IN THAILAND AND CAMBODIA - BEGUN JANUARY 2004 (most recent first)
March 5, 2004 - Chiang Mai, Thailand (posted 3/19/2004)
"If you say one more mean thing to my stepdaughter I will personally kick your ass all over this party and I can do it!" I’ve never heard Jim (Lao Paw) so aggressive. I've also never been stood-up-for physically in that way. I felt protected while the intensely drunk Thai, who'd been harassing me with flippant comments all night, went to the bar to buy Jim a drink. It's still unclear why he disliked me so much. Too much booze I guess? After all, this is a wedding.
We’re in Chiang Mai now, but this morning we were in Siam Reap Cambodia, stretching the inflexible morning out with laughter and music. Drinking-in the filtered ambrosia light through pink flower’s parted lips. We spread marmalade on French baguettes and wean ourselves from cobwebbed dreams with IV drips of black caffeine. Lao Paw is just returning from last night’s adventures and we grill him on his late night excursions, which I’m afraid I can’t go into right now.
Tomboy Bride (my first CD) is playing now. It’s playing EVERY morning. For someone who can’t stand to hear their own music, this is just flat out torture! Dean holds my hand as we wait for the last song to finish but then, like Chinese water torture the CD starts over again on track one and I want to scream. Dean tells me to chill "They’re just enjoying your music," he says but I can’t hold a conversation over the songs, I’m too distracted by my own voice.
It’s always sad to leave The Secrets of the Elephants. Going feels like ripping off the one part of my body I’ve become accustomed to. But today, in particular, my heartstrings are pulled tighter than usual. Rome, a beautiful Khmer girl, who was present on my engagement night, April 2002, is especially hard to say goodbye to. She gives me a white handkerchief she’s embroidered herself. I give her one of a matching pair of white flower barrettes I have in my hair and embracing, we promise to return before the year is out.
At 10:00 we take a van to Handicap International for one last visit. The activity area is crowded with newly-fitted prosthetics trying out their current owners. Amputee men and women follow each other in a loop consisting of various physical challenges. The farmland most of them intend to return to is anything but flat and they need to practice things like walking over rocks and bridges, climbing ladders and stairs to ensure their future safety on the very land that bit their legs off in the first place. Jess and Jim, at my request, have brought Mardi Gras beads from America and we hand them out to crippled children resting on benches and patches of grass. I place a shiny green strand of beads around a girl in a wheel chair. She has no eyes and one leg and it crushes my heart that she’ll never get to see how pretty she looks in them. A legless, armless boy no older than 14 looks up at me with such embarrassment at his disfigurement that I cry then and there and can’t stop even after we leave.
This is an impossible reality. These Asian countries are so poor, their governments can’t afford to remove these destructive remainders of war and the only way they’ll be discovered is by somebody stepping on them. With over 10 million mines still active in Southeast Asia, that’s a whole lot of lost limbs and lives. It’s a crime that only 2% of impersonal bombs are activated by soldiers at war while the other 98% are left in the ground for innocent civilians, farmers, children, animals, mothers and daughters to maim themselves on in the future, when the wars are over. It costs $3 dollars to build a landmine and $1000 dollars to remove one. It is infuriating to me that America, one of the largest manufacturers and stockpilers of these landmines, refuses to sign the Ottawa Treaty, agreeing to cease the creation and distribution of impersonal bombs. It’s maddening that they’re still being put in the ground for use in "war." And it’s repulsive that we, the gardeners of dynamite and sowers of shrapnel refuse to harvest our weapons when our wars are over. This must stop! It hurts too much.
March 4, 2004 - Siam Reap day 2 (posted 3/18/2004)
The sound of strings floats atop the stillest of airs. This is taproom. The only Angkor ruin left to the whims of the forest which tears it apart stone by stone with little regard of the time it took to build, carve and worship at. 100 foot trees straddle 20 foot walls, their roots slither and snake through blackened corridors lifting ceilings in their branches as if to take a closer look. Just beyond these walls is where the Khmer amputee band plays. On a wooden slab, between trees to the left of incoming traffic, which flows like a familiar tide, they sit and play. What legs they have are bent in lotus, plastic ones they’ve acquired rest on the ground or against trees. They’re eating lunch just off the beaten path when we arrive. We don’t want to bother them but they enthusiastically wave us over anyhow and offer to share their food. Rice, the color of burnt sienna and barely cooked boar, its hair still clinging to morsels they pop into their mouths, looks less than tantalizing and we insist they finish alone.
We wait, with their legs, under trees. Whipping hot streams of sweat charter courses down our cheeks and necks. Crickets rub their legs together with such vigor it’s deafening and I find myself in a meditation I had no intention of being in.
Joe Cummings (the Thailand "Lonely Planet" author),|
Sally and Ben (The British harp player) gigging in
Changmai at "The Irish Pub," Feb 10th
When the band returns to play Kim asks, on our behalf, if we might interview them briefly. They seem flattered and Dean puts forth the questions for Kim to interpret. I wont go into too much detail on account that the interview questions came from Dean’s mother, Penny, who’d wanted to write a piece on them herself. But I will say what hit and shocked me most:
It costs them $3 dollars a day to feed their extensive families rice (up to 12 people). They have no moneymaking opportunities other than their music. They play at taproom every day and sometimes at weddings and make anywhere between $2 and $5 dollars apiece, which they’re more than grateful for. As we crouched and hovered above red dust the texture of ash, others stopped by to hear the band's stories. A boy selling flutes took every opportunity to exhibit the quality of his shrill merchandise and a skeletal cow cried for its mother, wandering back and forth.
