs of hope? Next week we meet to discuss the future of Pax Christi Santa Cruz County. The monthly meetings have been drawing a dwindling number of people. At our church the Outreach Director resigned and was not replaced, and the various ministries seem staffed by the same few volunteers, many of whom are experiencing burnout. Most of the people in the pews sit on their hands and refuse to participate.

Last Sunday some of the pilgrims to India presented a show-and-tell at the bi-monthly meeting of Sangha Shantivanam. The photo albums and slide shows brought back the trip for us and showed the stay-at-homes what India and Shantivanam were like. The pilgrims presented me with a gift for leading the tour, a five-night all-expenses-paid visit to the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur. Radha handed me the bag of stuff I gave her in Chennai to carry home and now the carved Ganesha ball from Mamallapuram sits on my desk, removing all obstacles from my path.

The wind and rain brought power failures over the weekend, and after the last my refrigerator refused to stay cold. It's only two years old, and I poked and prodded it, hoping to find the fault and fix it. After putting my perishables in Shirlee's fridge, I unplugged mine and gave it a time out in the corner. Then, 15 minutes later I plugged it back in and heard the motor start up. With an hour, it was cold again. But this morning, when I went to get cream for my coffee, I found the carton frozen. Now the whole refrigerator was a freezer. Ain't life a feast or famine? I turned the thermostat down in a quest for the golden mean, between everything frozen and only the freezer stuff stiff. Wish me luck.

I've been on the phone to Thailand several times but the gap between presence and communication seems unbridgeable. She says "Willie" and I say "Thim" and we get no further. I say my prepared phrases, and she says "Willie speak Thai" and I realize she has misunderstood my pronunciation. Because Thai is a tonal language, the same word can be said five different ways, with a different meaning each time. The opportunities for misunderstanding are quintupled. The 18-hour difference means that when it's day there it is night here, and vice versa. Even the sun divides us. Eventually we each say "bye bye," and the pipeline between a rice farm in Udon and my studio apartment in Santa Cruz closes. I've discovered, however, a wealth of tools on the internet for learning Thai, searchable dictionaries and grammar tips, as well as online forums where students and native speakers can get together. I'm studying the alphabet (44 consonants and over 20 vowel sounds) and trying to learn to recognize and write letters, separately and in whole words and phrases. It's slow going.

I've also been gathering information on long-term visas for Thailand, and the requirements for teaching English there. Did you know that there is a Craig's List for Bangkok? There are ads for rooms and apartments and personal listings by Thai women looking for older men to support them and their families. Expats in BKK and upcountry recount their experiences in forums and warn prospective visitors about pitfalls in the "Land of Smiles" (LOS for short).

The time spent surfing the net for information on Thailand and its language means less time looking at Common Dreams, Antiwar.com, truthout and Truthdig, the web sites I've marked for fresh perspectives on the political situation here and abroad. I started checking the news again when I reached London and what I saw and heard just made me weary. The Democrats are squabbling among themselves, the great liberal hope Nancy Pelosi wants to continue giving Israel a blank check to oppress the Palestinians, and the unseemly pandering for votes by candidates for president has already begun , two years before the election. We all know that America has the best democracy money can buy, and the prize positions go to those with the deepest pockets. After living for a month in a country under military rule, I've again begun to question the whole ideology of democracy and our so-called "freedom," that word that grates on my ear when I hear it coming out of Bush or Chaney's mouths. Despite the anti-war message from the voters last November, the fiasco in Iraq continues. Even while unwilling partners in the "Coalition of the Willing" are sending their troops home, Bush increases the size of our presence there with soldiers who are returning for their third and fourth tours of duty. I hear no one other than that great statesman (at least when he got over integregation) Robert Byrd speaking of accountability for so many deaths on all sides. The occupation of Iraq was a crime against humanity and Bush and his minions must be accountable, must pay for their complicity.

But then that's just one person's opinion.

And now for something completely different: My daughter Molly (under her stage name Molly Hartwell) performs tonight -- "lush, evocotive improvisations & vocal acrobatics" -- at the Cayuga Vault in Santa Cruz with her friend Yanú, a guitarist and singer from Slovakia she met in Europe two years ago. I've heard them practice and their voices go beautifully together. It's nice to hear Molly with an accompanist after so many a capella performances. So if you live anywhere near Santa Cruz, get yourself down to the Vault, 1100 Soquel Avenue, by 8 PM tonight. Tickets are $12-15 at the door.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mumblings of a Jet-Lagged Traveler

Although I've been back home for five nights, I still wake up around 2, certain that it's time to get up. In Thailand, where I left my heart, it's 15 hours later, early evening. So I turn the light on by my bed and read for an hour or so until the go-to-sleep antihistamine can do its work. I don't find it to be time wasted. The book I started on the plane from London, Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip, was good, and it pleased me to discover a new mystery writer whose wit and intelligence could keep my interest. Michael Connelly's latest book, Echo Park, was waiting for me at the library, and it's every bit as absorbing as his others (I've read them all). So getting up in the middle of every night is not such a bad thing.

It was a bright sunny afternoon in San Francisco when my eldest son Chris picked me up at the airport. After the cool drizzle of London, it seemed unseasonably warm. Our plane had flown over Iceland, Greenland, and the frozen bits of Canada, including Hudson Bay; I watched our progress not out the window but on the screen in front of my seat. Traveling west is disorienting. We leave England at 10:30 in the morning on a Wednesday and arrive, nearly 11 hours later, in the early afternoon of the same day in California. Time and space is a mystery; Einstein would be pleased.

That same evening I try to watch a video at Chris and Sandy's house in Sonoma, while they celebrate Valentine's Day by going to see Dolly Parton in concert. After ten minutes I begin to struggle with sleep. The next day I drive my truck down to Santa Cruz where mail in two large piles spills off the table. Among the offerings of magazines and junk mail are three DVDs from Netflix; I restarted my account while still in London. That evening I try to watch M. Night Shyamalan's latest film, "Lady in the Water," but fall asleep within minutes. It took me three nights to wade through that pretentious clap-trap. Likewise, Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly," which remains in the player until and if I can finish watching it. Finally, yesterday Shirlee and I go to see "Factory Girl," the biopic about Edie Sedgwick, Andy Warhol's favorite muse (until she went off the deep end with drugs). I stayed awake probably because it was screening at 11 in the morning before the weekly film discussion led by Morton Marcus. It's a gloomy and depressing movie.

