15 September, 2017

Rot Si Chumpoo (The Pink Bus)

Ortal Isaac is a 2016-2017 Fulbright-AMCHAM ETA placed at Thakhonyang Pittayakhom in Mahasarakham, Thailand, where she teaches English to Mattayom students. Ortal is from New York City, and graduated from the Joint Program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary with a B.A. in Comparative Literature & Society and a B.A. in Jewish Literature. In her free time, she can be found exploring new parts of Thailand with her camera, running, and trying as many new delicious Thai foods as possible. After the grant, she plans to return to the United States and hopes to attend law school in the future.

It may sound strange, but some of the most memorable moments from my time living in Mahasarakham and traveling to different parts of Thailand have happened while in transit. Be it buses, boats, trains, vans, planes, tuktuks, songtaos, bicycles, or any other means of transportation, these are all places in which you can sit, look out at the scenery unfolding, and reflect with a sense of quiet, paradoxical stillness that is hard to find elsewhere. No matter the mode of transport, there is something special and transformative about these places; while sitting in these in-betweens, thoughts often flow deeper, farther.

Getting around in Thailand has brought more modes of transportation than I can count. I have taken many a cramped and sweaty minivan ride with far more passengers than the car could hold, been grateful for the cooling breeze while speeding through streets in a brightly-colored tuktuk, zipped my bicycle up and down the road that I live on countless times, and hitched beautiful, windy rides through a National Park in the backs of friendly strangers’ pickup trucks. I have somehow managed to squeeze myself into tiny standing spots at the very edge of numerous seemingly-full songtaos’ last steps with one small centimeter between me and the road below, traveled on bumpy, fourteen-hour swerve-filled night buses, watched the sun rise from early morning train rides, sped past mountains and majestic palm trees covered in fog while sitting on what can only be best described as a karaoke party-raft (disco ball and flashing lights included), and more. 

Sleepy neighbors on an early morning train from Pak Chong, Nakhon Ratchasima, to Khon Kaen

But somehow, some of my most beloved journeys have been those on the Pink Bus, Rot Si Chumpoo. Yet, these are also some of the most mundane. The Pink Bus, aptly named for the unmissable rosy hue that covers its buses and employee shirts, is not special to me because it is particularly dingy, odd, or fancy. It is not noteworthy because the rides I take on it are particularly long; compared to journeys on thirteen-hour night buses, my usual route on it from Thakhonyang to Khon Kaen ranges from only an hour and a half to three hours. The Pink Bus is a regular coach bus that serves several provinces in Isan—the Northeastern region of Thailand where I live. It is precisely because it is so familiar to me and has become such an integral part of my routine here in my province, that the Pink Bus holds a special place in my heart.

I remember the first time that I took the Pink Bus: it was a Friday afternoon, after my very first week at school. The past few days had been a flurry of new faces, names, places, humbling acts of kindness from complete strangers who would grow to become cherished colleagues, friends, and students, as well as lots of information that still didn’t fully make sense. There was a great deal of excitement, anticipation, and definitely a sense of feeling lost. Every second of every day was a lot to take in, new information to process and try to understand. After those first few days, I was going to Khon Kaen to spend the weekend with some fellow Fulbright ETAs placed in nearby provinces, who had also just gotten to their schools. I began the multi-step process of leaving my town, which felt a bit daunting the first time around, as I wondered how exactly I would manage to successfully reach my destination with just about two weeks of Thai language instruction under my belt.

With teachers and M2 students at school.

I biked from my house to my school, locked my bike and waited for the songtao to arrive. I quickly reached for the pocket Thai-English dictionary in my backpack, and found the word for ‘bus stop’—bogoso. Though I had very little clue as to what tone I should use in pronouncing it, I gave my pre-prepared phrase a try when the first songtao appeared and slowed down for me: “Bpai bogoso mai ka?” (Do you go to the bus stop?) After a second of visibly trying to understand the word that I thought I had correctly pronounced as bogoso, the driver repeated the word, only this time with the correct tone, (which I dutifully tried to memorize) and nodded kindly, ushering me to the back of the vehicle.

