Friday, July 26, 2013

A Foreign Affair

Tom Waits in concert 1976

A friend cornered me during a social event the night before last, breathlessly relating yet another tale of a bar boy who had become the love of his life. As he's quite the butterfly while on the road I had to ask (to his chagrin) which of his rented admirers this might have been.

To be clear: I have no problem whatsoever with people who are primarily sex tourists - whatever floats your long boat, I say. As long as they show their rented admirers some respect and treat them as they'd themselves wish to be treated, what's the problem with being a participant in the transactions of the World's Oldest Profession? My grandfather used to say "as long as you don't do it in the streets and scare the horses", and that's probably as handy a measure to use as any. But I've already veered off topic, so let's return to my friend's new love.

I've known him for at least 20 years, and while he's a good-hearted person overall he's a strongly opinionated, my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy. The closest I've ever come to coming out on top in a debate is to agree to disagree about the topic at hand; the best one can hope for when talking with someone who has more immovable opinions than Thailand has motor scooters. As usual, I simply smiled, said "good for you" and wished him luck. I suggested he keep his emotional guard up and keep his options open.  Hearing him speak two breaths later of soon getting back to the clubs in Bangkok I'm guessing that's precisely what he's going to do!

The overwhelming majority of stories I hear from people who are on the prowl while on holiday are more firmly footed in the land of the short term (or butterfly) relationships. I know a few U.S./Thai couples who are sharing life across an ocean between visits, but they're part of an extremely small percentage of couples I've seen made it work. Most I know are happy with a loosely-bound coupling, if they even consider anything more than casual hook-ups.

If you're single and far from home - unless you're joined at the hip traveling with someone - you have the opportunity to savor the moment when the thought comes to you that you're a stranger in a strange land, and, for at least that moment, nobody knows you and nobody that does know you has any idea where you are.  That idea terrifies one person I know, but I find it usually makes me feel pleasantly giddy.  Granted, you have to suspend your fears for a bit, but your odds of being harmed while walking down a country road in Isaan are certainly no higher than they are in your own neighborhood back home.

So... what the hell does any of this have to do with the "Foreign Affairs" title or the photo up top today? Since you've stayed with me this far I suppose you deserve an explanation, so, as convoluted as it is, here's the Reader's Digest version:

I became a fan of Tom Waits back in the early 1970s. The man's own singing voice can set off nearby car alarms if I'm playing his recordings at much of a volume, but he's a songwriter (and more importantly a storyteller) who can paint a picture with his lyrics that can move me like few others can. How can one not appreciate a song about leaving someone without saying goodbye that begins "I will leave behind all of my clothes I wore when I was with you", or lines like "the rain sounds like a round of applause" or "how can you close your eyes and say good night, and go to sleep without me"?

I've seen Waits perform, but I've only had the opportunity to get proper pictures of him on stage one time - in November 1976 - and one of those photos is the lead picture today.

While I'm out wandering about in Thailand the tune and lyrics to his song "A Foreign Affair" often come to my mind, for some reason. Maybe it's inspired by that "nobody knows where I am" thing, but often it's while observing other people visiting the same place.

I'm posting the lyrics below, and below them are audio and YouTube links to an Asian guy playing and singing a credible version of the song... certainly as good as what I sing to myself while walking. For those of you willing to try Waits' original version it's at the very end of today's post.

A Foreign Affair

When traveling abroad in the continental style 
It's my belief one must attempt to be discreet 
And subsequently bear in mind your transient position 
Allows you a perspective that's unique 

And though you'll find your itinerary's a blessing and a curse 
Your wanderlust won't let you settle down 
And you'll wonder how you ever fathomed that you'd be content 
To stay within the city limits of a small Midwestern town 

Most vagabonds I knowed don't ever want to find the culprit 
That remains the object of their long relentless quest 
The obsession's in the chasing and not the apprehending 
The pursuit, you see, and never the arrest 

Without fear of contradiction "bon voyage" is always hollered 
In conjunction with a handkerchief from shore 
By a girl who drives a rambler and furthermore 
Is overly concerned that she won't see him anymore 

Planes and trains and boats and buses 
Characteristically evoke a common attitude of blue 
Unless you have a suitcase and a ticket and a passport 
And the cargo that they're carrying is you 

A foreign affair juxtaposed with a stateside 
And domestically approved romantic fancy 
Is mysteriously attractive due to circumstances knowing 
It will only be parlayed into a memory

The Tom Waits version. You've been warned... his style easily qualifies as "an acquired taste".

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hot And Wet - OK, Make That Hot And Sweaty

I should have realized this little girl at Pantip Plaza wasn't sleepy - she was just too darned hot to squirm around.

On my first trip to Thailand my travel companion and I arrived near midnight in August at Don Muang International. The cabin crew made the announcement that the outside temperature was 29C (85F), and that the humidity was 90%. "Swell," said my friend, a native of Massachusetts "just like back home".

As we stepped through the exit door of the plane it was almost as if we were being pushed back by a wall of thick, damp air; the smell of exhaust fumes added to the scent of the moist, tropical breath being exhaled by the Big Mango itself. Clambering down the portable stairway to the tarmac we made our way to the shuttle bus that would deliver us to the terminal proper, but the aircon wasn't working in the bus, so we were even happier to get inside to claim our baggage and be on our way to the hotel.

Upon arrival to my room the bellboy (by default, I'm sure) flicked on the air conditioner and cranked it way "down", even before dropping my bags, accepting his tip and making his exit. Being from a relatively temperate climate I hadn't been as happy to hear air conditioning beginning to blast in long time, even though I did have to make an adjustment soon to keep from freezing the fruit on the welcome plate. Since that first visit I've learned I'm most comfortable overall keeping the room in the middle 70s, even when I sleep. Usually I don't use a blanket, so I'm fine with that even at night.

