I was finishing up my Thai language lesson last week, when my daughter came in the room with a harried look on her face. “The car won’t start, and we need a translator to talk to the people in the parking lot where we are stuck.” Immediate end to my Thai lesson.
The car was stuck in one of Chiangmai’s large mega malls. The uniformed parking lot guard had come over to help, and Kirsten couldn’t figure out what he was saying—though she said that it was apparently helpful. Anyway, he had filled the radiator with water on what was one of the hottest days of the year. It seemed a good bet that it was simply overheated.
So we caught a ride back to the parking lot, and I had a look at the car, which had its hood up so everyone would know we were the people in trouble. One of the guards came over, and talked to me.
“Let me get the other guy, I think it is the battery.”
“But she said it was overheated,” I replied.
In the meantime a stranger stopped by and insist that we take a two liter bottle of water, even though we could see that the radiator was now full, and I could see on the engine thermometer that everything was o.k. But he insisted we take their water, which we did.
“I think it’s the battery,” the uniformed security guy in the snazzy uniform said, and he ran off.
I walked around the car a couple of times, and tried to start it. It just went “click.” It was still in my mind that the problem was overheating, so the “click” sounded bad. Did this mean that the engine was seized up? I have a PhD and know how to diagnose such things!
In the meantime, the security guard guy in the snazzy uniform came back with his friends, who bought a battery charger. I couldn’t figure out what he needed that for, but he insisted that the problem was the battery. He told me to bring the car down to the third level of the garage (we were on the fourth level). I said this was impossible. He just grabbed my keys and hopped in the car. He put the car into neutral, and suddenly I found myself pushing my car through the garage. It glided nicely down to the third level, where the charger was hooked up to a plug from the big mall. He turned on the car. It turned over. And we were back in business—but for how long? The guy in the snazzy uniform pointed to a little red indicator on the battery, and told me to get a new battery within a couple of days.
A New Battery—Two Days Later
Where to get a new battery? The Thai told me that I should get it a “battery store.” The expats suggested google in English. The latter turned out to be what I did, and I googled “Car battery in Chiangmai,” and zeroed in on the nearest hit, which was a place called “Monster Automotive.” A nice English name like that sounded good to me. Sounded also like it would have a battery.
Anyway, with a bit of help from our iPad, I finally found the backstreet where Monster Automotive was located. I went into a shop which looked suspiciously like a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle dealership, and unlikely to have a battery for a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer. Trusting in iPad and Google, I pushed in.
“Do you have a battery for a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer?”
“Um, this is a Harley-Davidson dealership, and so no we don’t have a car battery.”
“Where can I get a car battery?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s easy. Go next door to the fitness studio.”
So, I did what I was told, and went next door to the fitness studio where there was a small restaurant, and a lot of weight machines.
“Do you have a battery for a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer?”
“Not at the moment” the woman replied, “but my boyfriend has one.”
“How long will that take? I asked skeptically,” after fitness studios in America do not carry car batteries.
The boyfriend came out. A small guy. He went over to our car to have a look.
“Can you give me 15 minutes? I can get you the battery,” he asked. “I just have to go to the other shop to get it.”
“Sure, I responded,” hopefully, not quite understanding how going to another fitness studio would find me a battery.
He hopped on a small scooter (not a Harley), and was off.
15 minutes later he called his girlfriend. “I don’t have one at the shop,” he said, “can you wait another 15 minutes? It will be 2200 Baht for the battery, but I’ll give you a credit if I can take the old battery for refurbishment.“ 1900 Baht total, which is about US$ 50.
Seemed pretty reasonable to me, and I continued to wait, watching as the buff guys from the gym went in and out, and while a college student with braces in the black skirt required of all proper university students studied her book, and ate her lunch.
I switched between daydreaming, watching a silly Thai game show on t.v., and studying the body-building magazine rack. People came and went, including the well-muscled boyfriend of the college student who kissed her on the lips at one point, a move which brought out kissy faces from the others in the room.
35, 40 minutes ,and then the winds came, followed shortly by one of them real enthusiastic tropical rainstorms. Now I knew my battery would be late. The winds howled, and the rainwater peeped in under the door. This lasted about 20 minutes, and then lo and behold my battery arrived, on the scooter and the boyfriend. His girlfriend shoved an umbrella in my hand, even though it had stopped raining. But I used it anyway, I wandering out to where my car was, and the “mechanic” was changing the battery. I felt stupid there, watching the operation, so wandered back to my seat in the body building gym.
The mechanic five minutes later came in and me asked me to come out and look at his handy work. And then reminded me of the 1900 baht charge. I didn’t have change, only two 1000 baht bills. But the girlfriend did, and after about an hour and a half, I was on my way. With a new battery.
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.