This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.
At Base Hut one day a girl approaches me. She has a beer in her hand. It’s Chang beer, the most popular beer in Thailand. Chang means “elephant” in Thai. The logo on the label has two elephants facing each other.
“So Mike,“ she says, “Are you ready to take the plunge?”
I break out in a sweat. I’ve been sober for years now, but I am out in the middle of the jungle with a bunch of hard-partying kids.
Other volunteers are watching. Some of them move closer. I feel trapped.
Something about this feels familiar. –Ah yes… high school peer pressure. In my high school you weren’t cool unless you drank.
At sixteen, I didn’t want to drink. From my vantage point then alcohol tasted bad, made you stupid, and transformed merely weird relatives into downright deranged ones.
But at that age, I desperately wanted to fit in. The way everyone talked about drinking—the house parties, the keggers in the woods, the quarters games, the crazy stories—I definitely felt on the outside looking in on all the coolness. Plus I was a Dungeons and Dragons nerd, which was like being a coolness narc. If my D&D gaming was found out I’d be shot and found stuffed in a trunk somewhere, my mouth full of twenty-sided dice.
It took me a while, but I finally caved. I drank. And I guess I was a little cooler. For a while.
Back at Base Hut, the girl is smiling at me, waiting.
“Am I ready to take the plunge on what?” I say.
The girl’s eyes glitter. She taps my arm with her beer bottle. I take a step backward.
Drinking gave me years of trouble. My twenties were a blur. My thirties were a long slog to put my life back together. There was no way that now, in my forties, I was going to put my whole life at risk for some leftover teenage-fueled desire to fit in, was I?
“A tattoo,” she says.
I blink at her. “A what?”
“A tattoo. Are you ready to get a tattoo?”
“Yeah, Mike,” one of the other volunteers chimes in, showing fresh ink on her ankle. “Everyone’s doing it.”
Thailand is the land of a thousand smiles and the land of a million tattoos. Many of the volunteers planned out their tattoos before they even arrived. The price for a tattoo in Thailand is a fraction of what it would cost in most countries, and the experiences in Thailand tend to be worth commemorating. There’s something magical about this place–not to mention all the elephants walking around.
But I would have never imagined that the new version of peer pressure would revolve around getting one.
I still wasn’t comfortable in my own skin here. I talked very little. I felt a little bit at ease with the volunteers that I came in with—sharing a very long ride with them from Chiang Mai helped to break the ice—but the veteran volunteers frightened me.
That sounds weird, a 45-year-old man scared of 20-somethings. But there it is. One of the symptoms of alcoholism is that it can feel like I am walking around in perpetual high school-outsider status. By its very nature alcoholism separates, disconnects.
New situations can be tough.
Neil and Jess, a married couple in their mid-twenties, particularly scare me.
They are among the longest tenured of the volunteers, and are coming up on the end of a six-month stay at the village. They have lived and breathed the village and the elephants. Jess gives many of the lectures on the elephants that are part of the program here, and I make sure I don’t miss any of them.
From where I stand, Neil and Jess are like the prom king and queen of the volunteers. (And they’re British, so the king and queen part fits.) Guys like me didn’t hang with prom royalty.
Weekends are free for volunteers to do whatever they like, and often people schedule trips either back to Chiang Mai or to Pai, a smaller city that is friendly to tourists. Almost always people return sporting new tattoos. At first I look at them more out of politeness than interest.
I get the appeal of them: to make a permanent life event marker, a physical manifestation of the emotional or spiritual. I considered getting some sort of cat tattoo when my cat of almost eighteen years died. The bond with him was closer than with many humans, and I wanted to honor him.
But I didn’t go through with it. Perhaps it’s because I tend to get lost in the details: if I’m going to paint a permanent picture on my body, even to honor an animal that I loved like a twin soul, then the tattoo had to be planned out carefully. It must be perfect. And perfection is the enemy of actually completing anything.
Raeah, a volunteer from Canada, returns from Pai to show off her new tattoo: two elephants ringed around her wrist, joined together trunk to tail. It’s colorful but simple, evocative. It’s beautiful.
I start to cave.
The next time I am asked if I want a tattoo, instead of laughing I grunt something like, “Hum,” and sort of shake my head no.
After another city venture, Neil has added to his gallery of tattoos.
