LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO TOMMY ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF PAI
BY AYUN HALLIDAY
I’m the one who made you a birthday cake from pancakes and pineapple jam. You were traveling solo through Southeast Asia. Having known you for two or three days, I felt your 21st should not go unremarked.
There were four of us staying at Mountain Lodge. I was the only girl, so of course, it fell to me to make the cake—Wendy to you three Lost Boys. Maybe your birthday mattered more to me than it did to you. Isaac, my traveling partner and soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, wouldn’t have bothered, nor Simon, the almost-30-year-old, balding South African with whom you were bunking to save some baht. It’s possible they were hungover from all the Tiger Power they’d put away the night before. We probably were too.
You had red-brown curls in a messy ponytail. You called everyone brother, and told us about Costa Rica, the Switzerland of Central America. You’d been outside for months, but your skin stayed pale. Don’t ask me how. None of used sunscreen.
I haven’t yet made it to Costa Rica, but if and when I do, I’m sure I’ll think of you.
Do you remember the night Isaac and Simon got into that terrible fight? Too much Tiger Power. Simon started insulting America, and within minutes they were screaming about Nazis and apartheid. It was horrible. Unlike the cheerful anti-Semitic Belgians whose company Isaac and I endured for two hours on an unsuccessful dolphin-viewing expedition in the Bali Sea, Simon was our friend.
I went to bed drunk that night, thinking everything was ruined, but in the morning, Simon and Isaac patched things up. The four of us were friends again. Did you have a hand in that? I can’t remember if this was toward the beginning of our stay, or toward the end, after we’d hiked out into the hills, ridden an elephant, eaten a civet, floated down a river on a bamboo raft…
We parted as friends, but we never heard from Simon again, nor you neither.
I thought you would be easy to find. We had your parents’ address somewhere in North Carolina.
Other travelers we met further on down the road inscribed their names and addresses below yours in the pages of my journal. It’s a thing we travelers do, or did. It was mostly just etiquette. Now I suppose we’d have to friend each other on Facebook.
Shortly after I returned to Chicago, an Australian nurse who had shared my tent through Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya left a message on my answering machine. She was in town. I was in the midst of breaking up with Isaac, and didn’t return her call. Now, I’d be too ashamed to reach out, even if I found myself at loose ends in New South Wales.
I’ve looked for you on the Internet to no avail. That’s a thing that didn’t exist back when you and Simon and Isaac and I were the first-ever guests at Mountain Lodge, Sam’s brand new guesthouse near the Myanmar border—if he’d opened a year earlier, it would’ve been the Burmese border. He’d spotted us at the intersection where long-distance buses disgorged Western backpackers, put us in his truck, promising he’d drive us back if we didn’t like what we saw. His place was simple, and still smelled of freshly cut wood. There was that lovely deck that looked out over the valley, where we sat sipping Tiger Power, gazing at thousands of stars and improvising our Mountain Lodge song.
It grew to have at least a dozen verses, one for each of us, and for Sam, and his nephew Num, and for all the things we’d done together except for the fight, a thing best forgotten, but look, here I am remembering it.
We recorded it our last night there. We left the cassette with Sam. He sat out on the deck, playing it over and over as we packed to leave.
Was there a verse about your birthday? I can’t remember. In retrospect, it was such a grand and ridiculous gesture. I think it was my way of pretending our friendship was older than it was, that we were doing something more permanent than just floating through.
On the other hand, how nice that someone cared. It was a mystifying but important thing I was asking of our hosts, a secret involving tiny candles and flour, neither of which they had. Their traditions were not ours. Num let me into the kitchen, a bare shed with a portable stove on the floor, upon which I produced pancakes one at a time, stacking them into an tipsy tower secured with sickly yellow jam from an industrial-sized tin. I must’ve squatted over that thing for an hour. It’s okay, I was good at squatting then. Still am, though my knee gives me trouble when I try to get back up. It has some arthritis from an injury sustained on my next Asia trip, with a different boyfriend, the one who would become my husband.
We revisited some of Isaac’s and my haunts, but not Mountain Lodge.
Does it still exist? I’ve searched for it, too, but nothing looks familiar. There’s a Mountain View Guest House and a Pai Thai Mountain Lodge… they all have TripAdvisor reviews and websites and wifi. None of the owners are named Sam, not that Sam’s name was Sam… it was just what he liked to be called.
He was a schoolteacher, remember? On the way to the village where we spent the night on a freezing platform, the one where we ate the civet, his students’ parents rushed out with their hands together, bowing in respect. He gave their children advantages they couldn’t.
I’ll bet these days, you can buy a Western-style cake in Pai. Or maybe not, but one thing’s for sure. If the 25-year-old me and the 21-year-old you could have travelled forward in time, we’d have Instagrammed the shit out of that birthday cake, a lopsided mess of pancakes, pineapple jam, and the plumber’s candle Num’s friend had fetched on his motorbike with the urgency of a 19th-century husband, dispatched to wake the midwife.
Guess what? The husband-who’s-not-Isaac and I have a 20-year-old daughter. Five months ’til she turns 21. She has already traveled by herself to Uganda and Peru. I wonder where her Mountain Lodge will be…
Brother, I hope this letter finds you well, or at least alive, even if it never actually finds you.
If you’ve changed your gender and your name—which doesn’t seem likely, but what do I know? It’s been 28 years since we hugged goodbye and struck out in different directions—If that’s why I can’t find you, then, Sister, I hope this letter finds you well, or at least alive.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the long running, award-winning East Village Inky zine and author of the self-mocking autobiographies No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, The Big Rumpus, Dirty Sugar Cookies: Culinary Observations, Questionable Taste, and Job Hopper. She collaborated with illustrators Dan Santat on the picture book Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo, and Paul Hoppe on Peanut, a graphic novel for young adults.
Luddite vagabonds may remember her as the author of the analog guidebook, The Zinester's Guide to NYC. As a member of the Neo-Futurists from 1989-2000, she wrote and performed in over 500 short plays and several full-length solo performances. Next up: NURSE at the The Tank, June 2018. Join Theater of the Apes’ mailing list for updates!
Header photo by Imagesthai.com