Sensory End-of-Year Reflections on Monkey Fingers, The Body Artist, Deep Tissue Kayaking, Jellyfish, Metaphoric Exfoliation, Sleeping on Trains and the Art of War

Thailand is a long skinny place. A pair of tight one-legged trousers. We were decadent and flew from the northern hip of Chiang Mai to the southern ankle of Phuket. We weren't keen on sticking around the onomatopoeia of Phuket from all the horror stories we'd heard, so pushed on to Krabi, which phonetically didn't sound a hell of a lot better. Got a gypsy cab to take us, the guy even stopped at his house to pick up his wife and kid to come along for the ride. He drank copious amounts of M150 from snake oil bottles (Thais are addicted to the shit) and drove like a complete maniac. He was nice enough to stop at some cave with monkeys and Buddhas though. Thailand is a skinny barrel of monkeys, though I think they are technically macaques. Here's some on the beach in Krabi, and me showing off my new tattoo (that you aren't supposed to get wet or have in direct sunlight, let alone get man-handled by monkeys).

showing off my new tattoo


monkeying around on the beach

We didn't really have an agenda, except to detox at the beach and eat good seafood. I finished reading Super Cell Anemia (which I talked about in the last dispatch) then read The Body Artist by Don Delillo, which is a quiet gem of a book. It's short, I read it in two lazy layings out by the pool. The prose is as tight and precise as a good bullfight. Mostly the book deals with death and what it means to those surviving, on a corpuscular level so to speak.

Delillo finds metaphor and meaning in the most mundane of everyday domestic rituals, like eating a bowl of cereal (in which the body artist, Lauren, gets so absorbed in it, she forgets to taste), or in the zombied bickerings of couples. It is surprising how much of an emotional punch this book carries considering it's slim size, sparse prose, and intentionally emotionless actions. Sometimes I wonder how many "real" people (civilians or non-writers) are cognizant of the metaphors in our real mundane lives? I know as a writer, or wanna-be-one, I always think about, say, the meaning behind a couple's synchronized efforts in a two-man kayak (see below). You can never read too much into it. Things are not always as slick and convenient as they are in film or on the page. And when it's not, I'm not superstitious about it, but cognizant, which in a sense dispels the metaphor. For example when I read the sentence, "There were five birds on the feeder and they all faced outward, away from the food and identically still," my first thought, triggered by the number 5, is that the birds represent the senses. Just like how Krishna doesn't have 4 or 6 horses pulling his chariot in the Gita, but 5. But maybe that's me and my 5censory compulsions. In case you didn't get it the first time, Delillo drives the nail deeper (perhaps overly so):

"She watched them. They weren't looking or listening so much as feeling something, intent and sensing."

In this case, the five birds represent Rey, her despondent husband who has already checked out. Delillo is second to Pynchon in his ability to reveal concealed meaning in humdrum experience, especially as relates to our senses. The Body Artist conjures The Crying of Lot 49 in it's "intent to communicate," specifically a passage from it that I liked enough to quote at the beginning of BC/AD:

“She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.”

The Body Artist opens in 3rd person, then shifts to 1st person (to Lauren's perspective), broken up by factual reportorial accounts in the form of documents like an obituary and a review of an actual performance by the body artist. After it switches to 1st person, Lauren reveals the thought behind the mundane action:

"Maybe this man experiences another kind of reality where he is here and there, before and after, and he moves from one to the other shatteringly, in a state of collapse, minus an identity, a language, a way to enjoy the savor of the honey-coated toast she watches him eat."

It's no wonder she forgets to taste her own cereal! Lauren is the body artist, able to channel and converse with the dead by way of contorting or punishing, pushing her own body to it's limits in order to see beyond the realm of the senses. She exorcises demons through exercise, and Delillo channels it in her narrative:

"Being here has come to me. I am with the moment, I will leave the moment. Chair, table, wall, hall, all for the movement in the moment. It has come to me. Here and near. From the moment I am gone, am left, am leaving. I will leave the moment from the moment."

Strange that I would read this after Super Cell Anemia, in that both are bodily and sensory obsessed, but Delillo is obviously far more serious and subtle. And not that I am looking for an opportunity to plug Blake Butler's Ever, which arrived from the printer today, but Ever and The Body Artist come from the same mother.

