When I was quizzed on it a few minutes later, I was nervous to respond – I knew that one wrong slip-of-the-tone would result in embarrassing myself; haawy, with a falling tone, was the second half of firefly, but with a rising tone, I was saying oyster – slang for vagina. http://www.thai-language.com/id/133296 So tricky you are, Thai.
Let me take you back to this afternoon, because my new word comes with its own novella. And when you’re still wondering 1000-2000 words in how I learned the word for firefly, happily remind yourself that I’m writing my first blog post in over a year and a half. And enjoy it. Hopefully more will be coming.
As we started the trip to my favorite waterfall, my disposition was as gloomy as the overcast sky above us. We had just finished brunch, over-indulging in mounds of vegetarian goodness at the buffet at Khun Churn, and I had a million reasons in my mind why I didn’t feel like making the hour-and-a-half drive north of town. After crooning with my colleagues, students, and friends at a particularly questionable karaoke/brothel until 3am, I was still beyond tired, despite waking up at noon. This, combined with a belly full of food, a sunless sky, and a few hours of lesson planning looming ahead of me, wasn’t compelling me to spend the day at a waterfall I’ve been to a dozen times before.
But it was the last day in Chiang Mai for Jenny, my former-VIA friend who agreed to an island rendezvous on Koh Lipe the week before, and the last weekend for Anna, a volunteer at a Shan NGO who happened to go to high school with my best friend from college. Both of these ladies are a blast, so it’s hard to turn down a last chance to hang out with either for a while. Plus, it is my favorite waterfall, and it’s a great one to visit with people who have never been there. Nam Dtohk Bua Tong or the golden flower waterfall – increasingly known among new expats, much to my dismay, as “Sticky Falls” – gushes from a calcium-rich spring that flows down three tiers against a mountainside; as the minerals settle, it calcifies everything in its path – soil, fallen leaves, tree trunks – enveloping it all into a bulbous terrain of smooth limestone. Smooth, but not slippery; the rocks have unbelievable traction, allowing you to run barefoot through the rushing water and clamber up and down vertical mounds of rock with surreal ease. Lush emerald moss grows where the crystal clear water parts, even along the edge of the falls, sprouting magically through the rock the way you imagined a Chia Pet would before you pulled out the instructions and realized you were just smearing goopy seeds on terracotta. With all the green and moss and encrusted roots and trunks and leaves (some still green, naturally leading me to wonder just how long I’d have to sit in these waters until I resembled the Nome King in Return to Oz: http://youtu.be/0537fJ6GmnU), it’s all of my childhood notions of fairy worlds and Neverland come to life. Plus, it’s fun to watch newcomers refuse to trust their toes as they tread timidly through the first tier.
So off we went, with Jenny behind me on my bike and Anna behind Travis on his. The ride out is something special, too; as you ride past Mae Jo and the highway turns into a simple two-lane road, the shops give way to open fields, rice paddies and mountains on every side. There was a surprising treat waiting for us when we arrived late in the afternoon: a camera crew was set up around a dramatic set for the finish line of a race, and we found out it was a TV commercial being shot. A shampoo commercial. It was really interesting to see a big-scale Thai production being carried out – tons of trucks were parked around that brought scaffolding and generators and lights and equipment; but in true makeshift Thai style, the TV monitors were sitting in wheel chairs. It seemed to be a pair of British men working as director and DP, they were friendly enough when we stopped to watch them go through several takes of a green-screened hand sweeping back the lustrous black hair of a loog-kreung (half-child, or more accurately, half-Thai-half-fahrang) model to make it swish dramatically to emphasize its shine. “One more time,” the director decided, “that one wasn’t fulfilling.” The story boards were pinned up in front of them, and as we remarked that this was quite an extensive shoot and asked what the commercial entailed, they said “It’s a TV commercial. Don’t read too much into it.” (Powerful stuff, here, shampoo. It can make or break relationships, as evident here, note the fulfilling swish: http://youtu.be/admMWBtRNO8.) We saw them again after our climb, with two actresses running a snippet of the race in front of Nam Phu Chet Si, or the fountain of seven colors (perhaps earlier in the day – by 5:30pm I could count only four). We watched them shoot their final scene and joined their celebratory cheer when they wrapped up, and headed back to our bikes.
I should mention now that my bike has been having trouble for a while. It turns off whenever I’m not accelerating, a quirk I’ve gotten so accustomed to that I can effortlessly restart it while the bike’s still moving. But since I returned from my travels (a whirlwind week in Cambodia and a quick peek at Thai Muslim culture and island life down south) it has been randomly refusing to start. It may just not like Jenny, as she has been witness to each incident. The first time, I walked it to the nearest open mechanic and he tut-tutted and remarked, as far as I could gather, that the battery was bad and there may or may not be something wrong with the carburetor.
