Thursday, January 5, 2012

Honk to pay homage to the city shrine

On the long curve of the main road that goes from school to town, the gold pillar city shrine sits within a glass and stone walled structure on the edge of the ancient walls of Kamphaeng Phet.  It is customary to honk as you go by, with some car drivers performing a quick wai as they pass.   Who could resist the opportunity to push the horn button for a little beep beep as another opportunity to build favor with the powers?  When Tuy gives me a ride to the market for dinner after school is over, she usually does.  
Driver's seat on the minibus between Trat and Bangkok. Note the 9 buddha statues, gold flower garland, red and gold wrapping on steering column and wheel. There were also several pieces of gold leaf on the van roof above the windshield.
Driver's seat on the minibus between
Trat and Bangkok. Note the 9 buddha statues,
 gold flower garland, red and gold wrapping
on steering column and wheel.
There were also several pieces of
gold leaf on the van roof above the windshield.

Driving a motorbike is a routine mode of transportation here in Thailand; very few people have cars.   With the ubiquitous presence of this machine as the primary way of getting from point A to point B,   I've seen various iterations of passage.    A man carrying a CPU on the way to a repair store, an old woman with a well-worn duct taped seat, a child slumped over the front dashboard napping on her way to school, a family of five piled on with children sandwiched between adults, dogs in the front basket, dogs standing on the foot rests at the owner’s feet, dogs balanced on the back seat and a particularly memorable obese  pug sitting on his owner’s lap with the paws on the handlebars.  There’s a man holding an infant in one arm, young women talking on the phone while driving and one sighting of someone texting.

 It is not uncommon to see the driver wearing a helmet and all the passengers riding bareheaded.  Teenagers go too fast.   Old people drive very slowly.  My fellow teachers cruise in with large purses slung over the handlebars and long sleeve jackets to protect their arms from the sun.  As school starts and I’m poised by the front gate for morning greeting duty, students of all ages jump off the bikes, wai to their caregivers and greet me with a good morning.  Some of the older kids drive their siblings in, taking care to cut the engines and walk the bike onto school grounds.

The road in Thailand has three facets:  the personal responsibility, the cultural norms and the Thai’s approach to life and death.   From what I’ve observed there are a few norms that set the context in this provincial capital.  One way street signs and “drive on the left” are optionally observed, especially for short distances.  Right of way is generally negotiable, especially if you are pulling out into the same lane of ongoing traffic.  If you are going slowly, you will be passed regardless of anyone coming in the opposite direction. Street Vendors rarely have taillights and often drive in the dark.  Once I saw a “meat on sticks” barbeque in progress with smoke billowing from the back of the motorbike sidecar, the wife of the team turning the cutlets as they headed to market.
Tuy (in polo) and her friend Aon at the market.
Tuy (in polo) and her
friend Aon at the market.

The true beauty of Thailand’s  motorbike culture is manifested in the roundabout, where the grace and synergy of how traffic moves through the circle demonstrates the power of group dynamics and the legendary Thai tolerance.   One has to have some gumption to push their way into the circle but once your in- it’s golden.  Of course, cars and trucks have more power, unless there are a few motorbikes that gang up together in the same direction. 

In the first week of my arrival, a motorbike was dropped off with an empty gas tank.  The bike is bigger and heavier than the standard 150 cc Honda Dream that other teachers drive, but fortunately it’s an automatic.    Moving through gears with traffic on a different side of the road would have pushed me over the edge of my driving confidence.  Someone had to come over and show me the gas tank (under the seat and popped open with the key) and drive me to the gas station for a fill-up.  When we returned, I was finally liberated and took the first test drive around the ancient forest temple across the street to get acclimated to the power, turning signals and other controls.   I then drove to town and stopped by the Siva shrine to make an offering before proceeding too much further.  The Siva shrine is the only one of its kind in Thailand, incidentally, and a german tourist cut off the head and hands in the late 1800’s but was caught at the border.  The cast a replica for the outdoor viewing but the actual statue is here in the local museum.

After the ritual offerings, I made my way through a few side streets, looked around and was finally ready to conclude my inaugural journey.  On the way back to the house, the bike felt wobbly.  With escalating anxiety  I couldn't tell if it was me  or something physically wrong with the bike itself.   I wondered about pulling over to check things out, calm myself down and get regrounded, but instead I counted  down the meters to get home.  I saw the school sign, the traffic was clear in both directions and I made the decision to turn across the highway, down the small hill with a quick right turn to the dirt road to my house.

Then, I was down in the gravel.  The entire right side of my body covered in red dust, my pants (thankfully) absorbing most of the impact.  I was shaken and bleeding, the bike was scratched up and dusty, wouldn't restart and had a flat tire.  I pushed it the last 200 meters home- embarrassed, resolute and frustrated.  I hobbled my way into the shower for a fully clothed hose down,  scrubbing the heck out of the 8 cm abrasion on my right elbow.   With the ample bandaging supplies from my fall in Pattaya (see note entitled Is there Cheese in Thailand) I was able to administer first aid.   I spent the rest of the on the couch.

 On Monday there was ample discussion and questions from the teachers and students about my bandage, to which I pantomime what happened. The students thought this was hilarious.  My school coordinator was chagrined I didn't call her.    When the tire got fixed the following  week,   I got back on the bike and kept my ventures to jaunts around town on the weekend, still a bit leery.
Rush hour in KP
Rush hour in KP

 After my long trip north in early December, my  wounds were all healed.  I had Alaskan friends of friends visitors who came to Kamphaeng Phet, which required a “drive home in the dark” ride after dinners.  The following week I navigated to the Big C Supercenter, a rather complicated journey with a speed hump/parking attendant experience at the end.  I’ve committed to getting out to the river park for aerobics at least twice a week, which involves driving home in the early evening dark.   As is the norm with my diabetic body, the road rash left a nasty scar on my right elbow.  I have also learned a few lessons.

The first and most important is to slow down.  I’m farang and dress like a Thai grandmother. No one expects me to be zipping around confidently on the bike.  There is plenty of time in the world and best to just saunter and smile your way through the world.   This is one of my great lessons of Thailand- it is always better to wait than it is to hurry.   It will all work out.  My experiences with the  students and teachers, the interactions with the folks around town and even my approach to Buddhism are all formed with time.  There is no rush.

I've also had to work hard to stay focused in the present moment. Thai Buddhists believe that it is important to make your present life your best, moving your way up the karma ladder toward enlightenment.   So why spend your life distracted with the hubbub of your internal mental machinations?  The dog that is lying on the street, the young man who zips up on your left, the student calling out from the sidewalk as you ride by- notice them and  stay attuned to the world around you at all times.

Lastly, be  confident (not cocky), cautious and relaxed.  During my time in Thailand, I've realized that by slowing down and staying in the present moment, you can actually gain a lot of confidence.   Driving the bike in this small town requires vigilance and tolerance, being prepared for the unexpected but also open to whatever comes up.    The anxiety created by constant mental discourse can be very destructive.  It’s  better to let those thoughts drift out away from you like a trailing silk scarf you might wear on a chilly evening after a long walk along the Mae Nam Ping at sunset, while you on the way home from the night market with a shopping bag of Chinese oranges, mixed steamed veggies and other dinner food and the half- drunk carrot smoothie in the beverage holder. Beep Beep!

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