A Breath in Time: Final Thailand Days


June 18, 2013
The breath streams in, pressing deep through the chest before releasing hard into the core. Tension tears but the body grips to its balance. Each second passes— still, silent.

Our teacher guides us with a liquid lightness, curling her toes onto the edge of her mat. Her arms rise swiftly like knives slicing stillness in two.

Twenty hands follow.

The canvas of the room’s only window frames her fiery red hair, jarred by the aluminum domino view of Bangkok’s skyline. Twenty six floors up and life outside seems so distant.

Inhale. Outside, where each passing moment chips at our last few hours in Bangkok. Where later that day we’d shuffle into our last cab, sweeping through the rich curves of the city streets.

Exhale. Where the taxi would stall in the congestion of Bangkok’s traffic, eventually drawing in to the gateway of our exit.

The plane would tear through the runway that night, soaring over shrinking pieces of a downtown view, no care for my aching desire to cut the breath, to hook the sensation and keep it, just a moment more.

Inhale.

Wisps of hair graze my shoulders, clenched between folds of pressed skin. I follow our teacher’s lead, lowering the hands in prayer, softly scanning forehead to heart. I separate my lips to heave out a bellied “om." The breath skirts upward, fluttering up before disappearing out into the space.

I shut my eyes, falling into the breath’s patterned cycle. Time relaxes and all is still, just for the moment.

Bangkok, Thailand

****
June 14- June 18, 2014
Caitlan and I flew into Bangkok from Koi Samui that Friday morning, stumbling back into the hotel we’d stayed at our first week in Bangkok. But of course our room wasn’t ready until the 2 p.m. check in. “I’ll see what I can do,” the lady at the front desk said stoutly, whisking us away. It was just barely 9 a.m. so Caitlin and I curled onto the hard floor of the waiting area, too dazed to note our discomfort.

We’d registered for high tea at the swanky Shangri-La hotel a few days later.  A heavenly buffet caved in our corner of the lobby’s lounge— a steaming porcelain pot serving our centerpiece for our little table for two. We were the few white faces among the majority upper-crust Thai families.  The women, I noted, were pale, their coiffed hair permed. Couples—husbands with their wives, elderly women with their troupe of male dancers and the token older gentleman with his notably younger female counterpart— sashayed the afternoon away on the ballroom floor, gracefully tapping in tune to the band’s live music.

I had a made us a list of the must-do itinerary that turned into the never-happened bullet points. (Museums reservations at a counterfeit museum were overbooked; Our dress code, at one bar, was off.)

But what I did manage to get was a fake designer watch at a Bangkok night market, after weeks of egging Caitlan to stop at each watch stand we passed. I had managed to get us pulled into a shady alleyway in Chiang Mai, an enclave concealed by a velvet curtain where stacks upon stacks of watches were piled. Four businessmen huddled in the narrow corner eyeing us deftly. I, naturally, got the giggles.

Kapkoonka, but no thank you,” we spit out, scurrying back out into the flurry of Chiang Mai’s bustling market.

Khao San Road, Bangkok, Thailand

****
A tuk-tuk ride was on the itinerary that last night in Bangkok.

"Where to?" Caitlan asked, eyeing the clothes strewn among our hotel room. We’d be leaving the following afternoon.

"Anywhere," I responded.

And so after a kapkoonka (or ten) and a bigger baht fee than anticipated, we haggled a driver into giving us a round trip tuk tuk ride. Caitlan and I gripped the steel poles as we winded from the backpacker strip of Khao San toward the Grand Temple complex, streaming toward spokes of jeti golden tips towering overhead.

The breeze whipped our faces as the tuk tuk rattled on, memories and moments of the month rushing forward. We had walked those steps our first day in the city, dodging the tourist dupes of “friendly men” keen to explain the Grand Temple was closed, “but we can get you in our own tour.”

And it was in that moment that I let go. Let go of my search for the story I’d been chasing that month. Let go of the anxiety of returning to the states (post-grad jitters to attend to, internship to begin, new lease to start). I let go, forcing focus on the moment and my appreciation for the time spent sharing this experience with one of my closest friends. Because that’s what our month, this story was about: guiding each other through the unknown of both our worlds, the changing pace of life post-grad and the adventure of a pause in between.

Caitlan says she watches movies for the moment. I travel for the moment. For the moment it clicks, for the rush of the feeling, the step back from life— the freeness it breeds and the greater clarity it allows.

I’ve been playing with the idea of time since reading Jess Walter’s book Beautiful Ruins. He leaves off the novel with a note addressing the place time as a concept has in developing a story's meaning.

