Thoughts # 8 Cry Freedom
I am out. I have escaped.
Red told me that all they were able to find of me was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer, near worn down to the nub. I had been told that it would take a man over five years to tunnel through the wall with it. Well, old Tommaso did it in less than thirty days. You see, in prison a man will do almost anything to keep his mind occupied. I guess I decided I’d been here just about long enough. The guards simply didn't notice. I crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of excrement smelling foulness you can't even imagine, or maybe I just don't want you to imagine. Five hundred yards… that's just shy of half a mile.
As soon as I was out I had to find a way and I cannot thank enough some of you, dear readers, for the directions you have sent to me. I was able to get a little boat and khlong by khlong I retraced my way south, around Bangkok and then towards the Ocean. However it was not easy and my eyes saw things I wish I had not seen.
It’s tough out there will all that water. Where is Chiang Mai Kelly when you need him? He might have got me things and quickly but I did not have my phone with me and even if I did it may not have worked with all that water soaking my clothes.
Homes are partly submerged and together they have an eerie look reminiscent of ghost towns. On my way, I saw some people climbing out of a window in a restaurant building which could not possibly be theirs. They had food in their hands and their eyes were mixed with fear and distrust for others.
I told myself it was beneath my dignity to arrest a man for pilfering food from an abandoned restaurant. One man desperate for a bit of food is pathetic. Five million people desperate for food will destroy a city. That was the first time I ever saw people doing that. But I knew it. And I knew that I would not do anything about it. Perhaps it was the tie of blood between desperate fellows, but I doubt it. We were all free in a way but Brothers will betray a Brother especially if his house is empty. I did not admire them, but I didn't think they were bad people. Besides, I have seen better men than me punished for much less.
I approached with my arms up in the air a small group of them. I told them who I was. I tried to make them understand with the use of my hands and the expression in my eyes. The old man in the group was initially hostile, did not understand what I was saying. The younger girl with them was cautious and smiling at the same time. The woman… seemed very pleased though. I think she was the only one who understood what I was saying. Women, they have a sixth sense, which men do not possess.
The desperation was in their eyes but I needed their dingy boat. I put my hands in my pants. They backed away. They thought I had a gun. I will have to be careful. Simple automatic moves without due thoughts could put my own life in danger. They could have killed me had they been able to do so. I removed the small plastic bag from inside my pants and took some notes out. They smiled and nodded their head happily. They knew those paper notes and the language barrier no longer mattered. Few moments later they were one dingy boat lighter and 2,000 thousand baht richer. I kept the rest of my little money wrapped up dry in the little plastic bag.
The Royal Irrigation Department had tried to help but the conflicts between the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration and the Government directives were far too great to solve. To raise barriers and allow the big bags to redirect the water in the khlongs or to lower them and let the water flow? Rich people are often selfish. All they care for was protecting their business interest in the city centre, they did not want the water to flow beyond those barriers. Meanwhile, the poor people were getting angry and the only way to vent their anger and frustration at having to live with water up to their waist was to break the barriers and to do that they had to break the rules.
It was allegedly reported that the water was advancing at a speed of 2 Kms per day. If that was correct that would be about 14 Kms per week and at that rate within 2 weeks Bangkok will be flooded. Then the real problem will begin because when the floodwaters arrive initially they are as clear as crystal. You can see every detail on the roads, the blades of grass on the lawns, even the patterns on some newly liberated carp fish that escaped from a neighbour's pond. However, when water is stagnant it will become murky very quickly and it will not be pretty. Leeches, snakes and even the possibility of crocodiles were my actual fears of what may be swimming underneath that surface. I paddled quickly, 38 strokes a minute with no breaks on end.
Then I saw it. It was perched at the top of some concrete post to the side of a house just above the water. It moved ever so slightly but I could not make up what it was, thus, I got closer and when I was near I realised it was a baby hedgehog. Brother Caveman is an animal lover but he was not here and I could not ask him what to do. It was lost and I felt lost with it. I looked at the baby hedgehog and simply did not have the heart to leave it there. So I just took it in my hand and when it looked at me, I felt a strange sensation. No, it was not the prickly sensation from its tiny little spines. It was me, I felt a lump in my throat and my heart seemed to melt.
I decided to take it with me and as we were going to be travelling partners, I saw it fitting to give it a name. Fred, I thought, I will call it Fred and remembering my catholic upbringing I decided that I would baptise it too. As most of you no doubt will know the word “Baptism” derives from the Greek “Baptismos” or “Washing” to you and I, although the actual act is more of an immersion in water either in full or partial and this derived from the Latin “Immersionem”.
Now let me explain that just because you are immersed in water it does not mean that you automatically become a semi God or let alone a prince. Sadly, this is not the case or the queues to the nearest church would be very long indeed. Simply put, the power, effect, benefit and purpose of Baptism is to save or to be saved and if you ask me saved from what? Well my dear, the devil, also known as the go-go dancers at Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy, what else? However, in Fred’s case, the main benefit was simply to be saved from certain death and I could never have forgiven myself if I had allowed that to happen.
