Category Archives: Uncategorized

200,000 Lunch Pails

Lunch Tiffin

Greetings friends,

If you asked a Silicon Valley techno-geek to devise a program that would organize the delivery of around 200,000 lunch pails, picked up from individual homes daily before 10 A M and delivered to the customers at work, then, hours later, picked up again and returned back to their homes before 6 P M, with a failure rate of less than one percent… well… we can only imagine the complicated algorithm this project would generate.

Adding to the difficulty, these lunches must traverse Mumbai, India, a city of nearly 12 million people, by bicycle, train, and sandaled foot, often delivered to the tenth or twelfth floor of an antiquated office building that has no elevator.

Another minor issue is that the train system in Mumbai is among the most dangerous in the world. Every day, 7.5 million people commute in incredibly cramped coaches that ride over broken down rails. In 2015, 3304 people were killed. Most train stations are equipped with morgues to handle the bodies.

Mumbai train.

This lunch delivery work has been done since 1890, without input from time-and-motion experts or computer geeks, by a group known as dabbawalas.  The Hindu name, roughly translated, means “One who carries a box.”

Dubbawala loaded with tiffins. Getting on a Mumbai train with this load could be…challenging

The service is necessary because Mumbai office workers leave home so early there is nobody awake to cook their meals, and they are so loaded with work stuff, and their ride to work is so treacherous, that they can’t carry another item.

Tiffins marked with delivery codes.

Eating out at lunch is too expensive for most, and they consider office cafeteria food to be of inferior quality. Many are vegetarians with strict dietary requirements. So the meal must be prepared at home, picked up by the dabbawalas, grouped together at various checkpoints around the city, and routed from there  to their destinations, some more that 30 miles away.

“The dabbawalas use a complex system of collection teams, sorting points, and delivery zones and a completely manual system of routing the right meal to the right destination.”

This task is carried out mostly by men who can’t read, so the entire process is done without a shingle sheet of paperwork. The lunch pails, known as tiffins, are color-coded to direct their delivery and return, all with a system that has been studied by business biggies in America and Europe who hope to learn from the system’s efficient simplicity.

The world’s biggest meals-on-wheels business.

The dabbawalas pay is around 8000 Rupees (roughly $131 per month). Their jobs are handed down over generations and require a six-month apprenticeship. Although the system has an official hierarchy, the dabbawalas work without supervision and consider themselves to be free men, relishing the fact that they work without bosses.

Though their work provides an essential service to Mumbai residents, the dabbawalas are guided by a deeply-held spiritual tradition.

“The Tiffin delivery system is not only supported by a complex logistics system. but also by a specific moral code. Their code is an expression of the interrelationship between a specific manifestation of the Hindu faith, which can be traced back to the Varkari Sampradaya Sect, and India’s unique cultural philosophy. The sect places food at the center of its philosophy, considering it to be a metaphor for life and its primary material impulses and aspirations.”


The dabbawalas believe that delivering food is much more that just a way of making a living. Their mantra is,

                                               “Food is God. Work is worship”

In an age whose primary gods are money and shallow fame, it’s gratifying to know there are people guided by such noble views.

Wouldn’t it be nice to look this happy on our way to work?

 

Sources;

3304 Deaths On Mumbai Locals. thehindu.com, Jan 27, 2016

Dabbawala: Ethics in Transition. Open Book Publications. openbook.org

In India, Grandma Cooks, They Deliver. NY Times, May29, 2007

Dabbawalas: Mumbai’s Lunchbox Carriers. Financial Times, June 31, 2015

 

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Three-Legged Love.

Greetings, friends,

The world of classical music has certainly known its share of neurotic geniuses, but few have ever reached the level of other-worldly genius and sheer neurotic goofiness as the great Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould.

Glenn Gould
Glenn Gould

Recognized at an early age as a musical genius, Gould was gifted with an astonishing memory, allowing him to memorize a musical score after one or two readings. He had a perfect sense of pitch and an audial acuity that allowed him to differentiate between the slightest variations in tone.

But along with these gifts came character traits that were both endearing and frustrating to those he dealt with. He was annoyed by the stuffy formality and conservatism of the classical music world. In one of his debut concerts, he was instructed by an imperious conductor that all musicians in the orchestra must have their sheet music present during the performance. Gould knew the music four ways from Sunday, but to placate the conductor, Gould walked on stage carrying the musical score, dropped it on his chair, sat down on it, and ripped through the concerto as if he had written it himself.

The Pygmy Chair
The Pygmy Chair

And that chair he set the music on is a story in itself. Known as “The Pygmy Chair” it was given to Gould by his father when he was a boy, and Gould carried it with him around the world. He was so admired by his fellow musicians that he had to have the chair guarded when he went to the restroom during rehearsals, for fear they would snip off a bit of it as a souvenir. He used this chair to the end of his life, and for decades, long after the upholstery had worn away, it was held together with wire and spit. Gould loved it because it swayed and rocked as he did while playing, and it made such loud creaks and crackles it gave recording engineers fits trying to edit out the noise.

imagesBy the age of thirty Gould was not only a world-renowned genius, but one of the best loved performers on earth. His concerts were sold out months in advance. Women sent him letters pledging undying love. But Gould hated the concert scene. A raging hypochondriac who suffered from insomnia, he took numerous pills, including tranquilizers. His pillheadedness was well known. He once replied to a newspaper article about it. “The press claim that I travel with a suitcase full of medications. This is a gross exaggeration. It is merely a small briefcase.”

All great artists suffer frustrations, but it may be that Gould’s lifelong search for a suitable piano that could allow him to manifest his colossal gifts was his greatest burden (aside from his wacky personality, of course.)

Part of the problem is that a genius such as Gould hears music in his head that he is constantly trying to bring into the world of sound. But he is always hampered by the physical limitations of the mechanical device he uses to make that sound real. Gould had such delicate touch, such lightening-fast, “butterfly” fingers, and such a sublime technique that he doubted he would ever find a piano that could suit him.

As with all concert pianists, dozens of Steinway Grands were always at his disposal. Gould tried hundreds over the years, but like a man searching for the perfect woman, there was always frustration.

He had already resigned himself to the limitations of the Steinway, a piano built to create the resounding volume required to deliver the Romantic composer’s music to the concert audience. But Gould thought the Romantics were narcissistic and showy. He was a Bach man all his life, and had only one goal – to interpret as faithfully as he could the great Johann Sebastian’s intentions.

For those of us who haven’t dedicated our lives to music, it may be difficult to understand the intensity of the relationship between the musician and his instrument. A superb account of Gould’s frustrating search is chronicled in Katie Hafner’s book “A Romance on Three Legs.”

CD 318 and the Pygmy Chair
CD 318 and the Pygmy Chair

She does a brilliant job of elaborating the inherent problems of a concert Grand piano. Built of 12,000 parts, made of wood, wire, felt, cotton and iron, “these massive, seemingly robust, even indestructible instruments could be orchid-like in their fragility, prone to any assortment of ailments”

And the variations among the instruments themselves is immense. Two Steinway Grand’s, built in Astoria by the exact same technicians, one after the other, using the exact same techniques and materials, will be completely different in their personalities.

But Gould relentlessly  continued his search. Then one day in June of 1960, in the basement of Eaton’s department store in downtown Toronto, while wandering among the dozens of Steinways in the basement, he pushed back the keyboard cover of a dinged-up ebony grand, played a few notes, and instantly he knew…this was the one.

