Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Politician by Khamsing Srinawk

My friend and I were walking around the backpacker's ghetto of Khao San in Bangkok about two weeks ago. The area is great for vegan fare and also a real hotspot if you ever want to come to an exotic country to buy stupid souvenoirs from Thais and or get your hair braided. The area is a dump, however it does offer a few used bookstores. Sadly books out here are expensive, and even more disappointing is the lack of translated Thai literature, if only Thailand had been colonized.

While I was there I picked up a collection of stories by Srinawk. The collection of stories is largely set in rural Thailand, which while making up the majority of the landscape of the nation does not usually factor into the spectacular image of the tourist haven. When people think of Thailand they think of Bangkok and beaches.

Set in the countryside the stories grapple with issues of modernity, gender, and the ever intruding presence of foreigners.

My friend and I sat down on a bench nearby the backpacker's ghetto. She laid down while I sat up reading the book aloud. Nearby boats shuttled down the Chao Phraya river and the yellow shirts headquarter, with its netted garb, churned out ideas to invoke the masses. The introductory story, over twenty years old still has resonance and impact. Not only does it speak of the ambiguous relationship of Thai citizens to their representatives, and the emptiness of democracy but also of the timeless quality of those relationships.

Thailand is gearing up for another election. The prime minister is calling for elections in the fall. It is worried that the red shirts party Peua Thai will oust the current administration. When the nation's television satellite was disrupted for a few hours, everyone throughout the nation assumed that a coup d'etat was in process...

Whatever happens in Thailand in the next few decades, years, months, we can safely assume that politics will always be the same shameful repetition that it always is.

The Politician

by Khamsin Srinawk

The shadows of the soaring pines falling across the rough road had shrunk in size to a couple of yards. The market-place was quiet as usual at this time of the day. Once in a while a bicycle passed. Under the overhanging roofs thickly coated with dust a few groups of country folk were walking. Now and again shouts emerged from the cafe on the corner but the passers-by paid no attention since everyone knew that of all those who might be tipsy any time any season, who else would it be but Kerhn or, as he was known around town, Professor Kehrn, and his three or four hangers-on. To tell the truth, they weren't a bad bunch. If rowdy, it was usually when each had drunk enough to be stewed, and Kerhn, the leader, wasn't a debauched outsider. On the contrary, he had risen to be abbot of the local temple. He had reached the second of the three levels of Dharma studies, his religious duties were well performed and he was respected by the faithful. Had he remained in orders, it is not impossible he would have risen to be chief monk of the district. But alas, nothing is permanent. The belief of the devout, especially devout women, in the Sacred Teaching often becomes in time belief in a particular monk. When that happens, if the religiously inclined woman doesn't become a nun, the monk finds some reason to put aside the yellow robe. Abbot Kerhn was no exception. Among the devout women who enjoyed going to the temple, but not to listen to preaching, was a widow named Wan Im. Before long, as everyone expected, the abbot left monastery and robe and moved into Wan Im's house where it was understood that they lived together as husband and wife. They lived quietly for some years but then, though her heart was unwilling, disease took Wan Im away. Grief converted the former prelate. The chagrin, instead of dissipating in heavy drink as he had hoped, swelled. Several times people saw him weep aloud in the middle of the market-place.

His wife's financial status having been assured from lending out money since she was young, Kerhn had enough for food and liquor for a long time to come. Later, when Kwahn and Koi, disciples from the days when he was a monk, joined him, the ex-abbot became chief of the band the townsfolk characterized as 'long-time mokns, big time louts.'

'Professor, you've no idea just what a mess the country is in. Pibun and Pao have flown off to goodness knows where,' he said as he pulled up a stool to the table. The three turned to him attentively.

'It's a big mess all right,' Koi mumbled drunkenly. 'Maybe this is what the bigmouths were blowing about at election time. What did they say, Professor?' he said, poking his face at Kerhn. '”Cracy, cracy something”.'

'Democracy, nut! Not “cracy”,' Kerhn said severely, They call it a “democratic coup d'etat” see. You have to have a lot of coups d'etat. Otherwise it isn't democracy.' He continued showing off his knowledge. 'You're stupid. If you don't know, keep quiet. I know because at the last election the district officer and provincial governor came to me on bended knees begging me to be a chief canvasser for their boss.'

'Eh, true!' Kwahn put in. 'The Professor and I really gave it to them. No one had the nerve to speak. Now there's going to be another election of people's representatives, isn't there?' he added gleefully.

Gurt put the glass down, brought his stool closer to the table and shook his head two or three times. 'Election for sure. I heard the bunch up at the provincial office spreading it around that it was time to get some service points again by going out and having the people knuckle to.'

The wind puffed a cloud of red dust from the road into the shophouse. Falling pine needles pattered on to the tin roof.

'I have an idea,' Koi spoke up again. 'If they need representatives, why don't you run, Professor?'

'Ha! You've got something there,' Gurt backed him up.

Koi, gathering enthusiasm, half stood up from his stool and continued in a loud voice. 'Because... um... because the Professor is a great man. He has money and no children to worry him. Wealth is corrupting, so why hang on to it? That's dead right, isn't it Kwahn?'

The person questioned assented with a slow nod of his head.

'Easy dammit. You're looking for trouble.' Kerhn turned to him annoyed.

'They say these representatives are really big. Bigger than village heads; bigger than county chiefs, bigger than district officers, bigger than provincial governors, and what really matters, bigger than the police. Now that's it. You can do anything. Booze, beat up anyone, kick the Chinese in the pants. Who could stop you? You could get even with that bloody Police Sergeat Haut. Just yesterday we laced into each other at the poker game at the chief's house behind the police station.'

