Day 22: If we only let God's Will be determine by rolling dice
Oscar-awarding winning documentry 'Saving Face' was played at the FCCT, bringing to life the stories of Pakistani women who were victims of acid attacks. Photos: Zoriah
SINCE I mostly shrugged my dice responsibilities yesterday, it's now time to give the die something slightly more interesting to chose between than a latte and an Americano.
Lets get touristy: Phra Chan Market, Flute Village, Root Garden, Massage (I know but I've been dying for a massage the die just seems dead set against the idea), Jim Thompson House or Corrections Museum.
The Corrections Museum, a former maximum security prison built in 1890, is home to a disturbing and elaborate collection of penal-related exhibits – the kind of stuff that tickles some dark place in the mind as you realize how anyone, anyone, can be trained to be so twisted that a person's face, a person's expressions, a person's plea is no longer recognized as that of a human, but something unconnected to humanity entirely.
The rest of the options are a bit off the beaten track as well, except for the Jim Thompson House, which is fairly well visited.
I roll the die and the die walks me down the path most traveled: Jim Thompson House.
A helpful security guard in a formal gray uniform that would fit the gate man at an English country manor points me further down the street to the Jim Thompson House, past a number of gift shops and restaurants all dedicated to the silk magnate
The grounds of the house have been developed as a well-manicured tourist attraction. Through the entrance gate the stone boardwalk is flanked by a large, stylish gift shop on one side and an expensive cafe/restaurant on the other. There are two women in traditional Thai silk dresses pretending to be working looms, but mostly just chatting.
I buy a ticket and sign up for a tour in English, instead of French, which seemed to be the other option. A flock of tour guides in modest gray-cream colored uniforms and their hair put in buns are waiting for their turn to take a group through the house.
A number of stone and gravel pathways meander through the grounds, linking several single room Thai-style houses to the strange multi-room manor created by Mr Thompson from six traditional teak houses from various parts of Thailand back in 1959.
Our guide gathers us around and we start the tour. Her stilted English sounds like it was bolted together and memorized without a complete understanding of the words. Even the jokes and “fun facts”, such as why the lips at the bottom of the doorways are so tall, sound like they are simply being recited by the woman. (They stop children from crawling out and falling from the stilt houses, as well as ghosts from coming in.)
I find myself at the front of the group, then at the back, sometimes listening, sometimes not.
We can come back and look at this room or that room later if we want, but we need to keep moving to avoid bumping into another group. Each room has a small collection of ancient relics collected by Mr Thompson, from Buddha statues to paintings on cotton, which are slowly deteriorating despite the best efforts of conservation experts. There is even a number of shwe chi doe textiles from Myanmar.
Perhaps if there was someone to poke around with or to help me focus on the details of the art, the place would start to come alive. However, it mostly just feels like a house that no one lives in anymore. The most interesting part of it is the simple ingenuity Mr Thompson applied in combining all the houses, mixing western needs with Thai style. He turned interior windows into frames for Buddha statues and repurposed other easy to find goods. In the bedroom, above a porcelain chamber pot, the guide shows us an elaborate multi-layered side view of a model house.
Mice would have their fur dyed and then be put on the top floor of the model before a glass panel was reinserted and the race for food, and the gambling that would go with it, would begin. This was the “TV” of the time the guide says, as a bit of a joke.
In the study, the guide gives a stilted explanation about democracy being established in Thailand in 1958, before she makes a thinly veiled comment about the need to restore it again. Caught off guard by the open comment about the need for democracy, I'm reminded how quick judgments create blind spots.
I linger in the guest bedroom my hands on the window sill, feeling the smooth, well-worn teak against my palms. Starring out at the thick jungle foliage, I savor a moment of being lost in time.
How often did Mr Thompson hold this window sill and look out at the world? What did he think about? Did he recall his time as a CIA operative? Did he review a recent conversation with Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward or Somerset Maugham? Did he ponder the silks being woven in the Baan Cru Village just across the canal? Or did his mind simply wander the inner jungles that we all keep wrapped up in the total darkness of our skulls?
The group has moved on to the next room. They're waiting for me, the tour guide doubles back to see how I managed to get lost. I quickly join them, managing to mildly enjoy the rest of the tour.
It's late in the afternoon by the time I get out of the Jim Thompson House. I have plans to meet up with a Tinder date to catch the exclusive showing of two short documentaries as part of the Foreign Correspondence Club Thailand's Contemporary World Film Series at 6:30pm.
