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I nearly lost him to Buddhism - a non-fiction travel piece (1 Viewer)

A

annak

Karl’s belly has swollen to six months pregnant. He is starting to look like the starving Buddha of Lahore. His ribs are rising under his taut skin, and he looks pale despite weeks in the sun. We are on the first floor of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, with the luxury of air con, heavy curtains and tinted windows, so that he can start to rest and get better.
We’ve run out of rehydration salts. I don’t remember when he last ate. Light floods out from the mini-bar as I check the water stocks. I push aside the miniatures and cans of soda that are out of bounds due to budget restrictions, and count two small bottles. Not enough.
I read the hotel rates which are laminated and stuck on the back of the door with a drawing pin. There is a day rate and a half day rate. I worry that we’ll get charged extra because Karl hasn’t left the room today.
I straighten the rumpled white sheets and turn down the air con. The bathroom door opens and Karl leans against the doorframe. “I don’t know how much more I can take.”
I help him lie on the bed. “What do you want me to do? Shall I call a doctor?”
“How would you do that?”
“I’ll ask the guys downstairs. Oh God. I think you need a doctor. Don’t worry, I’ll go and ask.”
He lies in a straight line, he can’t bend in the middle. He moves away from the pain, turns over, turns back again, holds his belly, holds the bed.

The ambulance took us to the university hospital; the hotel receptionist said it would be cheaper. The doctor said that since I was fine, it was unlikely to be anything he’d eaten or drunk, that he must have been infected by a mosquito, that he’d need to do some tests. He said it could be Dengue Fever. The Lonely Planet said it could be fatal.

We were meant to find a hut by the edge of the shallow blue sea where we’d stay for months. Just me and him. We were meant to watch the sun rise and set. To talk. To swim and eat fish lifted off the bone, and fruit fallen from the tree. When Karl gets better, we’ll go to the coast.
I hold his sticky hand in both of mine as he closes his eyes. A nurse inserts a needle attached to a drip in the other hand. We wheel him to the ward.

Our trip started nearly two months ago in Italy. On a mountain high above vineyards heavy with purple fruit, and red roofs of hilltop towns, with air that woke you up, I threw away our onward plane tickets in the first stage of an attempt to stop our backpacks burning into our shoulders. It was day two of our planned year-long trip. Still, I had never been to Italy, I was full of hope. Staring out of the train window on the way back to Rome, I imagined riding a scooter on narrow cobbled streets, dodging drips from freshly-watered geraniums and white sheets hung out to dry. I would linger next to the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps over a coffee watching Italian people do the same. But it was August, and apart from packs of tourists, Rome was closed. Shops and restaurants were boarded up for the month, and our Italian dreams melted quicker than my pistachio ice-cream in the midday sun.

We arranged new tickets and fast forwarded to Vicky’s room in Bangkok. The streets were lined with stallholders stir-frying fresh vegetables in big woks, ladling green curry into bowls, flipping tiny pancakes, barbecuing green bananas, and chopping chunks of papaya – pink-orange flesh with a floral fragrance that rose through the roof of your mouth when you pushed your tongue into it. The cooking smells mixed with the traffic fumes. The class system of buses (lower – windows open; middle – windows closed but still a bit rattly; and upper class – tinted windows and tv screens and toilets on board), the cars, taxis, tuk-tuks, and occasional elephant moved so slowly it was almost at a standstill. Vicky had to leave her house at 6.30 in the morning to get to work at 8.30 – a ten minute journey in the middle of the night. Which is why she suggested us taking a river taxi on our sightseeing day.

One by one we pushed through a rusting metal turnstile past a glass window with dried black fish hanging like leather in a tanner’s yard. The river was black, it looked like oil slapping the banks, and legs of wooden houses. I stepped down into the river taxi, holding the hand of a Thai man in a faded red vest with flip flops black and slippy from river water. His hand shook as he took my weight. The wide boat was lined with benches, people sat close together, laps laden with shopping and small children.
For a moment, as they watched us get in and rearranged themselves to make room, it had the hush of a London commuter train at 7.30 in the morning, broken only by the rustle of the morning papers. The quiet here was broken by laughter when Karl got in and took a space made for him at the edge of the boat. It soon became clear that he was in prime position for the job of tarpaulin puller upper. He stood, one foot on the edge of the boat and one on the bench and stretched the blackened canvas tarpaulin up to the hooks on the roof of the boat. This was to stop the river water getting in. Vicky said to keep our mouths tightly closed despite the protection.

