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A Paradise Lost

Literary Landscapes is a monthly column by Indra Wussow, a writer, translator and director of the Sylt Foundation.

The sea is calm, as if it has been ironed, and the view from my hotel room suggests another unspoiled day in paradise. I am in Patong on the Thai island of Phuket and it seems this paradisiacal landscape lost its innocence a long time ago – on Boxing Day in 2004 when a huge tsunami hit the shores of Thailand and killed so many people, destroyed so many people’s lives, so many towns. Did it not also kill our idea of the exotic paradise? Did it not became a paradise lost? Each morning, my first glance at the sea is inevitably accompanied by the memory of what happened, by the trauma of others. Pain and loss seem to have taken over the landscape secretly as if an invisible tablecloth has been thrown over it. There is a deep sorrow I experience that speaks out of the sea and takes possession of my body, my soul. Still, for most people I meet, the tsunami of 2004 seems nothing but a distant memory of an incident from another time and space, something that has no relevance to their holiday-making today.

With their sunburned skins, the sun bathers rather look like roasted chickens from a cooking show where the crispiest chicken will be rewarded.

Jet skis dash over the bay at enormous speeds, a cruise ship spits out its 4 000 guests into the island for a day trip, making me think of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay, A supposedly fun thing, I will never do again. Wallace so masterly dissects the microcosm and the sociology of a cruise ship with such a stylistic verve and quasi-technological gaze. The cruise ship as the apotheoses of mass tourism is scrutinised with his own culture-critical impetus. I am smiling while I observe all these modern crusaders landing on the jetty to conquer the island for a day. Their major attraction will be another boat trip to a small island, called ‘James Bond Island’ by marketing experts, as parts of the film Dr. No were filmed there. A cultural appropriation that clearly shows how mass tourism is another dreadful form of colonisation and ignorance.

Right after the jetty lies the long communal beach of Patong. Thousands of holidaymakers roam the beach during the day. It is hot, humid and heavy rain is predicted. With their sunburned skins, the sun bathers rather look like roasted chickens from a cooking show where the crispiest chicken will be rewarded. Mostly Northern European and Russian, the tourists show off their burnt flesh as a trophy of the perfect holiday. At home they will be envied. While I am absorbing these ridiculous holiday scenes, I visualise one of the many videos that circulated on the internet after the horror of the tsunami. A lonely man on a beach contemplates the retreating water while all the other people run away. He must have been killed that day.

The Bangla offers cheap booze, ten shooters for 100 rand, a bucket of vodka with cola for 50 rand.

Let not the Waves of the Sea is Simon Stephenson’s account of his journey following the loss of his brother in the Indian Ocean tsunami. In this profoundly moving memoir, Stephenson gives a glimpse into the grief behind the headlines of the disaster. His beloved brother, close to him in age, was one of the 230 000 people who died in the tragedy seven years ago. Or, as he puts it so starkly at the end of this book, two people for each word over the previous 304 pages. His is a story of grief, but also of hope and of the unexpected places, where healing can be found. It is unlikely that any of the tourists here will ever read this moving memoir and those sunbathers that relax at the hotel pools use their bestsellers to claim their favourite lounger before breakfast.

The main area of Patong feels like entering another form of an abyss – the world of tourism and entertainment in their most disgusting and brutal form. There is an entire street called Bangla, that after dark turns into a pedestrian zone for drunkards and crazy boneheads whose idea of a holiday means to get as much fun out of these days as possible – fun being a flexible concept. The Bangla offers cheap booze, ten shooters for 100 rand, a bucket of vodka with cola for 50 rand. The bars swell up with people as soon as the beach time is over. More than a few partygoers collapse after drinking too much. Those who are still fine discuss openly if they should look for cheap sex with Thai women in a massage salon ( in fact, in the windows of most of the endless massage salons I see the sign ‘no sex’ to show this service is not on offer) or frequent one of the infamous ‘ping pong parties’. To visit one is a must for most male tourists and even for some couples. Ping pong parties were invented in the red light districts of Bangkok during the Vietnam War to entertain the American soldiers on leave and are still around today.

I have never seen a more humiliating form of entertainment in my life.

They are a truly colonial and misogynistic affair. Thai women, who need to do this awful ‘job’ to support their families, are abused in a way I would not have thought it existed until I saw it for myself. These so called ‘dancers’ squat on a stage surrounded by bawling men and press a ping pong ball or something else out of their vagina. I have never seen a more humiliating form of entertainment in my life. Bread and circuses for a mass of ignorant tourists, colonialism in its worst form. I wonder how these men behave at home and I am even more bewildered there are couples here to watch this spectacle too. I hastily leave this hell’s precipice and walk back to the beach, deserted by this time of the night,  except for a small gathering of six people who light two lanterns to release into the sea. Quietly they stand and watch them disappear into the ocean and it feels suddenly as if the entire world comes to a standstill. A standstill that finds the time to mourn the loss, commemorate the dead and celebrate life at the same time. I rush away so as not to disturb.

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