The Garuda 747 landed in Biak. The large island dominated the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago. The slate blue bay of Cendrawasih mirrored the equatorial sky. Males went naked except for a gourd on their penis. They played guitars. I stayed at an old Dutch hotel opposite the airport. I watched the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson fight in a grass hut on the beach. I bought the natives beer to celebrate the upset. We danced around a bonfire that evening.
They chanted, "Guna guna."
The driver said it meant magic.
In the morning I boarded an inter-island liner heading from Ambon.
When I told the governor I wanted to visit Ceram.
He shook his head, "Sihir hitam tidak bagus. Besar sihir hitam."
Indonesian was an easy language to learn.
I had read about witches able to flying in Ceram and mentioned this to the governor.
He poured me a glass of Johnny Walker Black mixed with a little honey.
"Big magic. Black magic. Maybe you do not believe in magic."
I spoke no more about Ceram.
A week later a plane took me from Ambon to Ternate.
Clove trees covered the slopes of the volcanoes. The USA attacked Iraq. Muslims shouted at me.
After the defeat of the Iraqi forces they all cheered, "Rambo."
Except for one man. Ali was the groundskeeper of the sultan's palace. The old man asked if I wanted to see the sultan's crown.
"Very important. Come from Allah. It can grow hair. Sihir besar."
I said, "Mengapa tidak."
Ternate was the end of the world.
Maybe the crown could fight off Mrs. Adorno's curse.
I arrived at the palace in a tropical suit.
Respect worked wonders in the world.
Along with a $20 tip.
Ali let me hold the crown. I hoped it might free me and he smiled seeing my desire for its power.
He must have seen hundreds of people do the same thing and locked away the precious talisman for another occasion.
I ferried across a stormy sea to Sulawesi followed by a shattering bus ride along the spine of the island to Tana-Torajah, where I crossed to mountains to attend a funeral with ritual animal sacrifice. Headhunters believed the dead needed dead in the afterlife. I agreed as long as one of the dead wasn't one of them. I called home. My parents asked, if I was okay."
To say very good in Bahasa I repeated 'bagus' twice.
It was ever easy to speak.
My mother said she loved me.
My father asked if I had enough money.
Everything is good."
Their love was magic.
After a month I descended from the mountains and flew to Bali.
A ferry ride to Java and a train across the world's most populous island to Jakarta.
Jet to Padang.
Up to Lake Toba highlands, the heart of the Batak, a tribe renowned for headhunting and sorcery.
Animists believed everything had life, especially the dead.
"Tindi." was their word for a soul.
I recounted Mrs. Adorno's curse around a fire.
They laughed, but with a frightened nervousness and one man said, "Guna guna."
"Yes, guna guna," I answered vowing to cease telling about the curse
From Medan a ferry to Malaysia and a long train ride up the peninsula to Thailand.
Magic ruled lives every step of the way, but I was in heaven, snorkeling off coral cliffs, smelling magic spices, climbing smoldering volcanoes, praying against Mrs. Adorno in ancient temples, fighting through thick rain forests, climbing into mountains, flirting with exotic dancers, eating pig with headhunters, drinking whiskey with Hindi rickshaw drivers, and swimming at pristine beaches begging you to stay forever. My money was half-gone and I had half the world to see. On the Bangkok-bound train a Frenchman heard I was traveling to Bangkok and suggested my staying at the Malaysia, saying,"It was where Charles Sobhraj used to meet some of his victims."
"Who?" The name sounded familiar.
"Charles Sobhraj. He was half-Vietnamese, half-French. He would pretend to be friends to travelers and dosed them with pills, so they'd think they were sick. Supposedly he didn't want to kill any of them, but he was not a doctor."
"And I want to stay at this hotel?"
"It's good fun. Cheap and the restaurant downstairs is where all the go-go girls go after the go-go bars close on Patpong."
"Patpong?" I was lost after hearing so many 'gos'.
"It's the wickedest street in Bangkok. You'll love it." Micheal sold colored stones to Europe and we discussed diamonds. He called Pattaya home. Seeing the ignorance on my face, he wrote down his telephone number.
“Come down and see me some time. It’s Disneyworld for men.”
"More so than Patpong?"
"Beaucoup more so."
We bid farewell at the train station.
"Do yourself a favor and do not fall in love."
"It happens to everyone. Even me. Lawang, farang."
I thanked him for the advice and left the train station.
