Monday, November 28, 2011


I had intended to write a rant about my bad experience with Experian, the credit reporting agency that is threatening my fiscal well-being.  But Thanksgiving intervened.

Last year this uniquely American holiday slipped by unobserved, but this year I wanted to introduce Nan to gluttony with gratitude.  We met Jerry at Bully's, the Sukhumvit eatery, after I'd seen a notice that the owner had hired a new chef six months ago.  Two years ago he and I had shared turkey and the trimmings at Bully's together, but last year in my absence the food was awful, Jerry reported.  The tariff was about $25.50 for all you can eat, one of the cheaper holiday buffets in town.  So Jerry agreed to give Bully's one more chance to redeem itself.  We skipped breakfast and Nan was excited about trying lots of new farang food. The feast was, to put it mildly, fantastic.  We arrived at 1 to find an empty restaurant and three tables loaded with freshly prepared traditional cuisine.  Nothing like being first in line.  Other than not seeing the whole, unsliced turkey, everything was perfect: tender turkey and ham servings, mashed potatoes with delicious gravy as well as scalloped potatoes and sweet potatoes covered in marshmallows, excellent stuffing, tender beans and peas, and a table full of cheese, fruit and pies: pumpkin, apple, cherry, pecan and key lime.  We stuffed ourselves, and waddled away from the booth two hours later.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, the doyen of gratitude, author of Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer and creator of the web site, advises: "Love wholeheartedly, be surprised, give thanks and praise -- then you will discover the fullness of your life."  The realization of good fortune sometimes comes as a surprise if you expect the worst.  Sometimes I deliberately anticipate negative results in order to stave off disappointment, a pretty poor way to find pleasure.  But this year there was nothing to do but give in to gratitude.  I am thankful for so much!  My wife, the light of my twilight life, good companions like Jerry near and far (real and virtual), discovering the vocation of teaching and the joy my students' give me, the constant delight of everyday life in Thailand, good health and happiness, and, let's face it, the ability to chew good food with my real teeth (at least on one side).

I am well aware that the American Thanksgiving story is a myth.  Humorist Jon Stewart says it best: "I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way.  I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land."  My progressive Facebook friends posted numerous links about Thanksgiving from the points of view of native Americans and turkeys (I doubt that tofurkey can be found in Bangkok, Don).  But I realized this week that you can take me out of America but you can't take America out of me.  The idealized memories remain.  During the last few years before I left for Thailand, I spent a number of delightful Thanksgivings with my son Chris and his wife Sandy who prepared a repast worthy of Gourmet Magazine and Martha Stewart.  More than the food, however, was the wonderful feeling I got from being in the bosom of my family (however illusory that might sometimes be).  Loving what once was and might yet be, however, does not negate a realization of the horrors perpetrated on the world by America, from the initial conquest to the current wars conducted by the swaggering bully.  As the radical essayist Linh Din put it, "Americans are for the most parts kind and generous, unlike its murderous government.  I'm claiming that our 99% are mostly fair and decent, unlike the 1% that rule and represent us."

Now comes the rant (I'm grateful for this forum): I treated Jerry to our feast in honor of his 76th birthday earlier this month ("A good number for trombones").  Fortunately, my credit card was accepted.  Several months ago, a Citi credit card I've had for 23 years was declined when I attempted to pay a hotel bill.  Online I learned that my substantial credit limit (I could have charged a new car) had been reduced to the amount currently owed, and on the phone I was told that a credit report from Experian had marked me as "risky."  Although Citi claimed I could see the report for free, Experian wanted $1 and I paid using the endangered card.  I discovered my daughter had missed two payments on her student loan that I'd cosigned and I was in default of the now $22,000 debt (she used it to finance life rather than school, which was a surprise to me). Although she paid the outstanding amount within a month, there was no recovering the lost credit limit.  Then I learned that Experian had been billing the card $14, increasing to $17, each month for their "services."  I had never agreed to that.  When I tried to view a new credit report online, the website program would not work.  I found I could cancel only by calling their number in America, and when I did, was told by the machine that it must be during weekly working hours.  Clearly Experian wanted to make it difficult to cancel something I never knowingly ordered.  Others have shared their experience of this scam with me, one that is engaged in by other "credit reporting agencies" as well.  So I cancelled the card that Experian's report had made no longer useable, meaning they could not collect the ever increasing monthly fee.  Now, every time I use one of my remaining credit cards I fear that the long tentacles of Experian will reach out and take it away.

