Friends often ask me about romance on the road: do I meet a lot of girls, have I ever fallen in love, do I still stay in contact with anyone. Some people even think that the traveling circuit is a big international orgy (not true- although I have heard some stories).
The reality is that 'road romance' is not what you might think. While you meet many beautiful, smart, interesting people from all over the world (yes, even Germans), it is complicated by the fact that travelers paths criss-cross so quickly and relationships are so transitory. I have met many girls that have made me thought "what if..." but usually they are gone (or I am) by the time the thought is completed.
Strong short-term relationships, platonic or otherwise, do happen; you meet a person and then travel with them for awhile before it is inevitable that you must part ways as they venture off to another part of the world (often home) and you carry on another way.
Occasionally I have seen road romances blossom when two people have such a good connection that they make the leap and decide to travel together long-term or move to the other person's country. I always wonder what happens when they go back home- to "reality," and whether these relationships work out once they are uprooted from the fantastical traveling lifestyle. So far, personally, I haven't made this leap.
Traveling makes life immediate and condensed, so that relationships, romantic or friendly, can be very intense and life-long friends or lovers can potentially be made very quickly. Afterwords though, e-mails are exchanged with the best of intentions, correspondence is made for awhile, but eventually the relationship usually fades until you are left with fleeting memories of "those guys from Ireland I hung out with in Hanoi," or "that Israeli girl I traveled with on a motorcycle down the coast of India."
The truth is that the solo traveler's life is often lonely. Not "alone," there is usually an abundance of backpacker companions or interesting locals to have a laugh with, but it doesn't hide an underlying loneliness. I've made peace with that, and it's okay. As it goes in the J.J. Cale song Drifter's Wife:
Roll it out, roll it in
Here we go down the road again
Drifter's life is a drifter's wife
Don't say I didn't tell you so
As I left Ko Pangnan to make my way to Phuket to take my international flight, my English friend Bex was leaving the island to catch a flight to Vietnam. I have been hanging out with Bex a lot the last week in Ko Pangnan, and we've had some great times together. I watched her Thai box at the stadium for her first fight, where she whooped this Thai girl in the second round. She found out afterwards that the Thai girl was 15. That's Thailand for you.
At times I was attracted to Bex and I enjoyed her company and all the flirtations, but something just didn't feel complete and I didn't aggressively pursue anything romantic.
The rain on the island has been relentless, so I decided to start making my way to Phuket a couple days early. Bex and I decided to travel together to the next island over, where there is an international airport. After a full day of backpack-soaking outrigger boats, taxis and a ferry we arrived in Ko Samui. We talked the whole way, and I realized I was starting to like Bex, and regretted that maybe I didn't pursue her earlier.
We shared a taxi to the airport, which was on the way to the beach I was going to stay for a night or two. She bought a ticket, we exchanged e-mails, said our goodbyes and as she did her final walk to the terminal, she looked back and smiled and winked. A wink that spoke a thousand words, two of them being "what if?"
With a couple days to kill, I ended up catching a mini-van with three French travelers to a nearby beach to stay for the night.
A French couple with a child sat in the first row, and they spoke with another French girl sitting behind them, and in front of me. Her eyes caught my attention right away. I stared, trying to figure out if the French girl was with the couple, their sister or a friend, or was traveling alone. As I was watched the lovely French words pour out of her, she glanced over at me.
I am usually a practical person, and not often prone to poetry, but when her eyes met my eyes, my eyes went numb. Physically numb. "Wow," I thought, "those are some sweet, sugary brown eyes." Our eyes met again. I was fascinated. "But something hard and intense as well... like burnt sugar... she has sweet, burnt sugar eyes."
It is not often when you a find a stranger so striking that you know you just have to say something. Even if it is in passing, you feel obligated to share your feelings. I was ruminating on what, or whether, I would say when the van suddenly stopped. The French couple stepped out into the pouring rain to go check on the availability of a hotel.
We were alone in the van. I didn't pause. "Excuse me, are you staying in Lamai?" I asked. Yes, she was. "Do you have a place to stay?" Yes, a guest house, and it only cost 300 baht a night. Her English was pretty good, even though she thought it wasn't. I asked if I could accompany her to check out the guesthouse, and she agreed.
We hopped out of the van and walked to the reception. They were completely full. There was a guest house next door, we walked together, making small talk. Also full. Another guest house nearby. The French girl pointed at each picture in the reception book. Bungalow? Full. Cottage? Full. Deluxe Cottage? Full. BUT, they had some double rooms in the hotel, more expensive at about 900 a night. More than each of us wanted to pay. I got a good vibe from her (really, at this point I was completely smitten), so I casually suggested we could share a double room. She flipped through the book, wondering what to do, until she agreed it was a good idea.
