A Story About People

As I sit here, searching for the perfect combination of words to unlock specific emotions, feelings and meaning, I can’t help but ask myself what this story is about. If you were to go on the title alone, you could easily deduce that this is a tale of brothers, in Thailand, who either get into, or nearly avoid, an accident. But, that’s not what this story is about. This is a story about people, which is certainly what any story, from the first story ever written, The Epic of Gilgamesh, to 50 Shades of Grey (or whatever other color is currently the topic of discussion) is about. And, with every story about people, which is to say every story, the people within these tales are both active and passive; they take action in life and life has a way of simultaneously acting upon them. This story is no different. In the grand history of our world, it is nothing new. Yet, it has never happened before if only for the reason that it happened to me and someone else, a brother. And, as far as I’m concerned, that makes it worth something.

Jet Lag (dʒɛt ˌlæɡ)

Jet lag. Two words. Two syllables. Six letters. Who could imagine that two tiny, almost inconspicuous words could contain so much life, or lack thereof? This combination of two words, two syllables and six letters is medically described as desynchronosis; “a physiological condition which results from alterations to the body’s circadian rhythms resulting from rapid long-distance transmeridian (east–west or west–east) travel on high-speed aircraft.”

On an early morning in March 2016, or late evening depending on which side of “east-west or west-east” you find yourself on, I awoke to a text. A series of them, actually.

Text 1 to me (21:30): Yo man, in Chiang Mai. Flight was pretty quick from my place in Bangkok. Hit me up

Text 2 to me (22:48): At this dope club right now, it’s sick. Mad people. Come through

Text 3 to me (00:32): It’s lit man. I’m sure you’re passed out from jet lag. All good – hit me up when you wake up

I wiped the sleep from my eyes and, despite it being early in the morning (or late in the evening), I confirmed my brother’s assumption about the dreadful, transmeridian devil that is jet lag.

Text 1 from me (5:21): My bad man. Definitely jet lagged. Shit sucks! Hit me when you wake up. I’m going to visit the elephant park.

Thailand, for me, was an impulsive necessity if such a thing exists. Before deciding to go, my last trip was to the windy and rainy nation of Iceland, where the weather is as consistent as an episode of Game of Thrones. That was September 2015, and, fortunately, it was a trip that satiated my need for travel (or, to be honest, escape) for the months that followed. But, limits exist. And by March 2016, memories and feelings from my time in Iceland were no longer feeding my hunger. Adventure called me, in the same way I’m sure most people claim to hear “calls from God.” I felt compelled to answer it. So, when my brother – adventurer, real estate magnate, photographer, journalist and more – told me he was moving to Bangkok, I booked a flight that day. It wouldn’t be our first time meeting abroad. But, we were now different people at different points in our lives, and those two points were about to, for the first time in a while, converge. I wasn’t sure whether what was to come would be wondrous or woeful. But, I was sure it would be memorable.

A Hipster’s Wet Dream

Text 4 to me (7:24): Nah man – I’m not going to see no damn elephants

Text 2 from me (7:25): Come on, man. It’ll be dope. You can take some ill photos and we can bathe them and hang out with them. I already bought a ticket, but we can just show up and you can pay there if we have to. It’s like a 1.5 hour drive into the mountains

Text 5 to me (7:29): Ite. Come through and we’ll figure it out. Hotel des Artistes. Ping Silhouette.

Text 3 from me (7:32): You’re no artist son!

I approached the Hotel des Artistes and encountered an unassuming building on Charoen Rat Road. From the outside, the building didn’t look like much. It featured two stories. Under one of its balconies was what resembled a cafe, and the overall hotel stressed an architectural style that was a cross between a Scandinavian home (gray roof, possibly one shade of 50, plain white paint, and long industrial windows) and what I’d call an Oriental aesthetic (sweeping slopes, large overhangs to protect from rain and sunlight, and bamboo sprouting here and there, of course).

After telling the woman in reception I was there to see my brother, she picked up the phone. “No! Don’t call him,” I said with wide eyes and a mischievous smile. From her face of confusion and worry, she either believed I was actually there to see my brother, or to assassinate someone. At any rate, she went along with it. “Okay, sir,” she said in the low tone of a co-conspirator. “Can you bring me to his room, please?”

We walked down a narrow corridor, which had plain concrete flooring and concrete walls bearing various works of art (industrial, indeed) and then entered a grassy courtyard located in front of what I imagined were the rooms. “Right here, sir,” the woman said, signaling to a tall black door. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing toward a large square set of metal slats next to the door. “That’s a window, sir. Is your brother expecting you?” she said, her words dripping with anxiety. So much for being co-conspirators. “Sort of,” I said with a smirk. “Okay, sir. Let me know if you need anything.” “Thank you.”

