Teaching English in Thailand, Traveling, Bone-Dry Humor, Other Stuff Too

The Loose Ends of an Era (Part 2)

Floating Muslim village in Pha Nga Bay, Thailand

Floating Muslim village in Pha Nga Bay, Thailand

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For busy roads and highways in Thailand there are stairs on either side leading up to footbridges for pedestrians to cross. We are on one. It’s about 7:25 a.m. and the relentless sun is already burning me through the morning haze of Lopburi. I’ve showered and shaved and put on my fancy teaching slacks and collared shirt. I’m already sweating profusely. Dogs are barking and the grey fumes from unchecked tailpipes are a wake-up call to say the least. Another North-American English teacher and I are walking to our school, and I have a class during the first period today. I look down at the trucks filled with workers covered from head to toe in rags and old baggy clothes, countless people on motor scooters, and mobile food vendors with their cookware consolidated into wooden carts with glass display cases—all attached to their motor scooters with metal rods. They are like downsized food trucks. A man in a red truck pulls up and parks on the side of the street we’re walking towards. For whatever reason we are both watching this man, the way everybody always looks up when a new person enters a room, or glances into an open door while walking down a hallway. The man turns off his engine. We take a few steps nearer and now his truck is almost directly below us, maybe twenty feet down. As he swings open the door into the road, a woman on a motor scooter is ripping by at high speed. She manages to turn slightly away from the door, but not far enough. We stop.


 

As we board the ferry to Lankawi (an island in Malaysia), we are all of us leaving Thailand for good.  We force ourselves into our narrow row, and I hold the cheap guitar I bought in Thailand between my knees. I’ve named it Porn Thong, which means “Golden Flower” in Thai, and “Porn Thong” in English. There’s a Keanu Reeves action movie playing on a big screen, a welcome alternative to the loud music videos that are usually playing on public transport, which nobody seems to notice or watch except children, nor does anybody mind that they’re on or that they’re so loud and obnoxious, except for foreigners. In this one, Keanu Reeves is a legendary hit-man who only wants to get out of the game and live a quiet life with his dog, but he just keeps getting dragged back in. I hear the movie trailer voice in my head: This time, it’s personal. They killed his dog. They stole his car. They’ve left him no choice. I always try to picture Keanu’s characters as grown versions of his role in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. There is a guy I suspect is from Spain sitting in front of me and he has a big black cross tattooed on the back of his neck. I take a book out of my bag and read from my David Foster Wallace short stories. Goodbye, Thailand.


 

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Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

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The sun is a menace across the brown river to our left. To our right presides Taman Negara, a Malaysian rainforest and one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Our pace has been depreciating for the last hour or two. We are a group of three, all teachers in Thailand placed in different cities. Last night we slept in a stilted cabin in the forest after a day of trekking and maneuvering across felled trees, small rivers, and inspiring piles of elephant feces. We’ve slept only a couple hours because we spent most of the night fending off rats who tried to eat our food. I was sleeping closest to the food, and kept waking up to rat noises, swinging my shoes lazily towards them. If not the rats themselves, the probing of the Italian couple’s flashlight from across the cabin woke me many times without fail. They were really concerned about the rats. Now we have a bus to catch, we’re exhausted, and we’re out of water. We have a ways to go yet, and not much time.


 

The truck door groans as its forced open further than it’s meant to go. The woman’s motor scooter seems to expend all of its momentum by ricocheting back and forth between the inside of the truck door and the ground in a black blur, then spinning on its side, and finally coming to a rest. Her loosely strapped helmet shoots off her head like a rogue champagne cork. The woman just barely clips the edge of the truck door, but not enough to alter her trajectory. She continues to fly independently from her motor scooter, diagonally inwards from the outer most lane of the highway where the truck is parked, towards the busy center lanes. She is in the air for just a split-second.


 

Monitor Lizard in Taman Negara

Monitor Lizard in Taman Negara

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I could renew my contract and teach another semester of English in Thailand, at my school or at a different one. However, the pay is very low. So, however, is the cost of living. Only two out of just under thirty foreign teachers employed by my company have decided to stay on another term. A friend of mine I met in Lopburi, who’s lived in Thailand for five years, works at a different school, and runs a restaurant with his girlfriend the rest of the time, has told me his school is looking for another foreign teacher. When I bring it up he says, “Just get outta here, man. What are you, like 24?”

“22.”

“22. See what I mean? You can go anywhere. You can do whatever you want. Weren’t you talking about New Zealand? Just do it; trust me. You could always come back here—but why would you want to?”