We went and took a look at the room; it was small, twin beds a few feet apart, but clean and cozy. We agreed to take it. The Thai receptionists looked at us kind of funny and and exchanged glances and a few words between themselves. They knew we had just met. "Look," the French girl laughed, "they are laughing at us."
As we walked to our room I stuck out my hand. "Well, since we are staying together, I better introduce myself. My name is Jason." Her name was Sylvie.
We got ourselves situated in the room. "Jason, do you want to shower first, or should I."
"I'll shower first quickly and then wait for you, then we'll have dinner."
After an impatient hour, she met me in the lobby, her hair and lips glistening, and we walked up the road to a small Thai diner. We sat at a roadside rickety table with cheap plastic chairs, a dirty tablecloth and blinding fluorescent lights. Motor-scooters buzzed by. The Thai owner got up from eating and watching TV to take our order. The food ended up being spicy as hell.
"Dis is so aught, I almost cannot eat." I chuckled. "Hot?" "Aught." "No, Hot." Aught. Hot. Hhhh-uh-aught. Close enough. You beautiful, charming French girl.
My mouth burned as I watched her speak. She just finished living for a year in Guinea Bissau a French teacher. I talked about Sudan and we both spoke of our desire to go back to Africa. Kuala Lumpur is her current home, where she is teaching French at the French Embassy, and she is on a week long vacation. She will be in K.L. a year, and then hopes to move to Mozambique.
Traveling is a state of being that leaves you open and vulnerable. Within hours of meeting someone, you can already begin to share your innermost secrets. Part of this comes from the security of knowing that it is as anonymous as a confessional; this person will probably never meet anyone you know in your regular life.
Travelers also share a common bond. After having traveled extensively at this point, I'm convinced that those who have "the bug" share many of the same characteristics: a love for novelty, a curiosity of the world, a comfort with change and turmoil, restlessness, and a need for adventure are a few. When you meet a fellow intrepid drifter, you know it immediately.
Sylvie talked about her pacs, her long "civil engagement" that just ended before her Africa trip. We talked about how it was difficult to meet people on the road, but also that it was difficult at home because people in our countries have different values. In France, people don't leave their country because they believe that everything a person could ever want to see is in France. In America, I said, people don't leave because we have a fear of the world, we get little time off, and we also believe we have everything in America. (French and Americans have different flavors of the same arrogance.)
Our families, our relationships, our jobs, our dreams- we talked about it all over our curries and Singha beers. She described her village near Bordeaux and the regular feasts of succulent pates and foie gras and wine and salmon at Christmas. Salmon at Christmas? In Alaska you sometimes cannot give salmon away. Non? Really?
Her dark caramel eyes did not leave my wide-open eyes the whole time. I was lovestruck. Full of sparkle but also holding a deep seriousness, her eyes hold something darkly mysterious beyond her laughter. At 33 years old, she actually looked a bit older, but her subtle signs of aging are worn beautifully. Her aging lines were the ones that told the story of her life; after her parents were divorced at a young age she was thrust into the role of raising siblings, losing a large part of her childhood.
As the time melted away, I was trying not to think ahead, trying not to figure out how to extend the moment beyond the next day, beyond the next week and month and lifetime. Trying not to think of the flight I had to catch in two days.
We took a long walk along the dark, busy main street inland from the beach. Ending up in the main touristy bar district, we turned down a small soi and grabbed a sidewalk table at an open air bar. It turned out to be a girly-bar on a girly-bar street, where the old, fat European men came to snag young Thai girls. This is such an open, accepted ritual in Thailand that it doesn't even seem like prostitution and doesn't raise an eyebrow.
"Deez men, 'ow can they do dis?"
"I'm more curious about how the girls can do it."
As the Thai-Euro couples started thinning out, we started taking the long walk back to our room. We seemingly arrived instantly. In the room we joked and flirted and passed close to each other as if we had been doing this for years, not a mere 8 hours.
We laid down in our beds facing each other. We gazed at each other, making slightly awkward small talk. The shadow of her voluptuous figure against the the wall hypnotized me. "Good night and gave good dreams," she said. The waking dream slipped into the sleeping one and soon I was opening my eyes again. She was still there. "Did you sleep well?" she asked. If you only knew.
We quickly got ready for the day. From the balcony we looked at the sky and it had miraculously cleared. Rain and thunderstorms were predicted for another full week, but this day was looking good. Tres bien.