Without knocking, I pulled the large black doors open. To my surprise, they opened to a private patio, and then another door. This hotel truly was a DIY hipster’s wet dream. The second door I found myself in front of was locked, so I was forced to knock.

“Who is it?” a voice from within said. “Who do you think it is?” My brother, who is essentially a larger, more robust version of myself opened the door and we exchanged a hearty dap (for those who don’t know what a dap is, you’re on your own).

“Damn, this place is dope man,” I said, surveying his unnecessarily large room and all of its sleek furnishings. “Yeah, man. What do you think it is? Not staying in no dirty hostel like you. Not about that life,” he said with a laugh. “Iight (aight), so get ready and we’ll go to the Elephant Nature Park. It’s an hour and a half drive away, so you gotta get a scooter. Can I have a water from your fridge?” “Damn, are we really about to go see these elephants?” “Yeah, man. What else did you have planned?” “Nothing, I just came up here to see you. I’ll go. And only take a water; these bastards charge a ton for everything here.” “Good looks.”

Westside Highway at Night (or morning)

“I’m driving,” he declared as we exited the industrial shade of gray Hotel des Artistes and approached my scooter. “Nah, man. This is my scooter. I’m driving and your big ass is going to sit on the back.” “This isn’t going to fly, man,” he said, begrudgingly hopping on my chariot. “I got mad photo equipment with me, take it easy man.” “Iight (aight),” I said, fully knowing I had no plans to take it easy.

The scooter’s tires kicked up large plumes of dust on our takeoff, and we entered the crowded streets of Chiang Mai. The city never seemed to sleep. Women were carrying chickens in the middle of the street, a conductorless orchestra of honking was in procession and left meant right and right meant up. Any city in Thailand is hard enough to maneuver on your own, let alone with another, larger version of yourself on the back. But, we persisted. “Do you know where you’re going?” he asked. “Yeah, sort of.”

We crossed the Ping River and made our way over the busy Nawarat Bridge. Claustrophobic alleys began to present themselves to us like foreign desserts; some were more appealing than others, but I wasn’t sure what any of them actually were or where they would lead us. Eventually, I picked one and we found ourselves flying downhill towards a familiar looking street. After escaping the congestion of twists and turns, we arrived at our destination. The mother of all scooter rental shops in Chiang Mai, which, because its name is escaping me, I’ll call, “The Mother.”

Picture a Caldor. Or, if you’re too young for that, picture a Kmart, which is basically what Caldor was before it went out of business in 1999. Now, picture the part of the store with all of the shiny new bicycles; some with training wheels, ribbons, horns and others a bit more adult. Now, substitute those bicycles for scooters and put it outside and located halfway around the world in Thailand. That’s “The Mother,” for you. A sea of scooters that anyone can rent for varying prices based on model and speed. “Which one do I get?” my brother asked. “Same as mine, it’s the fastest they have.” The same man who rented me my bike a few days ago set my brother up with one, as well as with a helmet. “You think I actually need the helmet?” he asked. “I don’t know, but you should probably rock it.” “Iight (aight).”

With that, we were off. I popped in my earbuds, because riding with music somehow makes me a safer driver (or so I think), and turned on the GPS. “One and a half hours, and sixty kilometers,” I announced. “Alright man, don’t go all crazy. This ain’t New York City.” “Crazy?” I asked as I peeled off and stood up on the bike, sprinting down Highway 107. He eventually caught up, and mouthed what I believed was, “Chill out, man!”

My brother said we weren’t in New York City, but, in that moment, I was back on the Westside Highway of Manhattan. I plunged forward into the darkness of the night, with only the red taillights, off-yellow headlights and orange glow of the streetlights to bear witness to my early morning (or late in the evening) joy ride. My escape. It’s something I’d routinely do back in New York City. Sometimes I needed to blow off steam. Other times, I couldn’t sleep, and I’d find myself wide awake at 3am with thoughts racing so quickly that I needed to do something to catch up to them. That something was hopping on my Vespa, no matter the time, and making my way to the Westside Highway; the place where I could go as fast as I wanted, where I could scream and no one would hear me, and where I could find the time to leave my thoughts out on the street with each turn of the wheel, only to find them later if I so chose. Seeing my brother pull over to the side of the road brought me back to Highway 107.

