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Letter to Jim (1)- Escape to Thailand
by Guy Hormel
The Bickerkims are wending their way through Thailand. We started up North in Chang Mai and are now in Phuket. From here it's further south to Suratthani. If I had any doubts that we weren't in Korea anymore, they were put to rest when I went to a pharmacy to buy band aids. The pharmacist was undeniably Thai, but the establishment was continental European in decor and merchandise. When I complimented the pharmacist on the wide array of products, he made an expansive gesture accompanied by a wicked grin, and replied in barely accented BBC English, "All that the law allows sir. All that the law allows." Then with practiced slight of hand, produced a four pack of Viagra from under the counter. Had I not politely declined, I had the feeling that would have been the tip of a rather copious pharmacological iceberg.
You've got to love a country that sells a variety of deodorants both foreign and domestic, not to mention virtually all Listerine products; even the fresh burst, pocket pack, oral care strips. Personal hygiene is taken seriously here by necessity. There's a popular Bangkok restaurant called Cabbages and Condoms, owned by the former Minister of Health who was responsible for raising Aids awareness. Instead of a mint at the end of your meal you get a prophylactic with your coffee.
In Korea, if I could get human odor retardants it would only be after they fell off a truck at the local U.S. military base. True, I liked the black market store where I shopped. It had a lot of overcrowded character. But it was take what you could get. No choices. I fully understand why deodorant isn't popular in Korea. With an exception or two, I never met a Hanguk Saram who was a stinker. Unlike some of the individuals I've encountered here. They give Rumsfeld's idiotic remark about "The Old Europe" new weight. If he had been referring to the olfactory hazards of aged cheese and seldom bathed Europeans. But considering the garlic heavy Korean diet, why industrial strength mouthwash isn't on everybody's shopping list I'll never know. The pharmacies only sell spineless "gargly" that wouldn't mask the smell of a watermelon. Long ago when I rode the jam packed subway during rush hour every day, the morning breath was often so strong, in lieu of a respirator , I inhaled through my mouth for the length of the ride. If only there had been a way to counteract the effect of those breaking kimchi and soju wind.
Congratulations are in order old buddy. Last night I made three tents. Now admittedly these were only one man - sized pup tents. In case you haven't guessed, "making a tent" is the Korean euphemism for waking up with an erection. Last night, because of fitful sleep, I got to experience my resurrected virility three times no less. This was a bit of a banner event for me because in Korea it was an increasingly rare phenomenon. Why? Age, alcohol, stress, Tom Delay's Icky Old Testament Deity punishing me for past sexual transgressions. Who knows? But anyway it was a welcome occurrence and one that was encouraging as far as possible creative ventures, both domestic and clandestine go. But it did make me nostalgic for those thrilling days of yesteryear when The Guy Ranger made a Tonto - size tent every morning without fail.
Yesterday I ventured out into a scorcher of a Phuket in May afternoon. Wandering around "downtown" Karon Beach I felt like a complete geekala. First , I bought a bottle of water to carry along with me and couldn't open it. I walked into the restaurant at our hotel and asked one of the female workers for help. She effortlessly peeled off the cellophane wrapping on the cap much to the amusement of the other employees. Then I walked down the dusty main drag and chose a deserted sidewalk eatery to have a banana shake. An incredibly sullen waitress frowned, "Is that all?" when I ordered. Then her co-worker screamed across the room, above a gust of molten air blown in by a car sans muffler, "Don't you want food!?" I just hung my head and dripped sweat on the table. While shopping for a pair of sandals, I gently touched a middle eastern shoe salesman on the arm, in a lame attempt at comradery, while negotiating the price. He jumped a foot backwards and from the look on his face , he assumed I was a gay sex tourist. And finally for the second time in Asia, as I was scurrying toward the refuge of our hotel room, I was almost run down when a tangerine garbage truck filled with diminutive, bare - chested Thai guys came barreling down the British side of the street, which in the sweltering delirium of my addled Yankee perspective should have been coming from the other direction. All the while the midnight brown lads were laughing their asses off at the goofball farang.
The first time I almost bought the farm via the miracle of modern waste management, was my third day in Korea. I was wandering down a deserted street near Busan National University on my way to a new job that I already detested at six thirty am. I had been working hard to avoid stepping in the coagulating puddles of vomit that pimpled the street, courtesy of the freshman class whose school seniors had been lovingly teaching them how to drink the night before, by pouring nothing but the finest sweet potato solvent down their cherry throats. I stepped off the curb, and my weight shifted to the toe that was tentatively seeking solid ground in this still alien environment. A hell bent. grey monstrosity of a refuse vehicle driven by a red - eyed driver probably hopped up on one of the many over the counter stamina stimulants, appeared from a hidden side street, blaring the Busan City song. "Busan is a beautiful city. A place to make your dreams come true." The truck came so close to hitting me I swear it scuffed the toe of my shoe. I remember thinking, "Christ almighty! What an ignoble way to croak! Gunned down by a singing garbage truck in Busan." My feelings toward my adopted hometown have warmed considerably since then.
