Archive for August, 2011

MY (VERY) SHORT LIFE AS A BURMESE DANCER

| August 27, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

 Many years ago when I lived in Southeast Asia, I became obsessed with ” fitting in” . It was my fondest desire to BE  Thai when I lived in Thailand, to become Javanese when I was an inhabitant of Indonesia, to somehow melt into local society during my years in what was then called Burma.

The impetus for what gradually became an obsession was, I suppose, motived by  a strong desire for acceptance which  I had yearned for since childhood, and my passionate attraction for everything  I seemed to encounter in Southeast Asia – the food, the languages, so melodic and evocative, expressed in curling, exotic alphabets,  the strikingly handsome inhabitants and a climate, both literal and figurative, that left me in a limp, floating dream world. I can only describe my 30 years in Southeast Asia as an opiumlike revery where reality seldom intruded on my days, as I moved almost deliriously happy, through the  months and years, doing whatever it was I was engaged in.

 I remember the time I spent in Vietnam where there were,  in the 1960s, three distinct cultures to be dealt with, or avoided, as the case may have been. There was, ofcourse, the ancient culture of Vietnam followed by the old, entrenched but rapidly ebbing french colonial veneer and most recent and imposing as the war escalated, the brash, powerful and destructive American colossus. I straddled these three worlds in a confused and fascinated way.

One of my French acquaintances was a tough old rubber planter who had been working the  Terres Rouges plantation north of Saigon for nearly 40 years. He took great pride, he told me, in only having learned  two words of the Vietnamese language  during his lengthy sojourn in country- ” Stop” and ” Go.” As we careened down a dusty, red road in his Citroen he demonstrated the utility of this language skill by tapping on the shoulder of his driver, shouting “Stop !” in Vietnamese. The car came to screeching halt and he looked at me with pleased satisfaction on his face. ” You see!”, he said to me in his thick,  Marseilles-accented French,   ” that’s all the Vietnamese I need to know ! And, ofcourse, obviously I need ‘Go!’  when I want to start again”, whereupon another shout and tap were given to the obedient driver as we lurched down the Vietcong-plagued highway on our journey. 

By eery coincidence, I found myself several years later in Laos in a similar situation, riding with an old CIA agent who had been in the country for decades. Chatting  with him in the back seat of his sedan as we drove the wide, French-inspired boulevards of Vientiane, I asked how he found the Lao language. Was it difficult to learn ? Had he mastered the writing system ? How similar was it to neighboring Thai? Cackling loudly as he puffed on his pipe, he allowed as how he had only learned ONE word of Lao in his many years there – “Yut ! is the only word I need !” he bellowed to me. As he uttered the word, the car came to an abrupt halt. Realizing what the word meant because of the vehicle’s ceasing to move, I let my friend have the satisfaction of explaining to me that “Yut !” meant stop. I lapsed into thoughtful silence for the rest of the ride, contemplating the reduction in vocabulary that had occurred from the two words of my french planter friend to the single word of the old spook. Progress is all about simplying, they say.

In any case, I was determined not to follow in the footsteps of these stalwarts, as contented and successful as they seemed to have been in their respective professions. In each country where I lived – Burma, Indonesia, Thailand  to name several – I launched into the study of the local languages with a fierce tenacity that did yield results bordering on  a respectable grasp of  these tongues. I never approached my father’s level of foreign language fluency, however. He was famous in Japan for having mastered the arcane art of being able to recite an endless reperatoire of  off-color spoonerisms in Japanese.

In Burma, my thirst for proficiency in  things local went beyond language. I became entranced with Burmese dance. Unlike Thai or Indian dancing which to me were, respectively, slow and boring or hyper-active and unsettling with manically-darting eyes, Burmese choreography combined the best of South and Southeast Asia – vitality and serenity. I was determined to learn to become a Burmese dancer. My motives were less than totally honorable in the sense that I had become enamored of a  young, handsome Burmese dancer. I thought that by learning his craft, I could…….

After our first lesson, I felt  aches and pains that I had never experienced before. The motions and positions in Burmese dance, I came to realize, required an agile flexbility that could not be learned after puberty. Adult bones simply could not learn to  bend and twist to accomodate Burmese dance motions. At the dancing school, I saw that all of the debutantes – beginners – were under ten years old. What a risible sight it must have been – ten year olds gracefully  bending and swaying and one  white 40 year-old groaning with each twist of the elbow and movement of the hips.

My dance lessons were short-lived, but miraculously  my life as a Burmese dancer continued, achieving a strange renown that lives with me to this day.

Not long after I arrived in Burma, I became smittened with  Burmese mangoes. I ate great quantities of this sublime fruit ignoring the advice of Burmese friends not to eat mangoes after the rainy season had begun. My addiction was such that any advice fell on deaf ears. As the monsoon rains poured down, I continued to devour this fruit of the gods.

