by Peter Bracking
How many days can one sit hot under a magnificent mango sipping elephant beer foaming over ice behind a temple always in summer where bbq chicken and incense waft when the days are all like the nights except the nights are almost shorter and with that blur lose count of the numbers the important number the only number that can move you from under that cooling tree?
Twenty nine in the Kingdom of Thailand.
Bangkok is a known gravity well and Soi Rambuttri is the black hole where all substances of the expanding universe are sucked and sifted. Soi Rambuttri runs behind the temple at the end of Khoasan Road. Once it was rain soaked mud with hopping bars complete with incredible food at wonderful prices. Every falang was pulled there. Now it is paved with tourist traps. Every falang is still pulled there. And all have perfectly logical explanations for sitting under that mango tree, listening to geckos, patting perspiration off a brow, sipping formaldehyde beer over ice and telling that story.
Wilson was in Bangkok because he was married. Not for the wedding. That had happened months before in a different climate. Nor for a delayed honeymoon. His husband was in England working to get his husband’s British passport. That husband in England was working to support this husband in Thailand. Wilson’s English husband was doing a lot of work. Wilson is funny. We learned to be day traders. We drank until dawn. We danced if the mood struck us. And we sat under the mango tree behind the temple on Soi Rambuttri and drank cold beer.
Visas are not a wonderful thing. A person gets counted and so forth. You put up with the traps and trappings at government whims. You stand in lines. There are usually only useless slivers of shade and no one serves the damned lines with cold beer. But there are fines and fines for overstay had become draconian in Thailand. Five hundred baht per day. One always wants to be careful.
Wilson is from Uganda. To enter Thailand a Ugandan must apply to an embassy for an entry permit. Wilson did this. The government of Thailand approved his entry and stamped the passport. This stamp says: entry good until 90 days hence. In Thai and English.
When you hand your passport to border control you can make no suggestions regarding the placement of the stamps thus eliminating any possibility of saving blank pages. The officer reads the entry stamp, thumbs through the book scrutinizing, chooses a random page and stamps your exit date 30 days hence. Wilson knows nothing of this. Wilson has a date in mind. Wilson has the date given to him by the Thai government. Wilson counts down what remains of the time allotted to enter the Kingdom. .
At the end of the ill-perceived 90 day limit Wilson is about to start his run. He has to decide where he will go: Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia or Burma if you dare. Where determines the transport: bus, train, minivan or fly and be damned. This is his first visa run and he is low on cash. He chooses the cheapest. Ten adults, most with baggage get crammed into a minivan for the four chilled humourless hours to walk across the border, the official line in the sand, into Cambodia miles from anywhere in Cambodia for minutes and back to re-cram into the minivan and four equal hours until Wilson is sitting under a mango tree. At one time this cost about fifty bucks.
The only sound on Soi Rambuttri to be as consistent as the geckos and dripping barbeque is the ringing of phones. Even I had one of the damned things. It was Gar’s phone that rang. She listened and her eyes grew wide and her skin paled so her tattoos were popped out more vivid than ever. She hung up the phone and sipped her beer. A customs officer was sitting outside the room that Wilson was locked in. Wilson had overstayed his visa by 28 days. Wilson owed the Thai government 14,000 baht instant. The money can be deposited into the officer’s personal bank account. Plus 1000 baht in imaginary fees. If the money can be paid within the hour Wilson will not be taken to prison in chains but he will remain locked in a room with barred windows.
Wilson had about 150 baht with him to enjoy lunch and a beer on his outing.
The next call is Wilson. For some reason he cannot make an international call. Gar must call his husband or Wilson’s mum-in-law. Help I am locked in a room and I can’t get out. If Wilson is deported to Uganda he will face prison or much worse.
Under the mango tree there is tumult. No one, of course, had, or ever had over the years on the bar stools, any money. Sure. Sure. But there was overwhelming merriment made. Who hasn’t overstayed? Who hasn’t overstayed by many days or months? It was cheap enough, risk free. Once. But one always had to be aware of that exact number of days. Show up at the border with a wad of cash to pay the fine, smile and wei for a smile and wei back and you can walk back in in fifteen short minutes. Simple Simon. But truth be told from some table this wasn’t the first time; errors like this were within known scope of some gin wagging heads. Wilson was not the first to fall foul of a turned page.
While all are laughing and buzzing Gar is trying to call England, trying to get a charger for her phone, trying to send someone to buy her another SIM card. She manages to get a beer. Gar is working very hard.
Being part of the type of bunch that hang around under mango trees in various tropical climes I can tell you that at least two tables could around the curve of the earth could tell the exact time in England instant. Banks close in 20 minutes. 28 minutes. Whose watch, phone, tablet, camera, player is to be trusted? This twenty odd minutes is wisely spent by tables reviewing upcoming visa run dates by those silly enough to have the passports out from under lock and key where they could be lost.
Imagine someone whose name you may have heard mentioned once calls you from out anywhere in the world to pant out that your husband is minutes away from being led in chains and locked a prison cell in a country where prison cells are meant to be a bad experience. Now a call has to re-curve opposite over the land mass to the Thai customs officer that will delay everything but what would you do? So much hinged on long banking hours.
Long after sunset as music rustled mango leaves Wilson sat down. He was shattered. The next month will be thin. It cost a pile to keep him out of two jails.
A most important thing for Wilson to ponder now is a number.