Storytime: How An Atheist Experiences Awe

Storytime: How An Atheist Experiences Awe September 21, 2018
My traditional Thai bamboo tattoo done freehand on Koh Phi Phi.

Christmas Day, 2006. I am sitting in a small bamboo hut along a sand path in the village of Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. A traditional Thai tattoo artist is tapping a sharp, pointed piece of bamboo dipped in ink into my wrist. I’d told him, “flower” and nothing more. He didn’t draw up a sketch and have me approve it. He simply dipped his bamboo in ink and went to work.

That morning, I’d gotten out of bed to sit cross-legged on a powdery white beach with my brother, my mom and dad, and some friends. We exchanged gifts, and I unwrapped Joseph Campbell’s Pathways to Bliss. A quick dip in the Andaman Sea as the Muslim call to prayer rang out across the Island, and I was back to my groove in the talcum sand to crack my new book. I sank into Campbell’s storytelling under the brutal Siamese sun, the rich history of symbols and myth that I’d fallen for in the epic Bill Moyers interview I just finished before I left for Thailand.

Follow your bliss, he kept saying. So I walked back to the village and slipped into a tattoo hut.

Cross-legged again, I sat on a bamboo mat there on the floor. Just me with a stranger. 12,000 kilometres from home, the sticky hot breeze adhered to my skin, grains of sand clinging stubbornly to every part of my body. The fan in the room was missing a blade, but it didn’t matter anyway, because it only succeeded in moving hot air around and wrestling my salt-water sticky hair from it’s tied up bun and slapping it into my sweaty face.

There, I watched this cocoa-skinned man, not sporting a single bead of sweat, use a pointed piece of bamboo to create, freehand, what is still my favourite tattoo to this day. A cherry blossom-type flower, perfectly drawn, beautifully shaded and feminine. I felt no pain but a little here-and-now-ness left my head. I felt wobbly when I got up, overjoyed with his work. He told me it was not like my other tattoos done with a gun; my new bamboo tattoo did not need to scab over or stay away from water… which was a good thing, since I was headed out on a longtail boat to an uninhabited island later in the day.

I slipped my flip flops on, paid the man a handsome tip, and trudged down the sand path. Beaming from ear to ear over my new piece of art, I nearly walked into half a dozen people. I couldn’t believe that this gorgeous tattoo I’d just gotten done was done with bamboo. I was even more dumbfounded by the fact that it didn’t hurt at all. All I felt was a little light-headed, which was easily combated by some good ol’ Thai street food. I suddenly became aware of the scent of baguettes and it drew me, almost without my noticing, under an awning to find a grinning local woman selling sandwiches.

“Sawadee Ka! Merry Christmas!” She greeted me. I ordered my lunch and sat, staring at my newly decorated wrist. I rubbed it with vaseline from the little tub the artist had given me as I left his tattoo shop. He had explained that I was to apply the greasy jelly before I went in the water for the next week.

Reaching for a napkin, I went to wipe the excess vaseline off my fingers, and out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a crumbling bit of wall. I looked around the room. In every direction, there were still small piles of rubble where you might expect walls to be. It dawned on me. This place I was sitting in used to have 4 walls. Now, it was just an awning.

This was not new to me. Over the past week spent in Phuket and Koh Phi Phi, I’d seen plenty of places like this. Even as our boat pulled into the dock at Koh Phi Phi a few days earlier, the very first sight we saw was the roof and sign of a 7-11, held up by nothing but four posts, the rest of the building having been completely gutted. It was all leftover from the Asian tsunami two years ago. Staring at the crumbled concrete, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to see a wave of that magnitude headed straight for you.

I looked up and grinned at the 30-something Thai woman preparing my baguette.

“Do you speak English?” I asked her.

“Yes. Little bit.” Her thumb and index finger nearly met, as she held them up in a circle. Her white grin, visible through them.
“Were you here during the tsunami?”

“Yes.” The smile faded quickly. I instantly felt a little pang of guilt.

