PARIJAH DIARIES 8
My life is a dream. That’s what it feels like, more and more. Has done for a while; the last few years, at least. Paradoxically, I think that’s how life should feel; how reality feels if you are actually in it. It’s a measure: the more you live in reality, the more dream-like it feels. Or nightmarish. Same thing.
There’s something very weird about the dream-tone, mind you, the backdrop, but as far as the foreground is concerned, I’m living my best life. I have everything I need, for now. Too bad it won’t last, but then again, as the man said, what does? It even makes it sweeter: this bungalow on the steep hillside, this broad terrace above the ocean, where I’m sitting in sunshine drinking coffee and smoking a little weed (well, it is New Year’s Eve) as the morning chill fades. Blue sea brushed with webs of mist, curving away over the horizon, nothing between here and the Indian subcontinent. Later, there’ll be the road through the jungle, spatters of sunlight exploding inside my head as I pass through a tunnel of trees; then the joyful swoops and bends of the coast road — the sheer joy of jumping on a motorbike in T-shirt and shades is not to be under-estimated. Gliding down the hill to a little seaside town full of tattoed people, with somewhere to go — my Bohemia. Yes, I found it at last, that mythical country. Actually, Bohemia is now a bar named after an essay, though nobody else knows that. It’s not my bar but I chose the name. It’s where I play and the groundation for my tribe.
I really needed to find that tribe. After more than a year on my landlocked plain in the North-East, the only farang for miles around, I was craving music and people and talk. So once the lockdowns and travel restrictions were lifted, I decided it was time to go back to Phuket and see who was still around. I used to meet so many people when I lived at Jamrock — people at the boat-bar or who came down the hill to see the sea and found me in my hermitage by the rocks. I needed some more of that. And a decent smoke! My last marijuana plant had died, and I was gasping. There were few travel restrictions remaining in force by that point, but who knew how long that would last? The flight allowed only 7kg of baggage, so I just took a small rucksack with me. It was only once I got to Phuket that I realised that all the clothes I’d stuffed into it were… black.
It was March of Year One, 2021 in old years, 2565 in the Buddhist calendar. The airports were quiet, the masking and social distancing farce still in force but that’s all. I got my taxi driver from the old days to pick me up at the airport and drop me in Rawai.
“How’s business?” I asked him.
“Business quiet,” Chat told me, “but traffic good!”
That was true, and we made good time. The tourist towns down the West coast looked gutted, with whole streets of businesses boarded up, but Rawai, with its large expat community, seemed almost unaffected. A few businesses appeared to have closed, but not too many. Joggers still circled the lake, and Nai Harn beach was as full of beautiful people as ever. I rented a bike from my usual place and drove up into the hills.
The boat bar was locked and deserted, so I rolled down to the clearing and found the Filipinos living in the huts under the rubber trees. I remembered Mia and William from the old days, though Mia had only ever showed up at Jamrock from time to time since she had a well-paid gig at a restaurant in Kata, playing every night and making good money. They’d already been living in the jungle for a while when I showed up: though they still had their rooms in Kata, they preferred to camp out under the trees. Why sit in a ghost town waiting for something to happen and running up your bills when you could be chilling by the ocean? Megan, Mia’s partner in the Marijahs, came over most nights, with her girlfriend Kittiya, half Thai and half French, one of the loveliest women you could ever hope to lay eyes on, and friendly with it, so open and unaffected. Megan’s brother Kyle, his face a mirror of hers and his long hair an ironic contrast to her Sinead-O’Connor-crop, was living in one of the other huts. He’d had a good gig at one of the big hotels up the coast, but was hard up now, no longer able to send money home. And then there was Ranel — drummer, joker, midnight toker — and sometimes Joanna too, his wife, but they were more often around in the day-time and went home at night. Apart from the Filipinos, there was big gentle Mod, a heavyset, dreadlocked Thai bass player; a young Belorussian couple, Yura and Masha; and a quiet Russian with an army haircut, Dima, who understood more than he spoke; and me.
