My phone rang on Friday night. I didn’t recognize the number, but that didn’t necessarily mean I didn’t know the person calling. Sometimes my Cambodian friends will call from some cheap Internet phone line instead of using their own number, or perhaps a Thai friend is using one of their friend’s phones.
I answered the phone and a man speaking in Thai asked, “Do you remember me?” Well, in fact, I DID recognize the voice. It was a guy who, to protect his privacy (and you’ll know why in a minute), I will call Bee. He, along with another friend or two, or three, will turn up at my apartment about once a week or so, hanging out to listen to music, drink beer, chat, or watch videos on YouTube. I enjoy their company. But I hadn’t heard from Bee in three or four months, which was very strange. Every time I’d call his number, I’d get a recorded message saying that his phone was turned off. I tried sending text messages, but still no reply.
“Of course I remember you,” I told Bee. “Where are you?” He told me he was in Nakhon Ratchasima, his home province. Nothing unusual about that, he frequently goes home to visit his family there when he has time off from work. But his reason for calling me WAS unusual. “Can you come here to visit me?” he asked. “I’m in jail.”
Of course that threw me for a loop. What do you say after an admission like that? I explained that I was working in my bookshop every day, so going to visit him would be rather difficult right now. And it would be. I work every day of the week, no days off at all. The only times I don’t work are when I take trips to neighboring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, or Malaysia. Well, if I can take five days off to visit Cambodia, I could certainly adjust my schedule and take a day or two off from work to visit Bee. And it would require that much time to journey up to Nakhon Ratchasima (less than 3 hours), visit him in jail, and then come back. Since I don’t own a car, I’d be taking the bus.
“You can write me,” Bee added. “I’ll give you the address.” I asked him to hold on for a minute, and called over one of my Thai employees to write down his mailing address in Thai. If I did that myself, and I could if I really tried, it would take an eternally long time, or I’d screw up writing the characters and he might never get the package. I asked Bee what he needed, or what they would allow him to have in jail. He told me any type of dry food or snacks would be okay. “No soup?” I joked. Thankfully, Bee laughed at that line.
I didn’t ask Bee what he had done to deserve this stretch in jail. I figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know. But he did say that he’s been in there for about two months already and still had “several” more months to go. Hell, that could mean a year or longer. He added that he was having a “difficult time” and hoped that I could come and see him. At that point, I felt like my heart was about to break. It’s hard to say no to someone who asks for so little, knowing that a visit from a friend would mean a lot to him. I asked Bee for details on making visits. He told me that visiting days are on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. I told Bee that I’d try and visit sometime next month. And I’m really going to try and do it.
In the meantime I went out and bought some goodies, boxed them up, and mailed them to him on Monday; a bunch of food, a few magazines and books (all in Thai), and some cash. I asked him on the phone (and I still have no idea how he was able to use a phone while in jail; yet another question I’ll ask him next time.) about the money and he said it would be okay, even after I expressed concerns that whoever opened the mail at the jail might decided to take the cash for themselves. I just hope he gets most of what I sent him. I have no idea if he’ll be able to phone again. I included a letter in the package, one that I laboriously typed out in Thai one night on my computer. Took me forever, using the hunt and peck method to find the correct Thai characters, but I did it, and I don’t think I made any mistakes. Hopefully, he’ll be able to write me back. If nothing else, it was good to practice writing Thai again.
If hearing about Bee being in jail wasn’t sad enough news, my closest Thai friend, Thanayut, heads off to Lopburi today to start a two-year stint in the Thai army. After getting the unlucky red ball in the draft lottery, he put off the military obligation as long as could, taking his time to finish his university degree, but now the stalling is over and he must report. Maybe being in the army is not as bad as being in jail, but surely it won’t be any sort of picnic. Thanayut will be able to take leave once every couple of months, and he’s also looking at an option of getting out early if he waives his salary and other benefits. But whatever happens, I’m looking at a situation where I’m not going to be seeing him very often for the next two years. For someone I saw at least once a week, and is the most cheerful and optimistic person that I know, this is going to be a big adjustment. I’m pretty much of a loner and don’t socialize much but it’s always nice to have friends drop by once in a while. Thanayut, like Bee, was one of the few people with whom I would go to restaurants on a regular basis, or just hang out with. I better get used to more lonely nights again, because it’s going to be even lonelier without these guys coming around.
So, as I walked home last night, I was feeling down. I’d just got off the phone with Thanayut, saying goodbye, take care, miss you, and all those things that you say when you won’t be seeing someone for a long period of time. I took a motorcycle taxi part of the way, from the Thonglor-Sukhmuvit intersection to New Petchburi Road. When I hopped off the motorcycle to pay the driver, he asked me how long I’d been living in Thailand.
“About 15 years,” I told him.
“Ooh, you speak Thai very clearly,” he remarked.
I smiled at that. Obviously I love hearing such compliments. I worked hard to learn the language, but at some point I reached a plateau and became fluent enough for basic conversation in Thai, but never really progressed any higher. In the meantime I started studying Khmer and Burmese and neglected my Thai. I can speak “clearly” enough for a simple chat, but just don’t ask me to engage in a conversation that requires a lot of depth or complex vocabulary.
My mind was wandering when the motorcycle driver asked me another question. I asked him to repeat what he had said.
“Do you love Thailand?” he asked.
I smiled again, feeling the warmth, the genuine curiosity, and the good vibes that this friendly man exuded. “Yes, I do. I love it very much here.”
I may have a friend in jail, and another going off for Army duty, but I have to realize that those aren’t permanent conditions. Things change. You adapt. I can wait. They’ll be back. And I take comfort in the fact that I’m living in an incredibly warm (in every sense of the word!) and vibrant country, a place where I never ever feel like I’m truly alone.
I waved goodbye to the motorcycle dude and walked the rest of the way home with a smile on my face, basking in the glow of this magical place where I choose to live.