awkwardly, and with cockroaches

[Another entry in which I go on for fuckin’ ages about something that was supposed to be just a short aside]

Meditation is a thing I do now (thrice  update: fourice). On a Thursday after work I go to a beautiful boutique hotel at the end of a long soi off Sukhumvit. The beautiful boutique hotel has a shrine room above the library. It also has subtle outdoor lighting and contemplative gardens furnished with many tree-shaped natures to really set the mind at ease. At reception they seem to approve of yoga pants as long as they are ethically woven from organic fibres to produce a comfortable-yet-fashionable recreational clothing item suitable for the average, usually vegetarian, middle-class bohemian. It’s a really peaceful, luxurious location and a wonderful shrine room – an attic with a tastefully decorated alter and Buddha image, wooden floors, meditation cushions and blankets. They provide us with sandwiches and drinks before the session to help us achieve maximum Zen, and they do it all completely free of charge, though contributions are encouraged.

I go to meditation for peace and quietfulness and to get some stillness inside, but also just to sit in a room ignoring a group of strangers who are also ignoring me. It’s a wonderful feeling of community without the awkwardness of actually having to make small talk with people (despite coffee and sandwiches being on offer, I tend to show up at 5-minutes-to-meditation time to avoid feeling awkward when I have to try and make conversation with people and realise that I don’t have anything even remotely interesting to say to them).

My new hobby of relaxing meditation is one of the most stressful hobbies I’ve ever had. It’s almost as stressful as playing jenga in a bar full of people, which is pretty freakin’ stressful lemmie tell ya. First of all, the sitting. Second of all, ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Sounds easy but have you ever tried sitting in one position for an extended period of time? Snakes on a mantra-freakin’ PLANE – it is HARD. Harder than double-hard plural math. First you get a bit twitchy, bits of you start to hurt, your feet go to sleep, your brain starts to go haywire. Etc. For example:

20 seconds in and your body’s all,  ok, all this resting is fine but it’s been, like, at least an hour now and we’re not on the BTS or going to sleep or internetting so I’m getting a bit freaked out by all this sitting, what’s going on, is something wrong, ARE WE ALIVE, OMIFUCKINGSHITMAYBEWE’REDEA- [twitches foot just to check] oh. ok. we’re fine. good. just sitting. sitting around. arouuuuund. arouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuund. wow. words really start to sound strange when you think about them for too long. aaaaaarooooooouuuuuund. WHAT WAS THAT? oh wait. nope. nothing happened. ok. just checking. checkiiiiiiing. checkiiiiiiiii-

hey, i’m getting this. i’m really getting it. look at me, just meditating the shit out of everyone in the room. yeah bitches. check my posture. i’m so zen right now. I AM MOTHERFUCKING ZEEEEEEEEN. AH FUCK WHAT’S HAPPENED TO MY FOOT WHY CAN’T I FEEL MY FOOT? Is it still there? It’s still there. Fuck. Fuck, that is NUMB. (surreptitiously pokes foot) Nothing. Fuck. OK, stay focused. Don’t panic. Fuck, what if it starts to go blue? How long can a foot survive without blood? Or is it trapped nerves that makes it go numb? Will I get pins and needles? If it’s numb how come it HURTS? Will it need amputating? Can I move without disturbing the woman next to me? If I move it’s like I’ve lost, isn’t it? Fuck. Don’t move. Don’t move. FUCK I’VE GOT TO MOVE! (moves). Shit, I think I just ruined everyone’s zen. Who knew cushions could be so loud. Ok. Back to it. Zenning ou-

AAAARRRRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH! PINS AND NEEDLES! IT’S AGONY!!! WHAT THE FUCK?!?!AAAARRRGH! UNIMAGINABLE PAAAAAIN!

Do people get amputations because of pins and needles? Is this what having a ghost limb feels like? If I got stuck in a cliff could I cut off my arm? What happened to the arm afterwards? Would you become a vegetarian? Are Buddhists vegetarian? How… [ad infinitum].

Anyway. Whatevs. t’s a process YO.

The monk who leads our meditation sessions is called Pandit. Or maybe Dave. He looks like a Dave but I don’t know whether or not you give up your previous identity when you ordain as a Buddhist monk. He is British but totes legit: orange-robed and bald and exuding Zen and humour. The humour catches me off guard, like monks aren’t supposed to have fun because they’re on a spiritual path DAGNAMMIT and they need to be SIRRIUS about this shit. WHAT’S FUNNY ABOUT ENLIGHTENMENT, EY?

