NON-FICTION: Plunder by Catherine Johnson 

The night before I left for Southeast Asia, my friend Annie commented that this trip would be a life-changing experience. At the time, I almost didn’t believe her. Sure, I thought it would be an adventure, but in the most naïve sense. I was excited to explore a foreign country and meet the challenge of maneuvering through it. I was eager to smell and feel the places I’d lusted after in pictures. But above all, I wanted to come home with a good story.

I was in the midst of my last semester of graduate school and I craved a vacation—time out from my exhilarating, but exhausting, school/work schedule. I had been to Asia once before, to Bali, with my half-sister, Amy, three years before, and that experience had ignited a fierce urge to see more of the world. I returned home invigorated, empowered, with a new sense of the kind of person I wanted to be. A person not unlike my sister.

I’ve always considered Amy, who is nine years older, the embodiment of the worldly, wise, independent woman. She’s fit and strong, more rugged than a Patagonia model. Her upper thighs are a lighter brown than the rest of her legs, and she has a lattice of tan lines on her back from various sports bras, worn cycling and hiking in the Colorado sun. Her arms and chest are draped with a constellation of sun kisses and spots. Her mother used to be a flight attendant and so she took full advantage of American Airlines’ employee benefits. She’s backpacked across Europe and hitchhiked in Panama. She’s taken risks. She has stories.

I’ve never really been a risk-taker. I was a shy child and preferred the safety and comfort of home to the uncertainty and potential embarrassment of being a stranger.  I hated the not-knowing that inherently comes with being an outsider—like trying to figure out public transportation as locals pushed past as you paused in the middle of foot traffic, unsure what pass you needed or how to get it or what direction your train was going, annoyed as they coolly moved with the tide of other all-knowing people. But Amy—she seemed to walk this line effortlessly, quick to observe and understand her surroundings and assimilate. We did touristy things in Bali—we rode mountain bikes through the countryside of rice paddy fields, we fed bananas to monkeys in Ubud’s Enchanted Monkey Forest—but Amy was not satisfied being “just” a tourist. A self-described “news junkie,” she sought out a newspaper wherever we went; she asked our taxi drivers what they thought of George W. Bush; she was on a mission to learn something, see something new. In Bali, she led, and I happily followed. But now I had the opportunity to lead, to gain my own international credentials. To have my own stories.

So when my best friend, Danielle, who was finishing a year of teaching English in Seoul, proposed that I spend my spring break with her in Thailand, I didn’t hesitate. I couldn’t think of a better travelling partner than Danielle. We met my sophmore year in college, and by the time I graduated she was essentially another sister to me. She was a refreshingly laid-back complement to my high-strung worrying, and one of the hardest-working, most headstrong women I’d ever met. She did everything on her own with very little, if any, help from family or anyone else. After our time in Thailand she would continue to backpack around Southeast Asia alone.

I met Danielle in Seoul and we spent three days skimming the highlights of her life there before heading to Thailand together. A week isn’t much time, but we decided to divide it between Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samet—city, country, beach. Our time in Bangkok was packed with visiting temples, browsing the floating market, and wandering Khao San Road. In Chiang Mai we pampered ourselves with Thai massages, toured the local bars, and took a day-long cooking class on an organic farm. At the end of that day we rode back to our hostel in the bed of a canvas-shelled pickup truck. I sat at the back, draped over the edge, caught in a meditative gaze as I watched the people working in the fields we passed. I thought about my life in DC—the busy routine and last six weeks of graduate school that waited for me—and the American treadmill, on which I always seemed to be going somewhere, but never fully arriving anywhere, on which there was always more to do, more to achieve, more to attain. In that moment, in the back of this truck, I felt profoundly connected yet utterly alone. Simultaneously part of and separate from my surroundings. I didn’t want anything but to be exactly where I was.

On the bus south to the beach, with three days left, we marveled at the pictures we’d taken thus far. Every image felt so rich. Pictures rarely capture the essence of their subject, but these didn’t seem to fall too short. Even with our modest digital cameras, the rainbow of purple mangosteen, sunny star fruit, and crimson rambutan in the market, the gilded Grand Palace, the illuminated store signs and tantalizing restaurant patios full of animated, boisterous foreigners, almost seemed adequately represented. Or perhaps Thailand is simply so sublime, that a fraction of that can’t help but trickle through the lens.

And then, of course, there were the pictures of us. Us together. Us being adventurous. Us not at home, but far away in an “exotic,” not-America place. We flipped through the collection several times—recounting the illustrious Reclining Buddha, whose elongated torso barely fit in the frame; the piquant, authentic Thai street food that teased us with the smell of chilies and lemongrass, and the deep-fried crickets and worms we didn’t have the courage to try; the Pad Thai and Green Curry we’d made ourselves on the organic farm. Proudly, we stowed our treasures and slept until we arrived at the ferry that would carry us to our beachside bungalow. Finally, it seemed to me, I was living up to Amy’s example.

