In Paraguay, I often spent my weekends doing the same things: reading, taking walks to collect fruit or skateboarding. The weeks I spent commuting to different classes across Asuncion in the 100+ degree heat were often so tiring, I spent the weekends just lying around, recovering. I got in the habit of doing this early. I resolved that I wouldn’t get into the same habit here where, just outside our town, there is a lot of beauty to be explored and, when last weekend rolled around, I rented a motorbike.
One of the main reasons I never left the house on weekends in Paraguay was transportation. The bus station was distant, the buses were unpredictable, slow and I always had to stand, no matter how far the journey or how early I got on—just as the bus was pulling out of town a pregnant woman or an old man would flag it down. They’d get on the full bus, stand in the aisle and awkwardly try to brace themselves against the seats. It would’ve been rude to make them stand, so I always offered my seat, but begrudgingly. After a while I began to wonder why these people couldn’t just get on the bus at the station like everyone else. Standing for three hours, I’d be hitting my head on the ceiling at each bump and nearly falling at every turn. Because everything to see in Paraguay was a few hours from Asuncion, we usually had to spend the night to justify the trip, thus, when we finally dragged ourselves back to the apartment Sunday afternoon, I would collapse on the couch and vow not to leave again. So, when I learned that there was a bus to Chaiya, the site of an ancient Buddhist stupa, next to a Muslim silk-weaving village and that next to the beach, I decided not to risk it. The bus would only allow us to visit one of these places; if we had our own transport, we could visit all three and leave each place whenever we wanted to. One of the worst things about a bus, is that you’re constantly thinking about when it will leave; you end up cutting your trip short every time just so you don’t miss your ride back. The bus doesn’t leave until six, but by four, you’re already thinking, ‘we need to start getting back to the bus.’ You end up waiting at the bus stop by four-thirty.
It was a new country and time for a new, self-sufficient outlook. Everyone here drives motorbikes or scooters, even a lot of children have them and a place up the street rents them out for less than the round trip on the bus would’ve cost for two people. Friday night I declared that the next day, we’d rent a scooter.
It may have been a little impetuous to rent one so soon after I arrived. In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the street and even after being here for nearly a month, I’m barely used to crossing the street, let alone driving on it; also. There was the information I’d gotten from the Embassy dryly stating a fair amount of Americans have been struck and killed in traffic in Thailand, more than in most other countries and, as a result, driving anything really wasn’t advised, let alone something wobbly on two wheels. I could’ve heeded these warnings and spent my weekend wandering around Surat Thani or waiting for buses so I could spend a few anxious hours in one place, but I resolved I wasn’t going to be afraid. Spending more time here wasn’t going to prepare me for riding a scooter anyway. It was something I was just going to have to do.
Early Saturday morning, Gina and I went walking down the street to meet the guy who rented scooters. I’d only had one coffee and it was Saturday, so I decided to stop and grab another for the walk. Inside the 7-11, as they made up our americano and we waited, a little dog came up to the sliding glass door. The door’s sensor, not having the ability to distinguish between dog and small customer, beeped and proudly rolled back the door on the haven of consumer goods. The little dog trotted in so amiably, it was hard to think he wasn’t just picking up something for the puppies on his way home. I wanted to be helpful, so although my heart was with the dog, I tried to step into his path and shoo him back out the door. I had only begun to stoop down when the dog seemed to fall into an epileptic fit of yelps and growls. I stepped back, afraid someone would think I was torturing the poor animal. Calmly, a clerk came out from behind the counter and, brightly, the dog followed her out the door, like he’d only come to see her back home.
I should’ve read the portent in the incident, but, I daily commit so many blunders, one more didn’t seem like a big deal and we walked down the road, happily with our coffee, like nothing had happened.
The guy renting the scooters was mellow and really unconcerned by the fact that I’d never driven one before. He just kept repeating his mantra, “it’s just like a bike.” I pointed out bikes didn’t weigh 200 pounds or have engines and throttles, but he just shrugged and repeated, “it’s just like a bike!” like maybe I hadn’t heard the first time. Still wary, I started slow, driving down the little alley we were in and turning around. Yeah, it was simple, but it was also awkward. Driving on something on two wheels, I felt like someone who doesn’t know how to swim, who stiffens and panics when the water is over their head, rather than relaxing and allowing themselves to float. The extra cup of coffee probably hadn’t helped much either.
