Bangkok taxi ride
I am sitting in a taxi trying to make my way down Sukhumwit Street in Bangkok. It’s raining and the traffic is jammed, not that it’s not jammed virtually all day and much of the night. I strike up a conversation with the taxi driver.
“How long have you been driving the taxi?” I ask.
“About four years,” he answers succintly.
“What were you doing before that?”
“I was working with my brother in a family business.”
“Where’s your family?”
“In Nong Bua Lamphu.”
“Really?” I am surprised. “I’m working in Nong Bua Lamphu now.”
“Really?” It’s his turn to be surprised. You don’t bump into too many people from Nong Bua Lamphu in Bangkok. Not that there aren’t people from this province trying to make it in the big city, it’s just that NBL is a small province, and Bangkok is a big town. They get spread out and so you don’t bump into too many of them.
“What do you do in NBL?” he asks me.
“I’m a pastor at a Catholic church. We’re also trying to do some programs to help the community,” I answer.
“That’s great,” he says. “NBL needs a lot of development.”
“It’s better now than it used to be, I think,” I observe. “But there’s still a long way to go.”
The taxi driver nods his head in agreement. As he stops at the intersection of Sukhumwit and Asok, waiting an eternity for the red traffic light to turn green, he tells me about what he used to do to make a living in NBL, and since it just wasn’t enough he decided to try things out in Bangkok. It’s not easy driving the taxi, but at least he’s got more to send back to the family in NBL so that the children can go to school and have the things they need.
Back in NBL, I’m making use of my role as pastor of the province’s only Catholic church to make some contributions to the development of the town. It’s not much, but it’s something. Before I came and at present, the Mother of Perpetual Help Center run by Br. Damien Lunders, a veteran American missionary has been making an impact on the HIV/AIDS care and prevention program in the region. People in town all know about the center and its work. They know about him too, because he’s one of the few Western men in the province who don’t have a Thai girlfriend or wife. It’s still something that some local people haven’t gotten a grasp of.
The AIDS center is right next to the church. People in town know more about the center than they do about the church, partly because of the widespread work done by the center, partly because ever since the church was built, none of the priests who came to be pastor here stayed long enough to help the parish develop or to start community outreach programs.
We’re trying to make up for that now. So we got programs started. Got the youth together to have activities, get community youth and children from the AIDS orphanage to come to the church to participate in summer programs, year-long programs, and special activties. Now we’re establishing a house on a big piece of land belonging to the diocese at the foothills of NBL mountains, right behind the provincial hospital as a place for people who need temporary shelter, especially the poor village folks who come to the hospital to visit and take care of sick family members. Some stay for a few days, others for weeks. They end up sleeping on the hospital corridors, or camp outside on hospital grounds. It’s a pitiful sight to see. So we’re opening up this place to help people like this, people who are “strangers” among our midst.
The traffic light turns green. The taxi driver shifts gear and starts to cross the big intersection. Overhead, the Skytrain zooms past us, its railway supported by heavy concrete structures that consume up a big part of the space in the middle of Sukkhumwit Street. Here if you look left, you see buildings – hotels, banks, restaurants, bars. If you look right, you see more buidlings – massage parlors, departments stores, tailor shops, and so forth. If you look around, you see taxis, cars, food vendors, motorbikes. If you look up, you see concrete. No sky in sight. That’s Bangkok. That’s what people leaving NBL and the other small towns of Thailand are heading to. That’s what my taxi driver came to see when he left NBL four years ago.
But for me, NBL’s got its own subtle charms. Sometimes, it’s nice to be riding your motorbike down the road that runs around town, taking in the fragrant scent of new rice stalks after the rain, trying to dodge the cows crossing the street, and in front of you is the sky full of gray clouds trying to break apart after the rain has already stopped.