Saturday, February 26, 2011


"Good friends we have had, 
oh good friends we've lost along the way
In this bright future you can't forget your past
So dry your tears I say"
-Bob Marley, "No Woman, No Cry"

The bus is a rattly, rusting death trap but the driver has installed a DVD player. On the screen a never ending loop of deadly car crashes is playing to a soundtrack of great 80's hits, while misspelled lyrics scroll along the bottom, karaoke style. A familiar reggae beat begins and the title flashes across the screen: "No Woman, No Guy."

Sunday, February 13, 2011


 "Sometimes it seems like my only friend is a whiskey glass
You know it don't kill the time but it helps it pass"
-Amy Milan, "Baby Baby"

What follows is a long succession of days blurred into a hazy fog of complaints aired on the balcony served with too much vodka and wine. I write a little. But mostly, time not spent commiserating with my roommate, is wasted stumbling around the internet. I apply for jobs when I see them, but of the dozens of applications I send I hear back from only a handful. I start taking online quizzes and tests, "To pass the time," I tell myself, but I think I really just want to answer questions, any question, about myself that isn't, "What's your religion?" or "Why aren't you married?"

The internet tells me I'm smart. The internet tells me I know a lot less about books than I thought, and far more about movies, and TV shows I've never even watched, than I'll ever admit to anyone other than the internet. The internet tells me I may have a problem with alcohol and drug abuse. The internet tells me the jobs I'm best suited for are 'Dictator" and "Assassin." The fact that I can picture myself being very successful at these things does nothing to improve my opinion of myself or my future.

So I drink a little more, find new TV shows to waste my time with while I mentally construct hit lists and search for friends I can relate to. At least I'm eligible for parole.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Four Very Long Months

"Why tell me why did you not treat me right
Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight"
-"I'm Looking Through You", Beatles 

When I tell the travel agent I've come to pick up my refund for a flight Yeni and I booked but didn't make out of Maumere, she says, "Oh yes, but your friend call and say it is his."

"What?!?!" I am incredulous.

"Yes, he call last week to see when it will be ready and he call today to say he will pick it up. He say he pay you and the money his."

There are no distinguishing pronouns in Bahasa, everyone and everything is simply "it", so when Indonesians speak English they generally use the pronoun he. But I know instantly who she means.

"No," I say as calmly as I can. "I paid for the tickets, with my Mastercard." I pull out my card and place it in front of her. "I have waited over a month for this money, it is my  money, and I will take it home."

We argue about it for nearly an hour. I leave, eventually, with my money.But I have lost my patience. I have lost any desire to understand or appreciate Indonesian culture or its people. From now on I am only biding my time for the sake of my students and my CV.

A quiet disdain and loathing takes over, a malaise settles over me like a rolling fog. I do nothing to check it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Kicking and Screaming

"Why are you going to Indonesia?" asks the Singapore customs official.

When I explain that I work there he says, "Wow. That sounds very difficult to me."

I smile and nod. "Only four more months."

Now Boarding

"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!"
-White Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland 

I wake up determined to finish reading the book before I leave. As delighted as I am by the notion of stealing a book titled "The Book Thief" I have no desire to lug 488 of already read pages back to Indonesia with me and the idea of desecrating a book by tearing it up is too evil to contemplate. So I read another eight pages before I shower, deciding I can finish the rest over a lingering breakfast.

After showering, I pull out my plane ticket to double check it and move it to my day bag before I commence packing. I triple check the time as the horror settles in and my stomach dives to my toes. My flight leaves at 9:30, not 1:30. It is now 8:15.

I slam, cram, punch and throw all my belongings into my pack. I make a dash for the reception desk leaving the unfinished, and now forgotten, book behind. The girl there calls me a cab. "But," she warns, "it usually takes 20 minutes to get here." Plus another 20 to the airport. According to my ticket check-in counters for international flights close forty minutes prior to take off. I might still make it.

A cab driver arrives ten minutes later but it's for the Irish couple. They tell me I should take it. I thank them too profusely and practically run to the cab. So far, time is on my side.

"You hurry?" My cab driver asks.

"Yes, yes." I answer. "Flight at 9:30," I add, hoping to impress upon him the urgency of the situation. He smiles and nods, seeming to understand.

We are still winding our way down the country road to the main highway when he pulls over to answer his cell phone. While I applaud his safety first work ethic, I am fairly certain I am about to die of impatience. When he finally hangs up the phone after two infinite minutes he turns to me and smiles.

"We wait here for my friend."

"No!" I practically yell. "No waiting! Late! Late for plane!" Here I agitatedly make the universal gesture for plane by spreading my arms out and tilting side to side.

"Yes," he smiles broadly, "you go plane. Friend come, then go."

"No, no, no. No friend. Go NOW!"

His smile vanishes. "Ok, ok," his tone implying I am completely ba, but he puts the car in gear and begins to drive 20 km/h down the empty road. I sit in the back going quietly out of my mind. Ten minutes later another car approaches us driving in the opposite direction and both cars stop in the middle of the road.

My cab driver has a lively conversation with his friend while I tap my foot loudly, counting down the seconds to all being lost. By the time they say goodbye, what should have been a twenty minute cab ride to the airport has turned into at least a half an hour. I am now solely at the mercy of a miracle.

When we finally arrive at the airport the cab driver lets me out at the wrong terminal. Fortunately it's a small airport but I still have to run two football fields and negotiate an escalator blocked by travelers and their seemingly endless luggage.

When I reach the terminal, I scan the departure board which says my check in is at counter 6. Looking around I see a counter 5 and a counter 7. There is no 6. The screen above counter 7 says "Singapore" so I join the line comprised entirely of Russian nationals. Odd, I think, I seem to be flying home on a charter.

I make note of the sign politely requesting all passengers carrying automatic weapons and durian fruit advise staff at check-in. I try not to dwell on the fact that they've specified "automatic" weapons, as though handguns are somehow less lethal. I am comforted to know, however, that they have classified durian fruit in the same risk potential category as deadly weapons.

Durian is the world's most repugnant fruit. As hideous as it is to behold, it's even more revolting to smell. And you will smell it, usually long before you see it. It is the rotting stench of every disgusting smell in the world combined into one pungently noxious repellent fruit; year old unlaundered gym socks, soiled diapers, dead fish, formaldehyde and day old vomit all emanating from a giant orangey green ball with warty spines. Curiously, the farther away from the epicenter of emission the stronger the odor.

The eighth wonder of the world is that someone in human history thought "Gee, I bet that would be tasty". And Asians themselves are divided on whether it is or not. Ask anyone here if they like it and you will get only one of two responses: "I LOVE durian," said with a beaming grin, stomach rub and smacking of lips, or "AAAUUGH, dis-gusting," said with a horrified face, a stomach clutch and pinching of the nose. Thus, it's categorization as a deadly weapon.

"Lava chutzchny avana buschka?" Asks the square headed man in front of me.

I shrug my shoulders and shake my head. He looks surprised but turns back to face the front.

A few minutes later a blond teenage boy asks me, "Vladama itschky potta noschkev?"

"Nyet?" I ask in answer. He walks away.

It's 9:15 when I finally make it to the counter, but, judging by the thirty other passengers still in line, I feel no need to panic and actually feel a little glad I didn't arrive on time since we're obviously going to be delayed.

"This is not us," the girl behind the counter smiles as she hands me back my documents.

"What?!?!" I am stunned.

"No. Other company," she says pointing to the empty counter beside her. "Next," she says waving to the person behind me.

I stand bewildered under the TV screen she's pointed to which now reads "Air Asia". I wait until the girl at the next counter has finished checking in the person behind me, then ask as politely as possible, "Does Air Asia have a ticket counter here?"

"Yes," she smiles. "You are there."

Just then another girl walks behind the desk. I hand her my documents.

"Sorry. Too late. We are closed."

