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Friday, March 10, 2006

Our second morning in Thailand got off to a slow start.  In the hotel lobby, we waited and waited for Peter to make his appearance.  Finally, Phil called his room – and woke him up.  He had overslept and somehow missed the wake-up call that Erica made sure was scheduled for each of us every morning.  (Peter did not have a room mate.)

I thought this whole thing was a little strange.  Peter had been at the hotel bar with us the night before, but I didn’t think he had been drinking very much.  And Margaret reported that he had left for his room before she did.

Much later, I learned a very interesting fact.  Another classmate, Jim, had been having trouble sleeping and was spending his nights in Bangkok in the hotel lobby, taking advantage of the free wifi.  The night before Peter overslept, Jim saw him returning to the hotel around 3am with a Thai woman who could only have been one of the infamous Bangkok women of the night.  I was shocked.  Peter had spoken so highly of his live-in fiancé when we were in Beijing.  I’m not judging him, but Thailand has one of the highest HIV infection rates outside of Africa.  That is scary, regardless of your moral position on the subject.  It’s a good thing that the hotel provided free condoms on our nightstands!

Jim had started keeping track of the nightly traffic in and out of the hotel.  The ritual went something like this:  It was pretty quiet in the hotel lobby in the wee hours of the morning.  He would hear the elevator bell chime, then hear the click-click-click of high heels across the lobby floor.  He’d look up from his computer and see a Thai working girl hurrying across the room, rummaging in her purse.  By the time she reached the door, she had found her cell phone and was making a call.  Each woman seemed to go through this same process on her way out.  Based on the number of women Jim saw leaving in a particular period of time, and the number of rooms in our hotel, he extrapolated that approximately 17% of the hotel rooms in Bangkok had a whore in them at any one time.  Yikes!

At any rate, we finally arrived at Chula, sans Peter.  (He took a cab and arrived later.)  Professor Surapeepan began the day by giving us each some flowers that she had picked out of her garden.

Our first lecture of the morning was on the Thai political situation.  We had visited Bangkok in the middle of a very interesting time in Thai politics.  The current Prime Minister was not very popular.  He had been involved in some business dealings, on which he had not paid taxes, that were not very becoming of a government official.  There were a lot of protests going on, calling for him to be removed from office.  Parliament had been consumed with the debate, so the Prime Minister dissolved the Parliament.  We were supposed to be visiting Parliament on Tuesday, but now it looked like this wouldn’t happen.

The PM had been elected mostly due to his support from the rural community.  Rural Thais liked him because he had instituted a national healthcare program.  Up to that point, no healthcare had been available for poor or rural people in Thailand. Now any Thai citizen could receive healthcare for a co-pay of only 30 baht, which is less than one US dollar.  While this seems like a good idea on the surface, the funding for this program is not there.  

Our second lecture was about the Thai economy, but we ended up really talking more about the political situation, since it was such a hot topic.  I was shocked to learn that the vast majority of Thais do not pay income taxes.  Only people earning more than 15,000 baht annually pay taxes.  The median income in Thailand is only 8000 baht.  How the heck is this government supporting itself?!

After lunch, we had a chance to meet with our clients again.  Visutha had brought some of her sales materials for us to look at.  Her company did not publish any of its own sales or marketing materials.  All she had brought were the brochures that were put out by the medical equipment manufacturers.  They were all in English.  Her lack of establishment of a brand for her own company was a big problem, in our opinion, as well as the lack of product information in the local language. 

Aftrr returning to the hotel, a few of us decided to do some shopping at the street market.  We wandered around, looking for Thai souvenirs.  I bought some silk pillow covers for throw pillows.  As we meandered down Petchaburi Street, someone happened to glance at a tailor shop and see Mitesh and Manzoor sitting inside.  We went in to see what they were doing.  They were having suits made.  This shop would make a men’s suit for about $75-$100.  What a steal!  Soon we were all looking at fabric samples and studying catalogs. 

The tailor shop was owned by an Indian family, which was why Mitesh and Manzoor had originally been drawn inside.  The guys spoke Hindi with the shop owners the entire time, although the owners did speak English as well.

