Saturday, May 15, 2010

Falling Down

I've a guest blogger for you today. Husband is here to tell you about his journey home yesterday through the war zone that is Bangkok. I know, it doesn’t sound much of a topic and it is very long, but do read because it gives a flavour of life in Bangkok right now.

Getting home? A simple activity that for various reasons, to be recounted here, left me standing at a bread counter in a supermarket feeling very much like Michael Douglas in the film Falling Down only without the sub-machine gun (luckily for the Baker).

So you can fully appreciate my inner feelings of wrath and despair (at the same time), I will need to give you a little context:
  • Bangkok is in the midst of a form of social unrest that borders on civil war.  As I type, on Friday night, the Army and the Redshirts have been fighting most of last night and all of today. 
  • The company I work for is located in the Business District in Bangkok, only a short distance from the protestors barricades and myself and my colleagues have narrowly missed some of the more violent incidents in the area only by time rather than by distance.  Indeed one colleague didn’t manage to miss the violence at all.
  • My job entails, among other things, responsibility for our disaster recovery procedures.  This essentially means I am responsible for staff safety in times of crisis (like today).
  • Because of the escalating violence in the city yesterday evening, we had evacuated our offices and today rebased a number of staff (including myself) at an alternative site located about 8km from the city centre.
  • I don’t own a car.  The upside of which is that I don’t have the stress of driving in Bangkok traffic (a whole amusement park rolled into one neat four wheeled package), and the downside is I have to rely on trains and taxis to get around (and buses if I ever pluck up the courage to use them.)

The rest of this blog entry is a description of that 8km as I experienced it this evening, and of a baker’s narrow escape from loaficide (made up word, but trust me, it’ll catch on).

I managed to leave the office early, though not in the nice “it’s Friday let’s all pack up early and head for the pub” way.  More of a “There’s fighting in the streets between the army and the demonstrators, the transport system is shutting down, and we need to get home before dark in case we get shot by accident” kind of way.  So not having a car, and the ‘alternative’ office location being in the suburbs, this meant a taxi ride to the edge of the inner city (Skytrain) rail network. I began walking along the road in the direction I wished to travel, with my head filled with worry about the shooting, family and staff safety, and the impact the reduced work rate would have on my deadlines. Do you know how hot it is in Thailand in May? Every few steps I turned around to see if an empty taxi is sneaking up on me from behind. The first available taxi that stopped refused to drive me to the train station, no reason was given.  The second agreed.  The driver proceeded to tell me that all sky train stations were closed due to the fighting in the streets today.  I insisted, in my very poor Thai, that I still had 20mins to drive the 2-3km of road to the station before it was due to close.  He asked where I wanted to get to eventually, and I told him the location of our apartment, further into town. Get a motorbike from here, he said, it would be easier. Easier maybe, but an 8km motorcycle taxi ride though Bangkok’s gridlocked streets wouldn't help my already fragile nerves so I insisted that he take me to the station. If the trains had stopped running, I told him, I would get another taxi from there.  He found this amusing. 

We continued on in silence for a few minutes (I have to say this, so our conversation cannot be blamed for what happened next.) For no apparent reason, he decided to leave hitting the brake a fraction too late, and proceed to ram his taxi into the back of a large black SUV that had stopped in front of us.  Luckily he was wearing a belt, and I, in the backseat, was spared injury.  However his taxi cab faired less well and with the front crumpled like an empty crisp packet, we got out joined the motorist we had hit and surveyed the damage. 

Now at this point I have to relate an Expat folktale. Soon after we arrived in Thailand we were told by some expats we met, that if you are involved in an accident or witness a crime in Bangkok, your best course of action is to leave as soon as possible.  This was supported by apocryphal examples where foreign witness were effectively prosecuted and responsible for the damages or compensation, in line with the Thai justice logic that those most able to pay, should be the ones to pay, and the fatalistic belief that if I had never come to Thailand in the first place, then this poor taxi driver wouldn’t have rammed his vehicle up the backside of a sporty people carrier on this most unfortunate of days.

So in a manner quite uncharacteristic for me, I checked that the two motorists were unhurt, explained that I had to leave, promptly turned away and jumped into the next passing cab.  Resisting the temptation to say “Just drive!”, I couldn’t in Thai even if I had tried, I left them to sort out the mess and drove on towards the station: 10mins before it was due to close.

This driver turned out to have issues of quite a different kind, and he kept groaning, and looking over his shoulder at me with a sad grimace.  Eventually I deciphered his upcountry Thai, and realized he was groaning “puat thong, puat thong” ‘I have a stomach ache’, and looking at me as if I could cure it with a wave of my, now shaking, finger.  I didn’t feel very talkative, with worries of my own, but he continued regardless.  “I will stop here” he said as we approached a junction, “toilet” and “no money” were other words I could make out between the groaning and strong Thai accent.  Now I’m getting worried all over again.  I have about 5 minutes left to catch this train, and this guy wants me to help me with his financial woes: perhaps pay for a stomach operation, or a new toilet.  Clearly I was having trouble getting the gist.  After he stopped, I know not where, I reluctantly reach for my wallet.  All became clear, as he refused my payment.  What I suspect he had actually been saying was something like this.  “I have a really bad stomach ache, so I need to go to the toilet, and soon.  I am going to have to let you out here, and therefore there will be no charge.”  With a mixed feeling of relief and mounting panic, a strange combination I can tell you, I alighted from his cab.  His final gift to me, was a gesture towards the right side of the junction, which possibly meant ‘you need to go that way’, but could just as easily have been ‘whatever you do, don’t go down that road’.

