The Visa Run
When I first became an ESL teacher in Thailand I did not yet possess a college degree.
What’s that? Someone so obviously erudite, well-read and bulging with the little grey cells and I didn’t have a sheepskin? Too true, old bean. I was rather a late bloomer, when it comes to academics.
Anywho. The problem was that without the old diploma I couldn’t get a work permit when I took a job teaching English. And by the way, it was easy snagging an English teaching job without a college degree. I simply showed up to my job interview in a clean shirt, wearing a necktie, with my fingernails clipped, and nothing but sen-sen on my breath. Worked like a charm; I got the job right out of the gate. You may, too, if you live a pure life and drink Ovaltine.
No work permit meant I had to go out of the country every couple of weeks to get my visa renewed. The dreaded VISA RUN!
I had been told about this Siamese odyssey by friends who had established themselves in Thailand by marrying a Thai woman and getting themselves slick corporate jobs as presidents and company managers – not for them the frenzied tangle of buses and cabs and long lines down dim marble corridors that smelled of corrupt patchouli. Their companies took good care of them, so they could loll by the poolside on weekends, never worrying about a grimy passport or visa stamp.
They all told me getting my visa stamped for another six weeks would be a lead pipe cinch. If the intervening years have taught me anything, it is that my ‘friends’ wouldn’t mind if I sank silently into the yellow muck of the Mekong River, never to be seen again. They seem to tire rather quickly of lending me money and keeping me out of their refrigerators. Not to mention the clothes and books I borrow and then never return. The reason I bring this up is that the first leg of my visa run had barely begun when the bus driver, who was taking a dozen of us expats to Cambodia, unaccountably turned the tour bus into an impossibly narrow soi, where we stuck like a beached whale. Angry Sino-Thai shopkeepers swarmed out of their store fronts like wasps, and I thought we were done for. Brandishing wispy brooms and flyswatters, they converged on our vehicle, intent on castration or some other fiendish oriental expedient. Luckily the bus driver managed to reverse his leviathan, taking several windows and a barrow of bitter melons with us as he sent us in reverse back into the busy Bangkok intersection we had come from. Once around the Victory Monument and we headed out of the city precincts into the Unknown.
After that narrow escape I made a silent vow to love my mother more and my vices less, and sat back to relax with a book. I have always pitied the poor blighters who get car sick or can’t concentrate on long drives. I relish the monotonous thump of the tires and the diesel fumes wafting from the floorboards as one speeds along the dicey highways and byways of Thailand. I had a deluxe edition of P.G. Wodehouse, and had just dipped into an amusing story featuring Lord Blandings when an insistent tap on my shoulder threatened to turn my collar bone into potsherds.
It was a friendly Filipino lad, also on the visa run, who wanted to offer me beer, whisky, cigarettes, and when I had politely turned him down for all these things, began offering more randy items that he swore would be available to him, and him alone, at the next scheduled stop. Having learned my lesson early on by watching Fellini’s Satyricon, I stoutly refused his carnal invitations, and attempted to get back to my book. But now a Jackie Chan action video had been put on, and several speakers were blaring the scratchy Hong Kong dialogue simultaneously until my ears threatened to fly off my head. I gave up reading and watched the countryside; a monotonous scroll of tire shops, noodle stalls, dusty fields awaiting irrigation, and nondescript cement buildings painted in bright colors now blackened by the tropical monsoon. Somebody must have put the real scenery away for the weekend.
Hours later, after I had valiantly attempted to use the restroom on the bus, succeeding only in soiling myself like an invalid as the bus lurched back and forth like a dingy in a typhoon, we arrived at the border, only to be told that we were too late. The border was closed, the guards were gone to their curries, and we had to find a hotel for the night.
The hostelry where I wound up for the night was not a Martha Stewart look-alike. There is much to be said, after the fact, for spending a night communing with Nature with all its beaks, claws, and stingers; it gives a man profound respect for the jungle and its insect inhabitants. All I know is that when I got up the next morning I was mistaken by my traveling companions for a mound of raw hamburger.
We crossed the border, got our visas stamped, and headed back for Bangkok. The cost of stamping the visas was outrageous and would have wrung a cry of anguish from a veritable stone. But I was beyond caring and just wanted to lie down on some clean linen to quietly expire in a pool of sweat.
I repeated this journey several more times before getting a work permit, which allowed me to loll at the poolside with my corporate friends at last. But whenever someone asks me about doing a visa run, I just smile and say it’s a lead pipe cinch.
Let ‘em find out for themselves . . .