Excerpt: Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves, Adventure Writer in the Kingdom of Siam

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Excerpt from the book,
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves, Adventure Writer in the Kingdom of Siam
By Antonio Graceffo
Available on amazon.com

From Chapter One

The Last Muay Thai Temple

Northern Thailand

“Muay Thai is the ancient art which has kept the Thai people free.” Explained Pra Kru Ba, the stocky, bald-headed monk, who had once been a famous boxer. He was laying on the bamboo platform in his jungle hut, giving me my daily lesson on life. After months of living in the monastery, my Thai had finally progressed to a point that I could make some sense of what he was saying.

“Muay Thai is a spiritual pursuit.” He said. “The body is pure. The heart is pure. Only the head can create evil. And if evil invades your heart, then you cannot win in a boxing match.” Religious tattoos played across his muscles, as he reached for another handful of food. “You live too much in your head. Evil can come into you faster than it can the others, because of your education.” He told me flatly. “You are a good man. But your anger will destroy you.”

My Italian temper had become a thing of legend in Northern Thailand. Earlier in the day, I had threatened to strangle one of the monks with his own robe.

After the meeting, I knew that Maii, a devoted Buddhist lay-woman, would ask me for a full report on Kru Ba’s diet. He had been ill lately, and unable to keep food down. She would be pleased to hear that he was eating non-stop.

“Even when you are meditating you look sad.” He said with pity. “I hope you will stay with us long enough to overcome these difficulties.”

He was making an allusion to the Shaolin Temple, in China, where I had lived for a number of months. I had gone there hoping that they would be able to make me spiritually healthy. Instead, I got in fights every day, and left there unchanged, except that I had lost weight, and produced a great book, called The Monk from Brooklyn (available at amazon.com). But I was still as angry as I had ever been.

At Kru Ba’s monastery, Wat Achatong, we shared everything. The problem was, we didn’t have all of that much, only the food which the hill-tribe people gave to the monks, in exchange for merit. After a long day of farm work and Muay Thai training, I was famished. I loved hearing Kru Ba’s words. And I cherished our quiet time together. But what I wanted now, was some food. Finally, when I judged that the rate of his consumption had slowed enough that I could ask, a sentence came out of my mouth that I thought I would never utter.

“If you’re finished with those fried cockroaches, could I have them?”

Once again, it dawned on me, just how far I was from Brooklyn.


An Adventure Writer Watches too much TV

It had been nearly two years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Tuesday morning, September eleven, I had been in Manhattan. And like all New Yorkers, I had run the gambit of emotions. One minute I felt fear. Another, I felt anger. There were constant flashes of a debilitating desperation. For the rest of the world, it had been a horrible day. But for New Yorkers, it had only been the beginning of a period of horrible weeks, and eventually months. For me, 911 had served as a wakeup call, a signal that it was time to change my life, and pursue some goal, other than making money.

911 reminded me, once again, that we were all going to die, and that we didn’t know when. My own mortality had haunted me since my earliest childhood. I remember thinking once. “If I died to tomorrow, I would have nothing to show for my eight years of life.” In my prepubescent melancholy I lamented that my name would be lost, across the ages. And so, at age nine, I set out to write my first novel, which I quickly gave up, because there was a Star Trek marathon on TV.

On that Tuesday morning, my childhood angst revisited me. But this time, it seemed somehow more legitimate. “I am thirty three, and if I died tomorrow no one would even know that I had lived.

And so, I gave up my career as an investment banker, and headed to Asia, to become an adventure writer. I spent the first two years writing about Taiwan and China, climbing mountains, crossing deserts, tracing rivers, practicing kung fu, and cycling uncountable miles. People often asked how I got the idea for my various adventures. The answer was, TV. Between Discovery channel, National Geographic, and Knowledge Channel, there was always someone doing something that looked more interesting than investment banking. And I was motivated to go out and emulate them. I came to understand the TV liability warning, “Don’t try this at home.”

One of the adventures I had heard about was a monastery in Northern Thailand, where Muay Thai was still taught by monks. The first time I heard about this monastery was shortly after my arrival in Taiwan. Although I wasn’t ready to go at that time, I filed it away for another day. On the night that I was packing my things to head to the Shaolin Temple in China, I flipped on the TV, and there was an hour long special about the same monastery. Again, I wasn’t ready to go. I had already purchased my tickets for China. After Shaolin, I returned to Taiwan, and did every adventure I could think of. Finally, in November of 2003, I was ready to head to Thailand. My very loose plan was to find the monastery I had seen on TV, and do a series of articles and a book about my experiences there. After that, I planned to remain in Thailand, doing adventures, and submitting them to magazines inside and outside of Thailand.

When I landed in Chiang Mai, the former capitol of northern Thailand, I had about $200 in my pocket, and the name of a single magazine, who said they might buy a single story from me, for a fee of $30. (In the end, they didn’t.) I didn’t speak Thai. I had no friends. And all I knew about the location of the monastery was that it was not in Burma.

One of the nice things about being an adventure writer was that you didn’t have to over-plan.

