Bad Tourist: Traveling With Trust
Issue #34, October 1997
A couple of years into our relationship, my girlfriend and I decided to take a big trip. Who knows why people decide to leave their comfortable lives, expending terrific amounts of money and fossil fuel in the quest for something new? Whatever the reason, we felt that the Bay Area aquarium had grown small; two years into her job and four years into my graduate school program, we complained that we already knew all the fish. Even those colorful fish in San Francisco began to bore us. Whether or not we knew that we were inside the aquarium too, or imagined ourselves as casual spectators, we kept bumping into the glass.
We decided on Thailand because some friends of mine had gone and sent elated postcards; because we craved exotic beaches; and because we both loved Thai food. In preparation, we saved our money, braved the required immunizations, and attended a student-sponsored Thai Cultural Day at the International House. There we met Joe Cummings, a slim, sandy-haired, unshaven white guy, who authored Lonely Planet's guide to Thailand. Upon buying the book, we asked him to help us plan our trip.
"Waterfalls," I said, "I want to swim near waterfalls." He thought for a minute, then pointed out KhaoYai National Park on the small map at the front of the book, circled the name in blue ink. "Jungles." "Empty beaches." "Wild animals." Each of our requests added another blue mark to the map until he said, "That's enough for six weeks." Then we were ready.
Around May 1992 (sometime in the midst of immunizations), we learned that the Travel Advisory Bureau of the State Department had recently downgraded Thailand from a perfectly OK place to travel, to a place where one had to exercise caution. That May, over coffee, watching the youngsters go by on their way to finals, we read a newspaper article about the Thai Army's brutal response to student demonstrations in Bangkok. Students had been shot in the streets and some had been found dangling from trees just over the border in Burma, where they were thrown from helicopters. But we didn't plan to spend much time in Bangkok. We were looking forward to a restful holiday, a hut on a beach...maybe a tiger in the distance, just for spice.
Lynda, at least, had had enough of confrontation. Appraised as blonde and petite, few realized how disarming she could be. Lynda worked in the lower Haight at a locked clinic for emotionally disturbed teens (she used to joke that I was her dissertation project). I used to wonder at her stories of suicidal drug addicts, dog killers, and thrashing racist giants who she'd have to "take down," physically, when the kids tried to hurt her or themselves during a therapy session. My favorite story concerned Ben, a Jewish-Asian kid who'd quantify his feelings.
"How are you, Ben?"
"I feel 30% depressed, 45% angry, and 25% happy."
In contrast to the emotional distress wreaked by striving for sex, power, fame, money or whatever it was we wanted in those days — to take the condom off, an abstract accepted, a heap of praise and a raise for a job well done — Ben's life appeared rather rational. Apart from the dog killing, Ben's method enabled him to cope with the chaos. I could learn from Ben.
A week into our trip, Lynda and I found ourselves on Ko Chang, a most enchanting island. Swimming underwater at night produced a cosmos of glittering stars: even the plankton seemed more alive in Thailand. Lynda and I amused ourselves without concern, "making crab" in the small waves during the day, and retiring to that windswept hut which we kept warm at night. We encountered Buddhist monks at their monastery near a fishing village; and Lynda took a picture she called "Buddhist Dog" of a dog sitting peacefully on the old monastery steps. Among the palms, a chained monkey sodomized a dog for their master's pleasure (or was it for the tourists, who happened to find them in the coconut grove?).
Walking home from the fishing village in the dark along the muddy jungle road, we blessed the fireflies that seemed to illuminate the dark road through the trees. Arriving at the restaurant, the locals laughed at us for walking along the road at night. "Cobras," they said, "warm themselves on the road at night." Lynda and I laughed nervously for a moment, ordered beer. By the time we left our island, I was feeling 85% peaceful, 10% restless, and 5% still annoyed with Lynda over an argument we had.