Kerhn listened intently to Kwahn rave. He chuckled, wagging his head like a tall bell tower swaying in the first storms of the rainy season. He muttered, 'This here Kwahn doesn't know what he's talking about. I used to be a chief canvasser for the provincial governor. Now I know that anyone who gets to be a representative has to be an important person. Really knowledgeable about money matters.' He paused for a second to reach for his glass of whisky, then took a gulp. 'Even as we are, people say we're bad. You know, if it wasn't because I have some money and did some bullying to help the big guys at the last election, by now the police would have done me in.' He fixed his eyes on Kwahn. 'I can't even be a decent person myself, how could I represent anybody else?'

'That's not right, Professor. I think to be a representative nowadays you've got to be a hooligan, shout a lot, and put people off by cursing their families right back to their great grandfathers. You the bunch running for office last time: no better than us ruffians, shouting around, swearing in the middle of the street. Even if we are a little wild, there are only a few of us. That last crowd of representatives brought in a pack of robbers, hundreds of them. That's why I think the Professor is great for being a representative.'

'It's not easy. I used to be a canvasser. I know.'

'That's it. That's just it! You can be a vote-getter for others. What makes you think you can't be a vote-getter for yourself? Give it a try, Professor, give it a try.' He patted Kerhn on the back. 'If anything goes very wrong, we'll punch them up. So what? Our fists are pretty well known around here.'

'But... ,' the voice of the Professor softened. 'But what will I say to them? I hear those people hungry for office blabbering, lying, boasting of a million and one things. People like me, even if I am a drunk … I was a monk, I studied, if you want me to lie and crow … well, it sticks in my throat.'

Kwahn called for some more whisky. The whooshing of the wind across the tin roof blotted out the whistling of the pines. Whisky gurgled faintly into the glasses. At almost the same moment, each of the four reached for his and drank. Their expressions and eyes were thoughful.

'Golly,' Kwahn groaned softly. 'Professor, you're making too much of this. How hard can it be? I could be elected if I had the money. You lambaste them. You can point your finger in their faces and give them hell.'

'If things go wrong, we'll smash them into the ground,' Koi interjected. 'We're local people. The folks around know what we can do. The odds are with us. Put up a fight. Look Professor, the more they say these representatives are bigger than the police, the more it's worth a go. How many times has Sergeant Huat pushed us around? Maybe it's our turn now.'

Outside the shop, the sun was dazzling. The grey gravel covering the road reflected the light like the scales of those plaster serpents decorating temple steps. Bicycles were passing by. Kerhn stared down the road that thrust straight into the dense forest. The surrounding mountains were faintly visible in the flames of sunshine. His head nodded drunkenly again as a dark green bicycle steadily approached.

'Eh, if it isn't Sergeant Haut.' Kerhn popped to his feet. 'Hey Sarg, I'm a representative. What do you think of that!'

Bicycle brakes screeched.

'Drunk again. Go home. Making a commotion, disturbing the people. I'll haul you off to the police station in a minute.'

Crestfallen, Kerhn dropped back on his bench staring after the grey shirt until it disappeared around a corner at the end of the market-place.

'That's the ticket, Professor,' a voice piped up. 'This isn't the first time Sergeant Haut's bit the dust.'

'In fact we take turns. Sometimes him, sometimes me,' Kerhn mused faintly.

The news that Mr. Kerhn Kianrak, more commonly known as Professor Kerhn, would run for election as a people's representative spread quickly from the end of the market at the beginning of the road right up to the provincial administration building. Government officials split their sides with laughter but the common folk knew only that a candidate had to be obliging and generous and good at passing out whisky, cigarettes and even money, and had to like loud talk about things no one knew anything about, and well … Professor Kerhn seemed fully qualified.

On the day fixed for the nomination of candidates, Kerhn filed his papers, accompanied by Kwahn, Koi and Gurt. No difficulties were encountered. Kerhn paid the deposit of 3,000 baht and handed in a number of photographs taken when he had just left the monastery. From that day on, the little market-place of this frontier province perked up. Cars of various shapes and sizes managed to make their way to the province and helter-skeltered from one corner of the town to the other. For this election, there were almost ten candidates including former government officials, lawyers, titled bigwigs anad grad city folks, most of them from the capital and neighboring provinces. Only Kerhn was a native of the province.

Reputations for handing out money, whisky, tobacco and food established by the last crop of candidates and the lack of farming to be done because it was the dry season brough a heavy stream of people down from the distant hills. The numbers grew with the approach of election day. Night after night the candidates showed their movies, some nights only one show taking place, but on others as many as three stands would compete with one another. Candidates proclaimed their virture as though they were supermen. The crowds milled around noisily from group to group watching to see if anything was being given away and if disappointed would move on to a another circle. It seemed even more festive than the annual fair. Kerhn and his cronies floated drunkenly with the rest of the crowd. He didn't have a chance to make speeches and if he did, wouldn't have known what to say. Thee most he could manage was to make disturbances as things went along. But even that didn't go over so well because the people, still hoping the candidates would hand out money and fearing Kerhn would jeopardize the opportunity, became menacing. One night, two groups of candidates set up their platforms, projectors and screens in different corners of the field. Each of the office-seekers boasted of his boldness, ability, honors, infinite qualifications. Some boasted of having built roads, wells, monasteries and even lavatories. One volunteered to construct houses, plant gardens, build schools and hospitals. The people looked on with interest. Kerhn invited four or five buddies to start shouting from nearby.

'NO GOOD! SHUT UP! NONSENSE! NO...' Before the word was out of him, Kerhn realized he was flat on his back from the force of somebody's fist to which was added a growl, 'We're all waiting for money so what the hell are you shouting for?'

