Friday, August 31, 2007

Molly is Thirty Today

Can it really be thirty years?

Images of you at every age are etched in my brain. I've already posted in this blog the newborn photo of you when you were hours old. Here I think you are two, because it was taken before our move to Connecticut. Maybe it was taken by my dear departed friend Peter. I believe it was from one of the many gatherings of friends and children that we had during the 1970s in Santa Cruz.

My images of you begin with your birth in the big brass bed in our private room at Community Hospital's birth center. I cut your umbilical cord and moments later I gave you a bath in warm water. We slept together with you that night and took you home to the little gray house in Harvey West Park the next day. Our special place was the hammock outside where I would swing you to sleep. Another sure-fire technique (you never wanted to go to bed) was dancing, and I know you got your love for music during our dances when you were an infant in my arms.

Three weeks ago we flew out of San Francisco on our separate journeys, me west to Bangkok and you east to Vienna. Since then we've only connected once by email. I know you are dancing with Frey and singing with Jan, and that you are traveling throughout eastern Europe. I think you also inherited your love of distant places from me, although your growing-up years were relatively stable. Now you are a citizen of the world, with two trips to Brazil, several in Mexico, and two previous sojourns to Europe, in Budapest and in Marseilles, behind you. It would be wonderful if you could keep going east. When you were fifteen you came to Chiang Mai for six weeks as an exchange student. But I think you were still too young to appreciate the wonders of this place. Come again, visit me, see Thailand anew. I think the music and the dancing would inspire you, my wonderful, adventurous, creative daughter.

Happy Thirtieth Birthday, Molly, wherever you are!

Here in Bangkok the southwest monsoon is doing its business, with dark thunderclouds blown into town by winds from over the Indian Ocean. Depending on who you read, the word "monsoon" either comes from a Hindi word mausam meaning weather, or from an Arabic word mawsin meaning season. There are both dry monsoons and wet ones, according to the direction of the winds. Thailand's wet season is from June to October. And the dry season, when the northeast monsoon winds come from central Asia, is from November to February. In the popular mind, however, "monsoon" means rain, and lots of it. Last night, when I went out to eat, the clouds opened up and the rain poured down. My umbrella was ineffectual, my clothes and especially my shoes got soaked from splashing through puddles too big to be leapt over. The vendors on Sukhumvit covered their wares with plastic sheets. People huddled in doorways. The tuk tuks with open sides were especially vulnerable and woe to the tourists who rode in them. I learned of a new use for the ever-present plastic bags which quickly became hats to keep heads dry. Finally I dashed to Foodland and dried off over a plate of pad Thai.

Thais also love plastic straws. No drink is complete without one. If you buy a bottle of water at the 7-11, they always stick a straw in the plastic carrying bag. Maybe lips on bottles or glasses are considered unsanitary. I will investigate this and report back. Besides straws and toothpicks (which are almost always present on restaurant tables), I have become most appreciative of escalators. They are everywhere, and ease the work of walking considerably. Especially at BTS stations. Jerry taught me to always walk a bit further to the stairway leading up to the Skytrain platform if by doing so you find one with an escalator. Shopping in the high-rise malls would be drudgery without escalators. And I've seen uniformed employees whose only job appears to be wiping off the rubber escalator hand rails.

Yesterday I went to Pratunam Market in search of clothes. In a huge covered area at the intersection of Phetchaburi and Ratchadamri roads, not far from the fashionable malls of Siam Square, I found a bewildering maze of aisles leading past hundreds of stalls selling all kinds of clothes. Fashions for women dominated, but I didn't let that deter me from finding some new shirts and a pair of pants. I saw numerous shrines to various gods and spirits, invoking their help in making sales, and many of the shops were selling the yellow shirts you see worn by Thais to express their respect for the King, and his upcoming (Dec. 5th) 80th birthday. Business was a little slow in the morning but it picked up around noon. A man of Middle Eastern extraction stopped me in an aisle and proceeded to tell my fortune which was exceptional; I thanked him and moved on. Many of the customers were obviously tourists. Everything I bought was under $10. The shirt I bought for 250 baht on Sukhumvit the other night sells for 150 baht at Pratuunam, and might be even cheaper at Chatuchak, the mammoth weekend market in north Bangkok. A girl I met recently told me about another market near On Nut BTS station in southeast Bangkok where I could buy shirts for 50 baht. Clearly this is a shopper's paradise and a buyer's market.

On the way to Patunam, I stopped at the Erawan Shrine next to the hotel of the same name. I continue to be amazed at the way Thais incorporate gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon into their blend of Buddhism and populist spirit religion. The builders of the original hotel (named Airvata, after Indra's three-headed elephant mount) first erected a typical Thai spirit house to ward off bad luck. But after several accidents which delayed construction, they put up the more elaborate shrine with its centerpiece icon of the four-headed Brahma (Phra Phrom), the Hindu god of creation. When believers discovered the shrine was particularly effective in granting wishes, they flocked to the site and now it's crowded at most hours of the day. An orchestra and dancers can be hired to perform as an expression of thankfulness.

Across the busy intersection and in front of the huge recently re-modeled and up-scaled (mall competition is fierce) Central World Plaza are two shrines, the larger of which containing an icon of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. He is particularly favored as the remover of all obstacles, and as such is one of my favorite saints. The Thais love him as well. I observed a number of women placing bouquets of roses at the second, smaller shrine which contained dozens of elephants, large and small. There were also a couple of large elephant figures at the Erawan shrine that people were covering with little squares of gold leaf. Add to this the hundreds of other tiny offerings of food and drink to the spirits on small trays and altars in front of shops big and small and you can only conclude that the Thais live in a world in which the supernatural is not excluded as it is in the west.

I have a maid. I know, it's shameful. I'll have to turn in my Socialist Party membership card. Full-maid and laundry service was offered to me when I rented this apartment (for what I thought was an excessive 3000 baht a month) and I turned it down, thinking I was a clean person and could handle it myself. But I noticed that my floor was getting a bit grudgy, and so when the cute little Thai maid offered her services, I accepted. By dint of negotiation and translation help from Lek in the manager's office, we settled on 250 baht per cleaning, once a week. In anticipation of her visit on Tuesday, I straightened and cleaned and put things away. So when I returned after her visit, not much was different. I detected little signs of her activity: the toothpaste had been moved. But I couldn't tell if the room was cleaner. A friend advises that 250 baht (perhaps $8) is way too much for my little room. She is schedule to return next Wednesday, but perhaps more negotiation is in order.

Siam Court has a new tuk tuk. It takes residents up the soi to Sukhumvit and the Nana Skytrain station. I rode in it yesterday. It's brain new and painted white, with a plug for rentals in our residence. An advertising ploy, but one that might help my feet. The 10-minute walk up and down the soi is slowly taking its toll on my pinkies.

I don't know what to say about this final item. As I returned to my building after dinner last night I saw a man near the wall doing something furtive. It looked like he was trying to catch something. He turned around and walked toward the elevator where I was standing, and something that looked remarkably like a mouse jumped out of his coat. He grabbed it, put it back in his pocket, and walked past me up the stairs. Now the DDT (or something similar) that was sprayed in our rooms last week to kill off the wildlife might also not be healthy for mice. Was this man collecting food for his snake? Something to think about.

Oh, one more item. A new Thai movie is coming to town that advertises itself as a comedy. But it is about a man who gets his head chopped off. The movie is about efforts to get the head sewn back onto his headless body. I know this because I've seen the previews twice. Another Thai movie previewed featured a a young woman in a house filled with ghosts and rivers of blood. The preview, if not the movie, was dominated by blood. Bloody handprints on the wall, bloody faces. I was terrified by the preview, but Thais around me in the theater chuckled.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Enlightenment as the Goal

"Since nobody here is enlightened, nobody knows what it is," the monk began. But despite this ignorance, enlightenment, he suggested, serves as an indispensable goal for the spiritual path, motivating us to strive for liberation from suffering. It is a "philosophical lucky charm."

This was the message delivered last night by Phra Cittasamvaro Bhikkhu (also known as Pandit) who spoke to a full house about enlightenment in the first of a series of six weekly talks at the new Baan Aree Library in Bangkok. It was just what I was looking for, and apparently others as well. The new lecture hall was filled with farang young and old and a sprinkling of Thai, including my friend Panida. Marcus, a British teacher of English whom I had met on the E-sangha web site earlier, was also present. Late arrivals coming into the room squatted down or walked on their knees so as not to be above the teacher as they crossed in front of the stage to the few remaining seats or cushions on the floor..