It was Steinway # CD318, a beat-up old warhorse of a piano. It had been  hammered on since 1945 by dozens of concert artists, and had been shoved aside, awaiting shipment back to the Steinway factory for rebuilding.

But CD 318 was in such bad shape that it would require the ministrations of an unusual piano technician to revive it, and such a man was Charles Verne Edquist, known to those in the piano world simply as “Verne”

Edquist’s road to prominence in his field was as rutted and rocky as Gould’s was fortunate. Born into implacable poverty in rural Saskatchewan, he had lost 90% of his vision in early childhood, and at the age of 11, having never been outside his village, he boarded a train that would carry him across Canada to a school for disabled children. Piano tuning was a common trade for the sight impaired, and Verne took to it immediately, spending decades working his way up to the top.

Tuning a piano is only one aspect of the repertoire of skills required by a competent technician. Verne had the ability to completely disassemble the piano, go over every part of it, and reassemble it. One of the most difficult skills is the “voicing” of a piano, which involves the kneading and sanding of the felt hammers that strike the strings. Verne was as gifted as Gould in his ability to distinguish tone and pitch, and he was also synesthetic, meaning that to him, sounds had a color component that were as real to him as the reds and blues and yellows that sighted people take for granted. But Verne – he saw them in his head.

Of Verne’s reaction to CD 318, Katie Hafner writes,

“…the first few chords he played on 318 got his attention. He was well accustomed to the different qualities of fine instruments, but in 318 the tone and the featherlight, fast-repeating action stood out. This was a piano with a soul.”

Though Verne Edquist and Glenn Gould were different in many ways, when it came to producing the music, they were brothers under the skin. Gould had long since given up performing in concerts and had dedicated himself to recording the works of the Baroque Canon. At each recording session, Verne was nearby listening intently, and when there was even the slightest slippage in CD 318, Gould would stop playing and nod to Verne, who often had heard the problem already. Verne descended on the old piano with his tools, and when the problem was solved, the recording continued.

This collaboration resulted in some of classical music’s greatest recordings, and no doubt would have continued until one of the men died. But it came to a tragic ending in September of 1971. The beloved CD 318 had been shipped to Cleveland for a rare Gould concert appearance, and on its way back to Toronto, the crate that contained it was violently dropped. To his day, what happened has remained a mystery. No one has come forward to own up to the tragedy.

Gould and Verne tried desperately to restore the piano, but no matter what they and the experts at Steinway attempted, the magic of CD 318 had been lost forever.

Gould refused to give up. He continued to urge on anyone who would attempt to restore the piano’s greatness, but nothing worked. His response to this loss mirrored his reaction to his failed relationship with the painter Cornelia Foss. They had a torrid love affair, and for years after she left him, Gould tried desperately to get her back, to revive the glory of their time together.

It often seems that those who strive hardest for perfection have the greatest difficulty dealing with the fact that nothing lasts.  In the world of classical music, Glenn Gould was a towering giant, but when it came to dealing with the vicissitudes of life, the guy was sadly inept.

Glenn died unexpectedly at the age of 50 in 1982, with a long list of musical projects planned. Had he lived, there’s no doubt that he would have further enriched his already great legacy. Though his premature death was a tragic loss, his many recordings, most notably those of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, are musical gifts that the world will cherish forever.

That’s all for now, friends. So long, and thanks for listening,

B.

Cellist Yo Yo Ma, conversing with Glenn Gould's statue in downtown Toronto
Cellist Yo Yo Ma, conversing with Glenn Gould’s statue in downtown Toronto

Sources;

Katie Hafner, A Romance On Three Legs, Bloomsbury, 2008

Kevin Banzana, Wondrous Strange; the Life and Art Of Glenn Gould, Oxford University Press, 1994,

Tim Page, The Glenn Gould Reader, Vintage, 1990

 

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The Once And Forever King

 

untitledGreetings, friends,

At Dodger Stadium out on L A, back in 1967, they held an exhibition game. Six of baseball’s reigning heavy-hitters lined up to go to the plate. History doesn’t record whether they were prepared for the humiliation they were about to endure, but it does record the outcome.

One by one, in consecutive innings, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Brooks Robinson, Willie McCovey, Maury Wills and Harmon Killebrew were each, ignominiously, struck out.  Later in the game, the great Pete Rose suffered the same fate…twice.

The pitcher who performed this amazing feat said afterwards, with a hint of understatement, “It was a mismatch.”

Though he was basically a modest man. this guy was never afraid to show off his skills. He went on the Johnny Carson show and persuaded Johnny to kneel down facing the audience with a cigar in his mouth. The pitcher paced off the distance, then hurled a pitch and knocked the cigar out of Johnny’s mouth. Now, that’s quite a stunt, and you gotta hand it to Johnny for having the guts to take part in it. But then, Johnny didn’t know that the pitcher was blindfolded.

If you’re trying to remember who this guy was and can’t, don’t feel bad. Though he remains relatively unknown, in 1972 Sports Illustrated named him “The most underrated athlete of his time.”

In 2000 the same magazine named his team as the United States’ eight-greatest team of the 20th century. And a 2002 ESPN.com list named him among the top 10 pitchers of all time, in a list that included Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax.

His name was Eddie Feigner (pronounced “FAY-nor”) and he was the greatest fast-pitch softball pitcher of all time.

Eddie Feigner
Eddie Feigner

 

In an era when big-league pitchers made 100k a year, Feigner made that much in a month.  In an athletic career that spanned six decades, he and his team, the King And His Court, barnstormed around the world, playing in all 50 States and 104 countries, performing before 20,800,00 fans in 4405 cities, sometimes playing three games in one day in three different stadiums. enabling Feigner to compile the following outrageous record:

Total Games Pitched In………………………….11.125

Total games won…………………………………….9,743

Games tied……………………………………………… 310

Total strikeouts……………………………………141,517

Total No-Hitters………………………………………930

Total Perfect Games…………………………………238

Total Shut-outs……………………………………..1.982

That’s quite a list, but apparently Eddie Feigner’s favorite statistic was,

Total Batters Stuck Out While Blindfolded………8.698

But Feigner didn’t just strike out batters pitching blindfolded. He did it behind his back, between his legs, and kneeling down. If he wanted to humble the hitter, he struck him out from second base, and if he really wanted to get fancy, he did it from center field.

One batter, quoted in The Orlando Sentinel, described what it was like to face Feigner. “I was waiting for a pitch, heard a noise, watched the catcher throw the ball back. It was incredible. There was no way to get the bat off my shoulder before the ball got there. I don’t know how anybody ever hit the guy.”

The previously mention baseball greats probably wondered the same thing, after they faced his repertoire of 103 mph fastballs, curves that broke 18 inches, interspersed with sliders and change-ups thrown at five different speeds.

pg2_g_feigner_inline_300

His record is all the more impressive considering that The King And His Court consisted of only four players. Feigner believed he could get by with just a catcher and first-baseman, but if he and his teammates came to bat and were all walked, they’d be screwed, so he added a shortstop.

Though he became one of history’s greatest athletes, Feigner’s life did not get off to a good start. Left as a newborn at the door of an orphanage in Walla Walla, Washington with a note pinned to his blanket that read. “This is a Protestant baby”, Feigner step-mother named him Myrtle Vernon King.

