When i got back from a holiday in Sri Lanka in mid-April i had only two weeks to get the school newspaper ready for the printers. Now that it has been put to bed – it will appear on campus in a few days – i can breathe again and do a few things for myself. It’s hard to believe such a little thing as a school rag can take so much time but when it’s in the making it’s a huge pain in the arse. The kids are co-operative and enthusiastic but not very talented, alas, when it comes to putting the paper into any kind of printable shape or form. Everything’s submitted on scraps of paper and i have to correct, edit and reject wholesale. One of the school secretaries, a charming Thai lady, is assigned to help me during the final two weeks but i spend as much time correcting her corrections – up to three errors per line – as i do censoring and re-drafting the kids’ efforts. A colleague is also in on the act but she has a way of passing the material on to me and never does anything else with it. Fat lot of help she is but she means well.
The trip to Sri Lanka went as smooth as silk, not a hitch except for a difficulty in the hill town of Kandy which scuppered my plans for visiting an old friend, Don Waters. I never got to see the man and that was disappointing. After all, we’d been colleagues in Saudi Arabia back in 1979.
Tony, a Sri Lankan who worked with me in Kuwait, lives north of Colombo in Negombo and my plan was to ferret him out. I had two addresses for him and took a taxi to the first. The people there said he’d moved so i went to the second. The second never heard of him! At a complete loss, i was down in the mouth when, miracle of miracles, i looked out the window of the taxi and there he was coming down the road on his bicycle. I jumped out of the taxi and shouted his name across the village. He literally fell off the bike and couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw me running toward him. He had no idea i was visiting Sri Lanka, we’d been out of touch since he left Kuwait in December ’87. What a re-union there was right there on the roadside with half the village watching! Things could only get better after that and indeed his kindness and hospitality made the trip memorable.
Spent five days in Ambalangoda in the south of the island. It’s a sleepy seaside town famous for its handmade masks and its lovely Rest House where i stayed. The Rest Houses all around Sri Lanka were built by the British as watering holes for travelling civil servants and in the resorts they always command the best strip of beach. They’ve fallen into some disrepair but still retain a certain old world charm. Service is friendly and the food mediocre, but i survived. Back to Negombo after that and spent a few days with Tony and his wife, Roberta, reminiscing about Kuwait and all the people we knew there. Everyone must have had burning ears the first week of April.
Then to Kandy in the hills accompanied by Tony’s younger brother, Alex. Tony couldn’t travel as he was working, he has a job at the Holiday Inn. When we reached Kandy i discovered Alex wasn’t carrying ID or passport. He lost his ID in Kuwait – didn’t get out till november – and the silly arse had left his passport at home in Negombo. No hotel would take us as he couldn’t register without ID of some sort and he a Sri Lankan travelling in his own country. Eventually, the Queen’s Hotel agreed to give us a room and charged a hefty rate to turn a blind eye; i registered, they never heard of Alex. The sly receptionist, venal to the last, said he had to charge extra so he could bribe the police when they came to check the register in the wee hours. I didn’t believe a word of it but it was nine o’clock at night, spilling rain outside and we needed a place to wash, rest and sleep after a hot, humid and delayed train ride.
Alex spent the next two days scared out of his mind the tourist police would harrass and jail him. When i mentioned i planned to travel on to Bandarawela to see Don Waters he point blankly refused to budge. Neither would he go back to Negombo without me so i was stuck with him in Kandy for two and a half days. I went out to see the sights while he stayed in the hotel room. I never got to see Don and i’m sure he’s still wondering why i never showed up.
Back to Negombo via Colombo and spent the final week doing nothing except talking to Tony and Roberta when they were around. Sat in the sun only a little, it was too hot to be on the beach for long.
The Sri Lankans have had as much exposure to tourists as the Thais have had over the past ten years but, fortunately, haven’t lost any of their charms or ways. They’re genuinely friendly and hospitable and when you’re among them you feel welcome and liked for your own sake. The Thais have developed too rapidly for their own good and have picked up many smartassed ways. The Land of Smiles nowadays is often the Land of Scowls and Pushes and Shoves with people desperate to get their hands on money at any cost; money seems to be the only ‘value’ they care about, and everything and everyone has a price. There are cases of that, too, in Sri Lanka and everywhere else, i’m sure, but there are certainly more people in Sri Lanka who care about things other than money. Having said that, i’m able to cope with the Thais and look for the best in them. The poor remain good people despite their worsening circumstances; it’s the yuppies who are less than agreeable.
The summer has been hot and humid. It started in earnest at the beginning of march and is now coming to a close. The first monsoon rains came tumbling down last week, the elements put on a dazzling show, and the temperature has already dropped a few degrees but much more rain is needed before it drops radically. The rainy season, the longest, will run till November when the cool season kicks in. So the worst is nearly over for another nine months.
