Our house in Bangkok stood at the end of a cul-de-sac inside a big compound bordering to an even bigger slum. A barbed-wire fenced wall separated us from the poor. I liked the wall for the cozy atmosphere it creates in our street, but the inhabitants of the slum didn’t seem to justify the security. Their lives were just as burdensome or as happy as ours; and they didn’t care about the crazy foreigners inside the compound.
Crime was not a topic, but bad things did happen behind the wall.
To control the swamp that Bangkok is build on, the city’s engineers dug up channels and concreted over every trickle of running water. Today, the channels and rivers of Bangkok are deathtraps to all land creatures. The embankments are unforgiving walls; too steep and slippery even for rats to climb up.
Such a channel lay behind our compound’s wall: a dark and still body of water choked with garbage, a sad sight with a bad smell, but normal in Bangkok.
During one of the first nights in our new house, I was roused by a wail and splashing sounds. I ran to the upper window from where I could see the channel. A dog had fallen in. I saw him paddling back and forth, searching a way out. Every few seconds, he let out this heart-stabbing wail. Then, he tried to climb on one of the garbage islands, but in vain; it sunk away and reemerged in a circle around him. I looked out for the fridge that I had seen floating the other day but it was gone.
Our dogs, joining the terrible wails with their own interpretation, interupted even my wife’s deep sleep. When she came up and saw what happened, she started to cry. I put my arms around her; she was shivering despite the heat. It must have been two or three o’clock in the morning yet Bangkok was still like a steam sauna.
After years in the third world, one, sadly, gets hardened to suffering; yet I can not stand idle when there is at least something that can be tried. The compound’s wall was too high to climb. Even if I had a ladder, there was too much barbed-wire on top. The dog wailed and paddled-on for his little life.
I grabbed my sneakers and started to run – first a kilometer or two into the opposite direction, away from the wall and the channel, out of our compound and down onto Sukhumvit Road, one of Bangkok’s busy eight-lane arteries. There I turned right towards the first big junction. I ran fast, feeling positively athletic in my mission, which I was not – in fact I carried 20 kilo overweight. Lorries and cars honked at me: a crazy foreigner in pajamas and sneakers racing through the dark.
At the big junction I turned right into a smaller road (which means only four lanes in Bangkok) and from there again right into a residential street, consequently making a wide circle around our compound; and finally arriving at a bridge crossing the channel behind the compound. Beside the bridge I found the little track which I had noticed earlier and which followed up the channel between our compound’s wall and the slum.
When I got to the back of our house, my wife had climbed into a tree from where she could peer over the wall. The dog was still alive but in-between his wails there were gurgling sounds. He was clawing the wall, trying to hold onto the slippery moss. I lay on my belly and leaned over the bank. As he saw me, he squeaked and tried to get away. It was a typical midsize street mutt – half-wild creatures with no family attachment, shy and wary of humans.
I snatched him by the neck and hauled him up. Determined to fight for his life even in this misery, he bit me in the wrist. Now, I squeaked; and let go in midair. Luckily he was already on an upward trajectory. He crashed against the wall and landed on his feet.
For a moment we stared at each other, me breathlessly non-athletic and him scared out of his senses. Then he dashed off; and again fell into the channel!
There he was paddling around and wailing once more. I was rather dispirited but my wife up in the tree was not.
The second time, having learned my lesson, I got him by the tail, pulled him upwards and swung him to safe ground, always keeping good distance from his jaws. I was afraid his tail might come off but it held fine. Those street mutts are tough little fellows.
The instant I let go of his tail, he disappeared down the path and into the dark. No more splashing sounds. He, too, had learned his lesson. Probably he felt that he had escaped not only the water but also Bangkok’s legendary dog eater, the nightmare of all street puppies. I was left behind in the mud, bleeding and panting. You can’t expect him to say thanks.
To my wife, however, I was a hero and back in the house I got beer for my wrist and many hugs. The next day, I broke the lock of an emergency exit in the compound’s wall (there was, of course, no key) and thus got direct access to the little path next to the channel. Then, we bought a big landing net in a fishing shop.
We regularly rescued lizards, birds and cats, but mostly dogs – young dogs; they are just too silly. We also built a watchtower for our dog to guard the channel (see picture). When something falls in, he howls; and we get the net ready.
Voodoo Killed My Mother
My mother is dead. The doctors say she died of meningitis, but I know that is not the whole truth. My mother was killed by a voodoo spell.
Our family comes from a rainy northern city. My mum always hated the cold and spent her entire life trying to get away from it. She did get away; she made it to the jungles and beaches of Asia and Africa, but life always forced her back into cold cities.
