Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Driven to Madness

(Or: some other half-baked pun for a story that still makes me gag a little)

(Or: some other half-baked pun for a story that will make you gag a little, all the rest of your days)

(Or: Seeing Red)

The four of us piled out the sticky, dirty air of whatever Bangkok street it was and into the taxi, with our wet fringes were clinging to our foreheads and the balls of our feet less than half a mile from crying ‘go on without us, lads!’ and crumbling to dust. Our little group looked to our driver - or, as we were near to calling him, Champion - with a mix of thankfulness and quiet awe. The man was lean, somewhere in the fifties, with a few wisps of beard straggled out from his chin under a thin nose and lips. A half-finished bottle of coke was sloshing beside snack wrappers and dustballs in the car door pockets. Our driver didn’t seem nearly as keen to study us - his left hand drummed the wheel in an annoyed getonwidit kind of way, head flicking from road to us and back to the road again.

“We’re looking to go to the grand palace?” Justin, eldest of our little band of travelers and leader by virtue of being able to navigate his way towards anything other than failure or a Big Mac, ventured. The wispy man with the annoyed gedonwidit gesture looked back, his face making it clear he didn’t understand a word of English (how dare he).

“Grand Palace?” Justin tried again. He brought out our map, then jutted a finger towards the Palace, which probably would’ve been helpful if the map looked less like a mix between a theme park guide and the Game of Thrones title sequence. It also, helpfully, didn’t speak Thai.

At first, our Champion still seemed nonplussed on where these ignorant tourists he’d picked up wanted to go. A few seconds passed, then, just as we thought he might give up and bustle us out his car, he thumbed the button on his cab meter, shrugged his shoulders slightly and set off to join the rest of the traffic.

This shrug, in retrospect, should have been thought of as a ‘massive clue’. 

At the time, we were too exhausted to really notice anything beyond a vague Ohlookthingsaremovingthatsnice feeling, watching the neon yellows and pinks of the signs and cars clashing against the grey buildings rather like a clown cartwheeling around a politician as he's in the middle of discussing tax reform. Slender trees sprinkled themselves along the kerb between shops and street-vendors. Stalls, with offers ranging from mostly-innocent to entirely obscene - including special ‘toys’ wrapped in cellophane - clustered in with each other, giving some streets an artificial, if seedy, canopy. 

‘Massive clue’ number two: the seedy stalls and shops were becoming more the standard than the exception. By the end of the ride, it seemed the guys who owned them were setting up shrines to viagra.

To our shame, it was only Justin who was beginning to wonder if things were perhaps not going as we had hoped. Under his breath - “I’m not sure he’s taking us to the Palace.” Out loud, in an awkwardly high voice, as what little hope he’d put on reserve from the earlier conversation was spilled out - “Grand Palace, yes?...yes?”

Our Champion didn’t seem too happy with our questioning him - all at once his foot punched down on the accelerator; he lifted his left hand off the wheel and slapped the flat of his wrist against the dashboard, pointing angrily to the road (which was now feeding itself under his cab rather quickly) as he started shouting, quickly and loudly ‘Grahnpalass! Yes! Grahnpalass!” His wrist did a little flick towards Justin as though brushing off a fly. “Granplass Shhh.” 

‘Massive Clue’ that our Champion might not actually be such a Champion number three: picked up on. Well, at least a little. Despite his fiery response, despite the almost definite fact that we were heading nowhere near the Granplass, none of us made any move to leave the cab. The man was our driver, after all. We were paying him. He wouldn’t, we felt sure, take us to any old place just to get a few extra Baht. 

“I think he’s taking us to the red light district,” Justin muttered out in his quiet low voice, presumably in case there was a danger the driver might suddenly have absorbed a Merriam-Webster’s.

Clue four, received.

It’s a running joke that a lot of men who come to Bangkok would have responded to “I think he’s taking us to the red light district” with “Oh, good! Which one?”. Not us: we resolved to leave the taxi as soon as the traffic was clear and our Champion/Anti-Hero had put his car back behind the sound barrier. 

