Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Love This Island

me lounging on Ko Samet, the island I love dearly, but which does not, apparently, love me back in return

the Ko Samet version of a restaurant (this was the one at our hotel)

fancy a coconut? you dont even need to get up from your beach chair

tree house bungalow (the only form of accomadation I've ever stayed in there)

how could you not love this island?

It is a Tuesday afternoon around 12pm, and I am not at school. School is in session. Despite the government holiday tomorrow (Mother’s Day, aka the Queen’s birthday), today and yesterday have both been regular school days. From my apartment I have been able to hear the various and often loud noises coming from the secondary school next door. Around 10am there was a man talking very, very loudly into a megaphone and then some kind of singing contest? Concert? Impromptu dance party? This was all in Thai of course so I sort of have to just guess.
So why you ask, am I at home? Why am I not hard at work corralling second graders, chasing down wayward ten year olds, teaching a lesson on items of clothing (which was supposed to be my lesson plan this week)? Well the answer goes back to Ko Samet, where I spent this past weekend. Now I still have my passport (I didn’t bring it, nor will I ever bring it with me anywhere again unless it is absolutely necessary). I still have my phone, camera, money. No my lovely, little Ko Samet didn’t take any material items from me this time. It did, however, take away the use of my right foot, at least for the next few days.
“Liz!” I can almost hear all of you shout in exasperation. For the last time, stay away from that island. That island has it in for you. And well, maybe it does. But as smart as it would be for me to stay away, as practical and as logical, I’m fairly positive that I won’t. Because I love Ko Samet, and as I mentioned in a past blog, sometimes the things you love mistreat you. Sometimes they put you through pain or hardship. But if you really love something, the way I love travel and my dear Ko Samet, then it’s simply irrelevant.
So now for the short hand tale of how I tore a muscle in my right foot. Don’t worry this blog isn’t about my misadventure, this blog is a love letter to Ko Samet. But for posterity I must first record my less than graceful mishap.

