DANCING MONKEYS, A HAAD YAI WHORE HOUSE, GRUMBLING MEMSAHIBS – A Development Warrior Remembers

| August 18, 2012 | Comments (0)

Luis Maria Gomez was, as Cole Porter might have described him, an Argentine with means. While I’m not sure just how wealthy  he was, Senor Gomez was a man of means in the broadest sense of the word. He was larger than life – tall, loud, macho and full of street smarts – and I don’t know of an encounter where Luis Maria did not have the last word.

Most of all, Gomez was a straight-talker, that rarest of species seldom found in the halls of the United Nations where we both worked. Surrounded by multinational functionaries mouthing pious platitudes, Louis Maria  stood out and was something of a hero to me when I joined the UN ‘s army of development  warriors back in the early 1970s.

My fondest and most indelible memory of Luis Maria took place on the eve of my departure for what promised to be a challenging field  assignment to a least-developed, landlocked country in Asia. As was the custom in those days, a suitably solemn send-off party had been  organized and a select group of colleagues summoned to the lounge next to Gomez’s spacious office to wish me luck and bid me farewell.

The air thick with bonhomie, some of it sincere, some of it two-faced, the party wound to a climax with “remarks” by colleagues, fond reminiscences and cautiously optimistic advice about going off to a “hardship” posting; as I recall through the mist of successive decades, what was said was mostly well-meaning, hortatory hot air offered by associates relieved that they were remaining in their cushy New York Headquarters sinecures, not venturing into the heat, dust, malaria and other perils that lurked in the Third World, waiting to embrace me in their deadly grip. Least eager to return to the developing world for an assignment were the elite citizens of the Third World who were glad to get out of their own worn-torn, improverished lands even though they bravely and sometimes chauvinistically displayed their country’s national flags prominently  on the walls of their offices.

Ceremoniously glancing at his wrist watch, Gomez’s personal assistant cleared his throat presaging the arrival in the room of the Great Man himself. When an appropriate silence had settled on the lounge, Gomez strode into the space, eyed us individually, smiled and then focused his gaze on me. Eschewing the microphone that had been senselessly installed in an intimate room where such amplification was superfluous, Gomez broke into a broad grin saying, “I guess everything’s already been said that needs to be said, so I won’t waste your time when you could be drinking and having fun. All I want to say to Oglesby, who is about to leave us, is three words: DON’T FUCK UP !”

As the  room broke up into giggles and titters, some of the more austere, humorless Third-World types wondering what their reaction should be in face of their boss uttering such vulgar advice, I found myself grateful for what Luis Maria had said, knowing that such a “speech” required no rejoinder and that I would be spared giving a boring response to the remarks that had been made. With its candor and brevity and what I later came to regard as a rare touch of wisdom, Gomez’s trio of farewell words shocked me into realizing that I was not going on some kind of sacred mission. That I was only flesh and blood and that I would be  dealing with situations and people who, despite their strange languages and unusual customs, were, at their core, just like me.

The assignment that faced me proved to be an enjoyable posting, but not without its nettlesome aspects. What bothered me was not the dirt, the dust, the lack of  “mod cons” or the loneliness – I had been a solitary person most of my life and felt little need for constant human companionship; rather it was the abrasive, idiosyncratic, egotistical  quality of some of my expatriate colleagues who were unsuited for life in a foreign land.  I found that many of this  motley collection of foreigners took their frustrations out on the submissive host country locals who were entrapped by a culture of compliance and  the grip of debilitating poverty disempowering them in face of the “we know what’s good for you” expatriates.

One of my pet peeves came to be the wives of the UN specialists who were assigned to work on a variety of projects as experts – agriculture, public health, education and other sectors of national advancement. Cast in the role of housewives with no housework to do since they all had servants, and  with no professional office jobs available to them  since  host country unemployment was rife and, in any case,  work permits were  non-existent for foreigners,  some of the UN wives were a constant bother. While most of them were lovely people and noble helpmates to their families, a good number were mal-contented gossips who engaged in nefarious activities; but how could you blame them? Idleness breeds the Devil’s work. The boredom of bridge parties and three-hour lunches took its toll. Extra-marital trysts were common as were bouts of depression, cocktail hours were often advanced and began during lunch; dissension was rife among these idle camp-followers.  And the mood of these memsahibs had direct impact on the morale and hence the  professional effectiveness of their husbands, the experts.  An unhappy wife often meant a project manager who was not working at his peak. How could he when he came home to a carping nag or an inebriated pile on the sofa ?