Then one day, I began to develop boils in various parts of my body. I had carbuncles on my arms, legs and stomach,  but the largest, most prominent eruptions  appeared in my armpits. Some of the boils, after growing for a few days, erupted, spending their vile contents and then subsiding. But the swelling in my armpits grew and grew. When I consulted a Burmese friend he said, matter-of-factly, that I had Burmese Dancer’s Disease, ” Kinaree Yoga”. Indeed, the label he gave my malady perfectly described my condition –  arms raised at the elbow to alleviate painful  pressure on the armpits with hands dangling free.  I had become a Burmese dancer  after all !

In time, my Burmese Dancer boils subsided and I no longer  raised my arms in  majestic, artistic,  painful attitudes. But  as a result of my Burmese Dancer’s Disease, I had developed a rather unique and totally unexpected talent with musical side-effects. Two or three of my lesser boils had healed in such an unusual  way that small sub-surface holes were created in my legs. Playing with my Burmese friend’s children, I became the object of their experimentation. By squeezing and rapidly releasing the skin around the boil’s cavities,  a high-pitched whistling sound was produced. My friend’s children would pull and jerk on my leg in such a way that  a squeaky melody emerged. I became an object of entertainment in my friend’s household. A Caucasian freak show, if you will. Neighbors were called over to witness the wonder of the whistling boils. Like so many little harpists, my friend’s children worked the  melodious bumps  while I sat impassively, with what I  hoped was an appropriately serene, Buddha-like half-smile  on my face. 

My quest to merge completely with the local society may not have succeeded, but I certainly did become its object of curiousity. There are multiple routes to acceptance, some more painful than others.

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“NO TRUMP” ON THE TRAIN

| August 22, 2011 | Comments (0)

 

 

File:Deck of cards used in the game piquet.jpgWhen I was in high school more than half a century ago, a classmate’s mother told us a terrible story, so cruel and seemingly impossible that it has stuck in my brain all these years.

It seems there was a quartet of gentlemen who travelled every day by commuter train from their homes in Connecticut to New York City where they worked in law firms and brokerage houses. They were prosperous individuals and lived in large houses surrounded by acres of trimmed lawn reached by winding, tree-arched driveways. Their neighborhoods and the places they frequented, the country clubs where they congregated and the schools where their children were educated, were all “restricted” which in 1950s parlance meant that  Blacks and  Jews were not allowed; even being Irish-Catholic was problematic. If all this sounds a bit strange and out of the question, remember that only a few years before that – in the 1920s – Jews were not allowed into  the profession of architecture. It was only in 1930 that a building in New York City was designed by a Jew and that was the Beresford apartment house on Central Park West.

In any case, these four men would board the 8:04 commuter train every morning in Greenwich, Connecticut, alighting at Grand Central Station in Manhattan well before 9AM. From there they taxied to Wall Street for  meetings or  the Yale Club for breakfast or  to whatever rendez-vous they might be  called  to as capitalist leaders in the financial center of the world.

As neighbors in Greenwich, these powerful men shared many things – the same clubs, the same schools; some gossips even had it that they shared their wives. It was, after all, in the 1950s that “key clubs” and swingers’ parties began in the suburbs. After a boozey barbecue on summer weekends, a dozen sets of car keys were tossed onto patio flagstones and the key you grabbed entitled you to go upstairs with the owner’s wife. All very respectable and sub-dued. These were, after all,  the Eisenhower years.

Professionally successful, more than comfortable financially and  at the top of the social totem pole, these gentlemen – we will call them Van Horn and Company – had one consuming passion: playing bridge together on the 8:04 as it rolled from the suburbs to the metropolis. Although they had lost count of exactly how long they had been a railroad  bridge foursome, they reckoned it was nearly twenty years that they had been at their game, bidding and no-trumping each other in the smoke-filled club car as it careened along Long Island Sound. They joked to their wives (three of them had re-married since the game had begun) and colleagues that when they started playing years back, they all had full heads of hair, but now only one still had his mop on top. The hour they shared on the morning train was more than special; they half -jokingly referred to it as their sacred time. No nagging wives, no whining children, an absence of office woes; just four friends and 52 cards.

Then one Monday morning everything changed. The stop before Greenwich was Westport, Connecticut. To be sure, passengers had always boarded at the Westport station, but the club car had been blessedly immune, seemingly off-limits to the hordes that quickly filled the seats in the other six carriages of the train.  But on August 13, 1959 when Van Horn and Company boarded  the train, a  lone woman was sitting in the window seat normally occupied by Mr. Van Horn.

Three seats were empty and several more places were vacant in other parts of the car, but there was NO place for the four of them to settle in and start their game. Standing over the woman, who had the bespectacled aspect of a librarian, these powerful men were speechless and non-plussed.  Authoritatively clearing his throat, Van Horn looked in the direction of the female passenger who remained oblivious to his presence, buried in her book. Soon the carriage filled and the powerful foursome were shooed by the conductor, like nothing so much as a covey of scattered quail, to random seats at different ends of the car.

