“It’s a warm place,” he said. “Will be good. Get some sun.”
“That’s in five days,” I said. “Isn’t that kind of soon?”
“Are you coming or not?”
I hung up the phone and stepped outside. The mountains were still draped in wet, heavy snow, the rain pooling in shallow lakes around the house. Breakup, we called this season, back home. Lakes fractured, ice melted, old snow ran in dirty rivers down the roads. The earth revealed beneath winter’s fading illusion was grey, dead, as if uncovered too soon. What’s more, the wind had been howling through the walls at night like a creaking ship, keeping me uneasy, keeping me awake.
I paced in the old, old house, past the faded photographs of ancestors, past the photographs of fishing boats, weddings, embroideries gathering dust. I thought about how many months per year I spent wearing fleece pants, and wool sweaters, and shivering in the daytime. Outside the same group of wandering reindeer meandered by the seashore, through the same transparent sheet of precipitation.
Oh, what the hell, I thought. You lucky, lucky girl.
Arriving in Thailand was like falling into a warm, tepid bath. You lolled in it, sinking into an enchanting concoction of relaxation and lethargy. Your muscles loosened. All the cold, hard wrinkles of your dry skin filled out; your hands looked, suddenly, like children’s. Your fingers began to prune. You would become a water-creature, a fish maybe, or a hermit crab.
The island of Koh Samui was hot, and humid, an unsurprising mix of manicured tourism and organic, dusty chaos. I had never been planning to go there, so to be plunked suddenly onto the hot asphalt runway, straight from the Arctic spring, was shell-shocking and probably healthy. It was difficult to know how to dress, how to leave behind all these layers of habit and routine. It was too hot to do anything “productive.” Everything was heat and sun and water, plants and sand.
I had never been to Southeast Asia before, or anywhere remotely like it. The colors, culture, and climate were dazzling to the senses: the vegetation was lush, the mountains steep, the water blue, like postcards. For once, it would be healthy to let go of the role of tourist guide and exist, enthusiastically, as tourist; to join in that joyous and carefree phenomenon we frequently provide but seldom seek.
It was, you could say, paradise. In the mornings, when the heat was still bearable, we wandered sleepily outside into the sun’s glare, into cool water, into spectacular ocean views that stretched to infinity. In the day, we rested in the shade. Flowers bloomed. Birds sang. Palm trees, true to legend, swayed gently in the breeze.
Everywhere we went, of course, there were tourists. Hordes of brawny young men loitered down crowded marketplace streets, selfie-sticks recording, slurring wasted speech. Beer bottles overflowed from their beachside bar tables. There were backpackers, girls mostly: idle. Asleep in the sand for hours in neon bikinis, roasting with their iPhones. Sunburned couples spoke softly over $3 plates of Thai food and piña coladas. Russian fitness instructors, on FaceTime, holstered babies in swimming pools; groups of Australian college students partied; Chinese millennials shaped perfect selfies with the help of their friends. We wandered amongst all this, a Russian and an American, polar guides and photographers. Come to thaw.
As a professional guide, I often make a point of avoiding tourism in the off-season. As an Alaskan, I often make a point of avoiding crowded areas in general. Give an Alaskan a campground, for example, from which to choose a tent site: she or he will likely choose the site furthest from everyone else, furthest into the trees. Here, in tropical paradise, I was prepared for the overwhelming wave of humanity. It was an unexpected surprise, therefore, to discover parts of the island – the outer fringes of Lamai Beach, in this case – that were, at times, completely devoid of people.
Maybe it was the off-season, or maybe we were lucky. The first place we stayed on the beach, Lamai Bay View Resort, was idyllic and tranquil beyond measure. I’m not even a beach person, but it was stunning, with shallow water walkable for kilometers in every direction, and beautiful rock formations skirting the shoreline. We spent hours exploring there, in the afternoons, when the sun had sunk low enough in the sky to regain its benevolence. We rarely encountered another person.
As the setting sun began to cast its pink glow over the earth, and the hum of insects grew to a steady drone, we ventured into town. We appeared to be the only human beings on the entire island traveling on foot. Motorbikes swarmed incessantly around us with noisy outbursts and raucous swerves, headlights and engines blaring.
Along this river of careening headlights, we passed vendors selling fruit, selling fish, selling street food. We passed row after row of empty massage parlors and empty bars with cajoling hostesses, populated by single, older European men. The shops, stands and restaurants glowed, bars neon in the night, beckoning and noisy, sweltering heat.
One evening, having wandered out of the town center and down the coast, we came upon a bustling night market, fans spinning the hot air over fish, eels, frogs, crabs, clams, vegetables, insects, spices. Behind the marketplace, on a quiet stretch of abandoned beach, sat a young woman, a baby girl, and a puppy, playing in the sand. The pink sky was fading to purple over the calm sea. The woman, and her child, didn’t look up when we passed. We just kept walking, down the quiet beach with its dead fish and its occasional litter, away from the noise and on and on into the night.
What is paradise? I thought, as we plunged bare feet into hot, dirty sand. Clearly, this is a highly individual question, and my thoughts are those of someone who usually travels for adventure more than relaxation. What motivates us to seek out this climate, this place, this overabundant hospitality? What qualifies us as deserving of such vacation, such lapse and departure from the lives we normally lead?
I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I find it interesting to ask them; to ponder what draws together huge groups of diverse people to a remote location, and more importantly, to consider the lives of those who provide our touristic experiences. What is the daily life of the banana salesman, the bar girl, the women who scour the shallow waters for clams, day and night? What is life really like here?
We lived, for ten days, on the edges of these questions. We were a part of this vibrant tourist phenomenon, with its guided trips and its chaos, but we also sought out slices of wilderness and found them. We found places we could snorkel alone, we found apartments to stay in on mountains where families of monkeys crashed through the jungle around us. Places to awake in silence and breathe in hot, sweet air.
Reflecting on it all now, these ten days in the tropics seem like some strange dream, a transit through some alternate reality. Its effect, however – the aftermath of a very vacation-y vacation – was surprisingly profound. I returned to Norway with new energy, revitalized and ready to go. This makes me think, that even for us polar people, perhaps we need pauses from the cold to remember its beauty. It is the wealth of contrasts in the world, after all – the contrasts of life, really – that allow us to marvel and delight in even the smallest of things, in every corner of the planet.
I marvel, now, at the fortune of having seen this place, but also at the fortune of being where I am now, back above the Arctic Circle, on the edge of spring. And soon, very soon, it will be time to return to sea. We are sailing, soon, to Svalbard.