|Subject: Mopeds and Elephants
Date: 5, Oct 2002
I cannot escape the feeling of familiarity. There is a phenomenon when travelling where one incessantly and unconciously compares the present environment with past experience. This has resulted in Thailand seeming at once like Seattle, Kerala (southwest India), The Southern Himalayas of Nepal, France, the 19th century "Garden City" movement, Asheville, and many other places. There is no harm in this, however it does polute one's objectivity in describing a place. It has always been my intention to escape this trap and to know a place as it should be known: uniquely, discretely, and concretely, as impossibly as this may be. (sic.)
Finally adventure has struck. The silence of the last week could be interpretted as "nothing happened." And while that's far from the truth, in terms of interesting material for a travellogue it is true, nothing happened. I have been drinking every night, often until five, with the aforementioned cast of characters plus the occasional falang or tourist. Falang is a semi-derogatory term comperable to "whitey" which traditionally is used by the bar girls as a descriptor for their white clientel. However, expatriots, self-concious about their marginalized role in Thai society have adopted it as a term of endearment. Its usage is much like "niggah" in that it is impolite for a Thai person to refer to a westerner as Falang, but among us falangs, it is almost affectionate. Literally translated, a falang is a guava fruit (which as you know is white inside).
I have heard eminem so much now I've begun deconstructing the first track of the album. I hear it in clubs with incessant repetition. I hear it in bars, and in the night market. I hear it in my head when I'm (rarely) not drunk and trying to get to sleep. I try to convince myself that he's not worth it, he doesn't deserve my insight, its just a stupid pop phenomenon... but then I think anyone who rhymes "me", "me", "contraversy", and "me" deservese to be shot. And if deconstruction is my only weapon, then so be it. don't worry, I'm just sharing my internal process, I won't at this point, launch into that tirade which hinges on the phrase "little contraversy" and self-obsessed repetition of "me." Those who know can fill in the blanks from there; those who don't can be spared.
So getting to the point: ADVENTURE!!! YAY!!!
Most people in this country, in non-professional jobs at least, work seven days a week with two days off per month. Deplorable. And for wages of 3500-7000 per mo. (USD $83-$166/mo). As a semi-professional, I've heard westerners making 20,000 baht (USD 475), capitalizing on their command of the english language. Needless to say, I'm in no hurry to expatriate. Damn, once more off subject, forgive me... So uh, Ann, some of you may remember Ann from previous emails, Ann and I have been dating since my first night in town. We really hit it off and have become very close. Ann has been working every night till two, and often we go out drinking till five as previously mentioned. So where before I was a nightowl, now this life-trend is exacerbated. Anyway, in this way, I am coming to know all the intricacies of Thai culture. The after-hours bars are possible only through sufficient bribery, the "bar-girl" pubs work on the same systems; the same goes for bars where one can score drugs. Even so, and with the proper bribes, last night a bar owned by two falang women was raided and shut down, all the Thai girls present pulled aside and ostensibly booked, Anyone suspicious was given a piss test, and I presume the place is now shuttered, license revoked. I wasn't present for that; I was in a different bar, upstairs, keeping it down, cause word got around that such things may be going down on that night. Of course, I knew nothing about any of it really, I just rely on my friends, intuition, and karma to keep me in the right place at the right time... Lonely planet can only take you so far down that path, but good friends will rarely steer you wrong. But, this is still not the adventure I was referring to...
