How far can you go? For your family? For your people? Even for your job?
They chose me because I did not attach myself to materialistic matters.
Like my long hairs. My breasts. My body.
I recognise that I need a body to be someone, but it does not matter to me whether this body is mutilated or not. As long as I can feel that I exist.
Sean believed it was because of my Buddhist faith. Enlightened Buddhists don’t attach themselves to materialistic things, but they enjoy it when they get it.
I can enjoy a cup of coffee or air conditioning, but if it goes away, it hardly has an effect on my emotions. Sean was partly right. I also came from a very different world than him. His family knew plenty. He did not understand poverty. Poverty taught me frugality. Our king gave guidance to my family and the other families in the northeast of Thailand to deal with poverty, and his guidance made us stronger.
Be reasonable. Live moderately. Handle with care. Breathe from the belly. Think from the heart.
Simply be with the trees and the flowers.
My family was very simple. I loved them a lot and that’s why I studied hard. I wanted to be a good daughter. I made my family so proud when I received a Queen’s scholarship to study in Bangkok. It hurt to leave them behind, but if I wanted to be a good daughter, I had to learn to free myself from my childish emotions.
I hadn’t seen them for fifteen years.
I am sending them money. A lot of money.
Thanks to me, the younger children were also able to study.
We used to eat snakes and worms.
Now we ate hamburgers from USA, kimchi from Korea and sushi from Japan.
How I eventually became an agent for the Thai government is not relevant. My journey begins in the room of an ajahn, an authorised monk. He was putting a sak yant on my arm with a bamboo stick. A magic tattoo. It is not really a Buddhist thing, but in Thailand the boundary between Buddhism and superstition in spirits and magic was blurred. In my country, you find everywhere small spirit houses. This could be connected with Buddhism and Hinduism, because when Thai put a new spirit house, they have to ask a buddhist monk to do a special ceremony. These spirit houses are for the spirits who take care of the area. We believe that there are different classes of spirits or angels: some lives on earth, some in a tree, some in the air, but not in every tree there is a spirit. In Thailand, the spirit is not connected to a certain tree. There was a story where people were stopped to cut a tree, because a monk heard the spirit asking for few days time to find another tree as new residence.
The atmosphere is humid and warm. My T-shirt stuck to my back, but the fans caused a wind freeing myself from this visceral suffering. I smelled incense, sandalwood, sweat, roasted meat and even rubbish. As the ajahn dawns on blessings and prayers, he puts a burning bamboo stick into my skin. The pain is enormous, but I don’t feel it. After all, I have focused my energy on Sean.
Sean was a tall blonde man who lived in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the last seventeen years, but in the past three years his work brought him more to Japan and Thailand. Or that is what he said. He was now outside an helped a young monk practice his English. In Thailand, many boys become monks for at least three months, usually during the rainy season, because then they were not needed at the fields. This young man shows Sean the sumptuously decorated spirit house in the garden. I overheard Sean asking the young monk why he saw so many open bottles of red Fanta with straws in front of the spirit houses.
It was so Thai.
“We used to sacrifice blood,” the monk said, “but red Fanta is cheaper.”
We do not know why we use red Fanta. We just copy the past and tell us what elder people say. “Tum Tam Tam Kan Ma.” Adults love to tell the children that sentence when they ask for the reason why we copy the elders. It means “follow what elders did” . However, it does not resonate with the Buddhist idea of Kalama Sutta; the Buddha named ten specific sources whose knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation. As you see, Thai social norms are sometimes against the Buddha’s thought. Many people of my generation are fed up with “Tum Tam Tam Kan Ma”. We want to break free from these invisible chains and make the world a better place. That is also why I am here, between buckets full of offers and a human-high Buddha.
“Besides,” the young monk added, “the king likes to drink red Fanta.”
With a smile, I thought of our king. He was like a father to our people. He was as creative as an artist, as intelligent as an engineer, as modest as a monk and as generous as the ocean. I felt blessed to be his subject.
Sean pointed to a tree with a canvas. “What is this for?”
“These trees are magical,” the monk explained. “Do you know the story of Nang Ta-khian?”
Sean shook his head.
“The Lady of the Ta-khian is a female spirit connected to the Hopea Odorata trees. Sometimes she lives in these trees, but sometimes she appears as a beautiful young woman, in a beautiful red or brown robe. Her tree is never cut down, for everyone knows that the spirit will be furious and will follow the tree cutter through the forest… until he dies of fear. You must not mock spirits. “
Sean frowned his eyebrows. “Are you afraid for the trees?”
