A few days later we were on a muddy motorbike jungle ride of terror headed to a post-climb dinner at a marshy shack on stilts. Across the road I was watching this wrinkly woman go through the rice patties with an ox and asked “Hey does anyone around here keep bees?”
“What do you mean ‘keep bees’?”
“You know-like for honey?”
“We don’t keep the bees for anything. We smoke them out & slice the hive down. Bees fly away.”
“Wait–Where are the hives?”
“In the trees…”
“Oh. Right.” (Ha! Of course.)
You don’t know what you don’t know.
They do lots of things like that on the island. Ahn remembers when they didn’t even have electricity. Nowadays he enjoys his TV and the new paved road to zip around on truck or motorbike. But there used to be fewer people on the island before all that happened. He said it was like a big family.
One of the mornings no one was really climbing or going out on a boat or anything. Just a chill day. The bungalow owner lounged on his porch hammock, commenting at me and other travelers “Take it easy! You move too fast!”. Real restful place. I went hiking with Ahn up this hill to a spot that was quieter in a different way. A monk owned this land–right on the beach (If I had to choose a monkish meditation spot—this would be it!). There was a flat, trimmed lawn with a house on it and a big shed with wooden boats. No sign of the monk. Part of the beach was sandy before it transitioned to rocks and all of these craggy boulders slammed up on top of each other which Ahn said had been hurled up from the ocean by the tsunami a few years back. I wanted to go swimming.
The water was Gatorade-blue, lightly breezy and the perfect temperature. We swam out to this patch of coral, and I was so excited “I’ve never been out in a coral reef before!!!” Just my head was above water if I stood with my tiptoes on the coral. I dove under a couple times to catch this hermit crab clinging to the rim. Ahn said the reefs have changed over the years. There aren’t nearly as many fish due to batteries that get dropped by tourists and the sunscreen tourists wear in the water. “What do you mean the sunscreen tourists wear? Is it different?”
“Different? Most of us on the island don’t wear sunscreen. We just wear clothes.”
“Oh. Wups!! I’m totally wearing sunscreen.”
“Then, my friend, you are killing the fish.”
We do not know the damage we do.
Two weeks later I’d be up north, outside Chiang Mai, trekking near the hill-tribes for a weekend. Every once in a while I’d spot electrical lines in the jungle, channeling energy to hill-tribes settled around. The last day of our tour group’s little trek, we came to a cluster of wooden huts near the river. We drank some murky coffee close to the riverbank while waiting for the men to cut and tie bamboo into rafts for us to stand on, balancing downstream through the baby rapids. What caught me off guard was this white girl hanging out near a fire pit. She was casually dressed in local garb and a purple head wrap, holding a Thai toddler on her hip. This girl wasn’t kind-of-white. She was WHITE WHITE–As if she’d been a backpacker or an English instructor or a nonprofit worker a few years back and just decided to never leave the jungle, a place where in the near-past it was culturally acceptable to genuinely live off-the-grid. I could see the appeal. But for me–it’d be a lot like sticking my head in the sand.
Ahn knew what life was like off the island and outside of Thailand. He’d been gone for several years, joining the military, getting shot in the neck, experiencing big cities, and having two of his friends die in combat. He attributed his military success to skills gained from growing up in the jungle and said coming back to the island was healing for him. Most of Ahn’s childhood friends looked out for him when he first came home to the island post-military, slightly unstable, not knowing how to rationalize all the fighting or how to get back to ‘normal’ life. Other friends and relatives left the island over the past few years and moved to Bangkok or other big cities to make money. They thought Ahn was crazy for staying on the island when he had opportunity to be elsewhere. He’d returned because it was home. Most of his family and old friends were here, and he liked the simpler and more natural life in the jungle.
Recently Ahn’s uncle had asked Ahn to front him money for a chainsaw. Ahn was good with money–harvesting rubber from his rubber trees, taking backpackers like me climbing, and still getting checks from the military. It’s illegal to harvest timber on the island since it’s technically a national park. But there was money to be made. Houses were going up like crazy on the mainland, and people were willing to pay for quality wood. Ahn was torn. He knew his uncle needed the money but didn’t know what he thought about tearing down even more of the jungle.
I told Ahn not to buy the chainsaw.