The Christmas season in Bangkok began long before Thanksgiving.  They've been playing "Jingle Bells" for weeks in the Starbucks I frequent.  Above is the tree outside Terminal 21, the new luxury supermall at the corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke.  Other giant trees are going up outside stores in the shopping district that cater to EuroAmericans who might be culturally Christian.  I took Nan to Terminal 21 after the turkey buffet where we digested our food by strolling through the stores and doing some eye shopping.  Even more impressive than the San Francisco cable car on display or the miniature Golden Gate Bridge (the mall features theme areas for major cities) are the toilets.  I've learned these high tech contraptions are common in Japan now but this is the first I've seen with remote-controlled buttons combining both butt-washing and bidet features (I couldn't understand how to operate the dryer).  Ever been intimidated by a toilet?, asked my friend Ian who visited there several days later.  On Sunday night we put up our tiny artificial tree and inaugurated the seasons for ourselves.  Last year, when I was gone, Nan decorated the tree for her mother and Edward who were visiting.  In America, crazed shoppers are pepper-spraying each other to gain an advantage (imitating Lt. John Pike, the pepper-spraying cop who is currently enjoying his few minutes of fame).  We've not yet discussed our respective gift requests, although I had to throw a wet blanket on Nan's dream of going to Korea to play in the snow (I've lost at least a month's teacher pay because of the flooding).

Speaking of nam tuam (Thai for the flood), thousands are still suffering from the water that remains in suburban areas around Bangkok. One news report hoped they would be dry by New Year's Day.  Nan's sister Ann came to dinner the other night and she showed us photos in her phone of the water outside her condo in Bang Khae.  It's fairly clear now that the governor saved inner Bangkok by building barriers that have kept adjacent areas severely flooded.  In several cases, neighbors have organized to remove the walls that clearly discriminate between those with power and those without.  Thaksin Shinawatra's sister Yingluck is struggling to keep her government afloat and sharks and whales on every side are threatening to attack. Our neighborhood of Pinklao, however, is dry and after a week back home, life is returning to normal for the residents.  Traffic is jammed and the stores are full.  This man will have a hard time unloading boots that are no longer needed.  I'm especially grateful that we were able to leave town before the flooding got serious and could stay comfortably with friends and family until it was safe to return.  Nan went back to school today and in two weeks my university's long-delayed term is scheduled to start.  In the meantime I have my weekend linguistics class to teach.  Life is good.  Hear those words with the passion and gratitude I put into them.

Watermarks from the flooding in Pinklao are everywhere.  Here you can see the flood evidence with our building in the background (we're on the 9th floor of the 22-floor building so our balcony is out of sight).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Dry Upcountry Interlude

Green surrounding
Love abounding
You won't find a manhole there
"House in the Country," Blood, Sweat & Tears

Because of widespread flooding around the capital, most Bangkok residents were in no mood to celebrate Loi Krathong, the annual festival of lights on the water. But in northern Thailand, where Nan and I were staying while waiting for the water around our condo to subside, it was a big deal.  There were parades and festivals and contests to see who could launch the most spectacular khom loi (sky lantern).  Even though there are no big rivers in Phayao, the mountainous province where our home in the country is located, villagers launched small krathong (boat), made of palm stalks, folded leaves and covered with flowers and candles, into local irrigation streams in the rice fields.

