Thursday, February 23, 2017

Abandoned Beach House

In Paraguay, I often spent my weekends doing the same things: reading, taking walks to collect fruit or skateboarding. The weeks I spent commuting to different classes across Asuncion in the 100+ degree heat were often so tiring, I spent the weekends just lying around, recovering. I got in the habit of doing this early. I resolved that I wouldn’t get into the same habit here where, just outside our town, there is a lot of beauty to be explored and, when last weekend rolled around, I rented a motorbike.

One of the main reasons I never left the house on weekends in Paraguay was transportation. The bus station was distant, the buses were unpredictable, slow and I always had to stand, no matter how far the journey or how early I got on—just as the bus was pulling out of town a pregnant woman or an old man would flag it down. They’d get on the full bus, stand in the aisle and awkwardly try to brace themselves against the seats. It would’ve been rude to make them stand, so I always offered my seat, but begrudgingly. After a while I began to wonder why these people couldn’t just get on the bus at the station like everyone else. Standing for three hours, I’d be hitting my head on the ceiling at each bump and nearly falling at every turn. Because everything to see in Paraguay was a few hours from Asuncion, we usually had to spend the night to justify the trip, thus, when we finally dragged ourselves back to the apartment Sunday afternoon, I would collapse on the couch and vow not to leave again. So, when I learned that there was a bus to Chaiya, the site of an ancient Buddhist stupa, next to a Muslim silk-weaving village and that next to the beach, I decided not to risk it. The bus would only allow us to visit one of these places; if we had our own transport, we could visit all three and leave each place whenever we wanted to. One of the worst things about a bus, is that you’re constantly thinking about when it will leave; you end up cutting your trip short every time just so you don’t miss your ride back. The bus doesn’t leave until six, but by four, you’re already thinking, ‘we need to start getting back to the bus.’ You end up waiting at the bus stop by four-thirty.

It was a new country and time for a new, self-sufficient outlook. Everyone here drives motorbikes or scooters, even a lot of children have them and a place up the street rents them out for less than the round trip on the bus would’ve cost for two people. Friday night I declared that the next day, we’d rent a scooter.

It may have been a little impetuous to rent one so soon after I arrived. In Thailand, they drive on the left side of the street and even after being here for nearly a month, I’m barely used to crossing the street, let alone driving on it; also. There was the information I’d gotten from the Embassy dryly stating a fair amount of Americans have been struck and killed in traffic in Thailand, more than in most other countries and, as a result, driving anything really wasn’t advised, let alone something wobbly on two wheels. I could’ve heeded these warnings and spent my weekend wandering around Surat Thani or waiting for buses so I could spend a few anxious hours in one place, but I resolved I wasn’t going to be afraid. Spending more time here wasn’t going to prepare me for riding a scooter anyway. It was something I was just going to have to do.

Early Saturday morning, Gina and I went walking down the street to meet the guy who rented scooters. I’d only had one coffee and it was Saturday, so I decided to stop and grab another for the walk. Inside the 7-11, as they made up our americano and we waited, a little dog came up to the sliding glass door. The door’s sensor, not having the ability to distinguish between dog and small customer, beeped and proudly rolled back the door on the haven of consumer goods. The little dog trotted in so amiably, it was hard to think he wasn’t just picking up something for the puppies on his way home. I wanted to be helpful, so although my heart was with the dog, I tried to step into his path and shoo him back out the door. I had only begun to stoop down when the dog seemed to fall into an epileptic fit of yelps and growls. I stepped back, afraid someone would think I was torturing the poor animal. Calmly, a clerk came out from behind the counter and, brightly, the dog followed her out the door, like he’d only come to see her back home.

I should’ve read the portent in the incident, but, I daily commit so many blunders, one more didn’t seem like a big deal and we walked down the road, happily with our coffee, like nothing had happened.

The guy renting the scooters was mellow and really unconcerned by the fact that I’d never driven one before. He just kept repeating his mantra, “it’s just like a bike.” I pointed out bikes didn’t weigh 200 pounds or have engines and throttles, but he just shrugged and repeated, “it’s just like a bike!” like maybe I hadn’t heard the first time. Still wary, I started slow, driving down the little alley we were in and turning around. Yeah, it was simple, but it was also awkward. Driving on something on two wheels, I felt like someone who doesn’t know how to swim, who stiffens and panics when the water is over their head, rather than relaxing and allowing themselves to float. The extra cup of coffee probably hadn’t helped much either.

When Gina got on the back, I went down the alley one more time. The scooter was nearly out of gas and I was going to ask where there was a gas station nearby and how to open the gas tank (I didn’t even know where it was), but the guy had already gone back inside. “Whatever,” I said, “we’ll figure it out,” and we drove off.

Easing into counter-intuitive traffic, was a little awkward, but luckily, I didn’t have to turn anywhere, so once I got into the flow, I just kept going. I felt a little nervous stopping at the light, like maybe I wasn’t going to be able to get moving again and I’d have to drag the scooter out of traffic, but when the light changed, I eased the throttle, picked up my feet and soon we were rising on the bridge over the Tai-Pi River. We were headed to a sparsely populated area, so I worried slightly about finding gas. When a station appeared on our left, I relaxed and pulled in.

I guess, I pulled up to the wrong pump because the attendants wheeled the scooter back for us. With friendly but confused looks, they tried to point to the various types of gas; of course, I had no idea which type of gas a scooter needed, so I just shrugged, likewise when they picked up a pump and came to the scooter. ‘Where was the tank?’ they gestured. Once again, I just shrugged. After all this shrugging, these people must’ve wondered how I had managed to get to as far as I was; clearly, I knew nothing and just stabbed in the dark.

Eventually the attendants figured out everything for me, including how much gas I wanted to put in the tank. When everything was ready, I thanked them and got back on the bike. Gina got on behind me and then, without warning, the scooter started to violently pull away from me. There was a car in front of us, and I tried to deflect the scooter by turning it hard to the right, but there wasn’t enough clearance and it pulled into the front of the car, glancing against the bumper. Gina jumped off and I was left wrestling the scooter which was now pulling toward the road like a stallion. The harder I tried to reign it in, the harder it pulled. I was afraid to let it go because it would’ve crashed to the ground, but as the front wheel suddenly reared off the ground, and the back light crunched against the concrete, I knew I had no other options. As soon as I let go, the scooter dropped to its side, lifeless. I hadn’t had time to think about anything during the ordeal and even now that it was over, I felt almost strangely calm. I assumed I’d broken the thing after bouncing it all over the parking lot. Before I really inspected it, I went to check the man’s car I had glanced. He got out and took and look with me. There was really no mark at all and he shook his head in a gesture that I took to mean ‘no problem.’ There was broken scooter taillight all over the parking lot, and solicitous Gina had already begun picking it up. Dumbly, I followed, not really wanting to see how bad the scooter was. A woman with a broom came over, so I abandoned the job and went over to assess the damage.

One side mirror had come loose and spun like a one of those New Year’s Eve noise makers you twirl around; the other mirror and the taillight were busted out. I picked the scooter up and checked the wheels and the body. Everything else seemed to be alright. I got back on and pressed the ignition. It started. Gently, I eased out of the parking lot, back onto the road. Throughout the entire ordeal, I hadn’t felt embarrassed at all. Only now, as we made our way down the road, did I start to laugh. “God, I must’ve looked like such an idiot to those people!” I didn’t lament this, it just seemed hilarious. Because, to some degree, I guess it’s slightly true.

People of all ages ride scooters, not just university students, but grandmas and jr. high students too. The equivalent of crashing one of these things would be like getting on a bike and immediately toppling over at thirty-three years old. So I’d fallen off a bike in front of a crowd of gas station attendants, making a big scene in the process. You’d think that I’d be pretty mortified by these imppressively dumb actions, but I’ve developed a shield. The best course of action is to be able to laugh at these mistakes. No one in any country likes someone who takes themself too seriously. In time, you forget about these things, but while they are still fresh; you might as well try to see it from someone else’s point of view and laugh a little.