Skyscrapers rose from the wide avenues, which had once been klongs or canals. Upscale tourists stayed at the Oriental Hotel along the Chao Phraya River and backpackers crowded the hovels of Khao San Road. The taxi took me to the Malaysia Hotel. I booked an air-conditioned room overlooking the pool. The price was $20/night. I ignored the cigarette burns in the blankets. I liked hearing the laughter of Thai women swimming in the sunshine.
Kenny’s Bar up Soi Duplei offered farangs or westerners afternoon assignations with lithe free lancers and the Patpong entertainment district provided nocturnal entertainment at go-go bars, sex shows, discos, and drugs. 99% of the girls hailed from Isaan, the heart of poverty on a plateau to the northeast. Selling off girls in times of trouble or need had been a family tradition for generations. Each go-go dancer told a story sadder than the previous girl. I bought them drinks and returned to my hotel room alone. Within five days mama-sans from three bars knew my name. They all posed the same question.
“Why you no go with girl?”
“I have a broken heart,” I explained to the boss lady of Queen’s A Go-Go.
“I fix your broken heart.” A go-go girl weighing 90 pounds swung silken black hair
across my chest. A bikini was painted on her flesh. She showed no signs of inhibition.
“Sorry, can not fix.” The temptation was great, but I refused her offer. “I have to go.”
"You come back. I fix heart. 100%."
I left Patpong for Kenny’s Bar on Soi Duplei, where Fat Pat was dealing opium to old Vietnam vets, dissolute drug addicts, and young adventurers living on $10/day. The 300 pound pusher was half-Thai, half-Chinese. A lot of Thais were half-something else.
"You want chase the dragon?" Fat Pat's stubby fingers held up a black ball of Burmese 'fin'.
"Change your mind, you know where I am. Opium Make you feel horny." He was gay and winked like sleeping with him was an extra bonus.
I drank a cold Singha beer and watched the farangs pick up the dope-weary girls.
"Why you not take girl?" Kenny asked from behind the bar.
"I'm not here for sex. Only beer."
"You can lie me but not lie yourself." Kenny wasn't taking 'no' for an answer. "You not like girls. Can have me. I make love all night for free. I like straight men. You straight, yes."
"Yes, but I don't go with men."
"Not go with men. Not go with lady." Kenny shivered as if someone had walked on his grave. "Maybe you look like girls here. I have cousin. Pong."
He shouted out a name. A slender nineteen year-old with long hair exited from the the kitchen. Her sweet smile would have stopped traffic in Paris, London, or New York.
"You like?" Kenny already knew the answer.
"I don't want to pay for it." The going rate was $20.
"Not have to pay. You give her money for family. Not same pay. You not like not give nothing." Pong leaned over to whisper in Kenny's ear.
“Pong like you. She say that you are not like other farangs.”
“How so?” She stepped close enough for me to smell her perfume. It offered the promise of flowers.
"Ask her not me."
Pong touched my arm and had me touch hers. Her dark skin was smoother than a baby seal’s belly.
“You not fat. You have all your hair. You not do drugs. You have no tattoo. Have teeth too and wear clean clothes,” her words caressed my ear. "You go with me?"
"Yes." Pong had broken my resistance. We went to the Malaysia. The desk staff smiled at my surrender and bowed with hands pressed together in a wai. I had been inducted into the ranks of the farangs. Room 203.
Foreplay was a serious shower. Her naked skin was slippery with soap. She washed my back and front, but was shy about my embracing her wet body.
"Wait." She averted her eyes from my groin.
"Wait for what?" I wanted to make love. It had been a long time.
"Finish clean. After we go bed. Boom-boom. Promise."
It was no lie.
Pong stayed the night and the next. She laughed at my jokes and poured beer into my glass. We ate spicy food and had sex morning, afternoon, and night. We had a good time and Thais like nothing better than fun, unless it was sleep. Pong watched TV in the hotel room, as my typewriter clattered out pages. She said the typing sounded like monsoon rain on a tin roof. I barely lifted my head from my work. Later she leapt from the balcony into the deep end of the pool to get my attention.
I rushed to the balcony."
“You love book more love me,” she cried, climbing from the pool. “It make me crazy. Clack clack clack.”
This wasn’t about the typing.
“Love?” I hadn’t expected this word. Pong seemed happy with the money I have her every morning.
She stormed inside the hotel dripping wet.
Thirty seconds later she stormed into the room, shucking off her soaked clothing, and then and threw herself on the bed.
“Oh, love.” I hadn’t seen a woman this mad, since my ex-girlfriend, Alice, discovered someone had pissed in her raccoon cap at a party. I never told her it had been me.
"Yes, love same in movie. Same in song."
"I haven't loved a woman in a long time."
"You love men?"