I beg, I plead, I am ashamed to say I come dangerously close to a whine.

"I will call and see. Wait yes? Probably no good but we see."

When she hangs up the phone she tells me they will hold the flight for ten minutes.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," I say, taking my boarding pass. "Uh, which way do I go."

She sighs. "Up."

I run back up the stairs, down a long hallway, pulling my day bag over my head as I go and when I arrive at the security checkpoint, I toss my bag into the grey bin without stopping. I swoop in on the other side, grab the strap of my bag and continue running gliding towards the customs clearance where I stop dead. The lines are long. All of them. And I know no matter which I choose it will, just like at the supermarket, be the wrong one.

I scan and find a line with a blond white girl and her boyfriend at the front of the line.

"Excuse me? I'm so sorry to ask this, but they're holding a plane for me, can I possibly go ahead of you?"

"Sure," she shrugs.

It feels like an eternity passes while I wait for the customs officer to find a blank page and stamp my passport, but once I'm through, I'm off at a jog again to the final security screening. From ten feet away I see the line is being held up by two women trying to sort their belongings out. With what feels like Olympic grace I toss my bag which flies through the air with a boomerang curve around one of the ladies. I don't stop, and as I continue running through the metal detector I can see my bag in my periphery, land squarely on the conveyor belt. When I am safely on the other side I have to wait for it to come down the chute.

Only when I have slung the strap across my body do I notice the counter girl waiting for me. She shakes her head at me.

"Stamp," she says, pointing back towards customs.

"I have," I say, a little breathlessly.

She shakes her head again, thinking I've not understood and gestures that she wants to see my passport. I hand it to her and she flips it open. When she finds the page her eyebrows rise, the corners of her mouth draw downwards and, looking at me, she nods her head approvingly. She is impressed. This may be the closest I ever come to winning a medal for a race.

She walks me over to the gate, says something to the staff  who are just opening it for boarding, and they size me up admiringly. For the first, and probably only, time in my life I am the first passenger to board the plane.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tipping the Hourglass

I spend the day reading.
I take breaks to hobble down the beach or
I swim in the enormous sea until it spits me back out onto the sand.
I eat omelets and french fries for breakfast. I eat ice cream for lunch. I have two glasses of white wine before dinner. Dinner is Pad Thai and bananas in coconut milk.
I eavesdrop on conversations about nervous breakdowns and sailing in tsunamis and broken promises.
I watch couples sharing sunblock, holding hands on walks along the white sand and I don't envy them.
I swap travel tales with a couple from Ireland, watch a lascivious french man, burnt leathery sienna from too much sun, ensnare the Thai barmaid, and duck all advances from the gregarious Australian surfer. I don't envy any of them either.
I share my lap with the campground tabby cat who follows me wherever I go, scratching at my door if I disappear into my hut for more than a minute.
I decline an invite to dinner in town and loll instead in the hammock, reading greedily through the last hazy rays of dusk. I don't think, for even a moment, that I'm missing anything.
I read by the dim lights in the empty campground lounge, drinking my wine, and chair dancing to Manu Chao.
I am 20 pages from the end of "The Book Thief" when I lose my struggle with sleep.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

R & R

 "Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that's only the A's. Just don't ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me."
- '"The Book Thief," Markus Zusak

"Whoa, is quiet here," the cab driver declares as he hands me my back pack.

I smile. "That's what I'm counting on," I answer, holding up my overflowing plastic bag of books.

I took public transportation to the northern part of Phuket Island but, when the bus (the shortest word I know for the canvas covered flat bed trucks favoured by the locals) made it's final stop, I was the lone remaining passenger and there were no taxi stands anywhere along the highway.

"Taxi?" Is the only word I can think of to say to the driver.

He smiles and provides me a diligently detailed response of which I understand not a word.

"Taxi?" I try again, pointing this time in the three directions I think a taxi might be.

He nods and patiently repeats himself with a happy smile on his face.

I try again. "Beachside Cottages?"

Still smiling he points to a sign for Ritz Carlton Spa Resort and the Hyatt-Regency Resort. I smile back, shake my head and shrug. I pay him and reach for my bag, but he's obviously decided I paid him enough, gestures for me to sit down and turns onto the winding country road towards the resorts. He chatters happily for most of the twenty minute drive.

Fifteen minutes down the road I finally realize he's trying to tell me something about taxis and where I'm trying to go. From what I gather, there are none. He keeps waiting for me to understand, or so I think, so I nod and say, "Yes," but then he gets upset and starts his whole speech over. This time, when he reaches the end of his speech and pauses, I screw up my face, shake my head and say, "No." This provokes the same unsatisfactory result and, after a sigh and a brief pause, he begins again. This time, when he looks over at me for a response I give him a very long winded explanation of life the universe and everything. He seems pleased.

"Taxi!" I yell excitedly, pointing to a taxi stand outside one of the posh hotels. This precipitates another long winded monologue on the bus driver's part and when he finally stops talking I just look at him with my sweetest smile and say, "Taxi, taxi, taxi," pointing back down the road. He turns around eventually, and when he deposits me at the stand there is much hand folding and head bowing in the parting.

The cab driver charges me an extortionist fee that he refuses to negotiate and proceeds to drive ten minutes in the wrong direction, then gets lost two more times before we finally get to the construction zone town. We follow some faded signs to a dirt road, more of a sandy path really, where he hangs an immediate left into a parking lot.

"No," I say. "I think it's farther down this road."

"Why? Have you been there?"

"No. But the sign said it was straight ahead."

"No, no. Stay here," he says, getting out of the car and walking into the back entrance of a hotel.

When he returns he announces, "It's down the road," in that universal way men have of ignoring what you've already told them that so they can believe they've discovered something on your behalf.

The sun is nearly kissing the horizon beyond the dark shadows of the palm trees when I check in. The white noise of the giant surf coming to shore plays the bottom notes to an orchestra of thrumming insects and trilling birds. I linger at the bookshelf in the lounge, finally selecting a 500 page tome entitled "The Book Thief", before settling into my hut.

Moving On

 "With my maps on the table you see
I have lost many things
So many, I won't turn back."
-"I Love, I Love (Traveling II)", Dar Williams

Zack doesn't look at me, just stares off at the distant horizon and says evenly, "I. was. so. worried. about you."

"Really? But you were the one who told me no one's ever not come back." I glance at the sign board behind him that reads: "Zack's Adventure Shack". The motto scrawled beneath it promises, "Getting lost is our specialty." I can't accuse him of false advertising.

He looks at me and shakes his head. "Yes, really. It was so windy the day you left, and the waves... I was just about to close and go hire a boat to go looking for you." He doesn't raise his voice, or change his tone, he is still speaking in that slow, cool way of his, but he manages to convey, clearly, that he is not happy with me for making him worry.

"Oh, Zack, I'm sorry," and I genuinely mean it. "To make you worry, and to lose your hat, and about the paddle." At this I find myself stifling a smile and trying not to laugh. I really am a most ridiculous creature, convincing myself I am fiercely independent when, in truth, my haplessness so often leaves me at the mercy of strangers.

"The hat," he says, seeming to forgive me, "was mine. You don't worry about that. The paddle though," he continues worriedly picking up a catalog and thumbing through it, "is not. I just hope it's not expensive." Of course it is ridiculously expensive, practically doubling the expense of my entire Thailand trip. He catches me eyeing his crudely stitched scalp as I hand him the money.

"Like Frankenstein," he says, pointing to his head.

"What happened?"

"I got drunk and fell down the stairs," he says sheepishly.

"Oooch, that must have been some fall," I say laughing.

"It was. Won't happen again. I've quit drinking."

"Well, that seems a little extreme. You should try giving up stairs first before immediately blaming the drink."

He smiles but says, "Nah. I mean, I might drink a little to celebrate, you know, New Years or something but no more getting drunk."

