Southern Thailand is indescribable.
The water stretches all the way to the sky. They blur together at the point where my eyes lose focus. It’s that green-blue color I was obsessed with as a kid. Back then I called it “aqua-marine.” Today, I don’t even have a word for it.
In the days when I wanted my bedroom, my backpack and all of my clothes to be aqua-marine, I was afraid of the Ocean. I’d watch my brother fearlessly tackle giant, human-eating, white-capped swells. Every time I’d watch him go under I’d hold my breath until he appeared at the surface.
“Phew. That was a close one.”
For two days on Phi Phi island I swam hundreds of feet out in the calm, warm water. I felt peaceful and powerful. I soaked up the rare beauty of being in this quiet, remote place.
On the third day it rained. Hard. Harder than I’d ever seen. Harder than the year the River City Magic won a state championship at Cherry Island during “El Nino”, the worst winter any of our parents could remember.
We spent most of the day snuggled inside our dark bungalow. We watched Armageddon. And cried.
We read our books and snacked on garlic cashews.
We took a short break from all of the hibernating for an adventurous pool dip in a thunderstorm.
We wondered how were were going to get off the island in this weather.
At breakfast on the fourth day, the sky looked threatening. At 8a.m we caught a water taxi on the shore of the resort. Before we climbed in the all-wood boat, it started pouring. 400 yards from our hotel, the wind picked up.
We sat huddled together on the splintered seats. The rain splattered against our faces from all directions. We looked out over the bow of the boat and watched the size of the waves steadily increase.
We had a collective, unspoken thought: We didn’t plan for this.
I kept a steady eye on my garbage bag-wrapped suitcase. I imagined it flopping out of the boat and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I felt confident I would survive going overboard, but I knew $800 worth of Lululemon couldn’t swim.
With our destination in sight, things got ugly. Our driver directed the boat sideways to cut the impact of nine foot swells. Every five and a half seconds felt like a new victory for survival. I felt my early morning sense of adventure transform quickly into fear.
At 8:52a.m, our tiny, resilient boat pulled into the pier. We scrambled onto the wood plank and dragged our suitcases frantically toward the ferry.
100 yards into our sprint we get backed up behind a swarm of angry travelers expressing frustration in a variety of languages.
The ferry is full.
The biggest monsoon over South Korea in fifty years is causing widespread upheaval up and down the Asian coastline, and Southern Thailand is no exception. Ferries to other islands are cancelled or delayed and we are stranded.
My travel partner, our resident alpha male, swings into action. We connect with a group of five other post-bar law grads who appear to be our east coast dopplegangers. Everyone is soaking wet, freezing cold and looking pathetic.
Glancing around the strategy circle it’s clear: We didn’t plan for this.
Our alpha promptly returns with his alpha counterpart, and options. We can take a speed boat for $200 per person to get to Phuket in time to avoid re-scheduling our flights. The water between Phi Phi and Phuket is raging with up to thirty-foot waves. A speed boat filled with 30 vacationers capsized the previous day leaving 29 of them in the hospital.
“Apparently we’re going to be here for a while.”
We slosh through the muddy roads to an internet cafe and plan our next move(s).
An hour and a half later we’ve rescheduled flights, changed hotel reservations and emailed our parents.
“For now, we’re safe.”
At 1:15p.m we board the ferry to Phuket. An hour later the ferry staff is passing out complimentary motion-sickness pills and barf bags.
Twenty minutes into the bumpy ferry ride, all of my friends are passed out. Parker is on the floor sleeping on my yoga mat. Edward is still clenching a half-full bottle of Chang beer. Werner and Fred are peacefully cuddled next to each other, dead to the world.
I am wide awake. Feeling every huge wave, hearing every sick passenger.
Praying we get through this alive.
Each time the boat shifts left or right, I brace for the worst. I start to wonder whether I should wake up my friends, get to the top deck in case we capsize, or take three Ativan and hope I join them in sleeping ignorance.
I start to think about the irony of dying in a boat accident. All of those years I’ve hated flying and all of those months worrying about getting on a plane to Asia sure would be wasted if I went down in a ferry accident trying to get back to Phuket.
“Maybe my friends and family will take comfort in the humor of it.”
“Maybe it will help them deal with the loss”
My worst-case-scenario stream of consciousness is interrupted when the sound of the engine disappears. Our forward motion comes to a halt and I wait for an audio confirmation of my anxious suspicion.
“Yep. The engine is dead.”
I didn’t plan for this. I planned to fall out of the sky in a violent explosion. I planned to feel every bump on an airplane and evaluate whether or not it meant we were going to crash. I planned to listen for sounds of safety, and vulnerability. I planned to be on high alert. Just in case something happened, I would be ready.
But I’m not ready for this.
When the engine comes back on the boat lurches forward. Eventually we’re cruising again, at a decidedly slower speed. I decide to keep my guard up to prevent further disaster.
Safely on land, I’m sitting in the Phuket airport, thinking about my plans. I think about all the fears that run my life. All of the things that stop my heart or speed it up when I worry about them happening to me or the people I love. All of the ways I plan to avoid them.
I started thinking about the real life things that have made my heart stop. Or speed up. Or break completely. The day last spring when I crashed my mini cooper, the death of my invincible friend Heather, my brother’s motorcycle accident. Countless moments of unexpected challenge, emotional struggle and sadness in between.
I didn’t plan for any of it.
Hours and minutes of attention and energy I spent planning I could have spent doing a million other things. I could have been a more careful driver, a better friend or more connected sister. I could have made my friends laugh or cuddled with my mom. I could have been grateful for the moment I was in instead of fearful for the one I might face.
I could plan less and live more.