Early in the post-bus-ride gloaming. The bright light of a new day is just starting to glint on the tops of the stupas. The hard-core drinkers are just starting to think about hitting the hay. The streets are as quiet as they get. Even the banana pancake people have gone home, or whereever it is that they go when they are not making banana pancakes for backpackers and other banana pancake devourers. The begging children are sleeping on their cardboard mattresses next to their heart-rending signs and their pitiable wordly possessions.
I am sitting (wanting to be sleeping) at my favourite backpackers’ haunt, waiting for breakfast to arrive. Actually, it is not my favourite. Or it was not. It was someone else’s and I stayed here because she was staying. So now it is my favourite, I guess. But not on any rational basis, like that I have tried out other backpackers and chosen this one as having the combination of high-quality features but realistic price that I prefer. Because I have not. Tried others, that is.
Anyway, waiting for breakfast. It won’t be long. And they always bring the tea and orange juice (or coffee, if you prefer) before the food. So I have a cup of tea to try to drive away the shakes and the general sense of confusion that is engendered by having had far too little sleep and too many noisy bus-ride mates.
There are a few other customers here. Two young guys in the table closest to the road. Their backpacks are sitting down beside them but they don’t have the general sense of expectation and curiousity that would suggest they have just arrived. I figure they are just about to leave. Breakfast prior to bus. How organised to have got up so early and in time. Or perhaps they are hard-core drinkers who left off a little earlier than the others. And three or four staff members. Desultorily awake. Some with things to do (like bring menus, and tea and, soon, breakfast). Others with nothing much to do except make conversation (listlissly), read the hotel register (it hasn’t changed since last time they looked), and watch the day begin as it has so many times before (slowly).
On to the scene comes a really badly dressed man. The entertainment, as it turned out. Normal sort of height. Enormous belly that prevents his dirty once-white singlet from reaching the empty belt loops of his dirty pants, however much it might try. Don’t look when he is facing away – the waistline of his dirty pants is somewhat lower than the waistline of his (apparently dirtly) body. His receding hair is light brown and very curly and unkempt. His face looks ravaged – a life of too little comfort, and, perhaps, too much alcohol, a fact that is confirmed by the rather pungent odours wafting from the vicinity of his mouth.
He is carrying a broom and even making a fairly tragic effort to sweep the steps up to the restaurant and the street below. But he has not come here to sweep. He has come here looking for conversation. The two young men in the corner, perhaps alarmed by his appearance, are incommunicado. He soon loses interest and comes my way. Maybe he detects a kindred spirit, a fellow streetsweeper in some sense, in my gravity defying bedhead, puffy lack-of-sleep face, and generally unkempt demeanour. Who can say?
So he sits down. His accent (a little nasal, a little harsh) betrays him for Australian. His conversation (articulate, sophisticated, perceptive) proves education. It is unlikely to be chance that has made him a Banglamphu street sweeper. But why would you choose this life? Perhaps because no one is going to look twice at such a man (except in revulsion, perhaps), and it suits his particular lifestyle choice to have time on his hands for reflection.
He tells me a story, after a few preliminaries of no importance. He just had a terrible experience, one of the worst of his life. Judging solely from the state of his singlet, I figure this must be an extremely bad event. Not that my thought is of any great significance, since I can see that he came here to tell me this, and nothing I can say at this point (not even criticism of his fashion sense) will deter him from that course.
He has just met the most beautiful woman in the world. He is an artist, he says. He paints. He has painted many beautiful women. But until today he had not seen her. A vision. A dream. An impossible fancy. A woman in white (Danish? Swedish? Norwegian?) on the steps of a hotel, waiting for a ride to the airport and a flight too much money away from him (to steal from a poem I once got sent). She too had had a vision, apparently. A man on an island in Thailand. The perfect holiday. A precursor to a future together. But also a dream. An impossible fancy, or so it turned out. Why she was telling this to a streetsweeper was unclear. Perhaps it was something that she just had to say.
This woman was so beautiful streetsweeper just had to talk to her, of course. And he had to say how beautiful she was and how perfect and wonderful, and how fantastic it made him feel to just share the steps with her, even if he came to clean them and she was just passing by. So he sits, warming himself by her beauty and hoping that her taxi might be late. But it is not. And all too soon his vision fades away, framed in the back window of a cab. Not before she consents to a kiss on the cheek (is this part true? is any of this story true?), he tells me.
And my garrulous breakfast-mate (I hope he does not mind me eating my toast while he talks) holds it together while beauty is driven away. But then he cries. Partly he cries because life seems a little colder without her around. But mostly he cries because he realises the cruel reality of the unachievable. Even if you know your dreams can only be dreams, it doesn’t help to be reminded of it from time to time. And you must get brought back down to earth a lot when you are a day-dreaming streetsweeper in Bangkok.
I didn’t like to say that he couldn’t have just seen the most beautiful woman in the world. The timing was not right. I just saw her in Laos (tending to her child and her business at a roadside drinks stop). She could not have travelled so fast, I don’t think. And she didn’t look Scandanavian to me. Well, okay, perhaps not the most beautiful woman in the world. But it would be a close contest.
Then my streetsweeper embarasses himself by asking me for money. He thinks I am English (“do you have a spare 10p”). When I say “no” (I want to give him money but just not a lot and I don’t have any spare small notes), he assumes I want him to go away and stop bothering me and berates himself for asking me. Perhaps it is all part of the pitch, so maybe I will give him a larger sum. I don’t get that feeling. Successful beggars don’t work the streets at 6 o’clock in the morning. I like this guy. In a strange kind of way I feel better for the fact that there are destitute Australians wandering the world, pretending to be artists and aspiring to greatness while pretending to sweep the streets. Diversity makes me realise that my choices are not so strange, even as I get closer to a home filled with people who think they are.
An hour or so later I find a cab. The driver speaks enough English for me to explain which bus station I want. But he seems rather disinclined to actually take me there, despite me showing him on the map how short a distance it is, and repeating numerous times (punctuated by vigourous nods of the head and echoes from him) what I am trying to do.
Eventually (after the obligatory 30 minutes spent sitting in bumper to bumper Bangkok traffic) we end up at a train station, outside a ticket office. I am somewhat perplexed. This does not seem much like a bus station to me, and it has taken a lot longer and cost a whole lot more than it should have.
So we have the “where I want to go” conversation for the 10th time that morning. I accuse him (with a smile, you don’t get anywhere without a smile in this part of the world) of just driving around and around so as to pad out the fare. He accuses me of not explaining where I want to go. But suddenly, on the 11th recitation his eyes light up. “Ah!”, he says excitedly, “bus station”, with even more animation than he has used the previous 10 times. Some kind of epiphany has clearly come over him. I wonder if his name is Saul and he is suddenly going to repent all his meter-padding sins. We race off down the street again, meter ticking all the while, and sure enough find ourselves at the south bus station about 10 minutes later.
The fare is a very inconvenient amount (curse this countries that do not round to the nearest 5). Fortunately neither of us have change, so I manage to convince him to take rather less than he demands. Still three times what it used to be. The perfect face-saving solution. I let him get away with his daylight robbery without getting too upset, and he lets me have my face by cutting the price by 30%. Happiness is found in strange places.