“You’ve liked it enough to stick around.”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have done it if this was the first place I came to and I was as young as you and I wasn’t in a serious relationship.”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll figure it out. Want another Leo?” Leo is my beer of choice in Thailand.

“Yeah.”


 

Monitor lizards scramble around on the infinite bed of dry leaves, crunching them under their weight as they yo-yo their forked tongues all over the place and eat bugs. A gliding lizard with black and red wings extending from its neck lands on my shoulder then quickly jumps to the ground, concluding I’m no tree. We stumble towards a creek, exchange haggard skeptical glances, and begin drinking from it. At least we will die less thirsty. We seem to nonverbally agree on this point.


The gliding lizard that landed on me

The gliding lizard that landed on me


 

An excerpt from a string of solicitations by various men sitting and standing on things in Kuta, Bali:

“Yes? Valium?”

“Yes? Some marijuana, bro?”

“Yes? Ok? Cocaine? Small woman boom boom?”

“Yes? Viagra?”

“Yes? Magic mushrooms for you?”

“Transport?”

“Yes? Lady?”

“Yes? Massage?”

“Yes? What you want then?”


 

I feel like a giant stepping from one island to another, the same thing I always pretended as a little kid when I jumped on stones to cross a stream. My front foot is coming down on New Zealand—but slowly, as there are thousands of miles to cover—and all of my arrangements have to be sorted by the time my foot touches the ground.


 

Volcanic Crater in Java

Volcanic Crater in Java

Phangandaran, Indonesia

Phangandaran, Indonesia


 

When a happy couple trots by, I look up from the tasty stream like a deranged creature. Water dribbles down my jaw. I regard them like sophisticated animals at first, or rather I imagine them regarding us as animals or some weird kids. While I turn over these thoughts inwardly, I discover I have already struck up a conversation with the couple, and they tell us we are close to the forest’s end. We drink some more, then grab the guide rope and hoist ourselves up the steep banks of sand, clambering over intricate networks of roots jutting from the ground. Another slow, vertical one-and-a-half k. and we see the boarded section of the trail we know to be close to the park entrance. It will lead us to the little boat across the river, the road to our hostel to get our stuff, and the part of the street where we’re told the bus we need will come. And if we are quick enough we may eat something before we ruin a bus with the dirt and grease caked into our skin and clothing.


 

Immediately the woman’s flight is cut short as she’s struck by another passing motor scooter, which teeters after the impact but does not stop. She glances off the side of the scooter and rolls over once before lurching onto her back, limbs fully sprawled, completely limp. Twenty yards down the road, her helmet continues its lopsided roll for a few seconds after the woman and the scooter have stopped moving. The man in the red truck runs out and kneels beside her. He lifts her by sliding his arms under her armpits, resting her back against his leg. He shakes her, but her arms flail lamely and her head lolls. She is slightly on the older side, but I always have trouble pegging the ages of Thais. The teacher beside me gasps loudly, and I quicken my pace thinking I may need to help get the woman off the road. But by the time we get to the stairs, there are already a few others that have gone to help the man with the red truck and inspect the scene. In about forty minutes I’ll teach some ten-year-olds “his name” and “her name,” so they will finally break the habit of always saying “my name is…” and pointing to a different person.

*Later on we tried to ask if there was ever any kind of news about the accident, not that it’s the least bit uncommon in Thailand, but because it happened right in front of a school and we think the woman may have been killed. But no such news ever came. It’s not the Thai way to linger on something like that, or to really acknowledge it in the first place. You just get back on your motor scooter and try not to be the one of the ones who crash.


More from Batu Caves

More from Batu Caves

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So I reply to the email with the dates I’m available. The hostel where we’re staying has actual WiFi, so the time to commit is now. At this point I look nothing like a teacher. I’m a crusty, stinking, ginger-bearded backpacker with a booked flight to New Zealand, an approved working holiday visa, and as of now a job at a hostel waiting for me in the small beach town of Kaikoura. My clothes are all damp, my hair is getting long, and the little scars on my legs are pink from the sun. I don’t know where I will sleep when I get to New Zealand, nor how I’ll get from Nelson to Kaikoura. But I’m counting on finding WiFi again somewhere before I leave Indonesia, and then it’ll all come together. It’s always one step at a time, but always a rush.


To sum up my Southeast- Asian experience, I leave you with this image

To sum up my Southeast- Asian experience, I leave you with this image

 

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