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A man with two teeth sells me my bus ticket. I know it is the correct bus because of the colour, crayon box green; a fleet of green buses is designated to this bus route. I cannot say green in Thai, but I know when I’ve been sold a ticket to the right bus because of the colour. Udon Thani to Si Chiang Mai. Si Chiang Mai to Udon Thani. I over annunciate Si so that I’m not placed on the overnight bus to Chiang Mai by accident. Just the same I make a cartoon “O” with my mouth to explain I live in Thabo. It is an “oh” sound that fills my mouth and stops in my nose. I have learned that sharp American letters don’t translate.
The Thabo bus station is not small so much as nonexistent. You might be told it is halfway between Seven-Eleven and the post office. When my co-workers at school explained it this way I was annoyed by the lazy explanation. What I took for unhelpful was exactly correct. I saw a cluster of people sitting on dirty plastic lawn chairs under a hut, an old milk crate for garbage, and a dusty rack of potato chips. The only signs I was in the right place.
Typically, a man wearing a neon vest directs me to the bus, asks when I am returning, and tells me to park my motorbike “here”. I always tell him “tomorrow” even when I won’t be back for five days. They only sell one-way tickets and I can’t say the days of the week in Thai. Today the man with the vest is gone and a man with a mouth that is all gums stands in his place. He looks at my duffle bag and asks, “Airport?” I nod. His mouth looks like chewed bubble gum. All pink mush with a speck of slanted enamel fighting to the surface where a canine might have resided. He smacks his lips together. I give him 50 baht. He gives me a rice-paper thin ticket. I smile back at him.
The 10.30 bus pulls up exactly on time, but won’t leave until eight minutes after. I feel a pinch of disappointment when I recognise the double-decker shape of the air-conditioned green bus. I prefer the smaller, slightly rusted older model that is filled with worn green leather seats. Small fans staggered along the two rows of seats spin from the ceiling instead of air conditioning. Although stifling when stopped, the old green bus is filled with windows permanently pressed down in their slats that let in gusts of warm fresh air when it hits an endless stretch of highway. Highway 242 follows the Mekong River, dotted with rice patties and banana leaves. Untouched landscape and neon grass the color of new moss. The kind of landscape best enjoyed with warm air bursting through dozens of open windows. The smell of manure both human and animal is welcome amongst the long spans of nothing. A nothing that reminds you exactly how air should smell.
Disappointed by the arrival of this air-conditioned bus, I settle into my retro printed cloth seat. The charter bus has a big screen at the front that never plays anything and air conditioning that blasts unforgiving cold air non-stop. I close the vent above my aisle seat. My bag is on the ground under my feet. A young Thai woman with shortly cropped hair and baggy sweatpants occupies the seat to my right. The bus driver eases us around the first sharp turn, leaving Thabo behind.
My flight leaves at two this afternoon and will take me to Chiang Mai, without the Si, for New Years. Tomorrow is New Years Eve. The bus barely slows to a stop at the first two huts just outside of Thabo. It is during the third consecutive pause that we come to a complete stop. A few minutes pass. I read my book, turn a page, shift in my chair and set the book down. Past my seatmate I see the two lanes of the 242, vacant except for the occasional car or motorbike. A stand selling iced coffee is abandoned in the front yard of a house across the road.
The language barrier doesn’t factor in when the driver exits the bus without a word. The younger man who collected my ticket when we exited Thabo follows. A few old women clamber down shortly after. Picking-up my smaller backpack containing book, passport and money I too exit the bus. The heat is a tangible wall outside. The sun is easing itself up in the sky above us. Soon it will be the time of day that is only good for lying as still as possible in your underwear. A single bead of sweat falls down the back of my thigh.
