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The following work is as truthful as anything autobiographical can get. However, I warn you, I edited out a lot of the good parts.
LIMITED EDITION (limited by demand)
Copyright 1993 by Daniel Richard Fruit
Published by the House of
Witney, Barnie, and Laramie, Quite Limited
I dedicate this book to: Paivie, whose common sense got me through a week a wouldn't have survived otherwise (sorry I misspelled your name, I never could get it correct); my father, who never did get to go to any of these places; my brother, who lies well enough to pretend he likes this kind of writing rather than wade through my poetry, and to all the people who kept asking me "when are you ever going to write about your travels?"
Table of Days
Introduction This book needs no introduction, but it's on p. 4
920714 The Mundane Entrance of the Hero(Thailand) p. 06
920715 All Roads Lead to Bangkok (Thailand) p. 08
920716 The Road to Chang Mai (Thailand) p. 11
920717 A Bouquet of Flowers (Thailand) p. 15
920718 The Golden Triangle (Thailand) p. 19
920719 The Ape on the Chain (Thailand) p. 22
920720 Buddha Sleeps (Thailand) p. 24
920721 Mudbricks and Succotash (Thailand) p. 26
920722 Solop Solie (Thailand) p. 29
920723 The Horse With No Name (Laos) p. 32
920724 The Wrong Place (Laos) p. 36
920725 Lost Days in Laos (Laos) p. 39
920726 The Dead Time (Laos) p. 42
920727 Big Brother (Laos) p. 46
920728 How Many More! (Vietnam) p. 49
920729 The Short, Dead Dude (Vietnam) p. 54
920730 The Natives Are Friendly (Vietnam) p. 59
920731 On the Road From Hue (Vietnam) p. 64
920701 You Must Make Allowances (Vietnam) p. 68
920702 *&* Backwards to Saigon (Vietnam) p. 74
920703 They Still Call it Saigon (Vietnam) p. 77
920704 Beggars in the Streets (Vietnam) p. 80
920705 The Last Samlor Ride (Vietnam) p. 84
920706 Traveling on Paper (Thailand) p. 86
920707 Out of Style (Thailand) p. 88
920708 On to the Train to Tokyo (Japan) p. 89
The leaves have all fallen again this year, just like they always do. I hate to say that I find the return of winter reassuring, but I applaud its normalcy. Winter is in the air, and it's extremely tempting to think that nature's kind enough to provide me with a sort of a metaphor for what you're about to read.
But there aren't metaphors today, except the overplayed and the underwritten. The metaphors and similes are dead, but someone has to play them for they like the sound of their own music.
It's going to be Thanksgiving tomorrow, the day the Pilgrims all got together to celebrate the Indians' stupidity in giving them a bunch of food. In their black monkeysuits their spokesmen assured themselves:
"Yes, God is on our side!"
Me, I'm sitting here facing the keyboard, trying to make some kind of sense out of the wackiest journey I ever made-so far. In fact, after my second rewrite of this book, after I'd transferred each and every file from "Editone" back to "Main Menu," but before I went on to edit and put them into "Edittwo," I tried to make some sense out of myself. I wrote as follows (sorry, I can't afford a dual print-size printer, so you'll have to imagine as best you can. The older remarks I put in quotation marks as said by another Dan Fruit, not only remembered):
"Whatever could induce a sane man to go to a Fourth World country, like Vietnam? Well, some go because they're just plain war addicts, and they want to know who died where and from what? These are the kinds of people who keep statistics on the winning and losing battles of armies like they're some kind of football teams. I'd like to think I've outgrown that."
Looking back however, my record on this score could be challenged. Haven't my tour itineraries read like a list of America's most wanted list: Germany, Japan, Vietnam, and even Iraq? Granted, I never made that last trip. In this second edit, however, I went on to say:
"Then there are the folks that don't believe that anything can happen to them. They'd go square dancing in mine fields because they feel they are somehow exempt, one of the chosen ones, beyond all forms of injury. Two busted teeth, a broken collar bone, and a cracked wrist later, I certainly am not one of those people. A simple drive on the freeway is enough to show me the certainty of death."
In fact, as I was riding home, tonight, on my Honda 750 Sabre, (certainly a sword that cuts both ways) I had just enough time to remember what I was thinking when I planned this trip. I thought: I'm not so scared of dying as I am scared of not living any more.
Not living doesn't mean, not breathing, but being so caught into your own routines, your own experiences, that nothing seems fresh any more; it's that feeling of standing on the record as it turns on an outmoded turntable. I have to confess that when I started reading about the history of Vietnam, seeing in my mind some place totally alien, some place about which I new absolutely nothing, a history totally unknown to me, I started to feel this rush of discovery. I felt something akin to what Columbus must've felt when he saw those naked, native girls standing on the Atlantic shores and realized that if he kidnapped a couple, probably no one would know the difference.
Even before I left the shores, however, there was that word, "Vietnam," as much a curseword as the name of a country. Not many words in American summon to power to serve as a metaphor, a description, an experience, an era, and a Hell, and always, I feel
awed by the power of words. They build a kind of reality, the mere spell of which can intoxicate more than the most expensive beer. I wanted to slice that word in my vocabulary, to slip it into casual conversations, without the inevitable rejoinder of: "You don't what the *&^ you're talking about!"
Yes, I'll admit, I have a cohortial envy. The people at work, the Yuppie generation, have at their core one experience that binds, even as it divides them, something they can conjure "this is what we did for America," or, better yet, "this is what America did to us."
The rest of are supposed to feel some kind of sense of duty, some kind of sense of pity for these folks. "What can people my age say in reply: "We fought the war against Reagonomics," irrelevant, "we lost the war to social security," too obscure, "I was drafted to fight the Iranians, but I never went," too opaque, or "I fought the war against cynicism?" No, instead we can only listen to old war stories, the old anti-war stories, and the power of a word. I wrote a long three months ago:
"To some folks, of course, going to Vietnam is going home. I sure saw a few of them, the expatriate American citizens, the sons of Vietnamese mothers and fathers. A different kind of Vietnamese comes here too, someone with a white face who, in the agony and confusion of war, somehow found his or her self more at peace than in the mundane, supposedly civilized, world. This was life at its most elemental, stripped of civilizations inevitable complications, something this could move, even if it hurt. I have lived in Los Angeles; I'm the last person you'll see glorifying violence or the rule of force. To me, force generally equals stupidity, and one look at this 150 pound, spectacled intellectual, and you'd know this to be the truth. Still, those folks were in Vietnam, just like me.
"I attended a rather unpleasant beer party in which another person, extremely drunk, spent an hour debunking my left-wing (I'd prefer to call the "extreme center") politics as 'Socialistic nonsense.' The logical course of action would've been to punch this person, but, instead, I insisted, like Richard Nixon, that we debate instead. This strange party aroused in me the odd desire to want to see Communism before it went out of business, to be able to go to aforementioned parties and do what one of my ex-friends used to do and say 'Well, as a Communist, I think.....' When someone asked, inevitably, 'What do you know about Communism; it's been dead for twenty years!' I'd reply, casually, 'Well, when I went to Communist Vietnam....,' and be able to present my views behind a facade of understanding.
"I'm not one of the 'fellow-travelers,' the wanna-be Marxists, the middle class Communists. To them, a trip to Vietnam would be a kind of pilgrimage, and a chance to see one of the minor saints of the Grand Saint, Marx. These guys are hard to find these days, a 'Good Marx is Hard to Find,' and few are stupid enough to take a trip that's bound to show them their breed is dying, dying, dying."
Yes, the Red beast, a big, shambling, blind rhinoceros, can only change its spots, not die, and I wanted to be to claim some knowledge of the creature in its lifetime. At some honest, intellectual level, it does scare me to think of a world that doesn't have somebody actually acting on the assumption that the world can be made better for everyone. No one fears the death of faith more than a cynic, for deep in the heart of every cynic is the need to believe and to find something to believe in.
"Did I ever find what I was looking for? Can I ever know what to look for? I wouldn't dare give away the answer this early........"
The lights are out across the street; they go early on the day before a holiday. History is hard to believe if you think about it, and no history is harder to believe than my own. Yet, though I throw it out, like a boomerang, it always comes back and hits me in the head. They can turn out the lights, but they can't turn off the machine. As I wrote when I was six months younger:
"Call out the programs for we march together, Comrade:
"May you all find just what you're looking for!"
Let me amend that:
May you never find just what you're looking for.
Tuesday, July 14: THE MUNDANE ENTRANCE OF THE HERO
I write in the present, tense.
I write from the first person, limited.
(Skip Hawthorne, Confessions of a Second Rate Novelist.)
I can't say that I feel glad to leave Tokyo or to arrive in Bangkok. Part of this feeling results from having to take a three hour bus ride just to go from Yokota to the Narita Airport, a distance of some twenty miles. From there, it only takes another seven hours to travel the several hundred miles to Bangkok.
Every novel ought to have a hero or anti-hero, that's what my creative writing teacher in college taught me, let's call her Mrs. Dolor (that's Spanish for "pain"). The reader needs to identify with someone, to learn to love, to hate, to understand them. That's one reason I will never be a first-rate novelist. I will confess I've never found a character that I wouldn't mind killing off after twenty pages, so long as I can give a reason for having lasted that long.
At times, I can create a character worthy of interest, sometimes a character worthy of hate, but how can you truly understand another human being? If the novelist can do something for the world, it's to maintain the mystery of humanity, the silliness of basic existence, and the human refusal to follow any rationally logical patterns.
In Tokyo, traffic around the airport seems annoying and dangerous, but Tokyo drivers have a certain sense of propriety that precludes them smashing a person. Drivers in Thailand seem to believe that their license actually gives them a quota for kills. If I stand in their way, between making a fare and not making one, then the problem must be mine. I step back inside the crowded terminal just as the milling crowd of taxi drivers seems to notice me enough to look away from their usual job of standing around at the counter.
I return to the desk. where a typically beautiful Thai girl stands in front of the hotel counter. Her long brown hair runs in a nice wave over her shoulder around her round face.
My dilemma here, doubles in that I'm writing autobiography . Unfortunately, camera's eye though I may be (refer to Dos Passos), I can't deny that I actually was there, actually doing these things that occur in this narrative, and yet my very memory of them colors them in shades of me, and I tend to see in black and white.
My brother, a wiser child psychologist than I am, claims that I'm afraid to write in first-person because I'd feel like I "telling lies about myself;" I think sometimes think my greater fear is that I may tell the truth.
"You mean, that the 100 baht bus doesn't run any more?" 100 baht runs to around four dollars.
She looks up, "No. The last bus runs at 10:00. Take a taxi?"
"I grimace. I still carry my backpack, complete with my computer, on my back, quite a load, and the drive to the city could easily take an hour. Still two hundred baht, call it eight dollars, seems an excessive toll, better not to start off like this. "$1500," that's what the book said, and I determined I would make the trip for this amount.
At this point, I spot a group of Europeans piling into a taxi. They look in their mid-twenties, all equipped with the obligatory backpacks, water bottles, and shorts, practically a European travel passport.
"Can I join you, and split the cab fare?" I ask. They consult among themselves in German, and one nods.
I carefully throw my pack into the overstuffed trunk of the Toyota and join them in the second seat. After finding out the group hails from Munich, conversation fades away. I watch the long parade of billboards and expressway exits and remember when I used to wonder if Bangkok would be an exotic city of temples and other exotic elements, instead of the Los Angeles the non-Western world."
I wish I could say I'd never been to Bangkok before. That would be so much better for this story, but it's not true. The first time I was amazing at seeing all the young, pretty girls with the black hair and skin tight miniskirts walking down the street with the self-consciousness of a Siamese cat. You can forget a lot of smog it the clear smile of a beautiful woman, and describing this phenomena like its new would be so much more effective for this narrative. In fact, though, I'd been to Bangkok before, and I knew that all the girls would be dark-skinned, lithe, and cute, so I paid them no more attention than I would pay to a cigarette machine.
As we drive, I think again of Germany with its first rate trains that always run on time, the clean subways and tramways, and the overpriced hotels. I remember running on the first morning it got cold in Munich. I only wore my shorts because I hadn't brought enough clothes. My legs were freezing, but the frost made the September scene seem like Christmas. As I look out the window tonight, however, I see only American style buildings, miles and miles of lights from discos, bars, and houses of ill-repute. East is East, and West is West, and never did they meet Twain.
After miles of similar scenery, hotels, new buildings, and the lot, the taxi arrives at the Hotel Atlanta, the place I booked at the airport. It looks respectable enough, a building with real elevators, air-conditioners, the mandatory restaurant, and faded green carpets. I check in, change into my running clothes, and take off for a few miles. As I start to run, I dodge walking and driving traffic as well as the usual collection of bums and beggars sleeping on the porches and on the overpasses.
This represents the "down side" of the city's new prosperity: all the poor folks in the countryside head to Bangkok to beg. It may be only my imagination, but traffic seems worse now than even four months earlier. Considering how hot, humid, and sticky the weather seems, that surprises me.
When I return to my hotel, I find my first piece of bad news for the trip. I have totally forgotten to bring any pajamas or long underwear to sleep in. As I slip between the covers of the bed, wearing nothing below the waist, I think to myself: "This is silly. You can always sleep in your underwear or wear nothing at all? Burt Reynolds does it all the time," but as I try to go to sleep, I do not feel comfortable. I have this irrepressible feeling that I'm not really dressed properly for dreams.
Exhaustion, however, finally overcomes everything else, and I fall asleep. I keep thinking: I have to change, 500 baht, God I hate this smog, I have to change, I have to change........
July 15, 1992: ALL ROADS LEAD TO BANGKOK
It must be ten o' clock, I think, as I stretch out. Sure enough, the little yellow lights on my five dollar alarm clock gives that exact figure.
When I go downstairs, I go out to the restaurant and sit down. The eating looks dark and unfrequented and holds an unobstructed view of the Turkish bath outside. About five employees of the establishment sit staring at a large television overhead watching Thai programs. I study the in my travel map carefully and try to locate the Vietnamese embassy. I decide that I will eat breakfast as soon as I can find the
After my German trip, five books ago, I received a letter regarding that opus. I'd sent out about eighty different inquiries and excerpts from THE GERMAN MARK. Despite the fact no had ever shown the least amount of interest in any of my work, I sent those letters off, complete with SASE so that the editors wouldn't even have to waste a stamp sending me a rejection letter.
Back then, I had this fear that, one day, I'd get an entire letter, written in impeccable style demolishing my work. Yet I roused myself to face that fear because, romantic that I am, I could never quite convince myself that some day a letter wouldn't come back saying: "I greet you at the beginning of a greater career." (Emerson to Whitman). That letter would've made it all seem worthwhile, and the money, really didn't matter. For all I cared, they could've printed my work for free. Of course, those things never happen in the real world, but I could never quite stop believing.
Amid the pile of eighty or so form letter rejections, I read a note that seemed to indicate the person writing had actually READ THE EXCERPT (!!). The editor noted, "not right for us, but interesting style."
I resolved then that if I ever wrote another travel book, I would force myself, again, to write in present tense, action verbs, as I did in THE GERMAN MARK.
When you have nothing else left, you must hold onto style.
As I step out into the street, I hear the usual call of the wheel, careening cars, and vendors that makes Bangkok Bangkok. Traffic moves at a top speed of about five-miles-an-hour, and the grunting of engines punctuates the occasional stab at horns.
Walking down the street in my shorts, I can already feel that 90 degree heat and humidity starting to soak my shirt. When I read the Stars and Stripes' weather reports about Bangkok, I notice that they run out of adjectives excruciating enough to describe the discomfort index of Bangkok weather: "Hot, sweltering, suffocating." None of these words quite does justice to the discomfort; I can only think of
Singapore as worse.
The "Embassy Row" I walk along contains several luxury hotels, many second rank hotels, and spatterings of restaurants of all types, from street vendors to McDonald's. Approaching where I guess the Embassy to be, I start to see more and more signs that say: "Visa to Vietnam, Center for Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam," and et etc.
