The Most Important Thing Travel Will Teach You


Almost a month had passed in my Southeastern Asian sojourn before I finally reached the sun-glinted waters of the South China Sea. A month of rain, of loneliness, and of uncomfortable happenings with strange men. But when I finally saw those electric, unapologetic blues, everything else diminished to dust.  I had no plans but to relax and write on the beach for a few days before heading north towards Thailand. I watched with simple delight as the ferry approached the dark, verdant mountains of Tioman Island in Malaysia.  The sun was just beginning to set as I walked with a subdued exuberance. The sky lent itself to my mood in dusky blues and golds. I dropped my backpack in the first room I found and made my way to the bar.

Coming up to the aptly named Sunset Corner, I ordered the happy hour special of three beers for ten ringgit. I chugged the first beer near instantaneously, set free a massive belch, tore off my dress, and ran into the sea like a crazed religious nut into the Promised Land. I opened my eyes under the water, clear as glass, and let the salt soak into my skin with ineffable relief. Since I was too young to understand it, I have needed and adored the ocean in a way that is beyond words, even to a rambling writer like me. What I did not know was that this particular water on this particular beach was going to give me more than I bargained for.  

As I collapsed salty and reborn onto the pleasantly busy beach, I noticed a group of six or seven travelers from several different nations laughing over beers just a few feet away. I walked up with my second cold beer, the sea still pouring down my body from the long, wet mop on my head, and asked if I could join them. Immediately greeted by a young blond who looked more like a California surfer boy than a Scotsman; we sank easily into introductions and the questions you find yourself happily asking and answering in each new place you arrive. There was something about this group of scattered strangers that made me feel instantly at home.

After spending the evening learning pieces of each other’s histories over a few too many beers, I found myself once again being called back into the sea. But with the tide dangerously low and the moon barely visible in the sky, my plan was ill-fated. Unknowingly, I exited the water with six sea urchin spines arched along the ball of my right foot. The moment I touched dry land a nerve-shattering pain shot up my leg. There was no way I would be continuing on my travels in just a few days. I couldn’t have known it then, but that sea urchin was one of the best things that happened to me that year. It kept me on Tioman for almost a month, and allowed me to learn the lesson I want to share with you now.

I have labored through many drafts and variations in figuring how to relay this this intangible souvenir. Even the word souvenir seems to cheapen it, almost by definition a magnet or t-shirt or some other kitschy knick-knack to be forgotten as soon as it’s given. Except that the word comes from the French word for memory, and I will certainly never forget what I took from Tioman. So here is the best I can do. 

About ten days into my stay on the island my new-found friends and I spent a night with a boat load of rum watching a lightning storm crash its way in purple flashes across the expansive sea. In the dark hours of the morning, I hobbled my way back to my room and lay on the bed, unable to sleep with the storm still crashing outside. Letting pen float over paper, I was waiting for something to come to me. Instead of words, that thing was Veronica. A sunset-haired Norwegian, I don’t believe there is a person on this planet who could claim she had done them wrong. And if they did, I wouldn’t believe them. 

This sweet girl of a woman knocked on my door, and when I opened it, I saw the tears in her eyes. I had seen a glimpse of a drunken argument between her and her Malaysian boyfriend in between clashes of thunder. But as it is with those things you tend to turn away and mind your own. But as this somewhat stranger sat on my bed and choked words and tears from her throat as if there was no room for air, she stripped herself down to bone. Her boyfriend had struck her that night. Swung a drunken fist at her freckled porcelain face and threatened her with a knife. There was no use for a single word in English or in any other language. I held her tightly. As if I could squeeze the pain from her chest out to her arms and through her fingertips, I held her. 

For more than an hour she poured her story, their story, into me. We passed two hours and a dozen cigarettes. Though sometimes hard to understand through her accent and her tears, we occasionally enjoyed those priceless laughs that come through unstoppable tears and remind you it won’t always be that bad. And I thought. It had been fewer than two weeks since I had arrived on Tioman. In any other world, Veronica would be a perfect stranger. But here, on my bed, smoking cigarettes in our underwear, we had known each other for ages. And though there was a tragedy here that brought Veronica and I closer that night, I realized the more important piece: there are no real boundaries keeping any of us apart. 

The thing about traveling to remote places, far removed from the plethora of overwhelmingly unnecessary Western conveniences, is that instead of being busy driving places and calling people on your way to meeting other people, making plans for next week, next month, next year, all you do is talk to each other. So perhaps back in D.C. it takes months to know a person: to pull them out of the structured comfort of their familiar, to infiltrate a circle of friends that is longer and stronger than you, to learn those little details that matter more than the big ones. But when you are a traveler, and to be honest I’m not exactly sure when I became one, these connections are easy, and strong, and slowly transcend any other experiences as the ones that define you. 

We each come to these places indelibly tattooed with our families and educations, our loves, tragedies, and disappointments, which are simultaneously the chains that weighted us to the ground back home and the gusts that blew us away. We struggle to grow against it all, while knowing that without these things we couldn’t have become who we are. And so you learn these little caverns in those you meet. You try to navigate your way through their hearts, the same as your own, and in those explorations between open souls, as narrow and cobwebbed as they can be, is where we find love with another person. And when we let ourselves forget about all the other things in our life that seem so important, we can end up finding that love almost everywhere we look. 

I came to Tioman to relax on a beach. I left Tioman with a better understanding of why we are here on this earth. I left remembering that human connection is the only thing that really matters in the long run: the friends we make, the people we love, the strangers we help. So thank you, Tioman, terima kasih for reminding me what it, what everything, is all about: love.