HANGING OUT WITH INSECTS

Sunpath

Jamrock, my Bohemia, is set on a rugged coastal hillside, facing the setting sun, the whole hillside like an amphitheatre for the nightly show. Up on the road, there’s the bar, shaped like a boat, guarded by geese, loud with reggae and roosters and the roar of improbable vehicles. Down a steep path, just about negotiable by motorbike, is the main clearing. Rows of old rubber trees shelter a dozen huts, two boxing rings, a training area, a simple shower and toilet block, and another jerry-built bar with a pool table. 

The third level is where I am, this jungled little valley coming down to the sea. Big tumbled rocks gnarled with tree-roots are stacked up at the ocean’s edge. At the edge of these is an old fisherman’s shack; branches overhanging the cliff, festooned with ropes and old floats. People come down here to fish. Tourists come down occasionally, during the season, to snorkel or kayak or just sit on the rocks. They don’t disturb me. My hut is a few tens of yards back from the ocean, back and up, since everything is crazy steep. 

It’s hauntingly beautiful down here. Up at the top, from the decks of the the boat, you’re presented with the huge brimming bowl of the ocean, textured, furred, molten, bristled, glassed, covered with silvery tracks like snail’s trails… then when you come down here, the horizon comes in close, pearl-stringed with the dazzling lights of the squid-boats. The moon rises over the hill, and illumines the whole valley when it’s full, adorns it with the crescent of its horns when new. 

Here at the bottom of the hill, there’s a weird perspective. The ground falls away steeply to meet the sea, and somehow the sea seems to rise equally steeply to the horizon. The illusion is of being in the nick of a deep V between land and water. At the angle, the join is marked by big heaped rocks and white water churning at and over them. At night a restless breeze comes off the ocean and skids up the slope, water and air in constant motion, yes and the land too in subtle ways. 

Over to the right you can see the lights of Kata Noi beach. There are fireworks many nights, you can see them from here. And yet this little pocket of jungle is complete and perfect in itself, distinct in its identity, its sense of itself. It is what it is.

 

____________

 

The rains are back, coming in from the South-West. I see the showers and storms approaching, a second horizon moving towards me across the bay. Three days already. It takes the energy out of the place. 

The boat leaks, water streaming down through its decks, rather than up through its hull, which is a somewhat upside-down way for a boat to sink. All that comes up through the holes in the mud floor are streams of ants. In the bow is a raised stage with curved reed walls complete with wooden portholes, all the amps and guitars, taped cable and dodgy plugboards. Somehow no one gets electrocuted, nothing shorts out. This is because Ai knows exactly where to position everything between the drips. At one stage he rigged up a complex system of funnels and hoses to gutter the water and escort the streams outside, but that went by the board when the new concrete bar got put in, a thing of crude design redeemed ever so slightly by the pattern of polished stones embedded along the surface. Behind the bar, two big coolers which have to be refreshed with ice every other day, and shelves of spirits for cocktails mixed and sold by the tattoo boys. 

The rain also stirs up the termites — or more properly carpenter-ants — which made a second attempt to move into my house. The first time was the first night I spent here. I woke up prickling all over with tiny ants. When I put the light on I saw that the black highway streaming across my bed contained big black chewing machines as well, like tanks in a column of infantry.

I had nothing, just a soft broom which I used to sweep them off the bed and the floor. And they were crazy, all over everything; I even found them eating through the mesh on my precious speakers, my yellow Fostex, one of my very few listable possessions. They were marching diagonally over my bed from one corner to another, a stream of tiny ants with the massively bigger ones at intervals, and the bigger ones furred with tiny creatures riding on them. It looked like a migration, and when I found that the edges of a gappy bamboo joint in the bed post was clogged with moving black bodies like a black-rimmed mouth I decided I had to do something, so I boiled the kettle. That battle went on a long time. By five am I was on the coffees, having long since said goodbye to a night’s sleep. 

Steve and Kayla brought me some spray and ant-chalk, which you put around bed-legs or other strategic points; ants will not cross it. Ai told me about some poison bait you can buy, which ants love and carry immediately back into their nests, in theory wiping out the whole nest, so the next time I saw an invasion building I laid several traps. It was true: excited ants immediately starting carrying the bright yellow beads back to their nest, away from my hut. Many died on the way, but this didn’t stop the stream of traffic with its precious buds of poison, the same yellow as my Fostex: poetic justice. 

Watching that, you can’t help thinking about human beings. We do just the same, lovingly bringing the sweet poisons home to our babies.

