What’s the story? No, really. Here we are, eating pizza, drinking Heineken, watching The Matrix. Adam with that look on his face. That look is the reason I don’t bother to talk much any more. I think of things to say, silly things and important things, but they all get the same answer, some variation on Adam’s shitty opinion of everyone in the world but himself. Or they get no answer, like I’m not here, like I haven’t spoken at all. I can’t decide which I hate the most.
We’ve seen this film before, the last time we were in Bangkok, in fact. So is this nostalgia? Not really. It’s just better than all the other films on offer, in all the other bars on the Khao San Road. And we like this bar. That makes one thing we’ve agreed on today.
So Thailand’s out there, and we’re in here, hiding from it. Adam would say we aren’t hiding. Adam could bore you for hours on that. I won’t set him off, don’t worry. We’ve been east, to Cambodia, in a two-week loop; to the west, in India, is where we’ve spent months, years, getting mystified. Now I want to go north, to see rivers and jungly mountains. But Adam’s looking south, towards yet another beach, another pretend paradise. So that’s the story.
He’s lazy. He doesn’t want to change. He likes to say to people we meet: ‘At home I get asked why I live like this, but anyone there would choose to live on a tropical beach if they won the lottery. I’m proof you don’t have to win the lottery.’
We meet a lot of people, so he gets to say it often. We have won the lottery, though, haven’t we? The one that decides which life you are born into. We didn’t draw the numbers for a short life picking through rubbish mounds on the outskirts of Calcutta. We’re not rich in our country but that doesn’t make us poor.
Adam’s not the kid I can see through the bar window trying to sell key-chain disco balls to drunk backpackers. He’s in here, with beer and pizza and The Matrix, any time he doesn’t feel like dealing with mosquitos and humidity and whatever else is out there. He can choose his own adventure. But I’m boring myself now. The thing is …
What’s the thing? The thing is, you can’t go back into the matrix.
Thailand’s out there, but it’s in here, too. I admit it. The fact that I agree with Adam on this is what brought us together and has kept us together despite his terminal misanthropy. This is Thailand: this beer, this pizza, this wall-mounted flat screen TV, as much as any golden Buddha statue or gaeng garee gai. Not what you expected? Not what you wanted? Then write your own version of reality. That’s what everyone else does.
‘You’re here because you know something,’ says Morpheus.
See that kid over there? The one hunched over his cloth-bound journal. He’s probably American, and I’d bet my emergency greenbacks that he’s taken a year off college. To lose himself, to find himself. To have an experience. At home he’s nobody interesting, but he’s busy stitching his travels into a patchwork disguise. The funny thing is, there’s no doubt he’s disappointed with what he’s seen so far.
He glances up and sees me watching him. Once I would have smiled, even given a little wave, or started a conversation across the empty tables. But now I turn my eyes back to the screen, hoping he doesn’t talk to us. Adam eats kids like him for sport and I haven’t got the stomach for it any more.
‘Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged,’ says Morpheus.
I can guess what he’s writing in that journal. He’ll go and post it online later, surely, feed it back to his readers – his mum and the girl in his philosophy class that he has a crush on – and thereby make real all the things that have happened to him, or his versions of them.
She’s earnest, that crush of his, but in a whimsical way. You only see she’s earnest when you break it all down – the vegetarianism, the saving-up-for-India, the classics on her bookshelf. Her name’s Sky and she has short blond hair and a ready smile. She inherited her parents’ hippie legacy and now she’s going to pay for it. When she was a child, it was all barefoot running and mongrel dogs and pots of paint, endless pots of paint for endless paintings. Her mother thought that homemade oat-honey muffins and letting your kids express themselves was the whole of parenting. That and whipping up a new pair of shorts out of an old pair of curtains. Sky’s was a charmed childhood of yellow sun and white-blond hair; it looked like a family-album picture even as it was happening. Now she’s old enough, she’s going to come looking for something that’s not here anymore. Was it ever? It’s only a legend her parents told her, that golden free decade of their own youth. They couldn’t post it online but they remember it, Homerically, in songs and pictures. They pass it on. If the past exists only as an influence on the present, then a myth is as true as anything that really happened. Their myth is what will send Sky on her way. Her smile will be tested, to see if it holds up.
I meet her by a riverside in Hampi, at a travellers’ cafe in a banana plantation. Tree roots are holding the dusty riverbank together below the mud-brick kitchen; there are bamboo mats for customers to sit on. Chai is the thing to order but you can get bhang lassi if you ask. Not for me – never again, after the last time.
