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STORIES

  Confessions of a Grumpy Old Expat

  The Ugly Truth About Elephants

  Filing Down Tradition

  The Amazing Isan Bug Catcher

  So, You Wanna Own a Bar in Bangkok?

  The Priest & the Journalist

  On the Road Promoting ‘Strange Foods’

Confessions of a Grumpy Old Expat

(This was the introduction to Thailand Confidential.)

When people asked me why I chose to leave Hawaii---nearly everyone’s idea of paradise---and moved to Thailand, I had an answer so long it qualified as a speech. I started visiting Thailand sometime in the 1980s, I said---so often it sounded as if I were pulling a string in one of those Chatty Cathy doll’s necks, giving a recorded reply---and by 1993, I was spending as much time in Southeast Asia as in the United States. I had lived too long in the islands, where every day was precisely like the last and I knew the next would be the same. I was single, my kids from a long dissolved marriage were grown and gone, and I figured I had enough money put aside to last two years, so I decided to go where it seemed more interesting.

I picked Thailand over other countries---I droned on---for its hospitable population, alluring women, light yet healthy cuisine, affordable cost of living, historic culture and varied geography, tropical climate, the most interesting expat community I’d encountered anywhere, the contemplative nature of Buddhism (and its lack of a god or dogmatic creed), a reasonably free press, an entertaining government, and an abiding sense of fun. It also had a major city where there was cable TV and the phones worked most of the time, whose location was proximate to just about everywhere else I wanted to spend most of the rest of my life; in under three hours I could be anywhere from Hong Kong to Bali to Kathmandu. There was a rawness, a messiness, an attitude that defied Western style logic. Thailand was a place where time wasn’t linear, and property was given more value than life.

Like most new arrivals to Thailand, after I’d been here for six months, I thought I knew everything there was to know. At the two-year mark, I was beginning to have some doubts, and now, after more than ten years, I realize I’ll probably never understand a damned thing about the place and its residents. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes pretend to know, and about a third of the little “essays” and stories in this book illustrate this delusion.

I am, by training, a journalist, and by nature what might fairly be called a grumpy old man. As a journalist, I’m from the old school. I’m not one of those gonzo types who never let a fact get in the way of a good story. At the same time, I recognize that there is no such thing as objectivity, only degrees of subjectivity, and even the best of us tend to present the facts according to circumstance, mood, biography, and biases. I’m male, white, sixty-something, American, well educated, a social liberal raised as a Quaker, a family man, a cynic with a twisted sense of humor, and an expat living in a foreign country totally unlike the one I came from, where I now have a big Thai family and spend a lot of time with poor people, in the slums of Bangkok as well as in the rural countryside. All that, and a lot more, comes into play, no matter what I do, think, and write.

In all the time I’ve lived in Thailand, I’ve only written one letter to the editor, and that was to ask that the numerous and mysterious Thai holidays be announced in the newspapers the day before so that dummies like me will know when banks, the post office, and government offices are going to be closed. My suggestion was ignored. I don’t expect any action to follow any of my opinions stated here, either.

It will be clear to the reader which of the forty-two “chapters” are rants, and I say in my defense only that this is what expats probably do best. I’m a member of a loose group of expatriated malcontents called “chairs.” We meet every Saturday for coffee and complaints. It gives us an opportunity to feel superior. We have all the answers and solutions---just ask us. Make me prime minister and I’ll fix everything!

The truth is, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Because living in Thailand is never less than fascinating, beneath all the grime still exotic, and always a surprise.

Thailand is easy to criticize. What country isn’t? (Don’t ask me about the United States unless you’re prepared to get sprayed with saliva and vitriol.) I have a file labeled “Thai Troubles.” In it are newspaper articles and various official reports saying that out of twenty-one million children, one in five suffer from physical or mental abuse…that thanks to all the artesian wells tapping its ground water and the dumping of so much steel and cement on top in uncontrolled development, Bangkok sinks twelve centimeters (four and a half inches) a year, so that much of the city already is below sea level…that one of every three billboards is illegal and unsafe…that AIDS is the leading cause of death nationwide and life expectancy for the average Thai is falling…that there are up to three thousand high-rise buildings in Bangkok that pose “grave risk” of collapse (the government refuses to name them; rumor has it that several house movie theaters)…that more than half the vehicles on the road in the capital exceed the legal exhaust fume level…that only one hundred and four of the two thousand fresh food markets in the country meet hygiene standards set by the Public Health Ministry and ninety per cent of the meat sold in markets comes from dirty and unsanitary slaughterhouses…that every day more than a million cubic meters of untreated waste water is released into the Chao Phrya River…that more than four hundred species of wildlife are on the brink of extinction…that since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was replaced by a constitutional monarchy, the nation has had twenty-nine governments, twenty coups d’etat, and seventeen constitutions… and that according to the Health Department, more than half of all public toilets in Thailand are unhygienic, smelly, dirty, and damp.

That’s not all. Little seems to make any sense here. Even the most critical activists admit that Thailand has some of the best environmental laws in the world, but they, like most rules governing behavior are ignored or bent. Motorcyclists use the sidewalks as if they were lanes in the roadway and there are so many vendors and other obstructions, pedestrians frequently are forced to walk in the street with some the most horrendous traffic in the world. (And likely encounter an elephant!) Thailand has the highest rate of road fatalities in the world and no public ambulances. Two recent Miss Thailands were raised in the United States and unable to speak Thai fluently. When politicians and cops and military officers are caught doing something illegal, they aren’t charged and tried, they are assigned to “an inactive post.”

Squatters and pocket slums are commonly found in otherwise wealthy neighborhoods, roosters adding their hiccupy morning cries to the sound of Mercedes Benzes being driven to work. Women take their clothes off to dance in nightclubs, but at seaside resorts enter the water dressed from ankle to neck. (Money driving the nudity, shyness the public cover-up.) In a country of sixty two million, most of them poor, mobile phone ownership was expected to reach fifty per cent by 2005. And, while there is an illusion of modernity, many (some say most) of Thailand’s citizens cling tenaciously to feudal (some say Stone Age) belief systems.

To put it simply, Thailand in many ways is a Third World country posing as a Developing Nation or NEC (Newly Emerging Country), a runny-nosed kid in a counterfeit designer tee-shirt with his nose pressed to the window of a gold shop.

