Another Night in Bangkok

The Chinese fight attendant smiled at me and I wanted to fall in love.  She was pretty and so kind it almost makes the trouble of this trip worth it.  This leg of the trip is almost over and I will be in Shanghai soon.

I woke up early at the Patumwan House at 6AM yesterday, a hotel Bob introduced me to many years ago in Bangkok. Sam spent his first night in Asia there when he was about 19. He fell in love for the second time, I think, with Asia.

I needed to get to a new job in Shanghai from Munich but my China visa had expired.  When I get work, it lasts for  a week or so, and when I get called, it is for right now. Weeks before, I got a call to meet my partner in Munich. I got a cheap flight, left the next day and planned to stay over one Saturday and go back to Florida, where I was living on my sailboat. I left with just two pairs of jeans and not much more.  I forgot my coat, as it was 80F in Florida.  The trip to Munich that was to last but a few days, had stretched into more than a few weeks.  What little clothing I brought had been washed several times. I got the call for China as I was just finishing in Germany.  I was more than ready to go back to Florida, but I was off to China instead.

After waking up at 6AM, I made my way to the Chinese Embassy where, for a small fortune and a bit of patience, you can get a visa in a day. I knew it could get the visa in short order in Bangkok, a  long detour from Shanghai, but where you can get just about anything you want if you are willing to pay.

At 8AM os so, I was outside trying to get a taxi. Several had refused to take me as the traffic is gridlocked that time of day near the embassies. One driver wanted 500 baht.  I offered 400 and he agreed. By meter it would have been about 150 baht but in Bangkok the taxi meters don’t keep clocking when the car is stuck in traffic.

When I arrived the line already snaked out the door.  I regretted not having left even earlier. I should have suspected this would happen, as the embassy had been closed for a 3-day holiday.  I knew there would be a bit of a crowd, but not this horde. I needed help and looked for a guy I had paid a couple of years earlier to work the system.  He was not around.  I thought I would have to wait it out, then saw a woman who looked the part.  I approached her.  500 baht, she said, and she would help. She checked my papers, found I was short two forms, and took me to a desk at a travel agency next to the embassy.  In the USA, lots of travel agencies are staffed by gay guys.  Here, lady boys, far more fun and interesting.  I started to chat it up with the best looking one, a good looking bloke!

She needed a copy of my bank statement to make sure I wasn’t at risk of staying in China and becoming a drag on the state. She also needed one more official letter, and gave me the fake letterhead, telling me what to write.  She made fake hotel and air reservations for me.  I was reluctant to access my bank account on her computer, but my accounts have a password that has to be sent to my phone then entered, a measure I had taken just because of travel to strange places.  We finished up in no time, and she escorted me back, and got me to the head of the line and through security at the Chinese embassy. I thought I was home-free.  It took four hours to get through the line.  An Indian guy tried to cut in front of me.  I calmly explained to him that he was not going to be able to pull it off, that I was going to remove him. As I began to inform him of his plight, those behind me let him have it as well.  He was intimidated by what was becoming a mob, and left.

I finally got to the head of the line…and was rejected for a mistake on my forms. The woman behind the bullet proof glass said I had 30 minutes to fix it and get back.  I went back to the travel agency, where my “agent” edited one form for me. I flirted a bit more with my favorite lady boy, then went back.  I had a pass to get to the head of the line, but that didn’t help cool off the people behind me. I turned in the forms, paid a fortune for one-day turn around, and was told to come back at 3PM, two hours off.

I went back to the travel agency and got my favorite ladyboy to book me a ticket to Shanghai, now confident of getting the visa.  She was glad to see me. The one guy in the place asked if I liked ladyboys.  “You bet I do, if they can get a ticket as fast as she can.”  Then I put my arm around her and planted a kiss on her cheek to the delight of the other agents, and the chagrin of a few Westerners.

I still had time to go back to the Patumwan House to retrieve my bags of not enough clothes, and to talk my way out of paying for another night. I was going to China!

I got back to the embassy in time to get into another long queue.  I was in line next to a Chinese woman who was teaching Mandarin in Thailand, the new language of the future.  I chatted her up.  She asked the same questions I always get.  Do you like China, what do you think of our new Prime Minister Xi, what do you think of Obama.  I gave my same answer.  I like the American and Chinese people, I don’t like Obama or Xi, the American government or the Chinese government.  She liked her government, and I explained how a good American distrusts government, and why.  She seemed to think that was a novel approach.

Our chat passed the time quickly…two more hours, and I picked up my passport, with my new visa. It was 5PM and my flight left at 2AM.  I went to a spa, looked inside to see if it had what a wanted; a private room with a huge bathtub.  I negotiated a price without the girl, but got one to fill the tub. It was 40C outside, and I was sweaty, smelly and tired from all the hurrying and waiting. I climbed into the tub, jets running, with my Ipad to read, put it aside and fell asleep.  In two hours, a pretty woman came to wake me.  I showered, dressed and made my way to the airport, with plenty of time to kill.

