The Arrogance of Three Sides of the Same Coin
I arrived in Bangkok in the afternoon and after clearing customs, I made my way to the greeting hall. Even more than fifty feet away in a large room with hundreds of similar looking people, at least to my western eyes, I could see her wide smile and waving hand. When I came close to her, I stayed a respectful distance from her, knowing the custom against intimate touching in public. Our love, or lust, would be our secret from prying eyes. We would have a wonderful reunion in a wonderful hotel; short-lived, as we had to be up early to catch an early morning flight to Koh Samui. There we would spend three blissful days together; afternoons on the beach getting served by the many food and drink vendors, then good times in the bars and restaurants at nights. All the time avoiding the usual farang venues as my darling liked the more personal Thai places, as I did. After that, we flew back to Don Muang airport and then boarded a short flight on a large plane to Udon Thani, the largest close city to her family’s home. There, I was spoilt by fawning sisters and cousins constantly offering beers and Isaan spiced food. Most days were spent exploring the Thai places of interest in the area; a sacred temple, a small city on the Mekong with a fabulous restaurant overlooking the river, and shopping in small markets where I was not just the only farang, but the only farang in years who had ever visited. Nights were spent with her non-English speaking uncles and older male cousins drinking beer and laughing under the starlit night as I waited in anticipation for when my darling would beckon me to bed. I wished it would never end, but of course it had to, as I had to return to my life and business in Farangland.
This trip, I would be visiting my sister in Phoenix on my way home. I love my sister and her family very much. She understands why I take these trips, calling them the expression of my wanderlust that she has seen in me since we were young. But there was an awful twist to this; in my two day visit with her, I had been invited to a party of her friends and neighbors. As I met my sister at the airport, I was already dreading the party that would happen that night. How do you explain these kinds of experiences to people like them? I tried to come up with some sort of weird symptom of an unheard of tropical disease but my jet-lagged mind failed me. I was stuck and resigned myself to my fate.
The venue of the party was usual; someone’s wonderfully big house with lots of wonderfully white, well dressed people. When we walked in, the first floor was already crowded with people. We made our way to the kitchen where we grabbed some food from a buffet. I stood there eating my food and listening to the conversations all around me. American politics, American football, local school gossip, and how little son deserved to be on the first team were subjects that immediately filled my ear. I quickly calculated how long I would have to stay using the excuse of jetlag to leave early. After we ate, my sister pulled at my arm and started to introduce me to her friends as her brother who had just returned from a long trip to Thailand. Crap! I thought, this was the last thing I wanted. Now I would be here all night. The man in front of me said that he had been to Taiwan once but didn’t like it. Oh god.
As the man in front droned on, I was standing next to another man who I noticed seemed to have a strange angle to his foot. I started to stare at it a little when he turned to face me. “Hi, I’m Bob and I see you’ve noticed my foot.”
Taken aback I said yes. “Well” he said, “It’s not real, you know. I heard your sister say you just returned from Thailand. That’s a country I know well, especially the northeast. Have you ever been there?” he asked.
“Why yes” I said, “That’s where I was. Isaan it’s called, near Udon Thani”.
“Yes, Isaan. I was with a special ops group there in the 80’s doing some recon work and other things along the border. Nothing official, of course. I was there almost two years when one day on an op near the Laos border, I was snake bit. Nobody had the right antivenom with them so I had to walk ten miles to the nearest hospital. I almost died but they had to take off my right foot. Two years ago I got the latest foot prostheses and now I barely notice it.
“Yes, I loved it in Thailand. Me and my crew all had our own girls that we would see when we weren’t humping through the jungle. But mine was something special. I wanted her to come home with me but when I almost died, I woke up in a hospital in Bangkok. I had no way to get in touch with her. The next thing I knew I was on a plane to a hospital in Hawaii where I lived for the next year. Then I was transferred to the VA hospital in Tucson where I met my wife. Have you met her yet? Connie, I want you to meet someone who just got back from Thailand” he said as he turned to his wife.
Next, I felt someone tapping on my shoulder. I turned and saw another man about my age and height. “Are you the one that just got back from Thailand?” he asked.
I answered yes and he started to talk. “I used to be in the Peace Corps and I was assigned to southern China. I lived in a small village and taught the locals English, both children and adults. When our month holiday came, a few of us English teachers decided to take a tour of Laos and Thailand. We traveled by bus to Vientiane and then on to Non Kai in Thailand. We found a small hotel overlooking the Mekong River. My friend wanted to go on to Bangkok but I liked it there. He went on but I stayed there at this decrepit hotel for the next two weeks. I met a girl who worked at the open market and soon she was staying with me. We had lovely times together there in the hotel in the cool evenings. Soon I had to go back to China. I tried to write her many times but she never wrote back. I wonder what happened to her.”
I, too, now wondered about my own loving darling in Thailand. In all, I spent over three hours at this dinner party and in fact was one of the last to leave with my sister again tugging at my arm. I had talked to people who I thought lived absolutely boring lives but had discovered that they had had interesting experiences as well. Not just travel, but lost and found opportunities, dreadful challenges, and impossible victories; stories that were wonderfully woven together in a way that made me realize how arrogant I had been when I first stepped in this house; that only I through my narrow travels had experienced more than anyone else. As I got into my sister’s car, I felt part of a larger community that had experienced life outside the boundaries many thought were normal, even though now, like myself safely back in America, we appeared to lead dull and bourgeoisie lives. As we drove home, I resolved never again to judge people by their outward appearance or at least try to. After all, people being human, they were capable of many exciting things that they now held secret deep inside.