Thailand is a place made for the phrase “Only in…” I have a friend who moved here forty years ago after reading a story about a tram car that struck a pedicab, which in turn rammed into a taxi, causing the cab to swerve and fall into a canal on top of a boat selling charcoal. “I knew then and there,” he says, “that I just had to live in a place where such things happen.” I read a story myself not so long ago about rat tails being burned to rid a village of sin, another about a large provincial town where some 25,000 people turned out to publicly curse the narcotics trade and all those involved in it, Thailand’s way to “just say no.” While approximately one hundred police generals were told to take a five-day meditation course to improve their efficiency, discipline, and ethics. (Guns to be checked with the shoes at the temple door.) The same police also were banned from the nation’s golf courses, an attempt---the newspapers said---to get them to back to their desks. A wealthy massage parlor tycoon who claimed he paid bribes to police amounting to millions of baht every month, in 2004 ran for Governor of Bangkok and placed a respectable third, then was asked to co-host a television talk show.

How can you not love a country where stories like this are a regular occurrence? I still believe Hawaii is the most beautiful place on earth, but in 1993, I was falling asleep under the same old palm tree every day. Hawaii may sound like Elysium to others, but to me it became a big yawn. I needed challenge again, the energy generated by surprise, the edgy feeling that accompanies disarray and portends chaos. After a lifetime of travel on five continents, I thought Bangkok was my best bet. I haven’t been disappointed. The country’s tourism authority had it right a couple of years ago when it called the place “Amazing Thailand.”

I spent several of my teenaged years reading science fiction and fantasy, living---in my head---in alien worlds, zipping back and forth in time and outer space. During the 1960s and 1970s, my lifestyle included numerous experiments with psychotropic drugs. Today I live in Thailand. I think I’m in a rut.

Of course that is my white, male, western, et cetera point of view. My Thai wife doesn’t think Thailand is odd. When I took her to America, well, now, that country was downright weird. From her point of view. And when I thought about it, I couldn’t really disagree. It’s just a matter of what we’re used to. “I looooove phee” she said to me recently, when a movie about Dracula popped up on the TV screen. Phee is the Thai word for ghosts. I don’t even believe in ghosts and she loooooves them. We’re both right, of course.

So, call this book a love letter to a peculiar place. As I say later in a different context, dreams may come true in Hawaii, and in Thailand it’s the fantasies; it even has several bars like the one in Star Wars. And if I sound as if some of what’s here isn’t to my exact taste, I didn’t like all of the drugs, either.

About a third of the material in this book was previously published in newspapers and magazines. In them, as well as in the stories written specifically for this book, I tried to explore subjects that generally were ignored or described in travel magazines and guidebooks superficially, or from a fawning point of view. (I remember reading in one Big Name Guidebook that the planning in Bangkok was “haphazard,” the water off Pattaya “murky.”) I try here to burrow a little deeper and more honestly.

Thailand is called The Land of Smiles. I don’t intend to wipe that smile off Thailand’s face in the pages that follow. Only to take a look behind it. From a grumpy old farang’s point of view.

The Ugly Truth About Elephants

(This story appeared in Thailand Confidential.)

You can forget all that Babar/Dumbo nonsense.

Yes, elephants are adorable and entertaining and smart and endangered and worthy of our lasting respect, but a lot of that respect should be given because many of them are among the most dangerous animals on earth, killing more people than any other species, save man himself. Worldwide figures are unavailable---I’ll explain why soon---but it is known that in India, over two hundred are killed every year and in Thailand the toll is at least fifty. Compared to elephants, such maligned animals as snakes, crocodiles, and sharks are downright friendly.

The odd thing is that the image of a man atop the largest of land mammals is a romantic one. Classic 20th century literary and film characters, including Mowgli in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book series and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes are remembered riding through the forests of Asia and Africa in loincloths, astride their pachyderm pals, forming a manly bond, forever partners and friends, nature at its most harmonious.

From childhood, we are further lulled by Disney’s Dumbo and the Babar books and the circuses that add to the illusion of glamour and the non-threatening sense of adventure we feel when we see men with the wise and kindly modern day mammoths, teaching them to perform facile tricks.

This attitude persists in Thailand, where the annual elephant round-up in Surin, a variety of religious and royal ceremonies throughout the country, and commercial shows in Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, and in the north from Lampang to Chiang Mai, along with the popular jungle treks, have exposed growing numbers of visitors and residents to Babar up close and personal.

In Thailand today, there are approximately two thousand, three hundred elephants engaged in a variety of domestic services, mostly tourism and entertaining, and although the government legally classifies the animals as “livestock,” regulating them under legislation for draught animals, according to Richard Lair, one of the world’s foremost pachyderm experts, they are “wild” even if born in captivity and trained from childhood. Unlike most dogs, who evolved from wolves, the wildness hasn’t been purged from elephants by selective breeding.

“Some elephants form such warm and affectionate bonds with man as to deceive the observer into thinking that this animal must have been made truly domestic,” Richard wrote in a book commissioned by the United Nations and considered definitive in the field, Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity (1997). “Many other elephants in domesticity, however, remain unremittingly wild, hostile to man and ready to kill him at every chance. Clearly, a domesticated elephant is simply a wild animal in chains---but a wild animal frequently gentle and intelligent enough to serve as a totally trustworthy baby-sitter to watch over human infants.

“Far quicker than its bulk would seem to allow, the elephant can kill with its tusks, its forehead, it’s trunk (either by striking or lifting and throwing), its mouth (by biting, a favorite of cows), its legs (by stomping or kicking), or any combination thereof. Kicks come in astonishing variety with both the front and back legs able to kick away from or into the body, the latter a perfect prelude for yet more kicking under the belly. A killing attack often comes as a combination of charging, kicking, and head-butting so fast and so coordinated that the three components are inseparable to the eye. The domesticated elephant, thoroughly accustomed to man’s presence, is particularly adept.

“In everyday management,” Richard concluded, “elephants fall into three classes: some are never dangerous, some are dangerous only under very specific circumstances (in the mahout’s absence, around trains, in water, etc.) and some are dangerous all of the time. The proportions of the classes within a group will vary somewhat according to sex-and-age structure and the quality of training, but considering every third elephant to be dangerous is a very healthy way of thinking.”

The question of the day, of course, is: how do you tell the three classes of elephant apart? They don’t come in different colors. This is where you have to put your faith in the people who run the zoos, circuses, and Thailand’s many elephant shows. Keeping in mind that everyone makes mistakes.

