Wednesday, November 3, 2010

the Ko Samet moon

A couple of blogs ago I wrote about the "year ago" game. As in a year ago to this day I was in Bali. Or a year ago to this day I was in Malaysia. It's an impossible game not to play when you've traveled for an extended period of time. And I think we play it because it links us, no matter where we are, no matter if its cold and wet and boring, we're linked to a place or a memory by the sheer power of a date on a calendar. Well for me, as far as my time in SE Asia in 2009 goes, my year ago game will expire in a few days. And it's silly really, but I'm finding that very difficult.

As of November 8th, my year ago game will not take me back to a moon-lit island or a windy stretch of cliff but to Richmond, Virginia, to the place I am right now. From now on it will always be a year plus when I'm thinking of Thailand or Bali or Laos or Malaysia, and it shouldn't make that big of a difference, and it's hard to adequately describe why it does. But thinking of it makes me ache, and I feel in a way like I'm saying goodbye all over again, like I'm boarding a plane in Bangkok and watching that hodge podge, smoggy skyline grow fainter until it disappears altogether in a blur of cloud and sky. I feel like I'm about to lose something, and every day when I see the calendar creep closer to November 8th, I can't help but feel a vague but still distinct panic, because I know that time, as it always does, will win. And I won't lose my memories. They won't be any less special. But I won't be able to say "a year ago" when I talk about those things. It will be "a while ago" or "some time ago" and one day it will be "quite a long time ago", and that's necessary of course, but it's also very sad.

So one last "year ago" game then, while I can still play it. A year ago I was by myself on the island of Ko Samet, an island I've written about at length on this blog. This was the island where I was robbed of all my valuable belongings. This was the island that sprained my ankle. This was the island that gave me a scar I still have and will probably always have, on my knee, from a very misguided attempt at night swimming. And so of course when I had a week left in Thailand after my two other traveling companions had left for the US, this was the island to which I returned. This was the island where I chose to say goodbye to Thailand, to South East Asia, to six months that changed my life in absolutely no major way but in every possibly tiny one.

By this point I was completely okay traveling solo in Thailand. I felt nothing but safe. To be honest I felt 100 times safer getting on a bus in Bangkok to go east to Ko Samet than I did getting on a train in Rome to go to Florence alone. Thai men are saints compared to Italian men when it comes to lascivious glances and comments. And I knew by that point, after six months, that traveling alone in Thailand, even if everything possible went wrong, I really would be okay. Because I had more faith that I can describe in the kindness and generosity of Thai strangers, a faith that was cemented by six months of experiencing nothing but kindness and generosity (minus the whole purse stealing incident, but that could have been foreigners!) So after a last couple of nights at my beloved Wendy House in Bangkok (and a few last trips to my beloved Bangkok malls), I went once again to Ekamai train station and got on that four hour bus to the port city of Ban Phe. I spent the by then familiar trip listening to music and staring out the window as the sprawl of Bangkok gave way to tropical fields, as gray became green. Once we arrived in Ban Phe, it was all easy and second hand. I smiled as I remembered my other trips to Ban Phe, the first time when we arrived after dark and took a speedboat to the island, surf spraying our faces as the neon lights of the party, backpacker beach came into focus across the black surface of the sea. I thought of the first time I went solo, when my friends were already on the island and I had to arrange to take a speed boat with some other foreigners on the bus.

But on this day, a year ago, I simply waited for the noisy, rusty ferry that would take me and the other assorted travelers the forty-five minutes or so to the island. My previous three trips to Ko Samet I had always stayed on the backpacker/cheap beach called Hat Sai Kaew, fun and pretty but full of bars and fire dancers and noise. This time, since I was solo and in a more meditative mood, I decided to stay at Ao Thian, several beaches and several rocky outcrops down the island from Hat Sai Kaew. Hat Sai Kaew was always a short songthew ride away from the pier, but as I found out Ao Thian was much father and much more expensive. I also found as all the other tourists get off at closer beaches, I was the only one of the arriving bunch going there. The friendly Thai girl driver motioned for me to get inside the songthew with her (before we were all riding on the bed, basically the same thing as a pick up truck, just with benches), and together we made our way down increasingly rocky roads, passing the occasional dog or chicken. After a solid twenty minutes of bumpy, jostling driving, we pulled into the entrance to Ao Thian. This was the first time I got a twinge of nervousness. I had the name of the guest house written down, but as I looked at the relatively isolated beach, I wondered if I made a mistake. Maybe I should just go back to Hat Sai Kaew with the internet cafes and pizza restaurants and hordes of Westerners. But then I focused on the quiet, still surface of the green ocean, the patches of white sand, and I realized I was a fool for worrying. I hopped out of the truck, paid the driver, and made my way down to the sand.

As I looked around, I realized that Ao Thian was no where near the Castaway island I first thought it was. There was a small convenience store with an ATM, and several guest houses, all with restaurants. There were places to get massages and pedicures. But whereas Hat Sai Kaew was filled with tourists, Ao Thian was perfectly scaled back, maybe one or two dozen, a couple of families, some couples, and of course the many Thai people who worked in the restaurants and guest houses and made it all possible. I found my way to the guest house, which had maybe one other room filled (I was there in October which is right before peak season hits, also it was a weekday). And after receiving a 50% discount on the spot from the smiling owner, I made my way to my ocean front room, complete with AC, big windows that opened right onto the ocean, a tv with a couple of English language news channels, wifi capability, a huge bed, and an open air bathroom with hot water. For someone who had spent the last six weeks backpacking (occasionally in tiny, windowless rooms where you would share a bathroom with 50 other smelly backpackers), this was heaven. All for about fifteen dollars a night.

