A San Francisco Bay Area native, Praveena loves slam poetry and cold cliffy beaches. Her belief in the power of storytelling feeds her daily practice. She is a maker of higgledy-piggledy to-do lists, vegan cuisine, and the occasional scrapbook.
While my social media feed has been filled with skinny bodies in bikinis holding bottles and martinis, my friends and I decided to venture on a very different kind of spring break in Khao Sok National Park. Molly, Abbey, Alissa, and I caught an overnight bus to Bangkok followed by a flight to Surat Thani.
An hour before catching the bus, my mom called in tears. Her grandmother, my only great grandparent left, had just passed away. She left peacefully in her own home in Bodinayakkanur, Tamil Nadiu, India. My relationship with my mom changed in the matter of a phone call. For the hundreds of times my resilient mom has consoled me, this time I could be a source of calm and comfort for her. These months abroad have been filled wth learning and growing not only on my own, but also in my relationships here and afar. After the rush of getting on the bus in time, I thought back to Avva and Bodi, a place frozen in time and filled with pockets of wonder and peace. For me, Avva and Bodi are inseparably entwined together- it's amazing how a person's home can take on the feeling its owner exudes. While my peers fall asleep on the bus, I fall back into hazy memories of being in Bodi, flying on the washed out yellow swing chained to a tree. Beside me are my two younger siblings, Vivi and Kavi, giggling and pleading for Thatha to push us faster. I reflect on how many family members must have also sat in our seats, swaying and dreaming about their future.
Here in Thailand, some of the rural areas I'm hosted in remind me of the Bodi home. The sect of Buddhism practiced here has threads of Hinduism braided into the religion as well. My brown skin is closer in color to the flesh of Thai locals than the pigmentation my American peers wear. Together, these factors have made me attune to my Indian identity more than ever before. I feel privileged to have traveled enough times to Bodi to have fond memories of my own. It's a place deeply rooted in heritage and family moments, big and small. As I rock on the bus to my Spotify playlist, Rock with You plays and I simper at a sweet triviality: my mom danced and listened to Michael Jackson tapes during her youthful summers in Bodi, and I happened to be on the same veranda when Michael Jackson died.
We drove down to Khao Sok, blasting Rent. I've never had the chance to listen to the soundtrack or watch the play, but hearing the story through music was so timely. The musical centers around young, poor artists trying to thrive in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDS era. As my best friend, Celeste, put it, “It’s queer as hell and a story that ties deeply with the San Francisco community as well.” The emotional car drive reminded me of how artists can weave public health messaging into their craft. Struck with emotion and inspiration, I felt my (current) purpose so clearly. I want to connect different disciplines (i.e. spoken word and healthcare) to produce synergistic art. More than a specific vision, however, I want to leave viewers ruminating deeply-perhaps even spellbound- after immersing in my art/writing. I'd like to think that's essence of culture change. I transported back to swinging in Bodi so many years ago; back then my aspiration of being an artist was barely notional, but I had strong pre-teen dreams of making an impact that moved people.
As we drove, we sang along to Seasons of Love and passed by majestic mountains. The monstrous mounts screamed "you are small minuscule beings in a great, great universe.” Feeling humbled by Mother Nature, we finally arrived wide eyed at the hostel I booked. Warm humans greeted us and I met people from across the globe. Human interaction in hostels can be so romantic; you meet someone and hear their story, and say bye knowing you'll never meet again.
The next day we took a lake tour. After breaking for lunch on a floating village we trekked through the jungle. I looked up at canopies speckled with whistling bamboo, and took long breathes of air marked by a distinct refreshing lush aroma. Then, we entered the cave. Inhabited by impressive creatures and resplendent crystal rock formations, this chamber astounded me. The water started to rise and eventually we were neck deep in cool, flowing cave water. I flashed my headlight and smiled at spiders larger than my face, waved at different bat species, and reeled back at nocturnal catfish flashing their bright blood-red eyes (Ahhh!!). In the middle of the cave, we held firmly onto a rope while an abundant waterfall gushed directly onto my giddy face.