Time didn’t define our trip. It shaped it. It enabled it. And so what place does time have in the story and memories we've taken away? Time has every place and no place in memory. Time permits experience. Experience provides memory's basic plot of time. And the story folds over once meaning is found.  



****
The taxi draws into the airport’s departure gate, stalling as it parks. The driver unloads our carry-ons, packed in more tightly than how they’d arrived.

It all blurs, the check in to security to the hours waiting for the flight. The yoga class that morning seemed as if it had happened years back.

Inhale.

We board, the two of us seated at opposite ends of the last row. That had been my luck on my flight back from Australia. On a positive, it meant we were closer to the bathroom.

Exhale.

Seven months later and Thailand has settled in as another chapter to life’s bounty of experiences. We’ve taken away the memories—stories of bartering down taxis, zip-lining our life down the slopes of Chiang Mai’s rattled ropes. Of curling up on an overnight train and booking a flight from Koi Samui to Bangkok 13 hours before take off.

Our story was of paying that extra $7 for air conditioning in our Ko Phi Phi bungalow, only to awake the following morning to a power outage. Of the time I ran from a dog, thinking it were a bug while in Pai (don’t ask) and subsequently crashing into a tree, scraping my gum on the bark. Caitlan rolled her eyes each time I struck conversation with a taxi driver (who never spoke English), and I can’t count the times I mistook a customer for a waiter.

What place does time have in memory? Time, as a concept, gave us the moments. Time in numbers: one month. Two girls. Ten cities.

Inhale.

One incredible adventure.

Exhale.

And that’s the story. Really, no more than that.

Grand Temple, Bangkok, Thailand



Ko Phi Phi and Koi Samui: A piece of the whole




June 11-13, 2013

There are the moments when words escape. Where all clears and clarity breaks through. The ends tie and-- just for a moment-- the meaning I'm forever in search of surfaces, ushered in by...

something.

Bullets of rain puncture the peace, setting off a current of ripples across the expanse of the water. We've been away for three weeks. I still haven't captured my story.

The drops fall as if in choreograph, slowly letting up as the rain lessens. The tide washes over, the islands in the distance reappear and again, all is calm. 

I turn to walk away, nowhere closer to finding my story—yet vaguely aware it’s not really about the story.

_____________
The ferry’s door had been left ajar as we trudged abroad our third mode of transportation: hour six of the day’s total eight-hour trek from Ko Phi Phi to Koi Samui.

We’d spent two days in Ko Phi Phi, a stunning island run rampant by the white tourists flooding the small space. It’s where I met my monkey-to-be, my macaque prince charming named JoJo who wore a diaper and a shirt. His  owner had let me hold him in exchange for 100 baht ($3).
Prince charming

Ko Phi Phi is on the one end of Thailand—Koi Samui on the other. It’s a four hour ferry ride from Koi Samui to the island of Krabi, a two hour bus ride (themed 70s style with faded pink curtains and worn, neon blue seats) across Krabi.

And finally this ferry, our final, two-hour boat ride.


The Hangover 2 was playing in the ferry's downstairs room. We settled in just as the ferry official walked through, row by row. We watched those seated grab their items, stand up and head out.

“An extra 40 baht to sit inside?” one huffed. I turned to Caitlan. 40 baht? The chutzpah.

You know you’ve been in Thailand for a bit when 40 baht is reason to curl up on the floor of the outdoor deck—which is what we did, grabbing our stuff and following the trail of others in no mood to dish out 40 baht for a cozy seat.

Even if, you know, 40 bhat is just over $1.
_____________

The vibe of the south differs sharply to that of the north. Touristy and far more expensive. Water was 28 baht. Anywhere else, 14 baht for a tall bottle was the norm. 

We spent an evening and full day in Koi Samui, letting the afternoon drift away as we laid out on the island’s largest beach. 

We left Koh Samui somewhat on a whim. Our plan that Wednesday had been to leave that Friday. Destination: Bangkok. Transportation: TBD. By Thursday, we crossed off the overnight train ride option, deciding, rather, to book a flight-- which we did, 13 hours before it was due to take off.

____________

It was a few months back-- well before graduation-- and I was at coffee with a friend. He asked me for a story. So I told him about my interview with a Civil War connoisseur.

Cool, my friend had responded. But that’s not your story. Think about it, he challenged.



It’s the challenge the follows today.

I dig my toes in the sand, letting the smoothness of the waves crash over the bareness of my feet. The shrill of the music’s vibrations power the moment. It;s a refreshing contrast to the stillness of the water.

