This is a long post, but there's a big announcement at the end-- whether you scroll down now or read the post first depends on your ability to handle suspense, tension, and excitement.
We had plans to meet Paul and his partner Emily at a river resort called The River Kwai Jungle Rafts, run by a company called Resotel. Paul and Emily have been together for years, but I'd still not met Emily yet. She had a job in Geneva for most of the time that I've been in Australia, and that's why Paul was back and forth so often.
The instructions we were sent from Resotel said that from Bangkok, we would take a taxi to the bus station, take two buses (BKK to Kanchanaburi, Kanchanaburi to Kilometer Marker 54) to the pier, and then a boat to get to the resort. We didn't know how long this would take, the only boat left the pier at 2pm.
We left early, no breakfast, and started our travels. We rushed to ensure we'd be at the pier by 2-- we forgot to change money at the bus station; we forgot to eat. We caught all our buses with no problems, but we were a little worried about possibly missing Marker 54-- if we missed it, we had no idea when or how or where the bus would let us off. We were worrying about a night in rural Thailand with no food, nowhere to buy water. We were counting every kilometer marker...
But when the ticket-taker finally came around and we paid the fare, she simply looked at our itinerary and said, "Resotel. Ok."
And when we got to Marker 54, there were huge signs: RIVER KWAI JUNGLE RAFTS!
We wondered why the instructions didn't mention that we would see huge signs. Then we were a little sad; we had worked up all this energy, felt like we were on a real adventure, where something could seriously go wrong and even being a Westerner with a little bit of cash wouldn't save us, because there would be no one in sight to pay. And then it turns out, everything is well-marked, in English, and even the bus drivers know where we need to be let off.
Adventure seems a little difficult to find these days.
We walked down to the pier, along a small, newly paved road, lined with small farms and small houses.
We stopped to take pictures of giant jackfruit hanging from trees. I've seen these before in farmers' markets, but I had never been able to imagine what the tree this fruit grew from might look like. How huge must this tree be, to suspend such enormous fruit? How high must this fruit, which is much larger than a coconut, grow upon a tree? Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a tree with gargantuan low-hanging fruit.
I hear they're very smelly inside. As we were mildly trespassing onto someone's land to take pictures of this crazy looking thing, we heard voices. Ever the friendly Americans, we called out "Sawadheekha!" (well, Craig said "Sawadheekhrap!" because he's a boy), and a man and a woman called back. They offered us a whiskey and soda, and we stood on their porch drinking with them and trying, flailing, desperately reaching over the language divide. We failed, for the most part, but one thing I understood, via gesticulation and deciphering a few words from his fast fast Thai. He used to live in Bangkok, but he'd moved to this backwater because his wife owned a farm here. And he loved her. But he misses Bangkok. I wonder if he hails all of us city-worn travelers from BKK, if he tries to catch a moment of fast-paced city life over a shared drink with a stranger. No names...
And at 1.30pm, we found the pier, and found a charming boat waiting for us. The charm faded when the boat's outboard motor turned over like a Harley, and the river thundered and echoed. We didn't know how many times we would hear this sound in the coming weeks.
Our first glimpse of the River Kwai, of jungle Thailand. We never saw the bridge, it was too far, but once the motor was quiet, the still, cool, flowing, silent, rushing of the river was all we wanted to see.
The Jungle Rafts are a sort of floating hotel (a floatel, if glib is your fancy). Apparently, the River Kwai hosts four or five such hotels, but each one is isolated from the other, so you don't feel like you're in a vast corporate floatel.
Our little resort had about 30 rooms. The rafts are built on massive black plastic pontoons that are anchored about thirty feet away from the river bank. Nearby on land is a small village, inhabited by Mon people, one of Thailand's ethnic minorities. The villagers work as masseuses, cooks, bartenders, cleaners, receptionists. They seem to have a pretty nice set up-- when the tourists aren't around, they nap, listen to a radio and give each other massages. We still hadn't eaten all day, and we asked for a snack. They gave us an entire pineapple. Slightly underripe and tart, we ate the whole thing, even as our tongues were getting sore.
