Is a puzzlement.
When my father was a king
He was a king who knew exactly what he knew
And his brain was not a thing
Forever swinging to and fro and fro and to
Shall I, then be like my father
And be willfully unmovable and strong?
Or is it better to be right?
Or am I right when I believe I may be wrong?
Shall I join with other nations in alliance?
If allies are weak, am I not best alone?
If allies are strong with power to protect me
Might they not protect me out of all I own?
Is a danger to be trusting one another
One will seldom want to do what other wishes
But unless someday somebody trust somebody
There'll be nothing left on earth excepting fishes
– Oscar Hammerstein II, The King and I.
I just want to begin this article by saying there are many paths to enlightenment, grasshopper.
This was originally going to be a travelly blog about Bangkok, but I’m going to try to get Doha off my chest first, and hopefully swerve back to the subject at hand before I lose you out of boredom or frustration, or hit the guardrail of sense and continuity and swerve off to a pointless head-on collision with some drunk, irrelevant digression.
Man that place is hot – 108 degrees is the average temperature in the summer. Average. All the vehicles are white. Everyone wears white. The urban planners talk about cloud-seeding relief fer cripe’s sake, or painting skyscrapers white so everyone won’t die, or having to actually abandon the place en masse. Which they predict will happen by 2070 anyway. And the Albedo Effect be damned – the massive nuclear ball in the sky just laughs. Outside, even for a few minutes, is brutal as hell, and I’m not using that as a simile, or exaggerating when I say it’s not unlike a guitar solo by Angus Young: face-melting.
Second thing you need to know about Qatar, or more formally, The State of Qatar, is there are only about 250,000 locals, and they are the richest people in the world, measured by per capita income. (Qatar has the third-largest natural-gas and oil reserves on the planet.) The other 2.2+ million are foreigners who are only allowed into the country because they do all the work. In the whole time of our layover, I only saw one native, and he was on his way to flying somewhere else. I spoke with the servers at the café, and they were all Han Chinese. I asked them if they liked living in Qatar. They said no. I asked them if they were at least getting paid well. They said no. I guess getting paid badly in Qatar is better than getting paid worse, or nothing back home.
All the bathroom attendants/cleaners that I saw were either Filipino or Pakastani, for the men’s at least. I’m not progressive, or suicidal enough to use the women’s (if you’re caught “impersonating” a woman here, do they cut it off, like they would your hand for theft?). I’m kidding! And there are a whole slouchy platoon of them, all doing almost but not quite nothing. Very polite, almost solicitous, though.
I was going somewhere with this thought, but I just forgot. Oh, yeah. I was reminded about how generally unracist Americans are, for the most part, and in contrast to the rest of the world absolutely. I lived in Japan for years and the battle lines are drawn hard at the border and very, very few people are allowed to cross them. White people (gaijin) can, with certain prerequisites, and even then the integration is painful, slow, suspect, minute and almost always by marriage. I went to a family destination wedding a few years ago in Cancun and was amazed that all of the bridesmaids were not only Asian, but a mix of Vietnamese, Korean, Filipina and Chinese, and they all got along. In Hong Kong, the Chinese will barely condescend to speak to their amas (maids), who are almost all Filipinas. In Japan, if you're Korean you almost don't exist.
I would recommend reading Jan Morris’s Sultan in Oman if you want a thorough and amusing picture of this desert peninsula in context – even though it’s not about Qatar per se, and I liked her writing better when she was a he, it gives a lucid historical picture of the medievalness of the mentality up until very, very recently. Our lifetime in fact. Some of us anyway. Or you could dive into The Seven Pillars of Wisdon, D.E. Lawrence’s long, heavy, but brilliant Machiavellian masterwork, mostly if you're a masochist. “There seems to be a certainty in degradation.”
Having a qoffee and a qroissant in Qatar with Qate.
The other side of the planet. Literally.
So we get to Bangkok after nearly a whole day in the air, since it’s just about exactly on the other side of the whirled from Weston, CT. 8,500 miles west; 8,450 miles east, depending on which way the wind’s blowing. We hop in a cab and it’s late at night – almost midnight. And strange, but there wasn’t the usual bossy, bribable cab dispatcher/flunkey running the post-flight show. It’s all done by touch-screen computer now, and we took a number. We get in – I have a printout of the hotel's address at the ready, and I show it to the cabbie. It’s in English, and he no English. So we Samsen Road, Summsah Low, Samsen Road, Sum Sarow, Samsen Road back and forth for a while until I think he finally understands. The ride’s quiet because we’re tired, and we’ve already established the language barrier.
The guy puts on the radio, and it’s that lilting, finagley but low monotone oriental music. We’re driving the long highway from the airport into the city and he starts singing. At first I thought it was part of the actual song, but then gradually realized it was him. Unselfconscious, delightful. The huge, looming billboards went by. The bright monstrousness of the city came into view. He continued singing, like we weren’t even there. The tiny, makeshift Buddha enshrined on the dash, with his flowers and orange offerings listened too. A few huge football-field size ads in English appearing and disappearing along the way. An otherworldly and the best personal intimate unexpected welcome I have ever had coming into a new country.
But before we actually get to Bangkok, do you want to hear a sort-of related tragedy in one act? Back in 1986 I walked into a job interview at The Japan Times after I had been in Tokyo for only a week, and by sheer dumb luck the sports editor had quit the day before. So I got the gig, and started the next morning. I bumped into him, and introduced myself. He was cleaning out his locker, and said I could have it since there weren’t any other empty ones. I left his nametag on it the whole time I worked there. He also left most of the stuff in his desk, which was now mine. I asked him what he was going to do. He said he was going to Bangkok to do as many drugs and hookers as he could. I said it sounded like a lot of fun. We shook hands and he left. It was a Friday if I recall, and I think the guy’s name was John.
I show up for work Monday morning, after putting the weekend edition to bed late Sunday night, a disheveled and shell-shocked Wreck of the Hesperus of a man way worse for the wear. But older and wiser, let’s say. All of our international sports stories came over one of the several teletype machines we had back then, and I was in the "computer" room gathering a bunch of them, most likely from AP or UPI, when a woman came up to me and said hello. The Japan Times back then, in the old building in Minato-ku, basically had 6 white guys who spoke English editing the newspaper, and everyone else was Japanese who only spoke Japanese. But there was this one woman, I think she was half-Japanese, half-Hawaiian who spoke both, and she was kind of the office manager.
Anyway, she asked me if I knew where John was from in the States. I said I had no idea, but I think he was from somewhere like Ohio, or Albuquerque. Why? Did I know where he was staying in Bangkok? I said I had no idea. Why? Because he OD’d on Saturday night and died and the authorities didn’t know how to contact his family, so she was hopping on a flight to Bangkok to bring the body back to Tokyo that night. True story.
Casa Nithra Hotel is small and charming and we check in and go right to bed. Actually, that’s not what happened. I saw that there was a 7-Eleven almost next door as we pulled up, and even though it was 2 o’clock in the morning it was of course open. I walk in – the place was hilariously over-lit and overstaffed, even at that hour. It would become our go-to place for everything, including my daughter’s face icepack that I ran there for at 4 am when she got sunstroke improbably on a day that was overcast, humid and smoggy as hell. She was awake all night in agony. I say improbably because I kept telling her to put on lotion because she was getting fried, and she kept telling me what an overprotective, ridiculous and hysterical (s)mother I was. And I was right, for once. Not.
This seems like a terrible place to beg off, so why don't I do just that: end this week’s truncated post on an awkward high/low note.
Stay tuned next time for the Bangkok day and night jingle-jangle.
Bangkok dried fish street art array.
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