Thursday, February 28, 2008

Au Revoir Paradise

It's official: I've taken off my watch. There is no need for either exact time or an itinerary and the presence of a clock has served little purpose other than to remind me of what I'm not accomplishing. Still, I find myself looking down at my wrist a hundred times a day, wanting to guide myself by it what tells me rather than what I feel -- whether I'm hungry, or tired, or needing some alone time. The watch is only a distraction, and so it has been relegated to the bottom of my bag to be dug out when I need to catch a plane, a train or a boat.

K left a few days ago (or is it months? I'm not sure) and J and I have rented a little white scooter which has become our main mode of transport. Though we have not named it, we should as this scooter has a definite personality and sense of humour: on the front it says BOOM -- the owner's name -- in big, bright letters; the back says CLICK; and it refuses to turn on in the rain.

Some roads are paved, others are covered in slushy orange clay, a precursor to cement, that sticks to the bottom of my flip flops. Both kinds are dotted with deep pot-holes that spring up like weeds and I have been perfecting the art of swerving as we traverse the island.

As we zip around, the jungle stretches out around us in superlative shades of green. Sometimes at the top of one of the big mountains, the ocean becomes visible for a moment in all of its photogenic vastness, bleeding turquoise into dark, deep blue, and back again.

I imagine Hemingway's Cuba or Gauguin's Polynesia -- places where they went to seek refuge from the bustle of life, to create, to gain perspective, to ponder. Here I feel constantly inspired. Still, it's not easy to find the time to write. I had imagined the hours leisurely stretching ahead of me, that time would be as readily available as the coconuts, but I find that even here, I have to actively seek it out. Like everywhere else, days can so easily fill up with other things, pushing my writing to the bottom of the list. The added complication on this trip is that unlike my life back home, where I take so many things for granted, I am aware of the potential for every detail to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This journey is, by its very nature, a cliche at times, and it is very easy to fall back into the overanalysis, esotheric questioning and existential musings I am guilty of indulging in anyway. But the freshness of my surroundings help to take me out of my self and focused on what's going on around me rather lock myself than inside my head.

Little huts sit by the side of the road. They are sparse and look anything but secure, their wooden walls and metal roofs cobbled together shoddily. Many rest on stilts above chicken coops. Older women sweep the porches slowly, or light little fires at the back while babies toddle around looked after by whichever family member is closest. School only goes until age eleven on the island, so many teenagers work in the family business, tending bar or serving food at the resorts and restaurants.

The animals all look lean and strong. Dogs take their siestas at any time of the day or night, usually by throwing themselves down in the middle of the road. There is an abundance of land for the cows to graze on under the palm trees, and the chickens cluck happily as they wander around the houses. I have discovered that roosters are a great alarm clock when you want to make it to yoga by nine and get some writing time in before class.

The little gasoline shacks simply say "Gasoline" in painted red letters. In order to get the petrol to come out, the attendants manually wind a lever and pull a little stick that looks more like a toothpick out of a hose. The pump is straight out of a Hollywood Western.

Song tangs, the local taxis, which are little more than pickup trucks with benches and sometimes roofs on the back, barrel past with little regard for which side of the road they are meant to be on. It took J and I a few days to remember to stay on the left, but now we're old pros, swerving, breaking, honking, at ease with the road and enjoying the feeling of the wind in our coconut-oil soaked hair.

Building is going on all over the island and the power tools are almost always audible alongside the mopeds and the old cars. Still, riding around on one of the two roads that traverse the island, I am barely aware of the sounds that I know all too well from home. Instead, it is the wind in the trees, the waves, the crunching of the clay under the wheels of the bike, the barking of the dogs that I mostly hear.

Now that the Full Mooners have wound down and departed until next month, the partyers have been replaced with an older, more mellow crowd that seems to want to relax and enjoy the sun rather than getting trashed and blacking out.

Yesterday, my last full day on the island, J and I decided to go hiking. We made our way to the Phaeng waterfall and hiked into the depths of the jungle. It's been raining a lot these past few days -- someone told me it always happens the few days after the full moon -- and the leaves were wet and slippery. The ground was invisible under all the foliage: greens, browns, golds, yellows; mushrooms that looked like they should have hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on top of their perfectly flat tops. Around and above us, the white sky was hidden behind thick treetops. We hiked far below some of the tallest trees I've ever seen. There was barely anyone else on the trail and it was at points difficult to follow as there were no real demarcations. The hums and calls of the birds and the insects was, at times, deafening with high-pitched shrieks that went on and on until I had to put my fingers in my ears; the alarm was obviously being sounded about the strange creatures invading their space below.

The jungle was dense, the air was musty and heavy but pure, clean. For the first hour or so, I felt fantastic, the days of consistent yoga fueling my sense of strength. The beginning of the hike involved stairs, both manmade as well as organically formed by the jutting out, twisted roots of the trees. I got quite nostalgic for a moment remembering the last hike I'd been on that involved climbing stairs on a beautiful island. That one ended with a proposal and a diamond ring on my finger. But this hike turned wild and unexpected in a very different way, as nature became more overpowering and unforgiving the deeper we trekked. At a certain point, the path we thought we were following disappeared. Suddenly we were surrounded by nothing but foliage, fallen trees, white moss and the deafening sounds of the animals. At the same time as realizing that we had no idea of where we were, or how we would get back, I felt a deep sense of calm. It was as if we had arrived into the core, the uterus of the island. Though we were lost, I felt protected, I was not afraid. After a few interesting turns that forced us to double back and a couple of minor battle wounds, the extent of my irrelevance become potently evident. In nature, it doesn't matter who you are, it's nothing personal, but you can go from conqueror to victim without having the time to grasp what is actually happening.

J, with her park ranger expertise, led us back to our bike with little hesitation and only one curse-worthy bug bite. Though she is constantly running late in the outside world, in nature, she has a keen sense of time and navigation. As she says: "it's tricky being an American icon."

Tonight, I leave for the main land. The boat to Thong Sala leaves at ten and arrives at six in the morning. From there, I will take a mini bus to Wat Suan Mokh, where I will embark on my ten-day silent meditation retreat. While I am nervous about it, I am also very much looking forward to the challenge and curious about how I will react to the rigorous lifestyle that supposedly includes a vow of silence for the duration of the retreat, sleeping on a cement block for a bed, no food after noon, and a wake-up gong at four in the morning.

Wish me luck.

In Thailand, lemongrass is used in everything from soups to meat dishes. Though the herb itself is too tough to eat, when chopped up lemongrass adds a lot of frangrance and flavour. Healthwise, lemongrass is said to aid with digestion, relieve colds and flu and they say it has anti-fungal properties. Here it is often used in conjunction with chillies, garlic and coriander to make Tom Yam soup, for example. Besides enjoying it in my food, I have also steeped fresh lemongrass like a tea. It tastes citrussy and refreshing and has just a hint of sweetness.