I got over my jet lag while in Singapore, sure. But it was still hot as balls here in Bangkok even a thousand miles further from the equator. And the distinct scent of the city’s air – even filtered by the aircon – was jarring to my Western nose. It was one of those smells that you know you will remember forever the moment you get that first whiff. The smell was unique and the people around me were a different mix of human culture than I’d been exposed to in any other airport. There was a large number of Muslims shuffling with me through the line at customs, each of us stopping to be interviewed by surly looking customs agents. A young Muslim couple was a few places in front of me in line. I watched them passively as we slowly approached the customs desks. The woman wore a burka that covered her body from head to toe including a veil on her face and gloves on her hands. She was completely covered – everyinch. I couldn’t see the veiled woman’s eyes. But she could see mine.
In my home of Los Angeles, the idea of modesty can be seen as a dying commodity. The act of putting oneself in the background, or at least out of the spotlight, isn’t exactly viewed by the masses as a position of strength; louder is better, faster is greater, free spirits and their seeming disconnect from human interest are revered. And in the USA in general, the thought of women in remote parts of the world wearing full body coverings is viewed as strange and oftentimes oppressive.
I exchanged head-nods of acknowledgement with this practicing Muslim man and his veiled wife as we snaked through the lines at customs. My thoughts took over: What country are they from? What are their names? Whose decision is it for her to wear the burka? What are they doing in Bangkok? What do they talk about at dinner? Do they sleep in the same bed? Do they have sex? Does the burka come off when they do? What does she actually LOOK like under there? Wait! What’s going to happen when she gets to the customs desk? They have to look at her passport and take her picture upon entering the country, right?? Is she going to remove her veil?? Oh man! She’s totally gonna take off the veil! I MUST see this!
It became a race. Of slowness. As much as I wanted to get into the city to experience the mayhem that accompanies all stories of its existence – and despite the hours-old travel warning against Bangkok from my home country and twenty-three others due to the ongoing protests against the government – my mind was solely fixed on seeing whether or not my burka-covered line mate would be required to lift her veil for the customs agent. The line full of sluggish passengers then split into multiple shorter queues at the individual customs agent’s stations. I was ushered about 20 feet away from my line mate. She and her husband inched closer to their custom agent’s desk as the line in front of me sped up. “Slow down,” I internally implored to the customs agent at the end of my line. “I have to see what’s going to happen!”
My wait in line to enter Bangkok became a game. And to win, I had to see my burka-covered line mate’s face. But I felt like my queue was getting faster; my customs agent was becoming more efficient. How dare he? It’s not like I could stop and let someone else pass or purposely slow down the line, they would’ve gone nuts! Hell, I could be deported or arrested! My line mate was now closer to her customs agent. “Yes!” But I was next in mine! “No!” I was called by my customs agent to step to the red line. I anxiously looked at him in between glances to my burka-covered line mate. The couple was called by their customs agent. If the husband was to be interviewed first, I’d miss it for sure. My agent was already lining up the camera to take my photo. But her husband let her go first! Nice! Chivalry is not dead! I swear I felt beads of sweat condensing on my forehead. “Here we go.” As the agent interviewed the woman, her burka remained intact. Not a rustle of her clothing. I heard my agent greasing up his stamp with ink. But before he could slam it down on my passport, validating my entry to his native land, it was time to take a photograph of the incoming foreigner twenty feet away. And sure enough, as my mouth surely fell agape like a child’s when he sees Mickey Mouse for the first time, my burka-covered line mate obliged his request and lifted her veil to reveal her olive skinned face. I stood in awe and recalled hearing “In My Life” by The Beatles for the first time on my mother’s record player; the sweet melodies woven together by perfect harmonies. And as steadily as the removal of her burka revealed her kind and understanding face, it came gently back down to shield her completely as a gown of solitude. The agent thanked her with a head nod, stamped her passport, and motioned her through to Thailand. (Mine did, too, thankfully.)
During my stay, I visited parts of Bangkok where women were unabashedly displayed in hardly any clothing at all; prostitutes in skimpy outfits flashing their bajingos as if they were pet kitties and this was show and tell. Some were cute, some were sexy, some were both, some were neither. But none of them encompassed the sheer exhilaration, anticipation, or ultimately, the quiet reverence that my burka-covered line mate possessed.