Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Down Memory Lane . . . on modern life, Google, moving on and looking back

Dateline: Wednesday, May 6, 2015, 08:34 a.m. (local time)
Dateline City: Sunshine Coast, Australia.

Last night I took a trip down memory lane, walking in giant, unsteady steps from the primary school I used to work at in Sukhothai province all the way past my host family's house, up the street, around the wat (temple) and past the market, the canal, the vegetable seller, the rice fields, down the street where we lived for two years - nearly close enough to look in the windows of our old house, if they hadn't been shuttered. Past our house, past all the houses on our street that simply turns to red dirt as it goes out into the rice fields. Brilliant green rice fields. Red dirt roads. Piercing blue sky with a few clouds.

Staring out at it all, clear as every day when I actually lived there, I turned around - a full 360 degree whirl to look back at the road I'd just come from, and then ahead again at the path where, one foot in front of the other, I spent so many painful mornings and late afternoons sweating it all out, and then I teared up.

Blinking back tears, which had come unbidden, I put down my phone - the portal through which I had been taking the journey through my old site - and shook the images out of my head.

I've used my phone to look at images of Thailand before, of course, and to send those pictures to friends and family, to upload those photos to online albums for sharing, to search for particular memories - as we all do, now that our phones and our cameras and our planners and our diaries are all more or less in the same pocket.

But this was different.

In the last few months at our first site, in Sukhothai, I was at the primary school, looking out from the walkway on the second floor, toward the cafeteria and the kindergarten buildings, which were across the soccer field from the main school building, when the Google Streetview car drove past, its Silicon Valley logo prominent on the white vehicle, with a bulbous camera sticking out about a foot and a half from the roof. It drove at a normal speed. I couldn't see the driver. I watched it turn out the school driveway and leave. I told Josh about it when he came home, and then more or less forgot about it.

Months later, in Khon Kaen, I wanted to send a postcard to the school. I looked it up on Google Maps to see if the address was available. To my surprise, "Streetview" was an option, so I clicked it. There, plain as day, was the painted cinder-block fence that marks the entrance to the school, it's newly painted name in blue against a bright white background. I was shocked, but didn't dwell on it.

At that time, I just wrote out the school's name and sent the postcard.

But last night, we pulled up Google Maps - first to take a look at the route Josh had taken on his run... then to investigate the satellite imagery and streetviews of my aunt and uncle's house (which, to their shock and not-quite-but-almost-horror, is quite clear, and recent!), and then to check out their son's house up the hill (which was not at the right address and not recent), and then finally to show them our home in Thailand.

It turns out that the Google Streetview Car had mapped my old neighborhood. Just a few years after internet made it to the village, just a couple of decades after trees were cut down to make room for electric lines, and this tiny village that's so unknown, so unfathomable to most of my friends and family back home, and even more off the radar to most of America - is now not only "on the map," but there, in full, bright, clear, and living color. 360 degrees of it, and possible better quality than half the photos I ever took while I was there.

I don't know how I feel about this. I was literally able to take a virtual trip down memory lane. To stop and look and turn around at certain people's houses, at the market, at the plastic store, at the rice fields that are so indescribably beautiful, a sea of brilliant green. That in and of itself was weird. Cool, yes, but weird. That between the time the Goole car captured the bridge over the klong and the last time I was there, the bridge has been painted. That between the time I left and now, immeasurable small changes are occurring, ones that I can't monitor, and I can't access, but that eventually, perhaps, will be captured in another drive-by photo-shooting by Google.

I can't decide if I'm feeling good or bad or indifferent toward the fact that an American corporation is mapping out details of the whole world. That this much information is available. I don't know if the mystery about life in Thailand (or anywhere, for that matter) is diminished or increased by the fact that everyone's front porch is now in the public domain. I don't know if it feels like an invasion of privacy - or a complete anonymization of everyone's life, lived experiences, that it all ends up online.

All I know, is that it made me tear up. It put me back into a place that was difficult and that I grew to love, that I may never see again, except in my mind's eye, and in virtual reality.

So while we made it safely out of Thailand, by train on April 21st,

        and arrived in Malaysia to the island of Penang on the 22nd, saw historic Georgetown and marveled at how it was HOT like Thailand, but otherwise NOT at all like Thailand,

        and made it from Georgetown to Kuala Lumpur - KL, if you will, because that's what the locals call it, where we marveled at how it was a lot like the West - skyscrapers and highways and walkways and clean streets and trash pickup - and also how it was not at all like the West,

        and then from there safely to and through the KL airport (KLIA) - both forwards and backwards because even seasoned travelers get confused in unfamiliar airports,

        and flew to the Gold Coast and took local public transport from there up to Brisbane and to the Sunshine Coast, borrowing kind strangers' phones and getting discounts off of bus fare because we didn't have any Aussie money (not in the right denominations anyway),

        and even though we've settled in to my aunt and uncle's house on the edge of a tiny remaining patch of rain forest less than ten minutes' walk from the beach...

even though we did all that - and we're on our way home - there's a lot of us still left in Thailand.