Thursday, March 15, 2012
... but first things first ... friendliness is in reverse proportion to cost.
Back in Bangkok, after six out of seven days in brilliant sunshine in Phuket, I went to one of the Khao San area places I'd seen before. They advertise: ALL OUR ROOMS HAVE WINDOWS.
In my four-and-one-half-star Phuket resort, I'd gotten reacquainted with finding out if it is morning by looking at the window instead of at the watch. Another good thing about the four-and...... resort was that, when I checked out, they gave almost the whole cash deposit back because I had lost neither the door key, nor the safe key, and I hadn't raided the mini bar. The beach towel was still there and the bed sheets had no tattoo ink spots. The couple of dollars they deducted, I have no idea what they were for, didn't ask. I just wanted out.
Being back in Bangkok's backpacker ghetto, made me happy - until I got to the lobby of the guesthouse that has windows in every room. A windowed room costs only about five dollars more than the former windowless ones, twenty-five dollars instead of twenty, that's good, but the dour mines of the reception staff blocked the expected daylight.
I got answers to my previous question about what they do with plain-looking women in Thailand: They send them to places like the reception at Rambuttri Village Inn, the place where a promise of windows had drawn me to, or the big, tastily wood-paneled reception area at the four-and-one-half-star resort in Phuket. With a few notable exceptions they are a dour-looking, dour-acting, and absolutely-no-joy-projecting lot.
At Rambuttri Village Inn (some part of the name appropriately sounds like "putrid"), the woman with a soiled face mask and short cropped hair - assuming from her clothes it was a woman - gave muffled instructions about what I was allowed to do and what not - if you plan to have a female Thai visitor she has to register here at reception! - thirty dollars deposit for key - three percent surcharge for credit card payment - no WiFi anywhere here - you pay now in full for your stay, then she pointed out a note on the receipt, after I'd paid, it said: No Refunds!
"About that female Thai visitor's registration, what about a Russian one?" I was tempted to ask, but didn't.
In my previous, mostly windowless digs, invariably the person(s) at reception brought the sunshine in with their expressions and actions. Ruefully I thought of the super helpful pointy teeth lady in Yangoon, the smiling, frail old lady in Mandalay who always tried to beat me to the door to open it for me, the cute girls at Madame Cùc's in Saigon who rubbed my belly and cooed "happy Buddha", the pregnant receptionist in the Phnom Penh lobby who had two small children with her and her roasting garlic for the dinner preparation perfumed the whole place. The lobby was her living room, children's bedroom, her kitchen. Once I saw her husband emerging from a closet on the second-floor landing, clearly their bedroom. She always had a smile for everyone who passed.
Things are not always what one thinks they are.
That, sort of, brings me to the ubiquitous middle-aged and old men, one sees traveling, dining, strolling, sightseeing with pretty young women. The species can be spotted all over the world but predominantly in areas of Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bali, the Philippines, Central America, Columbia, Equator and Cuba.
The men, as in a knee jerk reaction, are routinely branded as misogynistic chauvinists, creeps, lechers, pigs, exploiters, deviates, depending on who does the judging. I also often can't help thinking in such terms because some of those men clearly are - but ...
I'll try, without getting into "too much information", to explain why in my opinion some of those "creeps" need not be ashamed or embarrassed.
With excessive time to reflect, muse and rationalize, here in Thailand, especially, while repeatedly walking alongside the beach-chair covered and sun-shaded walrus colony of Phuket's Patong Beach, where the young-woman-old-man image is so omnipresent, I've come up with a few "insights".
The book I am reading now, a Phnom Penh bought, pirated photo copy version of THE WHITE TIGER, a Booker Price winning novel by Aravind Adiga, started my rationalizing about that sore subject.
Aravind Adiga, an Indian, describes the life of a servant in his home land.
By his family's scraping meager funds together to allow him to learn how to drive a car, Balram Halawi became a driver and thus eventually got a salary. The deal was, since the family paid for his education, they'd get 90% of his future pay.