Anyway, having left two cabs in as many kilometers, I was now resigned to the fact that I was not going to make the last train.  So my next mission was to find another taxi that was prepared to take me towards the centre of town, closer to the fighting.  I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

I had forgotten to tell you, but I had an errand to run.  Not a big deal, but starting to become significant.  I had chatted with JJ earlier in the day, and she has mentioned that we needed to get some groceries in.  Not quite “stockpiling during the Blitz” groceries, but I expect she was half thinking about being stuck inside for a few days, if things got even worse over the weekend.  As I was out already, and not expecting the trains to shut down, a car crash, and a gastrically challenged taxi driver, I had of course agreed to pick some up on my way home, to save her the need and risk of going out in central Bangkok.

Of course, now I am stuck in the middle of nowhere, with the clear and present danger of being caught up in civil unrest, without public transport or a taxi able to cover more than a mile without some sort problem, ‘grocery shopping’ has now moved way down my priority list, somewhere below ‘getting the hell out of here’ and ‘finding my way home without breadcrumbs’.  But, it’s too late, I can’t ring home now and explain that after all I won’t be stopping for groceries.  Because JJ, who has now spent the day, not having to go out, would need to venture forth as evening and increased risk of violence descends.  So pull yourself together Beast, you’re a grown man for Christ’s sake, a couple of onions and a pound of mince should be a piece of cake.

To continue my journey… I decide that the safest thing to do is get as close to home as I can first, shop in my neighborhood, then at least if things got worse, and the traffic was already approaching gridlock,  I could even walk home from the shops.  Good plan, poorly executed, as the first few cabs I tried, replied with various Thai versions of “you wanna go WHERE!”, “No way mate” and “sfsfsfsfsfsfsfs” (that noise plumbers make when you ask them how much it’s going to cost).   I am now mentally working out how long it might take to walk the remaining 5-6km to my home, and not liking the answer.

Finally I get a young driver (greater appetite for risk, perhaps), who agrees, rather readily, to take me.  A normal, or should I say uneventful 5km later, as passing coils of razor wire and short troops with long guns should never be called normal, I arrive at the supermarket about half a mile from home.  Grateful and I guess a little guilty from my previous ‘free’ rides, I over-tip the driver and head inside for some shopping.

There’s something quite unreal about the inside of a supermarket.  The gurus of shopping habits have created an artificial world for us to live in; where everything is in neat rows, perfectly plump or succulently sweet.  And the muzak makes you feel as if your cares should fall away from your shoulders, as you are carried along a slow peaceful conveyor belt of desires.

Well clearly, I wasn’t very well emotionally prepared for such a peaceful experience, so I grabbed my basket, tore around the shelves too fast to actually see what was on them and filled it with safe essentials that required no mental dexterity; ham, cheese, butter, and bread.  Ah, the bread.  Let me tell you about the bread. 

We are a nuclear family, two kids, JJ and I.  However our tastes rarely align, with a vegetarian daughter, carnivores (son and I), and sensibly healthy, natural produce JJ.  Not your raving “honey is cruel to bees” type natural, but more your “brown bread instead of white please” natural.  So I selected one of several brown loaves and the very last white loaf I could see for me.  The bakery counter slice the bread for you, so I present myself and my loaves to the nice Thai lady behind counter and she pops the brown loaf in the machine.  Now I’m no slicing machine expert, but I would be surprised if pushing the loaf towards the blades with you bare hands is the most effective method (in the long term) for slicing bread.  Anyway, this is not a tale of lost digits, so stop smarting, and I’ll get to the point.  She pulls the sliced loaf from the machine and balances it vertically (it was bloomer shaped) with one hand, exactly the same way the Cat In The Hat balances the fish in the kettle, on a plate with an umbrella, while she fumbles for a bag with the other.  With a fair amount of shaking and teetering she eventually manages to get the loaf into the bag.  Now for the white loaf, and not just any white loaf, the last white loaf in the shop; for all I know the last white loaf in Bangkok. 

Now, I don’t ask for much.  I didn’t complain when we had to virtually shut down the office today.   I remained positive when faced with opposing views on how to stay safe and stay working at the same time.  I didn’t moan when there was no food left in the canteen at lunchtime because I lunch ‘British time’ (after 11:30),   I didn’t rant at the taxi drivers who refused to take me, or at those who did but then crashed.  But I did particularly want to have white toast on Saturday morning, while having breakfast with the family (only possible at weekends).  It’s not that I don’t like brown bread, it’s just that I wanted white.  I wanted it, and there was no good reason why I couldn’t have it, save this bread balancer in front of me.  As with the previous loaf, after slicing, she balanced it precariously in the air with one hand whilst attempting to open a plastic bag with the other.  Should I help?  Should I place my hands on either side of the loaf to prevent it from toppling?  As I was weighing up these options, the bread appeared to come apart in mid-air, like the stages of a rocket all falling away at once.  It was too late, the slices were scattered on the floor.