I was at a loss for words, not particularly because he only spoke Thai and my vehicle vocabulary is pretty underwhelming – my knowledge of motorbike-upkeep is lacking in any language, and when he said “ca-buh-lay-dtuh” my thoughts travelled immediately to here: http://www.anyclip.com/movies/josie-and-the-pussycats/E8TUnmb2hbumu/#!quotes/. (Snicker all you want, this movie will remained nestled in my heart among painful middle school memories, from dressing as a trio of shiny, slutty, sixth-grade “Josie and the Pussycats” with Sabrina and Erin for Halloween, to actually dying my hair a terrible shade of red and using much too much hair wax to recreate that piece-y, hyper-flipped bob Rachael Leigh Cook wore so well.) Anyway, I retorted that I bought the battery at that very shop just a few months before…when I discovered that – surprise! – 6 weeks of neglect is enough for your bike to have hurt feelings and refuse to start out of spite. This seemed to be enough of an argument to keep from having to buy a new battery; he charged the current one for ten minutes and we were on our way. 50 baht.
The next morning, it started when I drove out to the main street to grab breakfast with Jenny, but refused to start after we ate. As it was my first morning back to school in two weeks, I luckily planned to be at school a good bit earlier than I needed to be. This time was instead spent pulling my bike back to the new makeshift repair shop on my street and watching in horror as the young mechanic began immediately unscrewing bolts in the body and pulling her apart, piece by piece. After I realized this was an extensive operation, I told him I’d pick it up the next morning and drove my old roommate’s bicycle to school. When I picked it up, he turned it on demonstratively and showed me a little bolt that he replaced. Whatever, it worked for the rest of the week. 160 baht.
Now, as it was on the cusp of sundown and we were wet and tired and ready to end our waterfall frolicking, my petulant bike decided it was a good time for outburst number three. Travis and I fiddled with her for a few minutes, watching knowingly as the production crew packed up that there was no room in their trucks for a broken-down bike and a pair of wet fahrang. Just at that moment, a gaggle of happy, toweled-off, slightly buzzed Thai men, their wives, and a couple of winding-down children headed past us toward their cars. The pitiful sputtering of my bike led them to offer a few sidelong glances and shouts of suggestions – “kick suh-tart!” “choke” “mai mee fuel” “battery mod” – and I offered in my limited Thai that kick-starting wasn’t doing it, neither was fiddling with the choke, and there was a bit of gas left in the tank…though the battery may very well be dead.
Intrigued, they came over to see for themselves, played with it a couple times, and decided it was, in fact, hopeless. They conferred between themselves. Do you live inside the city, one guy asked. I nodded, and they pointed to their cars. “Oh,” I said to my friends, “I guess they can jumpstart it.” So we followed them as they rolled my bike to the back of a pickup, and then watched without much surprise but great amusement as they proceeded to lift my bike into the back of the truck. As soon as my bike started stalling, I assumed that this would be the best course of action – find someone to give us and my bike a lift back to the city. But I also was sorting out a plan for when we found ourselves completely alone, without anyone around to take us back. I suppose we would go to the snack shop in the parking lot and try to explain our situation and hope someone could call someone – a mechanic to fix the bike or a songtaow to drive us home. Worst case scenario, we would leave the bike and struggle to find a way home (not many sontaows cruising for passengers this far outside of the city), and I’d have to come back later in the week to deal with my bike – and bring a mechanic? It was one of those situations where if things hadn’t worked out as well as they did, I’m not sure what the best solution would have been.
One guy spoke English, which was a relief, as my comprehension tends to dwindle as my concern rises. “Today is holiday, so not many repair shops open. Also very late.” I concurred. They said they’d take us – and motioned to a second truck, where they were happy to cart Travis’ bike as well. We explained that his bike was fine, and Anna could go back to the city with him – something that seemed to strike them as odd, that two of our friends (and perhaps, the only man) would separate from us and make the journey back alone. But they understood, linguistically if not culturally, and ushered Jenny and I into the back of the pickup with one of the men and my bike.
We only drove for a few minutes until we realized the ropes weren’t tied securely enough around the handles of the bike, so the guy tapped on the rear window for the driver to pull over and readjust. Good timing, as the man was just starting to ask questions about the NGO where I said I worked – questions to which I always give intentionally vague answers, as you never know who would be pleased and who would be peeved to find out I’m teaching migrant workers from Burma. I typically say it’s an NGO that helps people without money go to university – there’s truth to that.
As they readjusted, one of the friends driving another car stopped behind us, got out and offered for us to sit in his backseat. We happily obliged, as the idea of braving the wind as night fell, with wet bathing suits and little leg room crammed against my bike, was not too appealing. He was also the one who spoke a little English. So we got in and started off toward home in our caravan of four vehicles: the truck holding my bike, another truck driven by a Buddha-bellied man wearing only a towel, a car with an English-speaking man and his wife and the pair of helpless fahrang girls (us!), and a car full of chatty children. I’d later receive a text after passing Travis and Anna, “We just passed your truck and didn’t see you?” We debated sending back “They took the bike!” but reassured them that we were safe instead.
