In hindsight, it’s funny that I ever doubted the Banana Cabana’s ability to feel like a home. The power of cherished memories to transform a house into a home is a magical thing.
Jenn used to always joke that it wasn’t until we got drunk in the BC that we became truly comfortable. Certainly, enjoying drinks with friends lent a hand in our adjustment, but like always, time was the real ailment. It took time to acclimate to living amongst palm-sized huntsman spiders and foot-long Tokay geckos.
The spiders in our home were so large that we began to name them. Henry and Ulysses were two of the most memorable, greeting us through a series of shock-induced heart attacks. We learned to accept them as functional household decorations given their mosquito diet. In the end, Henry suffered an unusual death in our shower when a cordyceps mushroom, sometimes called the “zombie fungus”, took his body hostage. In its search for airborne nutrients, the fungus takes control over the brain of another being that can help with transport to its desired location. Then, the fungus kills its vehicle.
I’ll never forget when Jenn knocked on my door before school one morning and said, “Sam, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Henry is dead. The bad news is that a cordyceps mushroom has secured his corpse to the wall of our shower. So just don’t look too closely.”
Jenn and I spent hours duct-taping the gaps in the old wooden floors to keep the air conditioning in the bedrooms, closing the holes in the downstairs doors to keep the geckos out, and plugging the leaks in the windows to block the critters. We used to call these sessions “apocalypse parties” – duct tape everywhere, obsessively sealing every entry.
No matter how much we tried, the flying termites that invaded the house after severe rains were just about the only discomfort that neither time nor duct tape could avail. We learned very quickly that a “no lights” policy was necessary inside our home as soon as the rain stopped. Flocks of flying termites, also very accurately called “swarmers”, would congregate around any source of light, even that of a phone screen. It didn’t seem to matter how many openings we secured with duct tape, the swarmers would still find a way inside.
The worst part was their resiliency: Upon zapping themselves against a light, they wouldn’t die like normal insects. Instead, they would simply lose their wings and fall to the ground for you to find them hours later, crawling on your bedspread or inside your shirt.
When the rainy season ended, however, winter in Thailand brought a new light to the BC. The already beautiful expanse of jungle behind our cabana became an accessible haven without the worry of mosquitoes or flying termites. I spent afternoons relaxing in our hammock, listening to birdsong and gazing dreamily into the green. I enjoyed my time in our outdoor shower and began to choose open windows over the air conditioner.
Of course, the many critters of the BC and Lomkaophittayakhom School were much more a blessing than a curse. Once we were able to get the territorial Tokay geckos outside the home, I appreciated them almost every night. These beautiful geckos, with bright coral and teal spots, tend to be quite shy when they’re not threatened. My favorite of the geckos hid in the hollow steel door frame of our patio gate. If I was really sneaky in the evenings, I could catch glimpses of her poking out to feast on the mosquitoes swarming my patio light.
On one evening in July, a new visitor found the BC. A young, skinny black cat with white patches and bright green eyes sat outside our door crying for food. It took no time for me to give in. Soon after Jenn and I started to feed her, it was clear she had chosen our house as her safe haven from the school dogs. She didn’t seem to be going anywhere. We named her Murphy.
She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed – walking into walls, disregarding her food as if she hadn’t seen it at all, and resembling no fear, annoyance, or any other emotion. Of course, all cats have a tendency to be expressionless, but it usually doesn’t take much to get them aggravated. Murphy was simply the queen of apathy. A very loud, hungry queen.
Drawing a reaction out of her was impossible. Even in her hungriest moments, we all but shoved her face into the food bowl before she began to eat. I hypothesized that she was blind. John attributed the behavior to sheer stupidity. Then one day, Jenn spotted a pregnancy bump.
We hadn’t even wanted to adopt one cat to begin with, out of concern for our temporary living situation. But sure enough, in August of 2018, Murphy gave birth to three healthy kittens.
John, Jenn and I spent many evenings in the BC playing card games, using the ironing board as our makeshift table. It was on an evening like this: the three of us sitting around the ironing board with cards strewn about, Murphy resting in my lap, that I felt a wetness against my shirt. “Jenn,” I said nervously, “I think Murphy is going into labor.”
We hadn’t the slightest clue how to care for a cat in labor, but we did our best with the limited resources the Banana Cabana could offer.
After we moved in, we had found mementos of former teachers throughout the house. One of the left-behinds from Teacher Yosi was an old duffel bag, very large in size and fairly cozy in shape. We knew Murphy would want a dark and private space to have her kittens and that she would want to feel secure, so we put her in the duffel bag. Surprisingly, this turned out to be our perfect solution.
