Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

12 Nov 06: Today would have been my brother Keith’s 57th birthday. Must phone Wendy and Mom.

Tuesday 14 Nov: Today I looked over a receipt and noticed belatedly that a cashier overcharged me for some water. Later a tuk-tuk driver did a clever bait and switch routine involving 500 and 100 baht bills. Brett has told me that many Thai regard westerners as walking ATMs and he’s right. I saw my dermatologist yesterday and, interestingly enough, her proposed treatment regimen exactly matches the length of time I can stay in Thailand (I have two tourist visas totaling 120 days). Coincidence? I think not.

In any event I don’t want to stay in Chiang Mai the whole four months. Not sure where I want to go…the beach towns in the south are bound to be too hot for me; heck, its too hot here! And the air pollution is appalling.

I have rented a little apartment near Brett and Anong’s jewelry store and also near shopping, restaurants and a gym. It’s quite nice though small, and no kitchen, which doesn’t matter since prepared food here is very inexpensive, especially from the street vendors. It’s incredible to see someone prepare green papaya salad for me to order, utterly fresh.

Right now I’m sitting in the University’s Dental Clinic to get a second opinion regarding my dental care. I’m going to move out of my hotel tonight and tomorrow I’m going on the jungle trek.

I just saw Dr. Surawat and I feel a lot better. He says that my dentist, Dr. Surachai, is just fine, had been one of his students, and the clinic I’m going to is owned and run by the dean of the dental school, an oral surgeon.

The trek: Eleven tourists are crammed into the back of a pickup truck, which has been fitted with a roof and thinly padded benches down both sides. Another trekker is in the front and our two guides (I think of them as our minders) cling to the backpacks untidily lashed to the top of the roof. We consist of three older Dutch couples, all of whom know each other; a younger Dutch couple, a doctor and her salesman husband, on their honeymoon, a twenty-something German couple, a young Japanese guy, and me.

After picking up food in Mai Ram, a suburb of Chiang Mai, we drive int3erminably until we get into the mountains. Bobby, the head minder and cook, serves lunch and then we head out for our first hike in a miasma of bug repellent, totally unnecessary since no mosquitoes are around in this hot, dusty afternoon. Unfazed by the weather, Bobby starts to hum “Country Roads, Take Me Home” as we begin.

The older Dutch are hilarious. Everything is a trauma, even the4 littlest stream which crosses our path. Though I have to admit this first day was brutal. 4 hours beginning in the hottest part of a hot day and ending in total darkness.

We began walking along a dusty road and, after 45 minutes or so, turned off into the forest. The track remained rough and rocky, heading upwards, sometimes at 45 de3gree angles. Gradually more foliage softened the mountains. Bamboo forest mostly, real Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon terrain.

The rice harvest gave the walk up the mountain added interest. We saw it in various stages—golden paddies, some with cut rice stalks bundled and set on the long stubble; women threshing the dried stalks on tarps, with others collecting the grain in big sacks.

Down was much easier than up as we descended into a cool mountain valley, misty and humid. The rocky trail quickly gave way to a smoother, red clay path. We saw few animals or plants of interest. The German dude, Markus, has a real fondness for spiderwebs and photographed several. One was more than a web, it was more like a spider condo, constructed with a big open ring in the center, I guess to lure and trap unwary insects.

The day darkened into a warm, misty dusk. We passed one village of White Karenn, called so due to the color of their traditional ceremonial garments. Unbelievably picturesque, nestled among golden rice fields near a stream fringed with greenery. Not, unfortunately, where we were to spend the night.

So on we walked. Night was falling rapidly. Full dark arrived but we hadn’t, but instead were stumbling along an uneven, unlit jungle train with no trace of moon or star piercing the mist to help us on our way.

I took out my flashlight—torch as they’re known around here—as did others. We were told 10 more minutes, then again, and again.

10 minutes my left buttcheek. 30 was more like it, dodging cowpies and jumping streams.

But now I’m cuddled in my thin quilt, which is laid out with a dozen others on the bamboo floor of a hut, waiting for dinner. Taka, the Japanese dude, is right next to me. Though it’s pitch black I know he’s already asleep because I can hear him. I’m not sure of the name of the older Dutch guy on my other side but he’s taken off his shirt. I try not to look. No nightmares please!

I imagine that the village is quite picturesque—but who knows? It’s really dark. Dogs snarl and pigs grunt. Cooking smells gradually fill the air J. One of the motor scooters all young Thai seem to favor leaves, putt-putting into the night.

