Sunday, June 30, 2013

On Riding a Motorcycle in Bangkok

I was going to sit down tonight and write about some of my impressions from this weekend’s roadtrip to Ayutthaya. I still may, but since the very first observation had to do with comparing riding a motorcycle in Ayutthaya and Bangkok, I knew I needed to write this missive about BK traffic first.  This blog has been on my mind for a month now.
Mind you, these aren’t things I’ve been thinking about while driving. Oh no. Driving a motorcycle in Bangkok while thinking about other things will get you killed.  My half hour drive to work in the morning and on the way home is an exercise in complete and total focus.  90% of my attention is intensely paying attention to what is happening in front of me, specifically, the one to five foot wide area of the pavement that is my ‘road’.  It’s the variable space between the cars that barely move in the 7AM commute.  The other 10% is vaguely paying attention to what’s on my sides and behind me. 

Sometimes, my road will simply close up in front of me as there isn’t enough room to pass between the cars, meaning I have to slide over to another road on either side of the cars.  Unless I’m tailgating another motorcyclist (a good tactic as it cuts down on the brain work), I’m constantly gauging my road.  Can I fit through there?  Should I stay in 3rd gear or should I downshift?  For particularly tight fits, I may need drop all the way down to 1st and do a little handlebar wobbling to keep from clipping the cars’ sideview mirrors with mine own.  

Perhaps the best analogy for traffic in Bangkok that I’ve thought of is that of a river.  The cars, trucks, buses and tuktuks are rocks and pebbles, slowly being pushed along the river bottom.  We cyclists are the water, each bike a water molecule in and of itself.  We rush forward, filling every available crevice, gap  and opening.  Only the sturdiest dam will impede our progress.   Also, being unthinking forces of nature, one water molecule doesn’t wait around for another in the flow forward.  Leave a gap and another molecule will fill it.  We will weave lane to lane between individual stall cars, putting a lot of effort into gaining another 15, 20, 30 feet.  We can’t stop; we’re flowing water molecules.  Gravity and the push of the river drive us forward!

I don’t dread driving here.  I am not complaining about the traffic.  It’s something I have to deal with and I will do so without whining.  That said, it was weird and refreshing to get out into a second-tier small city like Ayutthaya this weekend.  There, I could drive down the middle of the lane.  How strange.  There was still some cutting between cars, but it was mostly at stoplights.   

There were a few times whilst still in newtown Ayutthaya, that I ran into some nasty stalled stuff (namely at the roundabout in the city center) and I wove my way through it like an expert, hopping up onto the sidewalk, leaving the other motorcyclists stalled with the boulders.

I wonder if any of the Ayutthayan cyclists thought, “that guy drives like he’s from Bangkok.”?

It was like I was a water molecule from the harshest, roughest whitewater river suddenly flowing along the calm progress of the Chao Phraya River.  

 Speaking of the Chao Phraya, my first video from my weekend adventures is a Seasons of the Ukulele entry. It’s week 71; the theme is songs with people’s names in the title.  Me performing Proud Mary. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Escaping From and Searching for a Declining Profession

There are dying professions in this world.  There always have been.  How many armorers, coopers and buggy-whip makers do you know?  In my parents’ youth there were milkmen.  What happened to them?  Given my love of exploring the world, I might have decided that becoming a travel agent would have been a good idea in the late 1980’s when I was looking for a career. Bullet dodged there.  Who uses a travel agent anymore?   

Looking at how people in America research, compare and buy things now via the internet, you can see why my old job of appliance salesman felt a lot like it was a declining profession.   

Being in a profession on the decline can lead people to do things like leave their country, go to another part of the world and teach English.  I’m not in a declining profession anymore.  There will always be demand for English teachers, and five weeks into being one, I think I’ll do okay.

I was reminded of this declining profession phenomenon today as I was out looking for a service that in the US anyways, always struck me as anachronistic.  The shoe repairman is a 19th century relic from when footwear was made by hand and lasted decades.  In the US, it always puzzled me that a person could make a living as a shoe repairman. 

Tailors, laundrymaids, wandering brush salesman, food cart vendors:  there’s no end to  the list of jobs people do here to make a living that we don’t find in the West, or at least not nearly as many as there once were.  Shoe repairmen are on that list.  I can recall seeing half a dozen of them since arriving in Bangkok.  Remembering where I saw them, that’s a different matter. 

A couple days ago, I knew I needed one right away.  I have two pairs of shoes I can wear to work. One of them, the newer of the two, suffered a fatal separation of upper from sole, rendering them unwearable, but still relatively new.  I needed a man with the materials and know-how to glue the sole back on my shoe. 

