The driver slowed unexpectedly on the expressway, pulling slightly to the left. He put the square, white, utilitarian van in reverse and reached his arm around the back of the seat to see out the back window. For a moment, I worried that there had been a breakdown, engine trouble, a stall. Why else would we be stopped on the expressway? I soon realized that our driver had missed his exit, but he wasn’t going to let that stand in his way.
The traffic in and around Bangkok would make any Chicagoan sweat, but my level of perspiration soared that day on a trip from the convention center to downtown. As was my assignment on this trip, I had completed this journey several times to drop off and pick up supplies by taxi and by train, but this time was a little more uncomfortable. This time I was traveling in the front seat of the utilitarian delivery van with my colleague, Susan. With no seat belts. And a severe language barrier between us and our driver.
Susan and I had attempted to climb into the back of the van but were redirected into the front, next to the driver and a little too close to each other. I got the distinct impression that this seating arrangement was intended to be respectful of us and our white-womaness, but I would have much preferred to sit on the floor of the back of the van. As he pulled out of the convention center, we were hoping that he understood our request.
“Office supplies. We need office supplies. Scissors, staplers, pens? Office supplies?” We knew that repeating yourself several times was the best way to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language. I mimed with my index and middle fingers.
In the rearview mirror, he spoke to his 12 or 13 year-old son, a quiet boy who sat in the backseat of the van engrossed in a comic book. His job was to help us lift and carry all the supplies we purchased and to occasionally interpret for his father using the English phrases he had likely learned from Hollywood movies. The boy nodded. His father smiled and nodded and we continued on our way. Susan and I looked at each other and shrugged.
|Actual photo of me in a taxi in Bangkok. Actual fear on my face.|
Our driver’s style behind the wheel did not seem unusual in BKK. We jerked forward and made unexpected turns. We merged into impossible streams of traffic. We accelerated to dangerous speeds and then stopped suddenly for red lights or slowing traffic. Being seated so close to the windshield made the dizzying traffic feel like a video game simulation, which was both terrifying and nauseating. I’ve experienced plenty of bad drivers, but this man drove like he was kidnapping a couple of American citizens and trying to flee from the law.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was really what he was doing. I’d start to panic, finger my Thai cell phone preparing to call for help, and try to signal to Susan that in exactly 60 seconds I was going to knock out the driver with my sweet left hook, and she’d have to grab the wheel and slide into his seat while I tied him and the boy together and notified the authorities of the international incident we so narrowly avoided.
I got as far as smiling at Susan, trying to spell out the plan with my eyes, and without notice our driver swung the van right, slamming Susan and I into each other with whispers of fear caught in our throats, and hit the breaks. Practically clutching each other, ready to scream or vomit, we stared at our driver. He pointed up at a sign posted far above our heads.
“Office Depot!?” he shouted, nodding wildly.
And there it was, sandwiched between two blustering lanes of traffic, swarmed by overhead power lines – an Office Depot. Ah yes, I thought, narrowing my eyes, taking us to our destination covers your plot well.
We climbed out of the van in a hurry, thankful to be free of the chaos of Bangkok’s urban bustle and safe in the familiar fluorescent lights and orderly aisles of the Office Depot. Inside, as we filled a cart with office supplies, our driver and his son waited in the van no doubt laughing about how strange and sweaty American touristas can be.