We went too far. I’m not sure how we knew, but we went from busy highway to lush jungle and somehow ended up at what may have been “the end” of the highway, since it was blocked off with concrete dividers. “Where are we?” he asked. “I guess we went too far. GPS says it’s 40 minutes behind us.” “40 minutes? Damn, we were going mad fast down that highway. Be careful, though.” “Iight (aight), let’s get there.”

The turn we were supposed to take was easy to miss, but we probably would have missed it even if it wasn’t. I’m unsure where my brother was as he rode, but, like myself, it may have been halfway around the world. Who was he with? What was he doing? Was he looking backwards to a time that seemed to crystallize a former version of himself, or was he thinking of the future? A future that would have beyond its share of adventure in both the near term and the far.

Wherever he was, we found our way back to the right turn. It brought us to the interior of the jungle, where houses made out of clay and leaky roofs for shelter were abundant. Misshapen rocks studded the dirt road in inconvenient places, and barbed wire fences drew the perimeter of where we should and shouldn’t go. “We’re almost there,” I said to myself. But, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Maybe I was going too fast. Maybe my mind was still back in New York and not where it should have been; on the road. Maybe I thought, in that moment, that I was untouchable. But, none of those “maybes” matter. As I turned the wheel to make a turn that was sharper than I anticipated, my bike flew out from under me, causing me to stumble into a barbed wire fence. It all happened so quickly.

I immediately turned around and saw my brother barreling towards me and slamming on his brakes, which cause his scooter to go on its side, trapping him under as it scraped his body against those misshapen rocks in those inconvenient places. “This can’t be real,” I thought to myself. I didn’t want it to be real. I didn’t want to be there. But, I was. And my brother’s scooter dragged him into a ditch next to the barbed wire fence I stood in front of. I don’t know if I can call the thundering sound I heard a “scream.” It was something else that I never heard before and pray to never hear again. It was a sound that came from the depth of my brother’s being, and communicated incomprehensible pain.

He stood up and threw his helmet to the dusty earth. Everything from his legs to his forearms to his face was stripped bare; beginning as white with dirt and rocks ingrained in them, and gradually yielding to the glistening crimson flood of blood that followed. “I told you you were going too damn fast, man!” he shouted through gritted teeth and pain that he couldn’t hide even if he tried. Despite sustaining damage, his scooter’s engine sputtered on like a shot cow gasping its way to death. I couldn’t stand it, so I walked over and turned it off, picked it up and found his sunglasses resting in the dirt below. At what point did his sunglasses fly off? How long would it take for the scooter to eventually run out of gas and give up its pathetic attempt to live? It was these minute details that made the whole situation that much more undeniable. This wasn’t a nightmare and nor was it fiction, this was real life.

“I need something to stop the blood,” he said. I was wearing a bandana from a ziplining excursion I went on the day before, and had another in my backpack. I couldn’t speak; the words were nowhere to be found. I grabbed both bandanas and tied them around his left hand, which was bleeding more than any other part of his body. With each drip of it, the dusty earth at our feets became thicker. A pool of liquid dust began to form. “I need to go to a hospital,” he said with what sounded like all his remaining strength. Strength that he would continue to need or need to continue. I hopped on his bike, which was somehow still kicking, and gave him the keys to mine. He slowly limped over and got on. The GPS said a hospital was ten minutes away.

A Story About Brothers

When we arrived at the hospital, the staff didn’t know what to make of us. We were two versions of the same person. One smaller and seemingly unscathed. One larger and scraped up like old paint peeling on a park bench. “Scooter crash,” I said in a hurried tone. “He needs help, now.” A nurse brought him into the emergency room, and I followed. “You can’t come in here, sir!” an older nurse said, standing in front of me. But I ignored her and walked inside.

There were two other patients in the room, and a woman behind a desk looked up and stared at me with a face of disgust. “You must get out!” she said, looking to the two nurses who erred by allowing me in. “I’m not going anywhere,” I said as I put down our bags and helmets. One of the patients, and elderly man, was lying down with his eyes slowly opening and closing. His face wore an expression of calm and patience, as if he were biding his time as he waited for a bus to arrive. What was wrong with him was a mystery to me, but it looked as though it was going to quietly take the life from him like an expert pickpocket removing a wallet from a tourist; slowly enough to go undetected, but sure enough to succeed.

“I shouldn’t have come here, man,” my brother said, shaking his bloody head. He was sitting on the gurney as the nurses washed their hands and took out gauze, scissors, and other indecipherable bottles. “This was a bad idea. You were going too fucking crazy on that bike, man. I knew that something like this was going to happen. I could feel it. You should have slowed down.”

