The elderly man who took his seat beside me before the train pulled out of
was small, well-groomed, and completely absorbed in his iPad, which he tapped
with the concentration of a woodpecker. I was grateful for that; conversation
isn’t what I want on a trip across Bangkok . Even when I lived there,
I concentrated all of my attention on what I could see from my window seat. Now
that my time in the Kingdom was limited to a visit once a year, my need to see
it all was even more intense. Thailand
The day was bright and lovely and the window that I sat beside was unscratched. I had sworn never to ride a Thai train again after a 15-hour trip in a dilapidated car with windows so old that my view was an impressionistic one, marred by deep gouges in the plastic pane. Although a third-class seat would give me a window with no pane at all, I’d learned it could also leave me crippled for days. I had taken to buses on the open road instead, but the current political protests in
had made travel to the city’s bus stations a lengthy and frustrating process.
The train station was at the end of a subway route, a quick commute from my
neighborhood, so once again I was riding the rails. Bangkok
The train whisked through the outskirts of
, passing through an area that has
always fascinated me. Twenty years ago, before the Skytrain and the subway
transformed the capital’s transportation nightmare, huge concrete pylons were
placed at regular intervals between the city and the airport. This was an early
precursor of the Skytrain, the Bangkok
project, which lost its funding early on, leaving the towering concrete
edifices behind. My Thai friends referred to these structures as the Hopeless
project and I often wondered what anthropologists in future centuries would
make of Hopewell Bangkok’s version of Stonehenge.
Finally they were being removed from the landscape, except for the ones placed beside the railroad track on the poor side of town, where nothing is thrown away. Shacks have been built out of discarded wood and sheets of tin left over from construction jobs, with some placed around a
pillar that rises
from the middle of the shelter like a post-modern tree. Hopewell
This area is light years behind the rest of
. It’s a village filled with broken things that
may still prove useful someday. A plastic loveseat that exuded stuffing had
been put on a flat overhang of a roof, giving the habitation below an impromptu
balcony with a view of scratching chickens, scrofulous dogs, and the passing
trains. Less than a mile away, further down the line, stood a gated community
of houses that vaguely resembled French chateaus, its sign announcing that this
place was “The Nice.” Always a romantic, I told myself I’d rather live in one
of the tin shacks, with a Bangkok
pylon providing its inner wall. Hopewell
But the train I was riding belied that theory. This was the Sprinter, a hermetically sealed conveyance that bypassed almost every stop in favor of the major towns. It was a Thai version of a bullet train, which meant it wasn’t prey to the schedule changes that plagued its slower counterparts. It was completely air conditioned and offered only one kind of ticket; the Sprinter was first class, but it came with a high price.
There was no dining car on the Sprinter. Nobody was allowed on the train to sell food, unlike the older, slower, dirtier trains that were a moving picnic, with people coming aboard at each stop to proffer everything from bouquets of dried squid on a stick to whole grilled chickens. Instead a man took orders for basic meals that he would pick up at one of the stops; at regular intervals he walked through the cars with a plastic bucket filled with soft drinks, cans of beer, and bottled water.
Several hours later he returned and handed out Styrofoam boxes that contained a small amount of food, a wedge of lime and a little bag of fish sauce with chilies. It always seemed odd to me that in a country where food was a national treasure and a primary form of recreation, eating on the Sprinter was an activity that bordered on the Spartan, if not Puritan. The food in these little white boxes was healthy, nourishing, and appeared to be clean; it was marginally edible. I had never finished eating anything that I had ordered on he Sprinter.
The elderly gentleman beside me had relinquished his iPad for the dubious pleasures of his meal which he ate with the same lack of enthusiasm that I felt. He watched with approval as I carefully repacked the plastic spoon, the spent lime, and the bag that had held the fish sauce among the rice that remained in the box and then secured it with the rubber band that had held the whole thing shut in the first place.
“Would you like to wash your hands?” he asked me, in the desiccated, strangled tones that often emerge from old Thai men when they speak English.
When I came back to my seat, he greeted me with a smile. “Do you speak Thai?”
“I speak foreigner’s Thai,” I replied and then proved it by exchanging several minutes of pleasantries in a language not my own. We resumed our silence by unspoken mutual assent; my companion went back to his iPad and I watched the terrain change from the monotony of the central plains to the gradual, rocky climb up toward wooded hills. This was the part of the journey that I loved best with its landscape that reminded me of what had surrounded me during my Alaskan childhood. Its vibrant profusion of greenery punctuated by rock outcroppings fed a kind of hunger that I usually refused to acknowledge—a yearning for emptiness and natural beauty.
If I stayed on the train until the end of its route, this dramatic scenery would give way to the tabletop of the Khorat Plateau, which always reminded me of an ocean bed that had lost its water. Flat and dry, with small clumps of trees, this was hard country where farmers grew rice against all odds under an unending dome of sky. This area, along with the towns that were dotted along the banks of the
River, made up by my favorite part of ,
and I never grew tired of staring at it in silence. Thailand
On an ordinary train, it was easy for me to figure out how close I was to my destination by reading the station signs at the many stops. On the Sprinter, which whisked past most of the towns along the way, I felt as though I were traveling in a kind of vacuum. The train moved too quickly for me to read the English translation of the station names that we passed, and when we stopped, what I read meant nothing to me. Foolishly, I’d packed my time table that listed the stops in chronological order, but when I checked the time on my phone, we seemed to drawing close to the scheduled stop that was mine.
“Excuse me,” I said to the man next to me. “I get off at Khorat and I want to get my bag.”
