I took this photograph when I first arrived in Chiangmai, but have waited until now to share it, for the story is much more interesting now than it would have been if I had told it when I first took the photograph. In this photo (which was taken in the parking garage at one of the local shopping malls), you can see Michal Dobson and her car, a little red Ford Aspire. Several times during the months of May and June, Michal drove me to various places in Chiangmai in order to obtain the things we needed as we prepared to move into our home here. I took this photo just to illustrate a unique aspect of this particular parking garage. Michal is legally parked in this garage. Her car is in neutral, so that anyone can push it out of the way in order to get into (or out of) the parking spaces on the other side. It is another one of the things that is considered “normal” in this culture. I suppose it helps to know that there is also a parking attendant who assists people with moving the cars that are parked this way and insures that no cars are damaged in the process.
Michal Dobson recently left Thailand to return to the USA for a brief visit. She left Chiangmai at the end of the June and will return at the end of July. Just before she left, she gave me the keys to her Ford Aspire. The day after she left, I went and picked up the car, for I knew that if I waited, I would lose the courage to drive it. With Mom and Kathryn McDaniel as passengers, I drove the car from behind Prince Royal’s College to our home in Baan Den, a distance of a little over ten kilometers. A piece of cake, right? Well… I don’t think I have driven a stick shift since I learned how to drive more than thirty years ago. I have never, ever, driven on the left side of the street. Everything inside this little car is reversed from where it is inside my Acura – the steering wheel is on the right, the gear shift is on the left, the turn signals are on the right of the steering column and the windshield wipers are on the left. Half of the vehicles on the road in Thailand are motorcycles that love to pass on both sides of the car and tend to turn without signaling their intentions. One-third of the vehicles are song-taews that are looking for passengers and will stop on a dime if they find one. It rains daily and usually chooses to rain whenever I choose to go out. All the road signs are written in Thai, which I can read, but not when I am traveling down the road and concentrating on other things. Despite all that, somehow, we made it safely home that day.
After that first driving experience, I made a point to drive the car every day. (A valid USA drivers license can be used for up to one year and, with it, you can get a Thai drivers license without taking a drivers test. Scary, huh?) In the beginning, I limited my trips to just one major stop each day to allow myself time to get used to driving. I find, as I drive, there is a calm little voice in my head that is talking constantly: “Release the accelerator… depress the clutch… upshift… release the clutch… now, the accelerator. Check your rear view mirror. No, honey, there isn’t one on this side… try the other side. Check your side mirror… your OTHER side mirror! Now, put your turn signal on… no, NOT the windshield wipers, the TURN SIGNAL! Now, downshift… clutch, brake, downshift… mirror… OTHER mirror… brake, clutch, no, wait… O.K. now, brake, clutch, mirror, downshift… turn signal… TURN SIGNAL… turn off the windshield wipers… now, turn… TURN NOW!” I found that I was exhausted each time I returned home, but I persevered.
Then, on a Saturday when we had several errands to run, I decided to tackle five stops in one trip. I took an educated guess at the best route and, for the most part, I did OK, though I had to backtrack when I turned right instead of left at the super highway. I did really well (which means, I did not hit anyone and I did not cause an accident) until I finished my last errand and then, I just wanted to go home. I was exhausted… I mean, really, really tired. I could not understand what I had done to make me so tired in just a little more than two hours. After all, I had been driving without a significant incident (if you don’t count getting lost more than once) for more than a week. But on this day, I was really worn out. I had no desire to go anywhere but home… and I wondered if I had the energy to make it home. It was on that trip, as I passed by McCormick Hospital, heading toward home, that I suddenly understood why I was so tired. Each time I drive Michal’s car, as one side of my brain is calmly giving me instructions, the other side of my brain is screaming at the top of its lungs: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?! ARE YOU INSANE?!? DO YOU HAVE A DEATH WISH??? YOU CAN’T DRIVE THIS CAR! YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DRIVE IN THIS COUNTRY! THIS IS CRAZY!! WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!
I shared this revelation with Beth Roadarmel when we had dinner together that night. She laughed out loud. She said she had the same experience when she first came to Thailand. But, she was quick to reassure me, the voice will stop screaming after I have been driving here for about a month. In the meantime, both voices will continue to “advise” me and it will take lots of energy to keep that screaming voice locked up, so that I don’t totally lose it when I am driving. (Michal, if you are reading this, the car is fine. It’s the driver that is having some difficulties.)