The hopeless romantic in me is alive and well.
Between the days of diving and the evenings of low key parties, there hasn’t been much time or impetus for writing. Scuba diving is an experience that resists description – until you try it you can’t quite understand what it’s like. The setting has the opposite problem: it so perfectly fits the tropical paradise bill it’s cliched.
Still, a few words on where I am are necessary. The Andaman Islands sit much closer to Burma than to the Indian mainland, but the British set up a penal colony for Indian dissidents and, following Japanese occupation in WWII, they were incorporated into the newly independent India. Geographically, they have much more in common with South-East rather than South Asia. The sand is creamy white and soft, like baby powder. The water that idyllic turquoise that adorns postcards taped to computer monitors in Canadian offices. My home is a rickety bamboo and wood structure looking in on a sandy courtyard of coconut palms. It’s beautiful and basic.
The simplicity, however, makes it hard to write. Unlike the crazy days of motorcycle crashes and cliff-edge roads, here I find myself lost in a blissful monotony of beach, hammock, book, food. It’s a holiday from traveling. The diving provides some keyboard-worthy highlights, no doubt, but I don’t really think I can do justice to the sensations of weightlessness and peace. The visuals are intense – tiny tropical fish, intricate coral structures, soaring sea turtles – and the empty darkness of the night dive was unforgettable. But if you aren’t a diver, how much common ground can there be?
Eventually, my laptop-opening motivation came from a girl. I can’t figure out if I should be surprised.
She arrived with a friend from university who was meeting me here. They’d been on the same flight from the mainland and had taken the ferry together. Because I had booked a room where I was staying for the friend, she decided to come check it out.
The instant we locked eyes I felt something. I saw in her face, in her sharp intake of breath, that she felt it too. I’ve never had that happen to me before. I was instantly worried and tried to play it cool through the introductions. A newly-minted doctor from Germany, though she hasn’t really lived there for years. My name is Evan.
One well acknowledged facet of the backpacker scene is the easy hook up. In party-centered spots such as the Thai beaches people are free from the social pressures of home and lubricated by local whiskey. Things begin and end quickly. There is an unspoken agreement to leave out any emotional attachment, both parties fully aware of the temporary existence that comes with traveling. And it’s fine.
In India, things are different. People are in the country for longer and can spend more time in the places they visit. They are often slightly older (say, 26 instead of 21) and more focused on culture, history and/or spirituality. Alcohol is taboo, taxed or even banned in certain areas, owing to the devout nature of local custom. Travelers talk in term of connections, not getting laid. Things remain temporary, obviously, but less so.
The situation is unique. It’s a middle ground that allows for beautiful relationships with deep emotional links without much risk of painful breakups. You know you only have a week or three together so you allow things to get intense quickly and you part in bittersweet acceptance. I made a mistake with this system last fall, getting too attached after a month with a girl up in the mountains. We went separate ways for two months and, when I tried to rendezvous with her down south, I found she’d met another guy. It was painful but entirely my fault. A learning experience.
With the doctor, things developed in a hurry yet felt natural. I found myself revealing things to her, things I reserve for my closest friends or family. She reciprocated and we would spend hours just prodding and poking. There was trust. She challenged me intellectually and didn’t hesitate to call me on my bullshit. I had to be sharp with her, any laziness would be pounced upon.
She was also jaw-dropping.
Now she’s gone. I want to be melodramatic but it doesn’t feel right. If we reconnect, wonderful. She’s a traveler and so am I. Odds are, however, that we’ll never see each other again. And it’s fine.
And therein lies perhaps the most valuable and life-touching aspect of long term backpacking: the other travelers. People from all over the world with amazing stories and experiences and perspectives. They barely know you and they push you and inquire into you, forcing you to inquire into yourself. You barely know them and you trust them and share rooms with them, talking about their fears and dreams before you know their age or last name. And, after all you’ve shared, you may never see them again.
And it’s fine.