India: Rat Park
My three month circle of India and Nepal started and ended in Calcutta, with 14 million people, India's largest city. Calcutta represents and embodies the best and worst of India as well as the heights and depths of the human condition. There is seemingly no bottom to the abyss in which an individual can be tossed and no logic to or explanation for the ability of many of those same people to smile and carry on.
No type of person or manner of human condition is out of place in India. All manner of gimps, crips, diseased, deformed or otherwise simply desperate human beings are found, if not abound, in every part of India, but Calcutta is hard to match. Three of us took a stroll to the fringes of Howrah, the city's famous slum immortalized in "City of Joy" by Dominique LaPierre. The hollows of those people's eyes expressed the ultimate in lifeís pain and futility. Their clothes were rags, their mousy shelters made of pieced together scraps of discarded plastic. In a country where disposable lighters are refilled by sidewalk vendors for about three cents, there is none of the largesse of throw away wealth as exists in the developed world.
And yet I met middle class Calcuttans who were proud of their city and it's adopted appellation, "City of Joy". The human spirit, and it's ability to exhibit pride and exude warmth, as evidenced by the people of Calcutta, is indomitable, unquenchable and irrepressible all the way down to the absolute nadir of despair and desolation. The Hindu religion, the concept of karma which underlies it, and it's adjunct the caste system, provides an easy avenue for acceptance of one's fate and the hardship and inequity of life in general, and seemingly instills a depth of character in spite of it all to just keep on smiling.
The people who camped out on the side of Calcutta's Indian Museum, which anchors the Sutter Street budget hotel area in the heart of town, mean as their life was, were in fact so together compared to the people under the bridge in Howrah. This is the kind of place where four small wheels and a wood platform could be considered a luxury for people with shriveled up legs who otherwise would be using their arms to drag their bodies along. Now it is often said that beggars in this part of the world will purposely deform their children to improve their begging potential, but regardless of the undeniable truth in that statement, that could never account for the great majority of India's handicapped people.
How many of those people whose feet are twisted out of shape would have had them straightened right up if they were born in the USA? What we would consider the simplest thing becomes a special privilege where a person might earn eight or ten dollars a month for a six day work week. The one rupee (three cent) coin then, tossed to the filthy and ragged but smiling little kid who's tugging at your sleeve is equal to another kid's (as young as seven or eight) one hour of work, and part of the rationale for Mother Teresa's admonition against almsgiving. Give to the agencies that help the poor, she advises, not the poor themselves. Ultimately that makes sense since, except for a rare talent or stroke of luck, it's only a lot of hard work that can bring an individual or a nation from poverty to wealth.
Knowing I was going to India, having heard the stories, I steeled myself against the needy. Maybe I thought if I gave in I'd be swamped. My resolve held but I don't know why I couldn't throw a few rupees their way. I can't justify it and I still see faces in my mind of people I refused to help. After all, there clearly aren't enough agencies to go around, neither are opportunities for employment available to females of any age. What options are there for a woman with young children? Sadly, refusal actually gets easier as you go since a western face brings an immediate knee-jerk, in this case arm extended palm up, reaction on many beggars' parts and some days we might get asked for money forty or fifty times.
There are two messages in "The City of Joy" that lead to the conclusion that poverty is often cultural and/or volitional. What makes one country wealthy, another poor? Hasn't the same information, the same opportunity been available to all? The story revolves around a peasant family that's forced off their land and into the slums of Calcutta by the need to provide a dowry for their daughter, requiring them to sell most of their meager property, with a drought adding the final unsustainable burden. In another situation, a man whose three children spend their days combing garbage dumps for the occasional edible onion skin expresses joy at hearing his wife is pregnant.
India's greatest burden, it's past, is also it's greatest attraction. Relics of it's long history as the world's oldest culture abound. Similarly, it's future could be one of the world's greatest assets or it's greatest affliction. Population growth (2.1%) has slowed considerably in recent years and is much less than neighboring Moslem countries, Bangladesh (2.7%) and Pakistan (2.9%), but it's population base (900 million) is so great that the equivalent of the USAís population will be added in little more than a decade. Moreover the country is so young that the most optimistic likely scenario has it's population growing to 1.7 billion before it stabilizes.