A mix of dirt and sweat, or maybe tears, formed at the tip of his nose before making its way onto the white tile of the emergency room. “Fuck, this hurts so badly,” he whispered. I wanted to cry. Cry because the whole situation was beyond the scope of what I ever imagined our day together turning into. And cry also because he was hurt, and I was the cause of it. The nurse who initially brought my brother into the emergency room may have seen the remorse on my face, and took advantage of it by asking me to please stand outside. This time, I didn’t fight. I left the room and saw only a handful of people, all Thai, sitting in the waiting room. None looked to be in critical condition.

There was something inside me that wanted control, even if only a little. I needed to be useful; productive, really. It’s surely a coping mechanism of mine. So, I called up the Elephant Nature Park and told them I’d need a refund.

“I’m sorry, sir, but no refund. You booked with us, and if you can’t make it, you can come another day,” a soft-spoken woman on the other end of the line said. “Another day? I’m not going another day,” I started. “My brother is in the hospital, there won’t be any other day. I need a refund!” My anger was misdirected and unwarranted, as anger often is. The woman, now with a voice of desperation said, “I’m sorry, sir. But, it’s company policy.” I didn’t stop. “If you don’t give me a refund, I’m going to write the longest letter about your organization. A book, in fact, about how your organization wouldn’t refund a customer who had a sibling, a brother, go to the hospital. Tens of thousands of people, maybe even a million, will read this and never visit you again.” It’s crazy the things we will do and say for even a shred of control. Or just the feeling of it.

She took a breath and said, “I’ll call you back, sir.” The line went dead. It was only later that day that I felt utterly pathetic and remorseful for how I acted. Especially because, minutes later, she called back and said they’d give me a refund.

“The speeds at which we go in life, whether we know it or not, can adversely affect those closest to us,” was a thought I played around with as I sat in the waiting room. I was looking for deeper meaning in the moment; something I could walk away from the accident with that would help me live better, for both myself and others. It was then I heard it. The Tarzan-like yell that causes all of the birds, insects and fish in the jungle and ocean to fly, run and swim away at once. This heart-wrenching roar caused me to burst into the emergency room, upon which I found the two pocket-sized nurses holding onto my brother; they each had two hands on his bulging arms.

“Sir, please help us. We need to disinfect these cuts,” one of the nurses said, sweat violently beading together at her brow like rugby players in a huddle. My brother was silently shaking his head. “They need to clean it out, man. Come on,” a plea causing my voice to sink. “You don’t know how much this hurts,” he said in a whisper. “If you don’t clean it, all of the flies in this room and outside are going to lay their eggs in your cuts. Then, they’re going to become infected, and you’re going to have little larvae all up in your body,” I said. There were certainly flies zipping around the room, but I didn’t know if what I said had any real merit. Regardless, I had to think fast, and it worked. After cleaning him up, he received a few bags of pills and we walked back towards the bikes. Mine intact, his with a few lights and the mirror dangling off of it like snapped branches in the wind.

“Let’s complete the mission,” he said. “What?” I asked as if I hadn’t heard him correctly. “We came all this way, man. Let’s go to the Elephant Nature Park. Plus, I’m happy it happened to me and not you. It would’ve ruined your entire trip.” “But you’re all cut up, man.” “It’s all good, it’s not that bad,” he said in an unconvincing tone. I have enough scars to know which are superficial and which are excruciating. His were the “it’s unbelievably painful to move,” type of wounds.

“I’m sorry, man” I said. I didn’t know what else to say, but I knew I had to say that. “It’s not your fault,” he replied, carefully mounting his bike. “I was driving too closely to you, it’s all good.” He was lying, but I appreciated it. He was letting me know that a brother isn’t physical. It’s not a title given to someone who shares your blood, looks like you and may even act like you. It’s more of an identity that is assumed rather than assigned. Because in the same way that people say, “Anyone can be a father, but not everyone can be a dad,” I realized that anyone can be a sibling, but not everyone can be a brother. A dad, mom, brother or sister is born out of adversity; those moments when the ore of an identity is subjected to astronomical temperatures and pressures in order to see if it is made out of gold or something lesser. Something easily injured. It was on that day and in that moment I knew that the person who I went to visit, who rode dozens of miles with me and who was enduring unimaginable pain wasn’t just a person, but also my brother.

This is a story about brothers, which isn’t always what any story is about. But, with every story about brothers, which is to say many stories, brothers are both active and passive; they take action and life has a way of simultaneously acting upon them. This story is no different. In the grand history of our world, it is nothing new. Yet, it has never happened before if only for the reason that it happened to me and my brother. And, as far as I’m concerned, that makes it worth something.

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get his novel published. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, GoAbroad, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com

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