Back home in London, my wedding dress has arrived. I picture it sitting on top of the closet, wrapped up until the time comes to try it on again, envelope me in its luxury, start the last part of the run-up to the wedding. I imagine what I will look like wearing it, David's face when he sees me in it for the first time, what it will feel like as we dance under the stars.
And then I stop to make sure that the armpit smell is not coming from me. Because this is the tropics and Thailand is unforgiving even on cloudy days.
Koh Pan Ngan is a tourist-filled island that attracts every age, shape and size: there are the middle-aged men too undesirable in their home countries who come to visit their "Thai girlfriend", the tattooed, drunken Brits, the frat-boy Aussies, the yogis, the retirees, the young families, the anorexic college girls, the dread-locked travelers looking for a cheap place to breathe and play their flute. And amidst all of this there are us women traveling alone sprinkled in here and there; each one in search of something slightly different -- or, as they say Thailand: same same but different.
Day three on the island was when we started hitting our stride, my two serendipitous new companions and I. K is an Aussie who's taken six months off to travel through China, Vietnam, Laos and London. J is an American park ranger exploring Korea, Thailand and Laos for a couple of months. We met unexpectedly, and, even more surprisingly, have spent much of our time together since. Every noontime and evening, we've been enjoying long, philosophical meals at Big Mountain, where they see me coming and laughingly greet me with "no sugar, no honey" in their angular Thai accents. We've spent our afternoons in the ocean, going for massages, or investigating the various yoga classes and teachers this place has to offer -- one more amazing than the next.
And we talk. We talk like old friends, like women who have known each other for a long long time. We talk about why we have come on this journey, what we hope to find, who we want to be; about who we are "back home", in civilian life, as I call it, and what we hope to become. Our conversations are punctuated by a lot of vigorous nodding and many intense "Yeah!"s as we discover that though we didn't know of the others' existence a few days ago, our experiences have been similar in so many ways -- we have much more in common than I would have expected from total strangers, which is another reminder of how insular my life is and why it has been so important for me to come out here.
J, K and I laugh, cry, dance on the beach, share fresh coconuts, taste each others' curries, recommend books and movies, compare parents and boyfriend stories ... There is something unique about meeting new and wonderful people when all parties are so far out of their comfort zones. It levels the playing field, maybe because we have nothing to lose, maybe because out here, we have quickly become each others' connection to anything familiar. Instead of worrying in silence, we voice our concerns; instead of assuming, we effort to discover one another, we ask, we dig. Every physical occurrence is a metaphor for our mental and emotional states; every new idea is cause for hours of discussion. We push each other, encourage each other, comfort each other. We remind one another to lock up the bungalow we are sharing, and lend each other money until we get to an ATM. And we are all very grateful to have found one another in a way that would be embarrassing back home. There's a lot of hugging going on.
Even in this short space of time, we've created some semblance of a routine.
Every morning is comprised of stretching and an update on the state of our tummies. Then yoga -- J inspires me to hike up the mountain and get myself to another class. Luckily she says I'm doing the same for her in terms of writing, which we are endeavoring to do often as everything feels like it needs to be pondered. K is our anchor, definitely the responsible one. We moved into our third bungalow today -- and feel we have truly fallen into the lap of luxury. Not only does this one have hot water and mosquito nets on the windows, it also came with loo roll and soap! At 500 Baht (roughly 8 quid, $16 or 64 shekels) a night, it can't be beat!
Though J, K and I have created our own little microcosm, we are all still very much aware that there is also a whole new part of the world to take in, and a journey to be had by each one of us separately. The learning curve is so vast that regardless of whether I turn left or right, something powerful is going to happen.
Every single yoga class has been a revelation. Today, was a tantric yoga workshop. Yesterday was yin yoga. We keep looking at each other at the end of class, amazed by what our bodies are capable of and where are minds take us.
As always, in addition to the whole spiritual journey, there are the mundane details that make being here exotic. Like the obligation to remove all footwear before one enters a building; the squatting loos that don't flush, the buckets by the loos where one throws used toilet paper, the fishermen's pants that are the traveler's uniform (mine are a burnt orange color). Unlike in the Middle East where everyone caters to tourists, where walking in the old city of Jerusalem is a constant battle to not get dragged into stall after stall by "welcome" and "come to my store, very nice", the feeling I get here is that the locals get on with their lives independently of us foreigners. They rarely seem to give a damn, which can lead to situations that are in turn hilarious or irritating. Like when J took a taxi and he announced to her a few minutes into the journey that he needed to stop over at a friend's house in the opposite direction of where she was going before he could take her to her destination. If we don't disturb their routine, they are friendly; but there doesn't seem to be much heed paid to us. We are an income, nothing more, and often very little effort is made. For example, people don't speak much of any language other than Thai -- imagine trying to find out whether the noodles are made out of rice or wheat or whether vegetables have been cooked in butter or oil.
Don't get me wrong, though: I'm loving it. Every second.
One thing that I especially love is walking barefoot. Like everything else, it is a great metaphor for an aspect of life I have previously not given much thought to. Being barefoot alongside everything else is much more than simply the removal of shoes. When your feet are touching the ground, when there is no sole to serve as a barrier, something changes. I feel more connected to others as I have to trust that the floor is clean, that everyone around me has taken responsibility for their cleanliness and sanitation while I too am forced to really examine how I leave my surroundings much closer than I do back home. It sounds small, unimportant, but it actually provides a comforting sense of equality: regardless of how much you paid for your shoes, once you're barefoot, it really doesn't matter.
I think of how I'll look in my wedding dress and bare feet, how beautiful I'll feel, how different from the ratty, unwashed traveler I resemble right now. The contrast makes me smile. I can't wait.
Most of my food here is coconut based. In addition to it being the milk in my tea, and the cream in my soups, I have a green coconut every day. They cut open the top so I can slurp the water with a straw and scoop out the flesh with a metal spoon. You haven't lived until you've had a fresh green coconut.
There are also a lot of root vegetables to explore. So far, I've enjoyed my encounters with taro, which I have had blended with garlic as a soup but also as a flavor of vegan, coconut-based ice cream - amazing. My favorite, however, has to be the galanga root soup. Galanga root is often used in Thai cooking. Though it is a cousin of ginger and bears a family resemblance, it differs from it in taste. One of my favorite dishes here has been a galanga root soup made with coconut milk, tamarind and lemongrass. I'm still working on getting the chef, Jin at Big Mountain, to divulge her incredible recipe. Stay tuned!