Day 116: Heroic mechanic appears in nowhere Thailand
Vorapong believes he might have the exact chain I need for the CB500X. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I WAKE as a gray morning light fills the gas station. The blast of a horn, or the rumbling of a diesel engine being fired up draws me out of a deep slumber. It's still early. I fall back to sleep, only to pleasantly find myself ebbing into the world of the waking half dozen or so more times.
Pink has offered to talk to someone at the gas station for me to see what can be done about the chain. I'm confident it needs replaced, but not so confident on how that's going to happen way out here.
Pink's flight departs at 7:20am and is expected to arrive in Udon Thani about an hour later. So, no need to crawl out of my tent too early this morning. Not stressing about the situation, I tuck my meditation cushion back between my knees – I hate when my knees touch while I'm sleeping – and fall back to sleep.
The people at the station have to do something with me; they don't want me camping out in their parking lot forever, I figure as finally I climb out of my tent. It's the strangest mentality to have, and I know it.
Somehow, I feel that it's totally acceptable for me to make my problem someone else's problem because I am completely incapable of handling it on my own. I was genuinely surprised nobody stopped and helped me last night, as every single previous time I've had roadside issues in Thailand, I've been rescued.
What was my weekly theme again? Helping people... I seem to be doing this completely backward. Maybe the point is to highlight how parasitic I am as a traveler. Are most travelers this needy?
I roll Rocinante, my motorcycle, to the big-truck mechanic pit to see if anyone there can help. A couple young, shy mechanics are tittering away by the gas pumps. They're clearly nervous about trying to deal with me and speaking English.
A woman, a middle-aged tomboy to be exact, is sitting in a big chair in a cluttered office next to where the mechanics work. I pop my head into the office and am greeted by a gust of cool air conditioning as it flees into the moist warmth of the morning outside.
Pink is already on the phone. I hand it to the woman with no real explanation of what's going on.
She stands in the open doorway. Awkwardly, so do I, unable to enter the office or stand back and close the door. There are lots of “mai dias” and “mai roos” – can't and don't know.
Never a good sign.
She hands the phone back. Pink, who has all the right charm and persistence in these kinds of situations, explains the predicament to me. It's not a great situation.
They are only truck and car mechanics here, but there is a bike mechanic a couple kilometers away. However, she pressed them and one of the truck mechanics will take a look at the bike.
The man, grease already on his hands, appears from around a corner. He jacks the bike up and looks at the chain. About 15 minutes later, he's up to speed with what I already know: the chain is shot.
Being unable to communicate any of what I already know to the people helping me is a little frustrating. I don't want to waste their time anymore than I already am, especially when it's because I simply can't tell them what I already know.
There is another call to Pink.
I need to drive the bike slowly behind one of the manager's kids to the nearest motorbike shop. Maybe the bike mechanic can fix it. If not, I'll have to hire a truck to take the bike to Nan to have it fixed there.
Through sign language and broken English, I explain to the woman that I can't drive the bike anywhere at all without the chain falling off. It takes a moment, but she gets it.
Instead of me driving there, she sends one of her employees, a middle-age woman in a royal blue uniform, out to fetch the mechanic.
When she returns, I attempt to give her a tip, Pink made a point of mentioning that I should. She flatly refuses and looks genuinely upset when I manage to tuck the money into her apron. She catches up with me at the coffee shop on the premise and forces the money back on me.
Mark that up as another fail.
I buy two coffees, one for the manager and one for me. It's not until I'm walking back with the hot coffees that I realize that I'm and idiot. Okay, I knew that before then, but for the specific reason that Thais don't drink hot black coffee. I should have gotten here an ice coffee with lots of sugar.
The local mechanic who arroves at the scene, Khun Vorapong, fixes everything from motorbikes to weed eaters. He's a short man of a slight build with a handsome face supported by high cheekbones.
He agrees that the chain is destroyed. He locates the chain model number; his face pauses in recollection, mentally running through the innovatory at his shop.
“I think I have, but not sure,” he says.
The likelihood that he has a chain that fits this bike is next to none. There is no reason for him to have the right chain. Hell, the Honda shop in Nan didn't even have the right chain.