I stop at a couple of these places. Each contains typically beautiful travel posters of strange dances, temples, and smiling, semi-naked women. Viewed sitting in a building with roaring air conditioning, these places seem very civilized and clean, about as dangerous or interesting as going to Hawaii. After about the third stop, hoping for a retail price, I venture into the actual offices of Vietnam Airlines.
Some beautiful Thai girls sit in long, pants suits costumes I've heard called 'aou dias,' while a dapper young man, who doesn't look Thai, stands watching from behind them. Clean, gray carpets cover the floor. I watch as another lady waits for her tickets. She looks around thirty-five with long black hair and an honest face.
"You are going to Vietnam?" she asks me. She looks, as I think about it, Vietnamese, slender and a mix between what I'd think of as Chinese and Filipino in facial feature, not pretty.
"Yes," I answer, "or so I hope. How about yourself?"
"I'm going home to visit my relatives. I haven't been to the country since the War." She states the term "war" very neutrally but with emphasis, like a Californian talking about an earthquake.
"You live in America, then?
"Yes," she pauses. "My stepfather is American." Well, her father could be an Alien too.
Immediately, I think of one of my students, whose father met her mother during the war. "Do you think they're going to give you a hard time?"
She smiles. "Oh no. The Embassy even gave me a hurry up Visa. It cost $20 extra. It might be worth it if you are in a hurry."
The thought of walking into the Embassy, and potentially having them look over all my paperwork more thoroughly, doesn't particularly appeal to me. Once they find out that I work for the US military, albeit as I teacher, I expect they'll loose the dogs on me.
"The government," she says, "wants us to come back and visit." I think, then, how much the Vietnamese probably needs the foreign currency. I read that money sent from the United States constitutes a considerable portion of the national income. She adds, glancing, 'I think the US will recognize Vietnam soon.'
"Well," I really can't stop myself from going on, "I think there's not much future for any Communist government. After Berlin, the handwriting was on the Wall,' even as I get to the end of the
sentence, I notice the polite man starting to take a more active interest in me. The lady gives me a signal with her hand not to proceed. "I'm afraid," I conclude like a lecturer, "Communism is dying."
She shakes her head, the same motion you'd give someone who warns you not to speak about a terminally patient's condition in front of that person. The polite young man's eyes narrow, and his hand goes to his chin, considering me.
I like to think of myself as a fairly rational person. At this point in time, I expected to see guard dogs roaming the streets of Saigon and the Thought Police going over any pieces of paper in English with a Sherlock Holmes monocle, yet I said this without a thought in the world other than saying my piece. I have a friend that says I'm a 'brave man' for having gone to Vietnam, and I have another friend who thinks I'm an absolute nut. Looking back, I can't believe I
made this remark while standing in the middle of this plush office of a Vietnamese government agency.
"I think I will go over to Embassy right now," I tell her, getting up, but as soon as I get out that door, I turn in the opposite direction, wondering then if they will call the Embassy. My remarks could easily be taken as a threat against their government; the last thing I want to do is have myself arrested in Vietnam. The thing that surprises me is that I made the statement at all; I wonder if I'm trying to give myself an excuse for chickening out.
I walk a while to the nearest restaurant, a vaguely fast foodie place called the "Quik Pik." As I look at the clock, it says nearly 12:00, and I order up French fries and a cheeseburger, marveling again at the cheap price of food in Thailand. To the two white-uniformed Thai girls working the counter, this somehow seems hilarious, and they exchange various schoolgirl comments about me as I sit down to eat. Across the room, I can see a fat European businessman in his fifties sitting with a pretty Thai girl about half his age. I remember when I used to wonder why these sharp Thai girls seemed so
enamored by these older European men. I smile: How could I have ever been that naive?
I go out into the streets, on the way to my hotel, suddenly noticing a travel shop called 'MK Ways.' It doesn't look like a travel shop because one of the thousands of shops selling 'Thai silk,' as the sign hawks on the front of the building .
As I enter, I ask "Is this a travel agency?" A middle-aged lady, sitting by the silk Thais, points towards a small office in the back of the shop. She motions to a tall young man who goes out to get someone.
As I walk inside, I see the usual collection of travel posters and a big desk. Behind the desk sits a young woman in her early twenties with light skin, a pretty face, and a very pink blouse. I should qualify this statement: in Japan she'd pass for pretty, but for Bangkok she looks rather ordinary, but when she smiles she reveals about three front teeth that are a bit too long, making her look several years younger than her actual age and attractively cute.
"I wanna go to Laos and Vietnam," I tell her.
She looks up and pulls out a piece of paper, "When you wanna go?"
"As soon as possible." I pull out the best price quotes I obtained so far, and show them to her, "Can you beat this?"
She starts to fill out figures. As we talk, an older lady comes in. She wears the short, black skirt popular in this hot climate. She pulls out a cigarette, takes a puff, and starts to study me, and as she sits down, she crosses her legs one over the other so that the view doesn't leave much even to my imagination. Her eyes look me over with a certain look, like a jewelry salesperson appraising a customer. The silk lady also comes in and sits down. I realize I, somehow,
provide their entertainment for the day.
"'Where you from?' the older lady asks.
"'America,' I say, quickly adding, 'But I work in Tokyo.' This leaves a satisfying sound in my ears, denying that I am the naiive, untrammeled American.
"'Why not?' the silk lady adds with a touch of a smile, the remark suggests I might have wounded myself below the waist.
I never really have much of a reply to that question, so I add "I guess, I just can't afford it."
After a few minutes, and a couple of phone calls, they find me a deal, which barely beats my second best offer. The price turns out to be slightly lower than any other deal I could get so far, because, as the older lady says, "I give you good price. You be my customer next time." She says this in a proprietary way, just as my L.A. transmission dealer, Korean American, said about fixing the transmission on the 'Cuda, "Now you my customer!" which translates roughly as "your problem is my problem."
"I point to the younger woman, the one with the long black hair, "Is this your daughter?"
She smiles proudly, "Yes."
"She is smart," I say and watch the blush cover the younger girl's face. I'm doing, quite well, I imagine.
"Now," I conclude, "in the meantime, I have five days to kill before I go to Vietenne. Can I get a ticket to go to Chaing Mai?"
"Why not take the tour?" the older lady says, crossing her legs back the other way, so that I can't help but see that has very nice, brown thighs as I blush just a little. "It's much cheaper. Here, I show you brochure."
As I look at brochure, it does seem cheaper. I insist, "But this is 1100 baht,"
"It's only 300 baht each day, or $18 a day," the older lady pleads, tipping her cigarette holder forward. It seems quite reasonable. If can keep to $18 a day, I can come home with money in my pocket. In a few minutes, I find myself parting with the cash.
When the older lady hands me the tickets, she says,"You come back from Chiang Mai, you come here for plane ticket and visa."
This may sound like some kind of a seduction scene or something, but, looking back, I can see that the lady at the desk knew that she was running the show the moment that she got me into the back office, with her daughter, the very vision of innocence, and her friend to make me blush, the three of them asking questions that would make any Westerner defensive and nervous. All the while she's flexing her thighs. In reality, however, it's a very Eastern scene. Deep in that Chinese, Confucian mindset is this idea that a man should have a woman to take care of him whom he should master (or THINK he masters), and that a man who hasn't done this by my age is somehow a little weak and worthy of pity as well ripe to be exploited; in this, the three of them were absolutely correct. Once the three fates offered themselves,
and showered a little attention, I was easy prey. The fact that I escaped this place with a better deal than any I'd found all day only testifies to my basic cheapness, which survives all temptations, diversions, and psychological mindgames.
"You come back here?" she repeats.
"I don't see,' I bow slightly to the three ladies,"how I could possibly avoid it."
I spend the day trying not to spend money, not so easy to do in Bangkok. I walk down the long, winding, confusing streets past rows and rows of shops, department stores, and even a 7-11 or two. Everyone it seems, sells everything. Thais and various other tourists fill the sidewalks and sometimes pour out into the streets.
I return to the hotel and take a swim in the pool. Most of the Europeans lie around there, reading books and tanning, leaving the dumb American to swim. The water feels warm, and fresh, but every few feet, I run my arm into the wall. My eyes have gotten so bad that swimming actually hurts me more than it helps.
Later that night, I consider going out for a few beers. I don't want to drink very much. After all, the shuttle will come to pick me up at 7:00, so I need to be ready. After about two hours of walking around, I find a bar that fits my current expectations of seediness, a place with little lighting and no atmosphere. Having lived in Japan for another year, where the only bar I can afford is the Officer's Club, it seems unusual to go to any place, so I spend a lot of time choosing.
Only a trickle of lamplight enters this place, but enough to make a few journal entries and watch some mediocre Thai soap operas on the overhead television. It surprizes me how much I can understand of a Thai soap opera without having the slightest idea what anyone says. Maybe that shows the real value of spoken language.
Thursday, July 16: THE ROAD TO CHANG MAI
When I get down to the hotel lobby, at 7:30, I awake the one sleeping man who stretches out on a cot in the gateway.
I produce a card, "I want to get my valuables out of the safe."
He looks up. "I'm sorry the lady with the key, she go home. Not come back until 9:00."
I sigh. "I'm sorry, but I'm leaving at 7:30, and I can't leave without my valuables."
He starts to get up, "I can call her, but you must pay for the cab to bring her here."
I silently curse, "How much is that going to be?"
That doesn't seem like a lot of money. Everything always seems cheap towards the beginning of a trip. Whatever the amount, I realize I have to pay it, so it might as well be 100 baht.
"Alright, but I need my stuff now."
About fifteen minutes later, the lady walks in and opens the safe. I have the suspicion she lives close enough to walk to the hotel, but I have the sense to remain silent. As I watch the sign for the "Turkish Bath" across the street, she tells me, as though stating some kind of universal constant: "Safe no open till 9:00."
"Yes," I agree and bow slightly, "Thank you."
Once I have the materials, I walk into the small, blue-carpeted restaurant inside the hotel and order a breakfast: toast and a couple of eggs. A very bored young man brings me the coffee. He asks:
"Where you go today?"
"Chiang Mai," I answer, taking a sip.
"When you go?" he says.
I look up at the clock. "Five minutes."
He raises his eyebrows, and his mouth opens. "I hurry!" A minute later he emerges with the eggs, which I proceed to wolf down. I then grab my stuff and walk into the lobby and sit down, expecting the shuttle bus within minutes.
A half hour passes, and still I see no bus. The man at the front counter stares at me. "When your bus come?" he asks.
"7:30," and then I have this feeling that I often get, that someone has forgotten me. I date this feeling back to the time my family almost left me behind in Rochester, New York at DCA finals, though this may be fanciful. "Can I use your phone? "
He lifts up an ancient receiver and says, "Sure."
I pull out the packet that says, "MK Ways" and dial the number on the pocket. After several rings, and no response, I ask him, "Can you look this up in the telephone directory?"
He shrugs and pulls out the Bangkok telephone book. After a few minutes of thumbing, he points to a number. He doesn't bother to show it to me but dial outs the number. After a few seconds, he hands me the receiver.
"Hello?" I ask.
"Sa ba di?" a tired voice on the other end answers, a male voice.
"Can I speak to the travel agent?"
He mutters something in Thai, and, a few minutes later, another male voice answers.
"Hello," the heavily accented voice answers, "How may I help you?"
"Well," I pause, "I signed up for this trip to Chaing Mai, my name is Daniel Fruit, but no one ever showed up."
I can't verify that I really said this, because this line is, of course, an echo from Beckett's Waiting For Godot, but self-amusement is becoming more important to me as I get older.
"Ooh," he says, his voice worried. "I have to call to make sure. What hotel are you at?"
"I'm in the lobby of the Miami Hotel," I tell him.
"Don't go anywhere," he tells me. "I be there in a couple of minutes."
I hear a click. The man at the desk asks. "Are they coming?"
"Well," I tell him, "he told me not to go anywhere." I look out at the empty street, the alleyway, and add, "I sure don't know where he thinks I'll go."
Twenty minutes later, the man shows up. He wears nice clothes, a dress shirt and slacks, a little ridiculous in the ninety degrees, ninety percent humidity weathers outside and looks to be in his middle twenties.
"They come to pick you up in twenty minutes," he says, "you wait here."
Again, I wonder where they expect me to go at 8:00 in the morning, in Bangkok. I take a deep breath and lean against back in the chair. The man, in typical Eastern fashion, takes a seat next to me on the side, perhaps for company, perhaps to make absolutely sure I don't still, somehow, get lost. The scene starts to blur.
When I wake up, I find myself drooling again, a real problem I've had with sleeping sitting up ever since my sister Debbie told me she had that problem, so they may be subconsciously-induced drooling. The clock now reads 9:30, and I realize I wasted 100 baht on the taxi for the safe lady. The man still sits next to me staring at the air.
"The bus here," he says, grabbing my bag. After about three steps, I realize he will soon drag it if I don't relieve him of his responsibility.
"Here," I grab at the handles, "I'll take it."
A little shuttle bus sits outside bearing the name of some kind of travel service. As soon as I put my bag in the back seat, I move into the passenger compartment. A single person sits there, a woman, about my age with blonde hair, a rather homely face, and a thin beard across her chin that I try really hard not to notice.
As the shuttle makes slow time through the Bangkok traffic, she tells me about her life. She teaches school, too, in Vancouver, and lives on a little island from which she ferries to work.
"When was this shuttle supposed to pick you up?" I ask.
"7:15," she answers, "how about you?"
Traffic moves at a sprightly 5 miles an hour. I marvel again at the Bangkok traffic lights in which a green lasts two or three minutes in each direction. I can see the inevitable crowds of young office girls headed to work sitting cross-legged on the backs of motorcycles which, given their short, tight skirts, presents something of a balancing act. Finally, our bus stops in the parking lot of one of the major hotels. A school bus-sized vehicle waits in the parking lot, already filled and apparently waiting for us. As soon as we throw our bags underneath the compartment, the bus strikes out for the north.
A large group of blonde-haired peoples fill the bus. They all look about twenty-five or so, and from the profusion of labels saying "New York Giants," "Cocoa Cola," etc. I realize they could come from just about anywhere except American.
"What country are you from," I ask the nearest person, a blonde girl with pony tails who wears a sports shirt and those tight, underwear-styled shorts with the flowers on the cuffs that leave little to even my imagination.
Almost as soon as the bus starts to move, I return to my state of sleeping and drooling. About a block later, just as I'm starting to nod off again, I hear a slight clunk. Immediately, the bus pulls over off to the side of the crowded road.
"What happened?" I say.
The Canadian girl who sits next to me, Susan, answers, "Didn't you see it? We just clipped the side of the car."
"I guess I missed it."
For nearly an hour the bus sits on the side of the road while the driver disappears onto the green space between the two splits of four-lane highway. My fellow teacher starts to write in her journal, and my usual feelings of guilt any second I'm not working prove too much for me. Finally, I get out of the bus.
The matron, a rather solid Thai lady in a blue uniform and shirt, stands just outside the door. She looks at me forcefully.
"I want to get something from my suitcase."
She walks with me towards the compartment. As she does so, out of the corner of my eye I can see the bus driver doing something with the axle of the car. I find the case for my portable computer and pull it out of my bag. I bring it with me back onto the bus, take it out in my lap, and, using only battery power, fire it up.
When I start to sit down, several people, undoubtedly bored to tears, come over to watch the funny American. The blonde Belgian girl next to me asks.
"So you're a writer?"
"Of a sort," I acknowledge,
"Do you write books?"
Just last night, I met the one man who knows I'm at work on this mammoth (or mastodonic epic). I had intended to just have a beer with Harvey, ("don't mind if I do"), but I couldn't resist the chance of telling him my long-awaiting epic was not to be too much longer awaited. He'd obviously already had a couple of mixed drinks too many because he bought me a free beer, and seldom does any sober person do this.