But last night I went to see "Venus" with the ever magnificent Peter O'Toole playing an aging lecherous actor, and Jodie Whittaker who is spunky in her film debut as the woman 20 years his junior who reciprocates -- somewhat -- his attentions. It's a movie about desire rather than sex (O'Toole's character is impotent and dying of prostate cancer). What's wrong, I wonder, with a 73-year-old man finding beauty, with sexual overtones, in a young woman? In their previous movie, "The Mother," director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi went in the other direction with a grandmother who has a sexual affair with a young handyman, played by Daniel Craig. It, too, was done with taste and poignancy. Helen's lesbian friends in London had advised her to avoid going to see "Venus," and I'm curious about their objections. If it's because the power relations are unequal between older men and younger women, hinting at the ubiquity of rape, then in this film the 20-year-old more than holds her own against O'Toole's character, kneeing him in the groin when he touches her breast. Maybe it's just because it's about a heterosexual relationship? Anyway, "Venus" is also a terrific view of London, with scenes of places I visited just last week.

Perhaps I'm sensitive on the issue of May-December romance because of my time with Thim in Thailand. There are thirty years separating us. But even if we were close in age, the power relations would be unequal. I tried to tell her that I was poor in America, but all she could see was how rich I was in Thailand. Any westerner who comes to visit that country is rich by virtue of the money it takes to buy a plane ticket. Most Thais, particularly the children of poor rice farmers from Isan, can never contemplate traveling around the world as a tourist. The fact that I had been a university teacher, while she was only a farm girl, also separated us, and she made this clear one evening in a conversation by holding her hands in front of her, with the lowly left one symbolizing her life and the right one high above it symbolizing me and my existence. The analogy humbled me.

When I checked my phone messages from Sonoma, there were several which appeared to be from Thim, although no words were spoken. After a few days home, I dialed the mobile phone number she gave me, with codes supplied for calling from America, and she answered. It was a strange conversation, filled with excitement and laughter on both sides, and a variety of phrases we had used in Thailand with each other, culled from our various dictionaries and grammar books, including Thai for Lovers. "You are such a flirt," she said, something she had learned that struck her funny bone. I told her I missed her, and much more which she seemed to understand. Then we said "bye bye." Yesterday morning she called me, and I bid her good night (it being after one in the morning in Bangkok where she was staying with her sister).

Was it the two months away or jet lag that made the familiar seem strange? I had been home for two days when I stood in front of my toilet for a full minute before realizing that the object on top of it, connected by a cord to an plug, was my electric toothbrush. The old habits take hold slowly. I've forgotten what I fix for breakfast and have to go through the motions step by step.

For now, all I can manage besides seeing movies is to catch up on my email correspondance and sort through the 1500 digital photos I took in India, Thailand, London and Paris. Next Sunday the pilgrims from Sangha Shantivanam will share their memories of the trip with other members of the sangha, and I put together an album of 100 photos that I had taken. I went to mass yesterday and saw numerous friends, but the liturgy did not touch me as it has in the past. I haven't meditated for more than a month, and now, instead of climbing up to my altar in the loft first thing after waking, I make coffee and surf the internet. Molly is singing at the Vault a week from Tuesday and I will miss the meeting of my men's group. But Gene came by the house the other morning with his dog Sydney, and I sat with Ted in church yesterday. I can feel my previous interests and responsibilities tugging at my pant's leg, but I find myself turning away.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Will I Always Have Paris?

Rick in "Casablanca" may "always have Paris" (with Ingrid Berman, that is), but will I?

Random thoughts about Paris and "home" on the last day of my two-month journey to Europe and Asia:

The only person I saw wearing a beret in Paris on Monday and Tuesday was an elderly Chinese woman on the Metro. But there were piles of them for sale in the souvenir store across from Notre Dame.

I'm not ready to go home. I could live out of my suitcase forever. It's not that I don't miss my children or my friends. But the lure of the open road is difficult to resist. Ulysses must have experienced that on his voyages, but I don't have mythical creatures to blame. Or do I?

While walking down a street on the Ile St-Louis yesterday, three gentleman holding cameras came up to me and asked if I was a Czech photographer. By their attitude I could tell that they held this person in much respect. Of course they asked in French and I answered in English, "Nope." They seemed quite disappointed, and told me, in English, that "you look just like him." I almost pulled out my Nikkon pocket digital and tried to be whom they wanted.

Who said "home is where the heart is"? (Google doesn't seem to know) But what if your heart is everywhere? As big as the whole outdoors? (Not that I'd make so grand a claim.)

Yesterday in front of the Sacre Coeur (can't find accent marks on this Bill Gates keyboard) on Montmarte, I was almost blown over by gale force winds. Tourists were huddled under the portico of the basilica, their umbrellas turned inside out. Rain came and went. The view from the hill was spectacular however, even though the climb up nearly wiped me out (the funicular on which I pinned my hopes having stopped running). All Paris was laid out before my eyes under the storm clouds.

Of course I miss the familiarity of my pied a terre back in Santa Cruz where Shirlee tells me the mail is piling up like crazy. I miss the Nick, Lulu's, Logos, and my community at Holy Cross. But why is it I always seem to fall into the trap of overburdening myself with appointments? The dance card fills up so easily. I find it hard to say no. And then I resent the commitments I've made, the responsibilities I've taken on. On the road, there is only the Now: no regrets for the past, no plans for the future. Wouldn't that appeal to anyone?

But then commitments and responsibilities are what life involves. To not have them is to be...irresponsible and afraid of committing one's self. Argh.

I ate dinner last night at the Buffalo Grill across the place from the Gare du Nord with its hoardes of Gypsy girls looking for handouts from unsuspecting travelers. No, I didn't eat the buffalo meat burger, but I did have a delicious stear steak. The dominant color in the bistro was red, the decor featured wild west and Indian themes, and on the wall a television set showed showed a repeating loop of Ronald Reagan on horseback, riding off into the sunset. Music from the Eagles played on the sound system.

I left mosquito repellant back in Thailand along with other toiletries and personal effects I would no longer use. Here I'll donate most of my winter clothes to a charity. It's a challenge to travel as lightly as possible and my small black canvas bag is no more fully packed now, although I'm bringing new clothes that Thim bought me in Ko Samui, along with some additional books and artifacts to remember this journey.

