At first I didn't know what to make of the pint-sized Jolly Green Giant with a gentlemanly manner and sunny smile, who seemed so eager to meet me, his right hand confidently cupping a stack of business cards. “Where are you from?” he gurgled pleasantly in token Thai-accented English, smiling like the Geico Gecko.
I was used to strangers making small talk when I sprawled out on my backpack, cutting butts, waiting for ships to take me to the islands. But sometimes, friendships come with business attached.
“You know, travel a lot.” I went into aloof mode.
“I think from your accent that you are English.”
“No, actually North American.”
“Yes, a very nice country.”
Funny he'd say that, when he'd obviously never been there. There was an embarrassing silence, then the stranger continued.
“I have a very nice hostelry where I'm sure you'll be pleased to stay when you get to ________.”
I pretended to be interested. “How much does it cost?”
“Very, very cheaps!” He seemed sincere, even smiled, as if he had an important secret to keep that only could be talked about in a pleasant but low voice.
“Actually I'm going to Ko Samui,” I explained.
“After Ko Samui, you should come visit my hostelry on __________.” He peeled off a card from the stack and stretched out his hand a mile. Mr. Friendly's Vacation Bungalows (or something like that).
“Mr Friendly?!” I reiterated. “That's incredible! Is that your real name?” I said with a mixture of alarm and amusement.
“Yes, it is. My name is Mr. Friendly.” He paused. “Now I must go to visit with the other tourists to see if they want to stay at my hostelry.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you, er, Mr. Friendly.”
“Likewise. Now I must go.”
The ship docked. The tortoise-like backpackers struggled on board under the weight of their packsacks as best they could. Again, this was the reason I traveled so much. Nothing beats being on an old unseaworthy-looking clunker cutting the waves, sun in your face, wind in your hair, sailing toward paradise islands with blinding white beaches and five-dollar huts. The other travelers looked blasé, world-weary, old hand, their manner suggesting this was their fifth trip out to the Gulf of Thailand, of Ko Samui, Ko Pha Ngang and Ko Tao. I wanted to go further afield, though, to an undiscovered Ko, “To Come” free of bullish backpackers.
We all find it “convenient” to be a little leery of our fellow countrymen and travelers. These were dodgy British drifters and German perpetual students, wearing “Tintin in Tibet” T-shirts, loose-fitting Thai string pants, flip flops and local girlfriends. Or American and Canadian eager beavers with eyes like full-moon parties, dreaming of finding the right island (and the right guy) to TEFL and Import-Export. No matter how many “special” jungle curries they scarfed, how many Singha beers they sucked, how many gastrointestinal disorders and ear infections they survived, or how many travel wallets they had nicked (by fellow travelers, of course), they kept on coming back to the Thailand, wild to experience Alex Garland's, The Beach.
Halfway out to the islands, I noticed something a little off. One of the crew was running around like a maniac with life preservers, a mayonnaise grimace on his face that spoke of untold disasters in the future. I noticed some of the other passengers doing a What What? also. The charmed atmosphere turned chilling. I scanned the other passengers' faces for some inside scoop of the troubles to come, feeling as stoic and removed as a couch potato with a blaster reacting to newscasts on distant corners of the planet – a tsunami, an earthquake, a hurricane. Then all at once it hit: the ship was going down, me in it.
A quick gander downstairs confirmed my fears. The crewmen were furiously filling buckets from a sinking ship, running upstairs pell-mell, and dumping them over the railing. Exactly five orange life vests were thrown on deck – for over twenty-five passengers. That's when the jokes began, combined with that awful sick feeling, plus whistling urges of hysteria. I thought I'd be brave, casually pull one of the life preservers towards me gently with my foot. “Any Olympic swimmers here?” I thought without saying.
All of us goners sat on deck in a funk. To wait. Some were crying. Yes, the boat was obviously going down, very quickly. What could be more humiliating than perfunctorily drowning while on holiday? At least it was a little romantic: Didn't Shelley and Byron (Robert, not Lord) perish in the waves?
After about fifteen minutes (or less), I heard some of the crewmen cheering. I looked up and saw a rescue ship steaming towards us, blowing its horn. It pulled alongside. We tossed our backpacks on. Then a couple of boards were put up over the railings so we could crawl ship to ship. One pony tailed girl, who looked as if she'd be happier in the Hamptons, refused to go, had to be carried. I crawled over the boards like a beetle creeping up the chopsticks of a Chinese god. Safely aboard the rescue ship, we staggered down into the hold to recover from our fear, a sea of backpackers sprawled out on the floor, in fetal position. Bartleby the Scriveners. The groaning grew louder, as I milked the mild shock out of my system. When I went on deck later, I was surprised to see that we were towing the other ship. Now that we were safe, how did I feel?
Eventually I did visit _________. I did locate Mr. Friendly's hostelry. He was surprised to see me, meaning, he didn't remember me. A few of the guests (probably dolebludgers on shoestring budgets) seemed a bit miffed that the restaurant meals were more expensive than the five-dollar lodgings. They loudly voiced their opinion on this matter between sips of overpriced Singha beer.
Mr Friendly, standing right there, looked a little embarrassed, but obviously didn't care. I could tell that Mr. Friendly was not only friendly, but a shrewd businessman.
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