A few years ago I was going through the process of splitting up with my first serious girlfriend. She went away to Greece for the summer and when she came back she'd had a holiday romance with some Belgian guy. As if that wasn't bad enough, it seemed that the guy in question was going to show up in London some time over the next few weeks. After three hellish days and nights, I realized that I was dangerously close to losing my head. I biked over to my dad's flat and emotionally blackmailed him into lending me enough cash to leave the country.
On that trip I learnt something very important. Escape through travel works. Almost from the moment I boarded my flight, life in England became meaningless. Seat-belt signs lit up, problems switched off. Broken armrests took precedence over broken hearts. By the time the plane was airborne I'd forgotten England even existed.
After that first day, wandering around the clearing, I didn't really question a single thing about the beach.
The rice: over thirty people, two meals every day, eating rice. Rice paddies need acres of flat, irrigated land which we simply didn't have, so I knew we couldn't be growing it. If the situation hadn't come up with the Rice Run, I might never have known where it all came from. Unremarked, I would have let it pass.
Assimilation: from day one we were working, everybody knew our names, we had beds allocated in the longhouse. I felt like I'd been living there all my life.
It was the same thing that had happened on the aeroplane; my memory began shutting down. Ko Samui became a hazy, dream-like place, and Bangkok became little more than a familiar word. On the third or fourth day I remember thinking that Zeph and Sammy might turn up soon and wondering how people would react. Then I realized I couldn't quite recall Zeph and Sammy's faces. A couple of days later I'd forgotten they might be coming at all.
There's this saying: in an all-blue world, colour doesn't exist. It makes a lot of sense to me. If something seems strange, you question it; but if the outside world is too distant to use as a comparison then nothing seems strange.
Why would I question it anyway? Assimilating myself was the most natural thing in the world. I'd been doing it ever since I became a traveller. Another saying: when in Rome, do as the Romans. In the traveller's ten commandments, that's commandment number one. You don't march into Hindu temples and start saying, 'Why are you worshipping a cow?' You look around, take on board, adjust, accept.
Assimilation and rice. These were just things to accept - new aspects of a new life.
But even now, I'm not asking the right questions.
It doesn't matter why I found it so easy to assimilate myself into the beach life. The question is why the beach life found it so easy to assimilate me.
Over the first two or three weeks there was a song that I couldn't get out of my head. Actually, it wasn't even a song. It was just a couple of lines from a song. And I don't know the song's name, but I suspect it's called 'Street Life', because the only lyric I could remember went, 'Street life, it's the only life I know, street life, dah dab-dah dah dah dah dab-da-dah.' Except the way I sang it went, 'Beach life', instead of 'Street life', and all I could do was repeat that little bit over and over.
It used to drive Keaty crazy. He'd say, 'Richard, you've got to stop singing that fucking song,' and I'd have to shrug and say, 'Keaty, I can't get it out of my head.' Then I'd make an effort not to sing it for a while, but without meaning to I'd start again a couple of hours later. I'd only realize I'd started again when Keaty would smack his forehead and hiss, 'I asked you not to fucking sing it! Jesus, Richard!' Then I'd have to shrug again. Eventually I got Keaty singing it too, and when I pointed this out he said, 'Aaargh!' and wouldn't let me play on his Nintendo for the rest of the day.