The most intense encounters are often the ones we would never, ever choose to get ourselves into…
I had just come down from the mountains of NW Thailand that afternoon in mid February. I had been in the beautiful town of Mae Hong Son for over a week. Ma Sariang was lower, and therefore hotter. The cool, pleasant dry season was now turning over to the unbearably hot summer.
Screaming motorbikes kicked up dust and everything would turn hazy for a moment, then clear. The sun scorched my scalp under a tangled mess of long hair. I loathed the sun in SE Asia. A warm wind dried my mouth and left me gasping and I felt like a beer and a bar with music. I walked around the lazy little town as the sun set and the night turned cool, but there was nothing to be found. I grabbed a beer at a small roadside store and walked toward the hotel.
So I walked, and drank. Eventually, I came back to the bridge separating the main part of town from where I was staying. I recognized a farang couple with shaved heads that I had seen twice in a smoothie restaurant in Mae Hong Son. We had never exchanged greetings, but feeling lonely and at the end of my beer maybe a bit more sociable, I introduced myself. It was the standard conversation:
Hi! I recognize you from the last town. Did you get here today? By the way, where are you from? Wow, Italy (They had the thick, flowing beautiful accents). What city? Ohhh. Milan is nice? Yeah, I guess I’ve heard that it’s dangerous from other people, too. I’m from America. Ohio. It’s kind of in the middle. I don’t speak any Italian, but a little Spanish, the languages are close, right?.
Our little discussion was soon interrupted by a splashing in the shallow river below us. Two motorbikes whipped past us and turned down the dirt road to the riverside. The river was languid and low from months without rain. A man jumped off of the bike and ran splashing into the water. A moment later he was dragging a limp body to the bank. He hoisted it over his shoulder, stomach down, and bounced him there. He repeated this a few times. With each thrust, the limp body’s arms would fling outwards and the chest would cave in, but the head hung low, lifeless.
After a few bounces, he threw it onto the back of one of the motorbikes. He hopped on behind it so that there were three people on the bike, while the driver began to move out. The two men were not able to keep the body from falling off the side, though. They tried again and failed. At this point I realized what was going on to some extent and asked my Italian friends if they knew CPR. They looked at me blankly, clearly not understanding me. I put my beer down and ran down the dirt road to the scene.
I had learned CPR in school, but hadn’t paid as close of attention as I should have. I didn’t really think about it as I rushed down the hill towards all this chaos. I motioned for the man who was throwing the body around to put it on the ground. He did. As I examined it now face-up, lying down, I could see that it was a young Thai man, probably in his late teens, same as me. His eyes were slightly opened, jaw locked with his tongue jutted out slightly. He was limp and cold to the touch. Dead weight. Was he gone? I couldn’t tell. I checked for a pulse but couldn’t find it. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. I had never experienced a real dead body, not like that. This was raw and fresh, not beautified and puffed up by some mortician.
I stared at him for a moment. What to do? Just pound. I started slamming his chest with my palms. After a few thrusts I remembered the solar plexus, then to lock my fingers over each other for more concentrated power. I was getting it. As I stared closer into his face I had to hesitate. I felt stupidly uncomfortable with the idea of mouth to mouth.
I decided to try. I plugged his nose, and then pried his locked jaw open. This made me think that maybe this was all pointless, but I didn’t know for sure so I went on. His mouth was slimy and cold on my hand. I took a deep breath and blew into his gaping mouth. It was ineffective. I couldn’t bring myself to bring my mouth to his tight. I felt childish about it and tried again with better effect.
I could feel the slime from his mouth on my face and a wretched smell all over me. I wanted to vomit. I went back to the thrusts, one through fifteen. I tried the breathing again, but only managed to get more covered by the slime and more frustrated at my inability to do it right. It was like trying to blow up a balloon without touching it, impossible and ridiculous. I was very, very frustrated.
I took it out on the next fifteen thrusts. Pounding and pounding, watching his chest cave in and his head rock limply. After every thrust the body would relax. I inhaled deeply and finally filled his mouth with air, if not his lungs. One time was too much, though and the foul slime from his mouth now covered half my face and my entire left hand that I had been using to peel his jaw back.
Realizing that it was probably useless, I asked one of the dozen or so Thai men standing over me if they had a lighter (I motioned using hand gestures and a clicking sound). Someone handed me one and I put it to the young man’s face. It was stone. His eyes were slightly opened, his tongue protruding and his jaw locked closed. I examined his eyes. His pupils didn’t dilate. There was no point in going on now. About that time, a pickup truck backed up to where we were and I helped the other men put the teenager in the bed of the truck. A few of them hopped on after and the truck sped off.
I was numb with adrenaline and shock at having my first close-up experience with death. I felt strangely excited, exhausted and repulsed all at the same time. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t see. I walked back up to the bridge, vaguely thinking that I should wash my face and hands—wash off this death. I felt disgusting, in so many ways.
As I walked past a group of Thai women who had watched everything from the bridge, one of them stepped forward and thanked me in English. I couldn’t respond. I kept walking along the bridge. Finally, about halfway across, I buried my face in my hands and shuddered. I would have reflected, maybe even hurt or cared, but I felt nothing. I was empty and alone.
After a minute or so, I looked up with blurry eyes to see my two Italian friends walking towards me. I told them that I needed a beer and would be happy if they joined me. They tried to convince me that the boy might be alive, and that we should go to the hospital. I knew that he was dead, but followed them. I couldn’t stand to be alone. I had been traveling alone for months and was used to it, but I just didn’t want to be alone that night.
We walked to the hospital, and I found out what I had already known. I had another drink with the Italians, and then they left to go back to their hotel. I became very depressed and guilty for not having tried harder, and began to blame myself for the teenager’s death. I don’t know how much more I drank, but I vaguely remember lying on a sidewalk on an empty street in the middle of the night looking up at a streetlight laughing. I don’t know how I made it back to the hotel.
The next morning was surreal. It was all so normal, like nothing had happened the night before. The farmers were still hauling their cattle along the riverbank. Motorbikes buzzed along with smiling passengers. Everything was the same as the afternoon before, for a moment I could almost imagine that it hadn’t happened at all. As I walked along the bridge I greeted a cute girl in Thai. She tried to respond, but could only choke back tears and look back over to the river where someone she’d loved had died the night before. I lowered my head and walked straight to the bus station. I boarded the next second-class bus back to Chiang Mai.