Under normal circumstances, when you are surrounded by your own culture and familiar surroundings, embarrassments not only occur, but are unavoidable. It should come to no surprise, then, that I have had my fair share of run-ins while establishing a new life in a vastly different culture.
This entry begins a series of embarrassments in the said establishing. Enjoy!
Traffic in Bangkok has an understandable infamy. Thirty-minute walks become 45-minute taxi rides become one hour bus rides. Fuel gauges see more action than speedometers. This dilemma has a wide variety of solutions ranging from subterranean (Metro Rapid Transit) to aquatic (bus boats). However, none of them are as thrilling, frightening, or effective as the motorbike taxi (motor-taxi).
There are two specific reasons why foreigners are drawn to the motor-taxi. By efficiently slicing through the nooks of traffic with surgical maneuverability, the motor-taxi appeals to the most temporally parsimonious. Only costing Bht15 ($0.45), the overall frugality dangerously fuels an absolute disregard for safety and any sense of conventional western traffic laws to give it an incomparable allure one could describe as having a death wish.
Compounding foreboding sense of imminent doom is the seemingly unpredictable nature of traffic. Motorists pass in unnecessarily wide lanes. The impatient passers come to compete with the insufferably meek for a right-of-way out of the two unmoving isles that have formed in one lane. Motorbikes take to moving between halted autos, creating a network of lanes within lanes within lanes. The yellow dotted line not only divides the directions of traffic, but indicates a two-way traffic lane motorbikes share. This lane also suffers jams when the nooks narrow and two bikes cannot pass one another.
Pandemonium is tantamount when motorbikes begin to travel on sidewalks and against traffic to avoid going around the almost ubiquitous center divider. And as if all of this wasn’t nerve-racking enough, consider that there are parents (both mother and father) driving a motorbike through all of this with their offspring.
That deserves reiteration.
Families of four commonly ride on 110cc motorbikes, none of them wearing helmets. Babies are in arms. Toddlers are standing between the legs of the driver. It truly is a miraculously frightful site.
My nervousness kept me from trying out the motor-taxi for quite sometime. My Thai in the first weeks of my life here, even in comfortable circumstances, reminded me of a calf awkwardly learning to stand. Thai’s slippery tones coated the little twig legs of my meanings, causing them to predictably fall to the ground. I simply couldn’t bring myself to sheepishly approach the motley crew of orange vested drivers at the end of my street when I still had difficulty telling the by-then familiar clerk at 7-11 I didn’t want a bag for the bazillionth time. My emasculating intrepidity left me studying the motorbike passengers from the windows of my bus and taxi rides.
I noticed some sat side saddled and others sat normally. This perplexed me. I would watch one pass. Then another. None of it seemed to have any rhyme or reason. It dawned on me that the side saddlers were riding with motor-taxi drivers and the regular sitters rode with personal acquaintances. My sissiness, I thought, paid off. I just spared myself the embarrassment of sitting on a motorbike improperly. My confidence was renewed.
Thereafter soon came the day when I hesitantly approached the lounging and chain smoking drivers. At the back of the line, I asked to go to the store at the end of the street. Two drivers languidly leaning against a wall pointed to the front of the line and demurely smiled. Other drivers chuckled. They slid towards the front as I walked. They could see my calf legs wobbling.
Again, I asked to go to the store. The driver responded only by putting on his helmet and starting his bike. I sat as I had observed to be appropriate. Giggles broke from everyone.
“Phu-ying! Phu-ying!” declared the man with a ghostly mustache leaning on the left. I might not have known much Thai by then, but I knew when I was being called a woman. All the side saddlers had been women. Such a blatant distinction had slipped right pass me in the hectic traffic.
Already feeling my legs slipping, a pointing finger from the wispy mustachioed man still against the wall brought about uproarious laughter. The driver next to him fell to the left and rested his head on the other’s shoulder, slapping his chest with an exaggerated relish. Still sitting side saddled, I followed his finger to my wide open zipper and discovered the source of their laughter and my embarrassment. Normally, it’s no big deal. But normally you’re wearing underwear and not showing the shaft of your penis to a group of strangers.