Rage and indignation replaced silence and disappointment as  the four harrumphed separately to the conductor, “See here, my good man, that confounded woman, has taken OUR seats ! ” To which they were told, “Look, Mister, I’m new here and you don’t own the railroad. Just be glad you got a seat. We got people standing in the other cars! Anyway, she didn’t take your SEATS, she’s occupying ONE place. ”

For the rest of the week, the pattern continued. When Van Horn and company boarded the train at the Greenwich station, Miss Librarian, or Prune Face as they  had began unkindly calling her, was ensconced in the window seat. There were no other places with four seats available. When Van Horn bent over Miss Prune Face in an attempted gesture of chivalry, suggesting that she might like to move to the other side of the car to a single vacant seat by the lavatory door, she looked up in silence and shook her head.

Their game was over. What Van Horn and Company had really come to live for – fuck the job, the  dysfunctional kids and those nagging bitches who spent their pay checks and started drinking Long Island Tea at lunch – was bridge on the train. It brought back the camaraderie of  the First Infantry Division in France in the Winter of ’44; of the time they pulled an all-nighter scribbling out cheat sheets for their  history exam at Yale in the Spring of ’38; of the times in junior high school when they hot-boxed Camel cigarettes together in the toilet between classes. Something had to be done. But what?

Repeated approaches to Miss Prune Face were futile. She was a tough cookie and seemed to have taken a strong dislike to Van Horn and Company. She would not budge from her seat.

Van Horn began drinking heavily. His life fell into disarray. His three comrades  faired no better. There were divorces, blow-ups in the office almost led to a sacking and two of the “fearsome foursome”, as they had affectionately dubbed each other, began seeing psychiatrists.

But then, miracle-like, the clouds cleared. Van Horn’s wife  had never amounted to much. Mis-treated by her parents and brow-beaten by Van Horn since their honeymoon, she had flunked out of college and only nabbed Van Horn by telling him that she was pregnant and rich. Their wedding was hastily arranged and a child arrived six months after the ceremony. Secretly she knew  the child was not his, but it was the 1950s and her parents threatened to throw her out of the house and revoke her trust fund.

Every attempt to prove herself to her husband had failed.  He told her she was boring and for the past two years had been sleeping  in the guest bedroom. Now she began taking the 8:04 into the city. Sitting across from Miss Prune Face, she befriended the severe lady and learned  she worked for a charity in New York City that cared for the homeless and abused. The Blandsford Foundation, heavily endowed, was the darling of the Greenwich smart set and the pretext for the most dazzling charity ball of the debutante season. More to the point,  Tripsie Van Horn’s father was on the board of directors of Blandsford.

The following Monday when the 8:04 pulled into  Greenwich, the four-seater in the club car was invitingly vacant. Van Horn and Company were speechless with delight. Out of habit, even though they had not played a hand in months, they each carried a deck of cards in their brief cases. Before the train had pulled out of Greenwich, a vigorous round of bidding was in progress.

At the country club that weekend, Tripsie’s father could be seen shaking his head sadly to several greying colleagues. ” I never would have thought that Miss Speckleforth was the thieving type, but my daughter told me her purse was snatched and money taken by this very woman when she took the 8:04 last week. You never know who you can trust these days !  That girl had to go. Blandsford only hires quality folks ! ”

Van Horn and Company,  it seemed,  were back in the saddle, so to speak. Their game was better than ever. They speculated to each other that perhaps the break was good for them;  cobwebs had had the chance to clear. Contrary to what an old sex siren had said, maybe “too much of a good thing” is not wonderful.

Shortly after the resumption of the fearsome foursome’s game, Van Horn  divorced Tripsie and began dating the Danish au pair who had lived with them  for two years. When Tripsie pleaded, “Why, why !” , all Van Horn could say was, “‘ Those tits ! ”

But it is not only the good who die young.  After a three-Martini lunch at the 21 Club celebrating his 48th birthday, Van Horn collapsed, succumbing to a massive heart attack. Now Miss Speckleforth is unemployed, Tripsie has no husband and bridge on the 8:04 is  no more.

Be careful ! You may get what you ask for !

 

 

 

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BEEN THERE, DONE THAT…… I’ve Been to Bali Too…

| August 13, 2011 | Comments (0)

 COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Aangekleed beeld met offer in de hand en bloemen achter het oor TMnr 20017986.jpg

 

 

 

 

When I lived on the Upper West Side in New York City, on weekends and as often as I could during the evenings of a work week, I would go to Central Park. Usually I walked to the Lake that snaked around the forested islands at mid-park. In summer the water  presented a Monet-like panorama of boaters and flaneurs lounging on its banks; during the cold months, it was steely and quiet. One winter Saturday afternoon, a freezing, sunny day in late January, we went there with our Balinese friend, Nyoman.

Although Nyoman had lived in New York City longer than we had – my partner and I had arrived in Manhattan from Indonesia five years before and he had already lived in the city for  nearly 15 years – he seemed to us the foreign one. There was an exotic bubble of strangeness about him; he talked and acted as though he had never left his Island of Bali.

