Intrepid Hearts Deprived

“Traveling is like gambling: it is always connected with winning and losing and generally where it is least expected we receive, more or less, than what we hoped for.”

~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

 

Of course he’d stayed too long in Pinang. That’s what happens when a man with too much time stumbles onto a place with so much heart. He stays and consumes it, until it begins to consume him back.

The transition occurs imperceptibly. The food still goes down savory. The drinks still buzz. The laughter still flows. But after awhile something underneath doesn’t feel satisfied. After awhile it’s all just butter on burnt toast.

So Carlos booked a 3:00pm bus to Thailand. And he spent the morning idly watching the street, imagining it was a theater set. Characters would roll onstage in cars, on bikes, and they’d roll off it again. People would stroll in with strips of dialogue torn from other plays’ scripts. The lighting was hazy, but the set construction was excellent.

He felt content, filled with the simmering anticipation of entering a fresh, new country. He sat alone with his feet propped way up high on an unfinished wood table. He took harsh drags on cheap cigarettes, and smiled wryly in pensive reflection.

Then the bus rolled up. It was nice. There were no chips in the paint, no dents in the side panels. The seats were clean, cushioned, seat-belted. The air-conditioning worked.

Carlos shuddered at the quality. It numbs the transit experience. Granted that can sometimes be a relief, other times a deprivation. But it was what it was, so he climbed aboard.

Carlos chatted up the woman sitting up front. She had caramel skin, a pretty face, and striking eyes that he couldn’t ignore. There are some eyes you must engage with or else they plant seeds of ‘shoulda’ in that night’s dreams.

‘Where are you from?’ she asked.

‘America.’ replied Carlos.

‘Which America? You’re actually from the United States.’ she sassed back.

That was Peeps; strong willed, deeply opinionated, and unafraid to speak her mind. Unafraid of adversity. Unafraid in general; a fearlessness that Carlos guessed she’d grown on the road. When you suffer the roughness of a certain travel style, those experiences feed an internal Lion. You learn what you can take, and the offenses of others shrink in concern.

It’s like this.

When you know you can handle the broiling sun in the desert, tropic humidity at high noon, and the exposure of an alpine snow storm…

When you’ve navigated the bustle of a New Delhi train station, slept on buses trundling around bends in the Himalayas, driven motor bike up the long spine of Vietnam, and hitched across continents…

When you’ve stomached the oh-so delicious, but sometimes spicy, nauseating, fetid, sour, and animate fare of a hundred lifestyles…

And when you’ve rubbed shoulders with people from all over the world, and made far, far more friends than enemies…

Then there’s no mind of another that can topple yours.  You just don’t give a single shit what someone thinks of you.  You just aren’t jostled by a thorny comment.

“If I don’t mind, why should they?” you might think.

“If they do mind, they should say something.” you might conclude.

So all this can make you blunt. It can make you harsh. It can come off as arrogant. But Carlos knew better, and he loved the attitude. Peeps is a strong traveling companion that he’d have around any day, on any continent. Empowered, independent, Peeps projected competence.

Peeps never bitched about anything. She made decisions at exigent moments, and offered suggestions when diplomacy was needed. Her taste in food, music and accommodation was on point. She was on point. Her motivated drive reflected perfectly Carlos’ insouciant float.

She was heading for Tonsai beach near Krabi, and Carlos was down for the ride. So they made their way to the boat harbor in Ao Nang. It was closed the night, so they joined a group of Indians for a few drinks and spirited conversation, then crashed on the beach. In the morning they took a creaking fish trolley to Tonsai.

There was no pier at Tonsai, so the boat ran aground. Sharp tones of unintelligible Thai whipped Peeps and Carlos onshore. Hefting bulky bags across unsure footing, the lot of them tumbled like spurred cattle onto the sand. So was their glorious arrival.

There are two general categories of beach-side tourist locales; charge and chill. Charged places thrum with the constant beat of some distant bar. Never really switched off, the party vibe merely dims during daylight hours. Then at night, every single night, it pumps.

