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Asian Voyages

A sweltering night in Hong Kong and you’re staying in a crowded deteriorating high-rise on the Kowloon side of the harbor that’s occupied by poor Indian migrant workers and their countless fetid and windowless restaurants. Everything is filthy. Striped green Formica wraps the bottom half of your desolate room and dirtied white paint covers the rest. It’s barely larger than the single bed. From under the door an enormous water bug scurries in. The smell of curry wafts in through the small shuttered window and it doesn’t open. You hear the tick-tock of rain down the airshaft, see through the wooden slats the night unsuccessfully try to erase a badly sketched world. An overhead fan revolves loudly in the low ceiling. You are grateful for the shifting air. You’ve made this trip thinking you could eliminate recent memories of another. Falsely, you think you’re capable of palimpsest qualities. Sentiment overwhelms you. It’s uncomfortable. “Sentimentality, sentimentality, Sir may I give you a cent for your mentality?” Your mind’s not right. You fear dreams and require alcohol to sleep. You’re paranoid and mistrust the Indians who occupy most of this building; you remember their gazes in the communal bath, dread their coming in and occupying your dreams. You loathe the loud television voices coming through the thin walls. The southern drawl of a cartoon character sounds as if he were standing next to you, “Well now look what y’all got us in to. We better get, before the sheriff comes.” Imagine the sheriff: an enormous yellow dog with a black nose and a red 10-gallon hat looming as large as a thundercloud over Hong Kong, each giant step crushing entire blocks, his wagging tail leveling buildings. You imagine yourself witnessing the blood of those greedy Chinese merchants who have not stopped harassing you flowing down the gutters, their money with their blood.

This image pleases you. An electric yellow sheriff innocently drawling, “Golly.” Tired, you lay down on the flowered sheets, wondering if those are stains or designs. You reach over, turn on the television, turn off the sound, and intensify the color so that the image becomes obscured. With the overhead fluorescent off, you watch the pullulation of light flash on the walls: cool, cold, warm-cool, a staccato acid light vibrating arhythmically; simultaneously you hear the cadenced tick-tock drops of rain. The dogs drawl on in the next room. Somewhere, faintly, the sound of a child crying. Somehow you picture someone waiting for you. Someday, somewhere, someone. You smile. Tomorrow you will leave, pleased to leave this degradation, but tonight the strobe effect of colored light from the television on the overhead fan mesmerizes you, illuminates your thoughts. You’ve always felt comforted by a purring fan, ever since your Mississippi childhood. Mississippi. Separately, M.I.S.S.I.P.P.I. You remember the vibrant bayous, lush and dense where even the sky was painted green. The abandoned dogs, more skeletons than not. Pity the lumbering turtle you shot, head withdrawn, red staining its green linoleum back. You recall balancing down railroad tracks, the flattened pennies after passing trains, sun-drenched fields and pale blue skies, the black families in tin sheds who were your friends, waterfalls, a pair of knotted snakes in the throes of death. You remember befriending a retarded child who lived across the street who knocked you out with a dirt clog, remember swinging on vines, the youth of your mother and father. You recall warm nights and humid thoughtless days to play and hide, the sweet taste and smell of honeysuckle. For a moment you are absent. For a moment you are not in that desolate room, weary and alone in a foreign city. And in a moment you hear a character in the next room stutter “tha-tha-that’s all folks.” And then you fall asleep in a pillow made of rich green Mississippi dreams.

Nighttime. You’re in Northern Thailand now, glad to be away from the cities, the merchants, the noise, the sex shops and the tourists in the south. Glad, to have left Hong Kong. This village has maybe two dozen people, the Hmong. Mostly it seems to be children. The small wooden hut you’re staying in is situated on a steep slope alongside a river. The front is on stilts and in back you can walk out onto land. It’s night and the moon hangs like an earring, illuminating little daggers in the river. The walls of the hut are made of hand-carved rough wood. Wind slips through the cracks creating sibilant sounds. Leaves clack a cadence, the river drones. Moonlight unevenly stripes the floor silver and black. The black becomes negative space, the silver, supporting planks. Framed in the doorless back opening is the most beautiful light you’ve ever seen, light that illumines a photograph which imperceptibly moves in the breeze. It seems you’ve stared at it for hours. You’re wrapped in a rough blanket and suddenly you notice your man has quietly come in. Dressed in black, he sits down across from you. A short phlegmatic man of indeterminable age who lives several miles away in the adjacent village. American evangelists are trying to convert this village and that’s why you think no one here provides you with opium. He places a small square pillow with an indent in it on the floor for you. The indent you imagine is from years of use. You lay down and watch several drops of oil being squeezed onto the top of a tin can. He lights the oil and then places a larger piece of bamboo over it. This protects the flame from the breeze. Breaking off a small piece of opium, a dollar’s worth, he rolls it between his fingers over the flame. Softened, the opium is placed in a hole perforated in the side of a long thin wooden pipe. While you lay on your side he holds the pipe to your mouth. The opium is then punctured with a heated pin. He holds this above the flame while you draw in breaths. It doesn’t affect your lungs. No coughing, at least not at first. You finish it and ask for more. And then again and again.

