The Dubious Doctor
(from Chapter 2: Bangkok: “City of the Angels”)
Having witnessed about as much exoticism as we could take at one spell, Carl and I headed for the air-conditioned comfort of the Trocadero, where we were to meet with Wendell and Frances Ralston to discuss plans for the project. In the Ralstons’ suite we met Dr. Jake Reinhardt, the medical officer for the U.S. mission in Vientiane, and his wife Rachel; they had just come down to Bangkok for a few days’ R&R (which I later learned meant “rest and rehabilitation”). Reinhardt was a Jewish doctor from New York, who was loud, cynical, earthy, and swore colorfully in a Brooklyn accent.
“So you’re the poor bastards that are headed for “lousy Laos?” he greeted us. “My God, you guys don’t know what you’re in for. Here, have some bourbon.”
Carl and I both declined politely.
“What’re they, Randy, more friggin’ missionary types?”
“Come on, Jake, don’t discourage them before they even get there,” laughed Wendell, embarrassed for his wife’s sake by the crude language.
“I’d be doing them a favor! I can’t wait to get out of that shit-hole. Of course, you’ll be up-country, where you won’t have to put up with those friggin’ idiots in the mission.”
“Don’t pay any attention to him, Frances,” put in Rachel Reinhardt. “He criticizes everything – it’s just his warped nature.”
“So where do you boys come from in the States?” asked Reinhardt.
“I’m from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia,” I said.
“Sounds like an Indian camp to me. Wendell says you speak French; makes sense – French and Indians.”
Everybody laughed obligingly. Reinhardt’s domineering conversation demanded a response from the audience at each bon mot.
“I’m from Ohio,” Carl said, “but I just finished a Master’s degree at Texas A&M.”
“Jesus, Texas! The cloaca of the United States! What did you major in?”
“I knew a guy once who majored in animal husbandry, till they caught him at it.”
Wendell gave a self-conscious guffaw; Frances smiled primly; Carl grinned and turned red; I laughed.
“Jake, that’s enough,” said Rachel. “Boys, not everybody at the U.S. mission is as cynical as he is. Some people really want to help the Laotians.”
“Help the Laotians my ass! There’s no way you’re going to help the Laotians. They’ve been planting rice the same way for a thousand years, and there’s no way a couple of guys up in Xieng Khouang are going to change that. Even if the 150 idiots sitting in the mission in Vientiane would get off their asses and give you some support!”
“Oh, come on now, Jake; I’ve had pretty good support from the agriculture people, especially Perrigaux.”
“Sure, but how many of them have volunteered to go up there and live in the boondocks? They’d rather sit on their asses and write lies back to Washington and whore around at the Vieng Ratry.” (The Vieng Ratry was a nightclub in Vientiane.)
“Yes, but community development involves more than just improving rice technology,” I said, naively trying to raise the discourse to a more intelligent level. “As I understand it, we’ll be teaching English, providing health care…”
“Yeah, and up-grading the poultry and livestock,” Carl contributed, “and eventually setting up a crop experimentation station…”
“Well, Wendell, if anybody could do it, you guys can,” Jake concluded, “but I wouldn’t bet my government pension on it. Come on, let’s go see if we can find anything fit to eat in this rat trap of a hotel.”
After an excellent dinner in the Trocadero’s French restaurant, during which Reinhardt criticized every course, and sent the wine back as not “potable,” Carl and I headed back to our digs at the Atlanta Mansion for what turned out to be another torturous night.
(from Chapter 7: Willy Haas and the Opium Smugglers)
One night Haas announced with pride that he had received a shipment of Roquefort cheese from France, and offered to share some of the precious stuff with Carl and me. He served each of us a slab of the cheese, along with some bread and some French red wine. We were all enjoying this French delicacy and complimenting the host on its excellence, when I noticed that bits of the cheese were moving slowly across the plate on their own. Looking closely in the dim light from the kerosene lantern, I realized with horror that the cheese was riddled with maggots! I was faced with a dilemma: point it out and cause the host to lose face, or eat it and risk dying of God knows what. Given Haas’s volatile personality, I hesitated to take the former course, but found I couldn’t really bring myself to eat any more of the stuff. So, taking my life in my own hands, I said apologetically,
“Mr. Haas, I’m afraid there are some worms in your cheese.”
“Ah, non! C’est bon comme ça!” (“Oh, no! That’s when it’s good!”), he said, holding up one thumb in vociferous approval.
Obviously, the cheese had not survived the 6-week trip from France by surface freight. But I wasn’t sure whether Haas truly believed that it was “bon comme ça” or if he was simply putting up a brave front.
The Constipated Elephant
(from Chapter 17: Bangkok Interlude)
It was through Brian Byrne that I had one of my most surreal experiences in Thailand. Brian’s hosts, who had royal connections, had invited Brian to accompany them to a ceremony at the National Zoo at which a rare “white” elephant was to be presented to the King and Queen of Thailand. Such elephants, which were not actually white but rather a dirty beige, were identifiable by a number of characteristics such as the size of the ears, the color of the eyes, etc. Whenever one was identified anywhere in the kingdom, it was considered to “belong” to the King and to serve as evidence of his divine destiny. [These “white” elephants had played a rather large role in the history of the area. Entire wars were fought in the 16th century between Thailand and Burma over the possession of these elephants (most of which the Burmese won). If a monarch succeeded in capturing all of these elephants for himself, it was thought to prove that he was, or was destined to become, a “Cakravartin,” or “World Ruler.”]