Pandit is a British monk who came to Thailand eleven years ago, after a stopover in India where he lived for a time at Shantivanam Ashram in Tamil Nadu, my spiritual home in Southern Asia. Now he is working on an advanced degree in Buddhist studies and living at a wat in Bangkok. He has started a web site, The Little Bang, which includes blogs and a calendar, to serve as "a Compass for updated information on what is happening in Bangkok that is of interest to meditators, both long term and the simply curious," and the lecture series is the first event. It is the nucleus of the sangha I have been seeking here since my arrival three weeks ago.

Religion without a result, without enlightenment, Pandit said, is just good works, a social institution. Even Mother Theresa, it was revealed in a recent book, had doubts about her faith. In his travels before ordination, Pandit once met her in India. When the practice dries up, enlightenment as a goal helps us push on. If you strip away enlightenment, as the active atheists like Richard Dawkins suggest, there is nothing left to religion. And practice alone, such as pulling ribbons through your nose like the yogis in India, is not enough without the goal of moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Nibanna, the Pali word for enlightenment, means "cooling," or the "putting out of a flame," the dampening of the fires of sense desire. If the Buddha had lived in England, Pandit said, liberation might have meant "not raining." The monk's room overlooks a school, he told his audience, and for him nibanna would be quiet from the noise of young girls and their teachers. Or maybe like one of the occasional power failures in Bangkok.

Keeping one's eye on the prize of enlightenment helps us to avoid attractive distractions, such as excessive solitude or scholarly pursuits. His own favorite distraction, he said, was the TV series, "Gilmore Girls." Without any clear teaching about enlightenment you can even get lost in renunciation. Pandit said his mantra for dealing with distractions is "so what." You must use everything for the sake of enlightenment.

If we don't know exactly what enlightenment is, we can know what it is not, Pandit said. It is not the New Age absorption into the universe. And it is not the suicide of the mind that philosophers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer thought characterized enlightenment. For the monk it is "lighter, brighter and more steady." It is mindfulness and self-awareness, impermanence, "not suffering," deathlessness, a kind of balance, a delight beyond the senses.

At the end of the talk, the audience sat in meditation for a half hour. In the Q & A session afterwards, the monk was taken to task for beginning at the end, with enlightenment, without properly preparing the way. But for me it was a warm and very human way to look at the primary reason for practice. Enlightenment can be the carrot that keeps this donkey on the path. The Christian carrot of heaven and the forgiveness of sins just does not make sense to me. Freedom from the entanglements of mind that lead to suffering, and perhaps from the cycle of death and rebirth, is becoming more appealing.

Before the talk I met Panida at the Ari BTS station and we walked into the compound where the Baan Aree Library is located. Some of it is still under construction, but a number of offices are occupied already by health and healing concerns. Yoga classes are offered. We had an excellent meal from a small kitchen and sat outdoors. There are two places that serve espresso. Afterwards I even found chocolate chip cookie (called "cake" here) to feed my addiction that has suffered since moving away from the Pacific Cookie Company in Santa Cruz. Chocolate is a major distraction for this aspiring Buddha.

For another very insightful perspective on the evening, check out Marcus' Journal.

Buddha in Benjakiti Park

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Citizens of the World

This is what I saw when I awoke the other morning at dawn from my apartment's tiny balcony at Siam Court. I can hear the traffic from the Vibhavadi Rangsit Expressway not far off, look down to see someone swimming laps in the pool before work, and I can smell the rich indecipherable odor (metal? flowers? damp pavement? smoke? organic matter?) of Bangkok. I am a citizen of the world, no longer locked in to one particular national identity.

Many of my close friends are traveling the world. Molly is in Slovenia, an Eastern European country I had to search for on the map. Ted and Joan left yesterday for their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Sylvia and Jerry and traveling in Russia. Dianna just finished her course in Sanskrit at Heidelberg and is off to visit friends in Switzerland. Jim recently returned from China. Once you've tasted foreign pleasures, you can't go home again unchanged. I've met citizens of the world on my journeys in Asia, Europe and Latin America and they are different from the folks who never leave home. They've developed mysterious itches that must be scratched. They know that geographical borders are a peculiar human invention that divide groups of humanity from each other, and that all such artificial fences must be torn down, particularly the ones lodged in our brain.

This section of lower Sukhimvit (from soi 1 through Asoke) is incredibly cosmopolitan. Residents and tourists from Arab countries cluster on the odd number sois, particular Soi 3. I see many women in burkas, usually accompanied by small children, shopping at the stalls on Sukhumvit Road. There are Africans from French-speaking countries, like the woman sitting in front of me at Holy Redeemer Church on Sunday. Lots of Japanese live and work in Bangkok but most of them rent expensive condos in the higher-numbered sois. They are reportedly favored by the bar girls for their high-spending ways. Indians have come up to me in restaurants to try and sell me fake Rolex watches. At the mall I have seen young Sikh boys, their hair ,uncut since birth, piled on top of their heads in a top knot. There are numerous pubs, like Hanrihan's and Bully's, that attract the Irish, Australian and New Zealand, and British visitors and expatriates. And of course we Americans are here in large numbers. When I picked up my laundry last night, an older man with a southern accent, accompanied by a Thai woman, asked me if I knew the way to the American Embassy. It's within walking distance, I said, the other side of the expressway. We'll take a taxi, he replied. "I want to see 'bout getting married," and he squeezed his lady's hand. The sidewalks of Sukhumvit are full of tall westerners walking with their tiny Thai girlfriends, some to get married, some for a short time tête-à-tête. A very cosmopolitan city.

Yesterday I went shopping. After visiting the British Council library in Siam Square and deciding it it didn't seem worth 1500 baht for a membership, I walked along the back of Chulaongkorn University and across Phaya Thai Road to the giant Mayboonkrong (MBK for short) Center, a collection of small shops on six floors along with the obligatory cinema complex showing American blockbuster films like "Rush Hour 3" (which I saw at Siam Paragon on Sunday). I had discovered that the nice red shoulder bag from Chiang Mai I had purchased at Chatuchak Market two weeks ago was transferring its color to my pants. So I quickly found a shop at MBK selling bags and bought a kavi-colored one for about $6 (discount because it was not busy that morning) to encourage my faithfulness on the path. And at aother shop I bought a small Buddha for $3 to start a shrine in my apartment. The stores were just opening up at 10:30 and I noticed a number of entrepreneurs lighting incense and saying their prayers that business that day might be profitable. I was also looking for some new shirts and shorts but the fashions I saw were bland and unattractive. So I shall look tonight at the street market for something more colorful.

Because of the upcoming retirement of the general who led the military takeover last September, there have been rumors of an impending coup mentioned in the Bangkok Post. Apparently the competition among generals to replace him is intense and the losers might not be happy. So it was with some interest the other day that I noticed a gaggle of policemen in the usually busy Sukhumvit-Soi 4 intersection who were stopping traffic in all directions. A number of people on the sidewalk like me were waiting to see what would happen. Traffic noises were unexpectedly stilled. After a few minutes about a half dozen cars sped by, mostly police. No black limos carrying politicians or generals. As soon as they passed, the policemen withdrew and traffic resumed. There was nothing about it in the paper the next day. So I suppose all is still well in the Land of Smiles. Elections under the new constitution will take place on December 23, while I am in India. Many of the generals are expected to retire and run for office.

Security is tight. When I went to the movies Sunday, I was asked at a checkpoint if I had a camera in my bag. Yes, I replied. And they asked me to turn it over. I signed my name on a form next to a description of the camera and was given a tag. It was redeemable after the show. I wonder if this is to prevent piracy of movies? You can easily buy a DVD in Sukhumvit of all the latest movies, many of them taken by someone sitting in a seat with a movie camera. Too late, I thought. "Rush Hour 3" (as well as Bourne and Harry Potter) is already on sale. Wasted security.

