Stories from Trakaul
Javier Salazar Calle
Translated by Nicoleta Nagy
Cover Design © Marta Fernández García
Illustrations @Elena Caro Puebla
Photo of the author © Ignacio Insua
Translator: Nicoleta Nagy
Original title: Sumalee. Stories from Trakaul
© 2020 - Javier Salazar Calle
1st Edition (Revised)
Follow the author:
All rights reserved. It is prohibited the total or partial reproduction of this document by any electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, magnetic and optical recording or any information storage system or retrieval system without permission from the copyright owners.
Dedicated to Rachel, the best friend one could have.
Antonio Fernández for contributing his extensive knowledge of Singapore and for reviewing the book, Josele González for the fantastic web page he made for me (www.javiersalazarcalle.com) and to all my other readers which made the book a lot better: my wife, Elena Caro; my sister, Pilar Salazar and my father, Jose Antonio.
Other books by the author
About the author
The first punch stunned me. The second knocked me to the ground. I got kicked for a couple of minutes. I tried to curl into a ball and cover my head as much as I could. One of them shouted laughing:
“You really know how to take a beating.”
When they got tired, they left the same way they came, walking calm and laughing. The crowd dissolved immediately and when I opened my eyes everything seemed normal around me, as if nothing had happened. Each inmate minding his own business. The silence law.
This wasn't the first time. They hit me over the marks of all previous beatings, bruises of a full range of colours and all stages of evolution. One of the beatings, a blow to the eye, left me with blurred vision for a couple of days but I ended up recovering. For two days I was convinced that I would be blind for the rest of my life. The thought was more frightening than the injury itself. In another one I got hit in the ear, I was dizzy for a week. My ribs were also damaged, I did not know if broken, and I had pain of all kinds in every part of the body. It reminded me of my young days when I was doing silly things and ended up in some sort of fight every day. I learnt that protecting my head was fundamental. The rest would heal; better or worse, but it healed. The scariest thing in all of this, the most humiliating thing was to see how the prison guards were spectators of the many beatings from a distance. They even laughed and made bets. On what, I did not know, because I could only focus on wishing they finish the beating fast. Perhaps on whether that was the beating that would kill me.
I tried to get up, but a sharp pain in the chest stopped me. There, on the floor of the corridor, kneeling, I tried to open my mouth as wide as possible to get the maximum amount of air to ease the feeling of distress, of asphyxiation. I focused on breathing slowly and deeply, but I couldn’t. It took me a while to lower my heart rate and for my breath to return to a relative normal. With a tremendous effort I got up and wobbling, leaning on the walls and dodging other prisoners who ignored me, I got to my cell. Mine and of forty more inmates.
Once there I sat on the mat and I stayed there quiet for some time, trying to clear my mind and isolate myself from everything around me, including the pain that was running through my entire body. A body that screamed to lie down and not get up for hours, but I knew I could not do that. I knew it. My survival depended on it. I did what needed to be done. What was necessary. I got up and started my workout routine. Stretches, push-ups, sit ups ... Working every part of the body independently as well as together. The pain was almost unbearable, but I certainly did not stop; although I wept silently, wetting the floor with my tears. I could never show weakness. If I wanted to survive, if I wanted to someday get out of there without it being in the sad cardboard coffin they used, I had to continue. I finished the training with both movements I had learnt from my former boxing coach as well as imitating the prisoners who trained in Muay Thai in the courtyard, learning to fight like them, with the difference that they were doing it in front of everyone, in broad day light, and I just trained when nobody saw me. Away from curious eyes. Preparing in the shadows.
Someday, which I hoped it would be soon, I will feel prepared and I would not limit myself to trying to minimize the damage of the blows, but I would respond in a brutal manner, accurate and without compassion. Killing if it was necessary. Yes, I would kill without hesitation. That day I would earn their respect and this nightmare I was living would end. Yes, I had to be sure to win, because if I stood up against them and did not succeed, they would kill me without a doubt. That much was certain. Meanwhile, I had to be patient and try to keep myself alive and without any irreparable damage.
I had visualized that moment in my head thousands of times. With a thousand variants, with different endings, in all kinds of scenarios, trying to anticipate every possibility. Soon, very soon, my time would come. Or die.
But how did I end up in this situation if a few weeks ago I was David, an uninspired computer geek in the offices of a financial institution in Madrid? What circumstances had pushed me into this unthinkable situation not long ago?
