Monday, May 5, 2014

Laughing Man Taxi

It's 9:40 pm. I'm in a Lexus that won't start. It's blocking cars in the parking lot of my condo building. My plane leaves Chiang Mai in an hour. On top of this, I couldn't drive even if the car did start. Here in Thailand everything traffic related is the reverse of what it is in the U.S. so I don't drive.  And in any case, I don't have a Thai driver's license. Not that the latter matters too much since I suspect that many people who drive here don't have one either. But you get my drift.

However, mai bpen rai (no worries) as the Thais say. I'm not alone in the car. Mr. Pradit, the taxi driver, is repeatedly turning the key and grinding the starter. It sounds to me like we're out of gas. I say so. Mr. Pradit ignores me and keeps grinding the starter. Thai men, like males everywhere, do not seem to enjoy when a woman tells them that they are out of gas. A security guard approaches us, smiles, and tries to help start the car by shifting it into neutral and grinding the starter. No luck.

Mr. Pradit gets on his cell phone. Excitedly, he tells the person he is calling what has happened and what he wants. I know enough Thai to understand that he wants the person to come to where we are  and drive me to the airport in his car. I can hear the person on the other end speak Thai in a tired sounding voice. He doesn't sound too excited about coming to take me to the airport.

Mr. Pradit is insistent. Then he hangs up. "I call my brudder," he says, "to come take you airport."

"Mr. Pradit, I can just catch a songtauw (pick up truck taxi) down the street." I am concerned about how long it will take Mr. Pradit's less than excited brother to arrive to take me to the airport.

"No." Mr. Pradit says this as if I have just suggested something preposterous. It is a point of pride to him to get me to the airport by 10 pm, the time we had arranged. The security guard comes by again and calmly offers to help. Together, he and Mr. Pradit push the Lexus to the curb alongside the building and out of the way so that other cars can exit the lot. Before they start pushing, I offer to get out of the Lexus to make it easier to move. "No," insists Mr. Pradit again in a way that indicates that what I'm suggesting is absurd.

"Really, Mr. Pradit, it didn't sound like your brother was very excited about coming out late at night to take a strange farang (foreigner) to the airport. "How old is he, anyway?"

Mr Pradit says, "He two year older than me--72. He use to hold high position in government."

Mr. Pradit is my regular daily ride to and from the international school in Chiang Mai where I work five days per week. He also sometimes takes me to the airport. There is nothing on the car that identifies it as a taxi and there is no meter. All rides are negotiated. And Mr. Pradit is a bold driver even by widely accepted Thai "drive like a bat out of hell" standards. Think New York taxi driver and you get the idea.

Why do I ride with Mr. Pradit, you may wonder? Well, no taxis in Chiang Mai have meters. All taxi rides are negotiated. And unlike many taxi drivers, Mr. Pradit is extremely punctual and reliable. When he can't give me a ride, he takes great pains to arrange that his son will do so. Mr. Pradit is also remarkably kind. This probably is what I like the most about him. He has located obscure items in shops when I've mentioned offhand that I was looking for them. He's also helped me install light bulbs and water heaters in my condo. To top it off, Mr. Pradit is funny, speaks English well, and laughs a lot, although I notice that he's not laughing about this situation.

Looking at my watch, I see that it is 9:50. "Really, Mr. Pradit, I think I will get a songtauw." Just then, his brother pulls up-- in a Lexus. He nimbly jumps out.  Like Mr. Pradit, he moves and looks much younger than his age. Both brothers are very trim and stylishly dressed. Not appearing terribly excited to see us, he speaks to his brother and then asks me if I speak Thai. "Nitnoy kah (a little)," I say. After that, he converses in Thai only with his brother. I am whisked away in the brother's Lexus with Mr. Pradit at the wheel. We make what must be the fastest and most hair raising trip I have ever taken to an airport. I arrive at Chiang Mai International precisely at 10 pm.

Mr. Pradit is beaming. "See. I tell you I get you here on time! Make sure you tell Nat." For some reason, at this moment, after a race to the airport, Mr. Pradit is thinking about Nat? It must be another point of pride.

Nat, my fellow partner in adventure who accompanied me to Chiang Mai, knows Mr. Pradit. The three of us have taken taxi rides together on many occasions. Nat especially likes to tease Mr. Pradit about his driving. Mr. Pradit especially enjoys pretending that he doesn't hear Nat or that he doesn't understand English that well. When Nat and Mr. Pradit are together, they remind me of Laurel and Hardy. Taking my cue from Mr. Pradit, I too pretend that I can't hear and don't understand English that well when they are together.

Upon my return from travelling, during my first ride to school with Mr. Pradit, I ask if he was in fact out of gas that night. He tells me that he and his brother, after dropping me at the airport, went and got several litres of gasoline in containers and retrieved the Lexus that was out of gas at the condo.
"Your brother didn't sound too happy that night, no?" I ask. "No. He wasn't." Mr. Pradit laughs.

"But he didn't have any choice, did he? He had to come to help, yes?" "Yes. No choice." Mr. Pradit laughs again. Such is the nature of Thai family obligations. We ride the rest of the way to school in contented silence. Mr. Pradit seems pleased that I as a farang at least now understand this much about Thai culture. And that I have learned this lesson from him.

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