"Whatever works for you," I shrug then change the subject. "After all the trouble I've caused I really hate to ask, but can I possibly use your washroom? I really need to shower." As much as I love outdoor showers, I simply didn't feel safe using the one at the resort this morning.

"Sure," he says. "But it's messy. It's a boy bathroom, you know," he grins as he says this last part.

I grin back, "I'm sure it'll be fine."

He follows me to the back of the shack and while I rifle through my backpack for clean clothes he talks, pretending to tidy up.

"There's soap in the shower. It was my wife's but you can use it. She left it here after the divorce." And so he begins to unwind the story, an all too familiar story, about the woman he loved but can't be with because all they'd do is fight. It only takes me two minutes to get my things together, but it takes him almost fifteen to finish telling me their story. I can tell he needs to share, he needs an audience, a witness to this tragedy so I take a seat on top of my pack and listen, watching him pace the room, picking up objects, moving them, moving something else then shuffling everything back to their original places.

As I listen, I can't help but think that, possibly, more than he needs to tell it, I need to hear it. To know that love has not been uniquely cruel to me; that I am not the only one who suffers from a heart that wants what it cannot, should not, have; a reminder that in this world, this very second there are a thousand hearts risking everything and a thousand more breaking after the fall.

"So I guess," he finally concludes, turning to look at me now, "I just have to try and move on, find me a new woman to love." He laughs self-consciously.

I smile at him. "Yeah. I guess you do. And, I have no doubt Zack, that you will." I gather up my things and walk through the curtain that serves as the bathroom door. Far from being messy, the bathroom floor is covered in smooth beach stones and shells with petrified fossils and starfish scattered about. The shower hose hangs on a beautiful piece of driftwood under an open sky. The facilities may be humble but all that nature makes it feel luxurious.

"Better?" He asks when I emerge.

"Much." I smile gratefully. "Thank you."

"No problem. So I have to go to the pier to pick up my brother. Wait here okay?"

"Do you? Actually, can I get a ride there with you? I need to catch the ferry."

"Are you in a hurry? Why do you have to leave? Stay a for a bit."

"I would love to, I really would, but I have a beach shack reserved for tonight on the mainland, and I have to go back to the Old Town to pick up my passport that I forgot at my hostel. That's going to add at least another two hours to my day. I really have to get going."

"You lost your passport too?" He asks incredulous.

"It's not lost," I protest, "it's forgotten. I forgot it that's all. And, more importantly," I continue defensively, more to convince myself than him, "I remembered that I'd forgotten it before I needed to cross any borders, so it could be worse."

Zack just smiles and shakes his head. "Okay. If you have to go, you have to go. I'll be right back."

He returns driving a Honda mini bike with a wooden side car. I toss my pack into the car and perch myself on the metal railing.

"I like to go fast," he warns with a nod to my precarious seat.

"So do I," I answer with an unflinching shrug.

"Canadian girls," he mumbles, before shifting into drive, "awesome." When we reach the edge of the village he lets the throttle out and we practically fly down the winding road. The bike tops out near 180, which I'm impressed by considering the load, and we whoop, holler, yell and laugh our way to the pier.

"Next time I'll take you rock climbing," Zack says, handing me my pack once we've stopped at the end of the pier.

"We'll see," I say but when that pervasive sadness creeps back onto his face I add by way of explanation, "I'm afraid of heights."

I thank him for the ride, and everything, and start to walk away. His brother isn't there and Zack's already climbing back onto the bike when I turn around. "Hey Zack," I call back.


"Be careful on the stairs."

"It's the alcohol, not the stairs," he calls back, laughing.

"You just keep telling yourself that," I answer turning and waving as I walk away.

Zen and the Art of Escape

"When everyone recognizes beauty as beautiful,
there is already ugliness;
When everyone recognizes good as good,
there is already evil." 
-Tao Te Ching 

I gather the dishes and start to clear the table but the men stop me.

"But you cooked, I can clean up," I protest.

"No, no, you are our guest," Lahk insists. I look over at the gardener who grins broadly back at me and nods.

"Okay, if you're sure," I shrug. "Thank you."

I dig up the book I've brought with me, "The Way of Zen", take a second cup of tea, and settle my aching bones and throbbing infected foot into the lounge chair in the shade of a giant palm tree to read:

The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from left to the right on a hard bed. The position is 'better' so long as the contrast remains, but before long the second position begins to feel like the first. So one acquires a more comfortable bed, and for a while, sleeps in peace. But this solution leaves a strange vacuum...a vacuum soon filled by the sensation of another intolerable contrast because the sensation of comfort can only be maintained in relation to the sensation of discomfort. ... Zen is a liberation from this understand the absurdity of choosing, of the whole feeling that life may be significantly improved by a constant selection of the 'good.' ... To succeed is always to fail - in the sense that the more one succeeds at anything, the greater is the need to go on succeeding. To eat is to survive to be hungry. ...

 To sit on a beach in Thailand, breathe in the clean, sea salt air is only to make the return to the polluted stench and oppression of Indonesia all the more painful. I sigh and let my gaze fall on the island rising out across the sea, my plan B. I wonder what happened in the alternate universe where I chose to paddle there instead.

Again, as if reading my mind, Lahk's voice answers from behind me, "Lucky you did not go there. There is guarded by men with machine guns."

"Really? Why?" I ask as he takes a seat on the edge of my chair.

He shrugs. "Corporation. They don't like trespassing."

"What kind of corporation? What are they guarding?"

Instead of answering my question he says, "You are amazing woman. A woman and a friend and a child all. You and your questions. Like a girl. Crazy. I have met many white women here, but they are not like you. I have never met any woman like you."

"So what are these white women like, then?" I laugh.

"Augh," he shakes his head in disgust. "Crazy. Not good crazy like you. They want everything just so and they are always angry. They are not adventurers like us," and he puffs his chest out proudly.

If the compliment revived the uneasy feeling I had of being a hostage held in paradise, this last pronouncement, like a curious reverse manifestation of Stockholm syndrome, makes me bristle. Sensing this Lahk becomes more subdued and says, "Please, if your boyfriend forgets you, come to me. I will take care of you." He places his hand on my cheek and I remove it patting it affectionately as I do.

"Oh!" He wails in a sudden spasm of despair, then, straightening, he hardens his face into a cynical sneer, "Who am I kidding. I could never have a woman like you."

I hesitate before asking, "Why not?"

"Because," he answers staring out to sea.

"Because what?"

He turns his pained face towards me, "Look at you. If I had wife like you I would never get any work done. We'd starve to death!"

I can't help but laugh. "That's not only one of the best compliments I've been given but a very wise prediction," I answer, recalling that precise scenario with lovers past.

I spend the next hour trying to subtly, and not so subtly, convince him to take me to town. I decide to make one last attempt and if he puts me off again I will just have to start walking. I'm fairly certain he'll follow and, if not, I can hitchhike. Fortunately his phone rings. It's  his boss. The couple from the night before complained about being moved and his boss isn't happy. The maid is also coming by to clean because new guests will be arriving that afternoon. There better not be anymore trouble.

This spurs him into action and within minutes we're on his bike, driving through the rubber tree plantation farmed by Burmese refugees, then past the tidy, thatch roofed shacks and tidier village children turning onto a paved road and towards Zack's Shack.


A girl needs something she can hold on to
A kayak paddle or a man like you
Either one of them things would do...
-adapted, Ray LaMontagne, "Joelene"

I am woken by the gray light of dawn and Lahk standing beside the bed, cooing. I sit up quickly, comment on the light and say, "I need to get going."

"No, no, you stay, I make breakfast," Lahk insists, out the door before I can protest. I get up, take the Big Knife from under the mattress and return it to my dry sack. Then I pull out my camera and take a stroll around the grounds to stretch my legs. After two pictures, my camera's full; obviously not the 4 GB's I was promised when I bought it. Indonesia wins again. 
I am sitting at the table trying to sort through my pictures so I'll have enough free space for the remainder of my trip, when Lahk arrives carrying a meticulously arrayed teak serving tray laden with tea. 