The thing that struck me then and strikes me maybe even more painfully now, is their smiles. They’re not from where I’m from. They come from sorrow. A sorrow I will never understand. I ask if they lost any family during the Pol Pot regime (1975-1979) knowing that they have. Everyone here has. At this they smile a smile I recognize only as coming from the greatest of joys, and they say:
"Yes, yes, I lost an uncle" or "a brother," "a mother", "a sister" or all of the above. And with their white teeth beaming between parted copper lips they continue "I lose a lot then. But if I talk about it now, I cry."
We are where smiles mean sadness. That I can’t understand. And so I offer mine in return, oblivious to how they might interpret it. We’re all out of questions when Jim speaks up "I have one more question. How much are your CD’s?" They’re $10 dollars. We take 3 and gave them $60. Maybe they’ll take the day off tomorrow. I hope so.
March 3, 2004 - Siam Reap, Cambodia (Posted 3/17/2004)
Jess and Jim arrived yesterday, straight off the plane from America and again, we're staying at Secrets of the Elephants, dining under speckled floral light, lounging in silk pillows and conversing silently with the Buddhas in the hall.
My stepfather, Jim has been here for a month already. We've watched his transition into the heavenly flow of time here, heat here, food here. We've nicknamed him "Lao Paw." It means nothing but we interpret it as "Father who digs Asia so much he may never return home."
We take Jess and Jim straight from the airport to Angkor Watt. Our intention is to cram as much of Cambodia as we can down their necks, in the 3 days we have before we go back to Thailand. They look tired but insist they’re not. Neither of them gets jetlagged, apparently. I watch them tasting the view with their eyes. It washes over them, breaking their hearts and lifting them out of their self-consciousness.
Jess’s athletic slender body rushes like water over the Angkor ruins. Up and down impossibly steep staircases, and into places that big people like myself don’t fit, she slides. Her brown curly hair crinkles like mine from the heat and I can see the glow of Colorado mountains in her bright glistening eyes. Jim is more literal, more pensive and seems to be looking deeper into things. Between the carvings and statues he peers to where time has built up like dust in the corners and cracks where ghosts reside and scream their histories in forgotten languages.
While at Bayon (one of the most regarded temples at Angkor) a nun with blackened teeth pulls me aside and hands me three sticks of incense. Losing the group, I let her position me before a headless Buddha figure, already garnished in flowers and leaves of gold. On my knees, I place the incense to my forehead and bow three times as I’ve seen the natives do, praying to the Buddha, Dharma and the Songa. I know she expects a cash return when I get back to my feet but all I have is a US $10, way too much for the blessing I’ve been given, but I give it to her anyway and she squeals in a surprisingly un-nun-like behavior. An old bent and hunched man observes my gift to the nun and insists, in Khmer, that I follow him. It will be impossible to find my way to the group again but what the hell. He leads me to a smooth, cylindrical stone that’s far from accessible and almost too far from light to see. The smell of bat shit is marinating in my nostrils and I wonder why the hell this little man has brought me to such an un-intriguing place. He kneels down in front of the erect pillar and gestures for me to do the same. He proceeds to rub the top of the stone vigorously then cups his hands at the base of the monument to wash his face with imaginary liquid. Again, he gestures for me to do the same. I rub. I cup. I wash my face, then he wants $10 bucks too. No problem for me really. I know he’ll do more good with the cash than I ever could. But then there’s a boy who’s starving and overseeing the entire cash interaction and he grasps at his ribs and clenches his eyes shut and holds out his hand, but this time I have nothing.
When I find the group again they’re curious to know where I’ve been. I explain about the black toothed nun and the man and the cylindrical monument, at which point Kim (our Khmer tour guide) busts a gut laughing. "That thing you were rubbing," he says, "That was Shiva’s penis." So I gathered the imaginary liquid was… well… you guess. Kim says they rub it for luck. So all the better for me I guess. $10 bucks for penis luck.
February 6, 2004 - Bangkok Airport (Posted 3/11/2004)
When we arrive in Bangkok it's raining. The nine of us are unloading various bags onto the brown, chipped linoleum. International terminal number two. International travelers walk by, balking at our indiscretion as underwear is thrown and books returned to their original owners to be packed away and stashed overnight in "long term baggage hold." at 90 Bhat a day; it's a deal, and we're in the airport already. We just arrived from Ko Siam Wi.
The boat ride from Ko Pan Gan to Siam Wi was long. Giant waves took turns, tossing us in the air, batting us around and pinning us to the nearest cushion, twisting our bodies in gumby-esque shapes. Watching Rusty get thrashed was one of the funnier things I've ever seen. Somehow he repetitively managed to land on his hip or his elbow or his head, but bearing an expression of such glee, we couldn't help but laugh hysterically at him. And he laughed too, until he was gripping his sides and no more sound would come out of him. He was left with a Muppet-like, open-mouthed expression on his face that made us roar harder.
So here we are in Bangkok again and staying within walking distance of the airport at The Comfort Inn, which is far from 'comfortable' and not exactly what we had in mind for our last night together. There are tinted mirrors on the ceilings. I can see down my shirt when I look up. Cigar smoke is getting sucked into a rusty blue fan in the corner and the air-conditioner is on. We check in. I stand with the bags, watching as The Larson Brothers torture their mother with the "Flashdance," singing "I'm so Excited." They do this to her every time she wears this head band. Vickie, in response, is laughing hysterically and telling them to stop (with no authority whatsoever) and yelling "Steven!" for back up. "Ya know, you don't have to wear that thing." He says.
(The following was added on 3/17) I can't believe that tomorrow these people will be gone. I've grown so attached to them, it's hard to grock that they're not actually a part of my anatomy. We've picked up each others subtleties: hand gestures, accents, inside jokes, and phrases.
Rusty is sending the Larsons home with some British slang:
"A 'Prat' is an idiot, and A 'Git' is a nasty weakling," says Rusty. The boys take notes on napkins. "To 'Snog' is to kiss and if you're "nippin' out to take a wee" you're going to take a piss.
