He smiled at me and said, “50 baht.”
I smiled back, shook my head and declined.
“35 baht,“ he countered.
“No,” I said.
I hesitated. 30 baht was a decent price. I was thinking about it.
I had just left the big Tesco supermarket with a week’s supply of food and needed to get back to my village. It was hot. I was sitting under the bus shelter along the highway a few hundred feet downstream from the only big box store in my province and was waiting for one of the song-taews that services the communities to the south. I could easily walk back downtown, I’d done it a half dozen times before, but all the Snickers would melt terribly. He pulled up beside me, coming from in back of me on the sidewalk, and angled his motorbike so that we were facing each other.
We were familiar with each other, or at least I was familiar with him, he’d asked me if I wanted rides before, usually as I was walking back to Ranong from the store, already in my groove. I’d say he’s in his early 60s, round-faced with wisps of gray hair sticking out from underneath his helmet (he’s one of the few motorcycle taxi drivers that wears a helmet). His beard and mustache are scraggly and mostly gray. I always found him riding on the sidewalk. Motorbikes frequently ride on the sidewalk here. Thais don’t walk much so there’s little chance of conflict, plus enforcement is less than lax. He is one of the half dozen or so motorcycle taxi drivers that run the Ranong Market-Tesco route, and he works for the company whose employees wear the pink vests with the shark logo on the back. This is the first time I wasn’t moving quickly in the opposite direction, so I was forced to decline him at length.
In the Peace Corps volunteers are forbidden from riding motorbikes of any kind. Instead, Peace Corps Thailand provided us with nice—really nice—bikes (and helmets). When I first got to my site, my mountaintop community, I was gung-ho and rode my bicycle down to Ranong the first few weekends. The ride down the mountain was a breeze, literally and figuratively, and required very little pedaling. Riding back up was the hard part, my 60-year old lungs didn’t have the capacity they once did and in the 99 degree heat I found I was walking the bike, panting and sweating, more than I should have been. Plus, I couldn’t carry an awful lot in the little basket attached to the back; I was limited in so many ways. After a while I learned the song-taew system from my village down to the city, more or less. Once I got dropped off across from the market I could walk around and explore. Each successive week I expanded my circle out from the center of town. I became content getting to know the downtown stores and stalls better.
I relied on my co-workers for weekly trips out to the Tesco Lotus. The big Tesco sold things I couldn’t find in the stores downtown, things I had quickly grown to covet and need, like their bakery-fresh vanilla butter cake I devour for breakfast every day and that certain brand of whatever from Germany or Australia or the US that I suddenly couldn’t live without. It seemed like quite a trek to the big box store when my co-workers drove but we were making lots of stops along the way, doing official community business: paying bills, banking, picking up and dropping off printing needs, lugging supplies. After a while the frequency of our trips dwindled, or rather I was being invited less often, and I needed to figure out how to get out there on my own. I tried it once on my bike but that turned out to be a poor decision, the yogurt, the butter and I reached home as overheated liquified blobs. Soon it would be rainy season and I didn’t even want to think about that.
Eventually I learned that the walk out to Tesco from downtown wasn’t as onerous as I had first imagined, a half hour in each direction. Next I discovered what song-taews I could transfer to that dropped me off and picked me up close to the store.
I knew, or thought I knew, that a few volunteers snubbed their noses at the Peace Corps’ prohibition on riding motorbikes. So went the rumors. So when the motorcycle taxi driver offered to take me downtown for 30 baht, I paused.
30 baht. “I can’t,” I said, pointing to the big bag of goodies I was toting. In turn he pointed to the narrow space in front of his legs. Then I quickly remembered the things I’d seen folks carry on their scooters: families of five, ten foot ladders, even an airplane.
30 baht. “I can’t,” I said, pointing to my head. He pointed to the extra helmet sitting in the wire basket in the front of the bike sitting above the headlight that looked broken.
30 baht. “I can’t,” I said, but couldn’t remember the words for “because those are the rules and I can get kicked out.” I hesitated. I tried to glance past him to see if there was a song-taew on the horizon. There wasn’t.
30 baht, that’s under a buck and I’d be back home so much quicker transferring those melting Snickers into the fridge.
30 baht, that’s only double the price of the song-taew. Who would know?
I said no again and shook my head. He hesitated, he was losing interest but he tried one final time. 30 baht. I hate risk. I more firmly told my taxi driver, “Thank you. No.”
It took over an hour before I was finally able to pour the Snickers into the refrigerator. Each night I pick out a differently-shaped bar. They all taste the same.