On Monday morning I left the Siam Court and turned right at the soi. On the map there was a large park and I wanted to see it. First I had to walk through the Thailand Tobacco Monopoly grounds where cigarettes (you could smell the cut tobacco) were made in large rectangle warehouses. Apparently the Thais are not concerned that the government is promoting cancer. Some laws against smoking are on the books but ill enforced. On the other side of the Monopoly I could see Benjakiti Park through a fence with its large lake and, with a few gestures, was able to persuade the guard to open and let me in. The lake is about as large as Merritt in Oakland and is surrounded by tall offices and apartment buildings. In addition to the gardeners, I saw only a couple of visitors like me. All of the fountains were turned off. I suppose on the weekends the park is crowded with residents eager to experience green in the midst of the city. There were many trees donated by the embassies of different countries (I looked but saw no redwood which would wilt in this heat). A meditation area featured a very nice statue of the Buddha. There was even a very new-looking fitness trail, or par course. But though I saw a few workers sleeping, I saw no one working out, and the heat discouraged me to try it. At the end of the park is the large Queen Sirikit International Convention Center. Traffic was heavy entering the parking area. I found a side door and went in to explore. The many large halls of the center were filled with different exhibitions, and the aisles were packed with visitors, many of them young. Different people handed me fliers that I could not read. Most of the exhibits had something to do with health. I felt overwhelmed by my ignorance of Thai, and quickly slipped away to the quiet of a Black Canyon coffee house. It was also quite large and filled with people eating lunch. When I was ready to pay my check, I pushed a button on my table and a waitress speedily arrived with a bill. The cappuccino had come with a small glass of tea on the side and a selection of munchies. It cost about $2.

In the evenings I've been watching episodes of "The Office" with Steve Carell. I brought them with my on my laptop and play the videos through my big screen TV. I thought Carell was wonderful as the gay uncle in "Little Miss Sunshine" but I didn't know much about his other work before this. He plays an obnoxious, racist, sexist, and sometimes pitifully sympathetic office manager of a paper company in Scranton, PA. The support roles in the TV serious are all uniformly wonderful, their characters becoming a part of my imagination. I also saw an early episode of "ER" on the cable channel here and found myself weeping over the usual life-and-death, tragicomedy plot with characters played by much younger actors, including a George Clooney probably in his 20's. I'll take some newly downloaded movies with me to Phuket next weekend, incuding "Good Morning Vietnam" and "Cider House Rules" which were requested by my companion.

And that's all the news that's fit to print from Lake Benjakiti, Bangkok.

Paying respects to Buddha on yellow-shirt (for the King) Monday

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Elderly Like Sex (as much as the kids)

This story made the rounds of the internet news sites during the past week and showed up on the front page of the Bangkok Post yesterday, with the heading: "Many elderly folk still do it." What a surprise! Did someone think humans outgrew sex? Aside from those who deliberately choose celibacy for spiritual reasons, human beings are made to have sex, from puberty to old age. But when you're young, it's hard to imagine your parents, or grandparents (perish the thought!), actually doing the dirty deed.

Predictably, the humor sites had a field day with this story. Among the headlines I found were "Geezer Sex," "Senior Sex Study Shows Nana and Papa Still Getting it On," and "Old People Having More Sex (and It's Super Gross)."

The study, undertaken by the University of Chicago and published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, surveyed more than 3,000 people, ages 57 to 85 and found, according to the Washington Post, "that more than half to three-quarters of those questioned remain sexually active, with a significant proportion engaging in frequent and varied sexual behavior." The report defines "sexually active" as having sex at least once in the past year (which seems a questionable use of the term "active"), and determined that 73% of people 57 to 64 fell under that category, and 26% of men 75 to 85 were equally frisky. Women, according to the report, were less active because they (living longer) were less likely to have a partner. But according to the researchers:
We found that half the men and a quarter of the women reported that they masturbate, irrespective of whether or not they had a sexual partner. This suggests that, among older adults, there is an internal drive or need for sexual fulfillment.
Now I have not conducted any scientific research, but I have had numerous conversations with mostly male and some female friends my age, and I can certainly confirm these findings. When I was a teenager, the idea of my parents having sex was repulsive, and the thought of my grandparents doing it could give me nightmares. But obviously times have changed. It may be that the desire for sex lessens with familiarity. When I was married we may have been "active" according to the above definition, but sex every six weeks or so is not what I would call frequent. Some of my married friends have told me that while love lasts, the thrill is gone. Marital harmony requires accommodating one's needs to the other. There are many ways to sublimate: reading, golf and TV, not to mention gardening, fishing, knitting and fixing the car.

But for many old geezers like me, sprung loose from marriage (however unwillingly) in their golden years, sexual desire is less dampened then inflamed. Practically every woman on the streets is younger and most beautiful, and a feast for the eyes of us dirty old men, in trench coats or out of them. This poses a dilemma. We have been taught by the women's movement to treat all people as persons and not to objectify their bodies. And yet, as connoisseurs of pulchritude, how can we not? Women certainly dress to please (although I suspect it's often to compete with other women), and why should the way they look as they walk down the street not please me? As an older man, I am practically invisible to them anyway.

My friends tell me about their desires and some of their practices, and it is usually with a tinge of guilt, as if such thoughts and deeds are not proper, should be censored, somehow render them damaged goods. Sometimes I think the Sixties, with its situational and do-your-own-thing ethics, never happened. The prime directive is: do not hurt anyone or anything. Beyond that, it's all play, and even divine.

These ruminations occur as I continue to learn about Thai culture and the ways of Thai romance. As friends and faithful readers know, I became entranced with a lady on the romantic island of Koh Samui last January. She was a working woman and our relationship was a transaction more than what I was taught to consider as love. For her it was different. She saw my wealth and white skin as a ticket out of poverty and professed her love on our second day together. For more than two weeks we lived together as lovers. When we parted, me for a flight to California and she to her parent's rice farm in northeastern Thailand, I was captivated and perplexed. It took me months to sort out my feelings and begin to see the situation clearly. I could not commit and I could not let it go; I wanted to have my cake and eat it too, as my Mom would put it.

Even if that relationship was perhaps a mistake, I could not shake the spell that Thailand and her women had cast over me. In early spring I discovered a web site where Thai ladies went in search of farang husbands. I suppose it's the virtual version of a mail-order bride catalog. Dozens of ladies (more!) told me by email that they disliked their Thai boyfriends and husbands because they drank and gambled. They said they were attracted to westerners, even the elderly and the fat, because they thought them kind and warm and possessed of a jai dee (warm heart, the ultimate compliment) They also, wonders of wonders, liked white and even pink skin (many Thais disparage their dark skin). Discounting the gold diggers , the immature and the desperate housewives, this still left a number of intelligent and attractive women who could understand and write English well enough to appreciate and tell a good joke. Over the six months while I was waiting to leave for Thailand, I made a number of friends online who advised me about my plans and helped me to learn about the mysteries of Thai culture, particularly as it applied to relations between the sexes.

But the internet is not real life, as I have had to constantly learn anew since email and the web became ubiquitous 20 years ago. I have set up a number of coffee and dinner dates here in Bangkok with women I met online. The mobile phone is a wonderful device for coordinating meetings, but it did not help when I made an appointment to meet at Starbucks in the Siam Paragon mall only to learn there were at least three (and I had entered the lady's number incorrectly in my phone). Another date has canceled three times because of doctor's visits for acne treatment ("I look too ugly to see you!"). I've already recounted the tale of the two Tas. Neither seems interested in further contact. I have gone to dinner separately with two sisters whom I considered friends more than potential girlfriends. Another lady, in Bangkok to purchase uniforms for her hotel staff in the north, could not finish her lunch too quickly. While I attempted truth in advertising, apparently my age and appearance was a shock.

But I have met someone whom I like alot, a small but spirited black-haired woman who makes me laugh and rings my chimes. She set her sights on me from the beginning of our email conversations. And when I arrived in Bangkok she flew down from her northern city to meet me in person. Aside from some initial fumbling, we quickly became comfortable with each other, and enjoyed seeing the city together. Now we are planning a trip to Phuket where neither of us has been before. Our destination is a Best Western resort on the beach at Karon. The rainty season price is $50 a night.

Although she and I are still in the getting-to-know-you stage and are not yet in love, I learned yesterday that sleeping together, to a Thai, means that we are boyfriend-girlfriend. Another friend has lectured me severely on the need to give up the search for other women after finding one that I like. This morning I sent a text message to the girl from Koh Samui to tell her that I had another girlfriend. This, I hope, will allow her to cut her losses and not count on me as her savior. I should have done it sooner, but I just figured that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Now I need to stop beating around the bushes.

The bigger question, of course, is what I am looking for in a relationship with a Thai woman. Do I want to get married again, for the third time? I have trips planned, to Laos in October and to India in December, and I am inclined to travel alone. Do I want to live in Bangkok or in the provinces, Isan and Udon in particular? I don't have answers yet to these questions. For the most part, I feel like I am flying blind.

