Perhaps all this traveling with Tom has made me soft.
Our second day in Chiang Mai, we rented a scooter. We spent the morning touring various temples and gardens and in the afternoon, returned to the city’s center. We parked the bike along a cafe-filled street just outside Chiang Mai University and after getting a coffee, turned into a quieter alleyway lined with chic, minimalist (read: overpriced) boutiques.
Tom realized it was probably better to park the scooter here, than the busy main road where we’d left it.
“I want to stay and look around here,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll bring the bike back. Don’t go anywhere though.”
I nodded and waved him away while picking things up and, seeing the price tags, putting them back down.
We had wandered onto a street that specialized in turning the cheap knick-knacks less well-heeled vendors sold to young backpackers in the outdoor markets into exorbitantly priced “boutique gift items” using spare displays and pretty packaging.
I wasn’t born yesterday and so I lost interest quickly and wished I’d gone with Tom to get the scooter. I smiled politely to the shopkeeper and stood outside to wait.
A few minutes later, Tom came down the street on a scooter very similar to ours, but as he came closer I saw it wasn’t Tom, just another white man wearing the same colored shirt.
The shop across the street looked a bit more interesting than the first, so I went to give it a quick browse. Same overpriced stuff.
I ducked into the next shop as well, estimating I had about five minutes before Tom returned with the bike.
Again, nothing new, though the shop owner had a very cute dog with who I played with until I felt it was time to wait outside so Tom could see me.
Five minutes later I turned to see Tom’s coral shirt on a black scooter turning down the alley. I waved.
Except it wasn’t Tom. It was the same man I’d seen earlier, just looping around.
Five more minutes passed. Then another five. The woman in the first boutique came out to water her plants. She smiled at me and I smiled back, but inside I was all frowns.
Tom is very punctual, prompt. When he says he’ll show up, he shows up. We had parked the bike less than ten minutes’ walk away so Tom surely should have returned by now. But I decided not to do anything rash.
Maybe he took a wrong turn on the way back and had to loop around, like the man wearing the coral shirt did. Or maybe he was waiting for traffic to die down so he could turn down the street.
Then as it usually does, my mind leapt to the worst possible scenarios: did someone steal the bike? Did Tom get into a fight? Or did someone punch him out and kidnap him? Or, worse, did he get hit by a car? Was he hurt or…dead?
I walked to the edge of the street, wondering what I would do if something happened to Tom this sunny afternoon in Thailand. How would I even find or help him? Our friend Susie was in Bangkok. I’d have to tell her to come meet me in Chiang Mai so she could help me translate for the cops. But I didn’t even know how to dial the cops in Thailand.
I felt suddenly cold despite it being over eighty degrees, and started to call out Tom’s name, not caring the the honking taxis and scooters drowned me out. I looked towards where we’d parked our scooter but rush hour was just beginning and oncoming traffic blocked my view. I looked for a coral shirt, long white arms, a smile. But Tom was nowhere in sight.
And then I remembered my phone. I had the hotspot so Tom couldn’t text me, but I could still call him. It rang and rang and rang, then stopped.
The damn kidnappers had his phone!
But at least it was ringing. I called again. Finally a man picked up, his voice broken and gargled. A little quiet. Vaguely foreign.
“Hello? Tom? Is that you?”
Of course you “can’t” you filthy kidnapper, I thought.
“You’re… breaking up,” said Tom. Was it Tom? “Betty? Call me back?”
I was relieved but then wondered where he was. In jail? In the hospital? A few seconds later the connection was better.
“Where are you?” I said a little too sharply, “What’s happened?”
“I got a parking ticket.”
“I thought you were kidnapped! Or dead!”
“I had to work it out with a cop,” Tom said, “It’s all sorted now.”
It turns out we’d parked it in a spot clearly marked (in Thai) “No Parking.” A traffic cop had along with the ticket, left a giant chain and padlock around the bike.
Tom had gone into a nearby bike shop for help, and a cop showed up, telling Tom he’d have to take the ticket down to the police station to pay the fine.
“Shouldn’t be more than 200 Baht,” a South African man also in the shop told him.
Tom turned to the cop, “Can I just pay you?”
“Why you want to pay me?” the cop said, “You have to pay at the station.”
“I have to return the bike by 6PM,” Tom replied. This was true, but also he wanted to avoid the inevitable hassles of going to the police station.
“Okay,” the cop said, as though doing Tom a huge favor, “Okay.”
When Tom went to get change, the man at the register nodded towards the cop.
“How much you pay,” he asked Tom, and when Tom told him, he laughed.
Tom paid the cop 400 Baht -about 12USD- which the police station would probably never see and which was probably way, way more than a Thai local would have paid.
I was glad Tom was alive and not kidnapped, but 400 Baht! After being charged double or triple all day what Thai citizens paid for visiting their historical monuments it seemed unfair. I wished I’d gone with Tom so I could have argued with the cop. But Tom was unfazed.
“Oh it’s alright,” he said, “Twelve dollars for a good police corruption story is a pretty good value.”