Thursday, April 6, 2017

Overhead, Moving and Alive

Friday after work we caught the bus to Khao Sok National Park, about two hours from here. It’d been a while since I’d been on one of those creaky old buses for more than a ride across town. The few long distance buses I’d been on here have so far been those intergalactic-looking, streamlined refrigerators. I’d worn jeans for the bus ride because every other time I’d gone anywhere, I’d arrived slightly hypothermic, the skin under my fingernails that unnerving popsicle blue. This bus was equipped with the worst kind of air circulating system. The spouts above us wheezed out air no cooler than the haze that settled over the passengers. Imagine someone with dust-smelling breath breathing on you. It was no better than one of those useless handheld fans, but, because we had it, the windows could not be opened. As we pulled out from the bus station, I stared longingly at the sweltering pavements which, moving past as rapidly as they were, might have afforded us at least a glancing breeze. At 70 miles an hour, even 94 degrees feels alright coming in a window.

Under the seeping air funnels, the bus’s passengers all immediately fell into a late afternoon heat languor so common this close to the equator. Sandals were kicked off, swollen feet were hefted and anxious snores washed over the cabin like swells in a troubled sea. I tried to read but found it impossible to get comfortable on the bus’s ageless leather seats which immediately became slick with the sweat already working its way through the pores of my jeans. Alternately, I slipped from and stuck to the seat, kicking out my feet in a widening gyre, trying to find something comfortable to do with them. The bus was the type where for some strange reason, the seats are up on a sort of platform. If you try to rest your foot in the aisle, you’ll find it dangling there, struggling for purchase and quickly absorbing all the blood in your leg. If you try to rest your foot behind the seat in front of you, you’ll have to jam it far into the intricate iron guts of the thing, like a barber’s chair from around the turn of the century. I’m always a little unnerved about the possibility of having my foot wedged between so many heavy-looking gears and levers—like one day, the person is front of me is going to return their seat to the upright position and at the same time, neatly cinch my foot off at the ankle. Besides, the seat was placed about three inches in front of me, even with my foot jammed into the metal particulars of the thing, my knees were still bent up under my chin.

In order to alert potential passengers waiting at the side of the road and potential obstructors, the bus sounded its air horn cannonade at every bend in the road. If from inside the bus, this was loud enough to cause me to jump, I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to hear from outside. It’s surprising more of the motorbikes we passed didn’t swerve wildly when they heard the sound. It probably would’ve made me jump into the air.

While I considered the miseries of bus travel, Gina snoozed as she’s capable of doing on anything moving that she doesn’t have to drive. It’s like a motion-linked narcolepsy. It always makes me feel a little more optimistic to look over, see her head titled back and her mouth agape and know that at least one of us is enjoying the ride.

Taking off for the weekend to review some of the natural splendor around us always seems like such a great idea until I start to get bus hypnosis. Staying home, I may not see anything incredibly interesting over the weekend, but at least I can stay objective. At least when we spend the weekend walking around town, I’m able to hold on to my sentience. At no point am I reduced to the condition of being a drooling, propped up, brain-dead commuter. After a few hours of listening to death rattle of the bus’s dry airconditioning, the flatulent blasts of the airhorn, the drone of the wheels and reading the same sentence in my book over and over, I had ceased to feel like I had a stake in anything. I had become prey for the tourist touts.

The problem with traveling in heavy tourist areas like Thailand is that there is an entire system set up with your entertainment in mind and it’s incredibly difficult to overcome. As soon as we arrive somewhere, taxi and tuktuk drivers come streaming in to cart us off someplace. They expect a few bus-slackened foreign faces to be among those in the crowd.They aim for these faces. “Taxi, sir? Where you go, sir?” No sooner have you agreed to a fare and they are driving you down the road when they turn around and ask when you’ll be leaving and where you’ll be going after that. Each driver or tour package operator, tries to sign you up for the entire Thailand experience. The idea that a foreigner would actually have a job to go back to on Monday is incomprehensible, foreigners don’t work, they live lives of quiet beach desperation, moving from one sandy paradise to the next. All they want is a ride from Samui to Phuket, from Phuket to Krabi and from Krabi back to Samui.