While fighting against suffering, as I continued with the ordeal of training, I was reflecting on the dire circumstances experienced. The ones which pushed me from a quiet life in the IT department of a bank to preparing to kill the garbage that abused me constantly in the dreaded prison of Bang Kwang, seven kilometres north of Bangkok, Thailand. One of the most dangerous prisons in the world. The pit of damnation in which I found myself. My end if I was not able to invent a way to save myself.
A few weeks prior...
It took me a few tries to turn off the alarm. On the second try I almost knocked it off the nightstand. I sat on the edge of the bed and stretched my arms as I took a long yawn. Another day of work. Like a robot, driven by the routine, I ate breakfast, showered, and dressed. Forty minutes later I was starting the car.
On the way to work I reflected on my last months. Marked by the breakup from my long-time girlfriend, I had not managed to recover yet. After seven years it seems she got tired of me and left me for a supposed friend to whom I introduced her myself and with whom she was actually having an affair for a long time. I was blind all this time without seeing what others had warned me. Ever since I walked around like a lost soul, always blue and sad. Devastated. I had taken refuge in boxing, practising it several times a week. I was hitting the boxing bag as if that adrenaline were able to give me back my life. In addition, I did not like at all the project I was working on at the bank. I was doing testing all day, with a boring tool and noting down the results in a standardized document. Result correct, result incorrect, incidence. Sometimes I looked out the window of the fourth floor, where my desk was, and I felt like throwing myself from it. Figuratively, of course. I have never thought of something as drastic as suicide. I was sad, not destroyed. Result correct, result incorrect, incidence.
What I did not know was that that day my life would change forever. So much so like I had never imagined.
After half an hour's drive and a round to find where to park, I arrived at my desk. I turned on the computer and went to greet a co-worker. Once back I quickly reviewed, like every morning, my email. Same thing just like all days: tests, tests, test results, questions about the tests, test requests, test reports and forecasting tests. Only one email was different from the rest. It was from my boss, sent the evening prior, asking me to call him to talk to me about something. I had no idea what it could be, but whatever it was, hopefully I could do something different, even if it were for five minutes, I would welcome it. I looked at the time. Half past 9. Perfect. I picked up the work cell phone, I looked for Valentine and called him.
“Yes, tell me.” Said Valentine.
“Hi Valentine. It’s David. I have just read your email and I'm calling to see what it is that you wanted to tell me.”
“Good morning David. How are you?”
“Bored. The project that you gave me is going to kill me. Tell me that you have something for me? I need a change.”
“I might possibly have. What do you know about Singapore?”
“Singapore?” He got my attention. I got up and went to a nearby meeting room that was empty. “Well... I don't know Valentine. A small country in Asia, with a good standard of living, very civilized, they speak Chinese and English ...”
“That’s where I wanted to get!” Yelled Valentine. “They speak English, just like you.”
Yes, I was bilingual. My mother was American. She fell in love with my father and came to live and work in Spain. A few years after I was born, my father disappeared without saying anything and we never heard of him. Everyone thought he had abandoned my mother, but she always believed that something had happened to him because they were madly in love. In any case, I grew up without a father from the age of two, which influenced my childhood and adolescence, and I spoke English since.
“What do you propose then?”
“David, a six months project has emerged in Singapore, which can possibly extend to two years, for which you are a perfect fit due to your knowledge and language. I know it is a bit hasty, but I need you to tell me sometime today or tomorrow because it is urgent to start moving the paperwork.” I raised my eyebrows excited. “I'll send you all the project information and the conditions. Call me if you have any questions. What do you think?”
“I don't know what to tell you Valentine. You cough me a bit off guard ...”
“I know, I know. Think about it and tell me tomorrow. Were you not sick of doing testing? Here's your chance. And if you do it well it will help you with a potential promotion this year. I’ll send you the email, you think about it and let me know tomorrow. Hey! If I didn’t think that you were perfect for it, I would have not told you.”
“Alright, alright. I’ll let you know tomorrow. In any case, thanks for thinking of me.”
After hanging up I remained thinking. When I got to my desk, I already had the email from Valentine. It was clear that he was in a hurry. I opened it and read all the information. Interesting project, a country with incredible references, good pay including housing and, above all, getting out of here for some time away from the memory of my ex and the damn tests. It was clear. Within five minutes of receiving the call I knew what my decision was. Still, I decided to wait until the next day to give my brain the opportunity to think about it, although, when I took a decision, and I used to do it quickly, I rarely changed my mind. When I got home, the only thing I did was to check my passport’s expiry date.
