Soldiers of Fortune Prt 1

Bangkok Travel Blog

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Getting ready before I begin...

Its not about the claim you lay.  Its all about the game you play.

A week in the past...

The jeep spirits me back to the airport, tropical heat flooding the cabin as we race through the streets of Bangkok.  It will be another airport…  the sixth city I have passed through in five days.  When you cover this much ground, you stop measuring time in a conventional sense.  I check my watch for minutes and seconds only because meetings and flights are measured in numbers.  The day of the week is a mystery to me though.  Weekdays and weekends all have the same meaning.  Fodder.

As the car weaves in and out of traffic in a reckless to and fro, the denizens of this city become a blur as I pass them celebrating their new year with water games.  I spectate from the back seat, rocking back and forth as the wheels traverse broken asphalt and snapshots of another culture disappear in seconds.  Somehow, the images always stay with me.  My own personal photo album of a world that changes with the wind.  My phone rings, but I don’t answer it.  I have other things on my mind.

The car pulls up to the airport and I throw a wad of filthy bills in the direction of the driver.  There is enough there, I am sure, but I don’t bother counting numbers.  Counting numbers leads to a negotiation and right now, time is worth money that is bigger than baht.  Travel maths - its a logic that only makes sense on the road.  You can worry about the smaller things, but out here, holding onto the smaller things usually means that the big picture passes you by.  The movement may cost me pennies, but it buys me control.  The driver counts the cash as I grab my bag and head for the arrivals area.  The driver is calling to me now, but I’m gone.  He just doesn’t know it yet…

Half an hour later, I sit in an airport cafe.  Across from me sit two colleagues.  With hushed voices, we scheme together, laying out a strategy that covers 3 continents.  Each shares his point of view, but only in enough detail to play the game.  Strategy is everything and this is a game of shadows, so each player holds their cards close to their chest.  There is talk of my product and several large entities, but in the end, it is all talk.  Most of these plans end up as smoke.  Each word represents a position that could be.  Each possibility is contingent on kickbacks, for this is business on the other side of the tracks - where every door requires a man with the right key.  Nothing is riskier than dealing with the gatekeeper.  I nod, smile and present the appropriate interest, but alarm bells filter through every movement at this table.  It is like the old song says:  “…don’t pay the ferryman, don’t even fix a price.  Don’t pay the ferryman, until he gets you to the other side…”.

The author of that song must have seen a few people drown along the way.

Sweat snakes down my back as my mind races to cover all of the angles, but my face remains expressionless.  My sweat doesn’t show, two t-shirts conceal the telltale sign.  I’ve been here before, my hands are no longer green,  there are many tricks in this trade.  Heavy numbers cross the table, and there are many zeros here.  I wonder, are we talking a zero?  I know I can’t see every angle, all I can do is see as much as possible and roll with the rest.  Deals are like fog.  They conceal the unknown.  So we could be charlatans or we could be alchemists.  Time will tell. 

By now, our neighbours occupying the surrounding tables begin to focus their attention on us.  People in Asia have a sixth sense for deals… its almost like discussions like these carry a scent.  With a brief nod, each of us acknowledge that our time is up.  Ears are the enemy, so we fall into silence and begin to pack our belongings.  Minutes later, without fanfare, we face each other to say our silent farewell. These goodbyes are normal to us.  While others would travel with their entire families to airports to wish a bon voyage, there is no such fanfare when your home is wherever you unpack your suitcase.  Normality is no more than the most common state of a person’s affairs. Walking in opposite directions, I turn to watch as the others depart.  They blend into anonymity, merging with the faceless throng…  each to face another challenge in a faraway place.  One will board a plane headed to Melbourne, one shall fly to Beijing.  I check my boarding pass…  it is a ticket to the Middle East.  I don’t feel anything particular about the departure or the destination.  Its just another destination.

I make it to my hotel by 2.30am.  I have never been here, but I am not fazed by this. I am a veteran of the Middle East and the rules are the same out here, no matter which country you are in.  I open my laptop to get the latest.  Intel is everything and tomorrow I begin.  So I read late into the night and wake with my face on the keyboard.  Nothing a cold shower, hard coffee and a Malboro won’t fix.

At 8am, I walk through the lobby of the five star hotel.  Any sign of my semi-sleepless night and never ending voyage has been eradicated.  In its place are all the trappings that one needs to play out here “Hugo Boss and Ermenegildo Zegna” names names and names, all of which mean nothing to me and everything to everyone else.  Whoever said ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ hasn’t left home in the last few decades, for there is only so far that a pair of cargo shorts and thongs will take you without the watch to go with it. Sad but true.  White robes and burkas surround me as I make my way to the cafe area.  Even their white robes are designer made for this region.  My gut twists into knots as I pass through this sea of vanity and I let my mind drift to the beach I plan to lie on for the rest of my life one day, in the sun with my girl, my cargos and absolutely no watch.  I smile at the thought, surrender to the present, swallow my bile and get on with it.

Across the room, I spot my contact and I make my way towards his table.  He is waiting for me.  I give him the once over with eyes shielded behind my mirrored frames, noting his brand names from head to toe with the rolex sticking a little too far out from his pinned shirt cuffs to be a mere coincidence.  Good, he has come with his game on, which means we have something serious to talk about.  We smile in greeting, and share our crocodile tears together.  His American accent carries across this space, distinctive amongst the diffusion of Arabic.  After polite small talk, we begin to explore the reason both of us are in the sandpit today.  I set out my objectives and he fills in the gaps.  Surely, to the outsider, we are the textbook definition of teamwork.  But he and I know that every word we trade carries a thrust or parry.  We probe each other, for although we are comrades here, every man stands alone.  The unanswered question weighs heavily on both of us:  “Will the other have my back?”…  and then comes the inevitable realisation that even if this is the case, there will probably be a knife in it at the end of the day.  Not a word is spoken of these thoughts, for they are of no consequence.  We both know the rules - there are none - we are only as good as the last deal and we live only as long as we remain useful to the cause of the day.  Focusing my thoughts on the present, my colleague tells me that we will meet and greet at lunchtime.  “…the meet and greet is all about first impressions, so lets make a good one….” he says to me.  I nod in agreement, but I’m more interested in the impression they make on me.

What will be will be…

lauro says:
"In its place are all the trappings that one needs to play out here “Hugo Boss and Ermenegildo Zegna” names names and names, all of which mean nothing to me and everything to everyone else. Whoever said ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ hasn’t left home in the last few decades, for there is only so far that a pair of cargo shorts and thongs will take you without the watch to go with it. Sad but true. White robes and burkas surround me as I make my way to the cafe area"

a juxtaposition of events.
Posted on: Oct 19, 2008
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Getting ready before I begin...
Getting ready before I begin...
Bangkok
photo by: Deats