I ate, had some ice cream, and walked around.  There were about a thousand teenage girls hanging about in groups of five or six, all texting and giggling. A group I interrupted from their frenzy, all talking to me at the same time, told me there was a Korean movie star flying in and they were hoping to catch a glimpse.  I hope they did.

It was time to head for the gate for the 2AM flight. What an awkward time to leave.  It wouldn’t happen in the U.S.  The people under the flyway would complain, as would all the overpaid government employees at the airport.   I have taken to buying as many tickets outside the U.S. as I can.  The tickets break out the government fees and taxes, which in the U.S. are half the ticket price for intrusive security.  For some reason, the airlines here are able to capitalize the business and move people for a bit more than the U.S. government can delude people into thinking they are securely on board, having been body checked by morbidly obese TSA agent who could hide a string of hand grenades under their fat folds.

At the gate, I waited…and waited. I fell asleep and woke in a panic.  Had I missed the flight?  No.  It was an announcement that the flight was canceled.  Damnit. The gate agents are so polite, so used to people being patient that they failed to make much of an announcement.  It started to get rowdy, a few Americans complaining, only to be outdone by a Frenchman who made it known he had a meeting he could not miss.  He was loud and animated. As it got exciting, about 50 phone cams appeared, all held up over the crowd, ready to capture any excitement for YouTube. I kept telling myself to set an example as an American, that this would proceed at its own pace regardless of what I did.

The airline had arranged hotel rooms. At 5AM, having been bussed to a hotel I found myself in the lobby, once again in a line.  There was a rumor going around that we would leave at 5PM the next day. I think I spent more time in lines than I did in the first few days I was in the Navy.

At 9:50 AM, after 4 hours of sleep, the phone rang.  I fumbled for it, not knowing what country I was in or why.  The kind woman on the phone essentially told me to get my ass out of bed, that the bus was leaving in 10 minutes.  I didn’t believe it, so started to take a leisurely shower.  The phone rang again.  I got out of the shower, and answered.  “We are waiting for you.”  I shaved and made a coffee.  There was a knock on the door.  I opened it wearing a towel.  The woman looked down. Maybe she was hoping.  She gained her composure then told me to hurry.  I dressed, went downstairs.  I had a breakfast coupon and gave it away to someone in the lobby.  The bus was ready, at the curb.  I boarded, then, waited, of course.  I could have had breakfast.  I got to the airport, and waited some more. They announced we were to leave at 2PM to arrive in Shanghai Pudong at 6PM. A car would meet me, and take me to Suxhou, where I could go to work the next day.

I finally got on the plane, and that’s when I the flight attendant touched my heart with a kind smile.

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Sweet Home Alabama

Bill called around 5PM or so and we left for a 4th of July party in Mobile, Alabama.  We drove along the same route I used to take to get to the Dog River Marina before I sailed from Alabama to Panama, then turned left to go to a house right on the west bank of Mobile Bay.  We were graciously welcomed, Southern style by a guy who does yoga.  He looked more like a Harley Davidson guy than a yogi, and had had the tricked-out bikes. There was a musician on the deck, surprisingly good, who played a few southern songs.  One was about a local swamp witch who ran a whisky still to enticed sailors into her lair, some of whom came out of the swamp and some who didn’t. He played Sweet Home Alabama, and even I sang along.

I wondered if there is another song about a state being your home that is anywhere near as good.  The Bee Gees sang Massachusetts in a high key I can’t reach.  Its good to cry along if you miss the place, but not much fun. Love that Dirty Water is good, fun to sing, but its about the Charles River, not the state.  No one ever wrote a song about New Hampshire or Kansas, that I can think of.  There are several about California, mostly about flowers, but California isn’t what is used to be.. Texas gets mentioned in lots of songs. I like to sing Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso, but tonight was about Alabama and the USA. Everyone had a southern accent except for Bill and me.   A few talked about God.  The women were all blond and seemed like sisters or cousins. They all wore red, white and blue. I felt out of place dressed in boat shoes and shorts with a white shirt and no color.  I won’t do that again.   The kids played with fireworks.  It was nice to see kids…someone else’s.  The weather was perfect. As Bill said, it was like a mid-west summer night.  They don’t like Obama, and don’t worry about offending liberals, and they are not racist. One admitted voting for him.  I wouldn’t if I did. Yes, there was even black folks there.   These folks are good Americans; all of them.  I bet they all have guns in the car and concealed carry permits.

Bill and I left before the sun went down.  No need to stay, as Alabama has fireworks all over the place.  I started to think I love this it here. As we sang Sweet Home Alabama, I wished I had been raised in the South with God, Guns, and Liberty. Live Free or Die, as we say in New Hampshire. You gotta love it.

