August 21, 2017
On the third weekend in August, I along with two friends boldly ventured down to Oregon’s Willamette Valley to view the much-anticipated solar eclipse, a spectacle that would span the entire continental U.S. Some six years before, I’d shared an article about this with them and we’d kept it on our calendars ever since.
For the uninitiated, a total solar eclipse is when the moon completely blocks out the sun for a few minutes. Although they occur approximately every eighteen months, they rarely appear over a convenient location. For many of these, you need to be a Lapland deer herder or an Antarctic pen-guin to observe them. This is what made the 2017 eclipse so special — I would not have to be looking up at the sun surrounded by Zimbabwean tribesmen.
We arrived a few days early and hung out in Eugene over the weekend. The day before the big event, we made a special trip up towards Salem, checking out small towns that would be in the path of totality, hoping to find a stretch of ground where we could set up a picnic while watching the sun and moon do their special dance. It took a few hours of driving around, but eventually we came upon a sprawling riverside park in the town of Stayton that offered an unobstructed view of the sky. Laced with hiking trails and somewhat secluded, it afforded a chance to escape the crowds.
On August 21 we were up early and on the Interstate by 6:30, our fingers crossed that we would not encounter any major tie-ups. Fortunately the really heavy traffic would be coming from the north with seemingly half of Seattle and almost all of Portland on the road. We had smooth sailing all the way up I-5, though there were places where dozens of people had pulled their vehicles over and were already out basking in the morning sun, casually waiting for it to disappear.
When we arrived at the park in Stayton, I volunteered to do a recon-naissance to see how much competition there would be for a picnic spot. We certainly didn’t want to be crammed elbow to elbow with hundreds of other avid sky viewers. But after only a few minutes of walking, I could see to my delight that the area was not going to be overrun. I mean let’s face it, most Americans are not into taking any kind of an extended stroll unless it’s to a convenience store. I returned with the good news and we proceeded to lug the food, drinks, a large blanket, and a special camera out to a place a few yards from the river.
The biggest bugaboo with solar eclipses is of course the weather. Trying to take in an eclipse behind a cloudy sky is like watching a play with the curtains closed. You miss the drama. Fortunately this was not a concern — we had clear, bright blue skies the entire time.
We set up camp a good hour and a half before the darkening, taking turns tracking the moon’s glacial progress through smoked glasses while we snacked on grapes, cheese and crackers. The idyllic Pacific Northwest summertime practically demands that a person be outside and I took a few meandering strolls along the paths, marveling at the perfect morning.
There were maybe two dozen other people in the general vicinity, some of whom had brought telescopes. A festive atmosphere prevailed, not unlike a college football tailgate, but without the booze. (When it comes to viewing the sun, sobriety is an important safety tip.)
At last the big moment arrived, eliciting assorted gasps and applause from our neighbors. It was like someone had flicked a switch and turned off the sun. The temperature took a noticeable dip and the sudden dark-ness was eerie. An anthropologist once speculated that for a prehistoric man (that is to say someone who never had an iPhone), a solar eclipse might have been so terrifying as to trigger a heart attack.
I managed to survive without having to call the paramedics. The magical two minutes (and one second!) in fact passed all too quickly.
A couple of months later, I delved into the iMove app on my MacBook. Since I’d taken an amateur video of the eclipse, I decided to make that my first “project”, adding music and few photos. This will not make anyone forget Steven Spielberg, but it’s worth sharing… (I’m the one in the red t-shirt.)
Way back in 1984, at the tender age of twenty-seven, I quit my job to take the summer off. To quote Theodore Roosevelt, it was my last chance to be a boy. To be able to sleep in each morning and not have to catch the 7:15 bus to work. No deadlines to meet, no bosses to please. The day was mine and mine alone to enjoy and explore. Why, I didn’t even have to shave if I did not feel like it!
