29 December 2004

(Pink Journal Excerpt - Thailand: Part 2)

The next morning was my cooking class! At almost 9:30, I was picked up and driven to meet the rest of the group, all of whom were nice: Arjun (I think) from New Zealand, Yael from Israel, Mattheis from Switzerland via Italy, Benedict & Julian- a French couple- and an American girl whose name I've forgotten. We went to the market and learned about the ingredients we were to use, and our excellent teacher Wandee (which means "nice day") had fun and joked around with us a bit, too. For instance, after showing us fruits, vegetables, and tofu, she took us to the sweets table where black, sticky rice had been steamed until becoming a mush. In front of it was small, translucent balls which gained our curiosity.

"What are those," we asked.

"Fish eggs," she replied, and we nodded. Really, we would've believed anything she told us.

"Just kidding!" We all laughed pretty hard: they were only small tapioca balls.

So, we brought our groceries back in little baskets and started chopping away. We cooked and ate food until four o'clock, at which point we were completely stuffed from our five course meal. We were given these cute cookbooks to take home, said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways. I found a massage parlor called "Let's Relax," and indulged in a one hour massage.

Back at the Rose Guest House, I met Ada and a new roommate named Karina- a Brazilian living in London who was traveling alone as well. Natasha had mistaken her departure time by 12 hours, so we had a proper goodbye in the lobby before Ada, Karina and I left for dinner at the night market. On the way, Karina and I had banana rotii: Indian bread filled with thickly sliced bananas, then fried and covered in sweet syrup. After getting lost in the booths of drek, we found a great courtyard where, for coupons purchased in advance, you could dine on the great variety of foods offered by the participating restaurants all along its perimeter. I settled on duck noodle soup and spring rolls, and washed it down with a delicious banana shake. We stumbled upon a massage stand offering an orgasmic half-hour foot massage for just over a dollar, then shared dessert of chocolate and banana waffles, all the while being entertained by traditional Thai dance interspersed with horrendous lady-boy lip-synching!

Early the next morning, I began my three-day mountain trek! The first person to join the ride was Chadi, a Colombian woman who recently re-located to New Jersey after divorcing her American husband. It soon became painfully obvious that this woman was going to be annoying and out of place, but I had no idea what was in store... The rest of our group was nice: Clara, Nadia, and Amy- all Canadian girls from the capital city of Ottawa- and a young, bland English couple, Tom & Leanne. We drove an open pick-up to the market to purchase some things for the road. I bought insect repellent, a bag of peanuts, and a bottle of water, taking in such sights as a butcher woman chopping away at an unidentified animal's rib cage, while another sliced the pink flesh from a pig's face. Nadia arrived back at our truck with toilet paper she acquired for eight cents, probably the most sound bargain of the day.

It was chilly, and we tried unfolding these filthy plastic covers to block some of the wind; it didn't quite work. Even worse, during the ride, Chadi became car sick, and asked that we pull over so she wouldn't puke; really, I think she just wanted to sit up front with a clear view of the road, and that was perfectly fine with the rest of us! We laughed about television shows, and I did my best Ali G impersonation for a while. For the rest of our ride to the nearby Mon village, I hung out the back, standing on the pick-up door, and watched the passing countryside with Tony- one of our tour leaders- and Tom.

Mon are Chinese who have maintained their way of life in the mountains of Thailand for over two hundred years, and their village was amazing and humbling to see. The children were adorable, and loved more than anything to see the digital photos we took of them. While dogs, cats, pigs, roosters, and chickens wandered aimlessly about the dirt roads, a huge group of people washed carrots in large basins of water, and women wearing headphones and colorful garb wove cloth on looms- sometimes with American brand names silkscreened on their tee-shirts.

We then followed a trail to a rigorous hike through the surrounding fields and woods, sometimes balancing precariously on constructed bamboo "bridges" to cross quiet, sun-dappled ravines. Beforehand, Chadi aka Miss Colombia was having some sort of trouble. She knelt on the ground fixing her sleeping bag within her backpack, and exposed her butt crack for the world to see. I can't recall if I thought first to take a picture, but opted instead to pour a little water into it. Don't ask me why. Maybe it was because she had already spilled a bit on her crotch and I thought I'd make her discomfort symmetrical; most likely, I just wanted to be an asshole. She hardly reacted to it- just a little "Ayi!" and that was it. She got angrier at Amy for laughing about it than she did at me for actually doing it! And this became a pattern: I would make fun of her- to her face!- and she'd get mad at Amy for laughing. Maybe it's because Chadi liked me- I don't know.

