Posted on July 7, 2011
This spring, we went back to Isla Mujeres for our second time as a family and my third time overall. I left a copy of Currency at PocNa, the hostel where I stayed when I visited the island as a backpacker round about 1995. In the book, I pasted the same note that I have in the other copies I’ve sent out into the world:
As the author of this novel, it’s one of my great hopes for Currency that people will discover it while on the road. To that end, I’ve given some copies to traveler-types and asked them to leave the books, when they’re through, where other travelers can find them. If you’ve left or found Currency, I would love it if you’d leave a comment at https://zoezolbrod.com/the-traveling-book/. Happy travels!
I think there are about ten or twelve books that are floating around the globe right now, with most of them, fittingly, in Southeast Asia. I’ve received only one note from a stranger who has picked up a copy completely by chance, but the story that woman told, in the comments here, was worth way more than a box full of books; it put me on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok and then on route to Nepal. O World! I miss you! And Piv and Robin, I miss you too. When the two of them come alive for other people, it helps ease the sting—or maybe it just makes it more exquisite, which is perhaps the better goal. If anyone reading this is about to go on a trip and wants a copy of Currency to read and leave behind for someone else, let me know, and I’ll send you a copy
I felt sort of like a spy in PocNa, wandering around looking for the lending library I knew they’d have, wondering at the way things change and they don’t, checking out the tanned faces bent over glowing netbooks in the shade of the main courtyard. (So many netbooks.) I inferred that a lot of hostelers were using the cushion of Isla and PocNa to recover from more strenuous travels, maybe staying on longer than they’d planned at a place with good wi-fi and a little night life. In 1995, still pretty fresh from the pristine beaches of Ko Chang, each of which could only be reached by boat, none of which featured accommodation other than thatched huts, Isla Mujeres felt urban to me, and almost unbearably commercial. I had never seen yachts and pleasure craft docked near a pier, and I had never had to pass by so many hulking hotels to get to a guesthouse.
But there were recognizable sorts at the hostel, and I quickly made the recognizable alliances, and with them I ended up smoking pot and traversing the more local side of the island for late-night conch and cheap snorkeling. Having found the bookshelf for freebies and slipped Currency among the offered titles—with the endless stream of wi-fi and the portable screens, how many fewer books do travelers read?—I headed back to the street, and I took great pleasure in standing in the entryway remembering the humiliation of having to be rescued from a communication problem at check-out by a know-it-all who’d annoyed me on these jaunts and who spoke Spanish. Mmmmmm nostalgia. I’m hooked on it. The then-and-now simultaneity is sometimes so physical it gives me vertigo, and I put my hand on the cement wall to steady myself. Meanwhile, Mark was waiting in the golf cart outside, dealing with the squabbling kids so I could have my moment. It was on the same island two years ago that he helped me come up for the name of this blog, The Next Youth Hostel. Get it? The journey, the journey. Still on it, in our way.
I haven’t been updating this blog much because my world keeps turning. Currency‘s been out over a year, so I’m not promoting it. I never intended the blog as a place to give personal updates, but to the extent that I did, now I use Facebook more than ever. And when I feel the call to write an essay, I write for The Nervous Breakdown because I love the community there, not to mention the eyeballs. I’ve posted essays about the my mom being on Facebook, the gang rape of the eleven-year-old girl, my reaction to the proposed opening of a breastaurant in my bucolic town, and my challenges with time.
I am quite time-challenged. I’m working on a new project—a memoirish type exploration that I’m vexed by and drawn toward—and every day I feel its hungry rumble for hours I don’t have. A fair number of those I need just to sit chin in hand and stare off into the past. What can I say? Pondering formative experiences is so attractive to me. This time the setting is closer to home. There’s a lot about sex and childhood and gender issues, those perennial favorites.