What I would really miss would be all the sports I was doing: running, basketball, soccer, paddle tennis, climbing ... I was passionate about everything that required effort or risk, especially if it was outdoors. On the other hand, in Singapore I could do water sports which in Madrid I could only do in the summer, such as diving, sailing or riding jet skis. Living on an island gave me the opportunity of doing it all the time. I got back to work. Result correct, result incorrect, incidence.
Next day, at noon, I called Valentin and told him my decision. I will go to Singapore. He sent me all the trip details and started moving all documentation. Personalized Employment Pass, EntrePass, Work Permit... There were lots of options and types of visas. In the end, it turned out that what I needed was a Work Permit. For this type of pass it was the company who had to request it on behalf of the candidate, but I had to translate my academic qualifications (although later in Singapore I had to get the original certified by an official translator there and wait until they were approved by the Ministry of Labour), fill out forms for the health insurance, passport photocopies, the work report from my company ... The fact that it wasn’t a new job but a transfer with the company and that the company took care of almost all the procedures made the process much simpler.
A couple of weeks later I was at the airport in Barajas catching a flight with Qatar Airways to Singapore. The rest of the team was already there for a couple of weeks preparing to launch the project and reading documents. The company was paying for a three-bedroom apartment shared with two co-workers, so I didn’t have to worry about finding a place to live and I had the opportunity to meet people from day one.
I bought a travel book about the country and read it during the flight. I did not lack time, sixteen hours with a stopover in Qatar. Lots of patience required.
The book began with the typical presentation of the history of the place. Apparently, Singapore was a city-state that passed from hand to hand and where now lived a jumble of races with unique languages. In fact, there were four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin Chinese. Two more than I though.
What mattered to me was that it was the fourth largest financial centre in the world (after New York, London, and Tokyo) and the fifth most important commercial port given its strategic location. On paper, almost a paradise on earth and an unparalleled career opportunity. To be proved once there. At least, it looked promising. The book was full of all kinds of information that I enjoyed. I loved numbers and trivia about anything. I immersed myself in reading trying to absorb as a good tourist, all relevant information.
Finally, they announced that we were arriving in Singapore. An airport built on the sea. I was glued to the window to see it well. Below me I could see the whole agglomeration of the city, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of trees. I hated the places where the only visible colour was that of cement. The airport was in a corner of the island and just below it a large naval port was visible. The sea around it was studded with boats of all sizes, but especially those giant ones that carry containers. I've never seen so many together and so organized, forming long parallel lines of ships. The city was full of skyscrapers and tall buildings. The edges of the island had long beaches with dense vegetation. Then I saw an area with houses, a suburban development which ran to the side of a wide river with many bridges.
The plane was flying very low over a grassy well-maintained area and I could see appear the track just below the left wing, where I was. I suddenly felt the blow of the landing gear touching the ground and the plane began to slow down. At the end, a few hundred meters away, was written with shrubs the airport name: Changi.
The plane exited the runway and headed for the terminal. From my side I could not see it, but I could see it through the windows on the other side. The stewardess announced over the loudspeakers, among other things, that the temperature was twenty degrees. Being in an equatorial zone, temperatures tended to be around that figure with high humidity and short but intense rain.
Before long we were allowed to get up and grab our luggage. I walked around the airport with one suitcase and a backpack on my shoulder. There were strange things compared to what I was used to see, areas with free internet and even laptops for those who did not have one. There was also a relaxation area with chairs, like those by the pool, facing the planes and where people were listening to music, sleeping, or reading.
I kept going in search of the train platform. The screens announced arrivals and departures from all over the world. Finally, I arrived. I took a streetcar named Skytrain that took you to Terminal 2, where you could get a taxi. When the train stopped at the platform it caught my attention the fact that it didn’t have a driver. Soon it left me in Terminal 2. In the middle there was a tropical garden with a small pond and beautiful flowers. Free massage chairs, hanging crystal tears rising and falling, orange fish ponds, places to receive Asian massages... They even advertised a pool in Terminal 1 from which, according to the photos, you could see the runway! Incredible. In the bathrooms there were touch pads where you could click on a smiley to rate the cleanliness of the bathroom. Of course, it was spotless. After all it was considered one of the best airports in the world. The first impression of a new person in the city was its airport and here they nailed it.