When I try to tell these touts after I visit one place I’ll be going home to Surat Thani, they scratch their heads. “Surat Thani? Why would you go there? I’ll take you to Phuket! You don’t have to mess with the buses. They aren’t comfortable, sir.” As if I didn’t know. When I tell them I’m a teacher, they understand, but they still seem to be waiting for me to decide to chuck the whole job thing and take their tuktuk to Phuket.

Khao Sok park is not the bus’s final destination. We arrive suddenly and without advance warning. The driver pulls off into a gravel parking lot, yells Khao Sok and all the other foreigners struggle up from their bus lethargy to collect themselves enough to pick up their scattered belongings and stumble down the crowded aisle, bags knocking the other passengers in the head. I’ll let them go first, I think to myself, I already know what’s outside. I can hear the frenzy out in the parking lot “taxi, taxi! Sir, where you go?!” Gina and I make our way down the aisle into the crowd milling around, waiting to get to their packs from under the bus. I continually feel immensely relieved to find myself, for once, unencumbered with one of those bright duffels with various straps and harnesses hanging off at all sorts of angles, dragging in the dirt, tripping me up and making my life miserable. It’s here that the frenzy really begins. The bright colors of the backpacks draw in the touts. They go for the biggest bags when they hit the gravel, standing over them defensively like lions over a fresh kill. A couple hobble off the bus, obviously exhausted, sunburnt and with that particular glaze over their eyes. There’s no way they’ll be carrying these bags anywhere, in fact the horror on their faces at seeing their bags again is almost palpable. The driver knows their vulnerability. They’re not sure how far the walk is; it’s 94 degrees in the shade and, well, look at these people, they’re not even sure which country they’re in anymore.

With no Sisyphean stone to drag around, I try to make my way quickly past the ravenous pack; I make for the stalls crowded around the parking lot, hoping to grab a coke and vanish into obscurity, but, what’s this? A ride? Where I go? Oh no, I’ve been marked! I try to loose him, but he’s persistent. I shake my head, wave my arms and go over to the stall like I’ve been here before and know where I’m going. He persists. I ignore him and order a coke. 

Gina’s somewhere behind me, struggling through the crowd. He sees her walking up to us, changes tactics and starts demanding of her ‘where you go?’ Gina, unable to ignore anybody who’s not being deliberately rude, tries to thank the guy for the offer, but to tell him that we’ve already got a ride, which is somewhat true. The place where we were staying offered a ride in from the bus stop, it was one of the reasons I chose the place, so I wouldn’t have to deal with the mob out here, but I should’ve known and should remember for the future, the mob is unavoidable. This is the beauty of Armenia or Kazakhstan; there is no mob. You step off the bus and there’s just you and the empty feeling you have stepping off a bus somewhere unknown, unsure if you’ve gotten off in the right place—not really even sure where the right place is. The sun is setting, somewhere, not far off, a wolf howls. You shudder. There’s nothing to do but pick up your bag and start walking toward the distant cluster of buildings on the horizon. In Thailand, you don’t get to feel this. Not at all. The path between the bus stop and the attraction (beach, jungle, elephant sanctuary) has been worn smooth by the wheels of countless tuktuk drivers and has been festooned with pizza places, reggae bars and massage parlors.

The guy hopping around Gina comes up to me victorious, holding a ringing phone. I look at Gina, he’s mostly blocking her, but she seems to be saying “I think he’s the driver from the hotel.” He hands me the phone. It’s the hotel operator telling me to go with the driver, he’s the free ride promised. I mask my embarrassment by taking a drink of coke, but the situation’s really too vague to be apologized for. I acted the way anyone would when mobbed getting off a bus; surely the driver— of all people— would understand that.

Upon first inspection, the bungalows always look romantic as hell. The walls are made from woven bamboo fiber. The floor is wooden and creaky. There’s a gauzy white cone of mosquito net inverted over the bed. A little bedside table and lamp; you imagine yourself stretched out under the childhood ‘fort’ covering of the mosquito net, lamp blazing with a good book, listening to the cicadas and the crickets. Unfortunately, these bungalow-style resorts are a little crowded. The bungalows, though separated by some topical foliage, are still only a few paces away from each other. The result is that you can hear everything going on in the bungalow next to your as though these people were walking around in front of your own bed.