‘What happened last time?’ asks Sky.
I grimace. It’s a fake grimace. I like this story. It’s just the sort of thing that ought to happen to a stoned hippie backpacker. ‘I travelled fourteen hours on a bus in the wrong direction.’
‘Ouch,’ says Sky, half-laughing. Does she even believe me? I think so. She shouldn’t, though. It didn’t happen to me. It happened to a friendly Kiwi couple I met in a hill station two years ago. But like I said, I like the story, I like to tell it. It did happen. Does it matter who it happened to?
There are no flat-screens here, just the roiling river and big boulders like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. An Israeli boy sits down nearby. He’s got the stripy cotton trousers, the new tattoo, the dusty road in his dark curls and beard. No doubt his Enfield is parked outside. We’re all the same here, a relentless mix of where we’re from and who we’re trying to be. He opens the embroidered satchel hung across his torso and pulls out a chillum. Medium-sized, like a modest dildo. He packs it with hash and tobacco and wraps a strip of cloth around the mouthpiece. An English boy, skinny, shirtless and newly tanned, keen to partake, offers a lighter. ‘Here, mate.’
‘No lighters,’ frowns the Israeli boy. ‘Only natural flame with the chillum.’
He’s one of those. I groan inside. I wouldn’t mind a smoke, but that’s going to mean sucking up his tedious pretension. Only pass to the right. Or is it the left? Say bom shankar before you inhale. Or what does he think will happen? He’s not a fucking sadhu.
Sky’s watching him, smiling. She has such a happy face, an innocent, observational way of looking at everything as though it has nothing to do with her. Partly this annoys me, and partly it makes me paranoid. I am judging this Israeli boy, but she is simply enjoying him. Wondering at him. I’m worrying about his bullshit getting up in my face, but it can’t touch her, because she doesn’t even know it’s bullshit.
The Israeli boy has pulled out some matches. They’re crappy Indian-made ones so they keep breaking. Eventually he gets the chillum alight, and after holding it to his forehead and proclaiming bom, gives it an almighty suck.
Smoke spills out of his lips and the top of the chillum as he passes it to the English boy, who takes it expertly in his out-turned hand and chugs at the bottom. We’re in a loose circle already, here on our mats. The English boy hands the chillum to Sky.
This I’ve got to see. She leans forward, unhurried, and it’s clear that before the chillum was handed to her it had not occurred to her that it might be offered. Speed’s the thing with a chillum. You’ve got to keep it alight, keep it moving round the circle like a little chimney. Stop sucking on it for too long and it goes out, and then it might well go straight back to its owner for a whole lot of re-lighting and re-packing and dicking around.
‘Oh … how do I hold it?’ smiles Sky, making a weak-wristed muddle of the cloth strip.
The English boy unfolds his legs and hops over to help her. His hair is shorn to a gentle fuzz. The suntan shows up his scalp’s imperfections, the tiny scars, the bumps. He’s around the same age as Sky – too young for me – but it still jars that he chooses her for his attention. I’m fragile without Adam, even though I hated him at the end.
The boy flips Sky’s hand around the right way and places her fingers correctly. ‘Just leave a little hole there … now suck.’
Sky’s inhalation is either too feeble or misplaced – there’s a knack to the awkward hand position – and the cloth falls away again as she holds the chillum up for a closer look. The English boy’s very sweet to her, really.
‘It’s gone out, now,’ he says, without recrimination, sucking on it himself to check.
‘Here,’ says the Israeli boy. He gets it going again and passes it back to Sky via the English boy, who taxes it on the way past. This time he holds it for her and shows her where to place her lips. Sky bends her neck and gets enough smoke to make her cough, at least, still wearing that moony smile of hers. While all this is going on, everyone’s had two shots on the bloody thing and I’ve had none at all.
It’s my turn next. When the chillum started up, I hadn’t decided yet whether to have a smoke or not. I’ve never been like Sky. An unfamiliar smoking device appears in front of her happy moon face and she thinks why not? Reaches over and takes the red pill. Whereas I stay tangled up in the wearisome things I know. Like the fact that men love chillums; there’s something about the ritual of smoking them that makes an ideal arena for macho posing. Who’s got the biggest one, made of the purest clay, packed with the most premium hash, and then, of course, who can inhale the deepest. I take the chillum out of a desire to differentiate myself from Sky – to show the Israeli guy that some of us girls know what we’re doing, to make Sky feel embarrassed, to show her up as flaky in front of the English boy. I want to make a virtue of my worldliness, since I can’t share her innocence.