“Were you in this place?” I made hand gestures pointing to the floor, to indicate I meant literally under this roof.

“Yes. I hold on here.” She nodded and grabbed a support post in the middle of the room. A flimsy piece of wood, really.

Hold on, I thought. Jesus.

“I was… how you call it… “ Her hands met far in front of her belly as if it were bigger.

“Pregnant?” Fear shot into me… I wasn’t ready for a dead baby story here on Christmas Day, in Paradise after getting my new tattoo. Not a dead baby story. Please, no dead baby story.

“Yes. Pregnant.”

“Your baby?”

“She is okay.” She pointed to a small cot in the back of the room. “There”

I squinted and made out the shape of a sleeping toddler. I grinned. Thank God. No holy.

She went on to explain to me, that the way Koh Phi Phi is shaped, with a bay on either side, and a tiny – and I mean tiny – strip of sandy village in the middle, it meant the wave hit them three times.

“Three times?” I couldn’t believe it. My brother had mentioned something about that earlier. I had trouble believing it then, too.

“Yes. It come from there.” She pointed North and swept her hands to the South. “Then it come from there.” She pointed to the South and swept her hands to the North. “And then it come from there.” Once again, pointing to the North and sweeping her hands South.

“Holy f*ck.” My self-editing was as bad back then as it is now.

“Yes. I hold here.” She grabbed the support beam again. This time, near the roof. She acted out what happened, that she’d been caught in the deep water flow that knocked her walls down and the only thing that saved her and her baby, was holding onto the wooden beam. She showed me where her belly continued to hit against the floor and against the crumbling walls.

She looked at me with rich, pained eyes. “I think my baby die. My belly was pain.”

“But that’s her?” I pointed to the sleeping child who was now stirring.

“Yes. She born after. Same day. She okay. We okay.” Right back to that stunning grin again. I smiled back, fighting a look of sheer disbelief. This tiny little girl had been born amidst the destruction of the tsunami that rocked the world two years prior. Imagine having to give birth while rescue workers recovered bodies around you. Imagine having to experience labour after the scariest, most terrifying moment not just in your life, but in the life of everyone you ever knew. Picture yourself, experiencing painful contractions, wandering through destroyed homes and shops, trying to find a doctor or a nurse or a midwife to help you give birth to a child you could only hope was still alive.

The memorial set up at Ton Sai Bay.

I had to force myself to stop thinking about it; to stop imagining what she had gone through. I looked at her with admiration. The strength she must have had.

She handed me my sandwich as the bright-eyed two-year-old survivor padded up to her mom. She was beautiful. My heart swelled and I struggled to keep tears from trickling from my eyes. I told them both I was glad for them, left some money and headed back to the beach.

Christmas Day, 2006 was a day before the 2-year anniversary of the tsunami. When I left the baguette shop, I flip-flopped past piles of rubble everywhere, gutted buildings, construction. Along the sandy walkway near the beach at Ton Sai Bay, there had been billboards erected with the photos of each person who died on Koh Phi Phi. Hundreds of them. White people, black people, Asian people, old, young, American, Canadian, European. People of every walk of life died there that day. The information on the signs indicated that somewhere near 2000 people died two years ago on Koh Phi Phi alone.

A heaviness settled in my tummy as I arrived back where all my people had been sunbathing. I made the rounds to a chorus of ooohs and ahhhs, showing off my new tattoo, and then sat, staring out at the gemstone water, trying to force down a warm baguette and get the image of a giant wave and thousands of lifeless bodies out of my head.

My brother, myself and some friends on the longtail boat to Bamboo Island.

When we left for Bamboo Island, a leisurely hour later, I leaned back in the longtail boat and watched Koh Phi Phi disappear. From a distance, you could see the snapped off trees, the crumbling rooftops and gaps of tropical air where resorts once stood. We skidded over royal blue waves and reached out from the boat to try and touch the flying fish that were racing us. More longtail boats crossed our path and the sun beat down mercilessly. I pulled off my t-shirt and draped it over my head. Sweat was leaving my body quarts at a time and I rested my hand on my warm water bottle for security and dozed.

