I was born at mid-century, when America gave in to complete intoxication over cars.
Gas was a quarter. Tail fins and chrome turned every Detroit jalopy into a spaceship; ads promised that when you drove that Thunderbird or Edsel out of the showroom you would, indeed, be on your way to celestial heights.
My dad never had fewer than two cars, always parked proudly in front of the house, and my older brother kept a 1941 Ford in the garage in the back, where he tinkered and fiddled with it until it coughed itself to life one night, and, like the Frankenstein monster, lurched out of the garage to terrorize the countryside.
Me, I could care less.
I liked walking or riding my bicycle when the weather permitted. Otherwise I stayed home and read a book or watched My Mother the Car on TV. When it came time in High School to take Driver’s Ed, I passed. I took Chinese instead, as an elective course.
When I was courting my first wife she did all the driving, because it was her car. As an adult, I still didn’t know how to drive or care to own a car.
A year after we married she handed down the ultimatum: Learn to drive, Buster; I am not your bleeding chauffeur!
So I did, grudgingly. Directionally challenged, I managed to get lost when just a half-mile from the house. I managed to hit every pot hole in every road I ever drove on. Cops gave me tickets for parking in front of other cops giving other cars tickets.
So, years later, when I found myself a bachelor again, I told the old Ford: “This is the kiss-off, pal.” I resumed walking, or taking the bus.
When I arrived in Thailand to teach English I naturally assumed that I would stay afoot or use public transportation, which I did until I fell in with some very bad company – my Thai fiancé, Joom, who owns a big black truck.
She is very proud of her achievement. First, that she could finagle the Grung Thai Bank into giving her a car loan when she didn’t even have a job, and, second, teaching herself how to drive (she’s never learned how to shift from first to second gear without stalling out, but that’s of minor importance – unless we happen to be going up a mountain side.)
Her whole family was against the idea of her driving, so that’s why she did it. I kinda like that spunkiness in a Thai gal.
We both understand that it is her truck, and she is the only one going to drive it. Period. Case closed. So I’m back to being chauffeured about the countryside like a Rockefeller.
And I have a few observations to make about driving in Thailand. Which I am happy to make to you, kind reader, and not to Joom, who unaccountably disdains my fatherly wisdom when it comes to handling the car. Not to put too fine a point on it, she has told me to shut up when I’m in the truck with her.
She may be getting a little too spunky . . .
Thais are great believers in mental telepathy, when it comes to making turns. They like to cut in front of you without warning, and then putting their turn signal on, indicating, I imagine, that yes, your intuition was correct, I did indeed mean to make a left turn right here in front of you.
The center line on any two-way road is meant to guide you down the middle in safety, avoiding ditches and monsoon puddles. Thais are devoted Buddhist drivers; they always take the Middle Path. Too bad if you happen to get in the way.
Tour buses happily enter the narrowest soi possible – lanes that a Sherman tank would hesitate to attempt – because they enjoy the challenge, noise, and limb-threatening maneuvers necessary to extricate themselves.
A Thai may run out of gas while driving, but he will never run out of beer while on the road. Or som tom and sticky rice.
A yellow light is an invitation to test your Wayne Gum – your karma – as you accelerate through it to meet unknown obstacles that may or may not be bigger than your vehicle.
All pedestrians are acrobats.
The reason motorbikes are so noisy and smoky is that otherwise no Thai driver would ever notice them on the street.
It is sound traffic safety to buy a dozen flower wreaths from the vendors along the highway to hang on your rear view mirror, obstructing your view of anything smaller than a semi.
Cell phones must be hidden inside the car somewhere nearly inaccessible, so when they go off the driver keeps only one or two fingers on the steering wheel while rummaging around like a Vandal at the sack of Rome. Once found, of course, the conversation must be so absorbing, or vexing, that the driver enters an exalted plane of existence where the normal laws of physics are suspended.
An expired driver’s license is all you need to drive through a roadblock infested with Thai traffic police. Cash is always acceptable.
And, finally, Thais wash their cars incessantly; this is so that when they are inevitably involved in a fender bender, or worse, the admiring crowd will murmur, as the bodies are taken away, “look how clean they keep their car!”