Fate decreed, however, that before we got out there was to be one final, awful trial by taxi. We stopped under the traffic lights in the middle of perhaps four or five lanes of cars. Ex-Champion/Anti-Hero was finishing the last of his coke and we were discussing how best to continue our journey:

“Right,” one of us in the back said,  “he’s probably been taking us in the wrong direction, but-”
“Wrong direction? He knew exactly where he was taking us.”
“-But it shouldn’t be too hard to get back on track.”
“True. We can probably walk some of the way or get another cab.”
“That or just take the subway-”
“Guys, he’s about to pee.”
Justin was speaking in the mutter again, barely audible. His entire face was staring, unblinking straight ahead like someone had stuck it there with an invisible vice.

Then, we heard a zipping, then a grunt. An unmistakable shloshing noise came, the sound of a recently emptied coke bottle being filled  back up.

“Oh, mercy,” said Justin. 

We could only just hear him over the sound of that shloshing and our own miserable internal wailing.

Still nowhere to stop, we four had a choice - (a) leave the car and hope the traffic lights didn’t change, or (b) shout at the man until he stopped. We opted for (c) be very British, look out the window and pretend it isn’t happening. He had been going for a good while, surely


It would have to to stop soon. We would, we thought, be


laughing about this in ten, fifteen minutes.

After four or five seconds of the Ex-Champion/Anti-Hero/Worst Enemy emptying the Niagara into the plastic the red light flicked to green. For a wonderful second the man was forced to stop and take off the handbrake. Once he’d got the handbrake off, though, he was back to business 

(“Guys, I can’t look”
“Keep it together Justin”

“Easy for you to say you can’t see it”)

And back en route to what probably wasn’t going to be the Granpalahss.
Right to left: Justin, Michael, a sex-crazed monk we met (story for another post), Jonathan.

“Say, look at that building!” One of us in the back cried, pointing through the passenger window at a random slab of a structure, away from Ex-Champion/Anti-Hero/Worst-Enemy's side of the car. Those in the back agreed in high, appreciative sobs, then Justin took up the appreciation from the front, slapping his head to the left with a “Yes, look at that! Wow!” Meanwhile, the traffic was beginning to slow again. Our driver, without stopping - car or bladder - slanted his face to the left to see what we were all looking at. Failing to find what was animating us so (try looking down, buddy), he flicked his gaze from the scenery 


to Justin and 


Stayed there. Though it came several bales after it should have, we finally reached our last straw. “We’re getting out now”, Justin said.

We waved for the driver to stop, pointed at the kerb, tried to hold it together for a little longer. Worst Enemy/Very Bad Man looked surprised. He lifted the bottle out and placed it beside the wrappers in the door pocket, lid still off and flies still unzipped. He shifted his vehicle to a closer lane. Worst- Enemy/Very Bad Man, after getting over his initial surprise that his passengers wanted out, turned a little angry. He started barking at us - we for once found ourselves very grateful for the language barrier - and screwed his face up into a scowl.

I took out a few dozen Baht, hating myself for feeling guilty. He took the money. For a brief second, our hands touched. We opened the doors and left the taxi.

 Though we’d met horror at one kind of red lights, we’d still managed to get out before the other kind really made its presence felt in any other way apart from the frequency of the questionable stalls. Still, we opted to subway our way out this side of town before taking a shower, arranging some therapy then calling our family to tell them we loved them very, very much. 

And just think. Somewhere, on the other side of the world, some innocent, tired tourists could well be piling out the sticky, dirty air of whatever Bangkok street it they’re on and into the taxi...

Oh mercy.

For a similarly written escapade concerning paying large sums of money to dance stupidly at clubs, you might want to visit this link,

Or here for my recent observations of Christians, as a Christian,

Or, if this one was all too much for you, click here to see a nice sunset.

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