I finally got out and took a taxi. I showed him a paper with the address of my new home, and he headed there. I arrived on a Saturday and the company informed me that the house mates were expecting me at home to help me settle a bit and tell me everything I needed to know to adapt as fast as possible. There was no way to mistaken the place because it was called The Spanish Village... Pueblo español in the language of Cervantes. Curious place to put a group of Spanish. I don’t know if it was a coincidence or it was on purpose, but the name was perfect to make you feel like home. I looked it up on the internet and it was in the neighbourhood of Tanglin, but that, for now, it meant nothing to me.
My journey in Singapore was starting.
In less than half an hour, the taxi stopped in front of the entrance of a building complex and the driver told me that this was the address on the paper. I looked and saw at the right of the entrance Spanish Village 56-88 Farrer Road and the same thing in what I assumed were Chinese characters. After exchanging a few words with the guard at the gate, he entered the complex and stopped. I paid with Singapore dollars I had brought from Spain and I watched him drive away.
I looked again at the paper where I had the address. I was in the right place. I started walking with all my luggage looking for the door. The complex was made up of a group of beige buildings with red tiled terraces. They were four storeys high including the ground floor forming the shape of an ellipse. In the centre there was a fairly large pool, a playground, parking, two tennis courts, a barbecue area ... It was clear that here the developments were perfect, not like the sad apartment in which I lived while looking for a better home to live with my ex. My ex, Cristina. She was now thousands of kilometres away from me and, although there were times when I felt her painfully close, even with frightening intensity, I had to forget her. I was so tired of so much sorrow, self-pity, and misery, I had to get back to enjoying life. I wanted to go back to being the crazy David from before I met her; unvarnished, uncompromising, not having to answer to anyone. To meet many women and enjoy with no strings attached.
While I was looking for the building, I was intercepted by a man with Asian features who asked me in a very strange English where I was going. I assumed it was someone from maintenance or the likes. I told him I was a new tenant and gave him the address. That seemed to reassure him. We shook hands and with a grin on his face he walked me to the door of my building helping me with a suitcase. He called my apartment, and someone answered, a voice that was familiar, he said that the new tenant had arrived. I stopped a moment to think about how smart he was, not questioning me, but rather accompanying me to the door to confirm my information with my roommates. When the voice confirmed that I was expected, he was satisfied, he said goodbye and I went into what would be my new home for at least the next six months. Or so I thought.
I rang the doorbell and pushed the door. I was surprised. I thought I recognized the voice of Josele, a co-worker, a friend with whom I worked side by side for three years. When we finished, he ended up in a project in the United States along with another co-worker from the bank. We hit it off from the beginning and we got along very well. I was sad when the project was over and we had to part ways, but we maintained regular contact and always met when he was in Spain.
At the door of the apartment, as I had suspected, Josele was waiting for me. He had not changed at all, he still had that hair that he grew like a toupee, a bad imitation of Elvis Presley. I left my suitcase and backpack on the floor and hugged him effusively.
“Josele, is it you?”
“Surprise! Come in and we will tell you. Look who's here”, he said opening the door wide.
I ran and hugged him lifting him into the air. Damaso was another fellow that the company had sent with Josele to the United States. A little quirky, but a familiar face in the end. The day could have not started better having these two characters as roommates.
“But what are you doing here? Were you not in America?”
“Yes, I was,” said Damaso. “The project ended and we both got sent here recently. Valentine told us you were coming, but we didn’t say anything because we wanted to surprise you.”
“And what a surprise, boys! It really can’t get any better. Together again and this time sharing an apartment. Singapore gets ready!”
“Yes!” Josele shouted excited. “We can play sports again together. Damaso and I go jogging twice a week and we are in a basketball league for expatriates. We've already entered you in the team.”
“Great!” I replied. “At least I will not get fat and I will meet new people. Well, tell me. What is life like here?”
“Tere and Diego are also here,” said Damaso.
“Them too! That's great, the whole gang together again. I didn’t think we would work together on a project again.”
“Yes, and we know something you don’t ...”
“I suppose, it is the fact that Diego is also on the basketball team.”
“Yes. But it’s not that.”
“What is it then?”
“What! Tere and Diego? Since when?”
“Well, we do not know because they have just told us, but certainly since before coming here, so at least two months.”
“I had never suspected it; although, in fact, if you think about it, yes they are very compatible given the way they are. Good for them! So, what do we do now?”
