We live down a narrow road, not quite an alley, but not much wider, the main difference is the large amount of traffic that comes down the road. For a road which effectively deadends into an unfinished dirt road, a lot of people drive down it, mostly motorbikes but also cars and trucks. No matter the time of day, every few seconds, another vehicle begins making its way down the road, most of them very quickly. The road, Sang Arun by name, has no shoulder. Its single lane width ends abruptly in a shallow drainage culvert which is impossible to walk in, not because it’s deep but because it folds your foot up like a taco. You walk the side of the road, like a tightrope walker, not wanting to step down into the awkward culvert, but also not wanting to get in the way of the motorbike coming down the road at 55 mph.
On either side of the road are homes of varying shapes and sizes. Some of them look like small mechanic’s studios with engines propped up on blocks, tools and bolts and oil blots scattered all over the place, but in the midst of this, improbably, a bed and an old woman sleeping upon it, like she’s taking refuge the only place she can from the all-pervasiveness of the exploded engine on the floor. Imagine the most frantic trip-packer you know. The kind of person who spreads clothes and maps and snacks for the plane out all over the room to take inventory before putting it all in a suitcase, now imagine instead of clothes and books spread out you have springs and oily lugnuts and you can see why the old woman has a bed in her living room.
There are only a few conventional homes, almost everything else looks like a store front, but these have such a cluttered lived-in look and keep such late hours, it’s obvious that, once again, there is a bed hidden just beyond the file cabinets and conference desks. One place in particular looks like a lawyer’s office. It’s got a big plate glass window and the entrance is on the side of the building, half-obscured by large, potted plants. At night, the plate glass glows with a particular sort of after-dinner warmth. Usually there are a few people crowed around a table who look to be happily working out something, like they’re putting together a scrapbook or designing their dream home, maybe one without a large plate glass window looking out onto the street. Next to this house/office, is an alley with six or seven conventional-looking homes. This is where Greasy and Fraggle live, two dogs who come bounding out every time we walk by, both of them constantly looking around to see where the other is. Greasy looks like a beagle-mix and has a rich, filmy musk, like one imagines an otter does, hence the name. You can’t touch Greasy without getting this gritty film all over your hands. Luckily, the other dog, Fraggle, is younger and cleaner. His fur is black so you pet Greasy first then try to clean off your hands petting Fraggle. He doesn’t seem to mind, in fact he’s probably jealous of his friend’s muskiness.
Past the dogs, it’s mostly houses on the left and banana plants and undergrowth on the right. Occasionally, toads and lizards can be seen hopping and darting across the road. Before Sang Arun opens into the main avenue Donnok, there are a row of homes which all have a storefront-like openings on the ground floor. The first one, is a comfortable-looking room with pictures of monks all over and a heavy-looking wooden table in the middle. It’s like a living room with a wall missing The next few homes are chaotic with stuff strewn everywhere and do not look open for business. One is a salon, which is the only one that looks like a business and only at night when it’s open and the rest are places where you can have your laundry done and there’s usually a bunch of clothes hanging up on there and a woman pushing an iron across someone’s white shirt. There are also a few of the ubiquitous places where they sell Cokes and chips and candy, just a few shelves looking unwillingly crammed into some guy’s garage. I never see anyone going in or out of these places and I wonder how they can stay open all day.
Donnok is really just a large scale version of Sang Arun except with 7-11s which are like American 7-11s if you took everything out and replaced it with Thai products like the packet with the two centipedes on it (centipede pills?) and all the snail-based skin whitening creams. The chips all have pictures of octopuses or shrimp on them and have flavors like nori seaweed and barbecued fish. In the cooler you can grab a drink of white gourd juice or a Tocari Sweat—which I think is some kind of energy drink, but it’s vague whitish opacity so recalls actual sweat that I can’t think about drinking it. In the cooler there are pickled mangos and little juice boxes of soy milk. The Kit-Kats are green tea flavored. Every time I step into to one of these familiar/unfamiliar convenience stores, I am so overwhelmed by my own perceived otherness, I forget what I came in for. That’s really the way it is for everything at this point, I leave the apartment and my mind begins working on the scenery so intently, I find myself walking into gutters and spending inordinate amounts of time petting stinky dogs just to try to comprehend where I am.