Flying down the highway after bouncing the scooter around, I felt slightly less sure of myself and my ability to drive the thing. The road kept changing from solid blacktop to dusty, loose gravel without much warning and each time the surface under the wheels changed, I worried about us sliding or hitting a hole and toppling over.

The road was slightly confusing. We went through a number of towns I didn’t except and there was more traffic, but we managed to navigate to Chaiya; driving down main street, it looked like any other town, like Surat Thani but smaller. We passed the ubiquitous 7-11s and noodle shops and drove back to a Wat that was surrounded by elaborate tombstones—most of them painted bright colors. The scooter made me feel a little lazy and I was reluctant to get off and walk, especially when I could see nothing to walk up and see. The Wat was locked and we could see the tombstones well enough from the road. A few dogs came out to bark at us. Like a drunk, I jerked the scooter around in a U-turn that looked more like an elaborate Thai letter than a ‘U’ and drove off.

The second Wat was a little more interesting. This one was built in 775 and was now nothing more than a stolid pile of gritty red stones. Obviously it had once been the foundation of something incredible, especially so long ago, but now, it was only an architectural stump tourists like us drove up to, admired for a few minutes, wished there were monkeys or something around and drove away.

We drove over to Phum Riang, a Muslim silk-weaving village after leaving Chaiya. The entrance to the town was marked by an ornate mosque, the most impressive I’ve seen in Thailand. Attached to one of its hulking square minarets were two large megaphones. I dragged my feet walking around the village, hoping to hear the call to prayer, but we were there too early in the afternoon. The way some laborers were working nearby, they didn’t look like they planned to stop for a while.

We never saw any of the fabled silk weavers, but as we walked further into the little town, we began to attract notice of the locals. On the main street, no one had given us a glance, but I guess tourists seldom penetrated farther than the last shop in the commercial area. Walking through the residential parts of the town, everyone waved and called ‘hello.’ At the end of one street, we picked up the customary comet’s tail of children who shouted ‘hello’ every few seconds to make sure we hadn’t forgotten they were there. We turned to walk through a dusty noon arcade where stall owners slept above their piles of cucumbers and unfamiliar fruits like misers sleeping on mattresses stuffed with cash. One woman was awake. We nodded to her and she called out ‘farang’ so the rest of the ladies would look smart in case we decided to buy up the place. Luckily, her call roused no one, and we continued unassailed through the dusty market to the riverfront. A dock stretched between a number of homes up on wooden pylons and the copious amounts of laundry and other personal objects would’ve prohibited movement through what was obviously a private area, but a man sitting on a stool nearby jumped down and commanded that we follow him. He walked to the end of the wooden dock and pointed to the water saying ‘Thailand;’ he pointed to the needle fish in the water and repeated ‘Thailand,’ when the grinning gaggle of children caught up to us he grinned and mumbled ‘Thailand.’ I nodded in agreement.

We all stood there looking out over the brown-green rushing water of the river for a while, trying to see beneath its turbid surface. The small waves slapped the hulls of the wooden boats and the children moved restlessly, displeased by the lack of movement. I took their picture and showed it to them, but they had a few camera phones between them and took ours in return, even in small towns you can’t impress kids with digital cameras anymore. As if knowing this was all we had to show them, they ran off back home and we continued back up the dusty road toward the central mosque where we’d parked.

We found a small cafe and had a ‘blue mountain’ coffee, which I guess must be some kind of synecdoche for brewed coffee. It was quite bad, and strangely tasted like a book I had when I was a kid, a big glossy vellum coffee table book about the Solar System. Each drink I took brought this vivid picture of Jupiter to my mind, and not just Jupiter, but the Jupiter of a five year-old boy. As bad as the coffee was, I was satisfied with the memory it induced and would’ve gladly paid 35 baht for that alone. I guess maybe they should change the name of the stuff to ‘memory retrieval’ coffee. I’m sure a lot more people would order it.

After the Jupiter coffee, we got back on the scooter and drove off to Laem Pho. Just across the Chana River from Phum Riang, Laem Pho is a beach front park, a food court and a county fair combined. I’m still not sure what the main ‘day of rest’ is here, as every day looks the same in the streets; there’s no difference between Sunday and Wednesday, everything is open, construction crews are going to work and there’s plenty of traffic. Laem Pho gave me an idea that Saturday might be the favored day for recreation around here. The bouncy castle set up by the side of the road was so full of pistoning children it looked like it was going to topple over. The park itself was full to capacity. The sidewalks were crowded with stands hawking food from grilled horseshoe crab and fried stingray to watermelon and salted mango. In the park, entire families were arranged on the bamboo fiber mats they’d brought, the elders usually leaning against a tree with a look of vague contentment. The kids were everywhere, running across the eroding grass, stumbling off rented bikes, eating messy things and swimming in the murky water just over from where the river met the ocean.

We drove into the park and walked around awkwardly as you do in a place full of large families with lots of children when you have no children accompaniment. Even the dogs trying to scavenge for food looked more comfortable than we did. We smiled and say ‘hello’ back to the kids, but the odds were against us. Even the teenagers wandering through the park had the distinct look of being attached to some nearby family. I knew everyone must’ve wondered where our children and elders were and I felt bad for not having any with us— sorta’.

We walked through the sidewalk alley created by the lines of food carts on either side. Thais are not claustrophobic and this is daily demonstrated by their tendency to pack food carts together and then walk through the resulting narrow alley and eye the wares impaled on sticks and poured into plastic bags. I have already walked through a few of these lines and usually, I don’t see anything other than fruit and boba tea that looks remotely vegetarian, but this time, twice we saw what looked like friend tofu. The first time, it was arranged with a number of other fried products and the pan where all these things had been fried was still on display offering up its warm black oil liberally chipped with burned flecks of batter. When I thought about the countless meat and fish chunks that had fried in that oil before the tofu even went in, I couldn’t stomach eating it. I knew it would taste like fish, pork and probably, from the looks of things, eel.

The second stall hardly had anything else on display so I decided just to try the tofu, too late I realized it was sitting next to a platter of breaded baby stingrays. ‘Oh well, maybe they did the tofu first,’ I hoped handing over the money. The tofu came with a little bag of sauce. Gina asked if the sauce was ‘pet’ or spicy and the woman quickly assured us that the sauce was ‘mai pet’ or not spicy. In case there was any confusion her neighbor from the next cart over even leaned over and said it too, waving her hands around to indicate the cessation of spiciness in the conversation. When I pointed to some crushed chilies and asked if we could have some, they were astounded. I can’t say how nice it is to be in a country where people eat spicy food. If we should ever have anyone over for dinner, I knew we’ll be able to make anything we want without our guest repeatedly dropping their fork and making fanning motions at their mouth or chugging copious amounts of water.

The little bag of sauce was a sweet peanut sauce. We mixed it with the chilies and dumped the result over the tofu. While we ate, kids crammed two to a bike and repeatedly toppled over, a dog went by with a roll of toilet paper in its mouth and a mom chased some waddling baby who’d wandered out too close to the road.

After Laem Pho, we got back on the scooter and went up the highway to drive along the beach. The beach here has no resorts on it, the water is the tawny green of a silty lake and mounds of trash have washed up onto the shore.

We stopped at an abandoned house, changed and walked down to the water, stepping over worn sandals, desiccated and frayed nylon rope, plastic bottles burnished into a soapy color by the sand and painted pieces of wood with nails protruding from them like a dogs with their hackles up. The water was warm and the only cooling effect was when we came out and stood on the beach, letting the warm winds dry us before putting our clothes back on in the abandoned house. When I came out, I noticed a marker behind the house which looked like it indicated a body was buried beneath, but without being able to read the Thai, I couldn’t be sure. I thought about some Hemingwayesque character who’d lived in this lonely place by the ocean, hauling his fishing boat out every day in the early morning, launched by the ebullient bird song from the jungle nearby. I nodded to the stone for the use of the empty house, we got back on the scooter and drove off.

