Monday, 26 April 2010

Threading Through...


We wake one day and go to the beach and the tide is low – but somehow it’s shallow for miles and miles – I could walk forever, trying to reach a dry sandy island, trying to reach another shore…
Those few who saw La Blanche in Bangalore might remember those words from the soundtrack of the solo. Well it’s not just Port-Gentil in Gabon that has those sorts of beaches. Koh Pang Ngang has them too. The sea is tidal on some sort of seasonal level here and I arrived at the height of low-tide season. There is a bay near my bungalow that will eventually get deep enough to swim in if you venture far enough (about 300 metres) but there’s a lot of wading to do first. The sea bed isn’t as clear as the one in Port-Gentil, and having spied an urchin and a sting ray through my mask, I’m not overly keen on walking miles over it to reach a distant shore!
This reluctance is probably exacerbated by the fact that at a next-door beach at the beginning of my stay, my heel was lanced by some venomous thing I inadvertently trod on (I’ve since decided it was probably the tail-end of an escaping ray). It’s at these moments that travelling alone is a good character test, I told myself as I scrambled out of the water as quickly as possible, desperately trying to avoid treading on anything else that might object, and plonked myself on a washed-up log on the picture-postcard and utterly deserted beach. I there cried into the blood coagulating in weird ways around the cut in my heel, which thankfully was only just pierced on the inside, rather than on the bit I put weight on. It was my blood globbing around the fast-closing wound and the fantastic pain something so relatively small was causing that led me to the conclusion that my incensed attacker was a wee bit venomous. This was one of the many occasions I was able to thank the universe for homeopath ex-partners who are kind enough to respond immediately to text messages for help. The third homeopathic remedy I tried when I got to the bungalow stopped the pain instantly and I dried my tears and hobbled on. But I’ve not been back to that particular beach.
Two days later, a dog bit me. Twice. Not hard, but painful and unpleasant. I have decided that as it bit twice (completely unprovoked; it just walked up behind me and nipped), that counts as three and I’m not due any more. Having come through the chaos of India unscathed, from the high Himalayas of Ladakh to the southernmost point of Kanyakumari, I found it rather ironic that supposedly gentle Thailand was baring her teeth, and I find myself trusting her far less than the craziness of India.
So yes, here I am in Thailand. In fact I’ve been in Thailand nearly a month. My overnight and completely illogical journey (flying away from Bangkok as I took the plane from Chennai to Mumbai and then back towards Thailand with my Mumbai-Bangkok flight) was fairly calm. The only disturbance was created by an atypical Indian lady who got very angry at first class passengers jumping the security queue and one poor Scandinavian girl whose connecting flight was delayed and so only had 20 minutes to catch her next plane to wherever she was going. She was quite a modern, Westernised sort of Indian lady, but it is nonetheless extremely unusual to see one shouting, and queues in general are a bit of a fluid concept in India. My flight from Mumbai was virtually empty, so I had the great luxury of sleeping spread-out on a bank of seats for nearly all the four hours to Bangkok. That doesn’t happen very often! I’ve decided I’m a fan of Cathay Pacific.
I found the guide to Southeast Asia I’d been fruitlessly hunting over my week in Chennai almost as soon as I landed in Bangkok. This was typical of my experiences there. Everything is available; everything is easy, but oh my, do they make you pay for it! I began to view my various encounters with Indian price-inflation with near-fondness as the Thai equivalent hit me. And while my memories of Thailand from the turn of 2000 into 2001 are of an exceptionally friendly and gentle people, this was not my experience in Bangkok.
Following my friend Anna’s recommendations, I found somewhere cheap and clean, if basic, on one of the quieter roads off the craziness of the backpacker Mecca of the Khao San Road (those of you who’ve been following this regularly may recall a picture of Anna with me and another friend, Barbara, at the Shakti temple in Jwalamukhi, near Dharamsala. Anna is one of the surprisingly many good friends I made on silent retreat, ironically enough, at Tushita).