I stop, my gaze fixed ahead as if, for the moment, the world stops spinning and I’m standing, at the center of where I’m supposed to be. There’s an infinite tide of possibilities so far ahead. I can sense that. There’s a story that awaits. The same one I’m living today.

Life is our story. Each moment is the experience. And it’s the moments that piece together to create the whole. From here, on the edge between water and depths of opportunity, there’s no way I can see the full story.

My toes tingle as the water gapes through the open spaces.

For now, I’m just experiencing a bit of the whole.

No plan goes according to plan


June 3- 10
View from our last hotel in Chiang Mai.
The most awful hotel we stayed at,
but the most beautiful view out of all. 

The thud of the clock’s every stroke is the only movement within the stillness of the drab, hospital room.

Time is eerie in a hospital—the fluorescent, stark lights unchanging, the faces of patients and individuals worn with worry. There was a father in the elevator, a girl's small hand snug within his tender grasp. She wore the pale, turquoise patient garb, soft features framing her young face. If you could knit pick all a hospital elevator sees within the day, it would be like sifting through the thickest current of a range of emotions. 

Only as you step out from the hospital doors do you realize the world has moved on, nightfall replacing the late morning you'd arrived in. Though it's all the same to the patients on the other end, hooked to an IV as each drop swivels through the translucent tube under the skin.

Or at least, as is the case with Caitlan who's been stuck inside the Bangkok Hospital of Phuket for the past four days. Diagnosis: Dengue Fever.
________________
I slumped into the backseat of the taxi, noting the faint glow of the moon up ahead.   

"How are you?" the driver asked, pushing aside his ruffled shag of black hair.

I sighed, charging off onto a spiel as Caitlan had entered that morning, her fever high, the two of us unsure as to the cause behind the symptoms. She underwent blood work, the nurses returning with her diagnosis. We'd read up on Dengue Fever when Caitlan first felt ill. It's one of two illnesses listed in the back of our Thailand travel books. The other: malaria.

Symptoms-- high fever, headache, gum irritation, dizziness, decreasing platelet count-- can develop anywhere between three to 15 days after infected and last between seven to 12 days. The fever is transmitted by mosquitoes; there's no cure nor precaution, save avoiding mosquitoes. It's a matter of riding out the fever while restoring the platelets. Caitlan, as a result, is hooked to an IV; The fever could have turned lethal had we waited just a few extra days.

"Long," I told the taxi driver. "It's been a long day."

He beamed, his hair bobbing as he nodded animatedly. 

"Good, good," he responded, looking pleased with his English.

And for the first time, Caitlan wasn't next to me to laugh for she's always the one to make fun of my never ending attempts to converse with our Thai taxi drivers. Who, all but one, can never fully respond.

Her fever had started in Chiang Rai, Thailand's northernmost province. It was day three of our stay (too long in both of our books) and we were en route to what we thought was Chang Saen.

Caitlan was dizzy, though that morning, neither of us thought too much of it.
________________
Chiang Rai bus station
We’d returned to Chiang Mai after two nights in the hippy, mountain town of Pai-- setting off to Chiang Rai the following day. Chiang Rai is a sleepy town-- little to see, save the night market, a white temple and town clock that lights up on the hour at night with a musical ensemble that blares from city speakers. 

Chiang Rai's location allowed for a day trip to Mae Salong, a Chinese tea village up in the mountains. We arranged for a hotel van to shuttle us to and back. The cost had been an arm and a leg, so we opted for a DIY trip to Chang Saen-- the center of the opium trade and the city the closest to the Hall of Opium, a privately owned and funded museum.

There’s no obvious booth to buy a ticket at the Chiang Rai bus stop. Not, for that matter, that there are obvious places in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, but at least in those cities, there are enough booths with people able to help. The two of us moseyed along the numbered, nameless stops, a kind gentleman overhearing Chang Saen and pointing us toward a driver pacing by his van.

Vans in northern Thailand are 14 seat shuttles—with a stroke of luck, perhaps with a/c that works. They stop at their share of random locations along highways and side streets—and seeing as our driver assured us we were headed to Chang Saen, Caitlan and I assumed the last stop would be our requested destination.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” our driver said, a touch of a smile as we stepped out the van, a pristine view of the river in front, mammoth sculptures of elephants anchored by golden posts off in the distance. "This is Golden Triangle," the driver laughed. Chang Saen had been the stop before. 

There was a small information desk, manned by a few women who spoke fairly little English.

