I was never too clear about the ‘cultural exchange’ aspect of the fellowship. My counterpart was from Brunei and we were both in Thailand to teach English. We shared an office and lived in the same apartment building. We talked every day at work, between classes, but outside work, I never heard from her. Yet we were here together. That was part of the fellowship, but it seemed incidental to me that it should be this way and after the first month, I ceased to think much about why we were here together.
When Ramadan was ending, my counterpart mentioned an Eid celebration at the Bruneian Embassy in Bangkok. It sounded like an interesting experience and I told her I’d be interested in checking it out, although I wasn’t sure if she was inviting me or just telling me about it. She told me she’d let the Embassy know we were coming, Gina, too. I thanked her and went back to work.
Ramadan was during the summer break and, without classes, I didn’t see my counterpart much. The break passed and I went to Bangkok to go to the dentist. I didn’t think about going back and there was never any further mention of the dinner.
When we came back for the next semester. I asked how the break had been for her and if she’d made it up to Bangkok for the dinner. She told me that she had gone to Bangkok, but hadn’t gone to the Embassy because her family had come to visit at the same time. I told her I was still interested in going to the Bruneian Embassy if there was ever another event. She thought for a second and said that the sultan’s birthday would be next week; after that there probably wouldn’t be anything else until after we left. I felt conflicted hearing this. I had just volunteered to go to Bangkok to be on a panel for scholarship interviews for the weekend. This meant, I would have to turn around and go back the next weekend. With classes just starting, this meant a lot of strain around a time when I knew I’d prefer to be at home relaxing. I gave a vague answer and waited to see how things would work out, expecting that, again, the plans would just be an idea, nothing to be pursued.
The next Friday, immediately following classes, we were all together on a flight to Bangkok. The afternoon was rainy and the flight had been delayed. I knew the traffic in Bangkok would be bad and I wondered how we would have enough time to get in from the airport, check into the hotel, change and make it back across town. Bangkok traffic is like the traffic in LA. On Fridays, it’s especially bad: cars parked with their engines off, motorcycles trying to ease through any place they can, like water flowing around pebbles. The previous weekend, I’d sat in an Uber for nearly two hours. It had only taken 5 minutes to exhaust my minimal Thai with the driver and I’d stared out the window at nothing the entire trip as I was not familiar enough with Uber decorum to know if I could take out a book and read.
Our flight landed toward the back of the airport and had a long walk to get out. I didn’t know what had become of my counterpart, but she had another hotel to go to anyway. Gina and I trotted out of the airport, eyeing every clock we passed, like something that could potentially swoop down and attack.
We passed the desks where the ground transportation salesman lie in wait. As always, ignoring my brisk step and my confident, I-know-where-I’m-going air, a woman practically jumped out at me. “Hello! Where are you going?” I wasn’t sure if I should return the greeting, tell her where I was going or explain that I didn’t need to book a taxi that would just be stuck in traffic. I mumbled ‘no thanks’ and tried to smile, but I doubt it was very convincing. I felt like I’d been sort of rude, but then I had to remember that she’d been a little presumptuous to me, as well.
Since I’d left my apartment in Surat Thani, I’d been steeped in air conditioning.: air conditioning in the cab to the airport, in the airport, on the flight and in the terminal in Bangkok After hours of 62 degree air, going outside, felt like walking into something mid-convection, like an oven or a furnace. Only there was nothing. The heat was tumbling through the air like it’d recently blown through a structure fire and still had wisps of flame tucked among the currents like autumn leaves. Only my sweat prevented me from combustion.
The bus was packed and we had to stand. Luckily, years of experience have taught me to never bring any luggage anywhere for any reason and to second guess anything more than a change of underwear and a book (one usually tucked into the other and carried underarm). On my back I carried my suit, a few oranges, a book and my toothbrush. Everyone else on the bus had large hard-plastic rolling suitcases. Every time the bus braked, a silver suitcase about the size and weight of one of those hotel refrigerators, kept rolling over my foot and slamming against my leg. The suitcase’s owner was oblivious and didn’t even seem to be holding on to the suitcase’s handle despite the constant motion of the bus—probably confident that my foot would stop the suitcase before it got too far.
