For a while, I just kind of figured it was inevitable.
And before our trip to Cambodia, friends of Tyler pretty much confirmed it.
"Yeah, everyone got sick at some point."
"From the food?" I asked.
"From the food, the ice -- your guess is as good as mine."
"How many people did you go with?"
"Seven. We all got sick. It's not that bad, though. You just kind of deal with it, get it out of your system and move on."
But after a week in Cambodia, unscathed by any kind of illness, my confidence grew. Maybe the antibiotics prescribed by the doctor for travel sickness would go unused after all. Because if you can't get sick in Cambodia, where can you get sick?
How about Thailand?
And as I lay on the white tiled bathroom floor at the Rattana Hotel in Karon Beach -- trying to wipe away the saliva and tears in between violent sequences of vomiting -- realization struck me with every painful heave: those antibiotics would definitely get used.
As I made my way from the bathroom to the bed for the umpteenth time, simultaneously shivering and perspiring, I tried to trace the illness to a particular culprit. The oversized English breakfast with notably runny eggs? The surprisingly bland lemon and garlic chicken? Unfiltered ice in one of my drinks? During any of these instances, some malicious bacteria could have wandered its way down my gullet and found itself in my intestines. And apparently it didn't like company, because it felt the need to expel all other occupants.
Even something as seemingly helpful as bottled water would find its way into the toilet only minutes after consumption.
And I hoped, with a sense of knowing futility, that each pride-obliterating trip to the bathroom would be my last.
That has to be the last time, I thought. There's nothing left to throw up! It's all dry-heaving and bile at this point.
But as 3am crept to 4am, then 5am, then 6am, then 7am, I just stopped hoping and started to get angry.
There should be accountability for this sort of thing! I'm going to lose a day in Thailand with my best friends because some jack-off didn't take the necessary precautions during food and/or drink preparation. It can't be that difficult! Use filtered water for ice. Make sure the food isn't rotten to begin with and cook it thoroughly before serving. With the exception of the filtered water, this is stuff I learned in seventh grade home ec!
These savages have poisoned me!
In my delirium, I even began to picture our waiter, chef or restaurant proprietor letting out a sinister cackle while he stroked his mustache (why wouldn't he have one?!) and discussed the tainted food or beverage with his employees. "Stupid farang," he'd practically spit the words. "He consumed like a glutton and now he's cursing his own wretched existence! He will see what happens to those arrogant Westerners who think they belong in Thailand! He will know the fury of Siam!"
And his companions would laugh wickedly and cheer my misery, patting each other on the back for a job well done.
Okay, granted -- that sounds more like a scene from some bad kung fu movie. But one looks for someone to blame when they're in such a sordid state. It's only natural to vilify an imagined or assumed antagonist, isn't it? After all, someone is at fault and it certainly isn't me. I’m the one writhing on the bathroom floor. I’m the one who'll be confined to the hotel room the following day while recovering. I’m the one that's been poisoned by some unknown enemy. This situation certainly couldn't have arisen as a result of my own missteps.
Damn this country and damn the careless, villainous natives!
"Dude, have you been up all night puking?" Tyler asked from across the room as I emerged from the bathroom at 730am. I was sweating and ghostly pale despite the tan I'd acquired at the beach earlier the previous day.
I simply nodded and collapsed into my bed.
"Are you okay, man?" he asked, wiping hazy sleep from his eyes.
"Getting better," I replied, weakly attempting a show of good humor I thought he'd appreciate. I mean the irony wasn't completely lost on me, even in the midst of such an awful experience: a healthy and nearly seamless trip through Cambodia yields an over-confident and arrogant tourist ripe for humbling.
This was Thailand's way of assuring me I was still dumb and inexperienced.
Patong seems to thrive on over-stimulation.
Once night falls, the main strip caters to foot-traffic and becomes a crowded fluorescent hurricane of sex, alcohol, food, music and whatever else may tickle your pleasure centers. Groups of tourists, mostly male, wander from one bar or club to the next, accepting or denying offers proposed by locals who stroll through the crowds presenting a variety of goods and services, most of which pertain to booze, women or drugs, at least in some capacity.
Of course, this seemingly excessive supply is only there to meet the abundant demand.
In the midst of prostitutes dressed like sultry pirates and a parade of lady-boys preparing for some kind of lavish, vaudevillian performance -- some appearing as passable female representations while others proudly flaunt and embrace the shock value of their unmistakably masculine qualities -- you may find teenage boys trolling with enormous iguanas. They'll place them on your arm or shoulder or near your genitals, without permission, in an effort to snap a photo you might be willing to purchase. You may also see a very squeamish and uncomfortable-looking Westerner with one of these massive lizards on his shoulder screaming at the teenage handler to remove it.
