Walk down the main street of your small Ontario town. A signboard outside city hall announces Coming Events! but its plywood face is blank. In the near-dark afternoon, snow blows into the open jackets of high school kids who smoke in the 7-Eleven parking lot. A salesman stands at the window of his empty jewelry shop as though waiting. Title the scene 'Reasons to Leave.'
The next night tiny words are whispered late. 'Don't go.' Hands slip under clothing, memorize skin. Reassurance that you will be missed. As tongues touch teeth your mind is already making lists, packing and repacking the mess you left on your floor.
And then. A flight to Tokyo, airport sunrise, a connecting flight to Bangkok. Disembark, alone. Sleep fitfully at the Comfort Inn. Morning, humid air, orange blossoms in the parking lot. On the train-station platform a stray dog with massive mammaries pees next to your bag. Board the train for Chiang Mai.
Climb onto the rickety bicycle you borrowed from Claudia. Get to the first downhill before you learn it has no brakes. Rattle through the streets, one foot hanging to slow you. Ride into the temple grounds where orange-robed monks are sweeping up leaves and burning them in piles. The smell of smoke is haunting, familiar: canoes and camping. The worn red bricks are redder in the sunset, like they're burning, too.
Buy a rice cooker and a kettle, unpack your things. Your small wooden house is raised on stilts and the kitchen has no walls. It is surrounded by jungle growth--a banana tree, palms, bamboo. Chickens peck in the dirt yard. The neighbor's dog bounds up the pathway and steals your flip-flop.
Today you started your job, teaching at a school for refugees from Burma. The students are almost as old as you are. They asked about the Canadian president and David Beckham and how come your mother let you go so far away alone. Their jaws dropped when you told them it takes seven days of driving to cross Canada. But teacher, they asked, doesn't Canada have roads?
Sit in your new home and wish you had someone to invite for tea.
March: Driving Lesson
Sweat soaks your shirt as you wait for the light to change. Ten minutes. Traffic blurs: a covered pickup full of schoolgirls in perfect uniforms, a cement truck that spews dust, countless motorbikes. Six dark young men nap on crates of beer they will later have to unload. Navigate your motorbike closer and closer to the intersection, one flip-flopped toe on the pavement for balance, one on the clutch. Inching forward. Wobbling. The sun is blinding. Exhaust from someone's tailpipe hits your bare leg like a hair dryer on full blast. To your right, another motorbike driver carries a computer tower between his knees. Seated behind him, side-saddle, legs crossed, is a girl, cradling a puppy in her arms. She smiles. Smile back.
The heat is numbing. You accept a volunteer research project and spend your evenings at your computer, sweating, sipping whiskey and ice, reading about abuses against Burmese migrant workers. See your students' faces behind the numbers. Feel an ache below your ribs.
Later, you are dragged away from your work for Songkran, Thailand's weeklong anarchic water fight in celebration of the New Year. In your first field trip with the students, they are all drunk before 9 a.m., hanging out the sides of the speeding pickup truck, hollering pop songs to the wind. Get sloppily drunk yourself and spend the day throwing water at strangers.
Realize when you get home, sunburned and dehydrated, that you can't pity these students. You know they've suffered, but today all you know is that they laugh harder than anyone you've met.
Ants. Flying. They come out as the sun goes down, pelt against the plastic face guard of your helmet as you drive home. In your kitchen they swarm to the light while you cook your curry in the near dark, raising the lid for furtive stirs. Waxy flutterings tickle your ankles, your earlobes. Swipe at them with disgust, then retreat under your mosquito net with your bowl of rice. The heat keeps you sleepless.
At school the next morning, the students tell you that they ate ants for dinner. Waited at their holes with chopsticks, snatched them one by one. Fried them up in a big pot. Maybe this makes more sense.
The first big rain comes like a temper tantrum, hitting your roof like frustrated fists on a mattress. Everything living stretches limbs and tentacles toward the rain, reveling. The smell of rotting wood emerges, your house reliving years of being wetted and dried. The dank of rainy season--this will be the next four months.
Aht comes crashing up the jungle path, her umbrella catching on palm fronds and banana leaves, water splashing up her ankles. She is laughing as she hands you a blue plastic tarp and a ball of twine. For the rain, she tells you, pointing at your stairs, which are uncovered and already soaked. She stays for tea and then leaves, hopping through the puddles like a child.
Suddenly you remember the cacti you left out in the sun. Dart out to rescue them. They are already shocked and soaked and looking at you with reproach. The only ones not glad.