The way back was long and sitting rigidly on the scooter had begun to hurt my back a little, but with ocean water still in my ears and the warmth of a sunburn radiating up from my thighs, I felt good. Gina and I talked over the roar of the engine, indicating little things along the route that looked interesting, mostly just by saying ‘look at that.’

We got back into town that night and, surprisingly, after driving around on country roads all day, I enjoyed driving in the city. The scooter allowed me to weave around a little more than being in a car; in a way, it really was a little like being on a bike.

The next morning, after a quick drive out to a small nature preserve, I sheepishly brought the scooter back, fully expecting to get hosed on the price for repairs. As the guy we’d rented from looked at the broken light and mirror, Gina and I kept apologizing, like we’d done him some great injustice. He finally silenced us by saying it happens all the time. We gave him about $30.00, but he said it would probably be too much and that when we rented from him next time, we’d get whatever change their would be.

Walking back home, it felt odd to be making such slow progress across town and I began to understand why everyone has a scooter here; they’re like smart phones, once you bring them into your life, things just feel much more inconvenient without them and the beach just feels that much farther away. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Melting Cranes

After the first two weeks living in Surat Thani, I had to attend a conference in Bangkok. My classes were scheduled to start the following week and everything was prepared; I was looking forward to seeing a little more of the country before starting work.

Early Thursday morning, I walked to the bus station and caught a bus to the airport. The Surat Thani Airport is very small. It has four gates, two for national and two for international flights. These are separated by a tinted glass partition. Waiting at the gate, you notice figures darkly moving around a mirror-image of your own situation. Its something like a glimpse into an alternate reality: everything is clear for you, the desk, the seats, the path to the bathroom, but for the patrons of the other gate, everything looks obscured and vague. The people seem to wander around aimlessly and the seats and desk are not clear. You have the impression everyone is walking around in there, knocking their shins against errant chairs and asking each other if they have seen the desk. This is amusing until you realize that your gate must look the same way to them, dark and inscrutable from the other side of the glass.

After waiting an hour in the sealed, heavily air-conditioned world, it was a relief to be led out to the tarmac to board the plane. The Surat airport has no jetways, so all boarding and deboarding is done this way. When a line formed to the plane, everyone stopped and waited under the shadow of the building rather than risk standing in the sun for a few minutes; people here do try to avoid the sun as much as possible. Being from a tropical country, to them, the sun is no vacation novelty, but a powerful force. Growing up seeing the sun dry laundry in a matter of minutes and watching dead geckos become thoroughly desiccated by its heat in an afternoon, I can understand why people from tropical places would come to see the sun this way. But, for us northerners, even with our much higher risk for skin cancers, we bask like the sun’s healing have been long denied us. Perhaps we are too well aware that we will eventually leave and return to the perpetually clouded skies which we only glance at from our cars and office windows. We want the memory of warmth and light to be clear. We want to look back on the vacation and see nothing but the blinding rays of direct sunlight.

The plane landed in Bangkok a little over an hour later; Thais, I notice, don’t clap when the plane lands, either—like westerners—they have become accustomed to flying, or their religion allows them to transcend worries about whether the plane will reach its destination. In western Asia and most of the former Soviet Union, people still give the captain an ovation after a safe landing, an homage that I find to be the most human thing in the dehumanized world of modern aviation. I was bummed to find they don’t do it here. It’s no so much the appreciation for a job well-done I like, but rather the feeling you get when clapping together, like choral singing, it helps you to recognize you are part of a greater whole; after the plane lands, everyone has their own destination, but while you are in the air, you share the same experience. As much as we may want to act like we are still in our little world, we are subject to the same laws as everyone else on the plane. Our personal world is limited to thoughts; while we are all crammed together in the fuselage rocketing through the sky, we share our physical world with the other passengers, even our emotional worlds begin to overlap, as we begin to anticipate our landing. Clapping at the end of the flight seems to thank not only the captain, but those who whom you have shared the experience. Its as if you were to line up and shake everyone’s hand before deboarding.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so disinterested in a new city. Maybe I’m just tired of cities and the way they’re all starting to look the same. Even Bangkok, so unique with its dildos and Valium on sale along the sidewalks of Sukhumvit and Buddhas reclining, like models posing for the shutters of photographers. Venture far enough out into the suburbs, I’m sure there are parts of Old Bangkok left, but from the skytrain into the city, all I saw was the same reflective glass high-rise building repeating itself like a pop-up ad blocking my view of the actual city.

I got off the train where all the hotels are, checked into my room and went out to find a place to eat.

The Pier 22 Mall was just down the road and while normally I wouldn’t have bothered with such a place; they were supposed to have a stall selling cheap vegetarian food, but things change quickly in a mall of that size and almost upon entering, I knew the place wouldn’t be there anymore, still, I looked. I saw a Baskin Robbins or something on the basement level and assumed the food was down there. I looked around at the various eateries, Indo-French, pasta, Chinese, donuts, tacos for shit’s sake, but couldn’t find the one I was looking for. I would’ve left if I hadn’t seen the sign proclaiming the mall’s food court to be on the 5th and 6th floors. “How,” I wondered. “Could this place where I’m standing, surrounded by various eateries, not be the food court?” I was just hungry enough to climb up six escalated flights to find out.

Each floor of the Pier 22 Mall has a different city theme. One floor is Rome, another is Istanbul and the food court, both floors of it, was San Francisco-themed. Somehow, seeing reproductions of the Via del Corso or Hagia Sophia in a mall didn’t seem overly strange to me; I recognize that these things have become so iconic they’ve shed their reality and become legion, likewise, and possibly even more so, the Golden Gate Bridge, a bridge I’ve driven over countless times, a bridge I used to be able to see from the end of my block in the Richmond. I’ve gotten used to seeing this bridge everywhere, not as a link between the Presidio and Marin, spanning the foggy inlet of the Bay, but rather just as a bridge, floating in the unreal miasma of iconography. So, I could handle the massive reproduction of the Golden Gate stretching between decks of the mall. Even the Pier 39 logo reproductions which read ‘Pier 22’ for the name of the mall, were tolerable. But when the smaller icons of North Beach, such as the sign for Big Al’s on Broadway swam into view, I started to feel a little disoriented. Hungry as I was, the faux scenery seemed to incandescence in a livid but jumbled reproduction of San Francisco and I started to feel overwhelmed by memories. The passivity of the shoppers started to bother me. I felt like a penitent whose Hagia Sophia has become a tourist attraction. I wanted to destroy the abomination and at once clear the unappreciative shoppers from the area. “Don’t you see?” I wanted to shout. “Don’t you see, that this is my happiest memory? My last home? You’ve made it into a joke!” But I didn’t say that, or anything else. I only took a few pictures and walked out.

I ended up eating at a Subway in abject desperation. It wasn’t until I ordered and sat down that I noticed the walls are covered with the old station map of the NYC Subway. San Francisco to New York in less than a block while in the middle of Bangkok. Such a thing makes me glad for the hermetic Paraguays and Turkmenistans of the world, or it would, but I know its only some greater income indication in these places that keep the chain businesses with their American reproductions out. If Paraguay struck oil, there’d be a Subway in Concepcion the next day.

But one American reproduction I am always glad to see and when I finished my lettuce sandwich, I set out, board in hand to find one or Thailand’s two skateparks, this one in a little plaza in Benjasiri Park—the other is on Koh Samui, both of them are minescule and seem only partially completed.

Malls are a poor export to me because they represent the worst of American gluttony and avarice; self-contained air-conditioned worlds that offer nothing more than products and anonimity. I don’t think I’ve ever had an occasion to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a mall, the structure of the place disallows, even prohibits it. The skatepark, conversely, brings likeminded people together to commune. When one person lands an impressive trick, everyone feels the elation. Nods and handshakes are freely given out. Impressively for such a place, judgment of ability is usually eschewed for appreciation of attempt. Even in the case of the bungling farang.

