7 February, 2007
It’s been an interesting couple of days, transitioning from India to Thailand’s northern Andaman coast islands. Two whole days sandwiched around a sleepless night in Mumbai airport landed me in Phuket at the youth hostel, having begun my journey from Anjuna in Goa the previous morning. That itinerary was complex enough: bus to Mapusa, transfer to Panjim, again to Vasco and walking the last kilometer to the Dabolim airport.
I nearly missed my connection there, to Mumbai. First the plane was delayed for half an hour, though the departure screen listed it as on time. Finally the boarding announcement was made, and many of us seated attempted to swarm into the already existing line of people standing waiting at the gate. After awhile standing well back in that line with no progress, I noticed that a few stragglers were still boarding shuttle buses directly from the side of the front of the line. I sensed it was time to move ahead to the exit, and just in time, too, as I was the last to go through with the final boarding call.
In Mumbai I was faced with a ten-hour wait: from 6:30 P.M. to 4:30 A.M. Fortunately I recognized someone in a gift shop whom I’d met in Anjuna the night before: a bright and friendly guy from Spain-Mexico-Switzerland. We spent the next few hours passing the time in stimulating conversation in the restaurant while he waited for his 1 A.M. departure. I passed more time sleepily working my way through Michael Chrichton’s latest thriller concerning genetic engineering and its pitfalls, Next.
Finally, allowing nearly two hours for processing, I made my way to the line--er, made a number of inquiries trying to find which line to stand in. It was a bad choice, because it barely moved; we stood like the indoor banana plants, waiting for something to happen, while the clerk at the front busied himself with papers, keyboard, passports, people coming to discuss this and that. Eventually it came down to a rush at the end to get through security and to the boarding gate just in time before takeoff.
The transfer from Bangkok to Phuket was uneventful. After taking the shuttle bus to Phuket town, I took the first of a series of motorcycle taxis to the youth hostel further down the peninsula at Chalong. The area was nothing like I’d imagined. Instead of the tourist enclave I expected, it seemed, at least along the routes I saw, like nothing more than a modern Thai town. I had expected to find some nearby travel agencies to research some island connections, but instead made a quick exit the next morning, following a chat the evening before with an interesting woman from Australia. She was a little older than me but wore braces; lived at the youth hostel with her cat while volunteering at a nearby pet clinic; recounted some adventures traveling little-known regions of China and India, and still dreamed of climbing Mt. Everest.
Finally I got a good night’s sleep, and stood on the highway early the next morning waiting for a motorcycle taxi. I got a ride to Phuket town but my driver didn’t know how to get to the pier, where I thought I could catch a boat to the island of Ko Yao Yai. Finally he stopped to ask for directions, and it turned out I needed to take a bus to a port further up the peninsula. That worked fine, and soon I found myself on the boat to the island.
My Lonely Planet guidebook said it was laid-back there but there were a few bungalow options. When I got off the boat on the pier there were only a few other people around. I pulled out my book and stated the names of the three bungalows listed there. Fortunately one young man recognized one of them, "Oh, Halavee," and went off on his motorcycle promising to come back with transportation. He returned a little while later driving a late-model four-wheel-drive truck, and took me down the length of the island to the far end.
At Halavee no one was there: no guests, no cooks, no manager. It was really a haunted resort: the "Halloween." I dug out the phone number I had from the book but it was no good. Off my helper went again, and a short time later the manager did appear on his own motorbike. I arranged to stay for a few days. He said I could get meals at the restaurant by the beach.
There were a few Thai roadside food stalls there; a resort restaurant on the beach seemed to serve only the boat passengers deposited there twice a day as part of the Island Hopper boat tours. No one else was using the beach. Having the place essentially to myself--both beach and bungalow--was a bit disorienting after Goa, and the crowds in India virtually everywhere. In fact my situation felt most similar to Argenta--the middle of nowhere, with no one around, and nothing happening.
Isn’t that what I wanted, what everyone wanted? Well, not everyone, but what about that ideal, the deserted tropical beach? In truth I found it rather boring. It was too hot to spend much time there, especially in the afternoons. The sand and water were pleasant enough, the right texture and color and temperature, but there were small stinging jellyfish, like waterborne mosquitoes; the daily deposits of pale-skinned tourists; the sullen local staff lingering in between tour arrivals; and a vaguer malaise underneath it all. What was I doing there? Did I just want to call it quits, enough beaches already, and go back home to Victoria?
