Travel Notes: Samet And The Old Man
There was a period in my life when I studied languages and their literature. I found that “narrative” often seemed to offer an insight in the local humanity and I always enjoyed a little philosophy, which is the study of ideas but nothing can match real people’s stories, especially when the narrator happens to be the protagonist too. Hence, given that I have an interest in Thailand, from time to time, I find myself dipping in and out of the readers’ Submission section on this website.
Whatever happens to the Holy Stick, wherever he decides to go and burn the remaining scent of his stick incense, I wish him well. Most of all I thank him for having assembled a remarkable collection of stories for well over a decade and which I hope will be preserved post his departure so that other people may have access to it too and draw their own conclusions.
Through these submissions I have had the pleasure of either meeting or corresponding with a few engaging characters about our respective time in Thailand. The ones I enjoyed most did not ask much, just a little of my time and all I had to do was either to listen or to read and I contributed a thought or two in return.
Since Stick’s announcement that he is going to leave, some of the submissions have been a little more reflective, almost as if a number of readers wish to contribute their “Lessons learnt” of their time in the Land of Smiles. In that light, let me share one story, which has been overdue for some time. Perhaps through sharing we can gain a better understanding of the amazing beauty around us when we take time to observe the surroundings.
A few years ago, I travelled for the first time to Koh Samet and while there, I set out to explore its various beaches.
It was on the most southern point of the island that I came across an old man. Similar to me, he seemed to love the view of the sea and the sea air. Like me he sought shelter from the tropical sun during the hottest part of the day.
Over a few days I observed him and I was captivated by his pose and tranquil mannerism. I carried pen and paper with me and I entered a thought or two in my journal now and again. He saw me penning my notes from time to time and he asked me if I was a writer. I told him that I was sorry to disappoint him but I was not a writer.
He told me that he had noticed that I frequently seemed to stain the paper in front of me with my ink and he asked me, in a friendly tone and without being too invasive, if I minded telling him what I wrote about. I told him I just kept a few notes of my travels, mainly to remind myself where I had been and my first impressions of a place.
He asked me how this was different from writing and I explained that, in my view, a professional writer was often searching for a story and often found it challenging to leave himself behind and therefore could not really profit from his travel adventures. However, in my case, I was not after recreating the scene for a novel or searching for a dialogue pretending to be in the shoes of characters who were alien to me. I was not too concerned with the beauty of language or a flowery vocabulary. I was not searching for balanced sentences or uniformity. No, I was definitely not a writer. I wanted my notes to flow unencumbered and to avoid being starved from air. I just wanted a record of a set of spiritual adventures of my own and let matter dictate the manner in which I wrote. In that light, travelling provided to me a perfect opportunity and it was rare that I would come back after my travels unchanged.
He told me, maintaining a friendly tone, that he understood that and that writing was most difficult when writing in English. According to him there cannot have been more than a handful number of people in the entire English literature who wrote in it faultlessly.
He was a pleasant and good mannered man and striking a conversation with him was relatively easy as he was participative. At the end of my few days there, he left for me an envelope inside which I found a postcard where he had written in black ink: “I have enjoyed spending some of my time talking with you. I would like to talk to you about life…my life and if that is of interest to you, next time you’re here, let’s talk some more.”
One full year went by before I returned to Samet. I had not kept in touch with the old man but somehow I was pleased to find that he was still there. Twelve months had gone by but we were able to pick up our conversation as if I had left just 12 hours before.
That evening, while dining together on the sea shore, he said: “I am glad you’ve come back and as you have made it here once again I will keep my promise and tell you about my life and if we happen to run out of time then please write your impressions of what I tell you and share it with other people.”
I looked at this old man. There was nothing physically remarkable about him with the exception for his skin, which was unusually smooth and just a little tanned despite he lived in a sunny island and for his eyes which conveyed to me an air of contentment. It was early in the morning and I found his suggestion agreeable with me and I just nodded to signify that I would listen to his story and then he started; “Let’s begin from the end” he said.
“I am not worried about death. I have prepared myself.” He continued while sipping his tea.
“I’ve done all I wanted to do in my life and I have no regrets. Mine was a long journey and the journey was my life.
I was born poor and, quite naturally, growing up I wanted to defend poor people against the rich. I was weak and I wanted to defend the weak people against the powerful ones.
However, there was something that intrigued me like no other. It was a road and it stretched ahead of me. I could not see where it led because it kept twisting and turning every time I walked forward, deeper into it. It did not make sense other than when I turned around and I realised how much distance I had covered.