"I will bring toast soon," he says as he places the tray on the table.

"Thank you, but I can't eat bread," I say, carefully selecting a tea bag from a plush lined tea box. He looks at me like I just fell out of a tree.

"Pancake?" He asks, worriedly. 

"Maybe, what kind of flour?" 

He shakes his head, he doesn't know. I follow him back to the gazebo but the bag of flour is not marked so I take a pass on pancakes as well. He hands me a box of Cornflakes which, fortunately have the ingredients in English as well as Thai and I tell him I can't eat those either.

"Barley," I say as I hand them back to him.

"I can't take care of you!" he practically wails in a fit of genuine distress.

I laugh, I can't help it. "Don't feel bad. I can't eat a lot of grains, allergy, it's not your fault. I'm a nightmare to try and feed. Do you have any fruit?"

At this his face lights up and he produces a pineapple. Pineapple tops the list of my least favourite fruits but I don't dare tell him that for fear it might break him. He sets up a juicer, cuts off the spiky peel and liquifies the sunny innards. He pours it into a tall glass with the flourish of a bartender before handing it to me with so much pride I almost think he invented it. 
"What about eggs?" he asks.

"Eggs are fine," I shrug agreeably, taking a tiny sip of my juice. It's fantastic. I return to the table intending to savour it while watching the tide inch towards shore but I can't resist. In the five minutes it takes for Lahk to fry an egg and serve it to me on a white plate with genuine silverware, I've gulped it down.

When he returns with his own breakfast and settles in beside me he says, "I am sorry about last night, yes?"

"It's okay, you were drunk," I answer distractedly, trying to calculate how much time I have to make it back to Coconut Corner and still catch the ferry back to Phuket.

"You don't like eggs," he says worriedly, watching me force down the last bite of runny yolk.

"Oh no, I like eggs just fine," I smile.
His eyes grow bigger. "You don't like my egg!" How does he do it? You could vomit on most men's shoes and they wouldn't think to ask if anything was wrong, but him? It's like he can read minds.

"No, no, no," I protest. "Your egg was great. I prefer my eggs scrambled or in an omelet that's all, but this was fine, great, I really enjoyed it. Honest. Don't worry."

But he pushes away from the table, his own eggs barely touched, and stands up saying, "I'll be right back." He crosses the yard, hops on his motorbike and drives away leaving me somewhat bewildered.

The sun has firmly planted itself in the sky now, the air growing thick with heat, so I get up to start loading the kayak. Having delivered my dry sack and bamboo mat beside the boat, I turn back to do a final sweep to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. I am almost to the fire pit when I stop mid limp. Something isn't right. I run through a mental checklist and am about to shake it off when it hits me. Ignoring the searing pain in my inflame foot, I run back to the kayak and curse when I reach it. My paddle is nowhere to be found.

Certain that Lahk hid it the night before I try not to panic but when he returns with more eggs and the gardener, who's carrying a giant box of pastry so fresh they're still steaming, he looks genuinely baffled. He follows me down to the kayak to see for himself.

We both stare at the gear littered ground around the kayak for a moment before we look at each other and say in unison, "The tide." We walk a few more feet to the water's edge and scan the sea but the paddle is gone.

"I will drive you there after breakfast," Lahk says, placing his hand on my elbow and steering me back to the table. 

He makes me a glass of dragon fruit juice which I drink, staring disconsolately out to sea. He soon returns with a giant omelet and we eat a second breakfast. The gardener tells Lahk that he would like me to teach him English but they end up teaching me Thai instead.
"Ba," he says pointing his pastry at me.

"Ba," I repeat dutifully. "What does that mean?"

Lahk translates for me, "This is the Thai word for crazy."

Drinking with the Enemy

"Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves."
-Dorothy Parker

The accommodations are opulent, outdoor luxury; camping for the modern pampered princess set. Among other small luxuries the tent has hardwood floors, a giant, four poster, feather bed veiled in mosquito netting and an outdoor bamboo shower. When I ask how much it usually costs to stay here for a night, Lahk is demur but later on in the evening he tells me around 12,000 baht (about $400 CDN).

"Come," he says, "I have fire going."

"Yeah, I'll join you in a second. I just need to use the bathroom." I pick up my dry sack, open the back door of the tent and cross the bridge to the washroom. When I'm safely locked in the toilet I open my bag and pull out the Big Knife, tucking it into the sarong and under my shirt. On my way back I stop behind the bed, drop my bag and slip the knife under the mattress on the left side, nearest the exits.

When I've limped my way to the fire Lahk hands me another full drink.

"I have never met a woman like you," he says, shaking his head.

"Thank god for that," I answer, lifting my glass for a sip, "I don't think this world could handle two of me."

Despite the many ways Lahk makes me on edgy, he has an obvious appreciation for my self-deprecating humour, which I've rarely found in my life and I don't think I've ever found in someone whose mother tongue isn't English. After he laughs and asks me what I mean by that, I keep him in stitches regaling him with tales of my hapless adventures from the border guard in his underwear crossing into Nepal to the machete fight in Nicaragua. Unfortunately I seem to be too entertaining and he forgets to drink.
"You are such an adventurer," he sighs.

"Want another one?" I ask, pointing to his empty glass.

"Let's go lie down in the tent," he answers, placing his head in my lap. I pat him on the head and say, "I don't think my boyfriend would like that."

"You have a boyfriend?!?!" He says, sitting up with a start. "Where is he? Why he not with you?!?"

"He had to work," I shrug. Poor imaginary husband. If he's not sick in the hotel room or at home, he's working. And sometimes I even forget that we're married. Lahk, however, doesn't seem to be buying it.

"No, this is not true. No man would leave woman like you alone."
Poor imaginary husband also gets accused, often, of not being a very good man, letting me loose all alone in the world.
"Oh, he is a good man, a very, very good man" I reply in his defense. "Perfect for me, in fact." And he is. He doesn't complain if I forget to mention him entirely when I decide it's convenient, we never argue about where to go or what to do when we get there and, best of all, he flies for free.

Lahk begins the requisite interrogation but he quickly loses steam and finally passes out. I gimp my way back to the tent and crawl into the divine embraces of the fluffy, feathered bed. A tropical breeze drifts through the screened tent walls and I am lulled into a tentative sleep by the sound of the sea slapping the shore. 

I have just climbed onto the shoulders of a pacing albino tiger, about to finally go home, when the sound of the metal teeth of tent zipper being wrenched apart drags me back to the jungle. I don't move, and I consciously slow my breath, but I ready myself for a struggle. The footsteps stop on the other side of the bed and I see the mosquito netting twitch as Lahk climbs into bed. I feel the mattress sink under his added weight but still I don't move. I wait and when his arm reaches across and a hand lands on my waist I spring to action.

I am lying on my right side so I do a left oblique sit up and, in a single motion, land my left elbow under his chin. I throw back the netting and leap out of bed.
"Geezus! You scared the sh*t out of me! What are you doing?!" Having dealt a warning blow, I feel the need now, stranded alone in this resort with Mr. Helps Himself to try and make diplomatic amends or risk having to resort, eventually, to the Big Knife.

"Ohhh," he whines, "it's just so cold outside."

This sounds utterly ridiculous by my Canadian standards and I try not to snort my disdain. "Oh," I mumble instead, trying to sound sleepy, "okay, I'll go sleep outside." I move towards the door but as I bend to unzip the tent he grabs me, pinning my arms to my sides as he locks his own around me from behind.

"Let go of me!" I scream. "I love my boyfriend and he will come find you if he hears you touched me!"
"Okay, okay," he says letting go. "But stay here. Just stay. We just sleep."
"Bullshit. You can sleep here, I'll sleep outside."

