Once, in one of my more poetic, albeit self-indulgent states, I wrote about the 'back alleys of my mind,' the unkempt urban landscape within me that was in grave need of an ambitious renewal project. Years later, however, this metaphor no longer seems complete.
I have changed, thank God.
In the summer of '92, I experienced a journey through some of the cities and jungles of Thailand. Although I did not then think of it in these terms, I was, in a sort of abstract way, searching for Manitou, the spirit of nature, both within myself and outside myself. Now, when I'm in one of my more poetic states, I am compelled to roam the jungle paths, the land formations, the layered sediments of memory that form the landscape within me, upon which flourish the flora and fauna of my experiences, a wilderness I am only now becoming in touch with, a wilderness that struggles to coexist with my inner city.
I sift through loose grains of fertile memory and recall my emergence from the scattered foliage of night and clouds, the descent to earth, and the lights of Bangkok weaving and bobbing beneath the plane as if the quilted stars above were mirrored in a lake of obsidian. I was lonely leaving the soft green lightning nestled warmly within its deep womb of clouds, and I jittered in my mock Lay-Z Boy, able to only partially attribute this to the vibrating jet engines. Having never traveled outside the United States before, I was slightly terrified of Thailand.
The jet fell toward a world new to me.
Later, as we attempted to find a youth hostel in which to spend the night, I and two companions, an American and a Brit., stepped from the airport into a muggy 1:00 a.m. rain, and I remember my exact thoughts distinctly: "What the hell have I gotten myself into? I want my mommy."
Two weeks after my arrival, as I stood on the slope of a small valley located within a northern jungle near Chang Mai, I reflected upon these first visions of Bangkok. Scattered about me were the thatch roofed, stilt supported dwellings of a Thai hill tribe people called the Lahuna. Above me glowed a quilt of a hundred billion stars. And so the same sky that had reflected down on Bangkok upon my arrival there now lit the jungle that I'd ventured into one day ago.
I was a member of a trekking party that consisted of three German women, two Italian men and my American and British friends. For 950 baht, about 37 American dollars, our guides, Lek and Uan, were leading us through the jungle to visit various agricultural hill tribe villages. When we first entered the gleaming, opaque mesh of jungle, I was struck by the complete absence of any sound, save a shin-shallow river, our footfalls upon the foliage-blanketed path, and the rhythmic pant of our collective breath. The images I had filed in my mind under "J for Jungle" were of the purely cinematic variety. The silence seemed to me unnatural. I expected to witness the indifferent howl of some creature suspended unseen in the canopy above; I expected oscillating waves of throaty screeches and the uninterpretable growls of invisible birds. But we heard none of these, as we likewise heard no the flash and slash of machetes through malevolent vines, nor the hungry drone of insects, nor the calling of distant drums.
The landscape of this jungle, however, resounds with a visual aliveness that is nearly audible. Vine-wrapped towers of trees, crowned with jewels of sun laced leaves, peer down from their perches atop the cliffs on either side of the riverbed. Hugged between these walls of flora and rock is the suspended, empty air that long ago danced upon the surface of the same ever-changing water which the souls of our feet danced beneath as we followed Lek and Uan. As if to convey a sense of aesthetic or metaphysical equilibrium, the cliff-dwelling spectrum of green paints itself upon the bubbling river and seems to giggle its way deeper into the jungle. The water is soft green lightning nestled warmly within a deep womb of rock and foliage. It felt good to be there with it.
Before I left Bangkok for Chang Mai, I explored the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Its majestic spires of gold, sentinels from the past, peer down from atop their thrones of green, red, purple, blue and yellow mosaic tiles. Trails of people upon paths of brick flow through the valleys of the palace--the anticlines and synclines of temples and monuments, upon the walls of which are painted scenes from the life of Buddha. They are very beautiful, but they do exist among the roots of my life.
After a swim within a cool, molten basin, into which tumbles a vein of pure silver, our guides led us to the first village of our trek, inhabited by a hill tribe called the Karen. Lek told us we were very fortunate to be experiencing this trek when we were because the shadow of predatory urban blight has crept into the underbrush and waits impatiently to consume tribal customs. This encroachment of outside civilization is quickly diluting the hill tribes' traditional beliefs and values. I was all too aware that although our group had a genuine interest in these people, the very act of visiting their villages made us one of the elements that is eroding the topsoil of their culture, allowing it to blow away in the winds of "civilized" comfort, leaving the roots of their tribal history exposed to the violent sea of material pursuits.