Every Thai was convinced that if you didn't love a woman than you had to be gay.
"No, I had a broken heart."
"So this girl now ghost. She make bad magic to stop you love me?"
"Magic. You not know magic, but she make magic to make you not love me."
"A witch cursed me."
I almost placated her fury by saying the l-word, then remembered my friends' warnings and the old expats at Kenny’s stories about love gone bad. I had no intention of joining their repertoire of sad endings and said, "Pong, I like you a lot.”
“Like?” Her skin bristled with indignation." “Like same dog. Like same pizza. Not love.”
"Like is good."
"I not pizza." She pulled on her jeans and tee-shirt like a hurry.
“I know you're not pizza.”
"Not sure." Pong went to the door. "I go now."
One sweet word and she would stay.
I said nothing.
She left and slammed the door shut.
Two minutes later I ran after her.
The girl behind the desk of the Malaysia warned she was very angry.
"Be careful. Thai girls not happy. Bad luck."
"I know all about bad luck." I hurried down the street to Kenny's Bar.
“Pong not here." Kenny was playing cards with Fat Pat.
"Where she go?"
"Not good idea you see her now." Kenny flipped down the Ace of Spades. "Stay away for one day. Maybe two.”
His regulars had witnessed this scene before. They laughed at my expense. I didn't buy any of them drinks. I visited Patpong that night. I thought I saw Pong twice. I couldn’t believe how many beautiful girls with long black hair existed on that one street, but none of them were Pong and the mama-sans repeated their query, “Why you not go with lady?”
Now I had a different reason.
I couldn’t sleep that night. The sheets bore the fragrance of jasmine. I was in danger. The next morning I had a travel agent book a train to Chiang Mai.
“Girls in Chiang Mai have white skin.” The chubby ticket agent had been a beauty once. Now she had a German boyfriend and could eat to her heart's content. “Careful they not make magic.”
“Magic?” I shivered at the threat of another curse.
“Magic to make you love and become buffalo.” The plump travel agent smiled without humor. “Watch what you drink. Ching-ching.”
“Okay, thanks for the warning.”
Throughout the afternoon I fought off the pull of Kenny’s Bar and I tried to recall Pong ever giving me a glass I hadn’t seen her pour from a bottle. I didn’t have enough fingers to count the times, but I was stronger than Pong. This was not love and I boarded the train for Chiang Mai, as the sun set over Bangkok.
Mekong Whiskey provided a potent dose of oblivion in the rocking dining car. I told jokes to the Thai policemen. They bought another bottle of whiskey. They made jokes about me being a buffalo. I asked what it meant.
"Man fall in love with woman. He act like buffalo. Very stupid."
"Chao Jai." I understood all too well.
I didn’t remember walking back to my bunk and woke, as the train pulled into Chiang Mai Station. I had a murderous hangover and stepped off the train into steamy heat.
Distant mountains rose over the tree line. Not a single skyscraper challenged the horizon and a rooster crowed out the dawn.
I stayed at a cheap bungalow within the city walls. The room cost less than $5/night. I rented a motor scooter and drove to the temples by day and the bars by night. The lighter-skinned girls of Chiang Mai were more money-hungry than the Patpong girls. Their avarice might have been due to their taller height. I doubted it and avoided the beer bars.
I thought about Pong. I thought about Elena. I thought about all my girlfriends.
Over and over and over.
An Australian motor trekker at Night Market had been living in Chiang Mai since 1981. Jim knew the roads north of the city well. “This time of year the dope fields are dust ankle-deep. Very few people have driven through the tribal villages; Akhas, Yai, Karens, Hmong, KMT refugees growing opium for outlaw warlords. Great stuff and nothing like smoking opium by the fire, especially at this one hotel in Doi Mai Salong."
Nothing helped bring on amnesia like ‘Chasing the Dragon’ sold the trip and I rented a crapped-out 250 cc dirt bike. Chiang Dao was my address for a week. I typed over a hundred pages of NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD and then spent three days climbing the steep trail to the craggy peak. The view from atop the limestone peak matched Bill’s description of his movie location. The jungle stretched through the haze to the broken peaks of Burma and Laos. I sent Bill a postcard, thanking him for his suggestion.
Burma lay 50 miles to the north. I plotted out a trip to the Golden Triangle. The bungalow owners said they would watch my stuff while I was gone. My typewriter too and I woke before the dawn, ready for the road
Reaching Mai Ai I stopped for Thai noodles at a riverside restaurant. The tea-colored stream flowed from rugged mountains. Two off-duty policemen drank beers. Their guns rested on the table. They spoke about bandits between this checkpoint and the next town.
