The poor traveler
The promised land or the den of lions?
“The wilderness through which we are passing to the Promised Land is filled with Fiery flying serpents. But, blessed be God, none of them have hitherto so fastened upon us as to confound us utterly! All our way to Heaven lies by Dens of Lions and the Mounts of Leopards; there are incredible Droves of Devils in our way … We are poor travellers in a world which is as well the Devil’s Field, as the Devil’s Gaol; a world in which every Nook whereof, the Devil is encamped with Bands of Robbers to pester all that have their faces looking Zionward.” - Cotton Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World, (Boston, 1693), p. 63.
As a recent retiree living in Thailand, I am fortunate to spend my days doing the few things I love most: reading, writing, and simply enjoying life. One of the books I recently read is Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards, by Phil Hall.
Phil was a teacher here in Thailand and is a blogger for ajarn.com. Although it could have used some editing, (more than a few sentences had essential words missing, or in a couple of cases, an irrelevant word not omitted), I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
It could have been my story, minus the marriage to a Thai woman, a son, and an almost completed house in the countryside. The commonalities were eerie: sick elderly parents, unprepared jaunts to countries unknown, dealing with crooked and unscrupulous business people, a scam artist posing as a teacher, and teaching in unprofessional schools. Then again, most of us here have experienced that.
Some of the book was downright frightening. The machete attack on Hall’s wife Jum, by a member of Jum’s family, sent shivers up and down my spine, and left me with the thought that Hall’s book should be handed out to every living being at all of Thailand’s ports of entry. A two for one deal! And I thought Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer was haunting.
Before discussing Hall’s book in detail, I would like to thank him for writing it. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. Everything is laid bare; his lack of planning in bringing his family to India. His wife’s family in Kalasin, full of urchins, devils, and a machete-wielding old woman whose shady land deals and an unhealthy obsession with money took precedence over her own family. His own family; a father with vascular dementia, and all of the complex emotions that accompany such a life. At times it was painful to read.
Through all his trials and tribulations, Hall struck gold when meeting Jum, marrying her, and, subsequently soon after, having their son, Tom. After reading the book, it will become clear why I feel this way. Admittedly, I am not a big fan of Thai women or cross-cultural marriages. I am not against mixed unions. I just look at things realistically.
As for Thai society, Hall’s book, and many others like it, along with my many years of experience here, have led me to believe that far too many Thais seem to live in a state of perpetual adolescence, with the conditions and behaviours associated with the tumultuous teenage years: pimples, angst, a lack of impulse control and rational thought, and an abnormally large amygdala combined with an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex.
It has been observed and quietly whispered by perspicacious foreigners in Thailand that if you scratch a Thai, you get a very angry, frustrated, and extremely volatile fellow who can explode in a fit of rage at the proverbial drop of a hat. The reasons for that are as varied as they are pathological. Envy, excessive pride, petty jealousies, and unrealistic family obligations, to name just a few, often keeps Thais in a dependent and infantile state to one another. Resentment builds and is kept inside until it explodes like a terrorist’s bomb. Some of Hall’s experiences certainly prove that.
Hall’s book takes the reader on quite a ride, but three themes seem to dominate and interweave throughout: family, work, and travel. If I were to congratulate Hall on his writing, it would be for this: Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards seems to follow the pattern set out by one of my favourite writers and thinkers, the brilliant mythologist, Joseph Campbell. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell outlines, and describes in detail, through Greek and Roman Mythology, biblical stories and passages, Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis, and even fairy tales, the adventure of the hero: (1) departure, (2) initiation, and (3) return. Campbell describes each of the stages, which are played out countless times in various forms by numerous heroes, this way:
“The first stage of the mythological journey --- which we have designated the ‘call to adventure’ --- signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 58.)
“Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid , ambiguous forms where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favorite phase of the myth-adventure. It has produced a world literature of miraculous tests and ordeals. The hero is covertly aided by the advice, amulets, and secret agents of the supernatural helper whom he met before his entrance into this region. Or it may be that he here discovers for the first time that there is a benign power everywhere supporting him in his superhuman passage.” (Ibid. p.97.)
