This is one of my favorite shots from India, taken in the middle of the desert just outside Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. We reached this tiny village of mud and thatch huts by camel, and our tour guides bought local sweets from one of the families who live here.
Happy Thai New Year! Today is the first day of Songkran, Thailand’s five-day New Year celebration, and yesterday was my last day of teaching cute unruly, primary school children. Read: Let’s party!
I said goodbye to my students by dumping buckets of water down their backs, in true Songkran fashion (and got totally soaked in return) and packed my things in my trusty backpack to move out of the grungy room in the back of the library that I’ve occupied for the past month. I boarded a bus for Bangkok to celebrate the Thai New Year in style – in shorts and a t-shirt, sopping wet and wandering up and down the streets of Silom, water gun in hand.
The most exciting part? I’m meeting up with my friend from college – my freshmen year apartment mate, and also the author of this guest post – whom I haven’t seen in at least four years. When we tire of the nationwide water fight, we’ll probably find ourselves poolside, so as not to veer too far from the water on these 100+, humid days in Thailand’s hottest month.
When things cool off, we’ll surely need to hit another watering hole – the swanky State Tower Sky Bar for a mouthwatering Kiss Bliss drink. Perhaps we’ll hit RCA, the popular local club street, for some live music, dancing and, of course, a different kind of thirst quencher: Thai whiskey.
It will be nice to stay in one place this year, which should prevent a repeat of last year’s experience: waiting by a tree stump for an unreliable bus on the country’s biggest holiday; then hitchhiking in the back of a pickup bed (read the full story) before, finally, succumbing to a 24-hour train ride, complete with a water fight in the bar car. Yeah, I think this year will be a little more low key.
But what do I know? Thailand is full of surprises.
One thing you learn fairly quickly as a teacher in Thailand is that your local counterparts love a good gossip. They aren’t particularly fussed about who showed up late for work two days in a row or who is a terrible teacher, but who is sleeping with whom? Now that is a beloved topic of choice.
On the gossip front, working in a Thai school is largely like being back in my small hometown of 700 people. There are about 1,000 students and teachers who inhabit this school, and it seems in small circles such as this, talking about each others’ business is a right of passage. It’s inevitable that some scandalous couple will emerge, blindsiding everyone with their sudden sly smirks and Sunday “work” dates in the library; their husbands, wives, and children all seemingly clueless.
In Thailand, a country known for it’s open sexuality and third gender (lady-boys), with cities rampant with red light districts and ping pong shows, it’s also quite common for married men and women to take pleasure in what they call giks. When we (westerners) tell them our understanding for a gik is a “f*ck buddy,” they cringe and think it sounds terrible. And in truth, the translation isn’t really that simple.
A gik relationship isn’t always a sexual affair; It falls somewhere between “more than a friend” and the aforementioned “f*ck buddy.” In a country where men and women aren’t often friends with the opposite sex, and where the term friend is used quite loosely (more like an acquaintance), a gik might be someone whom you enjoy spending time with on an emotional level. It might also be someone you enjoy “fooling around with,” but not reaping all the benefits, if you will. However, more often than not, a gik relationship is comparable to our own version of the term, except one important detail: a gik is not a gik unless it’s also an act of infidelity.
The term only originated about 20-30 years ago (though it was probably happening before there was a word for it) and today gik relationships, though somewhat secretive, are the culprit of many rumors and jokes, despite their commonality.
Last week, I was teaching English to a class full of teachers, and the hour turned into a rather entertaining event. One of the two male teachers in attendance was unabashed in his flirtations with me. After asking if I like Thai men, and my dodging the question by saying I’m going back to America in May, he then told me it was no problem. “I go America with you,” he said.
“Oh I see,” I joked. “You just want American visa!”
“Wait, wait,” he said. “How many wives can you have in America?”
I laughed, seeing where this conversation was going. “You get only one wife,” I said. “Only one.”
“Oh, okay…I stay in Thailand then!” The class erupted in laughter, but they didn’t think I understood.
“It’s same-same in Thailand, right?” (Thais don’t understand ‘same’ unless you duplicate it.) “Only one wife?”
“Well then,” I said, catching them off-guard. “How many giks can you have?”
They all hooped and hollered at my knowledge of their well-used term, and everybody began shouting random numbers.
“Teacher, you can have many, many. As many you want,” was the final answer.
Even though it’s a very common thing, because of it’s stealthy nature, gik relationships give people in a small town something to talk about. Fortunately, the young, married, female teacher and mother of one who is the current gossip rage among the teacher crowd, was in the other classroom, sitting next to her coworker and gik.
I mount my sitting camel like a horse, unsure of what to expect from the two-day ride through India’s largest desert. Once on, our guide pulls my camel’s rope – which is connected to his nose ring through both nostrils – and he stands, back feet first, causing my back to arch in a provocative way much like when a girl rides a mechanical bull at a bar: the operator puts it in slow motion so the crowd can watch her body move into an unavoidable sexy display of chest and torso. Then Mr. Lalu, my camel, lifts his front feet, now standing on all fours, and I’m higher than any horse I have ridden by at least two hands.Mr. Lalu begins chewing on something loud and crunchy, which I later learn is his own regurgitated breakfast, and soon we’re off, wandering down a sandy path between cacti larger than the houses I’ve slept in for the previous week. An hour or so passes (“We’re on desert time,” our guides say) before the tiny rope acting as reigns are freed from the camel before us and we’re in full control – rather the camels attempt to let us believe our tiny, helpless bodies, in comparison, are actually in charge.
