Thursday, April 15, 2010

8) Rob and Anne

Rob Marshall is from my home town of Maine, Iowa. His sister and her husband are old friends of the family; they live across the street from the house I grew up in. My sister and I played Barbies and “figure-skating” on rollerblades in the unfinished baement with their three daughters. As if all of that does not make us close enough, Rob and his sister were raised in the very same house that I was; he and I have the same childhood bedroom.

I’ve heard about Rob now and then over the years - how he was in Jakarta or Nairobi or Cairo, always working for the U.S. Embassy in some capacity - but I never met him nor thought about him except in a wistful kind of way as a child whenever I heard of him – working for the embassy in Cairo… Magnificent but completely impossible. A story, beautiful novel I read in bed, nestled in blankets, hearing nothing outside my own window but the sound of wind like waves through leaves, a car door shutting, the neighbor tsking tsking ther dog from the porch.

As soon as I announced my decision to move to Bangkok my mother in turn began announcing it to everyone in town. When she told Rob’s sister she learned that he and his wife, Anne, were accepting a second assignment in Bangkok (they had been there years before on another post; they would arrive in the city a month before I did. By some grace of God they went to Iowa first, and my mom was able to meet and question them to her heart’s content. Hearing their answers - Street food is safe, Western grocery stores available, and Everything is warm and beautiful - put me more at ease too. In fact, without even knowing them their presence in Bangkok made me feel good. I emailed them before I left, introducing myself as his sister had instructed, and they emailed back right away saying they’d love to show me around as soon as I arrived. All I have to do is pick up the phone.


Rob and Anne could not have possibly been nicer. When I called, they sounded as homespun as strawberry-rhubarb pie, each getting on a separate extension so they could talk to me at the same time. And yet, they itinerary they laid out for our afternoon together is pleasantly sophisticated. I dress in something silly, having no idea what the fashion is in Bangkok. I only feel half-pretty in a green silk wrap-around skirt and crinkled brown camisole because of the wooden beaded necklace a boyfriend picked up on a trip he took without me.

I stand outside my apartment building in the bright sun, perspiring. I fiddle with my purse, pace back and forth, waiting for their taxi, wondering what color it will be. I look around at all the colors – purple apartment building, orange coffee shop in which a long-haired, slender, shirtless Thai man mixes something in a tiny plastic cup, pink bouganvillae over the white wall, orange marigolds in gold pots and rainbow-colored puffy garlands of ribbon around an alabaster miniature house. I think this is a spirit house with offerings, but I don’t really know why or for what spirit or anything. I make a mental note to find out.

Maybe Rob and Anne will know. They said they will take me on a tour of a part of Bangkok, around Sukhumvit Road. We will got o the mall, they said, just a few malls, not really to shop, then tea and cake, then something else and something else and eventually dinner, that’s all I know. I also know without question that they will pay for everything and I try to settle into that notion and get comfortable. I smile at the grinning doorman who watches me and bows whenever I look at him. I pull my shoulders back and stand up straight. I feel wet and pink. I realize that possibly the doorman thinks I’m rich, and I try to think of myself like that too.

A blue taxi.

Rob and Anne are tall and thin and white and look as Mid Western as anyone possibly could. She is wearing a straw hat with a pink ribbon around it and he is in khaki shorts and a light blue Hawaiian shirt. Calm but quick, they seem to simmer with information. I know they don’t have any children and I immediately feel a wealth of love and care emanating from them that has not been given sufficient outlet – until now. I step right into their open and outstretched arms. We embrace quickly and pop back in the cab.

The taxi turns around in my garage and we speed back the way they came, down my soi, around the corner, and out to Tong Lor. “Yeah, this is a great neighborhood,” Rob says, turning and grinning at me and Anne in the back. “There’s the Great Palace,” he says, pointing at a graceful white building at a polite remove from the street. “Chinese restaurant, supposed to be really good. And there’s the most famous wedding studio. Lots of those on soi fifty-five. Yeah, our friends used to live down here so we’ve been around a bit. We like it, good to get a change, little quieter.” His face is youthful for a man past middle-age, and his blue eyes shine with excitement. His thin lips turn in a little when he smiles and I find it simple, charming. I don’t know what he does at the embassy, but with such guileless, easy manners, he can’t possibly be a spy.

