Sunday, May 31, 2009

Oh Ko Samet (Part Two)



Last time on our thrilling adventure, five backpackers were left stranded on a beach in Ko Samet, purses stolen…

And just kidding. If you want the first part of this gripping tale, please scroll down and read it. I will wait here. Okay, everyone caught up? So yada yada, I was on a beach at 4am, in the midst of a full blown emotional mess. I was consoled by many, many backpackers who were far more inebriated than myself. One Australian girl in particular kept assuring me how “funny” this would all be one day, before I knew it really. Which sure, maybe, but at that moment, not funny. I think the “funny” part is going to take a while, if ever. Finally after many, many very kind but sort of empty words of heavily accented and slurred consolation, someone came up with some actual help. And it came from the strangest and most unexpected of places. In my last blog I mentioned that there were fire-dancers on the beach. Well the two Thai fire-dancers, both heavily tattooed, had long since finished their show. They were at the bar, knew of what had happened, and had helped look for the bags. That would have already been above and beyond, but as I stood crying on the beach (I cannot tell you how much of a hot mess I must have looked like at this point. I was soaking wet. I’m sure my eye makeup was running from the combination of salt water and tears. My hair was doing what it normally does in response to humidity and salt water-pretty much turn into a tangled, frizzy web of insanity. And to top it all off there was a nice trickle of blood down my leg from where I had cut myself on the rock. Let me tell you, I was stunning. I have no idea how some modeling scout didn’t scoop me up right there on the spot). But I digress. So the fire-dancers came up to me and my friend Lauren (the other purse stealing victim) and offered to let us use the internet at their tattoo shop in town. Don’t worry mom, there was an Australian girl backpacker who knew these men, had friends who were friends with them, and who came with us so we didn’t ride off into the night with total strangers.

So we hopped onto a songthew (an open air pick up truck with rails on the side and benches-it’s pretty much a giant taxi and on Ko Samet they are the only form of taxi) and rode about ten very bumpy minutes (the roads on Ko Samet are not exactly paved) to “town.” And just as they promised there was internet. We both immediately went online to cancel our credit cards, write emails, and basically try to start putting our lives back together. It was an enormous literal and emotional help to be able to do this that night and not have to wait until morning to do something proactive. One of the fire-dancers (really wish I could remember their names) brought me a bottle of water. The other one, I kid you not, immediately gathered a first aid’s kit worth of supplies and ordered me to put my leg out, like some no nonsense school nurse. He went to work, first with an enormous spray bottle of alcohol (remember this was a tattoo parlor so they had plenty of this stuff on hand). Then he cleaned up the blood. Then he put some white gooey stuff on it and bandaged it up. I would not have been surprised if he handed me a lolli pop and told me that I was a good little patient. I was so helpless at this point and exhausted (it was about 5am at this point), and so it was wonderful to be taken care of.

After we finished our little emergency online session, we were given a ride back to the hotel on a motorbike (again mom I know you’re probably reading this and freaking out, but we had to get back, this was the only form of transportation, and our driver went at a snail’s pace to placate us). I know very little about these men other than they are tattoo artists who moonlight as fire dancers (or maybe the other way around) and that they were uncle and nephew. Like I said I don’t even know their names. But I wish I did. I wish I had some way of thanking them for their unbelievable kindness and generosity.They asked nothing of us. They didn’t want money. They didn’t want anything other than to help two silly Americans who had idiotically left their purses unattended to go swimming. Everyone told us during orientation about the Thai spirit of selflessness, how the second you ask for any kind of help, it will come at you from all sides, unyielding and overwhelming in its scope. And this past weekend, in my hardest moment thus far in Thailand, there it was. The more I think about what these two guys did for us that night, the more amazed I am by it. So even though at the time I wanted to punch people in the face who talked of silver linings to the situation, there really was something good in the midst of all the stolen purse related drama. There was real, honest to God human decency. Call me Blanche DuBois, but in Thailand I think it is entirely possible to rely on the kindness of strangers.

