Australian election day in Bangkok

The four Aussies headed off to the Australian Embassy in Bangkok to cast our votes.  There was an air of optimism and festiveness to the occasion.  Getting into the embassy building was high security.  We had to hand over our bags and were only allowed to take our passports and wallets into the building.  We were also told to “spread ’em” while we were scanned with a weapon detector.  After going through several layers of security, we finally made it inside to the voting area.   There was none of the usual hustle and bustle of party representatives handing out how to vote cards and negotiating last minute with undecided voters. Instead, there was a lonely Greens supporter (bless him!) handing out how to vote Greens flyers.  I was ridiculously overjoyed to be in a room surrounded by Aussies, and enjoyed chatting with embassy staff about the election.  We asked one of the embassy staff where we might be able to watch the election coverage that evening.  She laughed apologetically and said she had no idea, there wasn’t that much interest or support for the election in Bangkok – apparently even their proposal for a traditional Aussie sausage sizzle had been rejected!  That’s just un-Australian!  We asked the Greens guy on the way out and he suggested The Australian Bar and Grill – normally it only showed sport, but he thought we might be able to convince them to at least put one TV onto the Australia network.

As we left the embassy we wanted to take a photo, but the security staff would not let us take a photo that actually showed inside the embassy compound, so we had to settle for the sign next to the entrance gate!

Optimistic Aussie voters!

Later that day we arrived at the Australian Bar and Grill and negotiated to have the election coverage put onto the TV right next to our booth.  They even turned the sound up for us (although at times it was hard to hear over the music)!

In a fit of patriotism, I ordered the vegemite chip sandwich!

Not the healthiest meal ever!

As the evening progressed, the election results were more and more depressing and the patrons in the bar became equally so.  In the booth next to us were two of the worst specimens of gross Australian sex tourists with their Thai ‘girlfriends’. It was sickening listening to them, particularly as they became drunker and progressively more offensive towards the girls, who either didn’t understand or were prepared to accept that kind of behaviour for the chance of a decent income.

In the ladies restroom, there were signs on the toilet doors – they really needed to be in Thai.

Sigh… some days it’s hard to stay proud to be Australian…

Tell me why

One of our lecturers today started the class with this song.  A few people were blinking back tears…

Do you believe in ghosts?

This is where the Peace Fellows are living during our time here at Chula:

Vidaya nives ("place of knowledge")

The building is accommodation for staff and for visitors.  The inside looks a little like a hospital, with dimly-lit linoleum corridors with room entry doors on each side. Each room is pretty basic, with a (very hard) double bed, a wardrobe, a desk, a kitchenette with sink, and a small ensuite bathroom.  Because security is not that great (each door just has one of those push-button locks in the handle) each Rotary World Peace Fellow was given a padlock with a key that we can use to lock the door from the outside when we leave our rooms.  The only problem is that the cleaners can’t get into the rooms when they are padlocked, so we have to make sure we are around to let the cleaners in.

Anyway, since we have been staying here, some of the Fellows have been reporting some very strange incidents:

  • Firstly, Olja kept mentioning that she has been having nightmares about being strangled or dismembered.
  • Earlier this week, Olja also approached one of the other women in our group and told her that she had had a very vivid dream about her.  She recounted the dream, which included some particular personal details, which turned out to be very accurate in relation to things going on in this woman’s life.  She was quite freaked out by what Olja said to her.
  • Ben says that every night he goes to sleep with his windows closed, and every morning when he wakes up his window is open.
  • Tito’s Badminton racquet disappeared from his room during the night while he was asleep, as did Manisha’s bunch of bananas.
  • On Sunday Joanne and Vicky went shopping and Vicky bought an outfit for a friend’s new baby.  Joanne ended up with it in her bag and so put it out on her dresser on Sunday night so that she would remember to give it to Vicky the next day.  The next day it was gone, and in its place was a “lucky bean”.  Joanne thought she was going mad, so she looked everywhere in her room for the baby outfit, but couldn’t find it.  She looked again at lunch time and Monday after class, but the outfit was gone.  On Monday night Joanne and I went out to dinner and we were puzzling over where the outfit could have gone, and how the lucky bean appeared in its place.  Joanne laughingly said to the sky “Whatever spirit took the baby clothes, please return them”.  I laughed and said it would be funny if she went back to her room and the outfit had returned.  She laughed too and said it would be very freaky because she had padlocked the door so nobody could get in.  Guess what happened???  Yes, she went back to her room and the outfit was there.  As you can imagine, she was really freaked out.