The Indian driver job entails far more than what we'd imagine to be a driver's duty. Halwai, the name of his caste, "sweets maker", was the name he was called. Nobody cared to know his real given name, Balram. He played with the boss' kids whenever, whatever, however it was requested. He had to remove the old man's flaky skin on his legs and got constantly hit over the head because he went to slow, too fast, to hard, too light, the water too hot, the water too cold. He was the family's gofer, for everything, anything. He kissed dirty feet - was expected to - for countless reasons. He got hit, slapped, clobbered for any, or little reason by all, except by the one son who had spent time in the US. The US educated one thought hitting servants was not proper thus the others in the household considered him weird. He slept on the floor - only the family's head driver had a bed. He was treated like dirt - while he had a highly desirable job, one his family had made great sacrifice for him to get.
That is one life, steeped in servitude, inhumanity, degradation of dignity, so prevalent in many countries. That Halwai (sweets maker) was thrilled to have his job because a huge portion of the population in his socioeconomic group will never, ever find a paying job.
We hear of activists trying to alleviate working conditions of factory workers in some countries. They call for improvements in jobs that pay barely an existence minimum, that are unsanitary, accident prone, with long hours, no worker's rights, with workers living in packed dormitories without even minimal access to privacy. Often these workers protest against the ones who try to improve their lot, fearing they'd lose the little they have.
Many people, the world over are malnourished, undernourished, starving, thus willing - just to eat - do whatever comes their way.
The reasons for the old-man-young-woman scene does not need to be so dramatic. I'll try to give a few illustrative, but nameless, case histories that I know about, presenting them as housebroken as possible. A few readers will recognize individuals because they heard the stories before.
Once upon a time ...
Two men picked up two twenty-year old "working" girls in a Manila bar. They had a good time and, since the men planned to travel around in the Philippines for two weeks, they invited the girls along for part of the trip. The girls, through their job, knew a fair amount of English. During their journey the men found out that each girl claimed to do what they did to finance schooling for, mainly male, siblings. One of the two men, financially well established - to say the least - asked how much they made, or rather, how much they needed to support their families. They told him.
"What would you do if you didn't need to prostitute yourselves," he then asked.
One said she'd like to be a nurse, the other said schoolteacher. The well-off man offered to pay the education for both, plus living expenses, plus supply the funds they used to send to their families. He opened a bank account for both.
After one year, I forgot which one, nurse or teacher, had stopped withdrawing money because she had gone back to her old occupation - imagine the integrity admitting that and not taking the money from the account anymore! The other had already passed intermediary tests and proudly forwarded copies of reports to the man who paid for school.
Once upon another time ...
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, an old man, after a long hike, went to one of many massage places, a real massage in a well lit room with several massage tables and a glass door to the outside to tempt passers by.
The masseuse, a very pretty woman (later turned out to be twenty-nine years old), did a very good, relaxing job to sore muscles. She also spoke some English. The man asked if he could invite her for dinner after her work was done. She accepted. Dinner was pleasant. They had some drinks and interesting conversation. Then as these kinds of things often tend to go, the man asked the woman if he could show her his stamp collection (not really, but an equivalent, in this case a DVD). The woman accepted.
In the course of the evening he found out that she was married at age twenty. About ten month after the wedding her husband, a farmer, was killed in an accident. She didn't say because she had started to cry when asked about what kind of accident. A report in a Cambodian February bulletin said that since the beginning of the year, already eleven people, mostly farmers, had been either killed, or mutilated by land mines.
A daughter was born almost the same time her father died.
The woman tried to make a living as a widow in her farming village but saw no future. She left the baby with her mother and went to the city to try making enough money to assure a good education for her daughter.
With the strong hands of a farmer she became an exceptional masseuse. Right from the beginning she also started taking English courses. The man found out she paid thirty-dollars for her lodging. School cost three-hundred per year. She paid for school in monthly installments.
Since the man might pay three-hundred dollars for a dinner with a good wine at home - okay maybe for more than one person - it didn't take much for him to decide to give the woman the funds to pay her school for a year, especially since he'd always maintained that education is the best solution to solve most problems of the world.
He didn't give her the funds for the resulting demonstration of gratitude, but he'll never deny, even though a bit embarrassed, he liked it just the same.
And yet another once upon a time ...
