Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 16 Comments

The Resilience of a Mother

My mom and brother had arrived some time before Christmas in 2003, and we loaded their belongings in the trunk of our tiny red Kia. Our first visitors during our year living abroad. We would make it to our first stop at Stonehenge, but only barely, after having driven through England’s winding back roads at night in the freezing fog with iced-over headlights. The ensuing two weeks are best remembered as a string of days in which my poor mother endured pure torture as a passenger on a 2,000 mile Winter road trip through Europe with three juvenile ruffians.

Against her better judgment, my mom again stepped from the tarmac and into our road tripping machine. It’s ten years later, it’s one o’clock in the morning, and Bangkok’s lingering night time heat threatens to melt the soles off of our shoes as we walk from the terminal to the parking lot where Nacho awaits. My mom is a smart lady, yet so soon she forgets her hard-learned lessons.

We walk from our guesthouse along Samsen Road, past the frippery shops and t-shirt hawkers on Khao San Road, past the row of meat-on-a-stick vendors. Sidewalks in Bangkok are generally used for motorcycle parking, store displays, storage, food preparation, and public urination, so we walk in the blistering sun on the side of the blistering hot roadway. By now, having been in southeast Asia for a considerable amount of time, Sheena and I have grown somewhat accustomed to the heat and humidity. I turn to look at my mom and realize that she’s nearly dead, just prior to the point of her red blood cells turning into lifeless bits of sand.

“Oh…look…” she faintly whispers, “there’s a…7-Eleven…Let’s…cool off…”

Bangkok is home to roughly 3,500 7-Eleven franchises, each of them spewing unregulated cold air into their clean interiors like little oases of freshness. Without these, my mom would be dead.

We eventually arrive at the Grand Palace and are turned away by angry security guards. They bite their thumbs at our tastelessness; both my mom and I are exposing our knees, which is an unspeakable atrocity inside the walls of a tourist attraction of such grandeur. We retreat to the sidewalk where innumerable fly-by-night vendors rent cheap elephant-covered gypsy pants to us foreign heathens. I school my mom in the art of negotiation.

“Four dollars!?” I rant, “I shan’t pay a farthing more than three dollars! Mom, walk away…they have to see you walking away…”

We procure some ugly rented pants at the aggressively negotiated rate, and we enter.

Having long since suffered from a condition that I call “wat burnout”, I walk around the complex looking at the painted gold buildings with a sense of boredom. My mom looks enthused, but after a few minutes I realize that she may have reached “wat burnout” stage far sooner than anticipated, undoubtedly fueled by the setting in of her heat stroke. We look at statues of Buddhas, admire the gold trim adorning the buildings, and take lots of photos, despite our condition.

Back on the street I return my rented pants, while my mom decides to keep hers and forfeit her deposit. “These will make great pajamas,” she says. After over an hour without air conditioning her tongue is beginning to swell up and become rigid. Later, while eating lunch in an outdoor, non-air-conditioned establishment, I tell her she needs to stay out of air conditioning if she ever wants to adapt. She doesn’t complain. Sheena spies a splash of heat rash on my mom’s leg, which my mom dismisses with a smile, and says “It’s nothing!” I come to the realization that I’m torturing my mother.

I’m eager to show Mom the Thai countryside, so we hit the road to Kanchanaburi – the one of World War II fame where prison camp labor was used to build a railroad bridge over the Kwai River on its trajectory to Burma. She had seen the film Bridge on the River Kwai when she was eight years old, and was stoked to see it in the flesh. The very bridge!

After two hours of driving out of Bangkok, it seems we’re still in Bangkok. The countryside never materializes, and instead we drive the two hours through industrial sprawl. We reach Kanchanaburi as I try to reassure my mom that yes, in fact, there are undeveloped parts of Thailand. We are spared, as Kanchanaburi maintains its small town charm, despite being attached to Bangkok by a gray industrial umbilical cord.

For two days my mom tries to remember the whistling song from the River Kwai movie. We walk, she tries to remember.