“We are not afraid for them,” the monk said. “We have respect for them, and as long as we have respect for them, no bad things will happen to us.”
Sean squatted down and studied the root of the trunk. “Has it a large tap root?”
“I do not understand,” the monk said.
“Does the root grow vertically in the soil or do the roots run horizontally below the soil surface?”
“I think the first,” the monk said. He hesitated. “Are you a biologist?”
“No, only since recently I started to get interested in trees,” Sean said.
His eyes caught my gaze.
I turned back to the ajahn.
“You are a very strong woman,” he said in Thai.
He had warned me that this ceremony would be very painful and that many Thailanders had fainted. He wanted to teach me breathing techniques, and out of respect I pretended not to know them, but he quickly realised that I am a master of control of the brain.
Eventually he blows my arm and lubricated my tattoo with oil.
“You are ready.”
I looked at him. I had expected more pain, but I knew this was just the beginning.
Sean brought me back to Bangkok in his jeep. We didn’t speak much. I held on to his free hand. That was enough for me. Nobody knew how much we loved each other. We did not have a relationship, so to speak, because we wanted to protect each other. Many thought he was my mentor because he was almost twenty years older. I didn’t care what others thought of him, as long as they didn’t threaten him to hit me. In fact, I was attached to only one thing and that was his touch. As long as I could feel him, I existed.
Eventually we reached the station of the skytrain in Mo Chit. He took a deep breath.
“From now on you are on yourself,” he said.
He didn’t let go of my hand.
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“I’m not afraid of being caught,” I said, “but I’m afraid of what I’ll discover. What if it’s all true?”
He looked ahead and bit his teeth. Sometimes he knew something very cool or comforting to say, but often he sank in thoughts. He was a man with two faces, and I kissed them both farewell.
An hour later I watched the endless procession of Hijas de La Tierra on the street. Singing they shuffled one after the other, dressed in green robes finished with silver threads. I followed them to their quarters in Chinatown. The branch of this group in Bangkok was the largest in the world after the ones in Berlin, Lahore and Nairobi. Here were about 400 Hijas. I went through a maze of small alleys, where houses were that old they still had wooden doors. I was in the beating heart of Bangkok, where all the magic happens, and I also felt thousands of invisible ants crawling over my body. I was not the only woman to join today. Four other women waited at the gate of the temple of the sect. The gate itself was lacquered and heavily decorated with images of tropical trees. Two Thai, one Westerner and one Indian who could perhaps be a third generation Thai. They sat on the pavement and said aloud the rules of Sahiba Mapomo. The procession of Hijas ignored them when they walked into the open gate. I joined the four woman at the pavement and also started to say the rules. They would let us wait eight days. In the next six days I saw candidates joining us, Hijas passing us as well vendors that fed us with spicy meals with lemongrass. The westerner gave up, but the others stayed until a Hija let them in . In the morning of the sixth day a Hija tapped me awake. I looked into the golden brown eyes of an Indian woman. She pointed at my tattoo.
“Who are you?” she asked.
I took a deep breath and as soon as I blew out, I stopped existing..
“I am Budsaba, daughter of Ta-Khian,” I answered. “I am on my way to the east.”
“Be welcome, Budsaba Ta-Lhian,” she said.
I knew that this tattoo would help me to win the trust of a few Hijas, but I was surprised that this would allow me to enter the lion’s hole earlier. I ended up in a dark room that smelled of sweat, but my eyes adapted quickly and I found soon the location of the second large wooden gate. Our previous secret agent, who was undercover in Berlin, had told us that there were seven gates and that anyone who wants to become a Hija has to leave something at a gate. I already knew about the hair and the breast. The gates symbolise the different natural transitions of life for women. Our society is very much focused on external matters: performance, the opinions of others, financial success, worship of young looking bodies. This is an expression of male energy. When changes occur, women, according to the Hijas de La Tierra, only look at the outside of the situation, but don’t look inside. Female energy is hidden under the appearance of things. They go beyond the first physical impression and into the depths. By opening more gates and going deeper into the temple, women find meaning. At important moments in your life, gates are wide open so that you can get very close to your essence.
“Kneel down,” said the Indian woman. “Budsaba, say goodbye to your long hair.”
I politely followed her commandment and said the words. I didn’t move a thrill when she skimmed off her long black hair. I was not attached to something that could always return.
“Budsaba, say goodbye to the sins of your previous life,” she said, “because in the next eight days you are going to detox your body to purify everything that is bad and addictive.”