We got off at the temple. I sipped water from a dented large plastic bottle. Vicky said that if you get the feeling that the ground is moving up and down that’s dehydration. You’ve got to drink loads. So we both tried. Water dripped on to my bargain traveller’s trousers, deep red cotton, and tied around my waist. I was hoping the dye wouldn’t come out staining my legs red. It’ll dry soon enough anyway, I thought, from my experiences hosing myself down, instead of using toilet paper.
The temple was ostentatious, gaudy green and red filled in spaces around the bright gold turrets glinting in the blue sky. The grass looked as if it had been cut with a nail scissors. I stood in front of a painting of Buddha. Karl came up behind me and rested his chin on my shoulder, his hands loosely round my waist.
“Amazing isn’t it, the way he just gave everything up and left it all behind. You’d feel so free, wouldn’t you?”
I nodded, thinking of the first time, not so long ago, when I saw Karl’s bedroom, in a house where cardboard boxes lined the stairs and clothes spilled out of cupboards on the landing, I opened the door onto a pure white room, harbouring light from a Velux window in the roof. His bed was a white duvet spread out on the floor, a Seurat print in a clip frame leaned against the wall, and a few CDs and Penguin greenback modern classics leaned against a Denon amp and CD player. He’d enjoyed swapping CDs and books for cash and watching it build up in our travelling account when we were planning the trip. Bit by bit, to get more money for the books, I rubbed out marks in the margins and we sold them back to the shop where I’d browsed and bought so many times.
Vicky and I were in the courtyard shade. Karl was in the opposite corner of the yard talking to two Buddhist monks. They were trying to persuade him to join the Bangkok Buddhist University. He was looking convinced. I was giving him some space to make his own mind up. I felt choked as I told Vicky about it. I thought I was going to lose him to Buddhism. It happens in India. All these people do is look you straight in the eye and you’re brainwashed.
His tan looked good against his white t-shirt and his neck looked long with his shaved head.
“These monks are just here to practice English and entertain the tourists. They’re not trying to convert him.” Vicky tried to reassure me as I wiped the sweat from the crook of my arm. I was beginning to get another heat rash.
The temple’s mirrored tiles were dazzling in the sun. I don’t know how anyone could feel peaceful there. It was so bright. I imagined Karl in a orange Buddhist robe. It was too easy. He was thoughtful and peaceful and I was just getting in the way.

The next stop on our trip came sooner than planned once more as sharing Vicky’s room started to feel a bit crowded, despite her big bed and the spare bit that rolled out from underneath to create a bed on two levels. She had no hot water, insisting that a cold shower was all you needed in a country where sweat crept stickily over your skin the moment you walked out of the door. And she was saving money by leaving the air con turned off, so we had to position the fan in a place where it’s circular motion swept air over all of us, one at a time.
We headed for Hua Hin, a fishing town four hours south by train, where at each stop people exchanged money and pushed white boxes of food through the open windows. We didn’t know what we were getting so we ate nothing.

We walked down to the beach breathing in the warm salt, and bought diced pineapple in bags, and a bunch of tiny bananas, yellow edged with brown. I sat in the shade of the palm tree. The surface of the sand was grey, sticky, and dotted with cigarette butts. I dipped my fingers into the pineapple bag, to fish out the wet flesh; juice gathered in the corner of the bag like water holding goldfish at a fairground. Sweet drops ran down my arms, I licked them before I was attacked by a swarm of insects. Karl stood in the sea up to his knees. I could see the fuzzy black dots buzzing around him, darting to the surface of the still, brownish water.
Later that day, the rains came. We sat outside our guesthouse, where our ensuite room was a shower curtain next to the bed hiding a shower and a bucket. We sat under a bamboo shelter as water poured down all around us. The road turned into a brown canal. People rode their mopeds slowly, water halfway up the wheels, clothes stuck to their skin, black hair in dripping clumps. Spiders with legs as thin as hair yet as long as my foot crawled out of a drain only to be washed away by the dimpling torrents. A millipede crawled out of the drain hooking one leg after another over the metal bars, and managed to pull itself up on to the pavement to safety.
“Do you regret it?” I ask.
“What?”
“Not staying with those monks. I thought you were going to stay.”
“I’ll regret it if we stay here much longer. Let’s go. It’s got to be better further south. We’re too near Bangkok here.”
In our intimate cocoon of dryness, Karl and I decided to continue our journey. The next day, sitting in a bus station on our rucksacks in heat that threatened to cave in on us, we took the first bus south. It happened to be going to Phuket.

Seven hours into our journey, Karl was resting his head on the seat in front, arms folded clutching his sides. He lifted himself up when the bus drove into its own dust cloud at a service station.
“Come on,” I said. “You might feel better if you eat something.”
We walked past the huge vats of bubbling curries, to the shop for bread rolls and water.
The bus carried on through the darkness and I could just about make out longhouses on stilts through the trees. I thought the journey was going to take eight hours, so every minute I expected to get there. It took fourteen. I sang the alphabet song for a girl, about five years old, in front of me whose mother had to explain that I didn’t understand what she was saying, that I was English, so we talked in our own languages until we discovered the common language of clapping games.
After a while, I grew bored, and she fell asleep. We were at the back of the bus, I stared down the aisle, the dim ceiling spotlights highlighted red lino covered with black chewing gum blotches and cigarette burns. Movement in the seat diagonally opposite to ours caught my attention, it was a teenage boy staring at me with his hand down his trousers. I forced my face to remain static, and turned to the window, concentrating to see if anything shining in a road light would give me a clue as to where we were.

