The Spanish 20-something girl, Ada, and I glance at each other dubiously with matching sideways grins. We’re standing at a motorbike rental shop in Pai, Thailand, trying to weigh sudden-death-by-motorbike against our overwhelming desire to see the countryside sans-tour-guide. Neither of us has ever ridden a motorbike before.
Strangers barely three days ago, we had decided to make the travel duo official as we both cruised our way through Thailand; or at least as official as it gets during long-term solo travel. Together we’re like ping pong, casually bouncing questionable ideas off each other until our curiosity and one-size-does-not-fit-all sense of adventure works itself into a frenzy and suddenly we find ourselves standing in front of scuffed-up motorbikes and cracked helmets, bargaining like old pros with the rental guy.
Luckily for us, you can’t find any motorbike rental agency in Thailand that’ll muster up enough concern to see if you have a license, or even if you know how to ride the two-wheeled death trap. As we adjust our helmets, and arrange ourselves on the bike – Ada in front, me on the back – we make every effort to appear like we know what we’re doing, just in case.
Key goes here. Check. Does key turn? Sort of. Do we need to press a button or hold down the brake when we turn it on? Wait, which one is the brake? We smile encouragingly at the rental guy while we fumble with knobs and buttons (just checking to see that everything works, sir!)
When we finally figure out which way to turn the key and the difference between brake and gas, Ada hits the pedal so hard we fly into the street, narrowly missing a vendor carting coconuts down the tiny two-lane road. I want to turn back and give a movie-perfect grin and thumbs up to the rental guy, but I know he’s already moved on to the next patrons without throwing a second thought our way.
We speed jerkily down the road where later tonight there will be carts of nearly every kind of food imaginable; burritos, lasagna, sushi, fruit shakes. You name it and someone has a cart full of it come sundown, ready to serve tourists their hearts’ desires. At this cart you can try something new, exotic, and guaranteed for Instagram success. At this one you can order a heaping plate of comfort food from your home country. The gleam on their metal kitchens-on-wheels is as bright and insincere as the neon signs advertising ping pong shows in the heart of Bangkok.
I pull four-month-old memories from India as Ada tries something fancy with the motorbike that it doesn’t like. Women wearing outrageously-colored saris flash by in my mind, riding on the back of motorbikes with drivers who have been maneuvering the hazardous streets of that vast country since they were tall enough to grab the keys off the shelf. India was another world, and it certainly wasn’t a shiny place, pretending to be a wonderland for tourists.
I’m jerked back to the present country by a comically sunburned blonde backpacker in elephant pants shouting something indignant in German as Ada skims close enough to warrant dinner and roses. This seems to be going okay so far.
When we’re out of the main bustle of town, Ada and I switch places. I feel somewhat safer on the wider lanes leading out of town. At least I know I won’t wreck someone’s net revenue by ramming headfirst into a juice stand. Seated in the driver’s seat of a motorbike for the first time in my life, I glance back at Ada grabbing stiffly to the back of the bike and say, “Sorry in advance if I kill you.” The virtue of politeness is truly undervalued these days.
The first thing I do is manhandle the gas gear so hard that we quickly find ourselves at the top of a dirt embankment off the road. The view is quite lovely from up here.
After a few false starts (and a half giggling, half panicky Ada asking if we want to switch places again) we’re cruising through the winding roads of the Pai countryside. Our hair whips out from under our barely-secured helmets and I think I’ve never felt so free.
I see myself, a girl that only several minutes ago didn’t know how to ride a motorbike, cruising the Pai countryside like those intrepid men and women I had seen zigzagging the raucous, congested streets of New Delhi. I see her, only minutes ago, hunched in fear over strange dials and knobs and I wave a haughty goodbye to her.
And then I see the girl, who, seven months ago was scared into paralysis when she first stepped off the plane into Cambodia on her own. I see the girl who was too shy to have turned a stranger into a friend, and the girl who would never have done anything riskier than stay at a subpar rating hostel. I smile affectionately at all of them and see layers of fear and uncertainty peel away like skin that had grown too small and restricting in the face of new worlds. I wave them all goodbye as I speed Ada and I around new corners, feeling transformed and renewed by travel yet again.