It was a quiet fishing village about fifty years ago. There was the sky and the water, the angry, screaming sun, and the short bleeding sunset. There were fishermen and shell gatherers, the smell of the haul pile and the stray cats plundering it. There were a couple of elephant farms and more of the regular kind, the mountains and the Buddhist temples lost among them. The blue airs and the red ones.
The boom it experienced could not go unnoticed, but accepting it was always the hardest part.
“Доброе утро,” a friendly man at the night market said. “Good morning.”
It was already dark—right before the abrupt and utter blackout at around 6:00 p.m. Here, the evening comes with its thick embrace early and fast, so fast that for half an hour the streets turn an impervious black, and people can finally live unafraid of the sunlight.
“Добрый вечер,” I said, correcting him. “Good evening.” A lot of Russians here, so locals have easily learned a new vocabulary.
“Добрый вечер,” he repeated and smiled proudly. I smiled back.
Most things remain, but not quite as they were. Commerce, like everything else, begins only after midday, for the sun is still vile and unforgiving. Life is as cheap as twenty years ago, but now it is equipped with machinery and bustle: gangs of old ladies riding motorbikes to the night markets to sell pineapples; Russian tourists wallowing on the beach like fat reddish seals, never bothering to learn another language; daredevil girls from Iraq jumping from the diving board or riding a water slide. A store on the floating market offers ethnic aesthetics, none of which is native to the place, and pastel-colored clothes. On its walls hang dream-catchers, pink-and-sand jackets, and flowery prints. Two fat black cats live here. One’s name is Blue, the other’s is Green—or such are the translations I was given since their original names are spoken in a tongue unknown to me.
Sanya escorted us through the market, perhaps as a guard from imprudent decisions. He worked at the Russian-oriented hotel, so he had a better grip on our language than most of his compatriots. He still felt more comfortable in English, and we respected that.
“Look,” I said to my mom. “Pistachio milk. I’ve never seen this before.”
It was unexpectedly sweet, much sweeter than any plant milk I’ve ever tried. It tasted exactly like pistachio. I should fetch a bottle or two on the way home. There is little chance I’ll ever find one in Russia.
Smells lingered in the air: lemongrass, cayenne pepper, deep-fried squid, ambergris, peach syrup for bubble tea, shiitake, magnolia, black sesame oil, passion fruit ice cream. In the thirty-degree heat, the air oozes moisture and unfamiliar odors.
“The rain comes soon,” Sanya warned. We rushed towards the shoreline.
The rain is always sudden and apocalyptic and never lasts longer than half an hour. Most times, it doesn’t even last ten minutes. The electricity grid is a mess: there are several competing companies who never had an interest in conforming to each other’s wire system. Every time it rains, when the water touches a wire, it begins to rattle viciously, and every crack sounds like a threat. It is laughter. Crooked, perhaps, but laughter.
The animals are thin and starving, and there are so many of them roaming the streets and scavenging the coast, making both company and competition for shell gatherers. The old lady on the beach, dressed in all black to hide from the noon’s fierce kisses, sells fish, and what’s left is fed to the shore-rats. They have a rivalry with the local squirrels, the ones with white tails. The squirrels live in the palm trees’ crowns, hunting down large insects and harassing birds on occasion. They’re loners. The rats, instead, dwell near the roots, especially in the discarded fruit boxes, and they work in pairs. The skirmishes are rare and preferably avoided, but we all know how mafia politics work.
The seawater—salt green, gray green, grizzled—gargled on coastal garbage. Dirty. Polluted—the word used for big cities, unspoken here before. It’s especially noticeable at night when the midday ebb dies down, and the sea takes human detritus into its depths. The guilt of human life can be washed clean with the help of the cathartic power of the ocean, the power to swallow and conceal. Under the water, it sings secrets.
I realized that the sea was the color of pistachio milk.
The islands are different. The water is crystal clear, so you can see the tiniest hermit crabs and their lovely homes—waves wash them ashore, together with coral debris, where they’ll become bird food if they’re not careful. But for the coral, it’s always the same: the sun drains the water from its pores and sears it until it’s petrified and withered. The sun drinks it deep until the only thing of the sea that remains is salt on the stone skin. The sun is unknown for its mercy and has little sympathy for marine life. The sea urchins dwell on the bed near the isles; their huge colonies color the seafloor violet. They are not supposed to be in that part of the bay at this time of year, locals say; the recent high tides brought them here, probably. You should always watch your step.
I looked down and the hermit crabs looked like pistachios.
Were these Buddhist shrines all over the place? Eclectic and bizarre, they are decorated with cheap tinsel, half-empty bottles of coke with plastic straws, and souvenir figurines from a nearby store, mostly elephants and small gilded buddhas. The result of touristic barbarism, I thought at first. This and half-eaten junk-food. A kind of offering.
“San Phra Phum,” Sanya said. He pointed at a shrine and performed a wai. “Where the spirits live. They, too, need food to eat, an elephant to ride. Need a home. We care for them, and they care for us.”
San Phra Phum. Not a shrine, but shelter.
There is always a transaction, I understood, in faith, an agreement to commune. The exact investment amount is unpronounced, but is probably not a very high one. It’s a humble sacrifice; but sacrifice nonetheless.
