My friend Lisa went to Thailand and all I got was the use of her great photos

Does anyone remember back in the 90s, when life was not nearly so photographed as it is now? When people might go whole weeks without snapping a picture, whole months even, and then once they did, they’d have to wait until the film was developed before knowing if anyone had blinked, or if everything was in shadow? Well, even by the standards of those times, I was a lazy, lousy photographer. I traveled from east coast to west coast and didn’t take a single picture. I have maybe a dozen from my travels in Europe, whole countries not represented. I have several rolls from my big trip to Southeast Asia, but not one photo that captures the experience I had there. Here is an example of a particularly bad shot of much-oogled guy on Ko Chan.

The next time I went to Thailand, I was with Mark, my photographer husband, so you’d think the situation would be different. But he’s not the sort of shutterbug who’s always shooting. Quite the opposite. I have to beg him to take snapshots of our cute kids. His thing is to capture a few enigmatic images and make them special by working them over in the darkroom and in his studio. The results are beautiful, but they’re not the kind of photos you pass around to friends to help them understand the details of a place.
Now, this might come as a shock to anyone born after 1980, but back in the day, my lack of personal photo documentation didn’t matter much. Writers weren’t expected to be producers of eye candy, for one thing. Hey, if I was photographing, I wouldn’t be present in the moment to make my writerly observations, right? Once home and writing my novel, my few roles of faded snapshots and a couple coffee-table books on Thailand provided enough visual fodder. For research, I leaned most heavily on my voluminous journals and on old fashioned books that contained only print in black and white.

But oh, how things have changed since. Now I find myself in this here internet age, and in a culture so visually oriented that even wordsmiths are supposed to be able to tell stories with images and sell books with trailers. The pressure to augment a blog, even a wordy blog like mine, with images is one of the things that scared me away for so long.

Luckily, our friend Lisa Meehan Williams went to Thailand last year, and not only is she a photographer of vision and skill, she is generous. She’s allowed me the use of the hundreds of gorgeous shots she took. Mark combined two to make the cover for CURRENCY, and more have illustrated my posts here. More still will appear in the book trailer that is hopefully forthcoming, lulling YouTube readers by the score that words might actually be worth reading. [Update: it’s here! I love it! Book trailers, a brilliant idea.] I’ve gotten so much pleasure—sometimes the hurting kind, full of nostalgia and a little exquisite regret—out of studying her images, noticing what’s still the same about the places we visited many years apart, appreciating the lushness, the information conveyed, the intelligence. These photos make me wish . . .

I thought I’d share a few here.

Whoops! That last isn’t a picture of Thailand! As are many of the photos that document our family life, it was taken by Tillio. He’s almost nine now, but he’s been taking pictures since he was three or four. Like Lilli, he probably wasn’t even two when he started asking for the digital camera, wanting to see himself in the display but mostly wanting to point and shoot at everything around him. It’s second nature to him. What does it mean for the way he’ll experience life? I’m still a print person, big on ideas, suspicious that  images masquerade, that they shortchange thought or direct encounters. I worry those those born with cameras implanted in their eyes and ears and fingers might be missing out on something. But I guess they’re also lucky.

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In Which I Consider Thai Prophylactics

So I last wrote about my first day traveling truly alone in Thailand, in which I was tricked into lodging at the wrong guesthouse, hit up for money by an odd teenager, and hounded by tuk-tuk drivers as I attempted to tour the ruins by foot, only to end up by late afternoon drinking with the same tuk-tuk drivers at the undesired guesthouse. If there is anyone reading this who wants the whole story, you’ll have to start here.

Also, if there is anyone reading this who doesn’t already know, I have a novel coming out in May, CURRENCY, that has at its heart a relationship between an American woman backpacker and a handsome Thai guy who hustles tourists. These characters, especially the Thai man, have been part of my life for what seems like forever, but looking back, I think my donnée was found on the day I’m describing (if I may apply that Jamesian term to my semi-pop thriller without the master turning too vigorously in his grave) and that’s probably why now, with publication looming, I keep fingering that day again and again.