Speaking of body artists, everybody in Thailand wants to do some sort of bodywork on you. Deep tissue, foot massage, reflexology, therapeutic touch, facials, visceral manipulation, "happy endings," exfoliation, you name it. Jess succumbed to such bodily pleasures at our spa hotel in Chiang Mai, but I'm not too interested in letting strangers touch my body. Call me anal retentive. Exfoliation is one thing though that interests me though, at least at a metaphoric level. A sea scrub sounded nice, but they typically were included in some sort of complex therapeutic bodywork package. Besides, I'm only interested in things at a metaphoric level.

Evenings we'd wander down near the seaside to find food. You won't find krab with a k in Krabi. And Krabi doesn't rhyme with crappy. They had these places with all the seafood on display and you'd just pick what you want and tell them how you wanted it cooked. I ate the red snapper in the middle of this photo, fried whole in red chili sauce. Jess had a few of those prawns on the left, in a green curry I think.

Krabi seafood

Krabi seafood

The thing about Krabi town (or Ao Nang to be specific) is that the beach sucks. It's a total racket. The beach is lined with long-tail boats that take you out to those beautiful white sand beaches you see in the movies or brochures. For a price of course. We were annoyed so we went on a mission to do it ourselves rather than go on the standard tours that everyone was touting. We lucked upon a place (if you are curious, it's at the very end of the beach in Ao Nang bay, near the monkeys) that rented kayaks. We got in a kayak and started paddling. The waters were calm at first and we were feeling ambitious, so started paddling towards a distant island on the horizon (Koh Poda). Not sure how far it was, I'd guess 4 or 5 clicks. Here's a view from near Koh Poda looking back at the mainland from where we came.

Jess Kayaking


Jess bellying up to the lunch boat on Koh Poda

bellying up to the boat

Of course when we got out there (and laid on the beach for ten minutes before it got boring), the winds shifted and the waters got choppier. Our kayak was getting jostled and we started bickering and whacking and splashing each other with our paddles, without seeming to get anywhere. If you are in a relationship that you want to test to see if you should take to the next level (i.e. marriage), then you should rent a 2-person kayak and try paddling out to Koh Poda from Ao Nang! And don't forget to leave something for the return voyage. The honeymooners you see tanning themselves on the decks of the cruise boats speeding by won't last. Battled and bruised, here's Jess and I on the return voyage.

kayaking from Ao Nang to Koh Poda

The coolest thing about Krabi, that sets it apart from your typical white sand beach paradise, are the limestone crags that surround it. I first saw Krabi in a climbing magazine way back when Todd Skinner first went there and it blew my mind. And now I just googled Todd Skinner and found out that he died a few years ago, from a failed belay loop on his harness. R.I.P. Cowboy.

Krabi crag

limestone crag


krabi crag


Todd Skinner's bastard son he left behind in Krabi

funny monkey

Despite our reluctance to go on a "tour," we did want to go snorkeling. But we didn't want the kind of snorkeling trip that Deb Olin Unferth might write about. So we went to a dive shop, to put ourselves in the hands of professionals. We actually thought maybe we'd go diving, but since it's been at least ten years for both Jess and I, they told us we'd need a refresher course or some such thing. And we didn't have our cards with us. I've always enjoyed snorkeling more anyway. You see almost as much without all the hassles and restrictions, and it's a hell of a lot cheaper. So we got on a dive boat with a bunch of German and Scandinavian divers, all bragging about the number of dives they'd done. We went to the same spots, we just didn't go as far down, at least not for sustained times. Here's the first place we stopped.

phi phi diving

Jess and I were excited, and since we didn't have all that gear to get ready, we were first to jump right in. The thrill of looking at the cornucopia of life under water lasted about thirty seconds before we noticed an inordinate amount of little jellyfish and polyps clouding the water. At first we tried swimming around them or under them, thinking we just hit a bad patch. But it only got worse. We were surrounded by jellyfish. We poked our heads above water to see if this was "normal," to see if anyone else was reacting. Most of the divers were wearing wet suits and were going under so were sort of immune (so much for my mocking the SCUBA divers). The only other snorkeler I saw was swimming really fast away from us. We tried to ignore the stinging sensations and "snorkel" some more and enjoy the fish. In the corner of my eye, I could see Jess brushing things off her and covering the exposed parts of her face while she swam. I surfaced and her lips were all puckered and swollen and she was asking me if her lips were swollen, that'd she'd been stung on the lips. "It's hard to tell with the snorkel in your mouth," I said, trying not to alarm her. My own lips and face were starting to sting. The other snorkeler I saw swimming furiously away, was now bee-lining it back to the safety of the boat. Jess tried to be a good sport about it, then eventually retreated to the boat. I spent most of my time navigating underneath the dense clouds of jellyfish until I was convulsing from holding my breath and had to surface into the murk of stinging polyps. Eventually I found an area with good snorkeling and very little jellyfish. I saw all sorts of cool stuff, a black-tipped shark even. No underwater camera though, so you'll just have to use your imagination.

