See the green grass on the other side?
A story from the rough edges of globalization
Paperback is available here.
Thanks for all your feed-back. I hope to start a new Ed Bristol story sometimes this year.
Once in a while I swap my tray of gems for a day of dirt. This is usually triggered by a bad gemstone in a new parcel, a software problem or a customer who treats me like a crook. Before I loose my temper and call a customer a psychopath or a miner a cheat, I get out my Kärcher.
For those not familiar with German engineering, a Kärcher is the high pressure cleaner. Nothing beats a true Kärcher. In German, “kärcher” is a verb and its means to clean-out hell. They are expensive but genius.
Kärcher come as electric household items and go up to industrial gasoline monsters. While the latter are used to drill tunnels through the Alps they are all based on pumping fluid out of a pistol with such force that water turns to steel. Even my midsize household variety will rip toes off your feet, demolish letter-boxes or shred hedges in seconds.
Cleanliness fanatics, compulsive obsessive hygienists, and men over 40, worship them as the ultimate therapy against the filth of life.
Evil tongues say men love them so much because of the persistent on-command pressure (you know, prostate problems, and erectile dysfunction and so on). Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Ex-Prime-Minister is said to have a world class selection of Kärchers.
Personally, I can’t claim freedom from primate instincts but I do know I hate dirty houses.
Our business allows buying gemstones but it does not finance real estate. However, a gypsy by heart, I move a lot. We always rent; and rented houses are dirty, especially in some of the places we have lived.
To understand a Kärcher, you need to see what it does to an old house. Is your backyard laid with red bricks? They will shine in bright orange. Your walls are white? The Kärcher will peel off blackish soup and leave stripes of shining white behind. Gray marble? Mossy brown granite? Discover that there are not only color-changing gemstones but also color-changing houses!
A day of kärchering is dirty beyond imagination. Places that are usually left alone, behind the garbage bins or under the stairs, will explode in fountains of mud. Ancient layers of decaying matter will fly sky high. The dogs hide; and so does my wife. Only the flies, they love me. To succeed here one must surrender to absolute dirt. Then, it is a spiritual experience. Zen and the Kärcher.
Praise global distribution networks. I bought my Kärcher in an Asian department store. It is a very German product but I got very local reactions:
In Colombo the neighbors confirmed I was crazy. In Bangkok they wanted to borrow my Kärcher for the annual water festival (accessory to murder that is). The Balinese worried to stir the “Buta”, the house demon. In Sydney I was yelled at for wasting water and in Lisbon the neighbors rolled their eyes as in “those Germans”. One thing you can be sure of, however, is envious looks from elderly men. It never fails.
Be warned though, kärchering is addictive. Once started, nothing but sleep will stop the alcoholic from drinking. Once dirty, nothing but exhaustion will stop me from kärchering the whole filthy city. There always is another corner to be flushed out.
Death-by-Kärcher is common amongst German retirees. Once they are finished inside, they turn to the street. That is their end.
The same year Sunil finished his school, took his money plus interest from the bank and disappeared, probably to Colombo.
I do not know what happened to him, nor his father. We left the country as the civil war rekindled. I can’t offer a happier ending.
These are the realities of fair trade. It ain’t simple.
Beyond the headlines of war, a good thing is happening. Some may have noticed that lonely Myanmar, aka Burma, has turned and reached out to the West. It has installed ATMs, freed opposition leaders, voted a parliament and now is even talking to Hillary Clinton. To those who’ve seen the country only five years ago this is nothing less than a miracle.
Five years ago Burma was oppressed into a 18th century time warp from which even Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Cambodia seemed like beacons of freedom and prosperity. I was arrested for simply looking (with binoculars) over the lake to the house where Aung San, the daughter of Burma’s founder, was locked up for 15 years. Aung San now runs for parliament and meets Hillary!
Those days, $50 would get you three kilo of Kyat notes with which you could buy, well, nothing really because nobody wanted it. There were no telephones, no internet, no newspaper, no ice-cream, no healthcare, and no credit-cards – it was perfectly medieval.
Thanks Hillary, for going there. I am sure the trip wasn’t easy, but you will have recognized the beauty and authentic goodness of its people. Probably you haven’t seen their terrific gemstones but we here all love them and, please, please, let us again buy and sell them legally. If you do, we promise to be very good, pay taxes and all.
The Burmese have been traders and business people since the dawn of commerce. They are very good at it; honest but tough and hard working; and they will be again. If only we let them in now. It must have cost the Burmese military a lot of courage to overcome their pride and reach out to the West. I wish our politicians had, at times, the guts to say: “Heck, I was dead wrong, sorry folks. Let’s do better.”
It is on us now to acknowledge their courage and show that we too can change and do better.
Young Hillary Adams recorded her sadistic father; and posted it online.
His shame is forever public. Well done!
Let all parents know: In the 21st century, you will be watched.