The incident I mentioned at the market earlier when everyone stood completely still, turns out to be a daily thing. Every day at six o’clock, the king’s anthem is played and, while it plays, everyone stands still. I don’t think cars on the roads stop and I don’t think anyone in their homes pays any attention, but everyone out in a public place must stop what they’re doing and stand still for the duration of the song. I’d read something about this, but somehow the first evening I was at the skatepark, it’d slipped my mind. I had my headphones on and was trying to 50-50 this box someone had set up at the top of a slight incline. With the music going, I was skating to this box with single-minded purpose when suddenly, the park emptied out; everyone, abruptly stopped skating. Despite many prior warnings, I just assumed this was a coincidence and went steadily toward my target. I didn’t land the trick, but I grabbed my board and kept going, back the other way. Turning in this direction, I was able to see the crowd and their curiously blank faces and suddenly, I knew. I pulled one ear piece out and sure enough, over the loud speakers, the anthem was playing boldly. I probably should’ve just stopped, but I had to make some kind of concession. I stopped, threw up my hands in desperation, as if at my own stupidity and made a characteristic wai to everyone as the only way I knew to express my regret. Everyone near the skatepark at least, had big smiles on their faces. I knew these smiles were inscrutable, but in the moment, it was better than seeing frowns. When the music stopped and everyone started skating again, I stood there for a moment sheepishly and then tried the box again. I didn’t land the trick then either. I’m sure this won’t be the last time this sort of thing happens to me.

Another blunder I committed that night was one that Gina nearly did herself in Koh Tao, but having more tact and grace than I, she managed to avoid it.
About half an hour after the king’s anthem, a wobbly kid on his skateboard comes careening toward me. I step out of his way just before he would’ve slammed into my legs and then, to let him know we’re pals and he can run into me all he wants, I reach out to tap him on the helmet. Just as my fingers are grazing the top of the plastic casing, I realize what I am doing and pull my hand back, as if burnt. I can only hope the kid’s parents haven’t just seen what probably looked like my sincere attempt to put a hex on their child, or at least screw with his chakras or something.

In my defense, a lot of “rules” seemed to be entirely disregarded here. In the airport, there are plenty of signs begging the wouldbe tourist to be respectful of the Buddha. The signs point out that tattoos or any product, such as a lawn ornament or—and it actually shows a picture of this—a doggy bed, depicting the Buddha fall under this category. Despite this injunction, nearly every tattoo shop I have passed in tourist areas display flash of buddhas and buddha heads and pictures of the satisfied customers sporting Siddhartha on their arms or backs. Statues of the Buddha also seem to widely available. The whole thing reminds me of the Chinese restaurants which have on their signs a ‘Chinese’ caricature, looking like some evil propaganda from the Chinese Exclusion Act: the conical bamboo hat, the long pigtail, the buck teeth, the flowing sleeves are all there, but the establishment is Chinese-owned. Some could argue that this is an act of reappropriation, but I can’t help but to think that people putting these images on their signs just don’t care what other people think. Perhaps the Buddha thing is like this, too. If you want to tattoo the Buddha on your calf, go ahead, it’s all just suffering anyway.

So, after my fingers grazed the kid’s helmet and I noticed that there were no parents giving me the evil eye, I assumed maybe it wasn’t such a big deal. Looking it up, I can’t help but to notice that the websites which beg tourists not to do this are all posted by other tourists. I’ve noticed over the years, that tourists have a tendency to be hyper-critical of each other. If westerners see other westerners doing something that seems inappropriate, they talk about it for days. I understand that we all want to have a good image abroad, but c’mon, in Bangkok they’re selling dildos and Valium on the street. Someone must be buying these things. We’ve been acting like louts for the last few hundred years and, frankly, I think most nations (especially those with good beaches) still expect us to behave like louts. Try to do what you can to be a good person, but keep in mind someone’s probably going to come in and undo all your work the moment you leave. Accidentally touching a kid’s head probably still isn’t as bad as barfing in front of some guy’s store or passing out on the sidewalk where people are trying to walk in the morning and these are the things westerners are still doing all the time in Bangkok.

Back in Surat Thani things were more peaceful. I started my classes and four days a week, I take the song tao (as the tuk-tuk-like thing turns out to be called) to class. One afternoon, coming home, I noticed a kid sitting with his head down, like he wasn’t feeling well. He was about 13 and accompanied by two friends about the same age. One of his friends was incredibly solicitous. He took a sweatshirt out of his bag and placed it under the head of his sick friend. He seemed to think about this for a minute before finding the action insufficient. He placed his bird-like hands on his friend’s shoulders and began to massage his back. He kneaded and prodded at his friend’s back, hopeful, like each touch could bring him out of his illness. His friend stayed slumped ahead, however, and the boy eventually stopped massaging, still, he allowed one hand to linger on his friend’s shoulders, tapping every so often, like we do for someone who is vomiting. Watching this behavior, I couldn’t help but to envy the culture which permits such a thing. The boy wasn’t awkward or embarrassed. His friend wasn’t well, so he did what was in his power to make him feel better. I don’t think his action would’ve been well-received among the society of 13 year-old boys in the west, however. In the US, a 13 year-old is already totally deprived of touch. When his mother tries to hug him, he must push her away or risk being laughed at. Even his closest male friends can’t touch him other than to push him down or slap him on the back. The American 13 year-old dreams of girls; the only way he is permitted to be touched. I remember how amazing it was just to touch a girl’s hand at that age. The immediate feeling of comfort was so pervasive. There could’ve been no doubt that there was some kind of incredible affection associated with the act. No one else would’ve tolerated such an intimacy and to be sitting there in the dark of the movie theater, hands clasped, I felt like I was going to be loved forever.

I can’t help but to wonder how this affects Thai teenagers and other societies where men are allowed to show affection for each other.

In the evening, we went walking down Donnok Rd., down to the stadium, which is small and slightly mildewed-looking. Surrounding the stadium, there is a track where people come to run in circles and a number of other tumble-down athletic buildings, one of which has a boxing ring and is usually crowded with people practicing Muai Thai, their fists and feet slapping against pads in an off-time tattoo. Several people wear running shirts with the words “Run for the King” printed on them in English and below that “if you can walk, you can run.” Gina and I walked on the outside, away from the runners, although occasionally, we still got in their way as they wove through the crowd.

It’s probably the humidity, but my feet hurt in every new country. Even after walking just a few blocks, I feel like the concrete is pushing back against my soles with each step, like it reveals an extra hardness, in contrast to the soft jungle earth it covers. So automatically, my feet seek out the softest places to walk. We walked through the stadium area out to King Rama IX Park. It’s all paved walking trails out there, too, but merely the suggestion of soft earth on either side of the walk seems to ease my insoles. We walked past the banana groves and the marshes which were surprisingly empty of mosquitoes. The sky was still turbid with the storms that have been stirring up the clouds since we’ve arrived. The duration of rain fall is the shortest I’ve even seen, a few seconds maybe and it stops. It doesn’t even get very heavy outside the rainy season, like a weak shower-head one is forever crowding against in attempts to get better coverage.

A walkway passes through the park, and although it runs parallel to a road, we are still passed by a man on a motorbike, which is inevitable. In all the world, there are no laws governing the movements of these cacophonous things. From Thailand to Mumbai to Alexandria to Rome to Antofagasta, motorbikes spin a noisy helix around the world, tearing at the earth, awaiting the paving of the oceans.