We awoke the next morning to find three kittens snuggling against Murphy, all completely different in appearance. The first boy seemed to be the healthiest, with handsome grey patterened fur. We named him Geppetto after Mister Geppetto in Pinocchio.
The only girl was all white except for her black tail. Her pink nose and ears stood out against her clean white. She was also very healthy and quite feisty. Very quickly she established her own place among her brothers. She reminded me of the character Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the nickname “Clem” stuck.
The runt of the litter was my favorite from the start. I have an undeniable soft spot for the underdog (undercat). He had mixed white and dark grey fur with very pink features, similar to Clem’s. Smaller than the other two kittens, he was always pushed out of the way when trying to nurse. I can remember spending long hours sitting next to the cats, guiding the close-eyed and confused runt to drink some of Murphy’s milk.
He was born with a condition we noticed right away, which I only know how to describe as the cat version of Bell’s Palsy. The muscles on the left side of his face appeared to be paralyzed. His left ear drooped at a perpendicular angle, which was hilariously asymmetrical when his right ear perked upright. He couldn’t use his left outer eyelid, so when he blinked and slept, only his inner eyelid closed. A small cleft lip made his large canine tooth more visible on the left side.
Some people would cringe when they saw these features of his, but I thought they only made him cuter. I adored him from the start, and he reminded me of the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon I saw before leaving for Thailand – the words that really convinced me to take this leap of faith. We named him Mr. Hobbes.
While Clementine and Geppetto were more independent, Hobbes was a mama’s boy. He adopted her loud voice and talkative nature, but he shared much more in the way of appearance with his father.
Early on, we had suspicions of who fathered the kittens. Even before they were born, a brawny male with a large head and raccoon coloring would roam around the BC in the evenings looking for Murphy and for food. We began to call him Daddy, and as Mr. Hobbes grew older, any doubts we had of Daddy’s identity faded. Hobbes was just a little more goofy and a little less menacing, but otherwise, the two looked almost identical.
Apparently male cats don’t care to recognize their offspring, or so I learned from Daddy. He frequently tried to steal food away from the kittens, bullying them in the process. They soon learned how to climb the chain link that framed the patio. By climbing the fence, they could reach the top of the cement wall surrounding the outdoor shower, a perch that was perfectly safe from the school’s roaming dogs. And though Daddy was also able to climb this fence, he was usually more interested in the food below.
The cats would play for long hours outside the patio, enjoying the forest behind the BC. Once they smelled Daddy or a dog nearby, they’d sprint into the patio and clamor up the chainlink to their safe space. This was the funniest to witness when I was showering: I’d hear their frantic race inside, then look up to see eight feline eyes peering down at me.
The kittens unsuccessfully tried to protect their food from Daddy as they grew older. Once, when Hobbes was alone at the house, I returned to find severe bites on his neck. He was swollen for weeks and I was certain Daddy was the culprit. The neighbors probably thought I was crazy after the number of times they heard me running around the house yelling, “Get out of here, Daddy!”
Almost every time he came around, though, after I made sure the cats were safe inside the patio, I would leave an extra plate of food outside for Daddy. It was always gone in the morning.
It wasn’t long before the BC welcomed even more cats. Upon arriving to work one day, P Som told me that a janitor had found abandoned kittens no more than a few weeks old. The mother was nowhere in sight. The janitor guided me toward the student bathrooms where I found two trembling Siamese kittens in the corner of a stall. A third kitten ran and hid far underneath the administration building. We checked multiple times a day for two days – I even came back in the evenings with flashlights pacing around the building with cat treats – but we never found the third kitten.
The other two took refuge at our home. While one of the newcomers was rejected by Murphy and her kittens, the other was quickly accepted. The smaller kitten, who we suspected to be ill, was bullied from the getgo. Clementine hissed and Murphy refused to let her nurse. I wrapped her in a blanket and tried to bottle feed her, but without the care of a vet or the community of the other cats, she died shortly after. I remember thinking she looked particularly weak one morning, so I went home in between classes to check on her. When I arrived, she looked even worse than when I had left. I rushed to the office, panicking and looking for P Som. I was holding her in my arms when she stopped breathing.
Before we had found a home for the surviving Siamese sibling, who we named Bunny, we found yet another abandoned kitten. In such a low-income area, where human welfare is still a prominent issue, animal welfare is unfortunately not a priority for most. This leads to the many strays being dropped at public locations, like a school or market, where locals hope they will have a fighting chance.
