or Bangkok, Closed City. Or Bangkok, Symphony of a Staggering City. Anyone recognize the theme?
I saw the sun today for the first time since I arrived in Bangkok. And blue sky, above the city’s skyline. Blue sky. Sun. And suddenly streets were a little less dirty. The river, a little less drear. The city, a little more friendly. A little more livable. A little more likeable. And that’s so important.
To describe just the experience of walking for just a block along any given street would take volumes, I think, and be entirely inadequate. A hundred photo albums, I think, would come no closer to the mark of describing– communicating– what it is to be in Bangkok– to see its sights, hear its sounds, smell its smells…
Goodness, the smells. Never before have I encountered such a diverse olfactory experience. The smells are everywhere in the street. Some are decidedly pleasant. And some are decidedly unpleasant. And most are entirely indeterminable. In a city with so much water, the smells are inevitable. In a city with so many people, the smells are inevitable. In a city with such richness of culture, of culinary mastery, the smells are inevitable. The smells of chicken, fish, flour frying in oil, cooking over one of a million little grills… the smells of stagnant water, mingling with the smells of wood turning green and trash turning black, mingling kids growing, playing and laundry washing, drying, and parents getting old, sinking into sunken chairs, staring out into the rushing street from their anonymous garage stores and food stands. The smells of a thousand tuk-tuks spraying their toxic fumes on to the streets, and a thousand trees, choking to clean the air. The smells of a thousand bodies on a sidewalk. Some perfumed. Some unwashed. Some with hands folded over head, face pressed to the pavement next to their empty coin cup, begging in abject misery. Humiliated– hungry beyond humiliation. Smelling of the streets.
The locals say not to give to beggars. The locals say that begging in Bangkok is mob controlled. The locals, I think, are embarrassed. Embarrassed by their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, begging in the street. And how do you say he has no legs? And how do you say her cheek is larger than my fist, and hanging below her chin? …her face looks like bloated, melted wax? I say “so be it.” I say let the mob control begging. They say the mob is corruption, exploitation. But I say the mob is structure, security, stability. The mob is a promise that, for a small price today, there will be food tomorrow. Even if selfishly, maybe the mob looks out for those everyone else just tries to brush by. The man who’s only leg is swollen to a pale white, and covered in sores and pustules… I can afford to make his cup jingle. Her cup jingle. For fifty-cents a day, a mob member can eat. Such a small price to pay.
But most of all the smells. The billowing cloud behind that in-need-of-repair bus that settles like fog on the sidewalks vendors and the sinking grandparents in anonymous garage grocery stores. Smoke an incinerated-hydrocarbon cigarette. Smoke a pack a day. Breathe deep. Take in that black lung.
Wide open spaces. Yeah. “Wide open spaces,” laughed Josh today. I have a picture of those. I know what they’re like. I’ve walked them. I’ve driven them. I’ve worshiped them. I’ve hated them. But what about that man? No, more likely, the only thing he’s seen is the concrete– endless miles of concrete, just like the concrete he pushes his face to now, begging for my loose change. Change. Change. Change.
Have I gone on long enough about the poverty? Have I gone on long enough about the pollution? Have I gone on long enough about the smells? no– i must write volumes. i must fill pages and pages and pages. until i understand. until i comprehend. until my heart breaks. until the tears well up inside me and burst forth, washing away the filth and grime and pavement, leaving a beautiful, changed Bangkok… beggars swept away by the riches, smells purged by pain, rotten timber to ashes and dust…
Or perhaps I’ve gone on too long.
“Welcome to Bangkok. Drink lots of beer,” he says to me. He said to me. But the abject, they have no beer. So let them drink wine, right?