Mrs. King raised him as a Seventh Day Adventist, a religion that did not allow baseball playing, but had no admonition against softball, so Eddie went to work teaching himself how to pitch, and by age 16 was humiliating batters in men’s leagues, becoming so proficient that one league banned him from the mound.

He was a troublesome youth. He was expelled from school and drifted for years supporting himself at menial jobs till joining the Marine Corps. then had two nervous breakdowns, got married and divorced twice and twice attempted suicide, after which the Corps locked him in the X-Ward.

Feigner said. “The X-Ward was a place for wackos and I belonged. I was wacky and wanted to die.I was a pitiful screwed-up person with no home and no father and no real mother I knew about. I was also an uncouth, uneducated, arrogant, belligerent, no-good miserable excuse for a human being. I was bent on destroying myself. A psychiatrist told me I’d never straighten up until I found my mother. When I did, I completely changed my life.”

After a search that began in the Walla Walla library, Eddie located his birth mother in December of 1945, in a reunion that, if his account of it is accurate, was reminiscent of a 40’s Hollywood tearjerker  Her name was Naomi Feigner and she lived in the same town and had often hired Eddie to mow her lawn, never realizing that he was her son.

And so Myrtle Vernon King changed his name to Eddie Feigner, a name that would make athletic history.

Eddie Feigner pitched actively well into his sixties and died in 2007 at the age of 81, but long before that he voiced his opinion of his place in the world of sports. “I’m a pipsqueak.” he said, “because I’m caught in a nothing game. It’s like being a world champion nose blower.”

Though Eddie may have thought little of his relative place in athletic history, we can be sure he drew consolation from knowing that, though in every sport there are endless arguments about who was the greatest at what, in his chosen field of endeavor Eddie Feigner was, is now, and forever will be, indisputably…The King!

Keep swingin’ for the fences, friends,

Bruce

Sources:

The News Tribune, Believe it or not, there was a strikeout king before Felix,  John McGrath, August 4, 2014

The Wayback Machine. Fast Edie Feigner, August 19, 2004

The New York Times. Eddie Feigner, Hard-Throwing, Barnstorming Showman Of softball, Dies at 81. Feb 12, 2007

From An Orphan To a King, Eddie Feighner, Sheridan Books Inc, 2004

 

 

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Sex In Church

Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Greetings, friends.

Way back in 1644, they staged an opera in Rome.

Not such a big deal, but in this case, the scenes were painted, the statues were sculpted, the music composed, the comedy written, the engines of the special effects were designed and the theater itself built by one guy, the Italian art-stud, Gianlorenzo Bernini.

Historian Kenneth Clark writes that, “At Bernini’s productions, people in the front rows ran away, fearing that they would be drenched by water or burned by fire, so powerful was the illusion he created.”

But staging dramas wasn’t the only trick Gianlorenzo had in his bag. He was an accomplished painter, a skilled architect. and arguably the greatest sculptor of any age.

Guys like that are a dime a dozen, right?

A devoutly religious man. Bernini had a temperament that often clashed with his religious zeal. Though he was highly disciplined and always delivered work on time, he was a party animal of the first order and of course a ladies man. He had a ribald sense of humor and was devoted to the pleasures of this earth. Though he was popular and had the support of the rich and powerful, whom he skillfully manipulated, he had an ego the size of Mount Vesuvius and a temper just as volcanic.

This nasty temper would prove to be his greatest fault.

Bust of Constanza Bonarelli by Bernini
Bust of Constanza Bonarelli by Bernini

Around 1637, inspired by both romantic love and passionate lust, Bernini carved a bust of the object of his desire, the hot-blooded Constanza Bonarelli.

Of this piece of work, art historian Simon Shama writes.

“What gives this bust its sensual vitality is the frankness with which Bernini has depicted his lover, not as passive recipient of his adoration, but, on the contrary, as spitfire.”

And the fact that she was another man’s wife?

Well, that didn’t matter a bit to the love-besotted Bernini.

But these things never seem to end well, do they?

As Simon Shama writes, “…there came a day when someone approached Bernini and whispered in his ear (doubtless nervously, given the Cavaliere’s reputation for hot temper) that his mistress was, alas, also sleeping with someone else”

Bernini went to his lover’s house and saw a man leaving, obviously after a session of love.

And who was that man? Well, he was Bernini’s own most trusted brother, Luigi.

Lapsing into a fit of blind rage, Bernini chased his brother down and tried to beat him to death with a crowbar, succeeding only in breaking a couple of Luigi’s ribs. Luigi managed to flee into a church, leaving Bernini vainly kicking at the barred doors.

But Bernini wasn’t finished.

“That same afternoon, a servant was sent to the Bonarelli house. He found Constanza in bed and there, fulfilling the orders he had been given by Bernini, he cut her face to ribbons with a razor. So the same hand that had fashioned the most beautiful head in the history of sculpture had, through a surrogate, mutilated the living flesh it had celebrated.”

And the outcome of this sorry episode? The servant was sent to prison for his assault, Constanza was imprisoned for adultery and fornication, and poor Luigi was banished from Italy.

And our hero? He got a 3000 scudi fine, which the pope waived. and was henceforth sentenced to enter into holy matrimony with Caterina Tezio, who was said to be the hottest babe in Rome.

This episode had little effect on Bernini’s reputation. “While Bernini was alive,”  writes the art critic Clive James, “even his enemies thought he as a great man.”

But no reputation is bulletproof. Swollen with ego and a well-deserved pride in a lifetime of achievement, Bernini was awarded a magnificent project, the addition of bell towers to Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

He went to work, and as most geniuses do, he listened only to his own mind… and to those who told him what he wanted to hear. Had one of his consultants had the nerve to tell him, or if he’d consulted with his arch rival, architect Francesco Borromini, Bernini would have learned that his plan for the tower foundations was inadequate.

The first tower started to crack just after the roof went on. It was ignominiously torn down, and so was Bernini’s reputation.

He went away and skulked, did penance and all the usual things a big star does when things fall apart. He still had business coming his way, a bust here and there, etc. Then, like all world-class talents, he seized upon a commission that he saw as his vindication, a chapel for Cardinal Federico Cornaro, which also entailed a huge budget.

So, Bernini could, if he wished, pull out all the stops: he could create, not just a sculpture, but a spectacular architectural setting (to stop the mouths of critics who said he was no builder), and perhaps include some painting as well. It could be a theatrical ensemble of the arts and, if done well, the greatest drama he had ever created.” 

images (4)

The centerpiece of this extravaganza would be a statue of St. Teresa of Avila, a mystic nun who lived in Spain in the 1500’s. Her accounts of her rapturous experiences are vividly described in her writings, and in these raptures she is said to have levitated from her bed, her back arched and her head thrown back and her  eyes closed and her mouth agape. No wonder the carving by Bernini is titled “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

images (6)

In her account, Teresa writes, “Very close to me, an angel appeared in human form… in his hands I saw a large golden spear and at its iron tip there seemed to be a point of fire. I felt as if he plunged this into my heart several times so that it penetrated all the way to my entrails…The pain was so severe it made me moan several times. The sweetness of this pain is so severe there is no wanting it to end…”

In his carving, Bernini replaces the spear with an arrow, and as Simon Shama points out, “The smiling angel aims his arrow (rather than a spear) not at her breast, but significantly lower on the torso.”

