Monday, March 12, 2012

Hmm. Bangkok. Tricky. Part II

When the bus came to a stop sending a curl of water in its wake, we bounded aboard. We pulled away…and stopped. Inched forward. Stopped. Inched forward. Stopped. Was a wall of water impeding our progress? No. The view from the window was dry, but a clot of cars, tuk tuks and buses fumed and spewed ahead. According to a fellow passenger, this was simply the usual evening crawl. Walking might have been faster, but we had a ways to go and we were tired and ready to sit.

Following our headlong sprint through the Grand Palace, our next stop was MBK, a shoppers’ mecca. Casey had written a lot about shopping in her blogs. A lot. Given her tight budget, I’d been concerned about her spending, and doubted that Dave and I would find much to tempt us in Thailand. So wrong. Ceramics, beaded bracelets, hand-painted wooden bowls, scarves, and mini tuk tuks crafted from beer cans… Fun! And cheap. I could say “inexpensive,” but the prices surpassed inexpensive. “Cheap” is exactly, and happily, the right word for the bounty of bargains. The sprawling markets of Chiang Mai were an endurance test in scope, but we loved the hours (hours!) of browsing. Still, when the girls insisted on a visit to MBK, a seven-story mall in the heart of Bangkok, I turned up my nose. A mall? I avoid the malls at home and had no interest in an Asian version.

Again, so wrong, for MBK, we discovered upon arrival, is a seven-story marketplace. A barrage of booths piled, draped and abundant with Thai silks, colorful bags, carvings, jewelry, sarongs, blousy pants, and funky tee-shirts in which to dive, splurge and wallow. Bargains, bickering, and buying! A heady opportunity to expand on the gift list, pick up a few more trinkets, and wander until thirst and hunger made one stiff, hollow-eyed… and alone. Alone? Um. Where did everyone go? Where was Dave? Where were the girls?

I wandered the aisles, up and down, back and forth. Forlorn, I returned to booths where I’d made purchases just to see the familiar faces of the vendors. Most spoke a smattering of English, but when I told them, “I’ve lost my family,” they smiled and shrugged; they’d seen it before. I amused myself by spinning a legend about a haggard matron said to haunt the aisles of MBK ever-seeking her loved ones among the Buddhas, gold cats, and pashminas.

Finally Dave found me. Oh glorious reunion! He led me to the girls, aisles and aisles away, trying on fisherman pants. Clearly, they had not missed me, but I was giddy with relief (and, as I said, hunger and thirst) and hugged all three of them, giggling with a hint of hysteria.

By that time, it was late and many vendors had cloaked their stalls in fabrics to signal the end of business. We chattered about our purchases as we headed to the food court, but it was closed. Our moods changed. Blood sugar plummeting, lips thinning, we rode the escalator down, defeated.

MBK is a massive enterprise. Foolish to think it had only one food court. Certainly not! One floor down, a vista as welcome as any oasis opened before us: an array of kitchens offering Thai, Italian, Indian and Chinese food. A bit of this, a bit of that, noodles, pasta, humus, and curry. Wine and beer, a place to sit, a restroom nearby. Shoes shed, weary feet off duty beneath the table. Bliss.

After dinner, refreshed and happily buzzed, we rode the sky train, Dave and I tottering like tired children behind Casey and Karis as they took command. Upon reaching our stop, we crossed the platform, and nabbed a tuk tuk for the ride to Hua Lamphong station. Despite the spreading waters we’d seen outside the palace, the roads we’d traveled since were dry so the girls hoped to find the trains still running and purchase tickets for their trip south.

While the white arched façade of the station was impressive from the street, the scene inside the station would have been cautionary at home. We reminded ourselves, again, to suspend judgment, avoid comparisons, and be open, but it was dimly lighted and dingy, and people were sleeping on the floor. Everywhere on the floor. Was this the norm or were these people flood refugees?

Awkward with our bags of MBK booty, we picked our way around mats, luggage, and bodies to reach the ticket booth. Casey and Karis got in line, I went to the bathroom, and Dave went to buy some bottled water.

