My plan was to train Muay Thai on Samui Island. But getting there required a stop in London to catch a flight to Athens to Phuket. Kyle is my old housemate from Michigan. When I burst into his flat in a coat of snow and trailing slush, I didn’t realize I had been wearing armor until the immediate relief brought guffawing to the point of choking. For a while, I didn’t need to perform for anything. Nothing could go wrong, and after six months, there was comfort in being known. Still, it was obvious that I was stuck in some aftershock from my strings of half formed sentences and mistaking Kyle’s black jug of clearly labeled protein powder for laundry detergent.
Then the overnight in Athens consisted of seeing a friend and rushing back to the airport. But not so fast! There was a transportation strike. I’ve seen this before. The metro and bus lines at a standstill; the cabs all over the city parked bumper to bumper. Why am I still surprised? Ignored, I went along from cab to cab practically begging anyone to take me. Finally, after ticking an hour closer to another missed flight, one driver finally took pity and started up his cab. The others circled around him viciously cursing. Another cab driver, clearly the leader, jumped into his and tailed us honking and shouting out the window all the way down the street and up the expressway ramp. My driver was further hassled at all the tolls. No aggression was ever directed at me, and, since it happened in Greek, I understood only the expressions and tonations. Still, this was a moral gray area. To avoid problems at the terminal, we parted ways on the side of the expressway half a kilometer away from the airport.
The rest of the journey by bus and boat to Samui was, thankfully, uneventful. Showing up at 7:30 AM training at Jun’s, I told him to give me a month. Jun, the owner of the gym, nodded. I wasn’t sure what he meant when he said, “We will take care of you here,” but he flashed a trademark, candid smile and promised to send Mee1 to show me a room after the session.
I wasn’t fast during the thirty minute run through the village but gave it my best consequently burning myself out. Then the rhythm was missing in my jump rope. Nobody said anything when I couldn’t manage the push up, plank, burpee, and sit up set either. Ta went easy during shadow boxing and three rounds of pads; I spent time being corrected rather than striking anything. Flailing on the first three rounds of heavy bag punching brought snickering from the trainers, but they hovered, happy I was moving at all. Somehow, I made it through four more rounds of fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet. Not yet ready for sparring, I jogged twenty lengths of the gym with the creeping sensation of inevitable vomiting. Then to my dismay, I was told to kick the bag 400 times. So I proceeded to brush lightly. Then it was two sets of pull ups and push ups and more situps. Free weights and cool down stretching ended the session. The whole thing took me a continuous two and a half hours in a pool of everyone’s sweat. At 4:30 PM, it was time to repeat everything from the start.
Up until then, taking a month to train Muay Thai sounded perfect. Having recognized that travel is part of my long game, this was a red light in endless fated green intersections. I feared I was running on fumes and approaching if not already at burnout. Self care was the only way I could finish this fellowship. I needed time to hunker down, to rebuild a long lost physical confidence, and to fill some pages with reflections from the past months. I had a feeling that there was also something to learn here. Even if I never mastered Muay Thai, I might still find an allegory for persistence. We all fight in our own ways, but this was the giving and taking of real blows. Wasn't pain the ultimate deterrence to anything?
At night, I tried to disengage and succumb to restful stillness, but every part of me was dead set on performing a concert of its own white noise. Turning around made my entire body burn. The muscle spasms were uncontrollable, and I was left staring into the ghastly light streaming into the room considering my choices at the dawn hours while still trying to hold down vomit. Instead of rising and shining, I rolled onto the floor each morning; I couldn’t stress my abdominals to raise myself up. Even though the beach was a five minute walk from my place, I spent the sweltering midday hours between training sessions blacked out and facing a wheezing, overworked fan. New to this kind of soreness, looking down the barrel of four more weeks was dizzying. I may have planned this as a stop to catch my breath, but I had also traded one form of shell shock for another.
To make matters worse, everyone else seemed to be getting through just fine. In fact, I was intimidated by their years of Muay Thai practice. The trainers started taking hits when they were only three feet tall and had stopped counting after their 400th fight. Though I was not the first, or the last, to complain about this grueling regiment, I was one of the few participating with no ambitions to prove myself in the ring. Most farangs (foreigners) were training for their next fight. The few who did this for fitness were on more than their fifth year.
On day three, the first push up felt like lifting an elephant. Still, I refused to show signs that my resolve was breaking even though my ability to perform was spiraling. I’m not one to back down from a challenge, and remembering the best advice I’ve ever been given, I employed the “fake it ‘till you make it” approach.