But traveling in India and China has changed my perspective in these matters. I'm no less certain that we have all the people we need in the world and that we gain nothing by adding more, but I've also come to feel that even a doubling of the world's population does not necessarily constitute a doomsday scenario. There is of course, no way the greater part of the earth's people could live at the same level as we Americans, and we are in no way morally justified in making such profligate, spendthrifty use of the world's resources. A more evenly distributed population that had a lighter living, more sensitive relationship to the earth would be easily tenable, but of course still not really easy and definitely not preferable.
Wealthy countries, led by the US, are consuming so much that shortages of natural resources will create unnecessary hardships for future generations, and extremely crowded nations like Bangladesh, with 110 million people in an area the size of Wisconsin that is continuing to grow by three million annually, will suffer particularly. Still, taken as a whole and applying all the optimism I can muster, I'd say the world has a good shot at survival.
At the same time a good dose of pessimism, in this case some would call it realism, makes it hard to believe that India does indeed have a good chance. There is likely no match for India's diversity or it's attendant social and political difficulties. Racially, it's people comprise a complete spectrum from white European to black African though the bulk, maybe 70%, fall in between. In addition there are a large number of Southeast Asian types, 30 million plus, and a smattering of Chinese and Tibetans. The country has seventeen official languages, almost every state has a different one, as well as hundreds of dialects. Indian money shows fourteen scripts.
Hindi, the language of the north and the capital, has the most speakers, 22% of India, and the most prestige. But in contrast to China which had the type of government that could require everybody to learn one language by decree, India's past attempt to establish Hindi as a national language failed miserably. While there are a few Hindi speakers spread around India, the Hindi speaker from Delhi speaks English when traveling to other parts of the country.
But caste, which is part of the Hindu religion, and religion in general, probably foment the most civil strife. Hinduism, the faith of 84%, has thousands of anthropomorphic Gods constantly engaged in some form of intrigue or succumbing to some form of human frailty, and this seems to be reflected in many facets of everyday life. It's not so difficult to tolerate the miserable state of so many human beings in the context of caste, karma, and reincarnation, especially when guided by a religion consisting of a pantheon with so many losers as well as winners.
And they are passionate about their religion. The nationwide riots that began with the destruction of an ancient mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya were concurrent with my stay. I was safely ensconced in Goa. I read the papers of course and heard first hand accounts, but for all that I personally experienced the riots could have been on the other side of the world.
Thousands of crazed Hindu zealots stormed the historic 450 year old mosque and razed it brick by brick. Not only do they believe this site to be the birthplace of Rama, one of their chief Gods, but they were still pissed about the fact that a Mongol ruler had destroyed a Hindu temple that stood on the site previously. A five hundred year old grudge. Subsequent riots between Hindus and Moslems caused the deaths of 2000 people.
The origins of caste derived from the desire of the light skinned Aryan invaders of long ago to maintain a separation between themselves and the conquered dark skinned Dravidians. The removal of caste barriers has always been a major goal of Indian government since independence, but substantive changes have always been hampered by a combination of age old prejudices and intense competition for scarce resources. One of the government's programs that has generated the most controversy is the "reservation" of a certain number of civil service jobs for the untouchable caste, or as referred to by Gandhi, the "harijan", or children of God.
Part of the problem, though not a major part, is that not all harijan are needy, reforms have allowed a small but significant number to advance on their own. The bigger problem is that there just aren't enough jobs to go around and India's socialist orientation places a very large portion of jobs in the civil service. Recently several mid-caste, college grad protesters against the reservation policy were serious enough to immolate themselves. They could see no future without access to a government job.
Basically what the system has turned into is welfare for the middle class. Everything is done inefficiently and then triple staffed. In most of the country banking transactions are entered into big ledgers by hand. Whereas the longest I had to wait in seven other countries to get a Visa cash advance was about 45 minutes, in India it was rarely that short a time. In one case which took 2.5 hours the clerk who handled my account had to leave the bank to make a long distance telephone call to check my credit.
India's Hindustan motors has been producing it's Ambassador model without interruption and barely changed since the first one rolled off the assembly line in 1959. With the exception of an upgraded engine, thinner gage metal and a slightly changed grill, it's even the same car produced by England's Morris company for more than a decade prior. India's leaders had been wanting a locally produced car and when Morris folded, they asked for and received for a gift an entire factory - everything needed to produce the Ambassador.
It's probably one of my favorite cars produced in the world today, but that's not surprising since I've never owned a car newer than a `63 model. Besides the Ambassador bears a strong resemblance to the three early fifties Plymouths I drove over a period of fifteen years. It's tall, round and cushy, a padded bathtub floating through India's mottled streets. It's exceedingly uncomplicated and easy to fix and since 95% of the cars on the road are Ambassadors, parts are never a problem.