One of my favorite things about Southeast Asia is the way the businesses on the beach are really on the beach. When Amy and I were in Bali, we ate our last meal at a restaurant with our toes curling in the sand, carefully dismembering our lobster as the sun slipped out of sight in front of us, no proscenium separating us from that view. So while our bungalow in Koh Samet was removed from the shore by a road and 100 yards, the hotel’s restaurant was not. Tables and chairs dotted the ocean front, diners and sun bathers sharing the same orb. This freedom also extended to the bars and dance clubs that began to pulse and gyrate after dusk, spilling drunk Westerners into the surf. That night we joined our tribe, other American, European, and Australian twenty-somethings, perusing the establishments whose lights confused those in the sky. We imbibed cheap cocktails and flirted with our cohorts, garishly swapping tales of where we’d been and where we planned to go next, illustrating our exploits with the aid of our cameras.

Eventually Danielle and I caught the interest of two men: one from the island, Law, and the other from Manchester, England, Paul. I’d noticed Paul walking on the beach that afternoon. He was tall and earthy-looking with an unkempt beard. I fell into a coquettish conversation with him. Soon he was holding my hand, talking softly. As the house music faded shortly after 4 a.m., the four of us stumbled onto the beach, giddy, intoxicated, unwilling to end the night. So when Danielle and Law proposed a late-night swim, I agreed. But because our bungalow seemed too far away, or because we were impatient, or simply not thinking, we gathered the belongings we had—our cameras in their cases accompanied by some cash, credit cards, and the key to our room—and buried them in the sand under a restaurant chair, draping our clothes over its arms and back.

I’d never been particularly eager to be with a man on a beach. Despite growing up in California, the prospect of re-enacting an iconic Burt Lancaster/Deborah Kerr moment was never a priority in my romantic imagination. My earliest memories of the beach are birthday parties in foggy Half Moon Bay—not the warm locale that southern California flaunts in Hollywood films. I tried desperately to perfect a technique which would enable me to swim in the ocean yet emerge clean and unscathed by carefully placing my flip flops where I could reach them after my feet were rinsed off by an outgoing wave, but before they were coated by a rough layer of sand granules. This never worked and I loathed the forty-five minute car ride home full of futile attempts at removing sand from my body.

So I’d never desired to do anything on a beach that would make this process more uncomfortable than it already was. However, it seemed unconscionable to not go swimming in the Gulf of Thailand, in the middle of a star-clad night, with an attractive man who called me “love” and wanted to kiss me in the moonlight, chase me toward the shore, and collapse into my arms as the waves caressed us. I’d had enough to drink that the inevitable discomfort seemed well worth the story. More important than whether I wanted to swim in the ocean with a stranger in the middle of the night, was that I wanted to want to swim in the ocean with a stranger in the middle of the night.

But despite the ambiance, Paul was a sloppy kisser, his beard scratched my face, and being repeatedly punched in the face with mouthfuls of salt water from incoming waves as we lay in the surf was stinging my eyes and making me nauseated. I did not feel sexy, and I did not want to have sex on the beach. I was also nervous. I kept glancing back at the shore, trying to decipher in the dark which chair housed our belongings, and then out to sea where I could barely decipher Danielle’s silhouette. She was sitting on Law’s shoulders, only to be hoisted off and thrown into the ocean, he diving in after her. On land I thought I saw a figure running in the distance; at sea I couldn’t see Danielle any more. Panic stirred. My buzz was drowning and the romantic narrative I’d created was being subsumed by every overseas nightmare, real or imaginary, that I’d ever heard of. Suddenly I envisioned a variety of horrible things happening to us—rape, kidnapping, stolen identities. What was I doing out here? After all, I wasn’t really adventurous.

Finally, I broke away from Paul, and walked in the direction of our stuff. There were our clothes, the chair. I reached underneath. My hands dove into the sand, wrist-deep. Fingers clutching like the hanging claw of an amusement park game, grasping for the prizes below. I squinted in the plastic moonlight. I pawed at the sand, increasingly frantic. Danielle arrived beside me. Maybe they were under a different chair? It hadn’t been that long, we weren’t that far away. But hadn’t I thought I’d seen someone? A shadow darting down the beach? Law and Paul were helping too. Over and over we combed that patch of sand. But there was nothing. No camera cases, no cash, no credit cards, no room key.

I started to cry. This was not how the story was supposed to go. Then Law said he might know who had taken our things: a group of young boys that roamed the beaches and took advantage of unsuspecting visitors like us. Danielle, distressed but comparatively calm, accompanied him to find them and file a police report. Paul and I stayed on the beach, digging through the sand, in the miraculous case that we’d just missed them.

The sky was turning navy blue. When I could no longer deny that the cameras were really gone, and that I had my own stupidity to blame, I collapsed on the steps of our hotel, waiting for Danielle to return on the back of Law’s motor bike. Any affection toward Paul had evaporated, but still he stayed, trying to comfort me.

“I’m really sorry that your cameras and money were stolen, but I’m still so glad that I had this night with you,” he said. To which I responded with the meanest thing I’ve ever said to anyone: “If it weren’t for you I’d still have my camera. I think you should go.” Seemingly more confused than hurt, he did.