I had to get to sleep early, as a taxi was coming at 6AM to take me to the airport to go back to Panama. I woke up at 3:30 AM as the phone rang, with the taxi driver I had called confirming a pickup.  WTF?  I didn’t go back to sleep. At 6AM, a woman showed up in a Yellow Cab. She got out to help me put my bags in the trunk.  She was about five feet tall and tipped the scales at 300 pounds on the hoof, and had short-shorts on with mousy blond hair.  She looked like she was right out of Walmart. A guy was sprawled across the back seat.

“What’s he doing here?” I asked.

“I picked him up at a bar.  He got drunk and his friends left him.  He wanted to go to a hotel but didn’t have enough money.  I didn’t know what to do with him.”

I was going to tell her to throw his ass out, but didn’t want him near the house.  I told her to make room in the front seat so I could sit there.  He stunk of beer and cigarettes, and started snoring.

“Are you mad at me, Sir?”

“Yes, I am.”

“There was nothing I could do.  Its my responsibility to make sure my customers are safe.”

“No it isn’t.  It’s your job to get them from one point to another.  It’s not your job to take on the stupid mistakes of some guy who is drunk.  His friends had enough sense to get rid of him. You should have left him at the first hotel.  How long has he been in the back of the car?”

“Since 3AM.”

“Look, Lady, there are lot’s of women willing to take on the mistakes of stupid men. Don’t be one of them.  Get that asshole out of your car.”

“Thanks, Mr. You are right.  I will take him to the taxi office and leave him.”

“Well, I would kick him out now, but do what you want.”

At least she drove fast and made all the lights.  We got to the airport in 15 minutes. It usually takes at least 30 if you go the speed limit, catching all the lights. Alabama, good, bad and ugly.

It was a fast flight to Panama City.  I decided to try to catch the last flight to Bocas from Panama City, saving the money for a hotel room, and grabbed a cab, got lucky with the traffic and made it to the other airport at 3PM, ran in, and there was one seat left on the plane leaving at 3:30.  I made it! I got to Bocas and walked from the airport through town to the water taxi.  The streets were deserted but I knew where everyone was.  The bars were packed out to the street, the score 0-0 for the match between Costa Rica and the Netherlands. Costa Rica is only 15 minutes away.

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I knew there would still be no score when I got to the boat so i took a water taxi to the Bocas Marina.  I put my gear away, then went to the cantina in the marina where everyone was in front of the TV. I sat next to one of the girls that washes dishes who was holding her heart and screaming whenever the ball was in front of one of the goals. She helps me with my Spanish.   It’s not as if someone actually gains 10 yards or hits a double.  It’s erased as soon as someone else kicks the ball out of bounds.  I really don’t understand why so many people like this game, but the World Cup is fun, and I like watching as long as i am with someone from another country who thinks it is a great sport.  I do enjoy all the countries against one another.

Some of the games have the excitement of the Yankees vs. the Red Sox.  Well, at least they think so. The game ended in a tie, of course, so they decided to play a different game, called penalty kick, which ended with Netherlands winning.  All i could think of is a baseball game tied at the end of 12 innings.   The ball is teed up, and you work through the batting order as each guy gets one swing to hit a home run.  There is a winner declared of this new game, just so people can go home.

I think there should be two rule changes.  First, if you get a yellow card, you go to the penalty box and your team will play short handed for a minute or so, like hockey.  As it is now, there are no consequences to a hello card. Second, if the game ends in a tie, a player will be removed from the field, one from each team, every two minutes.  At least it’s still football or soccer, not penalty kick.  With fewer players, the tactics will change, making it exciting. With penalty kicks, the strategy and tactics are boring.

It is great to be back in Panama.  I love the simple way of life. But I also like Alabama.  Next time, I might wake up Bill and ask for a ride to the airport and skip the cab.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 2012

For my friends who worried that I would, I did; someone stole my heart.  When I leave, I will carry a heavy heart until I can come back.  I will miss her, and I know she will miss me.  I see her every day now.

When I went into the mini-mart yesterday in Phnom Penh, the two women who work there greeted me as if I have been coming in for years instead of days.  I showed the wounds on my leg from a bicycle accident bleeding into my shoe.  One said they had nothing for it, but said, “Gib me five dolla. I get.”  She told me to sit down at the table in front of the store, jumped on her motorbike, and was back in ten minutes with some peroxide, dressing, and the change. While I waited outside, the girl who stole my heart came by. She sat at the table across from me.  Her chin just cleared the table, and through her black sullen eyes, stared at me.  As I talked on the phone, she waited.  I hung up. She asked for money before. This time, she sat there with her chin on the table and sad eyes looking up at me. I was not sure how much is an appeal to me, but I can tell she knows I am an easy mark. I don’t like to give money to the kids, as there is usually an older person, like a pimp with a team of beggars, watching, who will take it, like Fagin in Oliver Twist, straight out of a Dickens novel.  I went into the store, and asked the girl behind the counter to tell the girl to get some food, and I would pay for it.  She took a Coke and instant soup.  I took the Coke away, and got her some orange juice.  She grabbed some candy, which I took away, and replaced it with some fruit.  She started for the hot water for her instant soup, and I said, “Hey!”  “Thank you, John,” she whispered. Her voice is raspy.  She looked up at me, and I know she is grateful, but sad, living a hard life, so unfair for a girl of ten or so.