But it doesn't handle or steer like a new car and it's a guzzler. And of course it doesn't have a lot of export potential, though a British company recently announced plans to import one thousand, expecting them to sell on their nostalgia potential. India has always tried to make the clock stand still. It is so old and so large it was able for a long time to survive outside of world economic flow, but then recently it could no longer pay for its most minimal import needs with it's exports, which are noted for either being out of date or low quality. Typically a pair of socks I bought there lost their elastic after the first washing. But it is changing, a Japanese-Indian joint venture producing an economical small car quickly overtook the Ambassador in sales and there are plans to export it to Europe.
STAR TV, Satellite Television Asia Region, broadcasts free over a footpath that stretches from the Middle East to Japan. It's based in Hong Kong and has been around only since 1990. There's one channel in Chinese and four in English which include BBC news, MTV, sports, and movie-sitcoms. STAR TV was creating a lot of controversy and generating a lot of letters to the editor, mostly to the effect that while it was not very relevant to Indian life it was still a lot better than the crap on state TV. Overall 50 million people are tuned in, two million in India, though it is banned in Malaysia and threatened in other countries. But how long can it be before technology brings the size of satellite receiving equipment to an easily hideable size and beyond the ability of government to control?
Any attempt to control people's thoughts or behavior is doomed to fail in the modern age. There's no getting around the forbidden fruit syndrome and no way to divert at least a very large number, if not a majority, of citizens from respect for the West or the desire to emulate us. It is not a conundrum to understand that I, a person who hasn't eaten a burger at a great American hot dog stand in ten years, could measure developing world progress in big macs. It's what's happening. It is, for good and/or ill, an inseparable thread in the world's cultural fabric. The only way to affect it or improve it anymore is to be part of it.
India's economic progress has also been hobbled by a "License Raj", literally absolute rulers of the permit process. Bureaucrats and minor officials would hold up an industrial project with red tape for months, if not years to at least feed their egos when they weren't soliciting bribes. One of current prime minister Narasimha Rao's primary goals is to open and speed the permit process and prepare the country for foreign investment. Once liberated, the Indian economy could be a formidable competitor in almost any field. Indicators of India's abilities can be found in the country's detonation of a nuclear device in 1973 and that it currently has a fast growing computer software export business. A low wage but highly educated English speaking middle class is it's primary advantage.
Traveling in India has it's difficulties - it's hard to avoid stomach problems, for instance - but also great rewards. There are relatively few international tourists and many grand antiquities. The Ellora caves, located about 200 miles east of Bombay, is a series of 34 Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples carved out of solid rock over a period of a millennia centered around the year 1000. The grandest one is simply breathtaking. It is a series of domed buildings up to eighty feet high stretching about 500 feet. Intricately sculpted in many places and adorned with life sized stone elephants, it is said to have taken a hundred years. It would be impressive enough if it were just built from scratch let alone carved out of a hillside. Never finished, it's fascinating to see a stout column taking shape amongst the sculptor's chisel marks.
Hampi, east of Goa, a complex of ruins set in fields of giant boulders that takes a whole day of walking to cover, was the capital of all of Southern India for four centuries until about 300 years ago. Except for an ancient 200 foot tall temple adorned with thousands of carved Gods, there's nothing fancy in Hampi. Many of the people in the village itself have made their homes by walling in ancient colonnades. Itís a favored hangout for budget travelers and more; I met an Irish fellow who had been living in a lean-to among the rocks for years.
India has an excellent and constantly improving, albeit always tardy, rail system that's cheap in the absurd. A second class ticket for a 1200 mile, 50 hour trip with a sleeping bunk costs only $14! Traveling India can be a hassle, but what the hell, where else can you see tribes of wild monkeys inhabiting big city rooftops, not to mention cows, pigs, chickens and goats inhabiting the sidewalks, not to mention a park for rats. No foolin', Calcutta's rat park, a 1000 square foot Eden for the varmints, is located in a prominent corner of the city's equivalent of Central Park. It not only draws spectators but people who've come to throw them food scraps.
Finale: Once You Get Out You Can Never Go Back
In a few days less than a year I covered about 5000 air miles - not including the flight over - 10,000 miles on land, equally divided between trains and buses, and another 400 miles of water travel in a total of eight countries and Hong Kong. I spent close to $10,000, more than I thought I would, more than I needed to and more than I should have. Barring wine, women and song or their ilk, replacement of lost or stolen articles, or the purchase of non-essentials - like the International Herald Tribune at $1.50 a pop - and the more frugal traveler could have covered the same on $6000 or $7000.