"How's the book coming," he asked.
"I'm going to finish it this weekend," I assured him. "I've been off the caffeine now for three months, so the blood pressure is down. I've been eating enough red meat that I'm probably not too anemic..." my voice faded away; I realized I was taking talking about finishing this book like I was intending to run some kind of marathon, but I was feeling good, really good, having hacked through three chapters of my own prose without cutting off my hair or puking.
"How long is it?" he asked.
"That's the scary part," I said, taking a sip of beer, "It's only forty pages." I've always thought that compression is the mark of a good author, like cutting your bangs shorter shows a better barber, but this little length surprised even me.
"140 or 240."
I smiled, "No. FORTY pages-40. I mean, when I mean that's not what I meant when I came up with the title THE THIN RED LINE."
"I'm really proud of you for persevering and finishing it, however long it is."
"I think you ought to withhold your praise until you've read a chapter or two: this is a pretty odd book."
"I'm not really very famous." She looks down at the fading screen that continues to flicker on and off. In Japan, I never could find a genuine Tandy replacement batter, so I strung together about sixteen batteries in sequence. It took three tries before I could actually get the machine to work without it emitting clouds of acid smoke. After all those lectures my brother gave me about putting together "batteries in parallel" and "batteries in sequence," I feel a strong sense of pride in getting it to work at all.
"What do you write about?"
"Oh," I say, "I write about lots of things." I don't feel like telling her I was just writing that sentence about her shorts. That wouldn't sound very artistic. As I say this, her boyfriend, a big lunk built like a Brussels lifeguard, pulls a possessive arm around her and draws her back into his arms.
After a while, the bus starts to move again.
"What time were we supposed to leave?" Sue asks, knowing the answer but wishing to comment.
"Umm," I answer, "7:30?"
"It's now 10:00."
The bus, however, makes good time. As the scenery thins out from the buildings of Bangkok, and we finally leave behind those signs saying, "Thank you for visiting Bangkok," the houses start to give way to countryside. For several hours, we pass processions of rice fields, big fields, with neat-looking two-story brick houses near the road punctuated by little towns that could've been Anywheresville in America, twenty years ago, except for the names "Thansomphoit," "U Dun," etc. The lady in the matron's uniform alternates between sitting in the back of the bus filling glasses with sodas and beer and waddling down the aisles to distribute them.
When we stop for lunch at a little roadside stop and gas station, everyone receives the same food: rice, spices, and cucumbers. Like most Thai food, the meal has little fat, some spice, and doesn't make me feel full.
Once we leave, the Belgians on board amuse themselves with pillow fights, funny noises, and other diversions. A young group this may be, but younger in maturity than I expect. I drift off to sleep several times before we finally reach Chiang Mai.
When we get to Chiang Mai, the sun is already setting. A first view of the town doesn't impress me. The shops look fairly typical for anywhere in America. A big wall and "moat," just wide enough for children to swim in it, however, surround the ancient part of the city along with the remains of several towers, a reminder that Chiang Mai once controlled the whole of Northern Thailand and the city served as a regional capital.
The bus pulls into a hotel where only I am to stay, I suspect it to be the cheapest, called the "Top North." The bus navigates several winding alleys to reach the place. Inside a bamboo fence, I see a structure consisting of a three-floor building , a large patio, and a swimming pool formed into a kind of courtyard. I walk inside to register under a sign that says "Any non-guest must check in with the desk."
Since my clock reads 9:00, relatively late, I simply throw my stuff inside the room and put on my running clothes. I have a very simple plan for not getting lost running: I will follow the moat.
As I start to run, I study the castle-like corner towers and the signs that surround the city. It doesn't seem possible that I can get lost jogging around, but I do because the marker for my starting place, a supermarket situated on the outside of the moat, turns off its light right after dark. I'm reduced to stopping every couple of blocks at another store. I finish myself in the painful position of having to go to the bathroom and not having any place to go.
Unfortunately, the more the pain increases, the more my concentration decreases and the harder time I have finding the hotel again.
"You know where this place is?" I say, at several places, stopping to show them the key.
When I finally get back to my room, I feel too tired to do anything other than get a beer at the bar downstairs and make a few more entries in my log book. At this point, Chiang Mai doesn't seem like Bangkok, a strong recommendation.
July 17, 1992: A BOUQUET OF FLOWERS
The first morning after I arrive in Chiang Mai, I spend a good long time sleeping. When I finally wake up, I go to my keyboard to try to do some writing. I plug in the chord inside the wall.
"Poof!" I hear even before I can attach the chord to the machine.
"What the *&^^% was that?" I turn the computer onto battery power. I see, again, a dull light appearing in the corner of the screen showing "low batteries." In fact, they've been low ever since I placed them, a set of non-rechargeable set of batteries in a rechargable slot.
As soon as I put in the chord, the computer immediately shuts off. As I take the plug out, it limply returns to its former state. I shrug my shoulders and start to put words on the faded screen.
The room consists of a couple of wooden closets, a long writing table, and an ancient air-conditioner. Like many comparably priced hotels, the latter machine a timer keeps the machine to a maximum of a few hours. Consequently, every time I fell asleep, I woke up covered with sweat and turned the timer back on for another four hours. A dull blue covers everything else, bed, curtains, floor, towels.
I really thought that the computer would be the ticket to better writing. As the proud owner of the world's worst hand-writing, I've always had to deal with the fact that when I write a manuscript, I often can't read it well enough to type it back to myself, and I find myself starting all over at the keyboard, no better for all my work, The shame of it is I often do some of my best writing by hand. I just can't ever write FAST enough or clean enough. The computer was supposed to solve all this; I'd take it with me wherever I went, and whenever I decided to take a break, I'd pull it out and start pounding away. When I took it to downtown Tokyo to try to find the legendary $200 hard disc, I should've learned one of the machine's obvious defects: weight.
The picture was irresistible: the esteemed author seeing the world, and at every major sight, sitting down and drinking it all in, a combination of Hemingway, with his trusty manual typewriter in Paris, and Schubert writing his symphonies in the taverns, with an added high-tech touch of "Revenge of the Nerds."
As I walk outside, I look down at the pool in which I've seen no one swimming. Downstairs, I can hear the television running. Three slender teenage girls in t-shirts and jeans sit placidly looking at the screen and watching a Chinese gangster movie. After I climb down the stairs, I sit down at one of the tables, and one of the girls appears. She has long hair and looks about seventeen with a slender frame that, like that of so many Thai girls, will always make her look younger than her age. Her eyes show about as interested in life as those of a doll.
"What do you want?" she says.
"Can I have an iced tea and a bacon and eggs?" She turns and walks slowly away.
As I sit and wait, a big blonde-haired man sits down at the opposite seat. A different of three fates appears to take his order.
"Spaghetti." he says. He looks at me and says, "Where are you from?"
"America," I answer.
He points a big finger, "You know, I hate you Americans."
This doesn't seem a very nice way to begin a conversation. "Why is that?"
The second girl produces a plate, and he shoves a mouthpiece full of noodles in his mouth but continues speaking after a swallow. "You all think your country is so great."
"And where are you from?" I say, "Germany?"
"Belgium, but my family comes from Lithuania."
"Well," I swallow a piece of breakfast, "I think the Americans saved your asses in World War II."
"There's another distortion. That's what I hate you Americans. You know who beat the Germans in World War II? Russia. Even if the Americans had never invaded, the Russians had already won the war at Stalingrad."
I feel a sudden irritation because I usually take this exact same position. Yes, I usually point out the Russians winning of the war. Now this verbal move of his obliges me to go on with my a pro American position, even though I don't agree with it:
"The American bombing destroyed the German War Machine. American Lend Lease kept the Russians in the War. Without our equipment..."
He takes a swig of milk, "The Russians won the War, and you know it."
I shrug. "If you say so," I pick up a piece of toast, "But I don't think Americans brag when they talk about their country. America is the richest country in the world."
"Bah," he waves his hand, "The Soviet Union is richer in natural resources, in..."
I smile because now I stand on very familiar ground. "Sure, the Soviet Union has more energy, but that's not the most important resource in the world. The Soviet Union has only four climate types, out of twelve; the United States has ten."
"The Soviet Union has gold, oil..." he interrupts.
"Of course," I say, "and they can't even get it out of the ground with their primitive mining equipment-without our help. But it doesn't matter. The United States is richest in what will be the most important resource in the next century-food."
"Huh," he waves his hand at this too, "I don't agree."
"We're the biggest grain exporter. The Soviet Union doesn't even have the potential to equal half our production. Out there on the steppes...."
"Europe," he shifts the plate to dig at the other side, "is the center of culture, learning,..."
"Look around you," I say, gathering momentum, pointing at pool, the Coke bottles, the three girls with their t-shirts. "The reason you hate America is that it's everywhere you look." I point to the screen, "There's an American movie. America is Coke, America is Levis, America is..."
A strange voice says, "Are you Mr. Daniel Fruit?"
"Yes," I turn around to see a young Thai man in his early twenties, "why?"
"I'm here to pick you up for the tour." I follow him to a minibus, a small vehicle that could carry about eight. To my right, I see a couple, both blonde and in their late twenties. The man, a person handsome enough to be a movie star, inquires.
"Where are you from?"
"America," I reply cautiously, "and yourself?"
"Belgium," he answers.
"I met one of your countrymen today," I point out the window behind us. "Boy, he hates America."
He chuckles. "Him? He doesn't hate you. He just wants to make conversation." As I start to cool off, the realization someone has been amusing himself at my expense sinks into my brain, but then I shrug, who am I to deny a little amusement?
It takes a couple of hours of driving before we reach the first spot on the tour, a Meo hill tribe village. The Meo, a group that migrated from north China, came to Thailand in the 19th century in order to pursue their ambition of selling all the hillside opium they could grow. Though to the Western world, this makes them criminals, to the Chinese and Thais this makes them simply "entrepreneurs."
The village consists of a double row of bamboo houses, each selling its own "genuine Meo" artifacts looking suspiciously just like those sold for about half the same price back in Chiang Mai and made in factories. A couple of dozen children run around in the long, pajama-like blue costumes of the tribes.
Our guide tells us, "You can take their picture, for twenty baht." The girls he's pointing to wears long black robes with red and white trim. They braid their hair and wear a kind of beaded caps on their heads.
The Belgian man shrugs off the motion and shoves his camera behind his head, "They must think we're so stupid."
We proceed towards the main attraction of the village, a small area in the rear where four big pots grow the opium plants. Opium thrives in this high altitudes. Hence the hill-tribes do the cultivation, but to get the drugs to market, they must pass through or sell to their neighbors. So throughout Southeast Asia, the hill tribes battle against the peoples dwelling at lower levels, who usually speak a different tongue and have nothing in common with them. Looking at the little green plants, I can't say they look much different than any other plants I've seen.
Many of the women, age fifteen and less, carry tiny babies on their backs. The Belgian woman, remarks, "How can they pregnant so young?"
"Well," I reason, "I've read that the Bangkok whore houses are getting so desperate that they're trying to get non-Thais to work. A lot of these people have never heard of birth control, so I suspect the pimps hire them, sell their virginity, continue to use them, and then kick them out as soon as they get pregnant."
After reloading, the bus drives up the hill to the summer palaces of their majesties and the nearby Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (A.D. 1384). The palace looks fairly typical Thai with white walls and high-folded red roofs while the Wat doesn't look very different from many in Bangkok. Inside, it contains the usual, pointed Chedi, a kind of golden giant cone, a golden parasol beside it, and inscriptions from the local version of the life of Rama. The parasol (I think) has something to do with Buddha sitting under one of these and awaiting enlightenment. Having been under many an umbrella, the only enlightenment consists of having learned that 500 yen buys just as effect an umbrellas 1200 yen. From the top, we also have a pretty good
view of Chiang Mai.
From there, we go to a "teak factory." I like the look of teak. When I make my great literary breakthrough I'm sure I will buy a piece or two to carve, but it doesn't look so romantic watching them hack away at carving it with a putty knife. As with any handicraft, prices run high.
After this, we get out to visit a "jewelry factory;" at this point the group seems pretty cynical about the "tour," which seems to consist of purchase opportunities. When a pretty lady greets us at the place, I impulsively say:
"Can I take your picture?" She smiles, and I take a snapshot. She has a pretty face and (for a Thai girl) long hair that ends near her shoulders. She wears a green, wraparound robe with a red shawl, both trimmed with gold thread. It looks quaint and unusual.
Little did I know then, as I know now, that this "old-fashioned" style would continue to be all the rage in Laos, with infinite variations on the simple skirts with a slash of color. When I think of the Lao being left behind in the evolution of fashion, I mentally compare them to the marsupials of Australia who, safe from competition of mammals, evolved to fill all the niches of nature.
"You're certainly prettier than any jewel."
The factory confirms this truth. I walk down row after row of rings, bracelets, broaches, etc. I wonder also if a women were given a ring with a stone made of coal, instead of diamond, and told the coal ring held more value than the diamond, if she'd prefer the diamond instead. You can't put a diamond in your power plant and burn it.
After this, the bus goes to a "silk factory," where, for the first time, I learn the entire silk fabric process from cocoon to clothes. The silkworms, of course, feed on mulberry leaves placed in crossed piles of stick and live on round container. I feel a certain revulsion when I think of putting my hand in that pile of worms to feed them, but thankfully the keepers never have to do that. They place the food sideways on top of cages that look something like beehives. Eventually, the worms start spinning within their individual cells. The silk growers aid them by providing a square area so the worms spin their silken shells in the corner. As I look at one of these containers, I wonder if all the worms complete the process.
Our guide, a lady with a paper umbrella, points to a pot, filled with boiling water. By its side sits a dark-skinned, tired old lady, spinning the threads into a single strand, like one of the three Fates.
When I started this book, I was seriously lacking in Classical referents. This is what comes from only taking one course in Greek and Roman literature. As a result, I find that I've used the same image three times (at least), of the Three Fates, and that image I actually borrowed indirectly from Conrad's Heart of Darkness in which the three company absentee owners sit in the office while the CEO decides that the first-person narrator should be sent to Africa. This last usage is
probably the best of the three, the three placid girls in Chang Mai have something of the impassive quality of the Fates, but the old woman has the age, and she's certainly determining the life of the pathetic insects.
As I look down into that pot, I realize that as she spins that single thread, the worms silently die in that scalding water.
"How do they save some for breeding?" I ask.
"Oh," she says, "they take out the cocoons of the females."
"How do they know which ones are females?"
"Oh," she says, "it's easy. They make the fatter cocoons."
As I watch the old lady standing there, frying males alive in order to make female clothing, I smile the apparent connection.
A few hours later, the bus returns us to the hotel. I kill a couple of hours with a slow swim and a run before going out to get something to eat. I walk around, looking at the bars, before I finally settle down to a deserted-looking place called, "The Blues." It consists of a bar facing the streets on the outside of the old city walls that opens with about four seats available.
The waitress, in typical Thai fashion, walks over to "greet" me. She has a kind face and looks nice in her black dress. I decide that she was very pretty once.
"Can I have a beer? The cheapest?"
She brings a bottle of Singha and proceeds to pour it into my class. I produce my notebook and start to write some more notes to myself.
"Where you from?" she says. I look up, and can see, by looking at her, that she doesn't really believe that I would come to a bar just to sit and write. I can hardly believe it myself.
"America, have you ever been there?"
She shakes her head, and I as lift the glass, mechanically wipes away the stain, "No."
"Have you ever been to Bangkok?"
"I don' like it there." she shakes her head. Two other barmaids wave to her, and a passing motorcycle honks its horn.
"How old are you?" she asks.
"32," I say, "how about yourself?"
"28," she says, and I believe her. In Bangkok, I expect most barmaids to lie, but somehow I don't expect that to happen here. I feel under no pressure here.
"You own this place?" I offer, not expecting her to say "yes."
"No," she says, "I jes' have to work here. Whas your name?"
"Daniel," I say, "And your name?"
