Friday, September 05, 2008

Riding the Bangkok Roller Coaster

The Big Dipper in Santa Cruz is tame compared to the ride I'm on here in the capital of Thailand. Today was a good example.

I've been depressed for the past two weeks, worrying about the impending expiration of my visa, and with it the work permit I finally got last month. My three-month non-immigrant "B" visa ends on September 11th, and with it the work permit a day before, next Wednesday. Getting an year's extension for, first the visa, and second, the work permit, was supposed to be easy. Dr. Subodh from India, who also teaches at Mahachula Buddhist University (he's sitting beside me in the photo from the seminar at Wang Noi last week), had no problems. But I was turned away twice (once after a three-hour wait) from the counter for teachers at the Immigration office because my documents were incorrect. Dr. Suriya, head of the English language department and my boss, prepared new documents two weeks ago but the necessary signatures from the university's rector and the dean of humanities failed to quickly materialize. Last week one of the letters arrived but it had the wrong passport number (copied from Dr. Subodh's letter). So it was retyped and went back to headquarters.

I couldn't sleep. I imagined that, without the extensions, I would have to rush out of the country next Wednesday, probably to Laos, and settle for another tourist visa. Losing the all-important working visa and permit would mean I would have to start the bureaucratic process all over again, and it's taken over six months to get this far. I even began thinking about a return to the U.S., my life here in a shambles. What would I do there? I wouldn't even be able to afford to drive now!

So I threw a little fit in the English department office yesterday, telling Dr. Suriya (whose English is not all that good) that if I did not quickly get the correct documents I would be forced to leave Thailand and give up teaching English to the monks at Mahachula. I wouldn't be able to give them their final exam, nor could I assign them grades (since it would be illegal to work without the proper papers). Sure, lots of farang teach English illegally in the Land of Smiles but I wasn't prepared to break the law.

The documents arrived before I'd finished teaching my two Thursday classes. This morning I jumped in a taxi at 7:45 and was at the Immigration office when it opened at 8:30. I submitted the application, successfully this time, paid the 1,900 baht fee, and within the hour I had a my visa extended to May 31, 2009, the end of my current year's teaching contract. Across the street I had a copy made of page with the new visa date in my passport for the work permit application and grabbed the first taxi to take me to the Ministry of Labour. A half block up the street I realized my passport was missing, got out of the taxi and raced back to the copy store. A man standing on the corner with my passport looked at the photo in it, looked at me, and told me he'd found it on the sidewalk. I waved down another taxi and within a half hour was at the Labour office submitting my permit for an extension to match the visa date. It took another half hour to process, I paid the 3,000 baht fee, and left the building feeling joyous and exhilarated. I did it!

But the Bangkok roller coaster ride was not yet over. I got in another taxi to go to DK Books, the large outlet for English language teaching materials. Now that I knew I was staying and would teach next term, I wanted to look at a new, more advanced, textbook since I would be teaching the same students and didn't want to repeat anything. In the taxi I sent text messages to friends telling them of my good fortune. When we got close to the bookstore, I paid the driver and opened the door...

...and a motorbike racing between the taxi and the curb crashed into the door, bounced off and into the back of a van in front of us. I was stunned, seeing both bike and rider lying on the ground. Did I cause that? Jerry and others have warned me to always look carefully before opening a taxi door, on either side. Motorbikes are constantly weaving in and out of traffic. But the fault was mine. The drivers of both vehicles and I got out and the motorbike owner limped up onto the curb. There was no blood but his knee appeared hurt. A policeman was called. He led us around the corner to park where he took the IDs of the taxi and van drivers, and the motorbike rider. I called Pim and got her to talk with him. He said another policeman would come within a half hour to take a report. The back bumper of the van was scratched, the door of the taxi was dented, and the motorbike owner was limping. I feared the worst.

We waited and I fretted. From exhaltation to despair within seconds. I told Pim I wanted to do the right thing, but I didn't know what that was. I was frightened about the police. After standing around in the oppressive heat for nearly an hour, I asked the van driver, who spoke a little English because his job involved driving tourists around Bangkok, if I could make a contribution to each of them. I had 2,000 baht in my billfold. It turned out the taxi driver would be happy with 500 baht, but the injured motorbike owner wanted 3,000 baht (nearly $100). The van driver, my translator, said he would be satisfied with 2,000 baht. So we walked up the street until I found an ATM machine and withdrew 5,000 baht. The van driver stopped by the police kiosk and retrieved the ID cards (perhaps the police wanted us to settle it among ourselves anyway, since no one came to take a report), and when I gave each their share of the bribe they seemed quite grateful.

As soon as I walked away, the exhilaration returned, this time magnified by the successful resolution to this crisis. The bookstore didn't have all that I wanted, but it made little difference. I was free, no longer threatened by an encounter with the police which I was afraid might be even more costly, and I had legitimate working papers now which allowed me to remain in the Kingdom for another eight months. I returned home just before the skies opened and dumped a ton of monsoon rain over Bangkok, accompanied by lightening and ear-splitting thunder.

As for the political situation here in Bangkok, it remains the same, both sides hopelessly divided and no one any closer to offering a workable solution to the stalemate. Whatever happens, though, I know I'll be able to handle it. Jai yen yen.

1 comment:

Roxanne said...

Congratulations on your visa extension. What a bureaucratic nightmare. I would have been reduced to a puddle on the floor.

I am glad that you were not injured by the motorbike's impact on your cab door.

Take care,