We had been walking for quite some time and she was already tired and complaining. She wanted me to carry her water bottle. She wanted to rest. "I deed not sign up for dees," she'd say, half-jokingly. Her voice was annoying, as was most everything she said. At one point, her bag opened and spilled all of her belongings onto the ground. Our guide Tony started picking things up for her and, instead of helping him, she got out cookies and started to eat! She was so clueless it was astonishing. I was embarrassed for her, and felt sorry she was such an ignorant primadonna, but wasn't sorry enough to let her escape from deserved, constant ridicule.

Upon successfully reaching a new village, we chose sleeping areas from a stilted house's floor; luckily, I claimed the one solo mattress and mosquito net "room" there. I had a beer outside with Tom and Leanne on the balcony, relishing in remaining stationary for one of the first times that day! And our dinner that followed was delicious: we even shared a water snake Tony had killed that day with his slingshot! It was tasty with a consistency somewhere between fish and chicken, but it was so riddled with tiny little bones that it was too difficult to eat! A dog was curled peacefully in front of the campfire burning below the bright, nearly full moon. Having already excused herself from the table, Chadi was having what she later referred to as a "deep conbersation" with him, chiding us for "interrupting" it when we, too, wanted to warm up.

After looking through Tom's binoculars at the detailed surface of our light in the sky, and pointing out constellations like Orion and the seven sisters, one by one, we retired to our sleeping bags. I had bizarre dreams. In one, I was going insane with true fear. Cars were zooming past me into a tunnel, burning red and white stripes of light into my eyes. I awoke and was paranoid: I realized I was in the middle of the woods with no one I knew, completely at their mercy. The villagers could have killed us all. We'd become slop for their pigs, ground meat for their dogs, and our bones the beams in a nearby spirit house. I was hallucinating quite vividly in my eyelids, and after a night's broken sleep full of rooster calls book-ending dreams bordering on nightmares, I'd blame it all on the snake I had eaten.

Following breakfast the next morning, we split up. Miss Columbia (who had moaned curiously in her sleep) and the English couple, who may or may not have had sex the night before (I still can't decide if the intermittent rubbing noise was within their sleeping bag or the made by pigs snorting beneath the floor, broke away from the four of us to finish their trek a day early. It was honestly a relief! I imagined only the worst for Chadi in her day of adventure to come- riding elephants and rafting!

We climbed steep inclines and side-stepped down their gravel and sand descents, singing, talking, or just concentrating on not falling in silence. On brief resting breaks, we used Tony's slingshot to shoot rocks at trees, and ate a lunch of fried noodles and tofu in a small village. A small puppy had taken it upon himself to be our guard at the table and, although he had not-too-ulterior motives (i.e., food!), he successfully barked at- or chased away- approaching cats and pigs.

Hours of walking later, we arrived at our next site for the night: a waterfall cascading into a frigid lagoon. Its water made my testicles feel as if they were in a vise, but bathing for the first time in a couple of days and washing my hair and arms with a peculiar all-in-one-soap-and-shampoo was ultimately refreshing. My clothes were filthy: my tee-shirt had a prominent brown ring around the collar and an unintentional camouflage of dirt and sweat stains, while my dusty pants were caked with mud from clumsy maneuvers on slippery bamboo. I stripped and changed into a fresh shirt, and lay down to write underneath the woolen blankets they gave us. I used my sleeping bag as a pillow, writing to the constant hum of the waterfall and waves of chatter and laughter until the sun set. With a couple glasses of rice wine and my watering eyes toasty from the campfire, I slept well that night.

I dreamt of my mom. Maybe it's because we talked about her as we sat around the fire, or maybe it's because she simply wanted to visit. She was folding laundry in the basement, and I had come inside after a long phone conversation in the cloudy dusk with Seven. I had gone downstairs to get my skateboard when the phone went dead- that's when I noticed her. I asked when she got home, but we looked at each other and acknowledged that she had been gone.

She smiled and replied, "Oh, just a little while ago."

"When is this?" I asked

"'92 or '93."

I would've just been entering high school; it was after she had cancer for the first time.

"You still smile at me like you used to," she said, folding laundry like she always had, and I started crying. We were together, downstairs, safe from the incipient storm outside.

I awoke in the dark and wanted to write everything down immediately, but I didn't have a flashlight and the moon wouldn't do. I tried to replay the dream over and over in my head so I'd recall every detail in the morning, and slipped back asleep. When the sun came up, I wrote it all down in the dream journal Sarah got me, then brushed my teeth in the stream with Tony while the other girls were just wiping sleep from their eyes. We ate breakfast: 2 hard-boiled eggs and four pieces of white bread with margarine, jam, and sugar, washing it all down with hot tea. I had run out of money so I poured boiling water from last night's fire into my bottle, and let it sit in the cooler as the steam didn't seem to work quickly enough.