Stepping in where I had no business meddling, I attempted at first to help these hapless women and tried to place several of the foreign spouses in jobs in the UN system. It never worked out. The jobs I could find for them were always volunteer and without pay. Eager at first to put on a nice dress and come to an office, the glow soon wore off when the reality of being “slave labor” sunk in. They told me they didn’t want to work for “nothing”, ignoring their own initial pleas to me that they would do anything just to get out of the house and be back in the real world doing something meaningful. I soon found myself getting grief from the wives whom I had tried to help. Somehow they interpreted my trying to help them as a guarantee that they would be getting paying jobs. Pure fantasy on their part, but tell them that ! From the host country side, I found myself being accused of neo-colonialism, trying to foist foreigners into jobs that locals should be filling. The fact that these wives were working for free and that they were highly skilled made no difference. Nobody ended up happy and I bore the brunt of criticism and discontent from all sides.

And then there were the do-gooders. One morning a group of irate wives invaded my office accusing me of promoting cruelty to animals ! I had been active in helping the local staff association organize a programe to raise scholarship money for needy students. One of the group’s activities involved a talent show that featured dancing monkeys. The monkeys were owned and had been trained by a local gentleman who was a professional dancer himself. He had ingeniously taught these little primates to dance the intricate steps that humans performed and had clothed them in tiny brocade costumes and  little tiaras.  Accompanied by a band of local musicians, the show was a roaring success and earned lots of money for the scholarship fund. But the foreign wives were NOT pleased. To execute their dance steps the monkeys had been leashed and were guided by their human master with the tug of ropes tied to their arms and necks. While I could detect no cruelty on the part of their owner and no visible discomfort on the part of the monkeys, the wives insisted that the monkeys performing and being tied up was exploitation and was unacceptable. They told me that I MUST do something or they would go to the Chief of Mission and complain. When I told them “Be my guest !” they stormed out of my office and made a formal complaint to the boss. Later that day I was reprimanded and given a lecture on cruelty to animals. The talent show ended and the scholarship fund did not achieve it goals.

Equally grating was the pettiness of some of my colleagues, the international staff, who because of their hopes of ingratiating themselves to the boss or driven by small-mindedness, sometimes engaged in acts that made my life miserable. Once I was designated Officer-in-Charge during the  absence of the boss and the deputy chief of mission.  Stepping into this temporary position meant that I was often placed in a representational role visa-a-vis the host government. This meant trips to the government Secretariat building, a ponderous colonial pile not unlike a medieval fortress. Getting into the Secretariat was a whole process in itself. Papers had to be presented at the gate, security guards had to inspect the entering vehicle and its passengers, and on and on. Very time-consuming

One morning I was running late for an appointment with a Director-General in the Secretariat. Being punctual for appointment with high government officials was de rigueur; being late would not do. Knowing that the entrance formalities and inspections were waived when a diplomatic car flying a flag entered the grounds of the building, I instructed the driver to unfurl the flag and we sailed through the massive gates and I ended up being nicely on time for my meeting.

Several weeks later when the boss had returned from abroad, I was called into his office for a stern chatisement. Didn’t I know that I was NOT the Chief of Mission and that I had NO right to fly the flag of the United Nations when I traveled in a UN car ! My attempts at explaining my action only got me in deeper hot water and I ended up apologizing for something that I thought had been perfectly justifiable. It turned out that a colleague with whom I had had a disagreement some days earlier – a simple matter of not seeing eye-to-eye on a detail of work – had held a grudge against me and thought that ratting on me about the flag flying on the car would be a good way to settle his score. I have many faults, for sure, but pettiness is not one of them. I laughed to myself after that stupid incident and wondered, thinking of Luis Maria Gomez’s final words to me,  if I had “fucked-up”. I guess there are fuck-ups and then there are fuck-ups. But it seemed sad to me, working as we were in a poor country trying to lift the population out of misery, that we were often  too consumed by picayune-ish  personal pre-occupations that added nothing to what we were trying to accomplish and detracted greatly from our being on the personal level, decent human beings.

