Suspended In Time

Suspended In Time

THE FIRST THING I HEARD about the old man living under the cliff was that he’s known around town as the “Skywalk Guy.”

Fifty feet in the air above his little hut in the jungle, spanned between a mountainous pile of jagged boulders and a giant limestone tower, was an ancient tightrope made of steel—a skywalk.

If I was ever feeling brave, all I had to do was show up and present the old man with an offering of some kind—fruit, flowers, coffee, beer, whatever—and I would be granted a walk in the sky.

It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the old man. Our first meeting was short, but long enough to learn three things about him: He smokes ganja like an Indian witchdoctor, loves jamming out to classic rock (especially Oye Como Va by Santana) and ascends rock like a fish swimming downstream—quickly, elegantly, effortlessly. He was one of the most gifted rock climbers I had ever seen.

I also learned his name—Pi Din. And he learned mine:

“My name is Michael.”
“No, no. Listen… Michael.”
I looked around and pointed to the first thing I saw.
“Tree. You can call me Tree.”
“Tree! Haha! OK!”

One week later I returned to Pi Din. It was a hot, sticky Saturday afternoon. All morning I had been wrapped in an air-conditioned bubble made of pillows, televisions, smartphones and computers—that dark place we crawl inside to turn off our brains and insulate ourselves from the pains and inconveniences of everyday life. I needed to get out.

When I arrived at the foot of the cliff, Pi Din was shoveling dirt and bat shit from the mouth of a small cave. He was shirtless, barefoot, wearing torn-up blue jeans,  a silver Buddhist amulet around his neck and a faded sarong around his waist. The veins in his arms and hands protruded like wrinkles in a bed spread. His skin appeared cooked and shriveled by wind, water and sun—almost sixty years of it.

I called out to him: “Hello Pi Din!”

Pi Din poked his head out of the cave and flashed a big, hearty smile.

Tree! Hello my friend!”

The smell of burning charcoal and damp jungle swirled around the hot, soupy air. His two black dogs inspected me from a distance, not yet trusting my strange white skin. Black ants swarmed the wet sand under my flip-flops.

He threw his arm around my shoulder, asked: “Have you eaten yet?”

His jungle house is squeezed up against a hundred-foot tall limestone cliff—a craggy lump of pale yellow rock blanketed by a vertical jungle of trees, vines and red-orange flowers glowing in the sun. A painted sign out front reads: Thung Song Rock Climbing Club.

The house—sitting atop a pile of boulders like a college student’s crooked graduation cap—was entirely hand-built by Pi Din. Huge trees harvested less than twenty feet away act as supporting beams. Rusty corrugated sheets of aluminium guard against the wind and rain. Rock-solid tree vines wrap the house in a kind of box-shaped basket, like a giant bird’s nest with railings, stairs and jacket hooks.

The inside is adorned with climbing memorabilia from his youth—retired climbing shoes, carabiners and ropes, dusty photo albums from his days as a climbing guide on Railay Beach. A gold-framed image of Buddha, circled by clay pots and sticks of incense. A sea turtle shell wedged into a split log. A beat-up guitar dangling from an old nail. A pile of shelled coconuts. A jar of brown and yellow tea leaves.

Pi Din chopped open a big coconut and handed it to me. “Drink,” he said.

In conversation between two people who don’t share a common language, both speakers’ brains devolve to the level of cavemen. Logical, complete sentences are replaced by hilarious sound effects and pantomimes. Mutual understanding is communicated by laughter and hand-clapping. And of course, many things aren’t communicated at all—indeed, most attempts to communicate fall flat and die.

Whenever the conversation stalled, Pi Din reached out and placed in my hand strange fruit from his garden, a Willy Wonka Land of exotic fruits and spices. And the stuff was growing everywhere. One large fruit he harvested without even standing up—all he had to do was stick a ten-foot long fishing net out the window, into the tree canopy, and yank one of the bright yellow-orange balls off a branch.

“Climbing?” Pi Din asked, and pointed to the cliff above. To this I reacted the same way a dog reacts to “Wanna go for a walk?

And without saying another word, Pi Din had his climbing gear over his shoulders.

Forty feet above the ground—my forearms burning, my fingers torn—I hoisted myself up and over a sharp lip. Gusts of wind kicked up dust and cooled the hot sweat on my face. Here at the top was a little Buddhist shrine carved into a shallow cave, overlooking a vast field of grass and distant foggy lumps of jungle.

Pi Din was shouting something from below. I didn’t understand.

He began climbing up to me without a rope or even so much as a pair of climbing shoes. Had he lost his mind? A fall from this height would paralyze a man—or worse.

He reached the top, saw terror in my eyes, and laughed it off like a true Thai:

“Mai pen rai.” (Don’t worry.)

As I sat there, gazing into the southern horizon, Pi Din sifted sand through his fingers. He pulled out a little orange chunk, no bigger than a grape, and handed it to me.

“What is it?” I asked him.

He doused the orange chunk in water, washed off the dried mud. I had a closer look.

Fossilized amber. A tiny black ant, suspended in time—tens of thousands of years ago.

“Welcome,” Pi Din said. “You are family.”

Pi Din turned around and began tidying up his little shrine. He sang Buddhist prayers—a beautiful sound that all at once makes one feel grounded on Earth and as big as the Cosmos. The sun was falling beneath the clouds. Frogs and crickets were beginning their nightly symphony.

Again I looked at the fossilized amber.

Like the ant suspended in time, so too would be this moment.

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