earth note 149
wild ferns lunge over & up
spread the canopy floor
buds shift across an opening
woodpecker alone hides
green silence falls
to rapid staccato
--- e b bortz
an end to angst
the most elusive
promise to myself
will join forsythia
freeing all prisoners
--- e b bortz
(published in opednews.com, April 24, 2011)
[Maybe it was my passport renewal application...or maybe because it's Earth Day...I've decided with some uneasiness to republish this old story. It was first published in 1993 in my early collection of poems and stories, Voices of a Wanderer.
Email ebbortz at gmail dot com if you're interested in getting a copy of the book.]
by e b bortz
I didn't feel like a foreigner landing in Surat Thani, Thailand. The bus ride from the airport through rivers of flooded roadways, tropical heat, and grassy isolated hamlets was a shock, but for some odd reason, I didn't feel like an outsider.
Maybe there was a connection between those clumps of farmers and water buffalo teetering at the edge of isolated patches of high ground that I saw from the bus window, and my own predicament at age forty-one. Maybe this was the time and place for me to break out of my own isolation.
The work on the power plant project which brought me to Thailand offered unique technical challenges as I buried myself into the tasks at hand. Designing, testing, and debugging computer-based control systems, particularly on-site, has a way of twisting your brain in a knot, pressing you to your mental and physical limits. It made the short periods of time away from the job precious episodes of complete escape.
My days off were spent cranking out as many kilometers as my bicycle would take me. Every turn in the road seemed to bring me to another spectacular bluff overlooking a strip of palm-lined beach, or another remote river hamlet lined with men, women, and children fishing, washing, and swimming away the hot afternoons. The vibrancy of the land and the people sparked my sense of adventure and compassion for my surroundings. There was no way I would settle into the mediocrity and arrogance of expatriate hotel life.
It was a hot Sunday afternoon as I cycled across a muddy, slow moving river in the Chaiya district north of Surat Thani. A noisy group of teenagers were carrying on a lively game of water tag as a voice darted out over the water.
"Hello. Tarn yoo tee nai?" Where do you live one of them yelled as he treaded water near the bridge.
As I stopped and got off my bike, the natural sun-baked young faces, one by one, emerged from the river to see who the stranger was.
"Surat Thani," I answered and proceeded to tell them I was on my way to Thachana, a small beach town to the north.
It was clear that the group was puzzled but curious by my presence: appearance, language, age, bike, destination, even the secondary route I had decided to use to avoid traffic. But I was equally anxious to find out about life in this remote river hamlet with its wooden stilt houses hugging the winding, silty riverbank.
We mixed our Thai and English phrases until heads nodded with acknowledgment as they told me about the road getting very rough just up ahead. So when I was invited by a sixteen-year-old boy named Chang to go down to his family's house and relax for a few minutes before moving on, I gladly accepted.
The river water nearly splashed up through the front room floorboards as a bright-eyed two- year-old crawled over to mother who was at her loom weaving what appeared to be a small orange and earth toned rug. Her thin brown hands flew over the loom with the grace and speed of a harpist as I felt awkward entering the room and interrupting her music.
"Sawadee kawp," I near whispered as she turned and said "Sawadee kha," through a cautious but genuine smile.
Her name was Srimorn. Chang, her son, motioned me to sit on the thick orange and yellow rug near the wall. The wall was covered with an assortment of colorful woven fabric segments, some cascaded together in a series, others hanging alone and mysterious against the weathered slab board interior.
Srimorn was thirty-eight, widowed a year after her baby daughter Dorkmie was born. Another daughter, Wan, was eighteen, living and working at a textile factory in Hatyai, far to the south near Malaysia.
As we sipped slowly away on the Chinese tea, Chang proudly interjected his Thai and English translations freely. Our circle of conversation abounded into the lives and stories of some of the people who purchased the fabric art of Srimorn. Some were wealthy entrepreneurs from Bangkok who had ventured down in their pickup trucks and hauled away hundreds of square meters of immeasurable beauty for resale to even wealthier Western entrepreneurs and tourists.
And then finally, there was the story of the father of the house, Duang, who had drowned with the eldest son, Korn, the previous year while fishing in the Gulf of Thailand. A sudden monsoon had taken them by surprise before their small open fishing boat could bring them to safety. Exhaustive searches were conducted, but only remnants of the wooden boat and fishing nets were found. The bodies were never recovered.
The unsettling loneliness of their loss flowed into the room and touched me by surprise. The eloquence of the weaver, her gentle lament rolling to and fro between the tapestries, embodied an honesty I was not accustomed to. Her story floated out with images of youthful love, sensuality, creativity, toil, the pain and joy of childbearing, the fear of the future, the fear of being alone. And as we parted company with promises to meet again soon, the small orange and earth toned fabric was removed unfinished from the loom and placed in my hand for safekeeping and future finishing.