She puts her hand out for me to take.
"How come you're working in a bar at age twenty-eight?" By now, I hold the second beer. Each time I lift the glass to take a sip, she methodically cleans the table, so clean it appears I never put my drink there at all. "Surely, you can do something else, can't you?"
"My husband," she says, "he leave, and I have my son to take care of." I look into her brown eyes, and she turns away, quickly. Nothing.
"You mean," I ask, "he divorced you?"
"No, he just leave. He no good. I no want him."
At that moment, a couple of foreigners walk up to the bar, and she leaves to see what they want. A girl, about eight-years-old, comes by holding a bouquet of flowers.
"You wanna buy a flower?" she says.
"20 baht." I reply, instinctively.
She starts to reach into the pile.
"Wait, but who am I going to give it to?"
"Give to your wife, your sweetheart..."
I laugh. I smile as I hand her a crumpled 20 baht note. "Here," I point, "I want you to give it to Mina."
She nods with a look of complicity as she goes down the bar. The flower only rested in my hand a few seconds, just long enough for me to realize it was plastic.
But it would look pretty almost forever.
July 18, 1992: THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
The bus leaves early today for the Golden Triangle, and I have only time enough for a couple of slices of toast. The bus weaves a slow dance along the two lane road heading towards the North. Out the windows, I can see brown hills and the low clouds touching the mountains.
After about an hour, the bus stops and we get out to look at a hot springs. A little village sits nearby, a set of conical thatched roofed buildings. At our approach, the local villagers come up with the required trays selling hot drinks and old souvenirs. An old stone wall surrounds the springs themselves which bubble and gurgle a few feet away from the nearby river.
It felt so good running in the darkness this morning. Part of this comes from my knowledge that if I finish this opus, I can get back to writing poetry. Not that my poetry is particularly good, but there's a sound to poetry, a music, and I have so many lines, so many songs that I've been singing in my head that it would feel good to exorcise them, like clearing off unneeded files on your hard disc.
The hardest part of writing these kind of books is that, at least in my narratives, there are no villains and no leading ladies. Worse than that, there is no hero.
The bus moves along further towards the mountains, and our guide, a small fellow in a dress shirt and pants points out to a group of workers out in the fields.
"Can we stop and see them?" the Canadian girl, Susan, asks.
"Sure," the guide insists, "why not?"
The bus pulls off the side of the two lane highway, and we walk over to observe them at work. Since rice can grow three different seasons in this part of Thailand, they could work at any of the typically needed tasks, weeding, transplanting, etc. This group, however, cuts the stalks off the rice to move to a drying area. The plants stand no higher than unmowed grass in any suburb in the States. In their blue shirts and straw hats, the men and women look: just the same. The young and old look: just the same. The fields, a thousand years ago would look: just the same.
An hour's drive later, we stop at one of these backwoods Thai temples. A black paint covers the back chedi that consists of ten or twenty concentric squares and circles piled one on top of another. A couple of young kids, dressed in yellow monk's robes, romp and play in the backyard while an older monk looks on them warily. Most Thai males spend at least a few months of their adolescence in a monastery living with the monks. Those months function as a kind of "rite of passage," but these children act, pretty much, like children anywhere.
When we pile back in the bus, and start driving north, the hills start to get sharper and the road becomes more barren. Sitting in my seat, I pass out for a while. When I wake up, the guide announces:
"We are now at the Golden Triangle."
I get out of the bus, and the nearby sign proclaims, sure enough, "The Golden Triangle."
The town on the Thai side looks like another tourist village, and a horde of Thai children (or perhaps genuine mountain people) scurry the streets in expensive-looking Hill Tribe costumes. I call them costumes because I think many locals purchase them at stores. Whenever I see a little ten-year-old girl, I can easily imagine some mother spending hours pouring over her daughter to make her look like a Meo and her horror in seeing her child chuck the leggings and hat to go running in the streets. The Hill Tribe people, after all, live in a climate 20 to 30 degrees cooler, and so the heavier clothes make, at this altitude, no sense whatsoever.
As I wander towards the river, I consult a map on the sign nearby. It indicates that Burma lies north and Laos to the east. In the middle of the river, I can see a sandbar and to the left a fine hotel, undoubtedly built for the tourists who come here hoping to see some hot heroin deals and for the select few rich enough to actually make those deals. During the day, however, only "boring" adequately describes the scene on the muddy river.
My guide finds me after a few minutes to announce lunch. I, the two Belgians, and the Canadian girl, from the West, all sit down to have a soup, some cucumbers, and iced tea. Our guide directs us to the table and then walks over to sit at another table for guides declining several invitations to join us.
When we finish, the guide gathers us back onto the bus to drive to our final stop, Mae Sai, a city on the Thai-Burma border. It takes a good hour's driver over a muddy road to reach this spot, a small city of a couple of thousand whose signs proclaim, "The Northern Most Point of Thailand." When the bus stops, I get out and start to walk down the streets. Bars form about the only establishment I can see, and as I start to walk down the row of shops, I get the strange feeling that eyes follow me, measuring the size of my wallet.
A dark-skinned, Indian-looking man walks up to me and pulls out a dirty, scraggly arm, "Hey, you, you wanna buy a watch?"
"No thank you," I start to withdraw.
"Howabouta girl? Virgin!" I move away and towards the river. A crowd of children stand near the edge, dressed, again, in Hill Tribe costumes. The river crossing consists of only a single-two lane bridge, Burma's sole contact with the real world. I thought about going to Burma on this trip, but that would've required purchasing a tour at a cost of about $70 a day. Even the Vietnamese don't charge that much, which seems to say something about the relationship of Fascism to Communism, but I don't know exactly what.
As I stand there, my guide approaches.
"See," he points, "that is Burma."
I look across the river, "It doesn't seem so different."
"That's because the people in that village are Thai too."
"Why don't they just go across the river then, and become Thai citizens."
He shrugs, as though the question makes little sense. "Burma is their home."
"So no one can go across?"
"Now, yes, I can go for a day. You, you cannot go. A few months ago, I could not go across either." I look across the river at the handful of people gathered on the other side of this little village in the mountain who stare right back across that space like an ocean stands between us and not a little bridge.
On the way home, the mountains, the bus makes a slight and long detour up to the hills. The bus groans as it makes a long, ascent around a winding road. When it finally levels off, my ears hurt from the altitude change, and the bus stops at a little village of straw and wood huts tight against the mountainside.
"Ankha village," the guide explains.
As we emerge, a solitary old lady comes forth from one of the huts, carrying a tray of the usual souvenirs. She calls out her wares and shows them in our faces. When no one seems in the least interested, she goes back to her hut. Our guide leads us across the muddy, main road into the small groups of huts. A cooler air brings the afternoon temperature in the hills down to the seventies, a welcome change from the valleys below. Our guide takes us to the biggest hut, a structure of bamboo with a few desks and a prominent picture of the queen. The building has no windows and no door.
"This is the village school."
"Where are the children," I ask, without thinking. "Oh, that's right. This is summer vacation, but where are all the adults?"
"They are out in the forest."
"Planting?" the Belgian asks. He means opium.
"No. They work as rangers. This is one of the government's plans to keep them out of opium production. The government gives them this community center," he points to the school building, "and gives them jobs. If they go back to opium, they do not get any more help."
I look at the little chalkboard. The room couldn't fit more than twenty students. Our group walks out, and we look around at the huts. On the way back, I spot a man sewing together a thatch roof. I guess him to be about forty, and a thick tan covers his muscular shoulders and back. After seeing a day of children in costumes, I want to take a picture of real person.
"Can I take his picture?" I ask the guide.
The little man shrugs his shoulders and says something in Thai.
The working man turns around, looks at me contemptuously and then says something in Thai.
"He says he doesn't care."
I chuckle and point the camera "That's realistic."
On the way back, I have the bus drop me at the post office, and I put the computer into the mail. I realize now, that the batteries will not last another day. Worse than that, I have no chance whatsoever of finding another extension chord to replace the one I burned. At the first drug store on the walk bag, I buy a twenty baht notebook and a couple of pens.
As we return to Chang Mai, the sun sets. After a short jog, I decide to go out to the bars for a drink. I studiously avoid going to the same place as the night before and stop at a place marked with a sign saying "Bar" and filled with a crowd of Australians and British playing darts and talking about various local business issues. They continue to have an animated conversation as I drink my first beer. Finally, the resident hostesses notices I'm here and sits down to pay her respects.
This story may appear to take place largely in bars, but in reality, this is hardly the case. During the school year, I only drink, perhaps once a month, usually less. On my vacations, the main reason I go to bars is so that I have somewhere to write other than my room so I don't have to compose in total isolation. Then there's the whole psychological aspect of having a beer, in other words the idea that I'm somehow indulging in a trifling act of self-destruction, do something slightly daring, which is always more than balanced by my fear that by the third beer I will reveal my true self, and find myself confronting someone I don't really like or don't know in the least.
"What is your name," I ask as she takes my hand.
"Apu," she answers.
I chuckle, "That's funny, my name if Fruit." She has fairly light skin, for a Thai, long black hair, and an honest smile. "I think your hair is very pretty," I comment.
"Thank you," she says, moving close enough and pulling my arm around her waist. Though she stands only about five feet tall, as I touch her, she seems solid, comfortingly real. Her hand feel chilly from the touch of beer glasses.
The hair, of course, constitutes a dead giveaway. In a climate like Thailand's the only person who can afford to have that much hair and that white, soft skin must work nights, and only nights.
"You like Americans?" I ask.
"Of course," she chucks my shoulder slightly. Her dress ties tight in the back, almost like a bathing suit, and I run my hands across the smooth skin of her shoulders.
"Have you ever been outside of Thailand?"
"Why should I wanna leave Thailand. It is my home." As she says that, she deftly pours eight or so once into my glasses without spilling a drop.
I said to my friend, "This book is cursed! Cursed. That's why I'll never finish it."
"Why do you say that?"
"I've written some of the chapters three times and lost them over and over again on the computer."
"Well," he said, "look at the bright side. Don't you write it better each time?"
I shook my head, "No. I don't think so. I think eat time I write those chapters, they get worse and worse, and my memory just gets weaker and weaker."
"Maybe your computer's trying to tell you something."
"I'm cursed. That's what it's trying to tell me. Maybe in previous life I helped burn the Alexandria library or something, but I'm cursed right there at the cursor."
"How old are you?" I ask, withdrawing my hand and looking down in the dregs of my third or so glass of beer, my legal limit even with the more tepid Thai beers. I look into the container to make a careful count of my bill. She pauses, perhaps measuring the correct response.
"Twenty-eight," she answers, and I find it hard to believe, either way. My eyes slowly make their way up her tawny legs up her dress and rest on her eyes, as her lights her face with a warm, unsullied sensuousness. Her hand deftly sweeps the counter clean. She leans over and touches my shoulder, and I know she's just about to say something into my ear.
I watch the British and Australians drinking their beers, keeping up their boisterous commentaries. In the background, I see darts hitting a target: One, two, three, but none hits the center.
"I can't believe it," a voice says, "Thai airlines just crashed a plane."
She lifts her head back from me, waiting, and smiles warmly without the slightest trace of self-consciousness with all the time in the world.
A general cheer rings out: "Bull's eye!"
When I think about it, I find it all a little hard to believe.
July 19, 1992: THE APE ON THE CHAIN
I have a lingering, deep pain in my stomach as I wake up to the sound of an alarm bell ringing. I pick up the phone, and I hear a woman's voice.
"Mr. Fruit, your guests are waiting for you."
"What! I thought you were making a wake up call."
"No, your bus is supposed to leave right now."
"Well, wait five minutes." I hurriedly put on a shirt and a pair of shorts. I look in the mirror just once at my tanned face, my bushy eyebrows, and mutter, "Close enough."
When I go downstairs to the lobby, I see a small group of people waiting. This includes a ravishing blonde about my age, a Japanese-looking man, a Thai girl, and same ubiquitous guide.
"Are you ready?" he asks.
"Ready as ever. Let's go." I say.
We pile into the back on the van, and I introduce myself to the couple in back.
"What country are you from?" I ask the man.
"United States," he says, "but she's originally from Thailand."
"Are you a businessman?" I ask the man.
"No," he says, "I'm with the United States Air Force."
"Oh really? I work for them too. Where are you stationed?"
"Yokota Air Force Base. We're sort of on our Honeymoon."
We first stop at a flower farm. While the others go to admire the rows and rows of plants, I follow the guide to the little restaurant. I want to eat some breakfast, but the pain in my stomach suggests limiting myself to a glass of iced tea.
I see a half dozen guides who eye me warily, not expecting to see a guest dining with the help, but I order the tea and a piece of cake and sit down. From a distance, I admire the German (or Dutch) girl who was sitting with me and the rows of flowers about equally. I think about making an effort to go glance at the flowers, and try to learn some of their names, but I know I have little ability to really appreciate flowers, let alone learn them.
After about a half hour, we drive to the elephant's work yard. I only have a half a day scheduled because I decided to take an extra day in order to stop at Sukhotai (many accepted spellings) the first central capital of the Thai people. When we arrive at the work site, I see just about every tourist in Thailand waiting on the row of benches to watch the elephants.
When the elephants come out, they set out about their task: they take a heavy set of teak logs and pull them together. Then they stack them into a nice neat pile. They also leave large ripe patches of elephant manure. As I watch them stack the logs, I can't help but think of how, as soon as the tourists leave, the elephants will unstack the exact same logs. Somehow, the total futility of it leaves the biggest impression.
When the show ends, we start to walk back towards the bus. The Thai girl, Johnny's wife, (whose name immediately disappears from my memory) says:
"Look, Johnny, elephant rides. I wanna ride the elephant."
He looks at her with a combination of irritation and indulgence. She has an attractive face and long dark hair, stacked on her head in curls, a slim figure, and an almost little girl voice.
"I already rode an elephant when we went to see the hill tribes."
Johnny looks at us, "Do you want to wait for us?"
My stomach hurts a little still, and I have no intention of riding the elephant, but I shrug my shoulders. The German (or Dutch) girl insists: "You ought to try it."
"Please, Johnny, you go with me?"
He shakes his head, "Alright. Alright."
For the next twenty minutes, we stand waiting. Having nothing better to do, I start to look around. Nearby, I see a Gibbon, an ape the size of a monkey with a brown furry coat and a black face. A chain holds him to a wooden post, and a little sign states:
"Please. Do not feed the Gibbon."
Instead, I watch him. He runs around the nearby tree and hangs from the limbs faster and more adroitly than any acrobat. His small little hands grip the posts and the sign itself. Every couple of minutes, however, he suddenly runs out of chain and nearly strangles himself. Do I imagine, or does his face really show a streak of agony.
"That was fun," Johnny's wife, whose Thai name totally slips my mind, states when she returns. Our guide has rejoined the group, and the bus takes us over to our next sight, the Mae-Sa Falls. Once we enter the little wilderness trail leading to them, I feel in my element, walking and striking out at a good hiking pace. The humidity, however, soon covers my back with perspiration. When we reach the Falls, they fail to impress me.
"Isn't it pretty?" the German or Dutch girl says.
"Not much compared some I've seen in the States." Then again, not many places come close to the natural beauty of America. As I think this, I think that when I have children, I'll have to make an effort to rediscover America, or America will have to rediscover me.
The more I see of the world, the more I find it contained in America. Every falls compares weakly to Niagara Falls, and in the Rockies, we have our Himalayas. The Great Lakes look greater than anything I've ever seen elsewhere, and I can't believe that Siberia can offer much more frozen Hell than Minnesota. We may believe ourselves a chosen people in America, but truly we are simply lucky. Having seen so much of this before I was even sixteen, I can only be Thankful, on Thanksgiving, that the memory of children is stronger than that of adults. We didn't conquer America; it conquered us.
"Can you take our picture, Dan," Johnny's wife asks.
