July 11, 2007

No Name Bungalow

2007 1519 page13 caphe cockroaches were the most memorable feature. They were the size of a man’s thumb. They had deep-brown bodies, and their wings folded neatly over their backs.
My sister, Sonja, and I were traveling in Thailand. We were both teachers in South Korea at the time. For me the journey was nostalgic. I had once taught in Thailand. Now I would get to share with my sister the green curry, the sticky rice and mangoes, the searing afternoon heat, the white beaches, the turquoise water.
We were two girls on a budget—thrilled with Thailand’s affordable prices. When we stepped off the ferry in Koh Samui, we were greeted by a throng of men, each one pitching bungalows.
“I found one for 40 baht,” I told Sonja, tugging on her arm so that she could follow me. At $2 a night, I was sure the price was unbeatable. I was wrong. Sonja had found something cheaper. The No Name Bungalow1 charged only a dollar.
We climbed into the back of a pickup and were joined by two tourists from Switzerland. They were blond-haired and blue-eyed, and later Sonja and I would dub them Heidi and Peter, after a book we’d enjoyed as children.
The drive through Koh Sumui was stunning. It was late afternoon, and the air was tinged with salt and seaweed. The road wound past bungalows and coconut trees, and occasionally we glimpsed white sand and beyond that—the ocean.
2007 1519 page13This was a vacation. Even the bungalows did not spoil our wild joy. They were modest, certainly, but cute. The walls were woven palm fronds, the floor concrete. The bathroom caused giggles. The shower was a hose; the western-style toilet was missing both a lid and a seat.
We set our things down and skipped to the outdoor restaurant. We chose a table facing the ocean. Heidi and Peter joined us. The four of us drank the juice of green coconuts and exclaimed over our good fortune. Who would believe we were paying only a dollar a night?
That evening we encountered the terms of our bargain. Sonja and I grew up in Africa and are generally unfazed by insects. These cockroaches, however, did not disappear when we turned on the light. They scuttled here and there. When they crawled on the beds their feet would catch on the sheets. I sat writing postcards, my knees up, occasionally brushing a cockroach away. That night we placed food in the corner of the room—the corner farthest from our beds—and hoped they’d stay away while we slept.
The next morning at breakfast we met Heidi and Peter. They laughed when they saw us. “How was your night?”
“Lots of cockroaches,” we said. “Yours?”
“Mosquitoey,” they said. “It turns out there’s a swamp behind our bungalow.” They showed us their arms and legs and the raised bites that covered them.
“We’re going to look for another bungalow,” Peter and Heidi said. “Care to join us?”
Sonja and I looked at each other; then quite incredibly we said no.
The beach in front of No Name Bungalow was white and the sea glistened green. We discovered, however, that the water was shallow. When we tried to wade out, sharp rocks cut our feet. The final indignity was when my camera was stolen out of our locked bungalow.
“I can’t believe we were so cheap,” Sonja now says.
“Well, I was willing to pay two dollars,” I always counter.
We did learn one thing: You get what you pay for.
The same applies to spirituality. One’s spiritual life can be rich or shallow. It can be complex or simplistic. Salvation is a free gift, utterly independent of works.2 But a meaningful relationship with the divine requires time and commitment. God asks us to pray, not because He is ignorant of our needs, but so that we may pause and contemplate the divine.
If our spiritual lives resemble the No Name Bungalow, it is because we’re only going through the motions. We’re paying a metaphoric dollar a night. We cannot expect more from rote religion. And God does not want us to. Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great price. A merchant, who came upon the pearl, returned home, sold all that he had, and purchased it. (See Matt. 13:45, 46.)
What are you willing to pay?
1The actual name was No Name Bungalow. The place still exists, though it’s now under different management and has surely improved.
2See Ephesians 2:8, 9.
Sari Fordham is in the final stages of earning a doctoral degree in English from the University of Minnesota.