A truly odd few days.
On the Thursday before last, I get an email asking if I can come to New Zealand to consult on a project. Sure — surprised — says I, when? How does Sunday sound? Um, ok — how long for? Five days? Okay…
Ticket arrives on the Friday and it’s Qantas via Sydney. I re-send the email that I sent to earlier: Singapore Airlines or Thai only. I won’t fly Qantas, Malaysian or Air New Zealand, all for reasons of food, comfort and lack of service on a very long flight (okay Air NZ are fine on the service but the food and seating suck badly).
The replacement ticket arrives a couple of hours later — Thai, but leaving within 48 hours.
That’s fine. I buy a few exotic Thai snacks for the parents and head to the airport. At Swampy I get into an argument with the Duty Free store: you can’t take liquids over 100ml on the plane to NZ.
Didn’t I resolve this a month ago? Yes, I can — in a sealed bag.
No, you can’t. I quickly work out that to staff in King Power Duty Free, New Zealand is a pair of words that simply means ‘a part of Australia — we don’t know exactly where’.
I tell them I’ll take the risk — and the girl sells it to me, then a few seconds later chases me through the airport in tears, pleading with me to go back as she’ll lose her job when Thai Airlines throw me off. I tell her I won’t mention her and if there is an issue I’ll somehow get it back to her.
I leave her sobbing, convinced that I’ll never make it to the city of New Zealand in Australia and that she’s unemployed — and without issue, I board TG491.
In Auckland I hug parents and daughter, do a movie with daughter ($18 for two popcorns and a drink? When did that happen?), take her to a Great Blend which she really digs (‘they treated me like an adult, Dad’ ‘that’s because you are now my love, and one I’m immensely proud of’), and we do dim sim with friends. I do meetings. I do wall to wall breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee meetings until it’s time to once again — battered and exhausted — board an aircraft.
Bangkok — 5 days after I left. I’m back in a mid-evening cab heading along Rama IX desperate for a plate of raw prawns marinated in ridiculously spicy nam prik, in the post-dusk cool — that is, if it was actually cool — the evenings are ridiculously and unseasonally hot this month — in our favourite rustic (that word will do, anything else tends to scare the friends and family back home) outdoor cafe around the corner from the house. The increasingly recurrent rains, as the rainy season gathers, had passed for the day.
The soi wasn’t flooded when I arrived. Yay.
Flipping backwards and forwards between my two favourite cities has become a fairly tolerable part of my lifestyle in recent years and this was my fourth trip to Auckland in 2012. Of the first 28 weeks of 2012, 10 were in the old hometown.
Family, business and sometimes just whim.
I get home to Ekkamai — after I battle lunatic dogs who seem to think dad has been away for months — I find another message asking me to come back to Auckland within four weeks. Can I? I guess…
Brigid says the maid has quit without notice — a week before payday. Oh. She was hopeless but quite lovely so we kept her on so the regret at her leaving is mixed.
There is still a weirdness in the inevitable cultural mindfuck every time I transit south-east and then back north-west. I’m still dealing with it.
Auckland is fabulous; it’s warm (as in comforting), I know it so well, it’s sooo quiet and yet it often inspires with its clever people doing very clever things. We take the cleverness for granted — or at least we do until we leave.
I just wish, wish, wish it was open just a little more often: the habit New Zealanders have of mostly shutting themselves tightly in their mortgaged up boxes at night with Shortland Street or the neutered thing they call news around 6 pm and not venturing out until the morning — unless of course they feel the need to get loudly and often violently drunk or wasted — throws me no matter how much I mentally prepare for it each time I land at Auckland airport.
A guy on the plane — a pakeha New Zealander — tells me his Thai wife has been there for a dozen years and still can’t get her head around this. It’s socially abnormal. Teetering on dysfunctional.
I have trouble coping. The intense emptiness and quietness of the streets and related precincts broken only by sporadic wasted noise — or sirens going to other sporadic wasted noise and/or violence elsewhere.
I sit on the Skytrain on a Friday night around 11 pm and reflect that a similar machine in New Zealand — if it existed- would likely be full of drunks, randomly abusive people wanting to know exactly what I’m looking at — and vomit. The night buses in Auckland are threatening places. In Bangkok, it’s groups of chattering twenty-somethings on their way to a club/bar, diner/shoppers going home, and kids simply riding back and forth until the last train.
Fun. No violence.
I like riding the train to Chinatown.