Attractive Asian women will grab your hand or wrap you in a weak bear-hug and literally force you into their respective club or bar, posting heart-shaped stickers on your hand and shirt. Perhaps this last nearly-endearing act was simply a result of the holiday -- our first trip to Patong was on Valentine's Day -- because we did not receive any stickers on subsequent visits.
These women will sit you down at a table and bring you drinks that you're paying too much for. If they don't think you've warmed up to the idea of paying for sex just yet, they'll sit with you and play games like Jenga or Connect-Four until you give in to their admittedly charming seductions, or they become aware that you're only interested in the attention and the novelty, not the sex. They'll take a hint when you refuse to buy them overpriced drinks. At this point, they'll continue to serve you politely, but their primary focus will shift to other men who seem more willing to delve deeper into the true Patong experience.
All the establishments have names. At least I believe they do, but retention of details and direction is difficult enough in this whirlwind of sensory stimuli; the generic labels given to the bars just don't seem that important. Maybe they would to a frequenter, but a passer-by attending this carnival for only a night or two will probably be more distracted by the scene as a whole and become less concerned with the specificity of something as inconsequential as a name. If one establishment seems worthy of a repeat visit, you're more likely to remember the location.
On the street, you'll be offered tickets to sex performances and ping-pong shows. You'll be offered yaa baa and meth and coke. ("My friend, my friend, you look tired. You need some energy? I have energy for you.") You'll be offered "company" and "girlfriends." You'll be offered taxis and tuk tuks. You'll be offered burgers and noodles and cheap drink specials, most of which include Thailand's proud child and export, Red Bull. You'll be offered t-shirts and hats boasting appalling English or popular Thai beer companies. You'll be offered homemade wooden flutes, bootleg DVDs and impossible curios that you can't imagine anyone actually buying, until you see the groups of tourists surrounding the booth, hungry for an opportunity to haggle with the locals.
If it exists and can be sold for a profit, you can probably find it in Patong.
Whether or not this whole grand production becomes exhausting to you over a period of time is undoubtedly a matter of your personality and preferences. Even the hardest of partiers could feel worn out after only a night or two (the mere act of refusing can become incredibly draining). But the thrill of something so seedy and sinful will almost certainly be invigorating, even if it's only for a matter of minutes. There's something to be respected about a place that's so unabashedly pleasure-oriented, a place that caters to your most obscene chemical and biological desires.
Even if that initial sense of excitement turns to one of loathing, Patong is a place that will stay with you for both the right and wrong reasons.
For all intents and purposes, the island is ours.
At least for the night.
There couldn't be more than thirty of us and we have this paradise to call our own. We may be travelers and this sense of ownership will vanish soon, but we're something isolated and special here tonight. We could be the only people left in the universe, but we celebrate this remoteness, this segregation, and drink ourselves towards something primitive and beautiful.
As the night grows darker and the fire gets brighter, our little planet gravitates towards stunning social simplicity.
Almost all the boats have left Maya Bay and we embrace the opportunity to build this one-night-stand of a colony. But I suppose there's always some sense of apprehension during circumstances like this: Who are these other people? Do they belong here? Do they appreciate this unique situation? Do they want to make the most of these few hours?
We pass around joints the size of tampons and consume buckets of Red Bull and whiskey, just to move past the unfamiliarity in an expedited fashion. After all, our time here is all-too limited and it’s best to exorcise formalities and social anxiety as quickly as possible.
Some sit around the blazing bonfire trying to agree on a popular song that can be strummed on the old, weathered acoustic guitar. Others lie on the beach and stare up at the speckled illumination as it's meant to be seen – without the pollution or distraction of lesser, unnatural lights. Some adorn iPods and dance in the churning surf, kicking the bioluminescent plankton in time to their own rhythms, creating a private and organic liquid lightshow.
All this happens as the Thais play with fire in an elaborate and acrobatic fashion.
This is our playground for the evening – a beautifully and creatively imagined dreamscape come to life.
As the hours creep by, conversations become increasingly playful and much less inhibited. We exchange fits of childish giggling with the girls from Manchester as we ask how they refer to some of the more obscure regions of their bodies.
Later, two Irish girls take to us naturally and threaten to drink us under the table. And they accept our ethnocentric onslaught of bad impersonations and worse stereotypes with grace and good nature.
