When I was a kid, twelve years old maybe, a person on the other end of the phone made my mom cry. They accused her of having a “Pollyanna” view of the world. They told her that it “Can’t be sunshine all the time.” My mom cried because she couldn’t comprehend how anyone could see so much sadness where sadness didn’t need to be.
I saw her tears and balled-up my little fists, furious at the squawking voice on the other end of the electric lines. Why would anyone make my mom cry? And how could anyone think that happiness was bad?
At twelve my indignation was DNA shouting. My mom is human sunshine and I am my mother’s son. She didn’t teach me to be happy; she put a polish on what she had already given me. I’m not twelve anymore. I’m a grown man with a bald head and bad knees and yet my sunny view of the world has only gotten brighter—and not because of flourishing genetic optimism. I am also my father’s son; pragmatic, analytical. My happiness is never unquestioned. I dissect it—chop it up and examine the pieces. I wait. There are jolts that dissipate and joy that spreads from the center. I’m careful because a jolt is nothing to shout about, but joy certainly is.
I need you to know that my mom gave me optimism and that my dad taught me how to prove its worth, because I’m going shout now. I’m going to tell you a story, a story about yesterday, a pedestrian day whose ordinariness makes it the perfect choice. Parts of it will be mundane and parts of it grumbling, but as a whole I suspect it will read like Pollyanna chugging down a glass full of sunshine. I will not apologize for that. This happiness has been tested. This happiness is real.
Squawk at me voice. I dare you.
Palm trees jutting above a canopy of green, bright blues skies and the unseen sun burning a yellow penumbra that blurs the edge of the picture. The view is the same everyday and everyday it’s the sweet ass prize at the bottom of the cereal box. I stretch and groan, full of secret joy, as though I’m getting away with something naughty. As always the secret overwhelms me.
It’s too early for articulate. I need coffee. And I’ve got just the place. From my porch the jungle garden opens up wide. I sit in my favorite chair and enjoy a simple breakfast. This is my routine. Most days I pour a second cup of coffee and read for awhile or tap away at stories I may or may not finish. I love a long slow morning and I’m getting good at it. The brain noise and excess energy are still there, but Island Time is drip drip dripping into the marrow.
There will be no second cup today, I’m working the early shift 9:30am – 6pm. This is unusual for me. Julie typically takes the early shift while Khai and I rotate the middle and late shifts. I like mixing it up, it changes how we interact with the guests. At night it’s about managing the staff and doing a vibe check: is this a party crowd or a chill crowd? During the day there is more busy work to be done, but we also get to give adventure advice. We get to spread out the map and tell tales about Koh Tao; diving, cliff jumping, nature walks around rocky cliffs and how to get to that bar that sells weed and mushroom shakes.
I fire up my motorcycle and let it idle. It is very pretty and totally unnecessary for commuting Koh Tao but I don’t care because it’s very pretty. In these idling moments I often think about…
I almost lied to you. I starting writing about how “In these idling moments” I compare this commute to past commutes, this job to past jobs. Happy, happier, happiest! And then I held down the backspace key. I made it all disappear. I may be the happiest I’ve ever been, but my present is not the result of a mended past. I’ve had great jobs, lived in amazing places, met exceptional people. The past is full of stories I get to tell. Today is the result of yesterday giving me a gentle push, “Go on. We’ll always be here.” The truth is when I’m sitting on my motorcycle, idling, the only thing I’m thinking about is how much I love riding motorcycles and how fun this ride is going to be.
The Taco Shack opens at 8am. Aor, our primary receptionist has been away helping her daughter transition into high school. Our backup receptionist/handyman, Wee is the first person I see. I haven’t even taken my sunglasses off and he is already reciting a rehearsed breakdown of who needs to check out, who needs to check in, who owes us money and what bull$%^ the kitchen staff has come up with so far. Aor does the same thing. I never correct their eagerness. It’s a good trait—pesky but adorably so. I knew Wee had been on time that morning because he always checks-in via Facebook. Facebook then sends me a push notification saying, “Wee Wee has checked in at the Taco Shack Restaurant and Hostel.” I haven’t had the heart to tell him that his nickname means “baby penis.”
