Monday, July 20, 2009

A Promise I Hope to Keep

Mina and I were travelling in a cramped mini-van tour bus that left Chiang Mai to take us to the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun and onto the Kirin Village (long necked women) and the Golden Triangle.

The temple is about 2 -3 hours north of Chiang Mai, our home base. I sat in the back, scrunched against a metal frame, trying to use my ubiquitious utilitarian faded denim shirt (usually tied around my waste) and my blue back pack to cushion my jolts and try to take my mind off the bouncing into and out of the potholes and the high speed careening around bends in the road throwing passenegers left and right.

Many years ago my father taught me this verse. I think he read it as a boy when Burma Shave posted one liner tidbits of wisdom during WW 2--three lines scattered along the road then "Buy Burma Shave." I still mumble these words like an after thought prayer when trapped on a bus in an Asian country.

"Man who passes on hill or curve/Is not a man of iron nerve/.. .he's nuts!..."Buy Burma Shave". (Coincidentally,the Burma border was on the itnerary)

To take mind off the page A4 single column in the local English daily running through my mind (and possibly a sound byte on CNN or Al Jazeera--"tourist bus smashes head on with a another vehicle killing 2 South Africans, three Singaporeans, 2 Swiss students ,one Iranian woman and a middle-aged American who, shortly before he died kept muttering something about Burma shave as he was being pried from the wreckage with the jaws of life. It is not believed at this time that he was on his way to Burma to attend the trial of Aung Sang Suu Kyi."

Half way to Wat Rong Khun, we came to a sudden stop at a red light. I was nearing the end of Shirin Ebadi's autobiography "Iran Awakening"--she was in Paris attending a conference and about to find out that she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize.

I dropped the book for a moment and saw to my left, a car length ahead of me on a flat bed truck, four fat pink garden variety boar pigs. Two cages on the top, two on the bottom, lashed together with bungy cord.

Three of the boars laid on their side, sleeping off a last meal, perhaps more resigned to their fate. They weren't putting up a fuss.

But one large fellow, the one in the bottom right steel cage was screaming at the top of his lungs the sort of sounds I or you would probably make were we not to go gently into that good night. This fellow was most definitely raging with all his heart against his the looming dying of his light.

You are not permitted to snap photos of funeral pyres along the ghats of the Ganges rivers in India. (You are allowed to in Nepal and I never have; I am mildly taken aback by friends who go to the ghats in Kathamndu and film the proceedings, "Oh and this is where we stood on a bridge and gawked as we watched a son set fire to the man who gave him life, kinda cool isn't it? Ooh. Ooh Watch the flames shoot out of the dead guy's mouth."

I digress.

I didn't snap a photo of the doomed beasts but did find one on Google images that sort of sets the scene, only it was mid-day and the boar was much larger and far less tranquil. The sound he made was what I guess we would call blood curdling.

While his three buds made themselves comfortable in their cages, stretched out on bales of hay, my friend,whom I'm gonna call K. in deference to Kafka's "The Trial" (K. had to die like a dog with a knife thrust into his heart, probably because Kafka's audience was mostly Jewish--I'd read in grad school that in one draft Kafka did kill off K. "like a pig.)

K. banged around his cage. He screamed, he squealed, he tried to chew his way threw the iron bar locking him in, it was as though he would rather defy his fate at the hands of others and if all this thrashing about injured him, killed him, at least he would have the final word on his fate.

I watched as long as I could and just as I was about to raise my book and blockout the scene--everyone on the mini-van was mumbling about it, some may have even snapped a photo; I could bear it no longer. But in that second before the book was raised blocking him from my view, K.'s eyes and mine locked.

His pleading eyes said, "Can you help a brother out? I just gotta get home in time for my evening slop?"

I looked back and explained, "You know I just can't stop this van and steal the truck driver's cargo, but for you K., I promise I won't ever have another ham sandwich, pork dog and I've eaten my last slice of bacon. And everytime I say 'No, I'll think of you."