We trot along, stopping only to tour a small village of clay houses and small begging children where we buy sweets for our after dinner treat and then ride again into the sandy abyss.
When our stomachs growl, we stop under a rare, large tree for lunch while the camels are released from their saddles and allowed to wander with their two front feet banded. They munch on trees while our guides effortlessly set up a two-burner stove made of rocks and twigs and begin cooking chai and veggie curry, along with fried batter and chapati.
“No hurry, no worry. No chicken, no curry,” they chant as they cook, just one of the many Indian sayings we come to know and love.
The afternoon proves too hot for both us and the camels, so we nap while the guides do dishes in the sand (no water or soap) as they probably have every day for who knows how long, despite the fact we’ve all eaten off the same plates as countless people before us.
“No hurry, no worry!”
In the afternoon we ride free for several desert hours until we reach the rolling dunes we’ve imagined and witness the sun droop over their horizon. It will be our resting place for the night. We go explore, then stumble back down to sit around the cooking fire and help make chapati, peel garlic and cut onion for the potato (allu) curry we will eat with rice for dinner.
We sit around a large campfire in the sand as we listen to each others’ stories and plans; movie and book recommendations; ways to travel and past experiences. Mr. Khan tells a story about a previous safari with one German girl who failed to tell him she had a history of sleepwalking.
He says he saw her get up and walk into the dessert around 11pm but thought she just wanted to go enjoy the moonlight or use the restroom, so he said nothing and went back to sleep. Several hours later he woke and she still hadn’t returned. He began to worry.
“She is only girl and I only camel man and I afraid she think I do something wrong if I follow her, like ‘What’s this camel man doing? He want something?’ Like this, maybe bad experience and she tell my boss and I lose my job. I no want this.” He called out for her several times. No answer.
“But it like 2 in the morning and she still in the desert so I light big torch and follow her tracks…way, way out. I see her laying in the sand and I ask what she is doing here and she say she is sleeping. She tell me to leave her alone. I say why not you go back to camp now? She say she sleeping. What I to do?”
We all shake our heads, listening intently.
“Finally I take her by the hand and bring her back to camp and say this your bed, you sleep here. She say no, I am sleeping. What I to do? I never see this thing… sleepwalking before.”
He takes a sip of his warm chai. It’s clear he’s told this story before, and he knows all the right places to pause for audience effect.
“What did you do?” Two of the group members ask, impatient.
“I get a rope and I tie one side to her foot. Then I tie the other side to the camel. She no go nowhere anymore.”
We all laugh at his ingenious idea and make sure none of us have a history of sleepwalking.
That night the guides make our beds of blankets around the camel saddles to block the wind. The fire crackles quietly as silence falls upon us and we are rocked by the gentle breeze into a blissful sleep under the stars, comforted by the simple fact we get to do it all over again tomorrow.
Since I got back together with my ex, Thailand, things have been going quite smoothly. We’re happy now. Well, I’m happy now. Mr. Land o’ Smiles is always happy. It’s like I could be anyone, and he wouldn’t even notice with all the bikini-clad tourists around here, but I guess I’ll just have to get used to that.
It wasn’t for lack of feeling, I tell him. I love you more, I say. But after a few months of flirting with China, only to have him throw up all over your face, anyone would fall madly in love with Hong Kong. And while Hong Kong will remain a very memorable one-night stand (uh hum, okay, we might have continued our affair for several nights, on more than one occasion…but who’s counting?), it was just a fling. Thailand and I go way back…to 2011. And our relationship was on an entirely different level.
Anyway, here’s my attempt to clear up any confusion about who holds my heart. Better late than never.
I wasn’t fair to you before. I admitted my love for you, yes, but I didn’t shout it from the top of Mt. Kangchenjunga in India like I should have. The reason is because you were my first love, and I wasn’t yet sure what lay beyond your borders. Did I love you for the amazing country you are, or just because I didn’t know any better? Would I love another country just the same?
Now I know. There is no other country like you, Thailand. I’ve not yet seen them all, but I’ve seen enough to know my love for you will probably never be topped. And it’s not just for your flawless good looks and your splendid personality. It’s not only for your karmic beliefs, your aversion to fighting and your ability to accept all people with open arms (except those bikini-clad girls, but I’ll let it slide). It’s not even just because you give a damn good massage and you’re smokin’ hot. In fact, sometimes you’re so hot I can’t stand it!
I love you because of how you make me feel. When I’m with you I’m relaxed, confident and in control, yet I’m motivated, carefree and, in reality, have no control at all. I never know when or if my bus will actually arrive, whether or not I’ll have a job or where I’ll live when I do get one. When I’m with you, I’m completely okay with knowing nothing except that everything always works out how it should.