The transportation map for Paris, showing the Metro, train and bus lines, looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, random squiggles of all kinds. I bought a carnet (10-pack) of tickets and quickly mastered the system (although I stuck with the Metro). Paris is easy to maneuver, and I criss-crossed the city willy-nilly to see the places that caught my interest. I avoided museums, which for some are the high points of paris, and traveled through the parks and gardens, the Luxembourg, the Tuilleries, and the Parc de la Villette in the north of the city where Francois' Cite des Sciences et de L'Industrie is located, along with the Cite de la Musique and a large concert hall, a conglomeration of former abbatoirs interspersed with wide swaths of grass and amusement areas for kids. I strolled through the Latin Quarter and Montparnasse, drank coffee in one-time literary cafes, and prayed in Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. I saw the landmarks, --the Eiffel Tower, the dome of the Pantheon, and Sacre Coeur -- from a distance, and mostly I enjoyed strolling the boulevards. Paris is so cute! It's almost like a Disney version of the city (and it even has its own Disneyland now on the outskirts of the city).

It feels like I've been on the road forever. Things I did here in December seem like remote memories. Christmas in London, New Year's Eve at Shantivanam in India. Now Valentine's Day is upon us. Who will be my Valentine?

With Francois and Danielle, I watched some of the televised speech given by Segolene Royal, the leader of the Socialist Party who is in the running to become president of France at the May elections. Her opponent is Nicholas Sarkozy, a right-winger of Hungarian descent who believes, along with the infamous La Pen, that France should be for the French. Love it or leave it. That has a familiar ring to it. Royal, a 53-year-old woman, unveiled a 100-point manifesto which took power away from capitalists and passed it on to labor. Can socialism still be a viable option. My friends thinks so, and their optimism fills me with hope. Unfortunately, Hilary does not, and I suspect Obama is more media hype than tangible reality. He still needs a little seasoning to be able to stand up to the nay sayers of the Democratic Party who have forgotten the lessons of Vietnam.

The exchange rate of dollars to euros shocked me when I got money at the EuroStar terminal for my two days on the continent. The dollar continues to slide against other world currencies. I suppose this is good for sales of American products, but it means my trip has become quite a bit more expensive than I'd planned. Only India was cheap. Bangkok, London and Paris are the playgrounds of the rich these days, not us poor colonial cousins.

When I made up the name of this blog, it occured to me that of course there is more to life than religion, sex and politics. But I keep coming back to these themes, although reticence overtakes me when it comes time to write about sex. Maybe later. Politics is more apparent by its absence as I enjoy a newsless day without hearing about the nonsense and exploits of George Bush. American politics seems so less important the farther you get from her borders. Each country I've visited has its own more insistent concerns.

As for religion, I've not missed so many masses in years. It was hard to get back in touch with the Spirit even in Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, surrounded by tourists taking pictures. Can religion, like culture, now be commodities for the short attention span of tourists? And just where do I stand? For this, and for my "summer romance" in Thailand, I need some thinking space.

After complaining about the British winter I've experienced in December and February, my last day dawned cloudless and bright. The sun is saying "Goodbye, Willie, come again!" Helen has a singing class in the city and I will go to meet her in the afternoon. Then we'll stroll along the Thames and I'll enjoy the sights for the last time. When the EuroStar arrived at Paddington Station last night I could see the London Eye, its lights all in purple, through the glass roof of the terminal. Lovely.

Tomorrow, an almost 11-hour flight from London Heathrow to San Francisco. That is, if the British Airways employes do not decide to go on strike.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Ah, Paree!

Why did I wait so long to return to Paris? It's been over 30 years. And why am I only here for not quite two days? It must be something to do with the jet lag.

I'm in a computer place on the Left Bank, just off the Boulevard St-Germain, trying with considerable difficulty to master the French keyboard. Why do they have one different from all the rest of the world? Why do they lay claim to fried potatoes (the ones our Fuhrer renamed "freedom fries"). And why is the sky blue?

Being in Paris brings out the philosopher in me. Did you know the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas has a tiny Place named after him? I ran across it this morning, just down lovely Rue Moffetard from the Place de la Contrascarpe where Jack and Derroll used to play music back in the 1950s.

I spent a peaceful night in my tiny postage-stamp room (it felt like a monk's cell, which for me is just what I prefer) at the Hotel Port Royal which was recommended by Sheila and Jerry who have stayed there many times. Thank you, Delaneys.

The weather here is unstable; sun at one minute, showers the next. It's quite breezy, but not very cold. My lunch today was poulet fermier avec pommes purée (baked chicken and mashed potatoes), and a nice glass of the house white wine, at Le Petit Pontoise which was justly recommended by Lonely Planet. I think I was surrounded by distinguished looking professors from the nearby Sorbonne. So I felt right at home, naturally.

The high point of my walk this morning was seeing the building where Gertrude Stein lived with Alice B. Toklas. Hemmingway, judging by the many plaques on the sides of buildings in this quartier, lived everywhere. Notre Dame was suitably impressive, but it is hard to pray with camera flashes going off non-stop. I saw a Japanese woman in a pew near me wearing a kimona. And I watched a large crew filming a scene from a movie called "Modern Love" in the Luxembourg Gardens. A day in the life of a pilgrim.

If it wasn't so hard to write, I would write more. Yesterday, François showed me around the incredible Cité de Sciences where he is in charge of computers. In the evening, I joined François and his family for dinner in their warm home near the Bastille. Wonderful food cooked by Danielle and stimulating conversation.

Tonight, back to London, and on to San Francisco on Wednesday. I wish I could say I was ready to stop traveling, but I'm not. C'est la vie.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Back in Britain

There was a sliver of sunshine for a short period this afternoon, but for the most part London is as I remember it from my visit in December: cold, cloudy and damp. Toto, we're not in Thailand any more.
Today I met my friend Angie from Menorca in Trafalgar Square and we walked toward Covent Garden until we found a likely restaurant, the Bella Italia, where I had a delicious pesto risoto and she had penne with tomato sauce and a salad. Angie's mother died earlier this month and she's in England with her son and daughter for a memorial service at Minster Acres, the family home, in Yorshire.
Yesterday was spent with Gulf Airlines on two flights that took me from Bangkok to London with a change in Muscat, Oman, in the Arabian Peninsula. I followed our progress on the in-flight map with much interest as we flew up the Persian Gulf, past Abu Dhabi and Doha, and over the Zagros Mountains along the border between Iraq and Iran. As the sun set, our Airbus 330 aircraft flew at 40,000 feet, not far to the east of Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. Watching the map was more fascinating than watching any of the movie offerings, most of which I'd seen anyway.
I've no idea how long I spent traveling in total, but each leg of the journey was about eight hours. My ankles were swollen and my sense of time was totally distorted by the time I caught the express train from Heathrow to Paddington. Rather than wait for the bus at the Tufnell Park tube station, I lugged my luggage up the hill and knocked on Helen's door about 11. She greeted me with a cup of tea and lots of stories, and I noted that the tree we put up and decorated almost two months ago was still standing, though a bit dry and droopy. "She looks like an old tart, don't you think?" Helen said.
Bangkok seems very far away, the humidity and the heat a dim memory. I've retrieved the bag of winter clothes left in Helen's closet and now I'm wearing layers and carrying an umbrella, with hiking boots on my feet instead of the Chaco sandals. Angie said I had a tan, which may be the only souvenir left.
Tomorrow, I leave on the EuroStar from Waterloo at 8 AM for Paris and two days in the French capital.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Addicted to Bubble Tea

