“Chi-wit deee” The good life
In the golden light of the early morning I awake to the sound of lapping waves. Not a minute later I quickly stop the beeping of my alarm clock and peer through the screen door of my tent. Koh Phangan is silhouetted in the light, and for a second I think it may actually be on fire. No, no, no. It’s just the sunrise. I wrap my sarong around my shoulders and stumble out over the tent strings. I trip over them every day, without fail. I pause, breathe, and soft-footedly make my way to the sand. Some of the trees drop spiky seeds the size of peas on the ground, so my feet have become quite tough. But in the early morning all senses are heightened.
There are no people around. The sky is just turning from black to blue, stars alight, and sky brightening with each passing second. I lay my sarong on the flat cool sand near the water and I sit. I gaze. I listen. Usually my mind goes back to my last dream and I struggle to consciously remain present. Sometimes a fishing boat will pass; it’s loud motor buzzing in my bones. I urge sounds of moving water and calls of birds called ‘Nok Yeang’ to fill me up. I try to imagine just where they are, and imagine their chirping conversations. Then I remember, oh yea, I’m supposed to be meditating.
After thirty or so minutes I start to move. I just go where my body tells me to go, melting sore muscles and stretching sleepy stiff body parts. The sand collapses under my body as I struggle to remain upright. Standing poses are the hardest. Shavasana, dead man’s pose, is my favorite. I end my yoga session with a long shavasana, since at this time the sun has usually risen above the lingering night clouds and is shining brightly. Then the sweat starts. A hop, skip, and a jump and I’m floating in the gulf of Thailand. I like to float on my back and hum or sing with my eyes closed and my body relaxed. In the salty sea I float easily and breathe deeply. Time check; it’s almost time for the flag salute. I hurry over to the outdoor fresh water showers, rinse off, wash my hair, and stand in the sun to dry off. This takes (literally) four minutes. Energized, I wrap my sarong around me and head up the hill just in time for the dinging of the bell. “Sawatdee-don-chow ajarn!” (Good morning teacher!) is usually called across the field from some of my friends here. I respond with a quick “Sawatdee-kaaaa!” (Hello!) and quickly join everyone.
At precisely 8 am the Mu Koh Angthong National Marine Park staff and I, Mah-lee, the volunteer English Teacher, line up in front of the Thai flag. We do this extremely cool ceremony where someone yells something in Thai and we must stand at attention, arms at sides, standing straight and tall. Then we sing the Thai National Anthem. I’ve been learning it for the last two weeks, but still keep my cheat sheet in hand. Next we chant a Buddhist prayer and someone else calls something out in Thai and we stand legs apart, hands clasped behind backs. Now it’s time for the big boss to assign everyone their work for the day. He does this in Thai; sometimes I understand a bit. Then it’s time for Pi Wak to give us a mini English lesson. Often times he calls me to the front to pronounce words, correct him, or repeat things. We return in line for a final “Hua!” and now one of my favorite times of the day… breakfast!
We have a restaurant on the island with a big kitchen. Nong Long, Pi Je, Nong K, Pi Ning and Pi Ja O are the magic makers – the food here is amazing. Breakfast is usually rice with spicy curry, or eggs, or sometimes fish. We serve ourselves, caffeinate ourselves, and everyone goes off to work. I usually spend about two and a half hours eating breakfast. No joke! I chat, hang out, make fun of, and get cheeky with everybody. We usually exchange bad words in English and in Thai, or I correct some grammar mistakes with a slap on the shoulder and a “Mai Chai!” which means “No!” which is actually okay to say to your students here!
Pi Wak and I head off to the Information booth just off the beach to await the first boat of tourists. My day job is simple. I greet tourists, collect and keep their belongings safe, chat with tour guides, direct dancing children to the bathroom, and sometimes we sing karaoke with Pi Wak’s laptop computer. Frankie Sinatra’s “My Way” is our favorite duet. He taught me a Chinese song that we serenade tourists with every day. It’s great having different people every day. You only need to know one or two jokes. Pi Wak’s jokes don’t translate. Mine don’t either, I’m probably the only one in the universe who thinks they are funny. The only people who laugh are those who don’t understand English, which is okay by me.
I see the first boat in the distance. The horizon is gray and it’s easy to mistake the sky for the sea. A black speck becomes a worn-out ferry toting thirty-some odd tourists from all over the world. They take a longtail boat driven by my friend Pi Kai to the shore and don lifejackets for a kayaking tour. Some grab snorkels and masks and float in the buoyed off swimming area in search of beautifully colored fish (I shouldn’t say, but actually, there aren’t many on this island. Only sea cucumbers and sea urchins speckle the rocky coral. And the water isn’t really that clear, it’s actually the worst snorkeling I’ve seen in Thailand. But just around the corner is beautiful coral with lots of fishies. It’s pretty cool to know the secret spots.)