We had an easy trek to our pickup, and drove to the elephants. Amy and I sat together on the smaller of the two, and we all switched cameras so we could photograph each other riding along. I couldn't afford bananas, and Amy didn't feel like getting out any of her money, so every time its hungry trunk coiled back to be fed, I had to softly kick it down. The elephants must've been hungry: the larger one which Clara and Nadia rode wrapped its trunk around some branches to eat some leaves, and literally bent the entire tree down to the path! It caused quite a commotion, and the driver couldn't really do anything about it. Continuing through the jungle and crossing through a river, our elephant dropped an enormous amount of dung with a splash. We were returned to our starting point as other tourists left for the same semi-circular tour, bunches of bananas in hand and cameras around their necks.

Next was our bamboo rafting experience. I was on the back, standing barefoot on the round chutes. I held a long chute myself which I used to help paddle, and pushed it against rocks and sand to navigate down the mostly placid river. Occasional currents crashed white against the rocks, and I managed to lose my balance less and less with each; Nadia, however, fell, bracing herself against Clara and left a wet, perfect handprint on her back, while Amy fell victim to a large and very low slung branch which knocked her backwards! I was able to duck in time.

We all slept on the ride back to our guesthouse and exchanged information. It was mainly done out of courtesy. but it's the right thing to do, I suppose. On the car ride home, Nadia remembered the Milli Vanilli song we had been stumped by for almost two days: "Girl, I'm Gonna Miss You."

I checked into a new room- number 112- after finding the bed in 107 to be completely bowed. I booked a day trip to Chiang Rai, hot springs, villages, and Burma to get my visa extended, and went next door with a Beer Chang to check my email and share my adventures. Ironically, Anna had written me an email and included Ethan's information. He had been in my dream the night before. And, for a second dose of irony- when I was writing my dad about my trek and the horrendous Miss Columbia- guess who walked in and sat next to me? She had fallen off the raft twice just as we had foreseen, and I felt sorry for feeling happy about it. She gave me her email and phone number after declaring the internet connection to be "too eslow." I had another beer and sat for another hour before wandering outside, starving and drunk.

I stumbled into a parade along Chang Khlan road among farang and Thais, all transfixed at the noisy procession. Passing by a Mexican restaurant called El Toro, I was invited to sit with a table of Thai women evidently visiting one of the cowboy hat-donning waitresses. I made small talk with the round-faced one to my right, Rai, as I ate a burrito, but switched my attention to the quiet girl in front of me when asked to buy her a drink. She spoke better English and was younger- I was surprised to learn she was my age (surprised because- to me- she looked old). I was again glad to have a baby face, but my grey hairs are starting to blow it for me.

I continued to walk- mostly in circles- and was taken by the hand into most of the "same same... but different" bars decorated in hanging lights and overflowing with Thai girls excited to flirt with western men. Of course I refused all of them, even one who was bold enough to grab me and start dancing as I was pushing my way through, trying to leave. Eventually, she gave up, and gave my penis a light pat as some sort of consolation prize! Again, I was suckered into a go-go bar, this one called Spotlight Bar, and took a seat next to a Belgian named Harvey at the stage. The girls looked bored, and so was I. I finished my Mekhong whisky and slid out.

I woke up early today and waited outside to be picked up. After 15 minutes, I climbed into a van and was shuttled to a fancy hotel where we picked up an old woman with alien-eye sunglasses and a horrendous hat. She told our tour guide it was good for sun, rain, or whatever; the truth was, it was good for making her look like a moronic gardener and an estranged housewife who happened to be traveling with her homely daughter and cheesy son-in-law, and they'd gladly pay 10 baht to pose with a villager. Luckily for all of us, we switched vans, and I was put with a Dutch girl named Krista, whom I had no desire to talk to. Then, a second switch, and Krista and I were put in a full van with two European couples and an older Asian aussie male. Throughout the day- except during lunch- no one spoke.

We went to a large temple in Chiang Rai, hot springs and their adjacent tourist market, and the "Golden Trianger" as our guide Kai pronounced it. After the trek's highlight- my five minutes in Burma to get a visa extension- we visited two very depressing villages to walk around, buy souvenirs, and take pictures. At least the boat trip to Laos was nice- in between docks, at least! This trek was pure "tour group." Even the villages were nothing more than booths selling the same garbage, and though the villagers smiled at you, it was mainly to pose for a photograph they'd attempt to charge you 10 baht for later.