I remember when Thai bubble tea first appeared in Santa Cruz a few years ago. I recall that it was advertised as an acquired taste. The idea of sucking down tapioca pearls at the bottom of a glass of tea sounded disgusting. Then one night in San Francisco Nick and I were strolling the the mall near the Myoko Hotel and he suggested we try it. I thought it all right but it was not about to replace my addiction to cappuccino.

Then Thim bought me a bubble tea at the market in Ko Samui and it was delicious. The tapioca was exactly right. That was the first of many here. And in this picture I am drinking a coffee tea (not that distant from a cappuccino) after a visit to the Earawan Shrine in the shopping section of Bangkok near Siam Square. Yum.

The weather has been delightful in Bangkok for this short final visit, humid but with a breeze that seems to have dissipated some of the big smog that greeted our arrival on Monday. Today we went to the movies, to see the new Zhang Yimou epic, "Curse of the Golden Flower," with his star Gong Li. Also in the film playing the wicked emperor was the ever wonderful Chow Yun-Fat. While not as graphic as "Kill Bill," it was one of the bloodiest films I've ever seen with very few left standing at the end. I had wanted to see "Dream Girls" which opened today, but Thim quickly chose the Chinese film when I showed her the entertainment section of the Bangkok Post. The theater was nearly empty but we had popcorn and were captivated by the movie. Thim barely moved for the entire two hours, sitting cross-legged in the seat beside me, hardly touching the popcorn.

Gerry writes that he detected a note of melancholy in my last post. Perhaps. Endings are always difficult. It's been a magical two and a half weeks with Thim, my guide and translator. She wants to accompany me to the airport early tomorrow morning, and afterwards will take an overnight bus to her home in Udon Thani up north where her parents await. She said Nancy called from the Coco Bar in Ko Samui to see how she was doing with this crazy farang, and she's been chatting up a storm with her sister, Song, who is suffering from a migraine headache and unable to work today.

Tomorrow I'm off to Muscat, wherever the hell that is, where I change planes for one headed towards London. The weather report on BBC News this morning said it was bitterly cold and snowing in London, and rainy and cold in Paris where I go on Sunday. I packed clothes to dress in layers for the winter weather in Europe but I'm not sure they will be enough. For most of the way from Heathrow to Helen's house in Highgate, I'll be underground or in trains. But in Tufnell Park, I have to emerge into the cold to catch a bus up the hill. There I will probably freeze. It's hard to imagine now, dressed as I am for tropical weather.

I have some much on which to reflect, from tourism in third world countries to the trials and tribulations of an old man lost in delight with a younger woman. Jerry has been giving me lots of advice, some of which I'll follow and some of which I'll ignore. I'm not sure what will happen next. The world may look quite a bit different from Europe, Sonoma and Santa Cruz. Thim and I have exchanged phone numbers and I've set her up with an email account. But although she can access it through a page in Thai, her home page will be in English and I doubt that she will be able to navigate it easily. I'm hoping that she'll at least be able to log on and look at photos I'll send her. I printed up nearly 50 pictures of the two of us, together and singly, and she will carry the two albums back home to show the folks. I have no idea what their reaction will be.

So tomorrow I bid farewell to this nearly two month Asian voyage. It will certainly not leave me unmarked.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Yellow Banners in Bangkok

Bangkok is all decorated for a celebration but no one has yet been able to tell me what it's all about. The King's picture is everywhere, surrounded by mostly yellow banners and flags. My best guess is that it has something to do with the end of the first month of the year, but I'm still checking into it.

We flew out of the tiny Ko Samui airport at midday on Monday. It was Thim's first flight on an airplane and she was looking forward to it like an eager child. But the seat they put us in was at the rear of the small plane and the only view she had outside of her window was of one of the jet engines. By pushing on the seat in front of her she could see a sliver of the sky, and she kept her head glued to the crack between the seat and the window in front of her for the entire hour's journey.

At first I thought it was going to rain when we arrived at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport (pronounced Suv-a-na-porn for some reason), but quickly realized the sky was dark because of smog, not rain clouds. The pollution was as bad as I've seen it. But the traffic in the early afternoon was almost reasonable. We settled at the P.S. Guest House, which is beginning to feel like home after half a dozen stays there, and then set out to explore Sukhumvit. In Ko Samui, Thim told me how much she liked Bangkok (and, by extension, disliked Ko Samui where she was fond of neither the sea nor the sun). I'm not sure how much time she's spent here. But it didn't take me long to see that the big city did not enchant her either. Thim is a farmer's daughter and her heart remains in the rural countryside west of Udon Thani where her family raises rice and other crops. You can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take it out of the girl. We had dinner at Cabbages & Condoms, one of my favorite restaurants. The owner is the condom king of Thailand and he works closely with rural assistance programs in an attempt to curtail AIDs which is a problem here.

On Tuesday, Thim's younger sister, Song, came to visit. She lives in Bang Son in the north end of the city and works at a market in Bang Seu not far from Chatuchak, the giant outdoor weekend flea market. Both girls, whose ancestors I believe came from Laos, look similar, with the same hooked nose. And both are small, "no bigger than a minute," as my mother would say. We went down to Jerry's apartment and they checked out his place while Jerry and I drank beers and caught each other up on events. Then we went around the corner for a lunch of ah-hahn Thai.

Afterwards, Song wanted to take us to a wat. I had no idea where, the language barrier being a bit high. But we got into a taxi and took a long ride to the Grand Palace, the walled compound where royalty used to used, and Wat Phra Kaew which houses the Emerald Buddha, one of the country's most important treasures. The picture above was taken of Thim and I in front of one of the several unsmiling guards. Afterward paying our respects to Buddha representations there, we went across the street to the temple on the site of the marker for the founding of the city. It was filled with worshippers at four or five locations, burning incense, lighting candles, applying tiny gold squares to various icons (I'm getting better at it). When we had suitably placated the gods (Thai Buddhism seems more like animism than the Vipassana and Zen Buddhism I'm used to back home), Song caught a bus back to her home, and we returned to Sukhumvit by taxi. In the evening, we went looking for a movie among the upscale malls at Siam Square, but never found any that interested either me or Thim. I wanted to see "Dream Girls" but learned it doesn't open until tomorrow, my last day in Bangkok.

