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One Kitten in Bangkok

I met a kitten in Bangkok who changed my life.

If you live in North America and have business in Europe and Asia on consecutive weeks, chances are that you’ll buy a one way round-the-world ticket. And if you do this, chances are that you’ll be changing planes in Bangkok and that you’ll have a dead weekend. Knowing this by now, I’ve taken to spending my dead weekends in Bangkok when I do round-the-world itineraries. Bangkok is a great tourist town, with some of the best walk-in sit-down dinner restaurants I’ve found anywhere, an excellent metro light rail system that includes its airport, and everything is cheap. Beer is rarer than I’d like, but café espresso is readily available.

After my week in Beijing and before my week in Istanbul, I spent a night and a day and an evening in Bangkok. I challenged myself a little by picking a no-name hotel in a neighborhood far from the light rail system. It took five tries to find a taxi driver willing to go that far from the city center after I landed. And it took me about eight hours of walking (carrying my two bags, bandolier style) to get back to a rail station that could take me back to the airport. The day was hot, but not as smoggy as Beijing was nor as humid as Istanbul would be. There’s free public WiFi for tourists, so I was able to use Google Maps a dozen times to keep my bearing.

When you walk around in a town that’s not your own, the habit you’ll develop is: don’t talk to anybody. Whether it’s a beggar, a pickpocket, or a potential mugger, the safe thing to do is don’t meet anybody’s eyes, don’t speak, and don’t stop. 200,000 air miles a year will really reinforce that lesson, too – I ended up pissing off a fellow traveler by trying to rescue his belongings the previous week in San Francisco, and then the week following I fell for the “excuse me, you’ve dropped your brush” shoe-shine scam in Istanbul. Nothing teaches you not to get involved faster than, well, than getting involved. Sadly, there is no bright center to not getting involved, and I learned the hard way in Bangkok that you have to pay attention and make a conscious considered decision, case by case, every time.

Here’s the story.

I was walking through a light industrial neighborhood, parallel to a canal, getting from the government center neighborhood back toward Chinatown. Most of the roll-up doors were still closed, since Bangkok is more of an evening/nighttime economy, and it was only noon or so. I love light industrial shops, and some of the wood I saw being planed was achingly beautiful. There were plenty of car and motorcycle shops and parts stores, and one family was tink-tinking out metal bowls – a fascinating rhythm. But I knew I had to get away from the canal and trend toward my left to get back to the part of the city where the trains were, so I did that.

As I was rounding a corner I saw that the corner building had a ledge in its bricks, about a foot off the ground. I saw a kitten laying on the ledge, legs hanging half into space. I like cats and I veered toward it with the thought of a short visit. When I got within ten feet of it, I saw the problem: the kitten was dead, its skull visibly fractured. I veered therefore away from it. At this point a Thai woman stepped in front of me, capturing my attention with her pain-wrought eyes and her wail of grief – and once she had my attention she pointed both hands at the kitten and then back at me. I wondered, what is it you want from me? And I looked again at the kitten, and I saw the real problem: the kitten was still breathing.

Don’t get involved, said my hind-brain. So I walked in an arc around the woman, and kept going. As I got down the street I wondered again, what did she want from me? The kitten was beyond pain, there’s no way the brain was still in one piece with the skull in that shape. As a life-long anthropomorphist, I would normally say I ought to end this animal’s suffering but one of Thailand’s dominant religions forbids killing, as in, there’s no market for fly swatters in that country. Had I gotten involved in ending that kitten’s apparent suffering I may have roused a crowd to fury or found myself talking to the police. Anyway I expected the kitten’s autonomous nervous system to fail within minutes, so I put both the kitten and the woman out of my mind as I continued my journey.

Toward evening I found an air conditioned western-style restaurant not far from a metro station, where draught beer was two-for-one during happy hour, which it then was. After seven hours of walking I was hot and dry and appreciative. Several beers later the partitions and disciplines in my thinking got a bit more relaxed, and I wrestled the unanswered question from the afternoon: what did that woman want from me? And with a few hours of perspective and a few beers of mental flexibility, it hit me like a ton of bricks: it wasn’t a scam – she found the kitten in the street after it got run over by a car – she put it on that ledge – and she reached out to the first person she saw. All she wanted was commiseration, someone to share the pain with. She wanted no action from me, no money, just human contact.

This was a painful ton of bricks to have fall on me, as in, walking toward the metro station with tears streaming down my face. There was no going back, no do-over. But when I realized that while there had been nothing I could do for the kitten, yet something I could do for the woman, I remembered that voice from my hind-brain: don’t get involved, and I decided that this is not by itself a rule to travel by. If I could have a do-over, I’d visit with the kitten, and hold the woman’s hands, and maybe wait with her for the kitten’s breathing to stop. Not speaking the local language would not have been a problem. The kitten’s injury was real, and I should have recognized that as a sign: this cannot be a scam.

So, new rule: pay attention and keep your mind open.