I began losing trust in people. If everyone just wants your money, or to bring you somewhere where someone else can take it, how could you trust a simple exchange? "Hi" is already such a loaded word; "where are you from" means small talk, unlocking your wallet; "welcome" means come to my bar, or my restaurant, and pay for something you can get anywhere, up and down the street! The whole "same same" thing was not so funny anymore: it was just a fact of this whole newly capitalist scenario, and it's the westerners' fault! We've made a circus sideshow out of these people, and- deluded by their self-fulfilling prophecy- they themselves sell tickets to it, complete with souvenirs to remember it by. How sad was the woman who couldn't speak due to mutation, who held onto the Dutch girl, smiling so wide her teeth could've exploded? She seemed genuinely happy, yet was it all just for you to take a picture so she could badger you for 10 baht? I can't tell what's behind these smiles; tonight, I didn't trust any of them. I felt relucantly catered to by servants who hate their master. I felt unwelcome, even with the sawadii-kas and smiles. The "hello, sexy man"s made it all that much more obvious and, aside from my Sagittarian desire for adventure, I preferred to just ignore everybody.

I got dropped off at the night market, and ate dinner at the food court again. This time, I watched the Thai dance and music show, and was entertained to the point of laughter. A lady-boy pretended to play percussion on clay pots as the women gracefully danced. In his hot pink shirt, head wrap, and cemented smile, he was completely in his own world. Meanwhile, the band was almost punk rock in its sloppiness, and after every song, the guitarist initiated the "shave and a haircut, two bits" theme.

At the cheap parlor near the rock climbing wall, I got a neck and back massage, then drank Mekhong and watched phony Muay Thai in an arena circumscribed by identical bars with pool tables, Thai girls and lady boys, and at least one farang with his hands all over them. So many people had lit Santa hats on, and seemed happy; is that why I was so sour? Because I was lonely on the holidays? Or was I freezing up to this crap and ready for the next stop? A little bit of both, I think. It was a long day, and I'm tired. It's after two, and I’m coming down from my drinks. It's time to go to sleep, and wait for the new day that awaits me only hours away. It's already begun....

*

My headache is phenomenal right now as I sit for my last breakfast at Rose restaurant, the tuk-tuks and mopeds seem a little louder whizzing by. Yesterday was wonderful, and squelched my negative feelings and loneliness from Christmas Eve.

I rented a motor scooter, and was quite nervous about it. I remembered the first time I rode one in India: how I careened out of control in front of the renters (one of them had to run and press the brake for me!), how scared I was to ride, how I had a hitchhiker drive it for me, and finally, how I gave it way too much juice and slammed into a fucking wall when I tried unsuccessfully to turn around. While the girl was showing me how to operate it, I was considering getting a bicycle instead... But then I hopped on, took it slow, and got the hang of it. Magically, I made the right turns and found the road to Doi Suthep, stopped at the lights while other moped riders squeezed by on the sides, and even pulled into a Shell station to get gas! Oh, how the simple things impress me....

Up a winding road I went, where I parked just past the zoo. I wandered around it for hours! The zoo was enormous and attached to an arboretum, and I was able to navigate its steep, long roads by following signs and arrows- everything, of course, written in Thai! I became completely lost, but it was all relative: there were still lots of beautiful animals and birds to see along the way. After taking too long to find the exit, I got on my bike and headed north, stopping along the way at Montathon Falls. It was so much fun to ride now that I was starting to get the hang of driving!

I made it to Doi Suthep, apparently one of the most sacred temples in Thailand. Since I was having laundry done, I only had my bathing trunks to wear. I saw a few other people wearing shorts, so at least I wasn't the only asshole there; I even pulled them down as far as they would go to cover my knees! The temples there were beautiful and golden, with constantly sounding bells lining the walkways between them. Down the seemingly never-ending entrance stairwell, guarded by dragons whose green-scaled bodies stretched all the way to the top, the sun was beginning to hide. I ate a banana wrapped in a waffle drizzled with chocolate, and said my goodbyes.

With the scooter's headlight playing the part of my guide, I wound down my tree-lined road home, the wind watering my eyes and cool against my bare arms and legs. I was almost giddy with refreshed excitement and traveled too fast into the turns, but I wasn't scared anymore. I felt in control; we always are, even when it seems the least apparent. We can do whatever we want and, as I watched my soft, small light illuminate the approaching street and forest just beyond it, I knew it. It didn't prevent me from getting lost upon reaching the bottom, but I found my way through trial and error- and by following a girl I had asked directions! Reaching Taphae Gate, I parked in front of a row of food stands lit yellow, red, and white, and recognized two girls from my guesthouse who invited me to join. With them I had my cheapest dinner yet: Chinese kale with fried pork and rice- for fifty cents! It was delicious, even after I spiced the hell out of it with the super hot chili sauce and crushed red pepper.