I carefully position them against the backdrop of the Falls, and as I pull the trigger, it occurs to me how much better this place suits lovers than it does observers.
When we finish at the Falls, the bus takes us to lunch at an expensive restaurant where we dine on Thai food. This includes plates of rice, fresh fruit, and stewed prawns. Though I keep eating a lot of Thai food on this trip, I don't seem to lose weight, perhaps because the food contains more bulk than fat or perhaps because I spend so much time walking and hiking.
After the bus takes us back to the Hotel, I feel little inclination to do anything. Finally, I get my guidebook, put on my bathing suit, and go out to the pool behind the hotel. I make something of an attempt to swim laps in a 12 yard pool though I keep hitting my head at both ends. About half the guests lounge around on the patio, eating or drinking, and the three teenage sit passively watching the television waiting for orders.
As I finish my jogging, I still don't feel very well. I go back to my room and go to the bathroom, and go to the bathroom, and go to the bathroom. By the third effort, I realize I have food poisoning again.
I take out the only book in my possession on, a work on Buddhist thought, and settle in for a long siege. I force myself to go back into the bathroom between movements and cough hard enough so that I throw up all of today's lunch. I'd rather have it go out one end than the other, and I know everything will come out. It doesn't seem to make much difference. Twice, I go down to the lobby to buy two orange sodas because I know that dehydration is as dangerous as the sickness itself, and I don't dare drink the water
I start to understand the Gibbon on the chain.
July 20, 1992: BUDDHA SLEEPS
"Dreams occur in the mind not relatively quiescent, in a state of neither of deep sleep nor fully awake. The mind is in a dynamic state, and the Buddha compares it to a fire which smokes by night and flares up during the day. According to the Milindapanha, dreams are of four types, (1) those due to physiological disturbances in the body, (2) those due to mental indulgences, ie, wish fulfillment (samudacinna) (3) those due to the intervention of a discarnate angelic spirit (devata) and (4) prophetic dreams."
(From Facets of Buddhist Thought, Vol. 3 by Prof. K.N. Jayatilleke: 1992, the Buddhist Publications Foundation, Wat Phratatdoisutep, Chaing Mai, Thailand).
These ideas seem very intense when sitting, forcibly contemplating, for about the tenth time in a day. I finish the book about eight in the morning having emptied everything from my system except the last of the four bottles of orange juice I dashed downstairs to get. The phone rings.
"Mr. Fruit," the voice says, "you're bus is here waiting."
"I'm sick," I state, "I can't go anywhere. Tell them, I'll go tomorrow. You have a bus tomorrow, right?"
"I'll tell them."
About that time, I make another hurried return to the bathroom. When I return to my bed, this time, I fall asleep, soundly enough to defy any discarnate angelic spirits.
If I have an abiding travel fear, it's that one day I will get so sick that I can't get up and die in my room. This came pretty close to happening in Mexico City; the maid actually came into the room in her black and white outfit and started cleaning up the place, thinking I was gone. It wouldn't have been much of a stretch, that time, to put me into the hamper along with the dirty towels. I roused myself enough, however, to go on that time. If I learned anything, it's that the smart track traveler always brings the right drugs, anticipating the microorganisms will loose their fury.
When my eyes open, the clock says "four o' clock," and I go to the front desk.
"Am I going to be able to get a ticket to Bangkok for tomorrow?" I ask. The girl standing behind the desk wears a typically Thai tight skirt and her tan has a very attractive, almost black, tint.
"I don't know," she says, then pauses, "let me try?"
"Thank you," I return, wondering how long I can stand here before another trip to the john becomes inevitable.
"Why couldn't you go today?" she says.
"I was sicker than a dog," I return. I see the look on her face, "No, the travel sickness, barfing, going to the bathroom."
She nods, and I hear a voice behind me. "You should go to the doctor."
I turn and spot a man in his fifties. He looks more Hispanic than anything else, and he sits near a sign saying "Bicycles and Motorbikes for rent."
"Well, that could be pretty expensive."
"No," he considers, "not like you'd expect."
"Where is it?" I already have this bad feeling that if I try to walk there, I will end up making several stops along the way.
"You have a map? It's not far."
"How much to rent a bicycle?".
"40 baht," he offers, making it around two dollars. He stands up nonchalantly, "Which one do you want?"
The bicycles all have the same appearance of functionality and total lack of character I usually associate with Japanese bikes. I swirl my finger and point.
"We can get you a bus seat for tomorrow," the girl says, as she returns to counter.
"That's excellent," I answer and ask the man, "Can you show me where it is on the map?"
"They are all right there."
He looks a minute, and he points to a spot located just on the other side of the loop that surrounds the city. I nod, and as I swing my foot over the top, he says,
"But Thai people don't like getting run over."
"I'm sort of partial against it myself."
Not that much traffic moves on a mid-weekday afternoon, and after a few minutes, I find the place. Two young women sit out front, both dressed in white, dispensing medicine. I swallow as I lock my bike to the gate. The last thing that I want in the world is an anal examination.
A doctor, perhaps my age, takes a look at me and speaks:
"What seems to be the trouble?"
"I think I've got the travel sickness." After I tell him, he looks in my ear, under my tongue, and listens to make sure I have a heart. The logic of this totally escapes me.
"It's nothing I think," he says, "the travel sickness, perhaps. I give you medicine for it."
He starts scribbling, and one of the nurses starts filling plastic bags.
"Wait," I pause. "What is this stuff? Latomil, Acromycin."
"No," he announces proudly, "these are 'new age' travel sickness medicine, much more effective."
I form this mental picture of a guru standing over a bottle and meditating.
He hands me a package, "This you take with hot water, and these," he hands me the pills, "you take with a meal. These are antibiotics, like ampicillin but much stronger."
I glance at the Thai script: "Could you have the nurse write the name of the medicines in Western characters, just in case."
He says something to the nurse, and she nods.
"How much?" I finally say, getting down to the business of it.
"Fifty baht?" about four dollars. I wonder, then, why all the Thais that attend Western medical schools don't just desert their country, but I take out the bill, with the king's serious face, and hand it to him. He bows slightly with hands in front of him.
Somewhere on the race to get home before my bowels do, I stop and snap a shot of three kings meeting at Chang Mai. These three kings, of Chang Mai, Ayuddah (many spellings possible), and Laos agreed to work together to defeat their common enemy enemies further south, such as Khmers. They couldn't realize they'd all form a part of a bigger Thai empire some day, and that none of these areas would serve as capital.
An hour passes by the time I return and make an immediate trip to the bathroom. I think, if the drugs don't work, this may be the end of this trip. I must do something; I no longer have any materials to read in the "study."
I go downstairs, and I sit down to watch the constant procession of old American movies always playing on the VCR that occupies the back quarters of the restaurant.
One of the three teenage girls, who seems to live before that television, appears to me immediately. She looks at me, "Can I help you?"
"I want a cup of hot water," I say.
She shrugs her shoulders and clops away in her sandals. When she returns, a few minutes later. I pour the contents of the doctor's package, an orange powder into the cup. I realize then that I never asked the doctor what this particular stuff was or what it did. It has an orange, taste, flavor, and appearance, and after I wash it down, I take one of the other three drugs so that the slithery taste of capsules balances the sour taste is orange substance. Then I signal to the "little girl," as the Belgian man referred to the three girls, and order up my first meal in 25 hours.
"New Age, huh," I think, "we'll see."
I still feel very weak and glad of the chance to assail the sleeping dreams as soon as possible.
July 21, 1992: MUDBRICKS AND SUCCOTASH
I'm finally feeling better. Twelve hours have passed since my last bowel movement, and after having forced myself to down another serving of the pale orange fluid, I can force myself to eat some eggs for breakfast.
"I want to take the bus to Sukhotai," I tell them at the desk. They show almost no interest but make the arrangements. An hour later, I'm back sitting on the bus passing through miles and miles of jungles and streams.
The bus arrives at a non-descript hotel in Sukhotai. A porter takes my one back up to my room, a fairly substantial place with some nice cupboards and a scenic view of fields out the back window. Tall grass blends into trees, and I wonder if locals stay out there, on that back porch, at night, listening to the crickets. I don't bother to unpack, but stand there a moment staring at the tall grass that looks like it has never been cut.
I tried to go to the Burger King to eat breakfast this morning. I was surprised to see the church parking lot filled with cars, and that the Burger King was not open. In a way, I thought they had it backwards: After all, what has more to do with American culture? But even I don't think that.
When I go backstairs, it occurs to me that I'd better check with my travel agent to make sure I have the extra day. The manager leads me to a special phone, and he points to a little card and says, "Twenty baht for the phone call."
"Yeah yeah," I humor him and dial the travel agency in Bangkok. When the phone rings, I hear the voice of the daughter with her solemn, slow, "Hello."
"Hello," I say, "this is Dan Fruit. I'm calling from Sukhotai."
"Sukhotai? Why aren't you in Bangkok yet," she chides. "Your plane leaves the day after tomorrow, and you have to pick up the tickets from the office. Your flights are confirmed: 5 days in Laos and 5 days in Cambodia."
"Five days in Laos?" This seems a long time when I have yet to finish reading its "complete history."
"Yes, that was the way the flight schedule worked out, but you must hurry back to Bangkok."
"Let me see what I can arrange," I reply, "and I'll call you back."
The manager looks at me, "That will be 100 baht."
I respond as any calm, cool collected, intellectual person might, "ONE HUNDRED BAHT!"
He nods nonchalantly, "Yes, 20 baht per minute."
I grit my teeth, "Oh, alright," I hand him the bill, "Can I get a bus ticket to Bangkok for tonight instead of tomorrow?"
"Let me see." he says, "and just wait over there."
I cross the room and sit down. I see two twentiesh, probably American, girls facing me. We start to converse about various cities we have visited. I don't really pay much attention to their words, but I do find out how far I have to go to really reach the ruins.
"Let me go check on the tickets," I cross the hallway to the desk, "Did you get tickets?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, "the bus leaves at eight. Be here for a shuttle at seven forty-five."
I look at the clock; that leaves only four hours to see the first great capital of the Thai people. "Can I get a lift to the ruins?" I ask.
"Yes," he glances at his watch, "but they close in an hour."
"Then let's go right now."
It takes a few minutes to drive to the spot. Already, as we start to get close, I see the red-bricked structures so characteristic of Ayuddah and other, later, equally Thai monuments. Near the gate, I see a shop with bicycles, and I immediately rent one.
Perhaps I've grown immune to Thai monuments, but Sukhotai looks monotonously similar to Ayuddah, since, of course, the second capital copied from the first. Red bricks, as in Ayoddah (many spellings), form the walls of all the statues. I view the seemingly required quota of seated, lying, praying, (but, strangely, never defecating) Buddha's.
I never did quite get a handle on Thai ruins. With the Aztecs, I read enough books that I could get some kind a mental picture of people climbing up the steps, smoke coming from those temple fires and crowds below, and these priests (who never washed) pulling out their obsidian blades, like Jack Nicholas, to some chopping. As I told Peter, a couple of weeks ago:
"That's what the drugs were for. When you have that poor virgin girl up there, as everyone's cheering away, you took the blade and you rammed it right into her out, and you pulled out and held her heart in your hand, and she didn't even notice. She might take a look, even, and say, 'Why, look at that. There's my heart.'"
"I think," Peter said, contemplating, "I'd want that girl to be fully conscious when I stabbed her with that blade."
"But the drugs," I said, "without that, she'd never let you do it. Think of the pain otherwise."
I can never form a kind of picture for the Thai ruins.
Perhaps this is because they built them out of this red brick that looks almost the same color as they used to build my house in Michigan. I keep thinking that if you put all the pieces back together, you'd have a suburb.
I try, really hard, to concentrate and ignore the ninety degree plus heat. In the center, a statue of a seated black Buddha or king, obviously new, supposedly provides some kind of tie to the present, but I don't know what. I only use the bike an hour, but that only serves to remind me that I rode the bus all day, and had runs the day before: the trip quickly becomes a pain in the Buddha. In a way, I'm kind of relieved when the shuttle bus returns to take me back to nearby city and the hotel.
Though no one has quite figured it out, all my stuff sits in a room which I didn't rent. So as a result, I feel a tiny bit guilty as I change into my running outfit about the time the sun sets. I run, beyond the boundaries of the park area, along the highway past rows of two-story brick houses that hold the modern Thai middle class. Fallen bricks rest in backyards, next to garages, and by septic tanks. Behind the single row of houses, cut grass rapidly yields to tall, wild grasses and nearby trees. The roaring of a million crickets drowns out the meager noise made by the human beings, and the bugs emit as much light as the men. It makes one of the most peculiar runs I've had with a mixture of decay, modernism, and insects screaming.
When I return, I take a nice, long shower. I hope to sleep on the bus and avoid a whole night's hotel fare. As I sit down in the little lounge, a girl comes over from the front desk. She's young, maybe seventeen, with her hair cropped around her head in a pageboy cut. She hands me a piece of paper.
"Here is your ticket." she says. When she gives it to me, however, she doesn't leave but sits down, intending, no doubt, to watch the American. I give one of my better performances as I try to sort out all the paperwork necessary and unnecessary. Finally, I sense something missing:
"Oh no," I search frantically, "the bus ticket!"
She giggles and holds it out in her hand. As I reach for it, she pulls it back and stands up. "Twenty baht."
"Some day," I warn her, "you are going to drive a man crazy."
She pouts a little and hands me the ticket as I put everything back into my pack or day bag. Suddenly, she looks alarmed as I start to rise.
"The room key!" she says.
I hold it out to her, and as she reaches her hand for it, I pull it just out of reach, "50 baht."
When the bus pulls into the town of modern Sukhotai, a tiny burg hardly worth putting on the map, it leaves me at a small bus stop. For the first time, really, on the tour, I form part of a crowd of locals, instead of tourists. A poorly dressed young man sits, staring into nothingness, perhaps traveling off to some job. A pair of old ladies wait, also, maybe to visit some relatives. When the bus arrives, thirty minutes late, every seat fills. The driver turns on a movie, a Chinese Kung Fu movie with Thai dubovers. That dubs me out.
The next thing I know, the bus stops, presumably in Bangkok. I look at my pocket alarm clock: 4:00. As I unload my bags, I try to find a samlor driver. Eventually, one appears and, for 50 bahts, drives me back to the Miami Hotel.
When I walk through the door, I rouse the two or three men who sleep on cots in the doorway. They don't look particularly pleased to see me.
"Look," I yawn, "I'm really tired, and I just want to crash for two or three hours. Maybe I can pay, like half price, 200 baht."
The manager scowls, "The price is 450 baht."
"Look, it may be 450 at 8:00 p.m., but whatever room you give me isn't going to make any money tonight, unless you give to me now. As it is, I'm offering you 50 baht an hour."
"We don't," the manager draws himself up, "rent by the hour!"
"I'm sorry," the disgust drips from my voice, "I'm not going to pay full fare just to sleep here three hours. I'm going to go some place cheaper or just sleep on the street." I turn around and walk out.
The street, though, with the usual collection of beggars and unemployed under its covered areas, looks none too inviting. I start walking along and checking the price at every hotel, determined to deny the Miami a single baht.
Finally, I find a place called the "Guest House," across the street from the Miami. The two young men who rise their couches in the doorway have dark skins, black hair, and heavy mustaches. I identify them as Pakistani or Indian. I offer them the same deal as the Miami.
"We cannot do 200," the one says, "but we can do 300 now and three hundred tonight-"
"That suits me fine, Just show me to the room."
Five minutes later, I collapse on a soft mattress facing a blank television screen. I feel more than two hours tired......
Wednesday, July 22, SOLOP SOLIE
It doesn't start out as a promising day. After spending somewhat freely the last week or so, I make survey of my fortune. It only adds up to about $500. I quickly pack my stuff and head on down to the travel dealership.