It's all very cinematic and I guess that's the point. We're visiting a movie set, doing what the characters on that set did so many years ago – creating a utopia. A twelve-hour utopia.
And even as we realize our friend has gone missing, even as the Irish girl whose name I'll never remember tells us she last saw him swimming in dark waters, we know there's no real danger. Tragic things like that don't happen here. Not tonight.
We scour the beach for our lost companion, doing our best to peer through the darkness and call his name quietly without alarming or disturbing our fellow island inhabitants. And we find him passed out comfortably near the fire, the shadows of flames dancing across his face while the drunken makeshift minstrels croon some familiar ballad that was almost popular decades ago. We jostle our friend awake and berate him for falling asleep so early, for wasting these precious hours.
As people grow tired, they pick a sleeping bag and find a semi-secluded spot somewhere along the beach. The wind keeps the bugs away, but kicks sand in our faces as we stare up at some celestial Eden. Luminescent sprinkles poke vibrant holes in the body of blackness like it's an assassination, like we're staring at an abyss with countless radiant exit wounds. But it seems only appropriate with so many shooting stars.
And I wonder why this isn't everyday. I wonder why we don't live like this.
Then I think of the film. I think of the inevitable catastrophe: the drama, the disclosure, the imperfections, the discovery.
The social collapse.
And it seems all the more reason to graciously accept and appreciate this impermanent piece of perfection over some greedy and improbable long-term fantasy. Because tonight we can live like this.
Fuck yeah, we can live like this.
At the Vietnam War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s an exhibit displaying hundreds of pictures drawn by children under the age of fifteen. Apparently there was a nationwide contest in which kids were asked to create a picture that exemplified their hopes for world peace and unity.
The exact phrasing of the guiding topic escapes me, but the general idea was peace and optimism for multicultural understanding and tolerance.
Many of the pictures were quite similar – illustrations of cultural activities that mean a great deal to the Vietnamese people – while others were a bit more abstract. Some, for example, portrayed the Earth itself as an entity, turning away from bloodshed and violence; some even showed humans holding hands with alien beings amidst some kind of intergalactic backdrop.
For me, the darkest and most affecting picture was entitled “Dioxin Baby.” On the center of the page was the mutated form of a human infant. It looked like an illustration of Siamese twins – one enlarged and misshapen body with a single set of limbs and two heads.
I'll admit my ignorance – at first I didn't get it. I had no idea what Dioxin was or how it fit into the scheme of the picture or the encompassing topic. It wasn’t until later, as I examined more shocking and gut-wrenching exhibits, that I learned Dioxin was the major malicious chemical in Agent Orange, a substance proven to have caused heinous birth defects after America's widespread use of it during the Vietnam War.
Subsequent to this discovery, I made my way back to the child's drawing and studied it with a new sense of understanding. Although its bleak tone didn't mesh with the optimism of the other portraits, it still seemed appropriate for the competition's guidelines. Because sometimes a huge motivating force for peace and unity can be the appalling repercussions incurred during its absence.
I learned a lot about that dark war at the museum – a war I admittedly knew too little about. I knew about the awful effects it had on American soldiers who bravely fought, willingly or otherwise, in a harsh, foreign land. But, in truth, I thought very little about the reasons for America's involvement. As a child, I always thought it boiled down to communism and our obsessive fear of it. I didn't really think much beyond that motivation.
As it turns out, I knew even less about the American-supported Vietnamese Prime Minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his regime's brutal acts of torture and execution against the Vietnamese people who opposed him politically and religiously. This isn't to say America agreed with his tactics (in fact, it seems that in later years they realized what a liability he truly was), but their standing allegiance with such a violent and controversial figure was something I had not been aware of.
I thought of an email sent to me by my father, who is fiercely patriotic and knew many Americans that had fought and died in Vietnam. He had wanted nothing more than to fight alongside the other enlistees and draftees, but was unable to do so as a result of a debilitating sports injury. In his email, he had mentioned how strange it was for him to think that his son was in Saigon, “home of the bad guys during the war.” And I couldn't tell if he was referring to the Vietnamese people in general, Diem's regime (who were largely concentrated in Saigon) or the revolutionary guerrilla forces of the Viet-Cong who fought against Diem’s control.