Today Thim and I took the Skytrain to the Chao Praya River and boarded a river taxi for the trip to Wat Pho. I've been there several times, most recently with Baron Wohlman, but I wanted to share the impressive Reclining Buddha with Thim. After viewing it, we dropped coins in buckets, I believe 108 of them, which seemed an appropriate ritual in which to participate. Thim was hungry and I took her to the S&P which she initially disliked. But I got us a table overlooking the river boat traffic and she found the food aroy. I'm sure we paid three times what the food she wanted to get from street stalls would have cost us. My efforts to impress her have not been too successful. I think she believes I am the one in need of education.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lady Boys and Fighting Women

I must have been the only person without a camera at the two events we attended last night, but I'd left mine back in the room. The full moon evening began with fireworks on the beach which we could see from my room. When we set out, my only plan had been to find a place to "eat rice" (the Thai expression for having a meal). Since I expressed a desire for "ah-hahn Thai," to eat Thai food, Thim decided we would go again to the sidewalk restaurant across from the square of bars around the muay Thai boxing arena. It's the kind of chaotic street scene I would probably not visit on my own for fear of being misunderstood. But, as she did a few nights before, Thim ordered for me, after I pointed out "beef in oyster sauce" on the menu which looked good. She went next door to the minimart and got us Cokes and managed to find cups with ice. Her meal was mostly noodles and green leafy stalks, and a small taste set my mouth on fire. Thais must have cast iron stomachs. My food arrived and it was delicious,"aroy mahk."

Every now and then I would notice a girl who was unusually tall and lanky with a masculine face, and I would whisper "katooey" to Thim, which was guaranteed to make her giggle. Katooeys are "lady boys," Thai men who have chosen to cross dress, or in the extreme to undergo a sex change operation. They seem quite accepted here, and in Bangkok several years ago Jerry took me to a katooey show that was fabulous, where the boys were more glamorous than most of the girls I've seen. Katooeys are also active as "bar girls" and in massage parlors, and I've noticed more than a few in Lamai Beach.

Since Thim was curious, I told her I'd heard there was a show across from the boxing area, and after dinner we went over to check it out. There were a number of katooeys out front and we learned the show began at 9. So after a stroll down the moonlit street and a bit of window shopping (counterfeit CDs andDVDs, tacky souvenir shops, tables full of beautifully carved soap, a local art form, and an ice cream shop), we took our seats at a table right in front of the stage. The room was filling with farangs, lots of old folks and even a few children (there are quite a few families vacationing in Lamai). The music was ear-splitting and the drinks nearly twice as expensive as elsewhere.

The nearly hour-long show was terrific. The "girls" were suitably glamorous and the costumes were elaborate, if a bit thread-bare. Some of the performers had obviously had silicon injections, and their private parts were either tied down so as to be invisible, or surgically removed. I didn't look that carefully. Each number featured recorded music to which the ladies mimed, and the high point of the evening was a version of "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," complete with army hats and fascist salutes from the chorus. It reminded me of "Springtime for Hitler" from "The Producers." There was also a Tina Turner imitator with silicon lips and a bright orange wig who was fabulous. Another performer was made up and dressed as a woman on one side and a man on the other, and she/he would turn whatever side to the audience that was called for by the song. The finale was a rousing "Blame it on the Bossa Nova" and the stage was filled with flying feathers from the Mardis Gras costumes. The evening ended when the entire cast sang "Happy Birthday" to a lady named Nadine from Germany who was invited up on stage. The affair had an intimate family feel to it.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Thim and I walked across the street to the boxing arena where each of the eight bars had set up plastic seats for their sections and the girls were taking orders for drinks. It was women's night and most of the boxers were members of the fairer sex (but watch out for their feet). The screeching music that accompanies this sport for some reason was playing at full blast over the loud speakers. Some of the bars were sponsoring fighters, and a tiny woman at the bar near our seats was collecting money to be stapled on a garland around her neck. She looked sweet and innocent. A little later I would watch her knock another girl almost senseless.

It's too bad I'd forgotten my camera. The three matches we watched were a riot. In the first fight the boxers made up in passionate enthusiasm for killing the other what they lacked in style. The crowd was filled with partisans who stood and screamed support for their friend and unspeakable epithets at their opponent. Most of the audience were farang and, since the young crowd was whooping it up on the beach in Ko Pha-Ngan under the full moon, they were older. Elderly gentlemen were there with beautiful young Thai girls on their arm (strange that there doesn't seem to be a similar market for the older farang ladies). We saw two girls from Coco Bar with new friends on their arm. The second fight was between two good-sized men, and after two rounds one of them disabled the leg of his opponent and was declared the winner. In the final fight the innocent young girl I'd seen raising funds turned out to be a furious fighter in the ring, and she clearly overwhelmed her opponent. But by then it was midnight and I'd had enough fisticuffs and gender confusion.

This morning, after some dark clouds put my final day in question, the sun came out and remained. After breakfast at the Jungle Juice Cafe, where Ta gave me a lovely farewell card and I gave her Eric and Get's address in Pai, I grabbed my towel and suit and we headed to Georgio's Bao Bob Restaurant for a final morning on the beach. Thim fed me pieces of chocolate while we waited for the clouds to blow away. "I give you," she said, practicing her English. The Cafe del Mar next door was playing opera on their sound system, as Georgio set up his catamaran for a day of sailing. Nearby, a topless lady watched the sails go up. Vendors waved their wares at the sunbathers. Another day in paradise.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Day of the Full Moon

You wouldn't have known there was a nearly full moon last night. The sky was clouded over for much of the day and in the evening it poured, a real tropical drenching. The front hallway and the back balcony were quickly flooded. The water did a real percussive number on hundreds of tin roofs. Suddenly the streets were empty. Slowly a few umbrellas emerged. The rain didn't last long but the clouds remained and sprinkles were intermittant. It was strange to see Lamai Beach so quiet.

