Moises Puentes, TESS 131
Its been almost three weeks since I was forced to leave the mountains I had begun to call home, and after a few days of traveling, as soon as the night of the day I arrived, my chest began to hurt. It felt like a charge of electricity that came and went for days until finally one night I realized what it was. It was midnight and I was in bed trying to fall asleep, my back sore from getting used to the mattress after having slept on the floor for a year, when the charge became a pressure crushing my chest and making it hard to breathe. It was a panic attack. I didn’t know what had triggered it or why it was happening, but when this happens I immediately get on the ground because for some reason being closer to the ground feels safer. I felt short of breath and my arms became stiff but I had felt this before, so I lay down on the ground and placed a hand on my stomach to watch it rise and fall. I find it incredible the power the mind has, in a matter of minutes it had been convinced I might die, but my hand was rising and falling, which meant I was breathing, and I wasn’t dying. I’m not a stranger to anxiety, it’s just I didn’t know why it was happening. I thought it could be the uncertainty coronavirus had brought, perhaps the fear of the sickness, side effects of the primaquine sulfate I had just started taking to terminate the antimalarial treatment, maybe the claustrophobia of isolation, I had spent the last year alone on a mountain but even there I had miles of nature surrounding me to explore, I had the company of my dogs and the freedom of complete solitude to the point that I could sing at the top of my lungs every day and not worry about anyone listening to me.
And as I write these words, it becomes as clear as when I was talking to someone on the phone about the life I left behind, it became clear when that pain in my chest seemed to move upwards into my throat as my voice broke, it became clear when I noticed how tense I had been and how good it felt to remind myself to breathe it out, when I felt that lump in my throat urging me to put down the phone and start crying, to start feeling because it came to my attention that I hadn’t processed this loss.
I knew I needed to write, I knew it from the moment I arrived. I knew I needed to put down what packing up my life in Thailand felt like, and what it was to leave without saying so many goodbyes.
But, for me, writing in English, perhaps because it is not my native tongue, is a delicate process, words do not come to me as naturally when I’m writing them down and therefore, I pick them carefully. Choosing these words is how I process thoughts, desires, and sorrows. It allows me to live out the past and to feel out emotions, but once they’re on paper it almost seems like marking the graves of memories. It’s a eulogy I sometimes delay for years. This time, however, it seems my body needed me to put pen to paper and let go. However, I don’t think it was just my body, it was also this constant flooding of messages and posts about jobs, fellowships, waived fees and GRE exams urging us to apply to schools I don’t even want to want to go to, and the “welcome back to america” and “what’s next” messages from people that they all mean well but do not understand we were plucked from our lives across the world with only a few days notice.
The truth is I did not want to write this because I don’t know how to write about it, and I don’t know how I feel. For me, this experience was like running a marathon, like running a long distance, because when you are, there is always the option of stopping, and many times that is the reason why we stop, because we can. Because the door is there, and it isn’t locked. Your mind plays with the possibility of stopping the pain and if you don’t have the will to fight it, you will, you will stop and you will quit.
And it was very much the same with this job. I mean, listen, no one likes taking cold bucket showers with the frozen water of a river at 3,000 feet of elevation. No one enjoys sharing the house with hundreds of spiders and ants, having leeches and finding the skin of snakes but only rarely the snake outside your doorstep. It’s hard going weeks without electricity and running water, having to shower in the rain and I can go on and on without even getting to the problems of working, despite all those challenges, in a different culture, in a different language. It was hard having anxiety and fear and feeling trapped by walls of mountains when you had a medical problem, being hours away from medical care. I can tell you about all that and more, but, always, that hardest part was the open door, knowing I could make a call, go to Bangkok, and be home in a few days enjoying the comforts of all the things society has deemed necessary.
But we stayed, and as different as the challenges we faced may have been, for all of them we received far more good in return. It is incredibly hard to try to explain how much I loved a place I sometimes did hate. If I had to describe the experience in a few words I’d have to tell you I had Stockholm syndrome. Those mountains starved me, but they fed me. They beat me, but they made me stronger. They made me cry, but they also made me smile. It took away so many distractions and provided no temptations that it felt as if existing there was the purest and most exact expression of my being. Without the pressure, limitations, and expectations of society, I was simply living. I didn’t worry about rent, or how I looked, or choosing what to cook, or what to drink, my concerns were far more primal and I suppose that is why I was happier.
Now it seems, as I write these words and mark these graves, that I find myself a little lost. I’ve been here before; I’ve always jumped, and I’ve always grown wings on the way down. So why is it I feel this way now? Well If I had to guess, I’d say it is because this time it doesn’t feel like I jumped, it feels like I was pushed. Leaving was not my decision and it was not one I had made my peace with.
But there is conflict within me as I write these words, because there is arrogance and privilege in them. After all, I am writing within walls, under a roof, with a drink on my table. I have choices, while others don’t. I’ve never felt as if I had much to offer this materialistic society we live in, but I’ve always relied on myself and when things have gotten rough I still believe I can offer myself, much like I did to this service. I’ve never cared much for money but this I can do, a life of service I’ve told myself, because I have legs that can climb and arms that can lift, I have a heart that is willing and a mind that is able. So when people ask “what’s next?” well I really do not know, but I can tell you if I can go again soon, I will, because I wasn’t done.
And I know I wasn’t done, not with the work I did there but with a feeling, with the life I had been living and the peace it brought. I realized I wasn’t done when I had to walk into the ritual my school prepared for my last day, when I walked into the center of a circle comprised of the entire school, each one of them staring at me. I stood there, feeling such vulnerability, feeling my heart breaking, feeling guilt as my gaze met theirs and wanted nothing but to escape the truth of theirs.
I felt the guilt of having taken their kindness for granted, of not having realized how fortunate I had been to be the recipient of such love, to have been welcomed into their homes and their hearts. It’s supposed to be us that’s doing something for them, but it certainly didn’t feel that way then. I felt the guilt of having stayed home on some days, of not smiling in the land of smiles, of not knowing how to accept their love. And it was that love that broke me because I didn’t really feel like I deserved it and it was a love I can never return, because it feels as if I was robbed from the opportunity and the time to work towards returning it. It was their hugs and their gifts that broke me because I felt like I could’ve done more, like I was just getting started.
It doesn’t feel like I’m done, maybe in Thailand I am, but now that I know more I can do better, and I now I know I can, I know I can take the hits, and I know I can do the work, but most importantly what I know and what I learned from that ritual is that I want to live in a way in which if I’m ever at the center of that circle once again I do not feel an ounce of guilt and I do not feel like I must escape their gaze because I know I gave it my all, and I know I gave them my heart just like they gave me theirs. I can live in jungles, and I can live in mountains. I can bathe in the rain and I can live that life again. I know I can. And, sometimes it is the people who can, who must share the weight.
So, you see, my chest hurts, and there’s a lump in my throat, and my voice breaks, because I am not here, not yet. I’m still cutting up a mango with jazz playing in the background, tossing pieces to my beautiful dog and friend, Papillon, who sent me to Chiang Mai a few too many times for rabies shots. I’m still in my hammock, listening to the river while Papillon plays with the rest of his pack. I’m still running through the mountains where the shades of green and brown seem infinite, passing by herds of cows and buffaloes, and Karen women farming in their traditional clothes asking me if I’m tired. I’m there, dirty, hungry, and tired, but I am at peace. So, yeah, my chest hurts, because it’s missing part of my heart that’s still living in the mountains of Mae Hong Son.
Read Moi’s previous articles and contributions.