During my first year in Bangkok, I joined a vast crowd of people (some said over a million) under the Rama VIII bridge on both sides of the Chao Phraya River where they put their krathongs into the water and the candle-lit craft floated downstream, creating an enormous mess for the clean-up crews the following morning. Many used styrofoam as the base rather than the biodegradable palm stalks or bread.  In subsequent years, I preferred to participate under the Pinklao bridge where kids collected 20 baht per boat to float them away from shore.  Colorful krathongs were on sale everywhere in the city and cheap, so there was no incentive to make my own.  Thais, however, learn from a young age how to fold and sew the palm leaves to make intricate patterns, and Nan and her friend Tum made a dozen for their families.

Some believe the celebration is related to Diwali, the Indian festival of lights which takes place at the same time.  It has nothing to do with Buddhism although it occurs on the full moon Wan Phra (monk's day) in the 12th lunar month.  In Nan's village, it began with tamboon at the local temple where Nan's mother brought a basket full of goodies, including slices of banana and sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves, and dedicated them to family members who had died.  The elderly monk read each note accompanying the gifts and was corrected if he skipped or repeated someone's intended blessing.

Festivities had begun a few days earlier, not long after we arrived on the bus from Si Racha after a 14-hour journey that required taking detours around flooded areas.  We made the decision to go north after a week south of Bangkok when it looked like the disaster would continue for some time.  Nan's mother and cousin Edward picked us up at the station in Phayao, the sleepy provincial capital, and gave me a brief tour of the waterfront guest houses and restaurants that look out on an impressively large lake.  The four days of Loi Krathong began with a carnival and beauty contest one evening in a large field in Pong, the county seat.  A dozen villages offered candidates and built colorful illuminated floats for them to ride on.  Here Edward grabs a ride on the float for the princess from Baan Thung Tae, his village.  There were booths selling everything from food (northern sausages) to toys, and I was persuaded to buy Edward a toy AK47 like ones the other kids had.  One stage featured traditional music and dancers and another close by was surrounded mostly by men listening to Thai rock and ogling scantily clad coyote or "itchy ear" (sexually suggestive) dancers.  Something for everyone.

Loi Krathong coincides with the Lanna (northern civilization) festival called Yi Peng.  This tradition includes the launching of khom loi, cloth lanterns set aloft like hot air balloons.  Dozens of lanterns were launched at the evening kick-off festival and villagers, in addition to setting off firecrackers, practiced daily with their homemade khom loi (one crashed flaming into a tree near our house and had to be quickly doused).  In the afternoon of Loi Krathong, everyone returned to the temple for the khom loi contest.  Similar events were taking place in nearby villages and we could see their lanterns floating high in the sky.  Here the emphasis was a size rather than illumination, and each khom loi was the creation of men from different sections of the village. Every launch was spectacular with much cheering from the large crowd.  These giant lanterns featured fireworks that ignited after takeoff and dropped a tail when finished.  Our neighbors across the street won the contest with a giant white lantern that failed to launch two times before achieving success. All afternoon they paraded through the village, playing music from loud speakers atop a truck, drinking whisky and congratulating themselves, while inside the houses people constructed their krathongs.

In the evening we visited several houses where the partying was continuing and collected a number of children with their krathongs.  One thing that struck me repeatedly during our two week's upcountry was the number of children, from newborns to Edward's age of 9 (teenagers seemed absent).  Many of the men in the village are gone, off to work in southern factories or in places overseas like Taiwan.  The children are being raised by mothers and grandmothers.  Sa, the sister of Nan's deceased grandmother, is helping to raise her great-grandson, a 3-year-old named Back whose mother, Ben, works in the bars down south.  I was also fascinated by the children's nicknames which included Big (Back's young uncle), Cham(p), Via and Vue, and Rung's stepson who is named Thaksin. The irrigation ditch where we set our krathongs adrift is behind the temple and fortunately the full moon illuminated our trek through the jungle to get there.  