Bernini is not indulging in innuendo. He is making a blatant statement. He portrays the experience of merging with the divine, not by the mortification of the flesh, but by its glorification.

What he achieved in hard stone was a representation of what we are all unconsciously seeking: we know that human relationships are unreliable, and whether we realize it or not, we yearn for a union with something indefinable, something that we know won’t let us down, ever.

But until we achieve union with the divine, my friends, all we have is each other.

So in honor of the pending St. Valentine’s Day, here’s wishing every one of you all the satisfying unions you desire, be they sacred, profane, or simply made of chocolate.

Bruce

Sources:

Kenneth Clark, Civilization, Harper & Row, 1969

Simon Shama, The Power Of Art, BBC Books, 2006

Clive James, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Comeback Kid. Atlantic Monthly, January 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Gianlorenzo Bernini. Italian Art. Baroque Art., Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

“I don’t want a pickle…”

Honda Phantom, rented from Tony's Big bikes in Chiang Mai.
Honda Phantom, rented from Tony’s Big bikes in Chiang Mai.

“…I just want to ride my motor-sickle.”

So goes singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie’s ode to his beloved red Triumph Scrambler. And so goes the mantra of every man and woman who loves to ride.

Non-riders might have a difficult time understanding a rider’s devotion to his machine. They might shake their heads and consider this devotion to be a form of arrested development. That’s probably because… they’ve just never been there.

They don’t know that riding a motorcycle induces a state of visceral bliss that can’t be conveyed in words. Though this joyous sensation radiates from the body’s core, it is spawned by a mental abstraction, because the motorcycle is much more than an exquisite mechanical contrivance. It is, in the truest sense of the word, an icon, and it embodies the two most important things in the rider’s life:

1.Personal Freedom

2.Unfettered Mobility.

To most people who ride, this metaphorical stuff is meaningless. To them, riding is just totally cool, and the idea of giving it up is unthinkable.

But riding a motorcycle is inherently dangerous. Riding one in Thailand is even more so.

Let’s assume that, despite these obvious risks, you find yourself riding a Honda Phantom, a truly pristine example of the breed, and you’re cruising through northern Thailand on steep winding roads, passing through lush mountainous jungle fit for a King Kong movie.

You’re humming along, lost in that indescribable state that is a common experience to those who ride.

This is soooooo sweet !

Then, on a steep downhill curve to the left, a series of unavoidable events occurs. The details are irrelevant. All that matters is that whatever skills you thought you had as a rider, they are not up to the challenge of this situation, and you tumble into every rider’s nightmare – you go down.

You go down, and you and the bike slide right out into the middle of the highway.

In an instant, you’ve gone from bliss to black rage. Your left foot is pinned between the bike and the road and you can’t get up. You shake your fist and pound the asphalt.

Do you rage against a fate that has reduced you to helplessness?

No.

Do you tremble with fear, knowing that on oncoming vehicle could turn you into hamburger?

No.

Do you survey your wounded flesh, hoping no permanent damage has been done?

No, because all you care about at that moment is the damage done to that gorgeous motorcycle.

You try to lift the bike but can’t budge it. Then you’re distracted by the squeal of tires.  You look to your right. A pickup truck swerves to miss you, then jerks to the side of the road and skids to a stop.

The driver, a dark-skinned Thai man wearing a wife-beater undershirt, camo pants and flip-flops runs to your side. He lifts the bike off you, pushes it to the side of the road, drops the kickstand, leans the bike onto it, and without even looking at you, he jumps back in his truck and speeds off.

Stupified, you stand there in the middle of the road, staring at the vanishing truck: this guy just did you a serious favor, and you didn’t get a chance to say thanks.

You limp to the side of the road. You don’t feel much pain yet – a surge of endorphins has seen to that – but all you really care about is the bike.

When you left Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai, this bike had nary a scratch on it. As far as you can tell, you are the first one to lay it down. You are not proud of this.

So you survey the damage. The headlight is cockeyed and its rim is scratched up. The left mirror is bent. The  rubber foot peg is bent too, and the left saddlebag is scuffed, but worst of all, the voluptuous gas tank has a dent, maybe a half-inch deep and about the size of a tennis ball.

You fuss with the headlight and get it re-aligned, then you stand back and look at the bike. Like a rider thrown from a horse, you know you have to get back on. You straddle the bike and press the starter and the Honda surges to life. As far as this bike is concerned, it’s as if nothing had happened, and if it could speak to you it would say, “Quit sniveling and let’s get going.”

You try to stay loose, but gradually your body stiffens and your left leg feels like you’re standing too close to a blowtorch. As the days pass, these aches and pains don’t let up much, but when you take the bike back to Tony’s in Chiang Mai, the worst pain is in the middle of your chest. It’s the same feeling you’d have if someone had entrusted you with a fine horse, and you’d returned it to the stable lamed up.

You’re legally responsible for the damages. The owner, an Englishman named Duncan,  is very reasonable about this, and you leave feeling grateful. To him, the bike is just a financial asset. But to you, it is… more.

Most people who hear you story will shake their heads, thinking it exposes your distorted emotional attachments and immature disregard for risk, not to mention a complete loss of perspective.

And, they’d be quite right.

But then, that’s what love is all about, isn’t it?

So, my friends, for those of you who ride, here’s wishing you a lifetime of safe and happy miles. For those of you who don’t (this writer is now among you) the only thing to offer is…condolences.

Either way, happy trails,

Bruce

PS. For the morbidly curious, corroborating photos showing the damage to the writer’s body are readily available upon request at weberbruce5@gmail.com.

No photos, however, were taken of the damage to the bike. That would have been much too painful.

 

 

old-tree-s-house

 

 

 

Also, if you’re ever lucky enough to be in northwest Thailand, do yourself a favor and stay at Old Trees House.

After you cross the bridge going out of Tha Ton, watch for the sign on your left. Turn and go up the steep gravel drive, then walk into the gardens. In the cool shade, you’ll see lush plants with exotic colorful blossoms backed by a thousand shades of green. You’ll hear the gurgle of fountains, the chirping of birds, and the soft murmur of Thai women’s voices.

You’ll see six brightly painted houses, all with big porches, tucked into the manicured foliage, around a free-form pool with two waterfalls.

By the time Paolo, the owner, comes out to greet you, you’ll feel like you’re on a morphine drip.

The only downside to Old Trees House is, it is very hard to leave.

And the breakfast is always first-rate.

 

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The Lunatic Express

 

India Train
India Train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Greetings, friends,

An astute fiction writer once wrote, “Every man has the same dream. All that varies is their mode of transport.”

He wrote this because he knew that, though some great travel writing has been written by women, the desire to cast off the shackles of civilization and head out for parts unknown is primarily a male urge.

Journalist Carl Hoffman, after spending years reporting from some of the most dangerous places in the world, decided to carry this urge to an extreme. His plan was to go around the world, his modes of transport being only the most statistically dangerous buses, boats, trains and planes. He chronicled his experiences in his book, The Lunatic Express.

At first this seems like a journalistic stunt, and Hoffman admits that, like so many other middle-aged dudes hitting the road after an existential meltdown, his own personal life had hit a serious snag.

But he also had a legitimate journalistic goal: to show how the rest of the world gets around.

Here in the western world, we complain about the vile drama of air travel, with its overbearing airport stooges herding us like cattle and frisking our under wear, and the sulking flight attendants that we who fly in steerage have to abide.