In their moment of openness, I felt the essence of the human spirit.
I finished my ride into Thachana with the fabric buried deep in my backpack, and then proceeded to catch the last bus of the day back to Surat Thani for another approaching week of work.
I was still dazed by Srimorn's narrative when a colleague named Bill startled me in the hotel lobby with his raspy voice, apparently under the influence.
"Bob Benjamin, where the hell you been today, looking for something strange?"
"No, nothing strange at all," I answered without elaborating.
There was an unspoken agreement between us to minimize dialogue and thus avoid inevitable confrontation. We disagreed on everything: music, politics, technical issues on the job, you name it. Bill hated living in Thailand and I told him on more than one occasion not to let the door hit him in the ass.
The following week on the job dragged along rather uneventfully. My thoughts were consumed by the previous weekend and the plans I had for the upcoming weekend: a trip to the island of Koh Samui.
The following Saturday morning I cycled anxiously through the busy marketplace down to the Surat Thani pier along the Tapi River to catch the cruise boat to Koh Samui. The boat was alive with Thai, Swedish, Italian, French, and English tongues mingling freely from the lower deck seating up to the jumble of luggage, backpacks, and bodies crammed together on the outside decks. I found a spot on the upper deck to stretch out on, and as we zipped through the blue-green waves on the Gulf of Thailand, a combination of light ocean spray and morning sunshine drained the week's tension right out the bottom of my bare feet.
Arriving at the island pier of Na Thon, I quickly rolled down the breakwater ahead of the scurrying crowd of luggage toting passengers.
As I rode south, even the distinct sweet smell in the tropical hills along the ring road couldn't mask the hollow feeling that came over me as I gazed out at the small fishing boats bobbing in the glimmer of the Gulf. I couldn't help but think of Duang and Korn, and of Srimorn and the unfinished weaving tucked away in my backpack.
A jagged coral reef poked up out of the water abruptly to meet the deserted, sandy and pebble lined shore at Lamai Beach. The view and spicy smell of curry drew me into a bamboo and leafy roofed restaurant near the water. I was savoring the last of the kai lae khao (chicken with rice), when a couple of motorcycle taxi drivers stopped suddenly in the driveway in a whirlwind of dust and noise.
"Pai nai?" Where are you going they asked me approaching the table.
"Chaweng Beach," I answered.
Looking over my bicycle and realizing that there was no fare at hand, they ordered some Singha beers and grabbed the empty chairs at my table.
We exchanged the normal "where do you come from", "how do you like Koh Samui", "how long are you staying in Thailand" stuff before I moved the conversation to another subject.
"Where do the fishermen take their catch at the end of the day?" I asked without explaining.
"You want to buy fish? I know a good place," the round faced driver Khon enthusiastically offered.
"No, I just want to see and maybe photograph the fish warehouse or dock area."
As he was giving me directions to a warehouse a few kilometers north of Na Thon, I began to think about my return trip the following day that would include a stop at the place.
Our chat was interrupted by the loud sputtering of a couple of tuktuks (pickup truck taxis) as they raced down the road empty in a mad dash towards the pier and another load of tourists. My friends quickly finished the last of their beer, and as we said our goodbyes, they hopped on their motorcycles in one continuous motion and sped away in pursuit of the new arrivals.
I stopped for a moment at the top of the last hill overlooking the five kilometer beige sandy shore of Chaweng Beach to soak in the last of the round, orange sun before it dropped off behind the palm covered hills to the west. A lone sailboat was struggling to tack through the gentle winds in the bay as a few sunbaked body surfers floated off the water and were deposited in the sand.
It took a few tries to find the kind of bungalow I was looking for at the edge of the beach. The bed was clean, the thatched roof didn't have any holes, the windows had shutters and mosquito netting, and the bathroom had a squat-toilet, shower head, and sink. One hundred and fifty baht (six dollars) a night and no frills.
Dusk crept up on me as I floated aimlessly in the mellowing waves, reflecting on what life had been like before coming to this place, before venturing out from the security and walls I had built around myself. Here I found myself stripped to the flesh with the basic emotion of rejoicing just to be alive. I was alone, but not lonely, distinct and unique but in accord with a living earth around me.
My mind and body were still drifting when the wailing sound of Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry" burst out from shore. A flickering rainbow of faces strung loosely around a crackling fire looked warm and inviting. Tentatively, I waded over in their direction and in a sudden moment of confidence, walked up to the group without introduction and crouched down near the fire, rubbing my hands together somewhat nervously.
A downunder twang jumped across the fire, "Getting a little cool, eh?" a rugged blond-maned, surfer-looking character shot over to me.
"Yeah, seems like the wind is picking up," I answered.
"You from the States?"
"Yeah, and yourself?"