July: Seeing Things
Pom hands you a joint. Through the cloud of smoke you take it, thank him. The bar is full of Thai guys you recognize, artists from the college up the road. Some of them work here. Some acknowledge you with a nod. You pass the joint to Gee, who accepts it reverently. One of the guys swaggers to his motorbike. 'Going for whiskey,' someone says, and they laugh, raise their glasses. Gee tells you he has a tattoo and pulls his shirt up to show you. Elaborate, it covers his whole back. A dragon. You trace the pink lines with your finger. Time passes. One candle goes out. And then there's the crash, metal scraping concrete, piercing the quiet night. Remember: the guy who went for whiskey. The guys are out in the street before you can think. Then you too are running, following. Heart pounding. Scenes of wreckage play through your head.
But by the time you get there everyone is laughing. Two guys are picking themselves up off the pavement. Strangers. Shit-faced. They skidded on the wet pavement, lost control. They're fine. Everyone is slapping each other on the back, speaking rapidly in Thai.
You try to smile. Gee takes your hand, which is still shaking, and walks you back to the bar. 'No problem, na?' he says. 'No problem, mai pen lai.'
Wish you could take life so lightly. Instead, wait anxiously for the whiskey to return, and drink gratefully when it does.
Still raining. Everything is beautiful--lush and green. You go to markets packed with people and pick up vegetables with wet hands. On your motorbike, rush through narrow streets, your blue plastic poncho flying out behind you, your feet lifting high off the pedals as you pass through puddles.
One of your students, Kyi Mar, tells you about a village in Burma that was flooded last week. When the rains came the villagers ran for the hills, taking nothing with them. They waited days, returning only when the gushing slowed to a trickle. Their houses were destroyed. You start to sympathize before you notice that Kyi Mar is smiling. She tells you it's OK, that on their return the villagers found their small fortunes intact, because their pigs were spotted sleeping peacefully in the branches of the treetops. The rising water had taken them there. Let yourself be awed.
One night you dream about the migrant workers. The six charred bodies of Burmese laborers found in Mae Pa, murdered by their Thai boss when they asked for their wages. In your dream they sit up holding copies of your report, flip through its pages, look for their names. Bits of their hands fall off and fly away like moths. You wake up screaming.
Stumble out of your mosquito net and downstairs to make coffee. You can't forget that Mae Pa is only four hours away. That this suffering is real. Cry while the water boils. Then sit. Sip your coffee. Listen to the rain. Look at the stacks of research piled on your table, curling at the edges from the damp. So much to read, so much to learn, so much to document. Doubt that any of it helps.
The geckos on the kitchen rafters are getting enormous from all the moths and beetles they've been eating. Envy their clarity of purpose, the direct results. Wish for the thousandth time that you were a carpenter.
You wake up in your jungle house. The sun turns your kitchen orange, licking the stairs with its morning tongue, leaving its traces across the wooden beams, splotches of sun on the floors and ceiling. Finally, sun.
You can't see a thing. Tightly blindfolded and being pushed, roughly. Stumble. A voice whispers in Burmese, 'Ma pio neh,' don't speak. You imagine, for a second, being buried alive. Then arms pull you to a stop. You hear voices, giggles. Fingers fumble with the knot of your blindfold. See that you have been brought to beauty.
Claudia's outdoor kitchen is filled with tiny candles: hanging from the trees, melted to the floor, on every tabletop. Friends grin at you from around a table covered in food. Aht pops a bottle of champagne--you haven't seen champagne in a year. Pom makes a toast. 'If you go, na? If you go, don't forget us.' He is still using the conditional, as though your flight weren't tomorrow and your bags weren't packed. Your heart lurches at the thought of going.
A friend takes you aside to tell you this: in Pa-O, his language, good-bye translates to go home slowly. Know that you will savor these words.
December: Home, Not Home
At Tim Hortons an old friend asks about your trip. Stare at the table, search for words. Stay silent so long that she asks, 'How was the food?' Tell her you'll cook for her. That's as close as you can come to translation.
At home in your room, look at the four straight walls, the airtight window, the door on its hinges. You have unpacked your bags, placed photos from Thailand by your bedside. Look at yourself, so strangely clean, and wonder if you ever left at all.
Reprinted from Event (Vol. 35 #3), the literary journal of Douglas College. Subscriptions: $24.95/yr. (3 issues) from Box 2503, New Westminster, BC V3L 5B2, Canada; http://event.douglas.bc.ca.