The clip ruined my week but never mind as long as William Adams’ week is worse. The memory of being whipped for nothing more than leaving the light on (so small, I was scared in the dark) or for an only average test result at school.
The fact that this is done by your own parents (shame the moms, too) and in your own bedroom makes it so inescapably terrible. The immediate pain on the skin is little compared to the effect of William’s final words: “See what you’ve done to your family! Are you now happy?” Obviously she wasn’t, cramping on the floor, but she might have believed that it was her fault, that she was blame and not him. That is how kids are.
I will not whine about how tough my childhood was. For most kids in Asia and Africa beatings are the easy part. But let me say that, after seeing Hillary’s video, I wanted to get on the next flight and give my dad a little whipping, just for fun or because he didn’t come to my daughter’s birthday. Don’t get me started. May he thank God that I am not all like him – an-eye-for-an-eye and so on.
Beware of neglect and the damage done to children. It comes back in terrible shapes; as terrorism, and racism, and crystal-meth and, of course, more child abuse. Personally, I intend to break this cycle in my own little family. My daughter will not have to endure what was done to me.
Sure, a teenage daughter can be a pest and all. My daughter will, perhaps, be a pest some-day, but I herewith –forever public– ask God to rot off my hands if I ever do anything remotely comparable.
I just love CCTVs, wireless webcams, IP-Cameras and constant home surveillance. Forget about privacy if we can protect our children from harm.
I had a free afternoon at the Emirates Mall in Dubai, the biggest, most expensive-and-all-superlatives mall of the world; the one with the ski slopes inside.
Gemoholic I am, so I didn’t ski but went to search for colored gemstones. I was wearing a dark suit; and pretended to have recently defrauded Kabul Bank out of $50 million.
All the big names are there: Moussaeiff, Van Cleef & Arpels, Graff, Tiffany and the rest. I pestered them all. I played dumb, but not too dumb to raise suspicion. I didn’t take my own lens and as they offered me one, I worked it tourist-style.
The jewelry gorillas occupy the entrance of the mall; an area the size of Luxembourg. Retail professionals know top-margins get the entrance. Low-margins, like electronics or food, go higher up: To buy cheap DVDs or milk you have to run the jewelry gauntlet.
There was lots of cabochon amethyst, so-so tourmaline, plastic citrine and nasty magic topaz, mountains of filled rubies and deep fried sapphires, some set nicely, some cheesy, but all at painful prices.
I must admit today’s sellers know about gemstone treatment. When I did a similar excursion in 2004 I got raised eyebrows, ignorance or flat lies. Today, the staff is as well informed as you may expect. They know most gems are treated somehow, they are not always sure how (who is?) or why, some get it wrong, but I heard no more all-our-gems-are-natural-guaranteed-bla-bla.
When I asked for untreated gemstones the branch manager usually entered scene. He knew the real stuff:
“This ruby is only heat treated but not filled”
“This is GIA certified untreated sapphire”.
With certificates ready in hand – a real improvement from 2004. Great. My compliments!
Here is what I found:
A pair of blue sapphires, each 6 carats, pear-shape, set in earrings. Good color, a shade too inky perhaps but clean and GRS certified unheated Madagascan, precision cut to match. The pair, set with some gold and small diamonds, was on offer for $480.000. I calculated down to $35.000/carat for the stones. Solitary each gem was top-notch, as a pair they were quite remarkable.
Next, I found an emerald shaped, vivid red, AIGS certified unheated Mozambique ruby of 1.21 carat, lightly included, square-ish but not fully symmetric “native” cut, rather a color-stone with little or no luster, some window but still fully red in the center. Price tag: $139.000 set in a ring. Minus small diamonds and gold I estimated it at $80.000 per carat. A good stone, but way overpriced.
Then, I got to see an oval 4.6 carat pink sapphire with a window. It was a good hot pink and GIA certified, no origin, but the fish eye was bad. Set in a rose gold pendant with many small calibrated pink sapphires (no certificates), it went for $95.000. The big sapphire must have been under 15.000/carat. Given that the pendant itself looked pretty, this price seemed Ok-ish to me, under the circumstances.
I continued my search. Some shops I left without seeing anything worth mentioning. There was no untreated emerald, no Paraiba, no good Alexandrite, no Padaparadscha, nor tsavorites or such, at least no exceptional ones. As always, I ignored diamonds. All-in-all I must have been in ten+ high-end joints.
Finally, late in the day: A dream of red spinel, round, 3.2 carat, absolutely flawless, no window, no inclusions, perfect hue, tone, great luster and all, GRS certified Burma, set in a simple platinum ring. This was a master gem. Selling for: $180.000. Totally fat ruby-priced but very nice. Loved it.
That was my last find. After five hours I ended the tour due to exhaustion and low sugar levels. I hate wearing a suit; and pretending. I also felt sorry for the branch managers.
I allowed myself a HägenDazs ice cream and called it a day.
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.