Richard saw his first elephants at the San Francisco Zoo as a three-year-old and claims he knew from that moment that this was, somehow, his life’s work. I saw my first elephants in the Frank Buck Circus when I was in grade school, also in the United States. But where Richard’s interest continued virtually uninterrupted, my first real contact with one of the brutes came when I emerged from the audience at an elephant show in Pattaya a few years ago. I’d watched other tourists lie in rows on the field in front of the bleachers, with the mahouts, or trainers, leading the animals over them, one careful step at a time. So I figured I was in no danger when I volunteered to have one of them wrap its trunk around my waist and lift me into the air. Once elevated and in the elephant’s control, everything changed, and it was something less, or more, than a lark. A photograph taken by a friend shows an expression on my face of delight mixed with terror.

I met Richard some years later, when I was writing a story about filmmaking in Thailand. He’d worked as a consultant in the production of a movie called Operation Dumbo Drop, which called for an adult elephant to run down a crowded village street. Many said safety couldn’t be guaranteed. After fifteen years in Thailand, Richard felt he knew the elephant he chose for the job and under his tutelage, the elephant did it in one take, without causing injury to anyone or upturning a single produce cart.

Which takes us back to the third of all domesticated elephants that he feels are safest. As a tourist climbing nervously onto the back of one to go for a weaving, lumbering walk through the jungle or volunteering, as I did, to take part in an elephant show, you can only hope that the animal you meet---reaching a height of more than three meters and weighing as much as four tons---is one of them. Usually they are. Squashed and impaled tourists are bad for tourism and it happens rarely.

More often it’s the keeper and the mahout, those who have regular contact with the beasts, who are trampled and kicked and picked up and tossed and mostly, nowadays, it’s the young mahout, who doesn’t know what he’s doing. Not so long ago, a mahout was respected and the craft was passed with honor from father to son. No more. In the modern world, the elephant is not needed for transportation of people and goods or for logging and mahouts must teach their charges tricks or, when the habitat is depleted and there is no forage, as happens every year during the dry season, take their animals to the city to beg, selling bananas and sugar cane at inflated prices to tourists or charging a small fee to Thais who believe walking under an elephant will bring good luck; not so long ago, a pregnant woman was trampled while praying the child would be male. A mahout’s son today would rather have the prestige and money earned driving a truck. When, instead, he’s stuck taking care of a cranky, old pachyderm, and is both uninterested and ill-prepared to do so, accidents happen. Although, as Richard says, the weekly deaths in Thailand nearly always are associated with illegal logging activity, and are not reported. Thus, in Thailand, the official body count is low.

Many of these deaths are the result of the adult male coming into musth, a periodic swelling of a gland between the eye and ear that causes aggression so fierce the beast may attack humans, other elephants, and inanimate objects; from the earliest stages, they must be retired from all work assignments and chained to very large trees. If they’re not, severe injury and death may come to those who aren’t paying attention. (Signs to look for: grumpiness, a refusal to take a mahout’s orders, a slight discharge from the eyes, and massive erections, although the latter aren’t always a clue as bull elephants tend to get them year round.) Richard and I became friends and I visited him when I could at the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, where he helped found what probably is the world’s only mahout school and added elephant painting and the world’s first all-elephant orchestra to the tourist show that helps raise money for the center’s operations. Which also include a hospital famous for its treatment of animals who’ve stepped on land mines along the Thai-Burma border or have become addicted to amphetamines fed them by greedy, illegal loggers; also a refuge for nearly a hundred elephants, some of them orphaned by ivory poachers. Not long ago, I went to observe the elephant orchestra record a CD, another fundraising device.

I was standing in a grove of teak trees beside a two-ton animal that was banging on a big drum with a mallet held in his trunk. Nearby his fellow “big band” musicians were playing outsized xylophone-like instruments crafted with steel bars and a gong fashioned from an old sawmill blade. One of the mahouts had given another a harmonica, which all but disappeared into the end of the trunk. Not only was it difficult to take any of this seriously, all thought of danger was drowned in a rather pleasant cacophony of bonks and clangs and juicy hoots.

Richard approached me and said, “Watch it, buddy. The elephant on the drums”---only a foot or so from where I stood---”tried to kill his new assistant mahout yesterday.”

I backed away hurriedly and asked why he was playing in the band, with so many people---including me!---in his immediate proximity.

“He’s perfectly safe with his head mahout on his neck,” Richard said, “and, besides, he’s our best percussionist.”

Filing Down Tradition

(This story first appeared in Winds, the in-flight magazine for Japan Air Lines, and later was reprinted in a number of other magazines in Asia.)

Budi of Batuan is a Balinese painter at the cutting edge. He is credited with being the first artist on Bali to include camera-toting Japanese tourists, American surfers, and a host of modern vehicles and appliances in those distinctive Balinese paintings that are generally cluttered with images of tropical birds and foliage and cattle and nubile maidens bathing in streams. So I guess I wasn’t really surprised when I visited his village compound and he showed off his VCR and asked me if I’d like to see a tape he’d made of his oldest daughter’s tooth-filing, a traditional religious ceremony.

I first met Budi when a mutual friend arranged an exhibit of his whimsical paintings in Honolulu in 1980. At that time, Budi was on a voyage of disconcerting discovery. Even if he did put airplanes in his paintings, he had never been on one before my friend took him to Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta. When he checked into his room, Budi pulled a compass from his luggage to determine the direction of Mt. Agung, the highest and holiest mountain on Bali, regarded as the “Navel of the World,” a volcano that in 1963 erupted during the performance of an complex religious rite called Eka Das Rudra. This is a sacred ceremony that involves throwing many living creatures into the volcano, which until that very moment had been silent for nearly 300 years. The eruption that began when the last pig or deer hit the bottom of the pit destroyed hundreds of homes, killing more than a thousand villagers and wiping out much of eastern Bali’s arable land.

Consequently it was unthinkable for Balinese to sleep in any position other than to have one’s head aimed at Mt. Agung. The feet were considered “dirty” and therefore an insult to the gods who lived on the Olympian mount. Budi moved the bed so that he could sleep in respectful peace.

The following night my friend and Budi were in Singapore. Again the compass came out and again the hotel bed was moved.

By the time they reached Hong Kong, Budi admitted to being a bit confused. No longer was he sure where Bali was, let alone the holiest of mountains. Besides that, the bed could not be moved. That night, Budi “guessed” the direction of Mt. Agung and pulled the couch into an approximate position and slept on it.