On our final day together, we hiked on our own into the national park and stopped by waterfalls, monkeys, and vast vines hugging trees in a frozen protective dance. Molly came out of the first waterfall with battle scars after losing to a pufferfish and a leech. We felt like ants in It's A Bugs World traversing the jungle's tallest grass in the world: giant bamboo. The trees in the jungle felt like wise stars watching me; I felt and know I am young and small.
"I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling."
—Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Phu Tubberg (sometimes written as Phu Tab Berk / Tabberk / Tabberg / Tubberg / Tubberk / Thap Boek) stands 1,768 meters above sea level. Historically, The Hmong People cultivated this soil to produce opium. Since its restriction, the Hmong have turned to planting an alternative crop: cabbages. With no place to stay or way to get to the summit, Beth and I set out on Friday morning determined to breathe the cold mountain air composed of redolent earth and sweet cabbage fragrances.
Between an unnecessary cab, shuttle, bus, three hitchhiking trips, and a final cab ride over, we were surprisingly content with the inefficiencies of spontaneous travel. In fact, the roundabout journey brought us unexpected small moments of joy. While backtracking on a shuttle after taking the first 6am cab to the wrong bus station, we passed by the Khon Kaen School for the Deaf. My tired eyes widened and I squealed to Beth, “No way! I’ve been looking for a way to learn more about Thai Deaf Culture.”
The state of California has two Schools for the Deaf, and I grew up walking distance from the school in Fremont. Though I didn’t have any close Deaf friends growing up, many of my peers had Deaf relatives or were involved in the Deaf community. Always intrigued by Deaf culture and sign language, I decided to pursue learning more at Tulane. I petitioned for American Sign Language as a foreign language, rather than just a linguistics elective.
Daydreaming on the bus ride to Lom Sak, I flashed back to my first ASL class. While waiting for the teacher to arrive, a woman enters the room. I remember the professor’s first name is Rocky, and I think to myself this must be her. She goes on to describe the course syllabus but after a few minutes I notice she is actually interpreting the older man in the other corner of the room. After the first day of class, this mysterious woman never returned and we were all taught by the real Rocky Miller, my Deaf American Sign Language professor. I was forced to immerse myself in ASL; it was an hour and fifteen minutes of silence, frustration, laughs, learning, and expression. He opened my eyes to the Deaf world and culture, and we were forced to practice mindfulness. There were absolutely no distractions or note taking; we glued our eyes to our instructor and mimicked his signs, latching onto every manual movement and non-manual expression.
The mysterious woman did, in fact, return my third semester. Rocky was a victim of the Baton Rouge flooding and at the last minute, Denise Crochet became my professor. As a hearing interpreter, she had a very different teaching style. ASL soon became one my most challenging classes, but it took my signing to the next level. Her stories of interpreting for famous singers ranging from Stevie Wonder to Keith Urban were ones we hung onto, along with many takeaway lessons. Extremely well traveled, Denise testified to the fact that she could often find Deaf people in different countries and communicate with them, despite the different sign languages around the globe.
After a great ordeal of reminiscing, we arrived at a campground. The Hmong people we encountered, greeted us with such kindness. We strolled by Qua, a local farmer, who showed us her organic strawberry patch and insisted on packing us a small bag for snack. Cows, cabbages, and hundreds of white heavenly butterflies surrounded us. The snowy darlings danced around us, taking small breaks to pollinate one vibrant flower to the next. We were in a cabbage patch dream.
As it is hot season in Thailand, tourists were sparse and we felt like we had the magnificent mountain to ourselves. Camping at the edge of the summit was breathtaking, especially for the morning sunrise. We awoke to a scarlet orb swelling in the fog studded sky at 6:30 am and for the first time in months, we finally felt cold.