Monday, July 27, 2009
So that time I got swine flu (part two)
the interior of a room at the Pathumwan Princess Hotel in Bangkok, and the happy ending to my story
So where did we leave off last time? Ah yes, I had just contracted what my doctor believed was a pork related influenza of the A strain variety. Now what any sane or intelligent person would do in this situation would be to go home and get in bed for a week. But well, this is me. I decided the best path to take would be to challenge my body to a game of chicken. I was going on my tropical island vacation damnit! And my body just needed to get in line. I had given it meds, a little bit of rest, plenty of water and all that. So it was time my body did something for me in return, namely recover from the flu in record time and allow me to go romping on sun dappled beaches and swimming through emerald waters in approximately 24 hours. Reasonable right?
So along with two friends I boarded an early morning train out of Bangkok to Surrathani (the jump off point for the island, Ko Samui). It was supposed to be an eight and a half hour train ride, so I reasoned that really this was just another full day of rest. I’d just be lounging around, alternately dozing and reading American gossip magazines (which cost, ahem, about ten US dollars here, EACH, and yes I am deeply, deeply ashamed of myself for buying these on more than one occasion). I was feeling okay, I mean. Sure my head still felt like it was in one of those squeeze garbage cans, and my chest wasn’t all that great either. But my body just had lingering reservations about this beach business. As soon as it saw the water and got a little bit of sun, it would be a completely different story. My body would be thanking me for this vacation.
I sat back, ready for a relaxing train ride (because there are many of those right?), and well it wasn’t exactly relaxing. It was an AC train but you could have fooled me because of how stifling it was. The train itself was tiny, a little midget train, only two cars long, and it was also full. There were fans in the ceiling but they weren’t rotating and they weren’t pointing in my direction. So within minutes of leaving the station it was boiling. But hey, it would just give me a chance to sweat out some toxins. By the time we got there that evening, I’d be the vigorous picture of health. Except as our journey went on I started to feel worse. I still had absolutely no appetite, and even the sight of the prepackaged train “breakfast” (which was rice and some kind of neon orange chicken) made my stomach turn. But no matter. My body was just trying to test me, get me to fold, but like I said, it was a game of chicken. And I wasn’t about to be the first to turn and run. Thai island paradise here I come! WOOOOO!!
And then oh yeah, our train crashed. Now this wasn’t a big, derailment, carnage and explosions kind of crash. I’ll make that much clear up front. But it was still a very definite crash. And that’s not all that normal for me. I don’t expect the train I’m on to have any kind of collision with any kind of object, machine or man. That’s not too much to ask right? I mean I already have the friggin’ flu and now my train crashes!? Seriously universe? SERIOUSLY?
Like the cliché always goes, it happened very quickly. It wasn’t until it ended that I could even figure out what my senses had just experienced, because at the moment it was all one big jumble of sound and image and movement. It was the weirdest thing, because I honestly took in everything completely backwards. One second the train was humming its merry way through beautiful Thai country side (oh yeah, did I mention that every time you take a train or bus anywhere in Thailand you are sure to drive through the lushest, greenest, most tropical, jungly, mountainous, straight out of any movie, most heart stoppingly, soul achingly, drop dead gorgeous scenery on this planet). And then the next second we were stopped. And then in reverse I understood what had just happened. Right before the train ground to a halt there had been a large spray of water out of the window. Milliseconds before that there had been what looked to be a very large pick up truck flying through the air. Before that the train had lurched forward with a sickening screech. And then before that had been the collision, the sudden sound of metal and steel and glass all churned up together. Now it all sped up and formed a complete picture and only then did I understand what in the hell just happened. There was silence for a few beats and then the two train cars filled with the sound of people wondering what had just happened, if everyone was okay (everyone was okay, except for a few scratches and bruises, and one train attendant lady who apparently fainted and had to be carried off). Everyone then looked out the windows (on my side of the train). We were a couple dozen yards away from a small train stop (just a platform really) and in the midst of some kind of rural market place where at least a hundred or so people had been gathered minutes before, eating and talking and shopping. But as we looked out the window these same people, in masse, ran in the direction we had just come, most of them toward what I could only imagined was one absolutely obliterated pick-up truck. A few groups stayed put, walking instead toward our stopped train, anxious looks on their faces. I realized that some of these people had been standing there, waiting for a loved one to arrive on our very train, and that these poor people had watched us hit the truck and lurch dangerously on the tracks, and that as confusing and scary as it had been inside the train, they had probably had it ten times worse.