And then I spent the next three days in this heaven. My days were spent on the lounge chairs propped up on the white sand beaches. I would pick my spot in the morning and read until the sun got hot (which in Thailand in November was like 8am). And then when I started sweating too much I'd go for a dip in the clear, warm waters, letting my toes rest on the sandy bottom, facing the island, so distinct from the beaches of my Southern childhood. These beaches were not flat, low, wide expanses. They were slivers of coast that rose straight into jagged rock and jungle above. I'd come in from the water when I was pruned, read some more, until I got hungry. Then I'd choose from the five or six restaurants on the beach (to get to any of the other beaches I would have had to go back inland and gotten a ride on a songthew, the individual beaches on Ko Samet themselves are crescent shapes and some of them you can walk from one to the other, but others grow too rocky where they meet and are dangerous to navigate, Ao Thian was one of those, which was wonderful because it kept it secluded and private). I never had to actually leave the beach to eat though, unless I wanted some shade. All of the restaurants had tables on the sand, where I could order my Pad Thai or Tom Yum Soup or papaya salad with sticky rice and fried chicken, and sit and eat with my shoes off. As was the custom with all tropical beach vacations, happy hour began at 11am. I'd order a cold Singha or Chang or Tiger or Leo (sigh, I miss my Asian beers), and sip as I watched the water ebb and flow.

After lunch there'd be more lying by the water, more swimming, maybe a nice, long nap as I tanned. I was dark brown by this point, tanner than I had ever been or will ever be again (sorry skin). My hair was light. There were freckles on my shoulders. The closest I had ever looked to that was as a kid, after days at the pool or at summer camp. And even though I was by myself, something in this trip felt like those days had, lazy and long and hot and perfect, where the next thing to do was never a chore or a task but always something wonderful and lovely. For me the next thing was either to swim or to go back to shore, to order a beer or a coconut ice shake, fried rice or drunken noodles. At night I'd go back to the porch outside of my room.  I'd grab my computer or a book and sit on the giant outdoor bed that belonged to my room, complete with mattress (I kid you not, and let me repeat $15/night) that faced the ocean and the black sky, a sky that on those nights in November was bursting with a full moon.

 I'll never forget the way that moon looked. I want to say it was the biggest moon I'd ever seen, or the brightest. But that's not what it was, and even if it had been somehow bigger or brighter than other moons from my life, that wouldn't have been what made it perfect, that wouldn't why to this day whenever I see a full moon I think about that one from a year ago, and how I know to my core that I will never see a moon as beautiful or as right. It was the moon I'd come to Thailand to see. And it was as though all those days and hours and all that pre-trip fear and nervousness and all those moments in the classroom that made me want to jump out of my classroom window-all of those things had been leading up to this moon. It was there and I was there, and that could never be changed or erased or altered. Those six months could never be changed or erased or altered. I could keep them, and I don't know if this makes any sense at all, but something about that moon seemed to cement that all. And so maybe that's why now, even these many days later, when I see a full moon in the sky, I feel a pang, not a good one or a bad one, but just a unmistakable pang of memory, of ownership for that part of my life.

As I sat there, I could faintly hear the celebrations going on a beach over for the full moon party (very big in Thailand on islands). And I kept waiting to be lonely or wish I was over there, but I never did. I had spent many a night in Thailand dancing and drinking and being 23. Several of those nights had been on Ko Samet, where I danced and drank fruity drinks out of fish bowls and hung out with beautiful Swedish boys. And I loved those nights. But this trip wasn't about any of that. This trip was about saying goodbye, just me and this country I had fallen in love with so completely. Although I quickly realized, I couldn't say goodbye to Thailand. It meant too much. It was too close to my heart. And so in Ko Samet, in the kindest, gentlest, most Thai way possible, Thailand said goodbye to me. It said goodbye as I slept with the windows open, the small ocean waves not so much crashing as brushing against the shore. It said goodbye as I swam my last morning before it was time to leave, one last warm, clear swim before I returned to the cold, cloudy oceans of my home. It said goodbye in every beautiful, perfect, tropical paradise moment, so perfect they should have been cliches, complete with a little umbrella sticking out of a coconut, except they weren't, not a single moment was a cliche.

One of my favorite idiosyncrasies about the French language is that when you say you miss something or someone, the exact English translation isn't "I miss such and such." Rather it's "such and such misses me." Now I'm no where near self involved enough to think that the entire nation of Thailand has mourned my absence. But I like the idea of a place being something more than just an passive blob, but rather a living, breathing whole. When I left Thailand, it didn't feel like I was leaving this abstract, unfeeling thing. It felt like I was leaving a friend. And I miss Thailand every single day the way I would miss a friend.

So maybe the point of this whole, long winded narrative is to say that I miss my friend. And I hate that time is putting space between me and Thailand, between me and those moments. But I can't do anything about that. None of us can. Whether it's a fantastic trip or an actual loved one or any part of our lives no longer there physically but which we nevertheless hold onto, time creates distance. And the natural conclusion would be that it fades, that it diminishes and lessens.

Except maybe it doesn't have to. Maybe if something was bright enough to start with, it won't ever change or wear. Maybe that moon will always be that perfect moon, and those days in Ko Samet will always be that sun soaked and endless and content in my mind.

I'd like to think that. Partly because it will make the end of the "year ago" game easier to handle. But also because the evidence is there. All I have to do is close my eyes, and it starts to come back, slowly at first, in bits and pieces, a drift of Thai conversation coming from the workers closing up a nearby restaurant, a horn blowing in the distance from a boat. Then it comes faster, salt air, water against sand, the thick smell of garlic, mosquitos buzzing in my ear, a dark, endless horizon, wind rustling palm leaves.

And then that moon. That moon is still there.

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