The air is still. A pile of rotting garbage in the ditch permeates the air with a sour smell. Banana peels gone rotten, chicken bones picked clean, the slimy remains scraped from the bottom of cooking pots. A stray dog with a matted coat sifts through the biggest food scraps with his nose. Sores dot his hindquarters where he has scratched himself raw. A lolling tongue gives him the illusion of grinning. The small group of us dotting the side of the road moves to the shaded shelter of another bus-hut.
I take off my heavy cardigan grateful for my black cotton tank top underneath. Two lady boys squatting in the grass smoking cigarettes fan themselves. Long slender legs folded underneath them with their skirts tucked into the bends of their knees. A young boy jogs to the fence of a school on the other side of the ditch and urinates on it. He runs back still zipping his pants to watch the driver work. The rear of the bus is open wide like a body on an operating table. The ticket collector disappears into the underbelly of the bus where luggage is stored and miraculously returns with two buckets of water. The bus driver lights a cigarette. A man on a motorbike pulls up and speaks to him. They nod at one another, speaking quickly, and laugh. Then the man drives away.
We sit this way for 40 minutes. The lady boys join us under the shade and then return to the grass for another cigarette. I walk across the street to the coffee stand where a woman has appeared behind it. I order a bottle of water and she tells me “no” so I settle for an iced coffee. It’s 80% sugar and I take small sips back under the hut and open my book. No one goes to ask the men for an explanation. At some point the driver picks up a wrench and I feel hopeful, but he only scratches the top corner of his back with it and returns it to the dirt with a cloud of dust. No one looks in my direction. If a full hour passes I decide I will walk across the street to the woman selling iced coffee and offer 500 baht to one of the men working in the yard behind her if they will drive me.
I swing my coffee from the plastic handle of the bag holding it. Dust swirls around my feet as I search the road for another bus coming to get us. I see only motorbikes with three people fit snugly on the back and then a car that pulls up behind the bus. A woman takes her bags and gets in. I am tempted to approach the man in the driver’s seat but worry I don’t know how to ask where they are going or that he won’t understand me. Another 15 minutes ticks by. I look anxiously at the bus driver who is now sitting under the hut too. A pick-up truck pulls up. A woman ushers two Thai women, roughly my age, towards it. They toss their luggage into the back. I walk quickly without thinking towards the older woman helping them settle into the truck. An elderly man is driving and his wife is in the passenger seat.
“Udon Thani?” I say, hopeful.
She nods vigorously, “Chi, chi.”
I point at the single space in the backseat, “Udon Thani,” and then at myself, “Me too?”
I hurry to the bus for my bag of clothes. The woman is waiting for me next to the open car door. Her thin legs hardly fill out her jeans. She has long black hair and an ageless face. Her cheeks are streaked with white powder she hasn’t rubbed into her brown skin. She takes my bag and tosses it into the truck bed with the other suitcases and motions to the empty spot in the back seat. I thank her in Thai and squeeze myself between the two young women. They smile at me uneasily and keep their slim legs tucked close in the cramped backseat. I realise the older woman won’t be coming with us. I don’t know if I have taken her seat in the back of the truck and I don’t know how to ask anyone. The older couple doesn’t say anything and the man starts to drive. The elderly man drives carefully and his wrinkled hands put me at ease. I am relieved when he takes the road I know leads to the airport. Somehow, I am assured by the presence of the women next to me that we are safe. I almost nod off in the backseat amongst these strangers.
In just under an hour we pull into the bus station adjacent to the airport. The elderly couple lets us out, points the two women towards the bus station and wai to me in return when I thank them with as much emphasis as possible. There’s a moment when I think I should offer them money but decide I don’t want to risk offending them. A tuk-tuk sputters up next to me and I negotiate a price to take me the final 10 minutes to the airport. The tuk-tuk resembles a child’s big wheel combined with a golf cart and what sounds like a lawnmower engine. The driver pulls noisily onto the busy road and I grab onto one of the metal bars above my head for balance. My bag is tucked neatly between my feet, warm air wipes strands of hair around my face and I’m relieved to have ended up exactly where I need to be.