travel

Cast Adrift

A white haired man with a mane and careless beard, dressed in a crisp white shirt and red tie clasps his hands together before his face; the large rings on his knuckles catch the light and antique aviator sunglasses obscure his eyes. Billy Holiday shifts to Miles Davis. I’ve ordered what is, for South East Asia, an altogether decent glass of red wine and I have, at least, run a few errands today before sinking into this chair.

Five men in dress shirts and ties sit at a nearby table drifting between philosophy, economics, history, and development politics. Their conversation is quiet and intelligent; their accents are indefinite. I’ve spent the last several weeks, it feels like, simply sitting in cafes – from Chiang Mai, where (between visits to dentists and internet cafes) I haunted my favorite places to escape the heat – to Laos where nothing else could feel more natural than to relax, sit back, and watch. It’s the national past time rather than (merely) traveler’s laziness, I think; the Lao people (Laotians vs Laoesians vs Laosionites vs have-what-ye-may has been the topic of many a diner table conversation recently and the only discernible consensus seems to be the lack of all conjugation), from all appearances, seem to have developed sitting back and pacifically watching the proceedings – generally, the crazy farang backpackers frantically walking back and forth between Points A and C frantically and vainly searching for Point B in the midday sun. I see the same frozen tableaus – men standing or women sitting, universal deadpan expressions and hand-rolled banana leaf cigarettes held between all fingers like violin bows – out bus windows as I do walking down Tadlo’s dirt street or Vientiane’s freshly paved ones.

Holidays often dim your mental calendar – the date is immaterial, the days of the week are lost without work or school to anchor them – but I’ve gone beyond that. Hours and weeks seem to pass at similar speeds; time has become an amalgamated series of passing images, a jerky blur. Moments become classic daguerreotype before they’ve ended. I’ve no sense of continuity – or perhaps too great of one. Saturation is taking spatial precedence to significance in my memory. There is no chronology; not even a clear line between then and now.

I’ve completely, utterly, entirely, absolutely, lost all sense of time.

I am lounging outside of a bistro, knees bent up and feet curled on the chair’s rung; I was when I wrote this – though now I am furiously typing in a small overheated internet café – and yet I am collapsed on the bed of a nondescript hotel room, plaster walls and plastic curtains.

I am at a bus station in Chiang Mai and a barefoot black man with a white beard, surrounded by plastic bags of Pringles, is jerking his thumb behind his ear and staring at me, eyebrows raised. I am stepping off a bus, bag swung behind my back – just as I am climbing up the steps with my ticket outstretched.

I am leaving the farm in the back of a pickup truck on a dirt road, bouncing through Banana groves to Squirrel Nut Zipper. I am dancing to Ricky Martin at You Sabai for Chui’s birthday. I am returning to the farm in the sidecar of a motorbike taxi and a plastic bag, coffee beans and museli from the store to which Yao sent me in town, has fallen out behind us; it bounces twice before we pull over.

I am melting in the sun, lost on a side-street and a bare-chested man is smoking a cigarette outside of a shadowed recess filled with ancient sewing machines and decomposing technology.

I am buying sausages from a stand along the Mekong and a six year old girl is wielding a machete larger than her head as she attacks a fruit – a fruit of some large, hard, an unknown sort. The frowning middle-aged woman who took my order glares at me while the youngest ladyboy I’ve seen yet smiles and gestures to my scarf – beautiful, she tells me, and I say the same of her earrings – and then runs forward and, with her manicured fingers, pulls my lemon rass sausages off the barbeque before they burn.

I am laughing, clapping my hands like a gleeful child at two Frenchmen who are juggling. My legs are swung over the arms of a chair at Bohemian’s as a German entomologist tells me about his work collecting beetles in Africa. An orchid-collecting, antique house-remodeling, alchemy-inspired, mathematician-trained French writer is quizzing me about human evolution and chimpanzee social structure.

I am dancing the clay with Justin and Zaq; straw hats on our head do nothing to deter the beating sun and the sweat which drips from my head goes flows down the spine of my back to the back of my calves to mix with the red mud we’ve dug from the ground only a few yards away. The sand is from another pit and the rhythm – Balkan Beat Box – has my knees rising to my chest, our arms linking, our feet stepping on each others’. When the dancing is done I take my bare orange stained feet to the mud pit, helping the women plaster the newest house while the men shape the oven.

I am seated outside a coffee shop pouring hot “Chinese Tea” over a glass of ice and an aged Jewish psychoanalyst is addressing me in French; he introduces himself as a animist, proudly, and engages me in a Socratic dialogue which ranges from the origins of religion, antisemitism, chromosomal mutations, alternative and discredited theories of evolution, universal mythology, and the phenomenon of collective special memory. He breaks the conversation to make sure that he is not boring me; I reiterate that I couldn’t be more interested and he is thrilled to have found an eager audience. He lets me buy him a coffee and I watch him dip the small sweet crackers (which come in a paper cone on the side) into the liquid with his spoon. At one point he confesses his own frustration with life – he’s considered suicide, he admits, because no one will listen. “A good spirit,” he tells me with a wink, “must have guided me to you.” I promise to share his ideas and we part hours later, both comforted, both smiling.

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