Kerhn, his mouth and ears swollen, an eye closed, staggered towards home with his friends, dejected. 'It looks bad,' he muttered to his cronies while swaying down the road. That night all except Kerhn slept in a stupor. The force of the blow earlier that evening forced his mind to search for a way to get the better of them. He rubbed his mouth and groaned softly, but before dropping off to sleep, smiled.

At dawn, Kerhn, still groggy, got up and staggering a few steps forward stumbled over Kwahn, kicking him lightly in the middle of the back.

'Kwahn, get up, get up Kwahn.'

Kwahn turned over and bracing himself with both hands against the floor reached a sitting position but then fell over again. On the third try he stayed up and squinted about. 'You sure are skinny, Professor,' he mumbled while fishing about for a water bowl. 'Must be from too much drink and not enough sleep.'

'None of your flattery. Nothing physical is permanent.'

Kwahn pulled Koi up from his sleep. The cloudless morning was chilly, the mist tumbling with the pale sunshine. Kerhn looked at his two followers, his eyes showing fatigue.

'Koi, Kwahn,' he started slowly, 'I have found the way to do the loud mouths in. I know that most of the crowd have come because they think money is going to be handed out.' He stroked the still swollen parts of his face. 'So if you go around the market-place and tell everyone that if they want to get money, come to my house. Tell them I'll take them to get the money myself.'

As soon as his henchmen were out of the house, Kerhn went back to sleep. Later in the day he awoke, delighted to find the house was filled with noise and people. He tiptoed over to a crack in the wall to peep out at them: a real crowd, even more than he expected. His face dirty, his clothes wrinkled from sleeping, he stepped outside. Kwahn and Koi led the people with two loud hurrahs. The people echoed them with a roar. Kerhn yelled at the top of his voice, 'All right, all right, my brethren.' Interest focused. 'Now, there are a number of good people with money. They come here wanting to be our representatives...' A brief pause to gather breath. 'They all say they're going to build roads, dig canals, build us schools. Things like that they can do.' Brief pause. 'But compare those things to money, which do we want?' Fan an instant the question hung in the air.

'We want money, we want money, money, money moneeee,' the cry resounded from rank to rank filling the crowd.

'Good, excellent. We've got to go and get the money from them. They can build streets and roads. They need money to do it. They must have money. Where are they, where are they?' he asked provocatively.

'At the hotel, they're at the hotel, the lot of them,' returned the shouts from the crowd.

'All right, let's go!' Kerhn jumped from the porch, but fell over on his face from exhaustion of the previous night's adventures, arms and legs askew in a billow of dust and drawing a good laugh from the mob. He got up quickly, brushed the dust off and strode resolutely in front. A thousand people stretched in a long turbulent procession behind him heading for the small hotel, the only one in town.

Seeing a herd of people approaching, the group at the hotel with the politicians' instinct scurried to dress themselves as befits their dignity. Some quickly pinning on their medals and decorations, in full dress, throats twitching, gave orders to their people to connect the loudspeakers. 'Hey, hurry up, looks like they're really coming this way. See what I mean. The stupidity of the people really pays: it's like a pot of gold.' Some jumped for their beds and began practising gestures for their speeches.

Villagers, who hadn't an idea of what was going on, carried and dragged their kids along into the crowd. The whole body of astonished government officials dropped their work ot look on from the sides. The candidates formed a line in front of the hotel. Kerhn walked straight to them.

'We want to come to an agreement with you honourable representatives,' he began.

'With great pleasure,' the oldest one replied bowing until his body looked like an old shrimp at the end of the rainy season. 'If there is anything at all we can do for you, we will represent you to the best of our ability.' A broad smile pushed out his ruddy jowls as he led the whole group in a bow.

'What have you got to give us?'

'Whatever is the desire of the people of our province, whatever will serve the welfare of the people of our province, that will I do for my fellows until my last breath,' replied a young one at the end of the row winding up with a little bow which brought the others down in little bows.

Without hesitation, Kerhn yelled at his loudest, 'MONEEE, WE WANT MONEY!'

The crowd took up Kerhn's cry.

'Money, we've come for money!' The words reverberated over and over again. 'Money, money.'

The candidates fidgeted. Drops of sweat broke out. Some tried to state their policies and aims. Some began to praise their own past activities and offered plans for the future. But the increasing demands for money prevented them all from finishing. The old noble who had dragged his shrivelled body up from the capital fainted to the delighted cheers of the crowd. Those who tried to speak crumpled their notes in fustration.

The cries grew deafening as Kerhn firmly made his way to the microphone and gestured to the mass.

'All you faithful believers, you've seen for yourselves they're a lot of wind. They'll do everything for us, but how can they do anything when all we do is ask for money and they don't have any to give us? When that's the way it is, how can we believe them? How can we elect them?' His voice was emphatic.

'These fellows who are running for office come from different ranks and classes. That one over there is a knight.' He pointed his finger. 'The next one over there is a sir. And the one next to him is a lawyer. The old one there who almost died a minute ago is a noble. That one there who's hung a lot of magic charms on his chest is a general. All you faithful, decide for yourselves who you are going to elect. Now I used to be a canva... er, that is, I used to go to Bangkok. Now I'll tell you something. A lot of you probably don't know what a knight, a sir and so forth are. Well, I'll tell you. A knight looks after horses and also sometimes feeds and waters chickens, ducks and elephants. They do it at night. I know because I've been to Bangkok. A sir we ought to speak to as 'Sire', and we know that sires are kept for our mares that don't have any foals yet. As for this noble, I have my doubts about him. What kind of noble doesn't wear his proper robes? Maybe he's an ignoble noble.' He stopped to swallow his saliva.

