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 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 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 April 17, 2010
A year ago today the four of us were returning from Isla Mujeres, Mexico. Lilli had just turned one and Tillio was about to turn eight. It was a low-budget, low-key jaunt to a pretty commonplace destination, but it was a great, great trip. We got off the ferry to the cheerful, semi-grimy tourist hustle that you’d expect from a bargain beach destination, the air smelling archetypally of salt, diesel, and sweet marine rot. We hadn’t changed money yet, we hadn’t accustomed to the heat, we didn’t know how best to get to our lodging at the other side of the island, and we were loaded down with a baby, a stroller, a pack-n-play, but I felt light as a feather. Mark sat with the kids by a curb next to a woman selling mangoes while I got to dart across the street to assess the combio situation and the lay of the land. There I was, dashing around someplace fun and new, and there was my family; we were together. It was the first time I’d left the country since having kids. I felt so happy. I felt like I was coming home.
When Mark and I met, we both fancied ourselves traveler-types. The desire to go was something we shared. And as a couple, we took a couple extended trips—to Thailand, to Guatemala and Honduras. In Tela, Honduras, there was a young hippie family staying at our hotel—a couple and their infant. They didn’t seem to do much besides hang laundry and fuss over the baby, and Mark and I noticed this, commented on it, but as years passed and we planned a life together I’m sure we thought—assumed—that we’d continue to travel, and meaningfully, once we had kids. We’d go to Costa Rica, we said, getting ready to be responsible: You can drink the water there.
Having kids. Traveling. I recently came across an old journal that I kept in Nepal. My thoughts were starting to turn homeward, and I had written a list of goals for myself. I’m too embarrassed to write them all here, but there was a lot of verbiage about the places I still wanted to go, about yoga, about establishing some kind of professional skill set that would lead me out of the service industry, about writing. And kids. Plural. Mid-list. Just the one word for that entry, no elaboration.
I had no fucking idea.
I know there are families who travel widely, kids in tow. I read about them on the internet. I get their twitter feeds. I know some of them personally, including a single mom who packed up her two little ones to Ecuador, hosteling it and giving the lie to my notion that it’s always money that’s the determining factor. Yes, these things are possible. But for us, they’ve been harder than we imagined. So much less time, such a different relationship to money and to work, two sets of grandparents we have to fly to see. And Tillio was such a tough nut, at the beginning there.
But he outgrew that. He’s actually a great traveler, and while we haven’t been abroad, he’s gotten around this country quite a bit. And traveling anywhere with a kid is more like Traveling. A few years ago, Mark went to Italy with his dad and brother, and Tillio and I took our first trip alone for pleasure, not to visit family. We went to New York, and we flew into Islip, which I’d never done. I remember that airport as being bathed in light and sky and quiet. It seemed impossibly far from the city, and, in fact, it would be something like two and a half more hours and three more kinds of transportation before we got to Brooklyn. Standing outside the airport, a clutch of print-outs in hand, I was trying to figure out whether to take the bus or the shuttle when I met a dad doing the same with his three kids. We paired up as seamlessly as if we were the backpackers thrown together in a songthaew, comparing notes, presenting ourselves as a family to get the better fare from the shuttle, watching each other’s bags and kids when it made things easier.
That was another great, great trip. It was the first time Tillio saw the sea, the first time I went to Coney Island. We visited some of our best and oldest friends. On the Staten Island ferry we passed the Statue of Liberty and more types of boats than we could count.
That same summer he and I went to Seattle, and as a side trip, Valeria and I took three kids to San Juan Island. We arrived at the ferry station just as the rain stopped, and the kids and I explored tidal pools while Valeria propped her feet on our luggage and read the paper in the waiting room. We got off the ferry and made our way to a hostel I had found online. Again, I was so giddily happy as we walked out of town, each kid pulling his or her own bag toward the unknown, an adventure.
It was the feeling of being my old self with my son. There were chickens in the yard of the hostel. There were men in the communal kitchen who shared their beer with Valeria and me. Tillio and I slept in a cabin formed from a little boat, and I stayed up half the night writing. The next day, we got up and went out to watch whales. And that evening we left. It was just one night, but it’s burned into my mind as indelibly as my first night in Thailand was, and I’ve vowed to bring the whole family back for a longer stay.
This would be a great year to do it, when I’m going to Seattle anyway for CURRENCY (July 31!). But the book tour is taking so many of my limited days off, and Mark’s time is going to be pressed with me gone so much, and there are the grandparents to visit, and the cost of airfares for four. The San Juans might have to stay on the list for awhile longer, just like Costa Rica will, just like Italy all together, and France to see Valeria and Valen, and Thailand, which has caught Tillio’s interest because of all the talk about the book.
I try to keep the grand hopes for family travel alive without falling into despondency over the difference between the hopes and the reality. I try to recognize the dream when I live it—a couple hours here, a week there, the sun parting clouds over the Puget Sound. Or, for that matter, over Lake Michigan, the drama and calm and magical hazy glow of which can be found just a mile due east from our home. I try. There’s so much to want to do.
