When our cab pulled up to Shanghai Mansion with four somber passengers, one gauze-swaddled and gimpy, the cluster of tuk tuk drivers outside the hotel crowded close to help Karis dismount. The doorman gently boosted her over the sandbag barricade at the entrance and turned to Dave with questioning eyes. The tale of the theft and our trip to the hospital rippled from doorman to drivers, and set heads to shaking with mutters of concern and disgust.
We stopped at the front desk to fetch our keys from the clerk, and I babbled our story again. Karis smiled weakly, and held up her white-padded finger. With no change in expression, no indication she’d heard my monologue or noticed Karis’s bandages, the clerk said, “Which rooms?” then slid the keys across the desk.
Maybe bandages in Bangkok are too common to warrant comment?
As we shuffled down the hall, the girls supplied the missing exchange in fierce whispers, Casey fawning, “Miss, are you okay? Can I do anything to make you comfortable?”
“No,” sighed Karis stoically. “I’ll be fine. Just a bit of internal bleeding, but I’ll survive.”
We chuckled morosely, but really, lady. Not even a hint of curiosity or kindness?
Still, we were giddy with relief to be back at the hotel. Dave and I left the girls to settle in, and returned to the refuge of our purple walls, red-lacquered woodwork, and welcoming bed.
But sleep? No. I was too wired, and a tumble of questions vied for frontrunner: How would Karis feel after a night’s rest? Would she be able to lift her pack? What would her father say once that difficult call was made? Would the girls continue south to the islands as planned? And beyond all that, would the luxury of decisions wash away in rising waters?
Like flood debris snagged on a submerged limb, my churning thoughts came to rest on the callous clerk. We weren’t the only guests to be treated so: we’d almost passed on Shanghai Mansion because of negative TripAdvisor reviews about staff. Most of the morrow’s issues were beyond my control, but in this small area, I might be of service. I didn’t want to get the woman in trouble, but surely when faced with an injured guest, a response of some kind - surprise, if not sympathy - was warranted. I resolved to speak to the manager in the morning.
The next day, Karis was sore and her finger throbbed, but she’d removed the bandages on her face and shoulder, taken a shower and washed her hair. I had grown to love this dear girl with her wide blue eyes and easy laughter, and I was weepy with gratitude to see her moving about her room, tucking clothes into a bag, and smiling at me as I stood in the door. It so easily could have been otherwise, but for the grace of … I wasn’t sure who or what to thank… God? Cathy? Buddha? The monk’s bracelet? In my heart, I thanked them all.
As it turned out, the girls informed me, the medications had worked spectacularly well, and Karis felt so good after returning from the hospital that she and Casey had opted to re-pack their bags before bed. What? The woman had almost been killed mere hours before, but she’d had an urge to sort her stuff? Again, I was weepy and giggly with gratitude at Karis’s mobility and her insane impulse to sort even as I told her she was out of her mind. “Believe me,” said Karis, “Nothing could have made me as happy as getting this done,” for they’d unloaded half of each backpack into an MBK duffle for Dave and me to take home. With their packs lightened, island breezes beckoned and they were eager to flee Bangkok. Karis still had to call Gary and was dialing the phone as I headed downstairs to talk to the manager.
The clerk with the pinched-kitten face was on duty as well as a woman I’d not seen before. She had powder-white skin, kohl-lined almond eyes and a delicate frame. Her nametag said, “Pattyana.” When I asked to see the manager, both women looked alarmed. “She’s in a meeting. What’s wrong?” they said in unison. “I am the assistant manager,” Pattyana said. “Can I help you?” When I indicated I wished to speak in private, the two exchanged glances of greater concern than any shown when Karis hobbled in the night before.
Pattyana and I sat in two overstuffed chairs in the lobby, out of earshot of the front desk. A graceful purple orchid arced from a large glass bowl on a small table between us.
When asked, Pattyana indicated her familiarity with TripAdvisor, and I told her about the negative staff reviews and our own experiences. “It may sound foolish,” I said, “but for people far from home, their hotel is their home. Something as simple as a friendly smile means a lot.” Immediately, Pattyana’s lips curved to comply, and remained so, except for moments when a furrowed brow was more appropriate. She was listening; she was trying… and she stroked my arm kindly when I described the theft and Karis’s wounds.
When we wrapped up the conversation, I reiterated my hope that I’d not jeopardized anyone’s job. Pattyana said, “We can move people around…make sure the right person is in the right position.” She said she’d pass along my comments to the manager, gave me coupons for complimentary drinks, and smiled and smiled and smiled. Mission accomplished and everyone was happy. At least, that’s what I thought.
Meanwhile, Karis had reached her father. From half a world away, he heard about his daughter dragged down a dirty city street by a thieving cyclist on a gold motorbike. She told us later that he worried because the mishaps were escalating, each one worse than the one before. And he was right. He wanted her home, but she wasn’t willing, yet, to concede. Gary was reassured, to whatever extent was possible after such news, that no other big cities were on the itinerary, and the islands would be a safe place to heal.
For Dave and me, it was our last day in Thailand. Originally, we’d planned on more sightseeing, but decided a leisurely day was in order after the trauma and late bed-time of the night before. As we left the mansion to wander Chinatown, the doorman and tuk tuk drivers grinned to see Karis, walking, smiling, whole. I couldn’t look at her myself without a lump in my throat.