And then well, a lot of aimless standing around and talking occurred. People got off the train. People got back on. People stood around outside the train talking. People stood around inside the train talking. There were no official announcements, no official anything. At one point everyone, en masse, got off the train with their baggage, so we followed suit. As I stood in the aisle, I glanced at the car ahead of ours (remember this was only a two car train) and couldn’t believe what I saw. The floor was caked in red dirt and shards of glass (the front windows of the train had been smashed with the collision). Surely we would have to take a different train to our destination. I mean this one seemed down for the count. We stood on the grass with our backpacks while random Thai people said things to us in reassuring tones. People drifted back from the site of the wrecked pick- up truck. I didn’t want to look too closely but when I glanced in that direction I saw that it lay on its side in some kind of ditch/creek (hence the water spray) a little ways away. No one seemed to be screaming or crying so that seemed like a good sign (a little while later another backpacker reported that everyone was okay, which seemed impossible, but hey, someone’s really, really, really luck day right?) There was much meandering. A large crowd of people stood around the front of the train which I can only assume took its fair share of damage. And then after a little while longer, the engine started up, the train lurched forward, and you got it, we boarded this beaten up, mangled, dirt and glass strewn train and went along our merry way.
And it did run, but I couldn’t help expect the whole thing to just give up any second. Excuse the kind of cheesy parallel, but here I was, a broken down Liz, trying to keep my Thai island dreams alive, riding on a broken down train, doing the very same thing. Oh life. Somehow, our rag tag train made it to Surrathani (along the way people on the ground who we passed usually did very comical double takes when our little battered engine that could moved past). We departed, late but at least in one piece. And then the fun really started. You see the train station in Surrathani is in a tiny little town about twenty minutes from the actual “city” of Surrathani. And from there you have to take a ferry to get to Ko Samui. Now there aren’t really any “official” ways of doing this, no “official” city buses to take you to the pier, no “official” city ferries to take you to the island. No instead there are tour companies, all touting their own package deals. And you don’t come to them. No they come to you. The second you, a very clear farang (foreigner for those of you keeping up on your Thai) step out from that train station, you are the prey. But they don’t walk up to you with the clear intention of trying to sell you a package trip to the island. No they are merely concerned citizens who want to help. In fact, you can be halfway through one of these business transactions before you even realize that you are in fact, taking part in a business transaction. There’s no information desk. Every time you try and stand off to look in your Lonely Planet, you are swarmed by many men who are thrilled by the prospect of taking you to your destination. Except it’s not so simple. Because some of these men are saying that the ferry to Ko Samui already stopped for the day so you must stay in a hotel in town (a hotel that coincidentally is either owned by the same tour company or sharing a deal with them). But another guy is saying they can get you a boat to the island (provided you’re willing to pay of course). It is a complicated labyrinth of smooth talk and genuine help with no way to differentiate between the two (to be fair none of these guys are evil, they’re just doing their job, albeit in a very smooth talky, potentially deceitful way). We spent a good forty five minute talking to about five different guys with various “advice”. We even tried to join forces with a beautiful, multi-national family (you know the ones, where the mother is from like Eastern Europe and the dad is from Australia and somehow they have created a baby with all of the genetic blessings of both countries, and none of the genetic shortcomings) to get a chartered boat to the island. But after much prodding and many assurances that if we went to the pier that evening the only way to get to Ko Samui would be to swim, we went to a hotel nearby for the night.
And that’s when my body, so cooperative throughout all the train and train station shenanigans, decided to remind me who is boss. It was almost as if it had decided to wait politely in the background while I dealt with all of that stuff, and then once I was securely and safely in a hotel it felt it was time to head butt me into submission. In a sudden rush I felt like complete and total poo. I felt like my fever was back. My chest hurt. My cough was getting worse. I felt sick, really, really sick. I climbed into bed, and without any kind of deliberation I knew. I was not going to Ko Samui to frolick on sun drenched shores. There would be no pina coladas in the sand, no snorkeling in clear waters. There would be no fun holiday times, no celebration even for the 4th of July (which was the next day) with my other American friends. I was going back to Bangkok to a hotel with room service where I would not have to get out of bed for as long as possible.
