Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Confounding Assumptions, Prostitutes & Shakubuku

I spent 3 hours with a prostitute last night.

As I review my last couple of journal entries, I don't think there's a snazzier opening line than that. Obviously it wasn't quite what youmight imagine.. We spent most of that time in a communal lounge room, talking about life, the universe & everything. We remained fully clothed, and she ended up paying for me J (Well, really just my tea, but I liked the way that line sounded).
Leen was an "overnight girl", one of those strange euphemisms for prostitute that crop up everywhere, as if changing the name will in some way lessen the stigma attached to that particular profession:
I'm going to go about trying to lessen the stigma attached to this profession in another way, I'm going to tell you about this girl:
For a start, she's a cunning linguist… Sorry, let's try that again: Leen speaks 4 languages fluently, and another one or two with sufficient command to hold a brief conversation. She's 22, and has been working as an overnight girl for about 9 months. Before that she was a secretary/receptionist/bookkeeper at a company that makes
compressors for fridges. Her parents died when she was 17 in a Motorcycle accident, and her brother (who lives in Thailand), won't have anything to do with the family, who (I gathered) treated him rather poorly when they found out he was gay.
She's just about completed a Bachelor's degree in Sociology from Carnegie Mellon University in Texas (mostly via distance ed, with some locally taught courses through a TAFE-style "International College" in Hanoi). She's smart, funny, completely charming, and for US $30 she'll spend the night with you.

At first glance, I assumed Leen was one of the staff at my guesthouse: She was lounging in the communal lounge-cum-café area, it was 1:45 in the morning, she was clearly Vietnamese (and I doubted if the guesthouse had many Vietnamese guests on hand). I took this as an opportunity to show off the 7 or 8 phrases in Vietnamese I've learnt, and politely asked her how she was tonight, how old she was, where she
was from and what she did for a job…. It was that one that momentarily halted conversation.
"I'm an overnight girl" she said.
I paused for a second, thinking that this must be some sort of job that involved waiting up late for straggling guests to come in the door… At 1:45 in the morning, everyone's a little dense
"Oh, right" I said, "What time do you have to stay up til?"
"Well, I don't want my customer to wake up and realise I'm not there, so I'd better go back soon. He might think I'd gone off with somebody else"
The penny drops…
I flush… I don't stutter, because there isn't even anything I could think to say, no pregnant sentence in which to insert a stutter… I sit there in silence for a few seconds, thinking desperately of how I am to deal with this situation.
"It's ok" She says "I'm not dangerous…". She has an unplaceable vaguely American accent, not Asian certainly.
"No, no" Now that I've located some good solid stutter-words "I was just…(I conclude lamely)…looking at the time"
"That's ok" She says "We don't have to talk"
I recover a modicum of my verbiage and say "Well, it's 2 o'clock in the morning, I don't think anyone else is going to come and join in on the conversation at this point"
She laughs, politely "You're funny…(a beat)…You come here with your girlfriend?" "No, I'm travelling on my own for now"…There's a pause.. Playing the event back in my mind, it's about 10 minutes. In reality it was probably about 5 seconds... I blurt "I don't want to sleep with you",
and then feel about as bad as I've ever felt in my life. I feel nauseous, I want to leave. I hang my head, I cover my eyes, I don't get as far as hitting my head on a solid object before she says "It's ok… I was going to ask…It's what I do for a job…Lots of travellers sleep with overnight girls"… It's almost funny that she's trying to put me more at ease
"I'm sorry" I said, "I shouldn't have said that"
She waves a hand, a universal "don't worry about it" gesture
"And you?" She says "Working? Student?"
"Student" I say, and we go through the usual patter.. What I'm studying, how long I'm on holidays for, where I'm going next, where I leave from… I've gotten so good at these banalities that I can do it on auto-pilot, and even manage to be a little bit engaging
"I'm studying sociology too", she says, picking up on my bitching about the lack of protein in my politics degree.
"Really? Here in Hanoi?"
"No, Through CMU, in America"… The phrase rolls off her tongue, a stronger Southern drawl than before.. That must have been one she's heard before.
And there begins the most amazing thing: The most real conversation I've had in weeks about the nature of people, about politics (she doesn't know anything about Australia, but she got up at midnight the other night to watch President Bush's inaugural), about the Internet (she does most of her coursework online, has tutorials via videoconference, uses CMU's internal Voice-over-IP/Skype like system to talk to her lecturers), and with barely any froth and bubbles at all. She wants to know what I know about polling models, she tells me about gender politics in Vietnam, about the number of girls getting abortions in Hanoi, the difficulty of finding good pizza, she tells me about Hanoi's history, about the Communist Party and the incredible
sway they still hold, she tells me about the police and the army, about Ho Chi Minh and the cultural revolution, about how agriculturalisation policies in the 1980's has stopped Vietnam from being as rich as Thailand, and finally she tells me that I'd better go to bed. It's 4:00am, and we've been talking for over 2 hours… It's
another 15 minutes before she finally manages to disentangle herself (there's still plenty of sniping about Vietnamese television and the fact that this guesthouse doesn't have satellite TV to be done).
So I thank her for the tea and then, feeling bone tired, strangely disoriented and slightly uplifted, I finally go to sleep…