The taxi drops us off at the end of the soi, where Tong Lor meets with Sukhumvit, a ride of about five minutes; Rob warns it would take a lot longer with traffic. He pays the driver and we hop out, take the escalator up to the entrance of the sky train, where my first lesson of the day begins. Information comes rapidly, Rob and Anne’s voices cutting in and out, carrying on one another’s sentences. I’m listening keenly but relaxed now, enjoying the gentle volley of their words. There are only two trains, they tell me, the Sukhumvit line and the Silom line. The only place to change between them is at Siam. On the wall there is a very simple map. They point out my stop, Tong Lor, and theirs, Chit Lom, big green dots connected by black lines on a white background. They show me how to buy a single ride fare, then purchase a reusable card for me and top it up with 100 baht worth of rides. I have to take in my surroundings almost surreptitiously while attending to their advice. The station hangs in the air over a busy road, open air on all sides. It’s busy but not crowded. Thai pop music plays over loudspeakers and kiosk vendors sell mini pizzas topped with corn and pineapple, freshly squeezed juice, and intoxicatingly good-smelling almond waffles.

As we approach the turnstile, Anne touches me lightly on the shoulder. “Oh Emily,” she says, hear her sweet, easy smile audible in her voice. Looking up at her I see how it stretches wide across her milk-white face as she leans her long body down to talk to me. I like the incongruity of her young, excited expression and her lined neck and thinning hair. “I have to warn you about the gate. Watch out for the yellow triangles!” she says, and demonstrates by quickly scooting her hips through the opening, only moments before the heavy plastic turnstile snaps shut again with a puff of air.

We ride another escalator to the train platform, where a uniformed guard with a whistle polices the yellow line in front of the platform edge. I want to look down the track and see if the train is coming, take in the view, but as soon as I touch the yellow line with my foot a frantic whistle resounds from the other end of the platform. I pull toward it, at the police officer, indignant. “Jeez, dude,” I mutter to Rob and Anne, not at all chagrined. Depending on the MTA of New York City for my transportation needs has inspired my open contempt for transit workers. Though I can’t say I ever saw an MTA employee looking so spiffy in his uniform.

“Oh yeah,” Rob grins. “They’ll do that.”

The train arrives long and smooth as a bullet, its outside completely covered, as though wrapped, in advertisements. Getting up closer I can see that they are all done with a kind of pointillism, so that from inside the train you can still see perfectly out the window.

It’s freezing inside, a shock to the system that starts out refreshing but quickly becomes too much. TVs near every other door blare advertisements in Thai. The chairs and poles are all bright yellow plastic and people both sit and stand, leaving a few open seats here and there. Everything looks shiny and new; Anne tells me that’s because you’re not allowed to bring food or drink on the sky train, or BTS, as it’s really called, and obviously there are people to enforce that. So far it seems far superior to me than the NYC subway, at least aside from the obnoxious TVs. We swish through the dazzling blue sky passing glass skyscrapers and rooftops, the slow, humid street clogged with traffic directly below.

After a couple of stops we get off again and Rob and Anne tell me this is the stop for their apartment but we’re not going there. Instead they’re going to take me through a few of the many massive, shiny shopping malls that cover this part of Sukhumvit. I didn’t exactly come to Bangkok to go to the mall, but I can already see that what Rob and Anne show me here and what I’ll discover on my own will be vastly different, and that that’s good. Above all I want to learn as much as possible here, to start to see it all, from everybody’s points of view. So, to the mall.

A glimmering, sparkling black glass, architectural feat of a mall, the Paragon shopping center is all green jungle foliage in white marble and waterfalls dripping down black granite. But aside from the extravagant entryway it’s like an upscale American mall only louder, brighter, and coutury-er. Chanel, Gucci, Fendi, Hermes – socialites want for nothing here but not a single shop do I see where I could actually buy anything. It’s okay though because we are just walking through and soon we pass through glass corridors in the sky, the busy streets visible again beneath us, into another mall, and then again to another. We pass the movie theater where Harry Potter and the Simpson’s movie are playing, just as they were in New York.