This book is a compilation of the adventure articles I wrote in Thailand, combined with my diaries, and some commentary. Adventure writing is a lot of fun, but at times it seems like a self-serving, irresponsible way to make a living. One could say that I am helping my readers, by making them laugh. But, will my writing make a difference in anyone’s life? Will my name reverberate across the ages? Will Pra Kru Ba share his deep-fried bugs with me? Only time will tell.

From Chapter Two

The Life of The Lifers"
One Day in Chiang Mai
By Antonio Graceffo

I woke up in my two-dollar-a-night hotel room and peeled the stinking sheets off of my body. Even in the hundred-degree heat and sauna-like humidity I couldn’t sleep unless I was under covers. It had been that way since childhood. A psychologist once said this represented my need for security. The way I see it, if I had needed security I would have stayed in the five dollar a night place. Shows you what psychologists know. I wrapped a towel around myself, and went into the hallway for a cold shower.

In Thailand I would generally go into the jungle for periods lasting from a few days to a few weeks, on an adventure trip. Then, I would return to Chiang Mai, to take a shower, get some sleep, eat food, file my stories, develop my photos, and if lucky, collect my salary. Chiang Mai felt like home to me, even if I was there for only a few days at a time. The tourists were annoying, with their talk of elephant rides and politically correct sightseeing trips to Burma. But the expats were all interesting. They were people who had chosen to build a life in this remote corner of South East Asia. Most owned their own business, or had some kind of income from abroad, such as a retirement or investments. Either way, they had a great deal of time on their hands, and spent most of their day killing time.

The secret to surviving expat life is to build routines for yourself. For many of the expats this included a schedule for the gym, followed by quiz night, followed by the new music café, and the party nights and happy hours at the various bars, Hash House Harriers, and whatever leagues or clubs they would join. For me, my schedule in Chiang Mai, outside of writing and filling stories, was dependent upon weather or not I had money. If I was broke, I had to eat, alone, at the 25 Baht noodle stands, in the sinister back alleyways, where I would never see another foreigner.

But on this particular day, I was lucky. I had come in from an expedition the night before. I used my last money to pay for my room, for one night. Then, first thing in the morning.
I checked my ATM account, Yipeee! I had been paid for my last round of stories. I had enough to rent a room for about ten days and eat in style. When my money was nearly gone, I would head back into the jungle, which would allow me to live cheaply. And, by the time I got sick of the jungle again, hopefully my pay for my current round of stories would hit my account. It didn’t always work out like this. And I sometimes had to beg cash from friends and family. But on this particular trip to Chiang Mai, everything went like clock work.

Breakfast, when I could afford it, was always at the 60 Baht, all-you-can-eat western breakfast buffet. I would sit for hours, eating, and eavesdropping on the conversations at the other tables.

“Many cafes have a writers’ nook. Why don’t any of them have a writers’ cranny?” I wondered, as I sat at a table, near the back of the restaurant, taking secret dictation. The Chiang Mai lifers fascinated me. And I didn’t want to miss a word.

At a neighboring table, two young French girls, probably new journalists, were very expertly interviewing the head of the Shan State press agency. Shan State was one of the States inside of Burma, which had once been an independent country, and which the British had promised autonomy, after the Burma handover, back in the 1950s. But the current government had refused to honor the treaty, and was now wagging a war of atrocities upon the Shan people.

“Whole villages are rounded up and made to do manual labor, at gun point, for the federal soldiers. The soldiers steal all of the food from the village. And many of the laborers drop dead, from malnutrition and exhaustion.” Said editor Ang Hen. “They also use human mine detectors. When federal Burmese troupes have to cross a minefield, they force villagers to walk in front of them. They are often given an order to go into a village, kill all the men, rape all of the women, and burn all of the houses to the ground. There have been documented cases of whole platoons, of thirty or forty soldiers, gang raping a single nine year old girl.”

I had been reading up on the Burma issue for some time, and promised myself, once again, that I would make it there. There was a spook organization, composed of ex US Special Forces, who were running missions into Burma, collecting data and bringing humanitarian aid. They were based out of Chiang Mai, and I was scheduled to meet with them later in the week.

Two aged Scottish men, pale-blue, with translucent skin and long whit beards, like lawn-gnomes, were discussing their amorous encounters with Thai girls. I never had any particular dislike for Scots, but the pale skin always frightened me a bit. It was like you could see right through it. The network of bright blue veins shown through, so well, that you could have done an anatomy lesson on them. If they stood in front of lamp, you could see what they had eaten for lunch.

