Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Caveat Emptor

Tuk Tuk
BANGKOK, THAILAND “You want to go to Grand Palace? Only 50 Baht.” “No, I was there yesterday.” “I take you to a place to buy a nice suit?” “No, I don’t need a suit.” “You want pretty lady?” “No, but could you tell me where there might be a travel agency in the area.” “Yes, yes, I know a good place. You nice guy, I take you there free, no charge.” “Really? Free?” “Yes. Yes. Get in!” I jump in the back of the tuk tuk and off on a high-speed race through the side streets and alleys of Bangkok. We arrive at a small, but official looking travel agency, with a lot of travel posters, flight and tour price listings. “I wait here for you.” My tuk tuk driver says. “Sawadee Ka,” the lady at the first desk says. “Sawadee Krab,” I reply. “I’m wondering if you could help me with accommodations in Phuket or Phi Phi Island?” “Yes. Yes. My name is Micky. I can help you.” She pulls out a notepad and scribbles Phuket at the top of the page. “How much do you want to spend?” “My wife and I would like a 5-star hotel, if possible.” “No problem!” She pulls out a glitzy brochure with pictures of Phi Phi Island straight from Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach.” “Wow, is that available?” “Yes, very busy season, but I know the owner and can get you a beach front bungalow for a very good price.” She pulls out her calculator. “50,000 Baht.” I figure about $555 per night. That’s a lot for Thailand, but it’s actually less than two other quotes I got at the airport tour agencies in Chiang Mai and Bangkok. “What do you have for Phuket?” She quickly produces another glitzy brochure of a 5-star hotel with a beach-front ocean view on Patong Beach. “30,000 Baht.” We negotiate. For 39,000 Baht, I end up with one night on Phi Phi Island and two nights on Patong Beach, airport transfers and ferries included. Micky swipes my credit card and the deal is closed. With that done, I need a place, maybe in Pattaya, where I can wait until Debra (my wife) arrives. “Pattaya, yes, of course, I have a nice 4-star, beach front hotel, in Pattaya.” “How much?” “You nice man, I give you a special rate, only 15,000 Baht.” The place looks perfect. I say, “10,000 Baht.” She says, “I can do 10,500 including transfer to and from Pattaya.” I take it and pay in cash. The next day the crammed non-air-conditioned bus ride to Pattaya gives me the first indications that I’ve been scammed. The hotel confirms my suspicions, a 3-star hotel at best, twenty minutes from the beach, and a room that has no windows. I call Micky. “You told me you wanted a cheap hotel room,” She says. “That’s what I got you. There are no refunds.” I protest, “No, that’s not true. You told me that the hotel was a 4-star hotel on the beach. What about the hotels in Phi Phi and Phuket are they also not 5-star hotels and on the beach as you represented?” She suddenly becomes incoherent and pretends she doesn’t understand anything I’m saying. She keeps saying, “I got you what you wanted. There are no refunds.” She hangs up. I decide to go online and research the hotel in Phi Phi and Phuket. The hotel in Phi Phi doesn’t exist and although the hotel in Phuket does exist, it’s only a 3-star hotel with some terrible reviews. Nevertheless, I call the hotel in Phuket to see if they have reservations for us. They do not. I send Micky email and text messages detailing my concerns and asking for her help in remedying the situation. She doesn’t respond. Debra arrives in Bangkok a few days later and the next day we fly to Phuket. As we suspect, there’s no one at the airport to greet us. We ask a taxi driver to call Micky for us on his cell phone. Micky answers the phone, “You cancelled your reservations!” “What are you talking about? I did not cancel the reservations and if you cancelled our reservations, where is our refund?” “You cancelled the reservations!” What about our refund then? She pretends not to understand and keeps saying, “You cancelled the reservations.” I am unable to budge her and she hangs up on me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On Writing