'That one over there who loves those toys is a general. Take a look. Pinning a row of seashells on his chest. Those people are childish. They like toys just like our children. The one who's sneaking away, he's a lawyer, someone who likes trouble where he finds it. No money to give him and you land in jail.'

The crowd listened in astonished silence. Kerhn was still for an instant and then continued.

'Dear friends, the others have done a lot of talking. Today, listen to me. I'm a candidate too. Who was it a little while ago who said he really knows us, really knows our poverty and troubles? Ask him. Brethren ask him. Does he know how many acres we have? Does he know what we eat with our rice in the morning? Believe me, he doesn't know. Empty talk. Now take me. I'll do anything you want. Kick a dog, bash somebody's head in. Anyone you don't like, tell me. Er... uh.' As his eyes lit on Sergeant Huat standing at the side, his voice tempered. 'What I just said … in fact I never did anything like that. I'll end here. Amen. May you have long life, good looks and health, and may the Triple Gems help me become a people's representative.'

From that day, Kerhn's reputation flourished among the people while the other candidates dodged public meetings to avoid the taunts. Some, losing their nerve, fled back to Bangkok.

Election day came and passed without incident. The official results were announced a little past eight in the evening. Soon after, Sergeant Haut rushed breathlessly up to the duty officer at the police station.

'Now I'm in for it, sir,' the poor policeman gasped. 'Mr. Kerhn, he was drunk and raising a row in the market. I locked him up here since morning and now he's the people's representative. I'm not going to be in this district for long, that's for sure.' His voice was tinged with alarm.

'That's bad. That's really bad. Have you released him yet?' the duty officer asked, lifting his eyes from the daily reports. But Sergeant Haut had already vanished.

The duty officer then walked over and opened the cell door. The three of them were sprawled on the floor sleeping. The stench of vomit mixed with other filth wafted out. Locating Kerhn, the officer reached out to shake him lightly but swiftly withdrew his hand when he found his target covered with vomit. He grumbled to himself and used his foot instead, nudging Kerhn gently.

'Sir, sir, mister, hey Kerhn, Kerhn.'

'Huh,' Kerhn drawled. 'Where am I? Give me some water.' He screwed up his eyes. 'Black as pitch.'

'It's night already. You can leave, sir. Please wake up those two gentleman.'

'Eh, who are you talking to, lieutenant?' Kerhn asked bewildered.

'I'm talking to the honourable representative, sir. Please leave. The election is over now.'

Kerhn took some time to wake up the other two, then all three crawled outside. Each drank a bowl of water offered by the police, walked unsteadily out of the police station and disappeared in the darkness. Kerhn still kept to himself the news heard a moment before from the police. His ears were ringing with the words 'honourable representative' spoken with humility by the authorities who had for so long bullied him. The three bumbled through the blackness in silence and crawled up the stairs to the house. Kwahn and Koi flopped down at once and went back to sleep by the stairs. Kerhn rested, his brain agitated but confused. The drunkenness had vanished. He felt airy, as if disembodied. He began to think of things he had never though of before, of the words 'people's representative'. He though of Gurt's words spoken in the cafe. 'A representative is bigger than the district officer, bigger than the provincial governor.' Apart from that he knew nothing. Was that all? Doubt welled. Surely there was something more because he knew that every people's representative had to go to Bangkok. But they must have more to do than just go to the capital. Kerhn began to reflect on Bangkok and its crazy bigness. Didn't this mean he had to go there to live, separated from his own people in a different kind of life? Now what would that be like? The outlook wasn't bright any more. Kerhn had been to Bangkok once when still a monk. He tried to recall the name of the temple where he had stayed but couldn't. The failure preyed on his mind. Anxiety increased as he recollected a picture of a previous representative cloaked outlandishly in a jacket that looked like a whole blanket, with a silly rag dangling from his neck. He mumbled to himself, 'What a fool. You don't know when you're well off.'

The moon and constellations sank in the sky. 'Whew, this world is sure getting hot for me,' he exclaimed to himself. As he went to get a drink of water, the neighbour's roosters crowed their announcement of dawn. Kerhn was afraid of the daybreak. Bleakness was creeping in with it. The bushes and trees were beginning to have an outline. In that instant he made up his mind. Kwahn and Koi were dead asleep. He disappeared into the house for a second and returned, casting a glance and a sigh at his two disciples. Finally, he tiptoed past them, went out of the house and headed straight for the market-place, nothing in mind like a mechanical doll. At the head of the road at the end of the market area he saw a standing truck and heard three people making a noise, so he drifted over. Two young fellows faced him as if he were some night pilferer but beckoning asked for a hand to push the stalled vehicle. In a few words Kerhn learned that the truck was carrying rice and other goods across the border. He helped at once and in a second the engine fired and the truck disappeared in the direction of the glow on the horizon.

No one saw Mr. Kerhn again. No one in the province knows where he has gone. Those who knew turned out to be the reporters from the Bangkok newspapers. Several of the papers ran the story that a fearless representative of the people had his mouth closed by a dark power and that his body was thrown over a cliff for the vultures to pick at. The news item was accompanied by a photo of vultures under white clouds.

Now the little province is busy again. Every day fancy cars of the big boys from Bangkok investigating this mysterious case arrive and take back to the city a policeman or two. One car just went off this morning carrying away Sergeant Huat mutter, 'Damn, now I've had it.'

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Big Pay Day

I got up at quarter to seven this morning. I'd sent my alarm for 6:25am then snoozed for a while. It takes will power to get out of bed, luckily I found it, somewhere. I put on my shoes and went running. My run takes me through the business district of Sathon to and through Lumpini park and then back into the capitalist quagmire of Silom. My run took about 50 minutes. I bought some water and walked into the gym.