It turns out we needn't have rushed-- several boats came to the raft after ours...
They harvest beautiful wild plants and handcarve planters from bamboo; the planters are hung around the rafts creating a paradoxical "tended jungle" atmosphere.
This place was luxurious, it was a very nice resort. But there was no electricity, no internet, no laundry. Food was served only at designated breakfast, lunch and dinner times. It was a strange sort of luxury; the decadence of nothing to do all day but swim and laze in a hammock. The grandeur of rocking back and forth on a river's currents, in a raft made almost entirely of natural materials, grass, bamboo, sticks and twigs. A river water shower, a river dip. I wasn't really patient enough for it. I couldn't make my body and mind move slow like the rafts. I was still on city time, Bangkok time at that. I think if I'd had a week there, I could have slowed down. But we only had two days. Some of it was agony, just waiting for the next thing. So we visited the Mon village in the morning, just across the floating bamboo bridge, to see what we could see.
The Mon temple contrasted sharply with Bangkok's gold-gilt, brightly-tiled Wats. The icons are imperfect, subject to weather. The temple in nature, with so very few tourists...so few cameras...really, just mine. And Emily's.
I couldn't stop marveling at the sunlight on tropical leaves.
Yikes! I stood very far away from this spider and took the picture with the zoom turned right up. When I saw the picture, I creeped myself out. Click on this one, look at it full-size. That's a huge spider.
The village school room... considering how distracted I used to get just having window to gaze through, I can't imagine how these kids get any learning done.
We think these bamboo sticks might be holding up the boulder. Just in case, we didn't touch a single pole.
The village is also home to two beautiful elephants; these girls are still just babies-- they're 39 years old. We rode around the village on their backs, listened to them growl and purr. Asian elephants totally beat African elephants. Not in size, sure, but in cuteness? How about in round-bellied-ness? Bulbous-trunk-ness? That's right. Asian Elephant wins. Do I need to start another poll?
Craig fed Wan-Di and her mate some bananas, and he ended up with a hand full of elephant snot. Gross.
Elephants bathing and men surfing said elephants. In a wild river. I cannot believe I get to see these things. I cannot believe I got to float down the River Kwai. Craig was in the river before I got the courage to jump in. "Just stay on the sides," he said. "The middle is really fast. It's scary fast." While he was swimming, a little Japanese boy was jumping in and climbing out. His parents were watching him, but at one point, the current carried him toward the middle, too fast. Craig was watching him, staying with him, at a distance, just in case. The boy realised how far he'd floated and got scared, started screaming. The father jumped in. Craig got behind the boy and pushed him toward his dad, away from the harsh middle current.
Later that night, the boy came up to Craig. "Thank you for saving my life," he said. And what did our hero say? "Oh, no problem. I had fun swimming with you. What's your name?"
You see, dear readers? Boy Wonder simply cannot help himself. He is a superhero.
But even he can only do so much.
Later in the afternoon, Craig wasn't swimming. The Japanese boy and his father were. And both (both!) got bitten by nasty little fish! Blood everywhere, crying and the family made a mad dash to the Kanchanaburi hospital. The father's toe had nearly been taken off....
On New Year's Eve, we settled in for a dinner by lamplight and a long wait for midnight. The lamps were hardly even bright enough to read by, so it was a bit like camping. And when you're camping, you tend to go to bed early... I mean, there's just not that much to do. We played Scrabble, because Emily had a set with her, and we talked. Let the record show: Paul hates U2. And we support him. He was thrilled to have friends who he didn't have to hide him hatred from. We commiserated about the problems of our generation's undying love for Bono. We, the four of us, none of us, understand. But there's only so much you can talk about without getting hoarse, and we were tired anyway. It had been a dramatic day.
Lanterns makes everything look pretty.