Like most other Thai hill tribes, the Karen live in bamboo, thatch roofed huts that are suspended a few feet above the ground on poles as protection against heavy rain runoff. It is tribal belief that a new dwelling must be completed in a single day or it is bad luck to move into it. Similarly, it is bad luck to live in a house in which a snake has been seen, and even if the snake is dispelled, the family must immediately vacate the hut and build a new one elsewhere.
In this particular Karen village, a man won a large city lottery, something obviously not part of the tribe's ancient cultural traditions. As its members are exposed to more elements of contemporary outside civilization, however, they naturally form a desire for its so called benefits and luxuries, thus cultural erosion occurs. With his lottery winnings the man constructed a relatively expensive house, and, although its general design was still traditional, it was intended to be a permanent structure and, therefore, took several days to build. The family moved in, thus ignoring the tradition of one day construction, and you can bet that if a snake were to cross the threshold of the dwelling the owners wouldn't leave, the snake would.
I stood upon the slope of the Lahuna village, surrounded by thatch roofed, stilt supported dwelling, thinking of Bangkok and the first Karen tribe we visited. Lit with a smile, I gazed into the glittering purple sky that glowed above me, a quilt of hundred billion stars, beneath which, in a state of mystical repose, lay a mist-cloaked jungle valley that overflowed with purple twilight. When our party of trekkers first entered the Lahuna's steppe lined valley--a universe where lived the spectrum of green by which all other green should be defined, and from which every hue and hint of green was begotten--we encountered members of the tribe working in pools of wet rice with a hand guided plow pulled by an old fashioned ox. I thought it somewhat conceited that "modern" culture should refer to nonelectric implements as "old fashioned."
By contemporary Western standards hill dwellers such as the Lahuna appear to have a "primitive" culture, or, even more condescendingly ethnocentric, a "quaint" lifestyle. Chicken roam freely and pigs doze undisturbed amid the tribes' houses, and the Lahuna spend much of their time working in the pools of wet rice and in fields of corn and dry rice. The Lahuna are not, however, loin cloth wearing throwbacks to a bad jungle movie. Rather, their attire is refreshingly free of the fashion trends that burden Western culture. The Lahuna's cultural values are ancient and entirely their own.
As my journey continued, civilization began to represent everything that threatened this jungle and its inhabitants. The Karen man was not blessed his lottery winnings, but burdened with them; the Coca-Cola bottles we saw in the hands of villagers were not a luxury, by an insult to an endangered lifestyle; the cameras we brought in with us preserved bits of tribal culture, but with each electric flash, they faded the culture a bit more, like the colors of a beautiful painting fade beneath the weight of a camera's light. With a dim shadow of sadness in his eyes, Lek pointed out how the encroachment of civilization is inevitable, and that our presence there at least guaranteed the remembrance of what will eventually be lost.
Happily, our knowledge of what will be lost did not overshadow the simple beauty of what we found within the jungle, and this beauty was made even more precious because of this knowledge. I remember seeing, along the trail to the Lahuna village, mysterious blurred lines that had been drawn in the dirt. Neither Uan nor Lek could offer an explanation for them, but I thought they must be a significant part of some tribal custom because they seemed to be everywhere. After we entered the village, some of us stood outside and talked as we watched some children play. They trounced around within the circle of bare ground, ringed with three foot walls of dirt which serves as the village dance area. I laughed, amused with myself and my search for some profound explanation for the mysterious lines in the dirt. I watched as a little girl picked up a stick and drew a configuration of shapes in the dirt. Tossing a stone in these blurred squares, she hopped across the ground, picked up the stone and tossed it again. A stick and a stone had transformed the ground and the fading day into a simple game of hopscotch. Actually, I guess it was a profound answer to my question after all.
Similar to the carefree and unaffected simplicity of the Lahuna children's playtime, are the simple requirements of the children in the last village we visited, home of another Karen tribe. In the red clay next to a hut lay a wooden truck with a slightly irregular shape to it. It was a simple toy carved from a piece of wood, probably by a child's father. By another hut, I say a boy riding a hobby horse. It consisted of a bamboo shaft with a hand carved wheel attached to one end. The child was thoroughly entertained with it. There were no televisions or video games; there was not the grinding violence of garbage disposal units, not the scream of an electric mixer. I didn't see a car for three days, and not jets shredded the sheltering sky.
