Then I Defy You, Stars
You’re putting too much weight on your lead leg, and the Russian girl who hasn’t smiled for the ten days that you’ve been here knows it. As she connects with a remorseless inside leg kick that hurts just slightly less than the right cross she follows it up with, you make a mental note to fix that hole in your game. Thing is, the mental notes are adding up to a mental novel and your game is beginning to feel more like a black hole. Add this to the Dutch guy who so kindly let you know you aren’t protecting your liver from combinations that end with left hook body shots. Which came after the South African dude went out of his way to demonstrate that you’re open to overhand rights when you don’t bring your lead hand back fast enough after a jab. Still, none were as willing to teach as the old Polish fucker who let you know very quickly that no one here is going to go easy on you. Sink or swim. Baptism by fire. Do or die. Whatever cliche metaphor helps you get through this.
Speaking of cliches, did I mention you may have never felt more alive than in this moment. Taking a beating from the (unofficial) United Nations of Muay Thai tends to put things into perspective. A two week training camp in Thailand has a way of realigning your priorities. In fact, here’s a list of things that begin to matter the most: your current supply of electrolyte packages; your bartering skills; having a good stick to fend off packs of dogs on your walk home at night; being able to tell the difference between a legit Thai massage, and a Thai ‘massage’ (or maybe not, I’m not judging). The bell rings, telling you it’s time to switch partners, and Dopey motions you over for your next lesson. Class is in session!
You’re sitting in what feels distressingly like a strip club. It has the forced alcohol consumption, the DJ who introduces main attractions like he’s a depressed Bob Barker on downers, and even the requisite girls in bikinis who you only look at from the corner of your eye even though you’re supposed to be looking at them while they carry cards to announce round 3. The big difference is that Chaweng Stadium has a ring as opposed to a stage in the centre for the dudes in perv row to blow smoke into. A ring that currently occupies some of Koh Samui’s top Muay Thai fighters kicking each other in the shins hard enough for you to second guess ever getting into this sport.
As the all too familiar hook from Macklemore’s Thrift Shop makes itself heard over the crowd, you notice the cute girl sitting a couple tables down in the all too familiar ‘same same’ shirt. Same same: the best way to describe your first five days in Thailand up until tonight. Same same training from 8am to 10am followed up by a jump in the pool and vanilla smoothie to reward yourself. Same same location for brunch, lunch, and probably dinner to the point where the Thai family that runs the joint believes they may have unwittingly adopted you. Same same day spent on the beach reading Catch-22, practicing your backflips into waves, and generally ignoring your training partner (fucking Humphreys and his dumb yawn) as much as possible. Same same quick nap before training from 5pm-7pm as the sun sets and the geckos take over the walls of the gym. Same same Thai massage with your newfound Swedish friend before getting home early to do it all again the next day. Come to think of it, spending your night off from Muay Thai training to watch Muay Thai is basically just the all too familiar Thai slogan: same same…but different.
You’re literally screaming in pain. You’ll make sure to describe it as ‘yelling’ if you ever write about this though; yelling sounds slightly more masculine. You decide right then and there that this is definitely in the top three most painful experiences of your life. Like you needed any more reason to hate yourself for foolishly running that scooter into a wall and fucking up your ankle with five full days of training left. It’s not like you need your right leg to train Muay Thai or anything, right? You were just starting to think you were tough. Training with a torn ligament, isn’t that what a professional fighter would have to do? Suck it up, princess. Pain is weakness escaping the body. No guts no glory. Cliches are not helping right now. Just when you think you are tough a diminutive, soft spoken, old Thai man is showing you otherwise. He regards himself as a healer, but as he presses deeply into your swollen, purple, throbbing ankle you think he seems more like a torture artist. This is the type of pain that breaks you. You think you can handle it during the first few minutes. You begin to count seconds and hope it will be over before you embarrass yourself. Soon enough there is nothing in the world except you and the pain. There is no choice but to break and accept it, hence the screaming…yelling.
There is a bright side to this injury. The Seven Dwarfs (aka your Thai trainers) have finally noticed you, and seem to be impressed that you’ve been toughing it out. Doc noticed your wrapped up ankle and began to pantomime getting it amputated while laughing. Grumpy has actually began smiling at you! Sneezy has taken it upon himself to be your personal boxing tutor, which is either good or bad depending on what the result of him coughing on you repeatedly will be. Right now Sleepy is not impressed that you’re disturbing his post morning session nap with your scream… yelling.