"NO!" He yells after me, but I've already limped halfway back to the fire. He follows me outside saying angrily, "Fine, I will sleep out here too."

I turn and face him. "No. One of us is sleeping in that bed. If you don't want to I will, but I'm not sleeping with you. So you choose. Where do you want to sleep?"

He argues for a while before finally, pouting, says he'll sleep outside. I go back to the bed but can't fall back asleep. Lahk does come back inside but this time he goes to sleep on the futon across the room.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Flotsam and Jetsam

 "Out on the blue sea I sailed a blue ship.
I had a first mate, always had blue lips.
His name was Bluebeard.
He had a weird twitch.
We flew a blue flag on a big stick.
And we ate bluegill and we ate blue chips.
Oh, I felt real blue eating that blue fish.
Because there ain't much that I won't do,
unless it keeps me from being true blue
- "True Blue", Bright Eyes

The fire is just beginning to die out when a truck pulls up on the far side of the lot. I am ecstatic but wary. The truck flashes it's high beams, blinding me. The driver doesn't turn them off and I can't see what's happening. I hear vehicle doors slamming shut. I stand up.

"Hello?" I call out, hoping for a friendly reply but none comes. I know I look like a swamp creature. My hair is matted with salt water, sand clings to my wet clothes which in turn cling to my body while ever in peril of slipping right off me. I can only hope this will improve my chances of eliciting compassion rather than a gunshot to the head for trespassing.

"Hello?" I call again. Still no answer. I see four bodies move away from the truck and towards the tent.

I wait while two shadows are escorted into the tent-the womenfolk I presume- then I gimp forward, tentatively, to meet the two Thai men standing in the porch light.

"I'm sorry," I begin, "so sorry to disturb you. I'm a little bit lost you see, and I'm hoping you might tell me where I am," I hold out my map.

The small one looks at me with squinted eyes. "Where you going?" he asks, taking the map from my hands and crouching down on the ground under the light of a paper lantern. I crouch down beside him.

"Here," I say pointing to the big black dot on the map.

"What?!?" His face changes from annoyance to bewilderment. "Are you taking the long way?"

I laugh, then, biting my lip in a melodramatic display of what I hope he will construe as cute, despite my age and dishevelment, answer "That wasn't my goal but I take it I am?"

"You've paddled past the south of island."

Now it's my turn to exclaim, "What?!?!"

He eyes me for a second, rolls up the map and stands, extending his hand to help me up. He and his friend exchange some words in Thai, but soon fall silent. I wait for what feels like an eternity before finally asking, "So, what is this place anyway? Where am I? Is it okay if I just pitch my tent on that far corner of the beach over there? I promise I'll be quiet and be gone first thing in the morning. You won't even know I'm here, I swear."

I try to convince myself that they can't send me back out on the sea in the dark. That they won't send me back out on the sea. There's an island about an hour's paddle from here. If they do, it's my only option, other than abandoning the kayak and hiking out.

"This is private resort," is his curt reply.

"Oh," I say, "well do you have any spare rooms?"

"Private resort," he says again, "only one room." He nods his head towards the occupied tent with the hardwood floors.

"Oh," is all I say, my fingers playing nervously with my bottom lip.

He converses with his friend again before his friend disappears inside the tent.

"Get your things,"  he says, "you come to my place for shower."

"Thank you," I try to sound relieved but realistically, the situation is getting dodgier by the second. "By the way, where exactly is your place?"

"I live in corner cabin. I take care here. I take care of guests. I take care of you. Now get your things."

I limp back to the kayak, grab the dry sack with my belongings and follow him back to the cabin.

"Thanks," I say again, "I'm so sorry to cause you trouble..."

"Crazy," he says.

"Pardon?" I say.

"Crazy. You are crazy. This is crazy. I have worked here eleven years and never this has happened."

"Oh, now, c'mon," I tease, "You're telling me in eleven years you've never had anyone wash up on your beach?"

"Never." He shakes his head adamantly and without humour. "And certainly never a woman all alone."

"Huh," I say, peering into the darkness trying to map the grounds as we walk, just in case. "Well, I guess that's probably why then. I mean after eleven years you're long overdue for something crazy to happen, don't you think?"

This time he laughs as he unlocks the door to his spacious one room cabin. He flicks a switch and the room is illuminated by a bare bulb dangling from an electrical cord. There are piles of clothes strewn about in typical bachelor fashion, a small cot against one of the plank board walls with Bryan Adams emanating from a small transistor radio on a box beside it. I follow him across the room, past a beaten up bureau with an alarm clock and some yellowing family photographs sitting on top of it. He opens the other door and gestures for me to go inside. There are six cement steps, each about a foot high, leading down into a large, moldy smelling cement room. There's something very "Silence of the Lambs" about it, but a quick double check of the doorknob confirms the lock is on my side of the door, so I descend the stairs.

"There's soap by the shower," he says, flicking on the light and closing the door behind him. I think, "It rubs the lotion on it's skin or else it gets the hose again..." then, laughing to myself I begin to undress. There's a knock on the door.

"Uh, yeah?"

"I have towel for you."

"Oh, uh, it's okay, I have one."

"I no look, lady. You use mine. Fresh wash."

It's not worth arguing. I wrap my quick dry travel towel around me and open the door. A small dark hand shoots through the crack with an old terry cloth towel.

"Thank you."

The shower is abrasively cold, but it feels good to wash off the salt and sand. I don't have any pants to change into but I do have a clean, dry shirt and by the time I walk out of the cabin I feel almost human again.

"Your pants are wet!" my host exclaims when I emerge.

I shrug, "It's all I have."

"You wear my sarong."

I follow him back into the cabin where he hands me his plaid cotton sarong. His is sewn together on both sides, like my sarong from the Baduy, but I've yet to master the art of securing these tubular garments. I fasten it the best I can and go back outside.

The other, large man has joined us now, with food. He dishes out rice and some sort of chicken vegetable curry for me while the caretaker pours me a glass of whiskey with coke. I raise my glass and toast my hosts, "Here's to the kindness of strangers."

"Here's to crazy woman washing up on beach," my little host replies and we raise our glasses for a second swallow.

While we eat, he tells me his name is Lahk. When he was nineteen he met a Belgian man who fell in love with this side of the island and asked him, "Lahk, do you think we could build a hotel here?" And Lahk said yes, sure, we can do anything. So with the Belgians money he set about building this resort and two years later they opened for business. He's been running this place ever since.

"Wow, tough life you have, living here in the jungle with your ocean view," I say admiringly.

"Yeah," he laughs, "when there are no guests it's all mine. Like today I just slept and drank whiskey," he raises his glass again. "Always, I sleep when I drink. It makes me very tired," he laughs as he swallows.

"You are crazy woman you know? Why do you do this?"

"Do what?"

"Kayak on the sea alone. Travel alone. Why do you go to a strange country alone?"

"Why not?"

"Because, you will get in trouble. Like today."

I laugh. "True. But what's the other option? Sit at home and watch TV? I wouldn't meet interesting people like you."

"Yes, well today you are lucky," he says, eying me meaningfully. "Not everyone in the world is good, you know."

"Oh I know," I answer staring back at him with equal entendre before smiling sweetly. "Still, I often get along just as well with the not good people as the good one's." Then I add with a shrug, "Sometimes better."

"What will you do," he says, still staring me down through inquisitor's eyes, "when one day you meet bad people who want to hurt you?"

"I guess one of us will win," I answer, meeting his gaze with unwavering eyes, "and the other one will lose."

He takes another swig of whiskey, then reaches for the bottle, refilling both our glasses.

"And what," he continues, settling back into his chair and fixing me in his sight again, "if you're the one who loses?"

"Well, then, at least I had a good time while it lasted. But," I add by way of warning, "I don't think my luck is going to run out any time soon." I drain my glass dramatically.

He quickly tosses his back as well before slamming his glass down on the mahogany platform I'm sitting on that's also serving as a table and laughs. He reaches for the whiskey bottle again and refills them both.