The museum rather unabashedly painted a nasty picture; not of Americans generally, but of the choices made by the American government with regards to involvement in Vietnam. And I thought the whole thing was so frustrating – war, politics, governments. There's so rarely anything you can legitimately call a historical truth. One country's version of history can be wholly different from another's. One nation's villain can be another's hero. It's this subjectivity that I find so exasperating. I can visit a war museum in Vietnam and see the physical evidence of atrocities committed by Americans, or I can stand in front of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and view the names of Americans that were killed by Viet-Cong, many of whom were drafted into a war they didn't believe in.
I met a German man, Ditma, on the beach in Phu Quoc. I told him I’d visited the war museum and he made a dismissive gesture with his hands. “I have no interest in war,” he said. “After World War II, I'm sure you can understand.” And years ago, I also may have said something like, “I have no interest in war.” But I thought of the child's illustration, “Dioxin Baby.” And I thought if nobody had an interest in war, it would be difficult to learn from past mistakes.
Then I thought about genocide in Africa or
Asia and how disgusting it is that such a term even exists. And I
found myself disheartened by the fact that after so many hideous atrocities
committed by countless countries, humans have made very little progress in terms
of peaceful coexistence. After so many years on this planet, it
seems more like a pipe dream than an attainable goal.
Consequently, “Dioxin Baby” became more and more poignant to me, because it shows the importance of calling attention to horrors of the past in the interest of learning from them... and because it seemed so naively and futilely hopeful.
It's times like this my current life can suck. It’s times like this I miss home.
When my stomach is still writhing from the case of food poisoning incurred the night before; when I'm starved, but too afraid to eat anything for fear it won't remain in my stomach more than a few minutes; when my fifty-pound bag weighs heavily on my viciously sunburned back and shoulders; when all I want to do is take a day to sleep and recover from my most recent illness, but know I need to set out at 6am to embark on a full day of airports and flights; when I have no idea what bug-infested guesthouse I'll call home for the next few days.
This is why I almost take offense when someone mislabels my trip as a “holiday” or “vacation.”
“Oh, so you're on a holiday?”
“Not exactly,” I’ll reply without much certainty on how to clarify.
Maybe “journey” is a more appropriate term.
So… what am I doing here? Why am I spending all the money I’ve taken years to save? Why did I leave a secure job with a steady paycheck? Is it all worth it?
Currently, I have no friends. I have no home. I jump from one city, one country, to the next. I look for the cheapest accommodations I can find. I spend hours and hours on buses, planes and boats. My life has no stability, no direction.
I’ve also seen places with more beauty and history than I could ever imagine. I’ve been to cities I never knew existed. I’ve glimpsed into ancient realms and cultures that thrived long before America was a budding concept. And, most importantly, I never know what tomorrow will bring. Today, my stomach thrashes, my body aches and my mind wanders towards the comforts of home.
Phu Quoc is too quiet and, in my experience, not a social climate for a solo traveler. Still, I feel alive. My discomfort and anxiety remind me that I’m here, I’m breathing and I’m moving. I look towards the next day because I know it will be different – different scenery, different faces, different experiences. I look forward to the sprawling beaches and thriving nightlife of Nha Trang. After twenty-six hours without sleep, I look forward to finding a hotel and enjoying a long nap before discovering a new city. And after three days of gloomy solitude, I look forward to a location brimming with potential for companionship.
This is why I’m here: to chase a dream, to seek out experience, to elude the temptations of security, boredom and complacency.
In short, I’m here to live.
Despite my affinity for experience, madness and intoxicants – in both life and literature – I had never read Kerouac. When I'd tell this to friends who knew my interests and personality, their responses would range from, “Well, you really need to read him,” to “What the fuck is wrong with you?” So, when the little Vietnamese boy offered to sell me a copy of On The Road in Nha Trang, I agreed, after a somewhat obnoxious bargaining session.
It's amazing to me how, during the forties, the Western parts of America were romanticized like it was the other side of the world. And here I am, on the other side of the world, wondering about the Western parts of America.
I guess it was all different back then. And
I suppose it seems self-serving to associate myself with Sal Paradise, but how
can I not? My mouth literally dropped open when I read the following
“I looked at the cracked high ceiling and
really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I
wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a
haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
I thought about a remarkably similar instance I’d experienced the previous morning. I woke up in my hotel room, stared at the ceiling and developed some powerful yet fleeting case of amnesia. It was like everything, every memory, had escaped with a rush and then returned seconds later, but as an illusion – almost like my memories of home and the past were phony or implanted. Who the fuck was I? Who the fuck am I? What city am I in?