Sometimes he talks about having friends in Real Life  and about HTML coding and about playing the guitar. When he talks about these things it seems a bit off-kilter.He also talks about spiritual paths and achieving enlightenment which always strikes me as a bit fruitloopsome, but he also sometimes asks us to think about what our state of mind will be when we’re dying, and I really like that he talks about dying as if it’s normal and not weird, and it seems like a practical consideration and a sensible application of meditation skills. Come now, nobody talks about dying in a real way even though it happens all the time, to everyone, and we especially don’t talk about preparing for it,because it sounds morbid [Note to dad: DON’T WORRY. I AM ABSOLUTELY FINE. SIT DOWN. HAVE A BISCUIT].

When he mentioned it the first time I was really struck by the realisation that the act of dying will be the very last thing we ever do, and when we get around to it – hopefully not for a bloody long time – we’ll probably be spending those last moments – OUR LAST EVER LIFEMENTS – lamenting the things we haven’t done, the time we haven’t had, the people we’ll leave behind, feeling angry or guilty or – oh crap, it just dawned on me what my last moment will be like… bloody hell, you can just imagine it can’t you?: I’ll be laying there with that twisty awkward feeling in my stomach, thinking to myself ohmigodwhyamisoawkwar… [DEAD] . FFS!  My gravestone will read: she died as she lived: awkwardly, and with cockroaches.

DAMNIT! NO!

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Undead and anxious: the ohs and lows of Bangkok life.

Still in Kok city. Remain undead.

I have done Tourism. I went with friends to see the world’s largest golden teak house. It had everything you would expect from the world’s largest golden teak house, for example it was large and it was also teaky, and it exuded a definite aura of housiness that one could not quite ignore. It lacked an over-abundance of goldenness but, nevertheless, there were obvious and serious security concerns in play. We had to buy curtainskirts to cover our legskins so as not to offend the security guards and decorative torn-out elephant teeth, and I had to buy a t-shirt to cover my shoulderskins for the same reason, and we had to be sensuously frisked by bored ladies in uniforms to ensure that our mobile phones and assorted picture-taking technology had been left behind in lockers built specifically for the purpose. Yes, taking photographs, ownership, cultural appropriation; but also human rights, the internet, cat pictures.

My curtainskirt is sprawled dejectedly on my bed like a discarded cloth that isn’t quite a curtain and isn’t quite a skirt. It reminds me of the mattress from Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, and Yossarian’s liver pains, except that it is blue.

Because teaching is so easy and not at all stressful, and because I am definitely excellent at managing my time, and because my reaction to stressful situations definitely isn’t to tuck myself away into a smalldark and womblike corner and get a bit drunk on the floor in the shower and indulge in melodramatic catastrophic imaginings, I have decided that I will try to organise a roller derby team. There are many reasons why this is a terrible idea but, as with all the good ideas worth having, I’ve so far been successful in managing NOT to think about the situation too much, and am just forging ahead unthinkingly without any real idea of what it takes to set up a sports team. No pressure or anything, but it MUST SUCCEED or it will, naturally, be a reflection of all my deepest failings as a human being.