“Sorry, sorry” she said, and ran off to the nearby shelves to retrieve another loaf.  But I knew she would return empty handed.  I had inside information on the white loaves, or lack of them.  She actually came back with a second brown loaf, which I nodded and let her slice and pack instead.  Now I know it’s not a big deal.  When compared to the violence and suffering in the streets outside, it is of no consequence.  But it was the one thing I, myself, me, wanted for myself today.  It was the one thing that didn’t entail having to deal with the opposing forces of other people’s needs, opinions or actions.  It was the one thing that I had decided would make things a little better today.

In the film Falling Down, this is the point at which Michael Douglas snaps,  a massive surge of rage engulfs him, and he vents with a machine gun against the forces that had conspired to prevent him from simply getting home.   For me it was a little different, I probably looked a touch sadder than she would have expected from a brown loaf, but I thanked her for slicing it, put it in my basket and made my way to the checkout.

I did walk home the last half mile with my shopping bags, past the soldiers and the sandbags. It probably helped. And JJ was lovely when I got home, and cooked my favorite dinner.  I’m sure I’ll enjoy the brown bread toasted in the morning, and I also hope nobody dies in Bangkok tonight.


Anonymous said...

Brilliantly written. Thank you. I hope you find a white loaf today. :-)

liz fenwick said...

Great post. My heart is with you all.

Caroline in Dubai said...

Having lived in Bangkok for 6 years, and Pattaya before that, I can identify with the problems - even on a good day challenges are many!! We were there through one coup, but nothing like this. stay safe, stock up and let's hope it is brought under control very very soon.

Mel said...

Very entertaining, and good on you that you didn't go postal! I hope your brown bread tasted ok. :)

Lane said...

Well done on making it home. That was quite a journey.

Stay safe, tea stains family.

Suzanne Jones said...

Great post.

Thinking of you all.

HPofP said...

You remind me of the king, who told the queen, who told the prince, who told the dairymaid, that he only wanted a little bit of butter for his bread. Don't suppose it helps but Ivan and I both had a big slice of white toast in bed this morning. Yum! Stay safe lovely Beatties. We miss

HelenMHunt said...

Sending all the best thoughts to all of you and hoping this is over very soon.

uphilldowndale said...

You couldn't nip out and buy a bread maker could you? No? Thought not...
This post will run through my head on Monday as I walk over the hill to work, I might see a couple of folk walking dogs and a few sheep. And I'll count my blessings.
As someone who spent many years behind a shop counter, I can tell you we understand all about 'projected anger' from customers, it doesn't take a Phd in psychology, just a thick skin!
Stay safe

Queenie said...

That's a terrific and insightful post, Mr Beast, thank you for taking the time to write it for us. No nonsense today! ;-)

L-Plate Author said...

Wow, great post, Mr JJ. I am amazed you could write it all down after it happened! Sheesh.

If you can't come home, JJ, stay safe. Every time the news comes on, I think of you xxx

Talli Roland said...

Oh dear Lord! I'm glad he got home safely. Very well written - thank to your husband for sharing!

Fran said...

The image of the slices scattering on the floor was strangely sinister, set against the context of the Bangkok troubles. That's juxtaposition for you, I guess.

Debs said...

A great post, especially to someone who lives on an island and has never been to Thailand.

Keep safe all of you.

JJ Beattie said...

Thanks everyone for leaving comments for the Beast.

Obviously, tomorrow I shall be announcing my retirement. Husband is going to re-launch Tea Stains in his own name!

Not really!

LilyS said...

A wonderfully written post and definitely puts things into perspective.

Thank you

Stay safe and enjoy the Brown Bread

Susie Vereker said...

Oh goodness, I've been thinking about you, JJ, while I watch the news every day. A dramatic and vivid post by your husband. How very scary it all sounds and looks.

Clare Chapman said...

Hey Beast - brilliant post - just pleased to hear that you are all still alive and well - But J definitely no retiring - I love to dip in and see how you are doing.

Beast try eggy bread in the morning it helps to disguise the brown!! Love to you all Cx

Son said...

Nice one Dad. It took all your begging for me to finally read this but it's very good. I didn't eat breakfast yesterday so I didn't notice the missing bread. However I saw this morning when I made my bacon sandwich that we had white.

green ink said...

Stay safe guys xx

KatW said...

JJs man - What an engrossing account of your very difficult day & general situation. I was so glad that you got home okay (I was worried throughout the tale)even if you didn't get white bread. I understand how 'the last straw' can often be the smaller things. Great post - look forward to your future guest posts!

JJ - Every time I see or hear a news report I think of you JJ. Love to you & your family.
Kat X

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Lorna F said...

This was utterly gripping to read.

kanishk said...

Very entertaining, and good on you that you didn't go postal! I hope your brown bread tasted ok. :)
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