The nest was under a root a few feet from my house, and it started to disgorge untold thousands of ants to help bring all the poison home. I moved the trap nearer to the nest, and mopped up everything else with the spray. Look close, and the scene on my balcony was like genocide; a horrific panorama of nano-carnage. 

A few nights later I came back after around midnight, and before I hit the sack I checked my mat and bedding — Ai had warned me that snakes will sometimes come in when it’s wet and cold, and go under your mat for the warmth. I always check under the bed. But I was probably more thorough than usual that night, and it was just as well, because there was a scorpion in my blanket. A nasty looking thing, about an inch long, flat and pale, with a long sting which kept twitching after I killed it. Its body-structure reminded me of that face-hugger thing in Ridley Scott’s Alien. It couldn’t have killed me, of course, but I bet it would have hurt like fuck. After the termite genocide, I felt like I’d dodged an assassination attempt, pay-back for my mass murder.

That made me search the hut more carefully with my torch, and a second unwelcome guest — actually five of them — immediately showed up. I’d seen one outside, caught in my torch light — a huge, angular, glistening grey-white spider with eyes as bright as diamonds. It had frozen in the spotlight and I had taken a long look at it. I didn’t try to kill it, but I stared at it and tried to beam aggression at it. Just don’t go in my house.

Mental note: telepathy does not work with arthropods. Here he was with (at least) four of his diamond-eyed friends, spaced out on the underside of my roof-beam, or near it. They seem to like being at the highest point. The question is whether they’ll stay there. There are no spiders in Thailand that can kill you, but again, these things might still have a painful bite. I didn’t know, but they certainly look that way. I’d have to ask around. For now I’d just have to hope they would tend their webs all night, and not get bored and go for a walk. 

I told myself they’d probably been there for days already, and there hadn’t been a problem. I’m not using that space, after all, and in the jungle no space is ever left empty. Life will fill every niche. Even so, it was an uncomfortable prospect, sleeping under a constellation of gleaming eyes. I’d have to think about getting a mosquito net. 

But that’ll be tomorrow. For tonight, I may just have to sit up writing all night. 

May as well put some music on. 

I was patrolling a pachinko, sings Joe Strummer, 

Nude noodle model parlour

In the nefarious zone.

Hanging out with insects, 

Under ducting — 

The CIA was on the phone.

 

____________

 

I spent about a month clearing the steep little valley where my hut sits between a rock and a huge old tree, a few yards from the sea. Slash and burn — more slash than burn, with all the rain we were getting. Thick, tangled vegetation, everything connected to everything else by the parasitic creepers and runners whose mission is to engulf the entire landscape. Jungle is tangle and jumble, filaments twining around everything from the ground to the tree-tops, big sheets of creepers hanging from the trees. When I moved in, there was nothing but the path with the steps Hoagy cut, and a few yards of space where the builders had stacked the bamboo. There was nowhere to go except down to the sea, or back up to the other huts.

It was a lot of work to strip jungle back to bare earth, but that’s what I tried to do, to create some space. It’s young jungle, and underneath I found evidence of previous clearings in the form of charred wood and tree stumps. But for me it was all discovery — uncovering a different landscape of rocks, going down to the intermittent stream. Everything I’m looking at now was completely invisible under the vegetation, even the twenty foot cliff overhanging the head of the valley. 

As I cut and cleared, I began to see that it could become a kind of garden, and that between gradients I could define horizontal paths between the rocks. I liked the look and smell of raked, opened soil. Butterflies seemed to like it too; as the clearing grew, more and more came, enjoying the wind-break — five or six different kinds, but most often the ones coloured like tigers, tawny orange, white and black, and the ones I love the most, black with a flash of gentian, and the white ones veined with an almost Wedgwood blue.

Small darting lizards were also attracted to my work, hopping up on rocks or leaves beside me, long-limbed and four-handed, regarding me dispassionately with swivelling eyes, waiting for me to disturb something edible.

Cutting is the fun part; the hard work is dragging the vegetation out so you can burn it, patiently raking and pulling and severing. Then going over the soil with a hoe or adze, prizing out roots and axing clumps of grass. It will grow back quickly, so the last thing is that you must walk the ground you want to stay clear. I made paths firm and bare enough to walk barefoot, threading to and between the rocks: a garden of forking paths. I try to keep these raked and swept — the rest I’ve allowed to grow back selectively. Dark ivy leaves embrace the rocks, instead of smothering them. It’s a place to walk, sit, meditate, trip. 

