The Expat

See the green grass on the other side?


The Boy and the Sapphire

Much depends on how we manage globalization: Peace, ecology and economy; basically everything.

Politicians meet in Doha and Kyoto, but the difference is made, or not, on the ground; and it is never simple.

Here is a story from the rough edges of globalization:

I had just finished my daily bone-crush-ride from a new mine in the jungle when the dogs alarmed at the gate. A small boy was standing there, staring at me. Watching foreigners is a common past-time in Sri Lanka but this boy was more than just curious. He had something to sell.

I chased the dogs away and asked what he had. He looked around; making sure nobody was watching, stepped closer and opened his hand: On the dirty palm lay a huge blue sapphire crystal. I was still holding my breath when the little fist snapped closed again.

He had little trust in grown-ups and took several more steps backwards when I came out; ready to run at any time. I stepped closer and he stepped back, keeping out of my personal grabbing distance. He had the wary eyes of a man but the body of a Western pre-school-boy. Scrappy black hair thick as wire, naked feet and hands showing scars of hard work and little care. He wore a blue sarong and a fresh yellow shirt. Very poor, he looked strangely dressed up. He also carried a brand-new plastic bag.

I asked him to give me the crystal but he nodded his head, which means NO in Sri Lanka. He let me have another look at his treasure, from a safe distance. It was big; and blue, filling his little hand.

Meanwhile my wife had locked away the dogs, opened the gate and, when she came out, we got a first shy smile out of the boy. The presence of a woman and the locked-away dogs seemed to sooth his fear.

He gave the crystal to my wife, his hands shaking. My wife, keeping an eye on the boy, passed it on to me.

Behold! It was a fully grown, undamaged sapphire pyramid, perhaps over fifty grams. Most rough sapphires are found as unshapely water-worn pebbles. Intact crystals are a rarity. This one was highly symmetric with orderly and smooth flanks. In parts it showed a silky blue, the color of a foggy morning sky, in other parts the blue deepened to a cornflower blue, one of the famous colors in sapphire.

I got the laser torch from the car, wetted the crystal in the pond and beamed light through it. There were few fractures, some inclusions flaws but nothing bad, and some dirt that could be steel-brushed off. It was a beautiful piece.

Personally, I think such symmetry in nature is proof of God’s existence. Apart from that, it would be good business. We could sell it as it was, uncut, a rare collector’s item.

While I was examining the stone, the boy searched my face for emotions. I didn’t hide it: I wanted this crystal. But there were many problems to solve, so we invited him in for tea.

We formally introduced ourselves and he blushed. His name was Sunil and he thought that he was fourteen or so. They never know exactly how old they are.

We sat down with some tea to discuss the circumstances of the sale, as we would have done with any seller. Slowly he warmed up and shared his situation.

He skipped school regularly to search the riverbeds for gems and sold what he found at the “Pola”, the weekly gemstone market. Whatever he got he invested directly into food, sweets or ice cream, before anybody caught him with the money. His father, he said, was drinking too much arrack and took everything from him. He wasn’t allowed any property. However, once stuff was eaten it was his, so he usually made quick process of any cash. His father regularly searched him for money. Common practice.

Having found this treasure had turned into a problem. After the first euphoria he had realized that from such a sale he could eat all sweets and ice-cream in a 100 mile radius and still have too much left to go home. If his father heard of it, all he would get was a terrible whacking.

Anyways, such a gem he could not simply sell at the Pola. The news would spread to his family in no time so he had kept the crystal hidden, in a tree-trunk, he said. Nobody knew. He was a clever little fellow, jungle-wise and tough.

He had decided to take a radical step and had started from home before dawn, walking all day to find the foreigners running a mine in the jungle. It was common knowledge that foreigners buy crystals and he figured we would make him the best price; also were least likely to rat him out. The sale had to be closed without anybody from his family in the know.

His grand plan: Sell the thing and run; escape into the city where nobody knew him and then “start a new life”, as he expressed it. The brand-new plastic bag contained his personal belongings and he was planning to take the night bus to Colombo, never to return. That’s why he was all dressed up.

This deal was going to be even more difficult than I thought.

We quizzed him about the rest of his family. Was there nobody to help? No, his mother died long ago, and his uncles and aunts couldn’t be trusted. They all would have to go to his father, even if they disliked it, but they would not dare interfere between father and son especially with money involved. I knew it was true. The boy had no rights what so ever and nobody would, or could, protect him.

While we talked I re-examined the sapphire. It was worth serious money for these parts. I was thinking of “one lakh”, one hundred thousand rupees, approximately $1200 those days, more than a laborer made in a year, enough to start a small business, or to go to hell on local booze. People got killed for much less every day, here or in the city.

It was time to negotiate the deal. I pushed Sunil for his price. He squirmed on his chair. Calling the first number was always tricky. He risked to be laughed at or, worse, sell too cheap. Any price, once named, had to be honored. Rule of the trade. I knew he wouldn’t come out first. Big crystals are uncommon and he had no idea were to start, except higher than ever.