The entrance steps to Pantip Plaza near noon

A year or so ago I was there during a stretch of similar weather. I'd woken up later than usual (unexpected stomach problem in the wee small hours) and missed that golden window of time for an early morning walk; the temperature was already unpleasantly warm, and I knew it'd be a fool's errand to go out on foot for any extended period of time. In addition to that I had a guest arriving closer to dinnertime: a regular reader of the blog, making his first visit to Thailand. I figured I ought to save some steam for a potentially late evening out, so I tried to think of someplace to go for a few hours before coming back for some reading and a bit of a nap.

Some time back I'd already posted about the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, a lovely spot to people watch, look about and see the ever-changing exhibits (their link is here), but since it was also a place I thought my soon-to-arrive "guest" would appreciate I set that idea aside and figured I'd just take the easy stroll from the Ratchathewi BTS station to Pantip Plaza. I needed a cable I'd somehow left behind and knew I could find a replacement there. Besides, it wasn't all that far, and I figured I'd do just fine. I was mistaken.  I was low on water in my system - but it really wasn't all that bad. I grabbed a bottle of water out of the refrigerator, downed half of it, and headed out.

Resting on the Pantip Plaza steps

Stepping out of the BTS train at high noon I was reminded of that first trip I mentioned earlier, except it was hotter.  Much hotter. The temperature in the shade of the station, even up on the open train platform, (some three stories up) was a good 103F/104F (39-40C), and there was no breeze whatsoever.

Cutting down through the Asia Hotel that's connected to that station (always a fair was to cheat the heat for a few minutes) I headed off toward Pantip Plaza, making a detour into the first 7-Eleven I came to. My shirt was already clinging to me when I got inside, so I went for a sports drink instead of water - just to keep some electrolytes in the system.

If you're paying attention while out behaving like a mad dog in the mid-day sun you'll notice many Thai without a hat shielding themselves from the direct sun with whatever they happen to be carrying, be that a newspaper, a flyer or whatever. Part of that is to avoid sunburn or tanning, but part of it is surely just to deflect the heat. If they have nothing to use, they'll vary their course as they walk along to edge along the sidewalk in whatever shade's available. Along the way I joined just such a line of folks in what probably looked like a pick-up game of Follow the Leader, with one farang in the middle.

This man didn't seem upset that nobody was buying heavy slippers in the heat

Arriving at Pantip I quickly found my cable, but I wasn't looking forward to the walk back to the hotel. I'm not a cheapskate by any means, but I felt a little foolish spending the money for a taxi back to the cool of my room when I could walk it, so I just stood around in front of Pantip and gathered my energy for a while while watching - with an odd pleasure, I admit - the locals also wilting slightly in the heat. Misery loving company, and all that, you see.

Two brothers played quietly in the shade while their parents sold cold drinks

The snack vendors weren't doing all that bad - it was, after all, lunchtime - but the drink vendors were doing a brisk and lively land office business, as my late grandfather would have said. Busy enough that I had to wait for nearly 10 minutes for enough of a break in sales to get the picture below without a half-dozen people in it. I bought a coconut, myself, and considered a second but opted for a bottle of water instead.

Thankfully, the first hint of a breeze came up that wasn't caused by the traffic on the street. It grew to a steady pace, giving everyone a bit of a break from the stagnant, dead noontime air. Figuring I still had time to read a chapter or two and snooze some before my "guest" was to arrive from Suvarnabhumi I began my walk back to the BTS station and home.

Slowly, of course... and weaving along the way to stay in the shade wherever possible.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Jake "Going For Broke" On The 4th Of July

Although we (meaning our own United States government) authorized the internment of somewhere around 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West coast during World War II, they thought it was just fine to allow some of these same prisoners to lay down their lives, fighting for the very government who chose to leave them out in some of the more God-forsaken desert areas available.

Most were nisei - first-generation Japanese, born in the U.S; grouped as "enemy aliens" (4C) shortly after the bombing at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

All of the Japanese in Hawai'i weren't hauled away... that would have involved relocating over 150,000 - one-third of the island population - but they did imprison between 1,200 and 1,800 of them, over 60% of them american citizens. Those left "free" were subjected to discrimination and abuse from mile to severe.

Members of my own family have shared tales I won't go into here, but one I will share was a visit to one of their homes from the military who took away their radio and returned it with the parts that might allow a transmission removed. I guess macadamia nut farmers were a threat, but they were lucky, compared to many others.

While the internment to these "War Relocation Camps" was sometimes justified as being "for their own protection", it was, to many clearer-thinking folks, a knee-jerk reaction. Another fine example of mob mentality in many cases, in my less than humble opinion. A sister-in-law and a few cousins were born behind barbed wire fences, and many lost their land and the personal possessions they couldn't carry with them, if they were allowed to take much of anything.

The most notable regiment of them all was the 442nd Infantry Regiment that fought in Italy, France and Germany.  When I say fought, I mean fought... the 442nd was the most decorated regiment in U.S. military history, called the Purple Heart Battalion. The motto they marched to was "Go for broke," and they fought just as bravely as any others - perhaps more so.

Many decades later, my friend Jake Shimabukuro put together a tribute to this group, and used their motto as the title. Jake is a noted virtuoso on the ukulele, and I thought I'd give him a minor plug while tipping my hat to my late family member who was one of the heros of the 442nd. For obvious reasons I'm not posting a personal picture of Jake to the blog here, but he's both a good man and a fine looking guy. There are plenty of images on his web site.

Thank you Jake, and most of all thank you Art, wherever your spirit is today. When the "rocket's red glare" light the sky tonight, I'll think of you.

Happy 4th of July, everyone. Have a safe holiday.