Jim and Jaime ended up ordering three suits and several shirts each.  Kris and Jamie each ordered two suits with both skirts and pants.  (I should mention here, so that there is no confusion, that Jaime and Jamie are two different people.  Jaime is a boy, and although he was born in Chicago, he is of Columbian descent.  Technically, his name is pronounced like Hy-may.  However, since he’s lived in the US all his life, he has given up correcting people and now uses the pronunciation Jay-mee.  Jamie (whose name is spelled slightly differently than Jaime) is a girl, and also pronounces her name Jay-mee.)

I did not really want to order a suit.  I already have two suits, and I rarely wear either of them, since my company is business-casual.  Instead, I ended up ordering a silk Chinese-style jacket with matching silk pants.  I was measured by a young Thai man.  At least he looked Thai.  I noticed that he spoke Hindi with the shop owners.  Later, Mitesh explained to me that he had been working for this shop for years.  He had taught the owners to speak Thai, and they had taught him to speak Hindi.  (They all spoke English.)  They called the young man Sandeep, a common Indian name.  I thought this was really funny.  They had given him a random Indian name because his Thai name was too hard for them to pronounce – much like we might call a foreigner Joe or Bob if he had a difficult name.

Later that evening, Margaret convinced me to return to the hotel bar.  I had kind of wanted to go out to see some of the local nightlife, but I was starting to feel like I was coming down with a cold.  I decided it would be better to stay at the hotel so that I could retire early if necessary.  The hotel bar was having a Salsa Night.  Margaret loved salsa. 

So Margaret and I ended up sitting at the bar together.  She found some people to dance with, but I am not a big dancer, so I just watched.  Then she tried to convince me to do Tequila shots.  She liked to do “Tequila Boom-Boom” shots, which is something she picked up while living in Italy.  You take a shot glass half-full of Tequila, and fill it the rest of the way with club soda.  Then you put your hand over the glass and bang it twice on the bar.  This causes the drink to become foamy.  Then you drink it down.  I did one of these shots with her, and was not too impressed.  It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything special.

On the other side of the bar from where we were sitting were three middle-aged British ladies.  They were slightly overweight, slightly frumpy.  I had noticed them just sitting there, silently watching the band, not dancing, not even really talking to each other.  I started to imagine their story.  They were three moms from a suburb of London.  They wanted to get out and do something wild and crazy, so they came to Bangkok for a few days.  But they didn’t know how to be wild and crazy, so they sat in the hotel bar, watching a mediocre cover band, not talking to anyone, and wondering why this wasn’t as fun as it had sounded back home in the burbs.

Meanwhile, Margaret continued to try to convince me to do more shots, but I wasn’t too interested.  Then she pointed at the British ladies and said, “Do you want to end up like that?”  Well, of course I didn’t.  I am not as young as I used to be, but I hope I have not lost all ability to have fun.  So I did a few more shots and danced with her a little.  Later that night, we met some businessmen from Australia who bought us drinks.  Margaret ended up drinking way too much and got sick after we returned to our room.  There is a fine line between knowing how to have a good time, and being a lush.  I think Margaret and I each teetered on opposite sides of that line that night.

This is something that I think about quite a bit as I approach the ripe old age of 30.  The things I do for fun now are definitely not the same as what I did ten or even just 5 years ago.  Every once in awhile, someone wants to relive their youth, and hosts a “Girls’ Night Out” at a dance club in the city, or a drunkfest at a football game in Champaign.  I have found that these events have mixed results.  Sometimes they are fun; sometimes they are lame and boring.  But I always end up thinking the same thing at the end:  I’m not as young as I used to be.  Even if I have fun, I wake up with a hangover – and that is something that didn’t happen too often in college.  And if I don’t have fun, I always wonder, were this evening’s activities really lame, or have I just become really lame? 

I am definitely not ready to throw away my drinking shoes and resign myself to a life of Friday night Prime Time (every week) and vacations in Door County instead of Jamaica and Vegas and Bangkok.  I hope I’m never ready to go that way completely.  But more and more often it seems like more fun to stay home on a Friday or Saturday instead of making the effort to go out.  And I’m sure things would change even more if I ever had kids.  It’s important to be a grown-up sometimes, but I think it’s also important to remember how to have fun, and I really hope that I never forget that.

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