We stepped out of the way and the man passed. He stopped just ahead, under a grove of wilted-looking pines and began kicking a wicker ball around in a circle of men. We didn’t stop, but watched the men as they kicked the wicker ball to each other in parabolas increasingly high. A light wind blew through the damp green world. I could smell the coy pond on the breath of the trees, like overripe and noisome fruit. We left the path and walked to the water’s edge. A spindly white bird tiptoed through the water and poked among the reeds breaking the surface. The gray skies were reflected in the dark water with the intense silver of mercury and it hurt my eyes to look directly into it. We paused for a moment on a bench in a pavilion; the whole thing seemed to have been constructed out of bathroom tile. I slid back and forth on the blue-tiled bench, watching the white bird and its convulsive movements. Against the silver of the water, the white reflection of the bird was smeared almost to the opposite shore, like it was gradually dissolving, giving its whiteness to the waters. We walked around the pond and came to a small bridge arched like an angry cat over the water. Below us, something broke the surface of the water. We stopped on the apex of the bridge to watch the dead movements of the saurian coy snapping at surface bugs, lolling up slowly like a gas bubble, taking a big gulp of insect water and then tumbling back down to the bottom as if struck insensate by their food.

As we watched the pond burp out coy, something to my right caught my eye, a movement. I looked into a cage set against the base of the bridge and saw two river otters curled up into each other. Sensing my attention, one of them stood up and looked at me inquisitively, however, not with the first-order inquisitiveness of a wild animal which asks “will you be the one to let me out?” but the duller, second order, when the animal has given up on ever getting out again and only waits for food—the long day’s sole distraction. I hate seeing animals caged up so we can take a look at them, worse yet, I hate seeing naturally playful animals caged up, animals which are intelligent enough to want to test the limits of their world. Such a thing seems an abomination to me. We stood looking at the otters for a while, cooing sympathetic noises, checking to make sure the locks to make sure they couldn’t be sprung and then walked away, trying not to think about it. On the way back to the gate, a group of stray dogs came up to us, wagging their tails hard enough to move their back ends, forcing their hind feet to continually find new purchase on the ground. We scratched these smelly hounds for a minute, but their excitement was too great for scratching and they ran off, leaving our hands waxy with dog oil, which we tried over the course of the walk home to wipe off on our pants, unsuccessfully.

Fortunately, all this moving around over the last few years has had one lasting benefit; I’ve committed so many faux pas in different countries that I’m becoming somewhat immune to embarrassment. Trying to speak different languages and adapt to different cultures, puts one in a child-like position. The words that come out of your mouth make you sound like a baby and your actions often only support this assumption.

The first few times I went lived abroad, I had a hard time dealing with this perception; my pride was wounded when people accompanied their words with obvious gestures or when they labored to explain the simplest things like pointing to water that had just been boiling on the stove and saying “water hot! No touch!” Initially, I rolled my eyes at such admonitions and repeatedly said “I know” in a harassed way, but gradually, I began to realize the people telling me not to burn myself were only looking out for me and as I didn’t speak their language very well, they had no way of really assessing my knowledge. I used to long for opportunities to dazzle the people close to me with a brilliant display of knowledge, so they could see that beneath this awkward foreign exterior, I did know something. But those moments were far between and gradually I learned a sort of patience for those around me and now when they tell me not to touch something obvious, I just nod and smile.

Accepting this cloak of humility has allowed me to escape embarrassment a few times. When you don’t try to downplay the ignorant foreigner role, it can occasionally work in your favor. Last week I started my classes at the university in Surat Thani. For the first week, I concentrated on learning who my 176 students were. In each class, they’ve picked out nicknames—a common thing in Thailand—to be called in class. The different alphabets and sounds of our languages have made translation a difficult thing. For example I had a student write her nickname as ‘Num’ when I pronounced this as any American would with perhaps a slightly more nasalized northern pronunciation, the class erupted in laughter. When they quieted down, I asked how she pronounced her nickname. “Nam,” she replied, with a long ‘A’ sound, like in ‘Pam’ or ‘Damn’ as if it was the most obvious thing in the world that one would say the letter ‘U’ this way.

In another class, I made the mistake of trying to talk about gender. The students have to wear uniforms. The girls all have long skirts and the boys all wear black ties. In my last class of the week, only one tie stood out from the group. In an awkward show of solidarity, I called out “hey, are you the only guy in this whole class?” At once about three people called out, in unison “She’s not a ‘guy.’” The person in the tie was frowning at me like I’d just confused Thailand for Vietnam or something equally inane. “Sorry,” I responded, “it’s just that you’re wearing a tie.” Without batting an eye, the person with the tie said “it’s just part of my uniform.” You’d think that would’ve been enough for me, but it was the end of the week and I was exhausted after not teaching for over a year. At the end of the class, we were doing a group activity when the person with the tie stepped out to use the bathroom. I called on the group the person was in to present their work to the class and they informed me that they couldn’t because the person with the tie was still in the bathroom. Without thinking, I blurted out “he’s not back yet? Can someone go get him?” I didn’t use italics, but I said it, not once, but twice. Those students must think I’m either incredibly dense or just from some really intolerant place. I didn’t let it embarrass me though. In a new place, among new people, I’ve come to learn it’s impossible not to embarrass yourself at least once, often quite lavishly. I’m sure if there had been a pot of boiling water somewhere in the classroom, my students would’ve warned me not to touch it.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

When the Market Freezes

After a few days, we went walking. We’d already been walking, but I decided to try to take it a little more seriously, going farther than just a few blocks.

We went down to the vegetarian restaurant and on our way back, decided to stop by the bus station. I wasn’t sure we were going the right way, until we began to see an increase in backpacked tourists sitting in cafes with beers in front of them or schlepping down the street in flop flops made louder by the weight of their packs.

At the bus station, an elderly woman approached us, asking where we were going. She seemed almost over eager to talk with us. I found it hard to be genial, because I worried it might be some kind of hustle. Still, I told her we were heading to the Tesco Supermarket on the outskirts of town—which, until I said it, hadn’t really been a solid plan. I repeated it a few times for the woman’s benefit, but she didn’t seem to know what I was trying to say. I’d been warned about this by Talisa, who’d been to Thailand before and told us that she was never able to get the tones in the language right. “I couldn’t help it,” she’d said. “When I’m trying out a word in another language, I ask it like a question. ‘Mai sai tung?’ Everything I said came out in a rising tone, so, in a tonal language, none of it was right.”

I gave up trying to ask the old woman, who just kept repeating “Bangkok” to us, like she knew where we were trying to go better than we did.

We went over by some of the small pick-ups with a bench seat in the back which may or may not be tuk-tuks. Gina said she thought tuk-tuks were smaller or something. I said I’d never known what a tuk-tuk really was. It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot with a lot of real comprehension, I think. We walked over to the nearest one and asked the driver if he went to the Tesco store. He nodded yes, we got in and he started down the street.

The view from the back of the truck was interesting. It reminded me of being a kid, sitting in my friend Eric’s mom’s station wagon back when they had the jump seat in the back that faced the opposite way. When we were kids we’d loved to sit back there and make faces at all the cars behind us. Even now as an adult, I had the temptation to do the same, but only stared at the blank faces pressing eagerly forward in their impatient cars which soon overtook us and passed with no change of expression.

The buildings thinned out a little behind the cordon of stalwart places stretched along the roads to hold back the chaos of the jungle beyond. We crossed a bridge and came to a massive suburban roundabout, the kind of place that spins drivers and passengers alike out to farther-flung places: other towns, states and nations. I saw the cars rolling out of the curves to Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Myanmar.

We took a left at the roundabout and came up to the Tesco. “We made it!” Gina cheered. But the pessimist in me wasn’t convinced. “We’ll have to wait and see if we can make it back.” I added, looking back toward the line of (possible) tuk-tuks waiting to ferry other passengers away from the Tesco. They all looked a little too eager.

Still, it was hard not to be a little elated with our success. I hadn’t asked the driver a price and was (as always) afraid of being gouged. When I gave him 100 baht and he handed back 40, I was presently surprised. It was less than a dollar a person.