"Okay," I say, "one more but then I really must go down to the beach and get my tent."

"No," he says, locking eyes with me again as he hands me my drink, "you will drink with me. You can sleep in the guest house."

"What?! I thought you said there was only one?"

"I sent the couple away."

My glass falters in it's trajectory towards my lips. This changes everything. Lahk is small, but muscled and wiry. Still, I'm fairly certain I could knock him out if I had too. But his quiet friend, who it turns out is the gardener and whom Lahk has been teasing all night about his love of food, has an easy 150 pounds on me. He seems harmless enough but I'm don't like this situation one bit.

"You really shouldn't have done that," I say before taking my next sip. My stupored brain continues to try to formulate a plan. I will have to use the alcohol to my advantage.

"Where would you sleep?" Lahk demands. He's already told me alcohol makes him sleepy. I just need to outdrink him.

"I told you I would sleep in my tent," I retort watching him lift his glass and take another gulp.

The Gardener, who has eaten every last morsel of food, gets up from the mahogany platform, climbs onto his motorcycle and drives away.

Lahk seems to leer at me for a moment, like a wolf at a piece of tenderized meat, before saying quietly, "No. You cannot sleep outside. It's cold and the mosquitoes will eat you." I am about to protest that I slept just fine outside under the stars the night before when he gets up from his chair, gathers up the bottle and glasses and says, "Let's go, crazy woman."

But when I stand up the sarong falls down.

Lahk watches me struggle to retie it, then places his cargo back on the table. "Here," he says, walking behind me. He reaches around and grabs the cloth on both sides. I raise my arms like a helpless child while he folds, flips and rolls the fabric into a waistband.

 "Huh, just like that?" He nods, reloads his arms and wanders into the darkness. I grab my dry sack and hobble after him, back towards the sea.


"I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly"

- Richard Phillips Feynman 

I paddle off in the direction of Kho Yao. Just as my waiter had predicted, it's late afternoon and the waves have picked up again; the wind skimming the tops of the swelling tide. To make matters worse I have no clue what part of the miles of shoreline I should be, generally, aiming for. Fortunately, there is little one can do in this situation but paddle and I do. For hours.

But, when the shore is finally close enough for me to identify distinguishing landmarks, I don't recognize anything about it. I paddle to the next bay. This one seems vaguely familiar, in fact I think it might be exactly where I want to land so I head in. When my kayak hits the sand, a tall, athletic Scandanavian woman gets up from her blanket to greet me.

"Is this Coconut Corner?" I ask, while the stern of my kayak is tossed about by the waves.

"I don't know," she answers. Instead of feeling disappointed I am reassured that someone is more lost than me. She asks if she can see my map.

"I still don't know. My friend will tell you. He is also better with English than me."

I hadn't noticed any deficiency in her use of the lingua franca but I wait while Hans strides down the beach to confer with us. He moves like a man who has lost his cross country ski poles but hasn't noticed it yet. As this thought crosses my mind a random wave catches the stern of my kayak and water sloshes into my cockpit. I curse, unhitch the skirt and scrabble clumsily onto the beach.

"Yeees? Can I be ov help to you?"

I look up, waaaay up into the steel grey eyes of a perfectly chiseled, earthbound Norse god.

"Well," I begin, trying to wipe the salt off my face as I proffer my map, "I'm wondering where I am."

He squints at the map, then stoops lower as if trying to read the topography of an anthill on earth from his perch up on Mars.

"'May I?" he asks, gesturing towards the map I've been holding up towards him as an offering.

"Please," I almost beg, while glancing back nervously at my unmanned kayak being roughed up by gangs of shore seeking waves.

"Ahhh, yes, here. You are here." I stand on the tips of my toes and peer over the sides of the map to see where he's pointing. This bay is still miles away from Coconut Corner.


"Yes, yes. These circles are those islands over there," he answers certainly, pointing to the islands I just paddled from. The distance seems impossible. If he's right I would have had to have paddled over ten miles yesterday, which would have been unlikely enough on a calm day if I'd left shortly after dawn, never mind in that storm with only four hours of daylight left.

"Oi," is all I can manage as I take the map from him.

"You seem not to believe me!" He is defiant, daring me to contradict him but I am too exhausted, and if he is right, I still have far too far to paddle to waste any precious seconds arguing.

Instead I say, "It's not that, it's just I'm trying to get down here and I don't think I'm going to make it before dark."

His gaze follows my finger on the map. "Oh yes, you have very far to go, very far," he answers agreeably.

I thank him and try to relaunch my craft. Instead I slip on a rock and tear open my foot, my blood staining the water pink. Odin rushes forward.

"You need help," he announces, scooping me up, plopping me into the kayak and pushing me out to sea. "Good luck," he calls after me. I'm sure he means well, but something about his tone sounds ominous.

The puddle of saltwater I'm sitting in stings my wounded foot, and more water spray is leaking through the skirt as the waves batter me from the east. I try to find a clear line of valleys in the waves to tack into but, like yesterday, the water no longer has a clear purpose. Several times over the next few hours I am actually body checked by random swells.

My arms are numb with exhaustion. At the end of every bay I tell myself, "Just around this corner. It's got to be here," but when I survey the coastlines there are no recognizable landmarks. So I make deals with myself. "Just to the next one. If it's not there you'll stop for the night." It's the only way I can convince myself to keep going until, after rounding the third corner, I begin to make deals with the Universe.

Not deals, exactly, it's more like desperate pleading. "Please," I groan, "please, please let it be the next one. I can't take this anymore." Saltwater stings my eyes and when I open them again I am certain I see a large fin surface on the water fifty yards ahead.

I struggle past two more bays before the third swell strikes. With the sun balancing precariously on the horizon I realize, I will have to stop at the next bay no matter what may lie there. My cockpit is full of blood infused water. One more big wave, two more small ones and I'll have to start bailing that blood scented water into the shark infested sea precisely at their dinner time.

My next five strokes are clumsy, sloppy, efforts that move no water at all. Oh god, I've pushed myself too far. I can't go any farther and I'm at least twenty minutes from the rocky undockable shore. I think of the fin. I lift my paddle out of the water, the kayak sways then surfs a wave two feet closer towards the distant shore. I raise my paddle over my head. My shoulders scream in agony, and I scream out loud in frustration.

Then, with another large swell heading straight towards the broadside of my boat I dig in with a second, angrier yell. The sun has already sunk halfway below the horizon when I round the craggy bend, but the water in this bay is relatively calm. I can smell a campfire burning somewhere on shore and I can only hope that it's keepers are friendly and kind. But the beach is deserted.

I hobble ashore leaving my kayak dangerously close to the tide but unable to pull it out of harms way by myself. I limp my way up the beach, onto the freshly manicured grass towards the giant log burning in the neatly arranged fire pit. There is no one there. No one sitting on the teak wood benches with white upholstered mattresses stuffed so full a Princess wouldn't feel a pea under it, no one basking in the orange glow of the white paper lanterns and no one singing sea shanties and folksy ditties around the blazing yule log.

"Hello?!?!" I call out into the inky night but no one answers. I limp towards the large gazebo that serves, judging by the stainless steel appliances, as an outdoor kitchen.

"Hello?" I call again, moving tenderly towards the wooden deck of the white canvas tent.

Still no answer.

I continue walking through a well tended garden calling as I go but the place is deserted. I look back at the glowing fire which begs to contradict this conclusion and realize, uneasily, that this is how horror movies start. Bored nouveau riche Scandinavians, create an elaborate scheme to hunt people for sport. They set up a kayak shack in a touristy country. They hire a local paying him large sums of hush money to be their front man renting adventure sport equipment to travellers. When their addled prey return they send someone out to meet them, misdirect them, set them farther off course. They light the sort of fire only a Nordic could and wait for their prey to drift ashore. They watch from the darkening corners of the night as she wanders around this seeming paradise. They watch her settle in to this impeccable scene they've created. They wait patiently while she gets comfortable. When she has finally succumbed to the false sense of security they spring from the darkness, the adrenaline kick that her terrified scream injects into their cold, cold hearts is better than all the....