Another pet peeve of mine was foreign “experts” who had what I termed “fear of the bush,” those brave, highly-paid souls who, despite their job descriptions which called for them to go to the field to perform their work, preferred to remain in the more comfortable climes of the capital. I recall one case in particular that involved a blustery, Colonel Blimp kind of Englishman who was Team Leader of an agricultural research project. The project was based in an arid, up-country location, a real nowhere’s-ville, its objective being to build up a research station that experimented with new crops appropriate for farmers in the area. It was obvious to me that the Team Leader needed to be based AT the research station.

As the officer assigned to back-stop this project, I came to realize that its Team Leader, Geoffrey Hadden-Dinkworth, had comfortably established himself with a comely Eurasian mistress in a flat in my building and  had no intention of moving to Yezin, the remote station to which he was assigned. During a briefing  with the boss when Hadden-Dinkworth outlined the marvelous things he planned to do for the research station,  innocently and rather facetiously, I asked when he planned to RELOCATE  to the research station. Caught off-guard and totally unprepared for my unexpected question, Hadden-Dinkworth’s liverish face turned an even deeper shade of purple. Taking in a deep breath and drawing his potbelly in as far as it would allow him, Hadden-Dinkworth  sputtered that he could not see the sense of my question and how would where he slept have any bearing on what he accomplished in his job ? The boss, also British, but more  a quiet-spoken study in English understatement than his blimpish countryman, murmured, “But ofcourse Dr. Hadden-Dinkworth will be going to Yezin. Why only yesterday I spoke with his colleagues at the research station and they are eagerly awating his arrival!” Crushed, Hadden-Dinkworth slunk from the briefing like nothing so much as a  deflated party balloon. Predictably, he lasted at Yezin a few months and was soon replaced by an Indian scientist who made a great success of the job.

My work was not all that unpleasant; in fact working in the so-called Third-World was a delight to me and I am only sorry that I am not there now, although my home in the South Bronx is Third-World in many ways, thank God ! Howling, drunken memsahibs  and grousing Colonel Blimps aside, my life as a “development warrior” was an adventure of the first order. I never forgot what Luis Maria told me and I think I avoided fucking up…except once !

I had been assigned as coordinator for a meeting of project managers to be held in Haad Yai, South Thailand, that part of the country bordering Malaysia that is more Muslim than Buddhist, in rubber plantaton country.  Haad Yai is also infamous for its gambling tables and  bawdy houses of ill-repute that cater to the pleasure-seeking trade from across the border in puritanical Malaysia.

We had worked hard on preparations for the confab and the evening before the meeting,  feeling I needed to blow off some steam, I went into Haad Yai looking for a good time. I ended up in a “maison de tolerance”, the most famous red light establishment in town. The night passed in a wild blur. There were shrieks as clients  went streaking down corridors, people hanging over the balcony dared each other to jump. By five o’clock in the morning, I was ready to leave, but alas ! somebody had stolen my clothes ! How could I go back to the project in a towel without a shred of clothing on my back ?

Somehow I managed to borrow some money, buy a tee-shirt and a pair of pants. My shoes had disappeared and I ended up wearing rubber flip-flops back to the office. Quite a  sight.  The meeting was about to open as I walked bleary-eyed into the conference, clad in a fresh change of clothes hastily pulled out of my back pack. Luis Maria might say that I had fucked-up, but I would add: just barely and nobody was the wiser, except my boss who had to pay back the loan I had gotten from the whore house.

When people tell me that working in development is boring, I beg to differ. Just don’t get caught with your clothes off !

 

 

 

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