When I turned 50, I was awarded ‘Awesomeness Points’ by my daughter for getting my first tattoo in a bamboo hut, down a dirt track, in the jungle of Chiang Mai, North Thailand, surrounded by elephants. Rather a proud moment really, earning said points. Then, a few days ago and three years on, I repeated that journey, from New Zealand to Bangkok to Chiang Mai to an hour north of Chiang Mai then through the elephant park to see Jodi Thomas, artist and elephant activist extraordinaire in her new bamboo hut down another track, still surrounded by elephants, and requested some further tattooing. As you do.
Jodi and I met up at the park, and immediately she took me on a ‘short walk’ in the midday sun to the local village to get some cilantro a.k.a. coriander to go with our lunch. Keep in mind while you picture this that three days ago I had left the New Zealand winter and travelled through a time zone or two on a long-haul plane ride, plus a short plane trip, plus a 12-hour train journey. My feet were shod with a new pair of jandals/flip-flops/thongs – whatever you want to call them – that were yet to be run in, and my clothing felt sticky and grungy in that way peculiar to having just bounced from one place to another to another for several days in a row. This particular day happened to be a pretty hot one, and my body was yelling at me “What the bl**y f*cking h*ll are you doinggggg to meeeeee??????”, (‘scuse the language Dad, if you’re reading this) while we walked past an elephant or two of questionable backgrounds and personalities (unchained, by the way) and stepped gingerly over a bridge crossing the river that was apparently fine if you stuck to the (not really very) sturdy planks in the middle.
The pinnacle of this little jaunt was Jodi pointing out a half-dead snake on the side of the bridge near the further end which ‘some stupid human had decided shouldn’t exist’. Erm, half dead equals half alive, right? Half-fascinated and half-horrified, I peeked at said serpent while trying not to go anywhere near it in case it abruptly gained a new lease on life. What I saw of it was purdy-looking – yellow spots on a black background – and I truly was sad that someone had done harm to it, while thinking to myself that I honestly would have been a wee bit happier not even knowing that it existed.
We were definitely not in Kansas any more Toto.
Further along the dirt road we reached the shop, which was open at the front to the heat and the dust, shading tables of fresh fruit and vegetables. Inside on rows of shelves sat a myriad of useful things and a fridge full of cold drinks. Mentally I climbed inside the fridge and sat amongst them, while waiting for Jodi to purchase her cilantro. Locals wandered in and out, some walking and some on motorbikes, dogs meandered about or lay around watching the goings-on, the occasional chicken pecked hopefully at the ground, and the sun beat down upon it all mercilessly.
On the return journey we stopped and admired plants, hanging fruited vines, butterflies and the scenery – rice paddies with a background of mountains, everything green and lush, and the air zinging with large dragonflies. Did I mention it was hot?? I’m still gasping at the mere memory of it. Back over the bridge, past the elephants, then down another track to Jodi’s place. That part of the walk went like this: Go past some large columned night shelters for the elephants, turn right and take the track that goes through fields with large umbrella-like structures, under which groups of elephants graze. Go left onto another track, picking your way gingerly through a mud puddle on the side of the road to avoid the elephant standing a metre or so away from you, hoping it doesn’t take exception to your puny and probably irritating presence. Walk a bit further then veer off the track to the left and through the grass whose sole purpose in life is to tangle with your feet and trip you up, while – in my mind’s eye at least – hiding nests of snakes that are just dying to snap onto your ankle, (my imagination runs riot at such times as these). Over the ditch via a short, fragile split-bamboo bridge, up a slope covered in more trippy grass, through the thinly-constructed gate that has to be lifted and opened in a certain way, past Cybertron, greatly-feared rooster and Keeper of the Gate, under the house, the joists of which contain it’s own microcosm of insect life, step around onto the first stair to avoid the very slippery landing, and up the stairs to the door.
Thus we had arrived at Jodi and Raki’s Maison de Bamboo.