We decided to risk going out. I was hungry for meat. "I need a steak," I told Thim, my local guide and interpreter of cultural life in Thailand. Turns out the Thai word for a slab of beef is almost the same. We found our way through the sprinkles to The Outback, an Aussie bar and restaurant on the corner of the main interesection in Lama Beach where I thought I could find an excellent cut of meat. On the wide screen TV they were telecasting a championship darts match. The excitement was palpable. I ordered a New Zealand ribeye steak with chips, salad and a Heineken, a real man's meal. None of this wimpy rice stuff. Business was slow because of the rain. We watched a few motorbikes going past, their drivers holding umbrellas. On another TV set in the bar, surfers were riding the waves in Australia and in San Clemente, California. I half expected to see Santa Cruz. The steak arrived and, although smaller than I pictured, it was all that I wanted it to be. Thim tried the chips with katsup and liked them. They disappeared quickly.

After dinner we retired to the Coco Bar at the end of the avenue near the Amadeus and my second-floor room. Business was nearly at a standstill because of the weather, even in the bars. The pool table was empty and we played a game. Both of us were terrible, and the game might have gone on forever. Except that I was a little less terrible than Thim, and I won. Thim's friend Nat from Non Som, a small village near Udon Thani and the Laotian border, challenged me to another game. My shots were improving but most were shy of the mark. It was close. But through a few lucky moves, I won that one too. I felt like Rocky Balboa.

There are two sides to Lamai, this one with its tacky shops and proliferation of services, from laundry at 30 baht per kilo, tattoos and money exchange, internet and tickets to everywhere else. The shops are jammed along both sides of a narrow street, one way along the northern half and two way along the southern. Electricity wires are strung helter skelter everywhere. It's a wonder no one gets electrocuted when it rains. Two-way traffic is a mess. It's mostly taxis, motorbikes and pickup truck buses that circle the island, with an occasional delivery van or tour bus. I've seen very few bicycles, which I found odd, but perhaps they do not last very long in a collision with a motorbike.

The other side of Lamai is the beach. It, too, is overdeveloped with luxury resorts like the Aloha and the Golden Sands, as well as tiny bungalows with fans and mosquito nets over a skimpy mattress, like the one I saw after I arrived at White Sands. These are intermingled with restaurants and bars, all down the beach, at least as far as I've walked which is not all the way to the point. But no matter what you do, the graceful palm trees, sand and the surf remain, the waves continually sweeping footprints away, and the turquoise water beckoning.

This morning I strolled down to my usual spot in front of the Bao Bob, but all the lounges were full. So I took up residence next door at the Cafe del Mar. Their cappuccino was passable. Earlier I'd walked down to get the Bangkok Post, the English language paper, and I folded it carefully in the wind. There was nothing about George Bush and only one story about Iraq. Apparently General Casey is not in agreement with Bush's plan to increase troop levels. Ho hum. The story that caught my eye, however, concerned the two pandas at the Chiang Mai zoo on loan from China. Their keepers are doing everything possible to get them to mate, a notoriously difficult task. This includes showing them videos of other pandas mating. I nearly fell off my lounge after reading that. Does this mean that pandas are susceptible to porno? A (t)horny question.

Driven inside by the rain last night, we turned to the TV for entertainment and I selected "Pirates of the Carribbean" dubbed in Thai. It was terrific in Thai or English. I love it that Johnny Depp used Keith Richard as a model for his character, Jack Sparrow. I remember flying first class to Hawaii with the Rolling Stones in 1974. Before the plane had even taken off, Keith dumped his drink into his lap and the seat cushion had to be replaced. Depp is much funnier. The cable TV is a strange concoction of Thai soap operas, news and patriotic programs, along with stuff for the tastes of tourists, in French, Italian, German and English. The other day I saw part of "Seven Year Itch," include the famous scene of Marilyn Monroe over a subway grate, her dress billowing up around her. It was great, even in Thai. For some reason, the offerings are mostly dubbed, in English or Thai, making it hard to watch something together with Thim. Either she gets it, or I do. Sometimes I turn to Fox News (where are you, CNN?) in search of something about home, but invariable am appalled and scandalized by what I see. How can Bill O'Reilly dare to call his show the "No Spin Zone." Fox News is ALL spin, right wing Republican spin.

This morning we had breakfast once again at the Jungle Juice Cafe a short walk up the street. It's owned by Ta, a woman in her 30s who speaks good English and serves a mean scrambled egg with toast breakfast. She told me she graduated with a degree in art design and the small store front restaurant shows excellent taste. There is a fountain and pool and Thim pointed out to me the two turtles ("tao" in Thai) that hide underneath a rock. There are also a pair of parakeets (Thais love birds and leave their cages outside rather than in the house). Ta also offers a wide range of fresh juices and interesting and healthful mixes. The last couple of times we've arrived before she gets back from the market with fresh fruit, and her cook, who speaks no English, takes our orders fromThim (whose English is just a bit more expansive). Then Ta pulls up on her motorbike with a dozen plastic bags containing fruit and veggies. Ta has a French boyfriend her the laptop available has a french keyboard which for some reason transposes "y" and "z," making for interesting garbles. This morning the internet connection wasn't working and she asked me to have a look. I jiggled a few wires, concerned lest I might be electrocuted, and, presto, it worked! Ta shared with Thim the book she had used to learn English on her own and a well-thumbed Thai-English dictionary. Up the street from the Jungle Juice Cafe is a Thai boxing gym and we could hear the thwaps of the boxers as we ate our eggs and toast.

Only one more full day left in the paradise of Lamai on Ko Samui. The clouds and the rain have interrupted my tanning regime and I intend to get out there on the beach tomorrow morning and darken sufficiently to last me through the remain winter up north. My thoughts are beginning to leave Thailand, even though I will have four days in Bangkok. I heard from Angie that her mother has died and she will be in England for the memorial service. I hope we can get together on the 10th in London. I still have not heard from Francois about seeing him and his family in Paris on the 11th. Weather permitting, I hope to get some major walking in during my brief stay in the French capital. And I look forward to see "Venus" in London with Helen. Peter O'Toole has apparently pulled off an Oscar-winning tour de force. And then there is my plane home on Valentine's Day, the cabin employes union at British Airways permitting.

