chasing a jaguar into the guatemalan jungles to capture a picture and finding myself stalked and confronted by it ten feet away through a jumble of bush
landing in a monsoon at the airport in manila, worst turbulence of my life i actually thought we were going to crash
in thailand i had this grand idea to write up an expose of the human trafficking industry for the newspaper i was doing a column for. here's another book excerpt cause its entertaining enough
Feeling a bit like an investigative reporter on an undercover mission – which I suppose I was, technically – I set out shortly after dark to see what I could scrounge up. A nervous twinge refused to leave the pit of my stomach. I had done my research. Most of the brothels were components of organized crime, run by the Thai mafia. There was nothing lighthearted about the Thai mafia, whose flesh-peddling activities were highly illegal but largely unchecked by what my guidebook described as a woefully underpaid police force. If there was a question, a bribe was the answer, and everyone went away happy (except the sex slaves.)
Undoubtedly there would be little patience for a meddling farang looking for a way to shed light on highly lucrative trade.
So I decided I was going to be prepared.
I started by suiting up in two layers of clothes. Inconspicuous jeans and then a t-shirt with a collared shirt over top, and my hat, and sunglasses. This way if I had to bolt in a hurry, I could strip off the top shirt, hat, and sunglasses and disappear into the crowd.
I had to have somewhere to stuff the clothes, and a place to hold my camera, so I hunted around the night market until I found a tan satchel. It was a European brand, Diesel, all the rage there, but obviously of cheap construction, a fake. I doubted it would last long, but it didn’t need to.
And of course any investigative journalist worth his salt needed some sort of self-defense mechanism in case poo hit the fan. Three stalls down from to the one selling fake Diesel products was a weaponry stand. Nothing particularly high quality, but enough variety and glint to catch the eye. It was one of those tables that compelled you to stand for ten minutes browsing every piece. Or maybe that was just me, having grown up on The A-Team and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.
I grudgingly skipped the small katanas and the K-Bars – they wouldn’t fit in my satchel – and picked up a small butterfly knife. I’d learned to use one years ago in my martial arts class. The handle is split in two and swivels over the blade to conceal it. Grip one side of the handle and flip it back and the blade is exposed, and then you swivel the handle one hundred and eighty degrees and catch the other hand, and you’ve got a knife in hand. Of course that motion is an art form, and if you don’t do it right you’ll either cut yourself or clumsily use two hands to fix it properly. Hoping I remembered how to use it, I argued the merchant from four hundred baht down to two hundred with a shiriken thrown in.
Ninja stars, the laymen called them, but we martial artists knew better.
With this insurance tucked accessibly into my satchel I headed down Silom Street towards the Patpong district. I was assaulted by conflicting senses of idiotic over-reaction and increasing apprehension. I was just snapping a couple of pictures. You don’t need a bazooka and a fire squad of Marines for that.
But rule number one in Bangkok is that you don’t fug with the Thai mafia. Rule number two: forget rule number one and you’ll be fish food at the bottom of the Chao Phraya.
I wiped a sheet of sweat off my forehead with the hairy part of my forearm, which was equally as sweaty, and now my eyebrows were waterlogged. I pulled off my sunglasses and wiped my entire face with my shirt, which clung to me in the heat of the night, and came away only slightly dryer. The humidity had to be in the upper eighties. Just before Patpong I ducked into a 7-11, enjoying the sudden oasis of frigid air, and bought a Lipton lemon-flavored iced tea, which I paid for and promptly chugged it. I was getting addicted to those things. (It is worth noting, to the reader, that Lipton lemon-flavored iced teas taste completely different in Thailand and are worth planning a trip just to try them.)
Thusly refreshed, I plunged back into the humidity and the heat and towards Patpong. Eventually I was bothered by the obligatory sex DVD salesman, and then another, and then I turned off the main road onto Soi Nine, on my left. A few lowly-lit pubs lined the lane, soft rock tunes floating out in stark contrast to the pulsing beat of trance music from the next couple of bars.
It didn’t take me long to get accosted. There were a handful of girls lounging by the bars, though in far fewer numbers than I had seen. They seemed much more …aggressive? Calling out to me, checking me out… wasn’t I supposed to be doing that? Something wasn’t right.
“Sawa-dee-haaaah!” cried one particularly well dressed prostitute, fantastically figured in a skin-tight dress. The pronunciation, overly sing-songy, gave him away moments before I spotted his adam’s apple, bobbing above two perfectly-formed silicone breasts. I had heard Bangkok was one of the cheapest places in the world to get cosmetic surgeries done. I didn’t doubt it.
“Sawa-dee-krup,” I replied, my wai a little awkward, a little too quick, and about-faced as casually as I could manage.
“You want boom-boom!” he called after me, the others watching expectantly, and I laughed and repeated my walking-fingers motion.
