Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The month of my birth

(the following I started last Saturday and finished on Tuesday in case of any time discrepancies)

I am not sure just how many buses I have boarded since we got back from our trip at the beginning of January, but in the last ten days, I have logged over thirty-two hours. 2013 has started off very busy due to a broken tooth, a training session with this year’s new batch of volunteers, a life skills camp across the country where I taught and supervised seventy-one 6th-9th grade girls in condom application, and some other outings that I already can’t remember. Today I am on route to Bangkok again to visit the dentist on Monday when she will complete the placement of my first dental crown. Long story shortened: there was a rock in my rice. Now its a big joke at the SAO "when you come to Thailand, be careful, there's rocks in the rice".

I started the day at about seven AM when I woke up in a house that is seldom cool, all by myself, nuzzled in our “summer” blankets because of the low temperature of 26 C. Erin had left to the big city on Thursday evening for a volunteer advisory council meeting yesterday. By eight I was able to convince myself to leave the warm comfort of our queen mattress under the mosquito netting to attack a short stack of dishes and contemplate the laundry situation before departure. Thailand sells very low end models of washing machine which require movement of clothing between a wash/rinse tub and a spinning device on the right. There is no computer in the machine, so water filling and cycle initiation are still tasks of human responsibility. The machines actually work really well, the spinner leaving a pair of undershorts almost dry to the touch when finished, much dryer than my $1000 washer back in the states. Naturally though, when your washing machine has a retail value of about $185 dollars, there are some plastic parts that may not hold up. At just about 6 months in, our drain valve has decided it does not hold water any longer. So the first hour of my day today, was of course taking the back of the washer off so I could manually adjust the drain valve and get one load of laundry done before heading back to the city. Part of the reason for this is saving Erin’s sanity for her return Sunday, two days before me, and the other part is that I have pretty much exhausted my stretched out boxer short supply.

Feeling fairly triumphant at getting the stuff washed and hung in less than two hours, along with the dishes washed, French press filled, and some bread toasted (in our circular, counter top, plug in, power eating convection oven) for a much anticipated peanut butter sandwich, I proceeded to have my breakfast and get my weekender bag together.

Right around Erin’s birthday I discovered a life changing slip of paper that appeared to have all departing buses from our local bus station on the same schedule, and in English! This paper, I included as part of Erin’s birthday present, although she did not find it as sweet as I had imagined. I knew from the schedule that buses originating in Sukhothai would be coming in around 11:00 and 11:30, so I shouldn’t have any problem getting myself on one. My neighbor Aek strolled by right around this moment and after a brief conversation about where he was going and what I was eating, he offered to take me to the bus stop. When we departed, in the car with Aek were his wife and his daughter, both of which he was taking to work. As far as I can tell they both work 7 days a week, most weeks. Aek is off weekends, which is when him and I often run errands together.

On arrival at the bus stop, the question of seat availability was treated with the same formality that people in Thailand treat almost any question pertaining to business of any level of minutia, and a serious conversation began to take place between my neighbors and the person at the ticket office. Although they all know, that my Thai is certainly passible for getting a ride to one of the most obvious places I might be going, they all three got out of the car to assist. Not far into the conversation, the ticket lady made a phone call to confirm a seat was available and I heard her repeating back to the person on the other end the Thai equivalent of “oh, there are a whole bunch of seats available”.  She got off the phone and continued the conversation with the neighbors without making it apparent that I could get on the bus. She was telling the neighbors something about the situation of me boarding at this station and her not having any tickets to give and most of this I did not understand. Finally I interrupted to confirm with her in Thai that there was a 10:30 bus and an 11:00 bus, and that the 10:30 had already come, but the 11:00 had not, and that both of these buses were bah 1 or first class, and that the latter still had seats. The neighbors and the ticket lady all smiled bigly and commented that I knew everything already. Then the ticket lady proceeded to tell me directly that I could board the 11:00 when it came no problem, but I would not have ticket to eat lunch with when we stopped halfway through, as is customary on a Thai, first class bus. She said the ticket would be 300 baht and I told her no problem, I was already full of bananas so the meal was not a big deal, and really just wanted to avoid any possible delays in getting on a bus. At first the ticket lady told me to pay the bus driver when I boarded, but just as my neighbors were getting ready to leave she decided that I should pay her instead. I asked why she had changed her mind and she told me because the bus driver would not understand me. To that I replied that I have taken this trip many times before and beyond that, been all over this country by myself. She asked for 350 baht and I was not going to argue further, because really, I just wanted to get on the bus.

About an hour into the ride I get off the phone with my buddy Dan and I start to get a little annoyed that the snack and water bottle already provided to every other passenger on the bus had still not found its way to me. We took on several new passengers at stops after mine and they were immediately provided refreshments. The service person on the bus seemed to disappear right after the last round of refreshment delivery and ticket taking, so I began to wait for his head to pop back up. About this time I also start to wonder why I paid the full price for a first class ticket, evidently was not being given refreshments on purpose, and should not be expecting lunch. I decided at the lunch stop I would ask someone for a lunch ticket just to see what is was that they might say, and maybe get the meal that I had actually paid for already.
When we stopped after about 3 and a half hours, at the halfway point to Bangkok, I got off the bus and went to the bus service person. I proceeded to give him my story about boarding and not receiving a ticket. I asked him if there was a way that he might provide me with one and he, looking a little alarmed, directed me to the driver of the bus. When I stepped up to the driver, the typical surprise a Thai has to hear a farang speaking Thai passed very quickly as his interest grew in my story. I asked him who I should talk to in Bangkok about this because I was not happy. He asked me where I got on the bus and where I paid for my ticket, and he also seemed perplexed by the fact that I had not received an actual paper ticket. The driver immediately started discussing the story with another officer of the bus company who asked me the same questions he already had and then confirmed again that I was actually on the bus I had just stepped off of. She then said something about a 2nd class ticket being 279 baht, and I once again told her that no, I had not paid 279 baht, knew this was a first class bus and had paid 350 to the woman at the bus station, “muan durm” (same as always). By now both her and the bus driver had evidence of dissatisfaction on their faces; not at me, but at my story. The bus driver next tells me to hurry along and eat or that I might not have time. I entered the outdoor rest stop restaurant full of people, and ordered a plate of pad Thai. Seconds later the bus driver comes up behind me, pulls a Thai bill from his own pocket, and tells me to get something to eat while putting the money in my hand. I graciously thank him and he asks if I have ordered yet. I respond that yes I ordered pad Thai. A big smile crosses his face as he laughingly asks farang can eat pad Thai? Immediately on boarding the bus again, the crew member I had spoken with initially delivered my refreshments with a very big smile on his face.

I never approached anyone when I arrived to Bangkok and I never really found out what happened with that ticket. I was inspired to write this blog because it illustrates how the simplest things can become consuming mysteries in a land that is not your own and the similarities of people in general. Even though it seemed to me that this woman at the bus station pocketed sixty baht and informed the driver that she sold me a second class ticket based on the assumption that he would not understand me, when I explained to the driver what happened, he could not help himself but to make it right, and did so, evidently, out of his own pocket. Just people, I guess.