Jeremy was in fact a surfer, doing odd jobs on the island to get by, always looking for the perfect wave. He said very matter-of-factly that he couldn't stand a steady job, it was too expensive to live on the beach in Australia, and that he would keep renewing his visa in Thailand as long as possible.
"Might even decide to get married and stay," he said giving a soft squeeze to his petite Thai girlfriend Noi, the manager of the bungalows. At this point, Noi half-laughingly initiated a Thai conversation with her friend Phlawy that seemed to question Jeremy's ability to take such a bold step. They obviously had some things to talk over.
I turned my attention to the discussion raging at the other side of the circle about uncontrolled timber harvesting in the fragile hill country of southern Thailand.
"The floods we had this year have been the worst in our history," Nak, a student from Bangkok explained. "The hillsides have been clear-cut, the rain water rushes down without being absorbed and everything gets flooded."
Nak indicated that it was still dangerous to organize public opposition on this issue in Thailand, but several of his fellow students were doing it anyway. Katerina, a social worker and Green Party activist from Germany said she had friends in Malaysia who were concerned with deforestation there as well and that an Asian conference of environmental activists might be a useful forum to coordinate the many separate indigenous movements. Oblivious to their surroundings, Nak and Katerina immersed themselves with plans and details.
The reds and yellows from the fire created an aura that made the flashing eyes in our circle jump out in the deepening darkness. The beach was calm but with a light mist that rose up from the south seas in the east and limped on to our shore in a quiet, unobtrusive way.
Phlawy's dark brown eyes sparked over to me with a curious, adventurous expression that became captivating as the night progressed. We sat together and talked as I held her warm, moist, gold-brown hand, prodding emotions in me long buried away and thought to be gone forever.
Phlawy had lived on Koh Samui her entire life, and in her thirty years had seen the island evolve from an unknown paradise to its present state of tourist enclave. She had been married in her early twenties, but when her first child died at birth, her husband panicked and ran away to Bangkok, never to be heard from again. She was alone, working as an accomplished gourmet cook and supporting several of her siblings.
We touched each other with gentleness and sweetness as a light, moist breeze from a grove of mango trees on the hill unfurled and blanketed our bodies. Forever young, it really is just your point of view.
By the time I went in for a morning swim, Jeremy was already riding the two meter waves as far in to shore as they would carry him. He stopped and talked for a few minutes about sailing from Australia to New Zealand the following year, maybe settling down there. Noi and Thailand seemed to be slipping away from him. She was looking for a more dependable relationship than he was capable of offering at this time, but he wasn't ready to give up. There was still time to make amends. He was tired of being a drifter.
"Kin khao," let's eat rice, the familiar Thai expression for eating any meal yelled Noi from shore.
Breakfast conversation in the leafy open-air dining room centered on the new air strip that had just been built on Koh Samui. Daily flights were bringing droves of tourists to the island, pressuring the government to relax building regulations for new accommodations. Large scale hotel projects had thus far been resisted in order to maintain what was left of the remote atmosphere on the island, but the speculators and foreign business interests were relentless.
I soaked up the clean ocean breeze and quiet simplicity of the moment --- a fleeting moment at that. A year from now, everything may be quite different --- the cheap bungalows gone, the traffic heavier, maybe my newfound friends each going their own way. And where would I be? Back in the States or on another overseas project? The future was unclear. But not the present. A warm touch and smile, curried rice and eggs for breakfast, an endless orange horizon of coconut, mango, and rambutan --- this was our present, our moment, our dream tucked away on a small island sheltered from the tension and apathy of the outside world.
"I work here with Noi next week. Are you coming back?" Phlawy said to me as we were finishing coffee.
"Yes. I'd like to come back."
Joy and pain erupted inside of me as I reluctantly secured my backpack, hoisted my bicycle on to my shoulder, and walked up through the sand from the bungalow. Phlawy was standing in the driveway near the road as her soft eyes carefully searched mine for the honesty we had been touched with the night before. We burned inside, clinging to each other, as we rocked ever so gently in the approaching noonday sun. It was time to leave.
I rode through the rocky hills to the north with the stamina and speed of a racer on a mission. The deserted beach and high rolling surf at Mae Nam Bay spurred me on to the point of exhilaration. Who knows if this moment of love will continue, will have the opportunity to grow, much less mature? I learned long ago that dreams often hit the wall of reality and shatter, but that the dreamers nonetheless let the essence of the dream grow inside of them, carry them through the lonely times, contribute to their sense of worth, keep them honestly in touch with their innerselves, help make them whole human beings capable of emotional commitment. Love grabs you when you least expect it.
The fish warehouse was a large steel sided building at the edge of the water with a short concrete breakwater and several rows of wooden docks adjoining it. The smell of saltwater and fish filled the air as a few small boats were unloading their catches onto scales, then into large wooden crates that were hauled into the building with forklifts. I watched for a few minutes before quietly walking over to the docks and snapping a few photographs.
