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Planes, Trains and Tuk-tuks

Taking public transit means adopting to a different pace of life. pixabay.com CC0

Five lessons learned from taking public transport abroad. 

I haven’t driven since November 13, 2015.

In case you were wondering that is a total of 506 days (and counting) of staying out of the driver’s seat. While those who live in cities or don't have access to private transportation may fact this fact uninspiring, I grew up on a farm in rural Vermont, where learning to drive was essential. I started driving our farm's tractor before I knew how to start a car, and shared my family’s old peppermint minivan for years once I got my license. Driving has been a big part of my life and in my early teens, a huge source of freedom.

However, when I left for Guatemala in 2015, I left my driving days behind me and this has extended into my year in Thailand.

While I have not driven, I have taken a long and varied list of types of public transport, including but not limited to: Song Tows, pickup trucks, planes, motorbike taxis, trains, long tail boats, tuk-tuks, canoes, minivans, speedboats, and once a very stubborn donkey named Mango. In fact, in giving up the freedom of driving, I have gained an entirely different appreciation for travel. Here is a list of 5 things travel with solely public transport has taught me.

Since moving to Thailand, I have taken various public transport including: Song Tows, pickup trucks, motorbike taxis, long tail boats, tuk-tuks, canoes, speedboats, and once a very stubborn donkey named Mango.

1) An understanding of my immediate community

Since I have to rely on my two feet to get around, I have become more familiar with the community that is located at a walkable distance from me. I live on a “soi lek” (small street) off a highway, and I am happy to say that I know each family on my street by both face and name.

Parts of my life that are so important now, like the location of the noodle shop or what time my neighbour walks his cows everyday are details that I would have overlooked before if I could easily zip away. I have knowledge of my street that I wouldn’t have had if I was always leaving it, like how my neighbour hangs her clothes around the corner at 1pm each day, how on Sundays my neighbour waits for me to walk by to share fruit from her garden, or how long it takes to walk to the Som Tam restaurant before sunset.

I also meet so many more people from my community on public transportation that I feel familiar with where I am going even if I have never been there before. Simply put, staying in my community has given me more insight into the world around me, and allowed me to slowly make the relationships with my neighbours that I have today.

2) It pays to ask questions

It took me some time, but I would say that I am starting to become an expert at the song tow system of my city. After getting on the wrong bus more times than I would like to admit, I understand how the system works, and even know many of the songtow, motorbike taxi, and taxi drivers by name. This knowledge has come from many wrong turns, trips on the wrong buses, and days where I have been brought hours away from my intended destination, but these failures have added up to an intimate knowledge of the public transport system in my community.

I also have learned not to be scared of being confused, and know who and how to ask for help. I now know how to get around to the places I need to go, run errands, and understand how much it costs to get around. Indeed, I am a pro getting lost and am starting to become an expert in finding my way.

3) Incidental exercise is exercise, too

I have been a runner for a long time, and have never really thought of walking as a means of exercise. However, after days of walking under the hot Thai sun to and from school, the gym, the market and the pad Thai stand, I surprise myself at how little I walked back home.

It is true that when we drive, it is easy to forget how far things are and how little effort it takes to get around. Not having transportation of my own encourages me to be more active and get my daily steps in.

4) How to slow down

Not having a vehicle of my own has forced me into a life that runs at a much slower pace. I cannot expect that I can easily arrive at a destination, and have to make a plan of how I will arrive and how long it will take. I have learned that buses break down, boats will not run when it is stormy and detours are to be expected.

This surrender of freedom to travel when and how I want has forced me to grow and challenge myself, and showed me how I can be independent in accessing my surroundings in different ways. It may take me longer to get where I need to go, but it feels so much better when you figure out how to arrive on your own.

5) The importance of gratitude

I have become so thankful for those who offer me a ride, let me sit in the front seat or draw me maps when I am lost. In Thailand, I have a sense that I can never become truly lost. Believe me, as mentioned above, I have gotten lost my fair share of times but I have always encountered people who point me in the right direction, and are willing to help. I am so grateful to the long tail boat driver who drove 20 minutes out of his way, to bring me to the right dock when my boat left me stranded in the Andaman Sea, or the woman who saw me waiting for the songtow in the rain, and took me to the post office on her motorbike.

It is such a privilege to have personal transportation, and I am so grateful for everyone who has helped me arrive safely to where I want to go.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Emma McDowell

Emma McDowell fell in love with the study of culture and language when she worked as an au pair in Madrid, Spain. She then double majored in Spanish and Hispanic Studies, and Environmental Studies and minored in Anthropology in university. She has lived and worked in Spain, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and is currently completing a US Fulbright Grant in Nahkorn Si Tammarat, Thailand.

Website: instagram.com/emma_mcd4

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