However, there was not much point looking back and dwell in the past. The present, the future was what mattered and I kept going forward. I am not sure what I was seeking but there must have been some anti American feelings in me at the time. I had nothing against individual Americans but capitalism, materialism, liberalism, never made me feel comfortable and so it was unavoidable that in moving along that road I ended up East and when I reached China I was fascinated by a societal system, which seemingly avoided embracing money and capitalism.
That was in the 60s and I was seeking an alternative to my environment. I had immersed myself in my studies at the Columbia University oblivious to the fact that outside there was a cultural revolution going on. There is where I found a reason for my studies and I decided that the purpose for all that studying was aimed at giving my contribution to society. After University, I decided to move East and then a stroke of luck. The war started and I found myself working as a war correspondent. I was scared, so scared for I would lose my life, perishing, hit by a vagrant bullet. Alas, I was blessed and I became aware that I was living through something extraordinary, which would one day make history.
I was never brave. My daily act of courage would be to win my fear and get myself to the places where I intend to be. I wanted the Vietcong to win. I was an idealist while millions of people sharing similar ideals to mine died. Millions, can you imagine the suffering? The misery? I went back recently and I asked myself what for? Why did we go this far?
When the war finished in Vietnam, I found myself in Cambodia. It was the 70s and I reported on the Khmer Rouge. There were young people there too and were being killed by B52s.
I crossed over to Thailand and did not return to Cambodia until the 80s. I saw the bones of the dead people. Thousands but always less than those I had seen during the Vietnam war. So I decided to spend time in China again. It was the 90s and I thought I would be happy there. I read extensively. I studied Mandarin and secured my second degree and after ten years I realised my big disappointment. China had changed and not for the better and by that time I found myself in the 21st Century.
One thing that helped me was my reading of history. We need to know history to understand what is happening. History helps you understand what is happening now. If you do not read extensively you only end up talking nonsense. You think you are using a microscope and instead you need a telescope.
My best travelling companion were my travelling books. They kept quiet when I did not want them to speak to me and they spoke to me when I needed to hear from them. I thought I would spend some time in Laos but eventually, a few years ago, realised that Thailand is where I wanted to end my days. And what have I learnt?
Japan represented the successful example of shaking the past and embracing modernism and yet the Japanese had a huge price to pay by withstanding rhythm of productions which they paid for physically by working too much. I was 60 when I left Japan and I was ready to start a different life. I realised that I was always half way. I was never a leader and never a prophet. I realised the growing conflict resulting in wars and the desire of revenge and would it not be so much better if we reached out without violence?
When I came to Thailand, I was already old but her beauty did not escape me. It was all around and pervaded your spirit and filled your senses and yet she did not belong to you. Like a sunset she was there for everyone to see and to enjoy. In that light, we are like an ant’s sneeze.
Like all young people I started life filled with a strong desire to change the world and I realised along the way that the solution is not there.”
“Where is it then?” I asked him.
“It is within us.” He replied without hesitation
“In doing something and improving ourselves and being of service to others that is our meaningful legacy to the world. What did I learn? To see life as a harmony of opposites. To seek, to understand others in order to be understood. And one thing above all was to understand that life is a gift and no one has a right to waste it for us and we should not waste it either.
All is one, Ying and Yang, the wheel of life is the harmony of opposites. There is no water without fire, no masculine without feminine, day and night, sun and moon, good and evil. In the Ying and Yang, the black and white are embracing and within the black there is a white spot and within the white there is a black spot.
Joy cannot exist without sorrow and sorrow cannot exist without joy. Only when you understand that, you can celebrate joy and accept suffering. Most of what we do is concealing the suffering because we cannot accept it. If we understood that, we would find equilibrium. Everything around us is a mystery and if we can live with that, without the need to unveil it, then we will be able to heal and without anxiety.”
The old man said a lot more and kept sharing his life during my few days there. Then one day I did not see him at his usual spot and it was not until later that day that I was told he had died peacefully in his sleep.
Early in the morning, the monks blessed his lodgings one more time, chanted as monks do and then left allowing the silence to return to that little spot in the most southern point of the island only occasionally disturbed by the odd wave crashing against a rock.
Since then, I have returned to Samet many times and missed the wise old man on as many occasions but I never went back to that particular spot almost as a form of unconscious denial of meeting a truth.
Wherever, the old man is now, I hope he is happy. May his soul rest in peace.