When I rejoined the girls, Dave was sitting on a bench chatting with a monk. Yes. A head-shaved, orange-robed, pleasant-faced monk. This is not as surprising as it sounds as my husband is a friendly guy, one to strike up conversations with cashiers, gas station attendants, and waitstaff. A monk would have been irresistible. It turned out Dave had offered the man a bottle of water and in return, the monk gave him braided bracelets, one for each of us, “to keep you safe on your journey.”

Dave beamed when he returned to us, related the encounter, and showed us how to tighten the string bracelets on our wrists. We went over to bow our thanks, retraced our wobbly path through those asleep on the floor, and left the station.

Outside, Casey asked a taxi driver for directions to Shanghai Mansion. It was only three blocks away and we felt strong and triumphant after our shopping spree, the girls’ success in getting their tickets, and the monk’s blessing. We had Bangkok nailed.

As we strode across the busy intersection, Dave and Casey ahead, Karis and I side-by-side, we grinned and waved as men in neon orange vests, a construction crew at work on the road, hooted at the girls. I took little note of the helmeted rider on the gold motorbike stopped at the traffic light.

Suddenly, Karis was flying. Flying. At the end of a chain. What? What was happening? “Karis!” I screamed. And then, she was skidding down the road on her back and Casey was a blur of fury, running and yelling, “Bastard! Fucking asshole!” as the gold motorbike sped away with Karis’s bag dangling from the handlebar by a broken chain.

We ran to Karis who was still and pale, blood spotting her cheek and hand. We kneeled beside her, to check her, to protect her from the cars whizzing by. Bystanders stopped and the construction guys rushed over. Some squatted, hands on knees, brows knit. Horrified. “She okay?” Others directed traffic around our small knot of people with our wounded Karis at its core.

Karis lifted her hand to her face, her eyes open. Thank God: she could move. With trembling fingers, she pressed her stomach, her hip. “Pain. Something’s wrong. Inside.” Someone started to lift her. “Don’t move her!” I snapped. “It might hurt her. Her back…we don’t know what’s wrong.”

“Got to get her off the road. Too dangerous.”


A young man with worried eyes said, “The hospital is close. Five minutes. You go?”

Karis didn’t want to. But as she rose, helped by as many caring hands as could reach her from the circle, she winced. Took a few tentative steps. No tears, but she was scared and sore. She tucked in her bottom lip and nodded. “Yes. The hospital.”

The young man with worried eyes hailed a tuk tuk and pressed money into the driver’s hand. Dave tried to repay him, but he refused. A generous cluster of kind people and one greedy asshole; the saving grace is in that dependable percentage.

I wonder now how we squeezed into that tuk tuk. All four of us jammed into a seat for two, with Karis stiff and tender. The driver was silent, his eyes on the road, mindful of his mission, and his injured passenger. We passed the turn to Shanghai Mansion: we’d been so close.

Our tuk tuk pulled in to a circular drive and the bright lights, the sterile white, the beeps, soft voices, and uniforms of the hospital. Dave went to the front desk to provide information while Casey and I followed two nurses and Karis into the emergency room. She needed us and we needed to be with her. In the U.S., would they have separated us since we were not family? We were deeply grateful for that kindness.

Slowly, carefully, we helped Karis to an examining table and supported her back to lower her. With intake of breath and brow furrowed, she lay down as the nurses surveyed her abrasions. “Crazy, right?” she said. “He got my camera. Can you believe it? Again?”

In Viet Nam, the girls’ cameras were stolen on the beach. Casey had downloaded her shots onto her computer, but all of Karis’s pictures from the first month of their travels had disappeared with the thief. It had taken some self-talk to move past that, to buy another camera and start over.

Karis continued, “But, maybe an hour ago, I took out the memory card and put it in my tummy pack. An hour ago. He did not get my pictures. I think I would have given up photography for good if he’d gotten my pictures.”

The curtains parted. A handsome eighteen-year old boy entered. He was solemn and kind. He was also the doctor. So maybe he was twenty-eight. Didn’t look it. In heavily accented English, he asked Karis questions, told her to raise and bend her arms and legs, gently prodded her hip and stomach.