I love you because when I arrived at your airport for the second time, I felt like I had come home. When I took a taxi, you told me (via the driver) you thought I was beautiful. You said it four times – three in Thai and once in English – just to make sure I understood, which was probably necessary after four months in China and six weeks in India where the only comments I got on my appearance were various renditions of, “What happened to your face?”
Trust me. I fell in love with you all over again in that moment, and I knew that following my heart back to you was the best decision I could have made. You kept a piece of my heart when I left you last time, Thailand, and I’m pretty sure it will be yours forever.
I deboarded the airplane in Delhi just before midnight and entered a dingy, claustrophobic airport with walls tinted yellow from the constant smoke cloud hovering in the air. I rubbed my burning eyes and opened them to my name on a white piece of printer paper.
The husband of my first host from Couchsurfing.org, Nittin, was awaiting my arrival. Together we shared a taxi to where I hoped was his home. The reality of my decision to travel – alone – and stay with complete locals in a country recently plagued by various rape scandals (among other issues) finally sunk in as we turned down a deserted alley barely wider than our small car and then Nittin asked me to follow him into a dark, cement basement.
You’re so stupid, Jessica. Why didn’t you bring a friend? I could run, but it’s late, I have no idea where I am and everything is dark.
These were the thoughts running through my mind when, suddenly, a dark-skinned, saree-clad woman with a big smile blindsided me with a hug and a warm welcome. I took a deep breath.
“You must be Savita,” I said. She smiled and nodded, then showed me where I could sleep and hurriedly went to the kitchen to make chai – the (absolutely delicious!) traditional drink of India that is politely served to any guest entering one’s home, plus several other times throughout the day – and Maggie, the Indian brand of Top Ramen.
I slept well until an unrelenting pounding on the metal door sometime around 3am. Still unsure of my surroundings, this gave me reason to worry.
Now what? There’s a foot of open space between my room’s wall and the ceiling, a window with bars looking into the hallway, and a large door that barely locks. Welp. Nothing I can do now, I guess.
And somehow I fell back asleep. After a warm chai and a bucket of water that had been heated with a branding iron to constitute a shower the next morning, Nittin and I headed out to see the city. He apologized over a breakfast of spicy samosas for the obnoxious wake up call. It was city workers, delivering their weekly water supply for the two-family household.
“Delhi have water problem,” said Nittin. “But in Shimla where we go tomorrow, we have all water we want. You’ll see.”
At first, my one-day tour with Nittin left me wanting more. Everything from ox carts to spice sellers lined the narrow, crowded streets, and the in-your-face poverty and colorful houses built practically on top of each other down alleyways no wider than sidewalks (plus the fact that locals still attempt to drive cars, despite the constant stop, reverse and rearrange tactics necessary just to get to the main road) intrigued me.
But once I left Delhi and saw more of what India has to offer, I knew one day had been enough and I have no desire to return. However, with all my mind changes lately, I doubt any of you would be surprised if I did.
For final exams, my students became the teachers. I learned all kinds of things from proper Chinese table manners and new dinner recipes, to magic tricks and origami, to kung fu and basketball. I learned how to weave a scarf and make traditional Chinese paper cuts. I also learned about the famous foods in provinces around the country, which made me eager to visit.
Later, I learned how to play Uno, Mahjong and a variety of card games. I learned the history of traditional Han Chinese clothing, some basic yoga poses and even how to be a proper Chinese wife, in case I meet and fall in love with a Chinese man. Then I learned the aspects of a traditional wedding, including the jokes played on the happy couple that signify good luck for a fast baby. But before the love and marriage stuff, I was informed (twice) on how to properly care for a baby because, you know, I’m probably going to want one of those one day soon.
The most interesting exam, however, might belong to Harden, the student who gave me four tips for “surviving” the end of the world. His number one suggestion? Find a rich boyfriend who owns either a helicopter or a hot air balloon so we can rise above the destruction and share the world’s most romantic experience together.
#2: Everybody should know Chinese Kung Fu, then the aliens and zombies would be too scared to attack. (Thank goodness another student taught me that.)
#3: Adopt a pet. At least you won’t die alone. (I’m one step ahead!)
#4: Never say never. Learn how to eat everything that flies, walks and swims, because you never know. (Luckily, I’m an adventurous eater.)
After the exams, Harden’s class invited me to dinner. We went to a local restaurant and the students asked what I wanted. I replied anything but the dog (which was on the menu) and we feasted on things such as sweet and sour chicken, grilled eggplant, frogs, fried lotus root, pig intestine and more.
Nobody expected me to try the frog. It was placed at the opposite end of a table large enough for 18 of us, and when I said I wanted some, they eagerly filled my rice bowl with a variety of juicy parts (more than just the legs, folks!). It tasted delicious, and I ate everything but the skin (eww). When I was finished, Harden was impressed.
“You stronger girl than I thought you are,” he said. “I think you can survive the end of the world.”
After everybody was full, we went across the street to play Mahjong. We enjoyed a great night of laughs, beers and learning how to play one of China’s most traditional and fun games. The students were good about explaining everything to me in English. It seems this class took their exams seriously. And for that, they all got A’s.