I've written you a bunch about hanging out with my daughter. In Korea my wife did work so much that I was with my daughter alone most week nights. At least one parent should be with their kid at bedtime. But after my mother-in-law got sick and couldn't babysit , I stopped doing even my once a week, early in the evening, two to three hour, break from the offspring, skedaddle. Sometimes I'd take my daughter out for dinner at a family restaurant. "Papa I want go Bear Mountain and eat white spaghetti!" And we would often have fun. But I started to get emotionally thin from lack of adult conversation. I love my kid but a person can only sing along to, "What did Della wear boys? What did Della wear?... She wore her new jersey boys. She wore her new jersey...", so many times.
For a month or so before we hit the road for south Asia, my daughter started crying every night before she went to bed. She'd repeat, "I miss mommy," over and over. And the strain of too much togetherness was making me short tempered. Jim, you know my nature is to concentrate completely on the task at hand. That's good up to a point. But I was focusing on my daughter so much that I was getting sick of her. And because my girl was a three and a half year old who pined for her mother and sensed my distanced frustration, she would try to get my attention in a variety of aggravating new ways. My small devil would l ay on the bed and color crayon the off white silk comforter. Throw a variety of objects at me without warning. And occasionally slap me in the face with an impish smile. Jim , there were times I almost hit her. And I've only slightly spanked her once. It really spooked me. I did scream at her occasionally which upset both of us enormously. You know my mom raised me alone. I can't imagine how she did it. With very little help and working full time. She told me if I had been twins she would have killed her self.
But now that my wife isn't working at all, she and our daughter have found a tangible joy in simple proximity. The enormous conflict my wife experienced from her daughter and her business cruelly competing for her time has evaporated. She was afraid she might get sick of all the maternal activity. But no. Both mother and daughter are in hog heaven. It's truly a remarkable event to witness. One downside for me is that all the bonding has a girls' club exclusivity to it. My daughter will now randomly announce, "I don't like you anymore. I like mommy." And in any minor domestic squabble my girl takes her mother's side automatically, "Don't yell at my mommy!" When I'm barely speaking above a whisper. But still I have a lot more time for my chosen vocation: brooding.
My kid has been able to play with British, Swenska, Deutsch, Eurasian, and of course Thai children. She already speaks a nonsense Thai that has ball park tonality but zilch meaning. She calls our hotel rooms, "magic houses." I think because she is able to lounge on the bed during the burning midday heat and watch Depression era cartoons of Pop Eye the Sailor Man proselytizing for spinach steroids in dubbed Thai, on the laptop, with both of her parents in attendance. And I am able to enjoy her company again and observe her accelerated maturation in decelerated time.
And ever since we set eyes on the ocean both my wife and I have ceased to be stress crazy. For the first time in a long time we have had civil conversations. The last time my wife was this serene was when she was in an after care hospital for a month after our daughter was born. On doctors orders she was forbidden from doing any business. So she waxed philosophical and was a joy to be around. Now she's in a similar state doing uncharacteristic things like getting lost in games of computer solitaire. Relishing a famed Korean choreographer's esoteric biography. And taking afternoon siestas while my daughter and I play at the pool. Although knowing our personalities , the time will come when we both start hissing at each other, "How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?"
It would seem that the media sometimes exaggerated the Tsunami decimation here in Phuket. The physical damage although severe in certain areas was less in others than news reports indicated. But that reportage kept tourists away and added insult to injury by helping eliminate any semblance of a high season. It's been a triple whammy here. I saw a t-shirt that read, "Sars 2002, The Bird Flu 2003, The Tsunami 2004. What the Hell next?" When I started gingerly asking questions, details about the human tragedy emerged.
At Golden Sand Resort where we stayed, the resident beauty consultant, Madame Y ao, a lucid and magnetic mother of two small children, told me about her Boxing Day reality. She was lucky enough to have arrived late that morning after a relatively small, five foot wave, hit Karon Beach.