Two days ago, Ann took her monthly break from work, as I'm planning on leaving Chiang Mai on monday (that'll more likely be wednesday, but whatever). We rented a moped (motorbike in local parlance) and headed up into the hills. The first day we got a late start and Arrived at the elephant camp after they were closed. So, having taken me to the top of the hill, Ann then offered to let me drive. This woman is far braver than I. So there I was, learning to ride a motorbike, downhill through hairpin turns. As I started to get the hang of it on a wide, properly paved road, she then insisted we go exploring the back roads. Never one to back down, especially to a girl who is clinging to my back in full trust, I consented. This was a lane-and-a-half wide back road, paved, but lots of grit in the road and an uneven surface, pock-marked, winding through mountains the same contours as the Appalachians. Not the blue ridge parkway, but one of the sideroads you turn off onto when, well, doing the same thing we were doing here at the time: exploring. But exploring has a special dimention when one barely knows how to ride the vehicle in question, and with another life lovingly and clingingly along for the ride. Our speed rarely topped 25 kph on the way out, but on the way back, my foolhardy confidence kicked in, and my crash course (no pun intended) apparently was a success. I was accelerating through curves, shifting with confidence (although given the clutchless moped transmission, one could hardly call my driving smooth) and letting it rip on the straightaways. Suddenly it was coming back to me why I stopped driving in the first place. The thrill of the blind curves, the precision required on hairpin turns, the passion(ate) play with gravity. I am not a safe driver. Confident and embolded, night fell and we were back on the main road, wide, and now I was driving at full speed. Then it started raining.
So Ann would have taken over driving, but that voice in my head would still not let me back down. Off of the main mountain road, now into heavy traffic; negotiating the puddles, the reflections, the bizarre Thai driving ettiquite, road spray and all manner of motorbikes providing good sport, I brought us most of the way back into Chiang Mai. But by this time my adreline finally found its break point, and I asked Ann to drive. The was no way in hell I could handle city traffic yet. There's too many unspoken rules, too many ambiguously marked intersections, too many times when one will be presented a red light where one is supposed to go, or a red and green light simultaneously signifying god knows what. Keep in mind, this is all occuring driving in the left lane, and to this day I still can't figure out where to look for oncoming traffic. Terror finally overcame my foolhardy courage and I let Ann drive.
Okay, so the rest of the day consisted of going home, changing clothes, going out for Thai food served in Thai fashion, a red curry, stir fried vegetables, king-sized prawns with glass noodles, served family style, plates arriving as fast as the kitchen can put them out, we wait for everything, then eat, her serving me first, then I her. Food eaten with fork in one hand and spoon in the dominant hand, the fork being used to bring food into the spoon. In other words the fork acts as a knife and the spoon as a fork? But eating with utensils in both hands is common. In a word, you eat with a spoon in Thailand; chopsticks being reserved, as in America, for chinese food (ubiquitous noodle soup and phad thai... still figuring out the pedigree of that dish). Anyway, the food was delicious. Since we wanted to make an early start, we went out to a fancy bar on the river, called "The Riverside" where we ordered marguritas (horrible) and sat no more than three feet from the flood-level monsoon swollen river. Nice. The cover band (i.e. nearly every bar's band), like every band and DJ I've heard here, should be lured out back and shot. But the locals seem to like it, so no harm no foul. I keep my opinions to myself. I vent all my ire on Eminem and leave it at that.
The next day we got up at the insanely early hour of nine a.m. I had made a commitment to Jessica Hester to ride an elephant, and so ride an elephant we would; even if that meant waking up at nine a.m. (this paragraph is dedicated to you, Jessica. This episode is the sort of thing I could never otherwise bring myself to do. Thanks for the inspiration). So we awoke, ate breakfast, and were on the road by ten, which was in itself a feat worthy to write home about... about which to write home... goddamn english language! (Thai breakfast is rice soup with chicken, pork balls...err balls of pork, not the other, as is usually advertised, or shrimp; more stew than soup emphasis on the rice, the msg, think ramen noodle seasoning packet, oyster / fish sauces, jalapenios in oil, chili powder, sugar (!), salt, pepper. Not for me thank you. I had musli, fruit, and yogurt and a cup of coffee. Swiss breakfast). But on with it.
