It’s six in the morning and the dawn light is bleeding into the valley, slowly, through a somnolent layer of mist. It’s always peaceful here, but never quiet: the insects and birds maintain an unceasing jungle song. In an Australian desert you can glory in your isolation, in the very absence of sounds and features; whereas here, you are nothing but a reasonably large chunk of animated protein in a vibrant cycle of creation and reabsorption. Turn your back for a couple of days and wild orchids have taken root in the moss on your roof.

I am in the mountains to the west of Chiang Mai, far northern Thailand. The cool green jungle envelopes the villages, with carefully tended coffee plants and Assam tea growing in the shade of the natural canopy. The villages are full of old people, and it seems like every second week I hear that my favourite noodle shop will be closed tomorrow because all the people are going to a ngan sop, a funeral. Living here is not dangerous, unless you are afraid of quietude; it’s just that the villages are full of old people. If you want to retire to a place where living is cheap, the bamboo shoots plentiful and A/C unnecessary, this is the place. It’s kind of like a tiny Florida, for inverse weather reasons. There’s a cool breeze, and every time I ride or walk through the village lanes, I am watched by curious old eyes.

Sometimes I feel as though my soul is getting a bit old, and could do with some rest too. It’s had a lot of excitement over the past 34 years, bad and good. There’s a part of me which is very happy to retire here, eat bananas and pry into my neighbours’ business with a craned neck and curious eyes.

Just kidding. The bigger part of me is irredeemably addicted to motorcycles and impatiently waiting for the my next chance to go throw myself up and down some mountains on a dirt bike. Yes, I may be chilling here in the village, but what’s that? The sound of hammers and saws and the smell of freshly planed timber in the air? Oh yes, that would be my garage. Let me explain.

There was once an old traditional teak house, slowly collapsing into the jungle on the edge of my friend’s land. The local villagers were giving him a hard time about it: they were worried about ghosts. Surely, if not demolished, then the old wooden edifice would become a repository for spirits.

The first time I stepped into its damp, concreted ground floor, I knew they were wrong. This wasn’t a house for ghosts: this was a house for motorcycles. I was standing on a concrete floor; obviously, a workshop. I looked up, and saw the teak floor above my head ending in a sudden internal balcony, where the stair case must once have been. Obviously, a place to sit and gaze at your motorcycles while you drink your beer.

I was in love.

Could this be… a homebase in the midst of a vagabond life? Only time will tell.

Sometimes people ask me when I will arrive at my destination. When I will get to Paris? And in light of the current pandemic induced hiatus, they also ask: are you still traveling at all? Or has your trip ended?
On the contrary, my friends, my trip has grown. Whereas before I was going to Paris, now I am going everywhere: I will ride around the world. First, I must wait for pandemics and politics and the civil war in Myanmar; my route to the subcontinent is blocked by mayhem and catastrophe. But it’s okay, I have time. And in the meantime, I have so much to learn. I have to learn how to ride trials and enduro, so that I can really immerse myself in wild fun in wild places. And I have to learn how to chill out, and take naps, and meditate, and be at peace. I am learning how to live, more and more each day.

A year and a half ago, I thought I was trapped.

Now, however, I am free. And I still have the wanderlust. When the land borders re-open, I will be back on the road. For now though? The secret to living is that it only actually ever happens now. The past and future are both constructions of our own minds.

I probably sound like I’ve been doing too many magic mushrooms but actually no, what I mean to say is far more practical: instead of waiting for that mythical day when the land borders reopen, I’d better get my shit together and learn Thai properly.

Because I am surrounded by marvellous people who have so much to teach me, and the language deficit lies with me. Sure, it’s possible to get by with a few key words and a smile, but that’s like electing to stay a 2 year old for the rest of your life. All you can do is communicate that you want stuff; your basic needs will be met and you won’t die, but that’s by virtue of the benevolence of the people around you, and not because they value you for your stimulating conversation or scintillating wit.

You won’t understand the people nor the world around you. You will, by your own election, stay stupid. Unfortunately, there seems to be a human tendency to locate the blame for this – this stupidity – in others, and not in oneself. I know people who have lived in Thailand for ten or fifteen years, and still can’t speak Thai. Some people recognise that the omission is their own; but not all. There is a particular, and prolific, breed of foreigner who, instead of recognising that the fault is their own, seem to come to the conclusion that it is Thai people who are stupid and ignorant; in fact that it’s the whole world which is racist and bigotted and out to get them. You can imagine how this is a recipe for a life lived in harmony and mutual respect. Most often, you’ll find these people complaining to each other in bars whilst, sooner or later, explaining to you how the earth is flat.

So guess who’s going to language school?

Me, me, me.

5 thoughts on “A Time to Learn

  1. Clint says:

    I’ve been waiting to read these words from you. Learning Thai… will no doubt open your world to even more beauty, kindness and peace. Might even have to give it a try myself, but “old dog and new tricks” haunts me…

    1. Yes, every place is a total mystery until you start learning the language… I can speak a little Thai now but I want to be able to read and write it as well. You learn a lot faster in a classroom than just drinking beers with your friends… I am also learning to touchtype Thai. The whole hog!

      Don’t worry about old dogs new tricks… i think from a neurological perpective, we’re all in the same boat post-infancy…

  2. geoffkeys says:

    A great way to spend your time Grace. I think it will be some time before Myanmar opens anyway. And those foreigners you mention, I’ve met far too many of them in bars in Pattaya.

    1. Yes, I am sure you know the ones I mean 😉

      Gosh, I have all these projects going on right now, I am downright busy!

  3. i_wanna_moto says:

    Glad to hear you’re going all in. No better way to get the most from an experience, and to make those life altering human connections.

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