Tuk-Tuk Hell, or Heaven
A description of hell from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees:
If you go visit hell, you will see a room like this kitchen. There is a pot of delicious stew on the table, with the most delicate aroma you can imagine. All around, people sit, like us. Only they are dying of starvation.… They are starving because they only have spoons with very long handles.… With these ridiculous, terrible spoons, the people in hell can reach into the pot but they cannot put the food in their mouths. Oh, how hungry they are! Oh, how they swear and curse each other!
Or, hell could be our first afternoon in Bangkok.
The four of us squeezed into a glorified golf cart, gasped as our driver gave a polite bop-bop on his horn, barreled through a lane our driver had just invented between two trucks, and inhaled a sooty, smelly mouthful of hot, humid air.
Obviously, standing on a street corner with our faces hidden behind a huge map on our first day in Bangkok could have identified us as easy marks. Lucky for us, a friendly man who spoke English approached us to help. He happened to be a teacher too! It happened to be a special day of cultural events our children would love! The nice man flagged down a tuk-tuk for us, and we were on our way.
When we arrived at the temple that was supposed to have a dancing festival, it turned out we had just missed it. At least another very friendly and helpful man was right there, though. And if we just happened to visit three spots selling beautiful gems, our friendly tuk-tuk driver would get reimbursed by the government for his troubles, and we would only need to pay him 10 baht, or about 30 cents.
We traveled from place to place, always just missing the promised cultural delight, but having plenty of chances to purchase some gems. I sheepishly admit that it took us over an hour to realize that we were in the middle of an elaborate scam. Everyone we had talked to in the last hour–at least about ten different people in all different areas of Bangkok–was in on it. Get the tourists to the gem shops. Get the tourists to the gem shops. Get the tourists to the gem shops. It turned out that was about the only rule that all the locals needed to follow to keep this seemingly elaborate lie boat afloat.
When I got the hard sell in a tailoring shop, enough was enough.
“I prefer to stand,” I snapped, too loudly and with attitude.
“Ma’am, I just need you to sit down so that I can show you our catalog,” the polite young man insisted.
“I’m not sitting down.” My kids cringed with embarrassment at my raised voice and obvious anger. Why was I being rude to this nice man?
My husband and I looked at each other. “What are we doing?” we both said. We turned and left the shop and were back on the street in a moment. Our friendly tuk-tuk driver started to tell us the next place we needed to visit. If we kept playing along, the government would reimburse his expenses, the story went; otherwise he would not be paid for his time.
“We are all done with this trip. How much do we owe you for your time?”
“But I just need you to–”
“We are done. How much?”
“100 baht.” I peeled off a hundred, feeling embarrassed and obnoxious, and I turned on my heel to flag down a metered taxi.
My kids were mortified by my rudeness and didn’t believe it was a scam until they saw all the details later that night on Wikipedia.
Remember hell from The Bean Trees? Here’s the rest of the story:
“…you can go and visit heaven. What? You see a room just like the first one, the same table, the same pot of stew, the same spoons as long as a sponge mop. But these people are all happy and fat…. Perfectly, magnificently well-fed, and very happy. Why do you think?”
He pinched up a chunk of pineapple in his chopsticks, neat as you please, and reached all the way across the table to offer it to Turtle. She took it like a newborn bird.
The starving people in the story could use the spoons to feed each other, making their hell a heaven.
It took us a few days to realize it, but it wasn’t the situation that made our experience hell. Like the people with the too-large spoons, we could choose to view it differently. The noise, the traffic, the speed, the sights, the elaborate conspiracy: I had to admit it was thrilling. The truth is, our Bangkok tuk-tuk adventure was a little afternoon of heaven.
More Thailand photos
This is part of a series, Scene from a Memoir.