When Gina got on the back, I went down the alley one more time. The scooter was nearly out of gas and I was going to ask where there was a gas station nearby and how to open the gas tank (I didn’t even know where it was), but the guy had already gone back inside. “Whatever,” I said, “we’ll figure it out,” and we drove off.
Easing into counter-intuitive traffic, was a little awkward, but luckily, I didn’t have to turn anywhere, so once I got into the flow, I just kept going. I felt a little nervous stopping at the light, like maybe I wasn’t going to be able to get moving again and I’d have to drag the scooter out of traffic, but when the light changed, I eased the throttle, picked up my feet and soon we were rising on the bridge over the Tai-Pi River. We were headed to a sparsely populated area, so I worried slightly about finding gas. When a station appeared on our left, I relaxed and pulled in.
I guess, I pulled up to the wrong pump because the attendants wheeled the scooter back for us. With friendly but confused looks, they tried to point to the various types of gas; of course, I had no idea which type of gas a scooter needed, so I just shrugged, likewise when they picked up a pump and came to the scooter. ‘Where was the tank?’ they gestured. Once again, I just shrugged. After all this shrugging, these people must’ve wondered how I had managed to get to as far as I was; clearly, I knew nothing and just stabbed in the dark.
Eventually the attendants figured out everything for me, including how much gas I wanted to put in the tank. When everything was ready, I thanked them and got back on the bike. Gina got on behind me and then, without warning, the scooter started to violently pull away from me. There was a car in front of us, and I tried to deflect the scooter by turning it hard to the right, but there wasn’t enough clearance and it pulled into the front of the car, glancing against the bumper. Gina jumped off and I was left wrestling the scooter which was now pulling toward the road like a stallion. The harder I tried to reign it in, the harder it pulled. I was afraid to let it go because it would’ve crashed to the ground, but as the front wheel suddenly reared off the ground, and the back light crunched against the concrete, I knew I had no other options. As soon as I let go, the scooter dropped to its side, lifeless. I hadn’t had time to think about anything during the ordeal and even now that it was over, I felt almost strangely calm. I assumed I’d broken the thing after bouncing it all over the parking lot. Before I really inspected it, I went to check the man’s car I had glanced. He got out and took and look with me. There was really no mark at all and he shook his head in a gesture that I took to mean ‘no problem.’ There was broken scooter taillight all over the parking lot, and solicitous Gina had already begun picking it up. Dumbly, I followed, not really wanting to see how bad the scooter was. A woman with a broom came over, so I abandoned the job and went over to assess the damage.
One side mirror had come loose and spun like a one of those New Year’s Eve noise makers you twirl around; the other mirror and the taillight were busted out. I picked the scooter up and checked the wheels and the body. Everything else seemed to be alright. I got back on and pressed the ignition. It started. Gently, I eased out of the parking lot, back onto the road. Throughout the entire ordeal, I hadn’t felt embarrassed at all. Only now, as we made our way down the road, did I start to laugh. “God, I must’ve looked like such an idiot to those people!” I didn’t lament this, it just seemed hilarious. Because, to some degree, I guess it’s slightly true.
People of all ages ride scooters, not just university students, but grandmas and jr. high students too. The equivalent of crashing one of these things would be like getting on a bike and immediately toppling over at thirty-three years old. So I’d fallen off a bike in front of a crowd of gas station attendants, making a big scene in the process. You’d think that I’d be pretty mortified by these imppressively dumb actions, but I’ve developed a shield. The best course of action is to be able to laugh at these mistakes. No one in any country likes someone who takes themself too seriously. In time, you forget about these things, but while they are still fresh; you might as well try to see it from someone else’s point of view and laugh a little.
Flying down the highway after bouncing the scooter around, I felt slightly less sure of myself and my ability to drive the thing. The road kept changing from solid blacktop to dusty, loose gravel without much warning and each time the surface under the wheels changed, I worried about us sliding or hitting a hole and toppling over.