Enough. What choice do I have anyway? I walk gingerly back to the beach. It takes me ten minutes to haul my kayak the six feet required to get it up past the tide line.

I open the hatch, haul out a bamboo mat, the map, my bananas and bottle of water and limp back to the fire. I spread out my belongings, study my map and wait.

The Sea Hermit

To my left I notice a wooden platform nestled amongst the rocks, with laundry hung to dry on the railings. I point to the man and then to the abode. He grunts several times and nods excitedly. Yes, it's his. Then he gestures, inviting me to come and see but I hesitate, still uncertain about him.

I can tell he has some sort of stroke-like speech impediment, or possibly something congenital. It would make sense, I think, to prefer a solitude life if one had always been different. Besides he seems very fit-broad shoulders, well fed and muscular, clear eyes. But it's also this athleticism coalescing with something about him that seems simple, child-like, that strikes me as dangerous, in an Of Mice and Men kind of way.

Sensing my unease he doesn't say anything more, just waits beside me while I try to take some pictures. After a while, he tries again, gesturing that I should follow him. When I nod, his face lights up excitedly and he repeats the gesture to make certain I understand. I laugh and nod, "Yes, yes, I will follow you." He paddles eagerly, with a seemingly exaggerated sense of purpose, his excitement evidenced in his hurried strokes. I imagine he probably doesn't get many visitors, particularly one's so enthralled with his home.

Our first stop is the bat cave. At least I assume the gesture he makes by stretching out his arms and flapping them means bats, not birds. The cave is quite large, there are ropes dangling down to the water to climb to the entrance, and a mat laid out to greet you when you reach the top. He tells me, through gestures, that sometimes he sleeps here.

We paddle only a few feet more before he stops again and points to a tiny inlet. Looking up the stalactites more intricately carved than the spires of even the most ornate gothic cathedrals, dangle like limestone chandeliers. The overhanging rock is a ceiling of sorts but near the top there's a large opening where the sun filters through, a shaft of light permeating the cool dark shade and creating paintings of shifting colours on the canvas of sea below.

I am reminded of one of the memorial chapels in Dachau, a cement tower, dark and cold with a small opening way at the top which was the only source of light. In this way the architect intended to remind anyone who entered that in our darkest moments, if we turn our faces towards heaven, we might find a ray of hope. What strikes me now is how this man, thousands of miles away, from a different time and culture has his very own version of this monument and obviously sees the beauty of that too.

As we continue paddling around the island I notice small wooden shelters and huts built at various points. I follow the water into a miniature hong where I take some photos of birds. Every time I stop for too long, my new friend gestures impatiently for me to hurry and follow him. I feel a bit like I'm following Gaston, the French waiter in "The Meaning of Life", back to his mother's house.

If I'm worried this venture will have the same disappointing end as Monty Python's, any doubt vanishes the instant I catch up with The Hermit. He's waiting for me on his own white sand beach with a flock of turquoise butterflies flitting like a halo above his head.

When I beach my kayak he takes me on a hike showing me delicate flowers, plants he uses as medicine and birds' nests where he collects eggs. "Is this," I say gesturing everywhere, "all yours?"
He nods. "Only?" I ask, but he looks at me uncomprehendingly. I point to him, then me, then to a bunch of other imaginary people then off in the distance. He shakes his head-no, no, no- then points to himself then gestures around the island. All of this is his. His, and his alone. I've just met, I decide, the richest man in the world.

We go back to the beach and I pull out a bamboo mat, food and water. The Hermit takes a banana but refuses to accept anything else. When we've eaten he suggests, through a series of gestures that I must be very sore from all the kayaking. I point to my wrists and nod, then shrug. I'm not used to feathered paddles and my wrists have been causing me trouble for a few years now, particularly when I kayak or do push ups. He asks me if he can have a look. He is sitting beside me, we're both looking out to sea, so I extend my arm out to him.

He takes my wrist and begins to manipulate it, rolling it firmly back and forth between his thumb and four fingers. His hand works its way up my forearm, then back down to my wrist and then, in a flash, I find myself flipped over, face down on the mat.

Stupid, stupid, stupid girl, my mind is racing. Stay calm. But my heart is pounding in my chest. I try to calculate how far away the Big Knife is, where it is. You know how to do this, how to get out of this position, I try to remind myself. What is he...

"OW!" I howl, as he twists my back, and vertebrae snap.

"Tutututut," he answers pitifully before taking his fists and laying them on either side of my spine. He presses down as if they are a defibrillator and my spine's in need of resuscitating.

"OW!" I yelp again.

"Tututututut," comes the same answer before my arm is being bent behind me while my shoulder is being forced towards the ground. Pop!

"Ahhhhh," he says, seemingly satisfied. Though not satisfied enough and he continues to bend me and twist me for the next twenty minutes, muttering and tuttutting all the while like a worried physician. It crosses my mind to inquire about his credentials, training, certificates, licenses and whatnot but, with the language barrier it seems futile.

When he's finished he pulls me up to sitting position and lifts his palms up as if to say "Better?"

I test my neck, rolling it from one side to the other. It still moves without pain, so I smile and nod, bringing the palms of my hands together in thanks. He sits back down beside me and together we watch the waves again. I reach into my dry sac and pull out my watch, the one my work mates gave me as a farewell, with the  maple leaf and compass so I will never forget home.

He is fascinated by it. I try to explain the maple leaf, and Canada and we play with the compass. Then, despite the clock right in front of him, he looks up at the sun and mimes excitedly that it's getting late. If I want to stay on his island I can but if not I need to leave right now. With that he gets up, tosses his kayak into the water and paddles off.


"Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it."
-Lao Tzu
It's already mid morning when I leave shore but I'm barely out of the bay when I realize the rudder's not working and have to turn back. The water is calm, the air is still, but my waiter at lunch yesterday warned me, "Morning's are always nice, but lately the wind starts at noon, then the rains come", and I can't shake a sense of urgency while I try to fix the lines. It doesn't take me long to correct the problem but by the time I'm back on the water the sun is already set to broil.

Still, I sing as I paddle into the lethargic waves. For the first time in far too long, I feel well rested and strong. I try not to think about a long list of things that worry me, bother me, or make me sad: the Dude, sharks, my brother, tsunamis, my future. This isn't a day for troubles. It's a day to let the earth rock me in her salt water womb and be blinded by the optimistic sun.

I am halfway across the sea, heading east to the string of islands saluting against the skyline when the wind picks up. The waves begin to form white caps and I mutter and curse, adjusting my rudder and switching my paddling from skim to dig. It doesn't take long for me to realize it's futile; just a moment's hesitation and I'm pushed farther back than where I started. But, I'm nothing if not stubborn, so I spend an hour paddling and progress at least a quarter mile.

From the growl in my stomach and the burning heat overhead I can tell it's past noon. I stop for some water, but the break means I'm pushed back by the defensive waves. I try to recover the lost distance but I've lost any drive or spirit to conquer. Discouraged, I lift my paddles out of the water and let the waves rock me. Even if I exert myself beyond my limits, I won't make it to the nearest island until late afternoon. This, after thinking I'd have crossed the sea and be having a picnic and swim by noon.

In no time at all this simple reality joins all the thoughts I've pushed away so far today and swelled to become a flood of all my other defeats and failures. What, I think, simultaneously worrying that a peaking wave is actually a fin, is wrong with me? How did I end up here? How does it all come to this? How am I ever going to get what I want? 

The stodgy voices of my youth, my upbringing, answer certainly: you just have to work harder. Your problem is you're not ambitious enough. You don't apply yourself. You're a quitter. 