Posted on September 2, 2010
I’ve been practicing yoga off and on for over twenty years. When I’m in the zone of a good class, sensory memories of other places I’ve done yoga flow through me: Sheffield, England, where I took my first classes; the beaches of Thailand; the Ayurvedic retreat outside of Katmandu where I submitted to a rigorous treatment; a rooftop in Pokhara; a loft in old-school Wicker Park; a massage room in Andersonville; the airy, urban studio at Yoga Circle; the sun rooms and living rooms and classrooms where I’ve practiced prenatal yoga; the sunny balcony of my mom’s house in New Mexico; the Chicago Cultural Center, where I rediscovered yoga in a life-saving class after an absence; the open-air, rooftop studio on Isla Mujeres enclosed by billowing white sheets. The Isla instructor was German, a traveler, who told stories of Bali, of being stuck in the Sonoran desert while guiding a busload of German tourists. The sheets flapped as we practiced, allowing glimpses of the crystalline Gulf of Mexico, the white tops of buildings, sea gulls mid-flight. I love the way the memories have no age, are not worn. They flutter and billow, like those sheets, tangling into each other, releasing. In the window of the room where I currently attend class, there’s often a slice of blue sky, even in the winter. Sparrows flutter. On good days, my heart fills as I practice. Yoga. Hey, it’s no secret. It’s freaking great.
I am especially in love with my Sunday morning Anusara yoga class. Two weeks ago, while I was standing in uttanasana, my teacher, Steve Pizzanello, put his hand on my back and incanted “you’re still traveling, you’re still traveling, you’re still traveling.” He was talking to the class about something specific—maybe that even as we were planted our heads were meant to still be traveling toward the front of the room, our thighs were meant to still be traveling toward the back—but I experienced him as speaking directly to me. Just beneath my skin, there’s often anxiety swirling, a tossing wind caused by conflicting pulls, toward family and stability, toward solitude and movement. Dollar bills are whisking around, and I’m trying to grasp at them, or damning myself for not. But at my core, there’s a calm certainty: I’m still traveling. Of course. Every day, here in Evanston, raising my children with my husband, walking to and from my job, I’m still traveling. It’s one thing. My teacher’s words and my body’s response to them gave me a sail to harness the wind, to move this knowledge beyond my core. It was a powerful moment for me.
The moment passed—just like youth, like vacations and seasons—but it also remains.
If you’re interested in some great writing from a yogi, mother, and writer, I recommend the blog Mothers of Invention.
Posted on July 9, 2010
The excellent music/lit blog Largeheartedboy allowed me to create a Currency play list for their Book Notes feature. I’ve always seen western music as playing an important part of Piv’s identity, and it certainly has been an important part of mine, so this was a fun assignment. For one of the entries, the song “Made in Thailand” by the Thai band Carabao, I found I had a lot to say. I edited it down for the play list, but I’m reposting the full thing here, because it gets at a lot that’s important to me—the super-vivid memories I still have of my long-ago trip, the differences between the wifi present and the analog past, and the tension between east and west that I tended to see everywhere, whether or not it was unambiguously present.
When I first went to Thailand in the 1994, one thing I found that I hadn’t expected to was a campfire scene. All over the country, it seemed, in the more bucolic locations, Thais and tourists could be found gathered around an evening fire, everyone singing along to a Thai guy playing guitar. If the campfire circle included more than a couple Thai people, there’d often be a segment where they sang Thai songs and the foreigners just listened. It was a relief, in a way—a relief not to have to strive for the universal, not to feel the taint of cultural imperialism in the fact that universal meant John Denver. And I thought I detected relief in the Thai voices as well, surer singing in a native language. The Thai song I heard most often was fierce and proud with a slow, pounding rhythm. It contained an English phrase, “Made in Thailand,” and it listed the names of the old Thai capitals: Sukhothai, Lopburi, Ayutthaya, which gave me a thrill. I could recognize them! I’d been there! I liked the song’s sense of protest, believing it was criticizing tourists, the commodification of the culture. I tried to ask the Thais around the campfire about the lyrics’ meaning, but their answers were vague. Sometimes this seemed due to the limits of their English. Sometimes it seemed they were being polite, not wanting to recount lyrics that were telling my kind to sod off.