The road was slightly confusing. We went through a number of towns I didn’t except and there was more traffic, but we managed to navigate to Chaiya; driving down main street, it looked like any other town, like Surat Thani but smaller. We passed the ubiquitous 7-11s and noodle shops and drove back to a Wat that was surrounded by elaborate tombstones—most of them painted bright colors. The scooter made me feel a little lazy and I was reluctant to get off and walk, especially when I could see nothing to walk up and see. The Wat was locked and we could see the tombstones well enough from the road. A few dogs came out to bark at us. Like a drunk, I jerked the scooter around in a U-turn that looked more like an elaborate Thai letter than a ‘U’ and drove off.
The second Wat was a little more interesting. This one was built in 775 and was now nothing more than a stolid pile of gritty red stones. Obviously it had once been the foundation of something incredible, especially so long ago, but now, it was only an architectural stump tourists like us drove up to, admired for a few minutes, wished there were monkeys or something around and drove away.
We drove over to Phum Riang, a Muslim silk-weaving village after leaving Chaiya. The entrance to the town was marked by an ornate mosque, the most impressive I’ve seen in Thailand. Attached to one of its hulking square minarets were two large megaphones. I dragged my feet walking around the village, hoping to hear the call to prayer, but we were there too early in the afternoon. The way some laborers were working nearby, they didn’t look like they planned to stop for a while.
We never saw any of the fabled silk weavers, but as we walked further into the little town, we began to attract notice of the locals. On the main street, no one had given us a glance, but I guess tourists seldom penetrated farther than the last shop in the commercial area. Walking through the residential parts of the town, everyone waved and called ‘hello.’ At the end of one street, we picked up the customary comet’s tail of children who shouted ‘hello’ every few seconds to make sure we hadn’t forgotten they were there. We turned to walk through a dusty noon arcade where stall owners slept above their piles of cucumbers and unfamiliar fruits like misers sleeping on mattresses stuffed with cash. One woman was awake. We nodded to her and she called out ‘farang’ so the rest of the ladies would look smart in case we decided to buy up the place. Luckily, her call roused no one, and we continued unassailed through the dusty market to the riverfront. A dock stretched between a number of homes up on wooden pylons and the copious amounts of laundry and other personal objects would’ve prohibited movement through what was obviously a private area, but a man sitting on a stool nearby jumped down and commanded that we follow him. He walked to the end of the wooden dock and pointed to the water saying ‘Thailand;’ he pointed to the needle fish in the water and repeated ‘Thailand,’ when the grinning gaggle of children caught up to us he grinned and mumbled ‘Thailand.’ I nodded in agreement.
We all stood there looking out over the brown-green rushing water of the river for a while, trying to see beneath its turbid surface. The small waves slapped the hulls of the wooden boats and the children moved restlessly, displeased by the lack of movement. I took their picture and showed it to them, but they had a few camera phones between them and took ours in return, even in small towns you can’t impress kids with digital cameras anymore. As if knowing this was all we had to show them, they ran off back home and we continued back up the dusty road toward the central mosque where we’d parked.
We found a small cafe and had a ‘blue mountain’ coffee, which I guess must be some kind of synecdoche for brewed coffee. It was quite bad, and strangely tasted like a book I had when I was a kid, a big glossy vellum coffee table book about the Solar System. Each drink I took brought this vivid picture of Jupiter to my mind, and not just Jupiter, but the Jupiter of a five year-old boy. As bad as the coffee was, I was satisfied with the memory it induced and would’ve gladly paid 35 baht for that alone. I guess maybe they should change the name of the stuff to ‘memory retrieval’ coffee. I’m sure a lot more people would order it.
After the Jupiter coffee, we got back on the scooter and drove off to Laem Pho. Just across the Chana River from Phum Riang, Laem Pho is a beach front park, a food court and a county fair combined. I’m still not sure what the main ‘day of rest’ is here, as every day looks the same in the streets; there’s no difference between Sunday and Wednesday, everything is open, construction crews are going to work and there’s plenty of traffic. Laem Pho gave me an idea that Saturday might be the favored day for recreation around here. The bouncy castle set up by the side of the road was so full of pistoning children it looked like it was going to topple over. The park itself was full to capacity. The sidewalks were crowded with stands hawking food from grilled horseshoe crab and fried stingray to watermelon and salted mango. In the park, entire families were arranged on the bamboo fiber mats they’d brought, the elders usually leaning against a tree with a look of vague contentment. The kids were everywhere, running across the eroding grass, stumbling off rented bikes, eating messy things and swimming in the murky water just over from where the river met the ocean.
