Unstuck in Time
December 21, 2006
The warm air embraced me on the sea wall of Ao Nang. Eating from a sack of pineapple, I realized that for the first time since I left the States I was actually alone in Thailand. Not exactly alone, for occasionally a young Thai kid would come over and play with me for a bit before finding something more interesting to do than to scratch the beard of a farang. Mike had headed out to the airport leaving me to sit and wait in town until a mini bus departed for Trang, several hours to the south of here and reportedly very quite. I sat and watched the Andaman, or wrote, or read, for a few hours, not making much of an effort to do anything productive or useful or touristy. The active part of my time in Thailand was over. The hammock part of it was getting ready to begin.
Travel in Thailand is very efficient assuming you are not trying to get anywhere rapidly. You'll get to where you are going fairly comfortably, but perhaps not as quickly as you might imagine. A hired taxi could have gotten me to Trang in two hours. Two hours or six made little difference to me now. The 10 am departure time was really 11, and then the bus only took me to a cafe - bus station outside of Krabi, where the local controllers put a sticker on my chest with my destination on it. Thirty minutes later another bus rolled up and disgorged several travelers with rather a lot of luggage and possessing an assumption that their bus would take them all the way to Ao Nang. The controllers put another sticker on them saying Railey, but this didn't seem to convince the overloaded travelers that they were actually going to get their. As my mini left, I could see confusion reigning. If you don't have a schedule, then you can't be late for anything.
My mini rolled through the verdant countryside of southern Thailand, passing palm plantations and homes, schools and small wats, and even the occasional mosque. Small towns came and went, and the mini driver kept the engine purring in the usual driving style of the developing world: Go as fast as possible at every moment. The small towns grew in size until we approached through the outskirts of Trang, which looked like a place no tourist would ever go. Perfect. The mini pulled over to the curb and the driver waved at me to hop out.
Now, the natural thing to do when dropped off at a random location in a city where you can't speak the language, can't read the writing, and don't know anyone is to simply hire a taxi to take you somewhere. Anywhere. But, this isn't much fun. What is fun is to look at a map, make a guess, and start heading in some direction until you find something you recognize. This has gotten me lost all around the world, but some of my most memorable ramblings have been while being intentionally lost. I shouldered my pack and started down the road, wandering in the direction of where I thought a train station ought to be.
As I wandered I tried to pick out something for tourists, anything that might give Trang a sense of the ordinary, a sense of normalcy, something to make it feel less foreign. There was nothing. Feeling a bit hungry, I popped into a small shop for some kuaytiaw plaa, or noodle soup with fish balls. As basic as it gets, you add various condiments to the broth, noodles, and ground-fish-sausage-like-balls and then slurp it down. Feeling refreshed, I continued my stroll, smiling at the lack of farang, until I reached the train tracks. Guessing a direction, I walked along shops selling everything but anything a tourist might want and found the station. Although it was still a few hours before I needed to meet my sister, I thought I'd make the rounds in case she and her ex-boyfriend Brian had gotten in early.
Not seeing them in the station, I set off up a different road to a hotel where we had arranged to meet, but got only a hundred meters up when I felt a tap on my shoulder and heard a familiar voice.
Anna and Brian had flown into Thailand a few days ago and were on a furious pace to see what they could of Thailand in the time that they had. After buzzing around Bangkok, they had blasted up to Ayutthaya, and then only narrowly made their flight to Trang. They had gotten in a few hours before me and arranged for rooms at Ko Teng, an expensive but spotless and friendly hotel close to the train station. We wandered back to the hotel chatting about the next few days. For now, we were heading to Ko Libong, just off the coast, which sat a good 50 kilometers from here. Tonight, we'd see Trang. After eating a slightly off tasting graprao kai, we headed off for the market.
Markets are my very favorite part of Thailand and wandering through them provides an almost infinite amount of amusement. I suspected that Anna and Brian hadn't had the chance yet to wander through one, so we took our time at the day market. A woman cutting up a big jack fruit pod provided a tasty treat that left huge grins on their faces. And mine. I had picked up enough Thai to make myself more or less understood in markets, or where ever food is concerned, mostly due to listening to Mike speak.
Most day markets are devoted to things like produce, and that is where much is to be learned. As we wandered around the various stalls, quite a few vegetables and fruits were recognizable, just as they would be at a farmers market back at home. I pointed out some that I knew, but most I didn't and had to imagine how they might be used or related dishes that I had had with them in it.
