sea ​​nomads | Spokesperson Review

When I travel abroad, I think of Mr. Magoo. Like him, I often run the risk of falling. In open water, I swim like a kayak that lost its rudder. Swimming with my wife – stronger than me in the water, a former breaststroke champion – keeping her fins or feet in plain sight. This pattern continues out of the water when we travel side by side. She sets out great itineraries and I follow along. The goofy Magu for her silent guidance, the blind stuttering for her sharpest insight.

We are committed to an island governed by Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Patience and time have carried us this far, far south of Bangkok in the Malay Peninsula. Islamic head coverings are mixed with Buddhist statues. Many people go off on scooters. Women’s clothes flutter and flow fast on the highway, like actress Sally Field in The Flying Nun. Young children in helmets, balancing on gas tanks, grip tightly on handlebars. Their parents’ outstretched arms surround them.

As we park the rental car for lunch, our servers honor us with the wai – the bowed head and valiant hand gesture available today as a phone emoji. The intricacies of this gesture, this silent medium of gratitude and social level, take some time to master. We travelers may return any wai when someone shines on us, but we should not urge it to anyone but the elderly. Thailand is mainly Theravada Buddhist, salutations originated from this strain of faith, and it is likely to show no ill will in the near future, and no weapon was concealed.

The island smidge where we will be staying, called Koh Lipe, is the only inhabited place allowed within Tarutao Marine National Park. Tourism drives the economy of Koh Lipe. Small and remote, it is protected by the marine park that lies within its borders, and does not accommodate cars. A motorbike taxi takes us on a winding road through the dwellings of the Orak Lao people. Known as chao ley or chao lair in Thai, they are a small minority on Koh Lipe. These lands and waters have fed them for thousands of years, this Adang archipelago on the Andaman Sea.

The bungalows at Serendipity Beach Resort stretch along the slope of a hill. An open-air restaurant by the water below the huts has been pulled out from among the smooth stones. It’s a tough place to build, but that’s how it goes. Johnny-come-latelys has purchased every worthwhile website builder. Religious symbols move the restaurant’s shades. Carven Buddha in shaded niches peep like a charm bracelet. Large, small Buddha statues, carved from original stone or hardwood. Baby Buddha, like many static GIFs, crawls on hands and knees.

There’s nothing you don’t like about Thailand, except for the congestion of Bangkok, Chang Mai, and Phuket. The beaches are spotless. The food is wonderful. Bag handlers, housekeepers, drivers and chefs are very nice to behave and destination. Just as Costa Rica has its own oral brand, Pura Vida, which emphasizes the ethics of sustainability and health, so Thailand has its own verbal motto: Land of Smiles. Sincere, lovable, and non-compulsive smiles summon our cheerful sympathy in return.

A smile is the lethargy people get back in between gears. They know which side to butter their bread on. Their economic interests lie in being kind. We share the shame if we don’t all rejoice. We taste shame if we don’t have proactive smiles ready for every chance encounter. They have not yet experienced the fatigue of over-tourism. Or if they get a taste of burning, they limit themselves to the gai yin device, which translates to cold heart.

The practical boat for crossing the sea canals, a favorite beach boat, is the longtail. It gets its name from the improbably long propeller shaft in the stern that resembles a stinger on a wasp. Like the anchor pole on a keelboat, the shaft is rotated or raised to remove debris or corals. The boat itself has a high bow. Paint, cloth or flowers decorate her proud pavilion. The boats serve much the same purpose as the semi-wild horse herds of the American Plains tribes.

If one buys geographical determinism – the idea that environment shapes human nature, just as it shapes the evolution of other species – genetic disposition has equipped Lawoi to navigate these seas. Seascapes and landscapes make the character, or so the hypotheses go. The Lawoi have a great ability to hold their breath underwater for minutes at a stretch, which explains how they can spearfish so well. More importantly, as they can see, they can keep their eyes wide open in the salt while working underwater or playing. The pupillary reflex acquired by training, or so far nested deeply within the genomes, has given them full immersive vision, an intense marine vision.