After the high point came the doldrums.  There is not a lot to do in a rural Thai village and most people, who work hard in the rice and corn fields all day, go to bed not long after sunset.  We decided not to hook our stove up to gas and Nan's mother was quite happy cooking for us with her daughter's help.  She uses gas in the inside kitchen and wood fires outside.  Her cuisine was delicious, the ingredients of fish, pork and chicken along with fresh vegetables purchased locally.  They ate with their hands, combining balls of sticky rice with each serving, but cooked white rice for me and gave me a spoon and knife.  Nan's sister's boyfriend had told them sticky rice gave him gas and they worried about my sensitive digestive system which was unable to handle spicy food.  After trying to correct them, I allowed myself to be pampered.

Aside from a shopping trip to Chiang Kham, the nearest town with a Tesco Lotus, we stayed home.  Nan was content, cooking and visiting old friends, and playing with Edward, the son of her late aunt who is almost our child (he slept with us at night).  I'd brought both my MacBook Pro and iPad but the mobile signal was too weak to provide a reliable internet connection.  So I read novels ("Matterhorn," "M is for Malice," "Great House") and books about linguistics stored in my iPad and took both morning and afternoon naps.  And I watched episodes of "Enlightenment" and the older film "The Wanderers" (recommended by Pandit Bhikku), an eastern version of what I experienced in California in the early 1960s.  We visited Edward's school, which Nan attended as a child, to vote in an election for, I think, governor of Phayao.  Nan checked the box for "none of the above" despite my appeal for her to vote for the Pheu Thai red shirt candidate.  Aside from 15 minutes of English commentary in the morning, all the TV news was in Thai (except for RT -- Russian Today -- which kept me up to date in international news with a Rusky slant, i.e., the Asad regime in Syria is good, the protesters are manipulated by outsiders).

From SMS messages, I learned the start of the undergraduate term at my school had been postponed to Dec. 13, but that the street outside our condo was now dry and Central Pinklao had reopened.  My linguistic students asked me to return and resume our Saturday classes. So we bought tickets on a fancy new VIP bus traveling south.  But before we left, Nan's mom held a going-away ceremony for us, including Nan's brother Nok who had come from school in Chiang Rai for the weekend. It was conducted by a mor kwam, a specialist in the spirits whom I think would be more aptly called a shaman (he'd once been a monk).  The object in the middle which looks like a giant krathong had been constructed by several women in the villages and it included items of clothing from Nan, Nok and I.  We were connected to it, each other and the shaman by string while he chanted.  When he finished, participants tied string around both wrists of the three of us.  All this to say: "Good luck and bon voyage!"

Aside from one morning shower, the weather in Baan Thung Tae was lovely, cool enough to do without a fan or air conditioning.  Much of the time I rejoiced at being in paradise, while occasionally I was bored to tears.  I was too shy to strike out on my own, feeling more like an odd object of curiosity than a new neighbor.  I visited a rice mill but did not see it in operation.  The rice is just turning brown and harvesting has begun in some fields closer to the hills.  Men in the village are cutting thin strips of bamboo to wrap around the bundles of cut rice before they're fed into a machine to remove the brown seeds.  Jerry has learned to stay only 10 days on visits to his Surin farm.  Two weeks is a bit much.  Before I can stay longer I'll need a fast internet connection, a motorbike, and projects (offer English lessons to kids?).

