On Friday I found myself walking home in an all out monsoon. I’m talking sheets of rain buffeting down. It didn’t just seem like rain, it looked as if springs were erupting from the ground. Within five minutes, the area around me, that had previously been completely dry, resembled something more akin to a lake or a rushing river.
My phone still hasn’t recovered from the deluge of rain. I have an android touch screen phone. After its involuntary shower, my touch screen is a bit finicky. Now it’s more of a picture that I can move my finger on than an electronic device to interact with, but oh well.
For me, getting caught in the rain was a spot of fun. Sure it made my oxford blue shirt and black dress slacks soaked, but that doesn’t matter to me. It was an experience, and truth be told, not that much different from other experiences I’ve had while traveling the world: fun, unique, and sometimes uncomfortable.
I had to walk in this torrential down pour for about ten minutes before I was able to finally flag down a songthaew. In case you don’t know, a songthaew is a means for getting around in Thailand. At best, it’s a small pickup truck with a cab cover complete with benches equipped for sitting. At worst, it’s a hotwheel sized pickup truck with the same cab cover that makes me feel like I’m visiting a Bilbo’s house in the Shire.
None of these devices are private, meaning, that I never ride solo. In fact, it is a modern marvel how many souls they can fit into one of those songthaews. Every time I ride one, I am squashed against ten of my closest strangers in a very intimate way. In most of them, I can’t sit up straight, and my legs occupy the entire vehicle. Regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable they are though, I love riding them. Not because of the comfortable (because they’re not), but because of the experience.
On Friday, I was just happy to see it because of the driving rain storm. I was concerned that the driver wouldn’t be able to see me in the driving rain, but somehow he did, and he pulled off, steering the songthaew to the side of the road. As he came to a stop next to me, I received a shower from the water displaced by the songthaew’s motion. But what did I care, wet is wet right? I jumped into the back with a big grin on my face. I was having fun. How often do I get caught in the rain walking? Well it happened in Japan, but really, before I traveled the world, this type of thing never happened to me. I always had a car or an umbrella, and this was a fun experience.
To my surprise, as I entered the back of the red and white songthaew, everyone scooted over for me. Normally, I have to awkwardly shimmy over people, apologizing for the toes I’m crushing along the way. But on that day, everyone moved as if I were royalty. At first I was flattered, but I quickly learned why they did this: during a rainstorm the back of the songthaew is like being in the splash zone when you go see Shamu. But again, what did I care? I was already soaked, and at this point, I was having more fun than if I was actually at Seaworld (Incidentally, I’m not joking. I went to Seaworld in January, and I’ll take the songthaew any day).
I raised my head to greet all of the individuals around me with my best saw wa dee krap and sa bai dee mai krap. Or “hello” and “how are you?” but as I did, I noticed something. These people weren’t smiling like I was. They were despondent at worst and melancholy at best. I wondered what was happening to these people that to make there countenance so? Weren’t they in the same rain storm that I was? Weren’t they wet like me? Why weren’t their faces full of merriment like mine?
The answer hit me, and for a moment, my expression matched theirs. I’m an American, and any time I ride a songthaew, I’m slumming it. I’m riding it by choice for the experience of seeing what it is like to live like a Thai person. I eat Thai food, drink Thai drinks, and ride songthaews all for an authentic Thai experience. As I looked at their faces, another thought occurred to me.
What if I didn’t have a choice? What if this life, these songthaews, this food, this paltry amount of devalued currency wasn’t a season in my life, but was the whole of my existence? No hope of escape or change, just the same bleak reality for the rest of my life. Every day would be pretty much the same, only made worse when something like rain took something hard and made it a little bit worse.
I looked at the face of a Thai baby sitting on her mother’s lap and realized that unless that Thai child is very lucky, her life would never be different from everyone on that songthaew.
At my school, I am one of the highest paid teachers, making 30,000 baht (1,000 US) a month. Talking about salaries isn’t taboo in Thai culture. One of the first things they talk about is how much money they make. Most make around 20,000 baht, some make as little as 15,000. That’s teachers, not the folks that work at Dairy Queen or the movie theatre or at the local food stand. I have no idea what they rake in, but it can’t be much.
Numbers like, 30,000, 20,000, and 15,000 baht are fairly intangible, so let me try and place that into context. That much money means that they will always be riding on songthaews. They will never afford a car (the cheapest I’ve seen is 600,000 baht) or travel. For them their life will consist of working six days a week, ten hours a day, all for around $10.00-$20.00 a day. And while things are cheap in Thailand, they are not that cheap. That amount of money is only enough to survive.
I like to think of myself of experiencing what is to be Thai, that I’m getting down in the mud with these people and experiencing what they experience. But the truth of the matter is, I cant. No matter what I do, I’m only a visitor, someone exploring their way of life. Someone who doesn’t and cannot know the hopelessness that I saw in the faces riding with me on that songthaew.
Most of the time, I don’t see those faces. I see only smiles. Smiles amidst what most would call some form of poverty. Thai’s are an amazing people, and I am enjoying my time among them. On Friday though, amidst the storm clouds and the thunder overhead, I saw a different face than I had seen before. One not content with the every day ho–hom that is existence for them. When I saw those faces, I realized that this is how the other half lives, and I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s what they think when they look at me, smiling in the rain.
Until Next Time,