Friday, August 12, 2011

(S)I am what I am

The name Siam rolls off the tongue like a silk scarf from a magical realm, but “Thailand” means Land of the Free. When absolute monarchy ended in the 1930s, the change of name reflected this. It is a beautiful, complicated country with beautiful, smiling people. (Rather like my own in that way!) I am happy to report that I’ve had the most wonderful holiday in my life – so far – and that we brought about exactly what we wanted: a happy hybrid of cheesy tourist beach relaxation and soul-enriching travel. I think the pic I snapped of this kitty, happily dozing uner the calm gaze of the Buddha, sums up our holiday nicely:

Kitty curled up in front of a Boddhisitava in Phuket
I found the clichés about Thailand to be all true – cheap, beautiful and a simultaneous culinary and cultural orgasm. I had no pretensions about “finding myself in the East”, and knew that whatever was the idyllic paradise of Phuket, is now buried deep under miles of resort concrete. Neither my wife nor I ever had the opportunity to take the fabled gap year after school and do the “Eat Pray Love” thing long before Elizabeth Gilbert wrote her memoir; sadly, this is all too often the preserve of those who have lucky access to trust funds. I do not begrudge these people. My parents had the luxury of three months in Europe in the sixties. This was a precious stone in the bijoux box of their forty year marriage, but I will not consider my life a failure if I am not afforded the same happy confluence of time and means. I have graciously accepted that I am 34, that marijuana does not mix with my medication and that I need clean sheets, hot running water and a gin and tonic whenever I travel.

My father-in-law, for all his disciplined thriftiness, has always considered travel an investment and encouraged us to splurge. I fully agree. If I have one wish for humanity is that all of us may experience that heady mix of anticipation and nerves that engulfs one when one sets foot on foreign soil for the very first time – and never lose that sense. Many have voiced their deep knowing sighs that Thailand is so last week and that Cambodia is the new black and why did we even consider the Western Islands when the Eastern Islands are so much more worthy of being splashed in an edition of Wallpaper. (It would have to have been five years ago; today it’s probably a Vivienne Westwood-designed retreat on the Mountains of the Moon, or maybe it's Phuket in a bracingly ubercool act of subversion). Too bad. I will not be the last to ignore all this and gleefully follow all the other tourists to gawk at the awesome massiveness that is the Big Buddha.

Images of the Buddha are everywhere.
Upon entering my first wat I had the same sense of giddiness as when, aged 13, I saw my first Gothic cathedral, the brooding filigreed stalagmite that is the Dom that towers above Cologne. I could write copious paragraphs about the sweaty mess that is Khao San Road, or the fluorescent ladyboy cabaret that had us screaming with laughter at the endearingly bad lip-synching, or the stupendous sunsets on the Andaman sea – better I inspire you to start finding your own travel nirvana on lonelyplanet.com and build towards that. (More web advice: Tripadvisor.com is great for sorting wheat from chaff, though don’t take it too seriously, and Agoda.com has great hotel deals for when you make that scary date with your hard-earned cash.)

It was so funny that Chiv and I reversed roles abroad – I became a penny-pinching Russian grandmother acting as if there was a war on while my usually frugal wife thought nothing of ordering cocktails from the room service menu when they cost a tenth of a price in the nearby village’s beach bar. (Yet, at 4.3 baht to a rand, Thailand is one of those rare places where the humble springbok coin goes very, very far.) Finally, on Phi Phi, mesmerised by the melee of azure, white and green landscape of karst formations and palms and sand, I finally yielded and drowned any wars against cliché in a torrent (almost expensive) of resort-controlled massage oil and pina colada. At the risk of sounding like a blockbuster trailer voice-over, I had escaped from the prison of four years’ of toil and self-loathing and castigation and gave myself permission to be decadent.

Approaching Phi Phi by ferry
Even so, it is planned decadence. Brutally, the vast majority of us work hard for our money and investing in travel comes with great (but oh so worth it) sacrifice. As South Africans we are plagued with frightening exchange rates and humiliating queues at embassies for expensive visas. Yes, I am envious of my friends who have the luxury of an EU passport. Good for them. I can’t help feeling that this is a great injustice to the little guys who jus wants to travel, order a few drinks in a humble street café and burn out the SD card in their digital cameras, without vomiting in the streets of Majorca after too many alcopops or planning to smuggle in heroim or blow up a subway.

Those who have tried to make themselves feel superior by brandishing their precious visa-exempt nationalities in my face, have been the unfortunate (but, I daresay, well-deserved) target of a little-known side of me which bubbles up once a decade from depths I don’t know I have, but is summoned by such grave disturbances in the Force. It is a very cold, very calm and very crystalline wrath that, I am told, has wilted plastic flowers and commenced years of psychotherapy. I can’t control it, and I don’t like it. Even if the recipient is being a wanker.

So I hope I haven’t inadvertently irritated those of you who haven’t *yet* been blessed with the opportunity of travel. The very process of leaving one’s homeland sets off very slow and very deep waves of change in our souls, even when this is firstly obscured by gaudy pageants of sights and sounds or jaded over by hours in airport lounges and conference venues. All this will suddenly articulate itself in curious moments - a flavour that is suddenly noticed while chewing through a hasty meal; a lilt in the accent of a passer-by. Such has it been for me.

You don’t have to be Livingstone or Drake or Cook.

You don’t have to worry that it’s all been seen by others.

You don’t have to see everything.

You just have to go.