When we got back to Bangkok there were boats outside our condo but no water.  The taxi from Mo Chit bus station only had to make one detour because the way was flooded and let us out within walking distance to our destination.  We saw water marks on buildings and huge piles of uncollected garbage.  The air smelled damp and a bit foul.   Traffic has not yet resumed its manic pace and although the area malls are open there are few shoppers.  The next day I saw people dragging destroyed possessions onto the sidewalk for the time when garbage trucks return.  Nine students out of 21 made it to my Saturday class, and I learned that the temple where the classrooms are located had been flooded for three days before the water retreated.  Looking into the library I could see that all the books had been stacked on upper shelves and remained dry. Nan's university is scheduled to open a week from tomorrow, but I do not know where my undergraduate classes will be held next month.  The flood water remains in Ayutthaya and now raised wooden walkways connect the different buildings at my campus in Wang Noi.  The main classroom building is occupied by refugees.  These people did not have our ability to leave town for an upcountry interlude.

This picture show the entrance to the valley where Baan Thung Tae is located.  In the distance, on the other side of the hills, is Laos and China.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Evacuation From Bangkok


We didn't plan to leave.  It was the cockroaches that changed my mind.  On Thursday we walked up to Tesco Lotus to take money out of the ATM there and to eat lunch in the food court.  There were large pools of water on each side of the road that weren't there the night before and almost no traffic. Water was bubbling up out of the drains. An alley around the corner from our condo was flooded, and the lady who sells me the Bangkok Post and who lives there looked worried.  Anxious people with backpacks and suitcases were waiting for buses that were few and far between.  Coming up to the pedestrian overpass, I looked down and saw cockroaches scurrying across the sidewalk, lots of them.  People were stepping on them with a crunch and a squish.  I realized in a flash that they were running away from the advancing water.

We'd prepared for the coming flood, buying food at stores where supplies were dwindling and stockpiling bottled water whenever we could find it.  The condo management promised to take care of its residents and employees were busy sandbagging the front of the building and testing water pumps. Nan's friend from her village, the mistress of a Japanese businessman and mother of an infant, lives high up in a luxury condo a block away across from Pata Department Store, and the water there was already waist high.  They were unable to leave.  This, plus the ominously empty streets, the cars parked on the flyover to avoid getting soaked, and finally the cockroaches, freaked me out.  What if the power in our building failed, what if the water were turned off?

At first, experiencing a flood sounded like a lark, an adventure.  But just as I'd visited the red shirt encampment during the extended rally at Ratchaprasong last year but stayed away when the bullets began flying, I was not so sure I wanted to wade in waist-deep flood water mixed with sewage like the people seen nightly on the TV news in the suburbs north of Bangkok.  My university campus in Wang Noi near Ayutthaya was submerged and student dormitories flooded.  A friend's factory, one of tens of thousands, was put out of business by the waters that were slowly moving south towards the Gulf of Thailand with only Bangkok and its ten million residents standing in the way.  The closer the water got, the less adventurous I became.  After seeing the cockroaches fleeing for their lives, who was I to think otherwise?

We packed quickly, trying not to forget anything essential and realizing we had no idea how long we would be gone.  I felt like a traitor as we walked through the lobby with our bags.  The first bus that arrived took us across the river from our neighborhood of Thonburi (which I like to think of as the Brooklyn of Bangkok) and all there appeared normal, aside from the ubiquitous sandbags.  Everything is being done by the Prime Minister and the Governor (who are not often in agreement) to protect the inner city from flooding.  This means that water stays longer behind dykes in the north and is being diverted through the eastern and western (where we live) suburbs.  A lot of people are not happy with this arrangement, including the red shirts who had helped elect PM Yingluck Shinawatra thinking she would reverse Bangkok's centuries-long domination of the provinces.

We were voluntary evacuees, leaving on Thursday at noon, unlike the people in the truck at the top of this post (our building and even our apartment can be seen in the background) which I found on the internet.  A day before I'd taken this photo of the Rimnam restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, one of our favorite places to eat; it's clearly out of commission.  A friend and colleague from my university elected to remain in his condo not far from mine with his four-year-old son while his wife and an older son stayed on the second floor of her hair salon across the river.  Jerry in Sukhumvit, one of the protected areas (so far), reports that his soi is dry.  Nan and I got off the bus at Victory Monument and got in a van for the two-hour drive to Si Racha, a city in the province of Chonburi southeast of Bangkok and out of the flood zone.

