Psst, Wanna See Bangkok Too?

I find myself reluctant to write about Bangkok. Cause who am I to talk? I’m a Third-World Girl. And it slashes my heart when people comment to me about Jamaica’s poverty. Or the pestering flock of folks trying to sell them touristware.

But, Lord. Bangkok. Sure, our luxe hotel room looks over the Chao Phraya River with its beautiful night glide of lighted long boats, but just steps away the poverty starts. So does the noise of tuk-tuks, the endless high whine of motorcycles, a misty exhaust that chokes, rubs throats and eyes raw.

There’s also the smell of scam. (A taxi driver tries to persuade us that he’s taken us to the restaurant the concierge has written out in the embroidery-like Thai script. His friend, the restaurant owner assures us that it is the place. But they’re busted by an unwitting waitress.) A vendor tries to persuade us that the price of one set of place mats is 180 bhats, the price for two identical sets is 450.

I’m sad that I feel disappointed by the look of Bangkok. Years of soot cling to old, unloved buildings. Disorderly electrical wiring sway heavily from overburdened poles. We take a leisurely cruise in a worn motorized boat along the canals. I fear the water. For it is a member of the Thai family. Makeshift houses line the river in which people bathe, wash clothes, go potty.

It’s the cooler rainy season, yet the 3-H’s still rule: hot, humid, hazy. Now factor in the unrelenting rot dtit (traffic jam). Service in restaurants is way more leisurely than any country we’ve ever visited. Not so fun. Food’s cheap and terrific, though, and the a/c works like a sumbitch.

Yet the tourist buses pull up and disgorge expectant people. So do the taxicabs — each having their undercarriage inspected by pole-mounted mirrors. And, I think to myself, how strong the sexual impulse is, really. Our same scammy taxi driver couldn’t shut up about taking us to a sex club, telling us, when we decline his offer, that it is very popular tourist attraction. It’s also hard not to notice how many male American couples there are. That’s 14 or more hours on a plane. You just know that the Thai sex scene has to be white hot. The 3H’s.

We had a decent time, nevertheless, you know? We spent Christmas Day sightseeing two wats (temples): The stunning Grand Palace which was the seat of the court of old Siam, and the adjacent Wat Phra Keo. We forget to miss Christmas it is so beautiful, so ornate, so magnificent. See photos below. And later in the day, I get very satisfying Christmas presents: jewels, opulent raw silk stuffs. My poor husband is relieved; I’d balked big-time at holiday traveling.

The next day, I learn that in Thailand they make sugar from the nectar that drips from the cut flower buds of coconuts. Come again? How is it that with all the coconuts in Jamaica this is news to me? Tastes double-yum, like Jamaican coconut drops.

On this same day, I ride an elephant. I breathe deeply, talk myself down from my snake phobia when there’s also a monster boa constrictor around someone’s shoulders. I gaze fondly at florid tropical flowers. We spend several humid hours cruising the floating markets, as we had the night before in the night market. We shop with our eyes; we find nothing we must have. But, I suck coconut water from the green husk with a straw, and I discover after one bite that those egg-sized brown fruits, La-mut, are naseberries! My childhood comes full-rushing back.

Hey, what pollution, what traffic, what grime, what noise?

[tags]Bangkok, floating market, coconut sugar, Grand Palace[/tags]

Hong Kong. Come With?

[Click on photos to enlarge]

Hong Kong. Oh, could it be any more stunning than it is right this minute, decked full red, gift-wrapped and Christmas lit? Red and albino poinsettias mass, are bunched, are grouped, crowd window boxes, line avenues and streets, storefronts.

Christmas is secular here, of course, unless you want to count the lit stars suspended from invisible wire in front of the ritzy Peninsula Hotel. But there’s no Baby Jesus. The joyous lights on every building for a mile or more wink, tic, tic, race as you would expect, but also cast long festive trails on Victoria Harbour’s night water that links Kowloon on the mainland to Hong Kong Island’s business center. I had no tripod so the photos posted are execrable, but you’ll get the picture. Har.

