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Six Asian Travel Sketches

1.  Saving Face

Mr Kanazawa was rapidly losing face.  The bell boy Mr. Uchida had been up to help me, but couldn’t.  His superior, front desk manager Mr. Kiyomori then came up but gave up after fifteen minutes.  And now here in turn was the Tokyo Royal Park Hotel’s assistant manager Mr. Kanazawa himself in my room, trying to help for the past twenty minutes but failing.

Kanazawa-san’s facial expressions assumed the usual sequence.  It started with a suppressed irritation – always polite – upon bowing and asking permission to enter.  Why is this guest bothering us with such simplicity?  This was followed by puzzlement, the creased brow of concern, and the realisation of powerlessness.

For the third time that day I witnessed the deflation of polite confidence.

In deference to the hierarchical structure of Japanese society, Mr. Kanazawa then directed me to a higher authority.  “Dr. Pestana, I’m sorry, I’m afraid I can’t help you.  Here’s the toll-free number of Microsoft Japan.  They can solve your problem.  I’m sorry we could not help you.”  He then bowed and retreated into an embarrassing redness.

  “Thank you. It’s quite all right Mr. Kanazawa.”

I had simply wanted to download some files onto a mass storage device, a trivial computer operation.  But despite this being a five-star hotel hosting an international conference, the computer screen was entirely in Japanese, with no concession made to other languages.  I knew better than to bother Microsoft Japan, where some voice would fail the communication if not the technical test.  Japan is curious in that the older seem more fluent in English than the younger.

So I spent the next frustrating hour clicking on various Japanese characters until a fortuitous sequence of haphazard clicks saw me through.

2  Slow Night at the Red Moon

 The Red Moon is a Japanese bar in the Grand Hyatt hotel in Beijing.  It exudes an understated elegance, from the red and black décor to the staff to the band that plays blues and the odd tango on Chinese instruments.

On my third night at the Red Moon I had already become a regular. Regular enough to be acknowledged by staff and to aim for the area I knew would be served by Hilary.  It was close to midnight, the tailor had just left my room for the second fitting of my Mao suit and I wanted a drink.  When the band took a break I headed for the bar counter.

The rectangular counter was surprisingly empty after being abuzz with unquiet Americans on the previous two nights.  I put it down to conference-goers gradually working off of their jet-lag and finally managing some sleep.  Directly in my line of sight at the bar were two rather large dark ladies who spoke in furtive snatches of a French patois.  A few stools to my right sat a petite Asian woman in fishnet stockings and high heels with a tall drink.  To my left an ugly fat American sipped a cocktail and smoked.

I had hardly sat down when the two dark ladies opposite start staring openly at me.  It’s disconcerting so I avert my eyes to the right, only to meet the persistent stare of the Asian in fishnet stockings.  I didn’t want to look left at the ugly American, so in avoidance of all parties I train an oblique squint at nobody in particular that soon has my head throbbing with pain.

The band finally starts up again.  It’s the ugly American’s cue to move in on the petite Asian, and my gap to flee the bar counter.  Hilary approaches demurely to serve me a drink.

“Hilary.  Hilary!  Let’s be authentic for once.  What’s your Chinese name please?” I strain against the din.

“In Chinese?  You want it in Chinese sir?   It’s Jiang-growl-slur-chew-xixi.”

“Ah Hilary, another glass of the Louis Jadot Pinot Noir please.”

“Certainly Sir.”

The next morning I spot one of the two dark ladies at the conference during a coffee break.  She’s a fellow conference-goer of course.

3.  Cruising with Thỉớng

“Motorbike Sir?” offered what looked like a youth, pointing to his little Honda as I rounded a corner off Cathedral Square in Hanoi.  Why not?  I had spent the past few hours dodging the army of mopeds the Vietnamese use as their daily transport.  Change is just taking off in Hanoi, most of the population still gets around on mopeds, but as they get wealthier they’ll want cars, and it will soon look like polluted Beijing in its drive towards doubtful progress.  But for the moment the pace is still slow, and the motorbikes, like ants, crawl over the cityscape.  No-one wears a helmet.  Pedestrians and motorcyclists have developed an intelligence to avoid each other in the seeming chaos.  The trick is to keep moving carefully and the hive avoids you.

So I climb on behind Thỉớng (25) and we’re off, into the motorbike maelstrom, the wind in our hair.  It’s the only form of transport you’d ever want to take in Hanoi outside the monsoon season.  I’m not used to bikes so I hold dearly onto Thỉớng as he weaves along.  He once even fielded a call on his mobile while navigating with his other hand.  So I hold on ever closer to Thỉớng.  The muscles of his stomach, if one can call it that, are finely delineated and small – there’s nothing there, just a little bundle, but it’s something on which to hold.  At the next stop he turns around and smiles at me.  I hold on.

Two days later I’m back in Hanoi from Halong Bay.  Thỉớng is waiting for me at 13H00 as we had arranged.  I climb onto my usual position behind Thỉớng and my hands automatically zone in on his cosy midriff, giving him a good tummy rub by way of “hi” as we set off.

“You’ve very handsome sir”, says Thỉớng at the first stop.  Handsome?  Surely he meant “reliable”, his English being extremely poor.  Many people make appointments that they don’t keep, so I surmise he is grateful that I did.  “Yes, you’re very handsome”, he repeats, looking at me with an open smile.  At the Apricot Art gallery I ask of an equally inept English speaker what “handsome” means, and without hesitating she says “like beautiful sir, but for a man!”  I half thought of asking her for an example, then thought better of it.  But I now knew that Thỉớng had meant “handsome” alright.