I like going to Chinatown. I could never live in Chinatown but it’s easily the place I love most in Bangkok — the multi-directional noise, the ridiculous omnipresent clamour, the endless thin alleys that seem to wander into dark places which offer fascinating vendors selling a vast range of things I really couldn’t ever want, but really want to want.
I like the ancient printing stores — some of whom have been hand printing and cutting glorious traditional Chinese business cards for close to two hundred years — all gathered together as cities used to gather together like businesses (and still do here). I dig the rows of guys stripping and refurbishing every kind of mechanical and electrical motor you can imagine, next to other shophouses perfectly and lovingly rebuilding rows of classic Vespas.
The almost impenetrable market maze that seems only to sell eyeglass frames by the billion stands a few dozen metres from the similarly dense covered market that offers just sex toys and every kind of digital game device invented or perhaps merely prototyped in some Japanese lab before the pirates rushed it into production. Plus, naturally, the two software addenda needed for both sections of the market’s targeted purchasers: games and porn.
I like finding excuses to visit the button markets, or to peer (like the silly curious farang that I am of course) into the dark stores selling every kind of traditional Chinese spice and medicine out of walls of overused drawers that have been exactly the same since the place opened sometime in the 19th Century — or so you’d swear. I’m too nervous to take photos and would more than likely — and correctly — be quickly shooed away if I did.
The gold shops are amazing — but especially the one on the corner of (I think) Soi Texas — the wonderful name being a legacy of a million GIs in the 60s perhaps — which looks like it was boarded up years back and is layered inside with centimetres of black grime and cobwebs. I bet there are snakes and large lizards in there.
There are the coffin makers with polished wooden boxes shaped like Lotus flowers or hand painted red and gold caskets to take you into the next world; the over-coiffured women selling lottery tickets (all sorted and priced by the lucky number combinations they might offer), odd pink pastry things and multi-storied mini-malls that stock nothing but fancy hair clips & stickers — by the gazzilion — and are right next to a dozen similar mini-malls selling the same thing.
The department store with stock all bought in the 1950s and 1960s and all still for sale; fresh Chinese donuts, pulled out from the fryer in front of you and best enjoyed with the sweet, strange flower flavoured drinks sold everywhere, or the stalls with countless varieties of teas that I’ve never seen, heard or imagined before.
And after all this, you stagger out, at the end of the Sampeng Lane labyrinth that anchors the world’s oldest and biggest Chinatown — gasping for cool air and liquid — into the imported (long, long ago) South Asian clamour of Pahurat — Little India.
Where Chinatown is intense and semi-claustrophobic with narrow overcrowded lanes — they were once roads however the decades have pulled them in on each side until they are now only passable with effort and resort to a semi-gymnastic weave around food stalls, motorcycles coming from each side and merchants pushing over-laden barrows of whatever to wherever — Pahurat seems almost open and sane in its pace, allowing you to reclaim a little of the personal space you involuntarily gave away back there in Sampeng.
But of course it’s all totally relative and Little India still has a human density I’d never imagined growing up in New Zealand — or even knew when living in Australia or London.
The other thing that hits is the change of smell. From the Chinese spices, which are so so much part of central and northern Thai cuisine anyway that the odour jigsaws, you find yourself instead surrounded by cumin, by garam masala and sticky cloves.
Pahurat is about food, spices, sticky sweets, perhaps thousands of fabric wholesalers and retailers.
And large flatscreen television sets.
A subset industry of Little India is the export of TV sets to India. Perhaps because of taxes, perhaps simply because of the cheapness of electronic goods in Bangkok comparative to much of Asia, there are dozens of shops selling thousands of TVs to thousands of Indian tourists. Busloads of them draw up outside seemingly small retail outlets (clearly with vast warehousing out the back) and all scramble back onto the bus with a 42″. The next bus pulls up and does the same — and so on all day.…
And there are people making deals. Everywhere, young Indian men on the phone making deals.
I write all this because I’m dreaming — obsessing — now of the freshly cooked samosas sold the end of Soi Pahurat — next to the new Indian fabric mall — which may be the best in the world. Hot, crunchy on the outside and delicate but with a nice latent kick inside that reveals itself in the few minutes thereafter.
They are — sorry — fucking amazing. And they’ve been known to pull me 15km across this insane city.
There is no other point to this post other than to try and excise this craving I’m having — a craving that may force me onto the Klong boat down the road, and then into a taxi to Pahurat if I don’t suppress it.
It isn’t working.