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 cabaƱa 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.

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