The Golden Sand is directly across the street from the ocean. The wave, traveling at jetliner speed, first swept in the outdoor restaurant that fronts the resort. A young food prep employee was killed when she was slammed against a commercial refrigerator and fractured her skull. In one of the more desirable ocean front bungalows a Swedish woman was still asleep when the water smashed through her windows, creating a washing machine effect that broke her neck as she was tossed around the room. There were a dozen or so other injuries of various severity, mostly abrasions, lacerations, and contusions. Some were contaminated with sand and sewer water, causing difficult to treat infections that resulted in fatalities in both European and Thai hospitals later. Naked guests and native Thais wandered around together looking stricken. The Tsunami obliterated the invisible wall that exists between the foreigner's Shangri-La and the native's often bleaker reality.
Madame Yao's beauty shop faced the ocean and was destroyed. The bungalows were left standing, but gutted. When we arrived in April the resort had just reopened the week before. That would explain the smell of fear and fresh paint as well as the tentativeness of the front desk folks who, because of deeply ingrained superstition and maybe plain old business savvy, vehemently denied anyone had died at the resort.
One day when I stood waist deep in the ocean, and the tide yanked me out, then slammed me back in toward shore, I had a fractal of a perception of what that December morning may have been like. The tide went out farther than anyone remembered. The birds went silent. The Thais happily grabbed the fish floundering on the beach and believed maybe there was such a thing as free breakfast. Foreign Escapists en famille drowsily marveled at Neptune's weirdness and relished their indolence far away from foul weather and holiday pressures. Almost no one, with the exception of an English school girl who had recently studied tsunamis and whose prescience saved several lives, suspected that this was the tensing of an aquatic bow, presaging the release of a titanic salt water arrow that would pierce their hearts and wash away forever their antediluvian innocence. I could never completely give in to the ocean after that.
I had a Salade Nicoise for the first time in years at a pleasant open air terracotta restaurant across from Patong beach called the Savoey. The place may have had the largest wait staff I have ever seen. They resembled Skinnerian rats anxiously spinning but accomplishing little. This seemed particularly true when I was in need of virtually anything. But the food was excellent.
Mid-meal my head was buried in the tuna. My wife was likewise fully engaged in soya sole ecstasy. And my daughter was intensely involved in a color palette experiment that involved mixing pineapple and tomato juice with her Shirley Temple cocktail. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a Muslim woman with a black diaphanous head scarf strolling shyly toward the rest room. I remember she seemed cowed by all the frenetic culinary activity around her. No doubt she was just what she seemed: A benign and rather delicate creature, who was a devotee of generally tolerant southeast Asian Islam. Then the lights went out as they are prone to do when tropical power sources are overloaded. A lone woman's congested shriek floated atop a collective intake of breath. Then with a surge of the generator the lights came on again. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. Could this be the kind of tourist haunt disenfranchised Muslim separatists might righteously target for bombing here in troubled southern Thailand? Probably not. More likely would be some of the bars chocked full of infidels we saw in our walk down toward the beach that evening. High consumption watering holes full of Corpulent Caucasians too dissipated to keep up the pretense of still having fun. They looked shamefaced and forlorn in sunburned self consciousness. Ravaged Thai hostesses enervated from having been on the job too long lounged within groping distance, and made desperate attempts to feign an intimacy, that as concubines with holiday expiration dates, would forever be beyond their reach. The overall vibe was early eighties video porn pumped loudly through distorted speakers: Jarring, despondent, and titillating all at the same time.
With my daughter in tow I got momentarily indigent. A bit disingenuous since the night before I was given a tour of similar, albeit higher end, establishments, by an amiable Australian former coal executive and thoroughly enjoyed it. That night I dutifully followed a married friend's rule when she goes out to decidedly less provocative places with her girl clan "I can look at the menu, I just can't order." Will I be able to maintain this Siamese celibacy? Like many other pasty sea fevered blokes for at least two centuries, I've been infatuated with women from this neck of the woods since childhood. I watched the movie version of the musical South Pacific eight times during elementary school. And it wasn't because of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's score. Not to mention the mandatory slavering over bare breasted National Geographics of a more chaste era. And my libido does not seem intimidated by a more cerebral appreciation of the dynamics of the poverty related politics of desperation. The Thai ladies ’ petite tumescence, iridescent duskiness, and languid tempo of transit creates an equatorial eroticism that combined with a naturally insouciant benevolence is hard to resist. Even the women that aren't sexy are sexy. Professional women, doctors and professors and hotel managers, often wear a shorter, contemporary version of the skin tight traditional Thai skirt with the slit up the side. And this is in a country where possibly a third of the men are gay. But if I screw up I could be easily left old and alone. Without a pot to piss in or a bed to put it under. And I could lose my baby girl. Stay tuned Jimbo.
Until That Time,
June 16, 2005