I also take a good look at the pain I feel between my legs and, sure enough, those days of washing my clothes in the sink took their toll. I see a pair of big red patches that signal the first assaults of the dreaded jock itch. These kind of ailments on tour make traveling so memorable. I know, quite well, that when I get back to Tokyo, I can enough medicine to cure anything. I must, however, somehow, keep from reaching the point that the pain makes the traveling impossible.
In the few travel books I've read of other writers, there's an unspoken convention that certain topics are not discussed. My experience, however, suggests to me that the true adventure of travel may not consist in recording your revelations but in surviving your own stupidity. In that, my tasks are often formidable.
It's a long walk that morning, but I have nothing better to do with my life. When I finally get to the traveler's dealership, I pass by the silk ties, shirts, etc. and enter into the shop. Near the racks, I, again, see the young girl, the daughter , who sold me the last tickets. It seems like a long, long time since I've came here. Back then, I slept in a better hotel and could laugh at 100 baht here and there.
I tried to get my hair cut yesterday. I went to the base barber shop, Tuesday, and a Japanese national did her best to try to translate my English derived concept into a physical reality. The process didn't work very well because I kept falling asleep, and every time I dozed off, I dreamt I was waking up at a different point in my life. No that's not true, but it would've made a better anecdote.
But I got up today and tried to finish up the job. I could only see myself from a single angle, which is itself only a reflection, and every time I get it cut, I want it cut shorter the last time. I want it to look cleaner, more defined, and yet fuller. Finally, I finished doing what I could do, but it doesn't look quite right. It's hard to cut your own hair.
"I'm here to pick up my tickets for Hanoi and Laos."
"Fly to Laos, tomorrow," she says, "fly to Hanoi, five days later."
She shows me the Laotian stamp in my passport and the double folded piece of cardboard with my picture on it that serves as a Vietnamese passport.
"Five days in Laos," I repeat.
"Five days in Laos," she says, echoing me. She looks me squarely in the eyes, unusual for an Easterner, and I turn away and look at the big map.
"When you come back from Vietnam," she says, "you come here for ticket confirmation."
"That's just it," I say, "I want to stay less time in Bangkok. I'm starting to worry about money."
"You no have credit card?" her eyebrows rise.
I smile dryly, "I don't believe in them." More accurately, I could say credit card companies don't believe in me, the price I pay for paying in full in a deficit society.
"You leave airline ticket," she says, "I try to change."
A dead silence follows for a minute. It occurs to me then that I really want to ask her out. On the other hand, I always avoid asking out anyone whose rejection could harm my future well-being. I find myself wondering what it would be like to go to her house. Does she live in a cramped little apartment desperately trying to make it in to big city. I can picture that kind of neighborhood, maybe, a little better than I can picture a dead Thai city, living.
. I hold out the ticket. "Well, I'll see you in two weeks."
On the way out, she hands me a map: "Here, very good map in English. You need in Vietnam."
I examine the pathetic little city maps, each as large as a square on a calendar, and think: "I'll need a Hell of a lot more than this."
"Have a good trip," she says. "Is someone going to meet you at Vietenne?"
"No one ever meets me anywhere."
I have a day to kill, and I spend it walking around. It occurs to me that, if I really want to try to find some money, I have to find it now, or else I have to give up. With this plan in mind, I enter one of the big Bangkok Banks, called something like the "Bangkok Bank." It looks clean enough to eat off the floors, an a regular army of women in business suits walk around between the banks of computers.
"Can I help you?" a lady says.
"Well, I'm trying to cash a personal check."
"Here," she says, "I go get the manager."
I stand there, silently enjoying the air conditioning for a while, until a short lady in her mid-thirties motions for me to follow her upstairs.
She invites me to sit down at a long empty table, and, despite wearing only my worst shorts and a sports shirt, I get the vague feeling of importance. Four or white chairs form the rest of the decorum of this clinically clean meeting room.
"How may I help you?" she says.
"I'm a US Department of Defense employee," I show her my card, "and I'm trying to cash a check. I'm about to go to Vietnam and Laos, and I'm afraid I don't have enough money."
She looks at me narrowly: "Are you on TDY orders?"
I frown, "No. They don't fly civilians to Bangkok. I'm a school teacher."
"Why don't you try the American Embassy? If we took the check, it would take a month to clear."
I can see the picture in my mind: an air-conditioned building where all the men wear gray suits and sunglasses. After I give my opening plea, a light shines on my face and the head suit looks me squarely in the eye: "Where, exactly, were you born, Mr. Mr. Mr. Fruit, is it?" Big Brother.
"No," I tell her, "I think I'll have to just tighten my belt," I look at the drawstring of my shorts, "even if I don't have one."
After this, I purposely stroll to another bank to exchange dollars for baht. As I stand at the counter, watching another crowd of young girls going about the banking business, I see a sign that says, "Savings Rate: 8 percent."
"Eight percent," I say, as the girl returns my baht, "What is the inflation rate here?"
She looks puzzled, "'Inflation.' We don't have that here."
I chuckle slightly, "Oh, yeah you do. Every place has inflation. You know, when the cost of things goes up, and your money doesn't buy as much...."
"I'm sorry sir," she politely answers, "but we don't offer that service."
"Look, it's not a service. It's a bad thing. It's not offered by the bank. It just sort of... happens, although sometimes it's the government's fault."
"I go get the Manager," she says.
"Wait...." I think about leaving at this point, but I hate to just walk out on these people.
A moment later, a short man in a nice, gray business suit walks over to see what the American wants. "How can I be of service?"
"Well, I was just seeing that sign over there for savings. You know, I'm always looking for foreign countries where I can invest. I was thinking that's a pretty good rate, but I wanted to know how much inflation your country has...."
"I'm sorry, sir, we don't have any inflation; you'll have to go to an American bank."
At that point, I can't help but smile, "Believe me," I assure him with a wave of my hand, "you have inflation. You probably discussed it an hour today over breakfast, but you just don't know the American word..."
"No inflation, Sorry."
"But, I'll say this, if you don't understand the concept in Thai, your bank will be in desperate shape."
"Sorry, only American banks give inflation."
I walked out and into the hot day. As a hedge against jock itch, I invest in four pairs of loose-fitting shorts with nice zip pockets for holding money. Later, I see a vendor selling underwear. The pairs look tiny and decidedly asexual, but I can get three for 100 baht. When I take the one pair out of its package, it looks like a cloth slingshot. It has no openings front or back, and I wonder if, indeed, these are asexual underwear or just built for smaller Thai men.
When the sun sets, I take a long jog through the streets away from the district. The heat still stands around ninety percent, and the discomfort index must be higher. Ever corner requires dodging cars bent on my imminent destruction. Truly, Bangkok has become a part of the Western world, as admirable a city as, say, Los Angeles.
Later, I decide to go find a bar and have one last beer in this semblance of civilization. As I wander down the streets, I think how familiar these tourist districts all seem to look. Then I see a sign resting against a post by a whole collection of "friendly" bars, saying "Bangkok Night Center." I turn left and see a little open place with five seats and a sign saying "Friends Bar." I remember then when I came in April and made the joke to the barmaids, when I saw a "For Sale" Sign," at "they must've run out of friends."
Of course, this area looks familiar, I conclude, I came here before on Easter Break. I take two steps onto the collection of wooden shops under the freeway, by the railroad tracks, as a sudden curiosity seizes me. Sure enough, I see the little, cheap silk shop where I bought the tie that I later forgot, and then the restaurant that I didn't eat in because I never did get there.
I first went to this place on Good Friday. The first night, we played three dimensional tic-tac-toe, and I sat there pitying this poor girl, holding my hand, with a racked up face and far more body than personality, about my age. We played this game over and over again. Every time she'd put in a chip, making some incredibly dumb move, I'd pull the chip out and say: "No, you don't want to put it there" and make a better move for her. The owner's daughter would answer back,
"Hey. Solop Solie," meaning, in Thai English, "slap yourself." All that time, I kept thinking about this girl: poor baby, she's got a face that could stop a truck, and she's not very smart either. Probably, I decided, she never even finished high school.
The second night, I came back, and this girl immediately came over to "hold the American's hand." I was extremely sober this time, and I didn't argue when she took the seat next to me and put her hand in mine, almost possessively.
At this point, another bar maid came over, saying:
"Hey, you wanna play some tic tac toe?"
"Sure," I said confidently, "but I warn you, I'm pretty good."
This other bar girl in her early twenties, again someone who probably starting working in a bar at age fifteen, proceeded to beat me, two masters' degrees and all-five straight times, doubling the bet each time until the finally bet lost a cool 80 baht. Suddenly I let go of the "poor girl's" hand and exclaimed:
"You've been letting me win all those times!"
She didn't say anything, but sat there smiling, ever so slightly. The whole adventure taught me something important because I knew then that, all along, as I sat there, thinking my thoughts of pity for this girl with the wracked up face, they'd been pitying me, the poor dumb American without anyone to be with on a Friday night. Yet that hadn't stopped them from hustling drinks from me.
A famous writer once wrote that the hardest thing about writing is the loneliness; a good writer turns away from the world and hides himself to compose his truth. I wonder, sometimes, if it isn't the opposite. So many times I've stolen a piece a part of someone I saw, maybe for only a minute and put that person into my writing. Now that person is never gone, always with me, till the discs fade away and all the papers burn.
I stand before the same spot now, and I see a girl with frizzied hair; I've never seen her before, but she greets me like an old friend:
"There you are," she says, ambiguously enough.
"I don't remember you from last time." It occurs to me, then, how simple-minded I am. These barmaids probably come and go. I really don't know what I'm going to say, but I can almost see that party from the time before, put on by this guy who was working in Egypt and spent all his money going to countries with women for sale or rent, girls to whom business was business.
"When did you come before?" she says.
"I came," I think to myself, "in April."
"Oh," she says, "The lady who run the bar then, she go."
"She left, then?" this refers to the mother of "Solop Solie."
"No, no," she shakes her head. "She rent the bar to me. She buy restaurant over there," she points.
I smile. "Then she must be doing pretty well."
"She my landlord." She pulls out a stool, "You want a beer?"
I smile. "No. I'm in a hurry, but when you see the lady's daughter, can you give her a message?"
"Sure," she says, "what I say to her?"
I smile, "Tell her 'Solop Solie!'"
Thursday, July 23: THE NAME WITH NO HORSE
I don't know exactly what I expected to find in Laos, but when I arrive, I find much less. The plane sets down on a runway deserted except for a single other plane, and as I walk off the plane, an almost overwhelming amount of humidity hits me. The airport needs no shuttle busses as this appears to be one of its few flights for the week.
My brother says that the image of the American is the man journeying off into the Wilderness by himself. If this is the case, then truly, I must be American as they come, for I know of very few people who can get off a plane in a strange country without hotel reservations, knowledge of a word of the local language, nor any particular idea of where they're going.
As I told one of my friends, before I made this trip:
"There has to be some kind of element of risk, a trickle of extra adrenaline, to a good vacation, a challenge, or else you might as well stay home."
As I start to walk towards the small terminal, a greenish blue, two-story building, I can see the entire top floor filled with people awaiting the flight. As they see us, they start to wave. The blue terminal stands out against the purple of the mountains, visible even from here.
Immediately, I remember Cebu in the Philippines, the difference being that the waving people there all wanted to sell something or someone.
As I get to the gate, a man in a white dress shirt and pants says, "Are you passenger Smith?"
"No, I'm not." He looks down at some sort of a list:
"Yep, that's me."
"You are to come with me. I give you a ride to the Anhou Hotel." he states.
"Is that where I'm staying?" I'm still a little unsure of what my package includes.
"You maybe wanna stay somewhere else?" he returns amicably.
I shrug, "I don't know. I'll have to take a look."
After a few minutes of gathering up every other non-Lao passenger, he takes us back to the parking lot, a semi-paved place that holds about twenty parking places. As we start to move out, a mid-afternoon storm starts to drop a cooling rain. The driver looks out, measuring the amount of precipitation, and doesn't even bother to turn on the windshield wipers.
The van takes us over several, two-lane roads and out into a village of paved and unpaved streets. Most of the buildings look old and overgrown. A few scattered French street signs, here and there, alternate with signs in a Thai script. I wonder how long it will take to get from this little village to the capital city of Vietenne.
After about a quarter mile ride, the car stops, and the man gets out to fetch my bag. I realize, now, that, indeed, amidst these four hundred or so houses, I AM in "downtown Vientiane."
The hotel consists of about two-stories with a restaurant on the bottom floor. I walk inside the door and lay my bag on the floor. A man in a white shirt looks up.
"How much is it a night for a single?" I ask.
"20 dollars," he says. I mentally mouth my reply "TWENTY DOLLARS!" He adds. "Ten dollars for fan room."
I take a breath, "Can I see the 'fan room?'"
"Yes," he says.
The man who took my bag leads on, and, as we pass, a slender-looking Chinese man with a beret starts to follow us.
"Where you from?" he says with a slight lisp.
"America." I answer.
"I been to America," he says, as we climb up the outside stairway to the second floor. Then he adds with some emphasis, "San Francisco."
"Really," I say, not gathering what he means, "I've been there too."
He nods, smiling, "Ooooh."
The hotel worker opens the door in front of us. The room inside looks about the size of a bathroom with a couch, a table, and not much else. A kind of white paint covers the wall. Connecting wires to the appliances rest on top of the paint. It looks, in other words, like your typical flophouse room. He turns a wall switch and a big "Humphrey Bogart" style fan starts to turn.
"Where is the bathroom?" I ask.
"Down the hall?"
"You need ride," the Chinese-looking man asks.
"No," I say, "not really." When I say this, he steps out into the hall. The man who stands near me moves closer.
"You gotta watch out for him."
"Why," I say, "does he work for the hotel," I immediately think he means to identify a potential thief.
"No," he shakes his head, "he's a transexual."
For a moment, I don't understand that statement, and then, suddenly, it all becomes clear. What he means is the man's a gay. I shudder a little, "Well," I say, expecting my words to be repeated, "he better not come near me, or I'll beat the &**& out of him."
The man smiles apparently at some mental picture of this act and asks: "Is the room okay?"
"For 10 dollars, I guess I can't complain." I could complain, but I doubt it'd make any difference. I throw my stuff on the bed and walk down the single set of stairs towards the office. When I arrive there, I notice about four people, in hotel uniforms, sitting on the two big wooden benches in front of the desk and fast asleep. Truly I have found the fast lane.
"Here," I say, "I wanna pay for two days." I show them the traveler's check.
"No," says the man. "You have to cash this at a bank."
"I do," I say, "wonderful. Where's the nearest bank?"
"No, it has to be the Exterior Bank," he says, "no other."
"Okay," I say and I walk out into the street. I look at the rows of shops, but no one seems interested in tending them. Samlor drivers sleep in a long row of pedal cabs. Even dogs snooze on the lawns. I pull out my trusty map and start walking in this sleeping world.
Very quickly, I discover that I can't tell one temple from another. Each temple has bright colored walls, yellows, pinks, with white trim, a small courtyard, a monk's house (abandoned-to please the Vietnamese), and a statue of Buddha. Unlike the Thais, who favor straight lines and almost austere colors, Lao artists have more Rococo ideas. So, strangely enough, the temples all look like wedding cake decorations. The first one I see has a pink entranceway with minarets topped by circular decorations, like flying saucers, and a wild Buddhist drawing. The main hall of the second one features a full-sized, three colored painting of Buddha contemplating Heaven.
I'm perhaps the only person who gazed at these temples in quite some time, or so I gather from the curious looks of the few people on the street. When I pull out my umbrella instead of hiding from the continuing showers, this seems to interest more people.
After four or five blocks, I stumble upon the river. Only a five-minute walk separates "Anhou" uptown from the river, downtown. Here I see a sign for the "Lao Biere" and the national Lao brewery, which looks smaller than our school's gymnasium. As I walk along the river, I come upon a small shop that says, "Books in English."