Yesterday we asked Jenn during a break whether anyone had ever reported anything unusual happening at the building.  Jenn immediately asked “what room?” and rushed down to the office to consult with the Thai staff.  They all came back to the classroom in an excited state and proceeded to tell us this story:

Some years ago, there were two gynaecologists who were husband and wife. They were having marital difficulties but the husband didn’t want to get divorced as he would have to split their fortune with his wife.  One night he had dinner with his estranged wife to discuss their breakup.  He put a sleeping tablet into her drink during dinner and then took her in a taxi to our building in Chulalongkorn, where he rented a room.  Two weeks later when the woman had not re-appeared at work, police investigated and discovered body parts in the building’s toilet system. Apparently he had killed his wife and chopped her into little bits and flushed her down the toilet in this building.  He was later convicted of her murder.  We were all a little shocked and quickly googled news reports to see what room this had happened in.  It turned out not to be Joanne’s room, but one on the same floor.  Thankfully, it also turned out that none of the Peace Fellows were staying in the room in which this happened.  However, Ajarn Pitch, one of the professors here, who was lecturing us that afternoon, noted that “ghosts can travel through walls” so it could have been the wife’s ghost that took the baby clothes.

The Thai staff then talked with us very seriously about ghosts and how we should not be scared of them.  They don’t want to hurt us, but they want something.  If we can tell what they want, we can give it to a monk (e.g. one of the Thai staff dreamed that she was catching a train and a ghost was sitting next to her who wanted a certain kind of fruit, so the next day she went and bought that fruit and offered it to a monk), or we can make some merit on the ghost’s behalf (e.g. by dedicating some good deeds to the ghost, or by praying or giving food to monks) and we may be able to help the ghosts in this way so that they don’t bother us any more. They also told us some stories about other Peace Fellows in the past who had had encounters with ghosts during their fellowship.

Needless to say last night everyone had a bit of a restless sleep – well, everyone except Joanne who says that she slept very soundly – perhaps the ghost has moved on from her room now…?  Just in case, Joanne, Vicky and Olja have gone this evening to the Erewan Shrine to make an offering on behalf of the woman who was murdered.

Meet the Peace Fellows: Joanne Levitan


Joanne Levitan

Joanne is a documentary film maker from South Africa who is currently living in Sydney, Australia.  She has been adopted by the Aussies here as an ‘official honorary Australian’.  Joanne was born on a Friday, which according to Thai tradition means that her lucky colour is blue (I’m quite jealous, as blue is my favourite colour, but as I was born on a Thursday, my Thai lucky colour is orange – yuck!)

Originally, Joanne wanted to join the foreign service, or to be a foreign correspondent, but upon realising that she “was a bit of a sissy” she decided that being a documentary film maker may be a safer career option than running around war zones.  She started out her career in television news, reporting during her university holidays when the permanent journalists were on holidays.  She then directed a current affairs show, as well as a travel, technology and car show.  She also got to star in the travel show when the story involved something a little bit risky that the normal presenter didn’t want to do.  So, for example, Joanne got to be a passenger in a stunt plane that flew directly up into the sky, then the pilot turned off the engine, and the plane plummeted down towards the earth until the pilot turned on the engine again just before hitting the ground!  Joanne actually got to do this twice in a row, as the first time the cameraman passed out during the drop and didn’t end up getting any footage!

Joanne and her co-director were commissioned to do some films about the New Millenium in South Africa.  After doing this they realised that they could do this on their own and started up their own film company: http://www.pandamonium.co.za/

Joanne’s documentaries have covered topics such as:

Joanne says that her experience growing up in South Africa during apartheid, and being very aware of the abuses during that time, compelled her into this kind of work.  She explained that as a child it was a bit of a shock coming out of her bubble and realising that the situation was not normal.  She said at first she didn’t realise anything was wrong.  She went to a private primary school with mostly white students, although there were a few black and Indian students (whose parents had money).  At the time, the only difference that she noticed was that those students were not allowed to come to her house (as they weren’t allowed in a ‘white’ area).  As she grew older she started to notice other things.  Joanne had a black maid who raised her and was like a second mother to her.  Her maid had seven children of her own, who were being raised by the maid’s sister in a distant township.  Joanne did think that it wasn’t right that her maid could only visit her children once or twice a year, and it seemed strange to her that her maid wasn’t taking care of her own children.

In Joanne’s final year of school, apartheid laws were starting to be relaxed and some schools (including hers) were declared “Model C” schools.  These schools were an initial attempt at integration, and a few black students were allowed to join the school.  Joanne still remembers the headmistress making an announcement over the school loudspeaker welcoming “the new model C” students.  She also remembers that many of the white girls would bring notes from their parents exempting them from swimming, as their parents did not want them getting into the pool with black students.  Joanne lived through the State of Emergency in the 80s and remembers the tanks in the streets, but says that she was lucky to live a fairly sheltered life.  She is proud of the fact that her very first vote at age 18 was in such an important election for South Africa and equality.

Joanne described, very matter-of-factly, living through the daily reality of violence in South Africa.  She lived in high security accommodation and carried a panic button.  She was also car-jacked one day when she was driving with her boyfriend.  They had stopped at an intersection when suddenly there were men with guns surrounding the car.  Joanne and her boyfriend got out of the car and the men demanded she hand over her handbag and the car keys while they held a gun to her boyfriend’s head.  Joanne, feisty with adrenaline, refused, despite her boyfriend sensibly suggesting that she hand it all over.  Joanne explains that she was particularly upset because her handbag had been designed by a friend of hers and was known as the “Jo” bag.  (Later, she and her friend jokingly developed a funny TV commercial based on the carjacking, where the woman tells the men to take the car and her boyfriend, but just let her keep the bag).  In hindsight, Joanne can’t quite believe that she put her boyfriend’s and her own lives at risk by not handing everything over right away.  She surprised herself by her own reaction in the heat of the moment.  Eventually, having handed over everything, the men drove away in her car (a beloved purple Ford Fiesta known as “the raisin” – hardly the normal target for a carjacking!).  Soon afterwards, a kindly stranger stopped to see what she and her boyfriend were doing standing in the road, and let them know that “the raisin” had been abandoned just down the road – it had been used to steal another, presumably more attractive, car!

Later, interviewing young male prisoners for the violent crime documentary, she shared her carjacking story with one of them as the cameraman was getting set up.  The prisoner was astounded and told Joanne that she was very lucky that the people who carjacked her were clearly amateurs as they broke the rule that if the person doesn’t hand everything over within sixty seconds you shoot them (“like the Americans made that movie ‘gone in 60 seconds’ if you are not out the car in 60 seconds you are gone”)!

In 2002 Joanne worked at the United Nations in Holland, covering the Yugoslavian War 
Crimes Tribunal.  She was an audio-visual director so she made short films about the tribunal, handled all audio-visual evidence and recorded the hearings. There were 8 robotic cameras in each courtroom, which she operated and had to live switch between. The big trials, like Milosovich often went out live on various channels like Sky, CNN, BBC etc. so you had to be sure not to make a mistake or show any judges sleeping! During this time, Joanne also got to carry a walkie-talkie which she thought was pretty cool.

Joanne said that it mostly made her very depressed to sit for 6 hours a day listening to horrific things that humans did to other humans. But it was also amazing to be a part of documenting history as it was the first war crimes trial since Nuremberg. She also learned just how bureaucratic and hierarchical the UN is, which shattered all her ideological illusions of how it would be to work there. Outside of work, Joanne definitely enjoyed living in Holland, riding her bike and eating stroopwaffels and bitterballen.

Stroopwaffles

Bitterballen

I asked Joanne how she ended up in Australia. Weirdly, it all started with another crime (although I guess that’s how a lot of white people got to Australia in the first place!)  Joanne was backpacking around Central America and she was robbed in Mexico.  The thief took her passport and all her money.  The loss of her passport was particularly traumatic, because it contained visas for her entry to other countries on her trip that she had organised in advance (it’s quite difficult for South Africans to travel as they need special visas in many countries and also have to demonstrate that they have money, etc.).  She went to the South African embassy, but they told her that she couldn’t get a new passport without money, despite the obvious problem that all her money and her wallet had been stolen along with the passport!  Joanne met an Australian who had also been robbed, and he had gone to the Australian embassy and not only had they organised him a new passport quickly, they also gave him money to use until he had received replacement bank cards.  Joanne thought to herself “now there’s a country”!

When she got back to South Africa she applied for permanent residency in Australia.  She eventually received approval and had five years to move there.  She had just started up her own business and decided it was not the right time to move, but one week before the five year period was over, she got on a plane and moved to Sydney!  The conditions of her permanent residency were that she had to reapply for it to be extended after two years.  However, she was offered the Rotary Peace Fellowship and so was going to be out of the country at the time she had to make the application.  She went to the immigration department in Sydney with a big bundle of documents and references to try to negotiate a renewal in advance so that she could come to Thailand.  She was prepared for a difficult negotiation.  The first thing that she was asked was what she had contributed to Australia during her time there.  She told the woman about the documentary she made about Australian Prime Ministers for the Museum of Australian Democracy.  The woman got very excited and asked her “is that the one that you see on the TV screens with the headphones as you first go in on the right hand side”?  Jo, surprised, said yes, that was it.  The woman then started gushing about how wonderful it was and how pleased she was to meet the woman who made the documentary, and approved her extension with no further questions.  Joanne laughed and said that she should have asked for citizenship!

Don't forget to stop and smell the flowers!

Visit to Bangkok Chinatown

Last weekend Joanne and I decided to try to get lost in Chinatown.  We wandered down streets and alleyways and had an absolute ball!

Tuk Tuk ride through the pollution

Artsy Tuk Tuk shot

In the market

Exhausting work!

Pineapple delivery

Chillis!

Giant squash (or something)

For me?!

Nervous about my first durian purchase

Joanne ate an enormous amount of durian!

Get to know Joanne better in the next instalment of Meet the Peace Fellows, to be posted sometime soon.

Random things I miss from home

Refugees by any other name (part 2)

Although we were not permitted to take any photos in the “temporary shelter” Baan Mai Nai Soi, the “Rangers” took lots of photos of us as they accompanied us around the camp.  As it turns out, the Commander then posted these photos on his facebook page (yes, even Camp Commanders have facebook pages) and we were able to get the photos from there!  Here they are:

One of our trucks going up the "road" through the camp

Outside the Camp Command Station

Signing into the camp with one of the Rangers with camera

In the meeting hall for talks with various NGOs and camp staff

In one of the classrooms with some very shy students

In one of the classrooms

Talking with some of the vocational trainers, Camp Commander in pink shirt