Thiri Part 1
It was about 102 in the shade and probably near 100% humidity. In other words, almost unbearably hot under the best of circumstances. They were sitting in a songtaew (a converted pick-up truck with 2 wooden benches running along the inside of the pick-up bed, and covered by a metal canopy) sweatily sandwiched together with 8 other people on the wooden bench seats, with bags and boxes of goods at their feet and pressed against their legs. 10 of them, 5 on each side of the converted pick-up. Waiting to go. Hoping to go at any moment. But the driver wanted to squeeze 2 more additional human sardines into the back. So they waited. And sweated. And waited.
The songtaew was parked on the Thai side of the Fellowship Bridge that joins Thailand to Myanmar (Burma), near the town of Mae Sot. Steve had just come back from a short excursion over the bridge into Myanmar, to get a feel for the differences between the countries, cultures and attitudes. Or as much as one can glean from just a few hours in the country. But as it turned out, it was enough to notice certain similarities but other key differences. There was the same enterprising, even predatory, spirit in the way that the tri-shaw drivers offered such a too-good-to-be-true deal of a 2 hour tour of the town and a couple of local temples for the measly price of 20 kyat (about $3.50), while his “friend” came along for company and to provide a pidgin-English commentary. There was the obligatory stop at a tea shop where of course the prices were inflated to allow for the commission to the driver, and the visit to the local street-stall market for the privilege of paying another commission. The street, shophouses and stalls were even more dusty, dirty, grimy and generally run-down than their Thai equivalent, but surprisingly the tea and cakes at the tea-shop were refreshing and tasty. However, the toilet was even cruder than across the border, without even a hole in the ground, but just a concrete pad in a tin shed, with the floor sloped just enough to allow the liquids to drain into a putrid trench outside. There was a rusty tub of water to flush some of the solid matter outside, but small piles of excrement remained in a stinking pile in a corner.
The Thai side of the Friendship bridge into Burma / Myanmar
Gilded Buddha and in the foreground a less decorous holder for the flag and sacred wands
The tri-shaw driver and his color commentator demonstrating proper gong technique
Of course the real hustle was reserved until the end of the tour, when it came time to settle up and pay. Using hand gestures and a calculator with a big LCD screen the driver wanted nearly 3 times the agreed price, and even though it was the equivalent of less than 9 US dollars, it was a rip-off. Steve smilingly hunched his shoulders and gestured to ask why the extra cost. The friend who had been so keen to practice his English was now as dumb as one of the vendors on the south side of Sukhumvit. The driver pointed to him and gave a thumbs-up as though to confirm the value of the color commentary provided by his friend. Steve shook his head and gave a double thumbs-down and reached into his front pocket for his wallet. He pulled out the equivalent of 4 dollars and presented it to the driver. The dismissive gesture clearly showed he wanted more. Meantime a small crowd of other tri-shaw drivers and gawkers had gathered, but Steve was not in the mood to be intimidated so he reached over and placed the notes on the driver’s seat of the tri-shaw, offered a small wai, smiled, gave a thumbs-up and walked away. He reckoned that the 50% mark-up was still a good deal and the exchange had remained civil and quick enough not to lose too much face for the Burmese, so they would not complain or come after him. However, the babble of Burmese from the group of drivers had him a little worried, but when he looked back they were smiling, so he gave another thumbs-up and waved good-bye.
Sturdy Burmese construction methods that are clearly up to modern building code standards
The farang man and striking Burmese girl sat squeezed together in the back of the songtaew so tightly that they could feel their sweat soaking through his pants and her cotton longyi. The local passengers sat straight and impassive, not making eye contact but making the odd couple invisible.