I had two and a half days in Bangkok and treated myself to daily massages at a sweet little place around a quiet corner off the Soi Rambuttri. The first time I looked in, the only other customer was an old Thai gentleman, which seemed to me a good sign. That first day, I had a very good foot massage from a nice lady-boy who was very taken with the mendhi (henna painting) I’d had done on my hands in Chennai. In fact the mendhi caused a bit of a stir wherever I went and lasted a remarkably long time (at least the part on my palms did). The day after that I tried the herbal massage, which is basically like a Thai massage except they press hot herbal compresses into the energy lines, and my last day I had a full 2-hour traditional Thai massage. Massage is the one thing I’ve found here that’s relatively cheaper than in India, and it’s by far the best value thing to spend money on in Thailand – the trick is finding someone good, though in fairness most people seem vaguely competent.
The Khao San Road is still a fun place to shop, though no one’s much interested in bargaining anymore and t-shirts you could buy cheaper in H&M or M&S back in the UK, with the added bonus that they won’t run or fall apart, are a lot less appealing than the bargains they were nine years ago. I remembered the Khao San Road being bonkers, but not as aggressive as it now is. It’s basically become like package holidays with rucksacks, with quite astonishing quantities of alcohol being consumed from early morning and Thais walking around with large signs saying “VERY STRONG COCKTAIL. WE DON’T CHECK ID”. There are also plenty of other signs offering every kind of fake ID (were anyone minded to check) or qualification imaginable, one next to a very credible forgery of a degree certificate from Cardiff University.
Most tourists behave perfectly well of course, but the few who don’t are so distressingly memorable that it’s no wonder the Thais are now so uninterested as to be downright rude (a bit of a culture shock after India, where everyone was so interested they never left me alone). Although this is not the sex tourism heart, you still see it. The rule seems to be that the Thai women look perfectly decent, sometimes very pretty, whereas the white men are invariably very ugly and very drunk. “I hope these women get what they want out of it because there’s no doubt they work bloody hard for their money,” I mused, as I watched one small Thai lady shepherding her very drunk, very loud English beau through the market. I’d previously seen this glorious specimen of northern European manhood passed out in a smelly heap in front of a cashpoint and had assumed he was some sort of travelling tramp.
Having never encountered a turbaned (Sikh?) fortune-teller in India, I encountered two on the Khao San Road. “I’ll tell you your boyfriend’s name!” one shouted after me as I made my escape. I nearly laughed, as this is more than I could do, but was nonetheless untempted.
But really my days in Bangkok were pretty uneventful (I was totally sheltered from any sign of the ongoing protests, still peaceful at that stage). I spent most of my time being very consumerist and adding yet more guff to the huge weight of my rucksack. Towards the end of my third day, I took the overnight bus (the trains were full) and boat to Koh Pang Ngang, one of the smaller islands off Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand. Again, I had a good lesson in the value of shopping around, as I discovered that a nice Dutch girl, who travelled most of the way with me but got off before me at Koh Samui, had paid twice what I had for her bus/boat ticket.
I realised on this trip that I have become a much hardier traveller than I once was. The travel agent who sold me the bus ticket outside my guesthouse anxiously warned me that it wasn’t like the train, no bed, only a reclining seat. Remembering my very unreclining padded bench over the hairpin Himalayan bends and uneven roads all night from Dharamsala to Rishikesh, I told her I would be fine, which indeed I was, even managing to sleep a bit on my journey. Once upon a time, an overnight bus journey would have been an unspeakable torture to me. Now they seem quite normal, and while other travellers were complaining about the nature of the loo on the bus, I was just grateful there was one, making sure I used it before everyone else did because travelling in Thailand nine years ago taught me that the only dirty toilets are the ones used by lots of Westerners.
