People I Have Known in Asia : Jim (part 2 of 2)
From part 1, Jim and I are flying to Bangkok from Narita sitting next to each other in business class, having a grand chat about our lives. Earlier, I had heard a loud noise outside my cabin window but had given it little thought.
Jim tells me he is going to Bangkok on business and to see his wife. Did she fly ahead of you for a little vacation time, I ask? No, he said he met his wife on his first trip to Bangkok some years ago. Noticing I was still not getting it, he calmly explained his wife is from Thailand. Oh OK, that’s cool, I replied. He then said he met her in Bangkok when she was a pathetic streetwalker. My blank reaction made Jim laugh quite loudly.
Jim said that some years ago he was walking along Suhkumvit when his future wife approached him. She wasn’t the best looking girl he had seen that night. Her clothes were rumpled and she was obviously drunk. She wanted to come with him to his hotel room. He said sure, but only on one condition; that she stay with him for three days. She agreed. But what she thought would be a drunken orgy, instead turned out to be her salvation. Jim stayed with her the whole time, talking to her, and providing rice soup and snacks when she was hungry; but no alcohol. It was brutal for both of them and at the end of three days she said she would never drink alcohol again, as long as Jim stayed with her. He agreed and they were married soon after. Why would he do this? Seems Jim was repaying an old debt from the Thai monks. A few months later she joined him in America, along with her young son. Now, at the end of this flight, they would all be reuniting again In Thailand.
Just then I noticed that the plane was making a big u-turn. I looked at the world map on the screen and it showed that just after we passed Taiwan, we were now heading back to it. Convinced this had something to do with the noise I heard earlier, I surmise that one of the engines on our B-757 had blown. Now there was an announcement from the pilot. “Radies and gentlemen, we are making a emergency randing in Taipei. Prease do not be concerned”.
Jim seemed nonplussed so I settled back for what I thought would be a routine short layover, a new plane, and a quick exit to Bangkok. Now we sit silently, finishing the last wine in our glasses, as our plane makes a steep descent to the airport runway. As we get close to the ground, I can see the flashing lights from the emergency vehicles along the runway. The plane wavers as it nears the runway, but touches down with only a couple of bounces. As soon as the plane stops, the emergency vehicles converge on us. Passenger ramps are pushed to the exits and we all descend to the tarmac where buses are waiting. Descending the stairway, it occurs to me this was probably a more dangerous situation than anyone thought.
We board the buses which take us to a large room in a terminal. It is cordoned off with rows of seats and serious looking security guards from the rest of the building. The segregation makes me feel more of a prisoner than passenger. Water and snacks are provided but the lack of information makes everyone nervous. After more than an hour of milling around, an older man in an airline uniform tells us there is no other plane available for tonight. Hotel rooms have been found until the next flight in the morning. But everyone must give up their passports for the night. Jim says this doesn’t sound right. I tell him we should book our own flights for the morning and stay in the terminal tonight. We both call our travel companies and find there is another flight in the morning at 8 AM with seats available. We make our reservations and wait for the airline officials to work their way to us for processing.
When they arrive, we tell them we are staying in the terminal until our flights in the morning. The airlines folks seem very perturbed by this and try to convince us to change own minds. We tell them we have made our own travel arrangements for an 8 AM flight. They say no problem, we will be back in the terminal by 6 AM and besides, at the hotel we can shower and sleep in bed instead of airport seats. Jim and I are both dog-tired from the long travel and the red wine, so we relent and hand over our passports. As soon as I do, I realize I have lost control and now I am now completely in the hands of people I do not know. I board the bus to the hotel. It is now past midnight.
It is a short ride to the hotel but the processing to get a room takes a while. It is 1 AM before I have my key in hand and walking towards my room. The room numbering is so strange that I can’t figure out where my room is. All the signs are in Chinese and the hallways are dimly lit like a brothel. I run into a young Chinese woman and I ask her for help. She tries to explain where my room is but gives up and just walks me to my room. After I open the door, I turn to thank her. Now she is standing close to me smiling. I get the feeling she wants to come in. Maybe on another night this would have worked, but I’m exhausted so I shake her hand and say “thank you”. She gets the message and leaves.