Okay, I say I have plans, but I'm actually hedging my bet.
Since arriving in Bangkok, my Tinder account has been blowing up. My old habit of auto-liking profiles and only taking a look when they match simply isn't working. I've got more than a hundred matches that I've not even checked yet.
In response, I've had to slow down and really start thinking about whether or not the person is going to make time to go do something or will just be a waste of time. Even bringing me in the loop on what the FCCT is up to tonight puts Megan pretty high up on my list of people to hangout with.
But, like I said, I'm hedging my bets. I'm also waiting to hear back from Hanna, an Ethiopian goddess. Okay, goddess might not be exactly right, but she's a stunning woman who has previously worked as an editor at a travel/lifestyle magazine based in Ethiopia. However, she's here with her father, a government official, who is in town for a number of medical procedures, making her unreliable – at best. The fear is that I confirm for the FCCT and then get blindsided by Hanna wanting to throw the dice and see where they take off.
I'm one message away from confirming to meet Megan at the FCCT as I settle into a fancy ice cream parlor just down the street from the Manyee Center, where the FCCT is based.
It's about 6pm by the tie I get back to the Megan about the FCCT. Having not heard back from me, she's ended up stuck in traffic and won't be able to make it in time to join.
Looks like I'm rolling solo.
Nervously, with no idea what to expect at all, I start hunting for the FCCT. Despite being several hundred meters away, I spend the better part of 20 minutes wondering into parking lots, trying to figure out what the hell Google Maps wants from me.
The entire time lyrics from Eminem's “Without Me” are running on loop in my head:
So the F-C-C won't let me be or let me be me so let me see.
They tried to shut me down on M-T-V.
But it feels so empty without me
On a hunch, I find my way into the Mayee tower and ask a security guard where the FCCT is located. He points to the elevators.
I wait in front of the elevator with pink lights encircling the buttons.
I wait some more.
A blond with a tangle of wild curly hair bursts into the area with the elevators.
“Do you know exactly where the FCCT is?” She asks. Taking in her surroundings, the light bulb goes off ans she hits the button on the elevator next to me.
“This elevator. You going to the screening?” she asks.
I follow her into a different elevator.
Clutching her bag, Zoey launches into an explanation about how she's been away from Bangkok for a couple years now after starting a grass roots, women's rights group and how her meeting today for another NGO went on for two hours too long, making her hours late to meet friends at the FCCT.
She's the kind of drug-free person who you can't help but suspect that she's on speed: engaging, rattling off tons of information, mind and mouth moving faster than synapses in most of our heads.
The elevator opens to the penthouse of the Mayee Center, the FCCT.
I sign in as a non-member at the table at the entrance.
More than 60 years old, the place oozes with all the fun flavors of a “boys club”. Dominating the space is an oval, wooden island bar with dozens of front pages of Dateline – the FFCT's quartly magazine – on display. Close to the entrance there is the green felt of a pool table, which is standing on carpeting that looks like it was designed in the 1950s.
A number of tables with white table clothes are setup at the far end of the club house, with several screens ready to show the documentaries.
There's still plenty of space at the tables, but I'm out of place among the real journalists and human right activists congregating in the room. I put my bag down, feeling foolish for showing up at the FFCT with a DSLR camera and my notepad.
A thin black man that has the look of a seasoned journalist, bounces the cue ball along the felt of the pool table.
“Want to play?” I ask.
He's got to run: a plane or a meeting or something. He's not able to stay for the show. His name's Jim. I wonder what stories Jim's covered in his time. I wonder what differences, if any, they've made.
Four uniformed Thais are working the bar area, I flag one down and order a Jameson whiskey on the rocks. An appropriate drink for the setting.
Zoey is suddenly beside me at the bar, ordering a white wine. She invites me to join her and her friends at one of the tables.
I hesitate, then accept. I've got no idea if my Tinder date will show up, and it's nice of her friends to offer to include me.
“So what are you doing?” says a thin faced, brighten woman with graying hair pulled back into a ponytail and a shawl wrapped across her shoulders.
“Just writing,” I say. I'm uncomfortable launching directly into Dice Travels, having yet to find a concise way to explain the project and not wanting to dominate conversation.
“Just writing? There is nothing 'just' about writing,” Susan says. Susan is one of those extraordinary people who has lived many lives just this time around.