There were often other people around, parties and guest jams, but these nine or ten of us would gather under the trees every evening. Nueng was still the tenant of his twenty rai, but was dividing his time between Jamrock and Kata, where he was setting up a new place on his own bit of land. He could no longer make the rent on Jamrock, and now the owner of the land was planning to build a house there. So an era was coming to a close. William — Yam — was working for him, though he didn’t seem to be enjoying it much. When Nueng turned up after a hour or two, I detected a definite buzz-kill, and this was generally the pattern over the next few weeks. When he was there, he’d lie around in a hammock drinking beer, waiting for food to appear and needling people in that superior way of his. He laughed at me for not being able to hack it in Isan.
“Isan different story!” he crowed.
“Different story,” I agreed, and as an afterthought: “Different book!”
I quizzed him about who was still around, and he filled me in. Hardly anybody, it turned out. Ai, Musa, Oye, Nan, Nai, had all gone elsewhere looking for work. Ai had gone back to his home town, where he was working as a hairdresser. Musa had found work in Krabi. Samart, Tik, Nan, Nai, and Ut had all gone South, to their farms and families or looking for work. A lot of people had left the island and others had come in — there was a lot of movement, a lot of change.
I went to see Chiney and rented a bungalow behind his restaurant further down the soi, the last stop on our road to nowhere. It was beautiful and private, just what I needed. There are only three bungalows; each of the original partners built himself one, but now they have families or live elsewhere, so the bungalows are available if anyone asks. I was the only guest. Some days I was the only customer. But every evening we would assemble under the rubber trees. It might be the end of Jamrock, but to be honest the vibe was better than it had ever been. There were lights in the trees and fire and food, plenty of weed, and music in the evenings. Nueng was the only discordant element and he wasn’t around most of the time. The new centre of gravity, the heart of Jamrock in its final incarnation, was tiny, sexy, talented Mia and her ever-loving Yam.
She’d been in Thailand for ten or eleven years. Her older sister, Grace, was the trail-blazer, coming to Phuket to work as a singer in the tourist towns. When Grace got pregnant and needed to go home for a few months, she arranged a replacement for her gig in Kata — her little sister Mia. Tiny Mia was a huge hit, and stayed even when her sister returned, making a good life for herself here. Everything was perfect until the Covid came, but these are resourceful people and they didn’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves. Grace and Mia joined with others in setting up a Thai-Filipino charity called ‘Music for Life’, doing live-streaming events and raising money to help support out-of-work musicians. The sisters were also making a little cash cooking and selling Filipino food by online order: Yam was their delivery man. Money wasn’t their only worry, however; they were all dependent on work-permits for their presence in the country, and work-permits were provided through their employers and in some cases would soon expire. Without work, how would they renew? And when business came back, assuming it did, would they be able to do so without getting vaccinated?
That was my worry, too. It would be so easy for Immigration to simply add proof of vaccination to the documentary requirements for work permits and visa renewals. Just one more piece of paper you’d have to produce. To me it seemed odds-on that this would happen, it was only a question of when. A new vaccination-drive was ramping up in Thailand; the government’s main procurements were about to be fulfilled, after many delays. Suddenly the news was full of stories about case-numbers rising exponentially. It was an open demonstration of what we know: that the vaccine precedes the virus as product precedes marketing; that the virus is called into existence purely to market the shots.