When I came home from work, we decided to leave for Koh Samui the next day. It wasn’t an easy decision. When we’d discussed it earlier in the week, I liked the cavalier sound of it. We’d just hop on a boat, swim around for the day and catch the night boat back. In Paraguay and in other situations abroad, I’ve been hesitant to do anything unfamiliar. I want to stretch out my antennae slowly, walking further and further away from my home. I’ve had good results with this strategy in the past, but when you’ve got less than a year, it doesn’t pay to be so meticulous. For miles around our home there are long noisy roads bristling with traffic, fumes and the unbearable noise of motorcycles driving as fast as possible. There are also winding dead end roads, small shops, great tangles of power lines sagging in fierce black bales and stray dogs shuffling between scads of parked motorbikes. We could walk all day and not leave these things behind and while there is a kind of beauty in this landscape, it would be absurd to dwell on it when, 60, 70 miles away, the Gulf of Thailand stretches out in glacial blue waters broken by leaping dolphins and limestone karsts which look like islands erupted from the sea. Living so close to such a paradise, I’ve resolved to try to use my time here to see it and not just struggle through the Saturday afternoon roar of the city streets.
What I dislike about visiting these areas is the feeling of being an invasive specie. They’ve documented the first backpackers who arrived at Koh Samui, a ragtag group, I’m sure, who hitched on a coconut boat sometime in the early 70s. After a while, the coconut boats were carrying more backpackers than coconuts and they became ferries. Since that day almost 50 years ago, more and more people have been visiting the islands out in the gulf of Thailand. Gina and I are only two more faces among the millions. No one probably even bothers with the coconuts anymore.
Koh Samui and Koh Tao are no longer Thai, but international, cosmopolitan places; its as if you marched everyone off a Brooklyn bound subway car onto the beach. The people sharing the sand with you speak German, Russian, Spanish, Italian and Scandinavian languages. It’s possible to sit in one place and, through the course of a day, hear most European languages. The Russian guys all wear their unabashed Speedos and the girls from southern European countries spend a lot of their time on the beach taking pictures of each other and people from elsewhere in Asia often wear wetsuit tops to keep from getting too much sun. A beach in Thailand is a total salad bowl; we’re all out there, but there’s very little interaction between us. About the only people who aren’t on the beach are the Thais. If they’re down there at all it’s to drive boats or sell something to the hordes of sunblock slathered tourists. Obviously, the Thais have found much better beaches than the ones we travel across the world to wedge ourselves into. Then again, if you’ve seen Mar Del Plata in the summer you can see why some people might still feel like they’ve won the lottery with a few feet of personal space.
The result of this touristic onslaught, is any kind of customer service becomes colder, downright chilly. In Surat Thani, where most tourists stop for a day and continue on, the locals are friendly. When Gina and I go walking through the city, we return a lot of smiles. The kids on the motorbikes smile; the guy selling noodles smiles; the girls in the 7-11 radiate smiles and giggle when we try to ask for ‘no bag’ in Thai. The closer you get to the bus station, the further the human kindness temperature drops. Around 7:30 am, we made our way over to the company which sold bus/boat combination tickets to the island. I was beginning to feel stressed out, waking up early and trudging down the noisy streets on my day off. I kept thinking it may have been better to sleep in and just wander around the city a little in the afternoon. The week had tired me out and I didn’t want to spend my Saturday running all over the place and yet here I was, 7:30, already out dodging the little noodle stands that crowd the sidewalks, having to walk in conversation-prohibiting single-file, jumping up and down from the curb, my backpack, despite its small size, pinging off every telephone pole like they were crowding against me.
The tourist agency didn’t open until 8. We went and found a bench on a noisy street. It felt good to sit down, but soon we were up walking again, past the tour operators and bus drivers all shouting “Hello! Where you go?” The classic bus station cat call.
We walked into the agency just after eight. Unsure if they were open, we stood in just inside the doorway. Someone at the back of the room yelled “where you go?” and this time we answered. We were directed to a little desk where a woman grudgingly took our money and gave us tickets. We had a lengthy interaction, yet she refused to look up once and make eye contact. I said ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in my best Thai, but these coaxed zero reaction from her. If someone elsewhere in the city were to act this way, you would assume there was something wrong with them, but in tourist areas, this behavior is normal; it’s like they can’t even stand to look at you. I know she sees 100s of foreigners every day and I’m sure they all try to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ in Thai. She doesn’t have to smile, hell she doesn’t even have to nod, but, is it so terrible, just to acknowledge another human being with a millisecond of eye contact—apparently, yes.