Even though his job in New York was mundane enough – he worked as chef at the Indonesian Mission to the United Nations – our friend was also an accomplished Balinese dancer and a practitioner of the dark art of Balinese witchcraft. Depending on his moods, which were changeable, to say the least, the quality of the food he cooked at the Mission was horrible or wonderful. His human relations were equally unpredictable and  he was apt to tell us, ” Today I love you, but some days I hate you. And if I hate you enough I will put a curse on you.”  We were always careful never to antagonize Nyoman, lest his wrath be unleashed and a curse  placed on us. That Saturday we were on a happy errand with no seeming risk of being the victim of his curses and plagues.

We had gone to the shores of  Central Park Lake  to take a photo of its frozen expanses. The idea occurred to us to walk out on the congealed whiteness, defying sanity and risking cracked ice and a plunge to freezing depths.  Kind of a dare, a thrill. There were crowds of people playing that dangerous game, walking out on the iced-over lake even though there were warnings  that the weather wasn’t cold enough nor the ice thick enough to sustain the weight of hundreds of humans who were gathering far from the shore.

Prudence prevailed and we settled for a picture on the lake bank, snapped by a passerby, of the three of us, arms linked, with the Manhattan skyline behind us, exhaling furls of frosty air. As a dancer Nyoman kept his fingernails long and finely filed, but  that day his hands were covered with thick mittens and no one seeing us as we posed for the picture would have guessed that the person in the middle of our trio was a dancing sorcerer.

It turned out that day was the last time we would see Nyoman. Not long after our outing, he left for Indonesia and Bali. He had decided rather suddenly, impulse being a sorcerer’s prerogative, to leave New York  City and his job, and return to Bali to enroll in what was a kind of graduate school of witchcraft. Unknown to us, he had been thinking about retirement from the workaday world. At 50-something, he had salted away enough savings and bought  land in his native Singarajah on the black-sanded shores of north Bali. With a diploma from witchcraft school, he could practice his dark art and, in time,  even open his own academy of the occult  with the added prestige over his competitors of being “New York -returned.” He had also talked of opening his own guesthouse, Nyoman’s Bed & Breakfast he said he would call it, catering to tourists who ventured off  the beaten track to the wilds of North Bali. We laughed to ourselves when we heard this hotelier’s plan. Pity the hapless travelers, we thought, who would be prisoners of Nyoman’s moods and other-worldly ministrations if he happened not to like them ! 

Some weeks after our wintry park outing, we received a call from another Indonesian friend saying that Nyoman had died of a heart attack soon after reaching his native Bali. We located the picture of us taken with him in Central Park along with another photograph of Nyoman in full regalia dancing at our house for a party we had given the previous New Year’s Eve, and placed his likeness on our altar which housed our family photos, statues of Buddha, holy strings blessed by Bhutanese  and Burmese monks and fragrant dried flowers.

Thinking about our friend, Nyoman, my mind went back to Bali and the dozens of trips I had made to that strange, wonderful island when I lived in Indonesia. My office in Jakarta was always dreaming up pretexts to go to Bali – project visits, training workshops, retreats, without any particular rationale other than the call of the lush beauty of the place.

 Work aside, my experiences there seemed to swing from trashy to sublime and included a truly liberating experiment one evening in Kuta Beach with halucinogenic mushroom soup. Although that  “trip” occurred over 30 years ago, I don’t think I have ever gotten over it; its imprint has been permanently stamped on my soul. The high point of the experience was eating an ice cream cone. As I licked the peaked chocolate treat, I burst into heavy, uncontrollable laughter  which was followed by a wave of joyous tears dripping and streaming onto my cone. The taste of salted tears mixed with ice cream was heavenly.

Someone described Bali as “the morning of the world.” There is no place quite like it. Its utter beauty  was a compelling backdrop for the foreigners who played out their strange, confused games on that other-worldly stage. I remember a weekend in the hill station of Ubud where a group of expat acquaintances had rented a bungalow perched over rice terraces with sweeping views of a rain-swept, emerald-green valley. The motley crew assembled was a ship of fools among whom were an eccentric lawyer from Alabama with a rapier wit and a cackling laugh, and an imposing Belgian woman, Trina, with flaming red hair and bulbous, darkly painted lips, who had just completed her gender  “re-assignment” from male to female. Joining the crowd later was Fanny, a short, 300-pound girl from Wisconsin who worked for a local Balinese charity. Fanny arrived on her motorcycle with a strapping, young blonde Australian toting a  surfboard. Inebriation was well advanced by the  time Fanny and her escort from Down Under joined us. We never caught his  name and  dubbed him ” Surfer Joe.”  As the evening advanced, the air was thick with the sweet aroma of cannibus and Balinese rice wine flowed while  a relentless monsoon  rain poured on our bungalow’s thatched roof, so intense that conversation became a blur.