“When the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy. The full round, the norm of the monomyth, requires that the hero shall now begin the labor of bringing the runes of wisdom, the Golden Fleece, or his sleeping princess, back into the kingdom of humanity, where the boon may redound to the renewing of the community, the nation, the planet, or the ten thousand worlds.
But the responsibility has been frequently refused.” (Ibid. p. 193.)
Return often is a frustrating ordeal since the people we return to have difficulty comprehending our experiences, downplay them, or are simply indifferent to them.
“Would I be going back to a dull and soulless IT job? Well, I was served up a healthy dose of reality when I contacted my old buddies at PepsiCo to test the waters. Richard Jones was still the boss, and I foolishly emailed him with a quick enquiry, as I had heard that here were a few vacancies on the service desk. He replied in the negative, and even told me that he knew that I would fail and was surprised that I lasted so long.” (Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards, p.186.)
“The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him. For the bliss of the deep abode is not lightly abandoned in favor of the self-scattering of the wakened state. And yet, in so far as one is alive, life will call. Society is jealous of those who remain away from it, and will come knocking at the door.” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 207.)
Yes, by all means, travel. See distant lands. Slay the fire breathing dragon. Drink the elixir from the fountain of immortality. Dine with the Goddess of the Sea. Just be home in time for dinner, dear. If it’s any consolation, Phil, we all go through this. Personally, I can’t even slay a spider without shaking.
You may have noticed the above quote by Cotton Mather. It is there for a reason. Mather was a 17th Century American puritan, full of fire and brimstone. We are poor travellers, as Mather states. Besides the rest of us, I am thinking specifically of two Americans who have been in the news recently for their own travel exploits, John Allen Chau and Jack Dorsey.
Chau, if you recall, went to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands last November to spread the gospel to a bunch of half-naked xenophobic tribesmen who have had no contact with the outside world. He brought fish, youthful exuberance, and a dazzling 26 year old smile. As the arrows from the tribesmen whizzed past his head, he shouted, “I’m John! I love you! And Jesus loves you!” As of this writing, rescuers are still searching for his body.
Then there’s the CEO of Twitter. Around the same time Jack Dorsey took a birthday trip to Myanmar, which included a retreat in several Buddhist temples. He wrote on the social media platform he co-founded that he had a wonderful time, and really liked the people and the food. However, the traditional American media, and several of Dorsey’s Twitter followers, didn’t see Dorsey’s journey quite the same way. Dorsey was excoriated for initially ignoring the plight of the Rohingya’s. He later admitted that he didn’t know enough about it to accurately comment on the situation.
I have no problem with Dorsey’s trip or his activities. I do have a problem with the mob mentality of a people who have nothing better to do than enviously criticize a man for something that they can only dream about from mommy’s basement. If Dorsey is guilty of anything, it is ignorance of a very complex situation, the very thing that almost all of us are guilty of. What I do find amusing is Dorsey’s naivety. It’s great that he loved the people and the food, but is 10 days or two weeks enough time to come to such a conclusion? It’s like reading a comment like, “I went to Egypt last year and had a piece of cheesecake the size of a Buick!” Funny to the point of absurdity, but not very informative.
As for Mr. Chau, that’s a different matter. His hubris and stupidity is astonishing, or shall I say, was astonishing? It’s on par with a high-ranking government official walking into North Korea with a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, and saying to the dictator, “How about a game of hoops? Then we can discuss nuke reduction over some shrimp and champagne.” Oh wait a minute! I think something like that was tried before. To me, this is mostly about the failure of the U.S. education system; a system that has brainwashed the last two generations of students into thinking that a world without borders is ideal; a world in which everyone is essentially the same; a world in which everyone should be free to roam the earth and live wherever they choose. Because we all global citizens, don’t you know, and want the same things. This, of course, is utter nonsense and bears no resemblance to the real world. John Allen Chau is what happens when Michael Jackson's "We Are the World" takes human form. And to think there are millions of others like him is frightening.