She waits for me in front of the hotel. Some say she knows I am a soft touch.  So what?  I wonder if she knows I care for her, about her. I wish there were a way I could take her home.  If I were married and younger, I might try.  Although only ten or so, she has seen too much. I have seen how she is treated by some of the other kids.  A few tuk-tuk drivers mind the street and try to watch out for kids like her. She would be beautiful if she were clean and could smile. Her hair is matted, but long and black.  I lifted her lip and saw her back teeth are black and rotted.  I wish I could find a way to get her some teeth.   She has no shoes and her feet are splayed out as if she has never worn them.  When I ask her questions, she lies.  I don’t care.  I know I will see her later today. She will find me. I hope she is not abused. The people on the street see everything. There are vendors, waitresses, bar girls.  And they all talk.  Everyone knows I have a soft spot for her.  I thought they might not like it, but the street people treat me well.  Better, I think, because they see me help her. The police don’t help kids like her. They only help themselves.

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There was a cop shaking down street vendors today. I said to one of the tuk-tuk drivers that I don’t like the police.  Sitting in the back of his tuk-tuk, he told me that the cops are bad here, take money.  I said, “In America, same-same, but different.”  We are pals now.

At breakfast across the street from the mini-mart, I ask the waitress about the kids on the street. She points out the good ones, the boy who sells papers to get money for school, a beautiful girl of 16 who sells books and seduces older men then blackmails them. She points out the one’s who sniff glue, and to stay away from them.  She said my girl sleeps under food carts or on the river. Bob said he has seen her over the years, and she just started wearing a shirt.

Often in the afternoon, I go to the Cadillac Bar and Grill. Kenny, a Jewish guy from Texas, owns it, and rents the building from a cop.  He has a contract, which is likely useless as it can’t be enforced and could be told to get out with no recourse.  The cops like to have expats as tenants, as the rent will be paid. The owner is happy until a better deal comes along. Kenny is a good guy for a liberal, but like most liberal Jews, confuses me.  I can’t understand how they can vote for the Arab in the white house. The usual crowd showed up. There was one guy I had not seen before, Luca. They drank beer and passed a joint around as we sat on the sidewalk tables.  Luca, the Italian, offered me a hit. As I refused, he said I didn’t look like a guy who would smoke it. I guess not. Luca asked about why I don’t drink.  I just said, some guys should not, and I am one of them. He said he wants to go to AA, but doesn’t want to quit. “Neither do most of the other people who go there for the first time.”  He said he needs something to do, and drinking fills his time. As it is, he said, he is usually drunk or loaded by this time in the afternoon.  I asked what he is doing here, and he told me he is trying to open a flight simulator.  He is a pilot from a European airline, furloughed, and paid not to work.  He will lose his pay to not work, if he works.  That makes sense.  A bankrupt company, a bankrupt airline from a bankrupt country paying some guy to sit on his ass and drink and smoke, while the Cambodians work their asses off just to eat.   He came to Cambodia to open a store with the flight simulator, thinking he wouldn’t get caught, thus losing his free money.  It seems the Cambodian government is leery of the idea of a flight simulator, so he does nothing, but drink and smoke his free money away.  Luca had another drink, smoked a bit more dope then got on his bicycle and pedaled into the mad traffic where I fear to cross the street.  Luca thinks he deserves all this, and does not see the irony that surrounds him. I hope he doesn’t fly again.  I won’t be getting his airline.

I went on a bike ride yesterday with a touring group.  There were 11 students traveling for the summer, and me, old enough to be their grandfather. No matter.  They were mostly unfit, pale-white, and could not keep up.  One showed up with fresh tattoos and a hangover. I am sure her parents will be pleased with the fresh ink.  The first two kilometers were in the city, then we got to the ferry boat to the island.

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The ride was rural countryside, small villages, houses on stilts, mud, water buffalo, small children chasing after the bikes yelling hello.   I stopped to take pictures and gave them a few cents.   One tried doing an Elvis impersonation, “Thank you, thank you very much.” What fun!  IMG_0688

We stopped under a tree to wait for the slackers, which was most of them.  I asked one woman where they were going next.

“To an elephant rehab.”

I asked how you rehab an elephant.

“Wash them, walk them and feed them.”

When I asked if you ride them, she looked at me with scornful disdain. “We are against trekking.”  You can’t seem to get away from entitled, arrogant leftist Americans imposing their ideas on others. And only 19.