So on this day, yesterday, friday, I drove the entire day. Emboldened by my full day behind the handlebars, I felt (over) confident. So we drove the 30 kilometers to the elephant camp again. I paid the extortion of 500 baht each for the privilage, and 25 dollars later (read: 1/3 Ann's monthly base pay) we were on the back of the elephant. There's a loading station which reminds me of a swiss family Robinson's airport gate. There's the kwantaan (elephant handler) perched atop the animals head, his shins resting behind the ears. He holds a small bamboo stick with a metal hook on top, which he promptly put away as soon as we were out of sight of the loading "gate." We sat on the... what's the word, palanquin or something? The seat, which is amusingly like a amusment park ride's seat, with a metal bar that makes a token effort of holding you in, and does come in quite handy as the beast heads downhill and stepping from mud-filled footprint to mud filled footprint. So there we sat, Ann and I, atop this elephant, As our handler barked very well mannered orders to the animal. The love he felt for this 45 year old elephant was palpable. He smiled when he referred to her. He never once hit her, as I've heard other tourists describe in their stories (at this point damn near everyone has done this on a package tour. We were just about the only ones their on our own, without a guide or even a touk-touk (rickshaw) driver). In fact, he bent the rules, hopped down off the elephant, and took my camera, slogged up the muddy trail a few meters and took pictures of Ann and I. He seemed fairly adept at using my Nikon F3, although I zone focused, guessed exposure and had to explain which button to push. I was shooting 200 speed slide film and gave him the 55 mm lens. My best guesses all around. But what was perhaps the most definitive moment of my whole trip thus far was when he suggested though Ann, That I pose on the head of the elephant. I climbed over the bar, down out of the seat, and onto the neck of the beast. (she was such a sweet girl I use the term ironically here). Suddenly I felt the rift, the crevace, between the adventure and the amusement park ride traversed. Then he called the animal to come to him as he ran up the trail, constantly keeping an eye out down the trail for any other handler who might see us, and I was now _REALLY_ riding an elephant. I was alert, poised, ready to do.... something (short of jumping to my fate, I can't imagine what I'd actually do... Its the same feeling you have on Highway 1, the PCH, looking down the cliffs as you round hairpin turns, wondering if, should you loose control, could you actually dive from the car to the ocean's safety?) if the animal sensed my incompentance and took the advantage. Perched atop the elephant I felt anything but in control; much like the day before outside the gates of this very place when I switched places with Ann and headed down the mountain on the motorbike.
So after a few more photo ops, the handler climbed back up, my time on the other side of bar finished, I resumed my rightful place as tourist. The kitchy feeling was gone; the jaded traveller masquerading as tourist was suddenly just a traveller again, enjoying the ride, trying to reassure Ann that the animals are well taken care of, and that what we're doing is not exploitative, though not really believing it myself. Back to buying one's ticket and taking the ride... I put the camera away after that. And we had fun, rolling with the animal's stride, wondering what it must be like to be on the back of an elephant charging into battle, Its like being on a small boat in high seas; like crossing another boat's wake in a pram; like riding a mule down the grand canyon times ten, only slower. Ann and I joking about making love on the back of the elephant and whether we'd ask the guide to take pictures or not. After a small wade through the river beside the camp, so she could have a drink, our ride was finished and we returned to the (un)loading gate. Again, feeling like being on a disneyland convertible 727 returning home. As soon as we were within sight of the other handlers, the elephant prod was back out, the blunt end of the handle resting on top her head as a reminder, his hands in readiness should she lung out of control and try to kill us all.
(happy Jess? Ready to come to Thailand yet???)