Josele and Damaso first showed me around the apartment. It had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I was going to share the bathroom with Josele. Apparently, Damaso insisted on having one for himself and Josele didn’t care. The living room and kitchen were spacious. The house had Wi-Fi and a closed terrace from where you could see the pool. They also told me that the complex had 24-hour security. The man who had intercepted me in the garden was of Chinese origin and was called Nan Shao and was the maintenance person during the day. At night there was a Malay named Datuk Musa. There was also a gym, sauna and squash courts on the ground floor, and a garden with several barbecues, which I had seen a moment ago, where you could have a picnic without leaving the building. Although there was a big TV in the living room, each room had a small one as well as air conditioning, a desk with a chair and a large closet. I didn’t know if the rest of the people in this country identical houses have, but the standard of living here looked amazing. We had two shopping centres within twenty minutes’ walk; with all kinds of restaurants, food and clothing shops, banks, and places to have fun. Wow, our location was perfect.
They also told me about transportation in the city. The subway was called MRT and it had four lines across Singapore from North to South and from East to West. There were also buses and the use of taxi was common, as it was quite cheap. The company had given me a mixed transport card that I could use for both the MRT and the buses. Our company offices were by the Singapore River estuary and close to a large urban park called Fort Canning Park. We could get there by bus. There was a direct line than in less than forty minutes got us to the office.
Working hours were in spurts, like everywhere else. The normal thing in Singapore was to work forty-four hours a week and to have fourteen days of vacation, although us, fortunately, kept the holidays from Spain. The work culture in Singapore was completely different than that of Spain. I don't think that in Spain we would be able to have a forty-four-hour work week and only two weeks of vacation.
Josele gave me a bag with a box inside.
“What is this?”
“A gift from the company. It's your corporate phone for Singapore. Inside you’ll find the phone, the SIM card, and the instructions to connect to all the apps in the company, although, in reality, the only useful one is the email. Monday at work they'll give you your laptop.”
“OK, thank you very much. Later you can explain to me the tariffs and calls to Spain. What about eating? How do you do it? From the menu? In restaurants like in Spain?”
“Well, there are a lot of options,” Josele replied. “It's very rare to find people eating in restaurants because they're so expensive. The norm here is to eat in the canteens of the office building, in the hawker centres, which are kitchen groups with a small counter that share an eating area or in the coffee shops which are like the hawkers, but more expensive and beautiful...”
“And with air conditioning!” Damaso interrupted. “It's where we usually eat.”
“Yes, yes, and with air conditioning,” Josele continued. “Because Damaso can’t take the heat and humidity. In any of these places you can both eat and buy food to go. That depends on everyone and whether there is room to sit, because sometimes there are no sits due to the large number of people there. Also, quite crowded are the fast-food restaurants type Burger King, McDonald's or other Asian food chains that don’t exist in Spain. There are also people who bring their own food, but it's very rare to see Westerners doing that. People from Bangladesh or the Philippines do it usually because they like to eat their traditional food and cook it themselves...”
“Good, good,” I cut him off laughing. “I've only asked where you usually eat, not to give me a report on the Singapore society and their eating habits. What a detailed response. It gave me time to set up the phone. Wait a minute, I'm going to call my mother.”
“Say hello from us.” They both said at the same time.
They knew her from when we worked together in Madrid and one day they came for dinner. My mother is an excellent cook. She become passionate about Spanish food and loved to have guests. She had had a stormy youth, so to speak, and was delighted to welcome new friends who, at first glance, seemed like good people; nothing to do with the unrecommended friendships of my adolescence. I took advantage of the company phone to call to tell her that I was all settled and that I was again with my soul friends. She was very glad I wasn't alone and that I knew people here. She sent them both many kisses. I promised to call and talk more in a few days. When I hung up, I kept asking about things I was interested in knowing about the place.
“And, to entertain yourself, what do you do around here? I don't need you to tell me everything there is to know about the city today, OK, Josele? You must have some fun, too, anything worth mentioning?”
“A lot of things,” Damaso replied. “In Singapore you're not going to get bored, that's for sure. There are all kinds of activities: from amazing flight simulators, horse racing, casinos, amusement parks, hiking trails, museums, shopping malls and, of course, hundreds of pubs and clubs where you can go out and meet people, especially a girl after what Cristina did to you.” My face showed how much I agreed with the latter. I felt like getting back to my crazy times, when what mattered was to end up with a girl no matter who. “Close to work, on the other side of the park, is one of the main strips. A street called Mohamed Sultan Road which is full of clubs and discos. Twenty minutes’ walk. And there's also golf across Marina Bay, of course!”