I decided I would walk back to my Hotel that day, even though I had spent all day and most of my money shopping and my shoulders were aching from the weight of the bags. Flagging down a tuk-tuk would made the trip quick and easy and with the unbearable heat rising up from the sidewalk and bouncing off the city walls and radiating down from above it is a wonder I chose to walk that day but at the time I decided that I would like to wander through the alley ways and stalls and nod my head in greeting to the people of Sukhumvit Road and thats all it was at the time. But it is only in retrospect that we see the significance of seemingly small decisions such as these. We don’t realise how our preferences, no matter how small, act as the fingers and the palms and the curves and the creases of hands to clay on a spinning potters wheel. Every single movement, no matter how slight changes the shape of the clay… just as every step favoured over the other, or every appointment made in favour of the previous day, or the day after can alter the shape of our life.
And so with choosing to drag those heavy bags upon my tired shoulders on weary legs through the streets of Bangkok that day I didn’t know that it would mean meeting him, and in meeting him, I didn’t know it would change something in me for the rest of my life.
Have you been to Bangkok? Can you remember the smell?
What is that smell? Is it the smell of still water? Is it the smell of dust? Is it the smell of the dogs who wander the streets looking for shade?
I think actually that Bangkok is the smell of ‘dirty’. Dirty is a hard smell to pin down but I think if you gathered 10,000 people and asked them to describe what dirty smells like, then they would be describing Bangkok, whether they knew it or not. But somehow I loved the city because it had been good to me. I was there alone after spending several weeks on the Greek island of Kythera and Bangkok was to be my last chance to get lost alone in an unfamiliar place and as I loved being lost and I loved being alone, I think I would have been happy anywhere on earth, even on the dirty streets of Bangkok City.
It was a hot day. No breeze. No escape, not even in the shade. I was drawing close to my hotel, perhaps 3 blocks away and through the traffic of tuk-tuks and scooters carrying 2,3 and 4 people and buses and cars whose horns perhaps were glued down I saw signs and they struck me in the heart as they were not necessary for the city to function. They were not stop signs or street signs or signs directing to the nearest ATM or information centre, they were signs carrying a message and had been put there for the sole purpose of giving people hope, and I like it when people do things like that so I began taking photos.
Looking down at the camera to review the shots my eyes refocused to see my feet in the background which were utterly dirty right up to the shins.
My lips curled back and I pulled a face and said to myself that it was disgusting and I decided I wanted it off me as soon as possible. How revolting that in choosing to walk home my feet had become covered in whatever it was that gave Bangkok that awful smell. I could only hope it had not stained my clothes or somehow made its way to my face.
Those thoughts were still echoing in my head when I caught the first glimpse of him. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I still think of him to this day and why his face still appears in my dreams, that the very moment before I saw him I felt dirtied by the streets and was concerned only for my new purchases, lest they be ‘icky’ from the walk home.
I didn’t even realise he was a human being until I saw him move.
He was several meters ahead of me lying on the ground face down.
For the longest while he wouldn’t move at all and then would pick his face up out of the dust and with what seems like all the strength he had, he would push a little brown bowl out in front of him with his hands and with his shoulders hunched up around his ears he pulled his lifeless torso toward the bowl with his arms. Exhausted from the effort he would lay his face down in the dust again and lay still until he found the strength to start again.
I stop walking. There are thousands of people all around me hustling and bustling and stepping around me and then stepping over the man and some push past me and look back with the expression to let me know I had inconvenienced them with my standing and my staring but I couldn’t move. Before me lay a man who was the picture of poverty and though I had seen poverty before I had never seen something so hopeless and pathetic and tragic. A man dragging himself through the dust of one of the most filthy cities on the planet, his cheeks grazing the concrete and no one affording him so much as a gaze let alone a dollar. He was invisible… no one sees him and I think perhaps he knew it.
In the time I watched him he was able to drag himself no more than 2 meters and when I suddenly shook my head to snap myself out of the trance I began quickly fumbling in my pockets and my purse for any change I had left. I emptied my coin purse into my hand and without looking down at his face I quickly dropped the money into the little brown bowl, straightened up and hurried across the road.
I had done a good thing…. hadn’t I? Thats what he needed…. Didn’t he? My loose change? He would be able to buy a small meal now wouldn’t he?