A few days later in Honolulu, Budi abandoned the compass altogether, hoping that with the distance from Bali, the threat of the gods’ wrath would be reduced. The compass stayed in his bag through the rest of a trip that eventually took him to Disneyland and Las Vegas, all of which produced many stimulating images for future paintings.

Budi got something else from that trip. His wife was pregnant when he left Bali and he had another daughter when he returned. Because the Balinese frequently name their children according to current events, that daughter was named Waikiki.

Some years later, in the early 1990s, I was Budi’s house guest, sleeping in a stand-alone bungalow at the edge of a rice paddy, in a compound in his village, Batuuan, which is known not only for its distinctive style of painting but also its voluptuous wood carvings and its pre-eminent musicians and dancers. By Balinese standards, his lifestyle was rich, capped off at the time by the VCR.

He popped a cassette into the unit and soon we were watching his oldest daughter’s tooth-filing ceremony, which Budi had taped himself the previous year. On Bali, it is customary to have the six upper front teeth filed flat by a priest to diminish the six evil traits of human nature: desire, greed, anger, intoxication, irresoluteness, and jealousy. Also, the dog is at or near the bottom of the reincarnation wheel and any resemblance to a dog (contributed by the human’s “canine” teeth) is regarded as a threat to the soul as it passes into another, future life. The ceremony, usually performed before the child reaches adolescence, may, in fact, be done any time before death.

I watched the videotape, amazed. Following an elaborate ritual that encompassed much praying and chanting and the playing of traditional Balinese instruments, Budi’s daughter was laid upon a high, narrow bed, where a man in white took as huge metal file to her upper teeth and began grinding away. This was, mind you, the sort of file, or rasp, used in the west to smooth the ends of just cut iron pipes! Periodically, the girl would sit up and spit bits of enamel into a silver container. I couldn’t help but remember every horrifying experience of my own associated with a dentist.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I asked Budi.

“Oh, yes,” he said matter-of-factly. “Very painful.”

A few days later I was invited to witness such a ceremony performed for not just one but four individuals, all adults, the son and three daughters of Antonio Blanco, a celebrated artist who then had lived in Ubud for more than 30 years. He was a Filipino, but his wife was Balinese and Antonio, who took nude Balinese women as the subject of most of his paintings, thought it appropriate that his children adhere to Balinese custom.

Antonio was known for his eccentricity and love of drama and, for him, such an occasion was welcomed as a major social event. Hundreds of friends and acquaintances were invited and many tourists wandered in, drawn by the crowd and the music. My friend was asked by Antonio to photograph the ceremonies, but his was not the only camera clicking away in that gentle Bali afternoon.

Another camera was in the hands of an American dentist who retreated from the filing bed to tell me that he planned to write about the event in a dental journal back home in California and thus he could deduct the cost of his trip from his taxes. In a perfect imitation of a New Yorker cartoon caption, his wife asked me if I knew where she could witness a cremation. “I’m in death and dying,” she said. Did that mean she worked for a mortuary, or in a hospice? I didn’t want to know and didn’t ask.

At the Blanco ceremony, the ritualistic preparations were as festive as they were detailed, with chanting and music, and much burning of incense and ringing of bells by the attending priest. Finally, the first daughter, dressed in gold, was led along a path to an outdoor bed draped with golden cloth and shaded by a golden canopy. She was lowered gently onto her back by attendants, her head resting on a golden pillow. The attendants then stood nearby to hold her arms and legs should the awful vibrations of the metal file cause painful spasms.

The priest, wearing a white hat and a stern demeanor, gave her upper teeth a faint scrape or two. She sat up, spit once, and moments later was being led away, to sit quietly to one side as the attendants went to fetch her brother.

Her filing seemed to end so quickly. On the videotape, Budi’s daughter clearly endured a much longer filing, and considerable pain.

The brother then had his teeth filed, followed by the other two sisters. In each instance, the filing seemed perfunctory and no one appeared to be in any particular discomfort.

Later I asked my friend if I had missed something. “Was the filing unusually brief?”

He said, “No, many Balinese don’t do much filling nowadays.”

I asked why. “Was it civilization creeping in---a realization that the practice was, perhaps, barbaric and cruel, not to mention terribly painful?”

My friend hinted that I was talking like an ignorant westerner. On Bali, such things are not barbaric and cruel, they merely are. He said the Balinese religion was extremely complex, a blend of animism, Buddhism, and Hinduism that had puzzled anthropologists for more than a century.

At the same time, my friend explained, we were in a confusing, cross-cultural time, on an island populated by innocent, cross-cultural characters, struggling to accept insistent change, while fearing they may offend ancient gods. Finally, my friend added, however religious the Balinese were, they also were a practical people, given to sensual treats, and teeth filed down to the nerve endings made it hard to eat ice cream.

“Ice cream?” I said. “Are you telling me that religious ritual thousands of years old is being changed by Haagen Dazs?”

My friend assured me that I didn’t understand the nuances of Balinese culture. I hadn’t been there a sufficient length of time.

Of course, my friend was correct, but I vowed that the next time I got a chance to look at some of Budi’s paintings, I’d be looking for Balinese eating ice cream. “And,” I muttered to myself, “I bet when it comes time for Waikiki to have her teeth filed, it will only be a perfunctory swipe or two.”

The Amazing Isan Bug Catcher

(This story was written as a letter to friends, then appeared in Farang magazine, and is included Thailand Confidential.)

I was struck first by the ingenuity of the device, and then by its efficiency and low cost. It was a contraption---the perfect word!---for capturing malaeng ( insects). Such gifts come seasonally and in the Spring of this year, there were two kinds, one to feed the chickens, the other for us. Lamyai said she learned how to build the device from her papa.

First, she took a ten-foot length of two-inch bamboo, cut from the undergrowth nearby, and to it she nailed a piece of corrugated iron measuring about three feet wide by four feet long, salvaged from a pile of trash left behind when some of the roof of her mama’s cookhouse was repaired. To this, she affixed a fluorescent tube---the only true out-of-pocket expense---running lengthwise. Then she dug a hole about 30 feet from the house and stuck the bamboo pole into it, iron on top and tilted backwards at a slight angle. Picture a huge flyswatter, or spatula, stuck into the ground, handle first.

At the base of the gadget Lamyai now placed a large container, a quarter filled with water. Sometimes she uses a barrel-sized ceramic water jar, other times a big plastic washtub. And nearby she piles up some dirt, covering it with one of those big rattan baskets Asians place on top of chickens to keep them from escaping. (Bear with me, all this will make sense soon.) An electrical cord is then stretched from the fluorescent tube to the house and plugged in after dark.

What happens next is amazing, or at least it is to me. Lamyai’s been catching insects as protein since she was a child, so she was more-or-less non-plused, but when the tube was turned on and hundreds of insects appeared, an airborne river of buzzing bugs, drawn by the light, and started slamming into the metal and sliding down the iron grooves into the container of water below, I laughed. It was hilarious. For the first time in my life, I wanted one of those home video cameras. Thailand’s Funniest Farm Videos.

There were two kinds of insect seduced by this crude technology. The most numerous were hard-shelled black beetles of varying sizes, the smallest slightly bigger than the head of a pin and called “stink bugs” because when you crush one between your fingers it’s not just a bad smell, it’s like having all the air sucked out of your lungs and replaced instantly with the an odor that goes unidentified because you’re so busy slapping at your nose and jumping up and down and cursing and gasping for breath. These are the ones for the chickens!

The malaeng catcher also attracts crickets, I’m happy to report, and being larger in size and perhaps smarter, when they smack into the iron, they are only stunned and manage to escape the watery death below and flutter to the ground, where they scramble to the pile of dirt, into which they burrow immediately. The basket is there to keep the fifty or so free-range chickens that Lamyai has from getting to the crickets in the morning before we do.

We come out of the house at cock’s crow and look into the water jar, where bugs are swimming around rather nervously. I thrust my hand and arm into the jar through at least 18 inches of bugs! Later, Lamyai called for the chickens, emitting a loud, whooping cry that ended in a series of clucks that brought the chickens running. They got fed first.

Then we began digging for the crickets, throwing them into a bucket to be washed and afterward fried in oil. Salted lightly and terrific, I discovered, with beer.

So, You Wanna Own a Bar in Bangkok?

(This story was published in Bangkok Babylon.)

Steve Watson and Steve Bird, known as Big Steve and Small Steve for their vastly contrasting physiognomy, were two of the Vietnam vets who ran the Three Roses Bar in Bangkok’s Nana Plaza. Like many bar “owners” in Thailand, the two Steves and a third pilot, who perhaps wisely remained in Africa where he continued to fly choppers, bought the bar following decades in the bars as customers.

At Nana Plaza, a majority of such businesses were managed by foreigners, mainly Europeans and Americans, who also provided the initial investment, but legally the majority owners had to be Thai, so the Three Roses was in the name of Small Steve’s Thai wife. Once they paid the “tea money,” a non-refundable sum paid the lease-holder for a sub-lease, the rest was easy. The new managers met with the police and negotiated a monthly “fee” based on the size of the place and the number of dancers and whether they’d dance topless or not or there’d be a “short-time room” in the back of the bar, and etc. They then remodeled, called the liquor distributor, laid out the rules to the staff, announced an opening date, and were ready to embrace wealth and bliss.

The two Steves decided from the start that they wouldn’t run their place like some of the other bars, where the girls were treated like cattle. There was one bar manager who made new employees buy two pair of overpriced dancing boots from him, while owners of some of the larger, more popular places insisted the girls have twenty or more “buy-outs” a month. When customers paid a “bar fine” of 350-500 baht (up to US$12) to take the girl to a short-time room in the neighborhood or back to his hotel room or apartment---for which he additionally negotiated a price for the woman’s services---it was explained that the fine covered the lost drinks purchased for her by other customers. The truth was, bar fines were expected to cover her salary. Fines levied for tardiness, absenteeism, or failing to rack up the requisite number of bar fines often resulted in an empty pay envelope at the end of the month. In addition, the girls customarily were given only three days off a month, and no allowances were made for illness or trouble at home.

Even the Steves went along with some of the rules, paying their girls less than the bigger downstairs establishments while requiring eight bar fines a month. One of the things that made them different was how generous they were with leave time. Some called them suckers, but they trusted their instincts and when a girl said one of her children was sick or there was some other family problem, if they believed her, they gave her time off, kept her on the payroll, and didn’t fine her for her absence. How their employees felt about them was evident each year on Valentine’s Day, when the dancers and hostesses piled the Steves with gifts.

As time passed, the girls came and went; turnover in such a business was regular and expected. Besides those who married, others got bored and quit. Two died of AIDS. And slowly the percentage of girls with Cambodian heritage fell, until you couldn’t call it a Khmer bar any more. Day-to-day management of the girls typically was left to the mamasan, Noon, a sad-eyed thirty-something whose husband had left her with two children to support. She ran a tight ship and was trusted, as was the cashier, Ple. When I was in the hospital, Noon came to visit twice.

Steve told me that sometimes there was a profit, but it was never large and during the off-season he and his partners dipped into their savings and the two Steves regularly took turns flying choppers for a commercial outfit in Indonesia to cover the deficit. Tourism was booming in Thailand, even after the region’s 1997 economic collapse, yet as the visitor numbers went up, so did the number of new bars, leaving everyone with a thinner slice of the customer pie. When the two Steves sub-leased Three Roses, it was one of sixteen bars in the Plaza. Five years later, there more than forty and another dozen new ones in the immediate neighborhood.

Drink prices were kept low at Three Roses, going against the decision to raise the cost of a beer by as much as fifty per cent by two other managers, who together controlled nearly a third of the bars in the plaza. Three Roses tried harder. Tee-shirts and baseball caps were sold at fair prices, reflecting the helicopter motif of the bar. The two Steves hung a public phone on the bar’s outside wall using the bar number, and the cash generated from their employees and passers-by paid for one girl’s salary. Buy two Carlsberg drafts, and you got the third one free. Still, sometimes it was as late as the twenty-eighth of the month before they had enough in the bank to meet the next month’s payroll and rent.

I always sat at the outside bar to watch the human parade, talking with the Steves, who usually sat there, too. I learned that Big Steve’s last tour in Vietnam ended when his chopper took a rocket and crashed and he was thrown through the windshield and found still strapped to his seat a hundred meters away, his face hanging in shreds. He didn’t seem to mind when I told him that as he was mending in a hospital, I was marching in the streets in Los Angeles, protesting the war. In fact, when he finished reading Robert McNamara’s book in which he confessed that he really opposed the war when he was Nixon’s defense secretary but didn’t say so, both Steve and I cussed him and clinked our beer bottles in a toast to his future ill health. “If that sonofabitch didn’t want me there, he shouldn’t have sent me,” Steve said. The two Steves and I became friends.

