My Life as a Snake-Oil Salesman

Some life experiences are more embarrassing than others. Hence, I have long delayed writing this story. Over fifty years ago I travelled the world for two years as a backpacker. I have shared my story about being jailed in Munich, but that experience was nothing in comparison with the shame and degradation which I experienced in Bangkok.

It was the Spring of 1968; I was 21 years-young. After six months in Europe, and anther six on a kibbutz in Israel, I had decided to travel across Asia enroute to Australia. I had exhausted my savings, so I wrote to my sister Monica, and asked for a loan of 400 Canadian dollars. The loan would see me clear to get to Australia via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Southeast Asia.

How could it be so cheap? I would stay in the cheapest accommodations available. Travel would be limited to hitchhiking with transport trucks, taking local buses, and in India hopping on third class railway cars, shared with various farm animals, especially chickens. Traveling through Asia was certainly an adventure! My budget was working remarkably well. In fact, everything was right on target until I got to Bangkok.

Bangkok was magical! I knew within days that going on to Australia was not in the cards. The mission of my two-year sojourn was inspired by Monty Python: “And now for something completely different!” Thailand was not only “completely different”, it was beautiful and fascinating! I still had enough money to tour a bit around Thailand and perhaps check out Laos and Cambodia. Especially now that I wasn’t going to Australia.

Perhaps you can already see that the honeymoon period of my introduction to Thailand was coming to a close. And this brings us to the shame an degradation to which I referred in the opening passage of this narrative.

SHAME AND DEGRADATION

I took the train up to Chiangmai soon after arriving in Thailand. I also traveled to Laos but I didn’t make it to Cambodia. I came down with something that felt a lot like dysentery. When I recovered sufficiently, I returned to Bangkok.

Now I was very low on funds, but determined to remain in Thailand indefinitely. Time to get a job. I was staying at an informal youth hostel called the Thai Song Greet. It was famous on the “hippy trail” as the backpackers’ hangout. A couple of Thai gentlemen dropped in looking to employ a “farang” (foreigner) for a business venture.

Wow, that was easy! Gotta love Thailand!

Specifically, they wanted someone to pose as a European doctor to vouch for a “medicinal” product they were selling to working class Thais. I know! Shame, Norman. What would your mother say? Sorry Beulah. Anyway, I couldn’t be choosy; I took the job.

The product was called Kubkai. It was powder of various herbs. I rationalized that the herbs were probably harmless whether or not they had the healing effects proclaimed. But this Kubkai healed everything: headaches, backaches, every part of your bone structure aches, indigestion, influenza, insomnia . . . You get the idea.

My job was to be introduced as the European expert on panaceas and all things medical, smile and speak in English to assure the customers that they were getting the real thing. The most difficult part of the schtick was the acting-out part.

When I said, “This Kubkai is remarkable. It will cure your headache,” they wanted me to act out having a headache and say, “Oh, oh, oh I have such a headache” as I held my head in my hands and winced in pain. Then I was to do a happy dance indicating that Kubkai had cured me. This would be followed by the same schtick for backache and every other ailment under the sun. I was never demonstrative enough to meet the needs of my handlers.

Khun Rip and Khun Off were decent enough guys I am sure. They tolerated my inadequacy as a European Doctor with Thai social-emotional dramatic skills. I clung to my rationalization that Kubkai was probably harmless enough, and that got me through the days. On the upside, I got to see interesting markets, wharfs and industrial areas of the city, where I brought comfort to large crowds of my brothers and sisters of the working class.

The other element of the sales package that was a little disturbing was the procedure for optimizing the effectiveness of the medicine. “Just mix the powder with half a bottle of whiskey and drink it down.” These are my words and may not fairly represent the intent of Khun Rip and Khun Off.

I didn’t last long on the job because my conscience wouldn’t leave me alone. The potential customers in my audience did not understand English, so I could entertain myself with lines like the following:

Oh yes my friends, Kubkai is the panacea for all things evil! It will even cure depression. This I know because since I’ve been working with these guys, I have never felt so depressed. So grab that bottle of whiskey and have atter!

Occasionally English speaking Thai gentlemen would be near enough to hear me babbling and would approach to speak to me. The exchange would be pleasant, and I never had the sense that they thought Kubkai was a scam product or that I was a kind of “snake-oil salesman.” But when sweet little old ladies would come up to give their five Baht to my handlers, I was overwhelmed with guilt.

And so I ended my life as a snake-oil salesman. I did find other employment and I enjoyed three months of life in Thailand. Ultimately I could not earn enough money to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. It was time to go home. My parents were relieved when I called them collect to ask for a plane ticket from Bangkok to Vancouver. It was July 1968, exactly two years since I had left Canada for Europe.

Of all the jobs I have had in my life, selling Kubkai in Bangkok remains the most memorable. Or perhaps I should say, the hardest to forget.

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