It was dawn now. The backs of my eyes were burning from the lack of sleep and crashing adrenaline. My clothes were damp and dirty, the Gulf’s dusty film covering me like a wet suit. I didn’t even try to brush it off. Danielle had been gone for several hours, and I was starting to worry when the motorbike with her on it finally pulled up. No luck. They had gone to the home of Law’s suspect, but he wasn’t there, and the police weren’t helpful. We were supposed to leave the island in a few hours. We had planned to spend our last night in Bangkok, and if that was going to happen we needed to catch an afternoon ferry back to the mainland, and another bus from there.

Danielle parted from Law (much more gracefully and kindly than I did from Paul) and we contemplated what to do next. It was still early in the morning. Koh Samet was just waking up. We had to cancel the credit cards that were taken, but we couldn’t do this until the hotel’s front desk opened, and we could gain access to their computers. I was desperate to shower and change my clothes, but without a key to our room, that too had to wait. Disheartened and demoralized, we went back to the beach for a nap.

I was so tired it was hard to sleep. Fluttering between rest and wakefulness, my mind kept mulling over what had happened. Really it wasn’t that bad. We still had our passports. We had other ways of getting money. But the pictures. It was as if our entire trip had vanished. I had nothing to bring home. No one would see the food we made on the organic farm, or the markets, or temples. I had nothing to show for myself and I worried that without those images eventually the trip would feel like it had never happened. But what cut even deeper was the shame, the failure. I should have known better. I should have been smarter. Amy would never have been that stupid. She was savvy. I was an imposter. A stupid American, who stupidly set herself up to be robbed—invited herself to be robbed.

The hotel lobby finally opened and we sheepishly explained what had happened. We got into our bungalow and began the process of cancelling the necessary cards online. But in a bout of sleep-deprived thoughtlessness, I accidentally cancelled my debit card, instead of my credit card, which was the only card I’d lost, and ended up losing access to my bank account and credit line for the next three days. Another failure.

After our things were as in order as they could possibly be, we ate breakfast at the hotel’s buffet. Picking at our food, we recalled the sunrise that morning. As I sat on the hotel steps and she clung to Law from the back of his motorbike, we’d both been struck by its fierce intensity, the sun ascending as a flaming red globe, regal, powerful. Danielle commented that she’d wished she could have taken a picture, and yet, she might not have seen it at all if we hadn’t been up looking for our cameras.

Tired and unwilling to rally ourselves for the trip back to the mainland, we decided to stay one more night, then leave early the following morning to make our flight out of Bangkok. We ventured down to Silversand, the resort where we’d first met Law and Paul the night before. I wandered through the bungalows, trying to remember the number of Paul’s, or hoping to see him in passing, so I could apologize. I felt terrible about what I’d said. But I never saw him again.

That evening we went to the bar that Law’s family owned. He made us strong drinks and we sipped them while sitting on pillows at a short table adorned with pretty paper lanterns hanging above. Gradually we were able to find humor in the situation, to laugh at ourselves and relax. We hadn’t slept more than an hour or two that day, so it started to seem like a dream anyway, the way things do when days smudge together. I couldn’t deny that I’d wanted a story, and now I had one. It just wasn’t the kind of story I thought I was after. When I pictured my sister traversing the globe, I saw a woman who was in control. I didn’t understand that not only was that never actually the case (she was not in control when she got a severe ear infection in the Philippines and longed for Western medicine; she was not in control when the boat she was on to Trinidad and Tobago turned out to be a drug cartel), the only way to learn and grow was to relinquish control. What I admired wasn’t her ability to command her surroundings, it was her willingness to be made vulnerable by them.

What’s more, I started to see I’d come to Thailand with a perhaps distinctly American attitude, one I’d wanted to didn’t apply to me. I regretted that my camera had been taken, but I knew that I had arrived with my own desire to take, to plunder. To, in a way, mine the country for experiences that would sharpen a specific sense of self, a self-centered idea of who I was in the world. That expectation had been, and needed to be, ruptured.

The night was still young when we finished our drinks with Law, and even though the previous evening had been a disaster, we were determined not to let that sour our final hours together. Soon we would be on opposite sides of the world again. I’d go back to school and work, and Danielle would continue her travels. I didn’t know when I’d see her again.

So we went dancing.

As we returned to the club, I felt unusually light. I wasn’t carrying anything; I had nothing to carry. My arms and hips found new freedom in the music. This time I didn’t scan the crowd looking for someone to lock eyes with. I didn’t want to meet anyone or do anything but dance with my best friend, with myself, in that place, on that night. I was overwhelmed by the same calmness that I had experienced during the truck ride back from the farm, a moment that meant more to me than any picture, one that was never photographed or documented. It wasn’t even spoken. As I moved, I felt the same way as I did then: isolated, alone, yet deeply connected to the other bouncing, sweaty, nameless bodies.

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Catherine Johnson

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Catherine is a recent graduate from the MFA program in Nonfiction Creative Writing at Portland State University. Her writing has appeared in Nowhere Travel Magazine and District Lines. She lives and teaches writing in Portland, Oregon.

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Featured image entitled ‘Dancing Bodies’ by Peterson Dessalines.

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