My Friday Night

Some foliage encountered on the Khao Pradu Nature Trail

Some foliage encountered last week on the Khao Pradu Nature Trail

I didn’t know what to do last night, so I went for a ride.

I could have done something more exciting on a Friday night, for sure, but it’s been a long week full of words and thoughts and I didn’t want the city, or a beer, or even company. The danger existed, lurked, of staying inside my air-conditioned bedroom the entire evening. I already knew I wouldn’t grade papers or write a homework assignment or even cobble together a few words of my novel, though, and thankfully hunger forced me out the door.

There’s a restaurant around the corner from the school that is open for lunch and dinner. The tables are made from fiberglassed sections of tree trunks, and at the smaller tables the stools are entire tree stumps. We call it AC Place, although I’ve found that the doors are open and the fans are on just as often as the air conditioning. When we leave campus to go to the city we turn left out of the driveway, but AC Place is a very small distance to the right and, until last weekend, was the farthest I’d traveled in that direction.

Last Saturday David, Ako, and I went to a Nature Preserve in Wat Bot where I took the photo at the beginning of this post, and on the way discovered that the drive was perfect. Last night I wanted a bit of perfect, so I drove past AC Place and kept going, over the railroad tracks, onto 1086, and down the curving two-lane road. Trees overflowing with greenery hung over the road, and I drove past rice fields and intermittent patches of jungle. Friday seems to be trash day, so I passed many roadside fires, always untended and burning gently by the side of the road, releasing fumes of plastic bags and bottles into the dusky air. Thai people sat outside their houses, near the road, sometimes selling watermelon or rambutans. Sometimes they sat at restaurants, but it was always hard to tell if they were restaurants. I peered into the darkness of tables and people sitting beneath roofs with no walls, looking for food or a kitchen and smelling good things, but I remained ultimately unsure and drove on, unwilling to stop. They don’t get many Farang in this neighborhood, and as I drove by people stared, laughter and a smile on the edge of their faces, as though wondering what I was doing there.

I marked a few roads to come back to at a later date, including the way to a local wat (temple), but ultimately this was a trip for getting out of the house, not one of wild exploration. (Should one always be wildly exploring? Can one be forgiven for feeling shy and wanting only a bit of air and the sunset?) I turned around a little ways after the road widened into a four-lane on its way through a miniature strip with shops and a 7-11, and just before it met the broader highway. (If you are traveling all the way to the Khao Noi – Khao Pradu Non-Hunting Area, you will turn off again after a very short stint on the highway and soon find yourself on a narrow and muddy dirt track that travels up and down hills and tests your ability to stay upright on your motorbike.) Where the horizon was wide due to the lack of foliage near the highway, I saw the sunset in my rear-view mirror, dusky purples sinking into grey clouds and a yellow haze. I turned to face it, but lost it soon after I began to head toward home. The road turned a bend and very soon the sunset was reflecting in brilliance, once again, in my rearview mirror. A metaphor? Perhaps.

I stopped at AC Place on the way back and had the chicken with basil over rice (it cost a dollar). Then I picked up some evening snacks at the convenience store and turned down the drive to the school. A dark and dainty shape ran out of the shadows and chased alongside my bike as I passed the empty school buildings: Lady Gaga, one of the school dogs. She is all black and slender with long legs and elegantly tufted ears. Moments later Rusty appeared on my other side, a red-brown dog who always seems competent and in charge of the situation. They are the parents of the four puppies on campus, three baby black dogs and one the color of rust. The two dogs flanked my bike like an honor guard the whole way to my door. I wondered if they wanted to play, or say hello, but by the time I had turned off my bike they had already run off side by side into the night.

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Rusty. Photo Credit to my fellow teacher David Owen.

Thailand! Motorbike! Yeah!

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Yesterday marked six weeks since my departure from the US, if anyone’s keeping track.

There are a lot of things in life I just never really pictured myself doing. Operating a wheelchair-lift bus for two years was one of them. I’m a words-and-pictures person, you know, a books-and-paper kind of girl. Being on the road 8 hours a day and barking, “Ten-four,” and “What’s your twenty?” into a two-way radio wasn’t really on the bucket list. I learned a lot, though, it paid the bills, and it got me to the next thing. Which is here.

Then there’s teaching. I never thought of myself as qualified for the responsibility, and I only really decided to give it a try when I saw my twenties slipping un-adventurously away and realized that less qualified people than me apply for this gig all the time. Now I’m here, and some days I struggle with the work, but if there’s going to be a foreign teacher struggling at this school it might as well be me. I’m doing my best, and I’m learning.

Another thing I never saw myself doing is owning a motorbike.

It’s a 1998 Honda Dream Exces. Semi-automatic; four gears and no clutch. I’m still not entirely clear on the distinctions between scooter, motorbike, and motorcycle according to US standards, but I’ve gathered that this sort of thing depends on the number of CCs in the engine. I’m also having trouble finding the exact specifications for my vehicle on the internet, but my current understanding is that is below the 150 cc threshold for full-on motorcycle status. It gets up to 55 mph easily, though, topping out around 60, and I would definitely need a motorcycle license to operate it back in the states.

In Thailand, giant touring motorcycles a lá Harley Davidson are just not a thing. My motorbike is the same size as every other motorbike and scooter, and motorbikes and scooters are everywhere. They’re like bicycles! I got mine from a guy around the corner with some help from a fellow teacher who’s been at the school longer than me. “This is the one,” he said. “10,000 Baht.”

(That’s 300 US dollars.)

“Oh,” I said. “What about the blue one, is that for sale?”

It wasn’t, and that is just fine. I have grown to really like my motorbike, with its black paint and dented tailpipe. Somewhere along its life someone christened it with a BMW sticker, and it has a basket for groceries. I had originally wanted an automatic scooter, having had 24 hours experience driving one four years ago in Koh Samet, but Brian (the same teacher) told me that was silly. This would be cheaper, and it would be easy. No problem.

Brian is a hero, by the way. He got the seller (chicken guy, we call him, because the shop also sells roasted chicken) to drive my bike to the school. He then drove the guy back to his shop, and spent the next hour teaching me how to work my gears and start my bike while I drove endless laps around around a parking lot at the school. By the end of the night, I felt nearly confident. Easy! I am still not always the smoothest gear shifter, especially when I get to thinking of other things, but I can cruise along on the left side of the road with the best of them now. And having wheels makes life possible. Having wheels means freedom.

Incidentally, I’ve never owned a car before. This is my first motor vehicle, so I’m a little proud. But I would be completely stuck at the school, miles from anything, without it. It means I can drive into town to go shopping, to get dinner, to find a coffee shop, to sit by the river. And maybe it’s not really built for long distance, but taking an hour and a half highway drive to Sukothai and biking around the ruins of famous temples was so much more satisfying than an hour bus ride. Life is good. And life is still confusing and full of ups and downs, but hey. Motorbike. Ancient ruins. Can’t complain.

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