Three hours, two big boats, and a few speed boats later, we’re famished. Time for my second favorite part of the day… lunch! Pi Wak always makes me a plate while I cover the booth. Lunch varies a lot. Spicy lemongrass shrimp soup, rice and curry, friend rice, noodle soup, fried fish, eggs, fried chicken, pork laap… (What do you mean, a yogi eating meat? What can I say, the food is free for me… and so delicious!) I eat lunch while delivering the final tourists their bags and ogling the other staff who usually partake in a very vicious game of beach volleyball. I choose to float on my back in the sea once the tourists are gone. I swim out pretty far and watch the birds fly around the rocky cliffs.
In the piercing heat of the day, I have no idea how the staff here at Koh Wua Talap wears long sleeved turtlenecks while paddling kayaks, playing volleyball, and driving longtail boats. It’s just beyond me. I choose to wear as little as possible as often as possible. Everybody is used to tourists in string thong bikinis (Europeans) so me in a tank top doesn’t really bother anybody. And believe it or not, I have a real tan! I use coconut oil instead of sunscreen and haven’t burned once.
Afternoons are slow and long. The ‘coffee shop’ is a bamboo hut on the beach, just next to the guy with a bundle of young coconuts and a butcher knife. Sweet fresh coconuts and delicious real cappuccinos… is this paradise yet? The benefits of volunteering here are that I can eat for free. Only some people will understand how extremely happy this makes me. After my coffee break, sometimes I kayak around the island or hike to the cave or viewpoint, but usually I just hang around. I’ve made the best friends here. Pi Nan, Pi Go Lung and I hang out every day. They’re like older brothers. They tease me, teach me, help me, and take care of me. I’m so grateful for their company. We talk music, slang, and love most of the time. Other times they question me about America, about my life, about what’s next.
It seems that everybody likes that I’m staying awhile. There are three or four staff who just love studying English. They come to me at odd times throughout the day, in between weed-whacking the huge lawn and chopping coconuts out of trees. They bring their notes and speak to me in the most polite and respectable way. I love teaching these guys one-on-one, I’ve established real relationships in doing so. These guys disclose so much to me about themselves and their lives. Probably because this place is just a big family, and everybody loves everybody. There is zero drama. It’s awesome.
The sun sets over the mountains and vwooom the electricity turns on around 6 pm. The cooks get a cookin’ and people wander around the land. The workday has been over for a few hours and everybody reconvenes after showering, napping, and doing whatever it is that they want to do. You can hear the ‘bzzzzz… smack, smack, smack’ of the ridiculous amount of mosquitoes. I’ve gotten to the point where I just let them devour me. Then I smother myself with red tiger balm. I have a newfound love for tiger balm; it’s camphory clove-filled goodness makes my skin warm and makes me forget the itch. I hang about, eat some dinner, which is just like lunch but bigger. Then, at 7:30, my class starts.
My students file into the visitor center and sit in plastic chairs beside a whiteboard stapled to an old trail sign. Class varies between 0-8 students on any given night, depending on if we have any customers or not. During class time the students learn vocabulary relevant to Marine Park Rangers like “strong current” and “sea urchin.” Their pronunciation was atrocious when I first arrived. “What’s your name?” sounded like “Wassss yul naaaeee?” Even just after studying a few weeks, I can hear a huge difference in everyone’s English, as well as their confidence. Shy guys will approach foreigners on the beach to tell them to “Watch out for falling coconuts!” They do so without fear! I’m so proud!
After class I usually find Nan and Go Lung on the platform surrounding the big tree, rocking their passion-filled hearts out. A few strummed chords always turns into a massive sing-along; you know it’s getting good when Pi Jay, the head cook, starts singing into an imaginary microphone, headbanging, and pounding his chest maniacally. Sometimes Pi Gone takes out a maraca or two, a harmonica, and some bongos… add a bottle of 100 Pipers whiskey to the scene and it’s a party under the tree! And what’s a party without The Cranberries “Zombie?” I sing it, loud and proud to a crowd, without fear. After hitting all those high notes, I’m spent. I sit back and pick out words from the Thai songs that I can translate into English in my head. It seems every Thai song is about love… “Chan rahk ter… I love you! I know that one!!”
My eyes start feeling heavy and I yawn a couple of times. I know I should sleep, but the magic of the moment usually captures me. As people start trickling away to their beds I call it quits. I retire, call ‘goodnight,’ and stroll my way back to my lovely little tent under the tamarind tree. The power cuts at 10 pm, and sleep comes naturally with the salty breeze blowing through my screen windows. Darkness all around, I snuggle into my pretty pink sheet, and kiss the pillow with my grin.