The way I heard it sung, “Made in Thailand” was the antithesis of the warbling synth pop that was commonly heard in shops and restaurants and busses, and it became my mission to find a recording of it, to add a local band to my trip’s soundtrack, which otherwise consisted of the three tapes I carried in my backpack to play on my Walkman on long bus rides: PM Dawn, Freakwater, and Pavement. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to explain what I was looking for to the cassette tape sellers at local markets, I found a guy who could write out for me the name of the artist in both roman and Thai script: Carabao. The next time I was in Bangkok, I went searching. The vendors on Khao San, backpackers’ row, didn’t have it, but they liked that I was looking for it, and they told me where to go. I wove my way there, to a series of little streets filled with young, arty Thais, close but yet far from the tourist ghetto. Just being there made me feel hipper myself, and the tapes and CDs were sold in an air-conditioned shop, not a market stall. With the sales clerk’s help, I found what I was looking for, an album by the same name as the song, released in 1984 but still popular. I treasured this cassette tape for years, until it was destroyed in an apartment fire.
Nowadays, the internet reduces mystery. With the translated lyrics widely available, I can see they’re not an admonishment of tourists; the song could care less about tourists, and my belief that Carabao was singing about me reveals the narcissism that’s a frequent companion to liberal guilt. They lyrics are more an admonishment to Thais who are too willing to see value only in foreign-made things. Piv certainly falls into this category. He wants to master foreign ways, to win over foreign women, that’s where he sees his fortune rising, the arena in which his dreams will come true. The Thais are known for being such nice people. Pleasure-loving, polite, pleasure-giving. I found that to be true. But there’s a knowingness, as well. I liked this song because it captured that.
Posted on June 26, 2010
(I posted this missive last week on The Nervous Breakdown last week, so if you read it there, skip this. If you haven’t heard of The Nervous Breakdown and you like to read short nonfiction on screen, you should totally check out the site. )
Getting ready for my recent trip to L.A., I told anyone who would listen that I’d never, ever been there. But when I walked out of LAX to catch the FlyAway to Union Station—boom! I caught myself in a lie. The low overhang that made me want to duck as I stepped out of the doors, the slice of blue sky just beyond, the scraggly palm trees against the white parking garage—I’d seen it before, on another June day fifteen years ago. The exact same tableau had been my first glimpse of the U.S. after returning from more than half a year in Southeast Asia.
Last month, I published a novel set mostly in Thailand. It’s about a Thai man and an American woman who get involved with an exotic animal smuggling ring. When people have asked the inevitable questions about how much of Currency is autobiographical—because, of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point of view of a Thai man. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my book, but I’m not always successful, and that’s sort of sexy, right? Not the semi-failure, but the hooking up with a few too many foreign men? So I throw it out there to liven things up. And besides, it’s true. Sometimes I precede or follow the comment by making a lame joke about how I never smuggled anything—as far as I know, ha ha.
Until last week, I’d forgotten that I do have an autobiographical connection to Currency’s smuggling plot, a Los Angeles connection. That’s where I landed on my return from Bangkok, and, although I was continuing on to San Francisco, that’s where I went through Immigration and Customs and officially entered America. I’d recently been to Vietnam and Laos, among other destinations, and I was actually looking forward to this border crossing, to officers who spoke an English I knew I’d understand, to the certainty I wouldn’t be squeezed for a bribe, to belonging. When the immigration officer asked me questions about the length of my trip and how I’d managed to stay away for so long, he sounded friendly.
But maybe he tagged me in some way, tapped his loafer to a button on the floor, splattered invisible ink on my back, because while I waited for my stuffed, bedraggled, beloved backpack to roll off the luggage belt, I was approached by other men who asked me the same questions: How did I afford to travel so long without working? Where all had I been? The interest no longer seemed friendly, and I was wearied but not surprised when I was pulled aside at Customs. The search was thorough. Unzipped, my bag emitted the stink of tropical rot. It embarrassed me to watch gloved hands finger my crumbled clothes and dirty underwear, to see my souvenirs splayed out on the table, drained of meaning under the harsh fluorescents—the bunched-up jewelry, the crude carvings, the yak bone I had picked up on a trail in Nepal. But my heart didn’t start seriously pounding until the officer turned over the bone again and again and then walked away with it. He conferred with another uniformed guy. Then maybe another. One of them came over to ask me what the bone was. There was the crackling of a walkie talkie. The bone was taken out of my sight. It reappeared. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the order in which these things occurred. But I remember being informed that the wildlife expert was on his way. I remember them telling me to repack my bag while we waited for him, the awful feeling of stuffing my messed and cheapened life back inside, under watch. “How did you know so much about smuggling?” people have asked me. “Research,” I’ve answered. And: “I got the animal smuggling idea from an article in a 1997 The New York Times Magazine.” And (in a snotty tone that implies Duh, I’m a fiction writer): “I just made up what it might be like to get caught carrying contraband into another country.” Why did I not recall until revisiting the airport where it happened that I myself was waylaid while carrying a piece of mammal?