We ate some lunch and motored on to another dive spot, this one off Phi Phi island, the island that was used in The Beach. Here's what it looks like in reality, seething with boats and day-trippers.

"The Beach" beach

Phi Phi Island

The snorkeling was even better here, and there were no jellyfish. We saw half a dozen turtles and all sorts of other cool stuff.

By now we were sunburnt, sore from kayaking, itchy from jellyfish and mosquitoes and jaded from the touristicness of it all, and ready to go home. So on the last day of 2008 we soaked up our last rays, visited our monkey friends on the beach and headed to Surat Thani to catch the train. The train was late so we ate at the only place in town. I ordered "vine-fermented chicken" just because I liked the name of it. They tasted like chicken mcnuggets. I also had frog legs again, the best ones yet. Actually, that's what Thailand looks like is a frog's leg.

Jess and her tom yum goong and Singha

tom yum cum

Then we hung out at the train station where there were lots of stray dogs and rather pathetic karaoke going on. We got a bottle of Thai whiskey at the train station, that was described to me as "good Thai whiskey," for 100 baht (a couple of bucks). The only other option was "bad Thai whiskey," which I was tempted to try but was warned against it, that it really was "bad". The "good thai whiskey" came in an awesome bottle anyway.

good thai whiskey

Thai hootch

Eventually the train came. The mangy dog we made friends with tried to get on the train with us, poor guy. We had a sleeper car which was pretty cool. Though the car reeked of durian. I don't know though, something about the flickering fluorescent lights, the sounds of the train, the jostling and the rattling and shifting... I wouldn't have it any other way. The perfect way to spend New Years Eve. And nothing beats sleeping on a moving train.

Jess rocking out on her bunk

Sleeping on the train


spending new years on the train... priceless

We drank the good thai whiskey and made our resolutions, none of which I'll reveal here, except my resolution to remember my dreams more and my resolution to not make that resolution about not making resolutions. I also made a bunch of dumb predictions—who'll die and what sorts of catastrophes will fall upon us in the coming year, etc. I'm tempted to post them here just to say I told you so when they come true. But I don't want to jinx myself. One thing I'll predict though is that next New Years we will either be in Buenos Aires or Tokyo. Not living there, but traveling. I predict we will be living in Rome.

We woke up the next morning to a new day. Those responsible for the durian smell were revealed. When the curtains opened we also discovered we had a number of dog neighbors.

dog on train

Sometimes the train would just stop and we'd sit there. Sometimes those were the coolest times.

Thai graffiti

We got into Bangkok on New Years day. We went straight to Suda for a lunch feast. We were sort of burned out on Thai food by this time, so for dinner we got sushi, something we obviously don't get a lot of in Nairobi. We also don't get to go to modern malls in Nairobi, and we needed to do some shopping, so we hit up some malls in Bangkok, and had ice cream even. Talk about sensory overload.

Zen World


zen world


Bangkok is Waiting (note Jess in the thumbnail showing off her Muji bag)

On our last day in Bangkok I also read The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Yawn. I'm not sure why I read it, I think somebody I respect and admire was telling me to read it. It's one of those books that you are supposed to read for whatever reason. I don't think you are a lesser person if you haven't read it. Except that you wasted less of your life not reading it. A few interesting tidbits were thrown out there occasionally, like "all warfare is based on deception." And another line that I thought was interesting is that, "Apparent confusion is a product of good order; apparent cowardice of courage; apparent weakness of strength." As applied to art and writing you can say that you need to be well-disciplined to feign confusion; have a firm grip on reality to pull off the surreal.  Another interesting line (if applied to travel rather than war):

"Nothing is more difficult than the art of maneuver. What is difficult about maneuver is to make the devious route the most direct and to turn misfortune to advantage."


(c) 2009 Derek White