“I met a girl the other night, an honest girl who sells things at the market.” Began Scotty Number 1.
“Was she a doll, a goer?” Asked Soctty Number 2.
“Oh, yeah, she was a real cracker, a slag. Sixteen years old, with an aris like the rolling hills of Bergen Shire, and her bristols were the crown jewels themselves.”
They kind of lost me at this point. But apparently this was all good stuff, because Scotty Number 2 was all glazed over with lust.
“So, how about then? What was it like when you bedded her?”
“That was the funny part. All she did was lay there.”
“NO! You mean she didn’t get excited at all?”
“Not in the least. And I even paid her 500 Baht.”
“That *****!”
The repulsion in his voice was magnified exponentially in my own mind.
“She didn’t even get wt.”
“She must have been frigid.” Declared Scotty Number 2. “Probably has a medical condition.”
“That’s what I was thinking.” Agreed Scotty 1. “I think half these third-world bitches are afflicted with something. You get them back to the hotel, pay them double the going rate, and then they behave like a bloody corps on the bed.”
I wanted to point out to these “gentlemen” that one reason why the girls may not be interested in them was because they were butt-ugly, and older than Moses’ grandma. If the third world were the cause of their sexual woes, then I would have loved to have asked just how many gorgeous sixteen year old girls were fighting to go to bed with either of these guys back in their home country.

At another table, I saw a hugely muscled American, with a crew-cut, telling an American girl, who could have been on a sorority tour of developing nations, about the contract he had just come off of in Cambodia. He was so obviously a spook. He even admitted to being a former US Marines Force Recon combat advisor. “But I gave all of that hooa **** up to follow an academic career.” He told her. It almost seemed ludicrous for him to maintain his cover story of being a marine biologist.

The girl may have been doing some type of paper for her incredibly left-wing, very expensive liberal arts program back in the States, because she had a notebook, and was interviewing him, although she couldn’t possibly have been a journalist.

“And what would you say poses the biggest threat to endangered species in Cambodia? Is it because poor people hunt and kill the animals?” She asked, in a very ham-handed manner.

“Bush meat?” He asked, using the official US government nomenclature for illegal poaching in which the animals were eaten, as opposed to being sold for profit.

“Bush meat represents the smallest percentage of the animals being killed. You try and enforce that. But when you got people earning less than $10 per month, it is hard to convince them that it would be better to just let their children starve, so that we could maintain the balance of species.”

“Well, I think they are just using poverty as an excuse.” Said the American girl. The soldier ignored the preprogrammed response, and went on with his narrative.

“The real issue in Cambodia is endangered species trade. At this point it is actually a bigger money maker than anything except drugs. And it has spread all through Indochina, with Mainland China being one of the largest purchasers. There is a variable clearinghouse for illegal goods in Wa State, Burma, where they sell everything from drugs, to elephant tusks, lumber, babies, and weapons, smuggled out of Lao, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It all moves up through China, and is a huge source of revenue for the war lords.”

“Why can’t you just arrest everyone?”

“It’s not that simple. High ranking officials in the Cambodian government are making big money off of this stuff. So, they don’t want it stopped. They also get aid money from the US and other western countries to stop the problem. They pocket most of that money. But they know that the gravy train can’t last forever. The aid money will only flow in for as long as the problem exists. Once the problem stops, so does the money.”

He went on to tell her about the dirty, behind the glitter. “These projects get aid money, because they are humanitarian in nature. But everyone we deal with is guilty of something. First of all, most of the people who volunteered to wear a uniform, carry a gun, and protect the animals were former Khmer Rouge soldiers. Some of them had committed a so many murders that it just seemed normal to them. And getting them to give a damn about what happened to the animals was impossible.”

“Everything is ***-backwards in Cambodia. The Forestry Department, whose job it is to protect the forests from illegal timber trade, was created out of the Lumber Department, whose job it had been to cut down the trees and sell them to China. The name changed, and the outward, publicly-stated mission changed. But all of the employees stayed the same. Do you think those guys would give up such a lucrative business? No way! The only difference is that now was that they could supplement their income by stealing international aid money.”

He told about how he and his team had been shot at a number of times. “And you don’t even know who is doing it. The Khmer Rouge, the government, the police, the army, the peasants, other aid agencies…they all have some reason to want you dead and want you out of there.”

“And the same goes for de-mining. About half the deaths in the de-mining operations were actually murders. Those contracts were lucrative, and the Khmers wanted to keep them all to themselves. Through a combination of murder, intimidation, and political manipulation, they have been able to squeeze almost everyone else out of the game. The Cambodian government now has a monopoly on de-mining and the aid money that goes with it.”

There were a lot of former military types who were drawn to Indochina. The Indochina war has be called the heyday of journalism and the heyday of soldiering. Many of the soldiers just seemed to be incapable of getting it out of their system.

At another table, Martinis, a former soldier, and decorated Vietnam War veteran was telling, Robert, the owner of the bookstore, about his experiences as a recent immigrant, in the US military. “They took me in a room, made me listen to Ukrainian, and then had me
write it out. When I finished, they said "We will pay you $32,000 a year, just to listen to the radio all day.”
“Sounds like a good deal.” Laughed Robert. “But where would that radio be?”
“They told me Germany.” Answered Martinis.
“Is there is a Ukrainian radio station in Germany?”
“That’s what I asked them.” Explained Martinis. “Then they hummed and hawed. In the end they said, "Well, maybe the job won’t be in Germany. It might be in the Ukraine.”
“That’s a big difference. What did you do?”
“I told them I wanted to call home. When my mother got on the phone, the first thing she said was that the FBI had been there asking questions about me. They told my mom I was being promoted. But really, they wanted me to go work as a spy. In the end, I turned them down. I couldn’t imagine who dangerous that job would be, or what kind of stress I would have had to live under. Even in 1965 I could think of better ways to make $32,000.”
“What did the intelligence guy say about that?” Asked Robert.
“They tried two more times to recruit me. When they saw that I wouldn’t budge, they got pissed off, and shipped me off to Vietnam, in the infantry.”