Josh offers up "Peace in the Middle East" and Seth suggests using the word 'dude' often, especially in reference to disbelief as in: "Dude! I'm touchin' cotton" and "Dude! Arabian Goggles is sick!"
We have dinner in the hotel restaurant. Again, not what we were hoping for. There are only American dishes on the menu. I order a grilled cheese on white and a brown salad. "Rock Me Like A Hurricane," is playing on repeat. Since we've been counting, it's played 4 times. What's worse, it's not even the original version. Some posser is rockin the lyrics and two metal chicks are on back up vocals.
We don't say much. Everything's already been said and when return to the second floor (of hotel Le Shinning) a light is flickering and stuttering at us and we're forced to say our good-byes beneath the spitting halogen. And though our hugs and tears are sincere, they can't describe what we're feeling. Nothing can. Not even music.
February 3, 2004 - Ko Pan Gan, Thailand
There's sand in the bed on the purple sheets. It scratches my ankles until I'm awake under a mosquito net, next to an obese mosquito who's been gorging on my blood all night. I lathered my body with 95% Deet before bed but it wasn't enough to deter this little guy. And now, I am, once again, covered in itchy bumps that include, but are not limited to: my ear lobes, my hair line, the spaces between my fingers, and the tender parts on the soles of my feet. Having acquired Dengue Fever (in this same bungalow) a couple years ago, I have quite a realistic fear of getting bitten again (they say the second time you get Dengue Fever, you bleed through all your orifices and die).
The waves are biting down on the beach below, tearing at it and spitting it back up. I can hear the ocean regurgitating empty beer cans and pieces of shattered boats onto the sand. Yup, there's a storm coming. I can see it from bed, lurching across a bleached-out sky like a villain. It looks like it could swallow the cabin whole.
Dean is still asleep and I sneek out and down concrete stairs to the beach. In the waves I can see the Larson Brothers and Rusty Pom bob like buoys. It looks dangerous to be out in such large waves (9 Ft). But they're having the best times of their lives riding the waves and throwing refuse back and forth at each other. Seeing as this is the first overcast day since our arrival, I saunter on over to the Internet Cafe to catch up on some lost days.
I woke up, face plastered to a beige seat cover on a speed boat. This is the day we arrived on Ko Pan Gan. It'd been an early flight. So early, the brothers and I didn't bother going to sleep the night before. I was exhausted the next day when Burt came to pick us up in his boat in Ko Siam Wei and I slept the entire trip.
When we got to Ton Ni Pan Noi, Steve said it best "this is the most perfect place I've ever been." Of course I already knew this. The adults went off to the $50 dollar a night hotel at one end of the beach and the kids went to the $5 dollar a night hotel on the other. Ah, back at "Pongs." Hammocks, ganja, 3 dollar massages, "no name" pork and a pre-siesta Singha at 12:00 in the afternoon. Nothing to do but read and swim and play the occasional game of volleyball.
Then Pong had a great idea: "What about a gig on the beach?" The flyers were made the next morning, and passed down the beach reading: "Sally Underground" tonight 8pm at Pongs. We spent the day melting into surrounding noises and smells, lying in the bellies of bright colored hammocks. When night came we didn't bother to move until 7:30. Then the boys showered. Seeing as Dean and my bungalow doesn't have a bathroom, not to mention a towel, I didn't bother to bathe and took an extra 15 minutes in my hammock just to look at the stars.
We were on a makeshift stage by 8:00 facing a rather large audience that was so attentive I felt bad for not having prepared. Around song 5 someone yelled out "know any James Taylor." Being used to such requests, I joked "who's James Taylor?" and went on singing "Sympathy for the Devil." But this guy had no idea who my father was and looked a little confused to Vickie Larson who leaned in to let him know that "her dad IS James Taylor." Supposedly it took Vickie 3 songs to convince this guy she wasn't lying and then he yelled up "How about some Carly Simon?"
January 31 - Siam Reap Cambodia
Prosthetics are lined up. Brave, silent soldiers on the shelf. Some have fake skin, just thick beige plastic really, wrapped around hollow posts. Others look strangely robotic, constructed from stainless steel and black plastic straps. The rest are tree stumps, artifacts, whittled by crafty Khmer Megivers in need of an extra limb to get through the fields. This is Handicap International Siam Reap, the local rehabilitation center for the disabled (which constitutes landmine victims almost exclusively).
"It's Sunday so there are no activities today," apologizes Bernard, a Belgian man in his mid-thirties whom we'd met the night before at our concert. He's telling us about Handicap International's goals to rehabilitate and reintegrate landmine victims back into society. I am brokenhearted when he tells me that most women who lose a limb also lose their husbands here. We touch and examine prosthetics, census maps, and deactivated antipersonnel bombs and landmines sent to this country by the good ol' US of A before Bernard leads us into a room cluttered with legless people of all ages. To our left is a training course for re-teaching victims to stand again, to walk again and maybe most importantly, to work again. "Like shoes, landmine victims need new prosthetics every 3 years or so, so it can get quite expensive," explains Bernard.
Since we brought guitars, we unsheath them and board a small jungle gym, normally used for rehabilitation purposes. I can feel the whites of peoples' eyes blaring at me from behind dark lids. I can hear the beating of blood forcing itself through tiny veins and the breathing stop as we begin to sing. I have no voice left after last night, but how dare I complain. I'm singing to people who have no legs, no arms, no husbands, no jobs and it is unacceptable to me that there are still millions of bombs actively living just beneath the surface of this country, waiting to bite the legs off of children. It is unacceptable that we sent these people landmines to protect themselves only to let them be destroyed by them. It is unacceptable that we refuse to sign a Treaty (which 90 other countries have already signed) prohibiting the manufacturing and stockpiling of antipersonnel bombs. And it's unacceptable that we continue to put these silent monsters in the ground around the world, and refuse to clean up the mess when we're done.