“This is a nice theater,” Rob says, pointing his thumb back at the marquee and pausing for a moment next to a wall full of movie posters. “They have this thing called the ‘King’ special where they have these Lazy Boy chairs and you get your own waitress for snacks or drinks or whatever. They have blankets, slippers probably.” He laughs. “The whole works.”

“Wow, I’ll have to check that out sometime,” I say, thinking that I certainly will never be able to afford that on my Fun English salary.

We leave the mall through an open concrete sidewalk in the sky now and I walk along between Rob and Anne. The sky train is above and the street below. The air smells of car fumes, meat burning, dog shit, oranges, incense. Clouds of smoke rise above an intersection in the distance and on sidewalk below there seems to be an even larger flurry of activity than everywhere else. This must be the Erawan shrine.

In the midst of designer malls and five-star hotels, behind a white iron fence opening up onto the street, a golden statue of the Hindu four-faced Brahma glitters under the adamant sun. Every inch of the god’s temple is covered in garlands of marigolds, stems of orchids and lotuses, hand-written notes, food, fruit, drinks, and burning candles and incense. Behind the statue, under a low roof, men tap padded mallets on wooden xylophones while women in traditional dress slowly bend their long, thin hands this way and that. Rob and Anne tell me that the shrine is a tourist attraction, but I see few other white faces in the bustling enclosure, and I am the only one holding a camera. Everyone else appears to be Thai, Chinese, or both, and I get the feeling that the shrine is not a special destination for them, but a place to stop for a break from shopping or work, to make an offering or a wish.

We walk up to the entrance of the shrine past lottery ticket vendors and wicker boxes full of small birds that you can buy to then set free. Rob explains to me that this is just one of the many things you can do to “make merit” in Thai Buddhism. You can also leave offerings to Buddha – the flowers, food, and drinks placed before a statue – or put any of the above into a monk’s alms bowl. It sounds to me like the outdated Catholic practice of buying indulgences, basically paying for good karma. “But who is Erawan?” I ask Rob, and he explains that Erawan is the Thai name for Arivata, the three-headed elephant known in Hinduism for carrying the god, Indra. There’s also a four-faced golden statue of Brahma. People light incense and kneel before the statues, burning sticks smoking between their praying palms, lips moving silently as they bow again and again. I’m confused because I thought Thailand was a Buddhist country but Rob explains that the form of Buddhism here is special. The Thais are adept at absorbing the influence of other cultures while retaining their own, Rob says, so plenty of Hinduism and Animism has gotten mixed up into their Buddhism. They are more superstitious than anything, he says, so anything that they think might possibly bring them luck will be welcome.

“This is pretty much just a big spirit house,” Rob says. Anne is wandering somewhere else by herself, reading inscriptions, watching people. “I saw you have a spirit house outside of your apartment building. They’re so the spirits of the dead ancestors or whoever else don’t feel the need to come into the home and bother the living. You’ve got to give them a place to stay and food to eat if you expect to leave them alone. That’s what’s going on here. They had some trouble with building this hotel and so they put up the shrine. I guess it went better the next time around.” Rob grins. I am grateful to have a guide of such an intellectual caliber. He tells me that people surmise that perhaps this flexible sensibility that explains in part why Thailand is the only South East Asian country to have never been occupied by an outside power. “That is, technically,” he says.

“So no religious violence?” I ask, disbelieving.

“A little,” he says. “Down South, against Muslims. Probably not the best place to travel at the moment.”

I think about this as Anne and I pick flaked pieces of gold leaf from the ground and press them carefully into the elephants’ foreheads, another way of making merit. She shows me a font of water which can be prayed or wished over, then patted on head, hands, and face as extra good luck - like holy water, but more accessible. I make no offerings other than to reapply the gold leaf. After asking all my questions I smile shyly at Rob and Anne, too unsure yet to attempt anything spiritual in their presence, too unversed in the ways of Buddhism, and especially Hinduism, to feel comfortable making any offering to anyone. I don’t know if Rob and Anne are religious, but I would guess probably not based on his family, who as far as I know don’t belong to any church. I wonder what it’s like not to wonder to the point of worry about the nature of reality.