When we’d boarded the bus, part of a family had squeezed past us, while the other half had stayed near the front of the bus. At every stop they yelled “not here! don’t get off here!” to each other in a Chinese dialect. They continually passed their children through the cordon formed by Gina and I; this was accomplished by grabbing the child’s outstretched hand and pulling him or her through us, like we were a stubborn birth canal. Trying to get out of the way, I often only made it worse. The child would be pulled right into one side of my leg and the suitcase full of bowling balls would simultaneously bang into the other side. The family talked like they passed children, yelling at my head like it was a wall to be yelled through. I memorized their word for ‘don’t get off here!’ and considered preemptively yelling it at each stop, just to avoid having it blasted at the side of my head, but I was worried I’d get the tone wrong and curse someone’s grandma or something. Luckily, the bus only went three stops before it drained all it’s passengers into the complex Metro network. I didn’t stay to hear the family yell ‘Here! Get off here!’ but grabbed Gina’s hand and pulled her through the suitcases and passengers unsure of where to get off, trying out the birth canal trick myself. It actually worked very well.
The streets were gridlocked, smoldering with the embers of taillights. The exhaust had risen to the Skytrain platform where people tried to tunnel through the mass of humanity before them to reach a train or a ticket window. Tickets must be paid for in coins and without a hefty sack, there was no way I had enough change for Gina and I. I went to the window, waited in line and changed the largest bill I had. I came back, waited in line at the machine and when I reached it, began hurriedly dumping coins into the slot. One ticket popped out and I started in on the next one. Behind me, I could feel a line forming and simultaneously becoming impatient with my two-ticket purchase. I continued feeding the coins in. The hand I held them with was gradually rising with the reduction in weight correspondingly, the number of coins left to be inserted on the display dropped. I got to 10, to 5, to 4, 3, 2, and then there was nothing left. I still had a few coins but these were the worthless 2-baht coins which, for some reason, the machines hadn’t been calibrated to take. I could feel the breeze of the line’s collective sigh of impatience on my neck. It was fetid with office air conditioners and dental work. I swore and turned to the girl waiting behind me. Did she have a single baht coin? I would give her a 2-baht coin in exchange. She handed me a 5 and I dumped all my 2 coins into her hand despite her protests. The reluctant machine spat out the second ticket and we were on our way.
I thought I had the address of the hotel in an email, but I only knew the metro stop it was near. Coming down from the platform with only half an hour before we had to be at the Bruneian Embassy, I was beginning to feel frantic. Gina calmly suggested I should ask someone where the hotel was. I asked a motorcycle taxi driver and he shrugged. I used this as evidence that no one knew where the place was, so it was pointless to ask anyone else; the only way we’d find the hotel was by angrily ducking in and out of sidestreets and swearing. Gina wasn’t too interested in trying my method and suggested we ask a guard standing by a parking garage. He looked at the name of the hotel on my phone, shrugged and used his own phone to look it up on a map. We thanked him and, after assuring ourselves we were going in the right direction, we took off down the street, darting and swearing the whole way to make up for lost time.
The hotel was about three blocks down a long dead-ended side street. I practically jogged toward it continually swearing by this time, knowing we were already late, not knowing where my counterpart was and we were still in our sweaty airplane clothes. We had to change and find our way to the Embassy which was, with no traffic, would’ve been about 30 minutes away. On a night like this, an hour was probably a better estimate. The hotel loomed up. I was about to swear at it for being so far down the street, but it was so beautiful I had to stop and admire the entryway for a minute. The facade of the place looked like something out of the Great Gatsby and the foyer even further established this roaring 20s, art nouveau theme. It was authentic, too. The place was legitimately old enough to reasonably look this way. I glanced around the lobby with admiration but was soon back to swearing when I noticed there was no attendant around. We rang the bell and still no one came. I tried to use the time to collect myself; no one wants to be the harassed Arthur Miller character who comes into a hotel roaring about service, still glistening with sweat and frenzy. I tried to humble myself, but the swearing was coming out of my ears like steam escaping a kettle.
