Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Just a simple grimace of fatigue - Bangkok, Thailand

I get off the BTS at Saphan Thaksin. I stop by the hawkers, I buy some pork skewers with sticky rice, a few chunks of fried tofu ad a bottle of tea, and then I turn right at a big intersection. I'm walking on an unusually spacious sidewalk, tearing and chewing the last bits of my snack, when I spot a scene that makes me freeze.

An old man is slowly coming my way, pushing forward a huge shopping cart. This is by no means an atypical sight, but there is something about it that catches my eye. One of the wheels got stuck in a crevice and the old man, without any sign of distress, is pushing and pushing, but gets no joy. Although his head and shoulders reach out, his knees go down and his thighs are trembling, there is nothing to do: the cart stays put. The hole on the floor that is blocking his progress is a little thing, you can hardly see it: still it's looking at it that I understand how weak this old man actually is.

Just when I'm about to go there and help him, the wheel leaps forward and starts to turn. Although the man is already past me, I just can't leave and I continue to watch. He looks seventy or eighty years old, but I wouldn't be surprised if he were younger than that. His hair is gray and nicely trimmed, while some stubs of white beard stick out of his chin. A clean white shirt of a very light fabric is flapping around his withered limbs. He's wearing shorts and some old plastic slippers. One of his ankles is wrapped up in a sock, gray, matted and open in the front. In the cart he's carrying some empty bottles, other objects of plastic and a lot of scraps. Like many other people who live in Bangkok, he earns a living by trading that stuff.

He's advancing slowly, one meter a day, and every movement he makes takes a year of his life. He can't adjust too often the course of the cart: only when he hits a building or reaches the curb, the wheels bend to the right or to the left. On one of these stretches he's approaching the wall, and a group of workers, leaning against it, all have to move and make room for him. A night-watchman interrupts his work and pulls his cart beyond a step.

Maybe it's the guilt for not having helped, or the fact that the man is not asking for it, but I feel the urge to give him a tip. I hesitate, because you never know, sometimes you mean well and then make a mistake. There is a bus stuck in a jam, with uniformed people chatting on board. A woman is standing on the steps of the door, singing a song that comes from behind. Suddenly she notices the old man with his cart, she jumps from the bus and rushes to him, sticks a bill in his hand and runs back to her place. The man was so deeply engaged in his task that when he looks up the woman is gone. He mutters some koop kun and lowers his head.

As I got my cue, I start to walk, I catch up with the man and wait for a chance. When a wheel of the cart gets stuck once again, I hear him moaning a long uiii of affliction, so I help him out and slip a tip in his hand.

I watch him looking and smiling at me.
But then I realize that what I took for a smile, might just be a simple grimace of fatigue.

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