The sounds of nature are drowned in house music with heavy beats, frenetic trance, and the rare DJ that can deliver a perfect drop. Strobe, neon, LED, spot and every other light dispensing mechanism is employed to create an all consuming atmosphere. Drugs can be purchased as casually as bottled water, and with greater availability.

These places draw massive crowds, and an accommodating infrastructure. Charge beaches are filled with rows of umbrellas and lounges, scurried up and down by waiters delivering ordered drinks. And where the sand ends on charge beaches, stalls of merchandise begin.

Tonsai, on the other hand, was a chill beach. When Peeps and Carlos arrived, it was silent save the whispers of sea-foam to sand, empty save some tourists moseying about. It didn’t take a long walk into the jungle to catch whiffs of ganja and patchouli; sights of parachute pants and dread-locked hair; and echoes of the familiar tunes of old Bob Marley.

Peeps had a tip that someone once crashed for free in the attic of a pirate bar. All they had to do, she said, was find Tophy; the Thai man with a big afro.

‘Yeah alright. Let’s find that afro.’

Not ten minutes later, they approached the bow of a medieval ship jutting into the gravel path. Behind, where its hull should be, was a bar straight out of Neverland. Building codes be damned, because this place looked nailed together by lost children wielding rusty hammers. It was glorious chaos. And in the center stood a large man with a larger afro. So we met Tophy.

His offer was valid, but Peeps and Carlos booked a bungalow instead. They knew when to moderate the rugged life.

If Carlos shared the sentiments of his fellow ex-patriots, he’d say he found paradise. Paradise. Paradise was the word that spilled from everyone’s lips. But Carlos found himself in disagreement. He understood of course. Palm trees on white sandy beaches, sandwiched by aquamarine water and fishnet hammocks. And the enormous limestone cliffs, topped by lush greenery, that cradle the entire beach, and that drop vertically into a pristine ocean, qualifies as paradise. But he didn’t heave a sigh of relief, nor settle into a relaxed bliss.

Instead Carlos found himself in bewilderment. A big ‘NOW WHAT?’ shrouded his thoughts. He was in a brand new country. He wanted to harvest some insight, challenge himself in some indefinable way, discover a new facet of the world. But it wasn’t to be.

Thailand just wasn’t exotic. Sure the humidity and monkeys gleam with novelty. Sure Thai culture is rich, colorful, unique and foreign. But much of Thailand has been usurped by Western influence. And Tonsai was such a place.

Let’s put it this way.

The Beach by Alex Garland starts out describing the jaded mentality of a backpacker looking for substance on Khaosan road, Bangkok. Everywhere around him easy accommodation, commodious transport, trite attractions, and throngs of foreigners. The place is overrun.

The protagonist laments that he missed the boat there by 20 years. That book was written in 1996. Carlos thought he missed the boat by 20 years. He missed missing the boat by 20 years. He’s really 40 years out and no one gives a shit. What was left in Thailand?

It wouldn’t be found at Tonsai. And his jaded malaise wouldn’t dissipate until Chiang Mai.

But not one to let pity blind him from fortune Carlos affected himself to the occasion. He shrugged off his high-minded aims at transcendent experience. He dismissed his standards of intrepid venture. And he and Peeps bought a chunk of weed cleaved from a large brick of the stuff with a butcher’s knife. Then they smoked fat doobies and drank Chang beer and chilled in the pirate bar with Tophy.

In the South of Thailand there were no great revelations about human nature to be found. There were no hard-earned accomplishments to strive for. No struggles, no challenges. No life lessons, deep insights, personal growth.

Carlos went on a few bottled adventures. They were safe, and included packed lunch. He met and befriended some great people. They laughed, then separated. He had fun.

Maybe it was paradise after all. Maybe denying the word is a mistake. Carlos chuckled at the thought. Perhaps the word fits perfectly. Paradise occludes struggle, and on Tonsai there is none.

The thing is, Carlos hungers for struggle. The friction he felt in Tonsai was between his nature and that of paradise. Tonsai revealed what he’d make of heaven. Tip-toeing through the idle angels he’d think, ‘Too fucking boring.’ and then hitch off to hell.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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