The Old Man of the Mountain

Hop along, my little friends, up the Withywindle!
Tom's going on ahead candles for to kindle.
Down west sinks the Sun: soon you will be groping.
When the night-shadows fall, then the door will open,
Out of the window-panes light will twinkle yellow.
Fear no alder black! Heed no hoary willow!
Fear neither root nor bough! Tom goes on before you.
Hey now! merry dol! We'll be waiting for you!
—Tolkien


I was the last to enter the dim hall, to flash my paper ticket to the trannies and silicon-bolstered counteresses out front and proceed down that narrow aisle lined with red-lit bars, rows of girls arranged in front in short black dresses and plastic grins, and this eventually delivered us out into a wide chamber under a tin roof. The off-white ring stood in the center, surrounded by rows of couches, and then encircled by more bars of crimson lighting and seedy natures. There was the siren call of “Welcome!” and the bar girls gathered around the old foreigners so beckoned; and there was a noise of chatter and barter and a clink of glasses and a throb of bass.

I was there with four Danes, a Scot named Richard who was familiar with the sport, a pretty English redhead named Vicky, a broad-humored American from New Jersey named Mark, and three Irish lasses with very Gaelic names. So we ordered beers and jested with a Thai boy selling flowers and playing games of Connect Four for twenty baht a piece. In the southern isles the children are all experts at this, and they regularly win money from tourists who think it a joke.

Richard was telling us about this Deus ex machina device that his father had pressed on him. There were three buttons: one he pressed every five days to send out a signal with his latitude and longitude; the second, if pressed, would continually broadcast his coordinates for twenty-four hours; and the third button called a helicopter to his position, to airlift him out, at the cost of 2000 pounds.

“So they send the SAS to rescue you?”

“No, that would be awesome though.”

Then the first fighters came out, and the whole place was crowded with farang tourists and Thai gamblers, all waving money around. The first fighters were twelve years old and vicious, trained from birth in the brutal ways of Muay Thai kickboxing.

Look elsewhere for the elegance of the Asian martial arts—Muay Thai is all elbows and knees and deadly blows made to kill. They used to brawl in riverside dens, a bare-fisted bloodsport with only nominal rules, and fighters commonly died from more brutal techniques. Those days are over, outside of small events in the northern countryside; but they still gamble on all the match-ups.

The bookies roamed through the crowd, preferring one fighter or another, knowing the fix and the likely victor, and I did not bet on the kids fight. The second was a lady fight, between two women barely discernible as such, their naturally pubescent frames packed with masculine muscle, their faces meaty and boyish. Nong Ning and Phetlanna brawled into the fourth of the five rounds, and it ended with a knockout. Nong Ning won, and I lost a hundred baht.

I lost another hundred on the first real fight, a fight of heavy gambling, hard hitting, flying sweat, and at the end, though it seemed to me that Blue should win, it was Red’s hand raised up. There followed an intermission of dancing bar girls, and then a blind fight, the three boxers blindfolded and knocking crazily around, as a referee tried to shove them into punches and dodge misplaced blows—so certainly a show fight that they came around asking for tips at the conclusion.

At the start of the second real fight, as the boxers came out and warmed up in their corners, every bookie and gambler said Red, and there were no odds but 1:1, so why bet? “I’m not putting anything down on this one,” said Mark,—“I think Red must be a killing machine.”

A sort of jungle melody always plays behind the match, and the fighters dance to it, bobbing in their balanced stance and moving their gloved fists up and down, until they start swinging and kicking and sparring. Red dominated and won, and the bookies gathered up their winnings, and there was too much falang dollar going around for it not to be at least mostly a scam.

Well the last fight was Sebastian of Canada and his 200 pounds, arrayed against a Thai fighter in the Blue corner, and I surely bet on the local. There was cheering and the sluggish moves of heavyweights, and the Canadian seemed a novice next to the Thai’s precise blows. Continually he fell into a grasp, tired out by the quick sport. Always the White would close in to a grab and knee at the Thai, but after five rounds, blue had won—and I had earned back my losses.

“Boo!” cried Mark, who had bet the other way,—“Boo! Go back and play hockey you stupid Canuck!” This earned a glare from the fighter, who was climbing down out of the ring, and a few middle fingers from his entourage in the front row. He muttered a confession, “I feel kind of bad now. But he did suck.”

