The amount of time I spend in a taxi over the course of a day can vary between 40 minutes to 2 hours or a little more than that, depending on how bad the traffic is and whether my return trip also takes place in a taxi or if I use public transport. Having no car to call my own – not that I would want to drive one in this chaotic city, thank you very much – and still wanting to make it to work at a reasonable hour, I have little choice. So in the mornings, instead of switching between various means of transportation I choose the easier way – the bright pink, yellow, blue or plain green cars cruising the streets with a TAXI sign on top and a red light at the front. Being in a taxi everyday can be interesting, fun, scary or downright creepy, much like riding a roller coaster. The taxi drivers I meet range from the silent one to the chatterbox, from the I want to practice my English with you to the one who’s trying to teach me Thai, from the grunt man (because that’s the only sound he makes) to the singer (let’s turn up the radio and sing along, in Thai, of course).
Yesterday I was in a hurry. After a hectic day, wanting to take my aching head home as soon as possible, I hailed the first taxi that passed on the street outside my work and hopped in. The driver didn’t say anything at first so I told him the address in Thai and made myself comfortable and ready to enjoy my book. He asked me something in Thai, but his words were drawn out and spoken carefully, not like the quick jabbering I’m used to hearing. My reply seemed to satisfy him and so once again I turned to my book and lost myself in it. I was reading Little Bee, by Chris Cleave, and this is a very hard book to read in a taxi. Why? Well, because every few pages I just wanted to cry, and not silent tears that can be wiped before they even have the chance to slide carefully down the hills of my cheeks, but a hearty loud cry session, the kind you do in the bathroom with the door closed and the water running. Oh well. Every few minutes I had to take a break and look out the window and breathe deeply.
Me no speak English good, I heard the driver say. I tried to put my reply into a smile and we seemed to understand each other. He was very young, probably in his early twenties and he drove carefully, not in the quick jerks and stops that are the trademarks of most taxi drivers in Bangkok. A thought sprang to life in the back of my mind – there’s something strange about him, he talks funny, like he’s not from these parts, like he’s just learning the language. One or two questions later I was sure of it and my curiosity got the better of me so just before I got out of the car I asked him in my broken Thai: You’re not from here, are you? That’s what I’d like to think my words came out like but it was probably more along the lines of “You not Thai, huh?” He turned to me and offered a broad smile that made his eyes as round as two perfect circles, and then it was plain to see he didn’t look like a local either, made two fists of his hands and shaking the right one he said Thai, then the left and said Malay and brought them together, then pointed to his chest and said Thai. So, I thought, your mother is Thai and your father Malay, or the other way around. He pointed his index finger at me and then used it to draw an invisible circle in the air around his right ear and said, in his carefully spoken Thai – You notice, huh?
I smiled too and nodded, and it struck me how we had both tried to speak in a language that was not our own and how sometimes a simple smile is worth more than a hundred jabbering words put together. How wonderful it is that when words fail us, we can still speak, with our hands, our eyes, even with our smiles. Than even when we find it difficult to say the right words, the body language is sometimes enough. That even though we were both aliens, we found a common language.