Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Soundless emotions - Phuket, Thailand

The mini-van driver enters the lobby, takes a quick look and shouts: "Airport! Airport!". I grab my backpack and follow him. When I'm out of the hotel I hear some cries, I turn around but there's nothing wrong. Suddenly the driver starts to run, holding a bag in his right hand. Half a minute later he's already back and he places that bag in the trunk of the van. He's noticed the confusion in his passengers' looks and tries to explain what that was about: " talk. He...look lady..."

He looks disappointed by our blank stares, drops further explanations and shuts the door. A few seconds later a foreigner with bleached hair walks in our direction at a quick pace: he slides the door with excessive strength and chooses the seat right in front of me. Then he turns around, stares at something behind us, stretches an arm, points an accusing finger and with escalating anger starts to give out some sounds: "Ngh! Hmn! Ngh!" We all turn to watch but there is nothing to see. We are all overcome by a sense of embarrassment and we start to pretend that we're doing other things.

The driver takes his seat and starts the van, the mute looks ahead, clenches his fists and punches with energy the first thing at hand, which happens to be the headrest in front.

While the driver picks up the rest of the passengers the mute keeps looking sad and upset. He shakes his head as if to say "". One would like to comfort him and ask what's wrong, but nobody dares to make the first move. We wait for him to open up and after few curves he breaks the ice.

After pressing some keys on his mobile phone, he shows his neighbour the photo of a girl: we all stretch our necks to take a look. Then he starts to mime his sad story for us. A plot made of hands that take off like jets, to land in an airport and then travel back. The palm takes off and lands again, like an air shuttle between Thailand and some other place, taking him here, bringing her there or dropping both of them somewhere else. The story of their relation is exemplified by two fingers that joins while he makes a sad face, to suddenly part and go separate ways. Then he rolls his eyes and pouts his lips; when he nods his head we don't know what he means: whether "That's the way it is..." or "It's better like that..."

A deafening sound from his mobile phone announces the arrival of an SMS. He reads it and grabs his head with his hands, then he fiddles with the keyboard and tries to call. Whenever the van drives past a temple, a draped banyan tree or a simple shrine, all of a sudden he stops watching the screen, joins his hands and brings them close to his face, until the holy site has faded away. For a moment I think I hear sighs all around.

I notice that besides having converted to Buddhism he's wearing a t-shirt with a coat of arms: the one used by the Thais to pay respect to their king. Who is she, where did he meet her? The woman who turned his life upside down, who convinced him to change his religion and customs and then left him in a mini-van bound to the airport, surrounded by strangers who can only nod, set for the saddest trip that he could think of.

His telephone rings and it's another uproar, he answers the call but it's just a "ngh!". He gives out more sounds, then thinks up an idea: he turns toward a Thai girl who is sitting in the back and waving three fingers in front of his lips he asks her to talk on his behalf. The cellphone is passed from hand to hand, but by the time the girl gets it the line has been cut. The mute takes it back as if it was a bad egg, then rests his brow on the palm of his hand and shakes his head in renewed despair.

The cellphone rings for a second time and the mute gets up the courage again: the procedure is repeated but the outcome is the same. Once again his head sinks between his hands. The third time the girl starts to talk with someone. I understand something of what she's saying: mostly greetings or "yes" and "no". When she finally gives him back his phone, the only thing that she says to him is "OK". He doesn't look curious about what they were saying, he's finally smiling and squeezing the phone, which would blow in his hands if it were a real egg. He thanks her the Thai way, by joining his palms.

The girl smiles back and nods to him, then looking at me she clenches her fists and rotate them near her eyes miming someone who's crying. Who cried? He did? His girl? And why? Knowing that it would be indelicate to ask any questions I manage to hold my curiosity back. I wonder what happened. The same old story? Another girl without scruples who takes advantage of tourists? I really hope his tale is a different one.

As I'm looking at him while he's lifting his bag, greets everybody and walks away, I find myself thinking that it would be nice if the passengers of the flight that he's going to catch could look at him smiling while he dreams to come back, to meet the girl that has changed his life.

Photo "banyan tree" and "Phuket sunset" by Fabio Pulito

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