I was scheduled to meet the editor of Chiang Mai Post, Hardy, for lunch. On the way to his favorite restaurant, we stopped in a bar, at 11:30 AM, so he could introduce me to a photographer, named Daniel Silverstein, who came from Forest Hills, New York.
“This is him.” Said Hardy, s he presented me to Daniel.
Daniel looked me over appraisingly, and smiled. “Thank God!”
“Will he do?” Asked Hardy, sharing the smile.
“He’s the answer to our prayers.”
“If it wouldn’t be too rude, I was wondering if you could tell me what is going on here.”
Both men laughed.
“Some hill tribe people who I know told me that they found a WWII airplane up in the mountains. They don’t know if it is Japanese or what. But they said that they could lead us there.”
“That sounds like a very cool adventure. I would love to go.”
“We want to go too.” Said Hardy. “But neither of us is fit enough to carry Daniel’s photo equipment that far into the jungle. So, we needed a professional adventurer, like you, to do it for us.”
Ten years of college, and I was relegated to carrying camera bags into the jungle. It was demeaning. On the other hand, it still sounded like a cool adventure.
“I’ll do it.” I said.
“Great, now all we have to do is scrape together enough cash fro gas, and it is a done deal.” Said Hardy.
Hardy was famous for being the only man in Chiang Mai who was poorer than me. The legend said that he lived on less than 800 Baht per week (about $20).
“How much do we need?” I asked, as if I could just dial up a cash genie.
“A lot. Maybe 1,000 Baht or more.”
I couldn’t imagine the lack of $22 keeping me from an adventure. Neither could I imagine another place on Earth where the combined assets of three grown men didn’t total such a princely sum.

I knew that I had found a home in Chiang Mai.

Daniel loved to talk, and he soon became part of my usual rounds, during my off hours in Chiang Mai. He had a lot of larger than life stories, which were most likely true, and definitely fun to listen to. He was a real character in Thailand, and fairly well known. He marketed himself as an adventure photographer, and appeared in all of his own ads, wearing his standard adventure outfit: a floppy bush hat and an olive drab vest. His full beard and various cameras and bags completed the effect, and made Daniel one of the most recognized people in the city. He couldn’t walk down the street without people stopping to ask if he was Daniel the photographer, or how they could sign up for lessons with him.

Daniel’s take on photography was admirable.

“The verb is to TAKE a picture.” He explained. “This means you are taking something away from people. You are benefiting, and they are loosing. Well, this isn’t fair. So, any time I go into a hill tribe village to take photos, I bring copies of the photos from the last time I was there. This way, I am always giving something back.”

He showed me a photo of a woman selling pipes. Then he showed me a photo of an old leather worker, smoking a pipe. “You know what I did? I wanted to photograph that woman, so I bought a pipe from her, as payment. Then I gave the pipe to that old man, because I wanted to photograph him. This way they both got something for letting me make a photo. And best of all, it only cost me the price of one pipe. Other photographers would have given them cash. And that would have cost them double.”

Even in photography the goium (non Jews) were paying retail.

Daniel was a considerate guy. Most people went into hill tribe villages, made photos and left. The tribes didn’t benefit at all.
“Now the tribes know me.” Explained Daniel. “And when they have a new baby or a new fighting cock they invite me to photograph it.”

Often, he would just blurt out a comment, abruptly changing the subject of our conversation.

“I took my first kung fu lessons from Ron Park.” Said Daniel, who was about fifteen years older than me. Ron Park has been credited as the man who popularized martial arts in the US, by holding the first ever Karate competitions back in the late 1960s or early 1070s. It was at this event that a young martial arts instructor from Hong Kong, named Bruce Lee, made a name for himself, by using a one-inch punch to knock the world heavyweight judo champion across the room.

Daniel apparently had studied martial arts as a young man. But these days seemed to content to talk about, rather than practice, the arts. He often read my column in the bog martial arts magazines back home, and voiced his opinions about the leading MMA (Mixed martial Arts Fighters).

I liked talking to Daniel about photography, and didn’t mind talking to him about martial arts. But if I ever weakened, and allowed him to steer the conversation around to talking about weapons, which I always did, things got ugly.

He was obsessed with weapons, especially knives, and carried a variable arsenal in his photo bags. “I like this knife.” He said, flipping open a six inch, folding knife with a quick opening blade. “It is titanium tipped and has an armor piercing edge. It will cut through bone like butter.”

