Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The strangest scam in Bangkok?

I have an hour to myself on our last night in Bangkok. We have been in far northern Thailand, where there is nothing but tree-covered mountains stretching as far as the eye can see, and silence broken only by the calls of birds. Now there is everything, everywhere, all at once: Bleary-eyed tourists in bars. Massage parlors and "massage" parlors. Ganesha shrines laden with flowers and bananas and packets of barbecue-squid-flavored potato chips. Stray dogs looking up at me with those liquid, pleading eyes. Plants taking root in every crack in the concrete. Skinny cats scurrying over rooftops. Squirrels climbing palm trees. Every molecule of air carries that smell that hits you the instant you get out of an airport in Southeast Asia -- tropical fruit and diesel fumes, sewers and jasmine, open drains and chilli-infused smoke from the woks of street vendors.

Namtok Mae Surin National Park, Mae Hong Son, northern Thailand
Asok district, Bangkok (thank you, Frank Gallo, for the pic)

I find a nice-looking bar down the lane way from our hotel, with an empty table on the sidewalk. Great, I'll just sit here quietly. The condensation is beading nicely on the outside of my glass of white wine, and nobody has noticed me sitting here observing them -- surely this the very best state of being. And then I feel the eyes on me. A woman kneeling at my feet, on the street. From the instant I see the look in her eyes, I can tell that whatever this is about, it isn't going to be good. She thrusts a tiny bamboo cage into my hands. As if there wasn't already enough life crammed into this Bangkok lane way, here in the cage are about twenty sparrow-sized birds. I can feel their warmth through the bars of the cage; sense their panic as they try to flap their wings and find they can't; hear them cheeping, cheeping, cheeping. All these eyes -- too many black, adrenalized eyes -- are staring at me, pleading with me to DO something.

It is really a pity I didn't have a camera.
Or perhaps the pity is that I took Art all the way to the
end of high school but apparently didn't absorb a great deal.
The woman looks like she has had a hard day on the road getting here from one of those hot, flat rural areas outside the city, where the air is like soup and the sky is always burning white -- except at sunset, when the smog makes for the most epic sunsets imaginable. She looks at me with the same pleading eyes. "Good luck," she says, miming opening the cage door to set the birds free. If I pay her 400 baht, she explains, I can set them free, and this will bring me good luck. She shows me four of these tiny cages packed tight with wild birds. I feel seasick all of a sudden. Everything around me is too loud and bright and weird -- the people drinking and laughing in the bars and restaurants, the beautiful girls out the front of the massage parlor waiting for customers, the fluorescent lights of the 7-11. My brain can't even register what the birds are -- it was only later in the air-conditioned calm of our hotel room, looking at a field guide, that I worked out they were Streaked Weavers.

Streaked Weaver (By J.M.Garg, via Wikimedia Commons)
Central Thailand
Four hundred baht? More than ten dollars? I can't pay fifty-odd dollars to free all these birds. And thanks to the undisguised horror on my face, she knows I'm not stopping at just one cage. "One hundred baht for each," I say. I'm bargaining as if I were buying a fake Tiffany necklace at a street market (hey, my starfish pendant looks almost real, okay?). We go back and forth over the price. A whole lot of things occur to me at once:
1. I really just want to drink my lovely chilled white wine.
2. I feel guilty because this woman is dusty and tired in a way I'll probably never be, and here I am just really wanting to drink my lovely chilled white wine.
3. There is no way I'm going to be enjoying another drop of this lovely chilled white wine.
4. The streets of Bangkok are possibly not the best place to release a flock of Streaked Weavers.
5. It's really bad that I'm about to financially reward her for capturing wild birds, pretty much ensuring that she'll do the same thing again tomorrow.
6. And why on God's earth does the Lonely Planet warn you about dodgy tour operators at the Grand Palace but not about sad-looking women persuading you to give them money for birds crammed so tightly into cages that you fear if you don't give her the money, a goodly proportion of them will probably be dead soon?

I hand over the money, and in an instant there are Streaked Weavers everywhere -- in potted plants, on chairs, on power lines -- calling their little heads off. Some sit panting on the sidewalk for a few moments before shooting off to join the others. They quickly form a flock and hightail it out of there. No one else seems to have even noticed any of this going on. I feel totally conflicted about the whole thing -- but at least all those eyes aren't beseeching me anymore. Maybe I can choke down the last of my wine after all.

And that, my friends, is when I see what I can't believe I didn't see all along. There on the road just behind her, a big box. The woman is all smiles now as she unwraps a cloth from around it, and there it is: The mothership. More eyes than I can count. A noisy, feathery, jam-packed Streaked Weaver condo.