It’s not accurate to say the incident slipped my mind. It must have been in there somewhere, hiding in the shadows, because I can recall it vividly now. I can recall the frog enclosures on the blue shirt I was wearing, the heavy string of Kali beads around my neck. (Jesus, how stupid I was to dress like such a clichéd hippy when coming back from what was at that time still a capital of drug production.) My backpacking trip was one of the most influential periods of my life, but I’ve become sort of sheepish about trotting out travel experiences that happened in the previous decade—or, ouch, are the 90s now considered to be two decades ago? And I’ve been laboring over Currency’s manuscript for so many years that my character’s experience had became more legitimate to me than my own, even though I still have the yak bone displayed at the top of a bookshelf in my dining room.
The wildlife inspectors ended up letting me keep it. By the time I was cleared, I needed a smoke, and I headed outside. I noted the contrast of the gloomy overhang and the sky’s robin’s egg blue, the outline of the palms’ ragged edges against the garage’s grimy cement. Southern California, I thought. Check. Then I stubbed my cigarette, went back inside, and got on my flight to San Francisco, where I stayed with my friend Brenna and her girlfriend Paula. I used their apartment as a halfway house, a place to acclimatize before I fully reentered American life.
Brenna has long since moved to L.A., and I stayed with her again on this recent visit. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve hardly talked these last ten years. As she drove me around town to readings and parks and Venice Beach—I leaned on her for that one—her truck’s radio was often tuned to a station that played “Ladies Night” and “Celebration” on heavy rotation, songs we had danced to as preteens. We looked at each other across the wide bench seat and laughed. We grooved. We sang along, and she corrected me on some of my lyrics; apparently I’ve been wrong about them for thirty years. (It’s not “Celebrate your life,” it’s “Celebrate good times,” which I hope I can forget by the next time I hear it because I think my version is bigger-hearted.) One night, we all three went out, the same San Francisco trio, Brenna and Paula—just friends, now, best friends—and me, to a bar in Culver City, and Brenna and I danced in the back to the deejay’s nowest of now mix. We told Paula about how we had met on the dance floor at family night at our small town’s disco, and how we had fallen in love. We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.
The phrase “the accordion of time” pops into my head a lot lately. I picture the long stretch of years—of course some things will be forgotten; there’s so much!—and then the squeeze that brings them together until they all exist at once, until everything seems as if it’s happening now. The sensation is accentuated by publishing a book that I’ve worked on through so many stages of my life and that’s inspired by an earlier stage yet; by a book tour that’s reconnecting me with people I spent formative years with before drifting away from. Lately, it’s common for me to recount a night on a 1980s dance floor as if it were yesterday, but to forget what happened last weekend. I’m an old lady in that way. But, also, I’m still a girl. Some enthusiasms are as fresh now as they were then. I keep having the feeling that I’ve been here before, and that it’s exactly the same, I’m exactly the same. But also, that it was nothing like this. Coming home, I’ve returned to a place I’ve never quite been: tropical flora, brilliant sunshine, dirty but still bright, white walls.
Posted on May 17, 2010
First off, let me say that Currency officially hits the streets right about now. Dear visitor, I beg you not to judge this book on the absence of a dedicated web site. It is a hundred times better than its web presence, and although there’s little excuse for that in this day and age, isn’t it preferable to the reverse? Currency is exciting yet thoughtful, sexy yet serious. Yet fun! For real, you will want to take this book with you on vacation. But don’t take my word for it, you can read this review, or this advance praise. Or watch this book trailer. Etc. The following blog post was brought to you by the above shameless self-promotion!