“You will be fine,” he said. “You have a torn muscle only.”

“I know bodies,” Karis said. “I teach pilates. And something feels wrong.”

“It is the trauma. But it is not serious. We will give you something for the pain, but you are okay.”

I pictured Karis dragged down the street. Dragged. I was breathless at the image. Could we trust this diagnosis? I thought about Karis’s father, Gary. The trip in and of itself worried him so. The theft in Viet Nam worried him. Karis’s fall in Hong Kong worried him, as had Casey’s motorbike accident. For parents a world away, these have been tough stories to hear. I was sick for Gary, knowing how he would feel at this news.

The doctor was writing a report at a small desk to the side of the room. I went over and asked if I could speak with him. Graciously, he gestured to the chair.

I told him about the girls’ trip, their plan to load those cumbersome packs on their backs day after tomorrow to travel for another month. I told him I was not Karis’s mother, that I wanted to be sure we could report honestly to Karis’s father that he needn’t worry. Tears filled my eyes; it was hard to talk.

With gaze unwavering, the doctor listened patiently and said he was “almost positive” in his diagnosis, but there was a specialist in the hospital, and if we wanted to wait, he would call for a second opinion. I bowed my appreciation, assured him of my respect for his judgment, but requested the additional examination.

So we waited. The nurses cleaned the cuts on Karis’s face, shoulder and finger and bound them with gauze. Karis was sore, wide-eyed, and worried about ruptured organs, mobility, and her camera. “I keep having a déjà vu. All this white. The blue curtains. Did I dream this? What would trigger it? Crazy.” She noticed the parched skeleton of a tiny gecko trapped in the neon light over her head. “How did he get in there? Poor little guy.”

I stroked Karis’s hair and thought about her mother, Cathy, who had passed away. Silently I prayed, hoping Cathy could watch over her girl, could have some heavenly influence over her condition. I wondered why the monk’s bracelet had done so little to protect us. Or had it saved us from something worse?

On the far side of the neighboring curtain, a man hacked and spit. Another man stood next to someone swathed in blue blankets on a stretcher. An old man with rubber sandals and long stringy hair slumped in a chair against the wall. People came and went, walking slowly, heads down.

After completing the paperwork and calling the police, Dave found us and joined the vigil. The police told Dave we could come down to the station and file a report, but given the hour, Karis’s injuries, and our certainty that they’d never find the cyclist, we decided against it.

Casey was white-lipped and woozy. When not asking the nurses questions or soothing Karis, she’d disappear into the waiting room to sit with her head between her knees. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she’d murmur as she resumed her place at Karis’s side. Her eyes met mine – worried, her mind racing, I was sure, with thoughts akin to my own: would Casey be able to carry both packs? Would Gary let Karis continue to the islands, or insist she return home? Would Dave and I let Casey go on without Karis? Would she listen to us? Damned cyclist.

“Beast,” she spat. And then she turned to Dave, “What would I have done if this had happened, and you and Mom weren’t here?”

“Case, you’d have done exactly what we’ve done. You’ve dealt with hard things here. You handled them. You would've handled this.”

Karis wanted to pee, but feared getting up, feared there’d be blood in her urine, feared what that might mean. With raised eyebrows, the nurse held up a bedpan. “No way,” said Karis. The nurse pushed the bed close to the bathroom and the process of dismount began. False starts. Halting, cautious arrangement of legs and elbows as Karis struggled to rise and swing a limb over the side. She stood, and Casey helped her into the bathroom. Dave and I waited.

The girls emerged, Karis limping, but grinning. She could stand and walk. There was no blood in her urine. Victories.

The surgeon arrived, a woman, again so youthful as to appear twenty-five or so. She wore a pink collared shirt and her jet-black hair was pulled into a ponytail. We helped Karis onto the bed. Casey stayed with her, while Dave and I stepped outside the curtain. I stuck my head in to remind the girls to mention Karis’s déjà vu. We could hear the discussion, the girls’ many questions and again, the reassurance that the symptoms were those of trauma, not breakage or ruptures.

Karis was not broken, but we were shaken. That cyclist could have killed her, and it didn’t faze him. He just drove away.