This tiny girl was black and white and smaller than a pair of glasses, so small that we named her Birdy. Poor Birdy did not make it long, and she was buried next to our Siamese girl. I remembered P Som calling the BC the Angel House. When we buried these two angels under the tree out front, it gave new meaning to the name.
It was easy to find homes for Geppetto and Bunny because of how beautiful they were. After a chaotic few weeks, in which the BC had a total of seven cats in its care, we were left with a family of three. And through it all, the mama’s boy remained my favorite.
When Murphy was finished nursing and the kittens turned six months old, we took the cats to the vet in Lomsak to be spayed and neutered. With the cats living primarily on the patio and with Daddy’s constant lurking, we didn’t want to take our chances of getting stuck with another litter of kittens.
Experiencing the vet in Lomsak added to the culture shock, to the list of things I had taken for granted about life in America. There was no vet in Lomkao and only one available in Lomsak, a small office with one doctor and no supporting staff. The doctor wore the hats of caretaker, receptionist, and cleaning lady. I was shocked to find that the surgical procedure room and the room with cages of hospitalized pets were one in the same. This same space also seemed to function as a storage room for medications and surgical supplies. I felt sick to my stomach as I realized the obvious hygienic safety concerns. Animal welfare once again appeared to be of significance only for those with disposable income, for those with the privilege to live near the animal hospital in Phetchabun.
Whereas Mr. Hobbes and Clementine recovered from their operations quickly and smoothly, Murphy experienced persistent swelling in her abdomen. Her belly was so large that it looked as if she were carrying another litter of kittens. She waddled around swinging the extra weight from side to side, and climbing the chainlink fence became difficult for her. It was clear to Jenn and I that the bulge was not normal weight gain because her stomach was hard to the touch. It felt like she had swallowed a volleyball. After consulting the vet, we began treating her with medication for worms, but the swelling still wouldn’t subside.
I was worried about Murphy constantly, but P Som reassured me that if Murphy were severely ill, we would have seen a change in her personality. Yet, she was still taking care of her kittens and meowing at top volume. She remained active, social, and hungry at all times.
It was around this time that my second semester of teaching at LKP was coming to a close. Students were taking final exams and attending graduation ceremonies, Jenn was preparing to move out and I was celebrating having extended my teaching contract for another six months. Jenn and I were also preparing to embark on our adventure through Vietnam and Cambodia, beginning with a flight from Bangkok to Hanoi.
The foreign teachers receive more time off between school semesters than our Thai colleagues. With only a few teachers in the foreign language department speaking fluent English, the language barrier made it difficult for the foreign teachers to participate in the logistics of the job. We developed our own curriculum and taught our own classes, frequently without the help of a coteacher. We were involved in school activities and events to a certain extent – usually meaning that we were dressed up in various costumes, told where to go and where to pose for photos for the school’s marketing efforts.
Our involvement in adminstrative meetings and online connectivity, however, was extremely limited. The computer program for recording grades operated only in Thai language, and we were not given access to the school’s email server. We kept track of our own gradebooks throughout the semester. When it came time for midterm and final grades to be submitted, we were asked only to give our handwritten grade sheets to our assigned coteacher for that class. Because of this, there was no incentive to keep paying the foreign teachers into the month of student vacation.
We left for Bangkok shortly after we finished finalizing grade sheets. P Som lives directly across from the school and, except for a short 5-day holiday, she was planning to spend most of the break working at school. She offered to go to the BC every day to leave food and water for the cats. We left Lomkao knowing that our feline family would be in good hands.
About one month into our travels, P Som sent me her usual photo update of the cats – except in this photo, I only saw Mr. Hobbes.
“Sam, I’m so sorry. Clementine and Murphy haven’t been at the house for a few days now. I don’t know where they went, but Mr. Hobbes is still here. You know, sometimes they go on little jungle adventures. I’ll let you know when they come back.”
Jenn and I tried to stay positive about the news, remembering Clementine’s fierce independence. Knowing Murphy wasn’t in perfect health when we left had me worried, but there was nothing we could do from Vietnam. There was also nothing P Som could do from Lomkao, except to keep caring for Hobbes and to hope for the best. We tried to focus on the remainder of our travels.
Cambodia provided ample lessons and distractions. Upon arriving in Siem Reap, I was reconnected with my mom and our friend Joan. We explored Angkor Wat together before flying to Chiang Mai. It became easier and easier to let my thoughts drift away from the situation with the cats.