Around ten o'clock, the villagers shot off some fireworks and presumably, called it a New Year. There were a few groups of tourists on the rafts, some Germans, some Swedes. Us. And for some reason, we didn't choose one person's watch to use as our official New Year's timepiece. So, the Swedes went off at about 11:57 by my watch, and the Germans a minute later. Being just four of us, we figured we might as well join the festivities. The experience really highlighted how reliant we are, on New Year's Eve, on having an official timekeeper, whether it's on the TV, or a dropping ball, or whatever. Without a generally agreed upon standard, anytime after dark could well enough be considered the next day, couldn't it?
I felt like a fool for staying up so late. The moon was beautiful though; it was a blue one, which means it was the second full moon in one month.
We hadn't even thought to bring sparklers. Dang Germans.
On the first day of 2010, the river was foggy and cold. We were headed back to Bangkok. A boat, two buses, and a taxi-- that's how we spent the first half of Craig's birthday. At least the river was pretty. A floating resort is never the kind of thing Craig and I would ordinarily decide to do, but because Paul and Emily were going to be there, we tagged along. And we were very glad we did. I don't think it's the kind of thing they'd ordinarily do, either, but it was recommended by some friends of theirs...so in the end, I guess we all got kind of lucky.
Craig's brilliant idea last year was that he wants his birthday tradition to be "a burfi on [his] birthday." Burfi is an Indian sweet, cardamom, ghee, milk, sugar-- you get the picture. Bangkok's best Indian food was supposedly in Little India-- right next to Chinatown. So geographically accurate!
We took a boat down to Chinatown, because there's no train line there; as we walked around, looking for Little India, we found flower markets.
Filling the streets with the scent of roses, this was the best-smelling market I've seen in my life. But it did raise some questions... what would happen to all the fresh-cut flowers that didn't get sold at this market? What happens to all the fresh-cut flowers that never get sold? Think of all the roses that were grown to prop up a romance industry, eventually being sold as fodder for giant compost mulching companies.
Chinatown was beautiful; streamers decorated the sky. These guys were packing up fruit and veg for another market. Craig has some experience with the difficulties of packing fruit and veg, after working on Nicolas' organic farm. "Nicolas never thought of that," Craig said.
National Treasure 2 was on the bill for tonight's neighbourhood movie. I wish Sydney would just shut down a street now and again, to show a crappy movie.
Check out this old projector!
Just had to show another view of this incredibly over-burdened truck. The guys rode away on top of this pile!
We did finally get to the Indian restaurant and Craig got his tradition for a second year in a row. I managed to wrangle a conversation in Hindi with the server, and felt, remarkably, how isolated we had been. You take for granted the ability to joke around with the person behind the counter, the ability to ask what something is, and the ability to understand the answer. We had not been able to do any of this for at least a week, unless someone miraculously spoke English, and even then, it was a gamble. The English speakers we met mostly only spoke a rudimentary service-based English. They could seamlessly handle an order, but if you asked a why or a how question, everything sort of fell apart. I felt lucky to be able to speak another language, to really converse with someone. Poor Craig was left out though, and he felt like going to some Spanish-speaking country next.
That was our last night in Bangkok, and from our hostel's window, we watched the lit-up night sky. Craig's 29th was a beautiful day, and luckily we were so busy all day that he didn't get a moment to be overwhelmed by the looming 3-0.
And in other news: I have an announcement.
I have accepted an offer to study at the University of Manchester in the UK. I'll be getting a Masters in Anthropology, postgrad, taught course. I'm excited, but ambivalent, too. Craig's going to be staying in Sydney, so we'll be long distance for at least a year-- that'll be hard. And England is, I know, very cold. But it's a great program, especially for Visual Anthropology, which is a big interest. I'll miss Sydney and Alfalfa a lot.
But the good news-- I'm visiting the ATL before I go! Sometime in June, I'm coming home, just until August or so, and I want to see each and every one of you!