Friday, July 11, 2008

The Motorbikes

I took a motorbike taxi to the office for the first time today. This seems to be one of the main modes of public transport here. There are also buses, and what I think are called song-thaews, buses with a large pickup truck bed in the back with two benches along either side where lucky people sit while everyone else crowds in around them.

Motorbike etiquette is still a mystery to me. When you're the passenger, what do you hold onto? There are the bars next to the seat, but they're not very ergonomically useful. If you know the driver, you could hold onto their waist, but if you're just taking a bike taxi with an old sweaty guy driving, do you really want that kind of intimacy? I'm getting a motorcycle helmet and learning to hold onto the bars really tight, even though no one really drives that fast.

Thais don't hold onto anything when they ride a motorbike. I've seen people holding babies in one arm and steering the motorbike with the other. I've also seen dogs with their hind legs in the driver's lap and their front paws on the handlebars, zipping down the street happy as can be.

Thai drivers are so laid back. I think Thais drive better than anyone else in the world. They are safe, courteous and slow. No one floors the gas. No one slams on their brakes. There’s no complete stop for traffic that has the right of way, but when a critical mass of vehicles builds up at an intersection, everyone just goes together, and the cross traffic slows down to let them pass. There’s no road rage here, either. I can't imagine Thai people raging about anything. Part of it is that expressing emotion is considered a loss of face in Thai culture.

I really think that I could ride a bicycle around town. I've seen a few people on bicycles, but it seems to be the poor man's motorbike. Also, pedaling makes you sweat, and Thai people hate to sweat, so I imagine that anyone who can afford it opts for the cool breeze that you get from zooming around on a motorbike.

My coworker said riding a bicycle might be dangerous, but she doesn’t know that I've ridden a bike in Manhattan. Nothing compares to the danger and stupidity it takes to do that. Except maybe riding a bike in Nairobi.

Ahn took me to Dr. Khin's clinic and I spent a few hours there asking questions and observing her work. She can provide basic care and medicine, and the clinic distributes condoms and family planning (pills and injections) but she has to refer patients to the hospital for more complicated procedures, including births and HIV testing. The services are 30 baht but no one is turned away if they can't pay. Sometimes if a client can't afford transportation, the clinic arranges and pays for the cost.

Dr. Khin was really interested in the work I did in Kenya. She asked me about the public health system there, and whether people got good health care. I didn't lie.

"It sounds like things are worse in Kenya than for migrants here in Thailand," she said.

As crappy as migrants have it here, I think she's right. In Mahachai the health infrastructure is pretty good. Nearly everyone gives birth in a hospital. Migrants are regularly referred to the provincial hospital here, and the quality of care sounds pretty decent. No rumors about disgruntled nurses in the maternity ward abandoning their patients for days, as there were at the district hospital where I lived in Kenya.

The barriers to access among migrants here are more about their legal status and language and cultural barriers than about a lack of available facilities, services or trained medical practitioners. It's a completely different level of problems than in Kenya, where systematic failures could be traced back to the inaction, incompetence or mismanagement of a few powerful people.

1 comment:

amy said...

the prose about motorbikes and the driving etiquette is really beautiful. i wonder why you're not a travel writer.

hope the land of smiles is treating you well