“I think it’s twéet tw?et, twéet twuh twéet…, no, that’s not right…”

Each day seems hotter than the last, but we ignore it to the best of our abilities. We find the bridge, we walk across it, we visit the museum, and as night falls we all enjoy the miracle of the $5 hour-long Thai massage. The three of us change into the provided comfy pants and shirts, lie down on the floor mats, and proceed to take severe punishment from the muscular Thai Army girls masquerading as massage therapists. My girl also happens to be a sumo wrestler. She wrenches on me so hard that she grunts, and on two occasions elicits whimpering cries of pain and I tap out.

We finally find a copy of the film and watch it. Of course! It’s twéet tw?et… tw?et twéet twÉet twÉÉt twÉÉt twéet… We’re so pumped about it that we actually book seats on the train, now affectionately known as the Thai-Burma Death Railway, and spend the next day snaking into the hills, and then slowly snaking back out of them.

We take a day to drive into the mountains, proving to mom that the Thai countryside isn’t a piece of propaganda that I dreamed up, and we visit a waterfall. In true southeast Asian fashion, the waterfall is marked by a ten acre parking lot lined with food hawkers and souvenir shops, from which a paved path leads to several pools and waterfalls. For some reason the place is full up with Russian tourists, but we shake most of them by walking to the farthest waterfall from the parking lot, perhaps two miles away.

The swimming is beautiful, our feet and legs are tickled (chomped) by flesh-cleaning (carnivorous) fish, and we have a nice time experiencing Thailand’s natural side. To our delight, we return to Nacho without having contracted any leeches.

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s Camry as we drove up the new overpass linking the Loop 202 to Interstate 17 in Phoenix. Just as we reached the zenith of the overpass my mom cracked. She ducked her head below the level of the windshield, clasped the steering wheel in a death grip, and started yelling “Oh my GOD! Oh my GOD!” This was the day we came to fully appreciate – and believe in – my mom’s fear of heights. By this year I had forgotten all about it.

In Ayutthaya, our final stop on mom’s Thailand visit, I have the great idea of taking my mom on a tour of the old city. Not on an air-conditioned bus, or even in Nacho, but on bicycles. And not on nice bicycles, but on bicycles that are so rickety and in disrepair as to be free of charge.

Sheena leads the way, heading west, and then curving north to follow the river bank. It quickly becomes evident that to cross the river we’ll have to temporarily cut onto the freeway and take the bridge. I look at my mom, her shirt soaking wet and her skin flushed from heat stroke.

We cut right, wait for a break in the heavy freeway traffic, and then precariously join the narrow lane for our trip across the high bridge. Sheena continues to lead the way, followed by Mom, and I bring up the rear. My mom’s seat has slipped down and her derailleur is stuck in a hard gear, making her pedal stroke slow, shaky, and powerless. As we reach the zenith of the bridge I notice that her head is ducked down, her arms are tense. Passing cars whiz by, heat radiates from the pavement, and my mom fights through the heat stroke and acrophobia while piloting, with quivering hands, the scrap heap of a bike I’ve placed her on.

Amid this calamity, a crystal clear thought enters my mind: Brad, you’re a bad person and if there is a hell you’re probably going to end up there. But she should have known better.

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  1. My goodness, these pictures are UNBELIEVABLE. Gorgeous! Also, the way your mom forgets about her fear of heights, that’s how I am with seasickness. I always forget, downplaying past episodes, until it’s too late.

    Comment by jinn on June 20, 2013 at 6:46 pm

  2. Jinn, I assume you’re referencing the photo of me wearing my elephant-covered gypsy pants. I agree, that photo is off the hook ;)

    Thanks. The photos from Bangkok turned out really well, and had great contrast between the blue sky and gold buildings. Must have been a good combo for our circular polarizing filter. And seasickness? That’s one you don’t want to forget about, as you’re kind of stuck on the boat by that point.

    Comment by Brad on June 20, 2013 at 7:08 pm

  3. K J

    Hello Brad, Sheena, and Mom,
    I haven’t written a comment in a while….however I’ve read all that you’ve blogged. I’m enjoying your adventure through your eyes, thank you! I’m a parent of 31 yr old and 36 yr old. I think it’s wonderful that your Mom is able to join you sharing your exciting experiences. Her issue with the heat, heights, etc…is exactly why I’m reading this with bells on! I’m would love to being doing what you two are doing, but that time has passed for me. I’d be lying on the sidewalk with heat rash, heat stroke, and who knows what else. And so I’m totally enjoying your trip from the comfort of my home. I’m feeling a connection as I read on…..maybe the beginning of a friendship? Either way, if you are ever in the Great Lakes area I’d love to meet you. Keep up the great work!
    Fond Regards to You All
    KJ of Lakeview, Michigan

    Comment by K J on June 20, 2013 at 8:16 pm

  4. Yojimbo

    Wanted to echo Jinn’s comment about the quality of the pictures — particularly the buddha-as-tree shot. Made it my screensaver immediately.