Perhaps because they are familiar, these voices, I find them comforting. I believe them. More than that, I feel relieved they are there to admonish me when I so obviously need to be reminded that, although I am deeply flawed and useless, if I only try harder I may find redemption.

Thus inspired, and spurred on by a certain self-loathing and desire to overcome all my inadequacies beginning with conquering this watery treadmill, I put paddle to water and renew my struggle against the waves. My resolve dissipates in less than two minutes. Contempt begins to well up inside of me but, just before the maniacal cycle of mental flagellation is about to crest I notice one of the islands I'm trying to reach forms the perfect outline of a sitting Buddha. I begin to laugh. I see the water all around me and the slap of the waves across the bow of my kayak no longer rings with the mockery of a foe but is the tickle and nudge of a friend who wants you to get an inside joke.

I don't have an itinerary. There is nowhere I need to be today until dark. I have, momentarily, regressed back to my past life, and become so focused on a goal I've lost sight of the most important life lesson the kayak has taught me: the water is wise. Water always chooses the path of least resistance. Whenever possible, be like water.

So I wait a moment more, the waves rocking and slowly turning my kayak like a compass needle, pointing us towards a metaphorical north. When the sea begins to push me forward, I shrug and join in with my paddle. I am now heading southwest, back where I came from. 

The sun is now a glowering inferno overhead and my monkey mind begins to chatter, once again, with complaint. Everything is easier now, but still I seem determined to wallow in whatever discontent my mind can grasp hold of. It begins: Sure, sea kayaking is fine, but it's as desolate as a desert. It continues: Not at all like home with the constant companionship of turtles and beavers, otters and ducks, birds of all types actually. The trees on the shore rustling welcome and goodbyes, the timid deer making hasty retreats, crackling twigs. It settles in: Out at sea there's nothing but waves and sun, and any possible company could hardly be welcome company. 

So my mind, the great architect of infinite dissatisfaction, carries on until I look up from the water long enough to realize it's brought me to the shadows of a giant, sea bound rock looming higher than a fifty story sky scraper. I paddle closer then let the water carry me to it's sheltering overhang where I sit, agog, marveling at the majesty of the patiently formed stalactites overhead.

I am so awed, in fact, I don't notice another kayak pull up beside me, until a cramp in my neck forces me to avert my gaze. Only then do I realize I am being ogled with an amazement that rivals my own.

"Oh, hello," I say, half startled, half dazed.

The response is a cross between a grunt and a mew, a curious but fitting sound to mark my acquaintance with The Sea Hermit.

Better Than A Fivestar with Breakfast in Bed

I can't remember the last time
I slept without dreams
I still wake with the shuddering horror of 
ghost pains for all my missing parts
but the horizon looks like a
promise so 
this morning
I linger
in my yielding bed of sand

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The sky is turning to coral pink and I want to get off the water. My body is aching from the paddling and the sitting, I need to pee and I need to set up camp while there's still light. There's also the sharks, which the pocket book authority on the subject assures me, usually feed, and therefor attack, at dusk and dawn. It hasn't been the sort of day to tempt the fates.

It's at least another half a mile until I find a deserted beach and head towards shore. Approaching the beach I become so enamoured of the white sand against the flaming orange of the setting sun I forget all about the ocean behind me. I take too long to get out of my kayak, and end up washed ashore by a wave that also breaks over the stern and fills the cockpit. I scramble onto the beach and pull the kayak onto the sand but with my jellyfish arms it's a struggle. I manage to get the kayak out of the water but, with all the camping gear, it weighs almost as much as I do and dragging it up past the tide line seems impossible.

After bailing the water I accept that my arms are useless to me and crouch down instead, using my legs for both leverage and motion in a sort of crab walk. I make it half way to the tide line then, eying the darkening sky warily, I decide it's best to unload.

I choose a spot at the top of a miniature sand dune beside a sandy gully and underneath a large, bare branched tree to try and set up the tent but the poles are rusted and brittle. The wind is still gusting and I need to anchor it but the pegs are useless in sand. I lose two pegs in the process and end up just tossing as much of my gear inside the tent as possible. It will keep the tent from blowing away but it's a question of when the poles will blow over collapsing the tent, not if.

I walk down the beach one last time to drag the kayak out of the ocean's reach, carefully picking my way around the sand crabs that scuttle from the threat of my feet and scatter to safety. When the kayak is stowed under the bushes that line the beach, I gather up the last of my gear and walk back to the tent, collecting twigs and driftwood.

I dig a pit in the sand, fill it with dry leaves and twigs and light a fire. I unfurl a bamboo beach mat, open my bottle of wine and watch the lightning to the North, East and South of me. I am glad I pitched the precarious tent, certain at least one of those storms will pass over me tonight, but when the wine is gone I fall asleep on the mat gazing up at a blanket of stars and listening to the tide roll in.

Rainbow Connection

"I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."
-Alice Kingsley, Alice in Wonderland

It takes me ten minutes to figure out the best way to negotiate the waves. Paddling into them means I'm heading farther out to sea and the waves are so high and close together I don't have time to climb them so the water continually breaks over the bow threatening to pull me under. If I turn north I'll be side swiped and risk rolling over.

I know I have to tack but I can't keep the kayak on course until I've mastered paddling with a rudder. The waters are confused - the current moving south, the tide rolling in from the east and a furious wind creating top waves from the north, blowing salt water into my eyes- and I am afraid. Terrified in fact. All I want is to head back to shore and wait for calmer seas.

That's a lie. That's almost all I want.

There's a part of me, a small part in the face of this chaotic foe, that refuses to admit defeat. That Part wants to tame the water so I'll never have to be afraid. That Part wants to make the sea my b*tch. That Part also knows the sea is formidable and, put in proper perspective, I am nothing more than a shark snack floating around in a twig. That Part knows the only thing it has any hope of taming is my fear. So it tells my fear to sit down, shut up and dig deep.

I use my nerves and fear to power my strokes but I'm exhausted after a mile. Just a few more feet, That Part repeatedly coaches. Then the rain begins. In less than a minute I am blinded by not only the salt water spray but a wall of water that seems to be simultaneously rising up from the sea as it falls from the sky. I pull my paddle up and try to think but I don't have time. The waves are battering me on three sides and one catches my right blade, nearly tossing me over. I want to go to shore but from what I could see before the rain started, there's nowhere safe to land.

I remember my Sinsei, "Do not exert yourself, except on an exhale. You will waste your energy and defeat yourself before striking down your enemy." I focus on my breathing, synchronize my exhalations to my paddle strokes but every time a wave crests over my bow the slap rings in my ears,  the word "defeat" echoing from the insult. That Part, which has grown exponentially over the last mile and a half and is larger now than any fear, answers simply, "F--- you and your defeat." I paddle this way for about another half mile, vaguely aware that my arms are screaming for mercy, but I am no longer in my body. I am nothing but breath and motion.

And then the sun sweeps in and I glide through the watery wall as if into the clearing of an entirely new world. To my left is a long stretch of deserted white sand beach. I'd be a fool not to head to shore. I look right, towards a string of mountainous islands rising up from the sea, and am paralyzed by awe. Sprawled across the sky in a triumphant arc is a technicolour rainbow more vivid than a Dali painting.  

When I remember to breathe again I think I must take a picture, but just as the thought enters my mind another wave batters me from the side and I realize it's impossible. For a fleeting second I am disappointed before That Part says, No, this moment, that rainbow, is mine. I earned it.

I navigate through the troughs as best I can but I'm sloppy, though not graceless, from the exhaustion and the distraction of the bow tied sky. I think of last summer, rainbow hunting with my father. I think of double rainbow guy. I think of Noah and great big boats and promises. The last of my fear dissipates and the paddling becomes harder without it to fuel me. The waves are still high and chaotic, the wind is still a brutal force against me, but with the painted sky above me I forget all about going ashore.