I've been going to fighting spirit gym for about a month and a half. The pros: close to my house, nice clean facilities (that goes a long way in Thailand), inexpensive (in comparison to other muay thai gyms), and the head trainer, along with the owner are good at what they do. Another pro is the animals there. The owner has three dogs of his own, two pit pulls and one little weiner looking dog, a bird that doesn't fly (its species are unable) and two large iguana looking things. Having animals around is nice, especially when the animals are taken care of. The beasts are given a fair amount of room to run around in and are given the care and affection that they deserve. I think having pets is difficult, and its even more difficult to adequately care for them. Its nice to see an owner that cares about their pets.

The cons: no free water, not a lot of other fighters, and a little difficulty getting fights. The gym is geared towards recreational and fitness use, not necessarily to fighters so the last two items are not super surprising. That said the trainers are pretty active in sparring, clinching, and boxing with me so its almost better than having a fighter who doesn't have as much experience.

While obtaining a fight has been a little bit of a run around I have one on the 4th of May. It will be at MBK a huge tourist mall that sells tons of discount, pirated, and generally cheap goods. Need some souvenoirs for family, MBK. Need some pirated dvds or software, MBK. Need some electronics and or cell phones, MBK. The mall is located in downtown BKK and has free fights every wednesday night. The fights are generally low caliber and for tourists passing by to gawk at, and hopefully it ushers people into the shopping center to spend their dollars there.

Fighting on the 4th means extending my stay about a week and a half. I'm pretty happy about that as things are going well out here, although of course I'm accruing more expenses than I'd like.

This morning I did pad work with Max, a 28 year old Thai who studied at Abac and got a degree in law. He decided to return to the sport of Muay Thai which he engaged in during his childhood. He is a tricky fighter and has a few simple but effective combinations that we went through. One of them was a very basic right push kick, right body punch. The other which was giving me a bit more problem was a double right kick into a jumping body kick. This series requires a fair amount of momentum and retreat on the part of one's opponent. Ideally the opponent backs up to the ropes and is stuck there for a moment.

After my morning training session I came home, slept, ate and read. The exciting life of a boxer. My afternoon session I worked with Tak the head trainer, and one of the better trainers I've had in Thailand. Tak has a simplistic style that is smooth and effective. He is particularly keen on left kicks. He has had me do some simple counters as well. When an opponent hooks I crash in with my opposite knee or I elbow. Today he told me to especially use my hips and to make space when kneeing. Despite having been told that in the past by other trainers I forgot.

A neat trick that I learned during knee sparring was when Num, the third trainer at the gym lifted his knee under my knee and pushed me forward when I went to side knee him. His knee lifted my leg up and unbalanced me and his push forward made me fall over onto my ass.

I got back up after falling down and had Num teach me the trick a few times. It reminded me of this video.

I'll be sure to write up about my fight, and it will probably makes its way on the internets somehow.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New year's boobs

Eee Gads, two weeks have flown by already and my ability to write has been lost in the passage of time. Boo hoo. Part of my cramped style is due to a recent trip, I went up to Chiang Mai for the the Thai New Year.

The festival of Songkran is the best public holiday in the world with hoards of people going home to get tanked up and drive their respective vehicles drunk around town. About thirty percent of accidents are caused by drunk driving. According to the Bangkok Post the number of deaths during the holiday dropped by 25 percent. No doubt the decreasing amount of accidents is due to Thai citizens getting more savvy with their motoring skills, probably because of driving school apps on their iphones.
While initially a religious holiday the week long fest has morphed into an elongated party during the hottest part of the year. Things have gotten even more lecherous of late with three young Thai girls, ages 13, 14, and 16 taking off their tops in the Silom section of Bangkok. The area by day is host to hoards of white collar workers, and when the sun sets the night market of Patpong, one of the original red light districts of Bangkok, flourishes, almost as much as nearby Silom soi 4 the Gay ghetto of the City of Angels. Of course the young girls were fined, a hefty 500 baht and were scolded publicly by the moralist demigods of the Thai government. Hilariously the didactic leaders from the Ministry of Culture website had a picture of some good old Thai boobies as part of their masthead.

Wanting to front that Thailand is still pure and wholesome certainly might inflate the windbags that make up the Thai Tourist authority but really who doesn't come to Thailand to be a sexpat? Isn't that what the spectacle of Thai culture is? Whores, and hot weather? Oh yeah, and Muay Thai (whores of a different kind).
Back to my travels... I, and a handful of good friends took an overnight bus up to the northern Thailand town. My friend had to procure the tickets in haste as everyone around the country returns home for the holiday. Bangkok empties out and becomes a ghost town. The bus that we took was posh. Each seat had its own screen to view movies, play classic sega genesis games, and listen to banging beats. Of the four of us riding up together each of us chose to watch "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief," which evidently was a far better choice than Vin Diesel in Fast and the Furious 4. A good friend housed us in a teak abode outside of the city. Teak is a dense and beautiful mahogany wood that was used a lot back in the day. The construction of my friend's place was quite beautiful and fit the laid back green city of Chiang Mai quite well.

The city is quite popular for the holiday due to the moat that surrounds the city center. Hoards of people dragged water from the moat to dump on people. I accidentally got a mouthful of the foul liquid and am sure to die of dysentery any day now. Poo. Poo. My group spent two days playing with water which while fun was also quite tiring. Especially as some of the water was chilled with huge blocks of ice. The water was made cold in huge garbage buckets that held the blocks bought at 100 baht per piece.