Just moments later, my brother woke me up.

“Court. Look!”

I sat up and lifted the shirt out of my eyes. In front of our boat, racing towards us was an island, so perfect and untouched. Some of the whitest sand I’d ever seen, and dense green trees crammed onto it so tightly, the island looked like it might burst. Aside from a handful of other tourists, and a shed, there was nothing there but rocks, sand, trees and creatures.

We stepped out of the boat while it rocked in the waves crashing on shore. Clinging to my snorkelling gear in one hand, and my water bottle in the other, I walked to shore, determined not to get knocked over by the break. When our feet hit dry sand, we all sort of stood there, mouths agape, staring at what was before us.

It looked like a movie set, or a painting or a travel brochure. The sand was like baby powder, and the trees were so green and the water so brilliantly turquoise. You could see through the forest, there was nothing there but a shed for the National Park maintenance workers who visited once every so often. It was a blank canvas, and untouched haven, a natural, humanless Eden, oozing with Earthly purity, strange creatures and not a McDonald’s wrapper in sight. I almost prepared myself to see a tree of forbidden fruit, sly, talkative snake and all.

Bamboo Island, Thailand.

Without saying a word, we all started walking. We walked along the beach, as there was no path going through the forest. We stepped over rocks and watched hermit crabs scurry back to their holes. We made videos of my brother doing cartwheels in the sand and as we veered around the next bend in the beach, there sat a roof. Just a roof. Right there in the sand. A gift to Bamboo Island from the tsunami. Who knew where it came from? Who knew what it had sheltered? A family maybe? Were they still alive?

We figured it was as good a place as any to throw on our gear and visit the fishes. We kicked around in the vivid turquoise waters and watched sea life swim obliviously off an island where we, and a handful of other tourists, were the only people. I floated on my back, lifted my mask, and stared. My eyes watered, partly because of the salt water lapping up against the side of my head, partly because the sun was so bright, and partly because this place was so beautiful I was having a difficult time convincing myself it was real. We sailed back as dusk settled over the Andaman, in silence, for there were no words to describe where we’d just been.

After a quick shower, I threw on a nice shirt and some shorts and I was walking to Christmas dinner, in the middle of Thailand with a bunch of people from my hometown. We sported those paper crowns that pop out of Christmas crackers all night as we ate, sang, danced and sipped from buckets of icy Sang Som.

As the party wound down, our group headed back to the beach and sat, cross-legged with warm Singhas and reminisced about growing up in Richmond. People trickled away, seeking yuletide slumber in the heat of the tropics, and I sat alone and looked out over the bay. The tied up longtail boats rocked gently over tiny waves, the lights of the small town bounced on the wriggling water. I felt something surge in me, it bubbled up in my chest and my oesophagus. I bit my lip and looked out into the endless darkness. I was overwhelmed by my own smallness in the dark and the sky and the stars. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place I was so lucky to be in. I was overwhelmed by the tragedy these people were still recovering from. Tears trickled down my cheeks.

Then, I remembered something Joseph Campbell had said,

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”

I was living in joy. I fell back in the sand, ran the tips of my fingers over my new tattoo, and smiled up at the Universe.

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Images: Copyright Courtney Heard.

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  • Heardling

    WOW! Brings back so many good memories! Great job, Godless Mom!!!

  • Cozmo the Magician

    To say that was well written would be like saying the Sahara is a bit dry. A wonderful story that put me right there , feeling and being there with you.

    I read A LOT. So from me this is great praise. Please continue with your amazing work.

  • Thank you so much!

  • Thanks Mom!

  • That’s beautiful. So many experiences showing the beauty and the horror of the world. All of it.

  • Wile F. Coyote

    I quite enjoyed this piece. I almost feel I am on that beach, walking in the unique sand. Probably even the sound on the island was special to that place.