The school year comes to an end on the last day of this month and we’ll resume on August 15. Quite a break for me, but not all ‘off’ however. There’s an international teachers’ conference in Jakarta from June 20-25 and i’m one of the three delegates from here. While i’m down there, i’ll do a tour of the area and visit Sumatra, Borneo, Brunei and Bali before finding my way back here via Singapore and West Malaysia. Looking forward to the odyssey. I’ve not been to Singapore or Malaysia since 1986 and i know there have been many changes.
Next academic year i’ll have an interesting post, creative writing. I intend running a series of workshops which i’ll tie in with the newspaper. I’ll also contribute to Drama as that’s a neglected area of the curriculum. Dalli Ferguson, an excellent American woman with whom i get on well, runs that department and is constantly lamenting the lack of emphasis on drama so i’ll be joining her three times a week to put potential thespians through their paces. We might even manage to stage a play at Christmas.
Patrick went back to Kuwait three weeks ago. He’s been in regular touch as telephone calls can now be made out of the country but not in as yet. He describes a scene of devastation. Also in touch has been Paul Kennedy who was the Irish representative there and who’s here in Thailand at the moment with his Thai wife. He was among the very last people to leave last December and he told me of the looting of the Muthanna Complex. The Iraqis stole all the electrical gadgets out of that shopping mall and dumped them – tvs, videos, stereos, radios – in the backs of lorries and drove the lot north. The large bookshop in the basement of the Muthanna wasn’t even forced open, every book stayed on its shelf, but the jewellery shops were ripped apart. The Sheraton hotel was gutted and will have to be re-built as will parts of SAS and the Hyatt (as was). The Hyatt’s extension, the one built for the GCC summit a few years ago, really got the treatment. Spite, absolute spite. The Kuwait Towers didn’t escape entirely, they came under fire but weren’t toppled. The Amiri Palace was shelled but the Stock Exchange building wasn’t entered at all. Weird.
Patrick adds that along the highways are dozens of burnt-out cars and several unburied bodies – two months after liberation. And then there are the burning oil wells.
‘What are you doing back there?’ i said to him. ‘Are you mad or what?’
‘They need me to help them re-stock,’ he replied, ‘the Iraqis didn’t leave as much as a spoon, they stole everything, even the napkins.’
His sense of duty, however misplaced, is in some ways admirable.
Great skullduggery being exposed on the political scene here. Since the february coup several committees have been set up to investigate the wealth acquired by certain high profile individuals. It transpires that some government ministers have been accepting bribes for years, up to ten million baht ($400,000) at a time to grant planning permission to speculators. In terms of unofficial news this is nothing new but for the first time it’s being published in the papers and causing a hell of a stir. It’s surprising how naive the poorer Thais are with regard to goings-on of this nature; the powerful aren’t questioned and haven’t been challenged or made answerable till now. Democracy, which Thailand claims to abide by, has its drawbacks but it does attempt to nail this kind of thing. For generations, the Thai preoccupation with maintaining superficial harmony at all costs has precluded any kind of investigation into wrongdoing but the current exposures are changing a lot of attitudes and stripping away blind faith in politicians. People have taken to writing to the papers to express rage at what’s being revealed; that’s a breakthrough. The expat community is pleased that ordinary people are asking questions and the newspapers are enjoying unprecedented freedom. Real changes are under way but many are nervous that another coup is imminent – to oust honesty.
Had an interesting evening last Saturday not so much for what anyone did or didn’t do but for the range and diversity of people who happened to come together under the same roof. I was having a fancy – no duck, no goose – dinner with JJ (of the ‘beautiful people’) and his wife, Tilly (a rare social outing for her as far as i can tell) when a business associate of JJ’s showed up in the company of a weightlifter and his ballerina girlfriend. Five minutes later, the weightlifter’s friend, an international footballer, dropped by and with him were an army officer, his lame sister and his very pregnant wife. To cap it all, a Chinese businessman in cream silk suit and red tie came in and he knew everyone there except me. I assume they must be some of JJ’s dress-up people.
The ballerina was by far the most interesting. She wasn’t wearing a tutu but the shortest street skirt i’ve seen in a long while, half a yard of cloth in all, if that, and a bright orange tank top and bright orange leg warmers. While her weightlifter boyfriend and his footballer pal were indulging in a testosterone-driven bout of clowning she and i managed to strike up a private conversation. Much to my relief she wasn’t interested in talking about her craft; rather, she very quickly got on to relationships and volunteered several opinions about men in general and in particular what she looked for in a mate.
‘Three things,’ she said. ‘One, he must be handsome so i’m not ashamed to introduce him to my friends; two, he must be sexy to keep the fire going and three he must be a good provider. If i can’t have one and two i’ll settle for three, a good provider makes everything right.’
Others joined us later but i didn’t dare ask what professions they belonged to or what talents or disabilities they carried, i was freaked enough for one evening. As a regular contributor to a national newspaper puts it: another case of TiT – This is Thailand.