A few days later, we found ourselves bathing in a large pond under one of the largest waterfalls in Thailand, in the middle of Khao Yai National Park. Families ate the colorful, soft-prickled rambutans around the perimeter, heedless of our X-rated underwater activity. Why do I imagine they were heedless? What is it about losing yourself in another culture that makes you believe you are invisible to the people of that culture? Had my imperial tourist's gaze turned them into features of the landscape? Or am I perhaps just a covert exhibitionist? A perfect moment, way beyond expectations, I felt 85% horny, 95% hard, and maybe 10% wary of the folks on shore. When we emerged from the water, they offered us the forbidding fruit (the rambutans) and taught us how to eat the soft inside beneath the shell. Such hospitable people, we thought.
At the outdoor restaurant near the road by the falls, a group of young men and women sitting at a long picnic table eating piles of food and drinking whiskey, called us over to join them. Lynda demurred; they insisted. I obliged for us; I was hungry. They were off-duty soldiers with their girlfriends. When I mentioned that we hoped to go on safari that night — Khao Yai being also the best place to see wild elephants and tigers at night — they said, "Come with us," and pointed to their enormous military-green, six-wheeled troop transport carrier parked a few yards away near a grove of trees. I got excited about simply riding in the thing, its thick tires taller than me.
After we watched them drink a few more glasses of the watered-down whiskey that they drank like water, they walked to the truck and called us over. A Belgian couple who had witnessed our gathering asked shyly if we planned to go with them. Somewhat giddy, we asked if they thought it would be a problem. When they said, "Possibly so," we became a bit nervous. They reminded us of the political situation; but the motors had roared into being and the promise of tigers overwhelmed our sense of possible danger. They all possessed such wonderful smiles. Lynda-Bing and Ron-Bob on the road to Who Knew?
So we climbed into the back of the troop carrier and rumbled off somewhere, as the afternoon settled over the park and shade filled in the once sunny spaces between the trees and along the remote road. After some winding, we entered a small village and stopped. A man with three boys approached on a moped and greeted the girlfriends as they stepped down from the enormous machine. We also took a break and took pictures standing next to the giant tires. Amid the grass and the families, even the military machine looked pastoral. But when the machine roared up again and we boarded, the girlfriends didn't. So it was just Lynda and I and the five soldiers. I asked why the women weren't coming. "This is their home," Chanon told us.
Chanon, a tall, slender Thai soldier with an infectious smile and reckless enthusiasm served as our liaison and reassured me when I asked again about the safari. "We go now. We just one more stop at base. Then go." Climbing the road up the mountain, Chanon led the five of us in back in a Thai rendition of John Denver's "Country Roads." Our whiskey hadn't worn off, and as the sun set over the park, we felt swell, singing,
Kontree road. Taeme ome —
To de prate, I bedango.
The memory of our laughter waned a little as we stopped suddenly at the armed checkpoint of a brightly illuminated Airforce base. Watched as we dropped off another passenger from the front seat. Clouds had been dumping rain down for an hour and afternoon had turned to immeasurable night, pierced now by the searching lights of the base. Alert now, fearful, I appealed to Chanon. "He cook," Chanon reassured us, but his smile responded to my growing concern, and seemed to tighten when I mentioned the animal safari again. He snapped in Thai to another soldier. Lynda mustered a smile. "Lynda. You so beeuteeful," he said greasily. More muster. Getting into a vehicle with Thai Army personnel not related to anyone we knew well had probably been Not a Good Idea. But still, we'd get a grand adventure out of it. If we were both still alive, it would be worth it. We held on tightly and the transport moved off again.
A short eternity later, as the tall gates rolled open and the truck rolled into the deserted, barbed-wire fenced, mountaintop communications compound, I wondered how long we would remain there, how if necessary, we would escape.
American-made M-16 machine guns lined the walls of the room where Chanon and a couple of other soldiers played cards and drank more whiskey as we waited for the rain to cease. I began shooting HI8 video at some point, shooting Chanon as he sang and danced Thai dances drunkenly (though gracefully) in front of us, repeating on occasion, "You so beeuteeful, Lynda," When he sat, he tried to hold her hand, which she withdrew with the nervous cackle of someone who would normally know how to defend herself. But this was an abnormal situation. Was this why we came to Thailand? Filming Chanon dancing, and panning over to the M-16's on the racks, I felt 10% amused, 80% concerned, and still about 10% excited by the prospect of a safari. Mostly I just wanted to return to the nearest town and fall asleep in a rented bed.
