I was sitting on the beach. The sun had gone down. Brigitte and Jack were giggling in the sand a few feet away, and I was marveling at the stars overhead. The sky was black, and the only light came from the crescent moon and the fishing boats that bobbed on the horizon. I found the Big Dipper, turned on its side in the sky. All of the constellations are rearranged in Thailand.
Whenever I took my eyes off the stars, I scanned the beach for crabs. Their little bodies were scurrying shadows against the white sand, and from time to time I would catch them in the beam of my light, and they would freeze, claws opening and closing slowly. Sometimes they would race off sideways, attempting to evade the light.
I stared at the small white waves rolling in. A movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and I looked up. Someone was darting towards the water, slightly hunched over, hands open. He seemed to be after something. I flashed my light off and on, alerting him of our presence in the darkness. “Chasing crabs, huh?” I asked, smiling. He straightened up and walked toward me. From his height and build, I judged him to be a teenager, maybe nineteen. When he got close, he wiped sand off his hands. “Mind if I join you?” he asked in a northern European accent. He was utterly confident. “No, not at all,” I said, patting the sand.
We began talking about the crabs, and then the subject changed to the beauty of the place we were in. His English was impeccable. “You know,” he said, looking around at the limestone cliffs rising out of the water, the waves lapping the shore. “This place reminds me a lot of Figi.”
“Figi?” I said. “When did you go there?” He scratched his head and thought. “I guess it was about two years ago,” he said. “Figi is one of my favorite places in the world.” I looked at him in the darkness and thought he must be much older than I had originally imagined. “Where else have you been?” I asked him. I watched his chest rise and fall in the darkness and then he began rattling off the places. China, India, Japan, Nepal. Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma, Laos. North America, South America, Mexico. New Zealand. There was no trace of braggery in his voice, only matter-of-factness. We were silent for a moment, staring out to sea, and then he turned to me. “And you? What are you doing in Thailand?”
I gave him the brief synopsis- just graduated college, beginning a year of traveling, starting in Thailand with my sister. He nodded his head and considered what I had said. “Do you mind if I ask you where your favorite place in the world has been?” he asked. I smiled and thought about it. “Well, I love Thailand,” I said. “One of my favorite beaches in the world is not far from here. I found it a few years ago, and I thought it was paradise. It’s been one of my favorite places ever since. I also love Switzerland. Interlaken is a beautiful city, and really, anywhere in that country is pretty amazing.” I thought some more and said, “ And honestly, Seattle in the summertime is one of my favorite places in the world. It really can’t be beat. It has mountains and rivers and lakes and ocean. It is so green, it’s been nicknamed ‘The Emerald City.’ So I’d have to say that my hometown is one of my favorite places in the world.”
Our conversation carried on, as we watched crabs and listened to the waves. I asked him what Burma was like, and he gave me a detailed description of the horrors he had encountered there. “The people seem afraid,” he said. “They ask if the world has really forgotten them.” I thought back to a Buddhism class I took fall quarter. I told him that although the Burmese are oppressed, they military junta is heavily Buddhist, and as such, they must conform to Buddhist laws- on the outside, at least. “And so,” I told Axel, as he had just told me his name, “they have been able to voice their dislike of the military in very clever ways.” I explained to him that in Buddhist culture, it is very important to earn merit, and that one important way of doing so is to feed the monks when they beg. As monks have no money and no possessions, they take out their begging bowls every morning, and devout Buddhists everywhere make offerings of food to them. In offering food, the people are making merit for themselves. “So as a way of protesting the military junta,” I told him, “the monks stopped accepting food from them. They wouldn’t even go to their houses anymore. They were preventing them from making merit, which freaked the members of the junta out. Of course, the monks were forced to return to begging from the military shortly thereafter, but it was a strong statement nonetheless.”
He considered what I had said, and then expounded a bit on Buddhism and Burmese culture. He tied it in to Cambodian history, and Daoism in China, and ended by giving me a brief history on eastern philosophy in general. “Wow,” I was thinking to myself. “This kid’s smart.” I credited his well-rounded knowledge to a refined European upbringing, and that he had traveled much of the world already. When he was young, his parents had decided that they wanted him to see as much of the world as possible, and as their jobs as translators allowed them to travel, they took every opportunity to take him with them. Axel was so comfortable with me, so at ease and knowledgeable, that I began wondering if he was even older than the twenty-four or twenty-five I had him at. Finally I had to ask. “Axel, how old are you?”
He looked at me curiously, his lips sticking out a little. “Me? I’m twelve,” he said, kicking sand with his foot.
I was astounded. Twelve!? Twelve years old? I suddenly felt incompetent. I felt very small next to him. “And you, Sarah?” he asked me kindly. “How old are you?” I tried not to let him see how big my eyes were as I answered. “I’m twenty-nine,” I said. I couldn’t gauge his reaction, but somehow I felt like he was surprised, too, though in what way, I couldn‘t know. We were having such an adult conversation. Maybe he was used to having these all the time, but I couldn’t believe I was talking to a pre-teen. I truly felt dense. Then I had to ask another question. “And Axel, how many languages do you speak?” I asked, hoping my delicious anticipation didn’t show. A kid like this could easily have mastered seven or eight. But alas… “Only three,” he said, hanging his head. Shame permeated his whole body. “Swedish, like my mom, Norwegian, like my dad, and English.” He didn’t say anything for awhile. I was glad, because I didn’t want him to ask me how many languages I spoke. English, very rough French, and as of late, a smattering of Thai.
Our conversation wound on for awhile longer, with Axel telling me about star constellations, different types of amphibians, and world history. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I couldn’t resist asking. Axel stared out to sea, and then said, “A fisherman.” He thought for another moment and then said, “Or an archeologist. If I do that, I’d like to study in Scotland. I’ve already checked out what programs are available, and the best program for what I want to do is in Scotland.”
He was already planning his college career.
The next morning, Axel approached Brigitte and I as we were walking on the beach. “Brigitte, Sarah,” he said, nodding and offering us shy smiles. His blond hair was almost white under the sun. We gave him big smiles in return, as I had told Brigitte all about him the night before. “Hi Axel,” we both said. He kicked some sand and looked up out of the corner of his eye. “You guys going for a walk on the beach?” he asked. “We sure are,” I said. “Wanna come?” He looked around again, appraising the situation. “Yeah,” he said. “I’d like that.” He kicked his shoes off and walked with us toward the shore.
Later, we found a cave at the water’s edge, and he took me around to another small beach just beyond the jutting rocks. We explored the crevices and tunnels of the water-bound rock formations, and saw a long black lizard with white spots. Axel looked at it very carefully, moving in slowly to inspect its colors. The lizard’s eyes were beady, and it flicked out a black, forked tongue. Axel wasn’t scared. He just drew back evenly, and walked on. Further down the beach, we found a small Buddha shrine, the white, cross-legged figure draped in orange robes, and a small offering tray with coins and small bills upon it. I knelt on the mat before it, pressed my hands together over my heart, and said a small prayer. May my soul be free, may my mind be pure, and may my heart be filled with love. When I stood up, Axel was standing a short distance away, watching me.
“What religion do you believe in?” he asked me, as we began hiking up an incline of soft orange dirt. We were looking for another, larger cave that was alleged to be in the jungle. And with his question, we began another deep conversation about religion, gods, and the meaning of life.