I mean, look at this…
So, Sunday dawned a bit later for me than usual, which was nice. After the usual ablutions, I made my way down to Coffee Monster for breakfast, arriving at about 7:20, only to find them closed, somewhat to my horror. I had to meet the scooter rental folks at 9:00, and searching through my options I discovered that Focus Gallery opened at 8:00. Their kitchen wouldn’t be open on Sunday, but I really just needed something — anything really — in my stomach, and I figured I could have a dessert for breakfast and it wouldn’t kill me. So I started walking. I passed a Dunkin’ Doughnuts that was already opened and very nearly stopped there — I have no idea when I was last in a DD but it has to have been over 20 years. But, it was almost 8:00, and surely Focus Gallery would be better.
Short story shorter: they didn’t really open for orders until about 8:15 (I was so hungry), and I didn’t get the coffee and cheesecake I asked for until about 8:27. But the rental place was a 7 minute walk away, according to Google, so I was Ok.
I got there and met Robin and — I’m going to have to guess “Vanessa” — of Vanessa’s Motorbike Hire. Robin’s British, I think Vanessa is local, and their daughter was about 7 maybe and spent most of her time watching American cartoons on their MacBook Air. I’m pretty sure they live above the shop. They were really nice folks, Robin was chock full of advice, on visa matters, local ISPs (where ever you live, look for the local gaming arcade and ask what internet they use, they’ll have the best in that area), and, of course, driving a bike. I’d told him that I was new to scooters, new to driving on the left side of the road (the Brits never seem to appreciate how scary that is, for some reason), and wanted something bulkily protective and safe. So he introduced me to an Old Grey Mare of scooters, and took me to a largish parking lot across the street to test drive it.
[Update: Based on the comments, for some reason many people are thinking that just because I discuss a helmet that I want, that means I don’t have one right now. Please note the bright red thing on the seat. That is my helmet. I mean, really.]
He demonstrated the controls, I concentrated on trying to remember them. He rode around on it a little, then had me get on, ride it around, and told me what I was doing wrong: accelerating into turns and accelerating too fast. He told me I was being aggressive, which was entirely incorrect as I was feeling super cautious and simply didn’t have the feel of the throttle yet and was turning it too hard. Only now, as I write this, does it occur to me that maybe he meant that in some technical sense, simply meaning that I was accelerating too fast as opposed to being angry, adventurous, or pushy. That’s the problem with reusing common words with real meanings as technical terms in a specialty (thank gods computers are free of that).
Then he told me to drive up the street to a roundabout, go around it, and come back to the shop. So I did, and found brand new muscles to stress-tense. Driving on the left hand side, somewhat terrified that I’d turn into the wrong lane of traffic when turning, violently aware of all of the ways that I could horribly injure myself…. And aware that people do this sort of thing all the time, therefore it was doable. Which was what was allowing me to even consider doing it, but didn’t do much for the terror. The roundabout, which I remembered from my walk the day before, seemed to be forever away. I finally got to it, rounded it without incident, and headed back, and the return trip went even longer. Then I was coming up on a street that I knew was too far south, and figured that I’d passed the shop without realizing it (it didn’t face onto the street, but was back along a row of shops perpendicular to it). I used Google Maps, and figured out what I needed to do to get back, and did it — I think I had followed onto a side street that branched off to the left on the way back — with at least as much terror as before since I was now turning across oncoming traffic twice to get to the shop.
I got back to the shop just as Robin was getting on another bike to come look for me. His apprehension as I gunned the thing across the street and into his parking lot was, from an uninvolved perspective, amusing; he guessed at the mistake I’d made in my route back, and I got more advice about not being aggressive. (Which I decided not to protest.) But we went back into the shop, I filled out all the paperwork, paid the first 2,500 baht/month (roughly $80), and we had the really nice conversation that I referenced above. I tell ya, if Robin’s a Muay Thai fighter, as his e-mail address suggests, he leaves it all in the ring. Nicest, friendliest guy you’d want to meet.
I headed out, accelerating as casually as I could manage, and had a delightfully terrifying 1.7 km drive back to my hotel. An hour or so later, I drove down to the Nimman area for lunch once again at Khunmor Cuisine, walked to a Tesco for some groceries (canned tuna! What joy!), and then walked back to the bike and drove back. Errand run, mission accomplished. I sent Robin an e-mail confirming that I wasn’t dead yet.
I’ve driven that bike a fair amount over the last few days. I go to breakfast at Coffee Monster on it each morning. I drove down to Theera’s on Monday, and from there to the MAYA mall to see about a local phone, buy an extra bag that my gaming laptop will fit in, and get groceries. I went to Damien’s going away party on Tuesday, 17km away (my longest drive by far). On Wednesday I drove down to where Google Maps told me a walking tour was supposed to be taking place, only to discover that the iPhone app was lying to me. I missed the tour, sadly, but there will be others. And Wednesday night I went to a meeting of a philosophy discussion group that Damien recommended (seriously… connections, or what?). The Tuesday party and the Wednesday night group both gave me night driving experience — not really any more terrifying, but aggravating in that I have to wear my sunglasses because of the bugs that come out in the evening. (Thankfully, they’re not that dark. The sunglasses. The bugs seem plenty dark, in that I couldn’t see them until they were in my eyes.) For that reason alone, I may have to buy a helmet with a visor; I want this one from Durarara! in the worst way:
(This video won’t embed, for some reason, so you’ll have to click. So sorry.)
Right from the start, I’ve been trying to be super, super safe. For example, as much as possible, I only make left turns. In the U.S., the parallel would be only making right turns, where you never have to cross opposing traffic. I read an article a couple of years ago about UPS doing this, and while they tout the gasoline/emissions savings, it’s also significant that it reduces the number of accidents. Or more specifically, by applying this to left-only turns in Thailand, it will hopefully reduce the number of accidents involving me. Also, when I see a bunch of traffic coming up behind me much faster than I’m comfortable going, I just pull over until the road clears.
I also know that Westerners are more inclined to get into accidents here because they expect the Thai folks to obey the rules of the road. I am blissfully free of that expectation. I’ve always been a defensive driver, and now that’s super-amped up because now I never assume that the other drivers will be predictable, and I always back down first rather than insist on my position.
I started out kind of terrified on the road, and super tense. As time has passed, I’m starting to relax a bit — but reminding myself to not stop being paranoid and not stop noticing everything. It helps that I’m really, really aware of how much skin I can lose if I take a spill. I’m wearing thin khaki cargo pants, a light shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and sneakers with ankle-high socks. With luck, maybe they buy me scrape protection at the exact moment of impact; then they rip and after that, I have only what evolution provided me, which isn’t much. The only point of reassurance is that I see all these Thai people driving around on these things in shorts and flip-flops (and often no helmets. Of course, they crazy. But, still, it gives me some hope of maybe not rushing headlong into certain death/injury.
And, the only way to step up my protection is to get into real, protective, motorcycle gear, which seems a bit much for a scooter and also hella warm for Thailand. So, I’m just practicing relaxing with it. It does seem to be working.
One thing that helped: I was appalled by how fast everyone was going. Like, traffic’s doing 50 on a couple of these major roads, and it was terrifying me (again) to try to keep up and stay with the flow. Then, after a few days of this, it suddenly dawned on me: my speedometer is measured in km/hour, not miles/hour! So 30 is really about 18, 50 is about 30, and everything suddenly felt much calmer and less terrifying. I don’t want to wreck going 30 (or at all, really), but it beats the hell out of wrecking at 50.
So, that’s the motorbike story. I considered entitling it, “Not Dead Yet”, but that seems like tempting fate, so I won’t.