How I Increased Wealth In The Village
I moved into a poor and dirty village through no fault of my own. It was the job. I had run away from another Asian country and through a friend of a friend secured a teaching position, sight unseen for and by all of us who were involved. I moved into
the only new and clean building within a fifteen block span. It was an accident that the new building was ready for tenancy the day I signed a goof ball contract at the school and ended up signing an equally goof ball lease at my new building.
Exhausted by China, any job would do and any clean new apartment looked just fine.
At the same time I needed a joint. I really needed a joint. The stairs at the school were four double sets high and I had to climb them several times a day. We taught English on the fourth floor up some 96 steps. I had no idea how I would climb those stairs without a joint. I had no idea how I could get to school, a mere three blocks away without a joint. I remember feeling a look of disgust sneaking across my face when I saw that the exterior of the school was pruned, flowered and gazebo heavy while the interior was dirty, had bare cement floors and the teachers’ room was stuffed with papers and books that went back thirty years.
I needed a new hip joint. I had to wait until February until I had the money and the time off for surgery. This was early August. I had many stairs ahead of me before I could get a joint. I also had a twice a day walk to contend with on the sidewalk.
Man, the pain was so intense I could barely sleep let alone creep to school and then crawl up the stairs. That was the pain from the students. Their English was so poor I shuddered each time I limped into a classroom. The leg pain shot from my hip down to my ankle and my knee hurt so sleeping at night was a tortuous affair.
In order to save my leg, what was left of it, I thought I’d take motorcycle taxis to school. That was a five baht expense. Being paid in one of the lowest currencies in Asia did have one distinct advantage. I could easily afford to pay ten baht per trip. The difference between five and ten baht to me was nothing but by paying twice the rate I knew word would get around and I would never be left standing waving at drivers who didn’t like to pick up foreigners because they couldn’t speak English. Baht speak here.
I pissed off everyone else in the neighborhood because a driver would pass by a five baht passenger to stop for me. I’d hop on the back on off we’d go, three blocks. I had motorcycle taxi drivers almost fighting on the street trying to get me as a fare.
At school I soldiered on. In class I’d lean on desks, I’d support myself between desks to keep weight off my bad leg, I’d pull a chair out and sit at the front and make a student write on the board for me. I swallowed pain killers, anti inflam drugs, and something we buy here called “Tiffy”, an analgesic that slightly took my pain from a ten to a nine and a half. I also quit eating three meals a day.
Not knowing the cost of surgery but knowing my income I was terrified of a shortfall. I ate free fruit from the garden where I lived. Several trees produced bananas, mango and rose apples. I’d pull off what I could or send a kid up a tree for me. For my evening meal I’d send a student to the market, three blocks in the other direction from the school, to pick up a twenty baht salad that was mainly cabbage and a piece of cooked chicken for another thirty baht. It was the best I could do. I didn’t have any cooking appliances and no fridge. Those luxuries I have since acquired but it was pretty close to the edge back then.
The kids hang out at the internet bar downstairs and I’d choose who ever had the best English (I taught all of the internet rats) and hand over my fifty baht and off the kid would go. The kid didn’t like it but couldn’t say no to me, his teacher. Eventually I was able to rotate through the kids, whoever had gotten my food order correct would tell the next kid in line in Thai what I wanted. The folks at the market were great. Once the vendors knew it was my food the kid was after my meal the bags of food got better. The salad was packed with a little extra lettuce and tomato and less cabbage. The chicken lady made sure I got white meat. I’d wait until the student returned, buy some cold water from the convenience store and eat in the garden. That meant I didn’t have to take my garbage bag of bones and leftover cabbage down later. The bugs here tuck into anything that resembles protein so chicken bones can’t sit in an apartment unless you put them in a fridge until you’re ready to toss them.
I stayed in my little set of rooms weekends because walking was too painful. To try and climb on and off a bus, forget it.