Your instructors at N1 Thai back in Ottawa, your veritable second home, had given you insight into what training in Thailand would be like, but you’re beginning to realize how much they left out. In fact, here’s a list of things they didn’t tell you: that you’ll end up sharing the top floor of your on site accommodations with a team of about twenty Russians, who slam doors every minute from about 7am to 2am; that attending one of Thailand’s infamous ping pong shows will destroy a part of your soul; that you’ll be so consumed by Muay Thai that you dream about it and wake yourself up by punching and kicking the air over your bed; that you’ll have to mind the ladyboys (actually, everyone tells you that). Your torturer finally tells you he is done. The joy you feel is short lived when he informs you he’ll be waiting for you at this time every day until you leave.
You’re in the same clothes you’ve been wearing for over twenty four hours. Same pants you put on in Ottawa. Same hoodie you had on in Chicago. Same shirt you were wearing in Tokyo. Same underwear now that you’ve finally made it to your gym in Thailand. You want nothing more than to shower and change but it’s 7:30am and no one is around. What were you expecting, a welcoming committee for you and Humps? Some type of celebration of your arrival? The first person you meet is a Swedish girl named Jolin who looks more lost than you do. When you tell her you’re Canadian she asks if you know Macklemore (the hipster inside you cringes at his now seemingly worldwide explosion in popularity).
When you’re shown to your room the first thing you do is check out the view from the balcony. Waiting for you there is a massive praying mantis who turns its head towards you as you step out. This is good, this is very good. Call it an omen, a sign from the Muay Thai gods. When just before your trip you asked Humos, the man with more nicknames than you can keep track of, what his fighter moniker would be…well you can guess what the gangly 6’4’ dude with reach for days answered. Hopefully this foreshadowing of good fortune has a vicarious effect on you. All you really hope for on this trip is to not injure yourself, which shouldn’t be an issue as long as you don’t do anything foolish. If you ever write about this you won’t refer to it simply as a trip though. This is a pilgrimage. This is the equivalent of the Holy Land for any Muay Thai practitioner. This is a voyage to the very roots of your craft. The physical voyage is the payment, the spiritual journey is the reward. It’s a chance to leave everything behind and focus solely on the art of eight limbs. In fact, here’s a list of things that will not matter to you while you’re on this odyssey: who is performing during the Superbowl halftime show; the schizophrenic nature of Ottawa weather in late February; the hundreds of emails you receive at work while you’re away, and how only a handful actually have anything to do with you; that girl with the freckles like constellations (okay fine, lately thoughts of her follow you anywhere you go). The mantis takes one last look at you before skittering away as you change out of the pants you won’t need for the next fourteen days.
You’re celebrating the fact that after fourteen days of ardour you can officially cross off a long time bucket list item. How does one celebrate grinding out a two week Muay Thai training camp? Basically the same way you celebrate anything in Koh Samui, which is with a mango smoothie. You’ve opted to treat yourself by enjoying said smoothie at the expensive seafood restaurant on the main road near Chaweng Beach. Jolin is telling you for the umpteenth time about her love of cats, both the domesticated, stray, and internet variety. Your attention strays to the truck driving by with the loudspeaker announcing ‘SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY come watch the world’s most ancient and devastating martial art. BE THERE, there, there…’
You begin to reflect on how exactly you got to this point. How did such a pussy become such a… slightly less of a pussy? How did someone who has spent their life deescalating physical confrontation, using their words and reason to settle arguments, get into combat sports? How did someone who so vehemently opposes violence immerse themselves in a practice that is known for its brutality? The epiphany hits you like an unchecked leg kick. For you, fighting in the name of athletic competition represents the opposite of savagery. This is a world where humans have yet to evolve past the point where our differences so easily become a reason for us to kill one another with reckless abandon. We fight each other for all the wrong reasons, and in all the wrong ways. Strip away the fear, the hatred, the ignorance; take away the bullets, the bombs, the destruction; keep only two people with their skill, their respect, their honour, and you are left with something beautiful. You are left with the purest form of struggle. You are left with Jolin and Frazzle laughing at you because you didn’t notice them steal your last two spring rolls!