Friday, August 13, 2010

SE Asia Fridays

Even though I'm no longer a student or an employed person, there's still something about Fridays: a buzz of excitement that begins in the morning and builds all day, last minute plans made with friends, a sense of possibility and release. I've been home from Asia for nine months now, and it's been eleven months since I was an ESL teacher, but even these many weeks and miles away I still get that residual shiver of weekend joy when Friday rolls around.

There was nothing like a Friday as an ESL teacher. What once felt like an insurmountable distance, five whole days of teaching pint sized maniacs, had turned into only hours. Except for maybe three weekends during my time in Thailand, I always had plans to travel somewhere Friday afternoon, even if it was just the hour long bus ride (or twenty minute taxi) into Bangkok to stay at Wendy House in the giant shopping mall part of the city. I would usually bring my bags to school, along with a change of clothes, because even the three block walk back to my apartment seemed too far. I wanted to be able to literally walk out of school and hail a cab to start my weekend. As soon as I finished teaching my last class, which incidentally was my WORST class of the week that usually left me near tears (oh how those second graders tortured me, I spent weeks trying to find ways to tame that one class, I would always come to the class with a bag full of candy to use as bribery, but the little demons were completely impossible). But I digress. I would finish that last class, my shoulders tense and a headache beginning to form near my temples, but then I would walk to the English department office (which I shared with ten other very nice Thai ladies and one male British ESL teacher), put away my lesson plans and various toys and tools, and grab my stuff. Sometimes I would change in the teacher bathroom, out of what I liked to refer to as my prairie teacher finest (knee length or longer skirt, tucked in collared shirt, sexy I know) and into my weekend warrior gear of shorts (still knee length of course, I don't want to think about the looks I would have gotten in my town if I'd worn any shorter) and a casual tee. But more often I would be so ready to break free that I wouldn't even bother.

I'd walk through the courtyard, a chorus of "TEACHER!" following me, and it took all my willpower not to shout "see you suckers!" and run. I would get to the street that ran between my school and the river, and I'd hail the first cab I saw. Now the trick with taking any taxi in Thailand if you don't speak Thai is to be able to tell the driver a very famous and very impossible to mix up landmark. In my case I could simply say MBK if I was going into Bangkok (a giant shopping mall near the guest house we frequented) or Ekamai (the eastern bus station and jump off point for all weekend island adventures). I'd usually get a moment's delay as the driver considered the crazy foreigner's request. And then with a nod, I'd be ushered into the cool, quiet sanctuary of the cab. I'd throw my bags (usually just one full of clothes and one holding my laptop) beside me, and then I'd let out what felt like the first full exhale all week.

I'd watch outside the window as the sights of my town went by, vendors selling whole ducks with their heads cut off, sticky rice wrapped up in banana leaves, iced coffee drinks in plastic bags with a straw sticking out, massive Durian fruit with their ungainly spikes making them look more like some medieval torture device. Already at two in the afternoon women would be doing their shopping for dinner, picking up a bag of fried rice at one stall, some clear soup at another. I'd pass copy stores and 7-11s, internet cafes already full of students in uniforms playing online video games. Next to us on the street would be large buses, tiny buses, songthews (pick up trucks with a covered bed with benches in the back basically) so full that the people in the back would have to stand and hang half in the truck, half outside. Motorbikes would fly past, darting their way in and out of traffic. Old men in their fifties and sixties would cycle by on pedi-cabs. It was always so strange to see my town from the inside of a taxi. Everything was so muted and sanitized from in there, so different from when I walked the streets and was surrounded by voices and horns and smells of garlic and cilantro and sewer.

We'd pass out of the main drag of the town, past a slightly beat up looking temple strewn with weeds and unruly vines, and get onto a larger road. After a few minutes we'd cruise onto an enormous suspension bridge, twice the size of the one in Charleston, and there lying in front of me was Bangkok, sprawling for miles, less a cohesive skyline than a jumble of parts, messy, chaotic, beautiful to me even in its concrete, smoggy ugliness. I'd either be heading into the city for two nights of Indian or Mexican food and English pubs and sweaty expat clubs, or I'd be on my way to the bus station, off to Ko Si Chang or Ko Samet, and two days of sipping cold Singhas on the beach and getting sun burnt and swimming in clear, warm waters. It didn't matter. I could have been going anywhere. It was Friday, and life was beautifully open. And even though I knew from years of practice that Sunday would inevitably come, it sure didn't feel like it in those moments on a  Friday afternoon. It felt like maybe that weekend was different, maybe that weekend would buck the odds, change the rules, and go on forever.

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