His hair is close-cropped,

Or longer, lank and tousled,

But always dark

To match the colour of his skin.

His manner is easy, unintimidating,

With big open eyes and a broad smile

That reveals blood-red

Saliva and broken teeth,

For a moment suggesting

Slashed bleeding gums,

Or very recent carnivorous rage.

Until you realize he’s chewing betel

To keep away the pangs of hunger.

He wears the ubiquitous longyi,

(Tubular functional wrap skirt),

Cotton shirt, rolled sleeves or “T”

And sandals as he passes you

By cycle, or moped, or driving a taxi,

Man-handling a cart of worldly goods,

Or flicking a switch at the flies on the backs

Of some great lugubrious oxen,

In rice fields or on a hillside track.

He’s a worker, dealer, guide, driver, boatman or farmer,

Scratching the dry earth for a living,

But seemingly not lost in the stress of this world.


She comes in all shapes and sizes.

Her longyi is deeper coloured; orange, red or blue,

In a simple light cotton top,

Perhaps a coolie hat; sat on a raffia mat,

Here vending at the market.

All vibrancy of colour,

All pungency of odour,

In the scent of her spices,

Or on her chopping block

Fish heads, scales and tails,

And a blood-smeared machete blade.

Or her dextrous fingers work around a steel stove,

Warming chili-noodle soup,

Preparing delicious tea salad,

And always the workaday tongue and gossipy communion,

As brown curved-limbed children

Orbit endlessly and noisily around.

Then her face fractures into a smile

Effusing humility and politeness.

Perhaps she is older, leathered and wrinkled,

Cross-legged on a high bed

By the open hatch window of a small hut,

Drawing and puffing on a long cheroot,

Contemplative, serene, resigned.


There are other memories

Embodied in texture,

Sights, smells and sounds.

The silence of the din

Of humanity in motion.

Baskets, lacquer-ware, carvings,

Recycled radios and electrical entrails.

Here market chickens,

Ignorant or inured,

Cooped up and close to death,

Or chirruping, caged little birds,

Unaware of their impending release,

As offerings to the spirit world.

The smell of dust,

Or burning firewood,

Or old, tarry, teak pillars,

Drying mustily in the heat.

Soft greens and ochres at dusk

When natural order still persists.

A setting sun on golden temple roofs,

The saffron brown robed monks,

In ones or twos or threes,

Threading between the populace,

Like seedlings among the forest floor leaves,

Reminders of dignity in sacrifice,

Patience, wisdom and learning.


Punk comes to town,

All safety pins, chains and attitude,

Thirty years too late,

Revving a Vespa look-alike,

Behind him, oval-faced and long, dark-haired,

Mona Lisa, in mini-skirt, with mobile rides pillion,

Chatting to another far away,

From the high energy rock and roll here

Thumping down the streets.

This youth wants to breathe for itself,

Blow away repression, 

Wash away depression,

Now for these too few days

Of regime sponsored anarchy,

The Water Festival,

When high religion becomes fun

And all are soaked in the overturn of order,

And the name of defiance.

From toddler with cup,

To teenager with pail,

To adult by street hydrant,

Dousing everyone with glacier-cold water.

From 100 degrees to freezing,

In another rainbow’s arc,

Launched from bucket or hose.


Suddenly you notice

Sandals and bicycles have quickly shuffled

To one side.

There’s a whoosh and a vroom

And a dust cloud follows

A blacked-out motor cavalcade,

Hustling through the streets

On its way to militarized,

Sentried stadia or palaces,

Carrying hidden, always unseen,

The ruling generals, politicians,

And their nepotistical families.

The totality of their entourage

Blew through town, just there.

Our minds must play tricks,

Theirs is a different world,

And the steely sedans must be replaced,

Straight away in our thoughts,

By doves of peace,

And a steadfast, obstinate,

Passive determination.

Hungrily we gnaw on the doctrine

That wealth and power only presume happiness,

While naivety and poverty presume subjugation.

Where is the truth in between?

By John Baldwin