Interesting how the thin skyscrapers reflect the aesthete of the people, thin as cigarette boats, cosmopolitan. See the daytime photo too, taken from a sampan belching diesel fumes. Yin and yang here, right? The moneyed soaring skyscrapers, the poverty of the houseboats on the jade water, some of the folks living on them, the guide says, are eighty years and older and have never come ashore. Could be tourist hype, no doubt, but one look at the mild faces and I could so believe. I put my camera down when they stare out at yet another set of tourists; I wave instead.

On the city streets I realize I’ve lost my New York walking skills. I dodge and weave the sidewalk hordes. Maybe we should be walking on the left, I say to my uncomplaining husband, England’s handprint still hardpressed in the way they drive on the left. Switching to the left side of the street doesn’t really work. I dodge and weave, I shake my head no, thank you, no thank you, no thank you to the Indian or Pakistani men who hand me their flyers, I can make you a suit; I’m good at it, come and have a look. Watches, Madame? I dodge and weave, am one of the few black tourists, polite even though, Leave me the hell alone, I’m begging you, is caged behind my teeth.

We are good tourists. We go up to Victoria Peak by tram, funicular style, the spectacular skyline view hazed this day. We go shopping for cashmere and pashminas in Stanley Market, we take a double-decker tram around Hong Kong Island for the novelty, to see more of the city, to experience, man. Our hotel is luxurious and comfortable. Choice fruit in a swan-shaped bowl arrives because we ask a worker in an adjoining room whether they’d finished making up our room (half eaten in photo.) Only when there’s surprise on his face do we realize that perhaps they’ve left the folded spreads off the bed for our convenience. We assure him it’s okay. Really. But, do you think we could have an extra pillow? Not ten minutes later, here comes the burnished fruit. Yeah, baby.

I love Hong Kong. Our beautiful city guide, Kenn, is very fluent in this totally bilingual city, but apologizes for her “chinglish”, Chinese English. I look away and I know that’s a term I’ll not ever be comfortable saying. It’s way too close to a word that I don’t ever want to come out of my brain. I learn that the bathroom is “the happy room,” learn that they refer to themselves as Hongkongese; she mentions the Shanghainese. I don’t know why I’m surprised? People in Taiwan are Taiwanese.

In Hong Kong, the scaffolding on buildings is bamboo – even on skyscrapers. In Hong Kong there’s a queue 15 people long outside the Louis Vuitton, outside the Gucci shops on Canton Road. In Hong Kong teenaged girls walk easily for blocks, hands linked liked lovers; they giggle and whisper. In Hong Kong the fragile leaves of the poinsettias remain unquailed and tropical, even though everyone here is wearing light down jackets, the women yoked by their scarves tied in the same noosed style against 40-degree temperatures. Spindly boughs of bougainvillea still bow, purple orchid-like Bauhinia flowers still nest high on trees. We are all freezing.

On Lantau Island we stop at the Tai O Fishing village, walk through the long narrow alley lined with dried seafood of every kind, blow lungs hung like loofah, dried blowfish. I use my first squat toilet behind a door that only comes up to my waist. I take the requisite documenting photo. As I walk along the pathway the villagers cannot take their frank stares from me, even when I smile and nod to shame them. A four-year-old points at me, her index finger up to her little cheek. Later at the Buddhist Temple, where the world’s tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue reigns with his enlightened smile, a broadly-smiling young woman, her hair pink-punked, poses with me for a photo, her head leaned closed to mine. Back in Hong Kong a seven-year-old spots me, looks back at me, prods her ancient grandmother to turn to look at me. What? There are knots of African men on the streets not four streets over; what’s the deal? I don’t know how to feel, really. Like a chicken geek in a traveling circus, like a film star, pawed at by people’s non-malicious curiosity. I just feel, like, I dunno, slimed?

Hey, stop gawking at me. I nod and smile, good morning, Zou san.

Full of It

I’m on the verge of rewriting my novel, “Grace Notes.” I’m already swollen with it.