Thursday Nov 16: I barely slept last night—maybe three hours. I awakened ice cold wanting to pee, but I didn’t care to venture out. So I held it until dawn, which was, like, forever. I don’t think that was why I didn’t sleep. It was the cold, aching hips, noisy neighbors, etc etc. Taka, bless him, seems capable of sleeping through everything, but not me.

I learned later that no one slept well, except Taka, who told me that he does indeed sleep through everything.

The morning is cool and misty, very lovely, but I see why Bobby took us to this village in the dark. It’s much more appealing. I can now see that it’s startlingly primitive, dogs scrapping, chickens squawking, piglets everywhere. Surprisingly cute. The place isn’t smelly, which is really surprising.

As I awaken, my temper improves. I figure I’ll take some ibuprofen and hope for the best.

Breakfast is simple—toast, hard boiled eggs, and raw chunks of what Bobby says is a kind of Thai sweet potato. It tastes like jicama. Tea and coffee.

We set out about 9, amazing for this lot. The walk this morning starts mellow but since we are slated to climb three mountains, turns brutal quickly. Again, 45 degree slopes. Still, its easier than yesterday since most of the trails are packed red clay. We walk through a meadow between mountains 1 and 2. The mountains have been clad with lush foliage, and the meadow with flowery shrubs. The third mountain is less lush, the terrain steeper, rockier, and by the time I descend the last slope, my legs are shaky from fatigue.

At the river, the bridge is pure Tom Sawyer at Disneyland—heavy wire with boards across, huge gaps between boards. By now it’s cool and exciting but not scary at all. I cross with ease since it’s much easier than the wide stream with the “bridge” of bamboo stalks laid lengthwise, or the one with the very awkward stepping stones. I needed help with noth of those.

I reach camp first after Bobby and race to the toilet. It’s Thai style, meaning that running water is used to flush the bowl. This is why all the toilets are so clean—basically flushing them means cleaning them. I use the hose to wash since I’m again a total grubby sweatball. I change my shirt and reapply sunscreen.

Everyone gets in and arranges themselves. We sit at long wooden tables beneath a thatched palapa and eagerly wait for Bobby to prepare lunch…all his meals have been great. Ladies in “traditional” Thai hill tribe dress try to sell us jewelry, pipes, tiny purses with sequined elephants and pink frogs. I politely refuse and they wander off. They’re wearing wraparound print skirts with T-shirts and a purple bag slung diagonally across from one shoulder to the hip.

Taka’s seated at a distance away, stretching, and one of the ladies approaches him. He’s too nice a guy to give her the brush off, and examines her wares, making a deal for a pipe. The moment he pulls out money the rest of the women descend on him the way we descend on lunch. He’s nice, but nice doesn’t work on this group of avid salesladies. Finally he flaps his hands to scatter them as though they’re gnats.

My past continues to linger, and my future to trouble me. I awakened with the realization that about six months had passed since Keith died. Another lesson…nothing is permanent, an obvious truism in a land where 95% of the people are Buddhists.

Nothing is permanent…not the people we love. Not my marriage. Not even the earth beneath my feet. We learn about igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks in elementary school. We know that volcanoes build mountains and erosion tears them down. Tectonic plates move, shift, toss buildings and forests about like Pick-up stix in the hands of a playful god. All this we’re told at an early age…but do we really understand impermanence until we experience shattering loss?

As for the future…I walk with one of the Dutch ladies, who has the improbable name of Nini (rhymes with Mimi). A Thai who’s lived in Holland most of her life, she’s an insurance adjuster. I realize that’s a job I could do.

I also think about renewing my membership in the California Bar and advising writers on their contracts. Lord knows I’m qualified J

Three elephants come, two adults and a baby. Not the ones we’ll ride to the next village. Those show up a few minutes later at about 2:15, and cool off in the river. I gather my things and repack.

The elephant ride is long, uncomfortable and quite amazing. I rode in an angular wooden seat with Marielle, and her husband Francis was in front of us actually sitting on the elephant. I really regretted wearing short shorts because then I could have sat on the elephant. As it was, I was afraid that my thighs would get abraded by the elephant’s thick hide and bristly hairs, so Francis with the longer pants got the cool seat between our elephant’s ears.

Elephant back is a slow but pleasant mode of travel. Bit nerve-wracking at first, especially when getting on. You step on the elephant’s head and then into the boxlike wooden seat (which is needlessly uncomfortable—had I known I would have taken a towel with me for padding).
When the elephant started to walk I looked down…it was a fairly long way. I watched its massive round feet, with each with three big stubby toenails, ponderously touch down, first almost tentatively, then firmly settling on the earth.