To relive a few fond childhood memories, I ended up spending over three weeks with both sets of my grandparents, all of whom were still in good health. I took advantage of this extended time to learn more about my family’s history, sitting down with each one with a tape recorder as they recounted their stories. I also dug into family records such as births and deaths recorded in old bibles and faded newspaper clippings. A few years later, I condensed all the information into the documents whose blog links are listed below.
The ten thousand baht that Pawn unknowingly turned down a few weeks back ended up being redistributed to a trio of friendly, hardworking bar-maids at Beer Garden: three thousand each (@$90). It’s fun chatting with them when things are slow, and they help me with my Thai anytime I ask. Like I did with Pawn, who was by coincidence sitting at the bar and may well have noticed, the money was handed out in envelopes — only this time it was happily accepted. With the Songkran New Year’s Festival starting in two days, the girls now had the means to visit their out-of-town families.
I kept the remaining one thousand baht to cover my future bar tabs and stay on their good side.
I’ve now given money in the form of help or special gifts to nearly all of the women I’ve come to know here in Bangkok. Or at least I tried to. It’s been a real pleasure witnessing their delight and gratitude. With the three Lucky Ladies, however, where I thought I might make a difference, the results were not as heartwarming: While Sontaya after receiving my help went out and found a new job, Bawn only wished to continue her nightly boozing at Beer Garden and Newt slipped her moorings. A mixed bag of experiences. But I’m not complaining; all this has helped me learn about myself by providing an outlet for my kindness. To be more aware of others and how I might, if not solve their problems, at least give them a reason to smile.
So what’s next? Although I’m wrapping this blog up, I plan to continue my generous ways. However, I will be more cautious. A good example is a masseuse I recently had over, Ann. She was very professional and did a fine job, so I included a one thousand baht tip ($30 — which was very much appreciated!). Ann has a fifteen-year-old daughter entering high school next month, meaning some worryingly large bills for the new uniform, books and tuition — items I could cover with no trouble. But I think I’ll pass on playing the hero here. During the massage, Ann had “audited” me, asking what I was paying for rent, whether I had a pension or — and this was amusing — if I was worth a million dollars. Viewing Western men as winning lottery tickets. How charming.
Other, less greedy, women will fare better. Because I have gotten into the habit of providing my two Thai ex-girlfriends with birthday money, I am going to make these annual events. Then there are the girls working at the pool hall down on Sukhumvit, who receive extra large tips from me for raucous evenings of Eight Ball. Happy to keep that tradition going! As for Nicky, the cafe owner who declined my original offer of help, I’ll be on the lookout for a way to change her mind.
And of course I shall not forget Wan, my laundress. Toiling seven days a week in a place with no air-conditioning. More than anyone, she deserves a little extra.
It’s all an adventure…
Every few months I like to invite my long-time acquaintance, Mistress Kat, over. If memory serves, she specializes in S & M, Role Playing and other assorted kinkiness. Not your average Bangkok Soi 4 streetwalker. Her English is very good and she’s always outgoing, an easy person to like. Also one of the smarter ladies I know here in the Land of Smiles.
I have never partaken of her services. For me, a perverted act would be drinking American beer. Her world is therefore quite beyond mine. But it can be entertaining hearing about her work. Such as the time she and a German had sex on the weight bench in the exercise room of my apart-ment complex. Talk about risky business! I still end up laughing anytime I think of this.
I had not seen much of Kat over the winter and was missing her tales, so a couple weeks ago, by the dawn’s early light, I tracked her down on the Soi. She was getting some breakfast after another long night of trolling for customers. We returned to my place and I eagerly settled in for story hour. The topic this time was her streetwalker friends. Kat had come to an amusing part of someone’s recent misadventure when suddenly, she began crying. And not the usual few stray tears that Thai ladies at times shed, either — this tough woman was letting go. Shocked at seeing the levee break, I got up and fetched a Kleenex, then sat back to hear more.
Kat had hit a rough patch: a few of her “friends” had taken advantage of her, customers were scarce this time of the year, and she’d run up some serious debts. So what’s new? In a halting, timid manner, she asked if she could borrow ten thousand baht (@$300), promising to come by every few days and repay a portion of it. Touched by a request from a person clearly struggling, I assured her I’d be happy to provide the funds and did so a half hour later, via an ATM transfer to her bank account.