Once at the bus stop, which was nothing but an unmarked spot on the side of the construction-filled highway with a few people standing around, I approached a gruff-looking man sitting beside a small, white plastic table, looking out at the dusty road. I told him where I was going: “Bpai Khon Kaen ka.” Visibly confused by my existence, he responded with a string of words that I could not quite understand, gestured for me to wait, and I did as I was told. When the first bright pink bus arrived, he motioned quickly to me and I thanked him endlessly for steering me in the right direction. The bus was already full, so passengers who got on stood cramped together in the aisle between seats. Squished, confused, and still anxious about making it to my destination, nothing around me made sense yet: the jumble of small, coupon-like tickets I was handed upon boarding, the constant hum of a totally foreign language of which I could then understand very little, why we would stop at certain intersections and not others, and how on earth I would know when I would arrive at my destination. But it began to dawn on me that this bus ride—and my entire year in this new place—was going to hinge on trust and faith. Trust that in the end, things would simply work out. I had heard much talk about the sabai sabai mentality in Thailand; an ever-important outlook based on going with the flow, taking things as they come, without too much stress or concern placed on knowing everything ahead of time. But it was then that I really started to actively adopt this attitude. A few hours later, I made it to Khon Kaen, excited to have found my way, and my friends and I eagerly shared our experiences from the past few days. 

Learning Thai cooking skills from my host teacher and incredible chef, Khun Mae.

Since that first Friday, my rides on the Pink Bus have become a breeze, but they have never become humdrum. The route that it takes traverses some of my favorite, quintessential Isan landscapes: through small towns, open skies, and lush, brilliant-green rice paddies that line the road home. I often take the bus back right around the time that the sun begins to set, when everything is illuminated in a golden light that dazzles me just as much as it did during my first ride. The Pink Bus gives me a few hours to simply sit and allow myself to be struck by the beauty of everything around me, and how lucky I am to be here, teaching at my school, welcomed by such a kind and generous community of teachers, students, and friends. 

Selfies on selfies with M6/1

The familiar comfort of the Pink Bus provides a space through which I can see how much this once entirely foreign, daunting place, has become so beloved to me: a warm home that I did not know I would find. I know the roads the buses always take, the gruff-looking man at the station in Thakhonyang who, whenever I show up at the bus stop, now greets me like an old neighbor, with roaring laughter and a big smile. I know the way the delicate phuang malai—flower garlands—swing above the driver’s head along with every twist, bump, and turn of the bus, and the way the bus attendants chuckle and joke around in the local Isan language. I know the upbeat twang and rhythm of the mor lam songs that play on the bus’ speakers, the sleepy eyes of the university students I often sit next to, the way the water in the rice paddies reflects the sunlight at different times of the day. 

Rice fields along the Pink Bus route in Mahasarakham.

On these rides, I can stop, marvel, and reflect. They are a place in which moments from the week come back to me, allowing me to appreciate and think about them more deeply. As we whizz past verdant fields, I can picture the shy, smiling faces of the students who always pop their heads into my classroom as they walk to their next lesson, and remember how my ninth grade class, with all its jokesters, made me laugh so hard that they brought me to tears (yet again) on Tuesday afternoon. Looking out at the banana trees planted on the side of the road, I think of the way their large leaves rustle in the wind that always comes just before a storm, and remember the enormous, high splashes of water catapulted into the air with every kick from the boys who play soccer on the school’s rain-soaked field. I remember the look on a student’s face that silently spoke; today is not an easy day. The incredible deep fuchsia hue of the sunsets that I see almost every evening from my back window, and the students who always greet me with a reverent wai while never failing to practice their favorite slang from class: “Teacher! What’s up?” Gifts of fruit and khanom that hold, in their small plastic bags, sweet snacks, but more importantly: a great deal of love.

Isan sunsets from my back window.

Now, on my most recent trip home, I settle into a window seat on the Pink Bus, grateful for its air-conditioned interior, my shirt soaked in sweat from sitting outside in the sticky Isan heat while waiting in the bus station for my ticket number to be called. The bus makes its way through the familiar fields, and I lean my forehead against the window, looking out. As I watch the landscape sweeping by, I think back to my very first ride on this bus and my first few days here, feeling confused, lost, anxious, unsure of where exactly I was going and how to go about every little thing. I remember all of these moments, laugh to myself, and smile.

The last day of my first semester at school, in my classroom with fellow foreign language teachers and student teachers.

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