“Take your pants off,” said the pretty Thai woman standing in front of me. “Shirt and socks too.”
I don’t have much body modesty, but even so I hesitated for a few seconds before complying. When in Pattaya, do as the Pattayans do, right? So off came the Levis, the T-shirt, the socks, all the way down to my skivvies.
The woman dropped to a squat right in front of me, eye level with my JCPenney briefs. I was only a little miffed that she didn’t have the courtesy to check out my junk. Instead, with the practiced efficiency of a nurse, she strapped knee-and-shin protectors onto my legs. Riding pants were next, followed by a jersey, a back brace, and a complicated mesh jacket with armor at the spine, shoulders, elbows and forearms. She indicated to me to pull on thick wool socks and then fitted my feet into heavy boots with steel soles and toes and more armor around the ankles. She handed me gloves, googles, and a helmet and indicated that I was all set.
Wait, I thought. There’s a vital piece of anatomy unprotected here.
“Um,” I stammered, “a cup?”
The woman looked puzzled.
“You know. A cup,” I repeated stupidly, as if doing so might somehow bring forth a miracle of comprehension.
She stared at me blankly.
Obviously, English wasn’t going to get the message across, so I resorted to charades, reaching down and curving my hand protectively around my privates.
“Cup?” I repeated, hopefully.
The woman shook her head. “No need,” she said.
No need. OK. Did this mean that there is no possible chance of getting genitally maimed doing enduro? Or did it mean that, in her estimation, there was nothing there worth protecting?
As it turned out, like so many millions of guys before me, I was unduly worried about the wrong head.
The woman repeated the dressing ritual with my fellow rider, a young Israeli named Yoab, who had recently completed his IDF service and was now vagabonding his way around Thailand. We were then led to our machines by our “instructor,” a thickset tattooed Thai guy who spoke no English.
I climbed onto a Kawasaki 250 with knobby tires and fired up the engine. It felt good to be astride a bike again after six months of pedestrian life. I had signed up for three hours of enduro riding with an outfitter appropriately named Enduro Madness. I was here:
With our “instructor” in the lead, we pulled out and rode down the streets of the outskirts of Pattaya. Our “instructor” demonstrated his prowess at popping a wheelie and maintaining it for a quarter mile down the road. Impressive, yes, but neither instructive nor reassuring.
Then, without so much as a warning, we veered off the road and onto a dirt path through some scrub flats near the seashore. This was my first-ever experience at riding off-road. We curved through the trail, which changed from hard dirt to light sand to deep sand. I was riding second, behind the “instructor.” I held onto the vain hope that we were going out to a meeting spot where our real training and practice would begin.
And after about 45 minutes of riding, we did pull into a clearing and stopped under a tree. I had been pretty tense, doing this kind of riding with absolutely no instruction, but now I relaxed. I had made it clear, in words and writing, that I had no experience whatsoever with off-road riding. Yoab was just as inexperienced as I. Now, I thought, we would finally be taught some of the dos and don’ts.
But this did not occur. After about five minutes, the “instructor” went to mount up again.
“Wait,” I called out. “It would be nice if we could get some instruction here. I mean, this is my first time doing this.”
Yoab seconded my motion, which I then reinforced with gestures that I hoped showed my puzzlement at how to ride.
The “instructor” came over to me and indicated that I should sit forward more, keep my knees hugging the gas tank, and keep my elbows out slightly. That was it. Nothing about gearing, breaking, turning, balancing, or anything else. Oh, but as we took off again, the “instructor” did pop another wheelie, just to make sure we knew how cool he was.
For the first two hours, I was very tense, but did OK. We tackled some gulches and hillocks. I knew enough to understand that speed was my friend on these obstacles, and the torquey little Kawa responded well. Jumping over those obstacles felt a lot like horseback jumping, something I haven’t done in decades but apparently still have muscle memory of. It seemed impossible that I would get through some of the gulches, but I goosed the throttle and flew. What a kick.
Far less of a kick, though, was turning. I’d never done much turning on dirt or loose gravel before and had always gone out of my way to avoid it. Each time I felt the Kawa break traction, my body would involuntarily tense up all over, prompting me to tell myself out loud to relax. Deep sand was the worst. Knowing nothing about how much to rev the engine, what gear to be in, or anything else for that matter, I stalled out a few times and had to rock the bike back and forward to get moving again.
We rode along a beach, where the knobby tires did a good job on the wet sand, and then curved around to slightly higher ground where there was a settlement of sorts. There I saw a black village and the cruelest poverty imaginable. There were large rectangular pits dug into the sand, where the people who lived in the settlement were burning wood, presumably to make charcoal. Everything about the settlement was flat black from the smoke, from the houses made of sticks and plastic bags to the people themselves and their children and dogs. The air was thick with woodsmoke, making visibility almost impossible. I felt dirty, more figuratively than literally, joyfully zooming through such a place on a recreational lark.
I was soon to receive my karmic payback.
We climbed away from the shore into the woods. Sometimes the trail was so narrow I feared that the Kawa’s handlebars wouldn’t fit through the gap. I was relieved when the trail widened again.
And then it happened.
I still don’t know why, of all places, I wiped out at that particular spot. There was nothing especially technically difficult about the terrain; it was dirt jungle floor. It was on an incline, a very modest one. There was a slight curve to the trail, which I may have misread. Or maybe after two hours of anxious riding I was fatigued. Or maybe this was just my payback from the black village.
To one side of the trail was a steep slope that led to a ravine maybe fifteen feet below. My front tire somehow slipped over the edge and the Kawa dropped sharply beneath me and came to an abrupt stop as it was grabbed by the jungle undergrowth of vines, saplings and tall grass. I flipped and flew over the handlebars with my feet in the air and dropped down, landing face-first with the full weight of my body behind me. My neck snapped back hard. Well, I thought, THAT’S not good.
Yoab stopped his bike on the trail where I’d flown over the edge and was making his way down to me. “Don’t move!” he yelled. I knew that was good advice, but I still experimentally wiggled my fingers and toes. Everything wiggled properly. My neck hurt, but I didn’t sense any grave injuries there. Had I not been wearing a full-face helmet, I would have been a lot worse off. After about two minutes of assessing myself and noting with satisfaction that various parts of me were starting to hurt, I sat up. Nothing drastic happened.
The “instructor” by this time had reversed course and found us. He said nothing to me, but set to work at excavating the bike. With Yoab’s help, they pulled it out of the embankment. The “instructor” set to work unbending the various parts of the bike that were bent. I felt shaky and achy, but was probably on an adrenaline high. I indicated that I wanted to ride on.
I fell two more times in the next ten minutes. I could blame that on the deep sand, but I think more to the point was the fact that I had lost my confidence. No more flying over gulches for me today.
We turned around, slowed the pace, and headed back to the riding facility.
From Ohio to Vietnam, I’ve had some excellent motorcycle instruction in the past. I have gone on tours with outfitters who stressed safety and technique. I guess I’ve been lulled into the assumption that all motorcycle tour companies adhere to those principles. I’m not sure I learned much about enduro in Thailand, other than it is in equal measures terrifying and fun. But I did learn the importance of asking a lot of questions before putting my life in the hands of any old motorcycle outfitter.