But these are luxurious conditions that the rest of the world would envy. And Hoffman shows himself, and the reader, no mercy in portraying the almost heroic measures the people of the rest of the world must undertake, just to get around.

He writes, “I wanted to jump on and circumnavigate the planet on that unseen artery of mass transit. I wanted to know what it was like on the ferries that killed people daily, the buses that plunged off cliffs, the airplanes that crashed. I wanted to travel around the world as most of the people in the world did, putting their lives at risk every time they took off on overcrowded and poorly maintained conveyances because that was all they could afford or there were no other options.

Africawhyilivehere2

He rides with manic minibus drivers in Lagos, Nigeria, who pilot rickety vans crammed with as many as 30 people as they negotiate the city’s potholed streets, driving at breakneck speeds, always wary of the cops they have to pay daily baksheesh to, working sixteen hours a day, chewing a narcotic weed to stay awake, just to earn the meagerest of livings.

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He rides jammed ferries in Bangladesh, ramshackle buses with bad brakes through the Andes, takes listing, overloaded passenger boats down the Amazon, and takes a hair-raising mountain passage through Afghanistan over washed-out roads policed by gun-crazy Afghan fighters. True to the spirit of his journey, he flies on the world’s most dangerous airlines.

Mumbai Train Station
Mumbai Train Station

But the most heartrending tale of the travel woes of the world’s poor is that of the trains in Mumbai, India. Each day, millions of Indians board these relic trains which ride over decaying rails, packed together like canned meat. IndiaDaily reported on May 9, 2012,

In the first three months of the year, 805 commuters have lost their lives and 867 injured in train-related accidents.”

This was no statistical anomaly. So many Indians die from the simple act of getting to work that most of the train stations have morgues to handle the bodies.

Hoffman rides these trains, of course, but he concedes that he could not have survived this experience, or his entire journey, if not aided constantly by some of the world’s poorest people, and he finds daily reminders of the truth many travelers learn; that the most generous people on earth are the ones who have the least to give.

To stay sane, Hoffman develops, in the face of all this danger, a sort of phlegmatic attitude. He stops fighting the nastiness and the dirt and the delays and the dangers, and as he lets go of his resistance, he slips into a form of misery that he comes to find almost comforting.

In quieter moments, Hoffman meditates on the nature of travel.  He has plenty of doubts about his motives for this trip, but in the process of his ruminations, he brings to light one of the most prominent myths about the nature of arduous journeying.

It is widely believed that getting away to parts unknown is a form of self-escape. But that might not be true. At home, we are surrounded by evidence of our identity and our importance. We have a reliable source of feedback telling us who we are and what our purpose is and what our next move should be. We live out our lives nestled in this relatively comfy cocoon, where our most cherished illusions about ourselves are constantly reinforced.

But try landing in an Asian or African city at midnight, knowing nothing about the currency, the customs, the language or the culture, and you soon realize that one misstep on your part could place you at the mercy of strangers. With no familiar cues to guide you, you are, in the most frightening way, completely on you own. Short of facing a terminal disease, there are few more stark confrontations with your true self than this moment of appalling aloneness.

If you’re simply trying to escape your circumstances, the rigors of travel may not help you, because they can make you constantly yearn for the comforts of home. If you set off on a journey to find yourself, you may learn things about yourself you wouldn’t really care to know

One thing strikes Hoffman no matter where he goes; the unfailingly upbeat attitudes of the people he meets. When he asks a man how he can remain so genuinely cheerful in the face of his difficult life, the man says,

“But you never know when you will die. So you must be happy all of the time.”

Wise words indeed.

Here’s wishing you happy travels on safe modes of transport, my friends,

Bruce

 

Sources;

Carl Hoffman, The Lunatic Express, Broadway books. 2010

IndiaDaily, may 9, 2012

The Starboard Bar, from The Dark Side Of Enlightenment, Stanfield Books, 2014

 

 

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What A Guy!

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Greetings, friends

Sometimes we hear a story or read an article that is so strange it sticks in our mind’s hard drive, and then. even years later, all it takes is the slightest hint and the whole thing comes right back to us.

This happened recently when a front-page article in the New York Times appeared;

            A Finicky Thief of the Finest Silver Is Arrested Again.

This meager hint was all it took to bring the whole story back to mind, from a 16 page article in a 2004 New Yorker chronicling the outrageous exploits of Blane Nordahl, arguably the most successful cat burglar in the history of American crime.

Nordahl is so notorious that he has his own Wikipedia page and was long ago dubbed, “burglar to the stars.” though he seems never to have cared about the identities of his victims.

Those victims include some of the most illustrious members of America’s superrich. One of Nordahl’s  most notable heists was the theft of 120 sterling salt and pepper shakers from Ivana Trump’s Greenwich, Conn. mansion. He is a suspect in over 500 burglaries netting him millions of dollars. but in his all many capers he has not physically injured anyone, and he only steals one class of goods – the very finest items made of purest sterling silver. His passion for the metal is so refined he once refrained from stealing ten grand in cash that was in a cabinet of silver he pilfered from.

Standing only 5’4″ but strongly built, Nordahl’s skills are legendary among police on the east coast and in the south. And his ability to evade capture has driven the constabulary nuts. He has learned to pacify vicious Rottweiler guard dogs, disable elaborate security systems, escape from massive police dragnets, making off with loads of silver, which he carried in garbage bags, most of it sold to a jeweler in Manhattan and eventually melted down. Even when apprehended and grilled, police were unable to find enough evidence to convict him. This is amazing, considering that he often pulled off three jobs in one night.

For years, Nordahl was a source of endless frustration for the police, and one man, Detective Lonnie Mason, made it his life’s work to catch and nail the thief. though it was Cornell Abruzinni, a Greenwich, Connecticut detective, who first brought Nordahl to justice.  But this was only the beginning of a series of Nordahl’s incarcerations, releases, and returns to his thieving ways. As Abruzinni said of the Nordahl’s ability to get back to work, “It’s like watching the same bad movie again and again.

A complete list of Nordahl’s doings is far too extensive to note here. and there may be hundreds more that the police don’t know about. He rode high for years, obviously enjoying making fools of the cops, but in the end, he made the same mistake many a successful man makes; he pissed off the wrong woman. Detective Lonnie Mason approached Blane’s girlfriend, a woman named Luanne, with a picture of Nordahl with another woman. Luanne was enraged. She spilled her guts, and in 1998, Nordahl was again sent away.

But this didn’t stop him  His saga of imprisonment and release continued until late 2013. After a long thieving spree in Georgia, and suspected of numerous burglaries – maybe as many as a hundred – he was caught again and is now awaiting trial in a Fulton County, Georgia jail.

What intrigues many people is why a person such as Nordahl, a man of undeniable talents, should turn to thievery. Detective Mason got to know Nordahl to some extent, and grudgingly admitted to the man’s amazing innate talents when he said, “With his mind? I honestly don’t think there’s anything Blane can’t do.

To presume Nordahl was purely money motivated is naive. People with no moral scruples who are strictly money motivated do not go in for risky endeavors requiring nerve and skill; they go into politics or work on Wall Street.

A clue might lie in the fact that Nordahl’s father David is a highly successful painter of western scenes. In trying to understand the motives of his son Blane, one must keep in mind that the essence of any life dedicated to an artistic practice is the psychological condition known as obsession.

