By Dipika Kohli
Special to the Northwest Asian Weekly
Old and scruffy.
Wearing thongs and the loose, elephant-printed cotton trousers of the sort you only get on holidays in Southeast Asia. Mae Sai, in this case. Thailand.
But his outfit wasn’t the first thing you noticed about the heavyset man in front of TESCO. It was his open bottle of beer.
Now, I love beer just as much as anyone. I like India Pale Ales if you must know, and I’ve volunteered at the World Beer Festival in Durham, N.C. I wanted to sample some of the good stuff that would come in, especially for the day from Colorado and New York State because it was illegal, normally, in my home state.
Yet I couldn’t figure out this new picture. It was midday, and the older man with the beer was about to get onto our shared ride — a mix between a pickup and a van with no door in the back. Is he going to be okay? I wondered.
“Whoo!” the man bellowed, like a toddler, bee-lining to our songthaew, which is the thing you catch to get around.
Then, red-faced and chatting to no one in particular in a slurry language no one could place, he plonked down right in front of me. I hoped he wouldn’t lean his head on my knee. That’s when I noticed his fantastic camera.
Tourists take all kinds of pictures, and you wonder what they do with them when they get home. During my first three months in Asia, I didn’t have anything to record with. Not even an iPod. I just wanted to soak in whatever I could, because it’s hard to get to the essence of a thing when you just arrive. Now, I try to limit taking pictures because you get caught up in getting everything to look right, and miss the beauty of disheveled slices of life.
Why is he snapping the carts, bicycles, and traffic lights? Won’t they be blurry? The vehicle carried us toward the border with Myanmar. Locals peered at him with a look that said, “Just another farang. Oh, well. More dollars. Euros. Yen.”
What was he up to? What was his story?
Perhaps, just maybe, he was some award-winning photographer.
Maybe he was an artist, lost, like the many talents in this world who wind up dead in the bathrooms of apartments in Manhattan. Could he have been a poet, maybe? Someone on a tear because he felt alone and lonely?
A young man who handled passenger boarding and alighting seemed more tolerant than most. Too polite to throw the guy off. But he did remove the older man’s bottle when the man looked around for a spot to get rid of it and nearly stuffed it under a bench. The youth called to the front, the car stopped, then he walked to the side of the road and placed the bottle into the hands of a man wearing an orange vest.
“Mae Sai border?” the younger man asked.
“Not going to border,” replied the older man, surprisingly lucid.
That’s when I calmed down.
You never know someone else’s story, do you? Maybe he’s out in the world trying to forget something, something like the loss of a child or a wife or a job. You wouldn’t know those things if you were simply judging stuff like his shoes.
Maybe he was just out and loose in the world, a cannon of fire and angst, looking for the next place and the next thing. You resort to simple phrases and words and gestures when you’re in a land that isn’t yours. In this case, both he and I were foreigners. I looked around at others, but they kept their eyes averted. Did they wonder what I was doing there, too? A brown-skinned woman from who knew where — maybe India — on an adventure to find something grand? Wasn’t that obnoxious — people like us showing up with long swatches of days to find ourselves or soul search or meditate. Or at least pretend to, while we are here, be footloose and yet be inwardly broken?
“Border,” announced the youth. The old man got off. So did I. We went our separate ways. (end)
Dipika Kohli (@dipikakohli) writes Kismuth.