“Not ride night.”
“I’m going to Doi Mai Salong.” I didn't mention the opium hotel.
"Be careful. Road very dangerous."
“I’ll keep my eyes open.”
The asphalt ended beyond the bridge crossing the Thaton River. Dust spat from the Honda’s rear tire. The hillsides were bald from slash-and-burn farming. The red dirt was dotted with vegetables. Two pick-up trucks sped the other way, their flatbeds crammed opium plants.
The sky was cloudless and I opened the throttle. 40 became 50 KPH on the uphill road. I turned my head and gazed at a distant village. No electrical lines connected the settlement to the modern world. No planes were overhead. I smelled the sun-glazed fields and should have been watching where I was, instead of seeing where I was going. A pick-up truck appeared in my lane. A crash was unavoidable and I said in my head “Shit, I’m dead.”
I didn't care either, as time shattered into a universe of endless possibilities.
IN most of them I died instantly, then my left wrist broke upon landing on the flatbed. The old lady on a rice bag stared to the sky, as if I had fallen from an airplane. Her son jumped out of the truck, spewing incoherent curses in Thai. He grabbed my wrist and I threw him down the slope. After all he had almost killed me.
The two policemen from the restaurant arrived on the scene. We helped the pickup driver up the hill. The officers examined the tire tracks and ruled in my favor. The opium farmer sold a pig to cover my medical bill. The hospital at Mai Ai set my arm. The doctor gave me a packet of aspirin and ignored my request for a stronger. I spent the night tossing in bed. The aspirins barely blanketed the pain. The following morning the Australian arrived with a pick-up. Jim estimated the repairs to his bike would cost $100.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get killed.”
“Yeah, I thought I was dead.” I had a suspicion that I had suffered a fatal head injury in a parallel dimension.
“No, I was talking about the Thai. Lucky he didn’t come to your hospital room and shoot you.”
“Oh.” My hospital bill of 5000 baht was almost $200. A fortune for a farmer.
“Happens all the time up here. He’ll get drunk, think about you, and then bang. Thais are very hot-tempered.
Jim drove me to Chiang Dao for my gear. Two hours later he dropped me at The Top of the North Inn in Chiang Mai. I drank five beers, hoping to kill the pain, but by evening the fracture was pulsating with a white pain. I hurried to a pharmacy by the Eastern Gate, praying for relief. Druggists rejected slews of desperate entreaties from string-out junkies. Few had broken wrists and the Chinese pharmacist counted out twenty red pills. “Strong. Stop jep. No drink beer or whiskey, okay?”
I exited the drugstore and washed down a Dilaudid at a nearby bar. I called Kenny’s Bar in Bangkok. He said his niece was leaving for home tomorrow. She would be gone a month. The next Bangkok train was scheduled for the morning. There was no way I could make it in time.
“Tell Pong I’m thinking about her.”
“Call later. You speak her.” Kenny hung up before I could tell him to ask Pong to stay.
The next beer washed down two more Dilaudids. They hit fast and my mind wandered through a sweaty revision of my nights with Pong, until a booming English voice shortened my nod. A Brit was babbling about the Isle of Wight. I recognized the voice and opened my eyes. The speaker was not a narcotic mirage.
It was Toby Bonham.
He had a hotel on the Isle of Wight. His wife boiled lobsters at the Osborne House Annex, where I had holidayed one August with a South African model. The tall Englishman was ranting about Goya paintings to an overweight female backpacker. Toby squinted beyond his drunken vision and blurted out my name.
“What are you doing here?”
“Just traveling.” I made no effort to move. The beer and Dilaudids had kidnapped my legs. “Why aren’t you on the Isle of Wight?”
“Gave up the hotel. It was losing money.” He weaved over to my stool and sat down heavily. The girl escaped into the night. Toby ignored my cast and explained his presence far from his wife, child, and family auction house in Chelsea.
“I bought a plane. One day I flew to Dieppe for some cheap wine. It was a beautiful day and I kept on going to Istanbul. After that it was strictly flying by compass, until I reached Chiang Mai. I like it here. The mountains, the people passing through, and I met this girl. Lovely girl really. So I sold the plane and bought a guesthouse.”
“You bought land?” Thai law prohibited any farangs from owning property.
“No, I registered the house in my girlfriend’s name.” He unfolded his vision for a Chiang Mai version of the Chelsea Art Society, an art society off the Kings road. “She’s a sweet girl. You have to meet her. This will be the new Shangri-La. Tribal art, travelers from around the world going to Burma, Laos, the Himalayas, cheap beer, good food, beautiful girls. You know this was once the crossroads of the Orient.”