From mountains higher than I'd ever been, or even exist in the continental US, to steamy tropical lowlands, crossroads cities to end-of-the-world hamlets, coconut clad islands and endless rice paddies. Where was I all those years?
Including people of every shade and description, the eight countries are home to half the world's people and many of the world's fastest growing economies and are certain to give the future a decidedly Asian look and outlook.
Looking back, my decision to start where the traveling is easy was appropriate for me. Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines are so well organized and English capable that a novice traveler can get the feeling that in spite of wide cultural differences he or she can learn how to move around without being unduly taken advantage of or more than occasionally getting lost. Other people, usually younger than I, started hard in China or India, figuring they'd go to the easy places when they got tired. Easy or hard, budget travel is akin to always being on a two week vacation where half your time is spent en route, or making arrangements or talking about next moves. But of course, it varies greatly. Some people are on extended sabbaticals, spending as much as six months in one place, others are very short timers trying to cram a three month experience into a two week vacation.
Traveling is about making decisions and becoming aware of one's abilities in that regard, like finding a hotel every few days, or a restaurant every few hours. It's always easier to look for a place to stay when you are not just off of a difficult trip and carrying a pack. I tend to choose too quickly knowing there must be better places, but thinking it will be easier when I'm rested up. When it comes down to it, though, I most often can't bring myself to make the change.
The simple act of choosing a restaurant can also be a chore. Fortunately I was enjoying not overeating - I lost 3" off of my waist within two months - though I really like the food, so walking by a dozen restaurants with a hole in my stomach but hesitant to choose one was not a great problem. Even if I could afford to eat out regularly in tourist oriented English menu restaurants, most times I found myself preferring the food as well as the experience of the funky local average personís type. Sometimes that meant being adventurous - never quite knowing what you might wind up with. Experimenting definitely became easier as I went. Besides, considering that all my meals were eaten out it made sense to save the three or four dollar meal in the more upscale place for a once or twice a week treat. Still, with a language barrier and food not designed to appeal to western tastes, getting a meal often involved confusion and a gamble and heavy decision making.
Important decisions are usually not my problem, they tend to be reality based and evolve organically, but wouldn't it be nice if some of the little ones could be taken out of my hands. What do I care if the next turn is a right or a left. I'm free and uncommitted and have no special reason to be anywhere, anytime. But one direction could lead to heaven, the other hell, causing me to agonize over small decisions that clearly didn't deserve it. So wouldn't it be nice to have access to a handy little oracle to relieve me of the burden? Especially considering that the weird effects of "moon void of course" stayed right with me to climax in the last month of the trip being one of the most confused times of my life.
Too bad we can't always be tuned in - being in the right place at the right time, like the magic of bumping into an old friend halfway around the world, which actually happened during the time I was living in Bangkok. It's way too presumptuous to assume that kind of connectedness on more than an occasional basis, so I'm always in a quest for an oracle. In fact a friend turned me on to one before I began this journey. It's a pendulum; basically a small stone or medallion suspended from a chain or string. Ask it a yes or no question and it responds by rotating clockwise to say yes, opposite to say no.
I obviously took right to it, isn't this great cosmic fun. But unfortunately almost every time I used it when something important came up I found myself doing just the opposite. Still great fun but no substitute for making decisions. And what better way to learn decisionmaking than trade all those years repeating the same patterns - living in the same house and working the same job, for life out of a backpack and constant changes.
"How long have you been out?", the number one traveler question is quickly followed by, "Where have you been?", and "What did you think of it?". Notwithstanding the utility of guidebooks in many circumstances, travel talk is more often the determiner of itinerary. Meeting people and talking to people on the trail is effortless and suspicionless and nothing like home. Once you get the hang of it, you think nothing of inviting yourself to sit down at someone else's restaurant table - male or female - and begin the standard travel talk.
World travelers are a smiley bunch. They are happy people. Theyíre enjoying a privileged and easy life, but they are not at all smug about it. Itís easy but far from cushy so it doesnít evoke soul dilemmas. They represent most of the corners of the world, but about 80% are from Europe with England, Germany and Holland most often represented. My biggest surprise was the dearth of Americans.
We Americans especially, can't see much past our front yard. It is so large, and our family of people so diverse, and our #1 status so pervasive, and our knowledge of languages so shallow, that we tend to dismiss the potential in foreign travel. We do go to Europe, but that's because it's relatively familiar.