We deliver it downtown for our evening meals. At our favorite outdoor restaurant, Ja Yao, we arrive early for some lunch. Most of the staff appear to be genderless. Groups of gender-nonconforming individuals spice up this microcosm. A waiter near us strips basil leaves from the stems. Then they get up and lift a bowl of water and carry it to the side of the road. Our esteemed waiter, at the shrine in front of the restaurant, performs an upright bow. Then they sprinkle with fingertips the path that runs forward.

In the center of the island, winding roads wind through the Laui dwellings. Speedy motorbike taxis run errands and pass the thatched dwellings and corrugated tin. Sturdy stilts raise housing against floods, tsunamis and monsoon mud. Lawoi stare from hammocks or platforms, from beds calling for the cooling air below, gazing at taxis and tourist mists. The near equator radiates heat. Their dogs dig burrows against high temperatures and steam.

Information about the Lao people proves to be scarce and irregular. The indigenous people of the island, are the smallest ethnic group in southern Thailand. Their innate savvy helps them survive frequent storms and interpret tides. Geographical determinism seems to favor them again. Unnaturally, they predicted the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea. Dodge in time to higher ground, they didn’t lose any of their members.

They lost the main parcel on the waterfront. Only the monopoly of long-tail services that shuttle tourists between the beach and the sea rafts allows them to remain economically afloat today. The disruption caused by tourism is exacerbating the ordeal. In 2020, sovereignty activists asked the government to pass the Koh Lipe Ethnic Group Protection Act. The Bangkok Post reported that “the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation is trying to reclaim part of the land occupied by local residents and new investors.” Amid this reclamation, the administration hopes to secure protection for the Lawoi’s homes and restore some ways of life.

Caught in networks of misinformation, they used to be nomads at sea. But tourism regulates the Thai economy so far that communication about people has become propaganda, disinformation and unreliable tradition. Although Thailand is the second largest rice exporter in the world, tourism earns it a lot more money. Tourism equals advertising from the start. The World Tourism Organization, prior to its accession to the United Nations a century ago, was called the International Federation of Tourism Propaganda Societies.

Sovereignty activists are trying to reclaim the role of art in preserving culture. A Lawoi painter, hoping to restore some lost independence, painted people dancing in a “jinxed ritual.” The jinx they refer to is industrial tourism. In a ritual twice a year during the full moon, people build a model boat to carry their misfortunes out to sea. In activating those rituals, they aim to restore a measure of independence that they now lack.

No matter how far behind they are today, Lawoi are not a relic on the march toward civilization. It will prove durable and dynamic. The tides will repeat. Surrounding people like themselves are drawn to or hovering over the edges of the urban landscape to enjoy the abundance of these views. Another distant Lawoi might set off on purpose to escape his kind.

After a generation or more, if exploitation and indebtedness confined them, they or their descendants could return from the margins. They can relearn how to thrive. They can rejoin those who remember. We are fortunate that they still preserve the old skills – fishing, sailing, reading the tides and much more. They alone support ancient associations with natural forces. The identities of those we consider “the Other” are often more complex than we know. People can get lost in our modern world. Get lost, persevere, and show great resilience.

Our resort employs a lot of people. The meal attendant carrying breakfast to us rings the outside bell and waits for our call to come in. Inside, he kneels at our low table. Balances tray on edge of table, lifts plastic-wrapped bowls and drinks to keep out bugs. What makes him and others keep going so long and strong? Gratuities from sponsors? An innate desire to please? Hope to progress? Or a tacit recognition that their wealth has been bestowed upon them by God?

Up and down from the restaurant to the huts, the service staff walk up the winding staircase over the forest floor. Beneath them are mighty creatures creeping invisible. Red-headed striped horned lizard. Huge black and yellow millipedes. Mouse eyes reflected at night. Geckos that chirp and chirp so loudly that they thwart sleep. Four inches of grasshoppers at the bottom of the food chain, fried in markets along with crickets and other insects, twenty grams of protein each.

In our privileged lives, we travel above the hidden conditions of our destinations. Monsoons bathe us. Mosquitoes sing. Falling down each set of stairs gives pedestrians a chance to stop at the shell to take a breath and gain perspective. Step one more stair treads down. Place the head level on the falling water when landing. Watch the raindrops bounce and roll like ball bearings through every living pond before merging back and becoming part of the whole.

Paul Lindholt is Professor of English and Philosophy at Eastern Washington University and author of Interrogating Travel (2023).

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