An integral part of any market is the meat-on-a-stick vendor. You can't have a respectable market unless there are several carts loaded down with delicacies skewered onto bamboo and fried or roasted, with several vats of various sauces to slather on them. The only thing similar at home is the ubiquitous chicken satay. While tasty, I have a hard time paying $5 for three, when the going rate in Thailand is 15 cents. And there are better things on a stick to be found. For example, thod mon plaa, the excellent deep fried fish cake. Or big squidies grilled right on the stick. Or pork balls with sweet chili sauce. Or some sort of hardboiled egg stuffed with something sweet and tasty. Or cubes of something that was then fried and doused in hot chili sauce. Or this strange bean pastry wrapped around something probably derived from fruit. Or, well, the point is probably well made by now. I could only identify a couple of items from one particular cart, but we dived in any way and, as always, every thing was good.
As we strolled the market, passing through the meat and poultry section, I glanced at Anna and Brian to see how they handled the scene, which can be a little revolting for people raised on the belief that meat comes from the super market in nice, sanitary, plastic packaging. No flinches at the offal, no winces at the skinned heads. The section selling currying paste and other spices was much more aromatic, however.
The delights of the marketplace are not just the produce, foodstuffs, and animal parts. These you can see in a picture book. Rather, being able to watch people go about their daily lives, seeing how they interact, and even being able to interact with them, is a real treat. I can't imagine a Thai coming to Lakewood and being thrilled with seeing the local Safeway, but perhaps they would. There certainly wouldn't be anything to take a photo of, and I doubt that the produce clerks would want to have their photo taken.
We reached the end of the market and set out for a bar that was in the Lonely Planet guidebook that we all carried. After a brief stroll, we found that it was quite closed and had to look elsewhere for a beer before dinner. A bit further down was a small storefront with a table out front, where we were able to buy a few cans of Chang and catch up on what was going on back at home and how Thailand had treated us so far. A beer each turned into three, and then a search for a bathroom. However, the only bathroom we found was at the bar, now open, which meant several more Changs, served up by a katoy in a belt-sized skirt, whom Brian thought had designs on my virtue. Quite dark, it was now time for the night market, which was conveniently enough on our walk back to the hotel.
Night markets are even better than day markets in that everyone comes to them. Young people roam in packs sampling what they like and mingling as they can. Families arrive to eat dinner or to buy some supplies for home. Couples stroll about. And of course the few farang that happen to be in town, which in Trang was us and two others who commented humorously when they saw me eating some friend insects. Overwhelmed by the amount of food available, all of which we wanted to eat, we quickly gorged ourselves and then set out in search of even more. I've never met a night market I didn't like and if they had such things in the US, I would never cook at home.
I had misplaced time. It wasn't so much that I no longer had a sense of time, for I could see the sun rising and falling, the tide coming in and going out, and my belly filling and rumbling with hunger. No, time was still there, but it had lost all meaning for me. I had come to Ko Libong on a boat with my sister and Brian, that I knew for sure.
After the activity of climbing, I now had no direction to my time, no focus to my attention. I could flow in any direction. The Andaman, warm and soothing, was at my doorstep. A hammock swung between two palm trees, providing comfort and shade from the hot sun. My shoes came off and didn't come back on. The only time I wore a shirt was at night when the temperature dropped to a cool 80 degrees.
Anna and Brian would appear and disappear, off to motorcycle around the island or go kayaking in the Andaman. Masks and snorkels appeared from somewhere, from someone's effort. Did Anna get them? Giant clams and schools of pretty fish. Brian was playing his guitar. I knew this because I could hear his gentle musings from the hammock, where I had been since. Since. Since some time. I couldn't know when I got into the hammock. Couldn't know, not didn't know.
How much time had passed? It seemed a terrible question possible. Perhaps the curse of humankind is our awareness of time beyond the here-and-now, beyond the seasons, beyond night and day. Everyone has a past that they brood over, a passed filled with missed opportunities or mistakes or episodes of happiness. Everyone thinks about the future or worries over it or anticipates it or, worst of all, waits for it to happen. Some day I will. Some day I won't. Some day is always some day, never today. And we wait for a day that is always tomorrow.
I was floating in the water, so I must have left the hammock. On my back, feet pointed out to see, eyes focused on nothing. I was barely aware of myself as something distinct from the water, so complete was my immersion. The buoyant salt water held me with little difficulty, wrapping itself around me so completely, so tightly, that struggle, effort, wasn't conceivable.
The sea brought its breeze inland, wafting over me as I sat drying in the powerful mid day sun shine. Anna and Brian were somewhere, someplace. The sand was warm underneath me and I stretched out onto it, laying corpse-like, absorbing its embrace as I had the water some time in the past. As I had the salt breeze. Sometime, perhaps yesterday, I had also sat in the sun drying off after a swim in the sea, also sat with the breeze and the warmth. Maybe it wasn't yesterday, and maybe it wasn't in Thailand. I had had this feeling before, had this sensation before.