Daniel gave me great details about a discussion he had had regarding this particular knife on one of the knife forums on the Internet. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a knife forum. Just how much could you say about a knife? And besides, didn’t these people have jobs and lives, which kept them from spending all day on the Internet? The answer was, not in Chiang Mai. Most foreigners found they could live on about $600 per month. They didn’t have to work all of that much to come up with that figure, which left them plenty of free time to go on knife chat-rooms.

Daniel replaced the knife in the leather scabbard on his side, and drew a large electronic device from his bag. It looked like some new fangled vibrator, and I was a little embarrassed, not wanting to pry into his intimate affairs with his wife. He pressed the button, which I assumed would make it begin to vibrate. But instead, it fired an arching electrical discharge, which was blinding. The crackling sound could be heard all the way outside.

“You want a piece of me!” He yelled, in a Dirty Harry voice, which he had obviously practiced in front of a mirror. Guys like Daniel just hoped they would get mugged, so that they could try out their weapons.

“I was once hired to photograph a big reception at one of the embassies. When I was going though the security check, they found my stun gun, but I told them it was photographic equipment. And they believed me!”

In addition to some other hidden knives, Daniel had a razor blade in his shoe, and a credit card sized weapon, called a survival card, which fit perfectly inside of his wallet. The most disturbing weapon was a medieval flail, consisting of a spiked ball, attached to a chain, which wrapped around the bag. It appeared to be a lock, to prevent the contents of the bag from being stolen. But in actuality, Daniel could draw the chain quite quickly, and have a deadly device at his disposal. In case I didn’t believe him, Daniel insisted on giving me a demonstration, swinging the deadly ball over his head in the restaurant, screaming like Bruce Lee. He had worked himself up into such frenzy, that after he got the ball up to speed, he released his grip, sending the deadly projectile crashing into a water glass.

“Could you imagine what that would do to some punk’s head?” he asked, grinning.

I wasn’t really certain Thailand even had young punks.

Shamus, the owner of the restaurant where Robert took me for lunch, overheard my conversation with Robert, in which I confessed that my dream was to go to Burma and cover the war.
“If you want to go to Burma you should meet Bertholt Lintner.”

"That would be great.” I said. “I've read his book about sneaking into Burma."
He was the first westerner to do this, about ten years ago with his pregnant wife, who gave birth in a field with an army plane shooting at them. "But how could I meet him? I asked, "It's not like I am going to Sweden."
"He lives in Chiang Mai." They said. My jaw dropped.

Bertholt Lintner was the definitive expert on Burma. He had written a number of books about the country. In fact he was in the top two foreigners who had ever been inside of Burma and written a book about it.

Other than Bertholt Lintner, the other major author of a book about an illegal trip into Burma was Sheldon Tucker who was accompanied by a young Swedish army captain, named Matts Larson.

Later that night, Layman, a Brit who owned a garden bar told me that there was another huge Swede hanging around Chiang Mai, an ex army officer who was heavily involved with the Shan Army faction. The big Swede, who Thais call Pi Chai, older brother, had become a bit of a cult figure in Chiang Mai. “He is about six foot six inches tall, and 239 LBS. But, he would put on his army uniform, to look even more intimidating, and would march into government offices, demanding that they help Burma.”

Layman said that when Shan soldiers were injured, Chiang Mai was the closest hospital. The only problem was that they didn’t have a Thai ID card, and would be in danger of being arrested. So, people like Pi Chai formed an underground network, who would borrow and swap ID cards, to semi-legitimize the patients, and keep them out of prison.

Once I found out that Bertholt Lintner was in town, I suddenly realized who
the other Swede is. I think it is a guy named Mats Schmidt, who accompanied
Shelby Tucker, the second foreigner ever to penetrate Burma. Mats and Shelby
met on a train in china. Shelby said. "Do you want to walk across Burma
with me?" That is how I later met my friend, David, and got him to cycle to Burma with me. It was Shelby’s words coming out of my mouth.
I spent the afternoon in the only café which I enjoyed reading in. They had artificial light, air-conditioning, and best of all, a bottomless cup of coffee only cost 60 Baht. During one of my reading breaks, I wound up meeting Moshe, an old Israeli businessman who was thrilled to have someone to share his China experiences with.

“I walked past the same blind woman on the street, on the way to work, every day. I tried to tell her that I wanted to buy her some food. But I couldn’t speak Chinese. I tried talking with my hands. But she was blind. So, Ii touched her lips, meaning I would give her some food. As soon as I did this, she reached inside of her dress, and handed me a piece of bread.” Moshe smiled, but his eyes were tearing up. “She thought I was hungry.”

She invited Moshe to her house, which was just a small closet in someone
else’s apartment. The people she lived with said that she cried every day, because she missed her village.

“Why did you come here?” Moshe asked her.

It turned out, that the blind woman had come to the city, to bring her dying brother to the hospital. He was dead now. The people who she lived with said that they didn’t know how to get the blind woman home. “I asked how much it would cost, and they told me 300 RMB.” (About $36) “I told some other foreign business people about her, and we all chipped in to get her home.”

