Saturday, February 13, 2010

5) Welcome to Thailand

I leave New York from stinky, crumbly old JFK, and I am happy to say good riddance for now. I board the plane and sleep until Seoul, South Korea. The airport here is newer, cleaner. The toilet stalls have signs on the backs of the doors that show a stick figure squatting on a toilet seat with an X through it. I am too tired to think much about this. I have a six hour layover – not long enough to go out, yet too long to sit and wait. I manage to get internet through my aging Dell laptop and feel proud of myself; I am certainly cut out for international living.

My gate is in a great, cavernous hall half constructed of bricks, part painted and part not. I doze nearby in an uncomfortable chair, waking off and on. An Asian woman next to me says hello. I don’t know if she is Thai or not; I don’t have any idea what Thai people look like, other than “Asian.” She asks if it is my first time to Thailand and I tell her yes.

“Awww!” she giggles with seemingly undue excitement. She is an adult woman with Winnie the Pooh on her t-shirt. “So good, na! Me Thailand, people. Fra Koh Samui.” Or something like that. It’s all an accented jumble and I haven’t slept well and it’s 5 am. I don’t know much about Thailand, but I do know that Koh means island, so I’m interested, keep talking. She tells me her name is Meow. I find it hard to believe that but after she repeats it a few times I have to accept that her name is Meow. She shows me a Disney Princess backpack and another with the characters from Toy Story on it she bought on her trip to New York.

“Very nice,” I say, and as she attempts to explain to me the relationship between herself and the recipients of these gifts, I wonder if Meow's English is better or worse than other Thai people's: I'm hoping it's worse.

“Yes! They love!” she says. “New York it beautiful, right? Very nice home!” she chucks me on the arm and my mouth opens in wonder as I smile back at her; I don’t know what to make of her but am charmed nonetheless. My first Thai person, what fun! That "land of smiles" thing is true, at least if Meow is representative.

“Thank you,” I say, “I like it too. How about Koh Samui? Much warmer, right?”

Hot! she laughs. She tells me her sister runs a hotel there, that her family has lived there for years, that she works at a big chain hotel, that her sister’s hotel is better. “Cheap!” she says, “Very nice. Beautiful! Beach, sun… You visit me?”

“Um… sure, I mean, I’ll probably go to Koh Samui. Yeah,” I say.

“You stay me?” Meow says. “Stay my home, my sister home. You no pay! You have email?”

Though I doubt very much that I will connect with her after this I cannot say no to such an offer, so we exchange emails. Our flight begins boarding and Meow tells me to wait for her in Bangkok; she will help me find my hotel, she says. I mumble some kind of ascent, feeling flabbergasted, my cheeks worn out from smiling. I grab my computer bag and my purse, weighted down with novels, and make for the gate.


Perhaps I am so nervous that I’ve reached my threshold for nervousness and moved on to a state of denial without realizing it, because I don’t feel anxious at all. I attribute my composure to the fact that I am a New Yorker now. I am all business in an airport. I know exactly what I’m doing and I do it quickly, efficiently: restroom, customs, baggage claim, taxi. Check check check!

I wait for Meow for a few minutes but don’t see her so I keep going. Though I am constantly moving and, I hope, not looking like a tourist, I keep my eyes open. The airport in Bangkok is extremely modern, all shiny silver and glass, like a space ship. Palm trees and flowers groomed into elaborate shapes dot the landscape. I find a silver luggage cart and haul my bags outside, into the public taxi line. As I walk I am not surprised to hear the calls of “Taxi? Where you go?” from men loitering at the airport exit. These private town car guys are everywhere you go, but a metered taxi is always cheaper. I almost never bother with busses or shuttles from airports; the ease of a cab ride is worth the exorbitant fare. I shake my head at the private taxi men and set my lips in a frown to deter the offers, just as I do back home. But then I hear something different.

“Helloo? Sir? Where you go? Sir? You want taxi?”