January 31, 2004 - Cambodia Siam Reap
"Don't step in the wet spots," advised Kim as he helped us out of the van. "You step on wet spots, you smell like fish many days." The stench outside was horrifying. Blocking my nose didn't even help. I could smell rotten fish through the top of my mouth and it was hard to avoid wet spots, they were everywhere. Naked children, with the most fluorescent green boogers I've ever seen dripping into their mouths, were bathing in them. None the less I was glad to get out of the van. An early wake up call combined with hangover topped off with a 30-minute drive on unpaved, pockmarked roads was loosening my stomach for a tantrum.
We were led down to the water's edge, passed a heap of burning trash, through a family's ramshackle hut, and then onto the skinniest boat I've ever seen, floating in the dirtiest water I could imagine (and I grew up in Manhattan!).
Backing up has never taken more skill. Boats cluttered the anorexic harbor, all of them longer than the width of the bay. When we'd passed the channel we kicked up speed, passing by fishermen, chest deep in the filthy water, nets spraying from their hands (I think that's the end of my fish eating for this trip). Children paddled by in canoes on their way to their school that rested on a raft in the water. By this point, tame land was scarce, and all the fishermen's houses were floating on bamboo sticks. Whole communities drifted by us. When we came to the mouth of the river, the land fell away and we were in a lake so big you couldn't see to the other side. Besides the floating Vietnamese community on the right and the Muslim on the left there was not much to see until we spotted a floating restaurant/bar/giftshop/alligator farm, 1/2 a mile in front of us. As we got closer we saw two Vietnamese children in silver tin buckets paddling around the bay. It was such an odd sight. And when we arrived at the restaurant/bar/giftshop/alligator farm, they started harassing us for money (which Kim warned against). When lunch turned out to be "fresh" crack and peel shrimp (presumably from these parts) I think we all faked full tummies.
On our way back I remembered I had Mardi Gras beads in my bag left over from my birthday. I decided to try throwing them to cute little girls on the shore. My first 2 attempts failed miserably, with little persons hands outstretched to catch the shiny necklaces and my throw landing just short of their grasp, burying themselves deep in the mucky waters below, too deep to retrieve. Handing them out on land was easier; what a joy it was to see the little faces, all coated in dirt and fish muck, light up. They'd dash immediately to their mothers to show them what the huge white haired farang (foreigner) had bestowed upon them. The sparkling beads contrasted against the pigs pissing in the streets and the screaming chickens, mid-slaughter and the slanted barber shacks quaffing young men, their dead hair flying in great big chunks and sticking to our legs. It's not even noon yet.
January 30, 2004 - Cambodia Siam Reap
Tea lights flicker atop white linen tabletops. A canopy of electric pink and white flowers spills over arbors and rooftops, raining down small petals onto mosaic tiled floors. A green gecko scurries up a chartreuse wall and ten Khmer amputees arrive on motorbikes with exotic instruments in hand. I'm especially surprised to see a man with no legs (below the thigh) hop off his bike onto his stumps and lead the blind man through the gate into the courtyard, his head barely reaching the blind man's waist. It's clearly going to be one of those unforgettable nights but in what way, we're unsure. I ask them if they'd like a beer. They respond to by introducing their singer (a Khmer woman in her early 30s who has obviously been spared landmine warfare). I get them beers anyhow and they seem very pleased to receive them when I return. As they unpack instruments and detach prosthetics, people start to arrive. The word of mouth has spread around town that we're playing a concert and there are at least 60 people lounging, already sipping Tiger beer from frosted glasses carefully prepared by our hosts at Secrets of the Elephants (one of the best kept secrets in Siam Reap).
When the band starts, we feel the wind and the quietness of respect. "The ancestors are here," I hear someone whisper. The music they're playing is so compelling we can't help but jump up and try and play along with our guitars and drums, humming along in their foreign scales. They smile at us and look into our eyes as though they understand that something greater is at hand. Tears gather in the edges of eyes. Uncertain weather or not to let them fall, we keep them tucked up in lower lids and smiles. Joy is filling in the cracks of peoples' hearts, like shampoo dripping silkily, and easily between dry fingers.
By the time we were up, there were at least 100 people in the audience intensely focused on us. Josh, Seth and I sat on the front steps of the gazebo, guitars in hand. The Khmer band is behind us in a semicircle. Lanterns in blue, gold, orange and yellow hung, caressing us with their soft, gentle light and because our spirits were on fire it was not hard to burst forth passionately with song (more familiar to our ears). There is no question in my mind that there was a language created that night that crossed all language barriers, cultural and spiritual ones too. I felt the Khmer amputees behind us and I could hear them backing us with chimes, drums, and their equivalent of a xylophone. When I looked back at them, the man with no eyes was dancing and the lead singer was finding her way to a harmony. Bliss. Soft and tender bliss.
There are not enough words to explain what the music meant and so I'll end with this: I think music speaks 'heart' better than any spoken language I've ever heard.
January 29, 2004 - Siam Reap Cambodia
"Has anyone had the 'foot wobble' yet?" asks Rusty Staff, his lips buried into a pillow.
"Not yet," "I don't think so," the rest of us admit. 5 of us: Rusty, Josh, Seth, Dean and I are at "massage by the blind" which is a small flourescent-lit room lined with 6 hospital beds where the blind are taught to practice the art of massage so they can make a living for themselves (aside from begging on the streets). We just happen to be the only patrons, so we don't much mind the banter back and forth while we're trying to relax.