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 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.
Posted on November 18, 2009
[Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams]
Most of my Facebook friends I know personally, but a couple of them are just vague internet acquaintances, if even that. It was one of these, a guy, who posted a link titled “White Chicks Shouldn’t,” and because this phrase caught my eye, I clicked. The link was to a three-minute video clip taken at an outdoor Jamaican dancehall.
The first shot shows a thick white woman—green shirt, denim mini, red skin—grabbing her ankles while a (presumably) Jamaican man grinds into her ass, his hand on her back, his leg eventually up over her shoulder, pressing her down deeper. They’re doing some seriously dirty dancing. It takes me aback, since those moves would definitely violate my safety-zone, especially if I were so visibly an outsider somewhere. But it looks like they’re both into it. The video quality isn’t good, but it looks like they’re having fun. The woman makes some theatrical faces, thrusts her butt rhythmically. The man takes her hat off her head, cocks it sideway it on his own, caps it back on her.
The next shot shows the woman dancing alone at the edge of the circle. She’s a good dancer, doing a sexy little booty dance, and the deejay invites her, orders her almost, to the middle of the floor. Now we see a different man approach, and the two become a dancing pair. I am transfixed, at this point, and I suddenly get the appeal of these live action clips, because there’s a sticky energy that comes from being off script, that comes from not being sure what you’re watching. I’m like: damn—suddenly they’re on the dusty ground, the man’s boots up by the woman’s face; he’s humping her in a sort of 69 position—does she WANT to be doing this? Now she’s face first on the ground. Is that a dance move she’s doing, sort of swimming with her arms, or is she trying to get away? It becomes clear, as clear as it can be in a grainy, quick-cut video: She’s trying to get him off of her. I start to feel queasy. She manages to stand up, but the guy is at her again. She pushes him, angry. They’re shoving each other up against the speakers. She turns to walk away again, and the first guy lunges at her, gets his hands around her waist from behind. She’s back on the ground, and he’s humping her. The crowd is watching indifferently—men, women, a couple kids. The video cuts. Now a few men are holding her; there’s a guy on each leg pulling her spread eagled. Another guy is jumping off the speakers to land between her legs. He has something white in his mouth. Is it her underwear? Cut. The video shows the guy leaping onto her again. Cut. Again. Cut. Again. Then we see the woman shaking herself off, red-faced, departing. Some jumbled footage of men speaking indecipherably. Cut. The end.
What the hell? What did I just see? Why was this posted on my Facebook newsfeed with nothing but a couple benign ha ha comments posted after it?
I turned to the internet for answers and found that indeed, as one commenter noted, annoyed that the clip was being presented as a new diversion, the video is all over the place. It’s from 2008, and it’s frequently titled “Dance Hall Tourist” and described as “tourist girl getting wild to dancehall.” Is that what I saw? A tourist girl getting wild? I’m a white chick myself, a white girl, or I used to be one. Now I’m a white middle-aged mom, and I’ve never spent much time in the recesses of the internet where the side bars are stacked with thumbnails for Pole Dance Fail and the World’s Boob Slapping Contest. I had forgotten. I had forgotten, if I’d ever exactly known, how common this perspective was, and I felt a muddled disbelief. But then I found a description for the video that I thought was accurate: “Dance hall tourist gets raped publicly.” Yes, that described what I thought I saw. I scrolled through dozens of comments on various sites to see how people were responding. Typically, they reacted as if to a funny joke: “hahahah.” “THAT WAS HILARIOUS.” “Ha. They ain’t got shit on me. I’m talking jumping outta planes and landing in the punanny.” “White girl got SCHOOLED. Did you see her face hahaha.”
There were also a few critical comments. One guy said he knew where he wouldn’t be spending his tourist dollars. Someone asked: “Why would they do that to her? Racism? Or was she rude?”
This is the stew I must have smelled in the title “White Chicks Shouldn’t”: the simmering mix of race, gender, tourist, local, sex, power, payback, dollars. The man who posted on the link on Facebook is from a poor, tropical country. Should I just ignore it? For a night, I tossed and turned on all the things it brought up for me as a white female, a former tourist chick, an author of a book about a white girl-brown boy romance. I commented on the link in my mind, wondering if I should say something like:
Maybe this clip should be titled “Jamaican dudes shouldn’t.”
“Black dudes shouldn’t”
Or, the title being what it is, I wondered if I should pose some questions, like:
White girls shouldn’t what, exactly?
Dance in foreign countries?
Dance without a husband or male relative standing by?
Expect to move through the world unmolested?
Leave the all-inclusives?
Forget themselves? Forget for one minute that though they’re white, yes—and so might have some feelings of entitlement, might have some cash—they’re also female, and they can be raped.
In any case, when I next logged on to Facebook, the link had been taken down. Maybe someone else had given the poster a nudge. But since then, I’ve been walking around with the question in my mind: White chicks shouldn’t what? When I was traveling by myself, I probably asked myself some version of this everyday.