Did he just call me Sir? I know I don’t look very good; I’m wearing my glasses and my hair is in a greasy ponytail. My jeans are too big and my brown linen shirt is all mussed and lopsided, but still! I’m obviously female; why on Earth would he call me Sir? If I wasn’t worried about being solicited I would stop to ask. Instead I raise my chin and keep walking, settling my shoulders away from my ears and down my back like I’m learning to do in yoga class, letting the Sirs sputter and fall short behind me. Calm as water over moss grown stones, I remind myself, for this is my goal. No more anger; no more cynicism. Now is the time for softness, lotus buds and orchids, blue skies and swimming pools.

I begin to sweat as soon as I leave the building. The taxi line is at street level of a many-tiered parking garage so I can’t see the sun yet, but I can feel it. Everything smells and looks normal, big and busy, like New York. I don’t really feel that much like I’m in a foreign country, except that I don’t know where I’m going and don’t speak the language.

Sweat drips down my back and tickles in a cool, refreshing way. I know that it’s going to be hot in Bangkok all year long, but it’s hard to believe. I didn’t bring a coat but I do have a few sweaters, some jeans, just in case. What will it be like not to wear a winter coat all year long? How does it feel never to see the grass die? Will I be happier without winter? Will my soul blossom with endless summer sun? Of course not all the time, of course. But maybe more. Maybe more than it does now?

It is my turn for the taxi. I hold a piece of paper with the address of the hotel Fun English is putting me up at tonight in my hand. But when I see the skinny little woman at the taxi stand, her thin lips and narrow eyes, I don't know what to say.

“It’s ah, Tong Lor? Soi 13? Soi 13 Tong Lor.” I don’t know if I’m pronouncing it correctly or if I should just hand the woman and her seated male sidekick in an electric yellow poncho my paper. Can they read English? But before I can think any more about it the woman rips the paper from my hand and scribbles something in Thai in a yellow notepad, and passes that to the man next to her. He hands it to another Thai man who smiles at me and makes for my bags.

The woman is already staring at her next customer with the same disinterested gaze when I turn to find my driver. He takes my bags and I follow him to the parking lot across the street in front of us, full of parked cars in every color. He opens the trunk of a kelly green taxi and puts my bags inside. Pink, blue, orange, yellow, red taxis! I am smiling now; now I am in a foreign country. And I have a happy, smiley little man to drive me.

I let the driver take care of my bags and get into the front seat. This is not done in New York but there isn’t a dividing wall between the front and back seats of this car, and I want the best vantage point for my first drive in to Bangkok. The driver settles himself beside me and off we go. To Tong Lor, soi 13, and St. Gabriel’s Academy, which is supposed to be my hotel. I don’t know what to make of the name but that’s what Thitiwat wrote in his email, so all I can do is trust it. Letting go, that’s what it’s about. Right? I'm in Thailand. I'm alone in Thailand!

As we speed along the highway I gaze out the window, straining to see the exotic land I’ve come to find. So far, nothing much is out of the ordinary. The cars are just as new as those in America; the highway just as wide. What can you expect from a highway, really? The sky is gray outside our windows. Rain starts to fall. I knew that it would be the rainy season here, but I did not bring an umbrella. I lost my last one a few weeks ago, drunk at a cookbook release party on the Lower East Side.

“Nam!” the cabdriver shouts over the din of the air conditioner, and the rough sound of his voice shocks me so much I nearly snap my neck. He has been talking this whole time, and I’ve been smiling and nodding back as though to a crazy person or a child, since I had no idea what he was saying. Now I look right at him. The driver takes a hand off the wheel. He gathers my eyes with his own and flings them toward the glass. “Fon toe!” he says. “Nam, na? Loo mai?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t speak Thai,” I say, shaking my head. I feel bad; he obviously wants to talk, shouldn’t I know something to say in Thai? Then I remember the pod cast I listened to on itunes while cutting and pasting photos of fucking cookies.

“Sabai di mai?” I say, not at all sure I have the tone right. I’m fairly tone deaf so probably not. I’ve read that some words in Thai can have as many as five different meanings depending on the tone. Hey, I didn't move here because I wanted to learn to speak Thai. Likely, it will just be a byproduct.

Luckily I don’t have a moment to wonder if I’ve accidentally said something vulgar or rude. The cabbie immediately cracks up with laughter at me asking him how he is (Literally: Are you fine?). He hoots and guffaws and smacks the rubber covering of his steering wheel with the palm of his hand. Outside a truck rumbles by, splashing the taxi with a spray of dirty water.