The room is small with a small bed and a small TV. It doesn’t matter. I set my alarm for 5 AM, fold the clothes I have been wearing for over 24 hours, and fall asleep. Hopefully my bag will by loaded in my plane the following morning. I wake up after a dead sleep and try to make myself presentable with a shower and the few toiletries in my room. I walk to the lobby, where I see about 50 or more passengers milling around the front desk. I ask the clerk what is happening. He says the buses to airport will be leaving soon. Wait, does everybody know this? The clerk doesn’t answer. I ask him for Jim’s room number and I call him on the house phone. Jim comes running to lobby a few minutes later and we board the first bus. Why didn’t the hotel wake up the others? I suspect the airline did not have seats for all the passengers on the first flight to Bangkok. Now my mistrust with airline people managing this situation is huge. I wonder what else aren’t they telling us. What’s the next surprise?
As we approach the airport, an agent announces that our passports have been stored overnight in a safe, but the person who can open it cannot be found. We all groan and our buses park on the side on the road in from of the terminal. We wait almost 30 minutes until the agent says the passports have been found. Found? So was the person found or did they forget where they put our passports?
The bus starts moving again and soon we are parked in front of a departure terminal. But before we can get off, the agent suddenly announces our passports are in another terminal. As we pull in front of another terminal, I notice it’s now 6:30 AM. So, allowing for 45 minutes to clear immigration and get to our gate, we’ll have 45 minutes to get our boarding passes. It looks like there are 100 passengers in the buses. That should be plenty of time to make the flight.
The agent leads us from the bus to an area in the terminal in front of the check-in kiosks. There we find two large tables with agents sitting or standing behind them. One of them dumps a large plastic container on to the table to our right. It’s all of the passports. The first agent picks up a passport, hands it to the next agent on his right, who looks at the name and sifts through a huge stack of boarding passes to find the matching name. When he does, he hands both to a third agent on his right who calls out the passenger’s name. When the passenger retrieves his documents, he is invited to pass through the line airline officials. This process took about five minutes and it immediately occurs to the passengers that not all of us are going to make this flight. Pandemonium immediately ensues. Passengers surge towards the tables screaming at the agents to hurry up. Other agents move forward and are trying to push the passengers back from the tables. Meanwhile, the Three Stooges (I mean agents) are frantically trying to match passports to boarding passes.
Jim and I are now standing together looking at all the passports splayed across the table. I notice that only a few are the American dark blue color. I tell Jim that if we could get our passports, we could go to check-in and get our boarding passes. Jim nods his head and starts making a fuss at the table. Meanwhile, I slip around behind the agents and start reaching for blue passports. I’m lucky. After just four or five, I have found both of our passports. I hold them up and Jim comes around the table and we try to leave. A young female agent tries to stop us, but we bow politely, say “excuse me please”, and take off running to ticketing, leaving behind a teeming mass of very angry passengers and frantic agents.
Ticketing for the flight was just about to close but we get our boarding passes just in time. Supposedly our bags have been loaded on this flight but neither of us cares. We board the flight in business class and immediately order red wine, our agent of good fortune. Our section is remarkably empty considering all the people trying to get out of Taipei for Bangkok. Like soldiers in a time of conflict, we toast our fellow comrades left behind and wish them well.
On the ground in Bangkok and through Immigration, Jim and I are grateful our bags have arrived on the same flight, the only thing the airline did correctly. We grab them and head for the taxi queue. At the arrival hall in Don Meuang, Jim spots his wife and after many hugs, I am introduced to her. She is a little plump for my taste with a couple of tattoos on her arms, but she gives me a big friendly smile as she shakes my hand American style. She seems like a sweet and friendly person, and she is obviously crazy about Jim. After a few minutes of holding up the taxi queue, Jim hurries her into a taxi and shakes my hand vigorously and says good-bye. He says he will call me soon and he does a few weeks later. As they get into the taxi and head towards the city, I realize I am more than a little jealous of a rejected Buddhist monk and his ex-streetwalker wife.
Little did I know that in a few months’ time, I would be having my own loving reunions at Don Meuang with a lovely Thai woman. It would be a tumultuous relationship that would ultimately not end well. Yet as the years pass, it is not her memory that persists, but that of her sister that remains with me. My next story will explain why.
Great story, and excellent point about losing control of the situation when handing over your passport. That's many a long-term expat's fear, losing control and being reliant on the local Somchai.