In our car, we chatted as we drove back toward the city and found out that they actually were going to Mae Jo, a good 20 minutes before the city. At this point, we weren’t sure what the plan was, but not too long after, all four cars pulled over. “There’s a repair shop back there.” We turn around and are barely out of the car before hearing that the mechanic has gone to Mae Rim. We all pile back in and continue on, until we reach a big market. “We will get food, okay? Another repair shop is a few kilometers down the road.” Relieved that they weren’t letting us hinder their plans for the journey home, Jenny and I also walked the aisles of the market and found some fresh spring rolls to eat – now? In the car? At the next repair shop? We hardly knew.
We were feeling a bit greng-jai by this point, which literally means “fear-heart”, but is really about feeling reluctant to impose upon others – this entire crew of ten or so family and friends were on the hunt for a repair shop for these two girls they happened to pass after a day relaxing and picnicking by the waterfall. But, as our driver said earlier, the people of Chiang Mai – more so than Bangkok, he insisted – were nam-jai (water-heart), meaning that people are happy to go out of their way and extend hospitality to strangers. This is so true, and something that has kept me humble and sane during all of my time spent here. The kindness and consideration I witness in strangers day after day compels me to be a kinder, more helpful person. If you see someone struggling with a broken-down car on the side of the road, most people would drive by, satiating their conscience with reasons of being too busy or tired or assure themselves that they are acting cautiously, or that no one would stop for them. And with that mindset, I don’t think many people would stop for them. But there’s an energy here of selflessness that overwhelms everyday life. Of course, more intimate relationships are another matter; there certainly are selfish people and those who act solely for their own gain when dealing with friends and colleagues. But the general kindness and thoughtfulness of strangers has proven to triumph time and time again.
When we reached the second repair shop, everyone got out of their cars to make sure my bike was properly looked after, and to stretch their legs and poke around. The man wearing only the towel tinkered with different things in the shop, and some of the men walked out to the field beside us. “Hing-haawy!” one of the men exclaimed, and others came over to see. Jenny and I joined and peered out into the darkness to see the twinkling of lightning bugs. “What are they called in English?” “Fireflies!” offered Jenny. “Lightning bugs!” I retorted. Yet another one of the endless list of incongruities found in the English language – those little regional differences that make reading a passage on the GED just that much more confusing for my students. The guys seemed really pleased, and our driver, Nui, explained, “The city has too much light, too many buildings, to see hing-haawy. I haven’t seen any in four or five years.” He watched as another one of the men called for his children to come over. One of the wives went out with them as they watched nervously, afraid to touch them. They were satisfied when their mom caught one for them, and they huddled around her on the edge of the field. “Kuy hen mai?” the little girl asked the young boys. “Mai kuy hen!” they all declared; none of them had ever seen fireflies before. They had their mom catch one or two more and put them in a bag to take home. A new treasure they never knew existed.
As I sat with the kids picking the stunned fireflies they had caught from the grass, my engine revved triumphantly and Nui called out, “Hannah, finished!” I came over and the mechanic held up two metal rings. Apparently my bike is falling apart, piece by piece. I paid and said an endless round of thankyou’s and goodbye’s, exchanged numbers with Nui – who by then had already invited us to drink with them in Mae Jo, but we politely declined as I had yet to do any of my work and Jenny was heading out in the morning – and watched them all pile into their cars and trucks and drive away. 100 baht.
The last of this $9.74 I’ve spent this week trying to fix my bike was undoubtedly the most valuable. Jenny and I talked on the way home about how cool it was how their kindness and selflessness was rewarded so quickly. Instead of taking us begrudgingly and trying to brush us off as soon as possible, our misfortune was an opportunity to extend their adventure. No one seemed to mind towing us along, and the pleasure brought by getting a rare glimpse of fireflies and the chance to befriend and help a stranger seemed to outweigh any of the inconvenience or time wasted on their journey home after a long day. We discussed how the children, who I’m sure were tired by the end of the day and had little interest or sympathy for the two white girls with the broken-down bike, not only got to see the magic of lightning bugs for the first time (and will soon, I imagine, discover the fun of writing with their butts – or just the sad truth that lightning bugs don’t survive long in plastic bags). They also witnessed their parents and their parents’ friends doing something completely selfless, and whether it crosses their mind how nice it was of their parents and their friends to help us, it will certainly be imprinted in their upbringing, and they, no doubt, will grow up to become just as nam-jai as the great role models they have around them.
It’s amazing how a grumpy morning and a broken-down bike can become a recipe for a perfect day.