Again I made some wrong turns, but I eventually found my guesthouse. I panicked- I couldn't find my passport! I then invented a place I had left it: at the waterfall with the gate attendant! The crazy thing was that I actually believed this fake memory! I told Pai, who remained calm and collected as always, replying "It's no problem, no problem... Tomorrow, you go." But, grabbing my laundry, she soon had it figured out: I left it with the scooter rental place, and suddenly the "memory" that had scared me before seemed ridiculous. Relieved, I put my clean and fragrant laundry away in my room, and left.

Up the street at a little shop, I bought a small bottle of Mekhong rice whisky (what they call rum here) for a dollar, and proceeded past bar after bar of Thai girls- donning Santa hats and trying to pull me inside- to a free concert at the night market happening on three separate stages. I was taking healthy swigs from the Mekhong and, by the time I reached the pink stage, the bottle was empty. And so, I bought another one- a larger bottle of a different brand, this one called Sang Som- and was already feeling a little drunk.

The band was playing what sounded like riffs lifted from Jimi Hendrix while the singer belted out lyrics which, at points, seemed to be in English, and I was happy to see it was mainly Thais celebrating in the streets with very few farang. At the middle stage was what I soon realized was a beauty pageant: "Miss Madaga," evidently the name of the festival. One by one, the girls came out to address the crowd wearing skimpy, sexy outfits, and a small, round pin attached at their breast, bearing their contestant number. The whole procession was being filmed; thus, their smiling faces were projected on a large screen to their left. "Sawadii-kha!" they'd begin, followed by a 20-30 second speech in Thai about God-knows-what; all I understood was "Chiang Mai" and their closing "kapun-kha!" They were each young and beautiful and, without comprehending what they were saying, it was easy to tell who was confident, who was nervous, and who was trying too hard.

A group of around ten guys dressed in Adidas tanktops and baggy pants were breakdancing nearby, and had attracted quite a crowd with their acrobatic spins on the naked concrete. By this point, I realized I was drunk. I rode a tuk-tuk back to Thanon Moon Muang, clenching a flyer for a "rooftop party" in my hand. As my luck would have it, there were maybe five people there, and in my hasty process of leaving, I slipped down the stairs, slicing open my shoulder pretty badly against the wooden railing. I stumbled in and out of a few more nightspots drinking my bottle of Sang Som until it fell out of my back pocket and shattered on a bar's floor. I had the spins. For fear of throwing up- I avoided getting a massage, and just wandered alone on that eve of Christmas Day, smiling at everyone around me. My last stop was a bustling hotel restaurant next door to my guesthouse. My stay there wasn't long- maybe five minutes- and I retired to bed after two that morning with a horrible taste in my mouth.

The cook must've had the day off, because Kay [one of the guesthouse owners] cooked me a pancake with butter and honey herself for my hangover breakfast the next morning. Pai had arranged a tuk-tuk driver to follow me as I returned my scooter, then take me to the bus station. It was almost sad to leave. The 12 o'clock bus was full, so I had two hours to kill before the next one at 2. I walked around looking for a phone- no luck. One guy even drove me on his motorscooter to a mini-mart near the station, explaining that I could call New York from there. It came as no surprise that- even though the phone said "international and domestic"- the store's one employee let me know it wasn't possible. So, I found a little internet cafe where I wrote for about an hour, shat in an eastern-style toilet, and boarded the bus to Pai.

*

I am completely cramped in this seat. My knees are jammed against the metal backing of the seat in front of me where two out of nine Israelis are sitting. One just told me there was an earthquake this morning in Phuket! I hope if people died, there weren't too many... It's all a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time: you can't prepare for that, and that's the one time we are not in control....

*

It was much worse than I imagined. On the small, thatched-roofed restaurant's television, I watched footage of Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, and Thailand flooded wildly, and rescue teams already aiding the wounded, finding more and more bodies washing up on the shores and streets. 2300 dead in Sri Lanka so far, 1300 in India. I thought of Shvetha, and hope her family is OK in Madras- it got hit pretty hard.

Anyway, Pai is a beautiful little place. I split off from the Israeli clan on the bus immediately, and got a scooter ride for the two blocks it took to Charlie's Guesthouse. My room is cute and only 70 baht a night. There's a courtyard and the added bonus of an adorable kitty! I was going to email Ada, but wound up seeing her in front of the 7-11 only five seconds after leaving my guesthouse! This trip has been like that; I have had amazing luck. Ada was with a German friend Krista, and we walked together to see their bungalows. I may have to pay and extra 30 baht and stay in a little hut my last night!