Most mornings are smooth; some light accounting, a kitchen and housecleaning check, chatting up the guests about their plans for the day. Today is not smooth. Three guests have requested to check-out early. They were all staying in the same dorm and they all had the same complaints; noise and ants. I know immediately who and what is to blame. The previous evening a group of hard partying guys from that dorm had gone on the pub crawl. The pub crawl is messy. I am well acquainted with booze = messy. I am well acquainted with the siren song of 7-11 snackage in the waning hours of a binge night. I know what happened. Those drunken animals came back to the dorm, kept the party going till sunrise and left a feast for ants in their wake. I explain this to the unhappy guests and promise it won’t happen again. They still want out.
So now I’ve got three beds to fill and a room full of ants. I send a squadron of Burmese girls to deal with the ants. They have names like a musical scale: mee, Moe, MAY, TAY. Spotting the culprits is easy, it’s after 11am and they are the only ones still sleeping. I sympathize with them—been there, done that. But this is not their room. They are sharing it with strangers and they need to respect that. I wake them up. Boss face. Stern: “Get as drunk as you want. I don’t care. But shut it down before you get back here. If there are any more problems you’re gone.” My warning is met with four groans and a hiccup.
11am -12pm—rush hour; guests are checking out, guests are checking in, the staff is cleaning the rooms and everyone has questions. I have just finished explaining that the only sensible route to Phi Phi island is ferry + bus + ferry because the alternative would be a boat that swings south around Singapore. This geography reveal seems more crushing than obvious. Expectant faces are waiting. WIFI? Easy. Towels? Easy. Where is the beach? Ah, my favorite question. I tell the guest to join me outside. We sit down at a stone table. I unfold the map and position Koh Tao just right. I’m in no hurry because I need time to swallow the smartass responses sloshing around like dirty dish water. I trace a path north to sunsets and nightlife, south to beaches both popular and secret, east to viewpoints no one bothers to see. The guest has more questions, good questions. We are humming and people are starting to notice. Several new arrivals join us and I am painting Koh Tao in the brightest colors. Koh Tao turns to travel, the life, the road! I am basking in it now. I love this part. This is so much sunshine I almost feel guilty. I must be hogging it. I must be leaving someone in the shade.
I feel a gentle tap on my shoulder. A girl from the cleaning crew, Burmese and four-foot nothing, explains in broken Thai that there is a foreigner in one of the beds she is supposed to clean. My Thai isn’t even good enough to be broken but I understand what she is saying. “Mai pen rai,” I say. Don’t worry about it. I know who is in that bed. He has been extending (late) for more than a week. He isn’t going anywhere. Koh Tao has him.
There is a lull now. The hostel has several busy periods throughout the day and we use the time between to catch up on little things. I am in charge of the chalk work. We have two chalkboards on the patio, a small one for food and drink promotions and a big one for inspiration. I sit down on a bench looking for just that. The board has been wiped clean; it’s still a bit wet. I’m zoned out, watching the wetness wither under the heat—thinking. Got it! I soak the chalk so it will stick. Using every color in the box I write:
Travel! Throw away the things you shouldn’t have packed. Arrive with no exit in mind. Risk. Relax. Smile. You’re in Thailand!
Julie is here now. We sit against the back wall, which is hideously and inexplicably covered in Astroturf, chit-chatting about life, work and life again. No stress. Easy easy. The beginning of each shift is busy; we use that time to clear away behind-the-scenes work so we can concentrate on the guests, the atmosphere and the spoils of the gig. I let Julie do her thing. She handles most of the tasks I don’t want to deal with; ordering from Makro (think Costco), employee payroll, ticket services—Excel file numbness. My busy work is done and the patio is empty so I sit on the swing and let it rock. I feel a twitch, muscle memory telling me to work harder, find work if there is none to be found, climb the ladder! I wish, WISH, I could siphon that mentality out of myself and pour it into my employees. They know exactly where the bare minimum is. They curl-up on it. Nap on it. I twitch because I’m still learning how to be an employer not an employee. I can sit on the swing and do nothing at all, because I quite literally own it. This is my swing. I push off with my foot, rock it—this time with defiance.
“Mike! We have no mo pen.”
Tata is the wackiest of our wacky crew—frustrating and lovable in near equal doses. Anytime I can’t find her (which is often) she is either taking a selfie or in the toilet where I am convinced she is taking selfies.
