Back from Bangkok

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A week ago, L and I rented a little bungalow off the coast of Thailand so close to the water that even a child could hurl a shell or a stone from our doorstep into the clear, warm water. There were a few other huts nearby, but it was ours that was closest to the gulf, and so the coral sands — interrupted only by a boulder thrusting from the shore toward the horizon — were ours. At night, the tide would find its way over the shore, swallowing up that rock, and encroaching, almost threateningly, toward our little home; yet as dark as the sky would get, the waters never breached our sacred retreat, lapping playfully against the boulder until the morning sky sent them back to where they’d came and we’d laugh from under the covers.

There were locals, but in this part of the gulf, the culture was of the wayward tourists who had left the bustle of the mainland looking for something different. The first place they had colonized was the biggest of the three islands, Koh Samui. They brought a rising resort and bar industry that grew until it couldn’t, and so the next season’s wanderers were driven north to then-virgin sands of Koh Phangan with their parties and electronic music. Eventually, their secret was discovered, too, and the following generation ventured north once more to the smaller Koh Tao and the cycle began again. The further you went, the more exclusive the sanctuary, and the easier it was to be hypnotized by the lull of the waves against the golden shores.

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From the Royal Palace complex in Bangkok.

Thailand is no stranger to foreigners. As the most worn leg of the tourist circuit, the country felt more accessible to regional first-timers than Vietnam or Cambodia; it was the only place in which Verizon was willing to offer me a travel plan. Wherever you go, there are Westerners who have walked the road before you, all playing their part in contributing to a hostel-driven, backpacking community and the tantalizing promise of genuine adventure. Capital Bangkok is vibrant and international, a distant relative of New York: a curry of cultures, centuries in the making, urgently launching itself into modernity. Life takes place on the streets, spilling from densely packed high-rises into markets and wonderfully ornate temples that rise from the city landscape to soothe the concrete.

Our last night back on that beach, L and I were sent home early by storm clouds. On the way home, we raided a convenience store for cuttlefish-flavored snacks with names we couldn’t pronounce, and then barricaded ourselves inside our shelter. There was a stray dog outside; we kept him at arm’s length, teasing him with our fishy treats. We huddled on the porch when it started to pour, the tide rising to our front steps while the rain went taptaptap on the tin roof. L nestled her head on my shoulder. We all listened in silence and understanding, then just the dog and I, as L’s breath slipped into pace with the tide, rising and falling like the water. As all the wildness of nature crashed down around us, the night rolled on forever, and I knew, this is it!

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This was as far as my adventure would come. Every next step would take us closer to Bangkok, to those flights back West, further and further away from the shore. Life on the islands had been a simple question of how to best enjoy the sun and find the freshest, plumpest shrimp. I wrapped my arm around L and hoped that she dreamt of hand-pulled noodles in the middle of a night market, fried in sauces simultaneously sour, bitter, spicy, sweet, and herbaceously green sticky rice with fresh carved mango and coconut milk… gustatory ghosts would haunt my tastebuds, compelling me to return someday.

On Lake Titicaca, there are a people called the Uru, who live on floating islands made of reed and survive by offering boat tours to tourists. Years ago, when I visited, I wondered if their children grew up dreaming about the bigger things that might be out there. As I sat on that secret beach, the distant life of Koh Samui twinkling in the green lights over the water, and America, somewhere on the other side of the world, I wondered what they were all doing. I’ve got the bug, I’ve got the bug. Is there no end to the want, the burning? It is the best and worst of me, the fuel that keeps my body climbing and the itch that keeps me reaching for more. Will you never be still, my soul? Right now, all that matters is knowing how to stop to hear the richness of your lover’s breath in rain at night on the beach.

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It feels stranger to return than it did to arrive. The challenges of the road, the uncertainty of adventure, and the loneliness of being your own best friend: all of these hurdles were predictable. But the reverse culture shock, as I plummet toward a new normal — I’ve changed, haven’t I? There are no regrets, just love, and the mixed blessing of recognizing I’ve enjoyed a rare privilege. But I’ve got the bug, you see…

More than the picture or stories, I have lessons of the heart that I cannot yet measure or understand. Back from Bangkok, another passenger blowing through the vortex…out the plane window, a sea of lights emerges…I am home, again, for now.

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