The last time in Africa, she met a young man, an ex-police officer for whom she fell head over heels. He had nothing – no job, no home, nothing but debt and a big family. My mother paid his bills. He was still married, but she refused to believe it. We do not know how he lost his job in law enforcement, but you don’t get fired from Africa’s police because you are too clean. When her cash cards were emptied at the ATM, she said it was a banking miracle, not him stealing.
Together they built a house near the beach and opened a restaurant. She wouldn’t listen to anybody, cutting off those who questioned the young man. In the end, she gave up her family, her children, and everything else that mattered to her, except for her dogs, because they were loyal and uncritical, no matter what the young man did to her. She never saw her grandchild, not even a photo, because the young man warned her that a voodoo curse might be attached to the photo.
It was not her will, she said, but the voodoo spell that bound her. She wanted to escape but she couldn’t. Every time she tried to leave him, she got terribly sick. She tried counter-spells too, but they didn’t work; probably her sorceress was no good, she said. In Africa, musungus never get the real deal.
The restaurant was robbed many times, miraculously whenever they held some cash. Traumatized by violent crimes, my mother sold the house near the beach and followed the young man to the up-countries, where his wife and children lived.
He convinced her that building an apartment house would be a solid investment. Her remaining funds went into twelve flats in Nairobi. She kept the address of the apartment house secret so we could not find her or her young man.
Nairobi (or “Nai-Robbery” to the insider) is almost as cold and rainy as the city where she was born. It was there that her life’s cycle closed. When she had no more money to invest, she was chased away by the young man’s wife and soon succumbed to illness.
“I know you don’t believe me, but there are things in Africa that one cannot explain. Things beyond our understanding.” It was one of the last things she said to me.
The young man had her buried behind the graveyard’s toilet, next to the garbage, but only after we sent money for the funeral. He had no cash, he said even though my mother’s will left all to him, the apartment house and the car. He did not bother to put a stone or a flower on her grave. My mother’s beloved dogs went to an animal shelter; we will never get her personal belongings, as her will stipulates, because the young man is afraid that we will put a spell on him.
Remarkably, my mother never went to church. The church just wanted her money, she said. However, against all indications, my mother was not stupid. In fact, she was very successful in everything she did except in regards to men.
She was a nihilist and a misanthrope, yet it was love that killed her.
Love in the form of a voodoo spell.
By the time I officially became a teenager, I was a hippie already. I had stopped combing my hair (don’t even mention cutting it); wore ripped jeans and adored Jim Morrison.
Smoking hash was, of course, very important. Business-minded from birth, I thought it would be extra cool to sell hash too. Fortunately, I didn’t have the money to actually buy serious quantities to wholesale. Thus I concentrated on services by rolling joints for my fellow classmates. It was a silly teenager act; however, it could have gotten me into serious trouble.
In my class was an obese girl; she was very un-cool according to my value system, but I rolled her a few joints. She kept a diary about her experimental drug use and, predictably, her mother read it. My name was mentioned and I was reported to the local police.
As I learned later, they also heard of my family’s business in Asia and thought I might be a professional dealer, possibly a major catch if with my family was involved. The prospect of an international drug-ring must have been too much for our small-town officers, so they escalated the affair to the state drug agency. My case was taken by a man whose name was legend and program: Mr. Happydrink was an alcoholic and he hated illegal drugs.
One terrible day, I was sitting in class probably dreaming of Jim Morrison, the school master rushed into the room and straight for me. While I was escorted to his office I thought of dumping my hash but it was just too precious so I hid it.
As I entered the school master’s private office, Mr. Happydrink’s Special Forces team jumped upon me. I imagine they were disappointed with me being such a milk face but they stripped and frisked me professionally.
They emptied the contents of my Moroccan hippie-bag onto the table and found the tell-tale missing cardboard of the cigarette papers but no pot. They dug through my leather jacket with the ‘Bob Marley’ stickers and multiple secret pockets – no pot, only old tobacco. My jeans, more patches than fabric, revealed nothing, not even inside the patches. My socks were empty, my t-shirt was all holes and my painted converse sneakers were filled with nothing but dirt.
Now, in my stained underpants, I was not a hippie anymore but only a bony, white and pimply thirteen year old, sweating and shivering simultaneously.
“My underpants, too?” I asked.
After all, officer Happydrink must have felt sorry. He did not call my bluff.
Though there was no hard evidence Happydrink took me to the police station for a full course of one-on-one gangster grilling. I knew nothing.
Mug shots were taken; left and right. As I was standing there I felt a little plop down my trouser. The hash had worked its way out from my underpants and down my jeans. There it lay, neatly packed in aluminum foil, too precious and dangerous to be left behind so I picked it up and put it in my pocket. Happydrink’s mug-shot-shooter did not notice.
It was early afternoon when they let me go and I remember a terrible exhaustion. My mind, however, was set. I was not going to face this drama; I was going to run; run hard and far. In Greece, in the seventies, there were still islands to discover.