Later, cruising through the traffic to the snake restaurant with Thỉớng, my “handsome” arms around his waist, it occurs to me that no passenger at those low moped speeds clings onto their driver.  Not one.  In fact, they hardly make bodily contact…

Instantaneously, I figure it all out.

4.  Bombay Baksheesh

Some buildings in Mumbai, if cleaned up a little and the protruding air conditioning units removed, would not look out of place in a central London avenue or a Parisian boulevard.  Splendid remnants of Raj architecture, they stand grandly yet neglected among later arrivals, and exude a presence and style sadly lacking in what came afterwards.  These captivating old dames demand our perusal and admiration, and had me continually pointing my camera at them, even from inside taxis.

At a traffic light during my departing trip to the airport, I aimed my lens at a building’s elegant cornice when my view suddenly darkened.  I looked away to see that a face had obscured it.  It was yet another of Bombay’s teeming beggars, but this one was different.  He had no shirt on, and when my eyes dropped from his shrunken face to his torso, his ribs stood out in relief from the hollow that should have been his stomach, bursting against skin, as if cast for a lesson in skeletal anatomy.

This man needed to eat.  There was no insistence in his stance, just a meek pair of palms and two empty eyes through which the inequalities of the world flowed without rancour or agenda.  As I readied to give him some coins, a man suddenly shoved him away, and tried to sell me one of those irritating whistles that when blown, blare flatly and unfurl a paper coil with a feather at the end.  Was this the justice of the caste system, or just another bully smacking back the downtrodden?

“Get out of my way and call that man back!” I hissed at the whistle-seller.

“Nice whistle sir, very nice whistle, only ten rupees, ten rupees.”

“Come back here”, I called out to the beggar and shoved the vendor aside.

He came back afraid, like a cowering dog beaten once too often, and I pressed the money into his outcast’s hand.  The whistle seller circled in.

“It’s his money now leave him alone!” I shouted as my taxi sped away.

I held little hope that my man could hold onto what was rightly his.

5.  Thai Massage

If I hear the word “massage” again in its various compounds – hot massage, naughty massage, sex massage – I’ll kill.  Why are they so obsessed by it?  You hardly get into a taxi or tuk-tuk in Bangkok when the hard sell starts.  “Where you from sir?  Pat Pong sir? Nice massage sir?”

Vice is embedded in the very place names. If you know your slang, Bangkok is the most aptly named capital in the world, and Pat Pong has a decidedly scatological undertone to it.  So I head for the King’s Corner bar in Pat Pong, which I was told specialises solely in transsexuals but they’re the most beautiful girls in Thailand.  When I get there I find the transsexuals are at another bar – from what I can tell these are all actual women.

The bar is crowded around a jutting stage where around thirty girls in numbered bikinis gyrate slowly to music.  Taking up positions around the tables are regulars, sex-tourists and the bewildered trying to make sense of things.  As I confusedly take a seat, two bikinied girls flank me, rather closely, asking the usual where-are-you-from question and would I buy them a drink?

Of course I’d buy them a drink.  Hardly are they served when they start up the selling.  Real close massage?  Nice slow BJ?  Would I like to go upstairs or would I prefer them to come to my hotel for a naughty massage?

“I was told you were transsexuals here.  But never mind, never mind.  How does it work?”

“The gay lane is across the road if you want.  We are all women here.  How it works is that you pay the bar 400 baht, and you pay me 4000 baht”, says one of them with a searching stare. “Some girls cost more,” she adds by way of bargain.

I feign interest and remain chatty but decline the business end of their company, which elicits remonstrance and dismay.  Tiring of being dumbly starred at, I release them from the obligation of finishing their drink with me.  They frown and move off to prospect elsewhere, throwing me a little wavelet as they leave.  At the adjacent table, three German sex-tourists take turns in slapping a girl on her readily proffered buttocks, testing for firmness.  Gut ja!

Upon entering my hotel room that night, I spot a woman emerging from the room next door.  A rich baritone voice within the room says “thank you”.  She clutches her handbag and some banknotes, nods, stands tall, turns and clips her heels past me down the corridor, fait accompli.  The baritone remains unseen and shuts the door on yet another successful Thai transaction.

6.  Placing Face

After two stints in the East, having visited countries from India through South East Asia to China and Japan, I wondered whether it is possible to distinguish Eastern peoples by appearance alone.  Indians are obviously more Caucasoid in features, but for the rest it’s difficult.  So I put the question to a hardened British ex-pat.

“Yes, after a while you can tell them apart.  The Japanese are wealthier and better dressed.  The Chinese are slightly darker and have more pointed features.  The Thai’s have smooth skins – wait till you feel them.  The Vietnamese are sort of in between.”

After studying people for a few days I think I get the drift of it.  The Japanese are indeed easier to spot, the Vietnamese are beautiful, but the Thai’s I thought – despite frequenters of massage parlours telling me they have good skins – are rather flatter, rounder-faced and not that attractive – perhaps the least attractive of all, I’d say.  So I got it all figured out.

Poring over a map in a Bangkok temple yard I’m approached by a friendly local who insists on helping me.

“Hello sir – can I help you – where do you want to go.”

“Oh Hello – to the reclining Buddha now, but please don’t bother – my tuk-tuk’s waiting.”

“Ah OK.  Where are you from?”

“From Cape Town.”

“Cape Town?  That’s strange, because you look like a Thai.  You really look just like a Thai!”

“Oh?  Really?  Why, thank you. Thank you very much indeed.”

One should always have the courtesy of thanking one’s flatterers.