So the next morning, mere hours after I went to bed, I woke up so that Lauren and I could trudge down the steep and winding dirt road toward the police station to file a report. Now it may have taken me a little longer than it would have otherwise, but after a few beats standing on the hotel veranda, I realized where I was. Ko Samet in daylight; blinding, dazzling daylight. The sky was clear. The sun was out. All of the things that had only been darkened silhouettes the night before were now in techni-color. It was like I was Dorothy finally emerging from her broken, tornado spun house. Where before there was only shades of black and white, now everything was in bold, beautiful color. Lush green palm trees crowded the view in front of me, their soft fronds swaying ever so slightly in the breeze, enormous coconuts clustered in bunches near the trunk. An orange dirt road, muddy from the previous night’s rains, curved in front of the hotel, before a steep drop to the beach below. And then my eyes found the beach. And oh, what a beach. The phrase “white sand” is used so often it feels like the worst kind of cliché. But as I’ve often found, clichés are clichés because they’re usually an apt and concise way to describe certain things. And the only way to describe the beach of Ko Samet is to say white sand, the whitest sand, sand so white you almost have to shield your eyes to look at it. As my eyes were still adjusting to the sight of the sand, I looked up a fraction of an inch, and for a moment I didn’t know where the water began and where the sky ended. They were just two impossibly blue shades of turquoise with no discernible beginning or end. The water off of Ko Samet is like looking into a hazel iris, a brilliant, dynamic vista of color shimmering with flecks of light. There’s nothing solid about the color, nothing homogenous or easy to define. The second you think you really know the color of this water is the second you realize it would take a lifetime to know this color, not simply blue or green but every subtle, nuanced shade in between, shades that have no name expressible in human language, that could never be replicated or manufactured as paints or crayons. The water off Ko Samet is one of nature’s trump cards. Try as we might, humans, with all of our grandiose plans and ideas, all of our science and our education and theories, just can’t replicate a color like that. We wouldn’t even know where to start.

As we walked slowly and deliberately toward the police station (careful to avoid puddles and motorbikes and songthews) I couldn’t stop stealing glances to my right. I was exhausted and hot and incredibly thirsty, and I kept having painful flashes of all the things that were gone, but the sight of that beach and that water made me want to grin. It made me want to laugh and run, fly, down the hill and spend the rest of the day, the rest of my life even, in that warm ocean. But before I could shred my ties with the outside world and turn into a beach bum, I had business to attend to. So the Ko Samet police station, not exactly the most crack operation in the world. Okay, I should first say that by the end of this story the police station will have played their part, admirably even, but at the time, as we sat in the hot, open air police station (pretty much a police garage), I thought it was pointless. The man we dealt with seemed to not even work there or have any idea what he was doing. The only other person there, a twenty something girl in a bedazzled top, kept disappearing off to a side room to watch television. There were no actual police officers in this police station, and there was a giant, human sized cage in the middle of the floor which was apparently the jail cell. It was all very bizarre and surreal and by the time we left all I cared about was getting to the water. The purse and all attempts to locate the purse seemed to have reached their hopeless end.

I was determined not to let my weekend be ruined. As fast as I could I scarfed down breakfast at the hotel (all hotel food I’ve encountered in Thailand is about 90% Western/American, although not always entirely accurate-one club sandwich I ordered had an egg on it and something that tasted far too sweet to be any kind of mayonnaise), then grabbed my bathing suit, sprayed myself with Aveeno 45 SPF sunblock (ha! we’ll get to that) and headed as fast as my feet would carry me to the beach. And that’s how I spent the rest of the day. It was heaven and paradise and every other utopian name you can think of. It was probably the only place on earth where I could have even attempted to not think of my lack of money, cell phone, camera, passport, keys, etc. and etc. And even though thoughts of the kind kept bubbling up every once in a while, I did a pretty good job ignoring them. It was easy because all I had to do was look around me. There are supposedly very quiet and very isolated beaches on Ko Samet and ours wasn’t too crowded or too crazy (it’s low season in Thailand right now) but there was plenty to look at. First the Thai people, or at least the Thai tourist groups. There were several of these and there were some characteristics shared by all. They all sat far up the beach in the shade (which-very smart and I wish I had followed suit). They all had huge fancy cameras. They all were fully dressed and went swimming fully dressed (I had already read about this trait). And they all put on the most entertaining and extravagant photo shoots. One person would take pictures while the others came up with the most creative poses, always insanely complicated and pre-planned and sometimes taking minutes and minutes of prep time. They posed in the water. They posed near the water. They posed on the statue of a mermaid and a prince that sat atop a rock formation nearby.