Lest you think I have given up the spiritual path for a life of debauchery (or just he pursuit of the perfect Thai woman), let me mention that I have finally gotten good information about Buddhist activities in English here. And I found it on the E-sangha site, in the forum on "Theravada in Thailand." There is a lecture series beginning next Tuesday night to be given by a British Monk, Phra Cittasangvaro. He will be speaking on "The Insights of Insight Meditation." I joined E-sangha and introduced myself, and soon found a friend, a British English teacher named Marcus, who, like me, has been seeking an English-speaking sangha here. We are getting together before the meeting. But unfortunately he leaves at the end of September for a teaching job in Korea. Before then, perhaps I can meet a number of other like minded folks. There are other talks on Buddhism and Thai history being given at the World Fellowship of Buddhism headquarters, the Siam Society, and at Wat Mahathat, so my calendar is filling up.

I have been plugging away at the Thai alphabet, trying to decipher the hieroglyphics, and yesterday while walking down the street I saw I sign that I could read: ยา. It is pronounced "yaa" and it means drug or medicine, a good word to know. Of course, right under the Thai letters it said DRUG STORE, so translation wasn't exactly difficult. But I had learned that was the consonant "y" and that was the long verb "aa." Such triumphs of the understanding make life worth living.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dwarf's penis gets stuck to vacuum cleaner

That's the headline, word for word, in the Bangkok Post yesterday.

Seems that the dwarf, a performer at the Edinburgh fringe festival in Scotland, sustained the injury "during an act that went horribly awry." Known as "Captain Dan the Demon Dwarf," he was scheduled to perform in the Circus of Horrors. He was to appear on stage with a vacuum cleaner attached to his member through a special attachment. The attachment broke just before the performance and he tried to fix it with super glue. The attachment stuck permanently, and he had to be rushed to hospital for removal. "It was the most embarrassing moment of my life," said the dwarf.

This was the second penis injury story in the Post this week. The first, which I am trying to forget, involved a fight between two men after one stabbed the other's friend. Attempting to extract revenge, the man tried to pull a gun out of his pants but it went off prematurely, blowing his penis to smithereens. The story reported that the victim's sexual activities were at an end.

Why the fascination with penis news in one of Bangkok's two English-language newspapers? I prefer stories like the one attached to this headline:

The injustice continues
After 40 years of Israeli occupation the Palestinians have never seemed worse off

Now where in the U.S. press will you see this? The story, bylined from Ramallah by a writer with an Arab name, was fairly straight-forward. It told of the tragic occupation by the U.S.-backed Israeli regime, one no less heart-breaking and unfair than reports from South Africa during the apartheid regime. But in America the Israeli lobby has a strangle-hold on the media as well as politicians in Washington. Censorship is complete.

Yesterday, I stayed in my apartment all day because the elevator was getting a tune-up and service was suspended for seven hours. Now I am very happy that the elevator is being inspected. But the thought of walking up seven floors deterred me from any excursion outside. I read, I ate, I organized my Flickr photos, and I sent text messages to my sons in the U.S. I've heard from all my kids this week, even Molly who is singing songs with Jan in Slovenia, a little country nestled into the armpit of the Italian boot, judging by the map. She says it is beautiful and she is having a wonderful time.

Earlier this week I sent off a $100 deposit to Sr. Barbara to reserve a place for me on the pilgrimage to Italy next June. Organized mainly for the diocesan choir which will perform, the pilgrimage includes a retreat in Assisi with retired Bishop Sylvester Ryan and Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, leader of my Sangha back in Santa Cruz. I loved Assisi during my last visit, and the chance to go again was tempting. I have no idea where I will be living come June, but I imagine I can find my way to Rome.

This lovely lady (from a borrowed photo) is performing a traditional Thai dance. Picture me the other night, with a couple of other stumble-bum farangs, attempting to do the same moves before an audience of diners at Isan House, a northern Thai restaurant down a side soi not far from Siam Court. My companion and I sat outside to eat, leaning back against the Thai triangle pillows. The whole fish was delicious. While children ran around, and cats played near the kitchen, a small band performed traditional Isan music and the dancers moved gracefully on the wooden floor. When they went out into the audience to recruit farang to join them, I resisted mightily. To no avail. Afterwards everyone was kind. After all, elephants are respected in Thailand.

Several nights later, I dined at the Silom Village Inn, a large collection of tables within an inner courtyard next to the hotel. Again I got to hear Thai folk music and see dancers, but this time the architecture, and our distance from the stage, made it difficult. One of the songs featured two men performing a mock fight with sticks that looked very similar to capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. There were also beautiful lady dancers but this time no recruitment. Our dinner was interrupted by a brisk rain shower but we managed to find a dry spot to finish our meal. The food, as in most tourist-oriented spots, was mediocre. But the company was entertaining, and afterwards we walked through the crowded stalls along Silom in front of the notorious bar area called Patpong. I only figured this out after a half dozen men flashed a small sign at me that said "DVD SEX." And then I noticed the side streets filled with garish neon lights advertising drinks and pleasures of the night.

The walk between my apartment building and Sukhumvit, the main drag, is only ten minutes, but it can seem much longer when I am weighted down with numerous plastic bags filled with heavy edibles and drinkables. Before the elevator repair, I wanted to stock up on supplies as if I were begin marooned on a desert island. Plastic bags are omnipresent; I have seen few outside of the malls made of paper. It reminds me of the metaphor of the plastic bag in "American Beauty." I haven't seen anywhere to recycle them here, so I dump them down the chute in my hallway along with all the other garbage. Are there poor families living down their sorting through our trash?

I continue to notice the large presence of Muslims on the streets and in the stores. Many of them are families with small children. The men look like any one else. As for the women, at one extreme are those in full burkas with only their dark eyes showing. It is amazing how sexy those eyes can seem when all else is blocked from view. At the other extreme are teenagers wearing designer clothes. But their heads remain covered with scarves and all wear long sleeves to hide skin. None wear shorts or show their legs in any way. Only the faces can be seen. I find them quite attractive.

Last night as I waited for the light to change at the busy intersection of Sukhumvit and Soi 4, I noticed a couple of ladyboys to my right. The giveaway was their height, almost as tall as me. They were chatting together, however, and their voices were deep (the high voices of Thai women sound like chattering birds). They crossed in front of me, hips swaying in exaggerated fashion, heading towards the Nana bars, and I saw two Arabs in white robes approach them. Negotiations took place. Did the Arabs know the girls were not women?

Life is dangerous in Bangkok, as I've mentioned before. When it rains there are pipes coming out of buildings to carrying the runoff which frequently falls on the sidewalk rather than the gutter. On Silom the rain water pooled on the canvas covering the walkway between stalls and occasionally spilled over. On Soi 4 the other night sparks dropped from above where welders were making repairs and I almost got burned. But most surprising of all is the lack of safety caps. I bought a bottle of Listerine the other day and when opening the top prepared myself for the struggle. But it was easy. You don't have to press the sides and turn at the same time, a maneuver made difficult by arthritis. Suddenly I realized: no safety caps! The authorities here apparently do not worry that unwary infants will get into that bottle of mouth wash or pop the cap on a jar of aspirin.

Today the weather is hazy and threatening rain (about as common a forecast as morning fog in Santa Cruz). A parent is teaching his children to swim in the pool. I have a dinner date in the evening but no plans today other than to study Thai letters. Because it's the rainy, or "low," season, airline tickets and hotel books are at a discount. So in a week I'm going to Phuket for four days. I'll stay at a Best Western on the beach at Karon. It will give me a look at the Andaman Sea and I can decide if I want to return, to Phuket or Krabi, after I get back from India in January. It's possible that after four months in Bangkok I will want a change of scenery.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

An Exercise in Democracy

A Thai man casts his vote on the constitutional referendum at a polling station in Bangkok (NY Times Photo)

If you believe that voting is the end all and be all of democracy, then you will be impressed that Thailand's bloodless military coup last September has ended not with a bang but a whimper, the approval by national referendum of a new constitution that will supposedly speed the return of civilian government. I visited a polling station on Sunday next to a housing development near the Ari BTS (Skytrain) station where police officers live rent free. We were visiting my companion's friend who lives in two small rooms with her young son. While another parent watched several of the children (including the adorable twins pictured below), we went over to the group of tables surrounded by yellow tape and the women, after presenting their ID cards, checked the box on the form for either "accept" or "reject." It was all very familiar. Democracy in action.

But how significant was the vote (and, more generally, are elections a panacea for governmental problems, a way to give the people a role)? This isn't easy for me to determine. Thai politics are complicated confirmed Luan, my old friend Larry's wife, last night. They have been living in Florida with their "half-breed" son (the son's words) for the last 15 years but returned this month to visit Luan's family in Phetchabun. We met for dinner with Luan's sister who lives in Germany. I have been reading the Bangkok Post, thinking it the more liberal of the two English-language dailies here, but since it seemed to support acceptance of the draft constitution, written by the military junta (which calls itself the Council for National Security), I'm not sure. It did present articles for and against the document.