There's this Buddhist notion of Shakubuku, a short sharp blow to the head that fundamentally changes your perception of how the world works forever. I get the feeling this was one of those moments.
I came down the stairs at about 1:30am the next morning, loitering, I guess secretly hoping she might be there again, but of course the thing about Shakubuku is that it only happens to you once.

Your Intrepid, Insomniac reporter


The Best Dressed Man on Radio

I start with this declaration: I am in love with Cambodia. It's an amazing country packed to the gills with amazing people. The very thought that the Khmer Rouge ever came to power here is unthinkable, and must be the most incredible aberration of Cambodian culture ever...It's a country that infects you with it's easygoing style, its'crazy driving and the crazier drivers
Now on to more serious matters:
I've commented in past journal entries about the kind of self-possessed serenity that seems to infect most Thai people, and the way in which this can be intriguing and even a little disconcerting to outsiders... Let me just say this: Self-possessed serenity is all very well, but it's no substitute for a well developed sense of humor:
Every Cambodian person I have met, without exception (so far), has a great sense of humor, and even when you're the butt of their jokes it fills you with a kind of bouncy, vibrant feeling all day. The people I have met here love to kid around, play practical jokes on one another, and seem to have a remarkably good time of life :)
In other news: By one of those strange confluences of culture, I'm considered a pretty handsome guy in Cambodia. It's often a little disconcerting, but I think that in many ways I could get used to it...
And, whilst it's nice to be remarked upon, and the attention's very flattering, I somehow find myself wishing I'd been a little better briefed on Cambodian relationship customs before I got here, so I could have time to mentally prepare myself for this particular type of exquisite torture....
Some noteworthy facts for the would-be traveller:

1) Cambodians of dating age (Around 18-30) do not sleep together unless married. This is not particularly surprising.

2) Cambodians of dating age do not kiss, either in public or in private, before marriage... This is somewhat more surprising.

3)Cambodians of dating age do not *hold hands*, except by prior agreement with their families (Mum, Dad, if you could write me a note that you're ok with my holding hands with girls, that'd be great... yep, really help me out... yep, email is fine... love you too)

4) Cambodians of dating age DO NOT GO OUT TOGETHER, except in large groups, usually consisting largely of their family members. This is not necessarily the most romantic or easy setting, for reasons that will shortly become clear:

Obviously I'm going through several phases of dementia around here :)
To try and provide an analogy: Being considered a good looking guy in Cambodia is a bit like being the most desirable man in a convent, or the best dressed man on radio....

To provide a conversational example.. After a brief and enjoyable conversation, an interruption something like the following wouldn't be unusual:
Guy 1: "My sister is very pretty, yes?"
Me: "Yes, she is"
Guy 2: "She likes you very much"
(Girl in question, sitting across table, mute)
Me: "Yeah, I kinda like her too"
Guy 1: "She is very pretty, and funny also?"
Me: "Yes, very"
Guy 1: "Then why haven't you asked her out yet?"
Me: "Well, we only met yesterday, and we seem to be getting along
pretty well just as things are"
Guy 1: "Mmm.. Maybe it is perhaps you don't like girls? Maybe you like
Thai ladyboys instead? Yes? around the table>"
Me: "Ahh, looks like the food's here"
Guy 1: "After dinner, maybe we find some Ladyboys"

In any case, I'm loving my time here, and I've done a great mix of touristy and non-touristy things here, and I won't ramble on too much or I'll start to sound like an advertisement for "Travel Cambodia". Suffice to say, the incredible mix of ancient and modern culture, the mixture of ex-colonial and present-day Cambodian, the incredible melange of Architecture and every aspect of the Mighty Mekong is
enough to take your breath away. The Angkor Wat are every bit as spectacular as you imagine, and the number of times I've wished I had a Fedora and a Bullwhip don't bear counting.

