See the green grass on the other side?
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.
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.
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.
A long while ago I was terribly sick with a slipped disk or lumbago or very bad back-pain. I suffered for months, got myself hooked on painkillers in booze, and then I lost my job and my friends too. Cause & Effect merged. Things can get so bad; you don’t know where to start repairing your life.
After some inner and outer travel I came to suffer in Bali. A friend recommended a famous local healer. OK, whatever, I’ll try it.
I don’t know about famous but the healer certainly was local, very local. At noon he was in underwear, fresh out of bed. His reception teamed with chicken and the office was an open-air carpet.
Children cried “Foreigner! Foreigner!” and gathered to watch. I was suffering my usual bad day, so I sat down in the mess and surrendered.
The old man studied and squeezed me, and poked my ears and eyes, all the while mumbling stuff in Balinese. He might have called the healing ghosts or just cursed the interruption of his nap I didn’t know, but the birds, children and chickens were dead silent. That made me kind of anxious.
To escape from anything spiritual and because it is common in western medicine, I started complaining about my body, how bad I felt and so on, but he cut me short: “Shush!”
As suddenly as he had begun voodoing he stopped, got up and plucked some leaves from a bush and started to chew them. I thought he was finished, but, oh boy, he just got started.
For appetizers he added some white powder to the chewed leaves, munched them a bit more and then spat the whole slimy mud into my face and on my chest.
The stuff burned on the skin, but I was kept busy with a much stronger sensation: Do you know the point on your elbow that gives you these electricity-like pangs? It turns out you got these points all over the body and when you push them real hard with a stick or something you get electric pangs that last minutes. You squirm and howl. Tears make the chewed leaves in your face burn even more.
Each of these, say, energy points becomes the center of your little universe until the current slowly subsides and that point becomes just a normal point on your body. Gone, no more pain there, good, next point. You squirm and howl and so on.
An hour later he had worked himself from elbows to heels, left to right. I was soaked in sweat, tears and chewed leaves.
Finally he said: “Finished”.
That was the first thing he said to me. The birds, children and chicken started to chatter again. I felt finished too. I could hardly stand.
We did have a long talk thereafter, and he explained to me that in his view the nerve system stores pain in those energy points, and that he “opened” them to release my old pain, like cleaning a hard-drive of old files, old memory of pain. He said I was breathing too shallow and holding my breath too often. That my body was dried up (true, I had only beer and coffee for years), that I needed quietness and massages, air and above all water, water and more water.
Was I healed? No, but I sure felt I had a clean place to start repairing. Which I did.
P.S. When I went again years later he send me away: “No sick. You go home.” No charge.
Despite my do-all-better colonialist mindset let me tell you that there is no better place in the world for children (and mothers) than some South-East-Asian countries, namely Bali and Thailand.
Bali tradition prohibits children to touch the ground or be alone until they get the first teeth. That means babies must always be carried around and are never to be let alone. No children “crying-it-out” in their lonely bedrooms. Especially fathers are held responsible to take care of the very youngest. In dense family compounds children grow up as responsible members of their micro community.
Children represent the gods. Mistreating them is bad luck.
In dog-eat-dog Bangkok one never sees a child being yelled at, let alone hit, never ever. If somebody raises his voice against a kid there is usually a foreigner involved. Whenever a mother with child enters a cramped bus in Thailand adults jump to offer their seats to the child. I think that is just the other way around in Europe.
Taxi drivers love to take pregnant women to hospital hoping for an early birth, because that means good luck for the driver. Police officers have basic skills in child delivery to help if the occasion arises, which is not too rare because of the bad traffic.
In the West, it may be easier to find a flat with pets than with kids. In Bangkok, having kids is a sign of reliability and gets you a much higher score with picky landlords.
Thais are simply wonderful with their kids, tolerant, patient and caring. They take them to work and let them do whatever unless they hurt themselves or others.
And you know what? These kids behave much better than the little blue-eyed expat devils. I can’t say whether that is in the genes or some sort of early conditioning. While Europeans kids kick their nannies to get what they want, the Thai kids smile and achieve the same.
Many soft-shelled Westerners are shocked when first confronted with the seemingly unlimited suffering on the city streets of Asia or Africa. Men without limbs lie on streets holding plastic cups with their lips, pregnant women wail for alms, little children with sad eyes roll in the mud and blind mongoloids play heartbreakingly bad on some ancient instrument. Yes, it is terrible… but look twice before you donate.
