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Nomads of the Sea

Aug. 6, 2022 Updated Fri., Aug. 12, 2022 at 4:57 p.m.

By Paul Lindholdt For The Spokesman-Review

When I travel abroad, I think of Mr. Magoo. Like him, I am often at risk of falling. In open water I swim like a kayak that has lost its rudder. Swimming with my wife – stronger in the water than I, a former breaststroke champion – I keep her fins or feet in view. That pattern continues out of the water when we travel in tandem. She sets the fine itineraries and I follow along. The goofy Magoo to her silent guidance, the bumbling blind man to her keener foresight.

We are bound for an island governed by Thailand in the Andaman Sea. Patience and time have carried us this distance, far south of Bangkok on the Malay Peninsula. Muslim headgear mingles with Buddhist statues. Many of the people blast by on scooters. The women’s garments flap and flow at highway speed, like actress Sally Field’s in “The Flying Nun.” Helmeted toddlers, balanced on gas tanks, hold tight to handlebars. Their parent’s outstretched arms surround them.

Where we stop the chartered car for lunch, our servers honor us with the wai – the bent head and prayerful hand gesture available today as a telephone emoji. The intricacies of this gesture, this silent expedient for gratitude and social leveling, take some time to master. We travelers may return a wai whenever one is shone upon us, but we ought not instigate it with anyone but elders. Thailand is principally Theravada Buddhist, and the greeting originated in that strain of faith, likely to show no ill will was in the offing, no weapon being concealed.

The smidge of island where we will lodge, named Koh Lipe, is the only inhabited spot allowed within the Tarutao National Marine Park. Tourism drives the economy of Koh Lipe. Tiny and remote, sheltered by the marine park in whose boundaries it lies, it accommodates no cars. A motorbike taxi takes us on a rutted road past dwellings of the Urak Lawoi people. Known as chao ley or chao lair in the Thai language, they are Koh Lipe’s micro-minorities. These lands and waters have nourished them for millennia, this Adang Archipelago on the Andaman Sea.

The bungalows of our Serendipity Beach Resort sprawl along a hillside. The open-air waterside restaurant below the bungalows has been scooped from among smooth stones. It’s a wayward place to have built, but so it goes. Johnny-come-latelys have been buying up every worthwhile building site. Religious icons animate the restaurant’s shadows. Carved Buddhas in shady niches peep like bracelet charms. Large Buddhas, small ones, etched from stone or native hardwood. Tiny baby Buddhas, like so many stilled GIFs, creep on hands and knees.

Nothing is not to love in Thailand, apart from jammed Bangkok, Chang Mai, and Phuket. The beaches are powdery white. The food is prodigious. The baggage handlers, housekeepers, drivers, and cooks so sweet in disposition and visage. Just as Costa Rica has its verbal brand Pura Vida, underscoring an ethic of sustainability and health, Thailand has its own verbal logo: Land of Smiles. Sincere, lovable, unforced smiles summon our sympathetic beaming in return.

The smile is the idle the people return to between gears. They know on which side their bread is buttered. Their economic interests lie in being kind. We come to share a sense of shame if we do not repay their every beaming. We taste disgrace if we have no proactive smiles ready for every chance encounter. They have yet to experience the burnout of overtourism. Or if they taste its burn, they constrain themselves by the device of jai yen, which translates to cool heart.

The practical boat to get through sea channels, the shore craft of choice, is the longtail. It gets its name from an improbably long propeller shaft at the stern that resembles a stinger on a wasp. Like a setting pole on a keelboat, the shaft is spun or elevated to clear flotsam or coral. The boat itself has a high bow. Paint, fabric or flowers ornament its proud bowsprit. The boats serve much the same purpose as the herds of semi-wild horses did for the American Plains tribes.

If one buys into geographical determinism – the notion that environment shapes human nature, just as it shapes the evolution of other species – then genetic disposition has equipped the Lawoi to navigate these seas. Seascapes and landscapes craft character, or so hypotheses go. The Lawoi have a keen ability to hold breath underwater for minutes at a stretch, accounting for how they can spearfish so well. More remarkable, they can see, can keep eyes open wide in salt during underwater work or play. A pupillary reflex gained by training, or nested deep inside the genome by now, has bestowed on them a full-immersion vision, a keen marine ability to see.

