In typical style I didn't pay attention to time and found myself a little vulnerable and stranded in a quiet border town in eastern Thailand one night a couple of weeks ago. Stuck with me was an Italian man called Renda on a visa run from Cambodia who was usefully fluent in Thai. So we booked rooms in a seedy motel and went out for dinner in one of the street cafes.
I couldn't help but notice that Renda, a huge, bald, handsome man in his fifties who's lived in Asia for twenty years and more, looked remarkably like Brando's rendition of Kurtz. He talked about his plans to go live in the interior of the Cambodian jungle with his two little sons, no longer able to stomach the money driven modern tourist culture ruining his playground. His sons' mother, a methamphetamine-addicted filipina, 'a bad woman,' he said, died from an infection after childbirth. Renda shed me some crocodile tears as he lamented his sons’ futures, producing their passports as if for my inspection. He related how he'd had to steal the beautiful little boys away from their mother's family, and the care of the authorities, as they think he's a paedophile, and how he’s unable to re-enter Europe for similar reasons. As the night deepened he talked about growing up on the streets of the old world, escaping death three times (showing me the bullet wounds) in the rundown estates and red light districts of Italy and the Netherlands, before becoming a kick-boxing champion and abandoning the constraints of Europe for the freedoms of the East. He held forth about humanity's origins and our possible futures, with a traveller and trickster's encyclopedic knowledge of the world; an anthropologist and a world historian living by a set of theories based on his experiences rather than books. He managed to remind me of both characters from that ace scene in True Romance where Dennis Hopper provokes Christopher Walken into shooting him; a compulsive combination of stories, crazy theories and charming old world manners that almost, but not quite, concealed the sense of controlled violence underlying his immense physical form. His laugh was rare but deep and attractive when it came, his eyes sparkled as he talked. They missed nothing. He asked me almost nothing about my life, though interested in my theories about things, but he'd noticed the tiniest of scars from a childhood accident on my shin in the gloom under the table. He bought me dinner and he absolutely terrified me.
There's a fine line between madness and mere self delusion when it comes to all these middle aged European men losing themselves in South East Asia I find. How much of what Renda told me was truth was very open to question as we played our little game of confidence over fried rice and Singha beer. Some people equate power and freedom with money and possessions, others with admirable modern notions like democracy and equality and individual rights. The origins of these inter-twining and often hypocritical values lie in all our ongoing shared colonial histories. Like Kurtz, Renda has rejected these values, along with the modern world that's spawned them, for his own where he can play by his own social and sexual rules, timeless ones where power's wielded over and within other people - the bodies, words and minds of oppressor and oppressed - grey areas between nature and culture that defy easy description and moral prescription.
On some level it didn't really surprise me when my third beer tasted funny. It was after midnight and I'd begun to wonder what his move, when it came, was going to be. Now I'm not particularly well-travelled, and let’s face it am often naive, as I find it more interesting to keep an open mind, but I can safely say that in Manchester I received an adequate education in the land of the rinse. I drank no more, and then with the equally timeless proviso 'Don't Go White' playing round my brain as his eyes bore into mine, I managed to keep chatting as reality warped around me and what felt a bit like a fat line of kenny hit my limbs. But I hadn't drank much of the beer and after a little while, when I felt sure I could walk again, I politely beat a retreat.
The next day I could still see his darkness in the landscape from the window of the bus to Bangkok, despite the brightness of the early morning sunshine - it was there in the shadows under the trees, the decapitated frame of a car... the guy on the seat in front turned round and had a piece of liquorice instead of an eye. I'd reached the limits of my anthropology I mused, participant observation in a fairly standard Asian female experience of sexual exploitation a little beyond me. I've already related the story to friends, tagging it up with facile labels of 'weirdo' and 'perv' and 'lucky escape' that deny any implication for the sake of ease and neatness. But before I arrived back in supposed civilization, the falsely light and carefree front that constitutes mass crass tourism in Thailand, and stopped thinking about it, it occurred to me that once or twice there it could have gone either way. For a second that morning I wondered how much of the darkness that was still unsettling me might be my own.