I saw him, a forlorn figure, about 35 years of age, several tables away.
He turned and we made eye contact; then he turned away with a shy, awkward smile.
I thought I saw tears in his eyes.
He turned again and this time I acknowledged.
He shouted across “You from China?”
“No, Singapore,” I replied, “and you?”
“Kuwait,” he replied.
“You alone?” I asked.
“Yes,” he could barely say the words, “my daughter is in hospital, I’m waiting here.”
“Is your wife with her?” I wanted to know, while beckoning him to join me at my table.
“My wife and elder daughter were killed in an accident,” he said, “my youngest daughter, the one who survived, is in a hospital here undergoing an operation.”
This conversation took place one evening at Starbucks, Ploenchit Center, across the road from the Marriott hotel, Bangkok, some time ago.
He told me he was working as a manager in Kuwait; that private hospitals in Kuwait are expensive so he flew his daughter to Bangkok for her surgery. Also, when he was young, he attended English courses in Bangkok therefore he is somewhat familiar with the place.
He said his funds have depleted; he was chased out of his hotel because he couldn’t pay; the hotel has held on to his passport and will only return it if he comes back with cash.
He has even sold his mobile phone, just so he could eat.
“Have you contacted your embassy?” I asked.
He said he has, and some friends in Kuwait have promised to send money but he has no idea if that would really happen.
“Where would you sleep tonight?” I wanted to know.
“Anywhere,” he replied, “it doesn’t matter, I’m only worried about my daughter, that she will get well, whatever I have to endure is okay.”
I was wary. The cynical, skeptical me, the worldly-wise traveler that was me was waiting for him to ask for money, but he did not.
We sat there, talking about nothing important really, chit chatting about the world, how Bangkok has changed; how Kuwaiti oil has once tempted Saddam Hussein to invade; the office hours in Kuwait, the heat there.
Still the request for money didn’t materialize.
He shared about how in one unsuspecting moment, when two cars collided his life was turned upside down. I listened, obscenely smoking my 2000-Baht Siglo VI and sipping my grande latte while he puffed on some cheap cigarettes and drank free water from Starbucks.
He told me for the sake of his only surviving child, he had to be strong to deal with whatever may come next, and he told me about a movie he once watched about animals which inspired him – how a helpless animal, completely out of luck fought the lions on one side and the crocodiles on the other side.
If this was a con man, he would have asked for money now, I thought.
But then again, I wasn’t sure.
Should I offer him some money I wondered?
Well, maybe this guy won’t ask and this is exactly his modus operandi, tell a sob story so well, put on a performance deserving of an Oscar and anyone listening will automatically reach out for their wallets without him even asking?
I started to question myself.
What if his story is true, how could I forgive myself if I don’t lend a hand while I can? Would I insult him if I hand him a couple hundred bahts? What if he said no? These Kuwaitis, they are a proud people aren’t they?
And what if he’s a con? Surely I won’t suddenly become a pauper because I hand him a couple hundred bahts?
I hated the debate within myself. It reminded me of Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho traipsing round the world talking about peace – while hundreds of thousands of troops continue to die in the Vietnam War – before they eventually signed the Paris Peace Accord years later.
Am I adding to or prolonging this man’s misery with my internal struggles?
8:30pm – it was time for my conference call. I said goodbye to him and headed back to the Marriott.
“Nice hotel, Marriott,” he said with a wistful smile.
I didn’t turn back.
The next day at 5pm, as the hotel limo drove me to the airport, I saw him again.
At the same Starbucks, sitting by himself, a lonely figure, looking low-spirited and sad.
He looked so pathetic.
I hated myself.
I think I’m more pathetic than him.