The coup last September, which was blessed by the King, overthrew the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a move supported by the country's elite and financial interests and opposed by the rural poor who benefited from Thaksin's populist policies. Thaksin, a baht billionaire telecommunications tycoon, has been indicted for corruption but is living in exile in England where he recently bought the Manchester City soccer team which won its match the night of the referendum. Opponents of the draft constitution were smeared as followers of Thaksin, but in the accounts I read many of them called for rejection of the document as a protest against military rule. One essay in the paper said the referendum was just a show for western financial interests and ultimately it meant nothing.

Approval was hardly unanimous. Only 57 percent of the 45 million eligible voters went to the polls (that figure looks good compared to poor American election turnouts). Authorities blamed the low showing on heavy rains Sunday (not in Bangkok where it was hot and sunny early in the day) and on the people's "boredom with politics." Of those voting, 58 per cent said yes and 42 per cent, no, to the proposed constitution. But in the northeast, stronghold of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thailand) party, 62 per cent of the voters rejected it. "The referendum's result shows that the country is still as divided as before," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, quoted in the Washington Post. "The divisiveness is deep-seated and the referendum has done nothing to change it." According to the Post analysis:
The 186-page constitution, which will be the country's 18th since 1932, curbs the role of politicians, gives more power to unelected bodies such as the courts and could perpetuate the behind-the-scenes power the military has wielded in Thailand for decades.
It replaces a 1997 constitution designed to curb military coups (18 in Thailand's modern history). The coup last September was the first in 15 years. A general election will now be held in December after the King's 80th birthday celebration which promises to be a splashy affair. While the king here is a constitutional monarch, he is much revered by his subjects. And while his influence on politics is very subtle, his approval is needed for any political movement to succeed.

I have been in Bangkok now for two weeks, and in my 7th floor mini-suite at Siam Court for half that. Tomorrow the elevator will be out of commission for seven hours while undergoing repairs which may make my location not quite so attractive. However, I remain fascinated and enchanted by this place. Sitting here at my small table in the dining room, half-naked in my Indian kavi dhoti, cooled by a fan, I marvel at the twists and turns of fate. Slowly I am becoming a resident of this place. I buy a toilet bowl cleaning brush, study the hieroglyphics of the Thai alphabet, and purchase a "Smart Pass" for travel on the Skytrain (see photo). Most big city subways use refillable cards like this, and I still have an Oyster card I used on the London tube. The Bangkok BTS pass is no good on the new subway system, however. They issue wooden tokens that magically open the gates and must be deposited at the end of the ride. It was explained to me that the subway and BTS systems were built by different foreign companies. The new subway is cheaper, though, and seniors like me even get a discount. The ticket seller at Hua Lamphong Station last night laughed as he asked my age (so as not to embarrass me if I were younger than I looked).

It didn't take me long to notice that my laptop was getting hotter than usual during use, and I attribute this to Thailand's 220 volts of electricity coming out of the socket in the wall rather than the 120 volts I received back in the U.S. (I have a Ph.D., after all). So I visited Pantip Plaza, the super electronics mall in the Pratunam section of Bangkok, to look for a cooling pad. There were all manner of gadgets in the numerous shops clustered together on six floors that smiling clerks wanted me to use, including an overpriced pad in the Apple store. I finally picked a fan that fits under the laptop and gets its power from my USB port. It's rather weak and may be a Chinese ripoff, but I choose to believe that I am safeguarding the life of my MacBook. I also bought a can of tissues for cleaning the screen since I suspect Bangkok's legendary pollution might cause trouble.

After a ride on a river taxi Sunday on the Chao Praya (which I learned last night I have been mispronouncing with a hard "ch" and the "r" which is ignored by Thais), I visited Wat Mahathat next to the amulet market in search of an English sangha for instruction and meditation. The International Buddhist Meditation Centre seems to have gone missing. All the web sites mentioning it are out of date. We crossed into the wat compound where music was playing loudly and festivities involving a large number of children in colorful uniforms was just ending. I was directed to the international office on the third floor where a Buddhist nun dressed in white rummaged through her papers in search of a flier given to her by a British monk curently studying at the university on the temple grounds. He was apparently offering talks in English, but as she never found the flier, I will have to call this week for information. Back downstairs, my companion and I spied a popsicle cart and bought several which melted in the heat almost before reaching our mouths.

The amulet market outside Wat Mahathat was packed with weekend browsers looking for hot deals. Thais collect amulets like westerners collect stamps. Better yet, they buy amulets like stocks, hoping the value will go up. The most popular amulet right now is the Jatukham Rammathep, a large, round image which you see hanging from the necks of Thais and tourists trying to go native. According to Wikipedia:
The amulet is named for two princes of theKrung Srivijaya kingdom of southern Thailand, and is believed to provide protection and good fortune to the bearer. Some legends hold that the name actually belongs to an incarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, whose worship was known in the south due to the presence of Mahayana Buddhism there during earlier eras.
The original amulet was created in 1987 by a Thai policeman who believed that the spirit of the icon had helped him solve a difficult case. Following his death in 2006, the amulet began to soar in popularity and copies were sold as fast as they could be made. Most copies sell from 200 to 500 baht, but limited edition amulets call sell for over a million baht. A woman was trampled to death earlier this year in a stampede at a temple when new copies of the amulet went on sale. At the amulet market, where crowds thronged the narrow sidewalks to look at traditional Buddhist amulets as well as the Jatukham copies, I saw artists at work on new editions, painting the stamped image with gold leaf. According to recent reports, however, the craze for Jatukham amulets is collapsing because the market is now glutted with inferior copies. There is only so much good fortune to go around. Also on sale in the market were gold circular frames, and chains on which to hang them. In between the amulet wares were tables of false teeth. I knew from past visits that you could sit down with a dentist and have a used pair fit for your needs. This contrast highlights the way Thai Buddhism blends superstition with real life. Another example is the large department store in Central World Plaza, named simply: Zen.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Day of the Two Ta's

Sukhumvit Night Market

Thai people have two names, a family name given to them at birth and a nickname, usually of no more than one syllable, given to them based on some characteristic the parents see in the child. Yim told me that she was given the name for smile because she was always crying and her grandfather thought the name would help her to be happy. Ai was so named because she was always coughing (the literal meaning of "ai"). For some reason I've yet to determine, Porn is a very popular name and it has nothing to do with the English meaning. Other women's names I've encountered include: Pat, Dada, Bee, Jar, Toi, Pim. Fa, Ploy, Nat, Pink and Tom.

On Thursday I had dates with two women, both named Ta. To make matters more confusing, I have another new friend named Sa who I had invited to dinner on Wednesday night. My hearing is bad enough normally. But trying to understand Thai-inflected English over a cell phone is difficult at best. Thinking one of the Tas who called me to be Sa, I gave her the address for the restaurant. Comparing phone numbers, however, I soon realized that I was about to have two guests for dinner, and quickly called Ta to apologize and cancel. A little latter Sa called to cancel because she'd just come from an appointment with her acne doctor and "didn't look very good." So far I'm batting about .500 in the dates canceled league.

The next day I met the first Ta (let's call her Ta One) at the Phrom Phong Skytrain stop next to the Emporium Mall, and apologized for the mixup. She took me to a restaurant on the corner of Soi 33 that looked like a British pub and was named The Robin Hood. It was hard to hear over the recorded American country music (I recognized Merle Haggard). Ta One had a good job working in an office, had bought her own home, and had a 15-year-old daughter that lived with an aunt because it was closer to her school. She almost married an Australia but for an unknown reason he broke off the engagement after two years. Tall for a Thai girl, she had a punk rocker kind of hairdo and painted designs on her nails. From the way the conversation lagged, I suspect I was out of either her style or age range. Back at the Skytrain, we said goodbye and Ta One went into the Emporium to shop, I suspect one of life's simple pleasures for her.