There were, generally, three types of bar at Nana Plaza, defined by their location. On the ground floor were the larger, flashier places, some that had more than a hundred women on the payroll. These were the most popular with the tourist trade. The second floor, where Three Roses was located, was characterized by smaller, funkier bars, many of which depended on a steady stream of farang residents like me. While the third floor was known for its crude sex shows, staged mainly because as any shopping mall operator will tell you, it’s difficult to get customers to the upper levels. (And why most of the malls in Thailand put restaurants or movie theaters on the top floor.)

One of the regulars at Three Roses described it as being run more like a club than a business. He, too, was a Vietnam vet---many of the regulars were---and, as I was surprised to learn, his mom had been J. Edgar Hoover’s personal secretary. He worked for the Orderly Departure Program, America’s organized effort to relocate Vietnamese refugees to the US. He was typical of the sort of expat I’d moved to Bangkok to be with, and not unlike many other drinkers I met there; Three Roses was one of numerous bars that catered to a hard-core expat clientele, without whom, Big Steve once told me, the bar would likely die. Thus the joint became my “local,” where I drank with friends whether or not Lamyai was in town.

So I was disappointed when I learned that Noon, the mamasan, had been stealing between US$1,000 and $2,000 a month. By the time it was discovered, she had a condo, a motorcycle, an unknown amount of cash in the bank, and had had plastic surgery to make her eyes look less sad (a failure, I’m happy to say), and when they fired her, she took about US$700 from the cash register along with the ATM card and cleared out the last $2,000 in the account.

“She stole indiscriminately,” Small Steve told me. “She took liquor, tee-shirts, hats, anything she could carry.”

How had they finally discovered what was going on? More interesting is the question: why were they so blind? Big Steve was present every night, but he sat outside getting tanked on Carlsburg beer, apparently oblivious. I was told that everyone in the bar knew what was going on, but they remained silent. Thais didn’t tell farangs when other Thais were ripping them off and, besides that, Thais were non-confrontational and they surely didn’t want to get involved in someone else’s problem. Unless they had a grudge and wanted revenge. Which is what happened at Three Roses. It was girls Noon had fired who snitched.

A couple of days later the two Steves posted a notice on the outside wall by the phone (in English and Thai) saying Noon and the cashier Ple were dismissed for “misconduct.” Small Steve told me he was going to press charges. But he didn’t really expect to get much joy. It wasn’t their country, after all.

It was an old story. Surely it’d happened in many bars before and would occur in many more. I wouldn’t have minded it happening to the guy who sold boots to his new employees at inflated prices. Or another Nana Plaza bar owner who sold quarter shares in his place to eleven farang investors. It bothered me when the good guys got hit. For the chopper pilots it was a bigger disappointment, of course, turning what they thought was a wet dream come true into a topless bar where they lost their shirts.

It was only a week or so later that I met a man at Nana Plaza, of some twenty-five years who’d been in Bangkok for just a few months. He said he was enamored of the city and its carnal opportunity and asked me, “Can you give me a good reason for not opening a bar here?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Tell me first, do you like bars?”

“Are you kidding? I love them!”

“If you want to change that and end up hating bars, own one. That’ll do it.”

I elaborated for about five minutes, telling the guy how it wasn’t a way to get rich or meet women but instead was a constant hassle putting up with your employees’ drug and alcohol and gambling habits and failure to come to work; what do you do when you have twenty-five females on the payroll and only four show up? Can you ever be sure the girls aren’t drinking your whisky and the cashier isn’t helping herself to the cash? And you won’t ever own the bar, because it has to be in a Thai’s name, so what if your Thai partner decides he doesn’t want you around any more? The police will drive you nuts, too. And then the air conditioning system will die during the slow season, when your cash flow is running in the negative. Think about your customer base, I said: men, drinking.

“No,” he interrupted. “Men getting laid.”

“Wrong. Men getting laid happens after they leave your bar. So long as they‘re in your bar, they’re men getting drunk.”

“Yeah, but I don’t hear much about violence.”

“How about general assholery? A few get violent, but most of the others you wouldn’t want to meet even if they were sober and when they’re drunk every one of them thinks he’s your new best friend, or wants to tell you how to run your bar, so he’s going to talk to you and you’ll listen, because you don’t want to lose him as a customer. Think of it as a lifestyle wrapped in lies, boredom, and debt, peopled by men and women you probably wouldn’t otherwise want to know, let alone spend every night of your life with. Seven days a week, one day a year off when the bars close for the King’s birthday. If you don’t drink too much now, you will.”

In time, Noon was replaced with a male “manager” who seemed to be both honest and efficient and a few months later Big Steve died suddenly (but unsurprisingly) of liver failure. A sign was posted outside the bar:

IRISH WAKE MEMORIAL LAST FLIGHT WITH
STEVE WATSON TUESDAY, FEB. 19, 2002 (3PM)
THREE ROSES BAR

I talked with Steve’s longtime girlfriend. She told me how he died, on their apartment couch while taking a nap. He was a foreigner, so an autopsy was required and he was taken to the police hospital. Because Steve and the girl never married, a family member’s permission was required for there to be a cremation. She told me that Steve had a brother, a sister, and three children by two marriages, and none of them was coming to Thailand, although she’d talked with someone and whoever it was agreed to send the permission by mail.

She asked me if that’s the way it was in America: a man died and the children turned their backs. I asked if Steve had been close to his family. She said he hadn’t talked to anyone in years. I said many families were stubborn and unforgiving. I knew I was using words she probably didn’t understand, although the English classes that Steve paid for had made her conversant and she was able to sound out printed words. In Thailand, I said, even when parents and children didn’t talk, when someone died, the family came together. In America that wasn’t always so.

She looked at the sign on the wall and asked, “What means ‘flight’?

“Like ‘helicopter’?” I said yes, like helicopter. Today was Steve’s last helicopter ride.

By four o’clock, the bar was packed with expats, all of them getting drunk, toasting a photograph that had been placed on a small shrine over the bar, a mug of Carlsberg next to a small card that gave the dates of his birth and death. (He was fifty-five.) I looked around and thought that when I died, I’d be lucky to draw a third the number.

The Priest & the Journalist

(A different version of this story introduced Fr. Joe Maier’s book Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse: The Battle for Human Dignity in Bangkok’s Bleakest Slums; another appeared in Bangkok Babylon.)