Speaking of: I’ve done a few promotional interviews recently (one with myself, up at The Nervous Breakdown), and in them I’ve talked for the first time about the liaisons I had with Thai guys when I was traveling, and how they influenced the book. Up until now, although I’ve written about how loaded can be the attraction of tourists for local people in much poorer countries and about my awakening to the charms of Thai men, I’ve kept pretty quiet about my actual affairs.
There are lots of reasons for this reticence, I think. For one thing, I was involved with someone back home at the time; we had not promised monogamy, but still. Then I met the man I would marry, and it no longer seemed cool to go on about past lusts. But I think the crux is that I was embarrassed by these relationships. I was embarrassed that there was more than one, that they started to become a pattern. I was embarrassed by the disapproving looks that came from many quarters—from people who had seen the pattern play out, or who thought someone was taking advantage, or who simply found the combination of the two of us unsavory for any number of reasons. I could imagine quite a number of reasons. Now, trying to sort through stuff, I wonder if these embarrassments weren’t sharper because they reminded me of a racially-charged situation in my junior high years, and also because my attraction to Asian men might have a connection to something even further back, and sticker. I could probably write a whole memoir unpacking this stuff like a set of old dishes, wondering over the continued, solid existence of things I haven’t seen for so long and reading the newspaper the items were wrapped in, amazed by the prices of years gone by, or by the wars that waged then, and so absorbed in the past that I wouldn’t notice my hands pricking from the dust until they were on fire.
Over the years, to feed or understand my fascination, I’ve sought out fiction about cross-cultural relationships, ones that include a difference in race and privilege. There’s The Lover, of course, and The Quiet American—I love The Quiet American. Less well known is When Mountains Walked, by Kate Wheeler, about a woman who has an affair with a revolutionary in Peru. I highly recommend it. And The River Sweet, by Patricia Henley—she writes so well about guilt-ridden Americans and other countries.
But the best book on the topic I think I’ve read is The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer. That novel just dissects—so lyrically, so incisively; well, she’s Nadine Gordimer—the currents between a well-off South African white women and the Arab man she takes up with, an illegal immigrant. The needs of both, the hungers of both, the anger, the role of family and future and sex. It’s pre-9/11 but it presages 9/11. It’s one of those books I can read again and again, just in wonder that anyone could know all that, and say it so perfectly.
Posted on March 22, 2010
In terms of my ever-lengthening life, I didn’t spend much time in Southeast Asia. Not much time in Thailand, not much time in Vietnam, barely any time in Laos. And the time I spent there was so long ago. But once I returned, I had such a craving for those places, such an urge to understand more, to experience more, to revisit and linger. One way to do that is by writing. So I wrote stories, and essays, and then, endlessly, a novel set in Thailand. Another way to learn and to visit, of course, is by reading. Here are a few of my favorite books that have taken me back to Thailand and its borders regions. I recommend them to anyone gearing up to go or anyone who wants to remember.
A great read for anyone interested in Northern Thailand, this story within a story explores the tensions between a hill tribe based on the Lisu, an anthropologist who sets up permanent residence with them, and missionaries who have worked in the golden triangle region for generations. There’s a murder mystery and a mysterious cross-cultural romance, a dysfunctional-family back story and an expatriot’s-dilemma frame story, and through it all, Berlinski demonstrates a depth of knowledge about multitudes of different worlds with a grace that left me awe-struck. I’m fascinated by Southeast Asia’s cultural complexity and America’s recentish involvement in it, and I’m aware that my fascination—or any outsider’s—raises issues of its own. He gets at all that, wraps it around a riveting plot, and makes you feel like you’re there. Man, I want to go read this book again right now.
