China Eastern airlines flight MU 541 arrived two hours late, having been held up by what was described as Air Traffic Controller problems, not that one can ever know what these barely concealed euphemisms mean. The Traveler hoisted the blue and gray backpack onto his shoulders, with the straps adjusted to keep the pack centered so that the bottom was just at his lower back, somewhat snug, but not claustrophobic. He patted his pockets, and then looked back at his seat. As the other travelers deplaned, he followed, anticipation bubbling inside like boiling water in a tea kettle. With the novelty of the journey being the flame and having been lit since leaving the States, he was now boiling over.
He gazed at the exterior of the airport as he walked up the glass enclosed jetway. Parabolic arches interlaced with crisscrossing metal beams gave the appearance that the structure was draped in a huge metallic net; it looked futuristic, otherworldly. The Traveler entered the concourse through two double doors, following the mass of other travelers in front of him, making their path his own. The concourse bustled with travelers from other flights converging on the same intersection and turning towards the same direction, passing under a sign that read “Arrivals and Immigration: 1-23”. He was uncertain of the appropriate path, so he continued to follow the crowd; a learned habit he had been trying to break, but as they go, habits can be hard to break.
The other travelers filed into queues framed by simple, smooth, rounded metallic poles that corkscrewed at each end, a winding river of travelers that spilled into diverging tributaries which flowed into concrete and glass locks, like sections of a canal, which were administered by an Authority, determining when the lock should be raised, keeping the traveler level just right. The Traveler floated into the river, drifting along like a piece of cork, bobbing in the crests and troughs of the waves. The other travelers murmured and exclaimed, in fits and bursts, hushed and unfiltered excitement in the air. If the river traveled yesterday had been dark and slightly hostile, this river was roiling and exuberant, an easily negotiated set of rapids flowing down, down, down, effortlessly.
After passing into his lock, he waited until the Authority determined the level was at the appropriate level and he passed on through, a stamp marking his permission to enter now in his Identity. Down, down, down to the metallic eddy, with supplies drifting around in a large oval. The 70 cubic liter pack, gray and blue, snagged within moments; down, down, down, effortlessly. To the taxi aisle, where he was greeted with a smile, and told his price: 450 baht. No negotiating, please. Recalling the hardships of yesterday, and the delay already incurred, he chose the path of least resistance. Down, down, down, effortlessly…little did the Traveler know that he had been swallowed by a creature, and was now traveling down into the bowels, into the center of Bangkok.
I sit in the backseat of the taxi cab, looking out of the windows at the dreary afternoon thundershower. Ahead of us the gloom was burning with dim, glowing red lights, blinking intermittently. I have been in the car for about 45 minutes when we hit traffic that is at a near standstill. I am tired of seeing, but not comprehending the billboards written in Thai, of hearing, but not comprehending the Thai talk radio, and just of being in a taxi cab in general. The rain pelts the windows and top of the car, making a rhythmic plink-dutth-plink-dutth sound that had me leaning my head completely against the headrest. I had long ago given up hope on meeting John at Gecko Bar at 5:30 as we previously arranged. The clock on the radio showed 7:05. The traffic creeps and crawls forward, switching lanes and back, in and out, creating a new lane on the shoulder when available. It is a massive amoeba morphing and sliding forward. All of the foreignness and the rain and the travel…AH! I want comfort, something familiar. No cell phone or ways of communicating with friends or family and the cab driver only being able to speak Thai, I turn to my last resort. I close my eyes and drift away.
I open my eyes. It is 7:17. We are still surrounded by traffic and buildings, skyscrapers, buildings, skyscrapers, The Swarm. As we cross an overpass, the cab driver speaks and gestures to his left out towards the left passenger side. Seated directly behind the driver, I look towards the direction of his extended hand and see a chain of lights, linked metal bumper to metal bumper, hemmed in by steel and illuminated glass. The Swarm. The rain. Why am I here?
I force myself to do something, to stay active, to ride out this malaise and anxiety. I take out my pocket sized notebook and jot some notes down. The driver changes the station to what can only be described as an eclectic mix of American hits, from Coldplay to Ne-Yo to some old love ballad I don’t recognize. I laugh as the deejay announces each song in Thai, which sounds like swinging pitched garble until it hits the artist name and song, which is inevitably in English. I listen to Chris Martin coo about para-para-paradise. I wonder if I am there. But this malaise and anxiety still hangs over my head and I am a cartoon character with a raincloud above him like a parasitic lamprey. I want that sunny weather, literally and figuratively.
“Sawadeekaa, Bankok! Nah pleng ‘Jay-Z Empire State of Mind’!” the deejay announces full of cheer. I laugh as the beat doot-da-doot-doot-doot-da-doot begins and the first verse starts. I laugh again at hearing Jay-Z in a taxi cab in Thailand. I know I shouldn’t be surprised at the reach of western, specifically American culture, but it is too much. The bittersweet dominion of mass culture, something I usually abhor, provides me the familiarity I am seeking.
“and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere”
Wise words, Mr. Carter. Of all the sources from which to receive what I need…I start rapping along with Jay-Z, a smile on my face, knowing I will be just fine, with the line repeating in my head.
“and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere”