Monday, May 09, 2005

MBA Pt.7: Bikers 1, Zealots 0

My Bung Arm Part 7: At the Hospital in Aran, Day 3.

The story so far: Riding out of Phnom Penh and Kampong Thom, Mr Felix then cycled north through the forest to the Thai border at Preah Vihar. Further west near Anlong Veng he visited Pol Pot’s grave and that night was bitten on the elbow by a spider, or something - Mr Pot’s revenge. A few days later his badly swollen arm was cut open to by the Butcher of Sisophon (aka the local Cambodian doctor) which renewed his faith in the beyond (seeing is believing.) He is now booked in for five day’s outpatient treatment at Aranyaprathet Hospital on the Thai-Cambodian border.

Day 3 at Aranyaprathet Hospital, Thailand
It’s pretty obvious I’m rather taken with good Sister Supachai.
She’s the same every time I come in; shiny black hair tied back in the same ponytail, same stylish black shoes, same elegant silver watch around her left wrist, same easy smile, same grave eyes - but she’s new.
And her crisp white uniform gives off the same scent of lemons, and combined with the fresh smell of her skin (when she comes close) it’s a heady mix, and she’s taking me places I haven’t been in years.
I draw her smell into my body and it permeates my flesh, and float on it.
Yeah, she’s sexy all right, and I’m not just talking about sex. She reminds me, in some odd way, of a picture of Saint Rita (the patron saint of impossible causes) I once bought in the little Portuguese ‘Rosary Church’ on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok.
In the picture Saint Rita is kneeling on a stone floor in her brown habit, eyes cast towards the heavens, and a light, like a laser beam, is exploding out of the clouds and hitting her square in the temple, and by golly, that’s sexy (and I’m moved!)
But yes, people have trouble with this human phenomenon from all sides of the overeducated spectrum.
There’s fire down below all right, and it’s a furnace, feeding the great generator of the heart, and it’s rocketing the mind skywards through the clouds all the way to Vega. Seems logical to me.
Still, we musn’t get carried away, as my mother once said to me when I was a boy and I’d come home from Mass and told her I’d seen a fire around the body of the girl in the pew in front of me, ‘just like in the holy pictures, mum!’
"Yes, but we musn't take these things too literally, darling!" said my mother.
“What, you mean the Church is lying to me?" is what I wanted to say, but I think I ate a sandwich instead. Still, when you're strangely moved, you're strangely moved, and I bet it was a good sandwich.
(The girl was in a class below me at school, by the way, and the torch was burning mutually bright from both ends! Woo!)
So yeah, Sr. Supachai is doing more for me than just fixing my arm, and I’m making the most of it.
And whatever madness is going down it’s better than the ‘shock and awe’ promulgated by the Butcher of Sisophon (and his band of Cambodian heretics.)
That kind of religious experience is a once only sling-shot sub-orbital flight, which is fine on the way up, but hitting terra firma without a parachute is a dog with fleas.
In the middle of my revelry, Sr. Supachai looks down and asks if I’m ok - she’s so observant! - and I smile and say buoyantly: “I’m fine! Never felt better!”
She looks a little concerned but goes back to the scraping and bandaging.
Johnny’s still sitting on the same bed in the same opposite corner but they’ve changed his bandages (and his pants) and even he’s smiling today (and, I guess, picking up on the vibes, ‘cos it sure is vibey in here!)
I nod and say ‘Sawatdee!’ and he gives me a shy ‘wai’ which is a vast improvement on yesterday, and the day before.
I figured our relationship had gone up in a ball of flame just after launch (‘a major malfunction’) but lo! “We’ve re-established contact with Johnny, Huston!”
“Roger that, Aran! Crackle! Crackle!”
“Yeah, he’s over on the next bed in a new pair of pants waving as I speak!”
“Roger that, Aran! Crackle! Crackle!”
But such is the embracing influence of good Sr. Supachai on the hearts of men.
(And as long as Johnny doesn’t get too comradely and float over and try to dock with us, things will remain fine. “There’s only room in this capsule for two, Johnny boy, and me and Sr. Supachai makes ‘two’, so that leaves you over there in another orbit, but we’ll wave back when we sail past if you like!”)
Yep, Aranyaprathet General, it’s a hotbed of humanity, and I’m digging it.
It’s so bright outside when I leave the hospital that I have to squint, and I start perspiring as soon as I climb on the bike and roll down the concrete ramp.
I wave to the guard at the gate and he waves back, and I cycle off down the main street past the clock tower and stop at the little coffee stall I found yesterday by the soi opposite the ATM machine.
The woman who runs it speaks pretty OK English, and her name’s Mon and she’s small, sinewy and intense, and the coffee’s only Nescafe but it’s a good spot, and I get to converse, more or less, and eat sweet rice cakes, rather than just sit alone and unplugged.
Mon tells me that tomorrow she’s off to Bangkok for some big Buddhist get-to-together or other, and there seems to be about thirty going from Aran in a big a/c bus, and would I like to come?
Well, no thanks, that’s very kind but I’m in the middle of anti-amputation treatment and besides, I’ve got my own religious experience on-tap right here at the moment and it’s not wise to mix your drinks.