I got no more than 2 blocks before the argument with myself forced me to turn back to look for him.
Along with those bags of shopping I was also carrying guilt because I knew there was at least THB2,000 cash in my purse and I felt I had hidden it from him. I had spent several minutes watching this dear person drag himself along the hot pavement and despite seeing how no one even looked down at him I did what every other ignorant and heartless white woman would do and I threw toward him my worthless coins without even affording him eye contact because his poverty made me uncomfortable.
I felt wretched and I wanted to make it right.
I hurriedly backtracked along Sukhumvit Road but was suddenly held up by some workers who were setting up ladders and tying up rope before me. While looking around impatiently for a way around the men I saw a little stall which was selling coloured bracelets. I approached the woman and told her I was looking for a gift. ‘I want a gift that will give someone hope’
She shook her head at me.
‘Hope‘ I said “Do you have something that means hope?‘
‘Ohhh! Hope Yes!’ and she digs around in a little box and pulls out a yellow woven bracelet with a silver symbol threaded into the middle of it. She points to the symbol ‘This mean hope for Thai people‘
Very good I say and I pay her and cross the road and when I see him I can feel the tears come.
I walk right up to him and he stops moving, waiting for me to step aside. I set my bags down and kneel in the street before him and he looks up at me. When our eyes meet his face erupts with the look of shame and he throws his face down to the pavement and presses his nose humbly into the ground.
I suddenly feel all the love and compassion and mercy of my heart burst into my chest and I just want everything else to disappear so I can hold him and tell him that everything will be ok and have some reason to believe it will be.
I grab one of his hands and press every last dollar I had in my purse into it and then begin tying the bracelet around his wrist. His face remains in the street.
When the bracelet is tied I put my hand under his chin and lift his face so he sees me. He is weeping and the tears are making lines in the dust on his cheeks. I try to mime for him so he can understand me. I place my hands on my chest, then point to my eyes, then press my hands on his chest. ‘I see you’
With that I start to cry. I know he probably can’t understand me but I begin speaking anyway
‘I want you to know that I see you and that I am so sorry this has happened to you and that I can’t do anything for you. I want you to know you have changed me and I will never forget you. You are precious and one day I promise to write about you.’
He doesn’t look up and so I do the only thing I know could be of any real help to him and I begin to pray. ‘Dear God….’
As he hears me, he looks up and puts his hands on my cheeks. I pray that God would see this man and see his sufferings and that he would have mercy upon him. When I finish praying I kiss both his hands which are now wet from my tears, stand up, grab my bags and walk away.
When I get to the end of the street I look back to see that he has not moved. His face is in the dust again and I can see his back rise in small convulsions. He is sobbing.
I can taste the dust and dirt from the street on my lips but I don’t wipe it away. When I look down my hands are stained brown and blotchy from fallen teardrops. I have a feeling that the short moments with that man will stay with me for the rest of my life, even though I never learned his name.
The man stays with me for the rest of the day. Oh, it is even more than that! He stays with me day after day after day and even after months the memory of his face frames everything I do.
Never has there been another experience that has woken me up to the fortune and blessings in my own life as sitting in the street surrounded by strangers while a man with no legs and no food took my face in his hands and allowed me to weep with him. Because of him not one day of the last two years since our meeting has gone by where I do not spend a few moments being thankful for the great blessings in my life and because of that he has unknowingly done something for me which no other circumstance or experience or song or poem or person has ever been able to do for me in the same way before…or since.
He made me truly thankful.
You see the greatest gift on earth is not receiving more things, but rather the gratitude and thankfulness for what you already have.
He will never know any of this of course and perhaps that only adds to the poetry of the story. The man who had nothing gives the greatest gift of all to a woman who had everything…
But I wish he did know. I wish he knew that every time I purchase an ice cream for my sons or buy new text books or pay the power bill or buy fresh flowers simply because I love fresh flowers that I see his face and never, never, never take my good fortune for granted. I wish he knew that I find joy in simple pleasures because I can still feel the coarse skin of his hands on my cheeks and I know that even the simplest of pleasures are not afforded to everyone.
I wish he knew that I never forgot him and that I never will forget him.
But he will never know.
Perhaps this is more poetry or perhaps it is actually just a tragedy, I don’t know.