In my effort to avoid thinking about American politics yesterday, I found myself daydreaming about years ago when I was sitting in a bar in the night markets of Bangkok, Thailand, drinking a scotch…
Obviously, I was working hard to avoid thinking about American politics.
… The night markets sold everything and then disappeared at dawn. For some reason, as I sat in the bar drinking, I was thinking about people who collect things: art, old stamps, fine wine, or antique books.
Several days before, I had been up north in Chiang Mai and had decided I wanted to buy an antique Buddha statue. I was informed that it was illegal to take an antique Buddha statue out of Thailand, and the penalty could include jail time. I had no real interest in art, old stamps, fine wine or antique books, and antique Buddha statues could only be viewed by scholars or museum staff.
However, there was a black market, and I wanted adventure.
I asked around and was told there was a back room in a small store in the outskirts of the city. I booked a cab.
When I got to the store, I poked around and looked at the various objects that were for sale and eventually introduced myself to the owner. I innocently asked if he had any Buddhas I could see. He tried to interest me in a miniature figure that was in a partially open box with little hinges that he assured me was from Angkor Wat. I demurred with a polite shrug, implying I thought it might not be genuine and repeated my inquiries about a Buddha.
After some questioning, he took me to the back of the store and threw aside a hanging sheet that acted as a door into a room with perhaps six or seven tables, each of which had several Buddhas placed on them.
I could see that several were extremely old. I had read up on the different historic influences and style changes over time and pointed out that these statues were from different places and times throughout Asia. But I was bluffing and flattering the proprietor. Out of my depth and about to be caught, I claimed to not understand because of language barriers. I kept the conversation going by asking questions.
I innocently asked what the cost would be to purchase one in particular. The proprietor at first brushed off the question, but I feigned innocence and kept asking until he pulled out his calculator and we were translating bots into dollars. Very quickly, I realize that the cost was way beyond what I could afford and smuggle out of the country.
Over the next week, I went into northern Laos and was crossing a bridge over a large river gorge. As I reached the other side, there was a street vendor with a little cart that was full screwdrivers, clips of all kinds, and knickknacks — as well as two beautifully carved opium pipes, which I think were fashioned out of water buffalo horns. I negotiated politely and purchased them for a few dollars.
Because I bought both pipes, I considered myself instantly a collector. I was exceedingly proud of myself.
When I returned to Chiang Mai on my way home, I asked the cab driver if he knew where I could buy a really beautiful antique opium pipe, and he dropped me off at an antique store that was mainly filled with beautiful furniture but there was a display case with several elegant opium pipes.
I asked if they had been used and he nodded affirmatively, because the soldiers in Chiang Kai-shek’s army were sometimes paid with opium and these pipes had been used by the senior officers. He held them up so I could smell the sweet smell of the old smoke.
They were all beautiful. I bought one for around $30 and was also provided with all the operational equipment that went with it, except of course for the opium. He also had a book printed in English about the antique opium pipes, which I bought to round out my new collection.
During this trip, along with the opium pipes, I had collected gifts for others such as fabrics, articles of clothing, and the mandatory t-shirts, costume jewelry, and trinkets, which I packed in my big suitcase for storage on my way home.
After a long flight, with a brief stop in Frankfurt, all was good until they passed out customs forms and announced that we were close to our destination, Washington DC.
A horrible lighting bolt of realization shot through my body.
I was bringing into the country three used opium pipes, as well as the paraphernalia, and they were not in my carry-on bag, so I couldn’t abandon the pipes and paraphernalia in the bathroom before we landed.
I was going to have to go through customs with them.
I was terrified.
As my terror ripened, I thought about the headlines in the newspaper about my airport arrest and the announcement of my disbarment.
My stupidity rolled over me like a dump truck, then it got worse when I started thinking about my prison sentence.
The plane started to descend. I had to think fast.
After thinking fast, I came up with, “I actually bought them for the Baltimore Museum of Art.”
Maybe just confess and go into full tears?
I started feverishly filling out the customs form and reporting each and every fabric, each and every article of clothing, and the mandatory t-shirts, costume jewelry and trinkets to try to fill up space until I recorded at the very end, “ceremonial pipes.”
I thought maybe they would let me go home because Bowie is a Scottish name and so I must be bringing in bagpipes…
I had abandoned reality.
The reentry line at customs was long as we each opened our bags and the officers routed through them. What else could they be looking for on a plane coming in from Asia other than drugs?
When my turn came, as the officer started going through my list and asked me in detail about each of the fabrics, articles of clothing, and the mandatory t-shirts, costume jewelry, and trinkets on my custom form, he instructed me to unzip my bag.
I saw his handcuffs and thought about being led awayay. Then the officer stopped and said, “welcome back,“ and indicated that I should rezip my bag and move on.
I started a slow motion run as I pulled my bag behind me and blasted through the automatic doors into the airport. I saw the car that was to pick me up. I saw the driver waiting for me with my name on a sign as I moved in slow motion toward him.
Then I had an entirely inappropriate emotion. I was so cool! I was a drug king pin evading capture but then… then, as I made it through the automatic doors into the airport, to my right I saw a police officer walking a sniffing dog!
I definitely was not a drug kingpin!
I didn’t look twice. I just focused on my name on the card, which the driver was holding. I threw my arms out toward him as if he were a close relative and personal friend that I had not seen in a long time, or like some photo shoot for a Hallmark card, even though the object of my affection was an old geezer holding my name on the card who had no idea who I was.
I dropped my bags by the car, spread my arms wide open and somehow avoided the deep need to kiss him.
The police officer and the dog moved on down the airport as the driver put my bag in the trunk, opened the door for me… then I thought thank god it was just three old opium pipes and paraphernalia and then … Dammit –nothing works to clear my mind! Collectors of contraband?
The police officer and the dog moved on as the driver put my bag in the trunk and opened the door for me…
What had got me thinking about collecting contraband? Antique Buddhas… Opium pipes… Top-secret classified national defense documents…
Damnit. It’s too early for that double scotch.