“More like a detour off the Silk Road.”
“Sure, it’s not Times Square, but Times Square isn’t Times Square anymore. If it was, you wouldn’t be here.”
"I loved 42nd street in the 70s, but New York isn’t what it was. Neither is London.
>“Which is why we’re here.”
"I'm glad to hear you're happy here."
"And my girlfriend is so cool.”
"I've never heard anyone describe a Thai girl as cool."
Toby waved off my negativity.
“My girlfriend loves me too much to play me for a buffalo.”
"There's a little bit of buffalo in us all."
"Maybe you're right, but come with me and I'll show you my little shangri-lah."
We crammed into a tuk-tuk, which drove to a secluded lane in the old city. The wooden guesthouse rested in the shadow of a crumbling Buddhist spire. His girlfriend greeted him with a hug. The restaurant was filled with unshaven youths from every corner of the world, listening to Bob Marley. We drank more beer. I tried calling Kenny’s. The line was busy. I was jealous of Toby. His girlfriend doted on him. Before I fell asleep in a hammock, I told Toby, “You’re right. This is paradise.”
I woke around noon covered by mosquito bites and my wrist hurt enough for me to want to cut it off. I swallowed another Dilaudid and drank beer with Toby. He accompanied me to the train station. I bought a 2nd Class sleeper berth. He shook my good hand on the platform. “Come next year and you’ll see the miracle.”
“The Chiang Mai Arts Club.” I waved from the last car and the train lurched down the tracks into the mountains. I drank whiskey in the restaurant car. The sultry night air blew through the open windows. The passing villages glowed with life. The Orient didn’t get any better than this.
The train arrived in Bangkok at dawn. The receptionist at the Malaysia gave me the same room as before. I soaked in the bathtub, while reading the Bangkok Post. The rest of the world didn’t seem too important and neither did the sports.
Having breakfast in the hotel coffee shop I wrote a long letter to Sherri and a series of postcards to my family and friends. I mentioned nothing about my accident or Pong. When I visited Kenny’s bar, he looked at my cast.
“Lucky you not die.”
“I have a tough body.”
“No you lucky man not kill you.” Kenny like the Australian understood danger of an irate farmer.
“Can I call Pong?”
“Her house not have phone. She go help with rice. Maybe stay one month.”
I believed him about the phone, but her hands were too soft to work a rice field.
The travel agent arranged my visa to Nepal and didn’t wander far from Soi-Duplei that week. No temples. No river tour. No snake farms. No Patpong ping-pong shows. With a broken hand I couldn’t write the end to NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD, so I mostly read books and drank beer at Kenny’s.
Another freelancer asked me to take her to the hotel and said, “You wait for Pong. She go Phuket with German. Stupid farang. I show you good time. More than Pong.”
I refused even knowing that she was telling the truth.
“Pong be happy you say no.” Kenny heard my refusal.
He had lied to me about her working. I spotted Pong with a farang at the Malaysia Hotel.
I wasn’t angry. Everyone had to do what they had to do. The travel agent confirmed my flight to Kathmandu. Kenny said good-bye at the hotel taxi stand. “See you again.”
“I’m not sure.” This was not America or New York.
“You not know. I know. You you come back. You like Thailand too much.”
“I’ll see you when I see you.” I didn’t turn around as the taxi pulled away from the hotel.
In Kathmandu I broke open the cast to scratch an itch. I trekked through the Himalayas and then flew to Paris via New Delhi.
I showed my French friends photos of temples, beaches, and mountains.
None of Pong.
I did the same thing in New York. Richie rehired me within a week.
Life was back to normal.
I had finished my novel. My typing was worse than before and my agent told me to take lessons. I didn’t have the time. Bill laughed at my travel stories, especially having survived the motorcycle crash. I told him I still wanted to see those mountains. He wished he could come too, except he was busy making films. My cousin came from LA to dance at ShowWorld. Sherri wore long gloves to cover her tracks.
“Pong was a girl I met.”
“Glad to hear she had a name. You going back?” Sherri was much better than before. Her habit was in remission.
“Yes, but not for her.”
“Six months is a long time for someone to wait.”
“Someday you’re going to wake up and fall in love again.” Sherri was talking about my recovering from Gabrielle, not a go-go dancer. She understood the difference between love and lust and loneliness.
“I’m through with love.” I had not said her name in over a year.
“Never say never.” Sherri thought I was a hopeless romantic.
“Never.” I was still under Mrs. Adorno’s curse.
I could only hope that it didn’t last forever.
Nothing did in this world or the next.