The bike tour stopped at a silk weaver.  All these tours have a deal with a place or two.  You stop for some fruit and a drink, and they take you to a vendor, in this case a silk weaver, and hope you buy something. Knowing I was older, and the eleven kids likely would not buy, the woman who was the silk weaver went after me.  She showed me around.  Her children were working the weaves, learning something useful. She was proud of them. She would be arrested in the U.S. for child abuse.

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She asked if I was married or had a girl friend.  I said no, which left her a bit confused, what with no one to buy for.  I said I needed a tablecloth for my boat, and she showed me a beautiful silk cloth I bought for $65 that she said took two weeks for her to make.  She was only around 40, and I asked her how she learned to weave so beautifully.

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“An old woman taught me.”  Then, with some prodding, she told me that everyone on this island was killed by the Khmer Rouge, but for a few who hid.  They are so matter-of-fact about it.  They still suffer from it in many ways.

We got on our bikes and rode off.  By this point, I was staying away from most of these kids.  There was one, a young man, whom I chatted with because his English was not littered with “it was like, oh, my God.”

I asked him his major.  “Mechanical engineering.”  I told him at least one guy was working on a useful degree and asked why he was on the trip.  Seems he was trying to get into the pretty blond’s knickers, but to no avail.

“Good for you,” I said. There is hope, I thought.

At least one guy is here for a good reason.  We talked about science and engineering, and I told him about my ideas of fail and fail fast, that he should move on, but enjoy the rest of the trip without her.

We got to a restaurant for lunch.  Most were vegetarians, of course, and a pain in the ass about it.  One of the young women went on an on about her period while I was trying to eat, as if that demonstrated how liberated she was.  She then went on about how unfair it was that she could not use student loan money for this trip with her friends, and that she shouldn’t have to pay it back anyway.  I asked why, and she said because they are the future. God help us all, I thought.

No wonder I love it here.  No one expects anything from the government, but to be left alone, for them to stay out of the way.  No, they are not left alone, but they know the consequences of an activist government.  These poor people have more sense than we do, as they work for their daily bread.

Ostrava, Czech Republic 2006

If you were colorblind here it would not matter. Everything is shades of gray…and cold. I got off the train in a stark station that was barely lighted and, once again, cold. Other European train stations are magnificent.  Not this one in Ostrava. It was tired, with no life. The stores in the station were not interesting.  There were no cafes. Old people hobbled along with broken down shoes, old hats and scarves across their faces.  They all seemed to be propped up by wooden canes. Everything here struck me as needing help.

I finally found a way out. In the front of the station had the streetcars looped around the front in a tight circle.. Taxi drivers leaned against their cars and smoked. The streetcars were barely lighted, the lights dim and dirty. The wheels screeched as the cars slowly made the bend to the station. There were about four cars, and few people for 6 pm. The cars looked old enough to have been from the strassenbahn in Munich in the 1950’s. The wheels screeched, big bent bars went from the top of the cars to overhead wires that sparked and crackled. The few people riding seemed to have their heads leaning against the windows as if there were nothing of interest to see.

I saw looked around and saw no hotels, so I went back inside to the information desk. A kind young girl who spoke near perfect English helped me find a place to stay. She went through a list of several  hotels, called them all and could not find a room. I have never left home without a place to stay but how could all the rooms be taken in a place like this? I had no place to sleep, and we were now looking at cheaper and cheaper hotels, still with no luck.

The girl said there was a place where men and women slept. “So what?” I said too quickly. “That will do. The look on her face puzzled me. I thought I was getting the idea, but had no choice. I booked the room. How bad could it be? Naturally, I had to pay in cash.

I went out again and got a taxi driver to stub out his cigarette, handed him written directions but every cab driver in town knows these places. No one spoke English, as in other European countries. In Prague, a few people spoke German, although my German is meager and unsatisfactory. Here, they speak Russian as well as Polish and Czech but no German. The Russians forbade German during their occupation, teaching Russian in schools along with lessons about Comrades Lenin and Stalin. It is harder to get around here than Thailand.

AS the taxi drove along, the streets became more deserted. There were only a few cars, none I recognized. This was a steel and coal town. All the mills were closed but coal is still mined. The city had a harsh pallor, like one would expect in England in the  19th century cola towns.  The street lamps were too far apart and cast dirty, dim circles of light that don’t touch. The apartments don’t have curtains and seem to all have a bare light hanging from a cord in the window. A few kids walk on the sidewalks. They are in packs of six to eight. No one is alone but the packs are few and far between.

We got to the hotel…or whatever it was. It looked deserted but for a dim light inside. I went inside.  The guy in the hotel was waiting for me. There were eight keys hanging from hooks. He handed me one, leaving seven empty rooms in a hotel with eight rooms in a town completely booked. I had the only room. I made my way up the stairs to the room, as small as a closet with a metal shower, a small sink, and a bed with no sheets.

I went back downstairs and the guy handed me one sheet and a dishtowel. I couldn’t even bitch at him. I wanted something to eat. The guy at the desk was so confused he called the information counter at the train station.  I was lucky the girl was that booked the room was still there. I asked her to get a cab for me in the morning and that I was hungry and had run out of slotys.