August turned into other months. My stash of money grew bigger and my hip kept deteriorating. The piercing pain took my breath away. I started using a cane. The motorbike drivers would stop to pick me up as soon as I turned up on the sidewalk. A trip is 5 baht, I paid ten.
An extra five baht meant a lot to these drivers. It means a lot to any resident here. Paying twice the price built a solid willingness to help me when I appeared on the sidewalk.
The Thai teachers, never friendly on a good day seemed to get less friendly. I knew they were talking about me. They’d nod in my direction and keep on in loud tones yammering on about ten baht. The baht dropped. They were annoyed I always got a lift. I had told my boss I needed hip surgery and would attend to that in the long vacation.
He informed me that due to my doubling the fee for my drives now all the teachers had to pay ten baht for their rides. He pointed out that Thai teachers earn less than half what I earn. Like that’s my fault? My bad hip and reason didn’t enter in it. I had nothing to say on the subject.
The months ticked by. Some adult students took me to a Bangkok hospital and I didn’t realize that because they were involved in research at the hospital they jumped the queue for me. The doctor sure let me know however. He was angry they had put me ahead of others. I apologized and never went back. Like I need all this hostility from the guy who was going to saw off the top of my leg and fit it with it with a new joint?
I found a five star hospital in a city a few hours away and went there. They had a “sale” on knee and hip surgery fortunately and I had just enough to cover the cost of the surgery and the seven day stay. When I returned my boss met me at the bus terminal and helped me home in a taxi. The next month was a dreadful, lonely time. I had little money and no one from the school helped me to arrange food, water or assist with my laundry. No one stopped by to visit or enquire if I needed anything. Not even the foreign teachers offered any help. I soldiered on. Laundry and water retrieval is hard on a walker. Food, well I lived on instant noodles and boxed soy milk. Before my surgery I had asked the few restaurants on my street if they would deliver food to me. Nope. I had stored some food before I had the surgery but I was getting pretty desperate. Instant noodles lose their appeal if you are dining on them twice a day. It was a hard time. Every day I’d hobble on my walker as far as I could and hope like hell I’d run into a street vendor I could buy food from. Some days the Thai equivalent of the Good Humor Man would pass and I could get an ice cream. Other days I got lucky and could flag down a fruit vender. How sweet and juicy that fruit tasted. A meal in itself.
By the time school reopened I was down to fifty baht. What a horrendous ordeal. I still had a month ahead of me before I got paid. One teacher took me aside one day and asked if I needed some cash. How quickly situations change. In China I was the one who always bailed out the teachers.
“As a matter of fact, if you could see your way to lend me two thousand baht I would appreciate it and give it back to you pay day.” I thought I was going to cry I was so grateful. After school I took a taxi to Steak Today, hobbled in and ordered a salad, a grilled chicken fillet, and a fruit plate with toast to go. That meal, the cost was 65 baht, turned into the best meal of my life. The fruit and toast I carefully wrapped up and took home for my breakfast the next morning.
I healed faster being able to consume fresh fruit, milk and whole wheat bread. I bought some Vitamin C and slowly resumed my normal activities. It’s been a couple of years since that dreadful time. I’m still grateful to the motorcycle drivers who pick me up at double the fare. I’m happy to pay them the ten baht for a five baht fare. They always stop for me and some days when I walk a driver will pull over and tell me “Free! Free!” I never refuse.
One driver with pretty good English told me by raising the fare all the boys were doing a little better. Five baht a fare increase on twenty rides a day adds up. I don’t care if the Thai teachers have to pay extra for their motorcycle rides. I’m starting my 5th year there.
Fascinating story this on a number of levels. I've always said that I would not wish to fall ill (or require any major medical treatment) in Thailand and your story touches on some of the reasons why. It's also interesting to hear of the reaction of the Thai teachers to you paying twice the going rate and the subsequent price increase. You often hear screaming here from certain quarters when some pay more than the going rate.