Someone finally came up and asked if we wanted to check in. He looked as harassed as I felt and made so bold as to glance at the clock with a disapproving look when I told him yes, we were hoping to check in. I felt like telling him I’d listed my check-in time as 6 pm when I’d made my reservation. Sure it was 8 now, but it’s not like I told them I would be there at noon. Some people you just can’t argue with. This guy looked way too disinterested in the world to bother arguing with. I held my tongue, but when he gave me a job application of a check-in form to fill out I wrote quickly and sloppily, without regard for the little boxes meant to contain my name, passport number, occupation and all kinds of other superfluous information. When I finished it, he looked at it, all but rolled his eyes, heaved a weighty sigh and then gave me the total. 1016 baht. I give him 1050, which seemed to greatly fluster him. As he struggled to count out the change, I told him I could give him four baht so he could give me an even 30 back. He looked up at me as if I were some familiar inanimate object that had suddenly learned the power of speech, a practiced look which combined disbelief with horror. Without saying a word (but never lowering his eyebrows) he continued fumbling around in his drawer for the exact change.
There was no elevator, which normally wouldn’t be a problem; the old wide and low staircase had a sort of Gothic appeal to it and if I’d had more time, I would’ve loved to climb it slowly imaging all kinds of things. It was the kind of staircase we should have been led up by a man in a cloak with a dripping candelabrum in his steady but wizened hand. The irritable and taciturn guy at the desk would fit the role perfectly. Our room was the standard box with a faded tile floor, a metal frame bed and an old fan to stir the mildewed air. Gina had gotten dressed in the lobby bathroom while I’d been checking in, but I still needed to change. She brushed her hair and put on lipstick while I jerked my sweaty clothes off only to put clean clothes over my damp skin. I knew I was just going to get sweaty again. There was neither time nor reason for a shower.
The hurried way we both tried to doll ourselves up in front of that old hotel mirror was like a scene out of a spy movie. I almost hoped someone could see us in order to wonder what sort of shady deal we were up to. Gina pursed her lips at the mirror; I tied my tie and blotted my forehead with a handkerchief, still swearing, but beginning to laugh at myself a little. In five minutes, we were running back down the stairs, trying to get the internet to come back on my phone so we could find the Embassy. “Forget it,” I said, after watching that ouroboros spin around for a minute with no change. “We don’t have time” and we ran back out into the night once again, not entirely sure where we were going.
The train wasn’t as crowded and we only had a few stops to go. In about 15 minutes, we were getting off at the Ekkamai station. Blindly, I chose a street, declared it to be the right one and began walking, taking those great lunging steps you see people making in the airport when they suddenly realize they might miss their flight, something like pulling yourself through the city on cross-country skis. Invariably, you look like such a jerk walking like this no one makes any effort to get out of your way.
Miraculously, I’d guessed the street correctly, a nearly impossible task along Sukhumvit where every direction looks like a mirrored reflection of the opposite way, which is due, mostly, to the ubiquity of 7-11s, which, in Southeast Asia, are much more aggressively marketed than their docile North American counterparts. I’ve seen as many as seven of them on a single block.
The Bruneian Embassy was down an alley and off a sidestreet. When we came powerwalking up, I expected the guard to draw his weapon or at least raise a forbidding palm to us and yell ‘halt!” like in the movies. He was well-disposed to us, however, and, through gestures, invited us in. I’d forgotten that I was wearing a jacket and tie and that Gina was in a dress with lipstick. Our spy camouflage was working very well. I called my counterpart, taking out my phone in that harassed way guys in ties and suit jackets always take out phones. I expected that she was already inside, but when she answered, I could tell from the disappointment in her voice that she was still in traffic somewhere. She told us she didn’t know when she’d make it, but that we should just go in. “Just go in?” I repeated, thinking ‘this isn’t my embassy; I don’t know any of these people, or expect them to know me. This is going to be really awkward.’ But I agreed and hung up. I nodded to the guard and he escorted us in. I had my passport out, ready to present it to someone, but no one else was there to ask for it. We crossed an open courtyard and were shown into a building. Through the glass, I could see what looked like a room of dining dignitaries. A small room. I’d been expecting something larger where we might have been able to sink into the background but there were only about four tables and, at the entry, I noticed no one was in western dress. The men wore white and golden shalwar kameezes; the women were all in brightly colored—usually floral patterned—abayas. Even if there’d been 1,000 people in the room, we would’ve stuck out like sore thumbs. We were now in that tense scene in the movie where the spies have been found out. On the threshold of the room, the conversation stopped, hung there like something raised just out of reach. “Salaam alaikum.” I tried. The room, in particular the male voices called out “wa alaikum salaam” in response and everyone went back to eating. We were safe.