My recipient was of course very grateful. Besides promising to return the money, she offered to buy me fruit, sew my clothes…any way in which she could be useful. It felt like I might end up with a friend out of all this.
Two days later, any notions of closer relations went right out the window.
Kat had come by to inquire about borrowing an additional eight thousand baht to pay off the rest of her creditors, thus consolidating her entire debt with me. Sounded like a good plan and no, I wasn’t concerned about the repayment schedule. Compared to what I’d lavished upon Sontaya, this was chicken feed. But then my Mistress began insisting that I take her old smartphone. Partly as a way of thanking me, but mostly because she was getting a new one and couldn’t bear the thought of just tossing it away. Now, I loathe these devices and informed her — with increasing firmness — that I didn’t want the damn thing. Finally, I tried to lay down the law and said if she didn’t back off, she could forget the 8k. Yet she stubbornly persisted until I finally reached my limit and sent her packing — with nothing to show for her visit. Wisely, she chose not to protest the expulsion.
The Mistress now had to wrestle with the twin burdens of excess debt and dual smartphones entirely on her own. Not sure what to expect, I got a text from her a week later. But not about the eight thousand baht. To my astonishment, she wanted instead to set up a date to begin paying off the original ten thousand! A streetwalker with a sense of honor. I told her not to bother, it was a gift — which caused her to exclaim that she’d “never forget me anymore”. A few days after that, she stopped by my apartment with a gift of her own in appreciation: two apples (fruit, not iPhones).
These I accepted. 😉
In the past few months I have become a regular at Beer Garden on Soi 7 — a freelancer bar mentioned in an earlier post. It’s not a very long walk from my apartment, and on occasion they actually play songs from my bygone era. The women there are friendly, if a bit on the shy side, and a fellow is less likely to encounter the barracuda attitudes that infest the upscale go-gos of Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy.
A good place to hunt for my next charity recipient!
I had noticed Pawn sometime late last year. She almost always sits in the same general area I do. One night, when she ended up nearby me, I paid for her drink (a glass of water) and gave her one hundred baht for the taxi. Nothing special; just getting her attention. The next time around we talked a bit and I found out about her family (one son) and what she does for a living (works at a factory). It’s the same sad story of a decent Thai woman struggling to raise a child on her own, freelancing to help pay the bills. That night she’d been sitting in Beer Garden for some three hours and I was the first guy to talk to her.
I gave her two thousand baht ($60) and told her to go home.
It’s always entertaining to observe a woman’s reactions to this. At first there’s disbelief — a guy she’s barely met giving her “short time” money without expecting sex. Has he lost his mind? Then, when they see I am more or less sane (and maybe sense my kindheartedness), I often wind up with a hug as they get ready to leave. That is what happened here.
My next surprise gift, for the same amount, was handled more discreetly. When I arrived one evening around my usual time, Pawn was already sitting next to a not-too-ugly, grey haired gentleman and it appeared the pair would soon be departing for his place, or maybe one of the nearby short time hotels. Looked like I had missed my chance — arrived a half hour too late. Not so! I plopped myself down just around the corner of the bar from Pawn. Then, when her special fellow made a trip to the rest-room, I casually slid over the money. Why? So she could take a night off from this depressing routine. Spend it with her son.
At this point, it looked like Pawn was going to be my next project. True, I did not know her, but she struck me as an easygoing, simple person who deserved a bit of good fortune. (Most of these women live hand to mouth so even a little assistance can be a huge help.) I began to ponder what might be the best way to get started. Maybe with a big upfront payment like I did with Sontaya? Or perhaps it would be more prudent to opt for moderation and see how she handled things.
All this thinking turned out to be premature. The very next time I came across Pawn in Beer Garden, I got rebuffed. She was sitting near her usual place, alone, and I ambled up with an envelope, which I had her put in her purse. Obviously it contained money and I said (once again) that she could head home. Turns out she didn’t want to do that and politely gave me the envelope back.