We are poor travellers, not only because we sometimes are as unprepared as Hall’s jaunt to India. We are poor travellers because we are too trusting, too naive, and yes, sometimes downright stupid. We ignore the Fiery flying serpents, of which Mather warns us. We whistle past the Dens of Lions and Mounts of Leopards. We seem unconcerned, if not undeterred, by the Bands of Robbers that lie in wait to pester us all, until it’s too late. This world is a place where angels and devils dance on the same stage, and at times it’s almost impossible to tell which is which.
One important lesson to glean from Hall’s book is this: leave the Thai villagers alone. Leave them to their superstitions, psychiatric issues, misery, and indifference to others based on their own self-loathing. It’s not that you will end up with rocks and bottles thrown at you, or have arrows protruding from your chest cavity, (then again, you never know). But the odds of any farang being loved, respected, and accepted by these villagers is so infinitesimally small as to be foolish to even consider.
And it’s not that we in the so called enlightened west are any better. “Oh look, dear, our son brought home a third-world peasant. How lovely!” It is a constant source of amusement to me, and to many Thais as well, why so many foreign men go to the villages of Southeast Asia to look for a wife. Rich Thai men don’t even do that! It is so easy to ridicule farangs for this kind of foolishness. It has often been said, by both Thais and foreigners, that when you marry a Thai you also marry her family. And, by extension, her village. Fine, if that’s what you want and are prepared to do. What farangs are not prepared for is how these villagers exist. They exist is a pathological state of what I like to call, ‘the fierce urgency of NOW’. They need money, NOW! And they will do anything to get it, NOW! Thai children, especially daughters, feel the full weight of this pathology and totalitarian mindset.
Hall was understandingly baffled as to why his wife would face a machete attack and such vile hatred by a member of her own family. It’s not that difficult to figure out. In Thailand, as in many other countries, children are seen as either the black sheep of the family, or the sacrificial lamb.
As brilliantly illustrated by Joseph Campbell, biblical stories and ancient myths play themselves out in various forms on a daily basis the world over; stories and myths that most of us still stubbornly refuse to learn from. Thai children, like children around the world, long for their parents’ blessing and approval, and will go to great lengths to get it, even doing themselves harm in the process.
Many of these stories often include envy, jealousy, revenge, deviousness, treachery, deception, sibling-rivalry, back-stabbing… everything needed to understand dysfunctional families and societies. The bars of Thailand are filled with servers and dancers from the villages sent there by their parents for one very important purpose: to bring home the bacon; and there can never be enough bacon! To bring a farang back to the village is one hell of a face-saving blessing. It’s almost impossible to resist, and those who do, risk becoming the black sheep. We are the game, where the hunter becomes the hunted. But I do wonder where this ‘romancing the noble savage’ idea came from. Oh yes, Jean Jacques Rousseau. Bless him! What Hall experienced in Kalasin was full-on tribalism; the same tribalism found in biblical times and before the advent of the nation state.
In his book, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst”, (Vintage Books, 2017), Biology and Neurology professor Robert Sapolsky discusses the famous psychology experiment by Stanford University professor Philip Zimbardo. The ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ took place in 1971, and it was meant to study the effects of conformity, hierarchy, obedience, and resistance. Sapolsky sums up the experiment:
“Twenty-four young male volunteers, mostly college students, were randomly split into a group of twelve ‘prisoners’ and twelve ‘guards’. The prisoners were to spend seven to fourteens days jailed in a pseudoprison in the basement of Stanford’s psychology department. The guards were to keep order.
Tremendous effort went into making the SPE realistic. The future prisoners thought they were scheduled to show up at the building at a particular time to start the study. Instead, Palo Alto police helped Zimbardo by showing up earlier at each prisoner’s home, arresting him, and taking him to the police station for booking --- fingerprinting, mug shots, the works. Prisoners were then deposited in the ‘prison’, strip-searched, given prison garb, along with stocking hats to simulate their heads being shaved, and dumped as trios in cells.