“Just walking,” I said, and they exploded with mirth.
“E’reybody just walking,” he said, and they laughed louder.
I returned to Silom Street and made a left, continuing through the congested night market traffic. No pimps had approached me, much to my consternation. I had hoped to interview one of them as well, since their English was usually pretty good, but they left me alone. Maybe I looked a little less lost after a week in the city. Tuk-tuks left me alone now too.
Silom Soi Seven was next. The street here was a little bit wider, a little bit more open, but quiet like the last one. A single large bar was the highlight of the alleyway – Club Omega. A cadre of scantily-clad women – at least they looked like women – sat out front, each wearing lacy halter tops as bright pink as the flickering neon sign above them.
I approached the brothel as casually as I could manage, staying as far to the left of the road as I could without losing a good shooting angle. I stopped next to a parked moped, doing my best to blend in with it, and pulled out the camera. The butterfly knife rattled reassuringly, sliding with a muffled clink against the shiriken, and I shifted the satchel so that it lay near the small of my back, out of the way.
I flicked the camera on and switched to a manual setting. I hadn’t done any shooting in the dark with it before, so it took a few minutes to discover the right setting, and then a blinking battery icon appeared in the upper righthand corner of the screen. Dammit. This thing absolutely drained batteries. I fumbled through the interior pocket of the bag for a spare set I’d brought with me, found them, switched them out, and reset the lighting options I’d painstakingly chosen, and then I was ready for action.
I had been standing there long enough to become used to the rhythm of the sounds. It was a quiet street, no traffic to speak of, save for the occasional moped buzzing through; only the muted hum of Silom’s masses drifted through. So when the first car came through the narrow road, I was aware of it by the sound of its idle, and the soft squeal of its tires turning on the pavement.
I took a picture, and then another picture, and then another, zooming in to catch as much detail as I could manage. The lighting was terrible. I couldn’t use a flash from this distance. Maybe the headlights of the approaching car would illuminate the scene for a shot or two. It was driving slowly enough for couple of tries, even with my maddeningly slow shutter speed and the blurry shots that I had to keep redoing. It was behind me now. Still dark. Why weren’t its headlights on?
The idling car had been a rambling series of semi-conscious observations in the back of my mind up until that point, and a sudden alarm bell went off in the depths of my brain, and a very uncomfortable feeling snapped those observations to my immediate focus. Something wasn’t right.
When I was a teenager I wanted to be a police officer. My parents signed me up for a program called Police Explorers, which was a paramilitary organization that got high schoolers involved in the local police departments. We learned how to do routine paperwork, administer DUI tests, even cool stuff like SWAT training. It was a great program.
Tony Hess taught us how to perform felony car stops. “Sometimes,” he told us, “you’ll approach the car, and the license check ran cleanly, and it’s no different than the last six thousand traffic stops you performed. Some idiot forgot to renew his tags, and that’s the end of it. But sometimes for no reason at all you get this hinkey feeling.”
He looked at us hard. “Hinkey feeling,” he repeated. “That hinkey feeling is your instinct, the hair raising on your neck. Trust it. Sometimes you just know.”
That car behind me, stopped in the middle of the empty street, idling rhythmically, soothingly… I had a hinkey feeling about it.
I lowered the camera, at once feeling terrifyingly exposed, and turned slowly around. The car behind me looked brand new. It was pure white. Nothing white stays white in Bangkok, especially when they’re cars. It was a BMW, a luxury sedan, also rare. No dings, no dents. Even rarer.
The club’s sign glinted off the windshield in the dark, plastering a backwards pink Omega where the driver sat, and through the heavy tint and the bright reflection I could see several dark figures posed motionlessly, heads all pointed squarely at mine, relaxed, devoid of details in the dark, but unmistakably hostile.
I let the camera slide down to the left side of my leg in an effort to hide it, and like the script of a clichéd spy movie, the BMW maintained its authoritative position in the middle of the road, idling coolly, lightless, its occupants staring me down, and then the plot stereotypically worsened, as the front window, and then the rear one, slowly lowered with the automated hum of precision engineering, and two middle-aged Thai men, both well-dressed, faces drawn tight, glared at me with eerily expressionless faces, eyes invisible behind sleek polarized sunglasses.
I about-faced with a sense of purpose that Staff Sergeant Signorelli would have been proud of, and, shifting the camera from my left hand to my right in one fluid motion that kept it away from the hostile eyes several feet away, shoved it down into my satchel, and stepped off down the sidewalk, as swiftly as I could manage without hurrying, and did not look back until the buzz of Silom had enveloped me.
When I finally looked back, only a murky puddle in a stretch of sinking concrete reflected the Omega’s neon glow.
Rule Number Three: GTFO.