All things considered, traveling in Asia is no big deal. There is cheap public transportation to nearly every town or scenic spot you'd have any desire to see. There is almost always a reasonably priced, reasonably clean place to stay and most of the time it's a guest house which usually means that the owners and workers live on the premises in rooms not much different than the guest rooms. It's also safer in most places than in big city America.
They work hard, they struggle, they carry on. They laugh, they love, they want to see their lives improved but they are not unhappy as we would suppose, considering their relative poverty. They also know somehow, even if subconsciously, that neither they nor their countries will see prosperity without a lot of effort. They are very curious, even when you can't connect in words there is still contact.
Some people have important work to do, others have to work, still others think they have to work. Now I realize I've been accused of being a proselytizer for whatever personal discovery I've just made, but bear with me. It's more than just having the time of your life, as a budget traveler you'd be doing the world a favor too. You'd be saving energy and conserving resources, using far less than you do at home. You'd also be transferring resources from the rich to the poor, a noble endeavor, creating jobs and promoting development. Now don't think I'm under any illusion that the impacts of tourism are completely benign. Most of the jobs are nothing to brag about, except it is legitimate work in a situation in which the alternative might be no work at all, and it's not significantly different from what else is available.
Most importantly you bring contact and information and exposure to world culture. Many Asians, especially of course those you are most likely to be conversing with, have a great longing to travel which their financial circumstances are unlikely to ever allow fulfilling.
Even still in my first country, only a couple of months into the trip, I had a strong feeling that one year was just not going to be enough, and that feeling only intensified as the year progressed. Consequently, by about eight months of travel I had decided to join the ranks of those native English speakers who've run out of money and/or gotten tired of living out of a backpack and/or don't want to go home - all of which applied to me - and instead become English teachers. It was time to stay in one place for a while.
I had to keep to my plan, my big circle of this part of Asia - Could I have stopped before seeing Nepal and India? - but it left me in debt and all the more ready for work. At least I didn't have to go home, what would I do there anyway? Once you get out, you can never go back... well, of course you can go back, but neither you nor your life could ever be quite the same.
I need to have a clear idea of what my life will be like before I return. My cooperative recycling business has seen a sad demise, glad I wasn't there to see it go, but I had no desire to do that kind of work again anyway. Better to be here incognito, where I can both think and have my thoughts constantly stimulated by a wildly different cultural milieu.
January, the last throes and most nefarious outworkings of moon void of course. I've talked to many people over the year, Taiwan seems to be my best choice. The pay is good, one can save $1000 a month living frugally. It is semi-tropical and has some of Asia's friendliest people.
But first I really want to stop back in Kunming to see Bridget before I get socked into working, never mind that I'm already in debt. Unfortunately I wrote from India just before that country's big Hindu-Moslem riots and the letter got lost in the confusion. Then when I arrived in Calcutta on my way back to Thailand on my way back to Kunming there was an India Air pilotsí strike - this time they were unhappy about their meal allowances. It took ten days to get a flight. India Air's pilots take frequent work breaks when they bore of striking.
Nice thing about traveling in Asia, absent a strike or holiday, you never have to wait more than a few days to get a bargain priced flight. No advance purchase or pay three times the price. No paying more for one way than round trip. Finally I tried calling Bridget but the phones weren't working. It was a cosmic conspiracy and I was sorely disappointed, but it was very impractical anyway and time to start work.
Went for my Taiwan visa but it seems that the manager of the Taiwan consulate in Bangkok automatically assumes that almost every native English speaker who applies for a two month visa is planning to work illegally, and he badgers you, that is, he badgered me, "Why you want two months? Taiwan small country, nothing to see.", until I told him half the truth, (I'm not good at unpremeditated untruths) and got rejected. In Hong Kong, so I'm told, Taiwan visas are a snap.
Second choice is Korea and I've got a free ticket since my one year return has a stop in Seoul. Now ordinarily I donít mind cold weather but do I really want to try to find a job and a place to live in a strange city in a strange country in the middle of winter? At the end of January, Bangkok is 70 F. to 90 F., whereas Seoul is an often blustery 12 F. to 35 F. Maybe I should stay and work in Thailand for a while, get a little experience, go to Korea in the summer. Problem is I've already spent four months of my year's travel in Thailand. I like it but I really want to see something different and besides it only pays one half or one third as much. It's a free ticket, might as well make a reservation, I don't have to use it.