I again followed Anna’s invaluable advice when I got to Koh Pang Ngang and spent the night at a reasonably priced beach-bungalow. Prices seem to be inflating at a remarkable rate here, and the simple beachfront hut Anna lived in for four months has doubled in price since her previous stay only half a year ago. In view of this, and because Thailand was generally making me panic that my money, which had gone so far in India, was slipping away frighteningly quickly, I decided to find somewhere on a monthly basis. And oh, how grateful I am for good friends! The afternoon of my arrival, Anna took me bungalow-hunting and we found a nice big solid one, near the sea (but not a swimming bit – far too marshy for that) with a fridge. The fridge is a great boon because not only does it stop my home-made moisturiser running everywhere (I am now on my last pot of it, alas) but it means I can keep fruit and other exciting things so that I’m not at the mercy of the restaurants every time I get hungry. I moved in the next day and have been very settled here (see below) ever since.
I can’t, however, say I’m finding Thailand the idyll I did nine years ago. The island is unquestionably beautiful but I find many of the people on it very odd. With a few notable exceptions, the Thais are not very friendly and the Westerners seem to divide themselves into alcoholic drop-outs (the tables in front of the 7/11 on a very unprepossessing stretch of street turn into drunk-tramp-central from around 6pm) or confused new-age yogis (as I wrote to friend) kidding themselves that their sexual adventures are a spiritual practice. Of course, I exaggerate, and I have met some very nice yogis, Anna amongst them, and even the occasional well-behaved (if smelly) alcoholic. I had hoped to do a bit of yoga on the island myself, but when I went along to my free first day, I very quickly knew this was not for me: scripted classes full of the sort of scriptural generalisations that make my blood boil and just a bit dull and unengaging. Which is a shame, as some of the information is interesting, but it’s not put over in a way I find myself inclined to give time to.
I have generally been very lazy but even if I don’t do any yoga asana, I do at least meditate every morning, and am finding the asana creeping in more regularly now. I did practise a bit of kalari at the beginning but I’m finding the motivation to get up early enough to do it before the heat kicks in very hard to find. This is despite the fact that I’m rarely in bed much later than 10pm (those who know me will know how astonishingly early this is for me) and often earlier. After all the activity of India, I seem to have gone into a bit of a slump here. I suspect it’s necessary rest and try not to get too frustrated with myself over it.
My friend Patty joined me for four days of my second week here. Patty lives in Berlin but had just completed a yoga teacher training intensive in Bali, really just a short hop away. Patty and I connected the day we both started at Laban, three weeks after everyone else, many years ago now. It was the first time I’d seen her outside London and it was great to be girly and talk dance and teaching and life in general as we mooched around the beach or the shops. Here I am on the day we did a snorkelling boat trip:
And here we are the morning of Patty’s departure:
Otherwise, my most regular company has been Anna, who has been practising her abdominal massage on me. Sometimes we share the hire of a scooter and scoot into town to run our errands (banks, muesli, skirts, body lotions, etc). I have had a go on the scooter but don’t yet feel competent enough to take it out alone. But I’m beginning to feel this would be a very useful skill…
I seem to have gone from one hot place at its hottest time of year - and in case that weren’t enough also in the grip of a heatwave - (Kerala) to another (Thailand). So most days I go swimming, though the shallow sea is often hotter than the water that comes out of my unheated bathroom tap. In fact, I would be in the sea even if it weren’t absolutely sweltering outside it. It’s a quasi-religious ritual for me, my daily warm salt bath, with the added advantage here that I’m less likely to be drowned by the layers of clothing that concealed my body during my three dunks in the Ganga. Swimming in a bikini is infinitely more comfortable (and safer) than fully clothed, no question. And my tan has now got to that stage where I wonder whether my skin actually goes any darker. In particular my back has gone a nice teak colour, what with all the snorkelling in my attempts to avoid stepping on anything else.