Vorapong cuts the chain off before checking to see if the new chain will do the trick. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Though unable to drive the bike the two kilometers to his shop, I get on it. Vorapong climbs into his scooter and, with an outstretched leg, pushes the CB500X forward. I've gotten many a Thai-tow like this when I had a scooter. However, I assumed such a maneuver was impossible when dealing with a proper motorcycle, clearly not.
Carefully, Vorapong and I make it across the four-lane split highway, down a side street and to a blue warehouse that is both his home and workshop.
At the shop, a steep cement ramp gives room for a couple bikes to be worked on at once. The place itself is a huge open space, so cluttered with chunks of metal and bits and bobs that at the moment there is only enough room for my bike – good luck trying to get your car worked on. Taking up the other work space, a mechanic is pulling a few kilograms of dirt and grit out from around a Honda scooter's chain.
Welding tanks stand tall near the entrance of the open working area. Next to them, wrenches are neatly arranged, while on the floor there are plastic containers cut in half that are filled up with a random assortment of bolts, screws, nuts and other mechanical parts.
Crouching down next to Vorapong, I watch as he starts taking apart the bike to access the front sprocket. With a handheld circular saw, he starts cutting at the heads on a link of the chain. Sparks fly around him before the piece of the chain falls away.
With a few bits of the bike laying on the floor, he wanders into the depths of the warehouse. Near the back, his wife is working on a large wooden loom, which seems out of place in the greasy, metal world of a mechanic's warehouse.
Vorapong returns with a brand new chain still in the box.
He feeds the chain into the teeth of the sprocket to see if it's going to work.
At some point, I assumed that it was no longer a possibility that it wouldn't work. I was wrong. It is still a possibility.
The teeth of the back disc smoothly catch the chain, as it settles into their gums, the spaces between.
“Can,” Vorapong says with a smile.
He's nearly as surprised as I am. This is the only chain like this that he happens to have. Why he has it, I can't imagine. I'm sure he's not sure why he has it either.
With the chain on, Vorapong goes about checking other bits and pieces on the bike, adding a little lubricant here and there. He's one of the few mechanics in Thailand that I've come across who takes an initiative, as well as cares about the piece of machinery itself. Even the Honda Big Wing shop in Chiang Mai didn't have mechanics who were interested in preparing the bike for a big trip, they simply followed protocol, failing to look for an issue unless they were told to do so.
“Can weld?” I ask. Why not get the spot welding on the pannier rack taken care of while the bike is in the hands of someone who cares?
Vorapong is able to do the spot welding on the sidebox rack. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Vorapong puts his lips to a piece of tubing, sucking for a second until gas starts to flow freely from the bike's tank into a grubby plastic container.
“Safety,” he says. I would have never considered emptying the tank of gas before starting in on welding. Probably a good thing I didn't try it myself when I had the chance at Emma's place in Chiang Mai.
Once the petrol is drained, Vorapong attaches one clip from the welder to the metal rack and then tucks a wet towel over the tire to protect it.
It's looks like despite his call for safety, Vorapong isn't about to take any personal safety measures to protect his eyes. However, I'm wrong – kind of.
From a nearby stand, Vorapong removes half a pair of sun glasses. Holding the single, tinted spectacle by the stem he lights up the bike.
A blinding white-blue light pierces my eyes.
He pulls the welding torch away. The metal is glowing a hot red. He cools it with a splash of water, scrapes away charred pieces, and returns to welding.
In total, everything costs 900 baht. I hand him a wad of cash: 1,300 baht – he's saved. Even if he doesn't see himself as a hero, he is.
Confused and then very grateful for the extra cash, he sends his wife off to the shop next door. She buys me a large bottle of water for the road. Then, in Thai I don't understand, she starts talking about her weaving.
At the back of the shop, she holds up the most intricately woven skirt. It costs 9,000 baht and probably took her months to make.
It suddenly starts to gets a little awkward, as I know that they are hoping that I'll buy it as a gift for a lady friend. However, I don't have that kind of money, and I don't have that kind of lady friend waiting for me at the end of the road – at least not that I'm aware of.