When I get around to lamenting all my deepest failings as a human being (which I like to do fairly often, being a pro-active sort of woman who likes to keep on top of things to ensure that they remain manageable), I usually meditate on such earth-shattering situations as feeling too awkward to make conversation with my landlady because I still don’t speak Thai and she doesn’t speak any English. Or, for example, fully intending on going to do A Social Thing but talking myself out of it at the last moment when I’m so close to the venue that I could reach out and slap the door and it’d be entirely stupid for me to do anything else other than go inside and meet everyone. Or, for example, when I’m trying to make friendly conversation with a colleague by commenting on their bust lip, only to have them retort, you bloody well know it’s a coldsore. Except that I don’t have my glasses on and I can’t see his lips properly or understand what the fuck he’s saying to me, or why he looks so pissed off, or why the atmosphere is suddenly hitting a hot 36 AWKS, and, because of Life and Failure, I have to make him repeat it THREE TIMES, each time looking at him with an awkward smile and confused pause while my brain ticks over trying to gather the shards of words he’s said and tetris them together to form something comprehensible. And, of course, it has to be in an office of people so that it seems as if I’m purposely making him explain his situation repeatedly and in public as if to shame him. And, perhaps worst of all, IT’S JUST A FUCKING COLD SORE, WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? It’s irritating, yes, but it’s a COLD SORE, so I can’t even empathize and can only be embarrassed at my failure to hear, failure to anticipate what’s being said, failure to understand why it’s awkward and failure to halt my role in the escalation of the awkwardness of the situation. Or additionally and just for lolls, breaking off in the middle of telling a man that he looks like a young Bruce Willis to add Oh, I have no idea why I’m telling you this, I just thought it and now I’m saying it, this is awkward, well I’ve started now… and going on to finish the sentiment in the same breath. I had to excuse myself immediately afterwards, OBVIOUSLY, as the flush crept up my cheeks and I willed myself to die a thousand silent deaths staring intently at the drinks menu at the bar and hoping nobody would notice my presence. Mein Gott. Get a grip. It was OK really, it was the night of the Vodkrimes and we were all friends at the end and because it was the night before the Hangover day that ought to have been FAR worse than it was, and it was especially good because I made two friends and one of them came to the BRD social and seemed dead keen and was hilarious and is definitely someone I want to befriend if my personality decides to allow it.

And now breathe…

So here I am. Kok city. Nighttime. On my bed, under the slow whirr of the fan whose stirring of the air almost persuades motes of dust to change their wafting course. The glass door to the balcony is open and from outside there are Assorted Sounds. I think of Bear vs Shark, about the noises against which we understand the very idea of silence, of lino – you fooled me, where’s the seam? – of sexy chocolate cake advertising and of electric pillows that throb and murmur into the ear of a main character who still hasn’t gotten up off the sofa yet even though we’re three chapters in.

In the Chinese graveyard across the way, the huge centipedes I have only ever seen as carcasses ripple through the undergrowth and the strange fish haul themselves across slick, wet, tangled grasses from one flooded depression to the next, as if they weren’t fish at all but slimy air-breathing mermaids, or appalling similes. Frogs bark, old men with rum-reddened cheeks shouting Opinions-with-a-capital-O across the gentlemen’s club. Rats skitter across the street. Newts scamper up and down my walls like nervous tourists at a zoo. The weird worm larvae I discovered in the cracks on my bathroom floor burble into nothingness in the comforting bleach-bath I poured just for them. THE FREAKIN’ MOSQUITOS GNAW AWAY AT MY FLESH LIKE A BUNCH OF CHAVS ON THEIR FIRST MACCY Ds OF THE DAY. Oh Nature!

You wouldn’t believe it but life is good, I think. I order from all different kinds of food stalls these days. I watch movies and arrange roller derby things and hang out with my colleagues. I say numbers and basic pleasantries in Thai. I go into the occasional class and feel as though I can teach competently, and occasionally I even come out thinking the same thing. I understand how my attitude affects the outcome of the classes I teach and remembered that sometimes worrying doesn’t get you anywhere and that, even in the face of failure, it’s better just to say FUCK IT and try to have fun. You can’t win ’em all, and I am reminded of the huge position of privilege I have as someone who had a job good enough to be able to earn herself the money to pack up her life and move to Bangkok almost on a whim but not quite, and mostly because the flight tickets were cheap at the time of booking, and try to teach even though it may not come naturally and after all that come to the conclusion that, even if I fuck it all up and have to leave  then it wouldn’t, actually, be the end of the world, not really; it wouldn’t matter in any serious way, I can afford my plane fare home and as long as that’s the case I may as well enjoy this experience while it lasts. As a human once said, you didn’t come to Bangkok to work a high-powered job and earn a shitload of money. Hell no. No I did not. So more fun. More massages and more all-nighters. More skating in the park and falling asleep on the grass. More exploring unknown BTS stops and more bus rides and more wandering in the Bangkok smog. More culture. More notculture. More exploring and less worry, less pressure. (But still a bit of worry, and still a bit of pressure. What’s life without it?).

Anyway. Enough. It’s time for presents.