I have never been a minister but Fred did not know that and I thought that after all the strife of the last few days, I might as well do things properly. Therefore, I partially immersed the cute little fellow in the water and poured a few droplets on its head while pronouncing “I baptise you Fred in the name of the Father, and of the Holy Son, and of the Holy Spirit” Little Fred did not like the water one bit and it curled into a little ball.
Then I said to him “Right partner. Here begins our joint adventure and as I turned ready to paddle again I am sure I heard it say “Right”. I looked at it and he looked back without another sound. Right, said Fred.
Now you would think that Thais being Buddhists would help each other but I saw some of the local bandits, also known as looters, who were moving from house to house and entering those homes which had been vacated and picking any spoils they could find. They did not bother me and I did not seem to bother them. A lonely farang paddling in a dingy boat like a frenzied devil is not a pretty sight to see but not a danger either and they probably assumed I was crazy.
On my way I saw a few residents taking turns making the rounds, to help guard their most prized possessions, their cars and also their belongings. They were armed with only radios, knives and homemade air guns. They patrolled on foot, wading in the water up and down the streets. Some must have had access to boats as donations, easing the task.
I kept paddling and the landscape kept changing and at least it was raining no more.
I kept observing my surrounds and reflected. If the water does not move there will be a real problem and within 24 hours the water will get jet black, a miasma of oily swirls, rubbish and debris, all stinking of rot. I had to move quick as the water was getting murky already.
Oh mankind can be the opposite of the very word and simply unkind. This will get bad, I imagined, in an environment where even before all this happened dog ate dog.
In bourgeois terms, it seemed like a war between the Allies and Germany. In Bolshevik terms, it was like a war between the Allied and German upper classes – and which of them won was of total indifference. However, my task was not to organize defeat, for one side or the other. But for now, there was nothing to be done. There seemed to be many empty areas or all of a sudden too many volunteers. However, most of all it seemed mere disorganised hysteria.
When I reached the coast I was exhausted. I had not shaven for six days and simply crashed on terra ferma. I wanted to be Pope-like and kiss the ground on arrival. Difficult to do when your lips impact with moving grains of the sand beneath them but it was dry soil at least.
The day after I boarded a ferry and reached my final destination. I will stay here for a while watching events unfold and hoping for a return to normalcy. From my undisclosed island location I find myself under the cool shade provided by a tree, sipping a cold soda water and lime while I type these notes to you. Fred, by the way, is well and he has fun feeding on snails and other pests that damage plants.
We both feel free and I want to cry “Freedom” to the Ocean and I want to waste my cries into the horizon until exhausted from all this efforts I can feel jai dee again. I worry for my teeruk though. I have not heard from her for a while and I have no idea where she may be right now. I will have to think of something and quick so that I can take care of her.
It has taken me a few days to regain some strength and for my bowels to return to their standard perfomance. I reflect and I ponder if this island is going to be my new prison and will I get old here? Prison and old age, now that’s a thought.
Once upon a time and not too long ago, as a consultant I was tasked to visit HM Prison Service, whose vision at the time was to “Provide the very best prison services so that we are the provider of choice”
What a curious way of describing an institution as if prisoners had choice. How odd, I thought but seemingly, it was right because inmates in the UK had options and what a set of choices that was as I were to find out. That experience made me understand a few things on how priorities are handled in the UK and reflect if this meant we had reached a higher level of civilisation by providing inmates with this array of choices.
Let me explain, prior to accepting that consultancy I had volunteered some of my spare time helping older people to adjust to tough life conditions. You may think that the UK is rich and in many ways it is or at least the bankers are and those few who reside in exclusive addresses like Knightsbridge or Kensington and Chelsea, West Hampstead or Battersea and a few more also are quite well off. However, the middle and working classes are paying for the current budget deficit and they are being squeezed day by day with more taxes and soon the minimum age to receive the state pension will be increased to 68. In addition, there is also a growing populace of people who simply cannot make ends meet.
The increasing lack of funds is quickly amounting to a byproduct of social inequalities. Many of UK folks are growing old and many are already quite old. With ever increasing costs, they live a life deprived of dignity and unlike Thai people in general we do not look after our elders very well and often put them in nursing homes. As an Italian, this was a little difficult for me to comprehend at first but, sadly, I also notice this tendency developing in my own country and it seems as if younger people look forward to their parents dying especially if they are the beneficiaries of their estates. It is a terrible thought I know but also an increasing concern in our society.
If life is a wheel, then what comes around goes around. I learned with the Jesuits the paradigm of company and companions and I am not referring just to the company of that hottie from Baccara some of you lucky scoundrels may have picked up a few nights ago.
So I decided I would give a little of my time to help some of these elders by sorting out their paperwork. Assist them writing a letter to their local Council to unlock some badly needed funds or help them follow through an insurance claim or a complaint to the local Ombudsman. In other words, things I was capable of doing with ease and quickly. You see, old Tommaso is not that good with a drill in his hand and apart from trimming a few rose bushes and cutting the grass I was of better help behind a desk with pen and paper or with a telephone receiver in my hand.