I make a quiet show of my correct hand positioning, draw back as deeply as I can.
But the Israeli boy tuts as I hand it back to him. ‘I’ve never seen a girl properly smoke a chillum.’
Before I can defend myself, the English boy disagrees, but deferentially. ‘Not Israeli women. Some Israeli chicks can really smoke those things.’
The dope amplifies the river, the buzzing flies, and the lazy, living heat. Everything else retreats.
‘It’s not a competition,’ I say.
It’s raining on the Khao San Road. Outside, water threads from overhanging roofs, breaking into drips here and there. Inside, green numbers rain down the flat-screen TV. It’s a few years since I last saw The Matrix, so I’m finding it hard to follow the sequel. I know it’s not real Thai food, but I’ve ordered a steak – it’s so long since I’ve had one. The food’s taking ages. I think this bar used to be good. If it was, it’s gone downhill.
On my way in, a boy of about ten tried to sell me a little plastic Buddha statue. I thought about ignoring him, because I have been here before and I know better. I considered saying ‘no thank you’, because while I know better than to buy tacky overpriced shit like that, I respect the boy’s humanity. I could have stopped and bought one of the ugly little things because I felt sorry for him. Or would it really have been because I don’t know how to stop consuming? I would have haggled him down, though, to a price appropriate for such a tiny piece of developing-world factory crap. Or perhaps I would have paid ten times too much for it, because I felt sorry for him. Perhaps I flatter myself. I might have paid too much because I’m a rich, fat, stupid Westerner and I deserve to be ripped off.
I have been travelling for a long time now. I have been every kind of traveller there is, and still the boy paces the pavement outside the bar, and he has met every kind of traveller there is, but he will always be there. That boy will grow up and grow old, and another boy will take his place. On the screen, the agent replicates and replicates until there are hundreds of agents and just one hero to fight them all. They fight.
A girl enters the bar. She is a little damp round the edges, but has otherwise managed to avoid the downpour. She has short blond hair and a ready smile. She sits down at the table next to mine and takes out a cloth-bound journal. I can see from here that the paper is handmade, and printed with little Nepalese Buddha faces. A gift for her travels, perhaps, from her college roommate. She orders iced green tea after a short, unenthusiastic reading of the menu.
She begins to write in her journal, glancing up with disapproval at the TV every now and then. It’s distracting her. She didn’t come to Thailand to watch The Matrix. She looks up and sees me watching her. I smile. ‘Not into the film?’ I ask.
‘I’ve seen it before.’ She looks down at her journal again. Holds onto her pen.
‘So,’ I say. ‘Did you buy one?’
She looks confused. I nod to the door. ‘A Buddha statue. From the boy outside.’
‘Uh … no. Did you?’
‘No, but after lunch I’m going to go out there and buy them all. So I can start my own street vending business.’ I take a swig of Heineken and vaguely enjoy her discomfort. ‘So I can stay here forever.’
My steak arrives. I have her full disapproval now. I could put her at ease if I wanted to. But I think I might bother her for a while longer.
‘Have you just got to Bangkok?’ I ask, through a mouthful of chips.
The girl resigns herself to being harassed and downs her pen. She answers warily, probably fearful I’ll give her the new girl lecture. ‘I’ve been here a few days. I’m leaving for Chiang Mai tomorrow.’
North, then, to see rivers and jungly mountains. To ride the elephants. ‘Are you going to the bridge over the River Kwai?’ I ask.
‘You know in real life they never blew it up,’ I say.
‘I know,’ she says. But she says it without weariness. If she were weary, she wouldn’t go to see it. She would go home.
When you first start out travelling, it seems as though you know nothing; then after a while you feel like you know everything. And then you know nothing again, but it’s not like the first time. The first time, you believed there were things that could be known, or that knowing them would make a difference.
Before Adam left, he told me I needed to go home. I didn’t listen to him, because I’d stopped listening to him long ago, and I hated the idea of him being right about anything. But perhaps he was right about that.
‘What about you?’ asks the girl. ‘Have you been here long?’
‘On and off,’ I say. ‘I love the beaches. I sort of live there, for months at a time, anyway. Like a lottery winner.’
‘Sounds just like paradise,’ she says. I can’t tell whether she’s mocking me.
So I smile. ‘Yes. Just like it.’