Or was I just having cold turkey from Internet cafes, cappuccino, full-service restaurants on call? Maybe I could treat this more as a dieta, a retreat from usual preoccupations and habits, a chance to delve deeper into solitude. I could take advantage of the empty beach for flute practice; or concentrate on editing, or writing. In fact, what I needed most was to catch up on more sleep.
The manager had told me I could connect to the Internet on a friends’ computer. But in the morning two cooks arrived asking if I wanted breakfast, and then the manager phoned them to give me the message that the Internet wasn’t working. The cook offered to drive me by motorbike to an Internet place farther down the road, however, after breakfast. She dropped me off and I made sure the Internet was working, and she promised to return in forty-five minutes. Actually the Internet was not working, or at least not beyond showing the initial Google site. So I sat for an hour, reading my book, and when she never showed up to take me back, the guy at the Internet place took me on his motorbike. They were all connected by mobile phone, at least.
Since restaurant meals appeared haphazard, I stocked up on snacks for lunch. Then later the cooks showed up again asking if I wanted lunch, but I told them sorry, I was no longer hungry. In the afternoon I went to the beach and ate a meal there before leaving for the bungalow. Just after dark the cooks showed up yet again; and again I had to tell them, sorry, I didn’t know you were coming and already ate. But then I did take the opportunity to tell them that I would like to speak to the manager so I could arrange to leave the next morning.
"Oh, he’s in Phuket," they said. As everyone seemed mutually responsible on the island, I asked if I could pay them for the room and the breakfast, and if they could call a taxi for me the next morning, so I could go to the pier and catch the boat for Krabi. They arranged this smoothly and even collected advance payment for the taxi--which as it turned out the next morning, was another motorbike. First I had to wait awhile in the pre-dawn darkness, though, as the taxi was late. The famous line started running through my head--"You can check out anytime, but you can never leave..."
I got to the pier in time for the 7:30 long-tailed boat to Krabi, all right. But in Krabi I expected, from my book, to catch any of a number of daily boats to Rai Leh. No such boat, I was told at the Krabi pier. I could hire one specially for 2000 baht, or I could ride with this man sitting in the restaurant, on his motorbike to Ao Nang, for 200 baht, and then catch a boat to Rai Leh for 60 baht more. Fine, I said, I’ll do it.
Ao Nang was quite the tourist hub that I expected Krabi to be, with long-tailed boats lined up on the beach by the dozen, departing every ten minutes to Rai Leh. I satisfied my cravings with a good breakfast at an Italian restaurant--omelet, ciabatta, latte, chocolate croissant--and a solid hour of catching up with business at a fast broadband Internet place. I had been sweating a little since I was supposed to be covering the incoming business email this week while Carol was off somewhere out of contact in Mexico. Indeed there was a flood of jobs to deal with; but nothing crucial that had been missed.
Rai Leh was also packed with tourists, which was only natural given boats arriving every ten minutes. On the east-side beach which had been my originally intended destination, a boatman asked me as I walked by, "Boat to Krabi?"
"Krabi!" I said, indignant. "I thought there were no boats between here and Krabi."
"100 baht," he said. "We go when there are eight people."
I told him my story and he just shook his head. Anyway, no big deal. I kept walking and found a place to stay, finally, where I am comfortable: Railay Cabanas, on the hillside under the towering limestone cliffs.
There is some consolation of lessons to be gained from all this confusion of transportation and expectation. It seems that life can be lived in the predictable middle of things: a planned itinerary, reservations in advance at an agreeable price, regular mealtimes, reliable business hours, and so on. Or, life can be lived more on the edge: unpredictable destinations, taking chances on places to stay according to what’s available; making do with feast or famine as the occasion presents itself; and being flexible with work as it can be and needs to be dealt with. The budget I think balances out similarly either way: kind of like tickets for air travel, which can be bought in advance at a reasonable middling price . . . or at the last minute, either at the highest business rates or the cheapest discount rates. Maybe relationships are like that too: the safe, well-considered choice . . . or the random encounter, for better or worse.
The nomadic lifestyle really is that which typifies the second, organic approach. The sedentary life of the farmer typifies the first, the predictable path. Or, the life of the pastoral herder could be compared with that of the hunter-gatherer.
In all these cases there is the choice of risk, openness, trust, flow, which is subject to failure and disaster and disappointment--or more likely, simply fear of these. On the other hand, this path of risk, trust and discovery leaves one open for rich rewards of human kindness, unintended revelation, serendipity, and redeeming grace.
For instance, having left behind my finished copy of Next at the Halavee bungalow, I scanned the shelf of used books upon arriving at the Railay Cabana restaurant. Of course, one title was waiting for me: A Passage to India.