 I do have a hazy recollection before passing out of Fanny falling into a drunken slumber, snoring loudly, her immense torso heaving up and down, lying on her back propped up on a pile of batik pillows like a beached whale. I also recall Surfer Joe and Trina stepping over her inert body, climbing the dark stairs to Trina’s bedroom from where loud squeaking and moaning sounds ensued. 

As often happens in Southeast Asia, time melted.  When dawn broke, I pulled myself up from the floor arising from my drunken slumber, hearing  what I thought  were heaving sobs interspersed with an ever-continuing, thunderous  downpour. I lurched  from the bungalow in the direction of the tearful voice and saw Fanny at the bungalow gate, sitting on her motorcycle drenched to the bone, bleating to anyone who would listen – and there was no one there save a clueless Balinese night watchman sheltered under the cottage eaves, watching in silence – “Trina stole my Surfer Joe and they’re upstairs fucking !” Speechless, I hugged Fanny in consolation, our soaked bodies hunkered over her Honda hog. We looked at each other in silence, and with nothing else to say, she  revved up her bike and as water dripped from her thick, fogged-up  spectacles, throttled her chopper  off into the rainy morning mist.

Hours later, the rain stopped and the sun began to shine. As my Alabama lawyer friend and I sipped tea on the verandah of our bungalow and rice farmers moved to their fields, Trina, with an alligator-like smirk on her face, emerged from her cottage next door.  Grinning like a Cheshire cat, my legal friend mustered a vulgar, graphic gesture with his fingers, saying, “Have a good night, Madame?” Trina emitted a deep-throated, baritone chortle indicating that perhaps her  gender re-assignment had not been a total success and disappeared into a grove of coconut trees.

Another night in Bali had just played out.

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DO YOU SPEAK CHINESE ? Cross Cultural Encounters at Breakfast and Other Adventures Leading to An Indonesian Demolition

| August 9, 2011 | Comments (2)

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Some decades ago when I was living in faraway places, I found myself  in the United States on what my employer, the United Nations, called home leave. At the time – I believe it was in the 80s  because one day on a street in Queens I had my photo snapped next to a life-sized card board cut-out of the president of the moment who was Ronald Reagan (I still have the polaroid capturing the two of us in a solemn pose standing side by side) – I was living in Burma.

My hosts in New York happened to be recently arrived Burmese  who had immigrated to the U.S. from Rangoon not many months before my arrival. The four of them – husband, wife and two young children –  were living in a tiny, cramped apartment, topsy turvy with suitcases that had not yet been unpacked, but despite the domestic disarray, they insisted, with their trademark Southeast Asian hospitality that I stay with them. So I camped out happily with my friends for a week, heedless of that Western caveat about house guests, fish and limiting visits to three days.

On my first morning with my friends, after an evening of late night catching up, we sat down to a Burmese breakfast of Mohingga, a delicious bouillabaise laced with hearts of banana tree stems. As we were slurping our soup, bowls raised up to our faces, Asian style, their five year-old daughter appeared, taking her place at the table opposite me. She was all ribbons and freshly ironed school uniform as she sat down with an ear-to-ear grin on her face. For several weeks she had been attending a local primary school and, as children will do, was learning English with lightning speed.

Peering at her over the rim of my soup bowl, I saw Thamee (daughter) lean forward pointing her face as close to mine as she could get. Realizing she wanted to say something to me, I put my bowl down and smiled back at her whereupon she stretched her face in an even wider grin, asking me with slow, carefully ennunciated words, , “Are you Chinese?” I looked at her quizzically and after a thoughtful pause, replied, “Sometimes.” I might add at this point, that I am of Scottish and  Norwegian origin. My answer seemed to satisfy her and we all went back to finish our meal before she hurried off to school.

The following morning found us at the breakfast table once again, eating and chatting with family-style abandon. Enter Thamee, black hair braided, shining like a diamond. Taking her place across from me, she once again screwed  up her cheeks  with a smile, and  blurted out “Are you Chinese?” Taking a sip of tea, I looked her squarely in the face and replied pensively, “Hmmm. Thamee, today, not so much.”

Each morning at breakfast we  repeated this same ritual. After she left for school, her parents and I had a good laugh as they told me how she was settling in nicely at school and making new friends in  the mostly Irish-Italian neighborhood. As one of the first Asians on the block, she certainly looked different to her little peers who repeatedly asked her each morning, “Are you Chinese?’ I then realized, as I had suspected earlier at the breakfast table, that Thamee’s “question” to me was not a question at all, but rather a ritualized greeting she had learned;  a phrase tantamount to “Good morning” or “How are you?”  As a child of five, she had no inkling that she was “different” from the other children around her and so could only construe such a question as a simple greeting.  Sadly but inevitably as she grew up, Thamee learned that people are “different.” We are not one happy band of playmates as she once thought was the case back when she was five.

 Now 30 years later when we meet , we continue our private joke.  She still asks me, “Are you Chinese ?”  and I give her the first whimsical reply that comes into my head. Nobody else knows what we are talking about  and  people look at us as though we were adled when we break down into gales of  laughter. Even though the ending to this little story is not as happy as I would have had  it – that her innocence not be shattered – at least there is laughter and no tears. 

