Motorbiking Through Monsoon Rains

For me, the words "Trade Winds" and "monsoon" are both drenched in romantic images of bygone swashbuckling days.

The derivation of the word "monsoon" comes from the Arabic word for seasons. I always imagined it meant a storm, as in the monsoon rains cometh. But in fact it is a wind system in Asia that produces alternating dry and wet seasons.

We happened into Thailand at the end of the wet cycle, and I happened to rent a convenient motorbike on two of the occasions when the wet cycle was equipped with overdrive and racing stripes.

We were spending a restful ten days on an island in the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Samui. After our five weeks of non-stop travel we needed some down time--but we also needed vital money, and our only source was the one and only ATM in the major city on the far side of the island. I rented a motorbike (cost 150 baht for 24 hours, or $6 a day). I drove around the island to Na Thon where I found the only ATM that would read our card. The drive was fun along the narrow road, cruising along for my first time in the left lane and making all the expected mistakes, chanting over and over, "Stay on the left, goof." Traffic was light—thank god—but nonetheless deadly. Taxis on the island are small red pickups piloted by frustrated Formula One drivers. Fortunately the motorbike is as wide as your hips, which is a little less than the room the oncoming taxis tend to leave you.

The trip was a joy, passing along the beaches, groves of coconut (Samui exports to Thailand over 2 million coconuts a month), the long thin, gaily colored fishing boats, and old women toting bamboo yokes slung with baskets filled with wild foods.

However the trip was a bust when I got to town and discovered the ATM was "Temporarily Out of Service." Temporary in the tropics meaning anything from minutes to months. I turned the bike around and roared off like Captain America. Twenty minutes out of town began a warm sprinkle. Minutes later it was a warm rain, then a warm downpour, then a warm deluge, and then it was the next level for which the closest description might be an land-tsunami.

Only once before, during a hurricane in Virginia, had I ever seen anything like this. It was impossible to drive, my eyeballs were like a catcher's mitt and the weight of my wet clothing was crushing the shock absorbers. I slowed down, a dangerous thing to do since this was an invitation to all the trucks and taxis (who also can't see since no windshield washer motor is up to task) to pass me kicking up a wall of water that somehow managed to get through the already falling wall of water.

I finally had to concede, I could go no further and I pulled off at the first building I saw, a squat cement box with a welcoming awning. I joined another fellow, a young Swiss also on a motorcycle. For the next 40 minutes we waited, smoking, struggling to communicate, shaking off our drenched clothes and making dramatic faces at the weather.

When we sensed there was a bit of air between the rain drops we each set off. By the time I made it back to our bungalow I was soaked to the core. Apart from the interesting experience the only benefit I could find was that I had also managed to do my laundry.

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