My grip tightens as the motorcycle speeds towards oncoming traffic. We weave left to avoid a car, then cut right to the curb-- jump it at a low point, walk the bike over the median, and hop onto the main highway. I hold onto the bar behind the seat and try to relax, but my chest feels tight. The moto-taxi driver guns the accelerator.
Twenty minutes later, he slams the brakes in front of my school. I shake my hands, get off the bike, and hand him 80 baht (about $2 dollars). My legs wobble as I head into the building-- I've survived another commute in Bangkok.
I'm early so I dash to the cafeteria for a quick bite. Its 10 am so I opt for "Khai Jeaw" (omelette). I douse the omelette in chilli powder, chilli oil, and ketchup and snicker as I realize what I've done-- my tastes are turning Thai.
The bell rings and I stroll to class.
Five hours later, Im done teaching. And though I enjoy teaching English, the truth is-- its a means to an end. My real love is travelling and living abroad. I enjoy teaching, but I love Thailand.
I hoist my pack and walk to Lumpini Park. An array of food tents line the edge of Lumpini. Thai friends introduced me to one in particular-- which makes the best Som Tam (spicy papaya salad) in the city. Making Som Tam is an art form,... even in Bangkok it can be difficult to find good stuff. A little too much sugar, or oil, or tamarind, or lime, or chilli.. and the balance of flavors is lost. But properly made, its divine.
I sit and use sparse Thai to order Som Tam with a side of Khao Niaw (Sticky rice). I request "mai sai gung, khap" (no shrimp please)-- but the owners know me and have already started my order.
Its been another blistering day in the city, but a tarp shades the tables and the sun is going down. I sip water while I wait, kick back, and watch people stroll through the park. When the order comes, it lives up to reputation. My eyes and nose water from the chillies. I drink a liter of water, wipe my nose, pat my belly, and smile as I try to imagine the bland food I favored at home. But memory fails.
Charge for the meal...... 50 baht.. just over a dollar.
When I first arrived, I thought often of home. But 16 months later, I never think of The States. Thailand's rhythms, flavors, sounds, and colors have captured me. I feel no nostalgia or homesickness. I can't imagine returning to the hectic grind. I don't miss the bland food or the dulling routine, nor the highways or stripmalls.
At its best, this is what living abroad is all about. Its the magic of not knowing what to expect day to day. Its the exhilaration of new smells, sights, sounds, tastes and sensations. Its the joy of learning something new everyday... and the frustration of unlearning what we accept as "common knowledge".
Of course, living abroad is not for everyone. Those who value stability, security, and comfort may find the experience extremely frustrating. Life is rarely predictable in another country. Simple tasks-- finding a restaurant, renting a movie, getting a phone-- often turn into challenging ordeals.
For my first five months in Bangkok, I could not properly pronounce the name of my neighborhood. Every time I said, "Bangyikan", taxi drivers stared blankly... or waved me away. I grunted, I tried every possible variation of pronunciation, I gestured, I spoke slowly. Nothing worked.
For five months I settled for "Khao San Road", a backpackers spot every driver knew--and walked 25 minutes from there to my home.
Then one day, inexplicably, and with no change I could discern, I said "Bangyikan" and the driver motioned me in. From then on, they always understood.
From Lumpini park I flag a taxi and stop at the Baghdad Cafe to meet friends. Crowded among small round tables, grimy walls, tattered tapestries, and a mix of tattooed Thais and grungy foreigners-- we smoke flavored tobacco from 4 foot water pipes. A blue haze fills the narrow room-- an air of debauchery hangs in the air. We lean against the wall and lounge.
Two hours later, we walk home.
As we cross the Pinklao bridge I catch the gold and glitter of The Grand Palace-- it dances in the night sky. Further downriver, spotlights torch the stone spires of Wat Arun Temple.
A barge slides under the bridge as I turn for one last glance at the temple.
And another typical day in Bangkok comes to an end.