After a walk through a rubber plantation and a dip in a river so shallow we had to lie down to be covered with water, we returned to our cozy bungalow and spent an hour or two talking on the hammock, feeling like we were making the most of the weekend. When we decided the mosquitoes were getting too thick we went inside and dove through the opening of the white cone onto the bed. We had a few seconds to enjoy the crickets and cicadas before the group of tour guides next to us returned to their bungalow. I began to feel nervous when I heard a few bottles clink together and the sound of ice being dropped into glasses. It sounded like the prelude to a party and these guys were already talking pretty loud, at least for being pretty much at the foot of our bed.

The talking quieted until it was just a couple of guys whispering, reluctant to go to bed on the bungalow’s porch. The night became sonorous again and as I listened, my book became heavier. I struggled to mark the page and toss the thing into the corner of the netted bed before dropping off to sleep.

I awoke once in the night when a bird screamed nearby. I heard a heavy flapping of wings in the room and tried to locate the source in the early light of dawn through the bamboo fibers, but I couldn’t see anything and soon dropped back off to sleep, anxious to sleep as late as I could after a week of waking up to an alarm. I hadn’t been asleep long when one of our neighbors violently cleared his throat and spat. He repeated this performance and then began to make all kinds of angry, gargling noises, like he’d swallowed something too foul to consider and had to purge it from his body. The spitting became a retching. Gina woke up and asked why someone was throwing up so early. I told her that I heard this sound in the apartment building every morning; it’s something people do when they get up, I guess, make these angry barfing noises, like they’re trying to bring up any potential bugs they may have swallowed over the course of the night.

I tried to go back to sleep, but the noises only increased as it got later and more people woke up. Toilets began to flush, toothpaste brushed on and spat into sinks, more retching. I fought my way out of the white net, dragged my shorts on and declared I was going for coffee, which, of course, at the resort, was instant.

I hadn’t been planning on entering the park, but we soon realized there was nothing else to do in the area; it didn’t make sense to come so far and not enter the park, so we paid the admission and went for a nice hike through the jungle, which isn’t just rain forest but evergreen rain forest which sounds even better albeit slightly redundant.

Initially, the walking trail was wide, flanked by bamboo groves which shot up into the air and then, some fifty feet up, drooped back over the open patch of sky above the trail, enclosing the hiker in a titanic alley. Less of a trail, the walk went down something like a two-track road into the jungle. We passed a few people, most of them on tours with guides, but mostly we were alone on the walk. In the distance, something hooted long exclamations, like it was continually saying ‘wow!’ in various tones and pitches. We thought it might be a gibbon and stopped to look among the high, drifting bamboo, like mutant corn grown into the sky, but we didn’t see any trace of the overawed animal, whatever it was.

In the afternoon, we came to a checkpoint, above which signs were posted which read: ‘don’t go further without a guide.’ I’d read that sometimes the authority back here was willing to let hikers continue on their own, but I wasn’t sure; we looked pretty uncertain of ourselves with our sunglasses and shorts, not at all like serious backwoods hikers. I doubted they’d let us pass. We avoided the checkpoint, walked up to the mouth of the trail and looked back to see if anyone was watching. A man had come out onto the porch of the building to see what we were doing. I pointed to the trail and asked ‘Can we go?’ He nodded. “Write your name in the book.” Which we did and then started back down a steep slope, over the river.

We wandered these back trails for a while, trying to find one particular waterfall that was supposed to be a little more impressive than the average waterfall here (In Thailand, a waterfall is anything which creates a ripple in the water; we’ve already followed more than a few signs to ‘waterfalls’ and found nothing more than a well-ridged stream).

Right away it was obvious why they wanted you to have a guide back here. The trail broke up into all kinds of sub-trails. We came to an intersection every few minutes and when you know you’ll have to turn around and renegotiate all this later, so many breaks in the trail can be unnerving.

We tried to stay on the main trail, but we kept hitting these dead ends at the river. Perhaps we were supposed to cross the water to continue, but I saw no sign of a trail on the other side and the water was too deep to ford. After trying a few different paths, we gave up and turned around. The sun was high and the air was still with the heat and quiet of noon. We found a nice place to swim at a bend in the river and put our clothes out in the sun to dry while we swam.