It was such a privilege to explore Thailand with mom, introducing her to the culture, the nature and the people who made Thailand feel like a second home. Saying goodbye to my mom was difficult. As always, our time together seemed to go by in a heartbeat. Returning to my students in Lomkao helped. I focused on the opportunity I had to enjoy Lomkao and the BC more independently. It was a refreshing change that allowed me to become closer with my students, school and community more than I had before.
The next seven months passed, but Clementine and Murphy never returned. My friendship with Jamie and with P Som continued to grow and Mr. Hobbes and I became attached at the hip. Since Jamie chose to stay in the home where she was living with Taylor, it was just Hobbes and me at the BC.
It became harder for me to resist letting him inside the home with me. We established a comfortable routine: Hobbes would stay outside while I was at school for the day, sometimes leaving his prized hunting trophies on the doorstep for my return. As soon as I would let him in for the night, he turned into an irresistible snuggler. We would almost always fall asleep together. I’d take the role of big spoon with my arm wrapped around him and he’d rest his chin on my wrist.
Before coming to Thailand, I never would have considered myself a cat person. I’m an animal person in general, but historically I had only experienced genuinely positive connections with dogs. Dogs seem to have an ability to bond with and show love toward anyone, but cats are more selective by nature. I got along well with Jenn’s cat Penelope while we lived together in Florida, but it was clear that Penelope always preferred to be around Jenn.
The special connection I had with Mr. Hobbes changed all of this. We did yoga together often. My favorite place to lay out my mat was on the patio looking into the forest. Hobbes enjoyed spending time out there, too. As I played my yoga music, burned incense and danced around on my mat in the sunshine, Hobbes would prance around chasing butterflies and geckos. He’d join me in down dog, copying my stretch underneath me, and he’d rest in my lap while I meditated.
He never wanted me to leave the BC. He would stretch out on the seat of my motorbike as if that would prevent me from leaving altogether. Sometimes when I tried to go up the stairs to my room, he would jump in front of my every step to keep me from ascending. I think he was afraid I would lock him outside the bedroom if he didn’t continuously assert himself in my path.
When I worked on my writing or school work, as all cats tend to do, he’d become infatuated with my laptop keyboard. His desire for attention and inclusion with whatever I was doing at the house made most things simultaneously more challenging and more entertaining.
Sometimes, I would say things to Mr. Hobbes and I could swear that he understood me. I’d talk to him about things while sweeping the patio, or beg him not to leave any more mice or gecko corpses in his foodbowl. When his nonstop meowing was giving me a headache, I’d ask him to please just tell me what he wants: to go outside for the bathroom, to have some more food or water, to have attention, to be held, to be let on the balcony to hunt critters. The usual tone of voice was an exasperated plea, “What on earth can I do to get you to be quiet!!!”
I found that trying to understand Mr. Hobbes wasn’t much different from trying to understand Thai language. My very elementary knowledge of Thai was only helpful when I was paying attention to the context of the situation. My background knowledge enabled me to put the pieces together. The issue is that this ability to solve puzzles can only go so far, and it certainly doesn’t extend to any detailed information.
I knew how to tell Mr. Hobbes that I was going to work and that I’d be back that evening. I could tell he understood me, and that he knew to relax on the patio chasing critters in the jungle until I returned. He recognized my morning routine of putting on my backpack and pulling my motorbike out of the patio.
But when the semester ended and I prepared to move out of the BC, packing a year and a half worth of my life into a suitcase and preparing for two months of travel out of my 50L backpacking bag, Mr. Hobbes did not understand.
While finalizing grades, Jamie and I spent our last two weeks in Lomkao selling clothes at the local markets to downsize all that tends to accumulate when you settle somewhere even for a short time. I slowly took down the decorations that had turned my accommodation into a home – the photos of my family that I had taped to the walls, the string of lights framing my bed, the tapestry and posters that brought so much color to my space.
After a very hectic couple of days, including tearful goodbyes to my students and coworkers, I brought my suitcase and backpack down the stairs. P Som and P Art were on their way to give me a ride to the bus station. Jamie and I had booked a flight for the next day from Bangkok to Manila. It was the start of my current backpacking journey and time for me to say goodbye to the incredible home and family I had found at my school in Lomkao.
I looked up to see Mr. Hobbes sitting on the staircase, peering down at me. He looked confused and sad and the sight of his worried eyes made my heart sink.
“Don’t worry. I have a plan,” I told him. “I’m coming back for you when I’m finished traveling. I’m going to bring you to America with me. I have to return to get my large suitcase, anyway.