“Oh no,” he said, “I’ll get it for you. Which one is yours?” He reached for my suitcase on the shelf overhead and brought it to the floor, but didn’t push it in my direction. “I will take care of you,” he told me.
There are very few phrases that grate on me as that one does, even though I’ve heard it a lot during my years in
. I didn’t even care much
for it when I was a little girl, when “all by myself” was my favorite
pronouncement to the world at large. But my time with this kindly gentleman had
an expiration date that was quickly approaching. I was in his territory, not my
own, so I quickly assumed the company manners that characterize my public face
in this country. Thailand
I took an empty seat near the door of the car and he sat in one across the aisle. “Are you meeting friends in Khorat?” he asked.
This is where I often invent an imaginary husband who will soon join me, but since I would never see this old man again I told him the truth. His brow furrowed just a trifle.
He asked me if I were going to stay in Khorat and I told him that I would eventually go to the Mekong city of
. He smiled. Nakhon Phanom
“I was a police officer in Nakhon Phanom for years; I know a lot of people there. If you have any trouble while you’re there, call me.” He paused. “Do you have paper and a pen?”
Using the back of his iPad as a writing desk, he carefully wrote his name and police rank in English, followed by his phone number, and handed this to me. It seemed only polite to respond by giving him one of my business cards, so that’s what I did.
He squinted at it. “Is this your phone number? I should have the number you’re using now so if you call me, I’ll know it’s you.”
I gave him my number and then we made the sort of bland, unmemorable conversation that happens when two strangers are being polite. It stretched into far more minutes than I had hoped it would and with each stop, I prayed we had reached Khorat. Occasionally I would remonstrate that my companion had spent too much time being kind to me, that he should go back to his original spot and be comfortable, while knowing all too well what his reply would be.
“Never mind. I will take care of you until you get off in Khorat.”
At last we approached a long array of concrete shophouses and traffic that moved swiftly along nearby roads. It seemed to take at least another hour before the train arrived at the station where I would finally be unfettered. I tried not to smile too broadly when at last the old man gave me my suitcase and I felt almost guilty for the joy I felt as I scrambled off the train. As it pulled away, I waved it off with an energy that bordered on the manic variety.
I ordered room service at my hotel, feeling as though I’d had more than enough human contact for the day. After some real food, a cold beer, and a hot shower, I fell into one of the books I’d brought with me, feeling more tranquil than I’d felt in days. Bangkok’s turmoil had eaten away at my nerves and I badly needed quiet time in a city where conflict wouldn’t slap me in the face every time I walked out the door. Immersed in my book, I barely heard my phone ring.
“This is Nitti, are you Janet? Can you remember me, from the train? Are you all right? Did you find your hotel?”
Hoping that my grimace didn’t seep into my voice, I assured Mr. Nitti that all was well and I was very comfortable. “Thank you so much for all of your help today,” I said in what I intended to be a preface to a second farewell.
“When will you be in Nakhon Phanom? I have some free time.”
“So kind of you,” I tried not to choke, “But I really don’t know. I’m on vacation. I have no schedule.”
“But I want to see you,” he said a phrase in Thai and then asked “Do you know what that means?”
I did. The fact that this elderly gentleman with a wife and son was assuring me that he missed me after one brief and truncated conversation was not what I wanted to hear.
“You’re kind but I don’t want to keep you on the phone. I know you’re a busy man and I haven’t eaten yet. I need to find food,” I lied.
“I hope I see you soon. Now go and eat,” ordered Mr. Nitti, still taking care of me since somebody clearly needed to.
Three hours later the phone rang again. I peered at the screen and ignored it. At midnight it rang again. Gropjng in the dark, I put it on mute.
The next day Mr. Nitti called four times, a pattern that he continued daily for the next two weeks. My phone was still in silent mode but when I checked for missed calls in the evening, the number that appeared was always his.
When I moved on to Nakhon Phanom, the sight of a policeman’s uniform was enough to make me cringe a little. When I came out of my hotel one morning to find one sitting outside the door, smiling at me, I almost went into cardiac arrest. The phone calls continued, unanswered, until the day after Valentine’s Day.
Although I had lost the attentions of Mr. Nitti, the elderly gentlemen of Nakhon Phanom were eager to fill that gap. Small conversations ended with the question of whether I had a boyfriend. I began to lie and there were certain streets in that small city that I scrupulously avoided.
At first I felt annoyed. The cloak of invisibility that I had inherited with my advancing years was a privilege I cherished. Mr. Nitti and his counterparts were violating an unwritten rule that until now had shielded me long enough that I had become used to it. If that invisibility was going to dissolve, why couldn’t it be with men close to my own age?
These thoughts usually occur to me during my morning shower and linger with me as I brush my teeth. I stood facing the mirror and noticed an incipient jowl that hadn’t been there the day before and a new slackening under my chin. And slowly I realized the sad truth. Mr. Nitti and his counterparts were close to my own age.
Thailand is the country that taught me how to enjoy food, how to savor the slow moments of a hot afternoon, how to acquire a small measure of patience. Now it was doing its damndest to teach me that although I'm in my sixties, I don’t have to stop being attractive.. And if I don’t want the attentions I attract, I can do the same thing that I do when I’m offered a steamed silkworm, smile and say “No, thank you, not today.”
However, Mr.Nitti still sends emails to the address that was on my business card, doubtless tapped out on his iPad, painstakingly in English. Although he was the key to a lesson that I needed to learn, like the ingrate that I am, I leave his messages unanswered.