"Oh, Oh yeah! I'm getting the 'wobble' now. Wow that's different." We're all in the white pajamas provided by the facility and have been instructed to change even though there are no changing rooms. Well, I guess we know each other well enough by now and hey, the masseuses can't see us any how. I get the only woman masseuse. She's pretty and I'm sad that she can't see herself to know. Josh's masseuse has climbed on top of his back and seems to be doing aerobics on his ass. It looks like it hurts and Josh confirms this with a little yelp followed by "Strong like bull." Laughter.
This is our 1/2 day break. Since 7 this morning we've been visiting Ankor Wat, 75 square miles of ancient Hindu temples, where Dean proposed to me a couple years back. It's also where local children circle and wait like vultures for tour busses to roll in, so they can harrass them to buy their flute, book, scarve, t-shirt "Two for 1 dollar." These kids have the art of finagling money from tourists down to a science:
A bus rolls up. The kids run. As the tourists exit the vehicle each child selects their own private victim. They give them bamboo shoot rings they've made "special, just for you" and flowers and then it's "you buy scarf from me mista. Two for 1 dolla." Once you say "no" or "maybe later," the average conversation goes as follows: "Why you no buy from me? You mean man." or "I remember you. You buy from me later, I remember you... you remember me OK?" You say "OK, sure, later" just hoping to get rid of them. But they're there when you get back to your bus and you better believe that they remember you, by name if you've been stupid enough to tell them. If you can bear the guilt of watching their faces turn from hope to distress to utter disappointment to tears, as you return to your air-conditioned, fancy bus without a purchase, you will see those cute little dirty faces popping up and down outside your window as they leap with their goods trying one last time to make a sale. It's truly heartwrenching to see. Soft-hearted Vickie climbs back on board with 10 flutes, 1 book and 5 scarfs. She's officially cut off now, we tell her. Kim, our Kahmer tour guide for the week, assures us these kids make more in one day than most Camer families make in a month of hard labor.
I try to immunize myself from their begging, but when we get to Bayon, one of my favorite temples at Ankor, there is a little girl coming towards me within the temple walls (an area the other children are banned from). She's carrying a flower which she gives to me. When I go to thank her I realize that she's deaf. The girl beside her is deaf too, but unlike the first girl she has no hearing aid. Kim tries to translate for me but even he can't understand her. All he can make out is that a kind foreigner bought her hearing aid for her. Automatically I beg Josh to lend me two five dollar bills which I disburse between the girls. They wave and wave at us long after we've ascended the temple's stairs.
At the top we come across three young boys aged 7-10 and they're facinated by the guitar Seth has on his back. When he takes it out and starts strumming the children can barely contain themselves. Josh and I join in for a three part harmony which ads to their delight. The deaf girls appear mid song and the one with the hearing aid screams, flailing her arms while the other says she can hear the vibrations. Our hearts open some more. The little boys want to touch the guitar so Seth holds them in his lap one at a time, teaching them how to strum while on the neck he plays some chords. It seems that in trying to heal others, we, ourselves are healed.
We give them 'Tranquility,' and 'Something Underground' stickers which they immediately paste on their filthy clothes. Josh teaches them the peace sign and the 'You Rock!' sign and we're out of there only to stumble upon a 10-piece band of landmine victims. They're playing instruments we've never seen. Some of them have one leg, some none, some have prosthetics resting up against trees and others have crutches. One of them has lost his eyes to landmine shrapnel and all of it is too much for us to bear. Via Kim, we invite the band to "Secrets of the Elephants" where we're planning an impromptu concert tomorrow night. "We want them to open up for us," we explain. "We'll arrange for their transportation if they want" but the band members look suspicious like we might try to pull some sort of trick. By the time we leave for our massages Kim assures us that they'll come but none of us are holding our breath. I ask Kim if they trust that we have good intentions. He responds by telling a gruesome story about the Camer Rouge army tricking people into the woods only to bury them up to their necks, light fire to their screaming heads and cook dinner over their burning sculls. I cried. We can't even imagine what the people of this country have lived through. It hurts even to write.
January 28, 2004 - Laos
Golden handwoven scarves flap in chaotic patterns against a lilac sky. The Mekong river runs south as anorexic boats motor their way across its chocolate colored water, their captains smoking long, hand-rolled cigars. This is Laos and I'm at an Internet cafe where the majority of the computers look like my personal one from 1981. Laos is not known to be the 13th poorest country for nothing; most families here survive on less than 1 dollar a day.
We'd been e-mailing our friend Oliver for weeks about trying to put together a gig at his orphanage, but when last we'd traded notes, it seemed as if the Communist government was sort of cracking down on outsiders coming in, making too much noise (if you catch my drift). So he suggested an intimate show at his house. Oliver is one of the most colorful things about Luang Prabang, which is saying a lot. I mean we're talking hundreds of temples glittering in the sky, monks in greater dozens than I've seen in the rest of SE Asia, donned in sepia, orange and safron. We're talking about tribal women from the hills in silver coined hats, yarn spraying from their cheeks in green and magenta. What I'm saying is that Oliver's soul is too big for his skin so that pours out of his turquoise eyes with the force of waterfalls.
His house is full of illuminated paper stars he's made by hand. His apartment is one floor above the shop where he sells his stars and other papermade goods. We arrive at 7:00, after the monks have done their chanting and the sun has ducked below the French curves in the architecture. We watch the vendors
packing up their dehydrated chickens' feet and the wands (just plastic bags at the end of sticks) they've used all day to shoo flys away from their foul. Children are playing badminton without a net, and the dog that's spent all day looking dead on the right side of the road has moved to the left. We sit on Oliver's balcony overlooking one of the five monasteries on his block and graze on his hospitality. The Larsons and I start to warm up on the candle-lit porch when we notice that the intimate party has come out to us and there's no need to move from the comfy pillows we're draped in. Suddenly, there are a flock of young monks watching from just behind the monastery's walls, their faces like moons staring up at us through the streetlamp's glow. The night wore on, the roosters 'kuk ku kuk ku ka', a deaf child watching us said he could hear and the monks asked us to come down into the street.