But that is not the whole story today. Let us turn from  not being Chinese to demolition and the tale of my little house in Jakarta.

When I moved from Rangoon to Jakarta, Indonesia I found myself living in the tiniest of houses in a charming section of  that city called Menteng. Built by the Dutch towards the end of their 400 years of colonial empire  in the  East Indies, my new neighborhood was a riot of flowers and fruit trees. With its rich volcanic soil encouraging nature, it was no exaggeration to say that fences planted in the ground often ended up sprouting blooming vines.  With such verdant embellishment even the most  modest  houses, built  in charming  Dutch tropical style,  were inviting, quaint dwellings lining  quiet, tree-bordered streets named for national heroes and exotic flora. There was Sandalwood  Street,  Jambu (custard apple) Lane  and my street, Jalan Cokroaminoto. 

My house, located at 26A Cokroaminoto, was what you would call a real find. In a beautiful neighborhood, secluded but still near shops and cafes and only five minutes walk from my office at the United Nations Building on Jalan Thamrin, the rent was  unbelievably low. The reason I got the house was because of its  primitive bathroom which few foreigners could negotiate. A Turkish colleague was about to rent it but his wife balked when she saw the simple bathroom. With no tub or even a shower, the facilities were only equipped with a receptacle from which water could be dipped for a cold splash bath. This, ofcourse, was my preferred way of bathing. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the day was taking a morning splash bath. Using a silver Burmese dipping bowl,  I would turn my morning ablutions into a ritual, drenching myself with cool, envigorating water that chased away the previous night’s tropical slumber and the cobwebs of numerous cockatils consumed the evening before.  As I bathed, melodious strains of the morning call to prayer from the neighboring mosque  would reach me as I readied myself to face the world.

My miniscule house was  fronted  by a wild, jungly tropical garden. A gigantic banyan tree dominated the yard, its huge branches reaching out to provide shade to an emerald green lawn and an endless variety flowers – jasmine, hibiscus, tube roses, trumpeted, lethal nightshade and orchids which hung from the tree and the surrounding walls.

Unknown to me, hundreds of rats lived in the garden and would only emerge in full view during the depths of night. I became aware of my tiny neighbors when I awoke once  before the crack of dawn to visit the bathroom. Puzzled to see what seemed to be my servant bending over a huge bowl on the front verandah, I walked outside to find him pouring milk into an immense container. Gathered around the rim  of this king-sized receptacle were scores of slick rodents, their furry coats shining in the moonlight, lapping away, contented, well-mannered diners. Speechless, I looked from the four-legged congregation to my servant who smiled at me uttering one word, ” Rats.” I went back to bed shaking my head, knowing that these little neighbors were well-fed and, hopefully  would not be tempted to enter the kitchen to feast on other treats. Their immense numbers precluded my getting a cat who would certainly have been overwhelmed by the challenge of his job.

I spent much of my time on the front verandah, starting my day with cups of strong Javanese coffee (kopi tobruk) and greeting the twilight drinking gin and tonic served to me by my Javanese houseboy, Triyono. Triyono was, as the French would say, “tres originale”  or eccentric. Although far from being gay or having a tendency to cross-dress, he often wore an elegant little black  designer dress that a french girl friend from Paris had discarded during one of her visits after she wore it to death and decided to dump it in my trash. Triyono fished it out of the garbage bin, washed and ironed it and wore it about the house as he served dinner and drinks. When I asked him why he chose to wear a dress, his answer was classically simple and brooked no discussion: “Because it’s pretty.” I could go on , on ad infinitum, about Triyono’s quirks and idiosyncracies. Shopping was always a challenge for him. I remember once sending him to the market to buy  a chicken; he came back instead with four long-stemmed wine glasses, saying he thought we needed them more. He was what he was, but he made the best cocktails I have ever tasted.

My house was well-used, to say the least. In the 1980s, Indonesia became a popular destination for world travellers, and Westerners seeking exotic, inexpensive vacations flocked to the “Emerald Girdle.” There was  fabled Bali, beaches on hundreds of islands, the ancient temples of Borobodur and a host of other attractions from volcanoes to orangutans. I suddenly became popular and found myself hosting friends and people who claimed to be friends or friends of friends. Word spread that I had a beautiful house and garden and a world-class cook  and a houseboy who was not adverse to washing and ironing  soiled travelers’ clothes. Lucky for these globe-trotters – today in my current curmudgeonly state I would call them free-loaders – I had yet to enter the hermit state which today I proudly claim as my modus operandi.

For me the most happy memory of  26A Cokroaminoto  was the time I spent there with my partner, an Indonesian from West Java who still shares his life with me thirty years later in crowded New York City. In the early days of our life together in our little Menteng house he brought wild  orchids from the jungle  for the garden and beautiful ceramic jars from his village to decorate the verandah. These jars were particularly unique. Not spun on a potter’s wheel, they were carved out of clay, more sculpture than pottery.