In his Pulitzer prize-winning book on psychoanalysis, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker states that “Art is, in the end, nothing more than a socially acceptable excuse for obsession.”

Any person who has committed themself to an artistic practice will confirm the role of obsession in their lives. That is what makes Nordahl return to his gig time and again. Theft is his art. It would be as impossible for him to give it up as it would for his father to throw away his paint brushes, because not to do it is not to exist.

Guys like Nordahl fulfill a valuable function in society. Their exploits, though larcenous, are inspiring. and they keep a certain percentage of the police force occupied, leaving them less time for harassing the rest of us

One of Blane’s old girlfriends told the police, “He’ll be seventy-eight with a goddam cane, walking down the street stealing silver.”

So, here’s hoping that Blane Nordahl, despite the fact that he’s 51, can finagle his way out of prison and eventually lead the police on another merry chase for priceless sterling.

Of course, the downside of this would be the immeasurable suffering he would bring to his ultra-rich victims.

When one thinks of the agony Ivana Trump must have suffered when she found her salt shakers missing… the heart bleeds!

Bye for now, friends,

Bruce

Sources; The Silver Thief, Stephen J. Dubner, The New Yorker, 2004

The New York Times, Articles 8/26/13 and 2/15/14

 

 

 

 

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Blue Phantom II

It all happens so fast. One instant the road is clear, the next, a deadly obstacle appears.

Later, your abiding memory of the crash will be the heavy stench of gasoline, because after impact, the Phantom’s gas cap pops off, the Thai women go down, you go down, and gas pours out of the 3.6- gallon tank, soaking your shorts. Before you can squirm out from under the bike, your lower body is bathed in petrol. You drag your left leg out, your foot snags, and gas fills your shoe.

The puddle spreads, but the Thai females are sitting in the middle of the road, stunned, the young one sobbing, the lady whining.

The gas flows under them. You wave frantically, yelling “Get away! Get away!” but they think you’re mad at them and they cringe in fear. Fumes rise in waves from the hot pavement. All it would take is….

So you grab the young one under the arms and drag her clear, then the lady. Their soaked shorts leave faint trails of gas on the hot pavement.

You stare at the t-boned bikes,  so shocked you don’t know what to do. You wonder, What’s the number for 911 in Thailand?

You survey your body. All you can feel is anger and the chill of gas wicking up your shirt from you shorts, running down your legs, sloshing in you left shoe when you move. You’re a walking Molotov Cocktail.

A rusty pickup stops. Somebody makes a call. Another vehicle appears and villagers get out. Someone has a blanket, held up so the Thai women can change clothes. You stand there shivering and sweating. What the hell do I do now?

Then two villagers grab the Thai motorbike and drag it off the road. You don’t like this. You want the cops to see the wreckage, so they can see it wasn’t your fault. But there’s nothing you can do about it now. The blue Phantom sits alone in the middle of the road, on its side, in that black puddle of gas.

A man gets out of a car and comes up to you. He has s thick gold chain around his neck and he looks more Mexican than Thai. He points a finger at you, saying you must pay for damage and hospital bills.

What the hell? It wasn’t your fault, you say. He walks away.

Two official-looking vehicles appear. A brown-shirted cop gets out of each. The villagers surround them. Fingers point in your direction, followed by the word “Farang” (Fah-RANG) meaning foreigner. One cop gives you a long hard stare. You don’t like the way this is going.

You get a brilliant idea. You call Suni, the Thai lady who owns the guesthouse you stayed at. She speaks very good English. Her husband is in Chiang Mai on business and she’s very busy, but despite that, she says she’ll come.

Suni
Suni

Minutes later she pulls up on her motorbike. You tell her the story. She listens, nods, then looks long and steady into your eyes and tells you she’ll do what she can, “But whatever happens, you must, you must, stay calm.”

You start to wake up to what’s really going on. Outrage flares up in you. But this is not America. This is the East. If you blow up, you will lose face, and along with loss of face, any chance at justice.

Suni approaches the crowd. She puts her palms together, bows slightly to the cops, and starts talking to them. Suni is a pretty lady, with eyelashes so long they make a breeze when she blinks, so the cops give her their full attention. There is some more conversation, then Suni comes back to you and warns you again that you must stay calm.

You breathe deep and listen. She says that first you must pay one thousand Baht to the police for unsafe driving. Then you must pay for the damage to the lady’s motorbike. Then you must pay any medical bills for the women.

You hands fist up, you belly tightens, you’re heart hammers—you’re ready to fight—but the calm look on Suni’s face tells you it’s pointless to argue.

You force a smile and thank her. Then she goes back to the cops. You sense there’s some kind of ritual going on here. Suni chats with them again, and it dawns on you that this woman is walking a tightrope here. She’s a member of this village. She is jeopardizing her position by coming to the aid of a farang, but she is doing it skillfully and with ease. She comes back to you again, says okay, you don’t have to pay the police anything. But you do have to pay for the damage and the medical bills. But the Thai woman looks okay, and when an ambulance comes, only the girl gets in.

You thank Suni again, hoping the sincere look on you face shows her how grateful you are.

The crowd starts to disperse. The wounded motorbike is loaded onto a pickup and a parade forms. You lift the Phantom for a close inspection. The left mirror is trashed and the left-turn indicator is missing its yellow lens. Other that that, it looks unscathed. It starts the second you press the starter, and you take your place in the procession, with one of the cops behind you.

Everyone stops at the motorbike repair shop where you’d stopped earlier. The broken motorbike is set on the ground. It’s central housing is split open.  The repairman comes out, stoops to inspect it, then looks at you. You make hand gestures, to show him what happened, raising your hands in exasperation. He looks at the bike again, stands up and says something.

Then Suni comes back to you. “He says it will cost one thousand-five-hundred Baht.” You sag in relief: his guy could have shredded your wallet if he’d wanted to, but all he’s asking for is about  $47 US

Now the parade heads to the Mai Ai police station. When you walk in, people get a whiff of your petro-soaked clothes and shift to other seats. Suni disappears behind a closed-door. You sit down and wait.

By now the gas has had its way with your tender parts. The whole area burns and itches, begging to be scratched. But you don’t move. Your mind is churning awful numbers, wondering how much they’ll demand, and also, Will they take a charge card?

A few minutes later, Suni comes out. “We have to wait for the girl fo return from the hospital.” She sits down beside you. She puts her hand on your arm. “An agreement has been made with the police. You must pay a total of five thousand Baht for everything, and that will settle the issue.”

That’s about $157. Compared to the figures you’d been churning, it seems like lunch money.

Soon you’re summoned to the back room  The young girl is sitting in front of a cop’s desk. She has a wide band-aid on her shoulder and an Ace bandage on her ankle. She looks at you like you raped her. You are told to sit down.

A paper is presented, filled out on both sides. It’s written in Thai, and the only thing you recognize is you name, written in bold letters. You are handed a pen. You have no idea what you are admitting to doing. You look at Suni. The look on her face tells you to sign. You sign.

When you offer the pen to the girl, she looks away. The cop presents an ink pad. The girl presses her thumb into it, then onto the paper you signed. The cop takes the pen from you and writes what you assume is the girl’s name around the thumbprint.

