‘Bloody hell, am I glad to see you, brother.’ Gene shook my hand hard and patted my back and straight away began talking in long reverberating sentences about how great it was to see his old reliable mate. He gushed with the type of enthusiasm I hadn’t heard since campus days. I grabbed my pack from under the bus. I felt ten feet tall.
‘Let’s cut out of here, what’s the time, quarter past twelve, okay, I said to this German guy I’d meet him for lunch but that was before you called. You know, I’m not sure if we can make it. How about you, Evo, what do you need, anything?’
‘I need a place to stay.’ I said.
‘Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a place, it’s even got a bar. It’s run by the Akha and not many travellers know about it. You’ll love it.’
With that we rode off on his motorbike, despite my bulky backpack he weaved around the slow-moving traffic and towards the eastern city wall. I’d never seen Gene ride before. It suited his confident demeanour. He was a natural, and all the while he pointed out bars and temples and places to avoid as we sped by.
‘Yeah this German, Tobias, he’s got some strange ideas about social science. In fact, screw that, we don’t need to meet him at all, his head is stuck in the sand.’
‘Are you sure?’ I asked.
‘Absolutely, let’s head to Den’s, that’s where you can stay. I stayed there for a month when I first arrived. You’ll love it.’ Gene leant into the turns, he drove aggressively, making the Thai heads turn. We parked on the footpath. A few tables and chairs sat out the front. The front bar area was narrow. The place seemed practically deserted.
‘You can do you want here, kick back and drink a beer, you can write, read, it’s up to you. We’ll get something to eat then you can check in if you like it. You hungry?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. I looked around at the surroundings, it seemed a bit bare. Eventually someone appeared at tbe bar.
‘Hey, hi Den. Meet my friend from Australia. You have to look after this guy, alright, whatever he wants, Den.’
‘No problem’ Said Den. He smiled wholeheartedly. Den was a good looking Akha guy, dark skin and with long hair. His face was somehow kind. He poured a couple of beers from the tap and placed them in front of us and smiled again.
‘Cheers, Gene.’ I said.
‘Welcome to the other side, Evo.’
We laughed. From what I could tell Gene was back in form. He seemed more enthused than the last time I saw him in Sydney. More human.
Pictures of the Akha in their colourful elaborate dress adorned the walls. There was a map that spanned the borders of Thailand, Burma, China and Laos, as well as Akha headdress with its silver coins and embroided colourful patterns. We settled at a table and toasted the occasion.
‘So, tell me about Salapen.’
‘Dr Salapen. Well, beyond everything else, he’s a really good guy. A European gentleman. He’s pretty old though, and he doesn’t mind a drink and a ciggie. And the incredible thing is he was once a Catholic priest. Fully devoted, mate. In fact he even spent time in the Vatican. Then he had an awakening. He was sickened by what he saw of the Catholic hierarchy so he turned his back on the church and travelled the world. First he went to South America and then he came to Asia. He’s only been back to Europe once since he met his wife Devla. She’s Akha.’
‘I can’t believe he was a Catholic’
‘That’s right, mate. And now he’s a fully fledged anthropologist. He’s been published in the American Journal of Anthropology and just about every other journal that matters. He’s considered the pre-eminent authority on the Akha.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Seventy two and he’s been based in Chiang Mai for over twenty years so he knows everything. He can be prickly, though. You’ve got to be careful when you speak to him.’
‘What do you mean careful?’
‘Just be mindful. Think about what you’ve saying. That’s all.’
‘When can I meet him?’
‘Tomorrow night I’d say. Actually it’s good timing because we’ve just returned from the border area with Laos. Man, you wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve seen in the last few months. There’s Akha people suffering so badly from disease and lack of medicine, there’s criminals, dealers, corruption, drug trafficking, and a whole bunch of American missionaries trying to convert the Akha en mass into Christianity.’
‘Fuck. How about food? Have they got enough?’
‘Generally yes, but it depends on the time of the year, and the village. The villages that are well-established are doing okay, but the transient ones really struggle.’
‘What do they eat?’
‘They eat what they can produce. Cabbage, tomatoes, soybeans, pork and chicken.’
‘So they’re doing okay?’
‘Yeah, some of them.
‘How do you know what’s going on up there?’
‘Salapen. He’s seen it all. I tell you, he’s the man when it comes to Akha. Anyway, a few of us come to this bar on Friday night. That’s tomorrow, probably around 8 o’clock.’
‘So there’s Akha here as well?’
‘Yeah, a lot of them are forced to leave their villages. I mean the Akha aren’t perfect you know, in many ways they’re just as bigoted as the rest of the turkeys around this region. But at least their trying to hold on to their identity and culture.’
‘So what’s Salapen working on?’
‘Cash crops. It’s like Anderson used to say in lectures. The United Nations is concerned about all the opium coming from the area so they want the Akha to grow coffee instead. So Salapen’s meeting with all these international development teams and he has to present his opinions on the likelihood of success and likely barriers. Mapping information on the local area, who to speak to and who to avoid. The bottom line is he speaks Akha fluently, so the various Government and non-government agencies use his knowledge of the people to assist with their projects.’