And to make absolutely sure of this my body decided to throw in some vomit (sorry for the graphic details, but it’s for posterity) the next morning, so as to really hammer the final nail into the coffin that was my trip to Ko Samui. If my body could have talked it would have said this: “Hey Liz, we usually get along, sure you put some fast food junk into me every now and again, too much beer or wine on occasion, all that coffee and Diet Coke, seriously I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. But the point is we’ve always been pretty much in synch. But this, this is just sheer lunacy. You drag my flu ridden self out of bed, put me on a hot, crowded train (and one that crashes to boot!) for nine uncomfortable hours, and then you expect me to get on a ferry and go on vacation! We could have done this the easy way but no. So go ahead, throw up that watermelon you had for breakfast (the one tiny glimmer of American 4th of July I had that day, to make this story even more pathetic) then get on a train and go back to Bangkok immediately!”
And well that is what I did. Of course the first available train didn’t leave until 6pm, meaning that I had about four hours to kill at the train station. But those four hours ended up being strangely wonderful. For one I’ve always loved train stations (except for the hell on earth, abysmal, make you want to throw yourself on the tracks Indian ones we visited-go to Agra, you’ll see). There’s something just so romantic about train stations to me, something old fashioned and adventurous. And when I think back on past vacations or trips, somehow it’s always the train stations that stand out to me, little post it notes stuck in the pages of old travel memories. And as I sat there on a hard plastic seat with a giant bottle of water, I couldn’t help but be reminded of four years ago, me traveling solo for the first time in my life. I was with a friend in Rome (during my semester abroad in Paris), but she flew to London to meet her parents, and I still had a week left of break, so I took the train to Florence for two nights. I remember Florence very clearly, seeing the statue of David, eating gelato for dinner (okay and lunch), wandering the streets and getting chased by an Italian man. But just as memorably I remember waiting for the night train that would take me back to Paris, sitting on a similar bench at a similar station. And I remember how I felt that day, the same way I felt sitting at the Surrathani station, waiting for the night train that would take me back to Bangkok. There are things in this world people can take away from us. There are things that can be tarnished and ruined. But traveling alone in a foreign country, even if just for a few days, nothing and no one can ever take away what that feels like. Just to know you can do it, to know you’re okay, that even in a foreign country, alone, you’re okay. I carried that feeling away from Florence and hold onto it still, and I know I’ll do the same with my time in Thailand.
I sat at that station and kept waiting to have to throw up again, but I didn’t. I didn’t feel great by any means, but I felt level and strangely calm. It was as if my body, having seen that I followed its instructions, was giving me a little break. And I read. I started and finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” I had almost read that book so many times in life. I had picked it up and carried it around at Barnes and Nobles before changing my mind and putting it back. I have no idea why. But the morning I left Bangkok, as I was browsing the shelves of the hostel’s book exchange, I saw a battered, crumpled copy. My favorite version of books is when they are battered and crumpled. As with any proper stuffed animal, this shows they have been loved, adored, read again and again and again. I like the creases in pages from where they’ve been folded down. Love the food stains and smudges. I like these kind of books because it shows that they are really living things. Books aren’t static, or at least they shouldn’t be. I re-read books because they do grow and change every time you read them. But I digress. I saw this battered, crumpled, torn copy of “Eat, Pray, Love” and exchanged my book for it.
And I started it at that train station. Nearly five hours later I was almost finished. And it was the perfect book for that moment in my life. When I was depressed and feeling sorry for myself (being alone and sick on the 4th of July thing was rough. I love the 4th of July, love the hot dogs and cole slaw and watermelon, love the tennis on television, love the flags and the fireworks and that one perfect, unironic day of patriotism and pride) this book filled me with happiness and calm and warmth. I won’t go into the details other than to say that Elizabeth Gilbert puts into funny, clever words exactly how I feel about so many things, spirituality (minus all the meditating, I respect it but am not at a point in my life where I could “quiet my mind”, my mind never shuts up), God, food, pasta, wine, did I mention food?, but most importantly at that moment, travel.