There were a few show fights, including one between a midget and a kid, which could never happen in the West. Richard and Vicky left during this (women had far less interest in the outcome of this spectacle than the men, who stared at it with wet eyes and open mouths), and I stayed to chat with Mark and the lasses, and congratulated one of the Danes on his thousand baht winnings.

After some time we left to saunter home, the night pleasantly cool after the hot day, and Mark asked the Irish girls, “Hey what’s the craic?”

The girls laughed. “You know what craic is?”

“Sure. I know all Irish love craic. Everywhere they go, they’re looking for craic.”

Craic sounds a lot like crack, so I was confused and asked, “Wait, what is it?”

“Craic just means good-times or fun in Gaelic,” said Mark. “The Irish always say, ‘What’s the craic?’ like, ‘Where’s the party?’ You know,” he said to the girls, “craic means something very different in the States. You say, ‘Where’s the craic?’ in the States, they’re going to take you downtown to get some crack-cocaine.”

We turned down the alleyway toward Julie’s Guesthouse, and Nikko was up on the balcony—“Girls, where’re ye goin’? Come up here and have a drink, whydontcha,”—but we went off to the food market near the southern wall and ate our fill of noodle soup, and we walked back before the storm broke and called it a good day.

Chiang Mai is laid out in the following manner: Rail and road stations on the far east end, across the River Ping, and a spiderweb of roads lead inward through the Yunnanese neighborhood with its Muslim eating houses, its brothels, its flower market and ancient night bazaar, and on across and through the square moat and wall into the Old Town, a Thai fortress against the Burmese, full of temples and narrow lanes, and these days with flocks of sweaty falang, caught up in wanderlust.

Cut-throat tourist agencies cater to every need. Signs advertise jungle treks, hill tribe visits, slipline jumps and elephant rides; ride a motorcycle, play with a tiger, shoot a Kalashnikov, buy cheap jewelry or kitschy art or a new suit that will fall apart with one wash; learn to cook, to massage, to fight Muay Thai, to practice Yoga or Thai Chi; see a boxing match, a movie, a traditional dance; cheap flights, cheap busses, trains, and tuk-tuks; the drivers puff their lips against two fingers and whisper, “Ganja? Opium? What you want?”; and there are hotels everywhere, and the restaurants serve every kind of food and drink, and there are harlots and lady boys up and down Moon Muang Road.

This is Chiang Mai. In only a few years time, the city has burst open like an overripe fruit, from provincial capital to mecca of romantic adventure, an all-you-can-eat buffet of pre-planned peril. If you don’t have time to seek out the mysteries of the Orient, come here—they’re all laid out in a brochure!

I was staying in an old guesthouse called Julie’s, cheap and loud and always full. Even with youth, beer, pool, and Irishmen diluting the mix, the common hall of the guesthouse resembled most startlingly the Malabar Hotel of Marlowe’s interview with Lord Jim, which Conrad describes so well that I quote it:
An outward-bound mail-boat had come in that afternoon, and the big dining-room of the hotel was more than half full of people with a-hundred-pounds-round-the-world tickets in their pockets.

There were married couples looking domesticated and bored with each other in the midst of their travels; there were small parties and large parties, and lone individuals dining solemnly or feasting boisterously, but all thinking, conversing, joking, or scowling as was their wont at home; and just as intelligently receptive of new impressions as their trunks upstairs. Henceforth they would be labelled as having passed through this and that place, and so would be their luggage. They would cherish this distinction of their persons, and preserve the gummed tickets on their portmanteaus as documentary evidence, as the only permanent trace of their improving enterprise.

The dark-faced servants tripped without noise over the vast and polished floor; now and then a girl’s laugh would be heard, as innocent and empty as her mind, or, in a sudden hush of crockery, a few words in an affected drawl from some wit embroidering for the benefit of a grinning tableful the last funny story of shipboard scandal. Two nomadic old maids, dressed up to kill, worked acrimoniously through the bill of fare, whispering to each other with faded lips, wooden-faced and bizarre, like two sumptuous scarecrows.

O Adventure! O Romance! We poor fools seek you out in all the wrong places!

As I said, there were a few Irishmen in Julie’s, small in number and gargantuan in personality. I was sitting in the corner and thinking about the roads out of Chiang Mai when they came and sat at the table, calling over everyone within earshot.

“Girls!” cried Nikko,—“girls, what are you doing? Come have a drink wich us, whydontcha? Here take a seat.” He guided her in, muttering, “That’s a beautiful body. You boys want another beer?”

