STRANGER THAN FICTION

Prologue:

Driving down the interstate Nick Hahn would watch the cars and trucks go by and think to himself, ‘if I drop dead of a heart attack this very moment would a single person on this highway blink other than to curse the backup after I hit the bridge embankment, not likely’.

He used to think time was eternal, a never-ending compendium capturing the sparks of our existence and glowing forever. That was years ago, when the idea of mortality was barely a passing thought. This is now, when it’s not about mortality, it’s about living and how he will leverage 80 years of life experience doing it right this time. 

 As he approaches his eighth decade, he knows the glow will fade and extinguish, not all at once, but one spark at a time.

This book is a way of keeping Nick’s life glowing a little longer, perhaps less brightly than in the past, but able to light the flame that has kept him interested, interesting and alive all these years.

His life has been one of fire and ash, burning with passion and wonder only to flame out again and again with the residue of reality.

This is not memoir or biography, this is a story, Nick’s story, creative non-fiction, a narrative laced with places, times, events and characters that Nick experienced during a lifetime of travel to some of the most exotic and, occasionally, dangerous places on earth, including of course, NYC.

I’ve known this man for 80 years, by any measure, a long time. I know his failures and successes, his passions and desires, his loves and hates. He is a complicated man, brimming at once with creative ambition while suffering from anemic self-confidence.

There is no schadenfreude in Nick, he takes no pleasure in another’s misfortune. He is a man preoccupied with self-discovery, often defining himself by the opinions of others.

The storms and calms of his life have moved him back and forth like the tide. While the detritus of living has often pushed him to places where he doesn’t belong. As a young man he thrived on the ignorance of youth and the fantasy of dreams. 

 If you recognize yourself in this story, be careful, you’re riding a wild horse, snorting and unbroken, running through the mutability of life with total abandon and, what’s worse, disregard for common sense.

I’ll skip over the formative years and get right to the heart of the matter, the drivers of Nick’s improbable existence. His life is about vanity, unjustified self-confidence, empathy, courage, addiction, depression, and exorbitant passion for people and places that should not have mattered to him.

This story reads like fiction but it’s all true.

Chapter-1 (Sri Lanka)

The story begins in 1997, when I stepped down as President & CEO of

 Cotton Incorporated, the iconic textile fiber research and marketing arm of the US Cotton industry, headquartered in a glass tower overlooking Central Park in New York.

My life up to that time was boring and predictable, upper middleclass background and education followed by corporate internships leading to a business career in New York and a corporate lifestyle.

I had it all, big job, beautiful wife, accomplished children, house in the Connecticut suburbs, a country club and the respect of peers.

Then it happened, an epiphany, a realization that something was wrong, there was a missing link that would connect my comfortable self with my bold and risky self.

I took a big step, one which I’d live to regret in some respects but one I needed to quiet my anxious spirit.

I resigned from Cotton, left New York and embarked on a 30-year odyssey as an economic development consultant in the emerging economies of the third world from Sri Lanka to Brazil. There was uncertainty, mystery and danger with indigenous people so different from those I knew in NY.

Sri Lanka was my first assignment, I never heard of it much less know where in the world it was?  I had no idea what I was doing or what I’d be letting myself in for, seriously.  It was the thrill of discovery, like Columbus when he set out to discover Asia and new trade routes only to discover America.

Life is a journey not a destination, at age 62 when my peers were calculating their retirement benefits and playing golf my journey was just beginning.

                                                   ******

Christ, what was I doing here, they didn’t tell me about this? I didn’t expect the bright lights of NY, but this was ridiculous. I didn’t sign up for a blistering hot corrugated barn watching tea tasters slurping, swirling and spitting the current harvest from a Lipton plantation.

 When I arrived, blurry eyed and disoriented from 18 hours of flight time with no sleep in my USAID required economy seat, it hit me, I really did it this time, thrown my comfortable life as a corporate executive with first class privileges into a mash pit of low class amentias among the proletariat of an undeveloped country.

Did I have 2nd thoughts, you bet your ass I did, and they weren’t sweet dreams, more like night screams.

The crowd waiting for passengers was anxious, jostling each other for a better view of the human detritus stumbling towards the gate with bloodshot eyes locked in a confused stare from 18 hours of no sleep, bad movies and worse food.

My contact was there, small and dark with a wide toothy grin etched on his face. The sign was homemade, dirty yellow cardboard, my name was in capital letters, misspelled as HAN, it stood out in the monochromatic crowd. 

I walked towards him with a thumbs up sign of recognition, he acknowledged with a nod and worked his way through the rolling sea of dark faces to the narrow exit gate.