We got into our van, the only passengers, and headed off for Don Sak, the pier which is a little over an hour from Surat. Gina fell asleep and I read most of the way, occasionally looking up to watch the coconut palms whirl past.
We got to the pier 20 minutes before the ferry was set to depart and I sought out a cup of coffee. Again, throughout the purchasing process, the cashier refused to make eye contact. I kept thinking if only someone would look at me, I could smile and maybe they’d have to smile back and then I’d feel slightly better about the whole thing, but no, no one would look up and I don’t have one of those disarming smiles anyway. If anything, my smile would probably make people nervous; it’s like the smile of someone who wants to ask a favor.
When the boat came in, we clamored up as high as we could go, and found a spot where we were able to see dolphins coming to the surface of the water. Watching the dolphins and looking out over all the small islands, lush with tropical plants, it was easy to see why everyone wanted to come here. If the original Garden of Eden was supposedly in Sri Lanka; we weren’t very far away. It was like we were in the Edenic suburbs. Even the island of Samui didn’t seem too corrupted. When we’d arrived on Koh Tao, there was nothing but diving shops and pizza joints as far as the eye could see and everything was written in English; you actually had to look around to find anything written in Thai. On Koh Samui, the vendors sold iced fish and prawns from buckets and when we stopped to ask about bike rentals; the guy behind the sign that proclaimed ‘Bike Rentals’ didn’t seem to be at all interested in actually renting bikes. Every bike in his shop belonged to someone else, he was just fixing them, he told us.
I had expected to have to take a cab all the way across the island to find a decent beach, but about a 10-minute walk from the pier, the water was clear and white sandbars ran perpendicular to the beach far out into the water, so that the people walking on them seemed like a Bermuda-short clad group of Christs. The beach wasn’t exotic enough to be crowded and after the ferry ride and the walk, we were dripping sweat. The water was warm, but once we got in, swam and got back out, the light breezes coming over the water were much more pronounced. The light sunburn on my shoulders and the water in my hair, dripping down my back, caught the slightest breath of air and seemed to chill it against my skin.
Coming out of the water and opening the snacks we’d brought, we met the resident dogs. Just beyond the treeline, we’d seen a few monks walking around. It looked as if the stray dogs had warmed to the monks and had taken up residence in the area; there must’ve been 30-40 dogs just on our little beach. When they got close enough, we began lavishly petting them, knowing their dirt could do little when we could always just get back in the water. Gina picked up a little guy she called ‘Fawn’ after his coloring. Throughout the day, as ‘Fawn’ wandering on and off the beach, Gina made distressed cooing noises as if his small features actually injured her. The puppies all seemed to be related, and when Gina realized ‘Fawn’ was the runt of the litter, her cries nearly reached an anguished pitch. I thought for sure we were going to be taking this dog home.
We stayed on the beach all day, with the exception of a quick foray into town to buy some more snacks, where we encountered more people who didn’t want to make eye contact. We could’ve gone somewhere else, but we didn’t have time. The last boat we thought would be leaving at ten wasn’t coming, so we’d have to leave at six. Going further away would just be distressing; we’d barely have time to get into the water before we’d have to start thinking about going back.
We spent the entire day on the beach with the monks and the packs of friendly dogs, watching the waves wash against the two dead boats in the small harbor—what had probably once been coconut boats were now smashed, water logged and rotting in the sun, surrounded by groups of Spanish girls who took each others’ pictures in front of them. We ran off the sand bars until the water grew up around our ankles, slowing our progress and eventually precipitating a crash into the water. We lolled in the warm water, swimming like frogs, like jellyfish, like the dolphins we’d seen earlier.
Around five pm, we climbed back onto the beach, knocked some of the sand off, hastily dressed and headed back to the dock. I bumped into another teacher from the university and we chatted about the island for a little while. The university has a satellite campus on Koh Samui and I hinted that I’d be happy to take up any classes they needed a teacher for. On the boat, he went to the air-conditioned VIP room and though he invited us, I was too sunburned and damp with ocean water to sit in air-conditioning. The sun was setting outside and we found deck chairs to stretch out in and enjoy the last rays of the day. Gina was soon asleep and I watched the light fade from the sky, trying not to be distracted by a group of about 10 Malay girls who were all sitting together on one deck chair, each peering deeply into the crystal waters of her smart phone. In the late twilight, it was like they were each holding a pale blue flashlight up to their face, their colored shawls only enhanced this effect. The deck gradually vanished in oncoming night, but those faces remained, like a night-blooming plant.