Then there were other Western tourists. In Thailand there are a lot of Europeans which means a lot of speedos and a lot of men who are far too old to wear anything in the speedo family, but who wear them without a trace of shame or embarrassment. The Euro factor also means topless women. We only saw a couple but…how can I put this delicately? If you want to go topless bathing in Europe, sure, go for it. It’s your thing, and while it’s not something I would ever be comfortable with in a million years, I get it. You’re all very comfortable with your bodies and sex and all that and don’t have that whole Puritan guilt thing that we’ve got going. I lived in Paris so I got that even in a climate where everyone was fully clothed. But you’re in Thailand where people swim FULLY DRESSED. Ko Samet is by no means a conservative community but it’s still, despite the number of tourists, a THAI community. So the least you can do is tone down the European exhibitionism and put on a bikini top. I mean seriously? Do you have to flaunt your boobs to these poor people who aren’t even comfortable with the idea of bathing suits. It’s just incredibly tacky and culturally ignorant and well sorry to rant but it got on my nerves. At one point these women were swimming topless right next to Thai children. They probably scarred them for life. I know in a lot of places in Thailand topless swimming is illegal and I only wish it had been in Ko Samet. It would have been kind of satisfying to watch those clothing averse ladies get arrested.

Then there’s the Thai people who are totally working the tourists for all they’re worth. It wasn’t as bad as some other beaches I’ve been too (Barcelona in particular was really bad) but there’s definitely a constant stream of people walking past trying to sell fruit or sarongs or henna tattoos or massages or ice cream or…well you get the idea). They don’t really hassle you and they usually move on quickly if you wave your head no, so it’s kind of more entertaining than anything (although that’s easy for me to say after only having to put up with it for a day and a half). It’s just this parade of fruits (mangoes and coconuts and grapefruit to name only a handful) and fabrics (the sarongs are beautiful and cheap, I got one since I didn’t bring a towel and they serve that function wonderfully in a climate as hot as Thailand).

But when I wasn’t people watching or fruit watching or anything watching, I just laid back and watched the ocean, gentle and clear, the horizon only occasionally broken by a boat or jet-ski. Spaced far apart were tinier, rockier islands. When I got too hot to lie down anymore I went swimming. In the light of day it was even better than the night before, even warmer somehow, and so, so clear. I love swimming in the Atlantic. The beaches off Charleston are some of my favorite in the world. But there’s nothing like swimming in clear waters, being able to see your feet kicking beneath you. I could have stayed in that water all day, swimming or treading water or just floating on my back, looking up at the blue sky. From the water I could really get a grasp on the whole island. It was like any tropical island you’ve ever seen in a book or magazine, so perfectly lush and green and hilly and well paradise like, that it’s hard to believe it’s real and not some movie set. But it was real, every beautiful inch of it, every rise and fall in the topography, every palm tree, every burst of color from flowers or birds.

The day was perfect, so simple and easy after the events of the night before. You can go snorkeling or scuba diving or fishing in Ko Samet and I fully plan on doing these things because I will be back many times, but we all agreed we just wanted to rest and lie in the sand and swim all day. Plus it would be nice to work on my tan (what I should have thought was that for someone as pale as me the last thing I needed to do was try to tan underneath a blazing, tropical sun, but alas). Aveeno 45 you suck. I’m sorry. I thought we were cool, but despite dousing myself in you with your supposed promises of sweat proof and water proof, you didn’t seem to protect even an inch of my body from a hellacious sunburn. So you’re dead to me now. I will find myself another sunblock (or a hat…or a burka).

