Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Motorbike That Didn't

When Owl was offered a Fulbright to teach in Malaysia for a year, she came up with a list of lofty personal goals and one very concrete one. Learn to drive a motorbike. She lusted after a motorbike. As a child, when Owl visited her cousins in India, they plopped her on the back of a motorbike and drove her up and down dark green hills. 

During orientation Fulbright officials explained the lay of the land. Everyone would be sent off to their towns and there local teachers would help them get settled and buy motorbikes, which were the cheapest way to get around.  

On the best of days Owl is an unsteady driver and has shit coordination on a bike, but no matter. Owl was going to learn to drive a motorbike. She pictured herself zooming across Malaysia on weekends, and becoming a road warrior. She was going to be such a badass.

Then Owl arrived at town and realized that it wasn’t going to be all that easy to materialize dreams of badassery. Owl’s mentor winced when Owl brought up a motorbike.

“Motorbikes are dangerous,” Owl’s mentor said. “I understand you need transportation…how about a car?”

Owl could not precisely afford a car. Also she had her heart set on a motorbike. She asked other teachers for help, each fobbed her off on someone else. Most said they drove cars, others redirected Owl back to her mentor. Everyone ended with a story about how dangerous the roads were. Finally, Owl’s mentor pointed her to a teacher who had a scooter for loan. 

Every week Owl went over to the teacher and asked about the scooter. Every week the teacher smiled at her and said something about waiting. It was a delightfully sweet interaction, Owl clearing her throat because she was nervous about being a pest, the teacher all apologetic froth. 

Meanwhile, Owl tried to picture herself on a motorbike and got more and more nervous. She heard stories about students who ended up in accidents. Owl herself tended to daydream when she was behind the steering wheel of a car. What if Owl got into an accident? 

And while Owl’s town wasn’t exactly walkable, Owl could make do. There was a small strip of stores within walking distance. Owl could figure out basic food and laundry. For anything else, well, it’s good to practice living a simple life, right?

On spring vacation to Laos, Owl convinced her friend Peter to teach her to motorbike. [Peter’s motorbike story was comparatively simple. He arrived at school. Teachers brought him shopping for a bike and gave him some lessons.] 

Owl clambered onto the bike. Owl’s shit balance kicked in, the bike wobbled, Owl revved up the bike, shot forward and nearly knocked over a backpacker.

“You almost killed me,” the woman screamed. “Stay off of those.”

“I think we better end lessons,” Peter mumbled. It took Owl’s girlfriends glaring at Peter and talking about strong independent women to get the lessons started again. This time Peter sat on the back. Owl’s girlfriends cheered and clapped as Owl wobbled around a street corner. 

“You aren’t bad,” Peter said. “With some practice you could learn to drive this thing.”

Owl went back to school and continued her campaign for a bike. The teacher with the scooter was even more apologetic than usual. She was busy, she said. Her mother had cancer.

Cancer! How could Owl be selfishly pestering someone about motorbikes when there was cancer afoot? She decided to wait a few weeks.

Shortly afterwards, Peter swung by Owl’s town to take her to a friend’s English camp. On the way they crashed into a pole and tumbled off, splattering against the road. They were lucky: they were wearing helmets and thick clothing. They walked away with no more than a few bruises. Still, Peter still has the scars and it would be a full year before Owl was able to run or walk without limping. Lesson learned: motorbikes are dangerous.

When Owl came back to school with a bloodied arm and knee, her mentor looked her over.
“I told you to stay away from motorbikes,” she said and stalked off. She did not speak to Owl for the rest of the day. It was up to Owl to figure out where the doctor’s office was, walk over, and get treatment. For weeks Owl figured if she got into a second accident she’d rather get smashed up and shipped home in a box than face her mentor and explain she’d been riding motorbikes again. She promptly gave up her campaign for a motorbike.

 In flat comparison, Peter was given the day off and a teacher took him to the doctor’s office to be patched up. 

Owl grew during her year in Malaysia. She walked places. Every weekend she wrote up a list of whatever she needed that couldn’t be procured on foot. She befriended a taxi driver who took her to the bus station every week so Owl could go out of town. They practiced speaking Malaysian together. Owl had the bus time tables and routes memorized.  

Owl got by. During Ramadan when everything was closed during daytime and Owl was too tired to walk to the restaurants and shops when they opened at night, she lost some weight. C’est la vie. 

During her last night in Malaysia, Owl went to dinner with the teachers at her school. Owl was fairly pleased with her year. She’d crossed off her list of goals plus a few more, she was sad to say goodbye, but excited to go home. The conversation swung towards next year’s Fulbrighter who would be replacing Owl. All anybody knew was he was male.

 “Ah, we’ve got to see about getting him a motorbike,” one of the teachers said. “He’ll need to get around. I’ll have to take him to the shops.” 

Owl ate a disgusting amount of dinner to soothe her feelings.

To cap off the end of the year, there was a closing ceremony where all the Fulbright grantees gathered to discuss how the year had went. Transportation came up as a point of contention. A lot of the females in the program said it had taken them a long time to get a motorbike, if they had managed to get one at all. The boys mostly talked about how they’d been taken to the shops immediately.

Everyone was tired. Everyone was somewhat out of temper with each other. It had been a long hard year full of routine failures, small victories and homesickness. Emotions ran high.

A Fulbrighter got up. He was the pull yourself up by the bootstraps type, and he’d bought a sick beast of a motorbike.  “I don’t get it,” he said. “Why couldn’t you all just cut through the bullshit and walk into a store and buy a motorbike by yourself?” 

Owl was filled with a deep shame that somehow it had never occurred to her to find the motorbike shop, walk in, spend roughly $500-$800 on a vehicle she didn’t know how to drive in a foreign country and get it back to her house without any help. Weak indeed.

If Owl could do it over again she wishes someone had sat her down and said: you deserve a motorbike but the cards are stacked against you. Fight. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s too dangerous, and don’t let anyone shame you for fighting. Fight like a motherfucker because this isn’t a fair game and there’s no way you’re winning unless you put in everything you’ve got. Don’t stop until you get what you want.

Owl lost that fight. She wonders how many other fights she’s lost because the cards were stacked against her and she didn’t realize.


  1. I still wonder at the differences in responses we got to our wounds in some ways. For me it was sort of a "boys will be boys" for you it seemed like people thought you'd done something unexpected and stupid.... A lot of interesting double standards around this issue.

  2. That is stupidly unfair. Poor Owl :(