I went searching for Nong Bia restaurant- apparently the oldest eatery in town according to the Lonely Planet- but went completely in the wrong direction; however, I noticed something along the way: people here say hi to you with no other motive than friendliness! It's so refreshing. I fucking hate being the rich tourist, but it's not my fault. I'm guilty just because I'm a westerner with a backpack? But, I understand. I know they see dollar signs in our eyes and, honestly, how could they not? We come to their country and stay for months, and blow in a day what some of them make in a week- or even a month! And we're smug, and take pictures of them doing everyday activities, thinking it's the coolest thing in the world, as if they're zoo animals. But, on the flipside, we are all guilty: guilty of being different from one another, and of being fascinated by those differences. I know I am.

Although initially I had hoped to run into the Israelis again, when I did, I became incredibly frustrated with them. They seemed nice, I thought, so why not share dinner together? Well, to begin with, half of them wanted to eat a kosher meal, and needless to say, that was the least of my concerns. Next, they didn't want Thai food, and seemed thrilled that there was pizza and- even worse- fucking falafel around! You fuckers practically breathe that shit in Israel- why don't you try something new! So, I stood there stupidly while they argued in Hebrew, and finally, the two girls with whom I had spoken the most said they wanted to join me. OK, fine. But, they didn't want Thai, and I did. And then they ran into some tour guide they knew: an Asian who spoke Hebrew! Come on!

These people travel in herds, speak almost exclusively to other Israelis, stay at Israeli-run guesthouses and go on Israeli-run tours. I realize I am Jewish, but that's not what I am talking about here. Israelis seem to be bizarre separatists, all living in a small country constantly at war, a country most everyone- except themselves and other Jews- hates and blames the world's problems on. It's almost scary. They are... I don't know. I am angered by fanatically religious people of all kinds, but Israelis seem more myopic and stubborn as a people. They are cultural isolationists. I felt great traveling in Israel, absolutely, but when I am anywhere else, Israelis sort of piss me off, and these two girls were no exception.

The tour guide told them the whereabouts of one of their friends from some trek they had taken. Now, earlier, both girls- Eyat and Inat- had been starving; now, they couldn't wait to see their friend! "Do you want to come?" they asked. Whatever- I went. There were thirty Israelis hanging out around their tour's Jeeps. The two I was with found their friend, didn't bother to introduce me (nor was I introduced to their tour guide), then stood around gossiping in Hebrew for ten minutes. "I don't mean to be rude," I began, "but I am going to dinner." That statement got both of them somewhat motivated for five seconds, but then it was back to babbling; I took off.

While sipping some tasty soup, I overheard some farang mention an art exhibition and concert happening up the street! It was at a Thai and Mexican restaurant and bar called Happy Yim's. There were nice paintings by some of Pai's artists hanging on its walls, and outside in the large courtyard was belly dancing while a young man swirled circles and figure-eights with fire. Soon, an adorable young girl sat next to me with piercings on her upper lip and labret. Her name was Leila, and was traveling with her mother Mandy, her brother Oscar, and his friend Jack. We talked for a bit, and she, too, was on her way to the concert. The venue, called Roots Rock Reggae, had just opened that night. I was almost done with my Beer Chang when one of the belly dancers, a girl who couldn't have been much older than I, took a seat next to me and told me about her plans for a year-long dance tour of Asia. Then, she and the other belly dancer- along with her German boyfriend who was celebrating his birthday- walked me to an internet cafe.

"Where are you calling?"

"New York," I said.

Hearing this, a woman turned and said I was the first person she had met from the east coast. She was scouring the internet for new Asian destinations: five of her girlfriends were stranded at JFK with plane tickets to Phuket. I left messages for Sarah and my dad explaining I was OK, then found Roots Rock Reggae by following the sound of Bob Marley songs being sung with a Thai accent.

Smoking and drinking around small tables within the large bamboo hut, people relaxed near heat lamps and the few raging bonfires, where skewers of vegetables and potatoes wrapped in tin foil were cooking for all. The band was sloppy- and I am amazed that the humor of a northern Thai, Bob Marley cover band went over most of the attendees' heads- but I got a beer and joined Leila and an English girl she had met there. I reclined in a hammock to write, then talked with the two of them until we all traveled to "Bamboo Hut," a popular 24-hour restaurant raised on stilts above the ground. It was quite cold outside, but I kept warm with chicken and rice soup, finally retiring to my guesthouse after three.