Standing before the band of safron robes was an honor as they are an important part of the Songa. I asked each one of them their names and they answered using tones my ear did not recognize and my tongue could not repeat, but when we started singing, there was no longer the boundary of language to strain our understanding. Our hearts were talking plenty, what our words couldn't say.
Just in the middle of our spiritual connection a man on a motor bike rolled up and suddenly the look on Oliver's face turned over like a Farris engine and he told us to stop. As though someone had hit the mute button, we stopped in mid chorus, somehow knowing that you don't question anything in a Communist country. Once back inside we were as quiet as the VonTrapps hiding from the Germans. But there was no more trouble to be had and we left, unafraid of the dark, our
guitars in our hands.
January 25, 2004 - The Thai Elephant Conservation Center
I'm jolted awake by an elephant's trunk sniffing through my sleeping bag (for food presumably.) He looks as surprised as I do to find me asleep in there. There's laughter from our entire group which has already eaten and packed up, ready to go. How did I sleep so long, I wonder, before being reminded of our late night excursion the night before. Supposedly, after I took 1/2 of a sleeping pill and forgot to go to sleep, I persuaded everyone (still singing around the campfire) to go on a hike to the waterfall some 30 minutes away. Apparently the combination of sleeping pill and Thai moonshine makes you lose both reason and memory. The muhuts, not wanting to watch me trek off into the middle of midnight alone, grabbed torches and acompanied Dean, Rusty (who'd also had a 1/2 an Ambien pill) and myself up the treacherous terrain to the waterfall. I guess I fell a few times. I feel tender bruises, uncolored as of yet, under my skin this morning. But Rusty fell more times than I and had to be escorted down hill by two muhuts, one on either side. I could hear them laughing in Thai behind me, with Rusty singing "Light Up My Life" and asking in a slurred English accent "At what point did I lose control of my legs."
As I returned my legs to my blue muhut outfit, I could feel little velcro seeds pricking my legs and dirt rubbing against mosquito bites. It was a hard treck back to the Elephant Conservation Center, with hot sun and bristles of elephant hair puncturing pants and skin, causing me to shift uncomfortably on [the elephant] Wan Dee's enormous, couch-sized head.
When we got back to the stables, Martin (our director) suggested we do a mini concert atop our elephants. "Just one song" he suggested, "it would be great footage for your documentary," he reasoned. Josh and Seth just happened to have their guitars handy on their backs and drew them out like swords from sheaths.
As our Elephants grazed, oblivious to us, Josh asked "what'll we do?" "Let's do our song," Seth suggested. "You know, 'The Bright Shiny Day' or whatever we're calling it." At this he started strumming and to our amusement the elephants stopped eating and began merging together almost in a huddle. But no one could have predicted what was next to occur. The moment I began to sing all three elephants began to sing along, trumpeting, squealing, humming and bellowing in unison. When we broke into harmonies on the chorus, the elephants started singing louder lifting their trunks in the air and swaying to and fro. When the vocals broke for the guitar in-between verses, the elephants stopped singing too. They started again when we did. I can't begin to describe the feeling of riding atop the largest creature on earth, singing and being sung to and truly communicating with these amazing animals. I cried as I sang the last chorus. I couldn't help it. It was just too much to believe. It was too great a gift to receive gracefully. I think the guys cried too.
January 24 - Elephant Conservation Center
I'm at the elephant camp, covered in dirt, looking down a steep slope at my companions. They look exhausted, like old me, using the bamboo trees as canes to hold them upright atop a carpet of yellowing leaves, leaves so giant that one falling looks the size of a crow drifting weightlessly to the earth.
One of the Thai mahouts yells something that sounds foreign, but which we all know means "timber," and then a shoot of bamboo crashes down beside us and slides a good 20-40 feet down the hill. It's hard getting back down, and 6'7" Frank is having a terrible time, having just recovered from a knee accident caused by descending a steep mountain similar to this one.
I'm dirtier now, five minutes later, and carrying the lower end of a two-manned bamboo pole, crying out things I never thought I'd have to like "I'm serious here!" and "Get out of my way. Move!" and "Ducking now!!"
Back at the jungle base, we collapse in front of, but not too close to, the campfire. We were already sweating in the 100 degree heat after a 6 a.m. wake up and a three and one half hour-long elephant ride into the forest.
We arrived only yesterday at the Elephant Conservation Center run by Cat and Martin Cummings, who have dedicated their lives to the preservation and conservation of Thai elephants. Their missions are: to buy land to better accommodate Thai elephants; to raise awareness about the status of the near extinct animals; and they want to get elephants out of circuses, off the streets in Bangkok begging for their mahouts' and their own subsistence by posing for pictures with tourists. They want to stop the illegal logging and drug running that Thai elephants are forced to endure and that oftentimes leaves them victims of land mines. This is where we come in. One of our trifold missions is "to rehabilitate innocent victims of land mines." We've been talking a great deal with Cat and Martin about how we might play a role in their mission.
We arrived late yesterday afternoon as the rich sunlight began to dapple and the wind was kicked from near to far.