She opened the large wooden door and brought me to an open course where some hammocks hung. A few Hijas were around a bar that seemed to have been picked up exactly from a Thai beach. They drank a strange stuff. Our secret agenda never got any further than the third gate. After these eight days I would have to give up my right breast, but she could not. That is why they asked me. I was Thai enough to sacrifice everything for the bigger good.
But first I had to detox and fast. In the next eight days I drunk clay, root or fibre juices, swallowed many vitamin capsules and took part in yoga and meditation sessions. Other Hijas massaged me daily with rose oil while they sang songs.
Daily I also had to rinse my intestines. I went to a small room and had to lie on my back. I had to put a clean tube in my ass and let then ten liters of some coffee pass through my intestines. It was disgusting. I asked one of the Hijas if this was healthy.
“Has it been scientifically proven?”
“So why is it not a general practice?”
“Other scientists say it doesn’t matter.”
“So why do we believe the scientists who are pro?”
“You say it yourself,” said the Hija. “We believe.
My massage was also a struggle. The masseuse noticed that I was tense. I had sent the list of vitamins to Sean to check what these things would do with our bodies, but all three doctors he consulted said that they were good. During the detox, the other candidates seemed to suffer hard. They had not experienced the same mental and physical training as me. Nevertheless, I also felt the transformation. My skin became softer. The sunspots disappeared. My eyes started to sparkle, the hairs started to shine. After the first five days, when the end was in sight, everyone seemed stronger and healthier.
I also tried not to attract too much attention, because I knew that the truth was behind the seventh gate and I had to get there alone. On the third day of my detox, I met Nini, a Thai young woman who clearly suffered from the White Dream. Parts of her face and arms were already completely white. I estimated that she was probably already three months far. She was halfway, I realised full of pity. Still she participated in the whole detox.
Eventually she got off on me. “Why don’t you believe it?”
“You look at me as if I were dying,” Nini said.
I blinked with my eyelashes, but said nothing. She smashed her eyes to heaven and returned to her hammock. She then understood that Nini believed that the Hijas could heal her. How? And how did she come up with that idea? I had never heard before that they were luring victims of diseases to their sect with the false promise that they would heal them.
Besides the detox program, a Thai old woman with barely teeth taught us about trees, plants and animals. It is exactly like in my primary school. We learned the different leaf shapes. Sawn, scalloped, serrated, jagged and lobed. We extracted oils from wood “because the smell makes us more happy”, and I caught myself often sniffing from old wood. I did not want to admit it, but it was not that difficult to be at ease and look calm as if I had nothing to hide.
“Budsaba, say goodbye to your right breast.”
The space after the third gate was an operating room. It was in stark contrast to the paradisiacal courtyard. I saw a sterile sheet on a bed, next to an iron table with instruments that looked exactly like a torture museum. Here the previous agent had given up. I lied down on the bed and closed my eyes. He loves me, I said to myself, for whom I am, not for what I have.
There were no mirrors, but I was often touching the place where once was my right breast. It was as if I was lying whole time to myself that I still had my breast. I thought it would be easier to accept this, but I did not feel myself anymore. Something of me was lost. I also had to concentrate more and remind myself why I was not here, because it was so easy to forget myself. On the fourth day, we were called back to the main hall to listen to a lecture of the Head Priestess herself. She was a Colombian biologist whose red hair had grown back after her own journey to what is behind the seventh gate. According to Nini, her name was Poison Ivy.
“After one of the villains from Batman?” I asked trying to sound as neutral as possible.
“Antiheroine,” Nini corrected me. “Listen, Budsaba. She speaks rarely.”
The Head Priestess smiled to all the hundreds of Hijas who had gathered.
“Today I want to remind us about who we are and your journey to the essence of life. The woman’s cycles have their own rhythm, with each phase having its own place in the greater whole. The three stages are called the maiden, mother and crone.”
I looked up and noticed how all the Hijas around me were full of fascination for this woman.
“The maiden stage stands for creative power. She is full of pleasure, deep desires and big dreams that cannot yet be put into practice. You are maidens. But soon you will become mothers or even crones.”
I held my breath. I was not the only one.
“The mother stands for the creative act. She is the one who lets dreams and ideas be born. She It nourishes, cradles and protects. She is fertile, sensual and strong. Your bodies and spirits will feed the world back so that it becomes strong again. You are going to cure the wider social ills from Thailand to Mexico. You are going to be Mother Earth. “
In the next days, we got more classes about trees and I found it all very fascinating.