Here’s something I really liked that I hope you’ll like too. I listened to some short stories during the Day of Death, and this is one. It seemed to me to be a perfect creation, all images and snippets, the way I remember things in life, confused and unsure, detached, close-up, profound; on the outside looking in, reaching, close but never touching. Notes from the house spirits by Lucy Wood. It’s here if you’d like to listen: http://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2012/dec/31/jon-mcgregor-lucy-wood-house. I hope you don’t despise it with every fibre of your being.

Day 5: Still Alive

Day 5. Status: still alive. I have worn my cardigan every day that I’ve been here, including in the 35 degree heat. Especially in the 35 degree heat. Never underestimate the power of Cardigan.

Today I ate self-assembled soup-in-a-bag, fresh from a food stall. I took my passport to the Vietnamese embassy, went up along the river for 40 baht, made my way to Khao San Road. After a few walk-bys I tried haggling and was dreadful. I bought some hippy, backpacker clothes in an effort to fit in. I came back along the river at sunset for free, and met a Thai man named John who gave me his address, wants me to send him a postcard from Leeds.

Last night I visited my second sex district, went on a motorcycle taxi, and got drunk with some retirees. As your dedicated correspondent I would like to report the following news, just in: feeling hungover in a hot country is All The Bad.

My first night out alone in the Big Smoke. I went to Nana, soi 11, highly recommended. It was jam-packed with bars, restaurants, stalls, lights, beer, backpackers, locals, prostitutes, weird old white men and a night market selling the usual assortment of dildos, fake North Face bags, weaponry, and kids’ t-shirts. This part of the city is where “Little Arabia” and “Little India” are so all of the different foods are on the menu. I ate Thai again, but not right away. I did my standard awkward triple walk-by before toughening up and tentatively ordering some food and a beer from a street vendor with chairs and tables set out along the kerb. In English. iFail. Met a Canadian couple – the woman, one of these excellent humans who don’t get self-conscious or lost for words; the man awkward and shy and obsessed with trains. Us socially inept people need to stick together. We all ended up eating together, discussing the relative merits of cold-water versus warm-water crabs with a couple of South Indian guys. Then a Thai woman wanted to park her party bus where we were sitting – that’s not a euphemism – so we paid up and went our separate ways.

I ducked into a packed-out kerbside bar named Charlie’s, half-hidden along a little sub-soi. Here I met Lynn and Stuart, my 60-something retirees from Manchester. They had the only table with a spare chair. I asked if I could use it, sat down, got chatting. Stuart bought a round. An hour later I realised I’d missed the last BTS home. We were pretty spiffy by this point and, yes, I did just use the word ‘spiffy’, what of it? We crossed the road and went for late drinks at one of the party buses on the kerb, little VW vans that’d been converted into colourful cocktail bars with fairy lights and loud Western music. That brilliant Thrift Store song played. Time passed.

Lynn and Stuart became worried about me getting home. They offered me the sofa in their hotel room, insisted I stay rather than trying to negotiate the city at stupid o’clock in the morning. I considered it – the idea of waking up in the morning having spent the night on the hotel-room sofa of a couple of hungover retirees who’d probably not remember who I was or why I was there was appealing. But I declined. It’s early days. I don’t need to collect all the anecdotes in one go. Having said that, the A-Pair-Of-Retirees-Got-Me-Drunk-Then-Tried-To-Get-Me-To-Go-Back-To-Their-Hotel-Room-With-Them angle is a good one. But it would do them a disservice. They were lovely. Once they’d gone, I managed to get a taxi home. The guy stopped on the way back, parked up right in the middle of the road and got out to chat with another guy in a taxi on the other side of the road, never mind the rest of the traffic on the road. This happened twice. I eventually realised this was because he didn’t know where he was going and was getting directions. Not to worry, though: I got back alive.

Day 5 and still alive. Who’d’ve thought it? I’ve had some successes and some failures. I walked back from the BTS tonight because a taxi refused to take me, then motorbike man #1 took one look at me and rode off, then motorbike man #2 tried to massively overcharge me. I got tired of asking and walked it. 30 minutes down a brilliant Thai-filled street. They stare at me like I’m the only farang they’ve ever seen, and I look at the floor and feel uncomfortable. It’s a good street though: markets, stalls, real Thai apartments, garages that spill into the streets, bundles of hundreds of overhead wires not much higher than your head, hairdressers, family-owned internet houses, shacks and sois and smog.

The chorus of dogs has started. That means it’s time for bed. You lot should be here. It’s really somethin’ else!