Because, here’s the thing. A lot of this blog has touched on some not so great things, misadventures if you will. But I really hope it hasn’t seemed overly negative. Because as much as some of these things have sucked, they are all part of this big, messy moment in my life. And I wanted this. I signed up for this knowing it would be hard and messy and that I might get sick or have my purse stolen while night swimming off a Thai island (okay well maybe I didn’t anticipate that part exactly). I knew teaching would be hard. I knew I would miss home sometimes. I knew that this would be rocky. But I wanted rocky. My life before I left, throughout the year after graduation, was veering dangerously close to the opposite of rocky, which is not to say perfect. Perfect is not the opposite of rocky, bland is. A life that was always easy and always safe is not at all what I really wanted. It’s great for life to be easy and safe sometimes, a good deal of the time even, but if it’s always that way, then it’s not really life, not life, capital L. It’s just life, lowercase l, and that’s not enough for me. And being here in Thailand, well it hasn’t been easy and safe. And that’s why, despite the stolen purse and the swine flu and the passport stuff and various other mishaps I’ve loved every minute of this. And you might say how in the world can I love every minute of a trip that’s had such issues. But I love this trip because of its issues, because of its rockiness. I feel like finally my life is starting to be lived in color. I don’t want a beige life. I never have. Beige might be easy on the eyes and it might mean you never clash with anything, but frankly never clashing with anything is overrated. Let me clash. Let me pair pink and orange together and just go with it.
But I bring all of this up because of a passage in Ms. Gilbert’s book which spoke so directly to my heart and to that moment in my soul that it was almost a little spooky. And here it is. I know this blog is already a novella but I just have to transcribe it all.
“Truthfully, I’m not the best traveler in the world.
I know this because I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve met people who are great at it. Real naturals. I’ve met travelers who are so physically sturdy they could drink a shoebox of water from a Calcutta gutter and never get sick. People who can pick up new languages where others of us might only pick up infectious diseases. People who know how to stand down a threatening border guard or cajole an uncooperative bureaucrat at the visa office. People who are the right height and complexion that they kind of look halfway normal wherever they go-in Turkey they just might be Turks, in Mexico they are suddenly Mexican, in Spain they could be mistaken for a Basque, in Northern Africa they can sometimes pass for an Arab…
I don’t have these qualities. First off I don’t blend. Tall and blond and pink complexioned, I am less a chameleon than a flamingo. Everywhere I go but Dusseldorf, I stand out garishly. When I was in China, women used to come up to me on the street and point me out to their children as though I were some escaped zoo animal. And their children-who had never seen anything quite like this pink-faced yellow-headed phantom person-would often burst into tears at the sight of me. I really hated that about China.
I’m bad (or, rather, lazy) at researching a place before I travel, tending just to show up and see what happens. When you travel this way, what typically “happens” is that you end up spending a lot of time standing in the middle of the train station feeling confused, or dropping way too much money on hotels because you don’t know better…
Aside from my cockeyed internal compass, I also have a shortage of personal coolness, which can be a liability in travel. I have never learned how to arrange my face into that blank expression of competent invisibility that is so useful when traveling in dangerous, foreign places. You know-that super relaxed, totally-in-charge expression which makes you look like you belong there, anywhere, everywhere, even in the middle of a riot in Jakarta. Oh, no. When I don’t know what I’m doing, I look like I don’t know what I’m doing. When I’m excited or nervous, I look excited or nervous. And when I am lost, which is frequently, I look lost. My face is a transparent transmitter of every thought…
And oh the woes that traveling has inflicted upon my digestive tract!...But I have other bodily weaknesses too. My back gave out on my first day of traveling in Africa, I was the only member of my part to emerge from the jungles of Venezuela with infected spider bites, and I ask you-I beg of you!-who gets sunburned in Stockholm?
Still despite all this, traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt, ever since I was sixteen years old and first went to Russia with my saved-up babysitting money, that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love for travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby-I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. I can barf all over me if it wants to-I just don’t care.”
And that last paragraph, as I sat reading that in the train station off the Gulf Coast of Thailand, that spoke to me in a way few other books have ever spoke to me. I needed to read this book at this moment. I needed to have this book show up on a bookshelf in the Wendy House hostel in Bangkok. I don’t necessarily put too much stock in fate and destiny and all that, but maybe I should, because this book found me in a really low moment and reminded my sick, self pitying self why I was doing this. I have been barfed all over repeatedly here, but like Elizabeth Gilbert, I could care less. That barf is a part of this wonderful, incredible, life changing journey. I’d rather not be barfed on, but at the end of the day, it’s all part of it, all part of this. This trip has figuratively thrown me down stairs and sucker punched me and roundhouse kicked me Chuck Norris style, but in spite of that, hell, because of all that, I’m doing what I love right now. As strange as it seems I have always wanted a life that would throw in an occasional round house kick.