Back at the station, I begin the slow process of packing. My gear is everywhere: the panniers and backpack are near the mechanic's station, my tent and an assortment of other stuff is scattered about the eating area outside.
Perhaps not the most scenic camping spot. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Wrapped in a longi, I drop my shorts and then wiggle into my black riding pants, keeping on the semi-clean shirt I slept in last night.
Pulling out of the station, I wave to the station manager. It's probably the fifth time I've waved goodbye to her since triumphantly returning to the station on my bike.
Rocinante has more power now that the chain isn't bouncing all over the place. Though it's already 1pm, I'm excited and hopeful that I'll hit the border and make my first international motorbike crossing today.
I check Google Maps.
Well, there goes that idea. I forgot how far away Nong Kai is.
Not far down the road, I spot four touring motorcycles parked on the side of the road. I scan it for a red Ducati. Yup, it's the guys I met in Nan.
Rocinante's horn sounds like a very sad, muted goose as I honk it, throwing up a piece sign to the guys as I plow forward.
It's a beautiful, sunny day, but my mind is numb. Music blasting, I try to suck on a hard caramel candy, but crunch through it immediately. The kilometers tick off, as the numbness drifts toward a sleepiness.
I'm no stranger to falling asleep at the wheel. On an ill-advised, yet wonderful, non-stop 48-hour trip to Wisconsin to take a friend to see a girl he met on the internet when I was still in high school and internet dating was still very weird, I fell asleep several times while driving the car. We did, in our high school brilliance, search for solutions, such as attempting to have one friend work the wheel while I closed my eyes to rest, just working the gas and brake pedals. If either of the guys with me could drive a manual car, things would have been much simpler.
That was a car. You'd think that it's significantly more difficult to fall asleep while driving a motorcycle, it's not.
Weaving along through the jungle dense mountains of central Vietnam on my first motorcycle trip several years ago, there was the sound of my 125cc engine humming along. Then, there was silence. It was probably only a split second of silence, but it was the pure silence that fills your ears when you fall into the depths of sleep. I snapped out of it, and there was the sound of the engine again.
The cure was half a caffeine pill and two Crazy Horses, a similar beverage to Red Bull.
Aware of the possibility and real risk of falling asleep, I pull over on one of the bends in the road. There's a large stone, a medium sized tree providing shade and a lovely view across the valley below.
Avoiding the ants, I spread my longi out, kick off my boots and lay down to close my eyes for a few minutes.
Thirty minutes later and slightly more rested, I buckle my boots and return in the road.
Night sets in before I reach Udon Thani. I stop for more Red Bull. At this point, I'm starting to think that I should hit Red Bull up for a sponsorship.
Pink is staying in Udon Thani with her sister, which most likely means one of the several dozen gay men who constantly surround her like a peacock's plume. I've been introduced to a number of them, who are all very feminine and sharp as a butcher's cleaver. Without exception, they're introduced as her sister.
A free place to crash with Pink and her “sister” would be ideal. However, it looks like it's not going to be appropriate, so I agree to push on and meet them in the morning at the border crossing.
A sign for Vientiane and a Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge appears. I push past it toward Nong Kai, but the dice eventually turn me around to check the room price of a motel that was near the intersection.
I have a fondness for nondescript motel rooms, the kind you find near airports. Their sameness, their tiredness, their lack of character all speaks volumes about stories that can't be told, like pages filled with text written in invisible ink. There are times that their featurelessness is comforting. It's exactly what I need tonight.
However, the place I end up at isn't one of these. It's 500 baht, more than I want to spend, but he's not willing to give me a discount and I just need to curl up in a bed and sleep.
There is a small TV inside the room that doesn't have any English channels. The bathroom walls are strangely tiled: there are grass-patterned tiles up to mid-thigh and then water-patterned tiles with koi fish swimming on them. In the shower, six tiles make up a mural of two young women with large, fake European smiles and bared breasts. It's always nice to see breasts, even in tile.
Eventually, sleep takes me, as I pray that Pink's source is correct and that there will be no issues as I attempt to cross into Laos tomorrow morning.