We needed to know what time the last bus would leave from the Golden Triangle. But the desk womens' English conveniently stopped after their line about the motorcycle they'd offered to rent to us in lieu of the oddly, nonexistent taxi cabs around. We spotted a group of tourists, I picking up that they were French. And so switching to the language that guided last year's experience abroad, I got us directions to the Hall of Opium, found out that the last bus to Chiang Rai would leave at 5 and asked after their whereabouts. "Fontainebleau," one of the ladies responded. It's a small, well-to-do town outside of Paris, known by the chateaux in the center of it.

I smiled. I’d been there, just over a year ago. It’s funny where life takes you—what carries through as the adventure unfolds and life all blends. 

Top: Golden Triangle
Bottom: Chiang Rai's white temple

__________
A monk rode in the front our van that afternoon. He work bright orange robes; We'd learned that the orange of their robes references the story of the bark tree the Buddha used to dye monk shrouds. Monks wear one of four shades of orange (saffron, bright, dark and a red/brown). The colors once differentiated where the monks lived. Today, it's merely tradition.

The monk had a round face, a thin layer of prickled dark hair, salted by gray strands. He smile was wide, stretching all sides of his cheeks, two twisted front teeth poking in front of his gaping grin.

We had been chatting with a lady to our right, a young woman from Georgia who'd spent a year and a half working in an elephant research center in Bangkok and Chang Saen. She spoke Thai, translating the monk’s words for us as he turned to ask after our birthdays.

"Honesty," he said to me. "September, you are honest."

__________
Chiang Rai bus station
Cailtan’s fever had peaked by the time we got back to the hotel that evening. We left for Chiang Mai the following day, stopping at Chiang Rai’s white temple in the morning before heading back to the chaos of the bus station.

It was our third time back in Chiang Mai, staying in a cheap daily/weekly/monthly apartment at the other end of the canal that cuts through the old city. The area was less touristy, less English and I sensed home to more expats. 


I paced through the narrow alley from the hotel and onto the busy road of the main street, headed to find a pharmacy to purchase a thermometer. I mimed sick to a lady on a bench outside her store. She responded—her English surprisingly perfect—directing me to the drugstore down the street. But none of the nurses understood my rendition of thermometer, and so I took to pen and paper, drawing out my request.

With Caitlan inside the room, I ate meals alone. I sat outdoors for breakfast, losing myself in the view of the morning rush as the city awoke. A father sat outside of his shop—he spoke in French as he played with his young, Asian daughter. A monk walked past, slow in his step as he ambled ahead. One of the girls who worked in the restaurant arrived on her motorcycle; She was dressed in her school uniform, the standard navy skirt inched just below the knee, tucked over a a plain, gray-blue, button-down shirt. 

A thin, scrawny man rode by on his bicycle, waving to catch my attention. He framed two fingers into a half circle, pulling the corners of his mouth.

Smile, he seemed to say. I did, laughing as he cycled by.





I came to Thailand for the adventure, though just as much in search of a story. But halfway through of our month away, I can’t quite put my finger on just what the story is. 

You can't plan things in life, nor chase a story you're in the midst of creating.

This could be my story if I lived here, I thought as I walked back to the hotel to check on Caitlan, her fever having spiked to 103 degrees Fahrenheit. A lady sat cross-legged on the bench by the hotel, her back to the sidewalk, her gaze fixated on the television screen at the end wall of her storefront. She'd been sitting in the same position the day prior. 

Carving a place in this Thai life wouldn't be easy, but I know with time I could adapt. The lady outside her shop and I would exchange a sowatdeeka-- hello. The family opposite the apartment building we're staying in would become familiar faces.

Though, as I mentioned to Caitlan once back in the room, what’s the purpose in lifting all we know as comfort into the challenge of finding a new place and recreating the routine of life away from the one we already have?

I think the clearest when away from my routine. I find my stories in my travels. And I feed from the accomplishments that rise from the challenges I set myself upon. 

Yes, that could be my story. Running away from life, following the Buddhist, honest trail to a new place in a Thai world. 

__________

We caught a flight to Phuket that evening, headed south to Thailand's largest island and beach resort. We would have just over a week to explore the southern islands before somehow working our way up to Bangkok.

Which, at the time, neither of us were worried. There’s no plan to anything as life goes on—no plan to our trip, no plan to Caitlan’s fever. A fever that two days later would still linger at 103 degrees Fahrenheit—as we hailed a cab to the international wing of the Phuket hospital. Caitlan would be admitted and the slowest four days would settle-- each drummed stroke of the hospital room's horrible clock serving the reminder that no plan ever goes according to plan.




Top: Mae Salong tea plantation
Bottom: Mae Salong village



 

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