I pretended to calculate a bit and then said “One lakh!”

He spilled his tea, choked a bit, stammered and then pretended to carefully consider my offer, just to keep up the form, but his eyes were already shining like two sunsets. We shock hands and he got ready to fill his plastic bag with cash and to disappear into the children-eating hell called Colombo. Not so fast, I said.

The sunset faded from his eyes when I told him that first, uh-uh, we had to see his father. He screamed in fear and anger, jumped up and, like a cornered animal, tried to go for the window. My wife stopped him. He started to cry, bitter tears of disappointment dropping quickly. I waited until he was ready to listen again.

It was dark when we were finished. Sunil ate chicken curry, bread with butter, lentil soup, chocolate-cake, and finished off all our sweets. Then he slept in the maid’s quarter.

In the morning we went to search for his father. I was worried he would bolt in fright during the day so I wanted to keep his sapphire hostage; but he wouldn’t give it to me. We settled on keeping the stone with my wife at the house.

Those days I had a rough 4-wheel Toyota pick-up truck with double cab and gangster-style mirror windows. Sunil went into hiding on the back-seat. I would have gone alone but in the jungle there are no street addresses and I needed him as a guide.

We drove for about an hour, first through tea plantations and then deep into the jungle. In Sri Lanka, people live everywhere. When we arrived in his “neighborhood” Sunil showed me his home and then crawled to hide on the floor. I wanted to keep the car window open but he begged me not to, so afraid was he of being discovered.

I left the car standing on the track (there would be no traffic) and walked up to the miserable mud hut he called home. Mind, not all huts are miserable, some are tidy comfortable places, kept with as much pride as a mansion in Monaco, but this one was a lousy place littered with garbage and in desperate need of repair. Plastic bags fluttered on the patched-up roof.

By the time I arrived at the hut, a throng of kids followed me, screaming “Hello-Hello” and “Schoolpen-Schoolpen”, tucking at my cloth. Probably all friends and relatives of Sunil.

Startled by the racket Sunil’s father came out; obviously he had been sleeping. My sudden appearance confused him even more and at the moment he seemed mad. Extensively scratching his crouch, he asked me what I wanted. The man looked just like his hut.

I loathed to go into this hole and probably he didn’t want to ask me in either but it was the only way to get rid of the ever growing crowd of curious neighbors. Not that such a hut offers much privacy (without a door) but at least we could whisper inside. Normally I would have asked him to come into my car, a safe heaven, but there was poor Sunil shivering in the heat.

He murmured some curse about foreigners as we dove into his dark room. Several neighbors tried to follow us but he yelled at them and they rushed out laughing and screaming. Some kids climbed up to peek through a whole in the wall, a sort of window, but they got yelled away too. Inside it was smelly, stuffy and hot and chair-less.

We sat on the floor and I explained why I came and what I wanted. His mouth opened and closed as he ran through a series of emotions, first greed, hoping for one lahk, then anger, wanting to throw me out and trash his son, and finally desperate thirst. I gave the boys lingering outside ten rupees to run and get some arrack.

In the meanwhile I made my preposition: Firstly, there would be no Sunil-trashing, ever. Secondly, he would get ten thousand rupees the very same day and, finally, ninety thousand rupees would be kept for his son, at the little bank in the next town, until he finished his school.

He was about to throw a serious fit when, thank God, the arrack arrived and he got busy downing quick shots from a plastic cup. He didn’t mind drinking alone.

Against my plan, he had a thousand objections. He railed at getting only 10% of what was legally his. The boy was no good, he said, he wouldn’t go to school. They couldn’t have bank account because he had no ID. He didn’t want to pay for opening an account. The bank manager would steal the money and more nonsense of that kind.

I promised to solve all those problems and made clear that the only alternative was Sunil disappearing on his own with the full lakh. He accused me of kidnapping his son (partly true), blackmail (true), theft (not true) and threatened me with the police. I dropped the name of my friend the local police-chief and he dropped the idea of calling him.

In the end, the bottle was empty and he wanted the ten thousand. We shook hands (yuk) and I gave him ten crisp big notes.

When I came back to the car, Sunil was half dead – heat and nerves. He had puked and the smell in the baked car was terrible. It was nearly dark when we arrived home. A full day of hard work had passed and more to come. Business takes time in the jungle.

I gave Sunil a small job at our mine, under the condition that he went to school daily, which he did. When Sunil’s father had finished his share (six weeks), he tried tricks and threats to get the remaining 90k but he didn’t succeed. I had my friend the police-chief visit him for beating Sunil. I don’t know the details (and I don’t want to) but after that he kept well out of sight.

Two years later the crystal was commissioned to be set into a massive shark-tooth-style pendant and sold to America. Bless the internet!

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.

Edward Bristol


Let Burma In

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.


The dog in the channel

TLife Guard On Dutyhe dog in the channel

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.

 


Impressions from Burma

housesrangoon

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.


Bali Healer

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.

 

 

 


Kids Kingdom

 

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.