I returned on an equally posh bus which provided more leg room and a constantly running series of Thai music videos and comedy.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Read and Review

One of the best things about being abroad is the free time I have for reading. Over the past few months I've read over ten books. In the last week or two I've read more than five. Oh yeah, I've put in spoilers. If you care about that shit I advise not reading much more.

I began my trip overseas by reading "Sex at Dawn." The non fiction "anthropological" book primarily argues against the institution of monogamy. The book focuses on the failings of marraige and the trappings of sexual chasteness. The authors argue that humans are sexual animals, one of the more sexual beasts that crawl the earth. The book compares man-beasts lecherous nature with those of chimps and bonobos, who are not only our closest biological relatives but also as driven by their genitals as we are. The testicle size and penile length of our close cousins is even compared to ours. Did you know that human males have the largest dicks, far outsizing the crawling gorillas of the jungle? Women have the largest breasts as well. We are not the top list in terms of testicle sizes, Chimps and Bonobos outsize us. Bummer.

Along with the length and size of our loins the authors also talk about other physiological aspects of human sexual nature including women's tendency to be outspoken while in the act of coitus. Why is that? The authors ask. The writers argue that the tendency for women to be talkative is an alert to let other members of the species that she is ripe, and well willing (at least at the time).

The authors also depict societies in which there is no parental certainty as being advantageous to the offspring. The children are well taken care of as there is no validity to the male parent so the responsibility is shared, and so are the impregnation duties in some societies.

The strength of this book is simple it just restates an obvious fact, humans are highly sexual beasts. When we are not fucking, we are wanting to fuck, looking at each other fuck (usually in some sort of mediated form), and planning on who to fuck next. The problem with human sexuality as it is today hasn't been solved by the glorious institution of monogamy, nor has it been doing much better under the rubric of polyamory especially in "radical circles." It certainly doesn't help that capital is always dabbing its finger into the pudding. Until somehow our world becomes a different place, with different mores, its still tisk, tisk, to human sexuality in whatever its social incarnations.
I love short stories. They are short and succinct. I think the talents of a writer can oft be seen in their ability to weave a short tale. F.Scott Fitzgerald never struck me as a short story type. I found his large collection in a bookstore in San Francisco. I picked it up because it was long and I figured it would pass the time whilst abroad. Its been three months since I read the collection. My recollections aren't that accurate. I don't remember each story, nor do I care. The stories are mainly about a middle class man's love and pursuit of an upper class woman. BORING!!! As a caveat I'd like to mention that if an upperclass woman adored me, with more than her love perhaps some financial backing, this working class prole would be happy. Fitzgerald's fascination with upper class women and adoring middle class men has probably a bit to do with his personal life.

My housemate gave a presentation on a Graham Greene essay. The essay was "Can I borrow your husband," or something like that. The story told of a newly wed couple who come to an inn in Europe or some other banal place. The narrator of the story is a writer onlooking the events. The new bride, whose name is Poopie, a rather unfortunate name don't you think, is unaware of the true gender dynamics of what happens. The couple comes to the inn where a homosexual couple are staying, they decide to stay a little longer in hopes of turning the groom. They jaunt about the countryside with the new groom and seduce him.

The seduction and the stealing of a partner continues, well in some ways, in Graham Greene's novel "The Quiet American." The title is quite ironic, as the antagonist is a rather naive and annoying American. Again the narrator is a writer, a reporter in Vietnam. The narrator is dating a local girl, ooh how exotic. The woman has the bare outlines of a personality, with the majority of her character being flushed out by her sister who merely wants her married off and secure. The antagonist, a bastardly American attempts to steal the local girl away. The narrator and the antagonist have a gut wrenching conversation in the trenches and luckily by the end of the novel the antagonist is dead. Thank the gods for that. A dead American is a quiet American.

I've read a couple Ernest Hemingway books now. I think I wrote about "Across the River and into the Trees" The bookstores here in Bangkok aren't that great. The largest one is in Siam Paragon. Their literature section is poor with classics but little of interest. So I picked up another Hemingway Novel. Continuing on the theme of amorous woman; "The Sun Also Rises: Fiesta" follows a stoic narrator, surprise, surprise. The narrator has an affair with a woman who is engaged. Then she runs off and has other affairs with other men. Everyone goes to Spain to some some bullfighting, very macho! Her finance comes along on the fiesta. The narrator, the fiance, a guy she slept with and one more dude go out to together. Bulls are killed. Sentences are short. The woman runs off with a bull fighter. He is bludgeoned by the jealous ex lover (not the narrator). The fiance gets drunk. The woman stays for a while with the matador. He is young, talented, and apt to hit the ceiling of his talent. Their youthful relationship fails. The woman goes back with the narrator. She needs someone. Hemingway's women are so fickle, oh how typical.

In my continuing pursuit of happiness, or some sort of Thai literature education I've scoured the book stores for more Thai literature. Mad Dogs and Company by Chart Korbjitti is the third novel I've read by the SEA award winner and a definitive departure from the other novels I've read by the author. The story follows a few friends as they grow up in and around Bangkok. The friends become hippies and hang out in Pattaya. They have problems with their families, grinding against institution of the family. They grow out of their "situations" and eventually find redemption and the eventual approval of their family to a greater or lesser extent. Like Hemingway's novels the women in this novel are barely there. The women are wives, or mothers with little to any decision making ability. Poo! Poo! I might become a feminist one day if I keep reading about boring women. It was an okay novel if you like reading about partying and working class thai dudes getting drunk. Oh yeah and the ending is quite trope. One of the friends is a writer who has been forwarded some money to write a book, but at the end, the writer doesn't know what to possibly write about and then... an IDEA! Write about life with his friends. How novel! A novel of 510 pages in fact, which makes me wonder if Korbjitti was paid per page.