I had never lived with anyone before in what had been a solitary, and even with people  constantly around me,  lonely life. For the first time in my life, I learned to treasure the comfort of true intimacy. In the evening we would sit in the garden while he told me stories of life in his village, how as a child he rode to the market with his grandmother in a  horse-drawn dolman (phaeton) to sell fruit from their orchard; how he climbed tall coconut trees in his back yard and saw eagles flying overhead. Sometime he would recount  tales and fables he had heard as a child, passed down through  generations in his family. And there were stories of Javanese black magic and witchcraft.

After I left Indonesia, we parted for a while then happily reunited in far away Bhutan and later again in New York. But it will always be the matchbox house in Menteng that I will remember as the best place I ever lived.

Not long ago, an old friend journeyed to Jakarta. He had visited me at 26A Cokroaminoto back in the old days and I asked him  to pass by the house and take a picture for me. When I opened my email a few days later, it was all I could do not to choke back a tear. The picture I received showed an empty space, a gaping hole, dominated by a pile of rubble. My cherished little house had been razed to the ground; only the front gate remained with its inscription intact: 26A.

I had not been in Jakarta for over 20 years, but my memories of  life there remained vivid and ever with me. Now with my old house gone from this world, reduced to a pile of dust and crushed bricks, I came to feel it was time to close that fabled chapter of my life. Goodbye to all that and thanks for the memories !

 

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SLATTERNLY AND ELEGANT, IT WAS MY PALACE

| August 3, 2011 | Comments (0)

It was in Bangkok  in the 1970s that I  begin my withdrawal from the world, when I first displayed  those unmistakable signs that I was destined to become a hermit.  To be sure, the devolution to a state of recluse that describes me today, forty years later, took decades to play out. In the midst of a social whirl that was alternately diplomatic and decadent, I myself  was unaware of what was happening then. It is only in retrospect that my behavior  seems queer; secluded and solitary. And it was all because of a house.

For most of my five years in Thailand I lived in a dwelling on the banks of the Chao Phraya River that can only be described as refined and slutty. Let me begin with its graceful qualities. Built around the beginning of the 20th century, I would say, Baan Ban Tomsin – that was the name of the property, “House Beside Quiet Waters” – was an amalgam of styles that almost defies description. Southern plantation manor house comes to mind as does palace of a minor Javanese Sultan. Throw in a  bit of  rundown Carribean flophouse and the description is still not complete, but it is as near as I can come to painting a picture of this bewitching, odd  structure.

Porches and verandahs must have accounted for more than half  the floor space. The ceilings were fourteen feet high, embossed with slow-moving teakwood ceiling fans. Teakwood was everywhere. The floors were teak, the exposed beams were teak;  in fact, the whole house was built of teak,  the rich, deep color of this precious wood lending the place a stately,  somewhat funereal air. Built for the tropics with a gentle breeze coming in off the river less than a stone’s throw away, it was a cool place to be even in the midst of the scorching hot mango season that lasted from March to May, a time when it felt like a posse of giant dragons were breathing fire on your neck.

Baan Ban Thomsin was  so dysfunctional that a normal person would have refused to live there. With  no hot water heater, any warmed liquid needed to be boiled in a kettle on the small two-burner stove in the kitchen. Once I had house guests from the United States. The husband was game to go native as I did every morning, splash-bathing in my Thai sarong from a huge dragon jar of cool water in the back garden under shady mango trees, but his wife needed a hot bath. It must have taken most of the morning with servants running from the kitchen to the bathroom upstairs with pitchers and kettles of hot water, to fill the claw-footed bathtub I had never, ever used, except once  for a delicious little tryst and no water was involved for that activity.

And then there was the electric system which hardly existed. The power level was so low that only three or four small lights, at most, could be turned on at one time. Out of necessity, kerosene lamps and candles were used to augment illumination in the evenings on the vast back verdandah where I entertained and took my meals. Out of this quiet chaos and lack of modernity, a strange, charming calm would settle in of a tropical evening, the blue haze of scented citronella candle smoke casting a dreamlike spell over us as we sipped gin and tonics or my preferred drink at the time, cheap Mekong whiskey laced with splashes of soda water. 

Last but not least were the floods. My house was elevated so water from high tides and monsoon squalls never entered the interior, but for a good third of the year the yard and gardens were underwater and walking to the street was always done barefoot or with flip-flop sandals and pant legs rolled up. It was indeed a strange sight – me, dressed in  rather formal  office attire, a suit with white shirt and necktie, carrying a briefcase, splashing through the garden shoeless, then balancing precariously on a single plank as I made my way to the street.