We hoof it to the town center for our evening meals. At our favorite open-air restaurant, Ja Yao, we arrive early for some lunch. Most of the staff appear sexless. Scads of gender non-conforming individuals spice this microcosm of the world. One waiter near us strips basil leaves from stalks. Then they rise, lift a water vessel, and bear it to the roadside. Our reverent waiter, at a shrine that fronts the restaurant, performs an upright bow. Then they fingertip-sprinkle the pathway that runs out front.

In the island’s center, rutted roads weave through Lawoi lodgings. Motorbike taxis fast on errands storm past the dwellings built from thatch and corrugated tin. Stilts raise the dwellings against floods, tsunamis, and monsoon mud. The Lawoi gaze from hammocks or from pallets, from beds that invite cooling air beneath them, and regard the taxis and the tourist blur. The nearby equator radiates heat. Their dogs dig burrows against high temperatures and steam.

Information about the Lawoi people proves scant and erratic. The original inhabitants of the island, they are the smallest ethnic group in southern Thailand. An inborn savvy helps them survive the frequent storms and interpret tides. Geographical determinism again appears to have favored them. Preternaturally, they foresaw the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. Dodging in time to higher ground, they lost none of their members.

They did lose prime waterfront parcels. Only a monopoly on longtail services that move tourists between the beach and offshore pontoons allows them to stay afloat economically today. Disruption brought about by tourist traffic intensifies distresses. In 2020, sovereignty activists “asked the government to pass the Ethnic Groups Protection Act” on Koh Lipe. The Bangkok Post reports that “the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation is trying to reclaim part of the land occupied by local people and new investors.” Amid such reclamation, the Department hopes to secure protections for Lawoi homes and restore some ways of life.

Ensnared in webs of misinformation, the Lawoi used to be nomads of the sea. But tourism so far regulates the Thai economy that communication about the people has become propaganda, misinformation, unreliable lore. Even though Thailand is the world’s second-largest rice exporter, tourism earns it far more money. Tourism equaled propaganda from the start. The World Tourism Organization, before it joined the United Nations a century ago, went by the name of the International Union of Tourist Propaganda Associations.

Sovereignty activists are trying to reclaim the role of art for cultural preservation. One Lawoi painter, hoping to reestablish some lost autonomy, has depicted people dancing in “a jinx-dispelling ritual.” The jinx they reference is industrial tourism. In a twice-yearly ritual during the full moon, the people build a model boat to carry their misfortunes out to sea. In the enacting of that ritual, they aim to regain a measure of the independence they now lack.

No matter how left behind they might seem today, the Lawoi are not relics on the march toward civilization. They will prove lasting and dynamic. Ebbs and flows will recur. Peripheral people like theirs get drawn into, or hover on, the edges of the urban landscape so that they may savor its abundance. Other far-flung Lawoi might set out by design to flee from their own kind.

A generation or more later, if exploitation and indebtedness have confined them, they or their descendants can trickle back from the margins. They can relearn how to thrive. They can rejoin those who remember. We are lucky to have them still to preserve the ancient skills – the fishing, sailing, reading tides, so much more. They alone uphold the old attachments to natural forces. The identities of those whom we consider “the other” often prove more complex than we know. People can get lost in our modern world. Get lost, persevere, and display great resilience.

Our resort employs a lot of people. The meal server toting breakfast to us rings the outer bell and awaits our call to enter. Inside, he kneels at our low table. Balancing the tray on table edge, he lifts bowls and beverages plastic-wrapped to shut out bugs. What keeps him and the others going so long and strong? Gratuities from patrons? An inborn desire to please? Hope for advancement? Or a tacit recognition that their fortunes are more blessed than many others?

Up and downhill from restaurant to bungalows, the service people tread the twisty stairs above the jungle floor. Beneath them, great creatures slink unseen. A horned striped lizard with red head. Massive black and yellow millipedes. A rat whose eyes reflect at night. Geckos that chirp and twitter so shrill they stymie sleep. Four-inch grasshoppers at the bottom of the food chain, deep-fried in markets alongside crickets and other insects, twenty grams of protein per.

In our privileged lives, we journey above the hidden circumstances of our destinations. Monsoons bathe us. Mosquitoes sing. Landings below each set of stairs give walkers opportunity to pause in Serendipity, to catch breath and gain perspective. Step a few more stair treads down. Level the head to the falling water puddled on the landing. Watch raindrops bounce and roll like ball bearings across each living puddle before they merge, return and become part of the whole.

Paul Lindholdt is professor of English and philosophy at Eastern Washington University and the author most recently of the book “Interrogating Travel,” to be released in 2023.

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