“When are you going home?” Sanya asked.
“Home?” The word was weak and weary in my mouth.
“Home,” Sanya affirmed. “Where you live. Where your family lives. Where someone who loves you, waits for you.”
“Home,” I echoed. The fabrics of the air altered, took on a moistness that was not entirely afflicting. “I don’t… I don’t know… The air is so thick here. Heavy. Nothing like home.”
There is nothing for me here. There never was.
“I don’t want to leave.”
Sanya fell silent for a moment.
“Phra Phum loves the red Fanta the most,” he said.
In the afternoon I wandered around the Wat Pho monastery, went into the temple, and sat at the feet of a golden Buddha.
Buddhist monasteries are yellow. Monks wear sun-yellow kasaya robes, and the golden statues of Buddha are veiled with yellow fabrics of samghati. The statues breathe light and speak zinc. Yellow, gold, and ocher. Gilding and amber. Monks hum their songs in choirs: they murmur hymns in a language I do not understand; they smile and squint at the sun. Their heads are shaved, they walk barefoot. There are seedlings in the boxes by the temple walls, and agricultural supplies to make them grow—the monks are gardeners, the planters, covered in orange and colors of beaten copper.
A tiny grey kitten resides at the Wat Sam Sien temple complex. He is friendly and vocal, perhaps Buddhist himself. We toured the abandoned temple, now a shell of its former self, crowded with hibernating gods, unloved and uncared for in a long time. The entrance to a sunken garden with a proud name, in which, it seems, no one now lives except the kitten, is guarded by the dragons of imperial China, frozen in their furious pride. A graceful white statue of the Goddess of Mercy settled a little distance away. Inside, there is another big laughing Buddha, his hands up above the small pond with a sculpture of two playing dolphins.
Huge catfish live in its water and when they are to feed, the scrawny dog is already there hoping that she too will get something. Once in a while one of their brethren falls ill and dies, so the others feast upon its paunch until it is pulled out the water, where it’ll finally become the food for the dog, her long vigil worthwhile.
I sat at the nacre feet of the buddha and tossed coins into donation boxes.
Nature had almost reclaimed the potters’ workshop. It looked abandoned, nearly lost in vegetation and the potters nowhere to be found. Nature had conquered the building, demolished the roof and most of the walls, chaining them with thick vines. But nature decided to let the ceramics live, as she found them quite beautiful. Everything else drowned.
“Домой?” the old motorbike lady with pineapples asked. “Home?” We came to her every evening to buy fruits; my mom had grown fond of her, and the old lady seemed to return the affection.
She waved her hand away overhead, the gesture of a plane flying away. “Домой?”
My heart was flooded with tenderness as vast as a Buddhist temple: of all the words she could learn, she learned the one that means “home.” She knew we were leaving. Forever, probably. Perhaps she’d even miss us too.
Or, perhaps, not. I’ve never flattered myself by being anything more than a tourist.
“Домой,” I confirmed. She nodded and swiftly began packing. She calculated the total on an old electronic calculator. I gave her two hundred baht and tried to explain, “No change. It’s for you. For you. Thank you for everything.”
She looked at me thoughtfully.
“Домой?” she asked again and disappeared among the stalls of fruit. When she returned, she handed me a bag.
“Спасибо,” she said. “Thank you.”
It began to rain. Lightning crept through vertical streams of water and thunder rolled somewhere far away like nuts or apples falling onto an old iron roof. The drainpipes gurgled as the tires of invisible motorcycles rustled by and the neon glow of a Thai cosmetics store sign floated on the ceiling. Scraps of wet voices, echoes of music, and, above all, the calm breath of the sea are always somewhere nearby.
I listened to the sea’s hum under the night sky. Maybe the sky is a shell, the moon really a pearl or, maybe, a pistachio.
The next day, I waved goodbye to my family as the bus carried them away. Soon they’d arrive at the airport and fly back to Russia, where a car will be waiting near the arrivals gate with a couple of close friends inside. A safe journey, unlikely to be disturbed.
I investigated the contents of the bag from the old lady with the pineapples: a few mangos, passion fruit, dragon fruit, thin slices of watermelon, and—I walked my fingers over a smooth object and squeezed it slightly—something liquid. I carefully pulled it out.
I went to a spirit house and put the pistachio milk at the tiny altar, adorned with flower garlands, beads, flags, incense, and figures of people and animals. I offered thanks for the time I was allowed to spend here. I went to the bus station and couldn’t remember what home was. San Phra Phum is home for spirits, as a pistachio shell is for a hermit crab, as the Buddhist temple is for the kitten. What is it for me?
The clouds became thick over the sea. The weather has changed several times a day—dozens of rain types, a splendid collection of seaside winds, and a limitless variety of clouds. Sometimes the sky becomes clear like a delicate, sleepy watercolor. There was a gentle taste to the evening, an intimacy that drew from the warmth of the south—the way the tranquil sea fended off the sun, the enigmatic quiet of the horizon, and the caress of the breeze. I will recall the wires and motorbikes, Buddhist temples and Buddhist cats, the sky, and the water. I will recall the blue airs and the red ones. All these are soon to be lost to me.
Across the sky: parasailers, scattered like leaflets.
And everywhere: the smell of the sea, the color of pistachio milk.