Tonight is the all-night full moon party on Ko Pha-Ngan. I wonder if it will be televised?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Eating Bugs at Coco Bar

It was in my mouth before I knew what was happening: a bug. And, truth be told, it tasted pretty good, crunchy and spicy. Up till last night, I had been a big virgin. I'd seen them for sale. You can't miss the outside stalls with woks of oil and piles of fried bugs. But I'd managed to avoid that cultural experience. On my first trip to Thailand several years ago, Jerry had taken me to a market that sold everything (except feathered creatures, it being the time of the bird flu scare). I saw piles of bugs, big and little, including ants. Only they were alive. The vendors prefer them that way. It means they will be fresh when cooked. At least that's how I interpreted it. I took photos of the strange edibles. Jerry, the author of a book called Extreme Cuisine, was an expert. And he'd sampled everything. But I was not so adventurous.

Until last night. We were sitting at the Coco Bar, and I was innocently sipping a Heineken. A vendor came by to make a delivery, and Nat dumped the load onto a couple of plates. I caught a glimpse of feelers and antennas as Thim scooped a portion into a spoon and quickly slipped it into my mouth. I was given a green leaf to chew along with it. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

You know, it didn't taste half bad, whatever it was. There were two plates. The first held what looked like portions of different insects, along with some seasoning. The second was more recognizable as a plate of bugs. They were too small to be grasshoppers and too large to be ants. Crunchy and crispy, and a little chewy. The antennas or feelers stuck in my teeth and I needed to toohpick them out (why is it that toothpicks are universal here and almost always absent in U.S. eateries?). The expected repulsion never materialized. I'd lost my bug cherry.

Today dawned stormy, with white caps out on the bay and omnious dark clouds over the hills inland. Thim and I took a long walk through the village and along the beach. It was more windy the closer we got to the water. Dedicated sun worshippers were arrayed on lounges, their bodies open to the sky, despite the absence of sun. I saw heads rolling in the surf. But on closer inspection they turned out to be coconuts. Two wind surfers skipped over the waves, their colorful parchutes bobbing in the breeze. I saw an umbrella blown over.

Yesterday, in my post on what's in a wat, I neglected to explain the wai. A wai is the ubiquitous salute in Thailand, what would be described as "namaste" in India. With hands folded together at the chest, I honor the divinity within you. Wais in the wats to a monk are a little more elaborate, and usually involve kneeling or squatting, so as to be below the head of the monk. But my body fails to move that way. So I bow and position my wai at the head, as we did at Shantivanam when the host was raised, honoring God on the altar. Kneeling is trouble for me. My knees long ago gave up the ghost. So I sit on my haunches with knees to the side and brace myself from falling with one arm. It's rather awkward and I'm sure embarrassing to Thim who takes her rituals seriously. But she is patient, and unfailingly lights the incense and candles for me.

The tension is rising here in Ko Samui as each night's moon gets fuller. Every travel agent here in Lamai Beach is offering speed boat rides to Ko Pha-Ngan for the gigantic full moon beach party at Hat Rin. The old girl looked full to me last night, but the party is on Saturday, tomorrow night. All the backpackers and hippies will be absent and Lamai should become the sole property of overweight aging westerners. I'll probably watch TV.

Friday, February 02, 2007

What's in a Wat?

Whose on first? Buddha!

This morning I was recovering from a mild sunburn. And so I decided to forego the beach today and head off in search of -- wat? The perfect wat.

A wat is a Buddhist temple and/or monastery, and Ko Samui is well supplied. With the aid of Weela's motorbike taxi, I'd already visited the Big Buddha at Wat Phra Yai on the north coast, and it's neighbor, the newer complex, Wat Plai Laem. And we'd marveled over the mummified corpse of the monk Loung Por Daeng at Wat Khunaram farther south. But I had my heart set on seeing the jewel in the Buddhist crown, Wat Laem Sor, with its golden pagoda on the southern tip of Ko Samui. So after a breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and jam, and coffee, we set off on our wat-hopping jaunt, bagging a total of five wats (not to mention a footprint of the Buddha). May all the merits from this pilgrimage be spread evenly among my friends.

Now I've seen a few wats in my time. Molly was involved in an exchange program with students from Chiang Mai almost 15 years ago. She came here and a number of them visited Santa Cruz. Afterwards, they toured the country, ending up in Washington, D.C., where we met up with them. They invited us to the big wat in Silver Springs, MD, where we were treated to a lovely supper and even got to meet the head monk. We edged into the room on our knees while he read the newspaper. He nodded at us, the meeting was ended and we backed out, again on our knees. Three years ago I went to Wat Pah Nanachat, a monastery near Ubon Ratchatani, and I stayed for ten days, dressed in white, my head shaven. I did walking and sitting meditation, got up at 3:30 AM and chanted in the main sala with the real monks, and ate one meal a day, albeit a delicious one. And then I've done the tourist boogie during my two previous trips to Thailand, visiting lots of wats in Bangkok, Ayutayah, Sukhuthai and Chiang Mai.

So I know what's wat. Our first stop was the famous pagoda of Laem Sor, protected by the fierce guardians pictured above. The view from the water's edge was stupendous. But that was the appetizer. Wheela took me up the hill to Khao Prabat, a chedi (or burial stupa) where I could look back and see the pagoda as well as a wat shaped like a boat, all part of the same complex. A monk was washing his clothes, chickens were pecking around the icons, and it felt like I'd reached the top of the Buddha universe. Wheela, Thim and I walked back down the hill and over to the ship I'd seen from above. The monks there must love the sea for there were a number of ship models clustered around the usual icons of Buddhist monks (more monks than Buddhas were on display at most of the wats), covered with little squares of gold. The ship wat was sitting in a pond filled with catfish and we dropped pellets of food to feed them, causing a frenzy that stirred up the water.

The four-hour wat pilgrimage also included Wat Kiri Wongkaram where we found another mummified monk, Luang-Por Rerm-Khun Thummo, who was born in 1879 and died on Ko Samui in 1966, his body refusing to decay. He looked a little tired, but thankfully did not wear sunglasses like the other one. Then we traveled through a coconut planation, where nary a soul was to be seen, to Wat Sumret. Somehwere in this complex monks were chanting, but our attention was on the Secret Hall of the Buddhas that once housed a valuable collection of Buddha images from around Thailand. Unfortunately, thieves carried off some of the best of them and now the building is securely locked. But a very disreputable looking guard encouraged us to peek through a small window where we could see dozens of them inside. I took a few pictures but they do not capture the oddness of a big room full of dozens of Buddhas.

At Wat Praderma, they were getting ready for a big festival tonight. Booths selling clothes and food were being set up. Thim bought us each bubble tea which I have grown to love (ever since first tasting it with Nick at Japan Town in San Francisco). We threw darts at balloons, she hitting five and me three, and we collected little gifts (mine was a fan). We both bought fortunes, and although I can't read mine, she has assured me that it is "very good." That's a relief. And we prayed before the wat's icons.

