Tea Money

There is something about me and taxis in Bangkok. Seems like I can’t get in one without having an adventure. And a pleasant Sunday afternoon one September was no exception.

It all started very normally, as adventures often do. Completely unplanned, as adventures often are. When I climbed into the taxi in the porte cochere of a 5 star hotel in Bangkok I did not have the slightest idea how fast I was going to get back to my friend’s house. A journey that would normally take about forty minutes on a Sunday took just twenty. And it was all to do with tea money.

After instructing the taxi driver in my fractured Thai where I needed to go I settled back in the seat, confident for a change, that the driver understood my destination. This meant that I could relax and listen to music rather than constantly wondering where we were going. In this case I was listening to the glorious rhythms and soaring harmonies of voices from Africa.

All was going wonderfully well. No traffic jams, air conditioning that wasn’t likely to give me pneumonia and a taxi driver that seemed reasonably sane and not on drugs or drunk. That was until we turned right to go up on to the highway and were pulled over by a traffic cop. In Bangkok that can only mean one thing. Trouble. For the driver and, quite often, the passenger. ‘Marvellous. Just what we need,’ yelled the demon in my head. ‘Patience. Silence,’ cautioned the angel in my heart.

A discussion ensued. Between the worried-looking taxi driver and the impossibly slender cop with aviator shades and six-pack stomach muscles showing through his skin-tight brown shirt. I took my earphones out and tried to disappear into the ether.

It started quietly. Fairly reasonably, I thought. It appeared that the cop was accusing the taxi driver of shooting a red light. Given that the light was green when we went through one could only assume that the traffic cop was colour blind. However, given that this was Bangkok that was highly unlikely, despite the high proportion of men that do suffer from green/red colour blindness. What was far more likely was he was going to demand money. A bribe. Known locally as ‘tea money’. The outcome of the situation would totally depend on the taxi driver’s willingness to contribute to the ever-worsening levels of corruption in the local police force.

I waited with bated breath. Running through my head in those suspended moments of time were a number of scenarios. At best, the taxi driver would hand over the requested sum and we would be on our way. Integrity damaged but physically safe. At worst, we would both be hauled out the cab, taken to a quiet place and money extorted. From us both. Possibly the fact that I am white would prevent the latter. At least for me. I would most probably be turned out the cab on the edge of the highway, suitcase in hand, whilst the taxi driver was taken away somewhere. What happened was way beyond these frameworks. It knocked me for six. And that is saying something.

I listened carefully. Practising what I have told countless language students over the years. Listen for the gist, don’t worry about understanding every word. To be honest, even without a word of Thai it was easy to chart the flow of the discussion. Or I should more rightly say ‘argument’ because that is what it had become. Body language for them both had become more aggressive. Voices ever more clipped in cadence and louder in volume. I shrank back into the seat. Willing the cop not to look in the back of the cab.

The cop started to speak on his battered walkie talkie. The taxi driver looked at me in the rear view mirror. Pure white anger etched on his face. Hands clenched tight around the steering wheel. Body rocking ever so slightly back and forth. Muttering under his breath. Not good. Definitely not good. ‘Trouble coming,’ screamed the demon. The angel took a deep breath and started to manifest a safe outcome.

They resumed their battle. Reaching fever pitch . All over three hundred baht. About four English pounds. In my years of living in Bangkok a decade earlier I had been witness to this extortion on many occasions. Between cops and drivers of either motor bike or car taxis. I have never seen anyone refuse to pay. Put up a fight, yes. But refuse to pay? Never. I have even been asked to hand over the bribe myself. Which, against all sensibility and belief I have done. In order to stay safe.

The cop reached his hand through the window and placed it on the taxi driver’s collar. In every volatile situation there is just one brief second in time where the components of catalyst fuse together in lethal synergy. On that sunny Sunday afternoon in Bangkok, that was it. Hand on collar.

The taxi driver screamed what I can only assume was abuse. As I do not understand the finer aspects of swearing in Thai I can’t be sure. But it certainly wasn’t polite. He looked at the cop. Eyeball to eyeball.

After minutes that were only seconds, he slammed the car into first gear and floored the throttle. Sent the cop flying as we wheel spun towards the toll booth. Luckily no queue. Flung the toll at the lady staring bug-eyed out her window and screeched up onto the highway. I was too scared to look back at the policeman’s fate. As they are armed I was half expecting a bullet through the rear window.

We wove in and out of the traffic at high speed. Avoiding collision by the narrowest of margins. I enjoy a good white knuckle ride, but as white knuckle as this one was it was far from enjoyable. I was waiting for the sound of sirens and the flashing of red and blue lights. I am sure the taxi driver was too.

We came down off the highway onto the main road, dodging cars, trucks and buses. The taxi driver spoke for the first time since leaving the traffic cop. His words chilled me to the bone. He told me, in broken English, that he was so angry. More than angry. That if he had had a gun he would have shot the policeman. Left hand clenched, index finger pointing forwards, aimed at his side window.

“Bang. Bang.” Spoken with venom.

“Shot him?” I repeated back to him what he had said, ice in my veins. His reply was simple,

“Yes.” And he wasn’t lying. His anger was blind. His rationale had gone out the window when the cop’s arm had come through it.

We arrived home a few minutes later. I gave him a bigger than usual tip. Not because he would have shot the cop if he’d had a gun. No, most certainly not. Not because he sent the cop flying, as much as he may have deserved it. I gave it to him because in the face of a very serious situation he had had the courage of his convictions.

In this world of ever-increasing violence, corruption and insurrection there are many armchair evangelists who moan about the state of their world but take no action to effect change. They say that one man alone can’t make a difference. They succumb to what they say is inevitable. They say it’s too hard to make change happen.

On the one hand, they are right. It is hard to create change. It takes faith, courage, strength and commitment. But it is not impossible.

On the other hand, they are wrong. One man can make a difference. Every word we speak, every action we take has an effect. No matter how slight. And when the actions of one man join with the actions of others there is no boundary to the changes that can be made.

Acting alone or acting together we can make miracles happen.

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© Jacqueline Le Sueur 2007
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