In pairs we matched up in rooms, calloused by hard mattresses and cold showers which trickled, at most, and shower heads that only ran when held inches from the ground. After clothing ourselves in our navy blue mahout suits (supplied as part of our mahout training course), we shuffled down warily to the elephant stables and were instructed to mount huge beasts (solo, I might add), by using Thai commands which we'd learned only slightly. Say "soong soong" and the elephant lifts his front leg to give you a boost up. From there, you've got to grab the top of the elephant's ears and hoist your leg over its neck. The most fun person to watch as she attempted this was Vicki, without a doubt. Vicki, in her pastel visor and her polarized Oakleys with the yellow reflective tint and her lip gloss, jumped up on this elephant's leg, hoisted herself by its ears and then stuck on to that elephant sideways for some odd minutes. Meanwhile, as she's laughing hysterically, yelling in between breaths for "a little help here," the elephant is wandering toward the water hole and Rusty Staff is shooting the whole event. The rest of us are laughing, but now we're chasing her down, scared she might fall off. The whole learning process was pretty hysterical, what with Vicki laughing herself into tears and Giant Frank dwarfing a teenaged elephant.
After a shower, which I took lying on the pink hard bathroom tiles, I waded down to dinner. Under a thatched roof, we sat facing one another across a mammoth mahogany table, spooning green curry and a lime cashew salad onto our mounds of rice. And that's when we introduced everyone to "Thai moonshine", which we were forced (to be polite) to partake in over the next three days.
After dinner last night at our campfire, a Thai employee whipped out his guitar and proceeded with studied authority to play "Hotel California." The Larson brothers brought out their guitars and sang harmonies with him. He was moved like few I have ever seen. He was so full of joy I thought he might implode. He kept on uttering, "Oh, my gosh," until after an hour of playing he said with the excitement of a child finding their first Easter egg, "You are my buddha," which kinda freaked the guys out. But, hey, can you think of a better compliment? I can't say whether or not the Larson duo are buddha or not, but I can tell you that they've been touching a whole lot of people's hearts with their music. I've watched them make deaf people sing. I've heard a 75 year-old Thai woman harmonize to John Denver's "Country Road" with them. I've heard people's hearts burst, when the Larsons' voices match and click into the ears of foreign listeners. Ok, enough about the friggin' Larson Brothers!
When Seth knocked at our door at 6 a.m., I couldn't believe I had slept for more than an hour. It was cold in the morning, cold enough to see my breath, cold enough for my blue Patagonia. We fed our elephants sugar cane and bananas by the bundle, urging them to reign in their heavy chain leashes. Dean's and my elephant (assigned to us) refused to let go of two small bananas somewhere still tucked into his trunk.
I rode barefoot behind Dean on the way to the jungle base camp. Dean, being a more agile and graceful mahout, sat way up on Wanda's ears. It was a three and one half hour ride out and her ears against my feet felt like a warm wet towel flapping to and fro. Hugging Dean around his waist I could feel a bigger heart beating that was neither of our own. I felt antique and foreign in my skin.
At the camp we unloaded gear and food into thatched overhangs, where we'd be sleeping later, and made offerings to the spirits of the jungle (water, incense, tobacco) and asked the spirits to look on us as friends and to keep us safe. Safe from what? No one really said.
So here we are at this bonfire, having collected wood for burning and bamboo for cooking sticky rice and nearly killing ourselves in the process. The sleeping quarters are covered with mosquito netting and the bamboo planks we are to sleep on are padded with sleeping bags. Elephants chained for the night stomp through the forests breaking everything in reach. We sing songs from "Let It Be," a Thai lyric book with incorrect lyrics like "Many rivers across" and my favorite, "You've got a pen." It got late before we knew it. Perhaps it had something to do with the moonshine.
January 23, 2004 - Langpang Province
"Five feet of snow in Toronto!" laughs a white-haired man two computers down. "My son" - he points to the screen on which a heavily-bundled lad is hoisting a snow shovel above his head. In the background, cars are barely visible beneath a thick blanket of white. "Thank God we're not there," he says to me. A monk, four computers to my right, stares blankly at the Canadian's screen. He's obviously unfamiliar with snow and looks mortified by the bleakness of the picture. It makes the Canadian laugh harder.
I'm beginning to understand the intergroup relationships. Everyone loves Vickie Larson, which means that she gets picked on the most. She defends herself with laughter and "give me a break you guys" kind of mentality which only makes her more adorable. Her sons make fun of her for shopping too much, for mispronouncing Thai words and mostly for being a wonderful mother who doesn't mind so much being picked on by her sons. Steven is her husband. He's a handsome rock of stability and reliability for his family. He lovingly watches his family with admiration without holding onto their experiences as his own. He's also a great songwriter and singer and the harmonies he and his two sons (Josh and Seth) perform are pretty much divinity-in-motion. We've known Josh and Seth for years and they have become our favorite brother-duo of all time. Seth (the oldest) is thoughtful, observant, patient, wise and as compassionate as his younger brother Josh. Josh is pure laughter, his delight is contagious and he listens with his entire being. We love them both so much. They both have an uncanny ability to move people with their music and change peoples lives significantly just with their presence.
Ah, Penelope and Frank, my mother and father in-law. Together they are such a strong and tall presence that you feel them before you know they're beside you. They shine in an un presuming quietness that makes them all the more powerful. Penelope is grace, generosity, understanding and true intrigue. Frank is strength, peace, and a collector of knowledge. He eats information as though his very being subsists on information. I'm so glad to be able to brag about them as relatives.
Rusty Staff became part of the collective family almost immediately. His nickname 'Rusty' came to us the first day when a mysterious rust colored stain appeared on his neck after a swim in the pool. "Ring around the collar" we joked, but this mark didn't go away; in fact it was there the next day. Not only was the skin more orange but in wiping a towel across the stain, the rust would appear on the cloth. "Rusty it is." I think he's getting use to it, especially knowing that alternative nicknames are 'Pom', 'Infection', and 'whittie'. Our group is great! Great Great Great!