Pattaya Beach
PATTAYA, THAILAND Mr. Turtle engages in a conversation with one of the local rats you see scampering up and down the palm trees on the beach in Pattaya. “What I really want to be is a writer,” the rat moans to Mr. Turtle. “So, what’s stopping you?” “I don’t have enough experience. I’m only twenty.” “That’s no excuse. I’m ninety and I don’t think my experience counts for squat, but I write anyway.” The rat looks down at the piece of chewing gum in his paw and sadly says, “Nobody will read what I write,” “Does that really matter?” Mr. Turtle sternly replies. “Write for yourself. If you’re writing for others, you will never get started.” “But where will I get the material?” “Hey, look around, observe and listen — your narrative will unfold in front of you. Look at that banyan tree over there, describe it in a sentence and see what happens.” “But I spend my days climbing up and down these darn palm trees and at night don’t have the energy or creativity to do anything else.” “Oh my, take it in small chunks then. Somerset Maugham, you know that British author, wrote just 300 words a day and look at what he accomplished. Anyway, One sentence, well written, is better than reams of bullshit.” “That’s exactly what I’m afraid I’ll end up with, bullshit.” “That’s okay too. You may discover some sweet kernel of truth in all that bullshit. Find it and throw the rest out.” The imagery seems to work. The rat responds, “This truth of yours, it almost sounds like something I can eat.” “It is, almost. For me, it’s the sweet essence of writing.” “And how do you do get at it?” “Write honestly for one thing. Don’t hold back. Don’t be afraid of offending. On a practical level, I want every paragraph to bear a kernel of truth. That’s my objective anyway. Sometimes, I admit, I get hung up on the details or facts of my encounters. They’re important, of course, but I don’t want them to get in the way of the truth.” “Interesting, but I’m not sure it’s something that will work for me. You see, I’d like to write a novel.” “Maybe you’re right, my friend, your challenge then is to come up with a story line, real or imaginary, but once you’ve done that, the rest of what I’ve said still applies. You’re left with peeling away at the truth of that story line. You should remember though, the old saw you’ve probably heard, ‘Don’t tell, show,’ is the best way to get at the truth because following that advice you’re more likely to tap into the power of your readers’ imagination and if you can do that, you’re really onto something.” “Okay, thank you so much Mr. Turtle. I’ll keep what you’ve said in mind, but now I need to get back up this tree. It’s lunch time.”

Monday, September 24, 2012

He's Our God

King Bhumibol
BANGKOK, THAILANDWhat’s with all the billboards and signs of your King and Queen?” Maybe it’s my tone of voice, my guide, Paradee, quickly snaps, “He’s our King. We love him!” End of discussion she thinks, but not when you’re dealing with a roving anthropologist and so I continue. “Here, on this intersection alone, I count a dozen pictures of them. Isn’t that a little excessive?” “It’s not excessive. We love him. He’s god.” “Did you say god?” “Yes, of course, he’s our god. Unlike our other gods, he’s someone we can actually touch and feel. Ten years ago I touched his foot.” “His foot?” “Yes, his foot!” Paradee’s not happy with my questioning. “But why his foot?” “Because that’s the position you’re in when he walks by!” through her clinched teeth I know she wants to add, “You fool.” I conjure up an image of her along with thousands of the King’s subjects kowtowing as he walks by, which causes me to ask, “Do you actually pray to him?” “Yes, of course!” What a stupid question I’m sure she means to say. “When?” “Every morning when I leave home. I ask him to protect me and my son and help us through the day.” “Is there a special place where you pray?” She shakes her head indicating my question is a stupid one, “In front of his picture.” “Picture?” “Yes, like everyone, you know everyone, in Thailand, we have a large picture of the King in our house. We actually have many pictures of the King but the big one at our front entrance is the one we pray to.” “I thought you said earlier you were Buddhist?” “I am!” She shouts back, now angry. “Is there something wrong with that? I pray to the spirits too. I told you that as well. I have both the Buddha and a spirit house in my house. That’s the way it is in Thailand. We can pray to whomever.” “To Lord Ganesh?” “I don’t, but why not? Lord Ganesh is a Hindu god and Buddhism was formed out of Hinduism.” “What about Jesus?” “I don’t, but some people may.” “Very confusing,” I say. She snaps, “It’s because you don’t listen! You have a bad attitude! AND, you insult my King with your questions!” I drop the subject and for the next three hours, as we drive to the Tiger Temple, neither of us says a word. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

They Don't Understand

Buddhist Temple
CHIANG MAI, THAILANDBuddhist here really don’t understand Buddhism,” Kay, my guide, explains. “They think all they need to do is go to the temple or spirit house and say a prayer and the Buddha or the spirits will answer their prayers and solve their problems. My Buddhism involves using Buddha as my guide to meditate, relieving me of my wants and desires, so I can become at peace with myself. It’s about focusing on the moment through deep breathing while sitting in a lotus position for hours. The objective is to reach a stage where we are indifferent to the worries that surround us, that not even the pain of sitting in such an uncomfortable position can distract us. It’s very difficult. Quite frankly, I’ve never accomplished it. I always feel the pain, but I keep practicing. I admit I’m also not immune to the distractions and find myself praying to the Buddha and the spirits to protect me, give me good health, and such things, just like the Buddhist I criticize.I practice whenever and wherever I can, but mostly at home and at the temple. It’s difficult at home because I’m really not strict enough at home to do it well. It’s better to do it in the Temple where some discipline can be enforced. Buddhism as practiced here is the same as in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Like them, we integrate Hinduism, Animism, and Shamanism into our rituals depending on the local practices. For example, you have seen the statues of the Hindu god, Ganesh (the elephant god), in our temples. The tribal people in the rural tribes, including Christians, practice Shamanism and Animism. People living in the city are less superstitious and more inclined to stick with traditional Buddhism.”