Moshe’s stories were all so heart warming. He told me about how he had met a beautiful girl, on a long bus ride, through the Chinese countryside. “We talked as best we could. Although she had no English at all. I felt that we had a spark. When we finally reached her village, I was in a hurry to get to my next destination, or else I would have gotten off with her. I knew I would be back this way later, so I asked her to write on a piece of paper the place where she was going.

A year went by. But eventually I found my way back to that same bus stop, out in the middle of nowhere. I handed the paper to a taxi driver, and asked him to take me to that location. But he just scratched his head, and sat there. Assuming he was illiterate, I asked a few other people to help. Soon, I had the whole town passing my note around. They were all talking to each other in Chinese. But no one was taking me any closer to the girl. Finally, the schoolteacher arrived, and she spoke a little English. It turned out that when I had asked the woman where she was going, she had written two characters on a piece of paper Hwe and Ja.”

I was laughing so hard, that I could hardly breath. Hwe meant return. And Ja, meant home. When asked to write where she was going, the woman had written, “I return home.”

The English language bookshop, called The Lost Book, closed at eight or eight thirty. I usually tried to drop in around seven, when most of the very interesting expats gathered to swap stories and discus literature. If I had money in my pocket, I would then continue the discussion with them over dinner. If I didn’t, I would make some feeble excuse, then return to the hotel and read, alone, in my $2.00 a night room, with no air-conditioning. Being broke in Chiang Mai was a very alienating feeling.

Luckily, I was flush. So the conversation begun in the store could continue over a plate of Pad Thai. Robert, the American who owned the shop, was always good for a lengthy conversation, which killed time, and helped me to understand the world.

“Robert” I announced, as I walked into the tiny shop. “I want to start a literary movement, like Hemingway and the expats in Paris, between the wars.”
“We sell a book called How to be Hemingway.” He said. “It’s only 300 Baht.”
“Whose got that kind of money?” I asked.
“A lesser man might point out the fact that you are in here every day, and you never buy anything.”
“You’re right, Robert. That would be the behavior of a lesser man. Of course, pointing that out to a half punch-drunk boxer from Brooklyn, who lives in a skid-row hotel and has nothing to loose might be the LAST behavior of a lesser man.”
“Well, if you did start a whole Hemingway in Chiang Mai thing, Who would I be?” Asked Robert. “Hemingway or Fitzgerald.”
“You could be Alice B. Tolkas.” I offered, knowing how much Robert always wanted to be a lesbian.
“No, I will be Alice Tolkas’ lover, Gertrude Stein, who owned the bookshop, Shakespeare and Company.”
“OK, as long as you are a woman. But then you will have to publish my work, like Stein did for Hemingway. And, I was thinking I could be the Hemingway of the
group.” Before he could protest, I rattled off my qualifications for the Hemingway position. “I don’t drink or catch marlins, but I can box, and I would give my eye-teeth to go report from a war zone.”
“Fair enough.” Said Robert. “Who should be the Fitzgerald?”
“Anyone with a drinking problem and a crazy wife.” I said.
“Chiang Mai has got too many of those. We will have to hold tryouts.”

Robert was off to Cambodia the next day to buy illegally pirated books.

Paul, Robert’s best friend, was the youngest of our crowd, only about 27 years old. He and his Thai girlfriend had one of the healthier cross-cultural relationships I had seen.
“It broke my heart to see her working twenty-eight, twelve hour days per month for 6,000 Baht. But, I didn’t want to give her money. She wouldn’t have accepted it. And I just didn’t want to go down that road.”

The solution they came up with was that Paul took some of the money he had earned as an English teacher and helped his girlfriend to establish a T-shirt shop. “Now, she has a job to go to every day. It’s her business, so even the long hours don’t matter. And she is earning a decent wage.” In fact, the business had become so profitable that Paul was able to reduce his teaching to just a few hours per week, so he could concentrate on his writing.

People back home didn’t understand why the expats stayed in Chiang Mai. At least one of the reasons was that we got to live in a tropical paradise and, and we didn’t have to work regular jobs.

But families back home couldn’t see it.

“My mother is retired in Florida now.” Explained Paul. “After I had been here four years, and she finally understood that I was staying, she came out to see how I was living. We went in a restaurant, and before I could say anything to the waitress in Thai, my mom says Table for three, Silverman. I tell her, mom you don’t have to fake a Jewish name. We will get a table here anyway. She doesn’t understand Thailand at all. She called me the other day and asked. “How are you doing? Do you speak Taiwanese?”

A Bangkok-based psychiatrist couple, from California, who were spending the weekend in Chiang Mai, and got caught up in our conversation, while they were browsing the book shelves. The wife had lived in Antarctica for several years. But her most amazing stories were about her experiences in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. “It is the biggest, richest city in the country and they don’t even have street lights. I knew people who hadn’t had a shower in ten years. Even in an expensive hotel, nothing worked. At fifty dollars a night, you might not even have electricity. I never saw a city like that. And, it was
all James Tailor's doing.”