“Sabai di, crap!” the cabbie says. “I am fine, thank you!”

I smile, happy to please. I think that this will be enough, that the man will leave me alone now to contemplate this great journey and take in my new surroundings in peace, but he’s excited. He points out the window again.

“Nam,” he says. It sounds like the American way of abbreviating Vietnam, and I cringe. Everywhere you go, I think, somebody wants to tell you how things ought to be. Like that arrogant Swiss man who followed me around a nightclub in Denmark just to rant about America’s foreign policy. Is that what’s going on here? Or maybe he’s trying to say he’s from Vietnam?

“Nam,” the cabbie repeats. “Nam, nam!” He’s getting frustrated. He pokes his finger at the window where it clunks against the glass.

“Rain?” I ask. He shakes his head and waves his hands in front of his face, exasperated. Muttering to himself, he speeds around another car to exit the highway.
When we are on the next road the cabbie throws his head back and cups one hand like a C in front of his face, as though drinking from a glass. Finally, I understand.

“Ahhhh!” I exclaim. “Water! Nam means water!” His eyes tell me that I’m right but my pronunciation or tone must be off because he makes me continue repeating nam over and over again. I can’t hear any difference between the way I say it and how he does, and after a few minutes of this repetition I grow annoyed and fall silent.

We continue driving, forty-five minutes. We are in town now and every single lane is clogged with traffic. Motorbikes scoot through the lanes between the stalled cars and trucks. The drivers wear cheap-looking rubber flip flops and many of the motorbikes carry entire families – mom, dad, brothers, sister, and a baby standing up in front, holding on to the handlebars. Clearly, this would never happen in America, but instead of that making me feel superior or scared or worried about these families, it makes me feel giddy, free. Maybe life is cheap here, or people just aren’t as worried. Maybe life just isn’t so goddamn sacred as we make it out to be. Maybe they understand that. Something to do with reincarnation, perhaps? No sacred blood shed for them but their own. I bet they don't have that many lawyers here.

There are plenty of sights that confirm my suspicions of a lack of litigiousness in Bangkok. Power lines hang in tangled nests of black rope over poles, frighteningly close to sidewalks, streets, parking lots spread with gravel and covered with eating carts. Buildings seem equally mixed between new and old, glass skyscrapers and concrete shop houses. Construction crews bang, pound, drill everywhere, and I have to admit I’m surprised and, okay, a little worried, by construction workers without helmets, wearing only jeans, t-shirts and rubber flip flops. Those using welders do not wear goggles. They climb bamboo scaffolding and carry heavy-looking bags of sand and rocks without close-toed shoes. It's hard to miss; construction sites are everywhere and more construction crews are piled into the backs of trucks with wooden planks covering the sides but not the back, so that some people spill out and practically hang off the bumper. All the construction men and women wear the same color of baggy t-shirt, so it’s nearly impossible to determine their gender. Some look out blankly from where they sit, others sleep. Yet another occupational hazard, a fatigue so great you can sleep in the back of a packed truck, in the middle of a hot, rainy, fumy Bangkok traffic jam.

We drive over canals of grey brown water, under raised highways and over bridges. The city blurs in a colorful wet fog before my eyes and I feel like if I blink I might miss something I'll never see again. We turn onto a smaller street, and then an alley. Concrete walls on one side close us in a burst of pink bougainvillea.

“Ah ni?” the cab driver says, stopping in front of an unusually square brick building. “Sir?”

“St. Gabriel’s?” I say, staring out at the ugly building. The cabbie points to the gold lettering on the side of the wall, where it does bear that name in English and what I assume must be Thai. He swings the car into the driveway, following the road over a hump and then down, under the building and into a parking garage. I see no one outside or through the open entryway. What the hell kind of hotel is this? I wonder. Is this even a hotel? And what will I do if it’s not?

Open heart, I say to myself, trying to push aside my disappointment. Adventure, oddity, discomfort, that’s what it’s all about. I count out one hundred and fifty baht - less than $10 - and hop out of the cab. As soon as I step out into the humid air again, I start sweating.

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