If you, like me, enjoy reading about people who are as brave, cool, and morally pure as you are in your dreams, well, Edith Mirante is just such a person. She’s written a book that should be of interest to any intrepid traveler with a conscious, and especially those who’ve been to the Thai-Burmese border region and have wondered about what they saw. Mirante is a real-life “human-rights pirate” who visited Thailand as an artist in the 80s and became radicalized when she learned how the Burmese were suffering under their oppressive government. She took huge personal risks to document the situation of the hill tribes living close to the Thai-Burmese border, sneaking between countries, traveling deep into the jungle, and visiting dangerous characters in an attempt to get at a truth that she could share, even when people didn’t want to hear it. (She implicates the U.S. to some degree.) Since she did her work around the time that much of Fieldwork takes place, this is a good nonfiction counterpart to that novel. It’s also a thrilling book on its own, and it’s a tonic to read about someone who managed to take dramatic action in the face of the kinds of entrenched misery that can make many travelers feel hopeless.
The suffering of hill tribe groups seems to know no bounds. In this artful and heart-wrenching memoir, Yang tells the story of her Hmong family, who escaped Laos to find themselves in a series of refugee camps in Thailand before eventually moving to the United States. Yang depicts clearly and tenderly life in Hmong villages before, during, and after the Vietnam war; life in the refugee camps where she spent her first seven years; and life as an immigrant. The description of her family crossing the Mae Kong river was particularly harrowing for me. I read it while nursing my infant daughter, and when they made the crossing, Yang’s sister was newborn and sick, and her mother was nursing and infected. I remember sitting on the banks of that same river very near where they crossed, drinking beer and admiring the romantic view. I remember riding down that river in an inner tube, laughing, playing on a mud bank. How little most Americans know about Hmong involvement in the Vietnam war, and what a high price those involved have paid for it. But Yang’s book is about so much more than this. I can almost guarantee that anyone would love it.
Well, Thailand is not all hill tribes and jungle trails. This novel about a gay Thai expatriot who returns to Bangkok to heal from a heartbreak and becomes enthralled with a male prostitute is both stylistically sophisticated and as drug-strew, dimly lid, and lurid as you’d expect a novel about Bangkok nightlife and sex-selling to be. And it hits the themes close to my heart: the grey areas around cultural imperialism, the economic subtext of so much, the complexity of sexual transactions, and the intersection of the personal and political. Not everyone’s idea of beach-reading because of its challenging prose and bleak world-view, it’s an interesting lens through which to view Bangkok.
Posted on March 4, 2010
With CURRENCY‘s release date only about two months away, I feel like I’m at the tail end of a veeeeeeeeeeeery long pregnancy, and labor has just begun. The final proof has been completed. Events are being set up. Preorder is available. A Facebook page has been created. (Please become a fan.) And thanks to Max Wentzel, The Eternals, and Lisa Meehan Williams, there’s even a book trailer posted on YouTube. It’s really going to happen!
Here’s the jacket copy:
Piv and Robin are not such an unlikely match. Piv, a small-time hustler in Thailand, and Robin, a twenty-something back-packer from the United States, have always dreamed big dreams. What begins as a traveler’s affair in Sukhothai quickly intensifies, and the young lovers envision an idyllic future together, traveling the world. Their plans are thwarted in Bangkok, however, when Robin runs out of money, her credit is denied, and she may have to leave Asia and Piv behind. Desperate, Piv turns to Abu, a charismatic businessman acquaintance, for help. Thus begins Piv and Robin’s foray into exotic animal smuggling. Soon they find themselves amid an international crime ring that may have even darker underworld ties stretching from Kenya to Russia. Under the scrutiny of the traffickers who employ them, with investigators hot on their trail, and idealistic dreams unraveling fast, Piv and Robin must face the consequences of their individual struggles for identity, as well as the cost of their mutual desires.
“From skins to skin to golden Buddhas, CURRENCY is a moving and lucid look at how beauty can fall prey to our very love of it.”
—Alex Shakar, author of The Savage Girl
Posted on February 24, 2010
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.
Posted on February 8, 2010
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.