Sometimes I feel like Bob Arctor at the end of Philip Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. His mind broken by the fictitious drug Substance D, he surrenders his shattered identity and is given a new one by the sinister rehab organisation, New Path. He is no longer Bob, no longer Arctor; now he is simply ‘Bruce’. He is put to work on the land, as his warden preaches at him about the benefits of living and working in nature. And it’s true, he finds himself calm at last, his mind empty but for mountain and sky and leaves and earth. 

And it’s true, there is something beautiful about working on the land. The closest I’d come to it before was working on a farm on university holidays, and those were great days. Brown skin, harvest dust. Tired muscles, and a red moon as I drive to my girlfriend’s house. 

Thinking about that, I feel the ache and tug of the past. A long, long time ago now. Another lifetime. Another person? 

So give me a new name, put a hoe in my hand and set me to work. 

The only thing holding me up was the rain — not because it stopped me working, most of the time, but because it made it impossible to burn anything, so I accumulated big backlogs of decaying vegetation. Then wind dropped, the sea-swell stilled, and the season felt as if it was changing — but it was a false spring, and there was still rain most nights, sometimes heavy. 

Still, I got it done. Had huge fires every time it dried out enough. On this side of the stream the ground is quite gently sloping, with nice flat rocks — on the other side it rises quickly to the foot of the cliff — which would make a beautiful climbing wall, I’d say. 

I love it. Flat, gentle ground. It’s restful. Somewhere you can stand and look.

Hoagy came down to have a look, reclining like a huge, blue-green lizard on a rock, and pronounced me a weapon. We talked about building a roofed platform as a place for meditation. Down here can have a different vibe from the main clearing, which is centred around the boxing rings. It will be more peaceful, meditative; another level of Jamrock. 

 

____________

 

Kayla was here all day yesterday. She loves Jamrock, and comes to hang out as much as she can. I am so happy that I have found this place and that it’s something I can share with her, and her brother too. In turn, she helps make Jamrock what it is. It’s somewhere she can be herself, where everybody knows and accepts her. That’s something she’s never had before. In fact she’s never had real friends before — but she does now. For her, Jamrock is inclusion and belonging. She feels at home in the loose community here, enjoys the animals, the characters, the stories and all the crazy shit that happens.

She turned seventeen a month or two ago. She never went to school, and as I always tell her, however left out that makes her feel, it’s an advantage in some ways. It all depends how you look at it. It gives her a fresh openness of character; she’s a page on which good people around her now can inscribe something beautiful — about what men can be, if nothing else. Kayla is brave, and honest, and what more, really, can you ask of anyone? As I keep reminding her, she made all this happen — we’re all here because of her. It was Kayla who got desperate enough to set the cat among the pigeons, after ten long years on the margins of life. That was nearly two years ago now, and it was just the beginning, of course, and it hasn’t been easy, not for her or for Steve or their mother Anchala; but they’ll come through it, I hope. 

Kayla’s strange life-story means it’s a drag for her to answer a lot of questions, and this can make it difficult with new people at first. The people at Jamrock know about her and accept her. Nung adores her; Hoagy high-fives her gleefully whenever their paths cross. Here she’s just another Jamrock waif and stray; she’s what Jamrock is for; she belongs here, I tell her, as much as anyone.

I tell her, if anyone asks her where she went to school, or why she doesn’t speak Thai, or anything like that, to just make something up. Tell people she was raised in the forest by wolves, or whatever. She doesn’t have much confidence for such role-playing, but the other night there was a young Russian guy at the bar who started asking her questions.

Even ‘Where are you from?’ triggers a sideways look at me.

I took the lead. “Kayla was raised in a forest by wolves.”

It had the desired effect. He went quiet, and we changed the subject. Then he wanted to know where the forest was.

“I don’t know,” said Kayla. “The wolves didn’t say.”

Go girl!

“OK,” he said, “then what kind of forest was it?”

“Tropical,” said Kayla without hesitation.

“Really? A tropical forest with wolves in it? That is most unusual.”

Now she was stuck. 

“Google it,” I said.

“OK,” said the Russian. “I will.”

After he’d gone I said to Kayla, “We may have to rethink the wolves part. It might have to be monkeys.”

“Shit,” she said. “Please not monkeys.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Tigers, maybe? Leopards? Up to you. It’s your childhood.”

In the end she settled on Orang Utans, but she wasn’t entirely happy about it. “I miss the wolves,” she said. 