In my uneven Thai, I asked a couple of weathered, seasoned looking guys in their fifties how well they did. Good day they responded. Not too hot, the Gulf was quiet, no storms in the area, a good catch of prawn.
On the other side of the breakwater, a gaunt, dark brown skinned fisherman was struggling alone to bring his open eighteen footer carefully to the unloading dock. I came over and grabbed his towline as he bobbed into position near the dock.
"Khawp khoon cup." Thanks, he said quietly, possibly a little embarrassed.
His catch was also good for the day, but considerably less than the first pair of guys. Maneuvering the nets around alone probably had some impact on how successful you'd be. Then again, there was probably some luck involved.
Since my understanding of the Thai language was much better than my ability to speak it, I was relieved to let the fisherman do most of the talking while he waited for his catch to be weighed and hauled away. His name was Nokinsee and he had been fishing this part of the Gulf for twenty-five years, usually alone. He used to fish with his son once in awhile, until a year ago, when his son was killed in a motorcycle accident. His wrinkled brown forehead and lines beneath his eyes showed the many years of squinting into the sunlight and salty wind across the water. I was surprised when he said he was only forty-three.
He asked me about my job and what I thought about his country. I spoke my words slowly and as carefully as possible. The wrong emphasis on a syllable of a particular word and the meaning becomes lost, or even insulting. His question made me think hard about what I was doing in Thailand. The power plant I was working on would soon provide electricity to the remote river and hill hamlets in the south. The possibility would then exist for massive economic development: tin, rubber, timber, tourism. Nokinsee worried that the days of the independent farmer and fisherman were numbered, and that the land would be plundered without regard to the future. It was a legitimate issue for all of us, in all parts of the world, from the Rocky Mountains to the Amazon to Koh Samui. But I uncomfortably rationalized my own role. I reasoned that when you came down to it, it wasn't the capacity for economic development in itself that threatened the traditional ways of life of nations, but rather the priorities that those nations set for themselves, and the powerlessness of their peoples to control or set those priorities.
From my reading of Thai history it seemed clear to me that these people would never sit quietly and let the beauty and grace of their land be destroyed. They were in tune with the living world in ways that we, the descendants of Europe, were not. They, like the original peoples of the Americas, had much to teach us about living, if only we would open our eyes.
Nokinsee spoke hesitantly about his family as if there was a much larger story to tell. He invited me to go with him to a nearby cafe filled with fishermen coming in from the Gulf for a few hours rest before heading back out to sea.
He found it difficult to speak about his son who had died the previous year. As he pulled a woven handkerchief from his backpocket to wipe away the perspiration of his narrative, I could sense his need to tell the story in spite of the pain. The son had died as he entered manhood, with the excitement of first love and higher education before him. His son had things that he only dreamed of as a young man: a good education, a modest but secure homelife, the goal and dream of a profession as an architect. He had everything going for himself, except long life.
We sat in silence for a moment as my eyes drifted over and fixed themselves on the woven handkerchief clutched in his hand. Something was very odd. The handkerchief was an orange and earth toned one with a familiar signature. Was this a coincidence? My hands trembled as I dug out a woven fabric from my backpack and laid it out on the table before us. The unfinished orange and earth toned tapestry of Srimorn.
Nokinsee's eyes opened wide with astonishment. He knew the weaver's signature better than I.
And as he caressed the unfinished tapestry, I told him the story of Srimorn, of her love for her husband and son, and of the beauty and music of her work. Nokinsee was moved as he looked at me directly and told me of his helplessness in seeing his son go down in the raging waters of the Gulf. It had not been a motorcycle accident. It was shame that kept him alone and in turmoil. His inability to save his son or to give his life in his son's place was shattering. He couldn't bring himself to rejoin his family as Duang the fisherman from the Chaiya district.
Duang felt relieved that he had told it all. His eyes were reddened and wet. Orange sunlight bounced off the blue-green waves of the Gulf and beamed through the open windows of the cafe. The sun was beginning to set as a prism of colors jumped in and crossed the deep brown lines on his weathered face. We talked about Srimorn, Chang, Dorkmie and the future. He would return. He would lie with Srimorn in mounds of golden fabric in his house along the silty riverbank. His family would be whole once again. He was still holding the unfinished tapestry as I put my palms together, brought them up to my chin, and with a slight bow, turned and walked out of the door.
I rode through the darkness up to the pier at Na Thon for the last boat of the day to Surat Thani. The evening mist soaked and massaged my skin as a humid breeze of coconut, mango, and rambutan suddenly crossed my face and sweetened my lips.
(first published in the collection Voices of a Wanderer,
Out There Publishers, copyright 1993, e b bortz)
earth note 148
bright western wind today
ohio river whitecaps
it all changed again
within a half-hour
even the geese
with a nor'easter
--- e b bortz