Now it was my turn to be shocked. This lady was choosing to spend the evening at the bar — drinking water — rather than taking the cash and leaving early. Try as I might, I could not get a handle on her reasoning and have since decided I’d best move on to someone else.
Funny thing, though. That envelope did not contain my usual present of two thousand baht. Instead, it was filled with ten thousand baht (@$300) — the first installment from my new Aid Package. Without knowing it, Pawn had chosen to forego what amounted to an entire month’s wages at the factory. Oh well.
Later in the evening, after flashing a few smiles in my direction, Pawn walked over and asked if I wanted her to sit by me. I smiled in return and said no thanks. These days I am not into having a companion with all the attendant complications. I just want to give these women money.
What brought my grandiose assistance program to an end was Sontaya’s wish for a car. In her view, this was the next step towards a “better life”. To me it was a foolish desire I was not going to subsidize. It is one thing to assist a woman in real need, quite another to boost her status amongst family and friends — one of my ex’s motivations, I’m afraid. No way my money was going to be part of that. (And who in their right mind would want to sit in the stifling heat of a Bangkok traffic jam anyway?)
This trouble was not completely unexpected. I had known from talking with Sontaya the year before how much she wanted an automobile. But maybe my recent tsunami of financial help had caused that yearning to recede. Wishful thinking. Beginning in mid-October, she spent a good six weeks trying to obtain a driver’s license (not sure if she ultimately passed the test), then gave me the “better life” response when I inquired about her wanting a car. This aspiration was never going to go away; should I become involved with the woman again, paying for four wheels would be part of the package. No thanks! I’d accomplished what I’d set out to do. Now it was time to begin disengaging as amiably as possible.
What I ended up doing was awarding Sontaya the relationship equivalent of a golden parachute: two hundred thousand baht ($6,000) to allow her to stay in her upscale apartment at least another year — far longer if she works — and hopefully cover any additional medical expenses for her older sister. I also wanted her to use the time to find a foreign boyfriend to purchase that magical car, me being unwilling — and more than a little peeved that all the assistance I’d provided appeared to have been judged inadequate.
The parachute was only partially successful. Sontaya accepted the money and said all the proper things, but was not able to fully let go. Over the next three months, I received perhaps a dozen emails thanking me, asking how I was, telling me about her new job selling smart phones, admitting she was lonely in her new place, and even confessing her love for me on Valentine’s Day. All part of a concerted effort to stay in touch in the hope I might one day reply. I have resisted that temptation so far, being uneasy and skeptical about our future. We have become trapped in an unhealthy pattern: she stays in touch; I get interested again; we get back together; she disappoints me; I reluctantly say goodbye. When I suggested she find a steady boyfriend, I meant it — we are not able to stay in step.
But compatibility is a peripheral concern here. What is important is that even without an automobile, Sontaya has an opportunity for an improved life. No longer does she need to go with former customers for weeks on end — or visit the local pawnbroker — to come up with extra money to take care of her family. She can instead work a “normal” job and come home to a place that doesn’t feature junk in the stairwells or noisy, five-to-a-room immigrant workers in an adjacent apartment.
It’s a new path she is starting down. I hope it leads to a measure of hap-piness. I hope she learns to dream again.
Before I begin itemizing my two months of unbridled generosity, it is important to note that during this period Sontaya and I never really got back together. After she’d come over that first evening in early October, we only saw each other twice again before I’d decided I’d done enough for her. (A nagging health issue kept me from getting out more often.) However, we were able to stay in touch using FaceTime after I spent a couple hours on the phone with her one night to help set up an Apple ID — another convert to the world of Steve Jobs.
The only hard and fast rule for this new project of mine was that there would be no penny pinching. If I saw a way to help, or Sontaya asked for something that sounded like a legitimate need, I’d ante up the money with no further questions. It would be an experiment of sorts to see if it was possible, given nearly unlimited coffers, to truly assist someone in improving their situation.
