Decembers to Remember
Two years ago I boarded a plane to Bangkok on a one-way ticket with no expectations.
One year ago I drove to New York to be present for the passing of my Grandfather, spending the remainder of the winter house sitting in solitude.
And this year, I’ve found myself on a 17 km Canadian island in the Pacific NorthWest.
With my college scholarship nearing expiration, I decided to maximize the discounted tuition by enrolling in a study-abroad program. I wanted to study photography, as I had a lot of interest without much experience. There were a lot of photography courses in Europe, but I wanted to go to a place where I could really challenge myself. I chose Thailand.
After several long flights and plastic tray meals, I arrived in Bangkok wide awake and fully exhausted. I grabbed my bags and handed the taxi driver an address on a wrinkled piece of paper. Amidst a city of concrete and chaos, we arrived at a treehouse hidden behind a curtain of vines at the end of a quiet alley. I had never met Sue, and I arrived at her house while she was still at work. The two women that greeted me didn’t speak English and the phrase I memorized in Thai didn’t translate. We all laughed awkwardly and I was silently shown around the house.
I later learned that Sue’s father built the home before passing away, his whimsical loving energy still very much alive. The living room was a small rectangle with low ceilings and a dark wooden staircase that stretched out of view. The walls were hidden behind old photographs, traditional Thai artworks, and Buddhist sculptures. A fluorescent light flickered above us. Three smaller rooms connected themselves: a kitchen, a bathroom, and a glass-encased studio-turned-bedroom. We walked up two flights of stairs, passing 2 other bedrooms, with the last stair ending at a traditional wooden door. The maid slid open the door to reveal an outdoor living room with wooden floors, several canvas chairs, and carefully placed antiques. Tropical birds sang from the trees surrounding the house, and the pond bubbled below. This level contained three additional bedrooms- each its own self-contained glass box with sliding doors.
My room consisted of a twin bed, a desk, a sink, a closet, and a much appreciated A/C unit. Outside my room was a typical Thai toilet with a small bucket of water in place of toilet paper. A tightly spiraled staircase led to a rooftop garden surrounded by old trees, potted seedlings, and a clear view of the Bangkok skyline. Amazing to be tucked away in a jungle treehouse separate from the chaos of the busy and loud city.
Sue left a sticky note on my bedroom door welcoming me to her country. She also wrote the WiFi password and suggested I shower, eat, and rest until she arrived. I unpacked my towel and walked downstairs to the bathroom for a quick rinse. The bathroom had no recognizable shower, so I peeked around to see if I had missed another room for showing. Kitchen, closet, studio. No other such imagined showering rooms existed. Perplexed, I found the maid and pointed at my towel while gesturing my confusion. She led me back to the same bathroom (where I could see no shower) and nodded.
Well, okay then. I went into the bathroom, closed the door behind me, took off my clothes, and started scanning the tiled room for clues.
Toilet, little spray gun next to the toilet, sink, big bucket of water, little bowl floating in the bucket, floor drain, and a showerhead attached to the wall. Was I supposed to get into the bucket? No, it’s too small. Am I supposed to turn on the shower head and just soak the entire bathroom? The room was completely dry so that didn’t seem right. Without coming to any conclusion, I decided to simply turn on the shower head and attempt to contain my splashing. The water came out surprisingly cold with an unimpressive amount of pressure. The water heater only made the temperature slightly less cold. Feeling courageous, but also like I was certainly doing something wrong, I took my cold shower quickly.
I guess this is what they refer to as culture shock.
When Sue came home, I told her the whole story and we fell into a fit of laughter-our first of many. Apparently I HAD done it correctly. What a relief. She also informed me that Thais don’t use toilet paper. Instead they use water in a similar fashion to the little sprayers on American kitchen sinks. They say its much more efficient and hygienic than toilet paper, and I would have to agree. I learned to love the “bum guns” but not the ensuing swamp ass that never went away in the hot Thai weather.
Those unforgettable first few hours in Thailand set the stage for an incredible journey full of new experiences and continued lessons in letting go of control and expectations. I spent a week at Sue’s in Bangkok before traveling on north to the mountainous region of Thailand. Of all the places I’ve ever slept, Sue’s treehouse is one of the most unique and inspiring. I frequently popped in and out of my room at Sue’s throughout the 7 months I traveled in Asia.
I spent Christmas alone in a little backpacker town called Pai. The weather was hot and sunny, in strange juxtaposition of the poorly-covered Christmas music being sung from touristy restaurant and shop speakers. I treated myself to a foot massage, ate at a delicious vegan restaurant, and went to sleep early in my private bungalow along the river.
Challenging myself and learning how to use a camera.
Letting go of expectations.
I found myself in Atlanta for a short visit having recently returned from a backpacking trip through Europe. I had a housesitting gig in Upstate New York starting after the New Year and wanted to make the most of my time in Atlanta before driving up north. Not yet too cold in Atlanta, I scheduled an outdoor body-paint photo shoot with two models and another local photographer, Joe. The shoot fell apart the day of, but Joe and I were still able to make it happen with a friend modeling on short notice. We arrived on location to scout out the best area and found a beautiful old tree stretching itself over the water.