But I was very happy living in Baan Ban Tomsin. It was there that I discovered the sweet bliss of simply doing nothing. I found myself spending hours sitting alone in my living room or on the secluded verandah, caressed by gentle eddies of air coming from  overhead fans and the river breeze, listening to sounds from the Chao Phraya River only steps away. I loved the babble of river life, the steady hum of  fat teak rice barges  making their way up-country and back to the city on provisioning trips, their Noah’s ark silhouettes cutting little wavelets in the rich muddy, pungent, hyacinth-choked water. It was also nice to sit in the riverside tea shop in front of my house  and watch these  behemoth barges up close, each one its own village with children and dogs running about under flapping laundry lines, screened by a  curtain of  smoke rising from charcoal cooking fires. The barges even had their own gardens, huge dragon jars bursting with bright sprigs of bougainvillea, jasmine shrubs and little rows of chili peppers in  pots, ready for plucking.

Then there were the tiny boats that  transported people back and forth across the river, defying the on-coming  rice barges, river taxis and gigantic floating palaces loaded  with blaring bands and hundreds of  tourists on sunset dinner  excursions. How these miniscule mosquito boats survived the onslaught of traffic was something I could never figure out. I knew one of the boat pilots, a tiny, withered crone of a woman;  her crow-like caw of a  voice would pierce the night air as she shouted out for passengers, crying, “Kam fak!”  ( crossing over !). Once I rode with her in her little craft which seemed no bigger than a walnut shell, bobbing and lurching in the wake of larger vessels that nearly side-swiped us. Would I ride with her again today ? Never !

The house was slutty through no fault of its own. Just like certain human beings, it was, by nature, inviting and voluptuous , possessing that “Come on up and see me sometime” aura that seemed to encourage all that was improper and decadent  in anyone who entered its  squeaky, dilapidated  screen doors. And ofcourse, its owner, my louche landlady, was never far away, peering out from the attic window in her roost across the fence, in a house so near collapse that each morning I expected to see  its timbers – and the landlady – floating in the jetsam of the river.

Lady Deva – she was a titled Thai “Khunying”, a noblewoman – had arrived in Thailand under interesting circumstances. Imported from China in the 1920s, along with her sister, as teenaged courtesans to serve the pleasures of wealthy  businessmen and the  Thai nobility, she soon gained fame in certain circles for her matchless ivory complexion and bewitching ways, her ability to play the lute while cracking open watermelon seeds with her teeth which she would pass,  mouth to mouth, to her clients. Soon she rose in society,  marrying a lord who was rumored to be the paramour of the  Thai monarch of the time, King Vajirawut, Rama VI. Later a high society murder occurred sometime in the 1930s and Lady Deva was charged with the crime. Ofcourse she emerged scot-free after a trial that titillated the Thai capital. Leona Helmsley was not the first person to notice that rich people don’t pay taxes !

As time passed, I found myself growing less sociable. To be sure, I hosted people at Baan Ban Tomsin; once I had a sparkling lunch party and invited 30 people from my office, also extending an invitation to Lady Deva who even in her eighties still possessed the peerless skin that had catapulted her from teen trollope to her grand ladyship. There were linen table cloths and napkins, three crystal wine glasses for each place setting and a bevy of handsome waiters sporting black vests and bow ties. I think we had Baked Alaska for dessert. So decadent and excessively luxurious, so over the top !

But my heart was not in these splashy events; I no longer felt  involved in anything I did that  included other people. I always found myself there, but not there, somehow a fly on the wall looking down on it all, removed from my body and surroundings, as it were, particpating but only going through the motions. My hermit life had begun.

I left Bangkok and Baan Ban Tomsin in 1978, moving first to Burma, then to other exotic places. But somehow I never left the place. Last year, 32 years after we parted ways, I returned to my old house. Taking the public river taxi up to the Theves boat dock, I was stunned by how nothing had changed in more than three decades. Bangkok had developed out of  all recognition into a high-rise megapolis, but my old Theves neightborhood, the flower market, the Buddhist temples, the Chinese  merchants sitting on their  plump bags of rice, nothing had changed one whit.

When I reached Baan Ban Tomsin’s gate, the sight before me took my breath away. My old palace was truly on the verge of collapse.  Refrigerators and file cabinets, all matter of detritus and dregs, were stacked onto a front porch that had once received elegant Thai ladies  swathed in shimmering silk ensembles. It was as though a band of rednecks from “God’s Little Acre” or “The Grapes of Wrath” had descended on my palace, camping out on my verdandah, trashing the place with a vengeance.

I don’t know how long I stood transfixed staring at my old palace. Suddenly I felt the nip of a snarling dog, snapping at my pants leg.  Then, just as I was aboui to be torn to bloody shreds, I was rescued by a crumpled-looking figure who advanced haltingly up the driveway in a wheelchair, waving a cane. As he called off his mastiff and drew closer to me,  I recognized Khun Piak, my landlady’s son, now a very old man himself. He and I been friends back in our salad days. We had done outrageous things together, raised a bit of hell. He spoke in a barely audible murmur, whispering that  he had had a stroke.  As he was croaking to me, I caught our reflection in the mirror of a motorcycle parked near the gate of Baan Ban Tomsin. In it I saw two old men and what had once been a house. Both the house and the old men had seen better times. Nothing remains the same, does it?

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