After a problematic long haul flight from LAX to Singapore followed by a brief but delightful connection to Bangkok, I arrived in Thailand tired, confused, slightly disheveled, and wildly curious.
I was met at the arrival gate by a young man holding a sign with my full name, middle included. He walked me directly to a restroom, which I declined. He was visibly disappointed by my decision. We walk in silence to passport control. Handing my documents to an angry government employee felt familiar, less familiar was watching her cough all over them but we returned to familiarity as she yelled to me in a language I am unlikely ever to understand. As my face morphed from exhaustion to bafflement, her volume grew and finally, mercifully, a colleague waved me through with a smidge of English. My guy was magically waiting for me a few steps behind her.
Silently, he escorted me to baggage where we patiently waited. Nothing happened. As we stared at an empty carousel, he waved me toward yet another ladies room. This time I went, mostly out of exhaustion, smiling at him and waiting for something, anything, to happen was taking more energy than I could muster after 23 hours of travel.
The line for the ladies room too was silent. No one spoke or even really looked at one another. At the end of the ladies room, an accessible stall remained unoccupied. I am confident that I’m the only person who wondered about using it. I took note of the orderliness and remain impressed.
My bags arrived. This time my sign holder walked me to the customs line where the desks were all empty. I sailed past with my bags and felt a little confused, as every traveler’s forum talks about how BKK is so very strict.
A few yards after I emerge from the customs non-checkpoint I see a woman behind a stanchion holding a sign with my name; first, middle, and last. Two of us walk together for three steps, and my silent sign bearing man reappears. We are a trio. I don’t know where he came from. I never understand where he’s gone, or why I’m with him. He matches me step for step and never speaks. It’s just a few more steps and sliding glass doors welcome me to Bangkok.
The air smells like fire. Not fresh fire, but the way Los Angeles smells three days after a big fire. Like wet ash and new hope.
“Is there a fire?” I ask the sign bearing lady. She looks at me confused and I realize that this is the base scent of Bangkok. Later in the day new scents will be layered upon it and tell a story like a good perfume.
It’s a few short steps and the two young workers deliver me to my driver and my guide. The guide speaks English, American English. I tip my silent man and he disappears yet again. Perhaps he has gone to help another American traveler through not-a-line?
I’ll never understand what happened in that airport, why it happened and where their salaries appear on my bill.