I spent an hour in the throes of indecision standing in front of the Korea Air Lines ticket office agonizing over that ticket. Might as well go, what can I lose. As it turns out, I like the country but I am totally unprepared. I'm thinking Thailand where you only have to be able to speak English and wear a pair of pants to get a job. There's plenty of work here at 15 to 25 dollars per hour but you need references, proof of a degree and most often a legal working visa which you have to apply for outside the country and it takes up to six weeks. Mmm....when you add up living expenses till you find a job, round trip to another country, usually Thailand, to wait for your visa, six weeks expenses while waiting and expenses in Korea till your first paycheck, not to mention the time it might take to get proof of a degree, and compare all that with the $500 in my pocket....
I enjoyed my short stay in Korea in spite of the winter and my limited funds. But it's a world away from Bangkok, and not just the weather. In Bangkok the only shirt and tie monkey suit jackets you see are on foreign businessmen. Would anyone else wear a suit to take a sauna? Whereas in Korea half the men were wearing suits and ties just to take a train ride. Korea has two English dailies but they are hard to find outside of Seoul and the two together don't amount to half of one of Bangkok's two English dailies, either one being equal to the best English newspapers in Asia.
But thankfully moon void of course seems to have run it's course. The cheapest flight, saves more than $100, from Seoul to Bangkok involves a seven hour layover in Tokyo. No problem, I'll just spend a few hours walking around downtown. Except this is Japan where the cheapest public transportation for the 40 mile one hour trip to the city costs $20! I had just left Seoul where the airport bus, admittedly a much shorter distance, was 85 cents. Had to content myself with walking around the airport - not too exciting.
At any rate that's obviously not the good part. Went back to the desk to get my boarding pass for the second flight. I complain, just a little mind you, that I asked for a window seat not over the wing on the first flight and got one right over the wing. The view was spectacular - I craned my neck. She checks, the only window seats are in smoking, I pass. She hit the keyboard again, consternated, told me to wait a minute. She went to talk to her boss, came back, said there was a non-smoking window seat in business class, they were upgrading me, said I owed them (Northwest) some future business. Champagne, silverware, fat soft seat, I'm starting this new phase in style.
Epilogue: Time to Start Again
After seventeen years in triple mellow Portland, after five previous to that in the Oregon mountains, having earlier gotten seriously burnt out living in America's two largest cities, Bangkok would have been unthinkable without the Villa. Three hundred feet down a narrow side street with just enough room for a parked car, a moving car and one pedestrian, then 100 feet down a less than arm's length wide alley fronted by high walls of concrete block or corrugated metal, you open the aged wood doors to the Villa Guest House garden and another world, even if this wasn't close to the center of a dense city of eight million people.
On your right and a little back the lot is framed by a two story house completely covered by philodendron with two foot long leaves. Just in front is a 100 square foot L shaped goldfish pond with about 25 six to eight inch multicolored fish. Framed by the pond is a quarry tiled patio equipped with a round, glass-topped, flaky-white-painted wrought iron table and matching chairs, a metal swing, and a hammock which I spent a great many pleasant meditative hours swinging on, and which made it clear that I should never be long without one. Surrounding the patio on three sides is a thicket of banana trees and bamboo. There's also a lemon tree, a rose apple tree and dozens of potted plants.
One of the guests brought a little turtle back from Bangkok's vast, 8000 vendor, weekend market. The lock on the garden door was broken for a few days during rainy season, just long enough for some neighborhood frogs to hop in, do their thing and voila, thousands of pollywogs. Later, not long after Tui, the owner, culled out most of the pollywogs, tiny frogs appeared everywhere. Not too keen on the frogs at first, we convinced Tui to save some of them to help control the mosquitoes. Squirrels would come by every few days to play tag up above in the micro forest. And there's always noisy ornery tomcats fighting for territory and a little nookie, bestowing frequent subsequent kitten additions, though not many of them seemed to live very long. And of course, always the ubiquitous little house lizards and armies of minuscule but incredibly fast moving ants.
The property has been in Tui's family for three generations. Originally a single family house, a 1600 square foot, nine room addition was added about 30 years ago. It's a traditional style, teak paneled, Bangkok house which provides an ideal venue for display of Tui's collection of antiques and old pictures. Finally, there's an out of tune piano and a couple of old guitars around and music whenever anyone with even minimal talent gets the urge. There's hot water in the kitchen for coffee and a convenient place in back for hand washing clothes.