You begin to feel dizzy. Your stomach aches. Nevertheless, one more time. Each time the ritual is the same. You’re reminded of your childhood as an acolyte. Church rituals with water and wine, rituals which meant nothing if anything to you but served, seemingly, to give some organization to the mystery of death or at the very least provided death a physical fact, an entrance, a front door. Knock, knock. You can almost remember the Latin words. It was always so doleful. You realize you’re beginning to lose consciousness, beginning to enter a dream. As you do, you see the opium provider is prostrate with his hands held together, quietly chanting a prayer. He’s a Buddhist, that much you’ve been able to garner. For him, death is a transition, a natural and necessary part of life that also marks a rebirth. Last night he gave you an image of a monk who is revered in this area, a phra khreuang, a Buddha amulet, a talisman, protection. You’re pleased to have the image lay upon your chest as a companion, someone with a conviction, a belief, faith. You have none, other than trying to flee as far as possible from reality. Minutes or hours pass, and he concludes his chant. Several gestures and money is exchanged. He will be back tomorrow night. Though you tell yourself this will be the last. “Tonight and no more.” An utterance that has become meaningless. This is how it’s been for three weeks now. Different villages, but somehow someone always provides what you need. This is why the farang travel this far north, isn’t it? The locals understand. (In Chiengmail the jails are full of farang.) Sleep and dope are a run-on sentence punctuated by reality, which hides inside parentheses. The parentheses are pleasant enough here, but they permit memories. Smoking also often envelopes you in memory and memory is precisely what you’re trying to escape. Particular memories. Stupid little boy.

You realize you’re alone again. You don’t want to drift, dream, but the tranquility feels so good, so very good. Reluctantly you read your journal and realize it talks little about the people of this country. The silkmakers. The elaborate carvers clacking honed metal against teakwood to make labyrinthine scenes. The temple’s minute details dizzying mind and eye. The saffron robed monks, young and old. The villagers and their kindness. The physical similarities between the Hmong and Indians you once stayed with in Northern Guatemala. An entry describes a girl you met, her pallid countenance, her painful beauty. Another line seems to be written in florescence it’s so arresting: death is a reward I will deserve. This line becomes important, it helps persuade you to give up smoking, with, of course, a little help from alcohol. A palliative. You miss conversing, no one here speaks English. The last conversation was with two Englishmen from a boat ride several days ago. Sex obsessed, antibiotic strewn, dripping and discharging, they talked about tapchois (she-males), pubescent nymphs, and bartering for sex. Thankfully the boat propeller edited most of their conversation. You gave them your condoms knowing by now you weren’t going to use them. As if sex could offer a respite from the memory of the girl you left behind, the girl that’s left you behind. You know how to endure pain, the pinprick, the fist in the nose, the broken leg, but the feeling of her absence you cannot tolerate. Smoking provides an escape, anesthetizes, but not always. Sometimes it recalls her perfectly, not only physically, but also how she felt in your heart.

You try to avoid these thoughts by reading your journal again, but the mind, like the candle, flashes dark and light. Too high, you’re losing control of your mind. Chaos has always frightened you. Wrongly, you think the moonlight and air are antidotes. Outside you will regain control. Besides, you don’t want to drift into dreams again, not yet. You know that in dreams you surrender control, in dreams you enter an unknown dimension that is not sequential, past, present, future. In dreams you think, perhaps you practice, for the dimension after life is punctuated. Period. Dead stop. Essentially, in dreams, you practice your death. (A belief perhaps?) You need movement. The whispering breeze beckons you. Outside, the land surfeits in nature. The river before you runs indecisively and then hides around a bend. The moon, whole, silvers the land in light. Detail is erased.

On the hillside across the river, shadows cast from small trees and bushes knit holes unevenly in a glowing lace. A Thai tulle. It’s cold and the breeze blows harder than you want. Foolishly you’ve brought the bare minimum: an extra shirt and socks (which alternately you wash nightly in the streams), two journals and your favorite book, Isaac Babel’s The Red Cavalry. During the day, you can’t wait for the cool nights. During the day the heat and humidity collude, trampling all in their wake. Hills fade in the afternoon haze. Dogs lay dead still. Villagers bend back beneath the sun’s heated slashing. A land of farmers, old men and women share the chore of irrigating. Balancing a wooden pole on their backs with buckets suspended on either end, they stealthily walk barefoot between furrows while pouring water onto plants. During the day buffalo tethered on rope graze brown circles bordered by a green outside their reach, while elephants wait patiently for the night when they are used to illegally log teak. The antipodes of new and old contrast violently between the country and the city.

But that is during the day and now the cold breeze returns you to the present. An amphitheater is created by the hills that rise sharply on either side of the river. You decide to stumble down to the stage. A sudden hiss frightens you, though you’re too doped to react. Looking down you see the vague outline of a pair of black and white ducks. The entire night is ethereally colorless, figuratively, not metaphorically. Light and absence of. The visible seems to be self-illumined as if it were plugged into electricity, while that in shadow appears as nothingness. You are wholly alone and this acknowledgement suddenly thrills you. It’s the thrill you felt as a child when exploring the woods with your dog, before the ways and means republic tainted your consciousness. Feeling as if you have no choice, you remove your clothes and walk onto the stage. The moon spotlights you as you enter the river. A baptism. Luminous daggers stab you. The cold awakens you. A shock. A transition. Waters embrace, life. Your heart wants to break with the feeling, the glory. Redemption, you’re experiencing redemption. You’ve condemned yourself to loss, guilt, remorse, but why not attain redemption? The ritual of entering water will remain in your life. The ritual that organizes psychic chaos through physical fact. The ritual that always returns you to hope. The door to the house of your beliefs. Knock, knock.

The water sustains you, has you float slowly around the bend toward unknown, an unknown full of possibilities. The world you’ve known belongs to another person now, it’s gone, except for pleasant memories, memories that you will no longer fear. After that night you never smoke again. You stop fleeing reality. You wondered if the Buddhist prayers turned it around. After all, he never returned the following nights. Or was it nature’s embrace? The electric moonlight and the water’s absolution? You will never know, but now understand why it’s called faith. You know all this because these are memories you are writing about today, 10 years later. And you also know rebirth is a reward you will deserve.



Pio Galbis


The Brooklyn Rail


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