During the first twelve months of the pandemic, Thailand had been only lightly affected, with less than a hundred deaths ascribed to the phantom virus. I’d spent the first lockdown on the farm in Isan, and so had hardly been impacted by it out there in the country, though I was aware that many people in the area were losing their jobs. There were curfew patrols, a couple of guys in matching jackets on a motorbike, flashing powerful torches across the fields in the dark… and the snitches, of course, reporting gatherings of over five people to the authorities. It happened to us a few weeks in — one night we were sitting around with a bunch of farm boys who’d sold us a stack of rice-straw, eating a snake, as you do, drinking Lao Kaow and smoking from a bamboo bong, and we did get to singing a bit, but nothing too rowdy. In the morning Red got a call from a local official — and so did the boss of the farm gang — advising us not to repeat this behaviour. But that was about the extent of it, for us in Khon Kaen province. In Phuket, meanwhile, Ranel and Joanna were hiding like Ann Frank from health officials going door-to-door door; three times they came to their house, and three times they hit the deck and didn’t make a sound until they’d gone.
This was all just fun and games compared to what was going on back in the Philippines, where President Duterte had called for unvaccinated people to be shot in the streets if they ventured from their homes. While never official policy, such a threat had to be taken seriously, coming from a man who’d been associated in the past with vigilante death squads, who boasted that he’d cleaned up crime in Davao by killing all the criminals, and promised in 2015 to kill 100,000 more if he came to power. Megan told me that in many families, one person would sacrifice him or herself and take the vaccine, just so that there was someone who could go out to buy food.
Early in the pandemic, June or July it must have been, I’d had a call from a friend of mine — a man with good contacts, shall we say, who knows who to ask if he needs to find out what’s going on. He confirmed what I’d already worked out for myself, that it was ‘manufactured’, and he didn’t just mean in a lab; he meant the crisis. Interesting choice of word — as in ‘manufacturing consent’, a phrase usually ascribed to Chomsky but which actually goes back more than a hundred years, to Edward Bernays. At the height of the ‘overwhelmed hospitals’ panic in the UK, another friend of mine had to go in for some minor procedure, and the experience bore no relation to the narrative luridly propagated on the TV screens. “Totes empty!” she exclaimed. Meanwhile Red’s brother, away in Korea, and out of work now, saw alarming reports about overwhelmed hospitals in Khon Kaen, and called her to ask if we were all OK. Red has a cousin who is a nurse at Khon Kaen hospital, so she gave her a call. There was nothing happening at all, she was told. They’d had a grand total of one Covid patient — one. That person had recovered, and that was it.
Once the vaccines arrived and public opinion had been softened up with ballooning case-numbers, new curfews and restrictions were announced. It wasn’t as draconian as first time round, when no movement at all had been permitted between towns. Chiney had been forced to close, since his restaurant was in the hills between Kata and Rawai. But now bars, gyms and massage shops were closed again, and restaurants hobbled with petty social distancing rules and alcohol bans. People went back to wearing masks while riding around on their motorbikes, and shops made them compulsory. Sign-in books and remote thermometers reappeared. In my hideaway in the hills, I took little notice, and nor did Chiney; there was no rearrangement of tables, and his restaurant remained one of the few places you could still get a drink with your meal.
“Are you going to get it?” I asked Chiney.
“I don’t know. I wait, wait.”
He did eventually, and so did all his staff. He just felt he had no choice if he wanted to stay open. When the first lockdown came, he’d had to let some of his employees go. He’d opened again in October with a skeleton crew for the season which didn’t happen. He had not just his family to worry about, but his staff — eight people he thought of as family, most of whom lived on site. The restaurant was very quiet, sometimes lucky to have two or three covers in an evening. Chiney didn’t care that he wasn’t making money, he just wanted to stay open. “Or what everybody gonna do?”
Now the island, with its one land-bridge, was closed off once again, and no one could enter without proof of vaccination. This had a cascade of effects on me. I hadn’t reported my whereabouts to Immigration when I arrived. Anyone on a visa has to report to Immigration every ninety days, and every time you go somewhere you’re supposed to report it, in theory, which makes me feel like I’m permanently on probation in this country. I didn’t even think about reporting when I arrived here, because I assumed I would be back in Isan in time for my next three-monthly report, as if I had never been away. Now if I left Phuket I would not be able to get back in. I was still in two minds what to do as the deadline approached. I didn’t want to go back, but if I didn’t report I might sabotage any chance of remaining in the country at all. I booked a flight to Khon Kaen, not knowing if I would use or not — and in the end I didn’t. I couldn’t decide what to do, so I decided not to decide, and stayed where I was. And if they brought in a vaccine mandate for all foreigners, same deal. They’d have to find me, wouldn’t they?
