Bangkok Airport: Rolling Thunder!
The cast for this story... ;o)
Circa 2008: A Nascar worthy performance from Special Assistance Services.
Most people view travel as an escape from life’s troubles. But what travel becomes your life? I did not engineer this nomadic experience, rather it simply evolved from a series of my choices. As it evolved, so did I, and now I think of travel differently.
Perspectives change when you are rarely in one place for longer than two weeks.
Life on the road can have its own unique complications. Especially when you’ve broken your foot, your splint is loaded with metal brackets and you simply have to move. I don’t sweat the small stuff though, for I have realized that every moment, whether positive or negative, presents me with an opportunity for life experience. So I roll with it and adapt.
If you think that way, you can have a journey on the way to a journey - even while you’re stuck in an airport.
Cut scene - Bangkok, Thailand - August 31, 2008.
As my plane touches down, I say my farewells to another single serving friend. We exchange smiles, pleasantries and business cards. He invites me to his plantation in Bangladesh. I invite him to my place in Melbourne. As usual, in the hours I spent airborne, I added yet another destination to my endless list of countries to see and we became confidants. However, the time between takeoff and landing is of a different world. In the sky, time and obligations are non-existent. You and a perfect stranger are companions for that time, without exception. I accept my companion’s kind invitation with a smile. A country that is one of the most populated on earth based on land to people ratio is bound to have a sight worthy of memory. Yet, in the same moment, as we shake hands and part ways, I realise that we will never meet again.
A life on the road is like that - it takes more than any man has to hold onto anything except the most precious of moments.
I disembark from the plane. Back to my reality. As I put weight on my torn ligaments, my ankle swells in protest. I ignore the ache, because there is no option to do otherwise. As I make my way down the passenger bridge into the airport, I look at the departures board. Good fortune smiles upon me. The listed gate for my connecting flight is only a short distance away at gate C2 and the Thai Airways lounge is right next door. I sigh in relief. Transiting here very often, I know first hand that Bangkok’s airport is one of the largest airports on the planet. To walk from the most distant of gates is approximately 2 kilometres.
Not a problem… if you can walk.
I drift off in the lounge and let time slip. Whoever said every moment of life is precious has not been a modern traveller. Transit time is like stasis - it usually passes without meaning. I’m thankful for sleep, so I surrender to it. Normally, I resist that, because it’s a liability. Today is no exception. I awake with a start, but I am relieved to discover that I still have an hour to get to that plane. I’m on a lucky streak, it seems. Rather relaxed, I haul my gear and start hobbling to the exit. On my way, out of habit I check the departures board. What I see makes my stomach sink: “Gate change: E9”.
That’s the last gate at Bangkok airport. 1.5 kilometres away. I half scowl, half grin to myself. My lucky streak is over and this is going to hurt me badly, but on the other hand, I have to appreciate the good Lord’s sense of humour. E9 is quite amusing. Anywhere further and they would need to extend the airport.
So I begin my long walk. I pass through security checkpoints and recite my well rehearsed and semi-automated explanation for my cast, cross meeting points where strangers congregate and part in time with flight schedules, and ride on travelators that move at constant crawl... all of the time ignoring the clicking, crunching and the tightening of my foot against the cast as the swelling increases with each foot fall. I focus on the need to catch my flight and the 4 hours of in-flight stasis it will afford me. That’s my goal, and its no small feat. Sweat runs from my body, a combination of tropical heat and idiocy, but I press on regardless. Then I see it in the distance. E9. It feels like a mirage of a spring on a desert horizon to a man parched and on his last legs. Checking my watch while I stagger on, I am pleased to see that I have 25 minutes before the plane. Finally, I have arrived. Smiling, I complete my ridiculous voyage with an exaggerated moment of self-grandeur, looking up at the gate sign to savour my accomplishment, probably looking a little like Sir Edmund Hillary might have looked when he reached the Summit of Mt Everest for the first time.
Its all good :o)
Then, as my eyes land on the sign, my smile freezes as electrics begin to hum. My self-grandiosity is turning to shards of ice in my chest as I see the letters begin to move. Get out of here, it can’t be? I’m not smiling any more, but I’m watching this sign like a stunned mullet, disbelieving, but knowing that the wrath of the airport deities is about to descend upon me.
Like a roulette wheel on a losing spin with the ball already in play and the chips down, I see the numbers flutter before my eyes, changing from E, D C… 9, 8, 7, 6 ,5, 4, 3… each letter representing a hundred painful steps to me. Then the humming stops. My brain begins to adjust to what I see… and my jaw hits the ground a second later. I read the words: “Gate change: C2”. But… that’s the same gate I just came from!
I sit down on a nearby bench and put my head in my hands. Sweat threads its way through my fingers. Only 24 minutes remain until takeoff and my foot is numb from the punishment of the first journey. No fair - where is the umpire? How about a time out? Reluctantly, I admit to myself the most rare of circumstances: I simply cannot make it, I’ve been beaten. At that moment, I feel surrender wash over me and I begin to laugh. God really does have an excellent sense of humour. Around me, fellow passengers who would ordinarily be cursing at the gate change are instead looking at me with suspicious curiosity: check out the token white guy who has lost his marbles and is giggling to himself, giving a thumbs up to no one in particular while the rest of the world runs to catch a plane. This realisation just makes me laugh harder.
