Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Laryngitis, Monkeys & Trains

I haven’t uttered a single sound for four days.

And for those who know me, this is a rare event. I sing out loud. I chat on the phone. I’m a talker.

During this journey, I have filled our nomadic space with my observations about interesting sites out the window, translated complicated cultural situations, and generally told my kids what they needed to do and when they needed to it. Please.

And then I got laryngitis.

For four days, I have been physically unable to talk. I can whisper in this pathetic, raspy, dragging voice that makes people wince and touch their necks. But, I can’t actually speak above a thin whisper.

The disappearance of my voice coincided with our journey from the border of Mynamar, west to the City of Monkeys, and north for the New Year to our goal – Chiang Mai. And, although my dad had warned me multiple times about needing to get reservations for travel before the New Year, I shelved the idea because I wanted spontaneity! The thrill of unplanned travel.

What Dad knows, and I did not, is that almost every Thai from Bangkok travels north, in the vicinity of Chiang Mai, to be with their families for the New Year. Way back when I decided not to book our lodging, I saw there were 761 hotels in Chiang Mai, and I reasoned that one of them would have availability for New Year’s Eve prior to our arrival. And when I looked this week, the one hotel room left cost $1,100. Per night.

But lodging wasn’t on our radar yet. Instead, we were wrangling with transport. And, I couldn’t even answer a simple yes no question without wincing. I had no voice.

Another single-parent friend of mine has a book called Duct-Taped Parenting and he refers to his attempts to follow the ideals within its pages. Basically, put duct-tape over your mouth so you are required to shut up and let your kids figure it out. If you want happy and healthy kids with a strong sense of confidence and independence – you have to stop telling them how to do things and when. Please.

But, this quietness was extreme. I had a job - to safely lead my sons through Thailand! And now, during the 1,000 mile journey north on various busses and trains – my 8-year-old was in charge.

And he was stoked.

I tried to communicate for us, at first.

“Could you please take us to the bus station?” I whispered to the driver of the motorcycle taxi who had stopped for us. The contraption had the small motorcycle on the side of the vehicle, and a sort of couch with seats built as a cantilevered sidecar. He nodded and, in a plume of two-stroke oil, we were off.

A block later, he stopped. “Where?”

“Bus station.” He nodded and resumed driving. For another block. “Where?”

This time, Zane spoke up. “The bus station, please.” The driver smiled and drove us to the bus station.  Zane grinned at me, ecstatic. 

Once there, the driver asked where we were going.

“Lop Buri,” I said hoarsely. He smiled again and took us to a bright green bus, the bus driver was loading bags in the side compartment.

“Laem Ngop,” the bus driver scooped my bag and it disappeared under the bus. I grabbed Zane and whispered in his ear.

“No, Lop Buri,” he said clearly, as a crowd of several bus drivers came to listen. One finally laughed and pointed to an orange bus with faded plastic flowers on the dashboard.

He smiled and touched the bus and then patted Zane's curls, “Lop Buri.”

Our day of travel was filled with the type of duct-taped parenting that forced me to passively observe. I haven’t read the book, but I doubt it involved transport of dubious quality in a developing country with two children under eight.  But, as the hot air blew in from the rice paddies and we weaved through city after city, I relaxed.  

Frankly, Zane did beautifully as our guide. He led our troop for six hours of travel, through three bus stations, in and off three busses. As he spoke with Thais on our behalf, I watched a sour bus driver burst into a wrinkly smile and high five him, and another apple-faced woman gave us all a free ride on the final bus of the day.

Lop Buri is about three hours north of Bangkok and has earned the name City of Monkeys for a troop of thousands of resident monkeys who inhabit the city like furry circus performers in a massive arena. They swoop across busy intersections hand-over-hand on electric wires. They use the wires as a tangled roadway for exploration, and locals say that some monkeys have even been known to hitch a ride on a passing train for a weekend outing. Their abundance and mischief is partially sponsored by the Buddhist discouragement of killing animals. Many locals also say that the monkeys are the ‘children’ of the Hindu god Kala, and to harm one would bring great misfortune.  

In Lop Buri, Zane helped us navigate dinner at the night market, bargaining with various vendors over food items for each of us. He sat down with a strawberry shake and a stick of hot, sweet pork.

“I think I’ve finally got this bargaining thing down,” he said. “I just look at them like this…” His face dropped into one of pure and abject longing, complete with big doe eyes and pushed out lower lip. ”And they drop their price in half.” He smiled and then pointed, “Monkey!” he yelled, and ran after it with his stick.

And I couldn’t even tell him that it is a bad idea to chase a monkey with a stick.

After dinner, we checked the train schedule, and all first and second-class trains were sold out for the next week. The same with every single bus heading north. The only option was the local, third-class train to Phitsanoluk, only halfway to our goal, the next day.

When the train north arrived an hour late in a huge puff of smoke that scattered monkeys to both sides of the tracks, the boys gamely stood in line as hundreds of people queued up with us. Luckily, Thais are gentle with children, and a hoard of helpers pushed our bag inside the open door and lifted the boys above the throngs. Once aboard, we were pinned with people hanging from the doorways of the train and clogging the pathways connecting the cars. I tipped the duffle on the side so the boys could sit on the bag. They looked through the open train door at the city whizzing past and pointed out interesting sites to each other.

And I couldn’t say a word.

I gave them the scuba diver’s sign for, “okay?” And they returned affirmative. And we rode. The train would stop suddenly in a field, pushed off the track to allow a faster train to proceed, and people would get off and stretch their legs.  Vendors shoved past the boys with buckets of ice cold soda and beer, and when it was dinnertime, we bought delicious rice noodles and ate them from a piece of waxed paper.

I didn’t have any toys or any way to amuse them. And, if we had been in the States for a 5-hour turned 8-hour ride, I would have prepared a bin with a pile of activities and games for them to amuse themselves. But, without my box of commercial fun, the boys played for three hours with two boxes of empty tic-tacs and never once asked when we would get there.

We are now eddied out in a strange town neither here nor there. We haven’t met anyone who speaks English, and my Google Translate app is saving the day on an hourly basis.

Zane arranged for me to get to the doctor today. He arranged for our transport, had the driver wait while I was being seen, bought ice creams for himself and his brother, and made sure I had all of my medicine.

We are staying here another day in hopes that I’ll get my voice back. The boys think it is a five-star resort, which makes me laugh at how their perception has changed since being in Thailand. This is a run-down Thai business hotel with a beautiful swimming pool and massive holiday garnish, including electric trees and a creepy Styrofoam snowman. But the people are nice and it seems like a good place to rest until I’m up for the next leg of our adventure. Aloud.

There is a big temple to the Hindu god of destruction at this hotel. And, it’s fitting. Because this experience of silence and listening has destroyed a lot of what I used to think was good parenting. Good teaching. Good guiding.

The real lesson is that I’ve learned a lot from shutting-up. From leaving them alone and being here when I’m needed.

It’s felt good to just listen. And enjoy being with them now.

It set us all free.


  1. I have really enjoyed reading your blog!! What an experience and your boys are absolutely wonderful.
    Sherwood Upchurch Williams

  2. You should try to cross paths with this family: http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/page/?o=1&page_id=355462&v=2R
    I bet your boys would love to hear their stories about cycling around the world!