A Day to Break a Travelers Heart

By: Charlotte Thompson

I wake up to the stifling heat of Bangkok. My friend Elena lies next to me on sweat soaked sheets still asleep. I get up and go to buy a Thai coffee across the street and return to wake up Elena. Today, we decided, was the day we would go to the AIDS clinic. A few months ago I had fallen in love with a South African man named Mohammed. We had now gone our separate ways but I had become worried that I may have contracted HIV, knowing that South Africa has the highest incidence of infection in the world. We leave our seedy hostel and give a tuk tuk driver the address.

 “No, no …riots, riots” the tuk tuk driver shouts at us in broken English.

He scoots off. I ask another tuk tuk driver. This man speaks much better English.

“Government protests” he says

“Dangerous…..but okay, I take you.”

 Elena and I look at each other. I see the excitement in her eyes, she sees the worry in mine. We board the rickety tuk tuk, destined for the HIV clinic. As we approach our destination, the driver seems nervous. He stops the tuk tuk blocks from where we had asked him to take us.

“You walk from here,” he says.

 We pay him and start walking. As we approach the clinic, the tension in the air becomes palpable. We hear chanting in the distance. Excited and curious, I hasten my pace. As we round a first corner, barbed wire, car tires and cement barricades block traffic. With no traffic we hear nothing but muffled chanting. As we go around a second corner Elena and I find ourselves in a large plaza packed with people. In the distance a young man stands on a hand-crafted stage made of wooden pallets and plywood. He chants passionately into a microphone. His chanting ripples through the animated crowd.

We push our way through the entranced crowd and finally reach the clinic, an austere building surrounded by a wall topped with barbed wire. Heavily armed military men stand guarding the entrance. Elena and I both shrivel at the sight of this intimidating building. I walk up to one of the guards,

 “Is this the HIV clinic?” I ask.

 The guard gives me a tight nod and we enter.

We walk through the heavy front doors and find ourselves in the main lobby. A small folding table serves as the check-in. I go to sign in and get a ticket while Elena claims two of the few seats remaining. A gay couple gravely clutch hands in the seats next to me. A nurse calls what must be their number. They immediately stand and follow her up the tremendous stairs in the center of the lobby. A few moments later a wail echoes through the room. A young girl crumples at the top of the stairs. Two nurses rush to pick her up as her cries echo through the marble lobby.

At last, the loud speaker calls my name. “Come with me” I whisper under my breath.

 Elena squeezes my shoulder and follows me up the large staircase in the middle of the lobby. At the top of the stairs a kind nurse ushers us into a small, baby blue room with barred windows. In this small room we wait for the doctor for what seems like forever. I chew my nails frantically.

A tall doctor enters the room. His clean white coat pops next to the grimy blue walls. He is handsome and reassuring in his demeanor. He sits in front of me and smiles. Calmly he asks a few questions. I answer politely. My eyes dart around the room as though planning an escape when the doctor asks me to put out my arm. I did not want to see the needle pop through my skin. Swiftly the doctor draws some blood and gives me a number telling me to come back tomorrow.

“Tomorrow?” I ask. “Isn’t there any way to get the results online or …?”

“No” he interrupts. “You must come in.”

Elena and I head back to our dingy hostel. We have dinner in silence and I go to bed. I toss and turn for hours that night anticipating the results and thinking of the clinic. I wake up before Elena the next morning and go get coffee as usual. As I make my way to the coffee shop, I pass two ladies of the night arguing loudly. When I return, Elena, dressed, waits in the lobby. We find a tuk-tuk and whizz through the hazy streets towards the clinic.

As we walk into the lobby we recognize the gay couple from the day before. They stand at the bottom of the staircase, holding each other, sobbing. I imagine they sob because, for them, a positive diagnosis means an ominous future.

When my results come in negative I smile at Elena and look away. I am embarrassed. That night in my diary I write about the young girl on the stairs and the couple in the lobby thinking about their pain and the hardships that they will face in the years to come.

A few months later Elena and I find ourselves whizzing through the busy Bangkok streets once again, this time with our friends Florian and Yoann. The four of us squeeze into a moaning tuk tuk destined for the famous Chatuchak market. When we arrive, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the colorful cluster of vendors selling counterfeit clothing and cheap trinkets. Quickly exhausted by the colors and sounds and smells, we find a bar and sit down for a drink. Behind us a big group of French people get fabulously drunk. Eventually, the rowdiest of them, a flamboyantly gay man named Nicholas, hears us speaking French and insists we join them. I make conversation with Nicholas and learn that our new friends work as attendants for a French airline.

“I looove Bangkok” Nicholas yells.  “You must stick around after the market closes— I have a surprise for you.”

Soon the loudspeakers announce in Thai the closure of the market. The few remaining people and vendors make their way to the front gate. Elena, Florian, Yoann and I stay at the bar with our new friends and order another round. Eventually we leave the bar and Nicholas guides us deep into the shutdown aisles of the market.

“How will we ever find our way out of here?” I ask Elena.

 Elena puts her hand to her ear.

 “Listen” she says.

I listen—a slight thumping resonates throughout the market. Nicholas hastens his pace.

“We are here!” Nicholas exclaims as the thumping gets louder. 

Around the corner to find ourselves in a bumping bar. A man dances on the bar in front of us dressed in a corset and fishnet leggings. A smaller stocky man approaches Elena and me to make conversation.

“Are you a couple?” he asks in broken English. 

Elena nudges me. “Yeah we are” she says wrapping her arm around me.

 To compensate for the awkwardness of being women, straight and foreigners, Elena and I go to the bar and order several tequila shots. We then hit the dance floor. I look at Florian and Yoann who seem overwhelmed as men grab at their butts and wink at them.  As we dance I think of the gay couple from the clinic.  The rate of HIV infection among gay men in Thailand is very high. As many as 1 in 3 of these seemingly happy, healthy people were carriers.