The rain continued past midnight. Too dangerous to drive, they said. "Sleep now." A soldier led us to a room in some barracks and we huddled together atop a cold bed. Lynda went to brush her teeth. When she returned, she appeared disturbed.
"What happened? Why were you gone so long?"
"I met Chanon in the hallway."
"I'm going to kick his ass," I said. I didn't move.
"No, stay here." She held me.
"What happened? Don't say, 'nothing.'"
"He cornered me and tried to kiss me."
"I'm going to kick his ass. What did you do?"
Nothing she said made it OK, and I worried that at any moment they could come in, take Lynda away and put me on the next helicopter to Burma. We hung onto each other on the cold bed. The Belgian tourists had known; they were right. Why had we been so trusting? What did we really hope to find? If we wanted danger — someone to rape Lynda, for instance — we really didn't have to travel so far from our homes in the Bay Area. I longed for the relative safety of North Oakland.
A loud motor-roar awakened us, and clipped Thai voices shouting all at once. A soldier burst in the room. "Now! Safari!" We ran. Outside, a scene from Apocalypse Now. Were we under attack? The soldiers, already aboard the monstrous machine, called to us. I ran into the radio compound to grab the video battery charging inside, despite Lynda's pleas to "Forget the fucking battery. Get in now." Dangling camera, cords and a converter, I hopped aboard.
Moments later we were barreling down the mountain road through the darkness. Though the rain had stopped, the roads were still slick and gleamed beneath the powerful military headlights of the speeding vehicle. Bouncing around as we viewed the jungle stream out the back, again we feared for our lives. Occasionally, the driver would honk and the soldiers in back would bow to acknowledge small shrines lining the curvy road back to Khao Yai. We understood that the shrines marked places where people had died accidentally along the way. I longed for seat belts.
Soon the road leveled and straightened. We moved slower through the jungle, on the prowl, on safari. I videotaped the tremendous searchlight as it swept across the watering holes near the jungle road. In the glow, Lynda-Bing growled, "Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!"
We stopped. The light operator directed the beam to the side and we heard animated Thai as the soldiers exchanged exclamations about their find. We turned to see, in the distance, a small group of deer, transfixed for a moment by our light, then back to the drink. Deer! As if deer were a marvel! Then more lights, more commotion, and a small, red pickup truck approached us. Atop the pickup sat three Buddhist monks in their saffron robes. Each one held a large flashlight: Monks on Safari, a sight more extraordinary than the beasts we never saw, and one that served as a metaphor for the rest of our trip. Monks weren't supposed to go on safari, or anything else that would be pleasurable. Not that I begrudged them. On the road, looking for the exotic Asian other to consume, we were confronted with other touring humans, also finding ways to roam from their seemingly fixed, essentializing, yet still unstable cultural identities. "Monks on Safari!" we repeated to each other, laughing, as delighted and stunned by the mirror-charade as the Indian graduate student back in Berkeley, marveling at a white hippie with a sitar, eating pizza.
Telling this story — no longer the simple history of a tourist lark — other voices intervened, transforming it into a meditation upon my oscillations between trust and its opposites; a reflection of the desires we hope to fulfill as we travel, and upon the identities we project onto others even as they may have us in their kindest sights. If we must safari, better to leave our guns at home, as monks and good soldiers do. And when we shine our lights, may we find, not the frightened deer nor the ferocious tiger, but the image-monks inside us, meditative, content.
Ron Alcalay writes personal essays and fictional scripts, makes short documentaries, and travels often in small radii from home. He is currently at UC Berkeley, writing a Ph.D. dissertation entitled, "Adamant Immaturity: Willing Innocence in Post-WWII US Narratives." Reach him at email@example.com.