During the hike between the Lahuna village and the last Karen village we visited, our party survived what was for me the most exhilarating day of the entire trek. We departed early from the slope on which I'd pondered the stars, and slowly made our way through a tiny, plush valley of rice and corn. Our steps slowly carried us up the side of the valley into a heavy mist, and the flora began to glisten. At first, we tried to keep our feet relatively dry. Ridiculous idea, really. We hopped gingerly over not-so-narrow irrigation ditches and puddles of water made orange by iron-rich mud, but the mist grew in stature, a seemingly conscious attempt to demand our utmost attention. The mist exulted in itself and its power over us, cajoling with the hissing leaves of the corn plants. Those of us who's veins flowed with the blood of a girl scout or boy scout donned our ponchos. Others among our merry band of trekkers took the example of some tribal women we had seen earlier and covered their heads and packs with the giant leaves of trail-side plants.
And then it rained.
It rained so hard that it seemed a person cold drown just by looking skyward: it rained so hard that the steep, twisted trail we were on became at first a mud slide, and then a stream, and then virtual white water. Gene Kelly joyfully splashed down the cloud-lit paths of my mind, and I loved it. We were in the midst of shimmering life, and the valleys below reveled in the pearly downpour, appearing otherworldly in their splendor. The hard-fluffed, gray and white topography above us exhaled rain, the living breath of the surrounding jungle. Gradually the trail rose upon wings of landscape and delved into the denser jungle that began at the creased top of an anticline. On either side of us were the valleys of intensely varied shades of green. This was Venus disrobed, Venus without the armor of volcanic chastity so candidly perused by Magellan's shy lens.
The concept of luxury had by this time began to take on an entirely new meaning for me. In one youth hostel, my two friends and I had basked in the luxury of a room with a good lock on the door and an electric fan. At a different guest house, we were overjoyed to find that we each had a clean, private shower, devoid of ants and spiders. Now, in the midst of our own Great Flood, ten yards of level, solid trail seemed a literal God end. On the vast majority of the path, however, each step I took was a calculated maneuver. Various elements were computed into an equation designed to compensate for vision blurred by rain and balance blurred by mud--mud that must have been spawned inside a pumpkin. My concentration nearly drowned in my attempts to see all the nature that lived and scampered about me. That afternoon, my comrades and I were each other's guinea pigs. If the feet of the person in front of me slipped, I committed that spot to memory and avoided it. On those sections of trail coated with pumpkin innards, an exposed tree root was a glorious find, luxury in its purest form, perhaps even the very essence of luxury Gleefully, I would bask in the comfort of the root's firm foot hod, a gift from nature, an angle of repose from which I could diagram the next few steps in my journey down the valley's slope.
As we neared the end of this exhausting albeit exhilarating hike, my desperate hope was that the next village would have running water. All I desired was to strip off the orange mud that concealed my clothes. The village did have running water; the entire trek party flocked to it like kids to Christmas tree. Sheer luxury. And there was bamboo soup, mounds of white rice, gallons of fresh vegetable, bottomless tea, all gloriously hot and drenched in steam. We were kings and queens. And the roof over our head for the rest of that drizzly night was indeed a luxury to behold, a bedizened palace dome. It was all the civilization any of us required or even wanted.
As I trudged from beneath that dense canopy of green, the city, the jungle, the sun, all merged within my mind and my imagination, and they are still there, remembered, and never to be forgotten. We left the last village, home of the Karen fathers who carve toys for their children; home of the best roof I ever slept beneath--on elephant back, and I could not help but contrast the jungle with the city.
Bangkok is a city of paradoxes. While shopping the night market, located in Pat Pong, the district that caused Bangkok to be dubbed "Sin City," we could not walk five feet without encountering the assaults of a doorman from one of the area's countless sex clubs. "Live sex show! Live sex show!" he would shout as he thrust upon us a degrading menu of what could be viewed within the establishment.
One block away, a life-sized, circus-grinned statue of Ronald McDonald extended his arms to passers-by, welcoming them to come on in and take a look at his menu of edible delights.
Across town, a hungry beggar laid next to a lunch stand, his hopeful tin cup extended to passers-by. Some people dropped coins into the cup; others enjoyed their lunch.
The same sun that squints the eyes of the beggar glints the gold embroidered spires of the Grand Palace and dances amid the misty jungle flora and dries the wet clothes of people who visit there. The essence of this same light undarkens the back alleys of my mind and offers life to the new paths of wilderness that grow there.
Last update: 5 June 2000