Michael was a spooky character who hung around the bookstore, talking nonstop. I was told that he would come in every day for a week or so, then disappear for months on end. He would always come back, with new adventures, which he spouted in long, pauseles bursts of story. His body was constantly shaking, and he slurred his speech. But no one had ever seen him take a drink. The most common theory was that he needed a high degree of life threatening excitement, or else he didn’t know how to function. Everyone suspected him of being an agent of some kind of an agent.

With Michael, you were always joining a film that was already in progress. I would have loved to have known how some of these stories started. But this was where I walked in.

“We held the airport as long as we could. But guys’ heads were popping like zits. Brains and everything else got all over my fatigues. And the joke of it was, I was hired as a noncombatant.” Michael laughed. We were never sure why he laughed. But he always picked the story right back up. “I’m there with an Uzi in one hand, grenades all over my bandoleers, and I’m classified as a non-combatant. So, anyway, I hopped the next bird out of there. And that was the end of my job. We had been hired to help the Democratic Republic of Congo modernize their airfields. But it was hopeless. Damned rebels!

Now I am off to Cambodia, to try and get a job defusing mines. It was something we did back inn Nam. So, I know how to do it. But the moron who runs the program there doesn’t want any foreigners. So, I will just have to make a prick of myself, and force him into it. In Nam we used to put a mousetrap under them. So, even if you defused the mine, as soon as you lifted the damn thing up out of the ground, it went off. But they didn’t do that in Cambodia.” He assured me. “Those are straight mines, easy. It doesn’t pay to good, but I don’t need much to do a job like that.”

Michael spun around, a bit unsteady on his feet, and knocked a complete works of Shakespeare top the floor. “Sorry, man.” He said, and staggered out into the street, where a motorcycle was forced to drive on the sidewalk to avoid hitting him.

Michael’s stories were always so big, that their absence created a vacuum. Removing him from our midst caused an implosion, which sucked a story right out of Martinis.
“I once faked an immigration stamp.” He blurted out. “I got sick of every time we
pulled into port.” He was talking about a job he had had fore a number of years, taking boats from the marinas in the south of Thailand, back to the United States. “We had to go chase down the port captain, to stamp our passport. And then we’d be leaving again in a few hours. It was such a stupid way to spend our shore leave. So, we were in Panama, and I just took a prescription bottle, dipped the top in ink, and stamped my passport. Then I smudged the ink, to make it look real.”

Martinis had had a lot of jobs. And they all resulted in great stories. “I had a job selling rugs once. Did good too, because my partner had done ten years for being a con man.”

We all laughed. But Martinis continued to tell us how great this ex-conman was at getting people to buy anything. “He would say stuff that would never come out of your mouth. He would convince these people that they were buying Aladin’s freekin’ flying carpet if he thought that would close the deal. We had rugs that cured baldness, made you more popular, got you laid…anything. He was really something. We made a lot of money.”

“So, what happened to the business?” I asked.

“My partner got sent to prison for thirty years for running a ponsy scam in the Indian neighborhood where we used to buy the rugs.”

We all waited outside, while Robert locked up the shop. Afterwards, we all headed over to a restaurant, and were just sitting down to dinner when Robert asked.
“Who thinks Michael’s a spook?”
“I do.” We all answered at once.
“He is definitely a Vietnam vet.” Said Martinis. “A vet always knows another vet. And he was for real. Some of those guys never got over it. They couldn’t go back to the world. So, you find them working as mercenaries, doing security work, de-mining…and always in weird places like Afghanistan, Bangladesh…”
“Or Cambodia?” Asked Robert.
“Yeah, or Cambodia.” Answered Martinis.
“I bet it was hard to readjust to civilian life after the insanity of war.” I said, hoping I didn’t sound too much like a talk how host.
”Being in the army is great.” Answered Martinis. “You get to do lots of things. But then one day, they ask you to kill someone.” He let that sink in for a moment. “When I came home from Vietnam, I was crossing the street. I wasn’t used to it anymore. So, I didn’t look both ways. Then a car almost hit me. He slammed on his brakes, and flashed his bights. I dropped to my knees, and whipped the gun around.” Martinis demonstrated, taking a stance on the restaurant floor. “I didn’t have a gun of course. But I realized I was still conditioned for it. Loud noises… anything could set me off. It takes time.”

Jim, who was about the same age as Martinis, said that he had been on the other side during the Vietnam War.
“You mean the Vietcong.” I asked.
“No, I mean I was a hippie anti-war protestor.” He laughed.

Jim was that he was one of those 1960s paradoxes, which the media love to play up. He had enrolled in Berkley, to avoid serving in the war. And had joined a hippie movement, swearing off material possessions. After graduation, he pursued a career in the finance end of Hollywood, and had made more money than Switzerland. He had married a Thai woman, and no the two of them spent half the year in a posh, luxury apartment in Chiang Mai, and half the year on a tremendous estate, in the Hollywood hills.

“So, what would eighteen year old Jim say if he got past the security guards, and saw the opulence in which you are now living?” I asked.
“He’d probably ask me for job.”
“Would you hire him?”
“I might, if he bathed. But that’s all academic. The dogs would tear him apart before he ever made it to the front door.”

