A Little Help for My Friends

After giving the soon-to-be-unemployed barmaids extra money a couple weeks ago to tide them over, I realized that would not be enough. With the inroads the coronavirus was making, Thailand was going to be shut down for at least another month or two. The women would be hurting, big time.

Fortunately, I knew what to do. In Thailand, one can transfer money to other people’s bank accounts using an ATM — a feature I’ve come to rely on as my philanthropy has grown. Using this, I could continue to provide assistance and on short notice. All that was needed was the girls’ banking information, which they wrote down for me.

I made my April Support Payments last week, a day before the please-stay-home government request kicked in. I used my favorite ATM in front of the Omni Tower, one that has never eaten my card. In addition to the barmaids, I put money into the accounts of two other deserving Thai women. (One of them happens to be a masseuse, but not the pushy kind.) The operation required some serious concentration, consulting my notes, typing in account numbers and amounts, then double checking to be sure I wasn’t accidentally paying someone twice. I felt like a clerk working at the local Unemployment Office. But this was far safer than going out and hand delivering cash to four different people, praying I would not pick up the virus along the way.

Everyone sent me a thank you email or text afterwards for my generosity, two of them adding what a fine person they think I am. Well, maybe. It’s actually more a sense of responsibility coming from my good fortune a few years back. Being aware of when I can make a difference.

Star Trek Similarities

“To boldly go where no man has gone before…unless there’s a virus loose.”

I have always been a fan of this show’s original series. Though it dates me, when the first episode aired in September of 1966, I was glued to the TV. Its theme of exploring “the final frontier” appealed to my nascent sense of adventure. And though I remained regrettably earthbound in the decades that followed, I nevertheless pursued my own brand of brave explorations, winding up enjoying my golden years in a foreign country instead of some Sun Belt retirement community.

Thank you, Captain Kirk!

In the first season of Star Trek, there was an episode called The Return of the Archons. In this the Enterprise comes across a planet (Beta III in the C-111 system — I had to look this up) where people have been absorbed into “the body”, where independent thinking is not tolerated. Much like Fox News, except in this case the culprit was a centuries old computer. When it had to take itself offline for an extended period, presumably to install new updates, all hell would break loose. Freed from its restraints, women were assaulted, storefronts broken into, and hats wildly tossed into the air with everyone shrieking, “Festival! Festival!”.

Thailand’s version of this is called the Songkran Festival and involves lots and lots of water. Each year in mid April my street degenerates into three days’ worth of squirt gun battles with nonstop yelling. Going out risks a drenching, so I stay indoors for the duration, keeping a low profile — much like those few “Betans” who avoided getting absorbed.

Although there’s no omnipotent computer to bring the Songkran madness to a halt, the coronavirus has managed something even better. In order to try and lessen its spread, this year’s festivities have been cancelled. Since this is an occasion when families traditionally get together, it is hoped that most people will instead remain home and not pass on any infection. (But the horse may already be out of the barn.)

As for me, once again I’ll be confined to my apartment, but avoiding a virus instead of dueling squirt guns.

Please remain indoors.

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Songkran Siege

The Sounds of Silence

A couple of postings ago, I mentioned that the area of Bangkok I live in is one of the so-called “entertainment districts”. The music blaring from the bars, the restaurant touts, and the inviting ladies lining the sidewalks can make an evening stroll a disorienting experience, especially for a first time visitor.

I’ve long since stopped partaking of the fun and games. They’ve gotten old over the years and no longer hold much interest for me. I avoid them. When I head out to my “home bar”, located down on the far side of busy Sukhumvit, I take a shortcut via Soi 6, which leads to a narrow thorough-fare with no stores and few people. Much more peaceful than the carnival going on a couple blocks over.

The coronavirus has changed all this. The first indication I had of what is in store for my depraved neighborhood came when I was lugging another load of groceries home and noticed some signs on the windows of a bar.

In the two weeks since, it is like a neutron bomb has gone off over the Soi, leaving only deserted buildings. The traffic has thinned out and only an occasional person can be found wandering the sidewalks. It makes one wonder how many of the businesses will be able to reopen now that there is a month-long Emergency Decree in place.

I’d be lying if I said the economic devastation is causing me any great concern. No longer do I have to run a gauntlet of ladies offering massage services on my weekly trips to Villa Market. There’s an especially annoying place a couple blocks from my apartment, impossible to avoid, where I get propositioned even when I’m on the other side of the street. You’d think that after forty or fifty no responses the women would figure out I wasn’t interested in getting pawed over. Now that they are closed, I find myself smiling as I stroll by. Savoring the moment.

Solitude

Contrasts

Bia is one of the nicest women I know at the Beer Garden bar. Always has a smile for me. If I’m in the need of some company, she’ll sit and chat. If I’m wanting my space, she’ll graciously back off. Most of the time I buy her a drink and later pass a one thousand baht tip (@ $30). A few times a year, such as at Christmas, I’ll present her with an envelope containing much more. It’s something I do for women I’m especially fond of.

Now I’m not one who, having provided money to a Thai lady, expects anything in return beyond maybe a thank you. My generosity does not come with strings attached. So when Bia bought me a pair of nice wine glasses at Christmas, I was taken aback. It was hard to imagine her going to such trouble.

