Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bright Lights, Big City- Arrival and Digs

 4:30 am. Bangkok bus station. Here is Ben with his hand drawn map trying to find out how to walk to the Sky Train station where we would board to get to his friend's apartment. I am quite sure the Bangkok bus station is much bigger than all fourteen volunteer villages combined. I am also quite sure that out of the umpteen gazillion nabobs who embark and disembark we were the first numbskulls to ask this kind fellow how to walk anywhere. Fortunately the sleeping aid Ben took had backfired and instead of sleeping on the 10 hour bus ride (as I did with my earplugs and trusty Northface sweatshirt pulled over my head) he was jittery and still wide awake. Besides not wanting to sit anymore, we had to wait until 6 am for the first trains to run anyway. That may be the first thing we wondered on our arrival in Thailand's biggest city- How can such a reputed teeming pit of action, capitalism, and depravity not have trains running before 6 am? It was Zach who informed me that all the major cities of the world with the exception of NYC close their trains for a few hours each night (I know from experience waiting for an eternity in the wee hours for the A train on the farthest reaches of the upper west side of Manhattan that though they may run all night, there sure ain't a hell of a lot of them). Still. Considering that our villages typically begin hammering and jabbering well before dawn, this did seem odd. The bus station city was certainly bustling. There was a serpentine line of taxis waiting to pick a gushing stream of travelers from all over Thailand, come here to latch onto the jobs and education and other opportunities that reside in greater abundance here than anywhere else. It is as if there were myriad rivers flowing towards a broad delta. And none of the taxis seemed able to bear the sight of we three backpack-laden farang on the unsidewalked portion of the highway. We started a game counting how many stopped to ask us were we needed to go. Sometimes they would actually form a line, perhaps thinking we were simply very choosy, like incurable romantics, waiting to fall in love prior to stepping into their pink love shacks.
On our way to the station, we passed the early morning areas of the famous JJ Mall, some 8 or 9 acres of Thai flea market we later shopped at on our third and last day. This was part of the "pet section", endless bags of fish and crates of mice and gerbils. Later when we did visit the market we came across the stalls featuring puppies and I couldn't help but wonder what kinds of conditions they endured while getting to and from the selling point, and what happened to them when they passed the "sale date". Where the hell is PETA when they are needed?

It turned out to be a much shorter walk than advertised- probably closer to two kilometers than the four the aghast bus station attendants and policemen warned us. We ended up there still in the dark and had to wait close to 45 minutes, poor Zach being eaten like fresh meat in a zombie video game by the multitudinous mosquitoes. Having suffered a similar fate on our trip to Surin, I knew to travel in jeans and with socks. Our reliable golden retriever, Ben, managed to make two friends immediately, two interesting West Virginia youth just finishing a whirlwind trip through Western China and Vietnam. That is, of course, one of the great joys of traveling, coming up against fellow flotsam, asking where they have been, why, and where they are headed next. It feels nice to be able to say we are working and living in the poor area of Thailand, and we inevitably get props from other wanderers- Hey, that's really cool!  And it is!  We talked with them in the very clean and modern train station until finally six o' clock rolled around and we headed for Ben's friend Dan's hotel suite where we were staying.
 This whole trip began when I planned to go with my good friend Rambo to visit he and his wife Jenny over a three day weekend. I later invited Zach and Ben to join me for a big boys' weekend. Then Rambo received a major promotion moving him from our orientation town to Mukdahan. Rambo is one of my favorite people anywhere, ever. Though I was ecstatic for his good fortune, I was more than a little disappointed that he would not be leading my journey through the bowels of Bangkok- he is, after all, a burly native and an elevated officer in the Royal Thai Police- Who could ask for anything more? Protection and carte blanche? Well, that is what flexibility and living in the moment is all about. We fell out of one feather bed into a ridiculously cushioned palace. Ben went to college with Dan, now engaged in a multi-international city graduate program out of Webster University in St. Louis. He and his small cadre of cohorts had left London and Amsterdam and now resided in Bangkok until March, when they were leaving for Vienna. They put us up in their beautiful suite in the Chateau Bangkok, located in an upscale neighborhood in a terrifically central location. Not only were Ben's friends generous, bright, and funny, they were all studying international relations with hopes to work in NGOs in the future- the kind of great young people who desire to make a positive impact on the world. Unfortunately I never took a photo of them, though they made a favorable impression. They were busy with challenging graduate classes, so we only saw them after 10 pm when their classes let out! Be that as it may, for the moment they were living like kings. We had a pretty good idea of the neighborhood when we passed this place on the way...

An Oyster Bar? I had to take a photo even if I could not afford to buy an oyster. Then we arrived at the Chateau..

 The lobby was no less impressive. Maybe it was just that 18 hours earlier I had been circling the wat in my village, whose net worth could come nowhere near the value of this building, or probably of this shimmering sculpture in the lobby.
 I have certainly seen this level of luxury in my travels, be it to Sydney or Los Angeles (which, by the way, means the same thing as the Thai name for Bangkok- City of Angels). More it was the sudden shift. I was reminded of my very first foray into New York so long ago- I was in high school, a Western rube, had driven across the country with my brother Chris who was a starving artist/bike messenger there. As we approached the vast glimmer I remember actually hyperventilating, and my wizened brother admonishing, Be cool. It is big but it is just a city. Just more people and more of everything. I can still hear his voice in my head.We were driving my father's belongings to Philadelphia from Colorado, where he would do a new several month surgery training. Later on that trip, my father's bronze Volkswagon Rabbit was broken into while Chris and I were at a bar, and my father's belongings, from bicycle tools to his fabulous English saddle strewn up and down the alleyway, almost nothing missing. Probably the drug addicts behind the smashed window simply confused by the contents. I found some of that same exhilaration getting off the sky train and beholding our temporary home. What is it about cities? They really are just more people, more money, more extreme and bigger of what exists everywhere, but there is a sense that fame and fortune and something big can happen at any moment. A city means something far different to me today than it did back in the 70's when I rolled into New York. Mostly I think of things like the Boston Symphony Hall and hearing the likes of Evgeny Kissin play Rachmanioff.- The finest civilization has to offer culturally at a given moment. Yet it is always more than that, too. It is the crush of all those extremes together.
 Ben still couldn't sleep so we climbed out the window onto and took a few photos of the neighborhood from aloft.
 We did then go to bed for a few hours and I awoke to this scene which turned out to be more or less de rigueur: Zach sleeping, Ben researching what the heck we were doing and how we were doing it. 
 Once again, my compatriots proved ideal in every sense. In the absence of Rambo, Ben became more or less our official trip dad. I threw in a suggestion or two and Zach did his best to keep his three tee shirts and one pair of shorts (no pants, no swimsuit) clean. And who could possibly complain? We trusted both Ben's competence and his taste. Like a true Golden Retriever, Ben is always seeking water, and this became the recurring motif of our short stay. More on that to come. Here is water #1, located on our rooftop, taken from steps of the 10 X 10 jacuzzi. As I said, who could complain?

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