Nikko had long hair and rarely wore a shirt, and he was traveling with a small bag and a pair of jeans. He made his money as a hat merchant, buying them in Morocco and selling them in Ireland, and had entered the trade in the following way:

One day whilst waiting for a bus in the Maghrebi desert, he happened to see an old Berber woman selling caps she had knit, and he bought ten for five dollars. Seeing how cheap they were, Nikko bought a few hundred more in Marrakesh, filled his bags with them, and sold them for a huge profit on college campuses in Ireland. He went back to Morocco, found business partners, expanded his business, and now has three stores of his own, which provide for his travel and his nightly drinking.

“Here you go boys, one more Chang,” passing the cluster to Michael and Cameron, friends from the Old Country.

Now Michael was some trouble. First, his Thai visa was long expired. The Thais charge $15 a day for overstaying a visa, to a maximum amount of $200, and Michael said once you reach that limit you can stay as long as you want without penalty—unless you are caught and deported, and then you have to pay the fine and start over with a fresh visa. Michael had been caught before, and he suspected that his Burmese girlfriend had ratted him out, and once she bashed him with a whiskey bottle so hard that he had to get stitches. This time he left his passport with an Italian friend of his, but the police had raided the Italian’s house on a drug-search and had confiscated the passport along with some bags of stuff, so now Michael was in real trouble, the kind of trouble that only the Irish can get into.

There were two English girls sitting with us, and a Texan named Andrew who was a teacher in Istanbul, and the Irish kept trying to call over more girls, or making fun of guys as they walked in. (“We’re just havin’ a laugh!”) We were talking autobiographically, and they asked me, “What’s your last name brother?”

“McDonald.”

Three sets of eyes went wide with surprise. “Irish!” they said,—“You’re bloody Irish!”

“My father’s family is.”

“I’m so glad you didn’t say nuttin’,” said Nikko. “So many Americans say, ‘Oh, I’m one-fourth Irish. I’m one-sixteenth Irish. I’m a Paddy.’ No yer feckin’ not.”

“I’m one-sixteenth Indian,” joked Cameron, twitching from the old crack habit he picked up on a sojourn to the States.

“Irish-American is a big clan,” I said with a laugh.

“It’s feckin’ stupid. You are whatcha are. If you’re born in America, you’re an American. Don’t feckin’ kid yerself, mate.”

“My last name’s French,” said Michael.

“No it’s feckin’ not.”

“So you’re French-Irish?” I asked.

“No!” cried Nikko,—“He’s Irish!”

“Feckin’ right.”

Pai is a small town a few hours north of Chiang Mai, which was appropriated by hippies in the Eighties who couldn’t make the last hundred winding miles further north into the karst hills along the Burmese border.

There are more farang than locals there these days, lounging near the river in the cool valley of the village, in bungalows and little bars. The tourist center of town resembles Khausan rendered in a square block of four streets, with guesthouses and restaurants, street stalls and cheap beer, ATMs and two 7-11s—and there’s little to Pai beyond this, and then there is hill and forest.

On one of these streets, furthest from the elbow of the river, at a noisy wooden beer-hall with a bar out front and a DJ with his laptop, I was called over by a Canadian girl and a wild Thai called Tattoo, who danced around in his cut-up jeans, his sunglasses and wild hair. I had a beer with a big mess of people similarly summoned, then wandered off to find someplace to eat. A German of Polish descent, Karol, followed after me—“Hey, I know a good place down here.” He told me about the childhood friend with whom he had been traveling, who was too aggressive a traveler for him—he just wanted to read his book!

Soon enough I found that I knew a lot of people in Pai: two British girls from the bus, Tattoo the wild Thai, Richard and Vicky, the Irish lasses, Abby the Canadian, and Karol. When I passed by the wooden beer-hall that night, Nikko the Irishman was dancing out front with Tattoo, and he said it had been days since he had eaten and that he was overdoing it on the drink.

The two Dutch girls I met in Kanchanaburi were also in town. I met Caren and Leonie that night at a street bar with a big flatscreen, because the Netherlands was playing Brazil in the quarterfinals; and because I had on an orange T-shirt, I was adopted by a gang of Dutch and inherited their vibrant underdog hope. The girls drew Dutch flags on my cheeks, and there were so many orange shirts there. The men were jumping and howling and spraying beer, and the women watched with interest—and somehow Holland won. There was a great celebration.