The Rev. Joseph Maier took a seat at the table across from me and as I ordered two mugs of Heineken draft, he took a call on his cell phone. It was January 2, 2000, the start of the new millennium, and we’d met to celebrate numerous past failures and occasional victories and a future of more of the same. A moment later, he ended his call, abruptly stood, and said, “There’s been a gas leak at the icehouse. You want to come along?”

We ran to his car and as he sped through the Bangkok night, driving as I’d never seen him drive before, he explained that the place that produced ice for many of Bangkok’s drinks was near his AIDS hospice and one of his shelters for street kids.

“Tell me what you know about Freon,” he said.

“I don’t know much. What I remember from physics class is that it’s an odorless, colorless gas that has no effect on humans, but according to more recent studies, it fucks up the ozone layer. Why?”

He said that was what he was told was leaking into his neighborhood, the Klong Toey slum, the largest of some 1,200 urban areas that are officially designated as slums in Bangkok. About a year earlier, Joe said, there’d been a fire in the ice house and it should’ve been shut down permanently, but the woman who owned it paid a visit to a local politician who paid a visit to the cops and nothing was done. That’s the way troubles are handled in Bangkok. And Father Joe, as he was fondly known, had experienced his share of them.

Born on a wheat farm in South Dakota, raised in a tiny house in Washington after his ma bravely divorced his pa---not easy in the 1950s for a Catholic, even when the man is a philanderer, a drunk, and a runaway. Polio when he was a teen, an Eagle Scout, too, and then pretty much raised by the Catholic Church. By the time he was ordained, he was in step with the anti-Vietnam war protest and a pain in the ass in seminary, always demanding that the rules for personal behavior be changed.

The Church got even. They sent him and five of his rebellious cohorts to the ends of the earth, Joe to Thailand where he experienced the secret war firsthand in Laos, preaching to the Hmong who had joined the US in fighting the Viet Cong. After the war, he was sent to the worst slum in Bangkok, where he remained for more than 30 years, sleeping on a cot in a shack for most of them and dressing himself out of the Poor Box.

Now, as we made our dash through the Bangkok night, he was the director of a non-profit organization called the Human Development Center, with more than 250 employees working in 28 programs in 30 slums, one of which ran 35 schools that provided books, uniforms, nutritious lunches, and basic reading skills to 4,500 children. He also ran Bangkok’s oldest and largest AIDS hospice; a 24-hour medical clinic; five shelters for street kids (the only rules were no sex, no drugs, no violence; the kids could come and go as they wished); over a hundred youth soccer teams; a legal attack squad that represented 200 juveniles a week in police stations and the court; and a variety of fund-raising, skill-teaching programs. And he had done it despite all odds.

“I don’t get any of the rich Catholic money,” he said, a reference to wealthy Catholics. “I don’t fit the mold. I don’t wear a cassock, sometimes I don’t shave, I need a haircut, I sat ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’, and I live, by choice, in the slums with people with AIDS and amphetamine habits, with prostitutes. People say I may be respected, but I am not to be emulated, so the money goes elsewhere.”

In time, even the Church turned off his water and he became totally dependent on private contributions and whatever he could wrench from the Thai bureaucracy. (Eventually, the Bangkok Metropolitan Association agreed to pay half his teachers’ salaries.) And with a rich American businessman’s generosity, he constructed a $4-million facility in the middle of the city’s toughest slum, on land he didn’t own, without permission or permits to do so.

Some called him “Father Teresa,” which he hated, preferring “Slaughterhouse Joe,” for the neighborhood in which he lived. This was Bangkok’s primary abattoir, where the pigs were butchered for the city’s markets. The Buddhists couldn’t kill and the Muslims avoided pork, leaving the job to Catholics, most of them third-generation Vietnamese, who comprised the core of Joe’s congregation. There, night after night, 6,000 or more pigs were hit over the heads with pipes and blowtorched to remove the hair and gutted and cut into chops and loins and so on, the shit squeezed from the guts joining the blood and piss and rainwater, forming puddles where the children played the next day, because there was no drainage in this part of the city, nor any playgrounds or parks.

I was reflecting on all this as we sped through the streets heading for the ice house, squealing as we hit the corners, bouncing into and out of pot holes. I started to laugh.

“What’s so funny?”

“I had a thought. You know those movies where the cop’s driving an unmarked car when he gets a call and he reaches out the window and puts one of those flashing lights on the roof? Where the light is stuck to the roof by a magnet and is plugged into the cigarette lighter? I just had an image of you doing that, except you have a flashing crucifix.”

He laughed as we slid around another corner and the rest of the way to the icehouse we argued about what kind of noise should be coming out of the car when the crucifix was in place. We agreed it couldn’t be a siren or anything that sounded like cops or an ambulance. I argued for Gregorian chants and Joe held out for “Ave Maria.”

At our destination, our joking stopped. “That’s not Freon, it’s ammonia,” I said as we exited the car and I sniffed the air, “---and that could seriously kill somebody.”

All around us, life was proceeding as usual. At a food stall across the narrow street from the ice house people ignored the bad smell and spooned up bowls of noodle soup. How unusual, after all, was an offensive odor in a Bangkok slum?

Joe accessed the situation and we took off at a trot toward the Mercy Center, where after he was assured that everything was alright, he left me with a friend. Bangkok is one of those unusual cities where personal safety was pretty much assured everywhere and at all times, but Joe insisted that unless you were Thai, Klong Toey had not only the stink of ammonia this night, but the whiff of danger for outsiders every night. As a longtime resident known in the neighborhood, he figured he was exempt from any such threat.

Joe traveled the final hundred meters or so without me, arriving at the neighborhood police station, out of breath but firm of opinion and resolve. For the next twenty minutes, the portly, balding, sixty-year-old priest from South Dakota, whose mixed Irish and German blood boils at thirty degrees Celsius, the average daily temperature in Bangkok, informed the police who had the misfortune to be on duty that night precisely how they were shirking their duty.

Why weren’t any cops on the scene at the icehouse? he wanted to know. Why didn’t they have a loudspeaker announcing the danger from inhaling ammonia gas? Was anything being done about the leak? Did they know how harmful ammonia was? What was the plan if someone got sick?

There are many cops who welcome Joe, and there are others who like to get rid of him as quickly as possible, even if they have to capitulate a little, so in a short time, it was agreed that the police would dispatch someone to the ice house with one of those battery-operated megaphones and search for any injured or ill, in the plant and in the immediate neighborhood, and if any were found, to take them to the hospital. Then after collecting me, Joe and I hotfooted it back to the icehouse, where he confronted the owner, who was sitting nonchalantly on the loading dock. The smell of ammonia was still noxious in the air.