My dreams – streaming and colorful – have become even more Technicolor. My eyes have taken on that keenness I get when I’m in the throes of making stuff up. I’ve begun again to be acute, to note all things: the stops and starts of a woman newly arrived at a noon Christmas party, her body tightly coiled, her harnessed desire for a cocktail over food making her conversation unfocused. I see, and can almost taste, the fat moon over the bay at Sausalito.

Words are again beginning to haunt me again. The pretty ones, like gamboge, a color the yellow of amber. Funky ones appear, too, from ether. Ooo, my brain coos, ooo; I get to use bumf. A word that has two meanings: toilet paper, or throwaway paper like junk mail. You just know I’m itching to use that one. And probably won’t, scared away by the ghost of an editor’s hectoring pen. (See? The catastrophizing has also begun!)

I know already that on the good days when the work sings, I will ask myself, how is it that I didn’t know I could write till freshman English at the University of Cincinnati? If it weren’t for the kindly, dying teacher who told me after class that I had a flair for writing, would the desire to sling words out? Doubt it. At age 12, I’d convinced myself that I’d lifted something from a novel. My British second form teacher had cocked her head and asked if my line, “a riot of bougainvillea blood flowers” was original. And, how did I explain away the early poems? C’mon now, which teenager doesn’t scribble heartbreak verse? To this day, poems are my stepchildren.

I also know already that when the writing’s not going well, I will slap my broad black desk hard. Tears will stand in my eyes. I will swear long and cruel in vivid, living colors. If you know me, kiss me.

Gray, Yeah, But Old?


On the San Francisco Muni bus, younger women get up to give me their seats; they give me their benevolent smiles.

It’s the hair.

I ask for a monthly Muni pass at Safeway, and the check-out guy, says, “Sure, would that be a Senior Pass?” My husband cannot stop laughing.

It’s the gray hair.

A very disheveled black man, reeking of the chemical sweetness of crystal meth, sits beside me on the bus, leans his head on my shoulder and tells me he likes old women. Not older. Old.

It’s the materfrickin’ gray-tweed hair!

Maybe I should just quit riding the bus altogether is what I’m thinking. I mean, does this happen to pretty-boy Anderson Cooper on CNN? Oh, I don’t think so.

Of course, I’ve agonized about dyeing my hair to its original black gloss. My two older sisters, for example, have not a whit of white hair – except perhaps if you go nitpicking. One of them was carded in a department store when she asked for the discount for the 55 and older crowd.

It has also passed through my mind a time or three that my friends and co-workers might just wish I’d go ahead and reach for the dye dispenser. The way you want the guy with the very crooked bottom teeth to go get them fixed, the way you want that pretty plump girl in Accounting to lose some weight, Aaron Neville to get his huge Milk Dud of a mole taken care of.

It’s also a worry that potential publishers will reject me out of hair, hand because I’m not the rockin’ young author, you know? Last week at my friend Abeer’s reading, the moderator plugged and plugged a writing contest eligible for writers 35 and younger. Well. That leaves me the hell out. It’s bad enough that an agent confided to me that my first book couldn’t get through “marketing,” and that an editor at a major publishing house told me nobody wants to read about Jamaica – they want to read about Europe. I’m already at a disadvantage.

You will never know how I agonized about the photo on the About Jennifer page which, in the end, I left un-Photoshopped. Only because when we did it, it looked a touch artificial, the hair. Very same reason I don’t color it. This is the same hair I always seem to be writing about, the same hair that black women gush over at the hair salon. They tell me it looks good with my skin color, which is coffee without a single trace of cream. They tell me how beautiful it is. They lie, I think.

All it does is suggest to folks that they get up from their seats and let me sit down; they hang back to let me board the bus first; they call me old to my face.

If I’m old, how is it that I have this on my mp3 player? As well as this. All right, so I also have this,and this can make me weepy. Maybe I am old?

1. Kanye West/Jamie Foxx-Golddigger; 2. Damian Marley-Welcome To Jamrock; 3. Ron Isley-Burt Bacharach-Anyone Who Had a Heart; 4. George Frideric Handel- Xerxes-Largo