The guards, in surplus military khakis, batons, and reflected sunglasses, ruled. They had been informed that while there was no violence allowed, they could make the prisoners feel bored, afraid, helpless, humiliated, and without a sense of privacy or individuality.
The guards put the prisoners through pointless, humiliating rituals of obedience, forced painful exercise, deprived them of sleep and food, forced them to relieve themselves in unemptied buckets in the cells (rather than escorting them to the bathroom), put people in solitary, set prisoners against each other, addressed them by number, rather than by name. The prisoners, meanwhile, had a range of responses. One cell revolted on the second day, refusing to obey the guards and barricading the entrance to their cell; guards subdued them with fire extinguishers. Other prisoners resisted more individualistically; most eventually sank into passivity and despair.
The experiment ended famously. Six days into it, as the brutality and degradation worsened, Zimbardo was persuaded to halt the study.” (p. 463.)
The horrific result of Zimbardo’s experiment underscores the historical reality of how seemingly good people can suddenly turn evil or sadistic. Given the appropriate (or inappropriate) circumstances, a given situation can, and often does, turn peaceful people into violent killers.
What is most interesting about Zimbardo’s experiment are his thoughts and theories about human bahaviour. He would then go on to write a book about his experiment titled “The Lucifer Effect” in which he turned the notion of the bad apple on its head. For Zimbardo the issue isn’t just that a few bad apples can spoil the bunch; bad apples have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is bad barrels. The world is full of bad barrels, from backward villages to dysfunctional families. The lesson from this experiment: good apples in bad barrels become bad apples.
The village in which Hall describes the machete-wielding old banshee, and Pang, the little urchin who loved to kill fish, is Zimbardo’s notion of the bad barrel producing bad apples. Hall wanted to get revenge for that horrific incident. That is understandable. Fortunately, Phil and Jum left the bad barrel before it had the chance to turn them into bad apples.
Hall also discusses his experiences teaching English in Thailand. I have written several blogs about this over the years, so I won’t discuss it in detail. Suffice to say that Hall’s experiences in the classroom is not much different than most of us. The students are wonderful, in spite of a system that is envious of them and despises them. Yes, no one is allowed to fail. Yes, many Thai teachers and staff are jealous of us NES’s to the point of overt resentment. Yes, many directors are spineless and incompetent, especially when it comes to taking responsibility for implementing effective policy, (money is everything in Thailand, after all.) The naivety here, and I was a part of it for many years, is thinking that as teachers, we can make one hell of a difference. We walk into schools with ideas and books while the Thai staff wonders, “Hey, where’s the basketball?”
It is also easy to ridicule the tree-hugging environmentalists and the signatory nations of the Paris Climate Change Accord. These leftists seem to think they know what the weather will be a hundred years from now. Check the weather three days from now and see how that pans out. “The whales are dying! The polar bears will disappear!” they scream at the top of their collective lungs. “Look at what man has done to life! We are killing all life forms!”
My point, you ask? My point is this: we can’t even exterminate cockroaches or rats properly. We spray them and not 10 minutes later they emerge from their holes laughing at us. That’s all you got, big guy? That’s all you got?
My point is this: “Suddenly, the calm was rudely interrupted as the door swung open and we were faced with a shuffling wreck of a man. His hair was almost standing on end and there was a large cut on his left cheek. His eyes were wild and he was sobbing like an infant who had been told to go to bed for being naughty.
This was my dad. This poor man who clearly had lost his marbles was looking on forlornly, and [all] I could do was cry my bloody eyes out.
His body was bony and he was trembling; he simply stood there as I tried to guide him towards a chair. When I looked into my father’s eyes I could see no recognition, just a dull blue mess where a lively stare used to be.” (Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards, pp. 207-08.)