I sip on my Nescafe and chew on a rice cake and Mon pulls out a brochure on the Wat she’s going to and unfolds it on the laminated table. It’s big and shiny and she flops it open so fast I have to quickly pick up my coffee and rice cake and balance them on my knees, which is a little annoying, but I can see she’s determined.
Yeah, I’ve got nothing better to do, so on with the show, I guess.
At the top of the page is a wide-angle colour photo of the main stupa area and it’s gobsmacking. It’s something out of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’.
I lean forward to get a better look and make ‘oo-wee!’ sounds and Mon says: “You like?” and I say: “Yeah, it’s amazing!”
There has to be about five thousand devotees, dressed in white, lined up in rows at the foot of a run of white stone steps leading up to, what looks like, a giant white flying saucer embedded into the top of an immense, square marble hill.
The temple is the classic saucer shape and there’s a small ramp leading up to the centre of the fuselage, and a curved doorway (leading into the inner chamber) from whence presumably Klaatu emerges at the start of Act II.
Mon’s interpreted my ‘amazing’ as ‘good, good and good’ and is talking excitedly and her English is breaking down under the pressure.
I finally work out she’s talking about Matreya the Buddha, and hence, of course, the fervour, and I think she may think she’s looking at the next convert.
Matreya is the name of the returning Buddha, promised to arrive some 500 years after Gautama Buddha’s death, at around the time of Christ. Despite the slight date discrepancy, there is a belief amongst some neo-Buddhist movements around the world that the ‘second coming’ is imminent.
And if Matreya the Buddha does return, albeit 2,000 years late, and pops out of this hyper-tech time capsule it’ll be an event to behold, and you can bet your bottom dollar the blonde haired woman with the dog face from Fox Asia News will be on hand to cover it.
“How did it fe-e-el to be reborn, Mr Matreya?” she says thrusting the mike in his face.
And someone better warn Him to keep it short and snappy. “No long Dhamma discourses, pleeese, your Grace. It’s all sound bites now!”
Fox Asia News Alert:
Matreya the Buddha returns in a UFO!
“Lay down all thought surrender to the Noid!”
Which of course is a misprint, but Fox News, being Fox News, doesn’t know the difference and run it on the scrolling news bar at the bottom of the screen for three hours before somebody from Sri Lanka emails in and tells them that ‘Noid’ should probably read ‘Void’, not that it makes any difference to Fox.
“Why you not come, Felix?” Mon asks again, and I can see she’s all fired up with religious zeal, so I figure I better draw a line in the sand here before it gets out of hand.
“No, really, looks great, Mon,” I say, and hold my hands up and pat the air, “but I’m a Christian, so thanks, maybe next time.”
And now she’s miffed! Jesus, that didn’t take much. But what can you do? So I order another coffee and cake, and make a lame attempt to downgrade the conversation: “Gee, it sure is hot today, Mon!”
She doesn’t answer, but folds up the brochure in swift jerky motions, and grunts. (I’d actually like to souvenir it, but it’d be a gross mistake, so I let it go.)
A couple of minutes later she hands me my second coffee and plonks the rice cake on the table – thunk! Am I sensing an emotional shift here?
She sits down opposite me and says nothing, but I can hear the wheels of her mind going ‘whirrr-whirr!’ and it’s tense and I really can’t be fucked with this, so I sip my coffee and go off to the 7-11 in my mind and buy a packet of barbeque flavoured chips.
“Grandparents, alive, Ostalia?” she asks, which brings me back with a jolt. What’s this about?
“No, grandparents dead…” I say, cautiously, and point to the sky and nod sadly (as you must, in Asia, when talking about deceased family.)
“Mother, father, alive?” she asks, which seems like the logical next-step, but I’m now on alert. She’s got the look of a cocker spaniel closing in on a quarry, read: defenceless duck.
“No,” I say, quietly, “Mother dead. Father dead.”
Mon turns quickly back to the coffee stall and starts rifling through the draw under the Nescafe tin and I’m left hanging with my dead family, waiting for the next move.
She turns back and places an orange envelope on the table in front of me, keeping hold of it with both hands, and looks into my eyes. The envelope has a picture of a dhamma wheel embossed on the top right hand corner and the name of the Wat splashed across the top, and it’s obviously official, and important.
And unfortunately for Mon I know what’s coming: it’s ‘dana’ time! ‘Dana’ is Pali for ‘gift’, and if she can’t get me to join the movement, she’ll do the next best thing and extract a few bucks out of me.
And here’s how it works: Mon gets me to give a monetary donation to the temple, which buys me ‘merit’ (a kind of spiritual bank balance), and I can keep the merit or direct it to whomever I please (my parents, for example), and Mon gets ‘merit’ for getting me to ‘make merit’.
It’s very win-win, and, of course, the temple benefits, and from the look of the temple, they’ve got a mountain of debt, but that’s not my problem.
Mon holds the envelope up and stares and tells me that if I put money in here – she opens the envelope and shows me the hole – then I will ‘make merit’ and buy my parents a better rebirth, and she will take the envelope to the temple and deposit it for me.