Though it was deep winter I walked home and made plans for my final escape. At that time, I was living alone with my dad. My mother and sister had gone to find a new life in Sri Lanka, again. My father always worked late. I had the rest of the day for myself to prepare the break.
My dad had some cash hidden in a secret compartment in the old cabinet and a small revolver under his socks. The gangster I now was needed both (for my American readers: guns are very illegal in Europe). I packed my gemstones from Sri Lanka, some cloths, my passport, the diary with addresses and a few essential music tapes into an old army backpack, poured some cognac and orange juice into a plastic flask and I was ready to go.
Never, in my memory, had my father, ever, come home early; except on that day.
He stood behind the kitchen door and when I walked by he jumped at me with a good-natured whoop. It is a miracle that I did not die of a heart attack.
“Hey! Let’s walk the dog!’ he said.
He didn’t know and he had no foreboding, pre-vision or something; he just came home early, that’s it. Coincidence, fate or parental sixth sense? I still don’t know.
He was in a good mood, probably because my mother was gone and all, but not for long. I told him about my day with officer Happydrink. He sat down and listened.
My father could fly into a violent rage over bad table manners but in a case like this he was all business: “Did they find something? Was it true? Would I have to leave school?”
“No, yes and yes.” I did not mention the contents of my backpack and he did not ask.
“We will talk later” he said and left me in despair.
I had no energy left for Greek islands. I put back the revolver and the cash.
Then, finally, I cried.
The Buddha thought that the idea of ‘Me’ is a fiction of the human mind and ego. If you find this hard to believe take it from science: We are made up of approximately 10 trillion cells. That is ‘Me’, sort of. Those 10 trillions cells are not all that there is to ‘Me’. There also are 100 trillion microbes living in, on and around each of us. They run errands; they feed, clean, and maintain our cells. We cannot function without them. They also sicken us at times, even kill, but who is free of evil?
The universe is incomprehensible and I will not dare to pass judgment on, or get in a tussle with, a 100 trillion creatures living inside of me. Were they to abandon me, I would probably not get out of the door alive. From now on, I will think twice before unleashing antibiotics into my blood stream. Truth be told, antibiotics have saved my life many times from unnamed tropical diseases but I am against the dumping of tons of antibiotics into salmon farms or pigs (just so we can stuff them in even smaller spaces).
For those who like clean linen it is a shocking insight: There are more microbes in your body than humans on earth. Many more. So, when you sit there and read ‘Me’ it is not only you, but 110 trillions cells and microbes in a joint effort.
Let’s not discount all those creatures as dumb or simple. What do we know? They have been around much longer. We are just a blip in their history on earth. What do they feel? Do they sleep? Why are parts of our DNA made from old virus-DNA? What does it do there?
Maybe that part in us that clings more to life than our rational brains would allow, maybe that part is the will, the culminated survival instinct, of 100 trillion little creatures living with us. Who knows? At the end of the 19th century a group of London scientists proclaimed “the end of science”. They thought they knew it all and nothing was left to discover. How totally wrong were they?
“Where is the best place to live?”
People love to think there is a better life somewhere out there. They expect me to say: This Tropical Island or that City is THE best place to be. But honestly, I have to say: Nowhere. You always end up with yourself.
Sure, nobody wants to hear this. Thus, before I get frowns as a lousy conversationalist, I offer more entertaining versions: Open French restaurants on Madeira; add Balinese massages and Brazilian beaches and that would be a pretty good place. Bring German law & order to Madagascar, and let the Burmese do the cooking, that’d be good. Teach the Thais to speak some English and be less racist, then clean up the streets and it won’t be bad.
But really, any place is just as good as you yourself. People find happiness in the most unlikely places and circumstances. Life as a Buddhist monk is outwardly worse a punishment than prison but people do it voluntary.
Happiness is never over there, or then, and definitely not on the next island.
However, some Expat-myths need busting:
1. Living abroad is cheaper. Yes, but only if you can eat Ugali-Ugali (don’t ask) three times a day every day, just as the poor Kenyans do. If you want cornflakes and milk you will discover that they are more expensive than at home. Yes, you can build a house for 20k in Sri Lanka but it won’t keep animals out of your bed.
2. Life on tropical islands is easy going. Not a drop. Earning a local salary is nightmarish beyond a union member’s imagination. Doing business is inviting trouble with crooks and greedy officials. A visit to a Sri Lankan prison will deter you from doing business under the tax radar, let alone illegal stuff. It is hard to earn a foreign currency. If in the west 50% of all businesses go bust in the first year, it is 90% that go down in paradise. In each case naïve Westerners put their retirement funds on the line and lose it all, often including their health. The odds are so against you. The locals are helpful in the investment phase. After that, you will learn that money rules Rio more than New York. A common joke in Brazil: “How to leave paradise with a million dollars? Come with 5.”