A big group of us drove around the corner to Poppies, where the Party was that night. Abbey, Nikko, Tattoo, and the Irish girls were already there. There was a small bar serving buckets and shots and cold beers, and a long corridor of people sitting on cushions on this dais, or lying there in a smoked-out haze.

I drank and talked with the Dutch, and then this German I had met said he had found some American girl. “Oh, cool,” I said, but he insisted on introducing us, so I went over and sat down next to her on the edge of the dais behind the DJ stand. She thought I was from Holland at first, because why else would I be dressed like that and wearing flags on my cheeks?

Apryl was from Detroit, Michigan, though she had been in Thailand for almost a year, mostly in Chiang Mai and Pai; and we talked thoughtfully about the freedom and autonomy of being abroad—freedom from judgments and the constrictions of expectations, a freedom to expose the truth of yourself, as lame as that sounds.

Apryl told me, “There are people you call your friends, and you do things together. But once you really need their help, if you’re going through rough times and you really need to talk, you can’t. Because if you tell them anything, it’ll just get turned against you. They will tell all their friends. It makes them feel better about themselves, to see others suffering, like, I’m better than that.”

“The other day I was thinking,” I said, “about high school reunions. You get together and it’s like a big pageant—show what you got, wear your best clothes, drive your best car, and who has the best job, the hottest girl, the coolest guy. Nobody really care’s how you’re doing.”

I kept asking her, What are you doing here? She said she just did as she pleased.

“I just go with the flow. I say that a lot.” She said she had realized that everything is connected, that all is one, that we all come from the same Source, and that we have to work to maintain a balance if we want to be healthy.

“I used to just give and give. I’m a very giving person. I would always give time, work, trust, and never take anything in return. I didn’t know how. People would try to do things for me, and I wouldn’t let them. It felt wrong somehow. But if you don’t accept it, when other people give to you—then there’s no balance. It drains you. I was drained.”

It was a remarkable conversation for being so different from the usual traveler’s fare of, Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? You see the game? Who will win? I miss Mexican food—the “How about that weather?” of the wandering heart. All of that seemed like bullshit, as Apryl considered each question with a pensive concentration, a Zen composure. She told me, “I don’t know anything. The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything,” without knowing that Socrates had said the same.

I told Apryl about the social gadfly and his noble end, killed by the same laws that permitted his subversion, and she said, “You know what I take from that? The more you become a part of society, the more open you are to being destroyed by it.”

“And you’re separate from society?”

“No, you can never be separated, but I’ve come to realize what it’s all about. I’ll go home and do the same things and hang out with the same people, but I’ll see things the way they really are. And that’s a big difference.”

Then the Belgian with the Volkswagen bus on his shirt and tattooed under his arm leaned over and said this: “Hi, I’m sorry, but I am wondering—where are you from?”

“Detroit, Michigan,” Apryl answered.

The Belgian looked confused, and I could see him thinking very hard. “I’m sorry,” he said again,—“I’m very drunk. My English is not very good. You are born in America? Where is your family from?”

“Detroit.”

“Yeah, but, where are they from originally?” and he said it pointedly, as if providing a clue.

“I don’t know.”

I had my hand over my mouth like, Oh man, but it was not my place to say anything.

“From Africa?”

“We’re all from Africa.”

“You look like you’re from Africa. Maybe central Africa?”

Apryl said, “We’re all from the same Source,” and the Belgian was not satisfied. He persisted:

“Congo? I have some friends from Congo, and you look like them. Have you been to Africa? It’s so great. It will totally change your point of view. Get to your roots,”—but then he seemed to sense his unintentional offense and quickly said, “I’m sorry, I’m very drunk.”

“It’s okay,” said Apryl.

The Belgian rolled away across the neon-lit dais, and I asked her, “Do you get that a lot?”

“Sometimes. Yeah. I have to remind myself to stay calm, but it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s really hard. I usually just say, I’m from the Source, but that’s not what people want to hear. They want me to say what they expect to hear.”

“Africa.”

“Or Detroit, Michigan.” She sighed. “Nobody wants to know where you are born. Everyone wants to know what tribe you come from. Like it matters.”

The Belgian told me that Pai is a place where you come for a few days and stay for a few months, stirring memories of Paradise Beach. I stayed up to an unreasonable hour that night to watch the tragic end of Ghana’s World Cup bid to a Uruguayan handball, and the next day I only wanted to relax.