I dreaded looking for one.  I said shoe repairmen were rare in the USA, but they’re easier to find.  Just look on Google or in the Yellow Pages.  Here, the shoe repairmen are more common, but they work irregular hours, their ‘shop’ consists of a couple boxes they set up on the sidewalk where and when they want to.  You might have read here in my blog about my frustrating quest for shoelaces.  There’s also been the quest for plug-in air fresheners, rice porridge, laundry places.  There’s SO MUCH to buy here in Bangkok, but finding it hasn’t always been easy. 

Just this last weekend, I hosted a small party here in my new condo, and a few hours before it was scheduled to start, I get RSVPs that half a dozen people whom I had not expected to attend were coming.  Oh shit.  This well exceeded the seating capacity of where people could put their butts in my condo!  So I rode off in search of some cheap, plastic, stackable stools.  You see them everywhere in Thailand, particularly at the roadside, sidewalk businesses which make up half the commerce here.

My condo came with one, but just one.  Give me 6 more of these. 
I live 3 blocks from the biggest mall in Bangkok.  I started there.  Checked the department stores.  Nope.  Checked the Tesco, our answer to WalMart.  Nope.  Hmmm…  I’d probably get a better price at the ubiquitous ‘general stores’ or small hardware stores out in the city anyways, so off I went.  I found four places in half an hour that based on their other merchandise, would be likely to carry small plastic stools. 

Not one sold them.

It wasn’t very hard after the first place to remember the word for what I wanted (I knew not at the outset the Thai word for ‘stool’).  Every store I went to HAD one. It’s where the merchant sat.  I would point at it and ask, “Nee?  Kohr nee?”
They did not have nee (although I will never forget that the Thai word for stool:  it’s kao-ee).

Before giving up, I contemplated asking the noodle vendor next the last place I looked who had his 6 tables and 24 kao-ee sitting there unoccupied how much he wanted for his roadside restaurant’s furnishings.  No, I don’t want to buy any noodle soup, but would you sell me your stools?

Anyways, it was that kind of experience I was thinking I might face with the search for the shoe repairman.  

Then it hit me as a I wobbled carefully to the whiteboard at the start of my 12th grade honors English class.  I got 20 locals right here hanging on my every word who can help me, and they speak English pretty well!  

“I have a question for the class!” I announced. “Where can I find a shoe repairman here around school?”

They all looked at me dumbfounded.  No one said a thing.

“Okay, this is not a question that will be on the test!”  I laughed.  Maybe they didn’t know the word ‘show repairman’, it is, after all, a dying profession.

 “Where can I find a man who can fix this?”  I then pulled my foot above desk level so that they all could see that Teacher Joko’s shoe had suffered a fatal blowout. 

“Aaahhhhh!! ”  They responded as a class.  It’s interesting how sudden understanding of a confusing situation is the same in all languages.  I think the release of the tension of confusion into understanding produces the same intonations everywhere.  It’s kind of like laughing. “Ahhhhhh” is the same in every language.

“Thong Lor BTS!” one told me, a few others nodding in agreement.   I clarified if they meant in the BTS or on the street or where.  On the street.  

At lunch today, knowing I had no classes after lunch, I took the BTS to Thong Lor (a 2 minute ride, it’s the next station down).  Of course, I had forgotten to pin down the location of this shoe guy from my students.  North side or south side of the street?  Uptown or downtown?  I used my intuition and observation skills to decide to go THAT way.  I was about 10 seconds away from deciding I had gone the wrong way when I found him.  

I made the mistake of neglecting  to agree on a price before turning my shoe over to the guy for fixing.  He not only fixed it, he made it better and shined it for me too.  I was kinda worried at the end he would say something like 200 baht for his services.   I was thinking 100 baht ($3.35) would be fair in my mind for the 20 minutes he spent fixing my shoe.  After all, men in dying professions have to get as much as they can for each job.  

When he was done and I asked how much…  80 Baht.

Look at this beautiful shoe!  Note the fixed one now was stitching in the sole to supplement the apparently crappy glue they used at the factory.  The shoe in the back ain’t got that.  It’ll probably be going to my shoe repairman sometime in the near future.  