 

____________

 

I’d got up late, and had done only a little light work around the hut, because Hoagy and I had stayed up the night before, talking and playing pool. I wasn’t expecting her, but when I got hungry I went up to the clearing and took a shower, then revved my bike up the ragged trail to the road. Kayla was in her usual place at the end of the bar, lying on her front and playing with her phone, with Chickadee, the possible chicken, sitting on her back. So we drove into town to grab something to eat and do a few errands, and then I asked Kayla if she’d like to come down to the valley and set fire to stuff. Ooh yes, she said. She’s a bit of a closet pyromaniac, like me, and there was a lot of cut vegetation waiting to be burnt down at my place, which should be dry enough by now. We had fun building a fire and getting it started and tending it, sitting on rocks and talking in that comfortable way that has developed between us.

Then we walked of my paths, because they are still fresh and need the tramping of feet to harden them. Suddenly she exclaimed as a hole opened up under her bare foot and a centipede with bright orange-red legs and head came shooting out, heading at high speed down the slope, hotly pursued by one of my lizard friends with an iguana-like fringe around his jaw. We watched as he took his time crunching up the big insect.

Then the rain came in from the sea with thunder and lightning, so we sat on my verandah watching the illuminations. As the storm passed over us a vertical bolt came down like a hammer on the hillside, close enough to set our senses reeling.

We were trapped for an hour or two by the heavy rain, but we didn’t mind. I put some music on, and Kayla sat sketching as we talked and laughed about people and wolves and orang utans. She even called herself by her assumed name at one point — the name she’d lived under for most of her childhood: I showed her how to roll a joint, and she had a go, holding up the end-product, lumpy and saggy as a Christmas sock, laughing and saying, ‘Look! Kate’s first joint!’

Her father had made her and her brother choose new names. Her brother had gone for ‘Steve’; resolutely Western and ordinary. Five-year-old Kayla wanted to be called ‘Kite’. It was a silly idea, she told me — what kind of name was that? She couldn’t remember where she’d got the idea; perhaps she’d come across a character with that name in a cartoon or something. But her dad wasn’t having it: far too conspicuous. She could be Kate; Kate Michaels was suitably nondescript. Oh well, she was happy enough to keep her initial as a connection with who she’d been before. 

‘I love it!’ I said. ‘Kite is a really cool name. You should keep it — it suits you.’

She sputtered a laugh. ‘But it’s a…’ and she mimed flying a kite with her arms, looking up. 

‘A toy?’

‘Yes.’

‘Also a type of bird,’ I said. 

She didn’t know that. 

It suddenly got dark, and even though the rain wasn’t letting up we climbed up to the clearing and had a game of pool at the Jigaro bar. There was no one around. That’s what happens when it rains — people get stuck where they are, whether in their huts or up at the boat. Rain hammers on roofs so loud you have to shout to talk. Bead-curtains of rain hang from every eave and doorway. We got bored with pool and braved the rain again, just a few yards to the big boxing ring where Nung and Ai had set up the music gear. I turned the power on, slightly nervous about electricity because everything was so wet. Kite sat down at the keyboard and started messing around, finding a big dramatic sound and playing the white notes with unselfconscious enjoyment. I stood beside her and supplied bass notes and twiddled knobs, and together we created epic thunderstorm music, abstract and cinematic, with the rain hammering and the thunder rumbling.

After a while Johnnie appeared out of the darkness, bare-chested with a towel over his head. Kite was sitting on a stool, listening to me sing All Along the Watch Tower, looking happy with the way her Sunday was turning out. Today had turned into something special for her. Fire, rain, lightning, weed and sketching and talk and music. So I asked Johnnie to look up the chords to ‘Perfect Day’, the Lou Reed song, on his phone, and we stumbled our way through it and belted it out the choruses together with gusto, a spontaneous serenade to the laughing Kayla — or Kite, now. That was going to be my name for her from now on. Five-year-old Kayla would get her wish.

“It’s such a perfect day —

I’m glad I spent it with you…”

By this time it was already about nine thirty. It was still raining, and Johnny pointed out that there were several empty huts where she could sleep if she wanted to stay over. It was a good idea — the hill road would be treacherous even if the rain stopped. So we hauled our asses up the trail to the roadside bar to find something to eat. We were in luck. There was fish curry and barbecued chicken, plenty left for the two of us. The rain stopped, and we went all the way back down to my valley to drink tea, eat Oreos and call her mum to let her know she wasn’t coming home. Around midnight I armed her with my head-lamp, a can of insect spray and a bottle of water, and Kite set off back up the path to her hut.

And it’s true. Days don’t come much better than this.

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