“So, what was it like living as a pauper all those years?” I asked, as if I didn’t know.

“I worked as a cab driver in Berkley during Vietnam.” he began. “The first green beret I ever picked up had a huge load of weed on him. They used to get in the car,
not sure how to act back in the world. They’d tear off the uniform, talking a mile
a minute. Are you a hippie? They’d ask. Take me to hippies. I want to get stoned. Do you have any dope? Pull over, we’ll smoke some.”

“But then sometimes you’d get a load of sergeants. At the very least, you knew that you weren’t going to get a tip. Lifers were different, not very nice.”

Like all of the Chiang Mai expats, Jim had had a number of jobs, all of which translated well into stories.

“I had a sideline a few years ago smuggling people into England. And a Celanese would buy a ticket for Bombay. I would buy a ticket for England. When the plain landed in Bombay, we switched tickets, and I would get off the plane. For that, they paid for my ticket, and gave me $500 bucks. The other guy hopefully didn’t get found out till he got to London, where his family had money lawyers and guns waiting.
for him. They started their application for asylum right on the spot.

Mrs. Jim came from a remote tribal village, where she had lived with her two children. Since the boy was grown, they left him behind, and only took her daughter with them to America. But even at age 13, the girl found she was to old to assimilate.

“She was illiterate in Thai.” Explained Jim. “So, it was impossible for her to learn English properly. When it became obvious that she couldn’t even sit through a full day of regular school, I took her out, and bought her art lessons. But she couldn’t adjust to that either.”

“Now she has a baby by an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, who got deported. Next she was with two illegal Mexican boyfriends. One of them had a father, also illegal, who slept on the couch in their apartment. The boyfriend started out working pretty hard. So, I approved. But then, he wanted to be like an American, so he bought a car he couldn’t afford. Then he started getting speeding tickets he couldn’t afford. After that, he had insurance payments he couldn’t afford…He couldn’t hold down a job for very long anyway, because of his status as an illegal immigrant. But with the added pressure of the police and a bout a million collection agencies looking for him, he couldn’t even sit still for two minutes or he’d get busted.”

“He was like one of those sharks that has to keep swimming or it will die. Finally, he jut sort of disappeared. Now the girl is on welfare with her babies…” he shook his head, as if to say, “what a shame.”

“What happened to the son? Do you still have contact with him?”

Jim nodded. “The boy is somewhat better now. He stayed in the village, and kept boxing, drinking, and fighting. He got arrested a lot. The last time they took him in, they left him handcuffed to a dead body. It looks like he sort of learned his lesson. Since then, he got married. He’s got a kid now. We bought him a tractor, and he is doing a lot better, making money plowing people’s fields and things. He gets drunk sometimes for three or four days at a time, but not as bad as before. There is hope for his future.”

“Did you ever bring the daughter back to the village? How does she interact with her brother?”

“We’ve brought her back here twice, but as much as she is an outsider in America, she couldn’t relate to village life at all.”

In many bi-racial couples the dynamic would be that the woman would learn some insignificant amount of English, and the man would learn little or no Thai. All of the friendships would be through the man. And the woman would be expected to come to the dinners or come out for a drink. But they would be bored out of their minds, with no one to talk to, and little or no understanding of what was being discussed at the table.

Mr. And Mrs. Jim were different in this regard. Jim spoke Thai well. Mrs. Jim, on the other hand, had learned to speak English fluently. And, not only could she keep up with the conversation, but she contributed interesting insights and comments. She very obviously understood her life and her role in California, and was in complete control of the house, which they shared, and was current on all of her husbands affairs.

She told me. “At first everything was so strange. But now, I like pizza. I couldn’t live without satellite TV. We go to the mall on Sundays.” She could also hold her own in discussing politics. “Bush is a madman.” She said, when we got on the subject of the Iraq war.
It was so rare to see a Thai wife, especially a hill tribe person, adjust so well to life in the United States. It was even more remarkable that she had made this transition in her forties. The only explanation I could think of why she was able to adjust, and her daughter wasn’t, was probably because the daughter was thrust into a new school environment, and forced to be around Americans and American ways all day, from the beginning. Mrs. Jim may have been able to ease into American life, staying home when she needed to, and slowly introducing herself to her new world. Whatever the reason, it was a sad story.

After dinner broke up, the others were going to a bar, but not waiting to spend any more money, I said good night. It had been a great day. I had friends, food, and stimulating conversation. In a few days my money would be gone, and I’d be off to the jungle again. I wasn’t sure if this was how humans were meant to live. But it was my life, and it had hold of me like an addiction.

Two shirtless boys sped past me on a motorcycle, laughing hysterically. They both had bags of glue held over their nose and mouth. It was wrong. But they were beautiful. A corpulent German walked, with his arm around his paid girlfriend. She was tiny, delicate, and sexual. A quick mental image of this 200 pound pig mounting her flashed across my mind, and a small amount of vomit came up in the back of my throat. The look of boredom and resignation on her face said that this was her life, and she didn’t question it.

Why should I?
 
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