Tui played a little jazz back in his twenties and likes to stay up half the night watching videos of old jazz greats. He's incommunicado before noon. He keeps a floor plan of the house on the front door and a list of available rooms, and we regulars help newcomers until he wakes up. John from Little Rock is a photographer for an upscale publisher of English language magazines. Luke was my favorite DJ until he called in drunk - Uh...sick - too many times. He had a great late night jazz show on one of Bangkok's three English stations. Anna, from Germany is a doctor doing a three month internship. Daryl from England travels around Asia working as a model. Once you've found the Villa, you always go back.
My room is just big enough for a single bed, a desk and a wardrobe and costs a bit over $100 a month, though the price went up some when common but decent furniture was replaced with antiques. Tui gives a 10% discount for long timers and is flexible about the rent - a good thing. I got work within a few days but it was close to six weeks before I was earning my keep and was brought down to my last dollar twice. I was trying to let things happen, not pushing too hard, waiting for more hours at my first school.
There are 200 private language schools in Bangkok and a very high turnover in teachers, especially in those jobs that pay only $4 hour. Most itinerant teachers wind up working in more than one school, at one point I was working for three. All pay is cash and schools have to be flexible, at least partly because they know you have to leave the country every three months to get a new visa. Most work is evenings or weekends and much of it is in people's homes. This brings higher pay as well as a glimpse of establishment lifestyles but often requires an hour or more of travel time in each direction.
I started in February and by April, school holiday in Thailand, I had landed a job paying $8 hour, now I had two jobs, and was working 35 hour weeks, with travel time often more than twelve hour days. Thailand is a totally informal place and most teaching is individual or small groups, whether adults or children. The adults especially are interested only in conversation. They have to pass a difficult English exam to get into University, but they often learn it from someone who doesn't speak it. They just want someone to talk to so they can begin to recognize the sounds and in turn be understood, and most often they ask questions and carry the conversation.
It's really not much like work until traveling or having to be someplace, or just trying to be someplace at a specific time begins to get you down. Bangkok traffic is so bad you always have an excuse for being late. The world was so new, different and interesting, it took several months before an ordinary bus ride or long walk began to be boring, frustrating or otherwise burdensome. Actually, after about four months, teaching kids started to feel like work. Not that they aren't well behaved and wonderful children, but what kid in his or her right mind wants to learn English on a Saturday morning when they could be watching cartoons on TV?
It was an excellent way to get to know the people and an exceptionally easy way to make a living. Living frugally I was able to supply all of my needs on twelve to fourteen hours of work per week. That did not include much beer, one beer amounting to 10% of my daily expenses, but it did include eating all meals out. Within a quarter mile of the Villa there are at least 100 eateries serving a meal or bowl of noodle soup for less than a dollar, and the food, even the lowest cost, is easily the best in Asia, at least anywhere I've been.
On almost every block is a vendor selling tropical fruit from a compartmentalized glass hand cart. They always have at least pineapple, watermelon and papaya and usually guava and green mango or one of several other fruits only found here. For 20 cents the fruit is cut into bite size chunks and served in a plastic bag with a wood poker. One of the things I liked most about the tropics is the fruit, especially those that represented brand new taste sensations.
It's almost worth a trip just for a durian, the king of fruit. That is, if you can get past the smell - they are strictly prohibited from hotels, airplanes, even air-conditioned city buses. You are also cautioned not to eat too much, for it can do weird things to your stomach. In my case I would burp it up for hours. It commonly takes two tries - I gave away the first one I bought - but then you are hooked. It tastes like the finest, smoothest, sweetest cheesecake, or when itís cold, like cake frosting.
On a trip to Malaysia to renew my visa I read a newspaper account of an Italian chef who was brought in by a five star hotel for the express purpose of creating a durian gellato. Upon first whiff he threw up his hands and said this is impossible, but soon was converted. He described how he uses an instrument that measures blood sugar level to get an exact measure of sweetness and uses that knowledge to make the perfect gellato. Oranges come up four on the scale, bananas which are very sweet are twelve, but durian goes off the scale at thirty six. It's a strange looking fruit weighing two to eight pounds and is covered with hard to handle 1" spikes. Less than half the weight is edible so except for the height of the season it's expensive, upwards of two dollars a pound, but absolutely worth it.