Before leaving America, I had this sort of romantic picture in my mind: the tortured writer lying on some cheap hotel bed wondering how he got there and what he was doing. And there I was, momentarily clueless as to whose body this was and where its mind had gone. It wasn't scary, just sort of confusing. In fact, in a way it felt almost liberating, like I was free from something. Free from everything.
The van from Hanoi airport to the Old Quarters smelled like dirty farts and rotten Chinese food.
But it was only 80,000 VND, much cheaper than the 300,000 VND a taxi would cost.
The van was at capacity with close to twenty people, plus everyone's luggage. Haphazard stacks of bags shifted precariously as the driver navigated in and out of traffic. The ride took nearly two hours, moving from a somewhat scenic highway to the thick, hectic congestion of Hanoi.
For much of the ride, there was an Asian girl in the seat behind me throwing up into a paper bag. She was in her mid-twenties and at first I wasn't sure if she was legitimately vomiting or just gracing us with some truly grotesque burps. But after about forty minutes, it became clear the poor girl was definitely hurling. And I found myself wondering about what could have triggered this intestinal unrest. I've heard of people getting motion sickness during bus-rides in Southeast Asia, but those are typically buses with well-worn shocks traveling across extremely rugged terrain. Sure, this van wasn't the picture of luxury, but the ride itself was fairly smooth. Well… I should say the roads we traveled were fairly smooth. Our driver, however, was a madman.
He'd blow red lights without a second thought and move the bulky van through traffic like it was a compact car. During the course of the trip, he hit not one, but two people on motorbikes. Each time, the scooter operator looked back at our driver and scowled. And each time, our driver would put up his hands; but the gesture seemed less of an apology and more a way of saying, “Hey, what do you want from me?”
After we struck the second motorbike, the girl behind me really started heaving. She was gagging and puking – it was just brutal. You can't help feeling disgusted, but it was hard not to have some sympathy for her. At this point, I had decided, without any legitimate facts or clues, that she had some kind of stomach bug. And I empathized. After all, I've had my share of stomach illnesses since coming to Asia, but I've been lucky enough to avoid them during travel days.
Fortunately, the inherent stench of the van seemed to cover up the potentially appalling smell of the vomit. Nevertheless, the girl courteously opened her window and every time the bus stopped to drop a passenger at their respective hotel, she would dump her bag of sickness out on the street to make room for more.
This could get ugly, I thought. If a single squeamish person gets a whiff of that puke, we could be ground zero for a chain reaction. Christ, if one more person starts spewing, we'll all be retching in each other's laps!
I felt shamefully relieved when the girl finally exited the vehicle at her guesthouse. I thought I could almost hear the collective sigh of the relief emitted by the remaining passengers. And during this whole trip, I was simply amazed at how unfazed the driver was – a puking girl, countless traffic violations, collisions with motorbikes and their operators. What may have been my most notoriously memorable ride in Vietnam was this guy's normal routine.
I see a new kind of status quo everyday.
Vang Vieng can be bullets or bliss... or both.
Every person is a character and every thirty minutes is a story.
People get addicted. People get trapped. People get hurt.
Mia developed a severe heat rash that forced her to the hospital. Erika injured her foot, but she settled for bags of ice and the local pharmacy.
And those are some of the lesser calamities you see or hear about.
During your time in Laos, if you come across anyone on crutches, in a cast or with any other visible injuries, you just assume (almost always correctly) that they occurred in Vang Vieng.
The river's potentially deadly – literally and figuratively. The drinks are infinite and sickening and wonderful. The drugs are plentiful and conveniently available. There are tall swings, zip-lines and water slides, none of which are officially regulated and all of which pose some serious threat to a person's well-being.
People break bones and bust skulls. They incur bloody wounds that require stitches
And a certain number – which can vary obscenely depending on who you talk to – drown every year.
It's a playground. But it's a dangerous playground.
Really, the experience boils down to the people you share it with. And I guess that can be a crap shoot. But if you end up with an outstanding group (or a few outstanding groups), you can't help but enjoy yourself, even if it feels kind of shameful.
But no matter what, you'll remember it. Even amidst the blackouts, you'll recall the experience. You may remember it as something awful and beautiful. You may remember wasted walks across rickety bridges hastily constructed of bamboo and two-by-fours. You may lose the only people you want to spend time with and find them in your bed the next morning. You may decide to stay an extra three days after committing yourself to only two. Or you may want to pack up and go after just a couple nights, appalled by the whole debauched circus. You may even end up seeking employment at one of the local bars, which look to ensnare directionless, addicted travelers to work for free food and drinks.
