Friday evening, July 7th
As soon as I’m finished with work, I go to a Balinese restaurant in Imaizumi and wait for Azami. More shots of Ron Zacapa Centenarioand a pint of beer. Despite all I have consumed since the afternoon, circumstances are keeping me as sober as a judge.
Azami arrives an hour later with a hastily scribbled message from dé Dale: “Warrant?”
“Of course, they had a warrant,” I say. “A warrant to search my apartment, another one to search my body, and, one to make me piss into a cup. Warrants are the least of my worries. What about dé Dale? Is he okay?”
Azami says that he is. Nothing out of the ordinary has happened since dé Dale and I last met on Sunday.
It is a huge relief, but it makes me shudder to imagine what might have happened to dé Dale and me if the cops had raided my place, then. The thought of it sends a fresh chill up my spine.
Azami asks me if I am okay.
“Yeah, I’m fantastic. Having the time of my life,” I say, downing the last of my Zacapa. “C’mon, let’s go get something to eat.”
We leave the Balinese restaurant and walk to a Thai restaurant called Gamlangdi, where a Thai man and his wife, both bubblier than cheap spumante, run the kitchen. Whenever Azami and I are feeling low or are quarrelling, all we need to do is pop into the restaurant, sit down at the counter, and chat with Mr. Chang. Listening to him talk in his animated mix of broken Japanese, pidgin English, and Thai, it’s never long before we forget what we have been upset about. We always leave Gamlangdiwith our bellies full, our hearts warmed.
“Sawadi kah,” Mr. Chang beams as we descend the steps into the restaurant. “Long time, no see! O-hisashi buri!”
We take our customary place in the middle of the counter, before Mr. Chang’s work area.
“Mo kekkon shita?” he asks Azami.
My girlfriend shakes her head. No, we haven’t gotten married yet. She looks towards me and rolls her eyes.
“Sir, why you wait?” Mr. Chang says to me.
“You should hurry up marry, have chil’ren. C’mon! C’mon! No spring chicken! Ha-ha!”
“I know. I know,” I say, pretending to wipe sweat from my brow with an o-shiborihand towel.
“Ha-ha-ha. Sir, you want Singha?”
His plump wife, Yoopping, waddles over to a beer cooler and brings me an ice-cold Singhabeer. Mr. Chang serves Azami a pot of hot jasmine tea. We then proceed to order. “Pork satay, baikapao. . .”
Baikapaois a fiery hot dish made with stir-fried ground chicken and chopped vegetables, flavored with chili and basil and served on a bed of jasmine rice. It’s out of this world and it just so happens to be what I ate on my first night in Bangkok back in the spring of 2001. I was dining at a street stall—admittedly, not the most halalof places to eat, but damn good, nonetheless.
With dé Dale still in China on business, I went to Thailand two days earlier than him and checked into a suite at the Baiyoke Sky Tower.
A few months before our trip, Timemagazine happened to do an exposé on amphetamine abuse in Asia. Authorities in Thailand, in particular, were having a devil of a time trying to eradicate a potent form of speed, known locally asyaba, or “mad medicine”.
The article, which was written by author Karl Greenfeld,depicted the local drug in the most unflattering terms. As a former abuser himself, Greenfeld knew what he was writing about. But, rather than persuade me of the dangers of yaba, the article had the perverse effect of wetting my appetite for this new, exotic high. And so, while I might have written “sightseeing” on the Immigration card, the true purpose of my visit was to dig my teeth into the meat of another forbidden fruit.
After dinner, I took out the treasure map dé Dale had e-mailed me from Guangdong and hailed a tuk-tuk.
“Sawadi krap,” the jockey said.
“I want to go to . . .” I checked dé Dale’s map. “Khaosan Road. Take me to Khaosan Road, please.”
“Khaosan, ka poh,” the jockey replied. “Okay, okay.”
As soon as I hopped on the three-wheeled taxi, the driver revved the small engine, kicking up a black cloud of exhaust, and took me on a Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride through town.
Khaosan was a broad street, about a block long, lined with restaurants that teamed with drunk Brits and Krauts, dirt-cheap guesthouses, dubious bars, and street vendors selling the same kind of overpriced crap that could be found anywhere tourists congregated. The street was crawling with Europeans—hippies wigged out on who-knows-what, boisterous students, and the occasional disoriented family.
Map in hand, I managed to find the dark alley that dé Dale had described, and walking down it, located the run-down guesthouse where “X” marked the spot. Sitting down tentatively at a table, I ordered a Singha.
An elderly Thai couple lounged behind a makeshift front desk, and, in an open-air lobby of sorts with several cheap plastic tables, sat three tough-looking Thai women.
As I sipped my beer, one of the women called me over and asked what I wanted.
I answered her question with a question: “What do you have?”
“What you want here,” she repeated testily.
It was a reasonable question to ask considering I was the only foreigner around.
“I’m looking for yaba.”
“Why you know here?”
“A friend . . .”
“We don’t have anything today,” she said. “Come back tomorrow at five.”
I paid for my Singhaand returned to the Baiyoke.
On my second day in Bangkok, I went around the city pricing furniture, antiques, and other Asian knickknacks; the kinds of things I had been decorating my apartment with over the years. Running all over town all day in the sweltering Thai heat, by the time evening rolled around I no longer had the energy to make the trip back to Khaosan Road to try to score some yaba. Besides, I doubted the battleax at the guesthouse would actually come up with the goods.
And so, when dé Dale arrived at the Baiyokethe following day, he found me empty-handed.
“What?” He was exasperated. “I was hoping you’d have the stuff already. Man, what kind of friend are you anyway?”
Soon enough, he would learn for himself how difficult it was to score yaba, despite reports to the contrary. But that’s the media for you. Timemagazine had reported that the drug could be found on just about any corner and sold for only a few bucks a hit. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Dé Dale and I hopped into a taxi and returned to Khaosan.
When dé Dale had sent me the “treasure map”, he instructed me to “act cool and observe what the others there were doing.” It was for that very reason that I had sat down and ordered a Singhawhen I went to the guesthouse two nights earlier.
But what does dé Dale go and do when we arrive? Mr. “Iam the Party” walks straight up to that shabby front desk of the guesthouse and, with a nod and a wink to the old man slouched in a worn Lazyboy, says, “I’m . . . looking for . . . something.”
I couldn’t help but smile. So, is this how it’s done, Master?
The old man didn’t budge, didn’t blink, didn’t raise a pinky.
“I’m looking for . . . something,” dé Dale said again, raising an eyebrow.
My stomach started convulsing. I had to cover my mouth with my hand and bite down on my tongue to keep from cracking up.
Dé Dale repeated the same pregnant question one more time to which the old man motioned lazily towards a woman in her late thirties. She hadn’t been there the night before.
With ever more purposefulness in his voice, dé Dale said, “I want. . . what you have.”
It was all I could do to not burst out laughing.
The woman answered with a definitive shake of her head, at which dé Dale finally gave up and started for the alley.
Karl Taro Greenfeld is the author of the highly recommended Speed Tribes: Days and Nights with Japan’s Next Generation, Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.
The first posting/chapter in this series can be found here.
Rokuban: Too Close to the Sun and other works are available in e-book form and paperback at Amazon.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.