Know one reason Muslims don't eat pork? Hallal slaughter requires that the butcher cut the throat of the animal. No bolts to the back of the head on an assembly line plus with each slaughter comes a prayer. It's painless enough if done right and as the animal bleeds to death, it falls asleep. I suppose thereare better bways togo than being stabbed repeatedly. But a pig has no throat. It has to be stabbed to death and with each knife thrust, it suffers not only the pain, but the knowledge that it is over--and it goes on. Nothing gives upthe ghost without a fight.

But back to K.

I imagine that up until that morning, he had a fairly regular pig routine. Up in the morning for his breakfast slop. A nap in the cooling mud. Maybe he spent his off hours counting chickens and watching impassively the day to day of farm life--for years. He had a life, places to be at a special time, he had friends.Heloved the rain. Then came this day. Herded into a cage. Lashed onto the back of a truck. No lunch. A routine interrupted and something telling him, "This can't be good."

Later that day our tour stopped at a cafeteria and I found myself from that moment on asking about the chilis and dumblings and noodles, the sweet and sour glop--does it have pork?

If so, I turned it down--I'd promised K.

The jury is still out for me on sea food and chicken. I don't eat a lot of red meat anyway. I'm working on it.

But you should have seen K's eyes. Expressive. Intelligent. Pleading. Aware. Disturbing.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Clock Radio For Sale: Cheap

My ex-pat war story doesn't quite begin with getting one's news the high tech way, that is, access to BBC World on shortwave radio or the low end route--finding a 2 week old Herald Tribune left behind by back packers in a 2 dollar a night Himalayan hostel, but I worked with people in the mid-90s who began their English as a Second Language teaching careers in the 1960s and 1970s who came to the profession to avoid Vietnam, routing their draft lottery chances through the Peace Corps, who did get news of the outside world in dribs and drabs over a period of days or weeks or months.

However, when I first worked in Kuwait there was no satellite access where I lived, only Kuwait TV One (Arabic) and Kuwait TV Two (English). I had a clock radio that picked up armed forces broadcasts of feeds of both NPR and Rush Limbaugh. And my Herald Tribune was usually only a couple of days behind.

A couple of years into my ex-patting, some person whose name escapes me now, offered to drive me and Ken Shabby, a three-legged cat I'd adopted, to the vet on a Thursday morning, the first day of the weekend, but first she had to go into work and check her Hotmail. That morning I first heard about this thing, this E. Mail.

It would take another year of armed forces broadcasts, phone bills capable of cashing out a month's salary, the occasional fax sent and received in a copy shop in Kuwait City and regular old letter writing before a co-worker sneakily took me by the hand and showed me our department's lone innernet-capable computer. One computer online in an engineering department that must have had fifty dozens of instructors and professor's of various rankings--that's why the sneaking. Then and there I tapped information into boxes, agreed to receiving a truckload of digital magazines and agreed to the terms of service for my very own Hotmail account.

Following 13 years of one sea change after another in that area, I wonder now why I'd expected that other stable builds would be passed over by worldwide evolution.

Back then, one traded in basic human rights and the voodoo magic of zip codes for tax free salaries which would eventually bankroll retirement in some cost effective heaven on earth like Thailand--where three bedroom bungalows near the beach went for ten grand and where people spoke a language that had more words for blow job than Eskimos have for snow.

Relatively speaking, the cost of a 3 bedroom house, though it may have gone up 600% since 1996, is still quite affordable. But what about all these other sea changes and quantum leaps? No way is democracy an American export worth killing of our kids in uniform to force upon the dirt dog poor of the world.

What about the death knell of US auto manufacturers? What about. . .what about. . . what about. . . .

We move on from the beach to the mountains soon to check out investments and maybe pull some stupid stunts on a raging river.

Oh. And another given that's gone--discounts. Turns out, those people in the developing world we'd heard were hit worst by the economic downturning never had much cash on hand anyway, so it makes them no never mind if I go white water rafting or not--so long as I pay full price. Same thing goes for the housing market here. Discounts? Shit. These people can live on rice and mangos, and most still do. If you want to own a home here, you're paying full price. And if you can't afford it, and nobody else wants to pay full price, they'll wait us out, snacking on our frozen rice and mango treats, diddy bopping through life from bj to bj.