Gina had lamented that she hadn’t seen any kathoey or ladyboy since we’d arrived in Thailand. She said she thought it was cool that Thai society recognized them the way it did. A kathoey was at the doors of the Tesco giving out samples of perfume or something. I nudged Gina to make sure she noticed and promptly realized how rude this may’ve looked to anyone observing, but, well, whatever. It’s not our country; we’re bound to do all kinds of rude stuff and not realize it and, let’s face it, we go to different places to see the differences. Kathoey are a difference, at least in terms of their cultural position, besides, we weren’t ogling anyone.

Upstairs, in the Tesco, we started our slow procession down each aisle, assessing the necessary changes our diets would have to make based on price and quantity available. I was relieved as hell to find potatoes and see they weren’t too expensive. I hadn’t seen any in the open-air markets so I was worried, if I did find them, they’d be a costly foreign delicacy. Like the tomatoes, they didn’t look too great, but they were priced by the kilo, not individually. Even the New Zealand avocados were under a buck apiece. Wheat flour was about twice the price it would’ve been in the States, but, considering how cheap flour normally is, it still wasn’t cost prohibitive.

Touring the rest of the store, I wasn’t too impressed with any of the packaged food products. Maybe it would be better to not eat this stuff for a while anyway, but it’s only been two weeks and I already miss cereal, bagels and packaged cookies to the point of homesickness. We bought some oats and some bowls for oatmeal in the morning along with the avocado which just felt like something safe to buy; I paid with my credit card and was surprised it worked. I felt like I was committing an identity theft against myself using the thing so far from its point of origin. I guess I just have to get used to how global the world has become.

We walked around the surrounding mall aimlessly for a while. I felt like buying something consumable and went upstairs for a kiosk coffee. I think I must be one of the only people ordering hot drinks around here. Everyone else buys boba tea with plastic bag handles; the stalls are everywhere.

Coffee in hand, we went back down to the parking area where we’d gotten off the tuk-tuk. Immediately several drivers tried to hustle us and I knew we weren’t going to get the same fare going back. “150!” They yelled. “120” They countered when I shook my head. But when I said 60, which is what we’d paid to get there, they shook their heads and walked away. There didn’t seem to be another option, but just as I was about to take the proffered inflated rate, a driver jumped off the bench; he’d take us to the bus station for 60. We climbed on and immediately the ground was whirring underneath our feet as we watched the bevy of sullen drivers on the bench recede into the distance.

When we reached the roundabout, I watched in helpless frustration as the driver turned in the direction nearly opposite the way we’d come. I thought about knocking on the window, but I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to distract him from the chaotic streets with gestures, besides, it’s hard to gesture directions in a roundabout. I told Gina “There’s another bus station and I think that’s where we’re going.” Within a few minutes, the driver was slowing down in front of a yard of derelict-looking buses. The smell of fried food was heavy in the air. “Bus station” the driver turned around and called out from the front seat with a big smile. I jumped out and went over to his window. With no Thai, I gestured copiously and tried to use basic Latin cognates like ‘center’ for the general downtown area, hoping the leagues of tourists before me had managed to make an impression with some word and that this guy would remember it. But he stared at me like I had tried an unsuccessful joke and he wanted to make me feel the full punishing effect of his silence.

Uncertainly, he nodded like maybe he’d begun to understand. I put my hands together in a wai and made a slight bow to acknowledge his graciousness.

When we hit the roundabout the second time, I prematurely started to cheer that we’d gone the right way. The driver looked back and I gave him a hearty thumbs up of encouragement right before I realized we weren’t going the right way at all, but up towards a mall called Central Plaza. So, my cognate may have worked, but not in the way I’d intended.

When we pulled up in front of the mall, I dove out again to head the driver off and began my frantic gesturing anew. In front of the mall, there were a few other drivers watching the spectacle; it must’ve been familiar enough as one of them detached himself and came over to help. “Where you go?” He asked, smiling. “Downtown,” I said, imploring his understanding. Our liaison turned to the driver and said something, presumably a translation, in Thai where upon our driver, eschewing the translator, turned to me and demanded more money. I explained we had no more. This was translated and with solemn understanding and tacit irritation, our party returned to the tuk-tuk—or whatever. No one was bounding around anymore, it had become a solemn ride.

Finally on the right path, Gina said she felt bad, but I pushed down my own guilt. We’d only paid 60 going one way, why should it be 150 or 120 to go back? This guy had agreed to take on our fare. It’s not like we weren’t going to pay him; maybe we just weren’t going to overpay him. But, being from outside a country, the line between pay and overpay is often difficult to gauge.

I had an extra 20 baht, so when the guy dropped us off, I gave him 80 instead of 60. He didn’t seem to care much but at least I felt like I’d compensated him, somewhat, for my inability to communicate. After all, this is Thailand. It’s my fault I don’t speak Thai. The driver couldn’t have been too mad at us, though; when he saw something fall out of my wallet, he pointed it out to me before driving off.

Back downtown, I was resolved to find a map so that we could at least try to maintain a semblance of location. With just one major river at the edge of town and no tall buildings, Surat Thani is slightly difficult to navigate. You walk a few streets in and disappear. The streets have no shade trees and the same store fronts seem to repeat themselves. Here and there, a small dog barks from behind a shop window or a rat scurries from a bag of trash left on the corner. Heavy and unfamiliar smells drift from the cooking stalls and lunch counters: fish sauce, oyster sauce, durian. I get lost in a hive that is not my own and peek in on everyone else working, contributing, making more hive.

After we got off the tuk-tuk—and it turns out it was not a tuk-tuk but a song tao— we walked to the tourist office and asked for a map. A man came out to speak with us and showed us photos of kids holding up Thai shadow puppets. The pictures showed small, back-lit stages, more like large dioramas. The man told us he did work with young people teaching them how to make and manipulate these traditional shadow puppets. He seemed very proud of the fact that there were some foreigners in his pictures. Here and there, he pointed out a blond head or a pale face and said ‘Denmark” or “Canada” lovingly, like they were the names of great friends or brothers.

After we’d talked to the man and gotten our map, we were about to leave when another employee of the office approached us. She greeted us and said her name was Tin-Tin. She asked what we were doing in Surat and I began my spiel again for her benefit. ‘Fellowship, teaching, Rajabhat University, etc.’ When I got to the point where I mentioned we were looking for housing, she lit up. “I think I know a place,” she responded. I assumed we’d be getting an address to check out or maybe she’d send a text later, but no, she was about to finish work and would take us there herself, right now.

Tin-Tin, her co-worker, Gina and I jumped in a new pickup outside the office and took off down the crowded streets of Surat Thani. The first stop was an apartment that looked much more like the American concept of a motel. There was a staffed front desk and what looked like snacks available for purchase. We were taken up to see a room which contained a large bed (in the middle of the room) a bathroom and a small balcony. The only appliance was a small refrigerator. These rooms are apparently very common in southern Thailand and are called, quite misleadingly, ‘Mansions.’ We thanked the owner or concierge or whoever for her time and returned to the truck. Tin-Tin’s co-worker (who, if I heard right, asked we called her ‘Madame’) said she knew of another place nearby. When we arrived, I knew what we were looking at was another ‘mansion.’ Such places are characterized by an un-lived-in look. They all look brand new and empty. Luckily, this place was full so we didn’t have to bother taking off our shoes to go in and have a look.

When we got back in the car, I asked if there weren’t any places where people were able to cook inside. As foreigners, I explained, it was important to us to eat our foreigner food once in a while. It was explained that most Thais (at least those currently in the market for apartments) prefer to eat out. This is certainly understandable in a place where a hearty bowl of noodle soup is a little over a dollar. Indeed, why bother to make your own food when you can buy very intricate dishes for under two bucks, unless, of course, you like to cook. Perhaps that was our problem; we enjoyed cooking and I couldn’t easily think of a place as home until I could chop onions, boil beans and accidentally burn rice inside it.