She asked the hotel guy to drive me to a place to eat. He locked up, and we went to the ATM at the train station, then to a place that was a drab pub. There was nothing appealing about the place, nothing that would make me want to have a beer with a friend here.

I bought the the hotel a beer.  I couldn’t get the waitress to understand that I just wanted a tonic, so I went behind the bar to grab a tonic from the cooler. I ordered some pork, which seemed low risk. Pigs must like it here.

The waitress was what you would expect. Big. There were seven guys sitting around one table all drinking beer. They were the only other people. No laughing. No loud banter. No sports on TV, no TV, no music. Just sitting, drinking and smoking. No arm waving, just elbows on the table and enough movement to take a drag on a cigarette or lift a beer.   They seemed beaten. Not crazy, just beaten..  These were good people whose culture had been destroyed. I ate and was glad to leave.  I could not talk to the driver, and was glad for it.

I hoped I could find the factory in the morning. I had come a long way for this job. As I lay in bed, I heard someone else check in.  I heard two people coming up the stairs, no talking, but one footfall lighter than the other. I hope they are quick about it and keep the noise down.

Ostrava to Prague, Valentines Day, 2006

I am on the train from Ostrava to Prague. It is 6:30 at night, damp and rainy. The project in Ostrava did not go as well as usual. It was frankly disappointing. The client had to keep running the equipment that we needed to test. It reminded me of the Canadian woodcutter who wanted to sharpen his ax. His boss wouldn’t let him. He had 200 more trees to cut. I know I need to relax to sharpen my own ax, more often than I do. I keep working instead. I find myself on this train in a hurry to get nowhere. The house will be empty. When I get “home,” it won’t be. I am not sure when my next day of work will be. I went to the restaurant in the hotel last night. There were no tables; all booked. And there were no parties of one, no pairs of businessmen. All lovers. The piano player and the woman singing caught my eye, and my ear. She was a beautiful tall Czech, with auburn hair draped over one shoulder, singing old love songs in English, but sounded like Marlene Dietrich. For once, the cigarette smoke looked just right. An old man stood, walked around the table, handed his wife, his lover, a single tulip, put his hand on the back of her chair and bent to kiss her. She looked up, her eyes met his, and I knew she loved him. Even the singer, with her black low cut dress and bright red belt watched. It was Valentines day. And I’m not in love. I went outside, turned up my collar and pulled down my hat. It was my old Boston red sox hat sweat stained with salt. A woman in Thailand told me the hat made me look like an old man trying to look like a boy I stopped wearing it for a day or so. It’s my favorite hat. Sam gave it to me. As usual walked until I found a place to eat. It looked like a nice old place, with lots of wood. It was late. I had to beg with the receptionist to seat me. She wanted to close in 45 minutes. “Impossible!” She cried. They all say that. Everything is “impossible!” Those who have been out of here blame it on the Russians. “I hate the Russians,” they say. It seems as if everyone hates somebody. The ones that remember the invasion of 1968 are easy to get excited. (It’s hard for me to accept that they all can’t remember). I sat down and ordered salmon, no appetizer. Impossible! Gimme the salmon, I wanted to say. I eat alone almost all the time. I read the paper. Look out the window. Read a little blue book I carry in my pocket. Last night, alone was no fun. Tonite, I will arrive at a hotel at around midnight, hungry. I will get up at 5 am then go to the airport, grab a flight to Amsterdam, then wait there for 6 hours, enough time take the train to town to smoke some dope in one of those legal Ganja bars. But I won’t. I was in Amsterdam years ago. You don’t find those places; they attack you. Just like a foundry in an old Midwestern town, you can’t miss them, smoky and noisy. There were so many of these joints it looked like Indian smoke signals, smoke billowing out every time a door opened. The plane leaves Amsterdam, then to Boston at 5 PM. I will get the 6 Pm bus to Portsmouth if I don’t get pulled by the Homeland security for being undesirable. I know them by name in Boston and they still pick me.