We meandered narrow alleys to peruse the market stalls in Chinatown, eyeing tables laden with dried fish, herbs, pork rinds, and squid. Karis scrutinized street vendors’ displays of jewelry, key chains, and cell phones spread on squares of fabric on the sidewalk to see if any resembled the contents of her stolen bag. Twice, she approached women wearing their purse straps looped around their necks to warn them to be careful. She angled her neck so they could see the angry red welt rubbed in her skin by the chain strap before it broke. “If I can save someone else, then some good has come of it.”
We gazed in store windows and entered a shop specializing in porcelain. Throughout her travels, Casey had purchased an abundance of clothes and bracelets, but I encouraged her to buy a special piece, one that would be a lasting memento of her journey. After scanning shelves of figurines, bowls and platters, she decided on a tea set with a pale crackle finish and blue floral motif. I imagined her, long after I’m gone, holding up the rounded pot to show her children and grandchildren, while reminiscing about her long-ago trip to Bangkok.
Upon returning to our room, flowers, a bountiful bowl of exotic fruits, and a note of apology from the management greeted us. Dave and I darted across the hall and the girls flung open their door, beaming, as they had received the same, plus a colorful get-well card for Karis. “I will keep it forever,” she said.
Casey, Karis and I went to find Pattyana and encountered her in the hall with two other employees. We gave her hugs and lavish thanks, oohed and ahhed over the fruit and flowers, and praised the design of the card. Shyly, she admitted she’d made it herself. She also said she’d conveyed our conversation to the manager who said she’d use my input in future staff training sessions. It seemed my comments had been heard and would be put to good use in serving the hotel.
But later, when we came in from dinner, the woman on duty was she who had supplied keys but no sympathy the night before, and she was as impassive as ever. Well. Perhaps the smile-message had not reached everyone.
As we turned to head to our rooms, she said in a small voice, “Wait. I am sorry about last night.” Her eyes filled with tears as she reached across the desk to take our hands in hers…and she was trembling. Trembling! My mind raced at her distress. What had been said to her? What was the penalty in Bangkok for upsetting a guest? We tried to reassure her, patting her arm, cooing and clucking as our faces sagged in sorrow to reflect hers. She smiled gamely; I guess she had been instructed to smile, smile, smile, after all.
* * *
I write from my seat on the Cathay Pacific flight to JFK. Lunch was a sumptuous repast of curried rice with cashews, chickpeas and corn dumplings, with a side of dragon fruit, papaya and pineapple. For dessert, a tasty corn and coconut milk pudding. Oh Delta, American, and United, take heed!
Our 6:00 a.m. farewells with the girls at Shanghai Mansion were uneventful, if surreal. No water splashed at the sandbag barricades, no nasty clerks snubbed us as we shouldered our packs. But after dipping so briefly into Casey and Karis’s fantasy journey, Dave and I had no wish to leave.
At home, our lives are dictated by the school schedule and our calendar, and the decision to take this two-week adventure, for us, was an unaccustomed display of daring. Given our ignorance of the world beyond Europe, we had approached Asia with high anxiety. Where the cocoon of routine and internal chatter so often shutters my senses, Thailand was an awakening. Stripped of blinders and control, we encountered wonders by taking risks.
As enthusiastic as they’d been about our company, Casey and Karis were ready to be on their own again. I knew Casey felt responsible for us, for every setback, for every walk that went too long, for every meal Dave disliked. After the worry and stress of Bangkok, the islands promised breezy beauty, simplicity, independence, and freedom.
Years ago, I saw Jewel, the singer, accept an award on television. She said her parents taught her to live bravely, and she had embraced that mantra. I was gripped by her words, and yearned for Tucker and Casey to have that spirit, but while Dave is a courageous soul, my creed is caution. I wished I'd heard Jewel's speech a bit sooner.
After graduating from college, my daughter moved to New York hoping for a career in theater, a difficult goal. She was disappointed, at least temporarily, but she rebounded, sought a new direction, and trained to teach pilates. She had a solid clientele, but felt restless. When Asia called, she seized the opportunity to travel, write, photograph, and learn more about herself. During this trip, I have seen her chase a thief, hug a tiger, and navigate the streets, subways and sky trains of Bangkok, undaunted and ready for more. I have mused that my son, Tucker, too, has taken risks and faced challenges in launching businesses in Nashville, Cambridge and Providence. My kids do live bravely…and they’ve done it on their own.
As I flip through the movie selections on my in-flight screen, tears well in recalling our arrival in Chiang Mai only two weeks ago. Dave and I had drooped into our room at Sirilanna to a vision of pink dragon fruit, fresh bananas, aromatic jasmine leis, and a baggie of crickets. And just when I peeked into the hall, Casey stuck her head out her door. My girl and Karis! They’d hiked, sailed, flown, and ridden tuk tuks and trains across China, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos to reach us. There they were: two brave travelers in blousy fisherman pants, wrists wreathed in leather bracelets and beads, their skin shining with sweat, hair wispy in the humidity, faces glowing. They emanated confidence. Armed with their well-earned citizen-of–the-world credentials, passports brilliant with visas and stamps, they had proved to themselves they could find their way... and conquer anything.