Of course, sweating, irrationally giggling white guys flashing signs of approval to higher powers in today’s modern airport environments don’t take long to attract attention, so its only a few moments before I am approached by airline staff. When they get my story out of me, they insist on getting me a wheelchair. I’m too busy laughing to protest. I’ve travelled on many planes, but this will be my first international wheelchair. Never mind, the temporarily insane have no pride. I struggle to hold back my request to make it motorised. I’ve always had a sick fascination with those things, and images of me racing through Bangkok airport, burning wheelchair rubber at 100km per hour only makes my laughter more intense. The Thai Airways staff look at me with wonder, but this is Thailand, so its only a few minutes before they are laughing with me as I wave a few thousand baht around and insist to no one in particular that my wheelchair must be turbo charged and nitrous boosted.
When my wheelchair arrives, I’m less than impressed to see its not up to my request, but the Thai local who is pushing me is wearing a smile that makes up for it. He loads me into the chair and we begin our journey together:
Me: Thanks for the ride. Whats your name?
Me: Hi Tarakorn. I’m Dion. I know you can’t pronounce my name, so since you’re carrying me, you can call me Dior, like the handbag, and I’m going to call you Popcorn, like you get at the movies. Sounds good?
Me: Ok then. Listen, I got to get a flight in 15 minutes and the staff were supposed to get me a wheelchair with a big motor so I could get there quickly. But this wheelchair has no motor!
Him: *still laughing* Yes, no motor.
Me: Well, Mr Popcorn, I like to go fast. No motor, no fast, no plane, no good!
Him: No fast, no good.
Me: Fast is good. Plane is better. If you were a motor, how fast could you go?
He doesn’t need further encouragement.
As soon as the request leaves my lips, I begin to pick up speed. We’re off. I’m egging him on and the speed increases. First a fast walk, then a slow jog, then a run. Its only a few moments until we’re doing the unthinkable: an airport worker sprinting through Bangkok airport, propelling a semi-crippled white guy at a speed that could send us both face down in a tangled mess of wheelchair. I’m feeling his breath on the back of my neck as he is panting, running at full speed now. We’re beyond the point of stopping. There is far too much velocity for this wiry guy to stop our combined weight of 130kgs from plowing into the people in front of us. So, in the spirit of community, I begin to holler “Coming through, out of the way, INCOMING!”. It takes a single look at the mess barreling down the travelator for people to scramble out from in front of us like birds escaping the path of a runner.
I’m holding onto the chair for dear life now, grinning like an idiot. This is the most fun I have ever had at Bangkok airport and I’m loving it! I might just make this race - if I don’t break my other leg or get arrested in the process.
Mr Popcorn is dripping sweat on my neck now. Its bad form, but I’m not a stickler for formalities when the engine on this wheelchair is performing so well. Its been quite a journey so far - we have navigated maintenance works that served as roadblocks, scattered bottlenecks of travelers, surfed a few lifts and even given a rolling high-5 to a surfie looking dude passing us by in the opposite direction. Our finest moment was the police officer who waved at us as we raced by him, calling out: ‘SAWADEEEEEEEKUP!”. All was going to plan. But with 5 minutes left on the clock, we still had the ultimate test ahead:
The security checkpoint.
Popcorn calls out in Thai as we approach the crew lane of the security checkpoint. I flash him the thumbs up previously reserved for the airport gods and a cheshire grin for skipping the queue. The greasy looks of the queue mongers make the moment even more delicious, because I’m an absolute fan of the frequent traveler asshole points I collect when cutting into lines. We decelerate rapidly, as Popcorn has spread his legs and is sliding across the floor, hanging onto the wheelchair and leaning backward in the same stance used by water skiers. In support, I’m pointing to my watch furiously as the wheelchair skids to a halt with Popcorn still hanging off the back. I am exhausting my Thai vocabulary by announcing the only other word I know repetitively: “Kopkooncup”. The three guards at the check point stop what they are doing and look at us. We look at them. It’s a Thai standoff and everything stops.
It could go either way…
…and I’m still tapping my watch.
With a quick exchange between them, its decided. They are going with it! They stop the security screening and rush over. I spread eagle as they take me to pieces, one on the chair, one pulling my cast off, one going through my bag, each speaking very quickly in Thai. Its not a scene reminiscent of an airport security check in the third world... instead, it feels like a scene that belongs in an F1 pit stop. Popcorn is cheering them on and now we have spectators in the rear, watching how fast a man can be processed through a checkpoint. I’m keeping a verbal count of the seconds as the scene unfolds. When I get my bag back, I give the call: 34 seconds. The guards share a grin and with that, we take off again.
Moments later, we race down the ramp and onto the plane. I am the last passenger to board.
As Popcorn and I say our farewell, I ask him whether that has that ever happened before. He grins at me and says: “Never before, never again”. I slap him on the back, slip him some euro in gratitude and tell him I’ll be seeing him for a drink sometime.
Kudos to you, Tarakorn. Wheelchair pilot extraordinaire.