3. The men/women are so whatever. Yes, but only if you have left your brain at immigration. Abound are the stories of guys/girls marrying local girls/guys and go on to build the biggest house in her/his village. Up-on completion he/she discovers that he/she actually is already married to the “house-keeper” and that the land deed is in his/her name. The whole village knew, and laughed. The local judge is his/her father-in-law, so you get kicked out of their own house, bye-bye, big time.
4. You can always go back. Yes, you can, but it is hard to move from Bali to Liverpool. A rule of thump amongst Expats says: ‘10 years or never”. You just don’t fit in anymore after 10 years and will feel an alien at home. Then, better be a true alien and never come back.
5. The East is more spiritual. Not anymore. The East has long succumbed to excessive materialism while California beams with meditation centers and yoga classes. In the hills of Thailand and Laos there are great meditation retreats but they are run by western monks. The West has infected the East with efficiency and wealth (nothing bad there btw) but has taken the flame of impermanence to shine even brighter in the West. It is an ironic wink of the universe: In the end the truth always survives.
6. The locals are good people. No more or less than anywhere else, but be wary: Poverty is bad for morals. A common illusion is to praise the virtues of a people (“the friendly Thais”) but to take for granted that they can add 5 and 5 without a calculator, but they can’t. Chances are it comes out 11; and that is not funny after a few years, especially if you always end up paying more if you don’t double-check. Lying and cheating is an honorable qualification in many countries. There are few human rights for a foreigner but the right to pay the bill.
Now, obviously, I don’t fancy couch-potatoes, but if you go abroad be realistic and be smart:
- Don’t buy when you can rent
- Don’t commit when you can test
- Don’t marry a stranger
- Don’t start a business you don’t understand
- Don’t assume the law will protect you
- Don’t drive motorcycles
- Take your time. One year is nothing.
- Do observe yourself: Are you only going local, or are you going crazy?
Above all don’t hope to escape bad days, nasty people, arthritis or your private demons.
Have a safe trip.
Out of the plane I can hear “Geee-cko-Geee-cko” coming from the main building. This is Rangoon International Airport. It is quite and darkish.
French raiders in the hotel bar discuss the ‘great opportunities’ of Burmese antiques under the ‘current circumstances’.
My local contact secretly squirrels away gems for an escape abroad. He looks at the stacks of local bills and says: ‘This no good’.
Our lapidary keeps the doors open. No security is needed. Burma is safe, as long as you don’t mess with the generals.
First time visitors shed tears at the Shwedagon Paya.
A sign at the muddy river: ‘No foreigners beyond this point’. There is no brigde.
Hollywood-stile villas and new SUVs proof that economic sanctions don’t work for the upper 1000.
My taxi has wooden seats and a plastic bucket taped to the floor. It is half full with red slime. Many Burmese still chew betel-nuts, but they are not allowed to spit on the streets anymore.
Strings hang from upper apartments replacing electric bells.
Grand colonial buildings are occupied by the military. Specky shirts hang to dry from broken windows. Nobody is allowed on the sidewalk. They are serious: I get yelled at.
A local garage makes ‘new’ cars; by hand; one by one; out of scrap metal and an engine. They produce three per month at $1.5k
Drunken monks fight over cigarettes. Religion can be anything.
Burmese food is delicious, not just numbing hot or sweet, but individually cooked, untouched by industrial standards.
Nobody dances at a pop festival. VIP kids sit behind security and fences.
No ATMs, no mobile phones and no computers proof that economic sanctions do work for the lower 35.000.000.
A grainy TV show features stone-faced farmers dancing in shabby costumes. A subtitle reads: ‘Here they still live happily without foreigners’. So very thin they are.
For good and bad, Burma is past caged in a country and its people.
I used to despise overregulated western bureaucracies, Nile-long incomprehensive official papers, and I cursed when I needed a notarized birth certificate to get married.
Well, I thought it over! Our airport is shut down by mob, people drive unlit bikes in the dark on the wrong side of the road, the dead cow in the canal competes with the stench from the uncollected garbage, my neighbor runs a brothel, and I would appreciate a bit of the rule of law.
Make no mistake: overflowing sewers, poisoned rivers and spoiled food were once standard fair in London too. The city stank and killed. People were worth only the money they had. Peasants, untouchables, children and animals, all were slaves to others and their little food.
We have come a long way from marauding nomads. Many still have a long way to go, be it on a personal level or as a people. Even if the devil’s advocate claims the last century to have been “truly his” - that is not correct. Genocide is a new word but an old habit. We only started to see evil for what it is.
Bad stuff happens all the time but we are working on it. So, when you fill out the next form, remind yourself, that it is the price you have to pay to live in a better world.