There are two things you have to understand. One, I am a complete and total klutz. I know a lot of people say that, but in my case, it’s really, really true. A year and a half ago I fell down a flight of stairs in Charleston (completely sober and in flats, and nobody pushed me) and bruised my leg so bad that even now, a year and a half later, it’s still bruised. A couple of months ago in Bangkok I slipped (in my defense it was monsooning at the time and I was wearing my zero traction, worn down flip flops) and landed on my rear so hard I was sure I had fractured my tail bone. I fall a lot. I fall in flats. I fall in heels. I fall on pavement. I fall on dirt. I am an equal opportunity faller. I will never be one of those women who can be described as graceful. Me and coordination do not get along. I’m one of those people in yoga classes who falls down repeatedly whenever we try and do a balancing move.
The second thing you must understand is that Ko Samet has one road and “road” is putting it nicely. It’s not paved. It’s not flat. It’s not straight. It is a red dirt road that winds around the exterior of the island and it is chock full of pot holes and giant craters. Whenever it rains this road turns into a muddy, slippery mess and the potholes grow and multiply. It had rained in Ko Samet before I arrived on Friday night. I got there around 8pm (after buddying up with some random girl travelers on the bus from Bangkok and sharing a speedboat with them) and met up with two of my teacher friends who were already there. We went out, we had a couple of drinks. And around 2am we decided to walk back to our bungalow (another facet to this story, NOTHING good happens after 2am, one of the truest and most often ignored rules in our world). We had two choices. We could walk along the beach (we were at a bar that was one beach over from where we were staying), but then we would have to walk over a large series of rocks (the same rocks incidentally that had been the scene of the purse snatching crime). So thinking it was the safer choice (and because I had no fond memories of those rocks), we took the road. It was dark. The moon was hidden behind clouds and there aren’t a lot of streetlights in Ko Samet. I was wearing said, slippery, no traction flip flops. We picked our way tediously through the mud and holes for a few minutes and then boom, it happened in an instant.
Foot in hole, wrenching, twisting movement, Liz down, foot hurt. I knew right away something was wrong, worse than just a mild sprain. I could put some weight on it but it hurt, a lot. I hobbled all the way back to the bungalow (which luckily this time was a different hotel, not one of the ones where you literally have to climb a miniature mountain to get to the room) and then examined my foot underneath the porch light. A lovely bruise was spreading over the top of it, even though it had only been a few minutes since I fell. The next morning I couldn’t put any weight on it at all and it was swollen to boot. One trip to the “clinic” later (I feel like a lot of things on Ko Samet have to be put in quotations, like the “police station” or the “post office” which shares space with a hostel’s internet room) and I was diagnosed, torn muscle, no walking for seven to ten days. I was given a pair of crutches (unlike any crutches I had ever seen, these ones you don’t put your weight under you arms, you put your weight on these little hand rests about half way up, they seriously look like old school, polio crutches, in fact they may well be), and sent on my merry way. Let’s just say the rest of the trip was interesting. There’s nothing handicap accessible about this island. Everything is up or down crazy, winding, muddy hills. Our bungalow was up a nice, steep set of stairs (no railing of course). And then there’s the sand, which isn’t the easiest surface to crutch on. It was just like the time I broke my foot at summer camp. At the time I thought summer camp was the worst place to be on crutches, but now I’m fairly positive it’s a Thai island.
I limped through the next couple of days (still enjoying myself because while I couldn’t swim or take any long walks, I could still sit in a beach chair and read, which ain’t too shabby a way to pass time) and then came the most arduous part of the weekend, the ferry back to the mainland. To get on the ferry I had to get down a pair of steep concrete steps (with water on one side), get through on empty boat, and then climb onto the full one. To get off I had to cross a narrow wooden plank, get up a pair of steep, rickety wooden stairs, then crutch my way down a wooden dock (with a good couple of inches of open space between each plank). Suffice it to say I had help.
So there it is, my latest mishap, one in a long series. I’m pretty much immobile right now, because to get to the market I would have to crutch for a good half hour to forty five minutes in the hot sun (normally it takes about ten to fifteen minutes walking but I am not a fast crutcher). The landlord of my building saw me get out of the taxi on Sunday and immediately rushed to my aid, carrying my backpack to my room, giving me his cell number if I needed anything, and even showing up yesterday morning at 8am with two bags full of breakfast foods (a 711 hot pineapple toasty, corn and bean yogurt (yes that is a flavor here, weirdly not too bad), gyoza (of course) and two cans of pasteurized milk). But like I said before, this blog isn’t just about my inability to go a full month in Thailand without some kind of minor calamity.
It’s about Ko Samet, beautiful, tropical, quirky Ko Samet. I love this island. Have I mentioned that? Well I’ll put it in one more time just in case. I love this island.
I love getting there at night (which is the only time I have arrived in all of my three trips). I love getting off the bus in Ban Phe, feeling the warm, breezy, salty air. I love the speedboat over to the island, whipping through the night air, going airborne with every big wave, ocean spray in your face and hair, and not caring because ocean spray is so much better than the alternative, sweat. I love when the speedboat rounds the turn in the island and you see Hat Sai Kaew (the backpacker beach, where I’ve stayed each time in true backpacker fashion) and suddenly the shore is a blur of color and light (but not in a horrible, over-crowded way, just in a lively, vacation way). I love Ko Samet almost the same at night as I do during the day. There is nothing better in this world than getting to the island after a long week of work, after a five hour journey, putting your stuff in your room and then going to one of the many restaurants and bars (all right on the sand). You sit with your feet in the sand, sipping a cold drink, with the water sometimes only feet from you, or sometimes coming right up to your feet. And you breathe, truly, truly breathe.