We were walking out of the park when we heard a rustling noise overhead. I looked up the trail and saw a man, perfectly still, looking straight up. I waited for my eyes to settle on something in all the leaves and branches and bamboo. A gray tail slung down from the canopy and then shot back up like an errant spaghetti noodle. A branch shook above me; I looked up into a bright pair of eyes about 50 feet up, looking back down at me with vague interest. The man, another tourist with one of those massive lensed cameras approached us. “Ring-tailed monkeys,” he said, indicating the trees and showed us a few of the close-ups he’d gotten with his bazooka telephoto lens. I nodded solemnly over the photos in the viewfinder, but it seemed ridiculous to be looking at photos of something that was directly overhead, moving and alive. The man concluded by telling us that these monkeys were among the most beloved species, being both retiring and cute. He was one of those guys you meet who approaches you like he’s met you before and leaves like he’d never been talking to you. I’ve met a few like him, interesting guys who seem comfortable with the world, but afraid of letting anyone get to know them.

After he left, we stood watching the monkeys pull handfuls of leaves from the trees, take a bite, let the rest drop and repeat the process. It was like watching a two year-old eat a salad. I thought how if these animals could sustain themselves on leaves how secure they must feel up in the canopy of the jungle, with their food all around them. So secure that they could afford to take a bite and throw the rest away. I watched one monkey grab a bloom of flowers, take a bite and let the rest fall. There seemed to be something so deliberately bored and extravagant in the action, like something you would imagine a sybarite prince doing. Still, the regal bearing of Hanuman remained in these simians. They may have been dropping their food all over, but they went about it quietly. When they looked at us, they glanced and looked away as if disinclined to stare in the bold way we had been doing to them.

We were about to move away, when we heard the distinct strains of Mo Money, Mo Problems by The Notorious B.I.G. like a car was cruising slowly through the jungle. An irritated look crossed Gina’s face and then passed to me. I didn’t want to wait and see who would be coming over the rise in the trail playing loud 90s music, but I realized that I had to wait and at least voice my opinion that they needed to turn it off. As the music grew louder, the monkeys looked up from their leaves and looked down the trail to locate the source of this unfamiliar sound.

I was expecting a couple of kids with a little radio, but I was surprised when a whole tour group of tall, blonde dudes hove into sight, all knobby kneed and dangle armed. It looked like a traveling group of growth-spurted teenage boys; anyone of them looked a good candidate to empty a refrigerator, sleep until past noon or put his shoes up on something inappropriate. “Wow, check out the monkeys!” one of them said, and the volume on the stereo dropped off abruptly. This gaggle of teenagers was accompanied by a Thai guide, who was about half as tall as shortest one. “You don’t have to turn down the music” he said. “They like the music.” I turned and looked at the group. “Leave the music off, please.” I asked. “You’ve got your whole life to listen to music.” I turned back to the monkeys jumping from tree to tree and ripping up handfuls of leaves, as if leaving the remainder of the argument to them. In a few minutes, we walked off. The music never came back on.

Leaving the park that afternoon, we had to walk down a mile of road to the highway where the bus stopped. It was incredibly hot, and felt hotter as we’d been under a leafy canopy since we’d arrived the evening before. The road had no covering, the trees along it had been cut down to make room for all the pizza places and reggae bars. We walked by interminable shops selling hospitality. They had quirky signs which marked their businesses as laid back and jovial. They offered honest deals on package tours and rides, they were spiked with signs that read “it’s hot (!) come in for an ice cold beer!” But the workers and owners of these places didn’t even glance up from their phones as we walked past, down the sun scorched road. No one offered us a glass of water, let alone a beer. When a little kid walked out of a shop and said ‘hello’ we waved manically back, grateful for any kind of acknowledgment. Vans, crowded with tourists, passed us repeatedly in both directions. Somehow, the people had brought the anonymity of the city with them. I had been wrong about the music in the jungle, perhaps it had been the right thing to do all along. As the jungle had become a park, the park was now becoming a city and a city needs music and another ambient sounds. I watched the tourist vans flying down the road, the tourists all staring straight ahead, already looking forward to the next thing, already leaving this place behind.

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