Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Condensed Milk Smile (from Siam)



foto: stephanie kellett
Awaken to the sound of monks chanting in harmonic unity despite the sexual chaos in the streets, where ladyboys and prostitutes stand like showy flowers planted in man made containers beneath strands of tinsel. Combusted blood rises from the pavement, causing prayer flags to tremble like Aspen leaves above a stream of taxis, busses, and tuk tuks endlessly circling back upon itself. There are millions of pairs of eyes. They reflect the halogen lights of innumerable scooters driving toward a paragon only attainable through Botox injections and chemical whiteners for the face. I stand amidst it, dizzy, breathing exhaust and gulping cheap beer spiked with formaldehyde. John Denver blares from a sound system–Rocky Mountain High all the way over here in southeast Asia, softening the landing for flocks of birds as exotic as Bangkok rats. They scurry across bricks inlaid with excrement the way western men do, cruising these slanted roads, hungry as starving dogs in Mexico, thirsty as boreal mosquitoes, desperate as lepers for human contact–they grope lobes of brown flesh like frat boys do to footballs and, by the power of their dollars, claim property rights as though some one is some thing you can own. But the truth in Thailand is you can. Anything you want. Name your price. A little haggling and it’s given to you with a smile as you’re rubbed into a boner or pay your way into a refugee’s dress. 


foto: stephanie kellett
Karst mountains rise above the palms gently combing the breeze from the blue sky. A few swallow-tails fly over my head and at least one kind of unidentified accipiter hawk. How has the great unraveling affected them, I wonder, as monkeys swing from abandoned nylon climber’s ropes like they are vines. At this point, every single place and every living thing has been touched. Still, when evening descends, the blue gives way to half moon silver light as it has always done. It is another sticky night on the Andaman Sea and the jungle is crawling with multi-legged things that chew, sting, and bite. There is a cacophony of sound, full with sweaty copulations. I listen in, as slow pulses turn into something more determined and purposeful. Synchronized movements compel the flow of liquids with the potential to birth new forms beneath the rhythmic creaking of bamboo trees. For a little while, nothing else matters. Even the staggering numbers of people inhabiting this side of the world becomes irrelevant and incomparable to this moment of fecundity.



foto: stephanie kellett
Full moon over the Gulf of Thailand. There are fireworks to accentuate the lunar roundness. I close my eyes and watch the explosive flashes from behind fallen lids. The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air like I imagine it does in Baghdad. Like a colonizing army, 30,000 tourists have descended upon this small island to slurp from buckets of rum and slather themselves in neon body paint. They’ll dance to trance all night long like Israelis used to do in Goa, squinting to see the pallid moon against a backdrop of LED lights. But I’m not with them. They are on the other side, while I am over here, my back against a wave-breaking wall, listening to Weird War and the occasional fisherman grunting as he pulls his net from the brine. Hunter S. Thompson and his black .44 comes to mind. What lengths he might travel in order to find a good metaphor–kind of like me and my friend Charlie, driving out earlier on the motorbike to a beach on the north coast where the snorkeling was supposed to be good. The beach was well greased with foreign languages, the tepid water was coated with sunscreen, and the reef itself was as vacant as the tourists who swam around looking to see something colorful. I know I’m being judgmental but I don't care. Context is everything, and the context most tourists come from is paved over and dead. We ordered a couple of 40oz. beers from the bar and played a game of chess. She beat me again, reminding me that I need to get better at games of strategy.



foto: stephanie kellett
Rain sounding like fry grease bubbling, the ominous rumble of thunder and the flash of lightening cracking the sky–as if heaven itself was splitting in two. My imagination runs like the water spilling off of the rooftops. Maybe the empyreal beings are finally through with us. It would take so little for them to take this beach back–Haad Rin, the tourist trap, built on top of a little sand spit just a few feet above sea level. All it would require is a continual battery of rain drops exploding on the pavement, turning the asphalt steps into a substrate for ephemeral waterfalls to cascade down, reconfiguring the one supply road into little more than a mud chute. I look around. The backpackers of the world all look pensive as they walk in the downpour toward the various depots to get them out of here. The Thais, on the other hand, don’t seem to mind. They slosh through the brown water holding umbrellas and wearing smiles. This confounds the tourists, growing ever more frustrated at the fact there will never be enough taxis to shuttle them to higher ground.


foto: r. e. livingood
 The Thais never stop. Always working to serve us, cooking our food, cleaning our messes (even from their orifices), massaging our stresses away. By midnight, after fifteen hours of laboring they are weary–only three or four more hours to go. It shows like gray filth dripping down white stucco walls or brown streaks upon bleached tissue paper. How we must appear to them. Solipsistic, self indulgent, aggressive, domineering; dancing in their streets as though we own them, irreverent of their cultural mores, ignorant of their traditions, indifferent to anything but our right to party cheap in the tropics. As much as the Thais try to mask it, their soft features betray them. They can’t stand us. Our indulgences are as offensive as a Mercedes Benz parked in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple. Crouching upon filthy streets over plastic totes they wash our dirty dishes. Sweating and scrubbing, hands all pruned up from soapy water and our spit, the dishwashers never make eye contact–they leave that chore and the condensed milk smile that goes with it to the servers who must wait on us. They don't look up at all, at least not until they dump the grey water onto the street. Then, when they catch us accidentally walking through the muck in our sandals, they smile…just slightly.