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

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