“We have a lot of pens.” I hold up a green one and click it a few times to prove my point.
“No pen. Ben. BEN.”
“Ben? Show me.”
She shakes her head frustrated by her dumb-dumb boss. She marches into the kitchen and babbles to the girls in Burmese. One of them is going to have to take responsibility for this Ben business. Keep in mind these are grown “women” whom I have caught on several occasions wearing melon rinds as hats and sitting in empty Makro boxes playing choo-choo.
The eldest steps forward. With a solemn nod she says, “Ben.”
I shrug my shoulders and give them my best what the fuck is a Ben look.
Tata has had enough. She holds up a crusty spoon and an even crustier pan. “BEN. BEN. No mo BEN.”
“OH, BEANS!! Bee-nnnns.”
Which reminds me… We have a shipment of refried beans waiting at the pier. I walk down the hill and onto a cargo ship. There is only one box left and the crew is looking at me, wondering if I’m going to end the mystery of who it belongs to. I pick it up. It’s heavy so I heft it onto my shoulder. The man behind the counter motions for me to sign and I do, right next to the line labeled Farang Food—foreigner food. My response to this seemingly derogatory label is always the same, mild offense overwhelmed by laughter. Crack open a can of refried beans and look at that goop. Imagine seeing that for the first time and imagine people eating it. To the uninitiated it must seem like a nameless thing; nameless until someone, anyone can prove they’d be willing to stick their snout in that crap. “Here white boy. Come on. Who’s a good Farang!?”
It’s 3pm and Khai just walked in. He is standing with his hands on his hips, surveying the place like an eagle in search of mice. I tell him about the early check-outs and he peppers me with questions. His questions in no way belie a lack of trust. He and I have an established Good Cop – Bad Cop routine. (Look, it says so on our lockers!) All of his questions amount to the same thing. Do I need to play Bad Cop? Or more accurately…can I!?
To the Astroturf wall! That hideous wall is the backdrop to our think-tank. It’s where all the big decisions are made. Today we have two important topics to discuss; renovations to the Mae Haad location and Sairee (followed by a thousand frustrated question marks.) Mae Haad is easy. High season is quickly approaching and we want to bash down walls before the masses arrive. We are really excited about the proposed changes; a bigger games area, a polished professional looking reception, a centralized and more efficient bar. We finalize the paper plans. Soon the hammers swing.
And then there is Sairee. There is an unfinished building in Sairee Beach, the tourist center of Koh Tao. We want it. We have a contract drafted and ready to sign. And yet for months it has gone unsigned. I won’t bore you with the minutiae. It’s a tired story—tug-of-war where there should be hugs and cheer. We talk about it every day, “We’re going to” shifted to “If we can.” I love you striped of honesty—a rote thing to say. And yet we hold out hope because if they would just hug-it-out, it could be so unbelievably, stupendously great.
The last couple hours roll by; conversations with guests, a game of pool, final bar checks and another day done. I’m off tomorrow. I should go out, socialize, flirt, but I’m not in the mood for all that, so I take a meandering route home aiming for a solo night in.
I park my motorcycle by the beach and dangle my feet over the breaker wall. The sun is just below the horizon and the sky is an explosion of purple and orange. I don’t stay long. It’s always there, that riotous view, I just wanted a peek. I dust the sand off my shorts and go in search of sustenance. I pick-up a bottle of wine and a seafood salad called “Spicy Koh Tao Girl.” I ordered it the first time because of that ridiculous name and every time since because it’s delicious. I have everything I need for a long slow evening. I hurry, anxious to chill.
My hammock is made of soft red fabric held by white knotted ropes. It is slung low over my porch—low enough to reach the glass of wine on the ground and the bottle beside. I have been here for hours, listening to music, sipping, swaying. This is exactly what I wanted. Weightless time. Liquid me.
There is a pause in the music. A text message. It’s from Khai. He needs me to switch days off. He needs tomorrow, something personal. “No worries,” I reply. And it’s true. This change in schedule, this altered tomorrow, has zero effect on my pulse, my mind, my chill. Tomorrow will be like today and there is no “have to” about that.
I sip and push. I sway.
I am happy.