Tin-Tin had one more idea and took us back into a beautiful neighborhood, the first I’d seen where the houses had front yards and where plants were growing from the soil, rather than from pots and empty oil canisters. The street was quiet, a small, dead-ended narrow neighborhood street. At the end, there was a large spirit house beautifully painted and, past that, a turbid chocolate milk-colored river. The house for rent was the only one with a concrete yard and no plants, but in such a neighborhood, it wouldn’t matter; besides, I knew we’d soon fill the place up with our own plants. While ‘Madame’ called the number posted on the place, Tin-Tin took us down to the river. She was wearing nice shoes, but, without any hesitation, she stepped down into the mud to walk over to a concrete dock. From the dock, she pointed out a house across the river, cobbled together with several different types of materials, but a solid, nice-looking home. “My home,” she said proudly. Earlier she’d told us that she’d just gotten engaged. She pointed out a room at the end of the house that looked like it’d been recently added on. “The room for my future-husband and me.” I thought how lucky this guy must be to have met a girl with such a great house on the river who was so friendly and so genuinely concerned with helping strangers lime me and Gina.

The house by the river wasn’t available, at least not to us, the owner wanted at least a year’s lease. We could only offer ten months, the length of my contract. Our quiet house by the river would have to wait. About a week later, we moved into a ‘mansion’ but, at least, one that had an area where we could cook. It’s not by a river, but there are some banana trees by our back window. The street isn’t quiet, but it’s not too loud either. I night I can hear all kinds of crazy bugs chirping and clicking their strange jungle insect calls to each other. I sent Tin-Tin a text telling her when we got settled in, we’d invite her and her fiance over for some California cuisine.

We left a few hours after moving in. We unpacked our bags, tossed our stuff into our new closets, unwrapped soap for the bathroom, put our American food rations in the cabinets and then locked the place up. There are three islands out in the Gulf of Thailand which are serviced by night boats departing from the banks of the Ta Pi River in Surat Thani. These islands attract tourists from all over the world, most of them in their 20s. The two larger islands have a party vibe, though there are still some quiet beaches to be found if one looks hard enough. The smallest island supposedly had the best snorkeling right off the coast and not quite as substantial of a party scene so we headed there: Koh Tao.

I’d read conflicting things about the boat leaving at 10 or 11 pm, so we went down to the docks a little early. Arriving about 9:15, we bought a ticket for the boat leaving at 10 with no problem and walked back into town to buy some water and a couple of beers to kill some time. I hadn’t had a beer in a few weeks; in Surat Thani, you don’t see many people sitting around drinking beers, as a result, one doesn’t have the same desire for it as in, say, Paraguay where in the evening, everyone is drinking liter bottles of Pilsen brand beer to cool off. In Surat Thani, people seem to eat in the evening to cool off. There are also the boba tea places, but I think it’s only young people doing that. The cold tea comes with multicolored tapioca pearls usually in an icy base served in a huge plastic cup, with a big plastic lid and straw and, to top it off, a plastic handle. It’s like the ultimate construction in conspicuous consumption, a birthday cake of a drink that I don’t think I’d ever be able to indulge in. I see the cups sitting on the curbs in the morning like the leftovers from an indulgent but innocent party, each about half-filled with a limpid color, the result of mango and coconut dregs and large amounts of melted ice.

Eschewing the boba tea, we sat on the dock with our beers. I took a small drink and got a mouthful of dad beer. Anyone whose dad gave them a taste of beer when they were younger knows what ‘dad beer’ is. When you haven’t had a beer in a while, it’s like your body becomes deacclimated to the taste and reverts back to the childhood perception of ‘beer’ it’s not disagreeable, but you smack your lips in contemplation. What is this bizarre stuff we’re drinking? It’s like the normalcy has drained from the experience. Really, it’s great. It tastes like summer, grass clippings and spent fireworks to me, but I guess it’s different for everyone.

Gina and I got on the boat and were surprised to find many of the berths empty. Still, someone was already sleeping in ours so we took another bed, tried to read for a few minutes until the rocking of the boat, the drone of the motor and the light cranking sound of the snores of other passengers forced us to drop our books and curl up into the lap of the ocean and sleep.

The sun hadn’t yet risen when we docked at Koh Tao. No one came in and tried to rouse us, but the cabin lights had come on; gradually, we shook ourselves awake and stumbled down the gangplank. As expected in a tourist-heavy area, there were a bunch of taxi drivers waiting for that boat to come in. Praying on the unwary, they carted people a half mile up an easy stretch of road for 600 baht or about 15 USD. I kept my wits about me and refused to say anything committal to anyone until I’d had a coffee and a chance to collect myself. We hadn’t brought much, so we decided to attempt the walk. The taxi drivers were disappointed but seemed to understand.

We walked to Sairee Beach where most of the cheap bungalows were supposed to be. The one we’d decided to check out wasn’t open yet so we sat by the reception area until the mosquitoes drove us off. The sandy streets were partially flooded and sandbags had been stacked around the businesses which were mostly ticket agencies specializing in getting tourists around the country and out to the beaches. I’d planned on trying to snorkel on the beach where we staying, but after we checked in, we found the area wasn’t ideal for snorkeling or really even swimming. A lot of boats were tied up on the beach and the water glistened with rainbow oil slicks and plastic bag skins. Still, I ignored the offers for ‘boat taxi’ and walked down to the end of the beach where it looked like there were fewer boats and some rocks that might provide cover for some fish or something to see. Gina wouldn’t even get in the water. She walked out to where it was just above her ankles, stopped and crossed her arms as if to say ‘this is as far as I’m going.’ ‘Fine,’ I thought. ‘Be stubborn. I’m going snorkeling.’ I swam out to the rocks through the bags and the oil and couldn’t see anything, other than a few small fish. I swam back. “Alright,” I said, coming out of the water, bags and crap clinging to me, “we’ll take the damn boat.”

600 baht seems to be the going price for services on Koh Tao, on the mainland, this is like a small fortune, but, on Koh Tao, service providers think nothing of charging this terrific amount, no matter how small the service provided. The price to be taken around the island for snorkeling, however, was quoted as 2,400 which is more than half a month’s rent, so we took the 600 baht ride to Nang Yuan Island, figuring there’d be plenty to do in the area for a day.

Since I started looking into the region of Thailand where we’d be living, I’d been seeing pictures of Koh Nang Yuan where a bar of sand connects three islands; it truly is a stunning place, unfortunately, as with all stunning places, it’s been rendered nearly untenable by avarice, both on the part of the tourists who come in hordes just to take selfies and the locals who overcharge these self-obsessed hordes. I knew this was to be the case when our boat pulled up and I saw that there was to be an entry fee for the island. 100 baht apiece. Once on the island, we sat on the provided beach chair as everywhere signs proclaimed that sitting on the sand was forbidden. I saw no sign that said the chair cost anything and was beginning to feel like I’d actually gotten something for my 100 baht. But, before long, someone came up to claim 150 baht for use of the chairs. I sighed and handed it over without a word, with sand like that, nothing would be free.

The crowds churning through the place carrying selfie sticks and walking back and forth along the famous sandbar like it was an escalator in the mall were starting to make me feel claustrophobic so I went out with my mask and snorkel. The water was a bit too stirred up to see much, but I found if I drove down and brought my face right up against the coral on the bottom I could make out some beautiful fish and bright undulate clam mouths opening and closing. It took a while to coax Gina out to the coral; she was accustomed to Hawaii’s bright and clear water, deserted beaches and sea turtles.

We stayed on Koh Nang Yuan all day, making the most out of our rented beach chair and returning again and again to the water when we got hot. The place was a bit too crowded and expensive, but it was something we had to see. When we got back to Koh Tao in the evening, we were languorous and happy. We drifted down the hectic streets as evening fell, the drunken tourists yelled and the scooters roared through the crowds. Exhausted as I was, I felt like I was floating above everything, totally unaffected. Back in the bungalow, I read for about 3 minutes before I fell asleep.

