And Now the News from Nowhere
"I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
and do not even own clothing."
When I boarded the plane that would take me from Bangkok to Boston, I could not have foretold that in a few days similar planes would be flown from Boston into a pair of New York skyscrapers. It was almost as if I had imported disaster in my baggage, and my fortnight in the states was consumed by signs of apocalypse, tones of high umbrage, drums of imminent war.
Though I was obliged by various institutions and documents to show solidarity, I was eager to get back to a place where the main things people watch on television are game shows and pop concerts; where the preferred pastime is getting amiably drunk and singing corny Karaoke; where doctors are wont to tell foreigners that the root cause of all their ailments is almost certainly too much stress; where war is something that happens somewhere else over silly things like old books; where nobody much cares if you're American, Arab, Antiguan or from outer space, so long as you are polite; where peace is not some distant dream or bumper sticker slogan but something that seems to emanate from the ground.
My head was still roiling with self-inflicted media noise when I woke up in Tambon Pala, my home adjacent to a small fishing village about two hours outside of Bangkok. Birds sang in celebration of the sun and the coconut palms swayed in rhythm with the wind. After two weeks of intimate contact with various boxes - cars, planes; restaurants, airports, shopping malls; TVs, computers - I desperately needed what a syndicated cartoonist used to call a dandelion break. So I hopped on my bicycle and like a cartoon character I was conveyed by the scent of salt. My blood pressure began to plummet. Thoughts of apocalypse began to ebb.
A great joy of returning to a sultry "developing" country after a short sojourn in the frigid First World is how pleasantly disheveled everything is. Rain and sun and gravity are tyrants. Straight lines and sharp angles are rare. The roads are sprinkled with fallen coconuts, flattened snakes, discarded rinds, inert dogs. The people don't bother to impress you with their appearances and most everything is on a human scale. Roads are narrow, communities tight-knit, communication often a matter of calling out your window like forlorn Juliet.
As I rode, two young Thai girls approached me on a bicycle from the other direction. One pedaled with great ardor while the other hung precariously off the back. As if they were aware of how awkwardly they proceeded, they were all smiles and giggles, and it is possible that they were alerting each other to an oncoming specimen of that exotic species, the foreigner, i.e. me. But when they passed they both smiled and said hello, and they did so with next to no consciousness of themselves or me, still less of New York or the imperatives of geopolitics.
Peace seemed not to be such a complicated proposition to them, and it certainly didn't require accords or diplomats or, what is infinitely more illogical, war. "Except ye...become as little children," I read later in an old book, "ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." These the much misunderstood words of a man whose stomping ground now resembles a weapons expo gone awry.
My ride took me past a field doubling as a soccer pitch and a pasture for oxen. The stoic oxherd loitered nearby and ahead of me stood the big blue indifferent sea. Even skyscrapers were but twigs or needles compared to it. Onto shores such as this our slimy and blind and ambitious ancestors had once crawled, evolving into a being often every bit as slimy, blind, ambitious. Ban Pala is a fishing village and right now it stinks. It is fish-drying season. Except for the introduction of outboard motors the fishing here has probably not changed much over the millennia. Wearing little more than a loincloth men swim out to their boats to reap their watery farm of its crop. Portly women weave nets and collect buoys and thirst after rice moonshine. Hundreds of multi-colored boats are moored on the net-strewn beaches like a museum exhibit you are not allowed to touch.
Down the road from the pasture-pitch is the seafood market, a busy affair thick with ravenous flies. On offer are fish, prawns, oysters, cuttlefish, the odd manta, and other squirming creatures suggestive of a 50's sci-fi movie. The market opens early and runs on pre-industrial time. The seedy city of Pattaya no doubt resembled this before American servicemen during the Vietnam War turned it into a flesh market of a different sort altogether. There are a few high-rise hotels but most have been desolate since the crash of 1997, when the future beat a rare retreat. And to the east is a peninsula crowded with oil tanks like white Leviathans. The nearby district of Maptaphut is to Thailand what Gary is to Chicago, an unsightly source of energy, a wart on a starlet's nose. Recently an oil tanker ruptured nearby and I emerged from a swim at Pala Beach with tenacious crude oil mottling the soles of my feet.
Haircuts are offered for a dollar in a shop adorned with pin-up girls, and though the haircut is far from fashionable nobody will notice. A mechanic will inflate your motorbike tires for a nickel. Pad thai is sold for four bits, but if you want Western food you go to Nu's, the kind of place Hemingway might have frequented in Key West. Be aware however that during the afternoon the staff might be asleep. In Ban Pala siesta endures.
Stores and stalls in rural Thailand seldom have names so names must often be supplied. Hard by my house is "Happy Aunt's", so-called because its proprietor is old enough for Thais to call her "aunt". Her fare includes Thai whisky and old Pepsi bottles filled with red and yellow petrol. Back in Chiang Mai, a local eatery was called "Short and Tall" because the owners looked like Laurel and Hardy.
I lead a semi-anonymous existence here, just obtrusive enough to be in Thailand, just reclusive enough to think and work. To Nu's I am an afternoon alarm clock and an avid reader of the Bangkok Post. To a cashier at a nearby store I am nuk khien, the writer, who poot tai geng, speaks Thai well. I am the American to another, who once playfully warned me to avoid Osama bin Laden and his posse. This same man also asked me when America would stop its war, which had included the use of a nearby airbase for planes headed to Afghanistan. It was the only time I felt unwanted here, as if I were the bomb-magnet Slothrop from Gravity's Rainbow. "We are Buddhists," said the man gently. "We like peace."
He also apparently liked selling Marlboros and living in a country that has a sizable cache of American-made munitions, but I declined to begin a lengthy discussion of globalization's conundrums. "Too much talk is exhausting," says the Tao Te Ching. "Better to stay centered."
Like most Thai communities Ban Pala is home to a handful of glorious Buddhist temples, Technicolor renditions of the old Siam recorded by the pencil sketches of scurvy-ridden foreign adventurers. Further inland a temple under construction demonstrates that twenty-five hundred years after the death of the Buddha his message of peace yet flourishes in a perilous world.
One wonders how Fortune will treat this tiny placid dot on the outskirts of the world. It would be nice to endorse E. M. Forster's suggestion that "it matters so little to the majority of living beings what the minority, that calls itself human, desires or decides." But I am still human and alive; Forster is dead. And in his day there weren't so many oil tankers greasing the living beings upon which humans depend, nor were there so many high-rises becoming pathetic Goliaths that fervent Davids can easily fell. We are forming a new kind of world. I don't know anything about it and the Ban Pala fishmongers don't even suspect anything about it. But perhaps Graham Greene was right: "In five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they'll be growing paddy in these fields, they'll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats." And I trust that they'll be singing Karaoke while sirens blare in Bethlehem and Jenin.
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Published on 5/29/02