My scooter left me for another man. He came a few days ago and whisked away her orange form into the sunset, leaving me stalled and alone, with only my feet to move me. Scooty Puff is gone forever.
On some level I knew we were only destined for a fling, Scooty and I—my emerging nomadry would have it no other way. Yet I’d managed to suppress the reality of life in Thailand without her from my conscious thoughts. She was my constant while everything else shifted, greeting me when I returned from travels and lending a hand when I moved apartments. Her departure signals the end of the Chiang Mai-based, travel-studded life I’ve managed to cobble together. She’s gone and I’m left, immobilized again by the chasm of transition.
My life with Scooty wasn’t all roses. She suffered an irritating morning cough, tended to go flat after a day’s work, and got downright testy when asked to climb mountains. She demanded maintenance and attention, refusing to go anywhere before noon without a good fight. I indulged her, because her companionship meant I fit in with the Chiang Mai masses.
A farang is nothing without a scooter in Thailand. Straddling two wheels strapped to molded plastic and a battery represents our best chance of assimilation into a community. As we merge with the undulating river of motorists on roadways and zip around the cumbersome cars, shared taxi buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians, we become part of the mainstream. Our traveling bodies mounted on our trusty steeds become part of the landscape; we’re all equals on two wheels.
It’s cliché that a girl like me with certain hipster tendencies would love to be mistaken for a local while living or traveling abroad. Though there are obvious drawbacks to passing for a local as a visitor in a foreign country—ever talked to a non-caucasian American traveling in an area that shares a recent genetic history?—there’s something thrilling about passing as someone you aren’t. Your identity becomes your secret, the whole world a stage for your new persona.
I passed as a Thai woman one day during the burning season, when the smokey product of slash-and-burn agriculture obscures mountain views and dulls the dry season’s abundant sunshine into an apocalyptic orange glow. Determined to thrive in the smog, I departed for the lake just north of Chiang Mai, adding a medical mask to my usual helmet and sunglasses scooter gear on the advice of a drug store clerk who promised it would protect my lungs from particulate matter. It seems half the city visited the same store, as every other motorist had the same swatch of muted turquoise gauze strapped over the nose and mouth like a modern talisman of health.
On the way, a fellow scooter-riding local engages me in fast, friendly chatter in Thai at a stop light, thus gifting me the delicious pleasure of removing my mask and asking for him to repeat himself please. A few kilometers later, I remove my sunglasses to fish around for the 20 baht entrance fee to the lake, handing over my cash to a guard whose stunned expression revealed his surprise at a farang lady sitting on the scooter. It was delightful. I had conned my way into a mysterious new identity. As long as I kept on that mask, I got to be the cool Thai scooter girl, even if the illusion stopped the moment I opened my mouth.
While adapting to the local mode of transportation might not always make you pass for a local, in my experience it always adds to my understanding of a place in a way that a comfortable and informational tour bus can’t. Since I have a deep appreciation for all things comfortable and informational, this statement means something. While it’s yet another cliché for a traveler tenured in Southeast Asia to proclaim the merits of local transportation, I’ll add my voice to the chorus and proclaim loud and clear: Yes! It’s worth it.
Here is my proof:
If I had sprung for the more comfortable minibus in Laos, I never would have had the affair with the gritty overnight bus that earned bad boy appeal with each cavalier swing around a mountain’s curves. This ride featured a stop for a bowl of deliciously non-westernized noodles at 2 am, which is one of my favorite times to dine as it feels just a little bit rebellious in its indulgence—a whole new mealtime! My father always questions what good could come of being out and about in the wee morning hours and in this bowl of spicy broth and rice noodles, I found my answer. Between noodle shops and mountain peaks the bus stopped for renegade midnight bathroom breaks in empty fields and by the sides of waterfalls concealed by the rural night skies. This is where I learned the proper Laotian mass urination etiquette. Ladies get the cleared spaces and men line up on the side of the road. If someone else is relieving themselves between you and the bus, wait for them to finish. Do not cross the pee stream.
Skipping the minibus again proved in my favor during a trip out of Chiang Mai and into the deep north country. In this space, my foreignness was an oddity that inspired curiosity, certainly a strange occurrence for tourist-soaked Thailand. As I waited hours for enough empty seats to transport my crew between points, I found time to observe the flow of monks among northern Thai cities. I made friends with a small town hospital manager who invited me to tour her facilities, and became fast companions with a toddler with Down’s Syndrome. The toddler taught me the proper pronunciation of animal names in Thai as she squealed over the animals pictures I had on my computer. Cuddling up with her in the corner of a busy transportation hub and giggling together over pictures of cats doing silly things remains a highlight of my time in Thailand.
Riding a motorbike in Vietnam invited honest chatter with locals who were in turns impressed and dismayed by my party’s meandering down dirt through rice paddy roads and racing along coastal highways. In Myanmar (Burma) I learned essential Burmese vocabulary from a pedicab driver who called himself “rickshaw man.” Later he turned over the pedals to my boyfriend, who drove the two of us up a hill. Solo on a Singapore bus, another tourist approached me for directions. When I confessed my origins, a Singaporean overhearing the conversation validated my response and rewarded me a recommendation for his favorite hawker center stall. When stranded overnight by a runaway train at a Malaysian border compound, a Malaccan angel guided a party into the night in search of food and returned with containers of glorious fried rice in my first encounter with Malaysian hospitality.
Outside of Asia, I think the concept works just as well. One certainly cannot accuse a New Yorker of being grumpy without having experienced firsthand the frustration of a sudden subway closure with few alternate routes and with no explanation. Likewise, to comprehend the strange relationship between most Americans and their cars, one must sit in traffic resembling a public art installation in its immobility and cruise fancy-free down a deserted highway in the middle of nowhere.
Back in Thailand, life without Scooty is different. The city runs on the scale of a motorbike, and I cannot keep up with my own two legs. Quite simply, living in Chiang Mai has lost its charm without the means to get around independently. It’s time to move on.