“I know that we were supposed to go to the Erawan tea room for our snack, Rob, but what if we went to the Intercon for High Tea instead?” Anne asks. “If we head over now I think we can just make it. Oh, it’s so lovely Emily. They have these adorable little sandwiches and dim sum and the best, just the best chocolate fountain.”

“Sure, yeah. Sign me up!” I say, my mouth watering instantly at her description. I’ve always wanted to go to a High Tea. “I’m game if Rob is.”

“Why not?” he says. “It’s only across the street. We can cross over through Amarin Plaza.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

7) Mansion House

I left things open with Rich. He’s a catch, it’s true - good-looking, smart, generous, well endowed and great in the sack… But still. A year is a long time and I’m so over the long-distance thing. That’s what ruined my ex and I. Either that or it’s what didn’t ruin us soon enough. Either way I don’t want to do it again.

Before I left Rich helped me move some things to a generous friends’ basement in Queens where she had offered to store them. After the job was done the two of us nestled together on her couch, pawing each other as my friend served us fruit with freshly whipped cream. Luckily, my happily married friend found this adorable and was as sad as we were to see us board a subway back to Manhattan where we would have to finally part. Standing face to face in the center of the crowded train I noted again how perfectly proportionate Rich and I were; my head rested comfortably on his shoulder and his chin tucked down protectively over my forehead. His arms felt safe and sweetly greedy folded around my back.

“Ahh,” Rich sighed as the train lurched to a stop and we fell closer together. “I could do this forever.” A woman beside us rolled her eyes and I smiled at her sweetly, softly. I was already kinder, I thought.

“You’ll have to wait at least a year,” I told him. “Go ahead and get a girlfriend, but make sure she knows I’m coming back. If she doesn’t acquiesce to me then I’ll probably have to kick her ass.” I believed everything I was saying in the yellow-grey light of the subway car, amidst the many-colored people and their varying expressions of amusement, disgust, anxiety, and despair. Rich didn’t look convinced but he said he hoped I would do just that. We reached his station and he got off the train and I waved and as the train pulled away he stood there on the platform, following me with his green eyes until I was gone. I haven’t talked to him since.

Tonight, before I go to bed, we chat online. It is midnight in Thailand, noon in New York, and I think I’m finally worn out enough to sleep in this sweltering room. Rich wants to know what time the driver from Fun English picks me up tomorrow. “Can I call you again in the morning?” he asks. “I just like to hear your voice before I go to bed.”

What’s wrong with this guy? I wonder. He’s in New York, the capital of the world for hot, desperate girls; what does he want with me? I’m not buying what he’s selling but since I don’t have a cell phone here, and thus no alarm clock, I do need someone to wake me up in the morning by calling me on Skype. Also, damn it, I can’t help but like the attention.

“Okay,” I say, fake-reluctant. “You can be my wake up call.”

And he’s as good as the real thing – not a moment late. I open my eyes to the sun bleeding through the gauzy curtains and pull my laptop into bed with me, slip on my headphones to hear Rich’s all-American voice tell me that he’s outside of a bar uptown. He’s a little drunk, he says; he says he wishes I was there. It’s good, I think, that he’s at a bar and drunk and still remembers to call me. He must really like me, I guess. Maybe it really is more than just amazing sex. My body is hot, sticky, covered in sweat but I feel light in it. Someone nice likes me and I am in a foreign country and I will get an apartment today. I thank Rich and send him back to the bar, back to the New York night life. I am so good at not clinging, I think. I am practically a Buddha already.

Out I go, looking for breakfast. Though I’m fairly well-versed in Thai cuisine, I’m still surprised to walk down the street this morning and find everyone eating the same kind of food they had for dinner last night. All the street carts and shop houses sell curry, noodles, rice, and meat. A woman chops chicken heads on the sidewalk and gelatinous tripe hangs from hooks in portable glass cases through which the sun burns. People shuffle along the cracked pavement slowly in flip flops and I, worried about being late, rush around them flapping my wings and revving my engine while everyone else idles. Where is the food? Where is my egg and cheese sandwich on a bagel? Where is the deli? A green and black Starbucks looks cool and clean and familiar, feeling slightly desperate I pop my head in to look at the prices. Two hundred baht for a cup of coffee = almost $6! I shake my head in disgust and leave, holding the door open for a skinny white man who does not seem to notice me as he enters the building, talking loudly on his cell phone in an English accent.

