By Gary Barbour
Here’s a joke:
Two Americans and a Scot walk into an Irish pub in Southern Thailand. They are excited for their first taste of real whiskey in what feels like ages. It’s been less than a month. They carouse. They drink wine at a shop with the Thai woman who owns it and her family. They tell stories in broken English and drunken pantomime. One of the Americans bids his companions goodbye. The girls are staying on the opposite side of the city, but the American’s hotel is closer. His hotel is on a nearby stretch of highway. It lies between a Tesco and a Toyota dealer. On the walk home, the American sees a young man lying in the road.
This is how I found myself on the side of the road in Nakhon Sri Thammarat within my first month of arriving in paradise.
The man looked young in the way that all Thai men appear very young or very old with little in between. He was handsome with strong cheekbones and fine eyelashes. These are the details I took notice of. That, and he was laying in the road in the early hours of the morning.
Still riding the high of a good night, I immediately assumed he was a fellow drunkard who’d passed out in the street. Another man stood over him looking both ways down the highway. He seemed neither overly concerned nor scared for his friend, adding to my assumption that he was drunk.
First, I approached them, attempting to walk steadily and proclaimed “We need to move your friend.” The unconcerned man shook his head.
Assuming he couldn’t understand me, I pantomimed picking up the man on the ground and moving him to the sidewalk. Again, the man shook his head.
I began to ask Why before looking down. There was no rise and fall of breathing. No twitching movements. In the distance, the telltale lights of a siren grew brighter and brighter.
I moved away a few steps, the realization unfogging my pickled mind.
The “ambulance” was a reappropriated tuk-tuk. With the seats removed, the two EMTs squatted over a gurney. They moved without urgency when the tuk-tuk stopped. I watched them attempt CPR a few times with half-hearted chest compressions. They removed his shoes. They checked for marks and broken skin, but there was none.
The lights drew a small crowd from the houses nearby. Middle-age men and women in shorts and sandals, the national uniform of Thailand, milled around the sidewalk. I stood a short distance away while they murmured and the EMTs strapped the man to the gurney.
I looked at all of the faces in the small crowd, at the EMTs, and at the boy with one leg drooping over the side of the gurney. I didn’t belong there. I was wearing jeans and a button up shirt. I was drunk. I could do nothing but look out of place among the impassive Thai people, tut-tutting and shaking their heads.
So I left. I stopped once, considering offering help, but I reminded myself that an inebriated farang would only cause problems and probably raise suspicions. What if they thought I had something to do with it? I was different, and I was there. Guilty by association.
The hotel was on the side of the highway between a Tesco and the dead boy. I circled a deep, dark sinkhole in the sidewalk and remembered a thought from early in the night.
“Be careful on the way back. That fall could be deadly if your ass is drunk.”
The dead boy followed me for a long time. Thailand became infinitely more dangerous for it. I couldn’t expect someone to cry over my body if I met with an accident. Death was stripped of melodrama. There would be no tears. They would only gather in their shorts and sandals to stare on emotionlessly and tally it as another dead boy.
Gary teaches English to Middle Eastern students at an American school in Malaysia. Read about the convergence of this cultural mishmash on his blog, Collecting Sparrows.