One Day in Laos

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I woke up late, around 7AM, and read the news from the Tea Party News Network and Fox News on the internet. I can see the Mekong River out the big windows. I slept with them open and could smell breakfast cooked on charcoal on the sidewalk one floor down. I drank all the in-room coffee, which is never enough, and headed downstairs. There was an Asian woman busy on her computer and I sat at a table near her to order breakfast. I asked if she was from China. A European might say, I am from Germany or England. She said, “I am Japanese,’ with the emphasis you expect. I think I say, “I am from America.” As I told my son on our first trip to Asia together over 10 years ago, every one has a story and it is fun and interesting to get them to tell it. You won’t even ask, or listen, if you judge first. Her name is Miki. It’s easy to remember as it is written on her shirt. Miki is a professor at a university in Japan and on a trip with about 15 students who raised money to build a school in a village in Lao. . They raised $9000 in their home city in Japan. Miki is also doing research and publishing a paper about the lack of education for minority tribes in Lao, specifically for girls. “Are you researching how the Hmong helped the CIA during the Vietnam War?” “Yes, of course.” I could tell she took a new interest in me. I said that I knew the Hmong were a tribe without a country. No one claimed them. They have their own language and used to wander between Lao, Northern Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Cambodia, often crossing a border to escape whomever was after them at the time. They know the jungle better than anyone. They are also desperately poor. For a few dollars, the CIA was able to hire them to help find the caravans on the Ho Chi Min Trail in Laos and Cambodia, regions the U.S. claimed they never were. When the CIA left, and the Vietnamese moved in, it did not go well for the Hmong. I asked Miki what her husband did. I forgot…I didn’t really care, only wanting to know if she was married. Miki said she was going to the village where the school had been built after breakfast. “Can I go?’ “There are only enough seats in the van for the people we have, but one girl is sick and might not be able to go.” The poor Hmong had offered her food, and she ate it rather than refuse. Her bad luck was good news for me. Miki checked on her, but she was not getting out of bed. Off we went, for one of the best days I had in a long time. I was outside my own head, grateful for who I am and all I have seen, what I have, and what I have accomplished. I learned a lot from these poor villagers, and the Japanese who were kind enough to bring me along.

Miki switched to English when she talked to me, then to Lao, or Japanese effortlessly. In my next life, I want to speak three or four languages. I will live in the world then, even more so than I do now, not one country. My son has learned to speak Khmer, lives in living in Cambodia, and I envy him.

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We had a wonderful chat in the van as we went along a tributary to the Mekong. The university students had an American in the car, and asked Miki if it was OK to ask questions of me. I loved it that they had the courtesy to ask. I was pleased to have a chance to talk to them, and took my responsibility seriously.

It was uphill for an hour, into the mountains and the jungle. It was an important day for the Japanese, the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. These twenty-year-old students and their 40-year old PhD professor were against it, of course. As horrible as it was, I said I was not, which surprised them. The battles as the U.S. got closer to Japan became more horrible. Iwo Jima and Okinawa were fierce and deadly fights, muddy, filthy, with both sides hungry or starving, and only a handful of Japanese survivors and massive casualties on both sides. In Okinawa, the survivors were jumping from cliffs, thinking death was better than facing the American monsters. The Russians had just entered the war on Japan, knowing it was ending but wanting their share of the spoils. The war needed to end, and end fast. The U.S. was war-weary, and starting to move troops from Europe for a costly invasion projected to last until 1950, with even more death, and two Japans likely as the Russians clamored for division of Japan, not just the Sakhalin Islands. “But there must have been another way,” they said. Maybe. But the war had to end.  They did not agree with me, of course, but agreed to study the war.  We pleasantly ended that discussion as we arrived at a muddy road to the village.

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The van driver turned us all loose a few hundred yards from the school. It was pouring rain, and the downhill road slick with mud. I suspect the van would be stuck at the bottom or have slid off the rutted path. I pulled on my $200 international orange Marmot rain jacket, designed for blue water sailing with a bit of guilt. The village family could live for a year on what I spent on that jacket.

Our Japanese group, led by Miki, was five young women around 20 years old, and one young man of 21. I envied him, what with so many pretty young women.  We walked to the school through the rain and mud. Another van of Japanese had arrived ahead of us, once again, all pretty young women and one more lucky guy. There was a cement floor in the one- room school, dusty and wet, no windows, one light, turned off and a blackboard with a few small bits of chalk in the tray.

Those who had shoes, rubber flip-flops, left them outside. The children were around 5 to 8 I think, but I am not good at ages. Most were girls. They were in small groups, each with one Japanese. The kids loved the teachers, who were all smiling, devoted, and clearly kind. You could sense the kindness and manners.lao15

I was far taller and Caucasian, so drew more attention than I wanted. I tried to blend in, a silly idea. The children often looked away as I took pictures. They were poor, but looked fit, none fat like so many Americans. They all had on t-shirts, most dirty, some threadbare. A few young girls were carrying younger brothers or sisters, some naked or only with shirts. They all touched my heart.

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The school was at the edge of the village. I wanted to go further and asked Miki if I could. I also wanted to be less of a distraction at the school. I pulled my rain jacket on, and was given a child’s pink umbrella and set off in the rain and mud. I slipped as I walked down the hill from the school, but recovered before I fell completely. What’s a bit of mud, after all?

lao 14The village people are poor, but they are handsome. The women wore wrap-around skirts of beautiful designs. The men wore shorts, no shirt. They do not readily smile like Thai people, but I was a stranger in town, nearly a foot taller than a man should be. On second thought, why would they smile? Here was a tall, bald old man, who had on short pants and boat shoes, muddy legs, wearing a bright orange jacket shielding the rain with a tiny pink Cinderella umbrella in one hand, and a camera in the other. I might have stood out in a San Francisco gay pride parade. I walked on through the village: wet, muddy, poor people, chickens and ducks in the street, handsome proud roosters, no electricity, preparing food on slat wood porches from their haunches like only Asians do, most wary, some with a smile.