My point is this: “The poor wrenched man who had helped Mum bring me and my siblings into the world had never looked so vulnerable. What was left of his hair was sticking up. His mouth was open; most of his teeth had been removed, as they had become infected a few months earlier. There was a harsh rasp as he exhaled.
Holding his cold bony hand, I stroked his cheek and prepared for the worst.” (p. 217.)
My point is this: if any of the environmentalist wackos and social justice warriors cut their own hubris and stupidity long enough to take a tour of just about any geriatric center, they would come face to face with something they have been denying all their lives, namely, their own immortality and the powerlessness of man. It’s easy to live in a world of fantasy where they claim to hear the voices of trees and animals crying out to save them. Walk through the halls of these geriatric centers, take in the smells of those who have lost all bowel and kidney function, look into the eyes of those who haven’t the foggiest notion of whether you are animal, vegetable, or mineral. And realize one thing: that bony person you’re looking at lying in bed, whose heart has turned to stone, whose lungs have turned to ash, whose brain has turned to jelly, moaning and groaning incoherently, like a severely wounded soldier in a God forsaken foxhole, will one day be you. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about, except keep a bottle of sleeping pills or arsenic next to your bed the moment you feel the pangs of dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, or any other horrific disease that robs us of any dignity we thought we had. Save the whales. Save the polar bears. Save the snails. Save the porcupines. We can neither save ourselves nor others from the brutal ravages that await us all.
My point is this: whatever anyone thinks of life, or what we are doing to life, is nothing --- absolutely nothing --- compared to what life is doing to us. And can do to us. And will do to us. Life gets to laugh last --- always.
“I asked the nurse to leave, and sat beside my father. I thought back to the times when I was ill as a child. Mumps, chickenpox, I had them all. Dad would make me soup, and do his best to raise my spirits. Oh, how I longed for those days instead of this tragic role reversal that I found myself in!” (Bangkok to Ben Nevis Backwards, p. 217.)
“The mighty hero of extraordinary powers --- able to lift Mount Govardhan on a finger, and to fill himself with the terrible glory of the universe --- is each of us: not the physical self visible in the mirror, but the king within.” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 365.)
Finally, Colin Raymond Hall finds peace.
“Shona flew back to the States in mid-July. Less than a week later, my father died in his sleep.
Dad was free now. No longer was he trapped in that torture chamber of a body. Those frightened eyes were finally closed. His claw-like hands were hopefully relaxed and at peace.” (p. 220.)
“The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure. Here the whole sense of life is epitomized. Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave.” (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 356.)
In a pretentious and perhaps presumptuous move, I will continue with Campbell’s thoughts. Once reconciled with the grave, the hero hands the mantle over to his successor. However prepared or unprepared, the hero-in-waiting takes what is given to him and walks with it. He walks with pride. He walks with honour. He walks with dignity, integrity, and respect. But most of all, the hero-in-waiting, the new hero, walks with a purpose.
For the mantle is your father’s legacy; his successor, you Phil Hall. And the purpose? To take your father’s legacy and let it shine; let it illuminate the path to wherever you choose to go next. If you ever come back to Thailand and step into a classroom, and I’m sure one day you will, your father’s legacy, along with the lessons you’ve learned from experiences past, will be the beacon to which you will live your life for yourself and for your family.
The next adventure awaits. Good luck to you, Phil. And I look forward to your next book.
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What a great exposition on life itself, if not only on the typical illusionary Farang experience in Thailand. Such derogatory description of overly enthusiastic and unrealistic westerners in Asia and far beyond would included me as well - I must confess.
Steve's fatalistic yet realistic view of aging and death should put a firm stop to all of our misadventures, corruption, and amoral behavior!
Be good while you last!
Global warming? Steve induces a slight doubt...just a tiny little one, isn't this issue all over the mass media? I wonder...I wonder...
By Alex, Bangkok (22nd July 2019)
Thanks so much for your words and interpretation of my book!
I thoroughly enjoyed this article and will be reading more of your blog content from now on :)
By Phil, Oxford (22nd January 2019)