While out of chronological order, in terms of when I read them, I think Sightseeing by Rattuwat Lapcharoensap is more than worth mentioning. Lapcharaoensap's collection of short stories is by far one of the best english written pieces of Thai literature that I've come across. I highly recommend this book. The first story is quite amusing and presents a different perspective of the farang experience, and dealings with the west in a different light, with perhaps a hint of resentment. Let me hear it kids! That's right Schadenfreue!

The story; "Farangs," opens with a island thai boy. His mother has been jaded by the tourists that come through, with a fair amount of lineage, the boy's father was an army officer that stayed awhile then vamoosed. The mother's bitterness isn't a part of the boy's pysche who falls for an exotic american girl who, gasps, wears a budweiser bikini. What a slut! The american girl has a fight with her boyfriend. The thai boy has a pig. She sees the bovine and loves the beast. The thai boy is smitten. The boy takes her on an elephant ride. He sees her boobs. They have dinner. He brings the pig. Her boyfriend comes along. "Oh I'm sorry about the isaan prostitute darling, it was all just fun and games." She forgives him. They walk on the beach. The thai boy scolds his misfortune and walks off to the beach. He climbs a tree and consoles his fate with his friend. The boyfriend and that budweiser thong come jaunting along the beach. They see the pig. The male goes on a hunting quest. Aghast the thai boy starts to throw hard mangoes at the stupid farang. The thai friend joins in. They hit the girl too. Well aimed! It was nice to read a story that had a go at some farang.

I enjoyed the story because of its different way of dealing with the West. Thai's normally deal with the West in a couple ways. In "The Ambiguous Allure of the West," a collection of essays on colonialism in Thailand, Thongchai Winichakul writes an excellent essay "Coming to Terms with the West: Intellectual strategies of Bifurcation and Post-Westernism in Siam." The title is long, and the essay excellent. Winichikaul describes the main ways in which the West has been dealt with. Winichakul states that Thais have dealt with the West in a way that has created an almost Manichean division between Thainess and the West.
"Bifurcation is based on interlocking series of binaries that now dominate much public discourse.
West Vs Thai
Other Vs Self
Worldly/material vs Spiritual, religious, moral
Outside/outer vs Inside/Inner
Decadent vs Pure
Public, work vs Private Family life
(p.139 Coming to Terms with the West)

The sense of Thai idenity (kwaambpenthai), Thainess, is a crucial aspect of Thailand and this sense of being is oft created in opposition to other identities. Winichakul points this out in his excellent "Siam Mapped," the daily morning radio programs that talk about what is wrong with other countries, and juxtapose it with how good Thailand is. The problems of other countries are evil while Thailand is good.

Winichakul marks the influence of the West, and the lack thereof on the academy. The author hilariously points out the disappointments of Thailand never having been colonized. An extended quote is worth reading:

While Thais are proud of never having been colonized and of not requiring a European tongue as their second language, the effects of the language barrier on Thai scholarship have rarely been considered. It is certainly politically incorrect in Thailand, and probably even a taboo among Thais, to suggest that Siam may have suffered any negative consequences from not having been colonized. However one negative effect has been a greater limitation of the flow of scholarship between European and Thai languages than in formerly colonized countries, simply because there is a smaller number of scholars on both sides of the Thai-Western relationship who are linguistically skilled enough to facilitate the cross-border flow of scholarship as translators, interpreters, or most importantly , as intellectual interlocutors (p. 147 Coming to terms with the West Thongchai Winichakul).

Hilarious! I would be better read in Thai literature if only Thailand had been colonized, aw schucks!

While keeping in the country I read "Bangkok Pool Blues" a short look at the BKK pool scene by Tom Crowley. Its quite good and gives a quick glimpse at the subculture. It also has a few short looks at some of the characters in the scene. Its quite good and succinct.

I've continued on my noir track in general with "L.A. Confidential," by James Ellroy. I've seen the excellent movie starring Guy Pearce, Rusell Crowe, and Kevin Spacey. The convoluted plot follows the careers of three detectives, a thuggish cop, a goody goody, and a third who is quite fond of drugs and scandal sheets. Ellroy's writing style annoyed me at first. It comes across as almost stream of consciousness. The short sentences are brief and non-attached. The narrative was long and complex. It wasn't especially good but it was good to read as I took in during my extended vacation in koh samui.

The most recent book I've read was much better. Iain Banks "The Wasp Factory," is the second novel I've read by the sci fi author, although this novel, his first, is not science fiction. The first person narrative is told from the perspective of a young man, about seventeen years old, stuck on an island in scotland. He's had some sort of accident when he was young and now spends his time blowing up shit and having imaginary battles around his home. While he was growing up into a hyper violent young man he killed three people, according to him though it was just a phase. The story is driven by the arrival of his brother, who went mad.

The older sibling went crazy as he worked at a laboratory during med school. The older brother was taking care of some children in a hospital late at night. Many of the youths were just born and had deformities. The brother was having difficulty feeding one. The baby giggled and looked at him stupidly. The child had a plate on his head for some reason. A fly came out of the plate. The brother lifted the plate and saw, gasp, a handful of maggots that were laying in wait to be born into flies. The brother went mad.

The story is a bildsungroman highlights both ritual, gender, and the awesome aspects of the grotesque. Its a tight ass book focusing on a young killer.

Speaking of kilers I've read a couple of the Dexter series, out of order. The books by Jeff Lindsay are easy pulpy reads which are not nearly as good as the television series. The books are still quite fun to read. I wouldn't recommend them that much.