There were four areas I ended up making contributions to:
1. Sontaya’s personal budget. Instead of feeding her a fixed amount every month and then having to make up the difference for surprise expenses, I simply gave her an even one hundred thousand baht (call it $3,000) with instructions to make it last into the new year. No problem.
2. Sontaya’s son (Natee). Her idea was to someday purchase a car, then if something happened to her, Natee could sell it and use the proceeds to help support himself for awhile. This was a wacky idea, though perhaps not by Thailand standards where a car is seen as a luxury by most. In any event, I had Sontaya open a savings account for her son and transferred one hundred thousand baht ($3,000) into it. (Afterwards Sontaya offered to show me the bank book periodically so I’d know she wasn’t dipping into the funds. I didn’t care — it would only be stealing from her own flesh and blood.)
3. The home place. The roof on Sontaya’s mother’s house had seen better days and needed replacing. After being showed a couple pictures of it, I decided a new one was a fine idea: fifty thousand baht ($1,500).
4. Older sister. When Sontaya went back to her home village for a visit in early December, she discovered that her sister (who is raising Natee) was ill and needed to be taken to the hospital. Ended up spending over a week there. I didn’t get the specifics of her ailments, but knew she had been suffering from poor health. (This led to a new experience for me: saying hello to a bedridden patient on FaceTime.)
The total cost for the stay was over thirty thousand baht ($900). It turns out there is a special assistance program for Thai families facing large medical bills, which Sontaya was looking into. I told her there was no need for that and instead gave her forty thousand baht (almost $1,200), the extra money to pay for medicine and any more visits to the doctor.
Part 2: Unfortunately, the sister had to return to the hospital only a couple weeks later. By this time I was winding things down with Sontaya, so I was out of the loop. However, I did chip in twenty-five thousand more baht (@$700). Felt like the right thing to do.
In case anyone is curious, my total expenditures for this noble idea came to nine thousand four hundred dollars, give or take a hundred. Besides the benefits for her mother, sister and son, Sontaya was able to move out of the ratty apartment building she’d been living in for a number of years into a modern, comfortable abode in the same area of Bangkok (her old neighborhood, I guess you’d call it). Though I never actually visited her new digs — and she did let me know I was welcome — from what I saw via FaceTime it all looks very nice. A sure sign of progress!
True to her nature, Sontaya continued to stay in touch long after I had gallantly come to the rescue when her life was falling apart. For over a year she sent friendly emails on occasion, asking how I was doing. Never begging for money or even suggesting a coffee date. Though I developed a grudging respect for her persistency, I didn’t bother to reply.
Last October, however, after returning to Bangkok from my annual U.S. vacation, I found myself wondering how she was getting along. My relationship with the freelancer I’d met at Beer Garden had foundered when I discovered she wasn’t as reliable as I’d hoped, once again leaving Sontaya as one of the few halfway decent alternatives. The woman was managing to withstand the test of time.
So I emailed my ex, asking how things were going. To my surprise, even shock, I discovered she had left the bar earlier in the year and was now selling clothes at an outdoor market. Intrigued, I had her over that very evening to hear more about this new direction.
For many people, there comes a time in their life when they start to take things more seriously. (I’ve never had to make this transition, being morbidly serious since early childhood.) In Sontaya’s case, entering her mid-thirties caused a major reassessment. Working in a Nana Plaza bar started to look like a dead-end job. The men she was managing to meet had no interest in a long term relationship. Nor, when she looked, was the mirror offering much encouragement. The time had come to get out.
This left the question of how to continue paying the bills and supporting her son. Working in a market stall, unlike the bar, did not provide nearly enough income. To make up the difference, Sontaya decided to take time off from selling clothes and earn extra money by going with a few of her old customers. One of them took her over to Cambodia for three weeks, another to Vietnam. In some ways it was an interesting life, though still a sad one.
As I listened to all this, I began to wonder if maybe here was a person who could make good use of some serious financial help. She’d already taken the initiative to improve her life — a trait hitherto unknown in Bangkok bar girls. Perhaps she’d be worth opening the spigot for.