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Trip Up the Mekong

Mekong River
MEKONG RIVER, LAOS We are traveling up the Laos portion of the muddy brown Mekong River, a two-day boat trip from Luang Prabang to Houei Say. There are seven passengers: two young women from Germany, a couple from Switzerland, and a couple of lovers (a young man from Australia and his girl friend from France). We have a crew of seven, including an English and French guide, although everyone on the boat speaks English. I sit in the bow taking in the breathtaking scenery at every turn. An occasional primitive village, hut, or fishing skiff appears, signs of people living in the thick jungle along the banks, a day’s trip from the nearest hospital or school. The Swiss couple sits down next to me and we engage in a lengthy conversation about religion, the economy, geopolitics, and what it means to live a happy life. “We hope Obama wins,” the woman sighs. “We believe Bush stole the election in 2000. How can that happen in America? That would never happen in Switzerland. The decision as to who becomes president of the United States is too important for the world to leave to the Americans. Europeans should be allowed to vote as well. Obama’s intelligent, his heart is in the right place, and he’s moving your country in the right direction.”

Village Festivities
We stop at a small primitive village, known for its whiskey. “Sounds like a party,” the French woman observes as we disembark. Toura, our Hmong guide, says, “It’s the festival of ‘Boun Khao Phan Sa’, the day the monks enter the temple for two months for study and meditation.” A small temple with a single monk appears to the left of us and to the right villagers dance to a CD of ‘You Spin Me Round’ by Jessica Simpson. In the background an aging generator bangs away. The partiers see us and scream, “Koom ped! Koom ped!” “They want you to join them,” Toura says. The young lovers promptly jump into the mix, taking from a gyrating toothless lady a glass of beer in one hand and a shot of whiskey in the other. As they swig down the two and sway to the music, they motion for the rest of us to join in. I join in and one of the revelers hands me a beer and a shot of clear liquid. “Tastes like vodka,” I say. “Try that stuff out of the barrel there. It’s really powerful,” the Australian hollers over the music and pressing bodies. An emaciated old man dances in front of me and wants to tell me something. He drops to his knees and scribbles in the dirt with his finger. The others press around dancing applying me with whiskey and beer. I don’t know what this is about and look back to Toura for assistance. “They’re telling you the old man is eighty — the oldest in the village.” Later Toura tells us, “The average age in the village is fifty-eight. The children are born at home. Usually only one in the family goes to school.”

Back on the boat, Toura sits down next to the Swiss couple and me. “I have a question,” he asks me. “I’d like to know about this video that has gotten the Muslims so mad.” “I don’t know if I can tell you much about it. I’ve only caught the headlines.” “Religion is confusing.” He says. “I don’t think our religion works very well. In this region we practice a combination of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, and Animism. If I have a problem or am sick, I first go to a Buddhist monk. If the monk can’t help me, I go to a Shaman. But now, I started reading the Bible.” “Where did you get the Bible?” “From the church in Luang Prabang.” “Do you go to that church?” “No.” “How much of the Bible have you read?” “I just read a little of the beginning and now I’ve jumped to the first book in the New Testament.” “Has anyone told you what to read?” “No.” “Have you talked to a minister or a priest?” “No — I just want to know a little bit about Christianity, whether it works, and how many times you have go to church?” “Actually, I’m not sure that’s the point of Christianity.” “Huh, I don’t understand.” “Well, some Christians may believe their faith will solve their problems and the number of times they go to church will make a difference, but I don’t think that’s the real point of Christianity.” “I’m confused, so what’s the point?” “Salvation — Christianity, you see, is a method for achieving salvation.” “Is that it?” “Yes, I think so. Check out John 3:16. I think that’s it in a nutshell.” “John what?” “John 3:16.” “What?” Here, I’ll write it down: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.’” Toura smiles down at the slip of paper, “Thank you very much!” As he leaves, the Swiss man turns to me, “I thought you said you were a non-believer.” “I am.”