But enough with the first-time-novelist psychologizing. On with the story: I sat drinking at the table with the drivers and with Noi, the teenager. The men switched between Thai and a game but halting English, and they were funny and nice. I was smiling and laughing some, letting them help with with my few Thai phrases, but my eyes kept darting, looking for wandering hands or secret signals or for a subtext to their joshing courtesy. I noticed that the veryvery handsome man held a white envelop that he occasionally tapped softly on the table. The other men started teasing him about it, and he ended up handing it over to Noi to read aloud, because, someone explained to me, although the drivers could all speak English, they couldn’t read it. The letter was from a girl. I recently recovered the journal I kept during this time, and here’s what I wrote in it:

Noi is reading aloud a letter the young and cute tuk tuk driver has received from some English girl gone far away who “can see your laughing eyes, your lips, your smile” when she closes her eyes. He made her trip “a special one” and wherever she is now is not as good as Thailand because when people are nice to you “they are nice to you because they want something—money.”

Everyone at the table cooed. Everyone but me, for whom the irony was too rich. Although, come to think of it, I guess the people I had encountered in Ayutthaya were actually being nicer to me now that they weren‘t trying to get my money. Or were they just being more subtle?

Whatever the case, it seemed to mean something to the cutie to have received this letter. He was visibly warmed. He smiled down at his hands, his expression sweet. And a few beats later he smiled at me again, and cast his laughing eyes back in the waters. We sat there for awhile longer. It became evening. I started to relax a little, and/or the beer started to kick in. According to my journal, “young and cute flirted well and outrageously.”

Also according to my journal, in the same paragraph: Doesn’t a Thai guy know he has the specter of AIDs against him? Didn’t the other English-speaking girl know this?

Well, that last was written by a newbie. It would soon become very apparent to me that the specter of AIDs did not seem to handicap the cute Thai boys one bit. And if it scared some English-speaking women away from them, well, otherwise the stampede would have been dangerous. Thai prophylactics were readily available, cheap, and of decent quality. And I would get my chance to use plenty.

But not with that first, adorable tuk-tuk driver, who eventually had to go. Good-bye! Good-bye! I will always remember that letter the English girl wrote to you! Even though I will get to know other Thai men much better, I will always remember your smile!

But my evening was just getting started. I went to take a shower, and Noi showed up in my room to finger my belongings, to ask the price of this and that. She asked again for money, lowering the amount this time, to 100 baht. Her spoken English was so poor, especially on the topic of borrowing, that we had to write notes to each other to make sure we were understood. Finally, exhausted, I gave in.

When we went back to the courtyard, the ranks of the drivers had thinned. Aside from the boss, there was just one guy left, a chain-smoker who wore aviator glasses. Through Noi, and after professions of shyness, the boss said that he would like to drink more beers with me. “I’ll pay for my beers,” he said. “I made a lot of money today.” I was half-drunk already, and confused, and scared again. “I just want to eat!” I cried. “Yes, of course. We’ll eat! We’ll eat!” he said.

Clearly, by any rules of safe conduct, I should not have gone. But my gut instinct was that they were good guys, and that an understanding of the dynamic that I’d witnessed that day, that I’d walked smack bang into and that was making me dizzy, could be gained by going. And so I made sure Noi was part of the invitation, that this strange half-scammer adolescent boy-crazy tom-boy would be there to act as guardian of my modesty. And then I gave her a stern look—you’re my modesty chaperon, get it? Do NOT side with the men. And do NOT ask me for money again. And then we all left to go.