So I'll leave you with that, and considering the Internet here costs more than the accomodation, it may be a couple of days before I'm heard from again

Your Intrepid, although slightly puzzled, reporter :)

THE NEEDLE: Making a difference, one swoon at a time

So I rocked up to Bangkok *very* early this morning, and in a fit of compassionate fervor, brimming over with love for my fellow man, I began my trek to every NGO, UN outpost and half-reputable aide agency.
I was met with varying degrees of polite disinterest, polite refusal, polite (but restrained) thankfulness, and on my fourth visit (as my spirits were starting to flag) with a needle direct from Little Shop of Horrors and a syringe that looked like it belonged in a novelty costume store.
After a brief conversation with the lovely girl at the Red Cross Office, it became apparent that the most immediate need was for blood (not having any tents or cholera vaccine about my person). So I trundled off to the Bangkok blood bank, nodded and smiled politely as I worked my way through the labyrinthine construction of the blood
bank, moving from challenge to challenge (Trying to remember my passport number without haivng to go burrowing through my bag for my passport, trying to remember my mother's maiden name) until I was finally confronted with


Let me assure you, dear friends, it deserves that hallowed place in your intrepid reporter's correspondence, for it was a *fearsome* beast.

A note of clarification: I don't have anything against injections/needles/medical procedures generally. I don't go all butterfly-ey whilst watching ER, I've never had a problem having blood taken in the past, I don't squirm when doctors come near me with moderately-long moderately-pointy things: This particular apparatus
will haunt my dreams until I die.
It's not possible to accurately describe in words the kind of thing that was levelled at the soft-and-tender regions of my arm without sounding just the slightest bit hysterical, so in order to preserve some semblance of manly virtue I'll simply say this: IT WAS *BIG*
The polite Thai Nurse perhaps spotted the slightly wide-eyed look on my face and, mistaking my concern for a hygiene one, showed me the sterile packet from which the device had just been removed: Whilst my Thai is getting much better, and I even managed to convey to someone yesterday that I wanted to find yesterday's newspaper, I couldn't, with this thing pointed at me, remember the words for "blind panic"
"overwhelming terror", or the phrase "dear god, please tell me that needle's not going anywhere near any bit of me" (disappointingly that one turned out not to be in my little phrasebook at all, and not knowing the words for "dear god", "needle" or "any bit of me", I was rather at an impasse)
In fact, in this moment of near-hyteria, the only phrase I could remember is that most charming of Thai phrases: Mai pen rai...

"Mai pen rai", I said (no doubt sounding ridiculous, I've been trying to imitate Thai's falling/rising intonation, with (judging by the hoots of derisive laughter my attempts usually produce) varying degrees of success.

This was... in all the circumstances, a very poor thing to say. It was a very poor thing to say because the nurse took this as her cue to leap in to action: Fearing that she was about to lose a customer, she leapt upon me, siezing my arm in a single motion, inserting the giant needle in to my arm and sucking a good 12 or 13 litres of blood in to the waiting syringe or "bucket" as I preferred to call it.

After that sort of experience, I felt the orange juice and the jelly cup was the least they could do.

In any case, I've survived another day, managed to meet some friends from KL, and generally recover from my ordeal. Tomorrow I've got a round of "second interviews" I guess you'd call them for volunteer work: My vaunted "IT skills" seemed to prick a few ears, and one organisation was particularly pleased to see I had a qualification in Nuclear Physics (Having inadvertantly handed them the resume I usually
keep in reserve for ASX 100 listed companies, for situations when you can be absolutely sure they're never going to check your work history). For now I'm off for a beer or two, (to replace lost electrolytes, what with all the walking and attempted murders I've gone through today)

As for changing the world, It appears I'll probably end up changing the world by ensuring that news releases get posted to a website nobody reads. Oh well, you can't change the world all in one week I guess. Whilst I've already used my annual Catch-22 Re-read free pass for 2004, events of the last few days have encouraged me to splurge
and spend my 2005 one early :)

Your Intrepid Reporter,


Tsunamis and Impotence

I've tried and failed to write this journal entry a couple of times now, so plese excuse me if it's not up to my usual standards of cogency and coherence...

Of course I startd writing about what a great city KL is, and how much it feels like a living city, full of kinks, but some things over the last few days, both macro and micro events have made it difficult to get quite the right tone of jocularity going.

22,000 people have been killed. And I know one of them.