Jackfruit is similar looking except it has small spikes in a much bigger fruit, up to 40 pounds, and said to be the world's largest. It is sweet and chewy like gummy bears and sold ready to eat in small amounts. Mangosteen is a purple plum shaped fruit with white slices that explode juicy and sweet in your mouth. Rose apple tastes like an apple but looks a bit like a pale green pepper and has the spring and texture of iceberg lettuce. Finally, the rambutan, which has to be the weirdest looking fruit in creation. It has half inch long chartreuse hairs sticking out of a dayglo purple egg shaped fruit. The flesh is white and springy, similar to lychee and longan, and sweet, but it's taste, good as it is, is way overshadowed by it's looks. Even after almost two years there were still fruits I had not yet tried.
On the main thoroughfare a couple of blocks from the Villa there are a dozen bus routes, and since there is essentially no single downtown, there are 24 destinations accessible from that one street. Almost every thoroughfare has many bus lines owing to the extremely limited number of streets. Itís only recently become common knowledge that a stingy 8 to 9% of the cityís land area is covered by streets compared to the average cityís 25%.
Most of the city is divided into superblocks with squirrely interior streets that rarely connect. Ambiance on Bangkokís main streets is noisy and polluted - there are a million 2-cycle motorbikes, most of which it seemed were modified to create the most decibels - and a lot of smoky trucks and buses - but off the thoroughfares where 98% of the people live it's really quiet.
Problem is, government leaders in the last 30 years during which the city's population has quadrupled, have been totally negligent in planning for necessary streets to the effect that, while the superblocks in the older parts of town average a very tenable one quarter to one half square mile, the superblocks get so big in the newer parts there is sometimes as much as two or three miles between cross streets.
That was not such a big problem when those areas contained mostly single family or small buildings. But now many of those have been replaced with complexes of thirty story apartment buildings with the result that traffic standstills of as much as an hour are everyday occurrences in many places. Meanwhile many mass transit plans have gone by the wayside. Every coup or change of government causes a change of plans and the country's leadership can't bring itself to try to build them without private money in spite of common knowledge that the world provides no examples of privately built mass transit systems that are paying for themselves.
In fact, there are three independently designed and therefore incompatible systems currently in final planning stages. One of them is an engineering disaster waiting to happen - twenty miles of four story structure designed to carry six lanes of freeway traffic on the top level, five train tracks, for both light and heavy rail, on the third floor, and retail on the ground. Clearly, I came to realize, one of the things the developing world lacks most is planning.
Combined with limited resources, of course. The Thai government has a difficult time levying reasonable taxes on those able to pay, but regardless, the cost of providing Bangkok with adequate transportation is equal to 25% of the country's entire annual budget. The city's first sewage treatment plant is now under construction. A complete system, costing about 2.5 billion dollars is equal to 10% of a year's budget. In an easy interpolation then, it can be seen that one year's cost of the US defending Europe, upwards of 100 billion dollars, would be enough to buy a complete sewage treatment system for every megacity in the developing world.
Much as I like the city, with the possible exception of Hong Kong the most cosmopolitan city in Asia, the novelty had worn off by about six months and I started to feel oppressed by the cityís extreme density and heavy pollution, like I was carrying a ton of lead on my head. I was trapped. Thinking I would only be around for a few months, I could not make the commitment necessary to get a better paying, more regular job when I first arrived. Then I swore off teaching children after about four months.
Finally all of the best paying jobs that would have given me more choices continually slipped out of my hands. Besides, I was coming to the conclusion that I wasn't really enjoying doing any kind of work that felt like work. As long as I had to work, I would have gladly chosen the far greater livability of a smaller city when I started if Thailand had one, but the country's second city, Chiang Mai with 200,000 people, is so small that finding work there was very iffy compared to Bangkok.
I began to work less, supplying all my needs on twelve to fifteen hours of work, and spend more time swinging in the hammock, until a message came from home to force a change in my life. Not only did the recycling business that dominated my existence for thirteen years go down but it sounded like personal guarantees that I had signed were threatening to take my house with it. I was ready for a change but certainly not ready for home. There's no way I could pay the debt, the house being my only asset. But how could I sell the house? I expected to live there forever. On the other hand it needed tons of work, which I definitely no longer had the taste for doing.
What were my alternatives? The hammock was really swinging with that one. On the one hand, assuming I can somehow pay the debt, I can get serious about getting a job and look forward to continuing to work for several years. Or I can sell out, take the money, travel the world, be free of all encumbrances and hope I can find an income before the stash runs out. It was another of those agonizing decisions, but in the end, no contest. Time to experience more of the rest of the world, but first, time to go home.
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