Along with all the reading I've also been watching a fair amount of tv series and movies. Notable recent watches have been Suckerpunch, which sucked. There were hardly any boobs in it. A lot of violence, mainly cgi. It was meh.

I saw Rango. It was quite cute.

Finally I've been watching Mad Men. Its excellent, and mainly looks at white people's dealings with gender. Of course the class background is quite important and goes largely unspoken as does the relations between people. The show gains its poignancy by what goes unsaid. It'd probably be easy for some hack academic looking for their master's degree to write about the show and Hollywood's portrayal of gender.

Hopefully I'll do more reading while I'm here, once I remember what words mean.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Rain

The Don Muang airport is in the north bangkok. The airport is run down. It was built in the early part of the 1900s. It closed for a short time when Suvarnbhmi opened in 2006, but you couldn't tell. The decor is at least thirty years too old. The seats are well worn. A thousand people have sat on the pieces of plastic wearing in grooves.

I purused the books in the small book store by the boarding gates. Oddly the majority of them were Gay and lesbian themed academic novels. One book contained lesbian erotica. I flipped through the pages. It seemed very emotional.

"That plane doesn't look like it will crash," She said as we walked out to the plane. The twin engine passenger plane was large, and weathered like the airport it serviced. We boarded the plane and I opened my book.The flight to Surat Thani was short. Airplane rides in Thailand take an hour, an hour and a half. Its doesn't matter where to. Its always about an hour. I read the novel for a while and then nodded off. My thoughts looping over and over imagining the plane's engine falling off. We would crash into the ocean and drown. I woke up when the plane landed.

We took an hour long bus ride to the ferry building. The seats were filled when we got on the bus so we took the first two empty seats. The upholstery was threadbare. I sat down. The rain leaked onto the seat. The sky had opened up and the rain was falling regularly.

"Its supposed to rain all weekend," she said. "I read the weather report."

"I don't care, it will be fun. I've never been to koh samui before and it will be nice just to go somewhere with you," I replied.

Her mouth smiled slowly. I could see her teeth.

The bus stopped at a ferry building. The boat wouldn't come for an hour. We ate over priced sandwhiches and fried rice. Hers had egg in it. The small cafeteria filled with backpackers. Their whispy beards and repulsive fashion filled the room. I wanted to leave. The ferry came. We got walked over a wobbly plank onto the the boat. The rain made the plank slick. It shook as I walked across it. We went down below.

She sat next beside me. "Every time I travel I sleep the entire way," she said.

She leaned her head against me. The boat bobbed up and down with the movement of the waves. I looked out the window. The water kept falling from the sky. The bay of Thailand's surface rippled.

We arrived and took a mini van to the hotel. We were shown our room. It was large with a hot tub. The next night we sat in the tub. The jets bubbled the water. The rain outside continued. We drank white wine.

We checked out of our luxiorous hotel and sat near the beach. She made a phone call. She looked at me.

"The ferry has been shut down, the road from the ferry has flooded. What do you want to do? If we take a plane from the airport on the island it will cost an extra 4,400 baht."

"We should take the plane. Its less of a gamble," I said. The showers had picked up in intensity and fequency. The downpour was harder. We sat underneath a villa watching the ocean rise. The ocean water was a dirty brown. She saw me look at it.

"Normally the water is clear and green," She said. She hung up the phone. "I booked us a flight for wednesday."

Two more days. We watched Mad Men in the room. I heard saw flashes of light outside. The crash of thunder boomed. I wondered what happened when lightning struck the surface. We took a cab the next day. It cost an extra hundred baht to go to Chaewaeng beach, the main tourist area. The main road was flooded. The roads we went down were brimming with water. Several motorbikes tried to get through. They were water logged. The cars that passed on the street looked less like automobiles and more like boats. They pushed water to the side as they came down the street. I felt the water shake our taxi. It was like being on the ferry again.

We arrived at Xin city in the downtown area. We moved into our room. We unpacked. The rain continued. We got food. We went to bed. The morning brought continuing rain. She called the airport. Our flight had been canceled. All the flights for the day had been canceled.

"All the flights have been canceled. What should we do," she asked me. I looked at her from the bed.

"Let's go to sleep," I said. Outside the water levels rose slowly rising. I wondered if and when they would reach our hotel room. We were on the third floor. Houses on the other islands had been washed away.

"Well have to stay two more days," she told me when I woke up. I nodded. I went to the bathroom. The faucet didn't work. "The power is out."

I looked out the window. Still the rain came down. It changed from a heavy storm to a light drizzle then it would drench the land again. A few people tried to navigate through the water. I looked at them. Their thin ponchos barely protected them.

A half an hour later the Hotel's generator came on. The lights worked, the internet didn't. We walked through the streets. The water came up to my shin, almost to her knees. We waded down the main thorough fare. I thought of Gene Kelley tapping his feet on the sidewalk of Koh Samui.

A note came under our door the next morning. The hotel wouldn't run its generator the entire time as gas on the island had run out. I wondered if we should ration our money. The atms weren't working. I thought about how I should have spent my last few years in a survivalist cult instead of doing muay thai. I looked at her. If it wasn't for the sport I wouldn't be here.

"Its like the world is ending," she said.

"The world has been ending for a long time," I replied.

"Next year is 2012. Sometimes I hope the world ends. Its not supposed to be raining this time of year," she said. She reached her hand out the hotel room door and felt the rain drizzle on her hand.

I took her wet hand and squeezed it. I imagined Gene Kelley and a thousand back up dancers doing synchronized swimming after a tsunami. Fires would burn on broken houses at the highlight, the aftermath of the show would be radiation leaks causing tumors in the spectators.

"Maybe it will end today, maybe it will end tomorrow, arai ga dai," I told her.

The rain continued.