Ta Two and I had planned to meet on Monday night, but after cooling my heels for a half hour at the Starbucks opposite the Marriott Hotel, I went off in search of a blanket for my new bed. Turns out she had to work, and called an hour later. So we rescheduled for Thursday night and she entered our Starbucks assignation point only ten minutes late, both of us verifying by cell phone the other. How did strangers ever meet before the invention of the mobile phone? She was hungry, and took me to the passageway between Soi 5 and Soi 7 that is packed with bars, restaurants and massage parlors. She ordered for us, a dish of ground pork, and a soup with shrimp, plus rice. It was tasty: a-roi maak. We ate Thai style with a big spoon in the right hand and a fork in the left to push food onto the spoon. Over dinner she told me that she sold clothes at a morning market in Samut Prakan, a southern suburb of Bangkok, and had to get up at 3:30 every morning. She had a 4-year-old son that lived with her parents in Khoen Kaen. Through ThaiLoveLinks, a dating site, she had met a man from New York who took her to Phuket for the weekend ("too fat," she said of him), and a young man from California who had professed his love for her ("but he was black and I don't like black men"). While she said her life was hard, she laughed often. And when we walked through the crowded streets, she held my arm to make sure this dumb farang did not walk in front of a motorcycle taxi.

Here is a spirit house in front of the Raja Hotel across from the Nana Entertainment Complex. Both the Raja and the Nana Hotel next door serve a clientele primarily of sex tourists whose idea of Bangkok is a naked girl dancing to rock music in a bar. Here at the business end of Soi 4, the sidewalks are packed, the smog from traffic strong, and the music coming from the bars deafening. Moveable stalls serve every kind of food, and I'm becoming fond of fruit in the afternoon. Yesterday it was watermelon which was sweet and messy.

I make no moral judgments about the male tourists who come here or the industry of of pornography and prostitution that has grown up around their visits. I've read stories that say that prostitution is an old Thai tradition, given new impetus by R&R expeditions to Bangkok during the American War (as the Vietnamese call it) in the 1960s and early 1970s. And most of the clients are Thai, not the fat old farang you see on the sidewalks of Sukhumvit holding the hand of a tiny Thai girl. The industry draws its work force from Isan, the land to the northeast, where agriculture is suffering from globalization and global warming, and jobs that pay a living wage are few. Most bar girls support children and families back home, and a reduction in bar hours, often threatened, can mean economic chaos in the hinterland.

You have to like people to come here. The streets are crowded and it is often difficult to walk. Crossing the street at the busy Sukhumvit Soi 4 intersection is harrowing. Lights do not seem to matter. Motorcyclists scoot across on the red if they think they can get away with it. Since traffic flows on the left, English-style, the American must be on his toes to look in the right direction. But it makes little difference if the cars, buses, trucks, taxis and motorbikes are coming at you from both directions. It's hot and its humid; deodorant wears off quickly. Often my clothes are dripping when I get back to my 7th floor apartment. Thank God for the pool! I'm now taking a daily dip. Last night I had a tasty dinner of curry Indian style at the counter of Foodland and bought a toilet bowl scrubber. Such is life in the Far East.

This evening my first weekend guest arrives from Isan. Apple (her mother named her for unknown reasons, the fruit being called ep-pen here) decided that email, Messenger chats, and web cam views were not enough to determine our compatibility. I told her to bring her bikini. Perhaps she will help me master the pronounciation of Thai vowels. I have been studying the sound and the script for the long vowels and I continually get them mixed up. The "aa" sound can be twisted and stretched in numerous ways, all given good use in Thai. I bought another instruction book which promises to teach me to write and read Thai. At least the letters are bigger. Most of the Thai script in instruction manuals, like the Lonely Planet Thai phrasebook, is so tiny that I will need a magnifying glass to read it.

Both Ta's gave me advice about my extravagant ways. Apartments can be had for half the price I am paying, if I were willing to take buses and motorcycle taxis to get around. Ta Two rents a place for 5000 baht a month that includes a bedroom and free cable and internet. Ta One bought a house for 700,000 baht. Ta Two assured me that many farang live in her neighborhood which is some distance from the end of the Skytrain at On Nut. I think I'll be able to keep my housing expenses to under $500 a month if I'm careful, which is good by comparison with costs in California. But the dates will kill me. Lunch and dinner with the Ta's was 500 baht each, about $15. I'll pay the expenses for my weekend guest and, depending on what we do apart from swim in the pool, it could be pricey. But then what price can you put on good company?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Setting Up House in BKK

That's my room at Siam Court, on the right about half way up. Can't see it? No matter. The point is to see, not be seen. I have a tiny balcony on the 7th floor with room enough for two to stand comfortably and a steel grill to prevent our jumping off, I suppose. From this vantage point I can see south, up Nana Soi 4 to Sukhumvit Road in the distance. Next door is the Woriburi Hotel and I can see the rooftop pool and tourists in bikins through the decorative vegetation. There are numerous high-rise apartment and office buildings in view, including the Omni, a luxury half-pyramid outpost where apartments rent for almost four times the 12,000 baht I am paying (about $375 a month). There are additional charges, though, for water and electricity, as well as for TV and internet, which should add another $100 or more. Still, it's less than I paid for my tiny palace in Santa Cruz and I have -- a swimming pool! I've gone for a dip on the two afternoons I've been here and am even tempted to try laps. Later.

I've seen two people in the pool so far, both men, and both swimming exercise laps in the morning. And I've only run into one other farang, coming out of the elevator in a suit. He said hello with an Australian accent. Where are all the people? There are 15 floors in my building with four apartments on each floor, and there are two other buildings. A note by the elevator said there was a barbecue party by the pool last weekend right before I moved in. "Meet your neighbors," it said. I hope they have more. The woman in the manager's office, Lek, and the guards on the gate have all been friendly to me. But I feel a bit isolated here in my tiny monk's cell, linked to the world through cable and internet, cooled by a fan or A/C (I prefer the former but the latter is sometimes necessary for survival). So at times it is imperative to descend into the hurly-burly of street-life in BKK (the airport code and slang for Bangkok).

As mentioned here before, life here can be wild and dangerous. The other day I emerged from a market with milk and cereal at the busy intersection of Sukhumvit and Soi 4 to hear the screech of brakes. I looked up to see a man lying prone on the pavement in front of a taxi which had obviously hit him, his sandal knocked a few feet away. People picked up the obviously unconscious man and dragged him into the back seat of the taxi. It rushed away to the hospital. The crowd quickly dispersed. One evening, walking up Soi 4 near the Nana Entertainment Complex with its three floors of bars I saw people gathered around two women pulling each other's hair. A cat fight, probably over a boyfriend or a customer. They parted forcefully and life resumed.

The sidewalks are packed with pedestrians and food stalls, selling a bewildering variety of edibles. The stalls, with their little plastic stools for diners to sit on, mysteriously come and go, depending on the time of day. I am working up my courage to try some of the food. So far I've become addicted to an afternoon snack of pineapple pieces for 10 baht, about a quarter. Today I might try barbecued meat of unknown derivation (duck? chicken? pigeon?). Everywhere there are girls in front of bars and massage parlors, trying to entice me inside. "hellooooooo, how are you, where are you going?" in high Thai voices. I paid about five bucks for a week's worth of laundry, much more than it cost on Koh Samui. But this is BKK and this is a desirable neighborhood, within a ten minutes walk of the Skytrain. So you pay premium prices.

I've been taking some of my meals on a stool at the counter in Foodland, one of the three supermarkets within walking distance of my apartment. Last night I had pork Chinese style, with rice, for about $2 and it was delicious. I think I'll work my way through the menu. My fellow diners are a range of ethnicities, a few farang, many from the Middle East, and the locals. I love to watch the workers behind the counter who obviously love their job. They do everything in cramped quarters with a smile and a laugh. After dinner I bought a few things at the market, including a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream that I'd been lusting for. But, stupid shopper that I am, I did not look at the price. When the total was rung up I was horrified to find I'd paid almost $10 for it. Sticker shock!

I miss my kitchen at Chez Byrd back in California. Since I have never been much good at the culinary arts, it remained largely unused. But at least it was there, to remind me of the food process. Here at Siam Court I have been supplied with a medium-sized refrigerator and a microwave. I wash my dishes in the bathroom sink (the "bathroom," Asian style, has no bath, just a shower in the middle of the room and a drain at the end, which gets everything, including the toilet paper, wet). I bought instant coffee, orange juice, cereal and milk for my breakfasts. You can purchase imported breakfast cereals, Frosted Flakes and the like, for about $10 a box. I found frozen dinners at the 7-11 up the soi (yes, they are everywhere) for about $1 each and the one I tried so far was ample and delicious.

For lunch my first day, I walked up the soi, checking out the neighborhood, and decided to eat at an outdoor space with wooden tables; a toothless old woman took my order. The entries were in English but with no price. A helpful diner nearby said that if I told her what I wanted she would tell me the cost. I pointed to “chicken in coconut sauce,” and she wrote “80” on a pad. And “nam (water)” I added, to practice my limited Thai. She was some time in the preparation, using basic ingredients that did not come out of a box. The chicken soup was served hot and steaming, both in temperature and in spiciness. It was tasty, but I could barely eat it. And I didn’t want to disappoint the chef, so I persevered. For dinner in the evening I ate on the terrace at the Woriburi Hotel next door. Rice and chicken. With a Heineken the price jumped to almost $8.