She was a slim, sharp-featured and straight-shouldered 34-year old Burmese native called Thiri, and she had fled from her oppressed country to the different kind of oppression in the Mai La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border near Mae Sot. She had lived in the camp for 3 years before bribing her way out so that she could go to Bangkok to try to make money and buy her way onto the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) list of people to be potentially “resettled” to a Western country. To mask her absence she assumed the identity of a girl who had gone back to her home village in Myanmar to look after sick parents, and that enabled her to keep a place-holder position in the list of eligible candidates. Thiri had left the camp 2 years previously and now lived in Bangkok where she was nanny for 2 diplomatic families: one American and the other English. This was uniquely fortunate as it had allowed her to learn both British and American English, as well as their respective social customs and idiosyncrasies. She had a passing appreciation for both types of football (proper and hybrid); ice-cold and room temperature beer; hamburgers and fish ‘n’ chips; potato crisps and chips…but most importantly she had learned to speak both “languages” fluently and with a curious “mid-Atlantic” accent that was a cross between the formal received pronunciation of diplomatic English and the more casual tones of the American vernacular.
While she had a comfortable life, Thiri yearned to fulfill her ambition to re-settle in a Western country, ideally America. So she had saved enough to pay her safe passage through the Thai checkpoints back into the camp at Mae La, but she still needed additional money for the expenses to secure her freedom, like the fee for the extended family of the girl whose place in the UNHCR line she had taken and about 25,000 baht to pay tribute to the camp sector headman and his cronies.
The songtaew driver was still holding out for 2 more passengers and the 25 baht fare each would bring, but he had already waited over 15 minutes and it seemed unlikely they would show up. The other passengers seemed to be mainly Thai who had been shopping in Myanmar or at the border market. Their quiet, almost impassive patience in the oppressive heat and in the face of the badgering heckling of the driver was typical of the equanimity the up-country people seem to enjoy in much of their lives. But to the exasperated and sweat-soaked foreigner it was too much. The 100 degree heat pulsed off the steel and iron of the songtaew canopy frame, and it seemed to almost burn welts on his skin through his thin cotton shirt. His solution to the impasse was typically Western and direct: leave now and just pay the driver 50 baht for the other 2 fares he would lose. Thiri giggled at the simplicity and yet told him that he could not do it that way as the driver would get mad and lose face that a farang would suggest something so novel and impertinent. So he asked her to suggest that everyone chip in 5 baht each and then arrange for one of the locals to offer the driver the 50 baht. She giggled again and squeezed his arm while telling him how he was finally learning about Thai people. Then she whispered the idea to the locals, who looked at her, then at him, first in amazement and then with broad smiles and nods and wags. He smiled back and fished out his 10 baht to cover himself and his partner. But it became apparent that a number of the passengers didn’t have even 5 baht left after their shopping expedition as they had left only enough for the regular songtaew fare. He conferred with Thiri and saw that there still was a way for everyone to save face: he told her to take the 10 baht from him and then pay the other 40 baht herself, from her own money, and he would give it back to her later. Everyone knew the farang could pay for all the fares, but this would avoid the awkwardness of them admitting it. She gave the 50 baht to the Thai lady nearest the back of the songtaew, so she could wave the money at the driver and tell him the plan, thereby also saving and gaining face at the same time. Based on the driver’s reaction it seemed like it was going to backfire as he still insisted on 2 more passengers. But this was bluster to avoid his own loss of face, and after some good natured haggling he took the money and agreed to go.
As they drove away and gained speed, the breeze, as hot as it was, at least offered the sensation of cooling even if in reality it was just like sitting in front of a hair dryer on full blast. He looked around at the passengers and was greeted by broad smiles, as they now had a different impression of the farang with the Burmese girl.
This was their second meeting and although their first encounter had been a sensual adventure typical of so many internet introductions, this time it was a different type of experience, and for Steve it was a time to decide if there was potential for a genuine, committed and fully supportive relationship or some other kind of arrangement that still involved a serious commitment, but without the romance and physical intimacy.
.Very, very nice start!
* For readers, this is part 1 of a 4-part story and I will run parts 2, 3 and 4 over the next 3 days.