Gotta make these shoes last.  Finding a shoe repairmen wasn’t all that hard.  Finding new shoes in a 12 wide, not looking forward to that.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Some Routine Fun With the Soi Dogs

I’ve been in Thailand 70 days now.  Sorry to disappoint anyone who has been  following vicariously and have noticed a bit of a slow down in my adventures here lately, but I’m kind of settling in.  I’m developing a bit of a comfortable routine.  I wake up, get ready for work, risk my life in Bangkok traffic in a 30 minute commute, review my daily lesson plans, start teaching, go to lunch, teach some more, risk my life again on the way home, get home, have my second shower of the day, play some ukulele and a video game, head out in search of dinner, come home, read, fall asleep.  On Fridays, I can head out to someplace in the LOS (Land of Smiles) that’s new to me, which I endeavor to do as much as my pocketbook can support. 

Going back to the very beginning of this blog, I talked about how my life had fallen into a rut.  I talked about how I needed to get out of that.  How I needed to escape the boring predictability of my life 6 months ago. 
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him change his spots.  Err… mixed metaphors… lets try again.  Water floats to it’s own interesting times in the harbor whilst in calm waters, all boats show the same mastery at floating. 


You know what I mean.

We’re human beings. I’m a human being in my 40’s.  I naturally seek stability, routine and predictability.  I’m starting to get some of that here in Bangkok. 
Mind you, that stability is but a cardboard shield in the face of the frontal assault on my sense of normalcy that is living in Thailand (ahh… cardboard shield.. inventing NEW metaphors).

I can count on the doggies in the parking lot at dusk giving me some entertainment.  We call them ‘soi dogs’, with ‘soi’ meaning ‘street’… Street dogs.  Not soy dogs, that vegetarian treat.  Here, they bark furiously at the doggies on the other side of the fence in a battle of barkines,  all whilst wagging their tails.  I guess it takes the human observer to realize that the tail wagging means they’re having fun and aren’t that serious in the aggressive barking.  The soi dogs don’t see the humans all around them as part of their world.  They live in their own doggy world, seeking stability and normalcy in protecting their turf.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Feeling Proud of my 11th graders.

I was so proud of my 11th graders today.  Today’s lesson was on weights and measures, comparing metric to non-metric values.  It was kind of a dry lesson, and I was pulling out all the stops including playing “Guess how much Teacher Joko weighs?”

I set up the following word problem on the board and told them I did not know the correct answer, but I bet them I could figure it out faster than they could.  I’m pretty good at math and I had a head start in that I was the one who came up with the problem.

In the USA, 1 gallon gasoline = $5.00
In Bangkok, 1 litre of gas = Bt 43
$1.00 = Bt 30
(I didn’t have to tell them that 1 gallon = 4.5 litres, that was on their worksheet)

The question was: Where is gas less expensive?

Simple enough… One gallon gas is 150 Baht, multiply 43 by 4.5 and you get…

Boom.  One student put his paper on my desk before I had finished carrying the zero.  They (well, he) won! 

I didn’t think they’d beat me at my own game.  It gave me a chance to tell the kid, “not only is your English really good, you’re a math wiz!”  My favorite teachers have always been very complimentary, and so I believe creative praise is very important.  

(Incidentally, I know that a gallon of gas isn’t $5 yet. I set up the problem to make it more likely for Thailand to ‘win’.  It ended up being a lot closer than I thought, which made me think gas is actually kind of expensive here.  Tonight, I learned that the conversion rate I was using wasn’t even the gallon I knew of… one UK gallon is 4.5 litres.  A United States gallon is 3.76 liters, even liter is spelled differently… at $4/US gallon, that makes 120 Baht, 43*3.76= 161 Baht… yeah, it’s cheaper in the US).

I got my visa changed today to a working visa, which won’t require me to make border runs any more.  As long as I stay employed, I can renew this visa indefinitely.

I had an audition tonight for a role in a play.  Yes, you read that right.  I auditioned for a play.  If you happened to have read my previous blog, or know me personally, then you know that community theatre was one of my passions in the years leading up to me coming to Thailand.  I was in three plays in two years, and enjoyed every part of it. 

The name of the play is “The Natives” and was written by a couple of expats here in Bangkok who have been longtime English teachers.  It is about a group of English teachers here in Bangkok at a rather strange private school. I got to read the entire script tonight, and it is quite funny.

I did my best at the audition, and there are very limited roles left to be cast, so if it happens, it happens. If not, at least I got to meet some new people.

We finish this blog with Part Three of last weekend’s trip to Cambodia.  I tell you, never have I felt as foreign in a place as I did last weekend when I decided I would hike through the slums of a Cambodian border town looking for the place where all the illegal immigration into Thailand occurs.  Not your typical tourist destination.

The background music isn’t typical either: It’s the latest dance hit here in BKK.

Does Outer Space Affect Inner Space?

 Along the spectrum of philosophies and religions of the world, few give much weight to the idea that we are significantly influenced, if at...