I love the mix of people. Yes it might be a little touristy, and some of these tourists can get loud and drunkenly obnoxious. But a lot of them are there for the same reason as you, to relax, to have a fun beach weekend and just take a break. In one night you can have conversations with people from a dozen different countries. On Friday night this past weekend (pre-foot hurting incident) we found ourselves crowded around a tiny little bar, right on the beach. Our bartender was Cambodian (he wore board shirts and a tie and nothing else), the guys to our left were British, the guys farther along the bar were Swedish (by the way, is there a single person in Sweden who does not have platinum blonde hair?). There was a Thai women and a Western man at a table behind us with their gorgeous child (all of these children who have one Western parent and one Thai parent are painfully gorgeous). And we all happily chatted and sipped our cold beers while Bob Marley or Jack Johnson or some other typically beach music played in the background (and yes it’s a little clichéd but that music is beach music for a reason, you hear it when you’re at the beach, with the sound of waves mingling with the beats, and suddenly all is right in the world).
And that’s just Ko Samet at night. You wake up, and I always love getting there at night, because then there’s that moment you wake up in the morning, step out onto your porch, look out across the trees and the tops of the bungalows beneath you (all the bungalows on this part of the island are on a steep little hill across the road from the beach) and there’s that water. On a sunny day it’s the most soul shattering, unearthly color in the world. If it’s cloudy it’s merely beautiful. I love the tree house, summer camp feel of all of the hostels. In some of the bungalows I’ve stayed in you’re so far up the hill that you practically are in a tree, perched precariously over the steep drop to the road below. Every little bungalow has its own porch and you look over and there are other guests emerging, yawning and rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, your fellow campers in this strange, island dream world.
I love that for all of its prettiness, Ko Samet is at its heart an off kilter, quirky place. And thank God for that. If it was simply pretty then Ko Samet wouldn’t be nearly as memorable as it is. It wouldn’t have the same soul. Post card pretty is nothing if there isn’t a pulse beneath it, something realer than what’s on the exterior. True beauty comes from that pulse, from that living, breathing soul. If you just glance then Ko Samet might seem like any touristy island. But look just a fraction deeper and you’ll realize that there’s nothing slick or pre-packaged about the “touristy-ness”, which is what makes it endearing rather than cloying. It’s not like some vacation spots in the US where the corporate feel is everywhere, where chains dominate the land, and no one who owns a business in the place is even from there. Ko Samet restaurants may cater to Westerners but it’s always a little off, whether it’s the misspelled words on the menu, or the strange combinations of food, hot sauce on the burgers or ketchup in the “American fried rice”. There’s something a tad bit ramshackle and spontaneous about every restaurant or bar.
For example the first time I went to Ko Samet we ate breakfast at our hotel’s restaurant (open air on a porch, I don’t think anything in Ko Samet is indoors really, why would it be?). I ordered an omelet and bacon. Everyone’s food arrived, including my omelet but no bacon. After we were nearly finished, the waitress assured me that my bacon was on the way. And then she looked up toward the street, pointed, and said “see there it is now”. Bewildered I turned and looked in the direction she was pointing. Sure enough there was my bacon, zooming our way in a plastic bag carried by a guy on a motorbike. Normally you hear “bacon on the way” and assume it’s on the way from the kitchen. But nope, my bacon was on its way from the market or store, winding its way along the steep island road, to arrive cooked and delicious on my plate.
I love the people who live and work on the island, who play along with us tourists, but always with a bemused smile on their faces, like they can’t get over all of these silly people. And they work hard. You’ll see the same person working from morning to very late at night in a restaurant. Or the firedancers who helped us out on our first trip to Ko Samet. They were firedancers by night who also owned a tattoo parlor. And then on the way back to the mainland, who should I see working on the ferry, untying lines to get us away from the dock, why the same multi-tasking firedancer. I love that the official post office of Ko Samet is in the same room as a hotel internet café and library. I love that both the police station and clinic close at night. So if you’re robbed and/or stabbed at 2am then well you just have to wait until the morning to deal with both.
I love that the beach doesnt even begin to get crowded until noon, as tourists sleep in, amble down from their hotels, eat a late breakfast at one of the restaurants on the sand and then finally make their way onto the beach. There's a magical laziness that permeates the air in Ko Samet. Most people flop down on beach toweles or chairs and stay that way throughout the afternoon, pausing occasionally to nibble on fresh fruit sold by men who walk up and down the sand, or maybe take a dip in the clear, calm waters to cool off. Some people stay up in the shade at the restaurants, drinking and eating intermittently throughout the day, one endless summer picnic/siesta. Nothing about Ko Samet is hurried or judgemental. You want to sleep in and then lie in the sun all day, the whole island seems to hum with encouragement for such lazy behavior.
I even love the dogs on Ko Samet, or at least the puppies. There are a lot of dogs on this island, but they’re all friendly and love people (as most dogs do, but some ones in my town are not so friendly). And every time I’ve gone there have been at least a couple of puppies! Adorable, toddling, clumsy little puppies that come up to you and wag their tales or fall asleep underneath your table. For someone who loves dogs and who wants a dog very badly, it’s paradise.
And maybe that really is Ko Samet; paradise, a weird, beautiful, flawed, touristy, bacon on a motorbike version of paradise. I know there are probably islands in the south that are ten times more gorgeous, more isolated, with clearer water and whiter sand, and I may go to these islands and fall in love. But I think first in my heart will always be Ko Samet, part summer camp, part Neverland, part booze cruise. Ko Samet is the kind of island that a little kid would have created from thin air using only crayons and glue(well minus the booze cruise aspect), dogs and puppies everywhere, everyone sleeping in tree houses, men walking down the beach selling ice cream all day. It’s a wonderful, make believe world that is improbably real. And I will go back, despite what this island has done to me, I just don’t think I could stay away.

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