Passage from India
I found that book, in the end, tiresome, and put it away, as I had also ditched in the Mumbai airport The Autobiography of a Yogi. Both books I had read long ago, and now found quaint and irrelevant in their personal and interpersonal focus, and outdated style. If I cannot perform such miracles as the yogi, I may as well turn to such things as I can do.
So on to my own reflections of India on leaving it for Thailand--while hoping that the reader will find these more up-to-date and of topical interest, and forgive any cultural ignorance on my part for the sake of impressionistic honesty.
First of all, I am struck that for me the soul of a country is in the soul of its beholder. Thus for me at least, the soul of India, its true essence, is in its music--especially the classical music of northern India. I didn’t even travel there, but did absorb some of these strains which are heard everywhere. The sitar and drone, tabla and flute and voice convey to me everything that I imagine India to be, or feel her to be in her core. Beneath all the filth and poverty and corruption, the glitz and tourism and commerce, even beneath all the spiritual practices and ornaments. Of course, this is just me, as that musical chord is what responds strongest in me vis-à-vis Indian culture. For someone else, it will be yoga, or temples, or cuisine, or beaches, or cheap travel. All of those offer their own attractions, but when I think back on India, my preferred sense is the sound of its transcendent music.
Next I would turn to the social and cultural ambience of the country. To me--again I have to couch all these remarks in the qualification of subjectivity--Indians seem intentionally, stubbornly, proudly, obstinately inefficient. The overwhelming sense I have of the cities, towns, buildings, utilities, shops, streets, buses, and so on, is of dirt, decay, disrepair, and disintegration. And everyone is standing around, not bothering--as if (and they’re right) it’s someone else’s (British, Portuguese) civilization crumbling around them. A long-timer in India provided me with a further insight into this state of affairs, suggesting that the women are doing all the necessary work, and what’s left is to the men, who prefer enjoying their superior status by hanging about, observing.
In bus and train stations and airports, people stand in line for hours, not moving anywhere--while at the front, the clerks behind their windows are besieged by a clot of urgent travelers engaged in animated discussion. When you finally arrive to have your turn, you find it is the wrong line, or the wrong day, or you don’t need a ticket anyway. And if you don’t understand what they are saying in rapidly garbled Indian-English, repeated once if you are lucky, you are sent away with a wave of the head, as it was an ignorant question. It is your problem.
If all of this seems mean-spirited, or even racist, I could respond with an equally scathing critique of certain British tourists whose superior airs in drunken conversations I had to endure; or I could venture equally uninformed and narrow-minded mischaracterizations of any other nationality. I have an eternal fondness for my own hometown of Baltimore, but I understood completely when my orthodontist once bluntly described it as it struck him: "the armpit of the East." I did make friends with Indians and feel at home in some less-urban places, and grew more comfortable with the culture as I became more familiar with it. It’s just that, when I finally arrived in Thailand, I realized how different the two cultures were, and felt here as if I were coming home ("home" not in the "armpit" sense, but in the sense of "more aesthetically pleasing").
The cultural virtues here seemed to be gentleness instead of aggressiveness; cleanliness instead of indifference to garbage; friendliness instead of smug hostility. I could feel safe traveling on a motorbike, and traffic moved easily, without pressure and without the constant blaring of horns and jockeying for position that occurs everywhere on Indian roads. In short, I felt as if I were back in Canada.
At the risk of expressing further ignorance, I would venture an analogy between the cultural veneer of the North American countries corresponding to the large countries of Asia.
- India is the Mexico of Asia--bustling, vibrant, abrasive, dirty.
- Thailand seems much like Canada--clean, reserved, natural, unassuming.
- Russia would correspond to Canada geographically, but perhaps more to the northern US culturally--cosmopolitan, modern, diverse, imperial.
- China would be the counterpart of the southern US--conservative, traditional, proud, repressive.
One final qualification: I don’t want to say that any country or culture is better or worse than any other--but only to report how I respond to what I sense directly by traveling there, or indirectly by hearing from others who have, or intuiting from more subtle impressions. I don’t claim any of these are accurate or fair--just true in my understanding, for the moment.
Now surely I have offended someone in any case, and will expect to receive complaints shortly…
By way of conclusion, I wonder if the extremes of my impressions of India--the sublime beauty of its transcendent music, contrasted with the dispiriting and unbeautiful decrepitude of its cities--make some kind of karmic sense, together. As if this ancient homeland of the human body and spirit insists on keeping alive the fullest spectrum of human reality--celebrating the best while flaunting the worst.