I was in the World Trade Center area last week and got caught up in one of those 'VIP visits' - when a foreign dignitary or a high-ranking politician decides they want to go out and do a bit of shopping - so the population of Bangkok, for twenty minutes at least, suddenly and without warning, find their daily routines thrown into chaos. The fun usually starts about thirty minutes before the VIP arrives, when you notice a sudden surge of police activity. Pedestrian bridges and walkways instantly become no-go areas, choppers hover menacingly overhead, and an eerie silence seems to descend on the city. You half expect someone to shout "run we're all going to die" which is the signal for a Tyrannasaurus Rex to come rampaging down Sukhumwit Road or at the very least some sort of tidal wave. These monthly occurrences have niggled me down the years not just because anyone who isn't in possession of a crackly walkie-talkie is viewed as a potential suicide bomber, but it gives the chance for humble security guards and junior police officers to turn into God. Young uniformed security staff who have guarded the entrance to a particular building for years, and who have saluted you smartly as you breeze past, suddenly turn into your worst enemy. It's almost as if their recognition of you gets completely erased from memory. Just as you attempt to enter a building, they'll block your way and give you the wagging index finger - a gesture I find deeply annoying at the best of times. And then with the foreign visitor - possibly the Chief Finance Minister for Burkino Faso and his twelve wives - safely ensconced inside the shopping mall, waves of relief flood over us and we can all go back to our daily business.
I just want a webcam
I ventured into the Seri Center shopping mall on Phattanakarn Road yesterday in search of a webcam, so I can wave at my mom on-line and she can actually watch me type out words instead of just reading them as they appear on the screen (isn't technology wonderful?) The Seri Center is possibly Bangkok's worst shopping mall experience. It doesn't have crowds. It doesn't have hordes of pierced teenagers. It doesn't have anything. Except I must say a very decent I.T mall, which I much prefer to that seven levels of Dante's Inferno which masquerades as Panthip Plaza.
I hate shopping for computer software in Bangkok. It's not because I know very little about computers and someone telling me to 'go through my registry keys' or 'booting up my bios' has me breaking out in a cold sweat, but the shop assistants in these places drive me absolutely nuts. Call me old-fashioned but I like my computer technicians to look like computer technicians - and not 'bits of kids' to borrow one of father's favorite expressions. I like them to be middle-aged, slightly balding, and preferably carrying a pen. How can you buy computer software from someone who doesn't carry a pen?
In the first shop I had to disturb a girl of about seventeen who was busy downloading MP3s. It was quite clear from the outset that I had mistaken the shop for a place that was in the business of selling things. She got off her chair with some considerable effort and gestured towards a display case with two webcams in it. I asked her a few questions - none of which fell into the category of 'searching' - but her product knowledge was unfortunately zero. Well she did know that the two items on display were webcams - I'll give her that. I shot her a look of exasperation and told her I'd look elsewhere.
The second shop had about eight shop assistants all fighting for space behind a counter barely big enough for two. It was like watching an I.T version of Twister. Eventually one of them plucked up the courage to ask what I was standing there for and produced the only webcam the shop sold - a snazzy-looking Logitech affair priced at a rather ambitious 1500 baht. I quite fancied it to be honest but I wasn't parting with that sort of cash unless I had a demonstration first. The sales girl (again about 17 years old) looked as though I'd asked her to run naked around the shopping mall shouting 'look at me I'm a goblin'. She summoned the only male employee (as far as I could see) and he muttered under his breath as he realized testing the product involved taking it out of its plastic packaging and heaven forbid - downloading a driver. First of all he had to find a computer. This in itself was no mean feat. He eventually dragged an old laptop from some dusty recess and spent the next twenty minutes battling error messages and resisting the obvious step of turning to me and saying 'sorry the thing's knackered'. Losing patience rapidly, I leant over the counter and told him the item clearly didn't work. He gave me a long convoluted answer about my computer at home being much better than his (how the hell would he know?) and I would have no problems at all setting it up.
I told him that in the world of computer software, there are two choices - something either works or it doesn't. I turned and fled.
At the third shop things began to look up. The sales girl was almost old enough to vote and ride a motorcycle, so my hopes were high. However those hopes were dashed when she told me that they didn't offer a free demonstration, but if I paid for the goods first I could then have a demonstration and if the webcam wasn't functioning properly I could get a refund. This would actually be terribly convenient because I would theoretically be already standing in the fucking shop. Can you get your head round that? No, neither could I.....and left.
I was by now more than willing to return home minus webcam, because I could see my poor long-suffering wife starting to receive the brunt of my anger (as the dear angel usually does) but for one last throw of the dice, I approached one of those dreadful 'accessory stalls' that are piled high with plastic CD cases, funky mouse-pads and blank DVDs and serve no great purpose other than to block up the center aisle and make the whole place look a mess.
"Webcam?" I enquired, with more than a hint of impending disappointment. The lady behind the counter (and she was a lady) leapt from her stool, plonked a 500 baht webcam on the counter for me to examine, clicked a button on her computer where she already had the same model of webcam rigged up, and within seconds I could see myself on the monitor, waving and pulling faces in glorious real-time technicolor. I whipped out a 500 baht note, bid her good day and left a happy man. You see - selling things to the general public isn't really all that difficult is it?