I went to 7-11 for some super-sweet iced coffee to wake me up and stopped at the cart in the shade of the temple's peepul trees for a papaya salad. This is one of the delights of Thailand: shaved strips of a green and unripe papaya, crisp and tasteless as lettuce, mixed in a mortar with tomatoes, garlic, peanuts, lime, maybe some dried shrimp, and an even mix of palm sugar, fish sauce, and chili peppers, making a go. The Thais make it spicy enough to cry. I liked it that way as well and said, "Spicy, spicy," and fanned at my mouth to show that I was serious, and I waited there in the shade for my salad.

“Jon!” There’s some word in Thai that sounds just like my name, so that I had lost the habit of looking up when I heard it, which sometimes interfered when someone was actually trying to call my attention—“Jon!”

“Oh, hey Apryl. Nice bike.”

“I know. Look at this chrome. And I got this bell like, ring-ring, can’t touch this.”

“You need that here. You gotta ring that every time you go around the corner, pass someone.”

“Yeah like, check me out.”

“What are you up to?”

“Going to Chiang Mai to visit friends. Load up on music and movies on my portable hard drive. Maybe cook something.”

“Sounds nice.”

“Yeah. I’ll take the public bus. Get a nice breeze. I don’t like those minibuses. It always makes me sick.”

“Local buses are better. Doesn’t take much longer.”

“Only like half-an-hour. It’s nothing. And the minibus always makes me sick. There’s no air, only AC, and it’s always just recycling the warm nasty air. Anyway, I didn’t call you over here to complain about buses.”

“I’m sick of these buses!”

Apryl laughed, and I told her I might go to the waterfalls, as soon as my friends stopped procrastinating—probably tomorrow.

“No hurry. They’ll still be here. They were dry a few months ago. Now it will be nice.”

“Yeah, I hope so.”

On the way back to where my bungalow was, intent on a regimen of loafing and hammocks, I saw Tattoo sitting at a table in the sun with two other Thais and a bottle of whiskey. He wore mirrored shades and the same white shirt and cut-off jeans as the day before.

I said, “Hey man, how's it going?”

“Good, good, how are you?”

“You have a good night?”

“I have a pretty fucking good night.”

“Well, what are you doing now?”

“Fishing.”

“Fishing.”

“Have a seat. Just look. You can see so much from here.”

“What do you see?”

“Woman,” growled Tattoo.

Leaving the Thai to his bait and tackle, I pursued my regimen until that night, when I stayed up late to watch the Germany-Argentina game with Karol, Mark the Estonian, and two pretty Bavarian girls who had just been to China; and their company and cheer mitigated my sorrow in the wake of Germany’s 4-0 blitzkrieg, for my sympathies lay with the Latin-American team. Some of them left for this weekly electro party, and I stayed with Karol and some Aussie stoner to watch the confused end of the Spain-Paraguay match.

Mark the Estonian was on acid one day, patting down the grass and saying he'd lost his soul, that he could not feel it there anymore. Later, after midnight, he got drunk and passed out in the road near the 7-11. A Thai on a scooter nearly ran Mark over, and nearly crashed trying to avoid the drunken Baltican. Mark woke up when the wheel passed this far from his face, he said later, and the Thai started shouting at him:

"Stupid foreigner! What are you doing? I know you. I see you playing guitar. You learn guitar just to pick up girls. Stupid foreigner!"

All Thais brim with envy because they cannot draw the randy eyes of the young Western women that come to Thailand to "find themselves" and "let loose”—not with all their awkward guesses at gallantry and their mistranslated jokes—and the Thai was shouting at Mark about this, and thirty more Thais appeared, all raving mad on jabba, and they chased Mark down the street. That, at least, was the story told the following morning.

On Independence Day I spent all my time with Germans, Dutch, and Birmies, and after midnight voyaged out around town to find a few compatriots. I found two Americans, shared a toast, and was satisfied. Thank God for America.

I’d heard a few stories about a place called the Cave Lodge. It was an hour north of Pai, halfway along the beautiful winding road to Mae Hong Som, in a town called Ban Tham Lod, and everyone who had been there said it was amazing.

The principle attraction to my particular ears was the legend of the proprietor: an old Australian named John Spies, who had been in Thailand for decades, having fallen in love with the country (and a Thai girl). The district of Pang Mapha, with its caves and karst, was his favorite place, and there he made his home. He had dealt with tribes and border guards and several murder mysteries and had mapped out the limestone caves in the surrounding hills, the largest cave network in Asia.