“Give him the elevator version,” Zoey says, when I ask exactly what Susan is up to.
“Usually I just say I'm retired, which stops the conversation immediately,” Susan says. However, she in this particular cause she give me a the elevator breakdown.
Susan Dustin has written three books: one on lady boys, one on men working in the sex industry and one on her personal experiences, including a near death experience from which she didn't want to come back. She also runs the Laughing Club in Bangkok, which is a laughing yoga program that operates once a month.
“Wait, do you know the short story, 'The Laughter Club'?” I ask overly pleased at actually knowing something about what she's talking about.
'The Laughter Club' by Peter Mountford, which is in an old copy of The Sun magazine that I have rolled up and tucked into my bag back at the hostel.
“A month or so after I’d started, I discovered the laughter-therapy group. I went up for my morning break and found about a dozen people outside, holding one another’s hands in a circle, bouncing up and down, and howling with laughter. Sometimes one of them would prance into the middle and dance a jig or pantomime playing a trumpet or marching in a parade, and everyone would crack up and applaud and then go back to bouncing up and down and holding hands. Their laughter echoed against the hospital’s art deco facade.
“The first time I saw them, I smiled at the sight and took off my headphones to listen. Their laughter was so raucous and sincere, I found myself beaming. Even the inpatients on the smoking patio — a withered, mostly wheelchair-bound lot — smiled between drags.
“After that day, I started timing my morning breaks so that I would see the laughter club, which met every day at 10:30 on the grassy esplanade beside the helicopter pads.”
Zoey, Susan and a young, black woman from somewhere in Africa, were all part of women rights activities, but before the conversation can get too involved, the speaker takes the podium to introduce the films for the night: Saving Face, an Oscar-winning film from 2012 directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and another Oscar-winning film, Girl in the River-The Price of Forgiveness, directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Daniel Junge.
The disfigured face of a women mutilated in an acid attack comes into focus on the screen. Their shame, fear, desire for justice all marred by thick scar tissue is hard to look at, hard to accept. The worst part is the gut reaction to seeing their faces. Human faces.
You don't see the actions, you see the results – and it's hard to see.
But the results are people who are to be cherished, the actions are what should be abhorred. Acid attacks on women is a common act of violence that is rarely punished properly in Pakistan, though the irrational rage and jealousy of attackers – often husbands – destroys these women's lives.
The film follows plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad, whose favorite type of surgery is breast enhancements, returning to his native Pakistan to help those disfigured by the acid attacks. It also follows a legislative move to increase the penalty for those convicted of committing acid attacks.
Dr Mohammad's flirtation chit-chat and touchy-feely approach in dealing with the woman causes the hairs on the backs of the necks of the feminists at the table to bristle. I, however, can't help but wonder that after so much shunning and lack of affection, if the light, flirtatious tone of the doctor is appreciated, despite the man's clear god complex. However, I'm not about to raise the question, let alone take the stance – I'm out numbered and there is a massive information gap between my opinions and the deeper understanding the women at the table have on personal and professional levels.
Moments after the credits finish rolling for Saving Face, yet another devastatingly difficult film takes the screen: Girl in the River-The Price of Forgiveness.
In this one, a woman in Pakistan runs away to a neighbor's son and marries him against the wishes of her father, shaming the her family.
In retribution, the father ties her up shoots her in the head and throws her into a river. Miraculously, she survives. The documentary then follows the harsh, ineffective judicial system in Pakistan as the woman seeks justice.
The unwavering righteousness in the eyes of the father about his choice to kill his daughter in order to preserve is honor is haunting.
The lights come up. I silently listen to the women talk briefly about the films, about how much change needs to be done and about the importance of economic independence, before drifting to their plans for the rest of the week.
The bills comes. My salmon spaghetti isn't on anyone's bill – the waiter had brought an extra one to the table and I was the only one who wanted it. The ladies kind of shush me about the whole thing, so the FCCT hooks me up with a free meal for the night.
On the BTS back to the hostel, the movies keep playing in my head.
It's amazing how destructive human intention and how blind our faith in God can be. If such inhuman behavior was left in the hands of a fair die, touched by nobody but god, we could see honor killings and acid attacks drop by 83%. The glimmer of real hope, however, comes through changes in legislation in Pakistan, despite the stoic stance of the majority.