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Slithering South prologue
An excerpt from the Prologue
For eleven years I lived in a stilted wooden house perched heron-like above Thailand's Chao Phya River. The liquid road that cleaves the royal city into Bangkok and Thonburi coursed under and - during the monsoon floods - through my home. Past my balcony, people and boats glided in their daily pursuits, a never-ending panoply of movement, color, and minor dramas. The river so intrigued me that I tore out my bedroom wall, and filled the space floor to ceiling with glass. Still not satisfied, I sawed a window in the floor so I could watch fishermen scooping nets in the dark waters beneath my house, surprising fish confident they had found refuge in the shadows. And then I built a bay window over the water so I could look up, down, and across the river, my box seat on its activities.

The river swarmed with life every hour of the day, the tumult ceasing only after the neighborhood watchman had struck his iron gong twelve times. A few hours later, long before the sun illuminated the Temple of Dawn a few yards downriver, the din resumed. Sampans piled high with vegetables, double-decked riverboats, elephantine barges, freighters, water taxis, and river buses noisily dodged each other, their propellers churning the river's surface to a froth in the dark, damp, gelid air.
Across the river from my Thonburi home, the sky would lighten. The sun would peer between the needle spires of the Emerald Buddha Temple, gilding them before painting a molten path across the river's broken surface to melt my glass wall and fill my room with golden light. Lambent flames, reflected by the river's shattered mirror, danced on my wooden ceiling. I lay beneath the flickering tongues, reluctant to begin the day.

Throughout the morning, I would hunker over a typewriter, my back to the river, ignoring its distractions, intent on my day's work. But in the torpid afternoon, when the dying sun stirred the sodden air to the semblance of a breeze, I would push aside my work, splash lime and soda into a glass, and wander out to the verandah. Settling into my wicker rocking chair I would watch ferries and fishermen, vendors and freighters as if from a sidewalk café in an Oriental bazaar. Immense rice barges with rounded teak hulls lumbered along the central channel. Like water skimmers, motorboats darted among these queenly matrons, their wakes breaking against open boats bearing half-naked fishermen, their torsos glowing in the ochre evening light as they cast nets in perfect circles. Small sampans paddled by elderly women in indigo shirts and straw-colored, volcano-shaped hats paused before houses like mine, offering an array of sweets blended from bananas, cane sugar, coconut milk, tapioca, and other savory ingredients. Other vendors sold cups of mule-kick Thai coffee flavored with chicory, or bowls of noodle soup boiled on charcoal stoves set amidships. Men in loincloths donned crude helmets to dive 60 feet to the muddy riverbed, linked by hoses to life-giving compressors chugging noisily on sampans. At the river bottom, they retrieved whatever they could sell to a junk dealer. Small boats carried vats of bright colors to dye clothes on the customer's doorstep.

Each day, something new floated across this vast stage spread before me: a new type of boat, a new business venture, new ways of using the rolling brown band. As one season melded into the next, the river rose and fell. In April, it would drop 10 meters, exposing the rocks beneath my house. Barefoot children armed with bamboo fishing poles would scamper gingerly across them. Or dart after tiny crabs in the shallows…

...As I watched from my rocking chair, questions formed in my mind: what had given birth to the river? How had its malleable waters been molded by diverse geography? How had it shaped the villages dependent upon its life-giving waters, and the lives of the people past whose doorsteps it flowed?...

…At first, these thoughts were nothing more than idle reveries on hot afternoons. The Chao Phya was a mystery to most people, even Thais. Over the years, I had searched in vain for information about it in books. Thai friends knew little more than I. Perhaps if I started at its source and worked my way towards the sea the river would reveal what it was murmuring as it rolled past my verandah. Perhaps the journey would revitalize me.

What conceit! I was 43 and had never rowed a boat more than a pond's length. And while I knew Thailand and felt I was mentally and physically tough, I was reluctant to set off on my own because the far North was jungled and remote. A friend had disappeared while trekking and his body was never found. I talked with friends about joining me but few had the five weeks I calculated it would take. Even fewer found the quest interesting. I pushed the idea from my mind.

Or so it seemed. For months, I sat on my balcony, trying to convince myself that I was wise in staying put. Yet, deep in my heart, I knew I was rationalizing, focusing on the "what ifs" that keep one on the shore, reluctant to embark on a perilous sea. But soon I found myself sketching a boat, and idly tracing a route down a map, a blind man trying to read terrain from contour lines as flat as those on his finger pads. It was then that I realized I was too far down a mental road to turn back. I began jotting plans and equipment lists, uncertain what I would encounter or how I would contend with obstacles…

…As I calculated supplies and itineraries, I envisioned the journey as a contest of wills between me and flowing water. While I would mingle with villagers - only they could help me understand how people interacted with their river - they were secondary to my main goal of figuring out how the river thought and using that knowledge to get me down it in one piece.

By the end, it would become a different journey altogether. The physical obstacles would recede. People would come to the forefront, both as my salvation and the bane of my existence.

© Copyright 2016 by Steve Van Beek
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