I walk inside and see a lady in her fifties, wearing faded khaki shorts and shirt, and two young men taking tea with her. The young men wear shirts saying, "End the Boycott of Vietnam" and pith helmets, like extras from the cast of Combat. They wear these outfits almost like costumes, and a certain preppy air clings to them.
"Hello," she says as I walk in, with the sound of someone who gets few visitors. I see only about fifty books on the shelves.
"How are you doing?" I return. "This is the book store?"
"Yes," she answers, "it is. Can I get you some tea?"
As she says that, a loud clap of thunder informs me that waiting a while might be the best thing to do. "Sure. Thank you."
The two young men seem disinclined to be friendly, though smirkiness seems a distinct possibility, so I start. "My name is Daniel Fruit. I'm a teacher; I teach in Japan."
"I'm Joe Smith," the first one volunteers.
"I'm Tom Jones," adds the other one.
"And you are?" I ask.
"We're law school students."
Obviously, I conclude they're not doing anything to earn their education this summer. "How can you afford to travel?"
"Oh," the one chuckles, "we just borrow."
"Are you coming from Vietnam?" I ask.
"Yes," says Jones. "We are. We were just talking about all the wonderful things you can buy there."
"Really?" I look at the t-shirts. "Like what?"
"Guns. Helmets. Bayonets."
They launch into this long discussion of Chinese war equipment versus American equipment-as collectibles. All the time they speak this image keeps forming in my mind of helmets with blood on them and peasants stabbing downed pilots with knives. My stomach turns over as I think, for a moment, that those things they deal in once might've belonged to a friend of someone I know at work.
"You know," the older lady says, and I sigh in relief because I think, then, she's going to make the kind of moralistic comment on their ghoulishness and spare me. She takes a sip of tea. "I tried to get a parachute once. I wanted it mainly the silk, but most of them seemed so wrecked up."
I don't say anything further. The image of someone being shot, hung in a tree, and the parachute stolen comes to my mind, but I suppress my urge to comment. "Did they give you a big hassle there?" I say.
It seems weak to me, looking back, that I didn't say anything to these people. The only defense I can offer is that I read them well enough to know that what I would have said to them would've meant
nothing. At that moment I wanted to go nowhere less than Vietnam, but then, I thought if people like this were going to go to Vietnam and smirk and laugh at someone like me for being sentiment and foolish, how could anyone else defy them except by going their also and finding out what things are really like, and see what could be seen.
The first one says, "No. They just want your money, that's all, like everybody."
I turn to the owner of the house, changing the subject: "Do they hassle you here?"
"Well," she says, "it's not so much of a hassle. I mean when the government comes, you pay. But getting them to do something like collect the trash....."
I sense, then, that the owner has more reasons to be here than a love of Laotians. She seems eager to hear about anywhere else. "Tell me about Japan."
I do for a while as the other two get up and leave. Then I use the opportunity to get up also and eyeball the woven handicrafts on the walls as well as the pictures of America.
I walk across the street to the "Banco Exterier," a relatively modern-looking building with white walls and a parking lot full of mopeds. When I walk through the door, I see a disorganized collection of desks and a row of seats for customers lining the walk around the windows. Although some twenty-five or so people work in the bank, only one or two seem to wait on customers. Unlike the Thai bank, this staff doesn't sit around and look pretty.
I fill out two or three pieces of paper in order to convert my money. As I stand there, I try to figure out for what the bank pays this enormous crowd that does no service. Finally, I see them counting stacks and stacks and stacks and stacks of American, Thai, and Lao money. I realize I'm watching a command economy in action, right before my eyes.
I remember this 7-11 coffee add in which the counter moves so slowly that the customer has a vision of the check-out person ringing up the beans individually "a-one coffee bean, a-two coffee bean...."
When I finally get the Lao money, it looks cheap and faded, like paper and not anything valuable. The colors, however, again blend blue and green, and give a kind of "natural feeling" to money.
As I pull out my map, to walk towards the other landmarks, I see a dilapidated two-story building. A kind of dead yellow paint fades away outside, and several trees out front have grown so much that it looks like a haunted house. The sign outside reads (I'm not kidding here): "The National Library."
From there, I wander over to the "Black Stupa," a typically Thai-looking structure that may've held the Jade Buddha for a while. This occurred during the era when the Burmese, Thais, and Lao exchanged that jade statue among one another sort of like football teams exchanging the Old Wooden Bucket or the Buckeye trophy.
Having gotten some money, I walk towards the other landmarks. The biggest landmark, a tower built in the 16th century, has become a traffic circle. A big square structure with four solid walls and square copulas on top, it reminds me of a kind of giant chess piece. I know it well because all the time I read Postwar Laos, this statue graced the covers. The more austere colors, a beautiful faded green, contrast with typically Laotian blue and pink. It celebrates a brief moment only when the Lao managed to conquer quite a bit of the surrounding kingdoms and increased their tax base enough to squander on such ostentation.
After a few hours, I return to my hotel. Sure enough, I see the Chinese man with the beanie lurking nearby. He walks over to me and says, graciously:
"Stay away from me," I warn.
He leans back and says, "Why you wanna say that to me? I never do nothing to you."
"I like girls," I tell him. "Girls!"
He walks away, protesting, "Why you wanna say that to me? I not like that to you,"
For a few minutes I feel guilty, as I sit at the bar of the hotel eating some curried rice, and yet a few hours later, I see him smiling happily and sitting in a samlor with a handsome young man. The next day it is another man....
July 14, 1992: THE WRONG PLACE
For a big country, Laos quickly seems very small. It only seems large because, walking around in the sweltering heat seems to take forever and partly because the streets of the capital quickly fade into dirt roads that disappear first into the jungle and then into the nearby mountains.
I first walk back to where I'd left off, the "Black Stupa," a structure about the size of a house and surrounded by a traffic circle. From this structure, I walk towards the chess-piece like gateway that has become the unofficial symbol of Laos to me.
As I walk along, the usual morning traffic of 100cc motorycles, bicycles, and samlors pass me. Quite a few of the women sit cross-legged to accommodate their long, dark skirts made of a modest black cloth with swirls of color stretching around the bottom.
By about 10:00, I reach a small building with a grotesque-looking statue of worker on the outside. A fence surrounds the outside, and it occurs to me that this must be some kind of museum. A vintage American tank parks outside the building. "The worker," one of those typically uninspired figures of proletarian art stands in front of a mural with a working peasant, people in the fields, etc. I pull out my camera to try to take a picture of the "people's masterpiece." At that minute, a man in a faded aqua uniform comes out, waves his arms, and speaks several paragraphs of Lao at me.
"Okay," I back off, "no picture."
As I walk away from the sight, I see a big white building off in the distance. It looks like some kind of a sports arena. As I walk towards it, I spot a big white structure off to the left. The flat white crests make it appear vaguely like across between a Buddhist church and Arlington Cemetery. As I look in my guide book, I come to a conclusion: I have no idea what it really is. After a while, it occurs to me that this has to be some kind of a war memorial, purposely designed, in a modern way, to echo the style of Laotian ceremonial architecture. Several Lao stand there, taking pictures.
I shrug my shoulders and start to walk towards the arena building. Two young Lao males pass me on their bicycles.
"Where are you from?" the first one says.
"America," I answer. "Are you students?"
"We study at the University." the one says.
"Can you help me out? My map is a little confused." I point back over my shoulder. "Is that a war memorial?"
"Yes," they agree.
"What is that building, right here?" I point at the large arena-like building in the background.
"That's the National Assembly."
"That?" I say looking at the empty parking lot half overgrown with grass. "Did the Americans help build it?"
"I think," his hand goes to his chin, "they started building it."
Finally I come to the clincher, "That building," I point back towards where I came from, the single-story building that looked like a ranch house where the single soldier waved me off, "the one with the tank parked out in front. What building is that? A museum?"
"No no," the young man laughs. "That's the National Defense Bureau." For a minute I think about all I'd read about the Lao raids across the river and the Vietnamese tanks, and I can't help but laugh.
I'd formed this picture in mind of Laos, an amalgamation of old movies, newspaper headlines, and Edgar Rice Burrough's books on Venus. It began forming when I started reading in the Thai papers about Lao patrol boats crossing the rivers to raid into Thailand to capture Hmong rebels. Then there was the whole idea of Apocalypse Now with the scurry hiding hill peoples on the banks of the river, so that, by the time I left Thailand, I imagined tanks sitting on the edge of the river.
Finally, there was Edgar Rice Burroughs. In one of his Venus books, there are two towns on the river, inhabited by a related people. On the one side, there's a beautiful high-tech city run by a modern government, and on the other side, an evil wizard, using a potion, has reduced all of the local population to mindless zombies. So this is what I expected to see, an army of mindless zombies, armed to the teeth and not a Ministry of Defense with a single guard.
From there, I walk to the main temple of Lao Buddhism. It consists of a big square area of white cement dotted by a series of minarets. In the center, a giant gold-painted minaret dwarfs the others, so that it looks, oddly, like some kind of a weird chess piece. The book tells that a true Buddhist believer would see a different truth by pausing at each level. In 95 degrees and 95 percent humidity, I feel enlightened enough without pausing on the way up.
As I walk by, I see a two-story building with a golden roof, the center for training the Lao Sangra (Buddhist clergy). As I walk by, I notice several young monks in their orange robes watching me. On a lazy summer day, they seem disinclined to study anything except the passing air.
Later that morning, I go back to town and try to trade my plane tickets. When I go into the Lao Aviation building, a building smaller than most travel bureaus, I find nearly half the citizenry of Laos sitting there enjoying the air conditioning . The Lao Aviation folks all wear these blue uniforms, again so indicative of Laos. After cooling my jets for a reasonable amount of time, I finally get to see the manager.
"What can I do for you?" he says.
"I want to fly out of Laos sooner than my ticket here, which says the 31st."
"How soon do you want to fly?"
"Like today?" He stares at me. "It's nothing personal," I assure him, "it's just that Vietnam is the main item on this tour, and I want to spend as much time there as possible." I show him the ticket, "No possibility of exchange?"
"Well, Lao Aviation has a flight on the 31st, but I'll need a signature from Vietnam Airlines"
"Where do I go to get that?"
"The Vietnamese Consulate."
A picture forms in my mind of being frisked and having to undergo a strip search. "The Vietnamese Consulate?"
He looks at his watch. "It's too late this morning," and adds, "I would go this afternoon."
After I leave his office, I go back to my room and brood a while. If I'm going to go to Vietnam, I have to face the beaurocratic monster sooner or later. It might as well be sooner. At that point, I invest in a samlor ride out to the Vietnamese Embassy.
I expect something very different than the two-story green building at the edge of the woods. Big shade trees cover the top of the two-story building. I expected something different from the nation in control of Laos.
I ask the samlor driver, again, "Vietnamese Embassy?"
"Yes," he says, and I give him the equivalent of thirty cents in American money. He kicks the starter of his ancient Honda attached to the rickshaw, and the machine putters off.
I walk up to the gates, expecting a guard or someone to accost me at any moment. Finding the gate open, I walk across the lawn and into the house. I look around, cautiously, expecting to have security people rush down and arrest me at any moment. The door to the building stands open, and I walk into the living room of a pleasant, probably French house with wood paneling and a Chinese print on the wall.
I see a single well-dressed man, in his twenties, seated by himself in front of a tiny blue China set. He looks as though he hasn't a thing to do except pour himself a cup of tea. Despite the ninety degree weather, he wears dress slacks and a long sleeved white shirt.
"Can I see the Vietnamese Ambassador?"
He looks up and smiles pleasantly, "I am the Ambassador."
I show him the ticket "I want to switch this ticket from Vietnam Airlines to Lao."
He glances at the ticket, representing, as it does, a loss of about $230 worth of Vietnamese currency. After a moment's consideration, he signs, initials, and stamps in a flowing, cultured hand. As I stand up to show myself out, I glance around the simple building and I think: maybe I missed something.
That afternoon, I go running down by the river. Unlike many places I have visited, I have a hard time getting lost in Vietenne. As I move along the river front, I can a slim line of modest restaurants, maybe ten in all, and then this gives way to bamboo huts, just as the somewhat leveled dirt road yields to potholed paths. Not a quarter mile outside the "downtown," cows squat by the edge of the road chewing the tall grass that grows everywhere. Little children, seeing me jogging, perhaps seeing someone jog for the first time in their lives, run up to the road and yell excitedly:
"Sa ba di!" Roughly translated as a combination of "Hello," "May God Bless you," and "Good day," in Thai and Lao.
"Sa Ba Di," I return to one of them, and seeing the strange, hairy man greet them, they go into transports of "Sa Ba Di! Sa Ba Di! Sa Ba Di!"
That night, I return to my room and then go down to the local bars. The first place I find, has dark lights and a number of girls in long Lao skirts. As soon as I sit down, a young Chinese man walks up to me with a program of songs he sets in front of me.
"Wait," I say, "is this Karoake? How much is it for a beer?"
"3,000." he says (call it $2).
I dig out the money and start looking through the pages of the text. I find songs in Chinese, Thai, and presumably Laotian. I can't be sure; the Laotian script resembles Thai or may even be the same.
"Wait a second, you don't have any songs in English?"
He smiles as he hands me the beer, "English no."
At that point, several people from the place converge on me. They've obviously never seen an English speaker before. I swallow the beer at a gulp and head towards the door. I give the Chinese man the money.
"I'm sorry, I thought I was somewhere else."
That's where I am: somewhere else.
July 25, 1992: LOST DAYS IN LAOS
It seems an incredible challenge to go an entire day without spending any money, but that the challenge I set for myself. I wake up late and wander downstairs to the, by now, familiar bar and restaurant of the Anh Hotel, a dimly lit place where the girls watch the Thai soap operas all day between serving the guests. With flights so few, guests feel obligated to stay a while.
After a leisurely morning of reading old Bangkok papers, I feel ready to assume a role in the Thai parliament, but instead, content myself with a walk down to the river. When I get there, nearly everyone has already hidden his or her self away under the leaves from the eleven o' clock sun.
Last night, I tried to do that when I was trying to forget about finishing this book. It used to be that I always listened to music on those nights I couldn't sleep: classical, opera, rock. It didn't matter. I could just turn on something, and while my mind started to analyze the chord structure, my body would gradually relax.
These days, when I turn on the music it keeps me awake. I keep wondering what happened to the person who was writing the song, can that person stand to listen to what they used to think? What was the world like when they wrote this? It becomes even harder if I'm listening to something written by somebody dead. I find myself waiting until the tape comes to an end. Instead I listen to traffic, and, strange to say, that always puts me to sleep.
After awhile, I walk downtown to the local Laotian shopping mall, a structure of white concrete that might look more at home in the suburbs of LA than in Laos. The whole area outside the building, however, contains not cars, but motorcycle rickshaws.
Inside, the place sells the same merchandise you find anywhere else in Laos. This means singular gallons of gas in cans reused a dozen times or more, the ubiquitous Thai blouses, and, of course, long black skirts with the flash of color. I wonder why the Vietnamese built it, other than to build a mall, or to prove something.
Only later did I really learn the story behind this structure when I was talking to one of the managers of the Australian Club. Apparently, the Vietnamese came up with the idea and brought in workers from Vietnam for its construction. They spent an entire year building it, a kind of monument to their friendship with the Lao, during which time the workers had to be restricted to their housing and a curfew imposed.
"Why was that?" I asked.
"Well," the Australian answered, "it was the same as with their troops here. They kept trying to mess with the local girls, and the local girls just don't like the Vietnamese. But you know what the biggest joke is?"
"They didn't use the right mix for the concrete. All our engineers kept telling them that, of course."
"Well, the whole bloody thing is going to fall down, some day. There will be no warning. Just, BOOM, and it's all gone."
As I walk down to the river, I spot a Hotel with a French sign saying "Hostelier" and on the ground rests a moldering sign saying, "Interpol." Clearly Communism is dead.
After awhile, I walk towards the central monument, the Green Gate, and see a lady in shorts holding her own copy of "The Good Book," the Fodor's Guide. She asks me,
"Do you know where the Black Stupa is?"