So after the exhilarating ride over the hills, Karol and I parked our bikes near the entrance to Lod Cave and went in search of the Cave Lodge. It is sited up on a forested slope over the river that flows through the cave, and bungalows and a bathhouse ring like flies the Lodge. The main hall is open on three sides, with a fire-pit in the middle, a tennis table at the head where the King’s Bench might be, and maps along the walls—the maps of caves and villages drawn by the Old Man of the Mountain. There are books on the tables, caving reports and guides, and one tome of clamped together printer paper—“Borderline: Caves, Coffins, and Chaos in the Golden Triangle”—detailing John’s adventures, discoveries, mysteries, and his romances, which landed him this domain in the furthest corner of Thailand.

I flipped through the book with fascination as we took lunch at one of the low tables, and the Old Man himself passed through the chamber—lordly strides in fisherman pants and a T-shirt, with long gray hairs and the appearance of Cedric of Rotherwood, if that Saxon Cedric had married a sweet Shan girl and ruled as quiet a fief as this one, with its cool river, its caves and dungeon maps. I did not speak with him then, but went out with Karol to Lod Cave. I had only my little flashlight and no boat, so our foray into the cave was full of confusion and excitement, and ended at the first bend of the river, where the walls close in on the river and the caver needs kayak and paddle to proceed.

Outside in the hot air, we wandered around the hills past an old bridge, a wooden one built on the two stone stilts still standing amid the wreck of a broken attempt at modern construction. The other pillars were laid out in the water. We climbed up a hill and came down sunburned and exhausted and had a Coke with some Californians we knew in the park dining hall. Karol drove back to Pai with them. The German was only making a day trip, but I wanted to stay the night at the Lodge. The next day I would explore more of overhill and underhill, and drive back into Pai for a bus south.

While a pretty Shan girl named Nai was checking me in for the dormitory, I met John Spies. Our conversation proceeded in this way—

“You’re John?”

“Yes.”

“His name Jon, too.”

“But with no H. Short for Jonathan. I just like Jon better.”

John laughed and said, “It’s a common name in Thai, you know—Jon. It’s also an animal.”

“What kind? Something fierce?”

“Let me think. It’s a sort of mole. Digs in the ground.”

“Oh,” deflated.

“You’re from the States? From where?”

“Oregon.”

“Good. It’s good to hear somewhere different. Everyone is always California.”

“Where are you from, originally?”

“I was born in Sydney.”

“How long have you been here?”

“A long time. We opened this place in eighty-four.”

“You like it here?”

He looked around and said, “It’s my favorite place in the world.”

“Good business?”

“We’re still open.” He waved like a magic trick—tada! “And I put my kids through college. But I could have done a lot better if I did business elsewhere.”

“Like Chiang Mai?”

“Like Australia. You were in Pai before you came here? Pai was nothing when we started this. Just a name on the map. And there wasn’t a single hostel in Chiang Mai. Now, all of a sudden, Chiang Mai is full of tourists, and there are forty guesthouses in Pai.”

“It looks like Khausan, in the middle of nowhere.”

“It is the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing to do. If you come an hour north, it’s amazing. But the roads are rough, so people started stopping in Pai on their way here. Pai is big because of us.”

At sunset a cyclone of swallows forms outside Lod cave and funnels in as a constant stream, graceful and squeaking, rousing the bats to hunt and clear room for the birds.

There was a French family staying in the Lodge, and other than them I was the only guest. I sat in the hall and peered into my notepad and sipped a beer after dinner. Nai came out from the kitchen and sat near me, and we talked and joked for a long while. I asked her about the World Cup and about her life and the village. Though she was divorced and had a daughter, she was about my age, and when she asked me to come back and watch television, I was halfway incredulous.

I followed Nai into the kitchen, with some certain expectations, and she locked the door behind us. I followed her out onto a balcony and was confused to find myself in a common room, where John was working Photoshop and two old Thai ladies were camped out above an air mattress, waiting for the World Cup.

Then I realized that this was how I would watch the World Cup match that night—the Netherlands and Uruguay. The old ladies were apparently big football fans and had come in from their villages to watch it. Nai left with her daughter, and John left with his Shan wife, and soon I had fallen asleep on the couch and the game went on without me.

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