By this time Neil and Jess have begun to abdicate their thrones—the imaginary thrones that I put them on. We’ve shared some meals, gone on a couple of hikes, and Neil and I have played together in a couple of soccer games (or “football” games, as it’s known to everyone else except us Americans).
In the football game against the mahouts, Neil is a crazy demon running up and down the field and the de facto captain. He eggs me on and calls me the “football warrior”.
They are a warm, generous couple. I like when I can make Neil laugh, because his mouth gets big and his whole face seems to explode—he reminds me of a blissful little boy when he laughs.
Neil’s returned from Chiang Mai with the mother of all tattoos. It’s of Tong Dee, the matriarch of the elephant herd. It extends from his elbow all the way up to the top of his shoulder. Tong Dee pokes her head through the leaves of a lotus flower. The lotus blooms over Tong Dee’s head. Neil tells me the tattoo took seven hours to complete. I put that fact out of my head for a minute.
Tong Dee is my favorite elephant. Every time I am close to her in the jungle, I am struck dumb. She’s always in my thoughts.
The shoulder blade, I’m thinking. I want Tong Dee there. Simpler than Neil’s version of Tong Dee, of course—no way will I writhe under a tattoo gun for seven hours my first time—but I want Tong Dee there. I need her there.
Even after I took that first drink as a teenager years ago, I still didn’t fit in. I took a million drinks after that. I hated the peer pressure and vowed I would never exert that same pressure on anyone else.
(Years later, I was reminiscing with a friend who I went to high school with about how level-headed and tolerant I was with other people after I had found the magic elixir of alcohol. I looked back fondly on my “Buddha of Booze” period.
“Yeah,” my friend said. “You were real tolerant as you were yelling at everyone, ”DRINK, PUSSY!”)
One night at Base Camp I witness the ‘home school’ version of getting a tattoo. The tattoo artist is a local man named Root, one of the most colorful personalities in the village. Instead of a tattoo gun, Root uses a pointed bamboo stick. Root doesn’t charge very much, and most of the payment is usually in beer. Chang beer.
Most of the volunteers who get tattoos in Thailand will get at least one from Root. His tattoos are cruder than most machine tattoos, but they’re perfect if a person wants a minimalist tattoo or one that has a word or a phrase that means something to them.
Maressa, a young volunteer in her twenties, is a recipient of one of Root’s “homemade” tattoos. She is getting “plays with fire” in Burmese tattooed to the side of her foot.
I watch. Maybe this is the way to go. A simple tattoo first.
Maressa is nervous but excited. She’s never had a bamboo tattoo done before. She has a couple of Chang beers ready to use as her anesthetic.
First, Root draws the words on her foot with a marker. Then he takes his sharpened bamboo stick and dips it in ink. He bends down, tapping her skin with the sharpened bamboo.
If someone asks me now if I want a tattoo, I will say yes. This will be a great thing, a wonderful epidermal monument to my time here.
Then I see Maressa’s face. She is one of the friendliest volunteers, with one of the most genuine smiles I’ve ever seen. Now that smile is stretched tight, showing too many teeth.
She chugs the beer.
I ask her if it hurts and the way she says, “Yeah, it hurts”–sounding like her natural cheeriness has been punched out of her—tells me very clearly that there is no way in hell I will be getting a tattoo any time soon.
Jess worries that she will have some difficulty finding a job back in England after the trip. It’s because of the tattoo on her hand. She shows it to me.
It’s a tattoo of Ganesha, the elephant god. The Destroyer of Obstacles.
It surprises me that someone might say no to her because she has a tattoo on her hand— especially considering that tattoos are generally accepted today. Jess’s tattoo is beautiful. It’s art. And It’s an elephant god. Who would say no to an elephant god?
By the end of my trip to Thailand I will have a picture of Ganesha on my bedroom wall. I will have T-shirts of Ganesha and the Chang beer logo with the two elephants facing each other. I will have a simple elephant necklace. I like the feel of the little silver charm against my heart.
I will feel comfortable with everyone. I will be myself.
No tattoos though.
It’s okay. I know it’s not about being cool any more. It’s not about tattoos, or drinking, or fitting in. My age isn’t an issue either.
It’s about knowing I’m enough.
All it took to figure that out was forty-five years, plus a few extra weeks in Thailand. And a million drinks.
One day I am at Base Hut and another girl approaches me. She puts up her index finger like Caesar at the Roman Forum.
On her index finger is a tattoo of a smiley face.