We drove into the park and walked around awkwardly as you do in a place full of large families with lots of children when you have no children accompaniment. Even the dogs trying to scavenge for food looked more comfortable than we did. We smiled and say ‘hello’ back to the kids, but the odds were against us. Even the teenagers wandering through the park had the distinct look of being attached to some nearby family. I knew everyone must’ve wondered where our children and elders were and I felt bad for not having any with us— sorta’.
We walked through the sidewalk alley created by the lines of food carts on either side. Thais are not claustrophobic and this is daily demonstrated by their tendency to pack food carts together and then walk through the resulting narrow alley and eye the wares impaled on sticks and poured into plastic bags. I have already walked through a few of these lines and usually, I don’t see anything other than fruit and boba tea that looks remotely vegetarian, but this time, twice we saw what looked like friend tofu. The first time, it was arranged with a number of other fried products and the pan where all these things had been fried was still on display offering up its warm black oil liberally chipped with burned flecks of batter. When I thought about the countless meat and fish chunks that had fried in that oil before the tofu even went in, I couldn’t stomach eating it. I knew it would taste like fish, pork and probably, from the looks of things, eel.
The second stall hardly had anything else on display so I decided just to try the tofu, too late I realized it was sitting next to a platter of breaded baby stingrays. ‘Oh well, maybe they did the tofu first,’ I hoped handing over the money. The tofu came with a little bag of sauce. Gina asked if the sauce was ‘pet’ or spicy and the woman quickly assured us that the sauce was ‘mai pet’ or not spicy. In case there was any confusion her neighbor from the next cart over even leaned over and said it too, waving her hands around to indicate the cessation of spiciness in the conversation. When I pointed to some crushed chilies and asked if we could have some, they were astounded. I can’t say how nice it is to be in a country where people eat spicy food. If we should ever have anyone over for dinner, I knew we’ll be able to make anything we want without our guest repeatedly dropping their fork and making fanning motions at their mouth or chugging copious amounts of water.
The little bag of sauce was a sweet peanut sauce. We mixed it with the chilies and dumped the result over the tofu. While we ate, kids crammed two to a bike and repeatedly toppled over, a dog went by with a roll of toilet paper in its mouth and a mom chased some waddling baby who’d wandered out too close to the road.
After Laem Pho, we got back on the scooter and went up the highway to drive along the beach. The beach here has no resorts on it, the water is the tawny green of a silty lake and mounds of trash have washed up onto the shore.
We stopped at an abandoned house, changed and walked down to the water, stepping over worn sandals, desiccated and frayed nylon rope, plastic bottles burnished into a soapy color by the sand and painted pieces of wood with nails protruding from them like a dogs with their hackles up. The water was warm and the only cooling effect was when we came out and stood on the beach, letting the warm winds dry us before putting our clothes back on in the abandoned house. When I came out, I noticed a marker behind the house which looked like it indicated a body was buried beneath, but without being able to read the Thai, I couldn’t be sure. I thought about some Hemingwayesque character who’d lived in this lonely place by the ocean, hauling his fishing boat out every day in the early morning, launched by the ebullient bird song from the jungle nearby. I nodded to the stone for the use of the empty house, we got back on the scooter and drove off.
The way back was long and sitting rigidly on the scooter had begun to hurt my back a little, but with ocean water still in my ears and the warmth of a sunburn radiating up from my thighs, I felt good. Gina and I talked over the roar of the engine, indicating little things along the route that looked interesting, mostly just by saying ‘look at that.’
We got back into town that night and, surprisingly, after driving around on country roads all day, I enjoyed driving in the city. The scooter allowed me to weave around a little more than being in a car; in a way, it really was a little like being on a bike.
The next morning, after a quick drive out to a small nature preserve, I sheepishly brought the scooter back, fully expecting to get hosed on the price for repairs. As the guy we’d rented from looked at the broken light and mirror, Gina and I kept apologizing, like we’d done him some great injustice. He finally silenced us by saying it happens all the time. We gave him about $30.00, but he said it would probably be too much and that when we rented from him next time, we’d get whatever change their would be.
Walking back home, it felt odd to be making such slow progress across town and I began to understand why everyone has a scooter here; they’re like smart phones, once you bring them into your life, things just feel much more inconvenient without them and the beach just feels that much farther away.