January 22, 2004 - Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai is hot when we arrive four hours past schedule. There's no one to pick us up at the train station, which is a drag not because we're stranded but because now there are swarms of tuk tuk drivers vying for our fare, waving laminated rate sheets in our tired faces. If you were wondering, it's not energizing to take a 12 hour train ride, let alone possible to get a full night's rest on one. Besides, I had a cold I was trying to squash before I lost my voice completely; the hacking cough I kept everyone awake with, wasn't helping. My voice was pretty bad by Chiang Mai anyhow. My sexy Demi Moore voice was rapidly disintegrating into an Eartha Kitt (that's in its good moments). I wouldn't have cared normally but tonight was our first gig in Thailand, at the Riverview (the hottest club in town) no less, and I couldn't even really talk. I felt bad when Joe Cummings came to pick us up for our sound check and I had to watch them leave without me. Everyone said "It'll be all right" and "Don't worry, the Larson brothers (Something Underground) can pull it off," which I knew was true but I also knew that press releases had gone out, that magazines had written us up as the hot ticket in town and that people were expecting me to perform.
I did some vocal exercises, avoiding the high notes and accessing some vibrato to elongate certain stanzas.
Joe and the guys met us for dinner at an understated local feeding hole for some terrifically hot food. I ate a red hot chili pepper mistaking it for sundried tomato and spent the majority of dinner with my lips attached to a beer bottle, letting the cool liquid IV drip onto my burning lips and tongue.
The Riverview was packed with both Thai and Farang faces. The local band before us sang the most precisely performed cover songs I'd ever heard. I thought they were the radio, they were that good. Josh and Seth were great as usual, but as a duo they were having a hard time holding the audience. Suddenly and out of nowhere, the drummer from the previous band was behind his kit beating out the rhythm for the brothers. He had a smile that was so perfect and contagious, we all had to let go and dance. Then the keyboardist got up. Then the flautist and saxophonist with a bamboo pipe. All of a sudden, we were watching a rock 'n roll concert.
Before the night was over, the crowd would be freaking out, dancing on chairs and yelling for encores. Joe Cummings would be wailing away on lead guitar and, as miracles occur and anything is possible, I would be up there, too, belting it out alongside them.
January 21, 2004
A pregnant woman wades in a corner. This is her restaurant. She is a whisper in this rap filled room, handing out tweezer-thin fishing rods to puzzled faces. Her English is as bad as our Thai and so we talk with hand jestures and charades to ask for beer and water and "how do you bait these hooks?" This is the kind of place where you fish for your dinner, not that there are many places like this in Thailand (or anywhere I've been for that matter). The shy owner cuts up some beef on a small tray and helps us skewer our tiny hooks before gathering 9 large prawns in a blue plastic laundry basket and throwing them into the large bubbling pool that takes up the majority of the room.
A cat jumps the fence, his tail bent and broken into segments, waveing naughtily as he peers over the pool at his reflection.
Rusty (Josh Neale) is filming and asks the petite pregnant woman if she could turn down the music which only results in her turning it up full blast. What's on is the Thai equivalent of Menudo. The room echos too as we sit around the edge of the pool, poles drooping, beers sipping and cats, now more than one, waiting. But no one catches anything and it's an hour and a half before any one mentions trying to get a bite out on the street. The owner is only appologetic as we leave her establishment and wander out on to the scene.
We're in the middle of an urban Thai community, in which no one speaks any English but everyone smiles and vends. For sale are things like pens, shark fin soup, secret family potions, headphones, earrings, shades and scorpions roasted on a skewer. We buy bar-b-qued pork and sticky rice and guava fruit and head over to the train station. We're on our way to Chan Mai tonight via overnight train. Inside the station, students protest plastics, barefoot monks float on safron clouds, blind women and broken down dogs beg for food and we walk past it all, feeling it like the tears you wish you could push back but are already out there, dancing down the streams and melting in the ocean.
January 17, 2004 - Bangkok
Kosan Road is somewhat still this morning as I sit in this outdoor cafe. Motorbikes and tuk tuk's engines doppler longer in the humidity, and a fan overhead churns the air like it were heavy cream. A movie is blaring on a large-screen TV in the corner. Jennifer Lopez with short hair takes jabs at a punching bag cursing in an overdubbed Thai woman's voice. I can't help but look up from time to time to see that voice come out of J-Lo's mouth. The woman next to me is chainsmoking while typing. It looks hard. She dabs her Marlboro in an orange ashtray already quite stained with ash and lets it burn like incense while she shakes out a new cigarette and lights it.
I'm already feeling sick today. Jet lag. I've been up since 5:00am listening to foreign birds sing whhhhhata whhhhhata outside on the balcony.
Only one more day to prepare for our tour. 9 people, 16 days, 3 countries. Stay tuned.
January 16, 2004 - Bangkok
We arrive in Thailand, 10 minutes into Dean's 31st birthday. Immediately I recognize the air. It sweats with the smell of naked children playing, garbage burning and old men sipping opium through floating straws.
Busses take groggy, jetlagged bodies to the main terminal where we go through customs. The guard at The 'nothing-to-declare' line is barefoot and smiling. In the distance I see what looks like a giant 'ra ra' pom pom. It turns out to be cabbies and parents and friends waiting for their guests to arrive. They're waving white flimsy ID plaques above their heads and shouting to familiar faces. Our ride recognizes us before we have a chance to read his 'Taylor/Bragonier' sign and wisks us through the crowd like rock stars en route to red carpet.
We don't say much on the ride to "Buddy Lodge," but sip warm white wine from a little bottle I confiscated from NWA flight 27. At Buddy Lodge we're checked in and escorted to room 525. Dean opens the door to find the champagne (a rarity in Thailand) and goodies I'd arranged days in advance for his birthday. Hearts were drawn out in rose petals on the twin beds and the small cake I'd ordered read "Happy -- To You" with an obvious smudged blank space where the word 'Birthday' should have been. Needless to say, Dean was surprised and we celibrated until 3 in the morning. It's good to be back in Thailand.
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