Getting online has been a priority. The appointment for the technician to come and connect me was postponed several times. I took the subway two stops to the giant IT Fortune Mall where I browsed through a bewildering variety of computer stores on three floors to find an external disc drive for backing up my files. Down on the clothing level I also bought a new pair of sandals (which quickly raised a blister so I can't wear them) since my beloved Chacos are about to give up the ghost. I should have had them resoled when there was enough left. Back at the apartment, I was finally able to get online, to email friends, pay my bills and download movies. Yes. Now that I can no longer visit the Nick or the Del Mar for my indie or foreign film fix, I must seek out dealers where I can find them. It's either that or purchased pirated DVDs on Sukhumvit. "The Simpson's Movie" and "Bourne Ultimatum" are already on sale for about $3 each.

I love the challenge of setting up housekeeping in a new place. When I moved out of the marriage bed six years ago I took very little with me. After living in a couple of borrowed rooms, I set up house in the cabaña next to the pool on lower Bay Street. What does one need to live? A few books, music, a TV for videos, food, some clothes, toilet articles. When I left Lincoln Street I gave most of my possessions away, including the souvenir decorative stuff and even the sacred objects on my altar. I came to Thailand with everything I owned in a suitcase and backpack (except for three boxes of memorabilia left behind in Sonoma). But did I really need to bring six pairs of underpants and a cold weather rain coat? The studio apartment I've rented here is furnished, with a king-sized bed, closet and drawers for clothes, cabinet for TV with shelves and drawers, the aforementioned minimal kitchen and cooling implements. There is also a small round table with two chairs in the dining nook, which serves for both eating and computing, and glasses, cups, dishes and cutlery for two. While there was a sheet and two pillows on the bed, no covering was provided. And so I bought a light blanket and two towels for the bathroom at a nearby department store. The books I mailed from Sonoma arrived and so I have a small collection to keep me company. At the moment my room is filled with sounds from the Gerry Mulligan Quartet coming from my iPod speaker system. I lack nothing. My cup runneth over.

While I was waiting for the technicians to connect my giant screen TV to the BKK cable network (it was quite a project which took two hours and involved removing light fixtures from the ceiling), I took up my study of the Thai alphabet. There are 44 consonants and I've learned about five of them so far. Now that the TV is working, I can watch Thai soaps to attune my ear to the language which seems much harder than Spanish. But first I want to begin reading the signs I see all around me in the streets. And that means I must learn the ABCs of Thai.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Redefining the Spiritual

All hail the Queens of Heaven. Mary, the Blessed Virgin, whose assumption into heaven is celebrated by the Church universal today, and Sirikit, Queen of Thailand, whose 75th birthday is celebrated today by her subjects. Since today is also Mother's Day in Thailand, all hail the nurturing work of mothers.

At the end of this first week in Bangkok, I got up early and walked for a half hour under the unfamiliar sunny skies to Holy Redeemer Church on Ruam Rudee Lane not far from the American Embassy. It is run by Passionist fathers, and I've been there on previous visits, enjoying the mixture of Thai and Christian iconography, and the side open doors which let in the breeze. Most of my fellow worshipers at the 8:30 mass were Asians, with a sprinkling of Anglos and blacks. One man, rather the kneel before sitting down, prostrated himself in the aisle on a white cloth as if he were in a mosque or Buddhist temple saying his daily prayers. I caught the eye of a Chinese baby who was at that age where all life is a delight. We should be so enlightened!

What does it mean to be spiritual or religious? Close readers know I've been pondering my religious identity, and have attempt to strip down to the essentials: love others and live life. What about the usual sins and distractions that shake our control? Jesus, after all, consorted with sinners, tax collectors and even prostitutes. Can the divine be found at Nana, the entertainment palace up the street from my new digs? And what if I taste forbidden fruit? Can it be done with love and respect?

Here in Thailand, everything seems to be included in the spiritual. Spirit houses, refurbished daily with food and flowers, are outside most houses and commercial buildings, as well as inside the Nana complex of bars. Everywhere wears protective string and bands on their wrists. Pictures of the King and Queen are omnipresent, like so many royal shrines before which Thais bow, wai, and show respect. Is royalty divine here, or has the line between the human and the divine become blurred? At times it feels as if my pilgrim's path is a tight wire and I dare not look down.

At other times, like in the "Family Bar-B-Q" restaurant last night, I find joy in the nitty gritty of the physical. I went with Jerry and his wife Lamyai, along with her daughter Pok and a friend. Inside the barn-like structure, large groups of mostly Thais barbecued hunks of meat and fish on braziers of charcoal at each table, adding vegetables and noodles and strange items I could not recognize. I was pretty poor at toasting my meat (which looks pretty gross when raw, you must admit) and watched the teenagers to pick up their technique. My food kept slipping off the domed grill into the watery moat, which I filled with shrimp. Syrupy Thai pop music played loudly and several large TV screens displayed a soccer game for the bar-b-quers. Waiters and waitresses circulated filling up glasses. Pok and her friend giggled and offered me a blue frozen popsicle, made Thai style mysteriously in a big bucket. Lamyai's daughter has a nose piercing and, according to Jerry, a tattoo, pretty advanced for a girl from a small village in the province of Surin.

I also felt joyfully embedded among humanity at Chatuchak Market at the end of the Skytrain line yesterday morning. Spread over a number of acres, the covered stalls were packed with sellers and buyers, and every manner of goods, from clothing to puppies and kittens. It was possible not to get lost among the jammed aisles, which was part of the fun. Around one corner I found two Thais dressed in cowboy outfits and playing bluegrass on a guitar and banjo. Around another was my favorite stall selling Communist chic, clothing and posters with now-outdated symbols and slogans (except for the abundant anti-Bush paraphernalia). The "Internationale" played continuously. I also cheered for the artistry of the Thai iced tea maker who stirred his concoction by tossing the liquid from one container to another through the air; a pack of Japanese tourists took photographs but I'd neglected to bring mine, so the moment goes unrecorded.

After a couple of hours the heat began to get to me and I hobbled to the Skytrain station on my arthritic knee for the ride back to Sukhumvit. At Asia Books, one of the large chains that features English offerings, I bought the new Lonely Planet guide for Thailand which had just gone on sale. And I also bought a discount card for future purchases, since I plan to be around for awhile. I filled out the form, got a temporary card, and the permanent one will be sent to my new postal address. It made me feel like more of a resident, a homie rather than a tourist.

There are two English language newspapers in Bangkok, the Post and the Nation. Only the Post had apartments for rent classified ads, and so I've been buying it daily for the last week. I suspect that the other paper is more of a government mouthpiece, but that remains to be verified. The Post is a good read, with hard and soft news from all over the world. There has been much lately about the financial crisis in the west which is spreading to Asian markets. Now economics, the "dismal science," is not my field. I'm having a hard time understanding the significance of the dollar's drop against the baht which means I get less bang for my buck. Apparently it means also that Thais have a harder time selling their now more expensive goods to the Americas, and so economists here are trying to figure out how to lower the value of the baht. I'm rooting for them. But the present financial crisis, apparently sparked by the collapse of the U.S. housing market, is affecting all the stock exchanges. It is a "liquidity" crisis, whatever that means. Not enough money to go around? Wealth is drying up? I've always thought the stock market was a legal crap shoot anyway. Jerry worries for his children who expected to see their houses increase in value. Gambling on real estate seemed to me to be somewhat unethical. Nature should be the patrimony of all. But then I'm just a dammed tree hugger.

Today I return to Siam Paragon for a date with a new internet acquaintance. My first date, with another woman, was at the same place earlier this week, and after dinner she took me next door to Wat Padum Vanara which is nestled between the towering temples to consumer shopping. Within the large hall, filled with icons of the Buddha and various honored monks, we sat on chairs and meditated while chanting filled the air. It was peaceful and restful, an anecdote to jet lag. Even though my meditation discipline has been weak in recent weeks, the stillness descended like a comfortable security blanket, and I resented the wakeup call 15 minutes later. Another new friend has been gathering information for me on retreats and meditation centers that offer teaching in English. As soon as I settle down in my new 7th floor monk's cell on Soi 4, I hope to find a regular sangha with which to sit.