Largely because of this, Bia was one of the three women at Beer Garden (along with the two barmaids) whom I bestowed special money upon to help tide them over while the bar is closed.

Another Beer Garden lady I often buy drinks for, Gae, has proven much harder to figure out. According to my barmaid friend Sumontha, both her and Bia are good women. However, after transferring Christmas money into Gae’s bank account, I never heard anything back. When I finally ran across her at the bar in January, she barely acknowledged receiving my gift. The antithesis of Bia’s reaction. And a recent SMS I sent, to see how she is getting along in these troubled times, was not answered.

I give up.

Day One

The latest Thai government edict — more of a request, actually — is for people to stay home this weekend. Make that seven days. Should this fail to slow the rate of infection, then we will be talking twenty-four hour curfews. The same kind of steps other countries have been taking — with varying degrees of success.

I have been of two minds regarding this. On one hand, I worry about running out of bottled water (the tap water here is not potable) and being unable to make a covert trip to the 7-Eleven just down the block. But I’m also intrigued by the challenge of seeing how long I can get by without having to go out and replenish my supplies. It’s something I never had to consider growing up in America, the land of plenty (and now the world leader in the number of infected).

One thing that will not be bothering me is the so-called social distancing. Being alone has never bothered me; it’s the way I’m hardwired. With my seven year MacBook Air companion I can download books and movies, surf the ‘net, play chess, check my mail and otherwise ignore the world outside my window. Besides, my Soi 4 neighborhood is one of the city’s famous tourist areas (or at least it was). Why in the world would I want to journey out in the midday tropical heat to chat with idling taxi drivers? (I have a bad history with these characters anyway and now that they are desperate for customers am taking no small amount of pleasure in their misfortune.)

According to an article in the Bangkok Post, there is a major concern about not merely keeping maladjusted farangs like myself off the streets, but preventing Thais from “fleeing” Bangkok and returning to their home provinces. No small amount of irony here. While trying to find safer havens, some are carrying the virus with them, thus insuring the disease will be spread to all corners of the country.

There are times I wonder how Homo Sapiens has managed to survive as long as it has.

Corona Buses

Others

I must admit that when I hear about the shopping malls and theaters being closed it does not ruffle my feathers. My “local” mall, Terminal 21, has started playing hip hop themed music. And going to a movie up on the top floor means enduring a string of annoying commercials before the show finally starts. The current plan is to keep these venues closed for at least three weeks. Three years would be fine by me.

The shutting down of the Bangkok bars, on the other hand, has proven to be more traumatic. I am a long time regular at Beer Garden on Soi 7. It is such fun to saunter in on a busy night, find a good seat, order my usual glass of red wine, then casually scan the premise to see if any of my special friends has arrived yet. (Like Liam Neeson’s character in the opening bar scene of Schindler’s List, except I am not looking for high ranking SS officers.) To have this routine suddenly shut off has led to some empty evenings.

Of greater concern is how my pair of barmaid friends, Sumontha and Sirada, will be getting by. Thailand does not have much of a safety net: if things go bad, family and friends become the fallback positions, though neither may have much in the way of money. This got me thinking that if the two of them will not be getting paid while the bar is closed — an assumption that proved correct — they could be feeling the pinch. So for my final visit before the shutdown, I gave them each three thousand baht (@ $90 USD) to help them through the following two weeks. (This had Sirada in tears.)

Today’s announcement by the Thai goverment of a state of emergency and possible curfew bodes ill for the girls; it could be another couple of months before they can return to work. I will continue providing support, relying on Sumontha to tell me how much they need. It’s something I am happy to do. Last year, when I was under the weather, I made a joke about them bringing some wine to my apartment to aid in my recovery, never imagining they’d actually do it. So when they did show up late one night after work and presented me with two bottles of respectable red vintages, I was stunned. Friends like these deserve to be helped.

Sumontha (left) & Sirada (center) from a few years back.

Supplies

In the past week I’ve made three grocery runs to restock my depleted cupboard. I always go in the mornings when there are fewer shoppers. But even then I inevitably find myself having to edge around someone as I go down an aisle. At least they are all wearing masks!

From speaking with friends and relatives back in the U.S. — as well as following the local news — it sounds like there has been a rash of panic buying. In particular, people have been stockpiling toilette paper (which may become the new currency in a post-pandemic world). It has made me realize that people’s reactions can be as much of a concern as the coronavirus itself.

Happily, my own grocery (Villa Market on Soi 2) has experienced no shortages that I’ve noticed so far. The shelves in the TP section have not been denuded and there’s no sense of urgency amongst the shoppers. Of course this is no guarantee things will be going as smoothly come next month, so I’ve been loading up on cereal, pasta, canned goods…anything with a long shelf life. These can be rather bulky, which gave me the idea of going to Villa Market wearing my old backpack with a reusable bag stuffed inside. After I finish my shopping, I put the big heavy stuff at the bottom of the pack, then on top of it, the reusable containing the smaller purchases. Lugging all this home makes me feel like a pack mule, but it reduces the number of visits I have to make.

Assembly point.