Then he lifts a camera. Suni says to get out the money and hand it to the girl. You raise the gas-soaked bills, fan them out and hand them to the girl. The cop snaps a photo. The girl takes the money. It’s over.

Outside, you stand in front of Suni, wanting to kneel at her feet for what she’s done, but you can tell by the look on her face that she knows you’re grateful. She has to get back to her guesthouse, so she says goodbye.

Later, you stop at Marble Restaurant, tell your story to Oud (OOD) the owner. He’s sympathetic, but he doesn’t like stories like this getting around because it’s bad for the tourist trade. Later, you talk to Chris, an English expat who’s lived in Tha Ton for eight years. He says the story pisses him off, but adds, “Mate, 5000 Baht? It could have cost you a whole lot more.” You say you got off easy because of Suni. He nods.

You can’t get up the juice to ride out, so you stay at Suni’s guesthouse. But you don’t get much sleep. You just can’t believe how lucky you are.

The next day, you ask if there’s anything you can do to help her. She wants to plant banana trees and flowering bushes, but her husband is too busy to help, so you dig holes in the muddy river bank, grateful for a chance to repay her in some small way.

Before you get underway again, you get the mirror replaced, refill the Phantom, then secure the gas tank lid with packing tape. And you adopt a new strategy for the road.

When you approach traffic on your side, at 5o meters you give them a three-second blast on the horn. At 25 meters, a 2-second blast. If you suspect they still don’t hear, you stay on the horn till you pass. By journey’s end, the palm of you hand is cramping from pressing that horn.

Sadly, the day comes to return the Phantom. When you pull into the shop, Duncan, the owner, gives you a quizzical look. You pull off your helmet, smile big, tell him the bike performed flawlessly. You give him back the half-refund of cash, point to the broken indicator light, but he waves it off. You shake his hand and thank him warmly. If he hadn’t pushed you onto that blue Phantom, you’d have missed one hell of a ride.

Days later, when your plane lifts off from Chiang Mai, you tell yourself your romance with Thailand is finished. Like an overly talkative lover, she’s revealed more than you wanted to know. But you can’t fool yourself. You know you’re hooked. And you’ll be back again next year for another ride.

But before you leave Tony’s Big Bikes on another Phantom, you’ll make sure it has two vital components; a lockable gas tank lid, and a fully functioning horn.

May Lord Buddha smile on your journeys, my friends,

Bruce

PS 1   A copy of the Thai document I signed in the Mae Ai police station is a Thai Document, Available as a PDF Here. If anyone reading this blog knows a Thai person who speaks English, I would be grateful for a translation. Embarassment precluded me from asking this of anyone in Thailand.

sappaya-guesthouse (1)PS 2  If you ever get up to Tha Ton, the best place to stay is Sappaya Guesthouse, owned by Suni and her Aussie husband. If you go to Tripadvisor.com you’ll see a very long list of glowing, 100% positive reviews.

If you see Suni, tell her Bruce Weber said, “Thanks again.” She’ll know what you’re talking about.

Sappaya Guesthouse   Tha Ton, Thailand,  sunitedk@yahoo.com    Tel  66 080 792-8275      Facebook: sappaya guesthouse

 

 

 

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Blue Phantom I

Blue Phantom
Blue Phantom

Greetings, friends.

If you’re like most people, at some time in your life you’ve gotten a crazy idea, about going somewhere and doing something that doesn’t make sense. You keep hoping that reason and  logic will prevail and you’ll drop the idea. But you don’t

You announce your plans to friends and loved ones, but they don’t try to talk you out of it. At first, you  think they don’t understand the risks. Then you start to suspect that you’re not the beloved soul you always thought you were.

So, despite your fears and doubts, you find yourself At Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai, Thailand, negotiating a two-week rental of a Honda Phantom. You repress the fact that between 50 and 60 people a day are killed in motorbike accidents in Thailand, and you also ignore the fact that you haven’t spent time on a serious motorcycle since 1976 when you sold your Yamaha 650. You tell yourself the Phantom is no crotch-rocket, but truth is, it’s a powerful cruiser that’ll get you killed just as easy as a mad-dog Kawasaki.

To add juice to this experience, you’ll have to regain your skills in downtown Chiang Mai traffic, among people who believe that traffic laws are an evil vestige of colonialism. Thais are a gentle people, but they can be Hell on Wheels.

Anyway, you sign a contract that says you’re responsible for everything and the shop is responsible for nothing, pay with a credit card, then hand over your passport: no shop in Thailand, to your knowledge will rent a bike without keeping it.

Now it’s time to face up to your folly. You straddle the bike, (a black one with orange flames on the tank) , you lean and turn the key, push the starter button, and when it comes to life. you feel that primordial surge up your spine, the same feeling, no doubt, that the first man to ride a horse felt when he grabbed the animal’s mane and climbed on.

But this romantic stuff fades quick, because the owner and his lovely Thai assistant are staring at you, and all you care about now is getting out of there without killing the engine. You squeeze the clutch, kick the shifter into first, the bike squats, and, Buddha be praised!, you ease out like a pro, into the maelstrom of traffic.

You stop at the first intersection, waiting for an opening, trying to stave off panic. When traffic eases, you pull out, running the revs up too high for first gear. You shift, throttle up, shift again. Now you realize that Chiang Mai traffic is like a live video game, and the price of unwariness is… nevermind that – just stay on the left!

You’re soon overwhelmed with all this input. Your sphincter is puckered three inches off the seat, your neck muscles are clenched so tight you can’t turn your head, your eyes are burning from sweat and pollution, but you don’t notice the smell because you’re hardly breathing. You don’t really care about any of this, because, truth be told, you’re having too much fun.

To get the feel of the bike before you leave town, you follow the moat road around the Old City, and soon the old reflexes are coming back. You shift and brake smoothly, avoid three vehicles that pull straight out in front of you, getting used to Death being just a few inches away. But at a traffic jam, the bike won’t go into neutral. You fiddle and fuss, but no dice.

Back at the shop. the owner, an Englishman named Duncan, looks at the shifter, shakes his head, says here, try this bike. It’s a black one, good tires, no parts falling off, so away you go. You get to the street that leads to Route 107, and about two kilos up the road, you hear a whining sound and the engine dies. You pitch forward, instinctively push the starter button, the bike fires, then dies again. Can’t have this. Back to the shop.

The owner says sorry, try this other one. Hope springing eternal, you strap on your bag and ride away. At the intersection, you notice that the handlebars are at a twenty degree angle with the front wheel, and the tank has a huge dent in it.

By now, you think Lord Buddha’s trying to tell you something. Back at the shop, you tell the owner the deal’s off – you don’t want to get stranded out in rural Thailand on one of his junk bikes.

He tries to sell you on another Phantom, but by now, your doubts are getting the better if you. You refuse to deal. He points to a sign on the wall that says no refunds. You say you don’t care, give me back my passport.

The owner nods, goes to his desk, gets your passport and, just to be nice, gives back half your rental fee in cash. You stuff this in you pocket, pick up your bag, and head for the door.

But you feel sick. Now, it’s either the same process at another shop or scuttle the plan. Just as you get to the door, Duncan says, “Wait, try this one,” pointing to a bike in the corner. “I was gonna take it out this weekend, but you can have it. It’s all gassed up and ready.”

It’s a blue one. It looks clean, with gleaming chrome and new tires. It beckons. Your heart leaps.