Roasted and revived from the sun and the water (can you be both at once?), we decided to try a bar a couple of beaches down (they all have names and I swear I will know them soon, but right now I have no idea). We took another songthew and were slightly alarmed when we were dropped off in a clearing that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere or to be more precise in the middle of a jungle, but our driver pointed to a path and said to walk. So walk we did, hoping that tigers or snakes or any other lethal animals were not native to this area. When we reached the end of the path we stood on a beautiful, quiet beach, which appeared to be in a kind of bay, the land curving in a semi-circle around the water, with a smallish opening out to the gulf. White yachts sat idly a little ways out, their windows dark. There were still bars and restaurants but this was decidedly less rowdy and back-packery than the beach we were staying at. The music was soft and low and more Jack Johnson than Lady Gaga. The bars were more ice cold beers than buckets of margaritas (oh buckets, so delicious yet so evil). It was exactly my speed for that night, actually exactly more my speed period. Most of the bars spilled out onto the sand, all with creative seating. Some had huge, colorful cushions in circles. Others had elevated platforms with low tables that you sat beside on the floor. We found a bar with a cluster of chairs and a couch around a table lit by candles, right on the beach.

The events of Saturday night were far less exciting than the events of Friday. The only thing of note really was that after about half an hour, we had made friends with an American seated nearby. One of the things I love about traveling in a foreign country, particularly an Asian country, is how fast you make friends with other travelers, especially if they’re American. America is an enormous country and when you’re in it you cling to smaller groupings. You identify yourself by your city or state because the country itself is too big to really be a cohesive thread. But that evaporates when you go abroad. You suddenly feel that America is tiny, that every American you meet is immediately your friend because well, as horribly corny as this sounds, we’re like this big, extended family. You feel this inexplicable closeness and protectiveness toward any other American you come across, that no matter where in the US they’re from, you’re connected to them. You hear an American accent and want to know right away who the person is, where they’re from, what they’re doing in Thailand, their whole life story. And 9 times out of ten, if you’re in a quiet place where there aren’t a lot of people, you will find out who that person is, where they’re from, what they’re doing in Thailand and their whole life story. So we found out all about Solomon (Saul), from Colorado. He joined our table and hung out for the rest of the night, and as difficult and strained as it is to meet new people at home, here it’s as easy as pie. Because being Americans abroad, well it does connect you. You know that there are just these intrinsic things that you have in common, and I’m not sure if I could appreciate that if I hadn’t traveled out of the country. It makes you feel really sentimental toward home and downright patriotic, because home is suddenly so much a part of who you are, ironically because of the fact that you’re not there. When you’re home you forget about America being America. You take it for granted. It’s just this big, abstract notion that isn’t that much a part of your day to day life. But then you go abroad and it’s everything, from your passport to your accent to your penchant for peanut butter and French fries. And you want to share that with other Americans, revel in your very American-ness, and so it makes it really easy to meet people and get to know each other in what feels like seconds.

But I really digress. The point is Saturday night went off without any more thefts or calamities. Sunday morning was spent again at the beach (burn on top of burn, oh my skin loves me right now). Around 2pm we got on the ferry to go to the mainland. As we crossed the water (much slower than we had on the speedboat) I watched the island recede in the distance. The farther we went from it, the more the entire island came into focus, no longer just disparate, magnified parts, but a miniature whole, large and green and hilly against the nearly fluorescent, light filled turquoise waters. It was as beautiful from a distance as it had been up close, the closest thing to paradise I have ever known, perfect in its every imperfection.



And I knew as we grew further and further way, that I would be back, hopefully many more times, in the future armed with the knowledge that a purse is something that should be guarded with one’s life, and that night swimming, while enjoyable, should only be undertaken with extreme precautions and unimpaired judgment.

And that’s when I thought this story was over. Until half an hour into the bus ride back to Bangkok, my friend Choua’s phone rings and the caller asks for me, says he has my wallet and passport. Dun, dun, DUN.

Stay tuned for the even more thrilling conclusion to “Oh Ko Samet.”

I really have no idea what’s wrong with me. I swear I will not end every future blog this way. Just humor me for at least one more post.

3 comments:

4471 said...

I'm going there tomorrow!.
Very useful your story.

dermot said...

the tattoo artists were Gai (uncle)one of the best tattoo artists on the planet....... and Gun (nephew) his sketch artist...... the shop where they work is called 'tattoo by gai' and its straight across the street from the health center in koh samet

Jago said...

I must say you're a reallyu good writer! If you want to say thanks to Gai (he's a noce guy) you can find him on Facebook - Gai Pradit.

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