Girls shouldn’t what, and how much can they not do and still have autonomy, still have a full range of human responses, still travel, still live? I have a ramble about this half written out, but it will have to wait to be posted.
In the meantime, not long after I stumbled upon the Dancehall Tourist Facebook post, I read about the Richmond High School gang rape on Jezebel. (The story about a fifteen year-old girl who, upon leaving her home-coming dance, was gang-raped and beaten by a number of men for over two hours while a crowd of men and boys watched wasn’t covered widely by national msm.)
I don’t know with certainty the ethnicity of the survivor, but given the school’s demographic and the last names of family members, I assume she’s not white. White girls, of course, not being the only ones who shouldn’t. Whiteness, of course, being just one of a thousand perceived provocations.
It was another Facebook post (Danica’s) that alerted me to the conversation about the event on the SFGate web site, where commenters widely decried the act but where some also decried the proclivities of various races and the stupidity of a girl who would go into a darkened courtyard to drink with a boy she knew. One commenter, Lilypod, responded sharply to the implication that the girl could have saved herself if she’d been smarter, and Danica posted her excellent note, which I’m excerpting here:
“What do people seriously think women do every single day of their lives anyway? In various ways, to varying extents: they limit their movements and impose curfews on themselves; in subtle ways, often without realising, they rearrange their lives around the possibility of avoiding an attack; they avoid going places alone and curtail their independence; they come home earlier than they wish to; they have their keys ready in their hands when they’re walking up to their front doors; they double-check doors at night; they take taxis for short distances even if they’d rather walk and even if the expense is one they can ill afford; they walk the long route home rather than take a more convenient shortcut; they text each other to let it be known they’ve gotten home safely; they anxiously await friends’ texts for the same confirmation; they avoid jobs that finish late; they avoid certain jobs entirely; they pass up accommodation they might otherwise take because of poor street lighting.
“they avoid traveling alone; they change their jogging routes or stick to a treadmill indoors. Women take these attempts at avoiding attacks completely for granted and so does everybody else: it’s seen as completely normal, not as a sign of a damaged society. So what are we going to teach young girls from now on? To look around at the boys in their classes and see all their male schoolmates as potential rapists; to expect rape everywhere?”
That query hit a raw nerve for me, as it probably does for any woman who wants to move through the world independently, for any woman who has a daughter she hopes will be able to do the same.
Men shouldn’t. Boys shouldn’t. People shouldn’t.
But we know they sometimes, some of them, do.
How to know it and still live fully?
Posted on October 18, 2009
I just sent the copyedited manuscript of CURRENCY to Gina, my editor. The next time I see the novel, it will be in galleys, manuscript no more.
It’s been twelve years since I workshopped the experiment in voice that became the first chapter of the novel. I was 28 years old then, and I smoked cigarettes blithely in the apartment where Mark and I had just moved in together. Up to that point, I’d written only a handful or two of short stories, each page wrung out of me slowly, and writing a novel seemed an impossible thing. But Piv’s voice was a wind at my back, and the few years it took me to complete the first “finished” version were great ones; they’ll probably go down as some of the best in my life. The story unfolded inexorably in my mind, and I had the time and attention to give to writing. Then came kids, mortgages, money worries and increasingly demanding day-jobs; rejections and not-quite-rejections and agents who sent me back through the pages. I revised in the cracks of time I could find. And received more rejections. And then, after I’d abandoned all hope, eventual acceptance. (Thanks, OV Books!) And now here I am, writing acknowledgments.
Writing acknowledgments is making me nervous. I fear I’m not always gracious in thanking people, being myself sometimes off-put by gratitude that seems too gushingly produced to be sincere but also knowing, first-hand and through observation, how much a heartfelt thanks or the lack of one can mean. I’m feeling twin urges to be brutally honest and very thorough. To make sure I don’t leave out any key players, I’ve tried narrating to myself the story of my writing this novel, and what I’ve found is that the most important people and turning points happened before the characters even materialized for me, long ago as that was. There’s one person in particular I’ve realized I need to thank—Tuk, a Thai man—whose last name I don’t remember. It’s been driving me crazy. I know I had it somewhere! So the other night I unearthed the plastic bin in the basement where I’ve been storing all the books I used to research the novel and the journals I kept when I was backpacking.
I meant to be efficient, because like many people at my stage of life, I always have more things to do than hours to them in, and I was already stealing time. But as soon as I opened the box, the smell of old smoke discombobulated me. The burnt musk has been synonymous with my memories of youth ever since 1995, when a bad apartment fire singed all my possessions it didn’t destroy. Like a genie going back into a bottle—whoosh—I was back in the past, and nevermind the sleep that I really needed to get that night. When I came upstairs hours later, my fingertips were black with soot from paging through the journals. It became almost beside that point that I found names and addresses of people I had completely forgotten, but not Tuk’s.