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Letter from the inside - Care for a Banana?
March 2003 - Hello, happy traveler (or jaded expat). So here you are in exotic, sultry, and exquisite Thailand.

Or are you? Have you considered that you’re maybe the target of some vague government conspiracy, and that your plane was perhaps diverted to this place which merely appears to be Thailand?

If so, I have two crucial words for you: “SEEK HELP”. You’re obviously hyper-paranoid and need to be institutionalized a lot more than I do. But seriously, how do you know you’re actually here? Were you pummeled by a veritable wave of damp heat the second you emerged from the airport terminal? (And how many of us can never forget that “sauna saunter” across the tarmac in the old days?) Did you not say, “You gotta be kiddin”! (or the nearest Swedish equivalent), when you first saw the toilets at your guesthouse? While eating dinner, did you perhaps suspect the chef of doing a runner after prepping the sauces, leaving a mentally challenged busboy to cut the meat for your entrée? Strolling a mere 50 meters to along a busy soi, have you not found yourself overpowered by a multitude of various heavy aromas – some not very pleasant? And, have you not yet ventured to one of a few infamous nightspots in town undulating with gaggles of cute little school-aged-looking girls sporting oddly sexy clothing? And weren’t all those girls maybe beckoning you to come hither with some tired phrase like, “Hey, sexy man, you buy me drink?” – even if you happened to be female?

If so, then welcome to Thailand. (Oh, and if you bought that girl a drink – again, SEEK HELP. You’re probably infected.)

While inside these walls I’ve had much cause to wonder if I’m actually here and I do often find myself contemplating, as I’m repeatedly butting my head against a very hard surface, just why I’m here. “Why?” [Butt!] “Why?” [Butt!] “Why?” [BUTT!]

Actually, I should confess that all this self-inflicted violence is done only in the metaphorical sense because I’m really attempting to mentally block out all the perennial indicators that yes, I’m indeed here. But, as an experimental therapeutic endeavour – and not strictly for the money either – allow me to illustrate a few of those indicators for you.

I guess the most prevalent one is the disturbing absence of women folk, especially considering the way they tend to dress in this region of the world. The lack of attractive, scantily clad ladies just seems to heighten the feeling of being stuck in an off-kilter all-male environment. Here’s one indicator: When I saw a certain guy – let’s call him “Bonzo” – meticulously peel his banana with one surgical razor slice down the side, I asked him, “Why all the fuss over a banana?” He offered me a not-so-winning, lecherous grin and confided, “Tonight I’m flying my kite.” (Thai slang for wanking off.) Then he tried to hand me a piece of the phallic fruit. “No, thanks” I said, “really gotta watch my potassium levels.”

And here’s a constant indicator you’ll never see on the outside. Locker checks by the guards are a sporadic practice here in Bang Kwang Central Prison, and generally seem to be conducted by 10-or-so of them who simply have nothing else to do at the time – or because they’re so tanked they can’t do much else. Funny thing is, and eight years on I still shake my head in wonder, that within a reasonable amount of time, bells, buzzers, whistles, and then a lot of edgy multi-lingual shouting signal an impending search.

So we might be playing basketball and suddenly an alarm rings. Then there’s Instant pandemonium, with damn near 1,000 guys scattering in nearly as many directions to relocate an array of strictly forbidden contraband. There goes a Chinese-looking guy with an armload of meat cleavers and paring knives; here comes a dark-skinned southern Thai with tattoos head-to-foot, a prized fighting chicken under each arm, while a pair of Africans scuttle by humping a large-screen TV; and any number of cell phones and palm pilots are hastily stashed in drains, sewer cracks and crevices.

Hopefully, you’ve read Warren Fellow’s harrowing account of life inside these walls, The Damage Done. One thing he wrote isn’t altogether accurate these days. The “red rooms” are still very much in use. Before the checks, where do you think 1,000 long-term criminals hide all their appliances? And that’s only one building’s worth, folks.

During one check something occurred that I’m sure has contributed to my pending sanity. A brown-nosing, overzealous underling gave the former security chief – a nasty, corrupt, greedy, pock-faced little troll who was probably the evil love child of Pol Pot and Imelda Marcos – a modest bag of green Chinese tea I’d recently been sent. Now, I’m no angel; my fondness for what it vaguely resembled was a bit more renowned than my (non- existent) passion for green tea, so the guards naturally suspected it had to be some sort of new odorless kind of ganja. My repeated, half-hearted denials were met with a brilliant only-in-“Amazing Thailand”-kind-of decision by the scowling troll in charge: the search squad would smoke the mysterious substance to nail down a positive ID.

In response to this suggestion, Brent, Brian, Cliff and Matty – Westerners with adjacent lockers – used reverse psychology, volunteering to “test” the offending material for them. If this scene were in a movie, the next shot would cut to the five of us surreptitiously eyeing one another while suppressing the smiles of a rather unique and poignant victory. Then the camera would slowly pan to five-or-six plastered-on-cheap-whiskey guards wobbling unsteadily on short wooden stools, halfway though smoking individual roll-ups, each one of them a fat bomber.

After tamping out his “joint” the screw who’d discovered my “stash” discreetly pulled me aside and asked out of the corner of his mouth if I knew where he could get something a bit stronger. “Yeah”, I said, “Sri Lanka.”

OK, so you probably won’t encounter a staggering circle of uniformed officers toking on a bag of tea during your Siamese adventure. But a word of advice: you don’t want to, either.

So bathe in the luxury of that damp heat, which you can escape at the nearest pool/beach. And appreciate the fact that even though you’re squatting over a porcelain hole in the floor, at least you don’t have some fat, disgusting local engaged in his own stinking tuba practice only six inches away from you. And savour having the choice of whatever bone-studded meat you’re biting into. Inhale deeply and enjoy the variety of mostly sweet fragrances, not the constant bouquet of sewer. And, as far as the school-aged-looking local talent goes, if you’re honouring those drink offers, well, you’re left to your own devices; I’m sure it beats boffing a razor-sliced fruit peel. Though if you know that from personal experience, for the last time: SEEK HELP!

Which, believe me, is far more accessible on your side of the wall.

Now go have a banana.

Garth Hattan
Building-2 (Now Released on Transfer Treaty)

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