My mom sent me this letter recently, strangely a letter from myself, aged 18, written at a high school retreat and saved by my high school all these years, only to be mailed out now, five years after graduation. This letter addressed me, its future self, and in no uncertain terms, told me what it expected of me. I haven't met quite all of these strict expectations, but halfway through the letter, past self told me that if I wasn’t traveling, then I should go and do it right then and there. And maybe it’s cheesy, but I’m really proud of the fact that in that way I’ve lived up to the eighteen year old me’s expectations. Because eighteen year old me, like a lot of eighteen year olds, naïve yes, a little foolish maybe, but beautifully, singularly brave when it comes to looking at the future and demanding that it lives up to its potential, the way only an eighteen year old can demand.
So I journeyed back to Bangkok with newfound clarity, and I spent the next two nights in one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed at, for about a sixth of the cost it would be in any American big city. Something else I took away from “Eat, Pray, Love”, the whole Italy section about letting yourself be a little decadent, treating yourself every once in a while, especially when your body is weary and broken. And boy did I (or at least my kind and understanding parents did, thanks again Mom and Dad!) I knew from the moment I checked in (and was brought this iced banana tea in a champagne glass) that this was the place to recuperate. Every single person who worked at that hotel who I encountered asked me if I was taking medicine, if I needed to see a doctor, to let them know if I needed anything, anything at all. At the point when I arrived I think I looked and sounded a little, let’s say, rough. A lack of sleep and food and general health will do that to a person. And these kind hotel workers welcomed me like I was their sick child home early from school.
I slept in the softest, cleanest bed, with the most wonderful cloud of a comforter. I took like three hot showers a day in the world’s most awesome bathroom (it had a big clear window looking into the bedroom but if you pressed a button this awesome curtain came down!...and the shower, it had this big square nozzle in the ceiling that was like a waterfall!, oh!, oh! and there was an elephant on the counter made out of towels! that killed me. I couldn’t bear to remove a single towel from it). There were soft, wonderful, fancy hotel robes too, and if you know me you know it has always been a dream to stay in a hotel with fancy robes. I wore my robe around for hours along with the provided pair of shiny blue slippers. I recuperated. I took care of myself. I ordered room service (a big juicy hamburger with salty fries and real ketchup! Pizza with real parmesan cheese! Definitely enough to entice my appetite back to life) and made tea and watched actual English language television. Wonder of wonders I made it back to Bangkok the day of the Wimbledon final, the only live match I got to watch for the entire tournament (and for me this was almost unbearable, Wimbledon is the two week long Super Bowl of tennis, it’s as much a part of my summer memories as the pool and camp) and wow it was a good one, as much as my heart broke for Andy Roddick (although as a fan I was so proud of how he played and how he conducted himself after the match).
I watched oodles of the Discovery Channel and BBC News. Both mornings I actually put on some clothes, (as tempted as I was there was a little sign saying that slippers and robes were not allowed to be worn outside of the rooms) left my room and partook in the complimentary breakfast in one of the hotel’s many restaurants. Now I have seen some massive breakfast spreads in Asian hotels but this one, well it put them all to shame. So much delicious food. Crepe stations and omelet stations! Mountains of gorgeous fresh fruit. French toast and pancakes. An entire table of bread and pastries. Bacon! Corn fritters! Fresh sushi and miso soup! Four kinds of freshly squeezed juice! The second day when I felt better and more rested I sat by the enormous salt water pool with all of Bangkok spread out around me.
I breathed. I knew that I was doing exactly what I needed, that in the future there were sure to be more mishaps, more disasters, more metaphorical train crashes (hopefully not any more literal ones). I was going to get barfed on again by travel (just had to put that word in one more time!). And I was going to love it regardless. Because it’s just that unconditional kind of love.
But for two nights at least, I took a vacation from travel, sent the colicky baby out to a sitter, and finally, finally got some rest.