I have a Swedish friend in Bangkok who’s been illegal here for years — ten or twelve, I think. He has no bank account, uses a phone registered in someone else’s name, works for a teaching agency that gives the wink to his lack of status and pays him in cash, and clearly by now the system has completely forgotten about him. He can’t go anywhere, of course; even travelling domestically is a risk, so he stays in Bangkok year after year after year. Throughout the time I’ve known him I’ve always been in the enviable position, from his point of view, of having the freedom to come and go. But now I envied him, already off-grid and invisible and used to it. Who is more fortunate, in these times, than a forgotten man?
All the Filipinos seemed to see things pretty much the way I did. It’s like I said to Joana, when somebody had been talking about the red pill and the blue pill: if you’ve had it tough, if you’ve had to struggle to survive — you’re already red-pilled, to a degree. You know something about how the world really works.
I was sitting with Mia at that stone table by the lean-to kitchen, talking under the rubber trees in the dark, smoking. ‘You know,’ she was saying, “I was never quite believing it, right from the start…”
Yura, hovering nearby, came swooping in when he heard this. “Oh my God, no, it’s so hard for me to hear this kind of talk!”
“So don’t listen,” I said. “Go somewhere else.” Next to me I could feel Mia chuckling silently.
Yura had been expelled from Belarus after getting rounded up at an anti-government protest. He didn’t care, because he makes his money online, some kind of advertising trick involving buying and selling fake Facebook accounts. He has every reason to feel pleased with himself, and at twenty-four he thinks he knows everything. When he was ordered to leave the country, he and Dasha went to Moscow and then headed for Thailand. And don’t get me wrong: Yura is a likeable lad, with attractive energy. But he’s no expert, shall we say, at arriving at carefully considered conclusions. ‘Yura logic’, I call it, and can always make Mia chuckle with that.
It’s quite natural for people from his part of the world to be focused on their old-world problem: the resurgence of authoritarianism. They cannot necessarily be expected to see that there’s another kind of monster entwining the West — something new and insidious, qualitatively different from anything that has come before. It’s not Yura’s fault he can’t see that; most Westerners can’t either.
I say to Yura , “You’re here because you’ve got, by the sound of it, a good old-fashioned dictator in your country. So you run away, because you can. But Lukashenko’s just a little monster. Even Putin. Out here in the wider world there’s a much bigger monster. Much, much more dangerous. But you can’t see it.”
Yura gets about half of what I’m saying, and is impatient to know, too impatient to let me finish, Who? Who is this monster?
I shrug. Yura’s English is… energetic, let’s say, but I have to make allowances. I can’t use words like insidious, or totalitarian, or biodigital convergence, or technocracy.
So I just say: “It has many heads, many faces. It’s not one man.”
I’m thinking of the Hydra.
“Its teeth are like needles,” I add, but he doesn’t get it.
Mia beside me is constructing one of her complicated joints and I’m sure I can feel her laughing inside. She’s enjoying the spectacle of me and Yura bumping heads. I’m very calm but would rather be listening to Mia, and I don’t like the way Yura took over the conversation, so I try to draw a line under it.
“It’s the Mark of the Beast, man. Whatever happens, just don’t take it.”
He did though, a year or more down the line, so that he could get into Bali. And he’s fine, and therefore the vaccines are fine, and there’s nothing going on. And the Sinovac shots do seem to have caused much less harm than the Western shit, the mRNA injections that Professor Bhakdi described as the equivalent of injecting ‘the Devil’ into your body.
“…And you do not want to do that.”
But apparently they do.