Then there was the trek up a very steep hill, through a mosquito-infested forest, to see the Buddha's Footprint that was marked on my wrinkled tourist map. Thim stayed back because her sleeveless top did not past muster with the resident monk. And so Weela and I ascended to the footprint, which turned about to be a very large and elaborately designed artistic footprint inside of a large room. It looked not unlike the foot of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Our final wat was just south of Lamai Beach, Wat Sila Ngu, which I think translates as new snake. There is a fine stairway to the water with giant carved cobras (Weela thought Anaconda) as bannisters. This wat, according to my guide book, is very popular as a location for festivals and performances "that sometimes even include stars of television and film."

At each wat we looked for the icons, knelt in front of them and lit candles and incense (if the wind was not too strong as it was at Laem Sor). At some, we were also given little square of gold to affix to the icon. Much of the time the gold would not stick and it would fly away, hopefully to gain merit somewhere else. I listened to Thim's Thai prayers and I added my own Christian-flavored ones, hoping for healing of those who are sick and happiness for those who are sad.

And that's the whole wat story.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Cultural Differences

Thim, my local guide, interpreter, and Thai language instructor, cast a critical eye over the beach scene. "No good," she said, gesturing at a topless woman bather entering the surf. There aren't too many of them, but just enough to scandalize the Thais. All of the guides I've read caution about ignoring cultural mores in Thailand. But it's a beach, and most of the sun worshippers are foreigners, and so the brazen ladies act as if it's the Mediterranean and not the Gulf of Thailand. On my part, I found their all-tan pulchritude refreshing, and a comment about that earned me a slap.

Thai people are not fond of the sun. In fact, I have not seen a single Thai woman in a bikini on the beach, topless or otherwise. There are plenty of Thais working on the beach, in restaurants, bars, or vending souvenirs and massages, but they are mostly covered up, as if a storm is about to blow in. Even construction workers are fully dressed and wear scarves around their faces. Only the eyes can been seen. Thim is obsessed by a fear of becoming "black," even though I try to reassure her that her skin is brown and it's beautiful. She lies on a chaise lounge under an umbrella wrapped in my beach towel. In a pharmacy I saw lots of creams and other products touting "whitening" properties and I know that Thim uses them. "I like white," she says succinctly. "No like black." In the TV commercials I've seen the models are all white. This obviously reinforces the sterotypical value ofwhiteness, but where does it come from? Most natives of this country are dark skinned. In America the pre-black Negroes used hair-straightening and whitening products to make them seem more like the dominant white majority. But here dark people ARE the majority. What gives?

This morning the clouds lifted and the sun came out again, after a day of overcast skies and sprinkles yesterday. We settled down in front of Georgio's Bao Bob Pizzeria and I contemplated the waves (Thim does not like salt water). We were surrounded by mostly overweight aging farangs like me, women as well as men. A few of the men strolled the beach in those tiny bikini trunks that Europeans seem to like; I've always found them repulsive. Eric Clapton was singing from the speakers at the Cafe Del Mar next door. The tiny Dow, always full of energy and a big smile, came to take my order for a cappuccino and Thim's for a watermelon shake. Like Thim she comes from a village not far from Laos and can speak Laotian as well as Thai. She asked me if I knew any single men and I told her I would send over my two unmarried sons for her to choose from. That seemed to please her. After a swim in the warm but turbulent surf, I invited the sun god to tan me. Later, we ate a four-cheese pizza for lunch.

Thim has a tiny amulet tied to her bra. It isn't Buddha, but rather it is an old man with a beard holding a staff. She told me it was "Chua Choc" (which I didn't hear clearly), and it was given to her by her parents for protection when she left her village near Udon Thani to work in Ko Samui.

I came to this internet shop earlier to write in my blog but discovered the power was out. Lamai Beach was strangely quiet, except for the noisy two-wheelers. No booming speakers from the bars playing rock and roll, or TV sets tuned to Thai soap operas. No rumbling air conditioners. Just the sounds of hundreds of birds in cages hanging from store fronts. Walking down to the main intersection, I found a number of trucks, large coils of wire, and cherry pickers with workers high up on the poles, and could see that new power lines were being put up. The electricity came back soon after, but for a little while Lamai had reverted back to a more primitive time.

The cough that has plagued me is breaking up. On my first visit to a pharmacy I received a liquid for a dry cough that did not seem to help much. But in Haad Rin at another pharmacy I got something called Bisolvon Ex that did the trick. At least for now.

Last night I strolled down the main street and found a bar that was showing movies. I had just missed "Dream Girls" but got there minutes after "Rocky Balboa," the new Sylvester Stallone franchise, had started. So I ordered a dish of pad thai and a big Heineken and settled in to watch I've missed Netflix and my regular movie fix. The film was clearly pirated and the words "Property of MGM" kept popping up on the screen. And although the audio was in English, there were also English subtitles. At least I thought so until I noticed how garbled they were. Clearly they were a product of a computer program, and a malfunctioning one at that. Malapropisms abounded. And it added some extra humor to the formulaic film about Rocky's 99th comeback fight. Cute, but no cigar. I'm looking forward to seeing"Dream Girls" at one of the luxury cineplex's in Bangkok next week.

My room on the second floor in the new wing of Amadeus is right past the last of the bars on the main street, and, despite the solid walls, I can hear the pounding of the bass and music from a dozen speakers. After the bar closing at 2 AM, I have also heard the occasional street fight. And then there are the dogs, dozens of them, who roam the roads and sometimes get into turf battles. Last night one barked in the parking area below my room for a long spell. But despite the noise, I like my room and I love waking up to the sunrise and going out on the balcony where I can look across at the bay and feel the sea breeze on my skin. This afternoon trucks came and removed the garbage dump, so now I have an uninterrupted view of nature.

Thais love their royalty. The king's picture is everywhere. I've seen a taxi with "Long Live the King" in large letters on the windshield. Then today I saw a man on a bike with a tee shirt that read on the back: "I don't want any women or massage." The perfect "no" to the overtures from every side on the streets ofLamai.

You wouldn't know it here, but martial law was lifted throughout the country last Friday. This is a land that has been ruled by a military junta since last September. The Constitution is being rewritten by a committee chosen by the coup leaders. Elected politicians thrown out of power are being investigated for corruption. They have been blamed for problems, liked cracked runways, at the new international airport. I expected to see some soldiers in the streets. But I've only seen happy tourists, and Thais devising innumerable ways to relieve them of their money.