But the deal almost all fell apart again when I learned we wouldn’t be walking, that we’d be riding in the dreaded tuk tuk. Not only had the tuk tuk has become the emblem of the transactional nature of our relationship, the hard give and take, but I knew that if I was driven somewhere, it’d be harder to extricate myself should anything go awry. Seeing my hesitation, everyone—Noi, the boss, the driver— cried out in alarm: “It’s free! It’s free!” Their faces all crumpled with concern that was I was going to turn crazy again. Feeling foolish both for going along and for being so paranoid, I climbed in. And I tried desperately to watch for landmarks as we rode, so I could find my way back if I had to. It’s hard to trust anyone when you know nothing.

They took me to a lovely restaurant on the Lopburi river, and we sat overlooking the water, fairy lights twinkling around the patio as straw-roofed, pointy-tipped boats glided by.  I registered the charming atmosphere, but I was also making constant calculations. I couldn’t read the menu, which was written in Thai, but I could see the prices, and they were far higher than I would pay for my bowl of rice or noodles from the guesthouse or market vendor.  A fool and his money are soon parted. I wrote in my journal. If I had just paid the god damn 250 baht for the goddamn tour like obviously a girl alone was expected to do, I wouldn’t be stuck here with two semi-leering Thai men and an 18-year-old tour guide and pickpocket-to-be, about to pay way too much for an awkward dinner. I worried about blowing my budget on an expensive meal for four, about the implications if the boss were to pick up the tab. I worried about what he would order. Not only was I exquisitely cost-conscious—to make my trip last, I was trying to spend only about $12 a day—but I was a vegetarian. I tried to make this clear, but “vegetarian” was not then a common descriptor in Thailand. I didn’t really succeed.

The boss was the only one of the three who could speak English fluidly, and he and I had a good conversation, the earlier teasing and repartee gone. He was a businessman, he explained. And he explained his feeling about tourists. He wants them be happy. He wants them to spend money. He wants them to come back, but he’ll believe it when he sees it. We talked about American politics, and he was informed, a fan of Clinton. “He’s a smart guy!” I asked him if he would like to go the States. He said he’s practical. He’s realistic. He does pretty well in Thailand, but he can’t take the money he makes here there. It’s way too expensive. He could only go there if he had a job there, and how is that going to happen?

“It’s not fair,” I objected. It was a stereotypical white-girl, knee-jerk response, but I felt it sincerely. And so I picked up the big cardboard box that doesn’t really fit in a backpack, but that has to be carried to beach and village and temple ruin nonetheless, the acknowledgment of the structural inequity that allows some to go traipsing while others won’t eat that day if they can’t persuade a tourist to crack open her moneybelt.

“I think so,” he smiled, enigmatic. Was he saying that he, too, thinks it’s unfair? He was gracious. “For you, Thailand very good, very much cheaper, I think so.”

Everyone cleared his or her plate but me—even allowing myself seafood, there were too many bits in the rice and soup that I was suspicious of.  The boss kindly offered coffee or fruit because he knew Europeans liked that, but I declined.

When the bill came, I reached for my wallet, but the boss would not accept any money. “In Sukhothai, in Chiang Mia, you spend a lot of money. Not tonight.” He is eloquent, and I sort of believe his intention, even while trying to tell myself that nothing is free, especially from a self-described capitalist of the tourist trade who knows Thailand is cheap to us and America is impossible to him. My cynicism was exhausting me.  Or were my attempts at open-mindedness exhausting me? Anyway, I did not push my money on him. Outside, he asked me if I want to go play snooker with him. No, I said, without hesitation. I was grateful that the situation was finally so unambiguous. I thanked him, and he drove off. The driver delivered me and Noi back to the guest house, safe and sound.

The night did not end there. There were more shenanigans from Noi—she really was a crazy girl—and I barely slept, what with her continually knocking and my head exploding from new impressions and my waking nightmares about being raped or about stabbing someone in the belly in order to prevent a rape from happening. I clutched my army knife all night long.

But of such intensity memories are made. I didn’t know it yet, but I had found my themes.

And I am grateful to anyone who has cared to read about it.