I guess it can be hard to see the true beauty of the place. Or easy to ignore it. It's not easy to look past the river's drunken mayhem and appreciate where you are. But if you really try, you can almost shut out the countless makeshift bars and stare at the looming mountains, which somehow seem magnificent and humble at the same time. You can feel love for the people you're with and wonder how you were lucky enough to find them. You can even hide from the river for a day and lose yourself in the country-side, ambitiously searching for lagoons, caves and culture.
You never really know when circumstance will abandon you and remind you that, in the broader scheme, you're traveling alone and these people you've met, these people you've come to adore, will go their separate ways. But these people – these Swedes, Brits, Irish, Dutch, Australians and Canadians – they'll make you wary of leaving Vang Vieng, or Laos for that matter. They'll make you want to stay and selfishly keep them with you. They'll make you think about your current plans and consider altering them just to feel connected for a few more days.
Vang Vieng is heaven, hell or purgatory for backpackers. It's everything you can never truly describe – and that may or may not be the most frustrating aspect about it. Fortunately, I had people to lead me away. And it's hard for me to trust a backpacker. I'll always be afraid of the same things: robbery, infatuation, abandonment, exhaustion. But I've trusted Erika and Mia. We managed to escape Vang Vieng together. And somehow, that really seems to mean something.
So what about the last seventy-two hours?
Do I let them stay indescribable? Do I try to put them into words?
Do I talk about water spirits, blackouts, infatuation and my third new year in four months? Do I talk about drumming on missiles and cluster-bombs in the middle of a thunderstorm for an attentive and adoring crowd? Do I talk about mood fluctuations, cascading waterfalls and emotional withdrawal?
Do I talk about getting stoned with a beautiful American girl and keeping each other awake until the sun rose? Do I talk about the decisions I've made and their implications?
The storm is raging tonight and I believe it's been invoked. After all, this is what the Laotians pray for. This is the whole point of the new year celebration. Everything in this country seems effortlessly fateful and I wonder how a place like this can go unnoticed. I wonder if everyone else experiences a version of Laos similar to mine.
I listen to the driving rain and profound thunder as I'm sprawled across my bed, contemplating life, love and everything else. I create my own private blackout by turning everything in the room off – everything except my brain, which is unrelenting. It's a storm in itself – a burdensome, dangerous hurricane of ceaseless activity and neuroses.
I want to be able to describe this place and these feelings and do it all justice. But I don't think anyone would understand.
This country changed my trip and my life. And I'll never be able to explain why.
The moon follows us, drawing a pale, luminescent path across the South China Sea as we run down the wooden pier, shedding our clothes while we descend the steps towards the calm, shallow water.
We're careful when jumping from the dock into the quietly ebbing outstretch of turquoise. The tide is low so the sea is only a little more than waist-deep. The three of us are in the water quickly while the fourth remains on the dock, fully clothed, squinting at us as we float aimlessly.
“Are you all totally naked?” she asks in a strained whisper.
“I still have my watch on,” I tell her. “It's water-proof.”
She offers an agreeable shrug and disrobes. Moments later, she's floating alongside us.
The simultaneous feelings of freedom and unity are indescribable. We belong here, natural as the day we were born, embraced by the Earth in our most unobtrusive state.
I float on my back, letting the bath-warm water envelop my body and lap softly against my face. My ears are submerged, creating an aural phenomenon where the muted serenity of the underwater world is fused with the quiet conversation of my friends – their words are incomprehensible, but their tones and laughs mingle with the sea and swirl around me like unseen fish. It makes me smile because it doesn't matter what they're saying.
I can taste salt as the occasional wave washes over my lips. But my eyes stay open, gazing up at the few stars that aren't rendered invisible by the moon's overpowering glow. Another tiny wave gives me liquid goggles, blurring the night sky, making it appear like its underwater, like we could swim to the moon and the heavens, like we could all be astronauts if we could just hold our breath long enough.
Slowly, I let my feet dip beneath the surface and touch the sea's smooth, sandy bottom. As I stand, the salt's mild sting continues to lend a hazy filter to my eyes, making the moon's path across the water seem that much brighter and distinct. I think there's never been a path so well-lit situated right in front of me. I think of following that path and swimming as far as the sea will let me. I think of offering myself to the tide, plunging below the surface, staring up at the now-submerged sky and seeing just how long I can hold my breath.
I swear, tonight the moon's closer to Pulau Kecil than anywhere else. And I'll never have a better chance to swim to the stars.