I awoke at ten the next morning and wandered around, finding a temple where I knelt to pray for those affected by the tsunami. Olia had already emailed me twice, and I was finally able to contact her by phone. I don't know how- maybe through Stuart- but she got in touch with my dad, and he played her the message I had left for him. Her parents are bugging out and so is she, and now she doesn't know whether or not she is coming; so, now everything is even higher up in the air for me, luckily safe outside the epicenter of an absolutely horrendous natural disaster.

My lunch was too spicy. I went to Somtam Na Amphoe, directly across the street from the district office, and ordered sticky rice, barbequed chicken, and a mango salad. Unfortunately, we didn't share the same idea of what constituted "mango salad": theirs was colored brown from fish sauce, topped with tiny, dried shrimps and, besides being spicy-as-all-hell, was absolutely vomitous. Being a farang, I got away with sending it back, using the white lie I was allergic to shellfish. She made me another. It was palatable, but so spicy I was continually blowing my nose- it was just too much!

Leila, Mandy, and the two boys were eating at a restaurant nearby, and invited me to see a waterfall with them that afternoon. I rented a motor scooter and was soon on my way. Taking photographs did nothing to capture the beauty of the fields, the autumn trees on hazy mountains, and villages dotting the countryside; half of it was found in the sun and the wind, the speed, and the way it all passed me by in a blur. The roads started getting a little rockier, and I began driving slower, using low gears. Villagers were coming out of the woodwork, trying to sell me opium: women and men- alone and in groups- were motioning "smoke" with their hands, bringing fingers to their lips. And all the while, I was losing balance over the now ominous terrain, my tires spattering fresh, wet earth all around me. I was a little afraid I'd wipe out, but managed to keep my cool and pull in to the small lot where others had parked their muddy scooters.

The waterfall proved to be a pretty hard climb: it was just huge, rocky land with very few spots to use as steps. Ascending was hard, but going down would be worse... A few girls were up top in a pool, and I walked around the sponge-y forest floor to join them at the white and grey "poolside." I stripped, then literally slipped in, falling down the slick rocks and forced to feel the icy water all at once! I lay refreshed on the rock where the water fell, allowing it to massage my back.

Leila and her family arrived soon afterwards, and Jack was clearly pissed after falling twice in the mud. To add insult to injury, on his third spill, the strong current swept his necklace into a deep pool far below, and he started to cry. As bad as I felt, seeing this eleven year-old with his Wu Tang shirt, shorts, and even his face thickly covered in mud, I couldn't help but laugh. I swam for a while longer, and was soon left with a strange-looking Canadian to share banana chips and talk about the tsunami. A younger boy approached us and tried to strike up conversation, asking what there was to do at night. He claimed to have slept with some girl who was traveling alone, "so last night wasn't all bad," he added. He seemed like a bad liar. Maybe I'm wrong- and God knows I really couldn't care less- but it seemed more than a bit implausible: he was a geek. Regardless, he was a good guide, and led the way back through town and breathtaking scenery to the hot springs.

A little dirty with floating leaves and their disturbed, dark sandy floor, the springs still felt delicious. And though I stayed in too long, the fatigue made our return motorcycle ride at dusk that much more euphoric as I followed his tail-light to an all-you-can-eat buffet back in town. I am still there now, resting and writing in a hammock, listening to the crackle of a nice fire and watching BBC World News' coverage of the Asia quake. It's a loop of the same awful and scary footage: waves crashing violently through palm trees on Phuket, people standing on tops of buses in Sri Lanka, and brown surf washing away thousands of people in Madras. By now, there's 11,000 who have lost their lives in Sri Lanka, 3- or 4,000 in India, and 23,000 dead or believed dead in total.

*

Now, the death toll is at a staggering 60,000. I am back in Chiang Mai at the place to be: Rose Guest House. The rest of my time in Pai went something like this...

I left the buffet, and rode to Bebop Cafe where I sat alone and watched live music. The band had an impressive guitarist and wasn't half-bad, but played pretty cliché cover songs: Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and even Neil Young! I sat and drank tea with milk, and read my Lonely Planet book. Earlier that day, Olia informed me she wasn't going to come after everything that had happened, so I thought I'd plan ahead. I was joined by an American named Lance who I learned was only 17 years old. He ran away from his mother at 14, and is now a drug dealer in Chico, California. He told me about his experiences with designer drugs, DMT, and the daily realities of being a dealer and living in a very communal house where people come and go.

Out of nowhere, three Thai girls carrying bottles of Sang Som, soda, glasses, and buckets of ice came and sat with us. They poured us drinks and flirted, and at least Lance was flirting back. One of them made it clear she had an extra room; they were most likely prostitutes. Hey- as long as you're giving me free drinks, I don't care what you are!