As we discussed lighting conditions, a small bird repeatedly fluttering around our heads. Assuming we were near a nest with a protective mother, we decided to move further downstream. The little bird followed us, occasionally swooping down and hovering in front of our faces. I held up my camera for a test shot, and the curious bird landed directly on my lens. I slowly lowered the camera from my eye, and to my surprise, the bird stayed perched on the end of my camera while we observed each other. After about 30 seconds, the bird flew off of my camera and landed on Joe’s lens! Unreal. It was an amazing experience that left us all in a state of pure enchantment.
Within the hour, I received a call from my brother, Kirk, telling me that our Grandfather was dying in New York.
I ended the shoot early and rushed back to Joe’s to gather my things. Having already planned to drive up to New York later in the month, Kirk and I shifted things around and decided to leave that evening and drive straight through the night. We packed up as quickly as possible and raced through traffic to the other side of town. Back at Joe’s apartment, a friend offered me a bong hit to settle my anxiety. I exhaled a cloud of smoke into what became a full-blown panic attack. Bad idea. With blurred vision, I hurriedly packed up my supplies and rushed out of the apartment. Shaking and hyperventilating, I tried telling myself that I was okay. I’d put off changing my car’s burned out headlight, which I deeply regretted as I pulled out of the parking deck into rush hour Atlanta traffic.
Once back at my house, I started to pack. I needed to pack as quickly as possible for the next 3 months, but I was dizzy with stress and anxiety. Not to mention, very much too high. I threw a bunch of things in a backpack, all my winter clothes in a trash bag, and crammed my car trunk with any art supplies I thought I might want. (It took me several days to realize that I had left my bag of winter clothes behind, and filled my backpack with all of my favorite summer clothes).
With my car packed with what seemed to be all necessary things, (but was actually quite the opposite) I crossed town to pick up my brother letting him take the wheel. He drove all through the night arriving in Eden, New York 14 hours later. As we pulled onto my Grandmother’s street, my car died. A few days later, my Grandfather died.
I spent that Christmas with my Father’s side of the family, frequently carpooling between the hospital and my Grandmother’s house. The cold and somber drives were heavy with emotion, unaffected by the glittering of small-town Christmas lights.
The bird with a message.
The passing of a great man.
A cold and solitary winter.
60 years of marriage...
Grammy holds her husband's hand the day before his passing.
My friend Zeuss is a charitable pirate, with a collection of boats and two long red braids that frame his friendly face. He invited me over to his place, nicknamed Water World, for a Tea Ceremony. Without question, I decided to wear my lucky pirate boots to this special event. I planned my outfit around the shoes. Dressed and walking to my car, I nearly slipped and fell on the ice and immediately decided to put on my more industrial boots.
This is the struggle of being fashionable on the island.
I drove through wooded property down to his driveway and parked near the entrance to his dock. It was early evening but already very dark outside, and the slippery wood walkways were covered in ice and otter poo. Using my iPhone light, I cautiously inched my way to the end. I was proud of my awareness to choose the more suitable boots. The harbor water was black and the horizon foggy. I was able to piece the setting together in my mind using clues from the twinkling lights of rocking boats and the occasional vocalization of a bird from shore. My exhale created a big cloud illuminated by a skinny moon.
Within a few minutes, I heard a small boat off in the distance and assumed it to be Zeuss coming to pick me up. As the approaching boat got louder, I couldn’t help but laugh in amazement and excitement of this entire situation.
Zeuss and I rode the little dingy across the harbor for 30 seconds before arriving at Water World. His floating compound is a combination of multiple large wooden docks supporting a floating workshop, an impressive stretch of solar panels, and his self-created Tri-Maran; 1,200 sq. ft of Catamaran/House Boat GLORY. Two additional boats were parked alongside the compound, and remember, it took us a boat to get there. I told you, he’s a Pirate.
I jumped from the dinghy onto a small square dock and hop-scotched across three others before arriving at the front door of his home. A creepy mask hung in the door’s circular window acting as “his security”, and a rubber chicken squawked as the door swung open. A tiny bell jingled and the warmth from the wood stove pulled us in.
The boat had a front office complete with a writing desk, reclining chairs, and a full library. Adjoined to the office was a master bedroom, two bathrooms (including a bathtub and laundry facility), and the main living room: a large open kitchen with a dining table, several large wooden chests full of costumes, and a multitude of instruments.
Seated on blanket-covered couches, were the other two guests, Lauren and Tanya. Together with another local woman, these ladies own a tea shop which also functions as the sole post office on island. The tea ceremony was a lovely candlelit display of ornate teapots accompanied by delicate pourings of aged oolong. Warm conversation about the subtleties of flavor and the history of tea plants kept us up late into the evening.
The whole experience was truly magical. And I feel that the rest of my time on this island will surely follow suit. I take these little beautiful occurrences as signs that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. I try to feel this way where ever I travel and with whatever decisions I make.
I’m always exactly where I should be.
I hope you have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Holiday, or whatever it is that you desire most this time of year.
P.S. If you’re interested in knowing more about Zeuss, seeing his water compound, or learning about life on Water World, let me know. If there was interest beyond my own, I would happily make a mini-doc about my fascinating new friend and his unique way of life. I probably will either way.
P.P.S. I’d rather attend holiday parties than edit this blog post another time so please forgive any typos.