You get on, ease her out, and oh my, she’s a true sweetheart, behaving like the perfect woman, responding to your every command. You pull back into the shop. The owner’s way back in the corner gabbing. Quick as you can, you strap on your bag, wave to him and shout, “See you in two weeks.”

He smiles and waves, and now you’re the only guy in all of Thailand who has rented a motorcycle and still his passport, plus half his rental fee, which’ll come in handy if the bike breaks.

Now you’re really on your way. You get to route 107, glide along, singing songs, can’t believe how great your voice sounds as it reverbs against the helmet’s visor.  Then just outside of Mae Rim, you hit an unavoidable pothole and the gas tank lid flips off and slides down the tank into your crotch. You squeeze your thighs, look down and see gas in the full tank gurgling like boiling water. If any of that spills out and hits something hot on the bike…

You pull over, shut down and fuss with the cap. It won’t lock. But you stick it back on and say that’s too bad, ’cause you’re not going back to Chaing Mai.

Things go fine till you get to Doi Wiang National Park and it starts to rain. This tropical rain is so heavy it’s like being under water. The road winds through steep jungle-covered hills. Trucks pass and throw waves of water that make you swerve. Under the fogged-up visor, you see the road drop off into a place they’ll never find you, if they ever bother to look.

The rain lets up, and you realize that you have to urinate immediately. You find a bus-rider’s shelter and pull over. You stand shivering, waiting for the flow to start, then you feel stings on the back of your leg. This is Dengue Fever country, and you don’t fancy three weeks in bed with a temp of 104. After you slather your skin with Deet, you breathe deep, finish your business, and get back on the road.

Darkness falls, but you don’t notice, because you’re focused on Thais on motorbikes coming at you head-on. Driving on the wrong side is considered normal, but what’s even more annoying are the countless stray dogs that dart in front of you.

When you reach the village of Tha Ton, up near the Burmese border, you’re cold, tired and hungry. You get fed, find a bed, and fall into an eight-hour coma.

You wake to the sound of gongs that are far away but seem very near. You pull on yesterday’s clothes and step out of your room, stunned by what you see – steep jungle-covered hills shrouded in heavy mist, a few houses here and there, set amongst a riot of tropical flowers backed by a thousand shades of green. A wide muddy river, the Mae Kok, rustles at your feet.

You’re planning to leave that day, with an agenda of places to see. You sip coffee and consult your written plans. but despite the caffeine, you now feel like you’re hooked to a morphine drip. You breathe slow and deep. You gaze at the lushness around you. Your body sags. The agenda slips from your fingers. You aint’ goin’ nowhere.

You stay for days, enchanted by this village and its friendly people Twice you try to leave town, but you can’t do it.

Then one morning, you tell yourself you’ve had enough of this inner peace business. You’re an American – you’re not built for Nirvana. You settle your bill, say your goodbyes, and top up the Phantom’s tank. But before you leave, you gotta do something about this gas cap.

You pull up at the local repair shop. The shop owner says the cap’s locking mechanism is shot, but he fusses with it for ten minutes and it seems to be down tight. You pull out money. He says no charge, but you hand him twenty Baht. He smiles and takes the bill. You won’t know till a few hours later how important this offer of payment turns out to be.

Slowly you cross the bridge, easing away from a place you don’t want to leave. Three kilos out of town, you’re still going slow, which is very fortunate, because a Thai woman on a motorbike with a young girl on board, paying absolutely no attention, turns directly in front of you. You see the terrified looks on their faces as you slam on the brakes, but there’s no way to avoid the crash.

To be continued.

Source for statistics on Thai motorbike deaths; The Nation, nationmedia.com, May 16, 2013

 

 

 

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Farewell to a Legend

Greetings friends,

The illustrious crime novelist Elmore Leonard died last month at the age of 87 with, of course, yet another novel in progress.

His long career began in 1951 with the publication of his first western story. and among his achievements are two of the finest examples of the genre, Hombre, and Valdez Is Coming.

Both were made into movies. Hombre won all the awards, but Valdez Is Coming is the better book. In this intense story, Leonard leads the reader, after a long series of violent confrontations, to expect a lurid, bloody climax. But in the final scene, the main character, Bob Valdez, speaks a dozen quiet words, shattering the villain more completely that any Sharps rifle could ever do.

Of course, Hollywood muffed this great ending. Leonard was disdainful of its treatment of his books, with the exception of Get Shorty, the film that made him a household name. “After writing almost anonymously for decades,” Leonard said in 1995, “I am what you call an overnight success.

Leonard knew how to grab our attention. In one of the opening scenes from Pagan Babies, the main character, Father Terry Dunn, walks into a hut in Rwanda where four machete-wielding Hutu tribesman are taking a break from slaughtering Tutsis, refreshing themselves with banana beer. They ask Father Terry what he wants. He tells them he’s come to hear their Confessions. They act amused, but when they reach for their machetes, he pulls out a vintage automatic pistol and shoots them to bits.

When the smoke clears, Father Terry makes a solemn Sign of the Cross over their bloody corpses and says. “Rest in peace, motherfuckers.”

Leonard was also a master of the short story. Here’s the opening paragraph from The Tonto Woman, based on an event that occurred here in southern Arizona in 1851, when two white girls were kidnapped by the Tonto Apaches –

A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel at the confessional, and say to the priest, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession. . . since then  I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred,. No, not that many, considering my work, maybe six hundred only. ” And the priest would say, “Do you mean bad women or good women?” And Ruben Vega would say, “They are all good, Father.” He would tell the priest he had stolen, in that time, about twenty thousand head of cattle, but only maybe fifteen horses. The priest would ask him if he committed murder. Ruben Vega would say no. “All that stealing you’ve done, ” the priest would say, “You’ve never killed anyone?” And Ruben Vega would say, “Yes, of course, but it was not to commit murder. You understand the distinction? Not to kill someone to take a life, but only to save my own.”

Kinda makes you want to follow up on Ruben Vega, see what he gets up to, right?

After he forsook the western genre, Elmore Leonard reconfigured the crime novel. Most of his bad guys, like Ruben Vega, were a lot more interesting than the ones on the side of the law, leading to the time-worn joke that when Elmore reached the Pearly Gates, he’d decline entry, saying that the guys he’d rather hang out with were all down in Hell.

But a craftsman truly distinguishes himself when he “escapes the form.” Elmore Leonard did this with his best book, Touch, which contains very little violence, no cold-hearted bad guys, and minimal crime. 

Written in 1977, the book languished on the publisher’s shelf because of its peculiar subject matter, and was not released until 1987. In his Author’s Note for the book, Leonard writes, “Friends of mine who read a lot tell me its my best work.”

And his friends were discerning readers indeed. They knew that an author’s primary job is to interest the reader in a conflict. The conflict between cowboys and Indians, or cops and crooks, is an easy sell.

But to get the reader to buy the idea that, in a rundown Detroit Rehab center, there lives a young guy named Juvenal, a man as common as a gray sweatshirt, who can cure the sick and the lame by the simple laying on of hands, and who also suffers from recurring incidences of stigmata (crucifixion wounds) – now that’s a hard sell. But Leonard, with skill and finesse, keeps us reading and believing, all  the way to the end.

Any man who can do that deserves respect.

So farewell, Elmore. May you rest in peace. And thank you, thank you, thank you for all those great reads.

Adios Amigos,

Bruce

 

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