After a couple of drinks, we began a game of pool and continued to talk. He left a special girl behind in California knowing he'd be gone for six months, and has already cheated on her. When I told him I was trying to remain faithful to my girlfriend, we got into a discussion about trust. Like me, he really trusts no one. Of course I'd like to think there are more people I trust 100%, but there are few: I only trust simple things will happen. It's hard making yourself completely vulnerable to someone else's whims- especially a stranger whom you've known for less than a couple of hours- but that's exactly what I did when I climbed on the back of my motor scooter, allowing him to drive us to the 24-hour restaurant we wound up not being able to find.

Bebop Cafe's driveway was an incline to the street, and I still can't really tell whose fault it was: was it mine for leaning back and not holding on tightly enough, or did I lose my balance because he went way too fast and wasn't steady to begin with? Either way, much to our embarrassment, we wiped out in the middle of the street. Neither of us was hurt, and we just hopped back on and shot off in front of everyone standing outside.

Our failure to find Bamboo Hut took us on some interesting detours around the dark streets at 80 kilometers an hour, a speed which felt too fast when not being in control myself. Meanwhile, the whole trust issue kept coming to mind: here I was on the back of a motor scooter, shooting down back roads with a complete stranger. I was scared, but more occupied with having it actually be fun and a lesson- or maybe just a test- of my trust.

At four in the morning, well after Lance and I had said our goodbyes and were safe and sound in our separate guesthouses, I awoke with nausea and stomach cramps so bad I thought I was still dreaming. I figured if I fell back asleep, they would go away or, like having to pee, I would just hold off until it grew brighter and warmer outside. My room was freezing, but considerably warmer than it would've been had I been staying in a bungalow. I was using the bedding provided for the other double bed as well, so I was bundled in four blankets. The cramps remained strong, and I tried to make myself believe they were going away. I thought of my mom telling me everything would be OK, and that helped temporarily; however, after maybe ten or twenty minutes, both my cramps and nausea increased to a point where I knew that if I didn't get up immediately, there'd be a problem.

Dressed in a sweater and boxers, I brought one of the thinner blankets and- more importantly- my toilet paper, and stumbled to the outdoor restrooms, slamming the tin door behind me. I think I tried vomiting first, but only dry-heaved. It was only after I smelled my own diarrhea that I was compelled to puke into the bathroom's trash can, squatting over the eastern-style toilet and gagging. I brought another trash can into my room, and made good use of it a few hours later. At seven that morning, I bought juice, Gatorade, and water from across the street, and other than returning my scooter and emailing friends that afternoon, I was in bed pretty solidly all day. I was fucking pissed, more so because my last day in Pai was an utter waste than that I felt like shit but, as I had explained to my friends, "it's all part of traveling" (with the sort of pathetic "I guess" stapled on the end).

I absolutely had to eat something, but showered first. I was in outer space, and accidentally took someone else's towel that had been hanging to dry where I had left mine. It was only after I turned on the water that I realized my error, and sighed. "Can I help you find something," the guy asked. Clearly, it was his towel. My towel- and bathing suit- had been moved to another rack for some mysterious reason.

Walking down the street, newly cleaned, I stumbled upon a spot where some people were fiddling around with guitars. I saw they had bongos and a tambourine as well, so I figured I was in for some entertainment... Well, while I ate plain steamed rice, some hack tried improvising in an alternate tuning for twenty minutes, and then I was really in for it: this older, English hippie started strumming away, singing "I hate the white man, I hate his politics, blah blah blah [I wish I was still in my twenties, but now I am washed up with kids who couldn't care less about me, my shit music, or my expatriate lifestyle]." He had this really bad, pseudo-Bob-Dylan voice, with tremelo! I just ate and tried my best to applaud in between songs. He played something by the Doors, Dylan, and Neil Young- does every stereotypical hippie in this town share the same fucking five CDs? I was almost mad by this point, and then some older guy in the "audience" had joined in on backup, which proved to be more embarrassing musically than it was for his teenaged kids nearby trying to focus on puzzles. Jesus!

I politely thanked him, paid the eight cents for my rice, and promptly left. A little restaurant called Movie House was to play "Snatch" at 7, but they started nearly an hour late due to the full house of backpackers glued to BBC news. I sipped ginseng tea, trying to settle my stomach, and slowly ate white bread with a strange chocolate sauce they mistakenly called Nutella. I mainly slept- covering my nose trying to avoid breathing cigarette smoke throughout the movie- but I followed along for the most part. I just didn't want to be in bed. I went home at ten and awoke at half-past-eight, so at least I had a nice sleep!