An elderly man in Havana went to a music bar. The music was great. At a nearby table sat two beautiful women. The man asked if he could join them. They said yes.
After they'd chatted for a while, the man mentioned he planned to be in Cuba for about one month and that he would like to get to know real Cuban life, away from the well known tourist action at some of the shore resorts, places where most ordinary Cubans are not even allowed to go.
Both women were hair stylists, the younger in Havana and the older in the big southern city, Santiago de Cuba. There is almost no work there, she said. That is why she came to Havana. She and her sister planned to open shop in the living room of a cousin's house. When things are going well, they said, they make about two dollars a day.
The man said he planned to rent a car for a month and he would love to have a Cuban person to show him around, to make it possible to live with Cubans, to eat with Cubans and hopefully never to see a tourist. He said he'd offer a hundred-dollars per week to such a person. The sisters, one early twenties, the other thirty-one, got into a tussle over which could take the job. The man chose the older one, Marlene, assuming it would look less ... ehhh ... weird because of a ten-year smaller age difference. Also, as she had said, she was still married but her husband had taken an expensive boat trip to Florida and wasn't planning to ever return.
The younger sister was depressed so the three of them, and once also the cousin in whose house they planned to start their business, went out to dinners. The man found, in the places they ate, usually a private home that doubles as a restaurant for the initiated, a meal for several people costs less than what he had previously paid for himself alone, in a tourist approved restaurant.
Two-and-a-half weeks of the trip were like magic, plus, hanging out only with Cubans, the Cuban way, it was also dirt cheap. They slept in private houses and visited with the girls' mother in the south. She was then married with another man. Then they visited her father, a carpenter. Lodging down on the south shore was in a simple house on the beach. A family served them home made lunches in the sand. In the evenings they invited friends and neighbors. Cuban rum flowed freely and life was good.
Driving south through the country side, they had bought from enterprising farmers big clumps of cheese, hams, braids of onions and garlic. In the city, Santiago de Cuba, and on the beach, these difficult to obtain goods from the trunk of their car, created a party mood wherever they went.
On the way back up north along the picturesque east coast, partly devastated by a recent hurricane, they got into a police road block. When asked what their relationship was, the man said they were friends. Marlene got arrested for consorting with a foreigner. She was hauled to local court and given a summons to appear in a Havana court because she had given her Havana address. The man put her on an express bus to Havana.
Most of the rest of the trip was a comparative letdown. Alone then in the car, but picking up many hitch hikers, that lined the roads everywhere, and held out money, a sign they were willing to pay for the ride, or some women holding out other things in lieu of cash payment, the man made it to the north coast. For one night in a pretty luxurious tourist hotel there, as a walk-in, he paid almost as much as the previous two-and-half weeks with Marlene had cost. That was another of the Cuban tourist rip offs. The man paid four-hundred-and-fifty dollars for one night, food and drink included. At one of the many hotel bars a Canadian told him he'd paid one-thousand-one-hundred dollars for a ten-day vacation in that same place, flight from Canada and airport pick up included.
Back in Havana the man visited Marlene in her cousin's house where she and her sister had started a veritable beauty salon. The money from the man had helped making it happen. Marlene was suffering from a severe cold. Unfamiliar with a/c, thus without anything warm to put on in the air conditioned tourist bus to Havana, she practically froze to death.
In court she was fined twenty dollars for hooking up and traveling with a foreigner. The man, of course, gave her the twenty dollars, and, because it was the day of his departure, all the Cuban money he had left because it would be useless outside the country.
As one can gather from listening to TV stations from around the world, whose programs stream into hotel rooms of international guest in the tourist spots I've recently been to, the USA is not doing well in world opinion. Righteous, hypocritical, bullying, insensitive, arrogant are the kind of words frequently used when referring to actions taken be the US.
Wherever there is music for an international public, almost to the exclusion of everything else, one hears, Georgia on my Mind, New York, New York (if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere), Pretty Woman, I found my Sweetheart on Blueberry Hill, someone crooning something about San Francisco, or the wide open land, something or other about the Mississippi. Almost to the exclusion of everything else, the chosen music is typically American.
Maybe we should stick to music instead of trying to impose our "values" on the world.