This, along with Sunday mass, will begin to define the contours of my new spiritual path here in Bangkok.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Wild Life in Bangkok

A particularly aggressive ladyboy in a cocktail dress, muscular and made-up, grabbed my wrist as I was walking down the fairly empty Sukhumvit Road this morning at 7:30 am and promised to "take good care of you." Despite my vehement lack of interest, she sashayed behind me for a half block, vowing to satisfy my every need as she sipped from a coconut drink.

Besides the holes in the sidewalk, which is due for a paving soon I hope, there are numerous pitfalls to avoid in this most modern of Asian cities. Some of them are pitiful, like the street children sleeping in corners, or the two different women I've seen, half naked and dirty, who were sleeping on the sidewalk as pedestrians eased around them. Then there are the lepers and the disfigured, begging for coins. I've noticed that Thais are quite generous with them, and include a wai (the divine in me bows to the divine in you) with their gifts. I've always got a pocketful of one-baht coins, and I'm trying to practice my generosity. There are plenty of opportunities.

On Monday I move into a studio apartment on the seventh floor of building three at Siam Court. I signed the papers and handed over a pile of cash yesterday morning. I expect I'll pay around $500 a month for my digs which include a large flat-screen TV set and 24-hour fast internet service. I may never leave my room! But the neighborhood is interesting and includes lots of restaurants and necessary services like a 7-11 and places that do laundry. A large park with a lake, which I have not yet seen, is not far away. If you want to send me cards and letters (and money), you can now send snail mail to me at: Siam Court, Apt 3074, 130 Soi Nana tai, Sukhumvit Rd., Bangkok 10110, Thailand. And my cell phone number is +66899283603 (you can text message me on the cheap).

Jerry leaves for America and Elvis Week in Memphis on Monday and I shall miss his company and his services as a guide. I'm almost ready to graduate from his class in Bangkok 101. Last night he took me to the 24-hour restaurant in Foodland on Soi 5 for dinner. The counter was packed with customers and the food was both cheap and good. This morning I returned and again had difficulty in finding a seat. A good breakfast, eggs and a hot dog (the Thai sausage, although I'd ordered bacon), along with coffee, juice (pineapple, although I'd ordered orange) and toast for under $2 (I suppose I'll need to order in Thai to get exactly what I want).

While the sun peeked out of the heavens early this morning, it's gone back into the clouds now as I sit in yet another Starbucks (there are three within walking distance of my guest house) and write with the wireless connection (which is not cheap). My plan today is to take the Skytrain out to the end of the line, Mo Chit, which is next to Chatuchak Market, one of the largest flea markets in the world, so they say. I've been several times before and this time will be looking for a nice shoulder bag to replace my backpack which is too bulky (and hot) to carry around.

Yesterday, I went to a big department store, Robinson's (not I think related to the one in Southern California), to purchase some towels for my new apartment. What a change from Sears back in the U.S. where bored and underpaid clerks do their best to be unhelpful. Here there are three bright-eyed teenagers for every job, and I was followed through the housewares section by an army of clerks who wanted to take care of me (Thailand is not only the Land of Smiles, it is also the Land of Care and Service, I've decided). Once my purchase was selected, the clerk followed me to the cashier and made sure I received the correct change by scrutinizing the receipt. Then they wai'e me on my way. Service with a smile! I also bought a new electric shaver because my old one, a gift from my father before he died, finally burnt out.

This visit I'm noticing a large number of Muslims in the street, particularly women in black outfits, and often the full burkha with only eye slits showing the woman protected within. They are often accompanied by children and husband in western mufti. I asked Jerry if there was a mosque nearby and he thought not. So they must have to travel for their daily prayers.

I've grown addicted to a bag of sliced pineapple in the late afternoon for a treat. It's better than the ice cream which is sold from a Good Humor kind of bicycle that plays the Mexican hat dance song as it trundles down the Soi. Yesterday I stopped at the juice bar on Soi 8 and a smiling lady blended me a concoction of carrot, pineapple and ginger. It was supposed to be a refreshing pick-me-up, but I found it a bit bitter.

The weather, although mostly overcast, is not oppressive. When the rain has come, it has been only a sprinkle, not a full-fledged downpour. I think I can handle it. It's hot, yes, and humid, and occasionally I find myself nibbled by a mosquito. Now if only I could sleep peacefully through an entire night without waking periodically to plan my day, I would be supremely happy.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Coming Off of Jet Lag

My mind is beginning to clear after several days of jet lag that made it difficult to carry on a coherent conversation or read a book. Suddenly the plot in my John D. MacDonald Travis McGee mystery was incomprehensible, and not only could I not speak Thai but my English was insufficient. But today, after a good night's sleep fueled by antihistamines, I feel like I've finally arrived in Bangkok and can take note of my surroundings.

Which are dangerous. Riding back from a visit to Chinatown today with my friend Jerry, our pink taxi was struck by an erratic motorbike. Although the crunch was audible, somehow the bike stayed upright and the driver skirted across the intersection behind us. While the damage to the taxi was minimal, it was noticeable; part of the fender hung askew. I gave our driver a substantial tip but he looked upset. "That's why I never ride a motorbike taxi," Jerry said. "I've seen too much blood shed," and he told me a few stories about mishaps he'd witnessed.

So my decision yesterday to not rent the fourth floor apartment in "Brad Pitt House" was affirmed. The townhouse, so named by the owner's girlfriend, was located way to hell and gone down a side street in Thong Lo, a trendy district north of Sukhumvit. Although the owner, a Stanford graduate in biology, had advertised the location as four minutes from the Skytrain, in fact it was more than a half hour's walk. The only transportation would be either a bus or a motorbike taxi. It was a good apartment, two rooms and a bathroom with a nice view of the cityscape, but it felt isolated. And so, after a wide-ranging conversation with the owner, who has been teaching English in Bangkok for several years, I reluctantly told him it wasn't right for me.

I'm staying at my old haunt, the P.S. Guest House in Soi 8 off of Sukhumvit, the traffic-jammed road that gives this district its name. Sukhumbit is full of farang (foreigners), quite often hand in hand with young Thai girls who most probably work at Nana Entertainment Plaza, a chaotic collection of bars that serve the needs of horny tourists. This morning I looked at a tiny apartment in Siam Court, two high-rise buildings far enough down Soi 4 to be out of the noise of the bar scene up the street. The room was cheerful and nice, with a big flat-screen TV in front of a queen-sized bed, and it featured a dining nook, refrigerator, microwave, and a good view. Downstairs was a swimming pool. The price, including cable and internet, was nearly 15,000 baht, or about $500, not exactly the cheap rent I envisioned when planning this adventure.

This apartment was more expensive, but far less sterile, than the two apartments I had seen the day before, both of which reminded me of hospital rooms. While conveniently located within throwing distance of the Thong Lo Skytrain station, they seemed cramped and stuffy to me. My guide for this leg of the search was a Thai woman I had encountered on the internet. She met me in her chauffeur-driven BMW and took me to several locations recommended by her friends. She also brought me to visit a compound called Faces Bangkok which featured several restaurants, a bar, and a spa for Thai massage. It was designed in a traditional Thai style out of beautiful wood and rambled over a wide area. The owners were her friends. Later we shared ice cream in an air-conditioned shop. I used to think air conditioning was anti-environmental and a waste of energy. You forget that in Bangkok where the heat and humidity can be intense, especially if you're walking around looking for rooms at the inn.

Because the apartment search is my primary work at the moment, I haven't taken out my camera to illustrate these pages. But the sights around me are infinitely interesting. Walking in Chinatown this morning was an exercise in patience and the endurance of claustrophobia. If you dislike crowds, you'd hate it. The area is filled with a rabbit warren of tiny streets and alleys, crammed with an incredible variety of food and goods for sale. We walked through a section entirely devoted to toys and the cheap souvenirs found in everything-for-a-dollar stores. Another area specialized in religious objects. During ceremonies for their ancestors, Tai Chew Chinese (the group that has populated Thailand) burn paper clothes and money, and in some cases structures that look like doll houses. I even saw a paper cell phone; I suppose the dead need to communicate with modern gadgets just as much as we do.

My umbrella has been put to good use here. It's been raining off and on since I arrived. But the rain is warm and light, not at all like the downpours we have in Santa Cruz in the winter. People seem to take it all in stride, although negotiating a small sidewalk when everyone has their umbrella up is a bit difficult, and dangerous.

While the myth I held of cheap housing is disappearing quickly, I am not at all depressed. I knew the decision to settled down in a foreign land would involve surprises. And I can use my new bathing suit in the swimming pool.