However, on day five there was no endorphin rush. I couldn’t trick my mind anymore. Jun came up to me multiple times during the morning session to tell me that I looked tired. No duh, I could only sleep four hours every night! Staggering and disoriented during padwork, I was instructed to take the afternoon off. Seeing my look of disappointment, Jun said it was impossible to train two sessions everyday in the first week. Not reassured but relieved nonetheless, I slept until sunset.
In the moody colors, I found the energy to walk along the beach. For a moment, the crashing of the waves drowned out all afflictions. Upon returning to my room, a white cat, as skinny as a knife, was meowing incessantly in the hallway. I bought milk from the 7/11 across the street. Grateful to have company, we sat on the ground watching each other. After a while, I laughed out loud at this whole situation. But that hurt my abs, so I tried to make myself stop. That only made me laugh more. I was tired, but I knew things had to change.
On day six, Jun under cheeky threats of making me “punch down banana tree outside,” told me to “punch harder.” And Mee1 seeing lackluster kicks called for twenty more because “Come. On. Good for you, not good for me.” I silently cried as every bone in my foot pulverized, but still I heard, “Reo! Reo! (Fast! Fast!)”
On day seven, the rest day, I drew the shades, went nowhere, and did nothing. Like a junkie, I couldn’t even hold my phone out in front of me without my hand violently shaking.
Kristina showed me that I could push back against the demands and give the trainers a hard time. Nicole suggested that if I learned to count reps wrong, maybe I could get away with it. Someone said that at least I hadn’t run out of the gym to throw up in the bushes like he had on his first day. Another admitted that the first week beats you to a pulp, but his follow up was not at all helpful.
“The second week is much worse.”
I somehow made it through the second week, and the trainers stopped calling me Ji and started calling me Ja. So I’d hear “Ja good” or “Ja Ja Ja Ja kick the bag.” Or “Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja no power.” Or “10 push up Ja Ja." Too often, they just enjoyed saying “Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja Ja” from across the gym for no reason. The extra attention was a bit embarrassing, but I took it for a sign of sticking around long enough to make it into the family.
Over time, Ta and I made a habit of throwing punches and kicks at each other when our guards were down. I grew frustrated trying unsuccessfully to block, and Ta would just say, “Oh. knock out.” He was constantly reminding me to sabai sabai (relax relax). When I finally landed an elbow in the ring, I’d spin around with my arms held high, beaming and yelling “Champion! Champion!” I did not care if it was excessive, I would take the points where I could get them.
When they weren’t choosing between the carrot and the stick method, Jun and the trainers had a real knack for being funny. They danced next to us while we suffered through rounds. Still, over time, under their watchful eyes and constant hovering and frequent corrections, I did make progress.
A place like this could be serious and aggressive or, at the very least, callous. But the truth is far from that. Sabai sabai also means happy happy. It’s a common Thai attitude that shows when instructions are barked with a natural smile. Of course when my execution is poor, they tell me to do it again with the same cheer. Somehow, it was never patronizing. There’s a lightheartedness to it all. Often, in the overwhelming exhaustion I found myself unable to do anything but see the humor in my inability to do anything. So, I responded to most things with incredulous laughter. After training, we’d all show up like zombies at a roadside food stall complaining about how much pain we were in. But really it was a badge of honor for it showed hard work.
I won’t forget Mee1’s extreme expressions of joy, screaming, “YES!” when I finally did something right. Mee2 and his loud, “THANK. YOU.” after each high kick. Our laughter standing in front of the mirror, checking ourselves out. Lion swaying back and forth with his tongue out in the ring, and the times I’ve gotten out of getting my stomach slapped while doing sit ups by threatening I would throw up on him. Ta’s way of sliding his pointer finger like a blade across his throat and saying, “I kill you today” but also carefully feeding me water between rounds. The horror of watching my first fight. The same horror through all the other fights. Nuoy rarely speaks, but, like Kristina says, his smile is “the most genuine and gentle I’ve ever seen.” The excitement when Mee1 got a slick new motorcycle and the entire island woke up in the middle of the night to the roaring. The evening barbecue and the privilege of knowing too much gossip. The transformation was complete when, by the end of four weeks, it was me yelling “Reo! Reo!” at Mee1 as he scrambled to put on pads.
They call Thailand the land of a thousand smiles. All experiences are unique, so I am weary of anything said about a place, especially when it is synonymous with “go there because the people are friendly.” But a thousand smiles is exactly what I eventually found. Maybe all the smiling Thais is the result of understanding that moving forward comes from taking things less seriously. You might have to get in a ring tomorrow and be wheeled out on a stretcher for a few Thai baht, but sabai sabai suggests an open relaxed attitude towards anything. Good things will come. And so, sabai sabai, a surprising sense of enjoyment was found despite what otherwise would be soul crushing days of eat-sleep-train.