What I saw in Bangkok and the problems with the floods reminded me of this experience in volunteering and, similarly, it was not a pretty sight. Let me tell you that growing old in a nursing home is not fun and if you are old and alone in your home with no family to speak of it’s even worse.
Often you will not wash or shower and your clothes will start smelling in a peculiar way. You will have no hobbies and you will be unlikely to leave your home. You may receive a little pension but you will be taxed on it leaving you with little change. No one will replace your sheets or feed you and if you need immediate assistance there will be none. Family will not visit and you will not communicate with anyone other than listening to the sounds from a television which seems to have too many channels but too little common sense and when winter comes, Santa will not visit. Bah humbug I hear you say, let those sods freeze to death. That’s easy to do if you are the cynical type but difficult to do for people with a conscience.
I did not enjoy what I saw but it opened my eyes as to where I wanted to grow old one day and I thought Thailand may be the answer and what of it now?
As a consultant I was chosen because of my alleged perceived ability to trouble shoot and for my eye to detail. Following my volunteering stint, I was rewarded with a new task. A snapshot of current provision, improving efficiency and effectiveness while delivering 21st century care for the elderly. The consultancy was not terribly exciting but it paid well.
During one of my daily commutes back to my office, I was typing on the train the notes of the various days’ events and going over a number of action points. Half way through, I stopped, looked out of the window and found my mind comparing the difference between what I had observed in care homes, prison and their occupants. Within a few minutes, probably influenced by what I had personally witnessed, I found myself typing a note to a colleague/friend who I was working on this project with. It contained a proposal of a different nature and I began;
Prison Service Provisions for the Future – A Green Paper
Let's put the pensioners in jail and the criminals in a nursing home.
This way the pensioners will have access to showers, hobbies and walks.
They will receive unlimited free prescriptions, dental and medical treatment, wheel chairs etcetera and they will receive money instead of paying it out.
They will have constant video monitoring, so they could be helped instantly, if they fell, or needed assistance. Bedding would be washed twice a week, and all clothing would be ironed and returned to them. A guard would check on them every 20 minutes and bring their meals and snacks to their cell. They would have family visits in a suite built for that purpose.
They would have access to a library, weight room, spiritual counselling, pool and education.
Simple clothing, shoes, slippers, pyjamas and legal aid would be free, on request.
Private, secure rooms for all, with an exercise outdoor yard, with gardens.
Each senior could have a personal computer, a TV, a radio and daily phone calls.
There would be a board of directors to hear complaints, and the guards would have a code of conduct that would be strictly adhered to.
On the other hand, the criminals would get cold food, be left all alone and unsupervised. Lights off at 20.00 hours, and showers once a week. They would live in a tiny room and pay £600.00 per week and have no hope of ever getting out.
I found the above amusing and decided to email the green paper anonymously to a friend who in turn started one of this hideous email chain links and within 48 hours, it had been read by hundreds of thousands of people around the world, the power of the internet! Unbeknown to me, some people actually took the proposal so seriously that motions were put forward at local authorities’ meetings to advance it in their action plans as worthy of progressing and when I saw “my joke” in one of the local councils agendas for a meeting, I realised that it was true; what goes around comes around.
In truth, I had written it as fun just like the type of fun contained in my first very submission posted here “Nana Plaza, the truth according to the Gospel of Tommaso” published on 16/09/11. It was not to meant to be taken too seriously but it is amazing what people tend to believe these days.
The sun is coming down and I am in need of a rest now. I wonder if they have any massage parlours over here. Maybe I will call Brother Caveman, he is a knowledgeable fellow in many areas and massage and places where to get them is one of his forte. He is bound to know.
I fell asleep quite quickly and Fred curled into a ball in my pocket and then I dreamt something bizarre. I was still in Thailand after the floods had past and for some unknown reason, it was the coldest winter ever. Many animals died because of the cold. The hedgehogs, realizing the situation, decided to group together to keep warm. This way they covered and protected themselves; but the quills of each one wounded their closest companions. After a while, they decided to distance themselves one from the other and they began to die, alone and frozen. So they had to make a choice: either accept the quills of their companions or disappear from the Earth. Wisely, they decided to go back to being together. They learned to live with the little wounds caused by the close relationship with their companions in order to receive the warmth that came from the others. This way they were able to survive.
I woke up the following day and Fred was still asleep. I reflected on my dream and realised that perhaps it had a moral, which possibly was as follows: The best relationship is not the one that brings together perfect people, but when each individual learns to live with the imperfections of others and can admire the other person's good qualities.
However, the real moral of the story…LEARN TO LIVE WITH THE PRICKS IN YOUR LIFE. Right said Fred.
I can only hope for the water to flow and recede along the way. We must hope and never given up on the idea that it will. Never. God bless.