The guard left us stranded in the doorway and a woman fluttered up to us. I expected her to give us a polite but firm ‘may I help you?’ through which it would be implicitly stated that we were in the wrong place, but she brought her hands together in a tent and then they leaped apart in apparent joy at our arrival. I glanced around the room to the expectant faces and made a few nods, not entirely sure what was called for when you show up late and sweaty to the Bruneian Embassy for the Sultan’s Birthday Dinner. I explained that my counterpart was stuck in traffic, but the woman who had welcomed us barely seemed concerned by this. I apologized that we were also late—but glancing at a clock I saw that we’d managed to get from the hotel to the Embassy in 30 minutes, which must’ve been some kind of record in a suit jacket. Even at night, the temperature in Bangkok is in the mid-80s and we’d probably walked a total of 12 blocks.
We were seated at an intimate table where the others all had their names and titles on little cards. I introduced myself and immediately, everyone began to ply me with questions. Where did I teach? How were my students? Had we lived abroad before this? Where? What did we think of Thailand? Of Surat Thani? I enjoy talking with diplomats; they’re usually adept at asking interesting questions and it’s easy to steer the conversation to geography. Soon we were talking about places they’d been posted in Canada and Malaysia. When I told them I was from Michigan, I was astounded to hear that the Bruneian Mission in Ottawa had asked the man across from me to drive around Detroit when he came into the states. He hadn’t been able to take the Ambassador Bridge because they were afraid something would happen to him entering the US in such a nefarious place. I had no idea what to say to that. I’d never considered the possibility that diplomats wouldn’t be allowed to travel to certain places in the States for safety reasons. I assured him it wasn’t as bad as he’d been led to think, but then I told that joke about the cops rear-ending an out-of-state car at a four-way stop in Detroit and yelling ‘what the hell you’d stop for?’ Everyone laughed, but it was the kind of laugh that comes when a danger has already passed and there’s still a faint note of nervousness.
I was hungrier than I’d realized and came back from the buffet with an awkwardly large pile of rice and vegetables. I tried to balance my eating with conversation. Each polite bite I meant to take turned into a frenzy of plate scraping and rice grains falling off my fork on the way to my mouth. Luckily, everyone was too polite to pay much attention, to the credit of my tablemates, it’s difficult not to at least glance out of the corner of your eye when you hear such uninhibited gobbling.
We talked and ate for about an hour before my counterpart arrived; by then, I felt totally comfortable with the people at the table and we were conversing like old friends. I had a third plate of food so my counterpart didn’t have to eat alone and the conversation steered toward Brunei and the culture around holidays. Although we were in the Embassy for the sultan’s birthday, his name was never mentioned. It wasn’t until the end, when we were taking pictures and someone insisted we stand underneath the portraits of the sultan and queen, that I remembered the occasion for the dinner.
Gina and I walked out of the Embassy with all the fuss that accompanies a departure from your grandmother’s house. People stood in the doorway, insisting on taxis or sharing rides which we all politely declined and walked back out through the gates framed in golden spotlights.
Back on the Bangkok streets, we carried the glow of people who have been somewhere important and are now returning home, tired, but more upright when they set out, ties flapping carelessly, handbags languorously held, carrying on a continual murmuring conversation about the events of the night and slouched down slightly in the empty train car watching the dark frames of the city tic past the windows.
Arriving back at the hotel, we found the place much more opulent, now that we had time to enjoy it. The climb to our room was long and tiresome, but in the old building, it was like roaming the hallways and staircases of a castle at night. I felt like I needed a sconce to light my way and that there should’ve been at least one of those portraits on the wall with the eyes that follow you. After we’d been down to the pool, returning to our room, midnight was striking and I continually expected to see some perennial apparition waltzing just above the marble floor, but there was no one but us. The place oozed quiet. The entire hotel seemed empty. Even the front desk in the lobby was continually unmanned. After showering and getting into bed, I could hear all the emptiness of the building rushing up and down the stairs and swelling in the rooms and I felt safe and comfortable in the turret above the rest of the empty castle. After all the noise and haste of the evening, it was the ideal place to be: a little portal into the 19th century and way up on the top floor, no one, not even the silent wispy ghosts of the place would find us. I lie there, looking at the patterns on the dark ceiling thinking:‘no one would think to look way up here.’