My stupid, flippant remarks about outrunning tidal waves seemed a lot funnier when the concept was in abstract,a nd when I didn't really know the scope of this disaster. But there's something inherently tribal in my brain (and I suspect everyone else's too).
There's an old newsroom adage that a story is news if it features 4 dead Australians, 1 dead American or 300 foreigners. I'd like to think that as a committed Internationalist that I was immune to this kind of thinking, but the truth of the matter is that my tribal brain didn't connect this tragedy with the genuine loss of life suffered until it was brought to me in a more personal form.

Looking at that lonley sentence above, it sounds ludicrous. For the hundreds of thousands of families and extended families who have lost a husband, wife, a sister or a child, who have lost entire families and circles of friends, my miniscule corner of loss must seem rather pitiful.

Sitting in the insular expat outpost of a backpacker's hostel the reports that reach me were sanitized, from "embedded" friends who had managed a lucky escape, a second hand accquaintace with a broken toe, a virtual stranger on the friends-of-friends network who had to go to hospital for his bruises and scrapes.

22,000 people had died, and I filed it in my "natural disaster" scrapbook of awful events that occur everywhere in the world, until I knew one of them.

The difficult thing I'm coming to grips with is that I didn't know Toom particularly well, didn't feel any deep affinity with her, except a memory that she was a kind, generous person, and that we had an awkward encounter that I probably faied to handle well, because of a lack of cultural awareness.
I don't expect we would have ever met again, and if I grive for her it wont be in a personal way: A concern for her family's wellbeing, for her boyfriend who loved her deeply and must now face a life without her, but 22,000 people are dead, and whilst my mind isn't equipped to grieve for it's helped me to understand on more than an abstract level that there are people nearby in need, and that compassion fatigue is
something sociologists, and not real people, suffer from.

So I'm doing the only sensible thing, the thing I wanted to do when I heard the news. I'm going to help. The ICRC say they need money, so I'm giving them money. But given that moeny is the thing I have in least supply, I'm hoping to give some time as well. I don't know for sure that I'll be more help than hindrance, and it may be that what
aid groups need is a small group of highly trained and well co-ordinated volunteers, and not an influx of blundering dilettantes.
But I want to offer, because being afraid to raise your hand is never a virtue, and the worst that can happen is that I find out I'm as impotent to help as I would have been if I"d sailed right past... And that doesn't sound like such a terrible thing.

To everyone who has more money than time, the guys at the ICRC could probably do with it. Skip out on Friday dinner and give the $50 to them instead.
I'm sorry I don't have the heart for the hard sell right now, but all I can say is that 22,000 people are dead, and their families need some help.

I'm sorry this wasn't a cheerier travelogue, and to tell the truth there's a fair collection of good stories to tell, but there's not a lot of levity in me right now, so you'll have to wait for the happy stuff.



Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A backwards-ticking watch

First impressions? Misleading of course, but a useful guide to the pathology of a city.

Scratch that, start again:

Singapore reminds me of nothing so much as a precision watch. Everything is ordered, every interaction is controlled. It is clean and neat. The service is brisk and efficient, the people friendly and helpful. Traffic congestion is a rumor from abroad, public transport runs on time. It is, in short, the very worst place on earth.

In Alfred Bester’s Galatea Galante, he states that the secret to a lasting attraction is the kinks. “There are many sweet confections that require a drop of acid to bring out the full flavour and keep them enjoyable”, it is the acid that makes the girl, the unexpected quality that makes them impossible to live with them or without them. Singapore is a city entirely devoid of acid.

In fact, my most relieving experience in this cloying clockwork city was that of buying, quite naturally, a mechanical watch. “The cheapest shop in Singapore”, the sign proclaimed, and whilst this statement may have been broadly true it would have been entirely more accurate (and still, in my opinion, quite catchy) to proclaim “the cheapest shop in Singapore to buy watches that tick backwards”.

… A watch, that ticks backwards.

As if my time in Singapore wasn’t moving slowly enough, we were now in possession of what we can only assume was some kind of Singaporean fetish property, a watch that, when the mood overcame it, decided to tick in reverse.

It never occurred to either of us for a second that this could be a malfunctioning watch, that sort of thing simply doesn’t happen in Singapore, so we are now stuck with what I’m sure is a prized and near irreplaceable collectors item, and indeed one which may hold the secrets to the very nature of the universe and the flow of chronology, but which has the unfortunate quality of being entirely unable to tell us what time it is.

It’s hardly necessary to expound on the work of Dr Steven Hawking, but suffice it to say that this watch sits currently on the end of my bed, eagerly awaiting inspection by the Cambridge Physics Department. It will be with enormous relief that I leave this little city-state tomorrow, and start…dare I say it…unwinding


Current Location: 1.20.54 N / 103.40.54 E, Singapore, Singapore