Early in the morning, I felt something pulling me out of sleep and was annoyed to suddenly find myself staring around the spare room, searching for the source of the intrusion. I strained my sleep-sodden senses and gradually became aware of a screaming, a liquid and musical screaming; birds, tropical birds, clawing apart the dawn with their bright and warbling calls. Gina was awake, too. “Damn,” was all I could say. “those birds are loud as hell!” There must’ve been 100s of them right outside our bungalow, all calling at once. I accepted this as normal, and even as something to be appreciated and soon fell asleep again to the refrain of their whistling, bubbling and gargling calls.

After coffee, we decided to follow a road that narrowed into a foot path and crossed to the other side of the island and to a small, isolated beach. I’d read the road got rough, but was surprised to find that almost as soon as we’d started walking down it, it fell away completely. Even the sand bags had been washed away and now only shreds of plastic burlap lay strewn here and there on the exposed rocks. We climbed back into the jungle. The path narrowed further and there was a crash as a large green and black snake fell from a tree just off the path. We watched as the snake, seemingly dazed by its fall, slowly glided away. I was thrilled; finally some adventure. There’s nothing I hate more than paying extravagant sums to be carted around to places already full of people. After the previous day, I was afraid that was all Koh Tao was going to be, but here we were on a narrow jungle path with snakes falling out of trees; I was thrilled. Gina, luckily, has the same independent streak and was also happy to be out on our own, although she wasn’t as happy about the falling snakes and large, bug-clotted spider webs along the trail.

We walked through the jungle talking about different things until we crested a rise and saw the Ocean through the trees. Coming down from the hills, there were remnants of an abandoned resort and we used the crumbing stairs and walked around the collapsing straw bungalows, the scattered boards and rusty nails. It was too beautiful to be believed, down the shattered stairs and through the banyan trees covered in sap and ants, was a clear stretch of white beach leading into crystal turquoise waters. From where we stood, I could make out the outlines of coral in the water.

We spent the afternoon swimming around, chasing after fish and diving down to point interesting things out to each other. We’d neglected to bring enough water, however, and had to go back earlier than we would’ve liked, but after two days in the sun and water, I was feeling tired out and the walk back through the shady jungle was gradually growing more enticing. There were some Russians down by the beach now, sunning themselves, we said good bye to them and climbed back up into the jungle. On the way back to town, we must’ve passed about 10 people all heading out to the beach; I was glad we’d decided to go when we did. It wouldn’t be Koh Nang Yuan but we wouldn’t have had the place to ourselves anymore.

We spent the later afternoon walking through the fancy resorts on the south side of the island, pretending to be guests, checking out the private beaches and using the bathrooms. After the freedom we’d enjoyed that afternoon, it all seemed very superficial, still, we found a nice place to watch the sunset. Our boat left at 9. It was much more crowded than the one coming in had been. We got back to Surat Thani around five am. All the vacationers got in taxis, but I knew where we were. We walked the pre-dawn streets home, sharing the roads with monks out in the morning begging for their breakfasts and the bicyclists enjoying the, relatively, quiet streets.

The sun was starting to come up when I got into my new bed for the first time and fell asleep. Outside, the same tropical birds were shrieking their fluid calls, but through the walls of the apartment and over the hum of the air conditioner, I barely heard them.

Sunday evening, we went for a walk down the main road that passes our apartment. The sun was setting and despite the usual high amount of traffic, there was a peacefulness in the air. Perhaps it was inertia from living in Latin America for three years where everything shuts down on Sunday. In Surat Thani, Sunday looks much like Tuesday or Friday. Buddhist countries do not seem to have a designated day of rest, but I had to return to work the following day, so it still felt like Sunday to me.

Further down the road, I discovered the businesses thinned out a little, allowing patches of jungle to break through; between buildings, here and there, an unplanned space would erupt with banana leaves and stray dogs. We passed a Chinese Temple and a few stores selling various cheap goods, like US dollar stores. The odor of the ubiquitous food stalls curdled the evening air in places and thinned it out in others.

A market had been set up. There were tables selling food, both prepared and raw, under a tent and others selling clothes in the open air. We walked first through the clothes and then, deciding we didn’t need anything, plunged into the darker area under the canvas where steam and clouds of flies were alternately rising and settling.

We stepped under the tent and found ourselves immersed in heat and odor. The tables were piled with sundry items and didn’t seem to be organized in any particular way. One table supported five bowls of Thai chilies. One bowl was filled with red chilies, another with green, one bowl only had smaller chilies and the one next to it was filled with larger peppers, but they were all the same chili; they just appeared to have been picked at different stages in development—like green and black tea. Next to the chilis, was a table with soups in big brass bowls. When purchased, these soups are ladled into plastic bags which are tied off with rubber bands, trapping the air and creating something like a soup-filled water balloon.
We were looking at a table covered in greens when everything stopped. I didn’t notice it at first and we kept walking and talking. We had protected ourselves with the natural means of all people moving through a large crowd: obliviousness. I probably would’ve kept walking had I not noticed one woman who looked so thoroughly frozen. She stood a few steps away from a table and seemed neither in the act of deliberation nor remembrance; mental acts which usually make people stop. It was clear from the way she was positioned she’d been on her way elsewhere until she suddenly found herself rooted here. Her features were not alarmed. She accepted her immobile state as through it were as natural as her earlier mobility. I looked up from the woman and saw an entire room almost brimming with mannequin stillness. Then, I noticed the music, the crooning pop had been replaced by a thin melody which sounded at once hypnotic and dramatic: the anthem.
We’d heard the anthem once before. We’d gone to the movies and, before the show began, the screen requested that we rise for the king’s anthem. Such a thing had never been asked of me before while at a movie, but I was in no mood to be contrary and when everyone else got to their feet, I followed.

It was one thing to stand for something in a theater where all you can see are the back of people’s heads. At a movie, the audience is already still, but a market is characterized by movement, robbed of this element, it changes its nature into something I’ve never seen before. It was like diving into an aquarium. A spectacle that we were at once part of and removed from.

In the west, when people are being reverent, they usually bow their heads. I looked around the room and found not a single head bowed. Everyone was looking straight ahead. Two women next to us almost seemed to have their eyes antagonistically locked, but I could see there was no enmity in their look—only the strangeness of looking at someone so long. All the eye contact made the place seem much more frozen rather than observant.

When the music stopped and switched back to pop, everyone began moving again; hands shot out to receive goods or hand over money, legs moved, heads turned. Life came flooding back into the market all at once as though stilled for a moment by a divine hand and then released. It was like a look at death.

We continued through the market, bought some garlic, watched a woman who’d been cutting meat pet a dog with her forearm, as her hands were covered in blood. We passed the skinned frogs and the roasted horseshoe crabs, considered large green bunches of unfamiliar plants and then left. In a moment’s time, we were outside and the market seemed almost cut away, like once again it had been stilled, only now we were away from it and its stillness was remote.

We walked on, past the rows of shops, glimmering in the evening with merchandise and light. We stopped in a dollar store and bought a roll of tape; we probably would’ve bought more if the place hadn’t been so strongly perfumed with naphthalene. Back outside, I blew my nose to try to get the clinging smell out of my nostrils.

We walked as far a Amphura Road, which, to the south, looks like a banana plantation. The sun had nearly set and I watched their bright and waxen leaves dip and rise in the night air. Like the leaves supporting a flower, these fronds sprang up around umbilical cords of suspended bananas, still coiled and green.

When we got back home, I returned to feeling out of place, like I was neglecting some task. I ignored the feeling and lay down to bed. Instead of curling myself up as I usually do, I tried to sleep unbowed, my chin and the tips of my feet pointing at the ceiling like one of the devout in the market—stilled, but only for a time.