We headed for the river…another scary moment when the elephants descended the riverbank into the water. It seems very steep, as though we’re going to tumble off their backs, but when I looked back I saw that the slope was unimpressive. From elephant-back, it just seemed steep and treacherous.

After that, it’s all fun, but dull after a while, except for the view, which is excellent. The landscape, already forested, green, and pretty, became even more lush. Here, at the last village where we’ll stay, the jungle appears to be rainforest, huge trees hung with lianas. Lovely.

This village is well-set-up for tourists and indeed we are not the only group here. Excellent shower facilities—very important…I have always been grateful for fresh running water and now am even more grateful. I wonder how all the villages we’ve visited get their water and people speculate that here in the mountains, in such a wet climate, there are bound to be many springs and wells with clean water. What a blessing.

Someone mentioned that this is a village of Bobby’s tribe. It’s nice. Primitive by American standards but comfy and with everything most people need. Not the plethora of farm animals like last night, but lots of chickens and only a few dogs. It’s got a lanai facing the river, with a great view. That’s where I’m sitting now.

The gang stayed up late last night playing Dutch and Japanese drinking games. We had a great time and I regretted having to stop early (well, earlier than everyone else) since my tummy was a little unruly…I didn’t want to get too plastered since it was hard to get to the toilet toasted and in the dark. So I lay down and listened to “ping pong pang!” until I fell asleep to Bobby leading everyone in “Country Roads “ (evidently one of his faves).

I woke to cocks crowing long before dawn. We ate, packed and left on bamboo rafts, easily the best part of this excursion. It was a two hour float that seemed shorter. I could easily have gone the whole way to Chiang Mai by raft.
The rafts were flat and long, lengths of bamboo lashed together and poled left or right to steer.

The float was by and large mellow punctuated by occasional mild rapids. It was hella fun. The scenery was incredible, mostly bamboo forests, again more CTHD stuff.

Marielle, at the front of our raft behind Bobby, led the wave between the three rafts. Everyone had a great time. I had a giant blister on one toe from the Converse-style zebra-striped tennies I had worn on the hikes, and I was sure glad to have the nice cool water on my feet the entire way.

The day, which had begun misty, soon featured shafts of sunlight shooting through the trees, lighting the river. Taka, at the back of our raft, continued to entertain us by first losing a steering pole, then breaking another in two claiming it was too long, then nearly losing the last bit of the remaining pole. He then drank two Changs at lunch (which was pad thai) and I wondered what he’d do in the afternoon.

No such luck…the afternoon was mostly spent in the truck L going to a really boring waterfall. I could have done without that. Upon returning to Chiang Mai I was grateful to get to my room, take a shower and fall asleep.

Saturday, 18 Nov: Today is my darling niece Kayla’s 18th birthday, so I sent her a Victoria’s Secret gift certificate by email. I know she’ll like that—she’s a VS junkie. One of her ambitions is to be a VS model and why not? She certainly has the looks.

I did net stuff, shopped
, ate, and plan to spa this afternoon at a local place. This location is superb—
everything is within walking distance.

Chiang Mai on a Saturday night…I sit at a streetcorner café with a salad and a mango lassi. I’m in a slinky new sarong wrap in an eyecatching shade of orange, a snug top no glasses and light makeup. Feeling hot. Tonight I plan to write, and tomorrow do more shopping for towels and a bath mat—a few things to set u p my apartment. I also will go to the local gym, join and work out.

It actually feels as though it’s going to be a cool evening…I was quite cold last night, my first in my apartment, since I had no blankets and hadn’t figured out how to switch off the a/c. Oops.

I’m alone but not lonely. I’m tense about the writing. What if it sucks? What if I start and can’t finish a book (again?).

I guess in that case I’ll work on this blog.

A writer between books can be a very worried person. I just had two novels a new short story and a short story be reprinted, but fewer than 100 people have bought one of the books. I have no figures on anything else yet. Nothing else is slated to come out, all my publishers have the same (incorrect) London address and I don’t know what to write next. Nothing is compelling me.

Sunday, November 19: Met Connie, who also lives in this apartment complex. She’s also divorced and we told each other our stories. Though it’s been two years for her she’s still deeply hurt. I told her what my friend Crystel said, “Be patient with yourself.” And also I’m reminded of the value of compassion.


  • At 3:14 PM, Blogger Cindy Kirk said…

    I read your post with a mixture of horror and fascination. Wow, you are really seeing the country up front and personal. But for someone who considers staying in a Motel 6 as camping, I don't envy you the primitive conditions.

    Still, I applaud you for following your dreams. WTG!


Post a Comment

<< Home