Now, Joe gave her holy hell, causing her to lose a bit of her face as there were several others present, but extracting a promise to pay for any possible hospital costs.

With the cops arriving and the woman moving to greet them, Joe and I returned to his car. “This,” he said as we walked, “is how journalists and priests get killed.”

I laughed again. “Happy New Year to you, too, Joe.”

On the Road Promoting ‘Strange Foods’

(This was written as a letter to friends and appeared in a different form as the epilog in Extreme Cuisine: The Weird & Wonderful Foods That People Eat.)

The lady was not pleased. Never mind her name. She thought she’d already received more than enough attention, and it was, she insisted, all my fault.

I was ending a seven-city promotional tour for my STRANGE FOODS book in Vancouver, where my publisher hired a woman who ran a local cooking school and catering service to follow some of the recipes in my book so I’d have some dishes for show-and-tell when I appeared on two national television shows.

It wasn’t the thinly sliced, deep-fried pigs’ ears or the roasted bone marrow or the prickly pear veggie dish or the tomatoes stuffed with humus and fried crickets that caused her upset. It was the deep-dish bulls’ ball pie, made from a recipe I found that dated back to 16th century Rome.

Following the instructions of Bartomolo Scappi, chef to Pope Pius V, she boiled four bulls’ testicles with salt, then cut them into slices and sprinkled the result with more salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Next, in a pie crust she layered the sliced testicles with mince of lamb kidneys, ham, marjoram, cloves, and thyme. I must say it looked delicious and I enjoyed describing the contents and history on the show. But thinking the pie was going to be used again the second program, I resisted eating any.

When I arrived at the studio for that show, however, the woman told me that all the dishes were different and she didn’t have the pie with her.

“How’d it taste?” I asked.

“You must be joking,” she said. “I threw it away.”

“You threw it away? Without tasting it? Weren’t you even just a little bit curious?”

She said something genteel that really meant “Hell, no!” and then she explained her distress. “You can’t just walk into a market and buy this sort of thing,” she said. “I had to call my regular butcher and he had to order it from the abattoir. This is a man I use for all my meat orders, and when I told him what I wanted...” She seemed at a loss for words, but finally said, “I can’t tell you what this has done to my reputation in Vancouver.”

It got worse. When she returned to her kitchen, she told me, she had to peel the primary objects in the recipe to remove their thick, veiny sack. Well! One of them slipped from her hands and it fell to the floor, bouncing five times on its way toward the back door as if trying to escape.

By now, I was having some trouble controlling myself. This sounded a great story, one that I’d love to tell myself. However, I doubted she’d ever tell it again, it was clear she was mortified, and somehow I kept my laughter in check.

“The worst part,” she went on, “was when I started to slice them. They squirted at me! Squirted!”

I gave it up at that point and nearly fell off my chair. I just wish it had been on air rather than backstage.

*

Do you remember the scene where Indiana Jones watches a monkey strapped beneath a table to have his furry little skull opened and Indiana is handed a spoon? At the start of the tour, I felt like Indiana. After a hundred interviews in seven cities (New York, Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver) in 17 days, I felt like the monkey. I pray I sold some books.

Many of the people I talked to were morning drive-time radio jocks, most of them Howard Stern wannabes. Nearly all appealed to the lowest common denominator. That meant I mainly talked about the five-penis wine I drank in China and the time when I made my son’s placenta into a paté and served it to friends the next day. Some of the DJs wanted to talk about Jim Morrison, which was okay except that it wasn’t THAT publisher who was paying for the tour, so to switch subjects I’d tell how I once ate bulls’ testicles (deep-fried) in Mexico with the Doors. Of course, that meant I was talking about genitalia again. Appearing live on a morning rap station in San Francisco, I was interviewed by four people simultaneously, three of whom commented on how yucky everything sounded, the fourth of whom was identified when we met as a drag queen. Guess what he made jokes about.

A few took me and my book more seriously. At National Public Radio stations, interviewers told me about the strange foods they’d eaten and at the Explorers Club in New York I met people whose mouths were as adventurous than my own. And because I was traveling with a supply of chocolate-covered crickets and mealworms and bottles of gecko and snake wine, and picked up balut and durian and other yummies along the way (usually in the city’s Chinatown), I always had something to share. Some actually ate or sipped a bit, including sympathetic interviewers at Entertainment Weekly, National Public Radio, and USA Today.

I also brought some cooked silkworm larva and water bugs along from Bangkok, about which I have a confession to make. Fearing this gastronomic exotica might be confiscated as I passed through Customs, I packaged some bugs as a backup to send to an editor friend in New York, my first stop. I marked the box “tee-shirts” and called DHL. Half an hour after pickup I got a phone call.

“Mr. Hopkins, you say there are tee-shirts in your package and inside there are dead insects! What is outside and inside must be the same.”

“Oh, uh, I guess I made a mistake,” I said, wondering why they’d opened the box; were they looking for drugs? “Bring the package back and I’ll change the label.”

“Mr. Hopkins, we do not transport dead animals.“

Fortunately, inspectors didn’t look at my declaration form as I passed through Customs. Where I was asked if I had any animal life or food with me and there were boxes to check “yes” or “no,” I didn’t check either one.

On the plane from Portland to Seattle, I was handed a small bag of “Party Mix,” described on the package as “a premium blend of zesty tastes including pretzels, ranch bagel chips, and cheddar corn sticks.” The list of ingredients read as follows (take a very deep breath): “Enriched Wheat Flour (contains niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), stone ground corn, bleached wheat flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour), sugar, cheddar cheese (pasteurized milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes, disodium phosphate and annatto), soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, malt, yeast, wheat gluten, oat bran, sour cream powder (sour cream solids, cultured non-fat milk, citric acid, TBHQ), whey solids, milk solids, guar gum, onion powder, tomato powder, tomato solids, garlic powder, cheddar cheese powder [cheddar cheese (whole milk, cheese cultures, salt enzymes), disodium phosphate, buttermilk, sodium bicarbonate, annatto vegetable color, citric acid, modified food starch, malic acid, artificial color (including yellow #6 and yellow #5), spices, natural and artificial flavor, paprika, yellow 6 lake, dried whey, dextrose monohydrate, lactic acid, silica gel-anticaking agent and turmeric.”

And they call what I eat “strange.”