Brian used his influence to get me invited to the ceremony as well. When we arrived at the pavilion where the ceremony was to take place, most of the high-profile audience was already seated in bleachers covered by a canopy to protect them from the scorching midday sun. A bright red carpet some 50 yards long led from the street to a low platform on which the little beige elephant, which appeared to be only about a year old, stood munching placidly on handfuls of grass provided by his handlers, dressed in colorful uniforms. Presently a long yellow Mercedes 600 limousine drew up to the curb, and the King and Queen got out, protected from the sun by huge parasols held by officials in traditional white tunics and silk pantaloons. King Phumiphon (also known as Rama IX) — a slender man with large glasses and a dignified bearing — and Queen Sirikit — a beautiful woman by any standards (although some Thais were known to complain that she was a bit too dark) — made their way along the red carpet, acknowledging various officials and acquaintances along the way. About that time, the poor little elephant decided he had to make caca. He humped his back and started to expel a soccerball-sized lump of fibrous material, but to the dismay of his attendants, the ball stuck about halfway out, refusing to budge further. Panic ensued: attendants whacked the poor little fellow on the hindquarters, others massaged his stomach, and another tried to persuade him to drink some water from a bucket, all to no avail. Meanwhile the King and Queen were advancing up the carpet toward their objective. Suddenly a quick-thinking attendant grabbed a bucket and ran up to the elephant’s rear, seized the turd with his hands, dislodged it, threw it into the bucket and ran off behind some bushes, thus avoiding impending disaster. I thought the whole scene was highly amusing, but I checked my laughter when I realized that the other guests were pretending it hadn’t happened. The King and Queen arrived in front of the much relieved animal and placed garlands of orchids on his head to symbolize their acceptance of the gift, then retreated to their yellow limousine and departed the scene. I have often thought that that civil servant must have been promoted about two grades following the ceremony in recognition of his brave service to king and country.
(from Chapter 19: On the Road to Mandalay)
That afternoon I was told that I should load my motorcycle onto the boat, as it would be leaving very early the next morning. I took the bike down to the riverbank and located the low flat barge-like boat that was going up the Chindwin river the next day. There was no proper pier, but workers, dressed only in longyis tucked up at the waist, revealing their wiry legs covered in tattoos, were carrying cargo across a gangplank about two feet wide that extended from the bank to gunwales of the boat. I noticed cages of live pigs and chickens among the cartons, earthenware jars, and a heavy crated generator waiting to be loaded onto the boat. As I dismounted from the motorcycle, several workers approached me and offered to help walk the motorcycle onto the boat. Eager to show off my expertise with a motorcycle, I waved them off, indicating that the stevedores should stand aside. I mounted the motorcycle, kicked the motor to life, calculated the incline, and roared onto the gangplank, intending to apply the brakes immediately upon reaching the deck. I would have made it, I think, if I had anticipated that the gangplank would sag under the weight of the motorcycle. Unfortunately, the gangplank sagged just as I reached the middle, creating a steep incline up to the boat. The motor stalled and, unable to put a foot down on the narrow gangplank, I toppled, along with the motorcycle, into the water, to my intense embarrassment and the great enjoyment of the crowd. Several of the workers immediately sprang to my aid and helped me pull the bike out of the water before it could become too seriously waterlogged. I immediately tried to restart the motor, and after several kicks, it caught and roared to life, apparently none the worse for its bath. I then meekly allowed the stevedores to help me push the bike up the gangplank and onto the boat, securing it with ropes to some clevises next to the cabin.
The Case of the Cantankerous Cow
(from Chapter 21: The Taj Mahal and Mr. Banarse)
I left my guide and headed back toward the hotel for my meeting with the Singh brothers, Harlal and Hardave. As I slowed for traffic in the narrow street leading to the hotel, an angry cow with wicked-looking horns began chasing me. I sped up as much I could in the crowded street, but the cow was gaining on me. Pedestrians observed the situation with some concern but did nothing to intervene. I yelled for the guard at the gate of the hotel compound to open the gate, hoping to be able to squeeze through the gate without admitting my bovine pursuer. However, the guard was not quick enough off the mark, and the enraged cow followed me into the compound. It seemed certain that if I stopped the cow would gore me with its horns. I noticed that the door to the toilet in the corner of the compound was ajar. In desperation I rode the motorcycle through the open door, coming to rest against the two-hole bench, thereby blocking the cow from entering. The Singh brothers, perhaps with more motivation than the other onlookers in the compound, then persuaded the disgruntled cow to desist, and shooed her out of the compound. Both shaken and angry, I yelled,
“What is wrong with that damned cow?”
A witness at the scene replied,
“I am every day having trouble with that cow. She is not liking the sound of your motorcycle.”
Back on the farm in Virginia, we would have penned up, sold, or slaughtered a dangerous cow, but in India such a cow could roam freely and attack cyclists with impunity.