“You ‘make merit’ for mother, father, in separate envelope!” she adds, which presumably will double my donation depending on how I feel about mum and dad as separate filial units.
And of course, this whole thing is ‘loaded’ – how can you refuse to give money to help your parents find happiness?
(And I do believe she would actually deposit the money at the temple, rather than steal it. She’s too fired up with genuine religious zeal to risk her own hell and damnation.)
Now that the irresistibly good carrot is dangling a short reach from my nose, Mon sits back in her chair, while I’m now supposed to wrestle with my conscience, weighing up the hope and the doubt (and think of a number, and double it.)
Fucken’ hell! I know I’m getting ‘put upon’, and if I was Thai she wouldn’t have pulled this stunt, but such is the fate of the tourist, and how to handle it?
But some folks just can’t leave well enough alone. “You buy them a better rebirth!” she says pointedly, and unnecessarily, when she sees me wavering.
I came here for a coffee and a cake, and a little conversation (and I’m happy to pay), but now this, and I’d love to tell her she’s a zealot and if she doesn’t back off I’ll punch her in the nose, but no, for the sake of international harmony, I’ll be decent.
“No, really, Mon,” I say, as measured as I can, “my parents are Christian and I am Christian. Really, thank you, but, no, not today.”
“Why you not give them better rebirth!” she shoots back with a look of (mock) horror.
And that’s a ‘red card’.
This situation is, of course, one of the perennial problems tourists face in Asia, or anywhere for that matter.
In the face of alien madness and blatant rip-offs, you’re the polite bunny, the koala on the freeway, the Lee Harvey Oswald in the big parade: “I didn’t shoot nobody, I’m just the patsy!” (Yeah, poor old Lee, may he rest in peace.)
And God knows you want to give the (poor) locals the benefit of the doubt, but if this was happening at home any reasonable person would have told her to go and fuck herself, and threatened non-payment (the only power you have.)
And I suppose I could just cough up a few bucks for the sake of peace and a guilty conscience, like some lame-arsed backpacker, or maybe take the middle path and just walk away, like a good Buddhist (or the romantically minded politically correct) but fuck it, I’m a cyclist.
And I do wonder how many poor farang fucks she’s laid this trip on in the past.
As St. Francis says: “Lord, grant me the serenity to endure the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I stare at the ground for a few moments and wonder which one this one is, but when in doubt, there’s only one way to find out.
I look up gravely and motion her towards me across the table, real close. We’re about eight inches from eyeball to eyeball sex (and it’s kind of exciting) and look steadily into her eyes.
“Mon,” I say, leaning forward and keeping my voice low so she has to concentrate to catch my confession. “I’m a Christian, and when I die I go straight to heaven!”
While I’m saying this I jerk my index finger straight across my neck, and smile, and Mon jumps back in her seat, startled.
“Mother dead! Father dead!” I continue, and repeat the cutting motion across my neck but do it slowly this time, and smile.
Mon’s looking horrified (which is good) so I point sharply at the sky with a very erect index finger, and explode with happy gusto: “But they now in heaven! With God! They not come back!”
Mon’s eyes have grown as round as flying saucers, and she’s sitting bolt upright in her chair as far away from me as it will allow.
“So you see, Mon,” I say, leaning back comfortably in my seat and taking a sip on my coffee, “making merit for me would just be a waste of money!”
And so everything falls to dust, and I pay my forty Baht and smile and say ‘thanks!’ and wait for something, but she says nothing, and so be it.
Farang Bikers 1, Aran Zealots 0.
And will we pray for each other? I suspect not.
As I cycle off I remember that the Japanese girls at the guest house said they’d be cooking Japanese food tonight, and I’m suddenly famished and could kill for sushi.
Yeah, it’s been another big day in the world’s most boring border town, and food seems like a great idea.


Andrew said...

Ah, Mr Felix. You took your bloody time about it, but twas worth it in the end. Hilarious as usual.

Mr Felix said...


Glad you liked it - but hey, some of it's serious! Really! Really really!

Sometimes I feel like, in my life, if I stood outside, say, the American Embassy in Melbourne, or even here in Bangkok, with a bomb strapped to my waist and announced: "I'm going to blow this place up!" people would just chuckle and go on with their lunchtime sandwiches and say: "Oh, that Mr Felix, he's a card!"

I wonder how it would go outside the Russian Embassy? Or maybe the North Korean?

OK, mate, more when the spirit moves me,
Felix in Bangkok

(Mind you, having now put this up on the net, in this climate, the antennas out in Langley will be going bronco by now and I may well be dragged out of my GH at 3 in the morning and held without trial in a dungeon for 6 years. But fuck, I'll tell 'em anything to minimise my own pain: "Yeah, the Mr Big of this operation is a guy called "Andrew" and I only know him via the net but he's a real rotter..!")