We were welcomed by Nan's cousin Tai.  The mother of a two-year-old daughter named First and eight months pregnant, she lives with her husband Dong in free housing provided by his company, Thai Oil.  They share the small house with her sister and his mother, and his brother has been staying with them since his company in Bang Pa-In was flooded.  Wan, the sister, gave up her bedroom for us, and we shared meals and beer with the family and neighbors in the communal area under the house.  Friday evening we took them to dinner at a seaside restaurant in nearby Bang Saen, a beach favored by Thais which Jerry told me was developed by one of Thailand's biggest gangsters.  I found a gas station market not far away from their house that provided me with the Bangkok Post, cappuccino, and in the evening ice cream sundaes that rivaled Swenson's.  On the way back to Tai's house, we played with a quartet of wild puppies.

On Saturday we took a day trip to Koh Si Chang, a small island off the coast.  Without much of a beach, it hasn't been developed like Koh Samet not far to the east which it resembles.  We hired a tuk tuk for 250 baht on the ferry dock and he found us a restaurant on the bay that served a superb Thai breakfast.  The first stop on our short tour was a Chinese Buddhist temple high up the hill which required considerably climbing to reach a series of caves painted gold and filed with icons.  Nan threw sticks to discover her fortune and pronounced it good (that's a relief).  We paid a boy 10 baht to watch our shoes.  Second stop was the site of a palace planned by King Chulalongkorn but abandoned before it was finished (and the stones removed to Bangkok to build a palace there).  The lovely gardens remain and we sipped cold drinks on the verandah of one of the two houses constructed as temporary royal quarters.  Finally, we were taken over the hill to the one short stretch of sand where dozens of Thais sat under umbrellas eating and drinking while a few children and a couple of farang in bikinis dipped their toes in the ocean.  Back in Si Racha we fed squid to turtles swimming in a large pond in a public park next to the ferry pier.

It was clear that we couldn't stay with Nan's cousin until the water receded in Bangkok, so we checked out the times for buses north and bought tickets to Phayao.  For the time in-between we decided to go to Pattaya, a short distance south, and found a nice room at A.A. Residence on soi 13 for a reasonable price which included free wifi and two swimming pools.  The only language I hear now besides Thai is Russian and most of the signs are in both English and Russian.  The town is packed with people and they don't look like evacuees from Bangkok (I doubt that we do either).  Last night we had a splendid seafood dinner at King and afterwards strolled Walking Street to observe the Halloween madness (just a notch above the usual, with zombie the preferred look).  Today we'll swim and read and not think too much about what we've left behind.

We're really very lucky compared to those who have lost everything in the most widespread and destructive flooding in Thailand's history.  As long as our money holds out (and I'm dipping once again into savings to survive), we'll be ok.  Our house and Nan's family are waiting for us in Phayao.  We're told the weather is cold and will have to find some long-sleeved clothes today in Pattaya.  Everything will be OK in our 9th floor apartment, although if the power goes out the refrigerator will be pretty stinky when it's finally opened.  I think I left the wifi on, but remembered to close the windows.  Nan's university is now scheduled to begin Nov. 15, but it's in the flood zone so that's a long shot.  Wat Srisudaram, where I was scheduled to teach English to linguistics graduate students on Saturdays, is right next to the Bangkoknoi khlong which has overflowed.  I fear that the library on the first floor is now under water. Classes at Wang Noi cannot begin until the campus dries out some time in the future. Being temporarily homeless is kind of exciting, and it also underlines the Buddha's teaching on impermanence.  Nothing lasts.  The video below was shot from in front of our condo, Lumpini Place, and I found it on the internet.  I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to see the flooding up so close and personal, but I'm much less sorry that I'm able to enjoy this sunny dry day in Pattaya.  Next stop: Phayao.