Posted on January 18, 2010
So, the risks I took, women take, when traveling alone. In my previous post, I described shacking up with two strange men on my first night in Bangkok. A day or so later, I got in touch with my friend Jillana, who was living there, and I crashed at her apartment and let her show me around. That made the transition to the foreign culture enormously easier, but I had to come out from under her wing eventually, and in preparation I read again and again the list of tips for solo women travelers that appeared in the guide books: Choose accommodations where other women are staying; do not stay in brothels; inspect walls for peepholes; make sure make sure doors lock from the inside; avoid being alone with men; stick to well-traveled, well-lighted areas. When I finally set out by myself for Ayutthaya, an old capital of Thailand that was a well-worn stop on the beaten path of every conceivable tourist type, I was suitably terrified. How could I remember everything? Who would have thought to look for peepholes? That first day on the trail alone was one of the longest, most intense days of my life. (The internet has made prepping for solo traveling a little less intimidating. These tips from Journeywoman for women traveling solo seem useful and realistic.)
The minute I got off the train, it became clear that the tips for solo women travelers could not be followed to the letter: Tuk-tuk drivers swarmed me, and they were all men, and I was going to have to be alone with one of them if I were to get to the guest house that Jillana had recommended to me. Part of the recommendation was to be firm with the driver about being taken to the old BJ Guesthouse and not the new BJ Guesthouse, which was known to be of lesser quality, and although I tried, I was pretty sure I had been deposited at the undesirable location. Jillana had told me this might happen, and that if so, I was to march back to the tuk-tuk driver and demand to be taken to the alternative, but this kind of assertiveness was beyond me. It was all I could manage to ask to see the room before I rented it, but with the proprietress standing at the threshold and insisting she could get the best rate for me on a tuk-tuk and guide to the ruins, my inspection was cursory, and it did not include the shared showers— peephole-potential central, according to the guidebooks. And so I started off feeling inadequate to the wiles of the locals and to the dictates of the safe solo-traveler advice, and I valiantly vowed to do better next time without having a clue about how that would be possible.
I had taken a seat in the near-empty guesthouse courtyard and was studying a map of the Ayutthaya’s famed ruins when a teenaged girl introduced herself. “My name is Noi,” she almost whispered, and her eyes were questioning but intent. She looked Asian but not typically Thai, with hair almost as short as mine and black-rimmed round glasses, and her story, told in halting English, was unclear. Perhaps she was a Thai student being educated in Japan, here on holiday? In any case, she was staying at the guesthouse in some capacity, and she shyly asked me if I wanted to do something with her that afternoon. What could I say? No? And anyway, maybe it would be some comfort to have a companion, even if it was a rather strange one. I told her I was planning to walk to the ruins. The guidebooks had said most of them could be visited by bicycle (when I had inquired about rentals, the proprietress told there were none available that day and once again urged on a tuk-tuk) and so I figured a fair number of them could be reached by foot, as well.
Noi requested that I wait for her while she went to the bank. When she came back, she said the bank was closed because it was a holiday, and she asked me if I would loan her money, naming a sum higher than my daily budget. I furrowed my brow and tried to ask questions in the place of offering money. What did she need it for? What did she owe the guesthouse? I felt a combination of motherly concern and suspicion; clearly she was trying to bilk the farang, and my intended companion, instead of providing some level of safety, was someone of whom to be wary. But she also seemed so young and confused. I didn’t give her cash, but I didn’t refuse her company when she said she still wanted to go with me, and we set off walking down the road under the flat, hot sun.
Within minutes, a tuk-tuk buzzed up from behind us and the driver called out, asking if he could be my guide. I rebuffed him, but another one approached, then another, then another. To extend their solicitation, the drivers slowed their exhaust-belching carts to our pace as we strode along; they offered prices, asked what price would I pay, insisted that I would never be able to see the ruins on my own. They just generally resisted taking no for an answer. But I refused and refused and refused again, my determination to go it alone only increasing the longer and hotter and more annoying the walk got. The guidebook said most of the ruins were available by bike! At least some of them must be available by foot! I would not be tricked again! The men sometimes tossed a few Thai phrases at Noi, who would whisper-answer back and shrug her shoulders, looking helpless and perplexed. Finally, we entered the national park and saw some ruins, and my mind was blown by the Indiana-Jonesish visages before me, the giant Buddha heads and stuppas, sites I had no cultural connection to and very little context for and whose exoticism was sharpened by how hard-won it had been to see them independently. But Noi was unimpressed. While I tried to open my soul to the object of the day’s considerable efforts (this is why I was here, right? right? Face to face with it, I was supposed to feel something profound.) she wanted to talk about boys, about the Japanese boy who had disappointed her, about a cute boy staying at BJ Guesthouse, about another boy who had used the word penetration—what did that word mean? At the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted.