He grabbed my bag without a word, I hung on momentarily, not knowing if this guy was my pickup from the hotel or a street thief. He smiled and flipped his sign to the backside exposing the name and logo of the Galle Face Hotel, I released my grip and we headed for the door.

The Indian made Tata sedan was parked across the road, I felt the springs in the back seat as we jerked and stumbled over the bumps and potholes towards the entrance to the airport. There was a gate, a guard house and armed men spot checking vehicles for contraband. There was a cannon, an M-198 Howitzer, American made, I recognized it from my tour at Ft Knox, Ky. It was nestled in a circle of camouflaged sandbags manned by two soldiers dressed in battle gear, helmets and flak jackets. 

My only thought was oh my god, what have you gotten yourself into Nick? My active duty in the Army was limited, but I knew about guard duty. The sight of that gun emplacement made my gut tighten. What or whom were they guarding against?  I should have told Toothy to stop and head back to the terminal so I could catch the next flight to NY.

I didn’t, and that would prove to be a seminal moment, a moment that would change my life from the stupor of an upper middle-class existence protected by the guardrails of my peers to one of audacious adventure, unplanned and undisciplined for which I was totally unprepared.

Think about it, a month ago I was commuting from Darien, CT to mid-town Manhattan in a three-piece suit, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal tucked under my arm and my only concern was the 7:08 running late.

Today I’m in the backseat of an old sedan I’d never heard of with a cranky air-conditioner, worn out springs, and a driver who doesn’t speak English. Not to mention being inspected by armed guards backed up by a US Army M-198 Howitzer.

You can’t make this up, and the real adventure hadn’t even begun which brings me back to the corrugated barn and the guys spitting dark liquid into a funnel.

So here I was, being paid for my expertise as a non-profit association executive being hired to organize small stake-holder farmers into marketing cooperatives to build leverage in pricing and sourcing for their commodities.

Lipton was hardly a small stakeholder plantation owner, they were a leader in production systems, quality control and marketing. They were competitive in world tea markets from years of experience and, should I say, exploitation of the Siri Lankan workers who traversed the verdant green hills where small tea bushes grew in abundance in the mild sun-drenched weather of the Indian ocean. Lipton was beyond the scope of my project, but their operation was a good introduction to tea production, quality control and marketing.

Her name was Ashine, in local Sinhala it meant “a strict natured, serious and diplomatic person”, her Mother knew what she was doing when naming this girl, she was all of that and more.

Ashine would be my guide and translator for the remainder of my engagement in Sri Lanka. She spoke excellent English with a minimum Sinhalese accent.

I was working for a large US consulting group that had a USAID contract for economic development work in the agribusiness sector.

This was my first assignment and I must confess, I felt like a fish out of water not knowing what was expected of me or how I would deliver on the SOW (statement of work in USAID speak),  I would have to get used to the acronyms among many other things like how to say thank you, hello, goodbye and where’s the men’s bathroom in Sinhalese. Asheni was helpful in a formal way, she took it upon herself to teach me the language, at least the basics like how to order a beer after work. I didn’t know how I would get along with Ashine at first, she was middle aged, I guessed about 45, attractive, well-educated and seemed friendly enough but not too friendly. She had spent time in the States which, I accurately guessed, was one of the reasons she was assigned to me in the first place.

How does a 63-year-old married man still in his prime, physically fit and by all accounts still attractive work with a woman in her mid to late 40’s, still in her prime and by his account still attractive, very attractive. Ah, the eternal question? You focus on her professional skills, and consider how she can help you perform your job in spite of the fact that your thousands of miles from home on a long-term business assignment in a bucolic location with unlimited opportunity for after-hours intimacy?  The answer is you suck on a lemon and keep your eyes on the road.

Ashine turned out to be my secret weapon as I stumbled through the bureaucratic requirements of USAID report writing and the strange world of local culture. She had worked on several USAID projects in the past and was intimately familiar with the terms and conditions of their contracts.

I was not the only Western expat living and working in Colombo, there were other Americans, Brits, Aussies and a large contingent of Danes. We tended to flock together like birds of a feather but, of course, we had our own differences in culture, languages and custom.

                                          *******

The guy spitting in the funnel looked at me and pointed at the spoons used to taste the tea varieties lined up on a table in front of him. The liquid color went from pale green to yellow to brown to black with several cups in each category. He was nodding the question; would I like to try it?

I nodded back, yes.

This would be the first affirmative decision I would make during my three-month engagement, with one exception, and that exception was obvious, more about that later.