After a bit more unsuccessful searching I settle for a packaged pastry and bottle of green tea from Seven-Eleven. We don’t have Seven-Eleven so much in New York but when I studied in Copenhagen they were everywhere. The offering here are very different from those in Denmark. There the hot food item was always hot dogs in crescent rolls and here it’s Chinese pork buns. I buy a packaged croissant but there are also sandwiches on crust-less white bread with butter, green pandan, or chocolate filling. Every single bottled drink is sugary, the tea shocking me with a sweet jolt. It’s not what I wanted but I gulp it for the caffeine.

The Fun English driver meets me in the lobby of St. Gabriel’s a few minutes after nine. A thin, moderately attractive middle-aged Thai man, he arrives in a gold sedan. He doesn’t speak a word to me but seems not at all troubled over my identity, perhaps because I am the only one in the lobby yet again. The driver takes a piece of paper from his pocket and I can see that it’s the list of apartments I emailed Fun English that I wanted to check out. The driver talks for a moment with the St. Gabriel’s doorman and then we drive away, speeding through streets humming with traffic. We drive on elevated highways and underground ones, through back alleys and parking lots. As we cruise around in the comfort of our temperature-controlled vehicle, I realize how extremely lucky I am to have a driver. I have no idea how I’d manage all this on my own.

I try to get my bearings but the city is too twisty. I don’t know how far one building is from the next, or where the Fun English office is in relation to any of it. I don’t know how I’ll get to and from work each day. I don’t know if I’ll ever find anything suitable to eat for breakfast, or if I’ll make any friends, or if I’ll figure out how to keep paying my student loans back in the states. I sit quietly in the car while the driver speaks to the managers. I have no idea what they say to each other but I take it all on faith that everyone knows what they’re doing. What choice do I have? Faith, right now, is my only hope. As we zig and zag through the mad city I cling to this faith, and to my past experience like a seatbelt. In my life in New York I’ve developed a trust for cabdrivers that borders on the unconditional, and it is that which I fall back on now, reminding myself that just because I don’t know where I am doesn’t mean the driver doesn’t. And if he doesn’t stop at red lights, that must be okay too, since no one else is either. I wonder about this until we do get stuck at a light and have to wait three minutes for it to change green for a few measly seconds. Then, I understand.

All the apartments I’ve chosen to see are furnished studios. They all consist of a single room, a bed, storage space for clothing, and a small bathroom. None have a kitchen. The first room is small and made tinier still with too much furniture. Bed linens are provided, as is weekly maid service. On the roof there is a new-looking wooden deck and gorgeous swimming pool surrounded by comfortable lounge chairs and huge clay pots of palm trees, frangipani, and orchids. But I think it’s too impersonal, too hotel-like, as well as out of my price range.

The next two rooms are decent but run-down. Neither has a shower stall, only spouts stuck to the wall beside the toilet. One has a pool but no deck. The other boasts plenty of practical wooden shelves, a tea kettle, and an English-speaking landlord, but no pool. In the quaint little room I sweat through my t-shirt and my black cotton skirt sticks to my legs. I clench my wet fists and I promise myself a swimming pool. I’m going to need something to do if I’m not smoking pot, I reason. (Which I’ve promised myself I’m not going to do, mostly because of a certain Claire Danes movie.)

The next apartment is the cheapest, and I can see why. The concrete block of a room has one plastic yellow window with a view of the balconies of the adjoining building, less than five feet away. It’s only 3,000 baht, about $90 a month, and so financially it would be good, if only the heaviness of depression didn’t settle upon my chest immediately upon setting foot in it. No amount of savings is worth the pain that living in this cell would cause. Loneliness and isolation are hard enough in a foreign country without living in an ugly room too. In the car I wash the sadness from my heart by gulping air-conditioned air and watching the scenery fly by as we make our way to the last stop – Chamchan Mansion.

