Excuse Me, Sir

It was only ten in the morning, but already the Bangkok sun was
blistering. After two days here, all the warnings I’d heard about
Bangkok were coming true-the heat, pollution, traffic. I wondered
why it was known as the ‘City of Angels.’

Rather than traipsing through more sites and temples (impressive
as they were), I decided to visit a Thai astronomer who lived in
Nonthaburi, a suburb north of the city. A colleague of mine had
given me the names and addresses of various Asian astronomers and
suggested I contact some of them to discuss their research and
investigate possible collaborations. This would also be a good
chance to get a local perspective on Bangkok and Thailand.

On the advice of a woman at my guest house, I took a boat up the
Chao Phraya River, a wide, brown waterway bordered by office
buildings, wooden houses and shacks built on poles, and the
occasional wing-tipped Buddhist temple. The river had its own
commotion of noisy longtail boats and water taxis, but it was an
efficient alternative to the chaotic and slow Bangkok roads. As we
zigzagged up the river, picking up and dropping off passengers, I
thought of Nonthaburi and how quiet and cool it sounded. I imagined
it as an innocuous hamlet where the two of us could sip iced drinks
on a bamboo-shaded veranda and discuss the ways of the universe.
Even without a map-or the astronomer’s phone number-I figured her
address would be easy enough to find in this quiet backwater.

I got off at the boat pier and walked up the steps to the
street. People milled about on the sidewalk, taxis honked up and
down a four-lane road, and lumbering green buses roared out their
own clouds of black smoke. This was no innocuous hamlet-it was just
like central Bangkok, maybe even busier. Shops crammed side by side
on the street sold jewelry, electronics and cheap clothing, and
there were soup kitchens full of people hunched over their ceramic
bowls, clinking their spoons, while large pots steamed and spiced
the heavy air.

I stumbled along in a daze for a few blocks before finally
asking a young Thai man for directions.

Yes, I can speak English for you,’ he said. ‘Because you are a
farang (foreigner), I will help you. Do not worry.’ I
introduced myself, and he said his name was Suna and this was his
day off.

He looked at the address closely. ‘Yes, I can help you,’ he
repeated, wiping his forehead. I waited to hear the address was a
few blocks away. The sun was beating relentlessly.

‘One moment,’ he said, moving out of the parade of pedestrians.
Carefully he rewrote the address into Thai script, making it look
like a beautiful, secret code, and again he studied it closely.
Then he stopped a smartly dressed Thai woman and conferred with
her. As she smiled and walked away, he announced ‘We will take the
bus’ and continued to examine the paper for hidden clues.

‘Oh, I don’t want to trouble you,’ I said. ‘You can just tell me
which bus, and I’m sure I’ll find it.”

‘Do not worry, I will help you. It is my day off.’

We got on a bus heading east, and when the young ticket
collector came down the aisle, shaking his metal canister like a
Thai percussion instrument, Suna paid for both our tickets. Though
we sat together, he looked straight ahead, passive as the Buddha in
meditation. The bus soon took a turn south across a large overpass,
and I laughed at how naive I’d been for expecting to find this
address on my own. Suna ignored my laugh and continued to look
straight ahead. He seemed reluctant to be on this expedition,
patiently and disinterestedly waiting until we found my
destination. He was a young guy with short black hair, in jeans and
a button-down shirt. A handkerchief hung loosely around his neck. I
told him his English was good and asked about his job.

‘I work as a computer monitor,’ he said. I nodded.

Then he said, ‘Excuse me, sir, may I ask what is your job?’

This display of formality surprised me. Hadn’t we already been
having a conversation? How did I suddenly merit ‘Excuse me,
sir’?

I told him I had finished university and was traveling before
looking for work. We rode on in silence for a while. Then Suna
conferred with the ticket collector and told me we had to get
off.

‘I’m very sorry,’ he said, as we stepped back into the heat. ‘We
have gone too far.’

‘It’s okay. Is it far from here?’

‘We must take an air-conditioned bus. I’m very sorry.’

As the sun poured down, this didn’t seem such a bad
prospect.

‘It is too hot,’ he said.The bus came, Suna paid my way
again-against my protestations-and once more we were crossing
enormous highway overpasses. We got off at a shopping center next
to a pedestrian overpass. Food stalls sizzled nearby. I had no idea
where we were, but figured we must be near. Suna showed the paper
to some bystanders, then asked a tuk-tuk driver. I wondered
if all of Thailand would soon be involved.

‘This place shows that we are close,’ he said confidently as he
led me down a side street. I nodded.

The street was wide, with a dozen motorcycles buzzing up and
down. Suna waved at one to stop. They spoke for a few minutes; the
paper was shown, and the motorcyclist nodded. Suna turned to me,
indicating I should get on.

‘On that?!’ I exclaimed. It was hardly bigger than a dirt
bike.

‘Yes, he will take us.’

‘But are you sure?’ I asked. It seemed crazy. ‘Couldn’t we
walk?’

‘No, he will take us.’

There seemed to be no other choice. Suna got on behind the
driver, I got on behind him, and off we went. The three of us
blazed up and down streets and roared through alleys. I held on
tight, suddenly grateful I had purchased extra health
insurance.

The house and building numbers changed without any order.
Numbers on one side of the street whizzed past, unrelated to those
on the other. We stopped to ask a toothless old man, a young woman
on a bicycle and a security guard at a fancy residence. Each time
we set off with renewed hope. Yes, we must have missed it back
there. . . . This must be right. . . . Yes, we haven’t gone up this
alley yet.
But we still wound up going in circles. After
passing them for the second time, I said, ‘It’s okay. I can send a
letter to my friend.’ There was no reply. If my visit wasn’t a
matter of international security, then it was still a matter of
pride to overcome the confusion of the Thai address system and
deliver this farang successfully.

‘We do not know,’ Suna finally admitted, as we passed the
security guard for the third time. ‘There is old numbers and new
numbers. It should be here but it is not. We do not know.’

It was clear the labyrinth had gotten the better of us. Our
moto-taxi took us back to the main road, and we gave him 50 baht
(two dollars) for gas.

We moved into the shade of the pedestrian overpass. The
moto-taxi man came back and suggested he try once more, alone. I
bought us sodas. We drank them down and waited.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ Suna said, turning to me, ‘but are you
married?’

I laughed. He asked it as if he had been waiting for the proper
moment.

‘No, I’m looking for the right person,’ I said. This didn’t seem
to register.

‘Maybe you are too old,’ he said.

He was frank, that’s for sure. After a short pause he said,
‘Excuse me, sir, may I ask how old you are?’

Okay, I thought, enough of the ‘excuse me, sir.’ I didn’t mind
the checklist of questions, but hadn’t we come far enough together
to establish some sort of rapport? Perhaps he was letting me know
that a formal distance still existed between us. I told him-32-and
then I asked his age.

‘Twenty-four,’ he said, with a smile.

Just then the motorcyclist returned and handed back the
all-important paper. If the address existed, it was not to be found
today. Suna and I got on another bus-this time I paid the fares-and
made our way back to the meeting point. I offered to buy him lunch,
but he was happy to be off.

‘Good luck,’ he smiled.

Walking back to the pier, I wondered what exactly he meant.

FromEscape(Aug. 1999).
Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA
92046.

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