Most tourists, I imagine, aren’t searching for anything new, they are merely escaping the old. They are running away and I am one of them.
It’s almost midnight when I cross the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, step on the wooden jetty and head for my hotel, the flavour of Thai green curry I had eaten earlier still fresh in my mouth. The year is 2004 and A. Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, has admitted to selling nuclear-weapon designs to other countries, including North Korea, Iran, and Libya a few months ago; and Al Qaeda has taken responsibility for a terrorist attack in Spain that left 200 dead. It’s the middle of July and therefore Yasser Arafat is still alive—he will die in November—and the worst Tsunami of 40 years that will devastate Asia and leave two hundred thousand dead is outside anyone’s imagination.
As I labour through the humidity, the local rum I had drunk with friends at a fancy bar discovers my sweat pores. I can survive the heat but the humidity feels as if a faucet has opened somewhere inside me. It has drained all my energy, and my urge to remain awake is now half-hearted. It’s my third day in Thailand and I am already exhausted. I wish I was from Mumbai, or Chennai, the latter the city I was born in, and not from Delhi.
Five minutes later, as I turn a corner I find myself surrounded by fake smiles. The garishness of the make-up gives them away. I have always believed that not surrendering to your conscience keeps you poor. It’s at display around me. I sense a sway in my head but can’t quite control it.
‘I don’t need it.’ I plead to the one who is the most persistent.
What the hell, I think to myself, meticulous planners never make good travelers. Since there is no one waiting for me at my hotel room and the humidity has already claimed most of the alcohol, I join her at a bar nearby and we chat, in different languages, through gestures, and we laugh, do high-fives, and nibble greasy meat that I have never tasted before. Her name is Rita she says, and that’s the only thing I understand in the half hour we spend together, before I get up to leave, not too unhappy paying three times the cost for the food and beverages for the two of us. I have liked her company, the loneliness in her eyes that I can oddly relate to, and though I can’t help staring at the firmness of her breasts as we pause outside to say goodbye, I find myself thinking about love. What does love mean for a tourist who is running away?
When I reach my room, I drink water, looking out through the window at the well-lit buildings in the distance and smile. It has been a good day and I have discovered something new: money can get you everything here, including, perhaps, even a life. And you don’t a need language for it. I am not sure if I can say the same about love though. Is love something that’s embedded in the past and can’t be escaped? Or is it a delightful discovery reserved for a future that can’t be found?