As our evening drew to a close, I walked Sontaya out to an ATM and put some money into her account to tide things over for a few weeks. Also a couple thousand baht ($60) for a guitar her son had his eye on. Just my usual generosity. The next day, I sat down and did a quick check of my investment portfolio (to confirm the farm money was still there), then began serious calculations on how much aid I could afford to bestow upon the no-longer-so-young Thai lady.
Four months after I’d broken things off a second time with her, Sontaya’s birthday rolled around. Though there was no desire on my part to hook up again, I nevertheless wondered if she might be able to use some extra money for the occasion, so I emailed her about it.
My timing could not have been better. It turned out my ex-girlfriend was going through an incredible streak of bad luck. First there’d been a storm at her sister’s house which had severely damaged the roof and would take thirty-six thousand baht (@$1,200) to fix. Around the same time, the bar she was working at was experiencing financial troubles that forced it to close down for a few weeks. And just when it seemed things could not get any worse, the woman then got hit with some kind of debilitating flu. When I took the Skytrain down to her station to meet over coffee and see what I could do, Sontaya arrived looking like a refugee from a POW camp, her haggard appearance accompanied with fits of coughing. All her jewelry had been put in temporary hock to help pay for the new roof and her bank account was down to its last two hundred baht ($6).
There was a lineup of ATMs next to the coffee shop and once everything had been explained to me, I took Sontaya to the one for my bank. There I transferred forty thousand baht, which would repair the roof and leave her with some money for food and medicine. (Looking back, I wished I’d given more.) She then went to her bank’s ATM and confirmed that my gift was now in her account.
From the moment in the coffee shop when I had offered to help, Sontaya had been fighting back tears. I had never seen her cry before. Sometimes it’s difficult to fully understand what people are forced to deal with. As we said goodbye at the station, still a bit bleary-eyed, she asked for a kiss but I substituted a hug, not wanting to risk catching whatever she had. Later I received an email saying she would never forget what I had done for her and her family.
My feelings regarding all this were more mundane. Here was someone who needed help, and I was in a position to provide it. Just doing my job, really. And although I did not know it at the time, this was also a prelude to what would become my most ambitious charity project ever.
When Sontaya kept me waiting that fateful night in order to do some heavy drinking with her friend, that was essentially the end of our second attempt to be together. It was simply too big of a red flag to ignore. She’d always had a fondness for alcohol, but back when I was getting to know her and we were having such good times together, this was not a concern. Quite the contrary. It was only now when, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, I found the magic turning against me that I began to fully comprehend the trouble. Going overboard on the booze is practically part of a bar girl’s job description as she tries to entice the patrons to buy drink after drink for themselves and for her. Being in this environment for over two years had introduced my “special friend” to some bad habits. Not being a Substance Abuse Counselor, I did not want to try dealing with them.
The only question was when to break things off. Because Sontaya was leaving the next morning to spend a week with her family — some much-needed time off from the bar which my money was making possible — I decided to wait until she’d returned. For the rest of the night I simply did my best to make her comfortable, listening as she shared her troubles and hopes. (It was during this I heard for the first time her desire to someday own a car.)
Once Sontaya was back from her vacation, I sadly bid her adieu. While honesty can sometimes backfire with Thai women, I nevertheless decided to confess I wasn’t comfortable being around her anymore because of the drinking. To try and soften the blow somewhat — few people like being labelled a drunk — I transferred ten thousand baht (@$300) into her bank account as goodbye money.
Sontaya’s graceful reply:
Good after noon M. Thank you for reply my email and Thank you for help me and my son .that is ok if you not feel like to meet me right now.but one day if you are need a friend or want to see me.i am want to let you know. I am will be your friend forever. ..you can call me any time.
And about alcohol I do try my self to not drink to much because that not good for my health. .I can do it ..
Well you tack care of your self.
Now I am know you are ok just don’t want to see me.i will not send you sms for Harry (bother) you…I am always be your friend….
You have a nice day.
God will be with you.