If I understand it right, Sinovac does not use the mRNA/lipid nano-particle technology. It has hurt some people, it’s true; the local press carried a heart-breaking obituary of a beautiful young doctor in her twenties, newly qualified, who had fallen sick ten days after her shot and never recovered, dying a month later after a brutal series of heart attacks. But I didn’t hear many such reports. Most Thais received the Sinovac for their first two shots, because it was all that was available. It was only when it came to the boosters that the Pfizer and Moderna products were pushed at them — and that’s when the ‘died suddenly’ trend started to appear in Thailand. A thirty-year-old lad dropped dead in Red’s village. Among her ‘King’s Steps’ contacts, a popular volunteer labourer, 63 years old and strong as a horse, took his booster and never saw another sunrise. And in the last few days, Red has passed on some very strange news from the village: four people died from heart attacks in the space of a few days, in a village of no more than two or three hundred people. Four sudden deaths, and in each case, they say, the victim had been stung by an insect or other bug, which seemed to induce the attack. Not one specific species, you understand — any stinging insect or arthropod. Bee, wasp, scorpion, centipede, anything that can sting… the adrenalin response, I suppose, triggers a heart attack and they die. Now everyone’s suddenly terrified of the insects they’ve lived with all their lives.
But even stranger, to my mind, is the news that everyone’s suddenly talking about the vaccine; that it must have something to do with the vaccine. And that’s such a turnaround, something I never expected to happen. But country people aren’t stupid. Uneducated, submissive to authority; gullible, perhaps — but only up to a point, and that point has apparently been reached. In the village, unlike the city or sprawling suburb, everyone knows everyone else. You know what’s happening to the people around you.
Meanwhile, in Phuket, the Season is finally here, everybody’s working again, every room in town is taken, and the good times are back, for now. They’ve legalised weed in Thailand, the strip in Rawai is decked in neon and bulging with improbable bodies, everybody’s making money like this is their last chance, and it might be, who knows? But for now, everything’s right with the world.
Jamrock is barred and gated, the boat-bar boarded-up and dilapidated, its floors overgrown with weeds and its stairs with barbed wire; the huts are smashed and roofless; that was its last incarnation, a final reprise of the vibe we tried to create and that had stuttered and flickered into life over the years. We will not see it again, but that’s OK. No one steps into the same river twice. Carpe diem, friends; I salute my unvaccinated Marijahs and all Jamrockers past and present. I’m happy I was there at the end, though by that time it wasn’t that big a deal to me, you know, in the scale of things, and the best part of it for me was always the chance to get Mia talking.
Like the night I told her about my father dying, and she told me a beautiful story in return.
Her father had been taken by a stroke at the desperately young age of fifty, a few years back. It was a visceral shock. She went home, of course, but could only stay for a week because of her job. When she returned to Phuket, she couldn’t bear just to resume her life as if nothing had changed. So every night, after her gig, she took her sleeping bag down to the beach and slept on the sand or climbed higher among the rocks at the base of the headland. She wanted to be alone; she didn’t want to be in familiar surroundings; it was unbearable that nothing should change except that her father was no longer in this world. She still had to play her gig each night, but afterwards she went down to the shore and didn’t go back to her room until it was time to get ready again next evening. She filled her mind with natural shapes and sounds, waves and rocks and roots and leaves, natural light and darkness. It was more than two weeks before she felt ready to move back into her room and re-inhabit her life.
Now, I’ve never said this to her, and even she might not be able to tell me if it’s true or not; but Mia is a highly intuitive person, and it was Mia’s idea, of course, when Covid came and shut everything down, to go and live in the forest. And I just wonder if it was a similar impulse, consciously or not, which made that seem like the only thing to do; a sense that something had irrevocably changed, that something had been lost, had made her feel the same need to mark it with a change of life; to connect with sea and leaves and sun and wind and rain, to be close to Nature or God or whatever is permanent; to sleep out under the stars and wake to the sound of a fishing boat chugging across the bay before dawn, and cockerels crowing all around these hills.