Anna and Brian found me at a picnic bench shaded by a thatched roof drinking a Chang. I wasn't in the hammock (two meters from me), nor in the water (eight meters from me), nor in the sand (under me), but it wasn't hard for them to find me. My sister's knee was bleeding from a spill on a motorcycle. There were monkeys involved in the story, but the monkeys didn't seem to have anything to do with the blood or the crash. I could hear the words coming through the air and into my ears, but I had lost my ability to put a story together, to pull details together into a coherent whole, to understand what the monkeys had to do with anything other than their monkeyishness. Why was I thinking about the monkeys when my sister's leg was bleeding? Why was she smiling and laughing when her knee was bleeding? Why was she so happy?
When we arrived I knew that I wasn't feeling well, but I wasn't exactly sure when that happened or when I got better. How much time had passed? My watch was somewhere in the bungalow and I knew that it could tell me the exact time and date, and even the day of the week. Someone, or something, was recording the time, and would do so whether or not I knew it. If you don't know what time it is, then you must be in the present. For, without a reference point, there is no past and there can be no future. Future and past are relative to the present, and if you don't know where you are in the present you can't figure out when the past was or when the future will be. I went for a walk to try to clear the narcotic thoughts out of my head.
Ko Libong really was narcotic. Like a tune from a Siren, I was under the spell of the island, with no desire to leave or to free myself from it. Walking inland through several small villages, Anna and Brian with me, I could feel something itch in the back of my head. The itch had probably been there for longer than the last minute, but I had only now come to feel it. I didn't know how to scratch such an itch.
I sat at the far end of the beach as Anna and Brian made inquiries with another resort about going out on a snorkeling trip, for the one we were staying at had said the wind was too high to go far out into the Andaman. There was no one at the resort. Empty. Ko Libong was Edenic, yet few people seemed to come here. Ao Nang and Tonsai had many tourists and much infrastructure. There were lots of things for people, for families, to do and see. Phuket, the prostitution capital of Thailand and destination extraordinaire for European families, had its own international airport. Ko Libong had a few longtails. There wasn't a real road on the island.
Ao Nang had a fine European promenade complete with high fashion. Ko Libong had a nature preserve. Libong wasn't off the map. It was given a glowing write up in the Lonely Planet and transit to it was easy: Fly to Trang, catch a taxi to the coast, hire a longtail to the island. Yet there were only a handful of tourists. Maybe the itch in my head had something to do with the reasons for Ko Libong being the way it was. Maybe it was a worry that at some point it might turn into another Phuket. Maybe the itch had to do only with myself and my reaction to the island.
Anna and Brian were still searching the resort for someone, anyone, who might answer a question. I sat on a rock in the shade of a palm looking out to the blue sea. I wondered what the people who lived here thought of Ko Libong. Did they want more than what was already here? Did they want less? My knowledge of Thai was restricted to ordering food on the street and certainly wouldn't be enough to find out what the inhabitants of the island thought.
Sitting on the deck of the resort's restaurant, I held a pen and there was paper in front of me. I had a notion that if I put ink on paper, it might somehow scratch the itch that had been in my head since whenever. I had been writing for sometime now and was beginning to come out of the spell that the island had cast on me. Today, I knew, was Christmas Eve, for there were preparations for a party at the resort, complete with Santa hats. The sun had begun to set over the sea and the world lit up for me, for only me. There was no one else. Just me, my pen and paper, and a bottle of Chang.
I wrote and wrote and wrote some more as Anna and Brian and the few other guests of the resort moved about. I wrote about the effect of the sea, for that was what I had been feeling for the last few days. I wrote about how I felt as I stood on the shores of the Pacific near my home and looked west across it to Asia. I wrote about how I felt as I looked east across it toward the New World. I wrote nonsense, things that had no meaning or dimension. I wrote feelings, not thoughts, and feelings are things for the individual to experience. They cannot be described, only experienced. I wrote to myself, for another time when I might be able to understand.
The red Santa cap that I wore did it. The preparations for a Christmas Eve celebration did it. The tinsel and fake fir tree did it. I had a reference point in time in which I could fix myself once more. Time had passed in a most strange way for me. Tomorrow I was moving on, going somewhere else. The Siren had lost her battle for possession of me. Anna and Brian would head south to another set of islands, whereas I would begin to move back toward Bangkok, would make my way back to a date with another metal tube in which I would return to life in the States. As potent a drug as Thailand is, I had to return sometime, and tomorrow I would start back. The karaoke machine came on and I poured myself another Chang.