I remember a little girl with her two puppies: She slept on the busiest piece of sidewalk in town, right next to the stench and dirt of a roaring six lane road. People might have stepped on her or the dogs at any time. If you love kids and puppies, like most humans, seeing them helpless and without shelter in the filth seems too much to bear.
But, when passing that area more often, you will realize that she sleeps there only on Tuesdays and that the puppies change every month or so. Also, the dogs are strangely calm, not like normal puppies at all.
One Tuesday you will see the girl sneaking out of a taxi a couple of hundred meters up the road. In the car sits an elderly woman with three or four other girls and a lifeless heap of puppies.
They are professionals. The girls and the dogs are being used by a hard-shelled mother (if one may call this a mother). The puppies are probably drugged and die regularly, the girls never get to see a school and learn to sleep in the dirt as a profession.
The worst thing, in a twisted way, is to give them money for their performance.
Better leave a tip with that taxi driver. At least he works for a living.
Then, on the other hand, try not to harden too much and keep an eye out for people truly needing help. They are often the ones who don’t ask.
When we opened an office in Thailand I started learning the local language, as I always do when new to a country. Because Thai sounds like voice-over on a Donald Duck movie, I hired a teacher for one-on-one lessons.
As most “small” language Thai is not well documented and any word will have various translations depending on which book you open.
Thai doesn’t have many words, hardly any grammar; it has no articles, no inflection of noun, and no declension of objectives, no variation of verbs in regard to gender, number, tenses or cases and many other simplifying no-rules. A sentence like “If I would have known, I would have had the chance to use past perfect.” does defy translation.
Furthermore Thai belongs to the group of tonal languages. Tonal languages, as opposed to the non-tonal Indo-Germanic languages, root meaning in tone, not in grammar. Hence the same word may have a myriad of meanings depending on how you pronounce it while the written form remains identical.
“Leo” for example means “beer”, “right”, “quickly”, “come” and “here” and some unidentified food. Imagine you want to say: “Quickly, come here with the beer.”
My teacher described this tactfully as a three-dimensional language concept but I smelled the competitive disadvantage of a nation, especially when one realizes that the locals do not understand each other very well.
In my lessons, I focused on simple sentences of importance (like the one mentioned). After four weeks of study my teacher deemed me ready to order my favorite dish “Fried rice” which is “Khao pad” plus “Nung, krap” which is “One please”.
Confidently I walked up to a fried rice vendor and said “Khao pad, nung krap”. He looked irritated and called his wife.
By the time I had said “Khao pad” about eight times, the fried rice vendor and a group of spectators had organized someone who supposedly spoke English. He didn’t understand me neither.
Exhausted I pointed at the fried rice, said not a word and gestured “one”. That went through like a revelation. “Oooh, he wants fried rice! Man, why doesn’t he say so? God dammed foreigner.”
The bi-lingual Thai laughed, padded my shoulder and called out: “Yuu wiht eiis on.” and meant “You fried rice, one.”
I took another 6 months of private lessons, and then I gave up. Now, when in Bangkok I never say a word in Thai except a Buddhist “Mai pen rai.” which means “Never mind”, I hope.
How flat is that Mr. Friedman?
Olympia. Thank God. It is over. Finally! And well over too.
Congrats to the Chinese people. No major loss of face. Some expropriated and arrested grandmas, some faked children, some underage athletes, yes, yes, but nobody is perfect, especially not a big country.
What remains? For me as a gem trader one thing stands out: 50.000.000 carat of Andesine.
It turns out Andesine has won gold in scamming this year, even in the highly competitive field of gem traders.
For those who are not informed: Some, probably Chinese, mastermind bought 50 tons of pretty worthless Mexican feldspar years ago, artificially colored it red and created a new brand called “Natural Tibet Andesine”. Great name. Great origin. Especially for making it the Olympic gemstone and sell it to unsuspecting tourists at $500 per carat instead of $5, which is what it is actually worth.
Well, well, in the gem trade such a plot is no novelty; it has been done many time and it will be done in the future. What makes this case so refreshing is the scale of publicity. While Omega and GE have paid millions to be associated with Olympia 2008, Andesine’s mastermind just spread rumors and engraved the five rings into the gem.
So, we have a fake gemstone sold in millions as fake Olympic gem. That is gold in all scamming disciplines.
China, we forgive you. Nobody is perfect.