Sunday, January 23, 2011

Thailand: Perilous Dreamscape

Some of the young women really were attractive, and many were accompanied by what would pass for attractive men. However, for each partially naked attractive woman, nature demanded a balance. For each beautiful flower, a dead wolverine that had been mauled by an alpaca. For each lovely sunset, a horrible dust storm. For each right, a wrong. Action and reaction, if you will. Or, as Yeats said, "In balance with this life, this death." As I sat wondering how nature might exact her revenge for the lovely ladies, I was witness to one of the most horrific scenes I have ever witnessed.

I was in chest deep water, minding my own business. It was about 1:00, and I had just come back to the water. There were small bait fish schooling around my feet. There were perhaps another two or three dozen or so people in the water with me, some topless, others not. The water was beautifully clear. There were perhaps a hundred people along the two hundred yards of beach we had for the resort. Few were prepared for what would happen next, and it will haunt my dreams, likely for the rest of my life.

Lurking just out of sight was nature's equalizer. Those who have been to remote areas or spent much time in the ocean have perhaps seen one of these, although they are mercifully rare. Others have only seen the results: people fleeing the surf, racing for help, screaming for their spouses, hiding their children's eyes. The lifeguards, powerless to stop the carnage, often just sit, wide-eyed and helpless, wondering what to do. But, of course, by then, it's too late. These nightmares often seem above nature, as they are the product of a long, hard-fought evolutionary process. The apex of their world. None of us in the water or on the beach were prepared. We had no warning. There were no waves. The surface of the Caribbean was a smooth as glass. No birds flew overhead. Near-total silence. Then the first scream. I turned away from the open sea, the playground of barracuda, moray eels, sea snakes and sharks, and I froze. Moving up the beach, without regard for others, was the ultimate beachgoers' nightmare: the MANKINI.

My head swam, and I thought I might vomit. There, for all the world to see, was a full grown man wearing what appeared to be a solid black mankini. A speedo. A man who'd normally wear pants with a waist of 34 or 36, wearing approximately three square inches of material. Certainly not enough to make a respectable thong. I could feel my lunch churning. Everyone on the beach now knew this guy better than his own doctor did. The lifeguard tried to clear the beach, but it was too late. Strong men fainted. Women screamed and children wept. The mankini ruled the beach. We were all but subjects to its foul power. I tried sticking my head underwater, but I could only hold my breath for so long...

- Sean Cole

We landed at Railay Beach about 9:30 in the morning.

Jazmine, being a rock-climbing instructor, left to go find a private instructor to belay her, and I, being broke, went off to find a nice beach. After about fifty minutes of searching around between restaurants and mini-marts, resort entrances and private resort pools, I managed to find the secret alley to Pranang Beach hidden between some limestone caves and a resort's walled-off AC complex, behind the Railay Rock Climbing Club's snack bar. I did some exploring in the caves, found a mattress and a pile of take-away containers and decided the beach would be more fun.

I entered the cool water, floating in the shade of a giant rock. All the islands in Thailand are giant blocks of harder rock that managed to not be worn away when the ocean moved in millions of years ago. Consequently, they are mostly giant pillars, smaller at the bottom than at the top due to erosion, and it is only sheer luck that some of them have enough sand piled around them to build fly-traps for tourists on. What this means it that almost every beach around here is a lagoon surrounded by giant bluffs topped with tufts of trees. Staring up into the sky, the clouds flow distantly over the ridges and you get the distinct feeling of hanging from a stony zeppelin soaring through the sky. I floated around through schools of tiny fish, enjoying the scenery, when disaster struck: several silverback mankinis strolled onto the beach and started a landscape-razing battle for dominance of the troop, whereupon I fled for the cliffs.

Nestling myself in the safety of the cliffs, I resumed my earlier cave-exploring ways. Following the sound of a pounding bass, I found a foot-and-a-half wide rabbit-hole reaching into the stone. I crept in, the sound of the waves compressing the air at the far end of the hole growing deafening. Suddenly the suction became quite intense and I had to haul myself back to the entrance, the words BAD IDEA BAD IDEA BAD IDEA suddenly a litany in my head.

I again fled into the ocean, willing to take gibbering madness over a bashed head and a lungful of brine. I felt a sharp prick in my leg, peered in the water and found a sea flea there. Clearly this was my Maloyaroslavets. I swam over to a bunch of boulders in between a break in the cliffs and did some exploring (gingerly stepping on the bloody sharp rocks) of the stalactites melting out from the overhangs. After passing some distance into the quasi-canyon, I emerged on the other side, where a man was drilling holes for climbing bolts. I stared up at the sky, streaks of white and blue mineral deposits melting down from holes in the rock face like angelic shitholes. The driller and I briefly acknowledged each other, and I decided to take a plunge. Spotting an island about a half-mile distant, I set out for it, thinking of how cool it would be to carve FOOD = LOVE into one of the caves located about five feet above the waterline.

About halfway there, I heard the buzzing of two boats. Knowing I was not in a traditional swimming area, I tried to hide my head between the waves, then figured I would rather be sent back than be run over. Fortunately no one did, and no one cared that I was there, and as the boats sped into the distance I resumed my swim. When I made it there, I made the shocking discovery that the rocks at the island's base were just as cruelly sharp as the rocks at the base of the island I had left. Plus the crabs scurrying around seemed simply opposed to my presence. So I set back, and about halfway there I remembered that the last time I swam a full mile, it was summer camp and there was a lifeguard around.

Unable to change my location without more swimming, I ignored the pain in my shoulders and arms and doggy-paddled back home. With the diminished pace, I noticed something I had shockingly been unaware of when I set out for the island: cactus trees. Growing from the tiny rock islands dotting the ocean's surface were tree trunks that, about halfway up, suddenly became cactuses. I simply did not know that could happen. At any rate, I made it back, crawled past and over five-foot-wide blocks of rose quartz till I made it back to the domain of the mankini. My mind has erased all events after that, but I appear to be having no lasting mental disturbances.

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