The green tea was, to my tongue, tasteless as it has always been for me, even out a box of Japanese Tea back in the States. The flavor of green tea is nuanced, my taste buds are unmistakable and obvious, I would never make a good tea-taster.

After clearing my palate with water I tried again, this time from the black selection, as soon as the liquid hit my tongue, I knew, it was strong and slightly bitter, after quickly spitting it out in the funnel I turned to the professional and gave him a thumbs-down, he smiled with a huge laugh.

Ashine, with a wide knowing grin, simply shook her head, another nuanced signal that she enjoyed being with me despite the professional circumstances.

This was the beginning of a long climb up the learning curve of the tea business, next would be the Coir, aka Coconut, fiber business, another leading commodity underpinning the fragile Sri Lanka economy after their world leading position as a producer of fine gemstones, primarily Sapphires.

Ashine had a car and driver assigned to us, she sat in front next to the driver telling him where we had to go in Sinhala then turning to me in English pointing out national landmarks. This woman attracted me on an intellectual level, I’ve always preferred being with people smarter than myself, especially women. In Sri Lanka Ashine made me feel inferior without bruising my tender ego, not easy to do.

The plan was to visit several tea plantations and spend the night at one of them. The large operators, like Lipton, had converted their barns into Inns nestled in the rolling hills of the tea growing estates.

Approaching a plantation, the first thing you saw was a carpet of green dotted with the primary colors of the picker’s saris and sarongs, the sight was not a tourist postcard, these women were working hours a day to fill the baskets strapped to their backs with the 18kg of leaves needed to earn their daily wage of 2.70 British pounds.

The workers lived in barracks style housing at the foot of the hills, they shopped in plantation owned stores and their children went to plantation run schools. All I could think of was the US textile industry in early 20th C, where the workers “owed their soul” to the company store”.

I kept peppering Ashine with questions, were the people happy, did they have unions, could they survive on 2.70 BP per day, what did they do for entertainment, did they have churches or temples?

Her answers were measured and convincing, just like everything else about this woman.

For some reason I felt that Ashine was hiding something, her demeanor was too fixed, too perfect her answers were robotic. I don’t believe in male intuition; I leave that talent to women but in this case, I have a strange feeling about Ashine that I can’t explain.

I’m one of 16 expat consultants working in Sri Lanka on economic development projects. USAID had budgeted $22m US dollars to enhance the competitiveness of their agricultural sector, infrastructure, urban planning, health and rule of law. I was a small peg in a large puzzle but working on Tea, Spices and Coir gave me outsized visibility as these commodities found their way into consumer markets of the Western World.

Traveling around the country in a chauffeured car with a smart, attractive guide was the envy of my expat colleagues back in Colombo.

It was late in the day, we were tired and ready for a shower, a cool drink and some good Fish Ambul Thiyal, a sporous fish dish popular with the locals.

Ashine registered for the three of us, the converted tea barn was charming, maintaining much of its original purpose but with all the modern conveniences and amenities.

I asked Ashine if we should dress for dinner, she answered with a wink,’ probably a good idea, it gets chilly here in the evening.’

That retort was unexpected and surprising, this uptight woman had just let her guard down for the first time since we met, maybe that’s what my male intuition was telling me, even in Sri Lanka human chemistry doesn’t change. I wondered what her astrological sign was and how it would match up with my Leo?

We were to meet at in the cocktail lounge at 8 o’clock, like most places outside of the Western World they ate late here.

I arrived first. The lounge was quietly lighted, local décor with a decided western flare. The bar was backlit with a mirror reflecting every brand of premium liquor I’d ever heard of and several I hadn’t. I ordered my usual, Stoli on the rocks, double lemon peel with a club soda chaser.

The driver arrived next, he sat beside me with a nod and ordered a beer, local brand, I’d never heard of. The bartender obviously knew him, they had a congenial chat, I assumed this was a regular stop on the tourist trail the driver followed when not working for the project.

I saw her reflected in the mirror, the image slightly blurred, and color toned behind the bottles. There was no mistaken Ashine for a stranger, she was smiling and purposeful as she slid onto the stool next to the driver with a nod to both of us and a greeting in Sinhala to the bartender who was already preparing her martini in a lowball glass, 3 olives and a Perrier chaser.

I started the conversation over the driver’s head, a bit awkward but unavoidable. After speaking in English, the driver slid off his seat with a hand signal for me to move closer to Ashine, I happily accepted.

She asked me about my life in the states, wife, children, where I lived and how I was selected for this assignment.

(stay tuned)

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