Anyway, Adventure segued into adventure, as we mounted what felt like a donkey by comparison. feeling awake for the first time since I've arrived in Thailand, we headed further down the road, into the unexplored, down the road which we knew eventually would lead back to Chiang Mai. The road was wide enough and well paved with not much traffic that I could really let it go, full throttle (for a moped) up hill, downshifting around hairpin turns and feeling so much safer than in a car. We wound up and down about four mountain passes marvelling in the views of blue ridges off into the horizon, bamboo groves amidst flowering ginko trees and bamboo plants. Hill tribes cultivating terraced farms on impossibly steep, south facing slopes. The whining of the moped as it strained against third gear, pumping the breaks in anticipation of the next turn. We took a small detour into a resort, at the main lodge of which was a cobblestone cul-di-sac where I carelessly dumped the bike trying to pull a u-turn. It was wet from washing, and I gained a very important piece of knowlege. I now know what it feels like to have a motor bike slide out from underneith, and at least one circumstance where that can happen. Shortly thereafter, to complete the lesson, the bike started loosing speed. It reminded me of when my Subaru GL had a clogged fuel filter. The bike eventually stalled out as I downshifted through the gears. Panicky about what we'd do next, I got off, Ann took over checking out the bike; We're both saying its not serious, but I'm thinking fouled plugs from dumping the bike, or perhaps bubbles in the gas line, which sitting and waiting would fix. THen I noticed that the choke was engaged. We smiled at eachother's racing minds and got on and rode away. Both of our confidence shaken in my driving ability, as well it should be. Shortly thereafter, we emerged from the mountains and back onto main roads. When we got into the city, both tired and dehydrated, some 60 or 70 km and one elephant ride later, Ann in no subtle words let me know it was her turn to drive. I didn't complain, not looking forward to wrong-side-of-the-road city driving either. Really its madness. Mopeds follow their own anarchist set of rules and conventions, always amassing at the traffic lights for a rally start engines whining, tearing off in their seperate directions before the cars can catch up and overtake. Etc. etc. more traffic chaos stories later.
So the rest of the night was interesting but on the inner landscape. The conflict of wanting to stay with Ann and wanting to see something more of Thailand has taken its toll on both of us. The lack of trust Ann has for men in general, having just emerged from a 6 year relationship full of mutual jealousy and unfulfilled promises compounded by the knowlege that I would be leaving soon, too, is palpable between us also. Honesty and respect form the basis for trust, but in their own time; so no matter how much we talk there is always this rift between us, this transitory enjoyment of each other, knowing that too soon it will end. Some things transcend all cultural boundaries; the relationships between men and women are one of them. Some things never change.
The rest of the evening followed the pattern of the previous week or two... I still can't remember how long I've been here, and don't really care to figure it out. But we ended up hanging out with Ann's coworkers and friends (my friends now, too) at "The Full Monty" bar. Where they pay their bribes, and were told to keep it down low last night. So we went upstairs, by this point I was Thoroughly drunk (sorry mom) and pacing myself, nursing one beer like a marathon runner. We'd been to three other bars at this point one with pool table and dartboard, one with a cover band who played both Villiage People's "YMCA " and Eminem's "trailerpark girl" song in the same set ("great music" I was assured by all. I was ready to kill kittens). But then, our bar hopping took us to a quiet place where our group were the only one's there. Lots of boisterous talking between an American guy from Berkeley, a English girl, a Scottish man, all expats, then two Aussies new to town and only on holiday, myself, a Thai boy from Bangkok on business, and Ann, Nuy, Od, and Eing, and myself of course. It was interesting having most of the english speaking world so thoroughly represented around one table. It was also fascinating to me to be able to pick the brains of three locally employed expatriots about the finer details of that culture. Turns out there are about 20,000 falangs in Chiang Mai; out of a population fo close to one million in the metro area. That's 20,000 people living out their lives, or significant chunks thereof here in Thailand. The stereotype is an older man married to a (much) younger Thai woman. I've met or heard stories of dozens. Ann's last boyfriend was 57, her sister's boyfriend of ten years is 42, and the list goes on and on and on in the stories I've heard...
Good god... if you've read this far, bless you... I should let you go... more to follow when I finally make it out of Chiang Mai, to the land of pure tourism. To Phuket or Krabi or Ko Tao or Ko Phi Phi or wherever the f**k I end up once I finally get on the d*mn train south as far as possible and finally have to pick one and only one next destination... For now I say monday I head to Ko Pahn Nang, but mean wednesday I head to somewhere south of here. We'll see what happens...