From a small, dilapidated soi we pull into a parking garage under an aged, white concrete building. My buoyant feeling of adventure returns as soon as I see the smiling woman poking her body halfway out the door of a tiny lobby. Her crooked glasses, ugly green shower sandals, ill-fitting jeans and sweet smile give me a sense of well-being. As my driver speaks to her, though his face gives no indication of having made a joke, she begins to laugh and keeps on laughing as he gets back in the car and pulls into a parking spot.

The woman says to me, “Okay, ka. I show you room, ka.” Ka is a polite word, I know, kind of like please except used all the time. Women say ka and men say krap, and you should say these words after nearly every sentence if you want Thai people to think you’re nice. The very polite apartment lady nods and giggles and I follow her into the building. As we make our way up to the fifth floor via a small, fan-cooled elevator, I start to laugh a little too. She says “Okay, ka,” and “Ka,” again and bows her head and leads me to a corner room, opening the door and moving out of the way, so I can enter first.

Room #505 is big and full of light. Big sliding glass doors open onto a generous, triangle-shaped balcony. The full-size bed is pressed against a wooden headboard affixed to the wall. A little wooden night stand sets beside the bed and across from it is a cabinet with a TV and a makeup table and mirror. Four large closets line another wall and though there is no stove or hotplate, a medium-sized, teal green refrigerator, kitchen sink, small counter, and shelf space offer more of a kitchen than any other room I’ve seen. That there is no kitchen is not altogether surprising since I’ve read about this phenomenon, too. People don’t cook at home much in Bangkok; instead they eat at made-to-order shops and carts on the street. Groceries are expensive, and so is air conditioning, and who wants to stand over a hot stove in this heat?

The bathroom, done in teal green tile, has a raised tile ledge and a plastic curtain - clean and new and patterned with pink flowers - separating the shower from the rest of the room. It’s bigger than any of the other bathrooms, clean, and well lit. I feel good in it, despite seeing my white faced blotched with red and streaming sweat in the mirror.

Standing in my flip flops on the white tile balcony I can see into the soi below. In the near distance a purple apartment building brightens the blue sky, and beyond that the city stretches its long arms up and up, as if trying to climb out of itself. Down the soi the golden triangle of a wat (temple) gleams in the sun next to a huge skyscraper of blue glass.

The woman, speaking to me in Thai while continuing to bow, takes me to the second floor where a worn wooden deck, tons of plants, and a few weathered plastic lounge chairs surround a clear blue pool. It is my pool. Exactly right, just what I imagined. I tell the nodding, kaing woman thank you and I return, grinning, to the car. I give the driver a thumbs up and he responds with a weak smile. After he speaks to the woman he drives me just down the street to the Fun English office. I had no idea that it was so close and am struck with gratitude by my own fantastic luck. Can I really have found a beautiful apartment close to my job in only three hours?

Thitiwat makes the deal for me over the phone, then sends me and the driver out again, now to Big C, the Thai version of Wal-Mart, for supplies. I get pillows, hangers, sheets, one bowl, one cup, one set of silverware, and the driver carts me home again. I dole out ten thousand baht to the woman, who puts her hands together and wais to me before taking my money, and then that’s it, I’m done, officially a tenant of Chamchan Mansion. I even have wireless internet.

I sprawl out in the sunshine on my new yellow cotton sheets. My bed is warm and comfortable and I imagine that I’m lying in the gleaming petals of a sunflower. It’s peaceful, though not exactly quiet. On the soi below motorbikes thrum and buzz, flickering in and out like mid-day thunder. I listen and look around at my bare walls and empty pantry, and this with all my bags unpacked. But I like it that way, simple and unfettered. That’s my life now, loose and untied.

So far, everything has fallen into place without a hitch. Such easiness would usually make me nervous, but I’m not worried now. It’s clear that I should be here. Mai pen rai! I say out loud into my empty room. No problem, never mind, don’t sweat it – all the translations of the Thai motto apply. What is there to worry about? My country - its long work days, its taxes and insurance policies, its debts and wars and delusions - can’t reach me here. I don’t know what the gossip is in New York today. I don’t know where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes are. I don’t know what offensive thing the president just said and I hardly have a dollar to my name. I feel fabulous. My legs bounce up and down on the hard mattress. They feel limber, ready to walk, anxious for jungles and temples and oceans. But where to go? And with whom? Then I remember a certain phone number.