I have been drawing lots of threads, in all the time left to me in my hedonism of beach, sea and general mooching. There is a bird here whose call I recognise from Kerala. It sounds a bit like it’s whistling after the girls (which any woman who’s passed through Kerala will realise is perfectly apt). I discovered that it’s not just Keralan teenagers who like to pretend they are smitten with you. In my first week here, a Thai boy called out from the back of motorbike to me one night “I love you” (he looked about eleven to me but was probably about 15, Asian teenagers generally being slower growing than their western counterparts). “So it’s not just the Keralans who do this,” I thought to myself as I continued on in the dark to my bungalow. But no other Thai teenagers have pledged their troth to me, whereas it happened at least every two hours in parts of Kerala. I’ve not had any marriage proposals from bent Thai cops either, which is just as well, as I didn’t enjoy the one I received from the one with the mad look in his eyes in Trivandrum.
Like Kerala, there are coconut trees everywhere here. And I went from one country full of holy elephants to another shaped like an elephant’s head and trunk and whose symbol is the elephant. In fact, I’ve been doing lots more ruminating of my Indian time here in Thailand than feeling that I’m having particularly Thai time.
Events that seemed quite mundane at the time now take on the glow of a fairy tale. Here’s a selection:
Michika-Lakshmi, the lovely Japanese Brahmacharya who coached me through the Devanagari script at the Dayananda Ashram in Rishikesh. She sits on the bench near the temple, overlooking the Ganges and practises the Rudram, the Vedic hymn to Shiva that takes about 45 minutes to chant. The temple Brahmin, who had previously told her women mustn’t chant this particular hymn, stands over her. He corrects a mispronunciation, scolding “You must say it right! It is the name of god!” He sits down next to her and coaches her through, chanting with her. I can see it very clearly: the Japanese woman in her white sari and long black braid, the Brahmin in his lungi and shirt, the white of the light, the white of the temple behind, the green of the hill opposite and the turquoise of the river as goddess flowing past us, as the two sing the names of god.
Going to an early-morning class in Bangalore. The old auto driver corrects me because it’s a festival day and I forgot to hand him his fare with my right hand, giving him the money instead with my left. I am slightly bemused by this, as he is a Muslim and the festival is technically a Hindu one. I walk to the studio, which is a covered, tiled terrace at the top of a building. I step into the space and start warming up. The rising sun blinds me, reflected in the mirror along one wall. Above it are green palm trees and the sky. I’ve never had a view like this from any other studio I’ve known. The floor is hard and cold underfoot but it’s good to be outside and to see trees and wood, and Bangalore is unusually peaceful so early in the day.
At the ninth of the eleven temples we visited at Kanchipuram. Night has fallen and the nearly-full moon rises high in the sky. We are all tired after a beatingly hot Tamil day. Jayaram and Gopu, the Brahmin half of our unorthodox group, arrange for a special puja to be performed. They give a basket of offerings to each of us, Irene, the Indian Christian, and me, “the wannabe Hindu” as Jayaram joked, dressed to minimise attention in Irene’s beautiful salwar set. We creep barefoot along a narrow corridor which seems full of built obstructions. The Brahmin waits at the end at an entryway that is surrounded above and on either side by stone walls. We hand over the baskets and I’m slightly alarmed by the force with which he smashes the coconuts, breaking them on the stone floor. The details of the ritual escape me but he returns from the murthi with fruit and flowers and kumkum that have been with the idol and so are blessed. We too are blessed and given these in exchange for our offerings. He beckons us forward to see the god. It is impossible to see more than part of him and I have to crouch low to look up under the overhanging wall. A huge black Vishnu appears on the back wall. I can’t see his head; it’s too high and dark. I see the long leg, raised high like some ballet dancer holding an excruciating develop√©. But Vishnu looks very easeful as he prepares to bestride the universe. I am completely captivated, as we creep back out with our baskets to look at the moon outside.
I realise I have got into a bad habit with these blogs. Instead of writing little and often as I had originally intended, I store my stories up and write tortuously long occasional entries. I complain bitterly if I have to read anything too long on a computer screen, so I can only humbly beg you all pardon, hoping you’ve had the patience to read this far. I will endeavour to do better in future.
From Lucy, with love xx