We opened our Lonely Planet to the street map of Phuket in the bright light of the bus station, and headed for a recommended hotel. The receptionist was a man that looked the picture of Buddhist serenity, sitting behind the desk next to the concrete stairs where each step sank in the middle and dripped over the edge as if it was melting. There was nothing else in the entrance; no pictures, no keys, no signs. The man had a grey moustache and a ponytail, the moustache was groomed and it hung down each side of his mouth. When we asked for a room, he nodded and we followed him slowly up the stairs carrying our backpacks. The first-floor landing ran around a small square courtyard. Doors were open and girls sat on beds combing and braiding each others hair. We looked at the grey sheets, the concrete sink with a rusty metal pipe above it in the room we were shown, then followed the man back down the stairs, shook our heads and left.
We chose another hotel, and slept with our sleeping bags pulled up tight, as turning on the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling not only attracted all the insects in the room to bask and buzz in the warmth, but also showed up a break in the window mosquito mesh.
The next morning, we hauled our rucksacks on to the back of a pickup truck and lurched over rocks and through potholes to the island airport. Through the trees, I glimpsed five star hotels, white sand and green rocks rising high out of turquoise sea. We checked in our bags, ran to departures, and half an hour later, a jet of air cooled my face as we rose into the sky bound for Kuala Lumpur.

Karl has gastroenteritis, they will keep an eye on him for a couple of days. They find a space for him in the middle of the ward. He is lying on the khaki stretcher bed and joins a row of temporary beds that has been started in a walkway. There are at least fifty beds in the room each one occupied by a man. Karl is the only white man. The eaves of the vast room click with insects against fluorescent lights, and whirr with fans too high to make a difference to the heat and hospital smell. Some windows are open, and covered with broken mesh.
I ask a nurse for some water for him. She says that the shop is closed and won’t be open until morning. She says that the tap water would be no good for him.
I help Karl get out of bed, adjust the ties on his hospital gown, and wheel the rusty stand which holds his drip, along to the toilet. There are no signs but we are guided from the back of the room by the smell. Three holes sink into slimy tiles.
“I can’t do it.” Karl turns away.
“It’s ok.” I pick up the end of a hose which snakes along the floor dribbling water, I turn on the tap and hose down the tiles. Puddles of water swirl the debris down the holes and I turn up my trousers which are beginning to flap wetly around my ankles.
A man in a hospital gown walks in. He hangs his head.
“I’m so sorry. You shouldn’t be doing that.”
“It’s ok. The nurses are busy.”
The trolley with food is being pushed into the ward. Men in vests and pyjama bottoms gather round with their plates and cutlery. Someone nods towards Karl, one man lends him a fork, another searches in his bag for a plate. Smiling, they bring him some rice, peas and tonight’s speciality – curried fish-head.
That night, a sister guides her sleepwalking brother back into his bed every half an hour, while a wife massages her husband by pushing the sides of her hands firmly into his flesh, and gives him drink after drink. That night, through the snoring, breathing and shuffling, we talk. That night, all night, we talk and we decide to go home.
 

Savant Deviance

Senior Member
Oh. I liked that, quite a bit. The chronological order you put it in was quite riveting, changing time-points at just the right spots. There's so much more right with this story than there is wrong, and I'm pretty sure nothing is blatantly wrong. There are just a couple of things that I might consider changing.

annak said:
And she was saving money by leaving the air con turned off,
Just spell out conditioning. Looks better that way. Heh, nothing more than aesthetics there.

annak said:
The surface of the sand was grey, sticky,
You used sticky many times over, maybe too much. I dunno, that's one helluva stickler, so I'm just gonna leave that as it is.

annak said:
We sat outside our guesthouse, where our ensuite room was a shower curtain next to the bed hiding a shower and a bucket. We sat under a bamboo shelter as water poured down all around us.

Doubled on 'We sat', if intentional leave it be, but perhaps that tells you something if I can't tell if it's intentional.


Really an excellent piece. One of the better non-fic pieces I've read recently. Cheers.
 
A

annak

Thanks very much for reading and responding - there's so much on this website, you could spend hours, days even, looking at other people's stuff. It's one of the longest pieces I've written, so it's been hard to know what to put in and leave out and keep the consistency going. But thanks for pointing out the word sticky...I'll get stuck into choosing a more original adjective!
 

Savant Deviance

Senior Member
Heh, yeah I pretty often check out the 'Unanswered Posts' up near the top right of the screen. I like to make sure everyone has at least gotten one opinion on their pieces. A good way to get more interest in your stuff is to critique others' work.
 

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