I WAS THE ONLY TOURIST LEFT. It was exciting, but a little daunting. I was going to spend the night here, in the middle of the Thai jungle, all by myself. I felt restless, aware of the eyes on me as I sat under the teak shelter, listening to rain pour from the roof and batter the leaves. My clothes were damp and fusty.
As I waited for the van that would take me to my homestay in Mae Kompong, doubt set in. I should have gone back to Chiang Mai with my newfound friends. We’d already zip-lined through the jungle canopy and trekked to a waterfall, and they’d decided they were happy enough with a single day in the wilderness. I could be sipping icy beer with them right now, instead of drinking powdery hot chocolate that I’d bought from the little bar in this village.
The van arrived and the barman waved goodbye to me, returning to the music video that was competing with the sound of the downpour. Maybe this would be good for me. Maybe it would help me get over the anxiety of travelling alone.
We rode past houses made of red-brown wood, water splashing in streams off the corrugated roofs of porches. The gardens were overflowing, with banana leaves, tea trees, and coffee plants spilling into the road. From the open window I could smell the crushed foliage, the wet earth, the smoke. I began to feel excited again.
As we reached the end of the road, I rehearsed my best Thai introduction. Jumping out of the van, I greeted my homestay host and ran with her up the small slope leading to her house. We stopped just outside the front door, under a shelter with a picnic table and bench. Pots of glistening orchids hung from the roof, dripping raindrops. I made a joke about the weather.
It was then I realized she didn’t speak English.
I kept smiling, feeling acutely embarrassed at not being able to say anything except sawatdee – the all-purpose Thai greeting – and kop khun kaa – thankyou.
She showed me around the two-storey lodging: the dark downstairs room with colourful rugs muffling the creaky floorboards; the open space under the house where a large vat sat over a smoking fire and puffed-up chickens sheltered from the rain; the second floor full of mattresses and gaudy fleece blankets laid out for guests. She spoke quietly, sparingly, using actions more than words. I wasn’t sure if she felt as awkward as I did, but after setting up my mosquito net, she disappeared.
I wasn’t sure what to do. A cockerel squawked from somewhere startlingly close by. My instinct was to stay quietly out of the way, waiting for someone to call me to dinner. I looked out the window and watched a man splash through the rain, a piece of sacking held over his head. The cockerel crowed again. I knew I couldn’t just let myself sit here alone ignoring the opportunity before me. I crept downstairs.
In the dim kitchen I watched my host cooking. There was barely enough space for her, standing over a huge pan of boiling oil, throwing in small crackers that expanded triple-fold when they hit. She laughed when I asked to take a picture, and I felt a little happier when she gave me a hot, greasy handful of crackers to eat. Pieces of strange stalks and roots lay by a mini-machete, looking like chopped-up alien carcasses. The scent of chilli tickled my nose, making me hungrier, but I felt I was in the way so turned and went into the main room of the house.
There wasn’t a lot of furniture. Just a couple of tall dressers, a table with chairs, a humming refrigerator, and a TV. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was in a museum, looking at an ethnographic display. Family pictures hung next to portraits of the king. Without anyone to speak to I felt lost. Then I saw a curled pamphlet on the table: “Experience Thai Homestay: Host and Guest.” It was part phrase book, part language learning book.
As I studied the pages, my hopes of finding some sense of comfort evaporated. I couldn’t read Thai and there was no phonetic script for me to try and guess at the pronunciation. Instead I read through dialogues, comical in their total inappropriateness to the situation:
“Tom has lots of girlfriends. He’s not interested in going steady.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that! Does he like to dance?”
A shadow appeared at the doorway and I almost jumped, as if guilty to have been caught reading about Tom and his sexual exploits. The man was backlit, but as he came into the room I could see his broad face had deep wrinkles around the mouth and on the forehead. The rest of his skin was tight and smooth. He said something, gesturing to me with a large hand. I smiled, not knowing what else to do. When he sat down beside me I realised he was probably no taller than I was. He looked at the pamphlet still in my hand, and started talking. I couldn’t understand a thing but he didn’t seem to realise or care. I kept smiling, hoping to be rescued by a call to the kitchen to eat more snacks.
I glanced down at the pamphlet. Opening it, I pointed to, “What’s your name?” Thus began our roundabout conversation, each of us pointing to different phrases or words to try and get our meaning across.
His name was Bunsen. He was the grandfather of the household. He had two grandchildren, one playing somewhere outside, and the other still in school. His son was out working and his son’s wife, whom I’d already met, was still in the kitchen. He wrote my name in Thai, and I wrote his name in English.
After about 15 minutes, the conversation began to die as we exhausted all the possible combinations of phrase-pointing and word-matching. A cooler breeze blew into the room from the open door and window. It was beginning to get dark outside. We sat in silence, Bunsen leaning back in his chair, gazing at me with a half smile on his face. I didn’t know if it was rude to get up and leave, or rude not to. It was still raining a little so I didn’t want to go outside. Nor did I want to go back upstairs. Perhaps he wanted to be by himself in his own house. Or perhaps not.
I rummaged in my pocket, thinking I could at least pretend to look at my camera while I considered what to do next. My hand felt the mini deck of cards I often carry around. I took them out. Their small size and Hello Kitty pattern always draw interest, so I wasn’t surprised that Bunsen wanted to see them. When he handed them back to me, I began shuffling. I tried to remember the rules of Solitaire, but couldn’t. There was only one other option. I asked Bunsen to play. I dealt the cards to show what I meant and he sat forward in his chair.
I’m not sure why I chose Go Fish. It seemed easy to explain, but complicated enough to be interesting. With my cards in my hand, I put down the pairs to show Bunsen. “Two, two…five, five,” I explained, and pointed at his cards to indicate he do the same. Then I asked if he had any eights, and showed him the card so he knew the number. I had to look at his cards to help him understand he had to say “yes” or “no,” but once we’d done this a couple of times, he understood. I shuffled and dealt the cards again and we started playing for real. Bunsen said the numbers in Thai and I said them in English, each of us showing the cards face up so the other could understand.
And then he said something in English, “Seven.” I repeated the word carefully, helping him to pronounce it accurately, and he repeated the English after me. We carried on playing and he continued repeating the English, sometimes using it to say his own card number too.
We were interrupted by dinner. Folding tables were set up on the floor. Suddenly the place was full of people–people I’d not seen before, people who spoke English! I hadn’t realised there was a group of young Thais staying on a Buddhist retreat in the homestay just next door.
“So, you’re an English teacher?” one said to me. I wondered how they knew. “He says you’ve been teaching him English.” Bunsen was smiling and nodding at me, as if it was some kind of joke. Everyone laughed. I explained I really was an English teacher and they laughed again. In between mouthfuls of spiced mincemeat and aromatic vegetables, I told them about life in Seoul and my holiday so far. My words were translated and passed around like the bowls of food we were sharing. I told them how I had been nervous about coming here alone, but now I was glad I did. Everyone was happy to hear it.
“Perhaps later you can join us for meditation,” they said, as we began tidying up the plates and tables. “After you’ve finished your game.”
Bunsen had already gone back to the cards. He had his grandson next to him and was showing him the numbers. He said each one in English and made the little boy repeat them back to him. The wrinkles around Bunsen’s mouth deepened as he smiled. His grandson clambered up to sit on the table:
“Mai chai! One, two, three, four, five, six”