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.

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