I quickly shoved some clothes from my backpack into a plastic bag for laundry. As she patiently watched me, I pulled out a small women's tank top. What the hell is this, I thought. "I wonder where this came from? Do you want it?" I joked with her. "It looks you size. I will wash it, I think it would look good on you." She nervously laughed. "Uh, non. I am ver-wee happy wit my own."
After changing to another guesthouse where we could have our own separate cottages, the plan all along, we made our way to the beach. The new cottage owners happened to be French, and Sylvie spoke to them at length and they told us a good spot to go.
The sun was blistering hot and we laid out sarongs on the beach. Sylvie suddenly became quiet. My small talk went nowhere and I assumed she wanted to sunbathe in peace. We took turns walking on the beach and going for a swim.
Due to the recent storms, the sea was violent and choppy, with the waves crashing sharply and violently, with apparent riptides. I strolled on one walk for awhile, passing swaths of middle aged, pink Europeans. After finding one relatively calm spot in the tides, I waded out a ways. I could feel the riptides pulling at my thighs immediately. I watched a short, bald pot-bellied middle aged man a few meters out in front of me. Daring the waves, he ventured out a little further trying to go for a swim.
Crashing waves kept swallowing him. I stared in curiosity. Was he struggling? He swam a little, did a little bodysurfing, seemed to get some footing, and then was eaten again by a wave. His bald head bobbed to the surface. He gasped for air. He was in trouble. I waded out a little further past my waist. Another wave threw him a little closer to me. He looked up, reaching out a hand. I grabbed it before another wave came, quickly yanked and lost grip before foam consumed him and knocked me back.
The wave subsided and he was close enough to the shore to take two steps to lower water before falling on all fours in exhaustion. Goddam, he almost drowned. I shook my head in bewilderment and smiled. I looked behind me and gawkers on the beach was doing to same.
After I huffed back to our sunbathing spot I told Sylvie the story. She was not amused. "Yes," she quipped, "dis is very dangerous beach."
I laid down to rest, soaking in the bright rays until they lulled me to sleep.
After a half hour, I lazily awoke and looked over at Sylvie, but she had pulled up her towel and left.
I would not see her again.
Not knowing that, I read awhile on the beach and then headed back to the guesthouse and got a meal as the sun came down. I read and waited for awhile and then walked into town. When I returned later, Sylvie still wasn't in the reception/restaurant area, so I went to bed figuring I would see her the next day.
The next day at breakfast it was raining and there was still no sign of Sylvie, so figuring I was just missing her, I went into town to explore and rent a motor-scooter, with visions of a beautiful French girl on the back as we drove down the coast at sunset to catch a fresh seafood dinner in a beachside cafe.
I returned to the guesthouse in the early evening, read for a few hours, trying to maintain focus on my book, before heading to the porch of my room. From my cottage, I could see which cottage I thought she was staying at, and I'd be lying if said I didn't keep an eye on it for the rest of the night. At 1 am, an middle-aged, white, pot-bellied man, similar to the one I pulled out of the water, walked into her cottage. He came and sat on his porch. No sign of her. Confused, I went to bed.
I found out the next day that she had left the previous morning, heading north of Bangkok to escape the impending rain in southern Thailand. No messages left behind, no e-mails, no other way of contacting her.
I will never know why I will never see her again. Bad luck? Fate? Did I upset her somehow? All the little details are over-analyzed... was it the women's tank-top I pulled out of my bag? I must have accidentally scooped up Lacrima's top as I was in a hurry to get off of Ko Pangnan. Maybe she thought I was some kind of traveling gigilo.
It doesn't really matter, because of course I will never know why she disappeared. There are no second chances on the road. Opportunities while you are traveling are moving targets. You need to act swiftly and surely to get what you want.
As I sit here writing this, which is part of my self-indulgent therapy of getting it off my chest, I wonder if it was a dream, like maybe it didn't happen. When the scenery changes so much it all begins to blend together like an incoherent illusion. Part of our reality is the familiar, and when that is taken away, you have lost your anchor. You see mirages. Memories play tricks. Experiences that seemed so consuming soon fade. Memories fade. Sometimes that can be a consolation. Soon I will forget Sylvie's name, will forget exactly what she looked like, will forget what we talked about, all that will be left will be the vague memory of the French girl I met on Ko Samui, the girl with the burnt sugar eyes.
With little sleep, and a strange feeling of disconnectedness, I have made it to Bali. I headed straight to the beach, the familiar long beach near Kuta that stretches out wide to the east and west like huge arms ready to embrace like a true lover. The perfect remedy to my road-weary, melancholic mind. And I totally agree with the T-shirt that the guy in front of me is wearing: Surf's up!