“The bark works like a harness to stop illnesses and temperature fluctuations,” explained a Hija. “Underneath that is the bark. This is the path along which dissolved nutrients flow to the rest of the tree. Underneath the bark, between old and new wood, you will find the cambium. This layer of dividing cells deposits new wood on the inside of the trunk and at the same time creates a new bark on the outside. This is how a tree grows in width, and not only in height.”
But sometimes I wondered if these “biology classes” are the mysteries of womanhood that attracted so many women across the world to become part of this sect, or if they knew I was working for the intelligence service and that they were fooling me. I started to hear whispers in my head warning me for these ladies that look innocent, but were all playing me, and already knew who I was before I even followed the procession of Hijas two weeks ago. I fought against these voices, telling myself that this was a trickery of my mind, as a result of the detox and all the bodily experiences that I had to sacrifice.
“You have a special tattoo,” a voice interrupted my meditation.
My eyes shot open. A beautiful woman smiled to me. In an instant I learned that she was as important as the chief priestess, perhaps more important. I recognised the patterns of her robe which told me that she had opened all seven gates. The voices in my head started to scream. Later I would learn she was from Indonesia, and that her name was Dewi Mahoney.
“It’s a sak yant,” I said, “for about two thousand years, monks or shamans have been putting on these magical tattoos. It protects us from evil spirits.”
Dewi crouched down at me and took my arm to take a closer look at the tattoo.
“I know what a sak yant is,” she said. “Only they usually have the shape of a tiger or something like that, not the diameter of a snail shell.”
“When I moved to Bangkok, I dreamt that I could carry my family and home with me,” I explained. Our eyes met and she smiled so nicely that it let me blush. “In the first week I found a snail and I was so jealous of this animal. Wouldn’t it be great if you could constantly carry your own house with you, so that you can withdraw into your house, your room, at any time? Sometimes I dream I’m carrying a snail shell in my pocket, especially when I’m here. With a magic spell the cochlea gets bigger and I can crawl into it, where my bed and other things in my room are at home.” I smiled. “This tattoo reminds me that my own heart and head are my home. We are all nomads. We are always looking for a new experience, a new object, a new identity, but actually we are mainly avoiding ourselves. As a result, we aimlessly wander around in life like a butterfly, tormented by an uneasy feeling and depression. This tattoo reminds me to find my true home in my own soul and that peace of the soul can be found at any place in the world.”
Dewi scanned my body. After ten seconds where I felt so naked, she took her eyes of me and stood up. She addressed the tropical plants in the east of the garden as if they were talking to her. I got goosebumps over my whole body.
“Who is your mother?” she asked.
That question surprised me, but nevertheless, I answered.
“Nang Ta-Khian,” Budsaba answered.
Dewi smiled. “That name seems to me to be well known. Isn’t that the name of a tree spirit from Thai superstition?”
“The monks found her in the shadows of this tree, and named her after this tree spirit,” I answered, “and they raised her as their daughter.”
“Are those the same monks who applied this sak yant?” Dewi asked.
I nodded, and I realised I had her full attention. I felt I was going to open the fourth gate very soon. But then another Hija appeared and told her that it was time to see Nini.
“Budsaba,” he whispered.
“She is healed.”
“What is healed, who is healed?
“Nini. She suffered from the White Dream. She has healed her!”
“Who is she?
“The personal bodyguard of Sahiba Mapomo.”
“Yes, and she is also the head priestess of the temple in Lahore. Yesterday she arrived after her visit to Nayla Jamal. She is … different. I saw her today for the first time, and I am so scared for her. She has cured Nini!”
“Search on. Kambo. She burned Nini’s skin and then lubricated with the assistance of our Head Priestess the wounds with frog poison. Nini swelled up like a frog. You had to see her face. And then Nini threw up all the poison. The next day I saw her with any white spot!”
“Damn. This sounds like-”
He could not say it.
“Yes, I was afraid for this,” I admitted.
“Where are you now?”
“In the fifth Chamber. Otherwise I would not have been able to call you. They see me as a Hija.”
“What did you have to give up?
“My clothes. I had to go in naked, but now I am wearing their green robe.”
“What are you doing there?”
“They teach us survival techniques here, as if they were expecting an apocalypse. The Head Priestess speaks about a Ragnarok. Do you know what it is?”
“Ragnarok is a word from Old-Norwegian mythology. Takehiko told me some stories about it,” Sean knew. “It means destruction. That’s what he said. Do they refer to the Green Outbursts? Or is it about something bigger?
“I don’t know.” I took a long pause. “Sean…”
“I want to escape.”