One sells whistles the other sells earplugs
I am dreading the main task of the day, returning a bootleg boxset to a bootleg boxset street stall vendor. i felt my claim was valid: Kevin Spacey does lose nuance when speaking confidentially to camera in Korean with Thai subtites, but i know the process of returning these goods will not prove easy. Especiallly so if the return is accepted then the vendor needs to disappear ‘far far away’ to meet his mate who burns the discs.
Locking my bike to nearby fence I notice that this usually busy tourist street is quite empty save for four young women spaced at twenty metre intervals, each brandishing clipboards. i realised at that moment that evasion of their charms would prove impossible, and that it might be best to submit to the first wave of interrogation rather than to have to engage in sidestep practice further down the payment. She stands in my way in a polite but determined sort of way, saying brightly ‘ Hello! please help me with a tourist survey!’
I i indicate that I am open to inquiry and ask for a preview of her questions. On scrutinising her questionnaire it becomes clear that she is going to be asking me a version of the big three; ‘where do you come from; where are you going to; what are you looking for?’ This discovery brings an inner smile of recognition, as these are the self-same questions that are asked of every tourist that ever walks down this street by every purveyor ever of taxis, soapy saunas, dodgy DVDs, fools gold, fragile silks, make-believe Marlboro, elephant rides. their company short or long time, their sisters company; at some level it was heartening to know that the official tourist board was not straying too far from this trusted interrogation ritual.
‘Where do you come from’ is not as easy as it might seem. I ramble on about my shifting roots among the celtic diaspora. speak of the nature of my far flung family. Listening to the final piece she essays ‘ Canada?’ We settle for this as my point of origin, tick the box and move on. Already i am feeling happy in this new somewhat neutral identity, though wishing i were wearing a larger hat.
‘Where are you going to’ is no easier. I indicate the bag of illicit DVDs ‘Ah you like Brad. Angelina!’ She beams while ticking the shopping box. `I want to speak of Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle: of the impossibility of concurrently knowing where you are and where you might be going but shopping seemed to short cut most of the quandaries that quantum mechanics poses.
‘What are you looking for’ drives us away from the world of the quantum towards more prosaic existential dilemmas, most of these covered more than adequately by Bono a long time ago. ‘ i am seeking buddha’ i declare. ‘Oh you want to see lying buddha? many tourist love lying buddha!’ I want to say that i seek a more truthful buddha, one that eschews the merit system that keeps the poor tithed, but it is all way to complex. She ticks ‘Wat Po / royal palace’ ‘ then I am released to bypass her colleagues on the way to the DVD man. he jumps out from his stall, excitedly repeating ‘Game of Thrones, game of Thrones!’ I think he is referred to the royal succession and admire his bravery in the face of the les majeste laws, but then realise that we back to box sets talk.
Strange to relate none of these sets have their eponymous boxes, and many of the sets are in random order, which is most unsettling. I explain about my Spacey problem. He is immediately sympathetic, and swaps it for another set he has at hand which seems to play well enough on his stall-side player but without sound. Or subtitles.
Wearied by all this negotiation of social identity, life purpose and then unreasonably asking for basic requirements of sound and light from consumer entertainment, i retrieve my bike that lies beyond the clip board girls and point my wheels towards the sanctuary of the protestors’ park.
To reach there I decide to take side roads and travel through an adjacent park set around an urban lake, a park that is protestor free. i meet a young american who has paused mid jog to snap up a picture of the perfectly blossoming bougainvillaea. We fall into conversation about the silence in this park, speculating as to why no one is ever here. I notice a monitor lizard cross the path and wonder aloud if it has escaped the protestors for a more peaceful life here. I have never seen them here before and they have disappeared in the face of the mob from the other park. My executive american friend says he used to jog at the protestor’s camp but has not been there ‘since the invasion.’
I suggest it might prove enlightening for him, but he looks reproving saying that ‘there is no point in putting myself in harm’s way.’ True enough i think, as I move on to do just that. Further along the lake a film crew make a commercial that involves a runner speeding along the curve in the track accompanied by one of those magic camera man trollies that speed in perfect unison with the actor. This actor is Hollister man, not unlike my jogging friend, square of jaw and resolute of purpose. Perhaps it is possible to know where you have come from and where you are going to if you have a cameraman tracking you every step of the way. I must commission a witness on wheels immediately for the remainder of my career through life, if only to show folk when they ask me the big three.
it feels like coming home, to return to the and bagged gates of the peace park, as i now find myself calling it. The protestors are now the new norm, i no longer think of that time when the park was just one other largely empty retreat for those that could afford the luxury of time and space. On the third time around I need to stop and take on some water, seeking a bench near where the bicycle club used to meet before we were evicted by the mob. As i sit beside a fellow foreigner, two cyclists pass and wave hello, shortly followed by one other, who does the same. My seated companion observes that ‘you cyclists certainly seem to know each other.’
I explain that we do and that while the club no longer has premises we still recognise our right to be here, recognise each other in friendship and complicity with the crowd. He asks how i know these thais and i say through the cycling and the park. He comments on the new friends he has made since hanging around the camp. We both share a fascination for the place, observing how generous those who have nothing can be towards perfect strangers, while those who have everything they might ever need would kick you out of the neighbourhood if your were to ask for so much as a glass of water.
He is a somewhat disillusioned yet enlightened Australian academic, sixty six years old, who has recently walked the length of New Zealand chatting to indigenous people on the way and who is now planning to walk the width of Australia, doing the same, living on very little, relying on the comfort of strangers, while researching song lines. We talk of the nature of knowledge and how it is acquired, and of how education is increasingly attempting to commoditise it. We talk of the nature of money and how little understood wealth is, how little you might truly need.
We think of what the protestors aspire towards, and talk of what the politicians the educators and even the monks take from them as they pursue a ‘better’ life. We discuss how best to live in the seventieth or any other decade of human existence. We note the impermanence of life, laugh a little at those who have it all planned out and what occurs to interrupt that smooth narrative from unfolding. He says that while walking he writes two thousand words at the end of each day, commenting on how enlivened he feels in that process.
Now he has so much material, more than he would he would ever have from the equivalent months spent in a library or browsing online journals. I empathise with this, saying that my legs are slowing now and such long range walking projects are out of my reach but i wish him god speed with his. In this way and in our own time we cover the three big questions of existence, and find ourselves coming up with remarkably similar answers.
We part with a silent nod of recognition shared between twin souls, him to his trek, me to my last spin around the park before packing and heading towards the airport. i notice near the exit two stalls adjacent to each other, one selling the ubiquitous whistles – which all self-respecting protestors must blow – the other selling ear plugs. Perhaps both things are needed to get on in this life, when the major questions present themselves, in groups of three.