I tried to chat up two girls about 16, I think. I got a smile. I said I was from America and they shrugged.. I said, “America…Obama.” The prettier one pointed at me, said, “Obama” pointed at herself and said her name.

“NO, NO, NO. My name John, not Obama.” I couldn’t leave with anyone thinking I was Obama.  She went inside and got a drink of water for me. All I could think of was the girl left at the hotel as I took a sip. Would I be dead the next day of cholera? Rather dead, I thought, than to refuse her gesture. I drank only a little, enough to be polite, wondering if it was enough to kill me.

As I walked back toward the school, a wagon came by pulling some kind of fruit. It stopped at a small store, a shack. The driver stopped short, then a very old woman, likely 40 or so, started yelling, and kicked a puppy out of the way. The dog whimpered, came down three meters away, and two naked boys ran out to pick up the dog from the mud. They ran a short way down an alley.

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I aimed the camera at them, they smiled, one hid his penis with both hands; the other didn’t care and held onto the dog. I looked at the old woman, who I know is 20 years my junior. She had red teeth and lips from beetle nut. Maybe one day I will give it a try. She ignored me and unloaded the cart onto a scale.

I made it back to the school. The two Japanese students and the older boys from the school, maybe 10 years old or so, were playing a game sort of like volley ball, with soccer rules.lao 13

The plastic ball was kicked or headed over the net, not handed except to serve. I stood in the rain. The ball was muddy. As it was headed, mud splashed onto the boys. The Japanese were admirable, not quitting because of the mud or rain, playing in soaking shorts, barefoot, covered in mud, with nothing else to wear when the game was over. When we left, they did their best to clean off the mud, but they rode back to town wet and cold in silence.

They continued to play in the mud and rain. I made my way to the school, gave back the pink Cinderella umbrella, wiped the mud off my legs and put on some dry pants in the only place I could find some privacy. I went into the small schoolroom once again. It was mostly girls doing Origami. lao16

The young women were teaching drawing as I left for the village. They doing a good job, teaching them the art of connecting seeing to drawing. Origami was a natural for them to teach. The Japanese are good at it, and the children were following along well. It requires a bit of discipline, the essence of Japanese culture. I liked what I saw. I am not really a fan of education without training. I have traveled much of the world, worked in factories in China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, India, Cambodia, as well as South America and Europe. I have made my way through small shops as well, and admired the skills of those I could not talk to.

Skills are learned from training, not education. Skills from training are the foundation of the middle class. In the U.S. we clamor for more spending on education, a waste, as it has turned into little more than a series of tests. There is too much education, at the expense of training. A society with a solid middle class is a function of training, not education. When a middle class is lost, as it is in the U.S. education will not fix it. Education is life-long for those of us who take it as a personal responsibility, not that of the State.

Training means teaching people to DO things. In the U.S. what can people DO that is useful upon graduation from high school? The Japanese and the Germans know this. The English used to train, I think, but will also lose the middle class with the loss of training. Few cultures provide education and training by those who can transfer skills. Training comes from a specialist, a crafts person or a mentor, not a general teacher passing himself off as an “educator.” Department of Education? Don’t need it.

The Japanese were providing skills through training to these kids. It’s their way. Training provides self-worth and needs no timed government test to measure. Miki said she wished they had musical instruments. Perfect.

I watched as the children, almost all girls, concentrated as the young Japanese women helped and smiled. They were good at it and I admired them. Soon it all fell apart, but I loved it. The Japanese were taking pictures with their iPhone’s. One showed a small girl how to take a picture. It was clear these kids had never seen a phone like this before. One little girl started to take a few pictures. Next, the rest of the girls wanted in, and took the iPhone’s from the Japanese. They were soon all pointing and snapping pictures. No one could understand a word from me, but I was laughing away as I said, “Selfie, selfie.” I only recently learned that word but it is now universal and in every language. The teachers clicked in the upper right corner of each phone and the Lao girls started posing and snapping selfies. How can it be? Where did they learn to pose for girly-girly picture’s? I made it worse, laughing away and taking pictures of my own. The somewhat reserved girls were carrying on, smiling away, snapping pictures, no more origami.

Within minutes, they had caught up to one of the primary skills of Western girls. They could scroll, swipe and double-click. I had never seen anything like it. To be a girl today, you need an iPhone, I guess. I did my best to keep my laughing under control but good God, this was fun.

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School was over. It was one of my best days in school ever. Miki and her students will be back. Maybe she will invite me. Maybe I can bring a few things. Maybe I will ask my clients to help.

As we rode back, there was no chatter. We all fell asleep. As I nodded off, I wondered if Robin Williams, who died yesterday, could have lost himself here as well.