TALKING TO A BANGKOK MOTORCYCLE DRIVER
To understand hardships from the inside, you need to be patient. People who suffer either complain all the time or stay silent. In both cases, the nature of suffering is communicated. It is in the crucible of anguish that defines the person in later life. Withstanding adversity in the face of overwhelming odds is difficult as it is rare. But people do arise above their hardships and we call that ability to keep going a virtue.
Our eyes are wide open to our own injuries, despairs, and insults but we are often blind when others around us have the same inflicted on their lives. We walk passed the beggar. We don’t notice the blind lottery seller. Or the old man selling baked bananas wrapped in banana leaves.
We over estimated the importance and duration of our own humiliations and underestimate the feeling of someone who has been humiliated. Often someone without power or influence suffer in front of our notice if we care to look. A child. A grandmother. A beggar.
Or a motorcycle taxi driver.
I take a motorcycle taxi most days in Bangkok. It is inexpensive, convenient, and fast. Traffic jams are legendary in Bangkok. The motorcycle is the best weapon to use when all cars have come to a halt. They carefully thread their way through narrow corridors, avoiding rearview mirrors.
Most of the major intersections in my neighbourhood have a motorcycle taxi stand. From a handful of drivers to a couple of dozen, the motorcycle taxi system allows the drivers to make a subsistence living. Often they are taking local residents to fancy condos, hotels or restaurants. The rich stay hidden behind the tinted windows of their cars and SUVs and utility vans. They wouldn’t be caught dead on the back of a motorcycle taxi. They’d rather stay inside their vehicle no matter how bad the traffic. To take a motorcycle bike would assault their personal dignity.
I see foreigners and members of the Thai middle class using them. Their passengers are delivered to places of luxury, buildings that they have vague knowledge about from TV soapbox operas. These drivers are never from the inside.
There approximately 200,000 motorcycle taxi drivers in Bangkok. That is a city-sized group of people—driver are mostly men but include women, too. Most of the drivers come from the Northeast of Thai. They have a limited education and limited alternative employment. Many of the drivers, having saved up money travel back to the Northeast, helping parents and relatives with farming activities and contributing money and information about the big city.
A lot of their time is waiting their turn in the queue in the hot sun. At each taxi stand a rotation system is used so that all drivers have a fair chance at the work. The local fares are ten or twenty baht. Few people use them for distant travel. I used them to go one kilometer to the gym or two kilometers to lunch.
Each time I arrive in one piece, I feel grateful. I pay the driver and watch him turn his bike, and return without a fare to his taxi stand. He’ll go to the back of the line and wait until those in front have taken a passenger. They have busy times of the day in the morning and then in later afternoon as offices begin to empty.
I’ve made an effort to know the young men at the taxi queue in front of my building. What I’ve noticed is they keep to themselves. I rarely see them talking to a passenger. The passenger get off the bike, pay and without a word disappear. No acknowledgement of the other person. There is no exchange except the name destination and the handing over of the fare on arrival.
Where is the dignity in such a daily existence? Is it the way of all big cities that those who are at the lowest rungs are excluded from respect, dignity, and self-worth? Unless we find value and meaning in the experience of such people, the universal reply from those we exclude is alienation, suspicion and unrest. If dignity were a sustainable resource dispensed through the taxi ranks in Bangkok, and the drivers became the messengers that those around had started to notice and talk to them, acknowledge their existence, the building blocks of trust might be sufficient to construct bridges inside the larger community.
Strange things have happened. The truth is that extend and scope of a shared, common experience is the best way to measure the health of any society. Break people into enclaves of poverty and luxury, strip them of self-respect, hope and dignity and suddenly there are society’s worst fear—fellow creatures who have nothing to lose.