The hut is made of wooden beams and joists, and split bamboo, with walls that have space between the slats to allow air flow. The roof is very high and the floor consists of two layers or so of split bamboo that squeaks when you walk on it and requires a light-footed approach to moving around. To be honest, I was a bit concerned about putting my foot right through it, and I was discovering that Jodi’s main catchphrase “just don’t step on the weak-looking spots” seems to apply to many different situations around here. I had to flop down in a chair in front of the fan and just chill for a while (pardon the pun), waiting for my heartbeat to slow down and my skin to cool off. My yet-to-acclimatize body was possibly not that far off from heatstroke, although I hadn’t quite reached the stage of seeing spots in front of my eyes, as I once experienced in New Delhi after a “mad dogs and Englishmen” moment during monsoon season. Jodi got on with making lunch while I appreciated her beautiful paintings that sit around the walls, mainly paintings of elephants she knows or has known, and the easel holding a painting of a dog that she and her son Raki are doing as a combined-effort-art-piece.
Thick dust-covered everything and I learned from Jodi that her hut had been constructed in a hurry and the bamboo hadn’t been treated properly, thus she has the ongoing company of hoards of hungry termites which are literally eating her house as we speak. The thick dust is a result of that and ongoingly drives her crazy as it lands on and clings to everything in her home.
She told me that the treating of bamboo requires cutting it and soaking it in water for a month. This gets rid of the insects. You then dry it in the sun and thus it is ready for using. Another way to do it is to soak it in boron for a while, then once again dry it and begin construction, sans voracious house-eaters.
We sat down to a lovely Mexican-style lunch, including yummy fresh spinach and tortilla bread, and chatted nine-to-the-dozen about travel, art, family and other things. I presented Jodi with an embossed metal letter J that I had created for her just before leaving New Zealand and babied all the way to Chiang Mai, and thankfully I was able to give it to her intactus. Whew! That was THAT responsibility off my hands!
We planned my new tattoos, then got a lift back to the park’s main buildings from Pedro on his motorbike sidecar getup, while Raki and his friend raced us, Raki dressed up as Deadpool, or some such character, (pardon my ignorance – I am old) carrying several bottles with him to be filled with drinking water. I took a video while I had the chance and got some nice footage of the line of elephants we met along the way.
Later in the afternoon, I made my way back to Jodi’s place and managed to get myself lost. Yup, the blonde factor strikes again. I was born with zero directional ability, and it causes me frequent mishaps, albeit often turning into interesting stories to share later, much to the amusement of those who know me. Fortunately, a kindly older man bicycling past organized a younger guy to give me a lift on his motorbike. Across the thin little bridge, through the trippy grass and tricky gate, past Cybertron and up into the hut. While Jodi continued the latter part of the tattoo planning, I bent her ears with my ukulele playing and accompanying wailing, and I met the large beetle, who I decided to name Bruce, when he popped in for a visit. I also met the rat in the roof, whose name I am unsure of, and Jodi told me of the snake she had in the ceiling recently, who mercifully didn’t drop by while I was there.
Design phase finished, we went downstairs to the open-air under-the-house area, said hi to Mr Gwaang the stag beetle who turned up to chill for a while, put on some Roger Waters music and the tattooing began. A mendhi-style flower to complete my original filigree elephant tattoo on the left arm, and a bee with Maori-style detail on the wings and body, plus the quote “We’re all just walking each other home” on the right. My name is a derivative of the Hebrew word for “bee”, plus our family was involved in beekeeping several years ago. And most importantly, without bees, we will die. They are a crucial part of the earth’s ecosystem and I have enormous respect for them industrious lil’ workers, bless their beautiful little fluffy bums. Thus the bee tattoo.
Finally, after an evening’s labour for Jodi and a small amount of pain for me, the tattooing was done. Jodi kindly walked me back to my room, while we kept the torch low to the ground so as not to disturb the elephants’ sleep and listened happily to the frogs croaking and the insects speaking all around us. We almost made it there in silence, when one, then two, then several more dogs rushed up to us barking madly. Whoops! Sssshhhhhhhhh!!!! Thankfully it didn’t set the whole park off, as there are several hundred dogs there all up who sound like the hounds of the Baskervilles once they get going. Once they recognized Jodi, their barks turned into delighted squeaking instead, and I think they all managed to get some lovin’ rubs from her while I continued on to my room to listen to the snuffling of elephants as they slept or rested in the night shelter a few meters from my balcony, then retire to my net-covered bed.
So that was my wee tattooing adventure, and I’m absolutely rapt that I indulged in it. Thanks very much Jodi for your kind and wonderful hospitality, delicious food, mini-adventure and awesome works of art, which I will wear with great pride and happiness for the rest of my life. And thank you to Bruce, Mr Gwaang and the roof rat for making things just that little bit more interesting. Sawasdee kha.