P Som is going to take care of you while I travel just like she did last time. And you know how to get away from Daddy and the dogs. You have nothing to worry about. Just enjoy the patio and I’ll see you when I get back.
You’ll meet the new teachers before I do, but I’m sure you’ll like them. And we’ll be reunited before you know it.
He gave me one single, tiny meow. The quietest Mr. Hobbes I’ve ever heard. His eyes continued to look at me in a way that pains me to remember.
I explored the Philippines for almost one month before heading to Australia. I flew to Sydney with the intention of visiting my aunt and uncle in Canberra, a three hour bus trip away. Currently, I’m writing from a coffee shop in Canberra as I reflect on the incredible experiences I had throughout the Philippines and the joy it has been getting to know my aunt and uncle for the first time.
The new teachers have already arrived at LKP and are moving into the Banana Cabana as we speak. My students are starting the second semester of their senior year, calling and messaging me to tell me how much they miss me. I already miss them very much, too.
And while I’m working to maintain my excitement for the journey ahead of me, I’m having to summon a lot of patience to let go. I’m letting go of the life I’ve lived for the past year and a half, letting go of the pressure that I need to have my plans figured out, and letting go of my attachment to the plans I thought I had.
P Som messaged me on a mid-October day to tell me that she hasn’t seen Mr. Hobbes. She last saw him on a Wednesday, waiting outside Jamie’s old house, looking into the green of the forest and slowly wagging his tail.
“I will pray for him. I’m sure he just wanders around the jungle. He will come back soon.”
Halloween came and went, but there’s been no sign of Hobbes. The kind new teachers offered to continue leaving food on the BC’s patio. Our hope is that he’ll return when he realizes there are people living in the house again.
One day in Bohol, Panglao Island, Philippines, while expressing my sadness to Jamie, I said, “I can’t believe he left me.” Jamie responded gently, “You left him first.”
Hearing her words stung initially. I had a plan; Our separation was only supposed to be temporary. But Jamie was right. There was only so much I could communicate to Mr. Hobbes, and my plan didn’t seem to translate.
Jamie and I returned to Manila together the third week in October for her flight to Bangkok. From there, she would meet her cousin and travel the beaches of Southern Thailand, while I would begin my solo travels. One place I had really wanted to explore while in the Philippines is the northernmost archipelago of the country, an island chain called the Batanes.
I was lucky to explore both the Batan and Sabtang Islands, but the journey there was not without some hiccups. A series of setbacks led to me catching the bus after I had originally planned. With the later bus time and a ton of Manila traffic, I missed my flight to Basco, Batan.
My mom in all her supportive wisdom not only spent time on the phone with Cebu Pacific airlines in Manila trying to help sort out my rebooking, but she also convinced me to stay calm. “There’s probably a reason why your trip is delayed, sweetie. You know this. Plus, you’re at a point where you’re able to be completely flexible. There’s nothing to be worried about.”
Of course, she was right. On the rebooked flight the next morning, I was sat right next to a friendly local from Batan named Mark. Mark had just returned to Batanes after working for three years as a Catheterization Laboratory Radiological Technologist in Saudi Arabia. And even though he must have been very excited for his rare family time, he still helped me with local tips and accompanied me on the ferry to Sabtang during my second day in Batanes. In the end, a new friend and a much more enjoyable trip to Batanes was the silver lining of my missed flight. With this in mind, I’ll continue to stay open to the silver linings.
Maybe Mr. Hobbes will return and maybe he won’t. But there’s no doubt that things are happening the way they are meant to. The universe seems to be teaching me a major lesson in letting go.
I’m moving forward with my travels, embracing this knowledge to the best of my abilities: While having plans is beneficial, the attachment to plans is not. And as my path unfolds in unexpected directions, all I can do is endeavour to remain grateful.
As I expressed this newfound realization over a wonderful celebratory dinner with my aunt and uncle, my uncle gently reminded me that learning how to let go is a lifelong process. I humbly acknowledged that I’m not claiming to have already mastered this lesson, to have leveled up. Rather, I’m striving to continuously allow myself comfort with an open beginner’s mind, which is what helped me start this journey in the first place.
Indeed, there will be times when every hole must be sealed as in an apocalypse simulation, and other times when the universe will allow you to welcome the breeze. And when it’s uncomfortable, like the all-too-frequent moments of missing my snuggle bud Mr. Hobbes, I can always look into the stars to bring me back to earth.