"I'd feel a little Stupa'd if I didn't," I say, putting the joke on me, but then I look into my book and point in the appropriate direction. "I think it's right over there." As I see her about to set herself back on the bike, I ask:
"Wait a second, are you an American?" Her New York accent, of course gave her away, but I suddenly realize that, after two days, I need to talk to somebody in English.
"Yes," she says, "I'm from New York."
"Really? Are you a teacher?"
"No," she sets her feet back on the ground, a sign she feels no particular reason to hurry, an attitude this climate seems to breed, "I'm a freelance journalist."
I feel that twinge of guilt when she says this. Here I consider myself a writer, and yet, I haven't the courage to quit my job and ever try to become a really writer. and that nagging doubt returns: maybe I could never become one.
"Really? Are you doing a story on Laos?"
"Naw," she says in a nice Brooklyn accent, "the story's on Vietnam. I'm just trying to pick up a piece here to pay for taking this side excursion."
"Then, you've been to Vietnam," my eyes narrow. I wonder what her reaction would be, since I guess her age about the same as mine.
"Yes, it was quite a trip."
"I'm supposed to go there next, and I'm worried about the money. I'm only going to have about $350 left."
"Where are you flying in, Saigon?"
She shakes her head, "It's not enough. Do you have a credit card and that sort of thing?"
"I don't believe in them."
"Well, then, you'd better go down to the Embassy here and beg 'cause that's not going to do it."
I grimace, "I thought Vietnam was supposed to be like, ten dollars a day."
She waves her hand, "Forget it. You might as well not even go. I mean," she counts off with her fingers, "you'll have to pay for a plane out of the city, then the trains." She pauses, "Well, maybe what you ought to do is just fly from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City?"
I smile, "I really want to see Hue, the old capital city. I'm into dead cities and extinct cultures: they remind me of Los Angeles. If I just see Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, what's the point of going?"
She holds up a hand, "I know, fly to Hanoi and then straight to Da Nang and don't even spend the night in Hanoi. Just see Uncle Ho and go."
I pause, "How did they treat Americans there?"
"In the North, they were real assholes, and in the South they were really pro-American. I'm betting there's going to be a revolution in the next ten years."
"A revolution?" I look at the empty streets and Coke vendors sleeping under the nearby tree and find any action hard to imagine.
"Yes. All those doctors and lawyers that had to become taxi drivers will get tired of watching the South go down the tubes."
"A revolution?" I repeat.
"Well why not?" she insists. "I mean, it's not like their country is any kind of success, is it? What were they fighting for if not to make their country better off?"
Before I took this trip, I read an article on Vietnam in the TIME MAGAZINE that talked about Vietnam's "Boom Times." The article had a picture of these Vietnamese girls, not what I would call attractive, dressed in these Sixties' style mini-skirts dancing what looked like a seventies disco dance. Investment was apparently up, but all the businesses in the South were supposedly waiting, waiting for the Americans, "We keep waiting for the Americans to return. Then it will be the good times again," the Saigon people said, which reminds me of the famous Cargo Cult legend among the Lao Hill Tribes that Jesus will someday return to Laos in fatigues driving an army jeep.
"Did you get enough material for your article?"
"I don't know. I mean, it's such a strange place to go. I met this girl whose father died in the war, and I asked her how she felt. She said she was glad the North won, and I said, 'But Hey, you lost your father!'" She puts her feet on the pedals , "But look I've got to go....."
She rides off, leaving me standing there with a long time to kill,
After she says this, sure enough, I walk down to the American Embassy. It looks like a typical suburban house, deposited, somehow in the middle of a jungle. On the outside, I see posters proclaiming, "Growing coffee is more profitable than cocaine...study the facts." In the driveway out back, I see two big black Chevy Blazers, the small style. Despite the daily showers, these cars look clean and polished, like someone washes them every day, in defiance of Laotian weather. It helps that when it rains here, unlike LA, Tokyo, and Bangkok, the water falls clean and clear, leaving only natural pollutants.
When I approach the gates, I pull out my I.D. card. A lazy-looking Lao guard examines it. I have flashbacks now to the scene in Frankfurt when I spent the whole day begging to get a passport and saw a line stretching for a block around the outside the building. Everybody wanted to go to America, but the yard here looks deserted and forgotten.
After a decent interval, a man emerges with a walkie-talkie. He wears slacks, a short-sleeve shirt, and CIA sunglasses. When he looks at me, he lets the sunglasses droop.
"What can I do for you?" he says, from the other side of the fence.
I swallow, "I'm an American citizen, touring around Southeast Asia, and I'm afraid I've slightly miscalculated my expenses. I'm wondering if the Embassy can honor a check of mine. I mean, I probably bank at the same bank you do since I work for the Air Force."
He scowls down over the top of his glasses, "You're Air Force?"
"No, I'm a school teacher. I'm on my summer vacation."
"Look," he says, "I'm just head of security. The head of the Embassy will be here on Monday. Why don't you come back then and give them your request?" His voice sounds a little dubious.
"Do you think they're gonna help me?"
He looks off, "Well this situation does happen. We can't cash your check, I'm afraid, but we could contact your relatives."
I feel a sinking feeling: Mother coming to pick me up, sick, from camp. I frown, "But I have plenty of money in Tokyo and California. A single phone call to my base will show that."
"Look, you put it to the head of the Embassy on Monday." He turns around and the guards return to their snoozing posts, leaving me standing outside the gateway staring at the two big Chevy trucks parked out back and the nicely manicured lawn surrounded by an unkept jungle.
I find it a genuine chore to kill those eight hours, and when night time finally rolls around, I enjoy taking my run down by the river. A few hours later, I sit in the lobby of the hotel, watching Thai soap operas and the shy-looking girls in the long black skirts, and reading a feminist Chinese, historical novel. In the restaurant, that night, I notice the exact same couples dancing as the night before, doing the exact same dance.
July 26, 1992: THE DEAD TIME
Killing a day seems even harder than I remember it. With no churches, no temples, I have no particular place to go.
I walk off, this morning, in a totally aimless direction and find, after about a half mile, that even "hints" of roads become mere pathways. A thick brown mud covers the streets, the product of sand streets and persistent rain, and as I walk along it, covers the bottoms of my shoes. Worse, the brown stuff penetrates into the growing holes in the sides of my sneakers and makes me regret not having bought a new pair before leaving Yokota. After about ten minutes, the paths have woven back and forth so much that I have no idea where I'm supposed to have been or where I'm supposed to be going or why I started this walk other than to use the time.
A proper vacation, consists of an equal mixture of study and sport. The study aspect derives from reading history and geography about the place I'm going. The sport part comes from doing all the walking between places on the itinerary.
Finding that two days suffices to see everything worth seeing in Vietenne, and that I haven't the money to fly or ride to Lua Prabang, means I no longer have anything to study nor any place to go, a perfect mixture for inducing restless boredom.
A samlor driver passes by and whistles. "You ride?"
I answer absently, "I don't even know where I am." The answer makes no sense to him, of course, and he drives away, leaving the American starting to sweat in the high humidity heat, but a little richer.
I remember how the Communist types derided the peoples of the city as decadent and used to soft-living. They passed edicts saying every government bureau must feed its own people, and I see evidence of this as I pass a government office and see five or six cows grazing on the law, eating the tall grass.
When I read about the "decadent city people" in my readings about Laos, I formed this mental picture of what the capital would be like. True, "decadence" in the Communist sense means "interest in making a profit" as much as moral decay, but I expected to see what I've seen in other countries more on the road to genuine decadence: corruption, prostitution, McDonald's, Nissan dealerships, traffic tickets, and genuine rich people. It's hard to look at a woman and her children and their tiny shop selling Chinese beer, canned beans, and warm sodas and see this as an example of the evil, parasitic class.
"Surely," I muse, "I must not be in Kansas any more."
For a while, I find some interest in being lost. Just enough haze covers the sun that I have really no idea where to go, and as I enter the thick layer of trees covering surrounding the city, I realize how thinly the layer of humanity covers Laos.
Finally, I emerge at a row of apartment buildings on the edge of a vaguely paved street. I look down at my remnants of shoes. My white socks look, now, like brown socks. As I stand there, stomping away a tiny bit of the layers of mud, I wonder who built these apartments and for whom they are intended: Chinese businessmen or Vietnamese bureaucrats?
It doesn't matter. I follow this sole street and, sure enough, it leads back towards the river again, the real center of this little city. As I look back towards the heavy trees and hills, I get that "heart of darkness": feeling, and remember the scene in which the boat shells the endless African countryside, its artillery shells disappearing into nothingness. I remember reading that Laos received the most bombs per person of any country in the world, and yet all of it seems to have made little difference. Nature beats a bomb any day.
When I return to the hotel, I go back to my room, and, for no reason at all, fall down on my bed and sleep for three hours. I seem to be sleeping a lot here, and I wonder if it's the climate or the total lack of motivation to do anything.
The hotel receives the Bangkok papers, a week late, and some English as well as Thai. I start to read them, slowly, pouring over every detail. Thai politics contains many confusing aspects with the military backing some parties and bankrolling others. Personalities mean as much as parties. It takes me a couple of hours, but I actually become something of a distant expert on its intricacies. This gives me something to do while drinking an extremely slow afternoon tea.
That night, I run the opposite direction along the river. As the sun starts to set, I glance across the waters, and I can make out the outlines of the Thai city just across. The lights from this, by Thai standards, small burg dwarf those of the hotels on the Lao side. Many of the Lao houses have only candles or no light at all.
Later that night, I wander by the banks again, and my mind turns to the whole question of "meaning"? What difference does it make that I stand in the middle of Laos. Here, no one knows my name. I add nothing. I subtract nothing. I simply "am" and make no difference.
I smile, as I pause at the wharf. I could easily take a dive in that river and not come up, and it would make no difference. Surely, though, four months ago, in June, had I not come to work a hundred people, at least, would be concerned and worried. It's a strange fact about being a teacher is that you have the chance to witness and experience your own retirement and death every year. It's good practice, and what it tells me again, is that: a life only means something in relation to others.
I look at the woods, and think: Thoreau, you were a jerk. I pick up a small stone, and I toss it, and watch it's small, worn shape disappear into the great, slow river. It disappears with a barely a ripple, but in the silence I wonder how it feels.
July 27, 1992: BIG BROTHER
It's yet another wasted day, I spend. It seems longer, though, because I have this mental picture in my mind of the embassy's opening and closing. I can imagine the guys in suits saying:
"You know, an American showed up on Saturday?"
"Oh really, must've been in dire straights, eh?"
"Another stupid tourist who didn't come prepared." This picture strengthens my resolve to go on. I know what they'll do, of course, which is to contact my relatives, and I can hear my mother's voice:
"You're WHERE?" then the ominous pause, "Dad, he's in Laos!"
Instead, I spend the day washing my clothes in the sink, window shopping, and not letting a wasted penny get out of my sight.
I spent a grand total of five dollars today, and it seemed like a fortune, but I didn't spend a cent of it for tribute. It seems very important now not to make them think I'm stupid. I may actually be stupid, but I'm not going to let them think I'm stupid.
I sit at the table, finishing my Chinese novel, that purports to be about a T'ang dynasty Empress, the only ruling Empress, who went by the name of Precious Jade. Precious Jade goes through a series of adventures from being a concubine of the Emperor, to marrying his son, to finally emerging as the real and needed (necessary and sufficient) ruler of China. I find it easy to read this book more as a statement about modern America than about ancient China. Jade represents the ideal career woman that every female woman like to emulate: not only does she rule better than any man, but she also captures the hearts and controls the minds of the men she sleeps with. To top it all off, she doesn't seem to age. At fifty, they still talk about her "firm, beautiful breasts ," surely wish fulfillment must have some...
I look up from omelet at the sound of this voice and see a waitress looking down at me. She wears her black hair slightly curled up, a modest white blouse, and the typical black skirt worn by all the Lao women. Two green streaks, like forest flames, trail around the bottom edge of her skirt. She stands about five-feet-tall, fairly typical for a Lao, but the whiteness of her cheeks shows that she works indoors.
She looks plump, rather than ripe, surely a mark of beauty in a country that couldn't even feed itself in 1975 and the tight wrap of her skirt accents the fullness of her figure. I guess I'd call her sixteen or so, a girl I saw watching the Thai soap operas on television yesterday. These soap operas stink, even by American
standards , but the Lao girls sit watching them, pouring over the streets of cement and the men who dress in business suits, drive cars, and live in air-conditioning, a world that must seem like Tomorrowland.
"Yes, hello," I return.
"What is your name?" she shifts unsteadily. Her brown eyes do not meet mine, I wouldn't expect them to in an Asian country, but I think she wonders why I don't try to look directly in them. My shyness sometimes precludes my fulfilling my role as cultural ambassador.
"My name is Daniel," I say.
"Dan-i-o," she tries.
"Dan-yell," I try. "Are you studying English?"
All along the books had me fooled. I read the books that told me about Lao architecture, Lao history, and Lao art, and even, the clincher: Postwar Laos. They'd really convinced me of a some kind of distinct, psychological concept, when in reality, except for three clearings in the trees and a few huts in the mountains, there's no such thing as "Laos," or if there was, I'd missed it.
She nods her head, "Yes, study English. I study."
"You speak very well. Good English."
She smiles. "You American?"
"Yes, I am an American."
I shake my head, "No. I'm afraid I only speak American. Are you going to go to Thailand?"
She blushes slightly. "I don't understand."
She appears to be considering her next remark, or translating, or something. It occurs to me, then, this girl lived her entire life in the Communist Laos. Her parents conceived her after the war. They raised her during the time of the Vietnamese occupation. She, however, will outlive the system. Ironically, to change her entire life in minutes instead of years, to see a whole new world, all she need do is get on a boat and cross a river.
"You married?" she asks.
"No." I spare her my usual follow-up comment of "But I'm way too old for you."
"You like Laos."
"It's something else," I pause. "It's good. Yeah. Real good."
Suddenly, her confidence seems to fail her, and she blushes again. She stands there a minute observing the American, uncertain of what to say. I blink, and finally, I fill the silence for her.
"Do you think you could get me one of those Lao Bieres?"
A half hour later, I take a walk outside the hotel. I spy a group of tourists. They look German or Swedish.
"Hello," I say, and they motion for me to sit down. "Where are you from?"
"Germany," one of them answers. "We just got in on the plane today."
"Really? Well, I'm leaving on the plane tomorrow for Hanoi. Have you been there?"
"No," the man replies, "we came back from Luang Prabang." The trip to get there requires a week by boat or an hour by plane, undoubtedly a pretty tough weave between the ever-present trees and the many hills. I might trust a military pilot to take me on such a trip, but I doubt I would trust a Lao or Vietnamese civilian pilot.
"Is there something we can do for you?" the man asks me.
I hold out my hand with Precious Jade. "Yes, I'm really starved for reading material. Would any of you like to trade for a novel?"
As I walk along the river, past the "Interpol Sign" thrown on the ground before the renamed "Paris Hotel," I reach the brewery itself, a tiny wooden shack smaller than my building at work. Though only a mile from the hotel, it can't offer beer at a cheaper price than the Chinese imports, like Silver Star. It undoubtedly closed at eight o' clock tonight as nearly everything does except the handful of nightclubs.
It amazes me when I hear, as I have, that members of the Hmong, the hilltop cocaine growers, come to places like Los Angeles and make fortunes. I think, how much of a shock it must be for them to go from paths to freeways, and from poppies to credit cards. On the other hand, though, these same people were used to culture shock every time they went down the mountains to take their produce to markets, and, unlike their lowland enemies, they already know about doing business.
I still have my pseudo Chinese novel in my hand as I walk back towards the Hotel for my final night beneath the slow whirling fan. Before I go to sleep, I wash the mud from my socks, wring them out to dry, and hang them from the exposed electrical wires. The fan turns, once, twice, three times.