    I’ve got fairly severe fear of heights too. I’d be interested to hear your mom’s comments on the challenge to it posed by the trip, and by her son and daughter-in-law’s adventurousness generally. I have to tell you, I would’ve turned around and been content to admire the photos later.

    Comment by Yojimbo on June 20, 2013 at 9:37 pm

  5. Thailand looks mesmerizing, kudos to your Mom for not falling off the bicycle in awe. Further the pants are understated, but the tee shirt….the tee shirt, I am surprised that you have not been deported let alone allowed in the temple….who dresses you ?

    Comment by Donald and Deborah on June 20, 2013 at 9:43 pm

  6. @KJ: Thanks for the comment, it’s nice hearing from you again. We’re bound to be in the Great Lakes area at some point, and when we do we’ll look you up and make a BBQ out of the occasion. In the meantime we’re happy to take the heat on your behalf.

    Comment by Brad on June 20, 2013 at 9:48 pm

  7. @Donald & Deborah: Sheena’s sitting here with a smug smile because on that particular day she told me I was forbidden to leave the van wearing that shirt. But you know, I’m always right so I wore it anyway. It was a present from the Kuala Lumpur VW club, and has a couple of primary-colored VW vehicles spattered about, as well as a big map on the back. It may be ugly, but I’m color blind so I just pretend that it’s not :)

    Comment by Brad on June 20, 2013 at 9:51 pm

  8. Jacki

    Great post….I’ve been a slacker with my Nacho reading, so I’m getting caught up this morning. It looks like you’re working on a pretty epic flip flop tan.

    Comment by Jacki on June 20, 2013 at 10:54 pm

  9. I call it my thong tan, Jacki, and yes it’s getting pretty epic.

    Comment by Brad on June 21, 2013 at 6:44 am

  10. Aubrey Van Orden

    Where can I get a pair of those flippers (flip flops) that you’re wearing in that last pic?! I need some good , new flippers! Hey, we are also talking about ways that somehow we could meet up next summer…so we shall see!! Need another good trip abroad like the ’03 excursion…

    Comment by Aubrey Van Orden on June 21, 2013 at 12:03 pm

  11. Sheena

    Aubrey, these are Freewaters sandals, and they’re totally sweet. The footbeds are made by Thermarest, so our feet are living large. Find a store here, or buy online:


    Comment by Sheena on June 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm

  12. Mom

    Ah, reading your account of my visit brought back wonderful memories! It would have been soooo boring if I didn’t get a taste of the “hardships” that you two have endured on a daily basis for the past 18 months! Oh yes, and thanks a lot: I had finally gotten the Bridge on the River Kwai whistling song out of my head, but upon reading this, IT IS STUCK as a skipping record ONCE AGAIN! I can’t wait to visit you again wherever you are next Spring. Packing my bags already….Love you!

    Comment by Mom on June 22, 2013 at 8:51 am

  13. KARN

    Brad, your mom is one real IRON LADY. KUDOS to her. My mom would have died twice in those explained circumstances lol.

    KARN / Chiang Mai, Thailand

    Comment by KARN on June 22, 2013 at 1:19 pm

  14. @Aubrey, we’d love to have you guys out in the Spring. We have a few possible timeline scenarios; the slow one puts us in India in the Spring, while the fast track one puts us in Europe. So most likely we’ll be somewhere between India and Europe. I hear Iraq is wonderful in the Spring! We’ll stay in touch about it.

    Comment by Brad on June 22, 2013 at 8:37 pm

  15. Really like the portrait of Sheena on the train with the farm land outside. Also really like the sunset pic. Such mystical aura.

    Comment by Kenneth on June 28, 2013 at 9:48 pm

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