Imagine my dismay when I returned to the guesthouse and saw every tout who had solicited me sitting in the courtyard having their happy-hour beers. There were at least a dozen guys there. The new BJ Guesthouse was the tuk-tuk driver headquarters! No wonder I’d been funneled there in the first place. No wonder they hadn’t wanted to rent me a bike. And no, I couldn’t slip to my room unnoticed. The men immediately called out to me: “The girl who want to go by walking!” They smiled and laughed, held open their palms and stepped their fingers across them to show my insistence at walking. They spoke to Noi in Thai, and she spoke back, and I looked at her, looked at them, didn’t know if anyone was on my side. There were maybe two other farangs in the courtyard, a couple, let’s say, who sat knee to knee at a small table with postcards spread between them. I wanted to catch their eye, but they took no notice of me or of the tuk-tuk drivers. Nor would I or the tuk-tuk drivers have felt free to approach them. For better and for worse, when you travel as a couple, you’re traveling in a turtle shell; when you travel alone, your whole self is out there in the world.
So there I was. Alone. Out in the world. Maybe 8 feet away from a table full of men drinking beer. Alone anywhere, I would certainly try to avoid a group of drinking men. Especially when the men can speak to each other in a language I don’t understand. Especially when they’ve already colluded against me. But they seemed so genuinely good-natured, both in their volleying between each other and in their comments to me. I cracked a smile. I replied to a question. I sank into a chair and replied to another. One by one, the drivers handed rolls of baht to a more thick-set man in a much whiter shirt who was buying the beer. “I pay my boss!” one guy explained cheerfully. There was a palpable sense that they were off the clock, that their work of trying to sell me services was over, as was my work of resisting, and that now—of course! finally!— we could all sit back and relax together. After hours of keeping my defenses up high as they could go—standing on tiptoe to do it, then hauling in iron scaffolding—they started to slip. And I can’t remember exactly how it happened, how many gently teasing comments the guys tossed my way, how many invitations were issued before I took them up on it, but Noi and I eventually joined the men at their table. I even accepted a glass from them, and l let it be filled with beer from one of the big Singha bottles they were sharing. And I started to differentiate, to pick out the guys who were cute, to pick out the cutest one, to see that he was actually turn-the-knife handsome— burnished skin over high cheekbones, thick lock of hair slipping over one of his bright eyes, brilliant white smile—and that he was smiling especially warmly at me. But, recalling again guidebook warnings, I was still wary enough to make sure that others were sipping the beer poured from the same bottle that mine was. I had willingly joined a group— I maybe flirting with one of its members—consisting of people who I believed might possibly drug my drink.
I see that this post is getting long, and I’ve still not gotten to the meat of it. I’ve tried to write about this day before, but the details are so many, and they all seem so important, even as I doubt they’re interesting for anyone but me.
But for me, they are endlessly interesting. They retain a pull as deep as the memories of childhood. Within a week or so after the events I’m describing, I had gotten my traveler’s schtick down. I’d already learned some tricks and shortcuts and gotten hip to the attitudes copped by fellow-travelers, and I’d gleaned that it’d be considered uncool to admit to being as freaked as I was in a place as well-tromped as Ayutthaya—in a garden-variety destination like Thailand, no less, an “easy” country people stopped over in to recover from more arduous destinations—Cambodia, Pakistan. But, far now from the traveler’s snobbery found in the common areas of word-of-mouth guesthouses, willing to risk accusations of traveling the world only in order to navel-gaze, I can recognize that those first days of traveling alone in Asia cracked open my self in a way that seldom happens in adulthood. They changed me, I think. They formed something in me. Or at least they helped me recognize—slowly, part of a process still unfolding—things about myself that otherwise would have remained unknown. And those things have more to do with tuk-tuk drivers than with sites tuk-tuk drivers can take tourists to. Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to the dinner of that first night, yet. Sometime. Sometime. Time. Maybe soon.