Today is the day. Today, I will become a man. Actually, that’s not true. I’m female. But the point is clear: Today is the day I will challenge my fear and self-reliance, to venture into the unknown without a plan. I must survive, throwing all inhibitions to the wind, foraging into the mysterious – alone, braving untamed jungles, wild animals and sweaty-toothed savages – emerging with courage gained; courage earned. Today is the day.
I awoke to the brilliance of sunlight gleaming its first morning rays into my bamboo Thai bungalow. I had arrived to the island of Koh Phangan two days before, gliding over on a colorful ribboned long-tail boat, an adventurous traveler in search of the unfamiliar. This island, a welcome jump away from the resort infested isle of Koh Samui, reflected my visions of pure, natural simplicity. Like a dream, Whynam Beach is far away from the full moon party madness of Haad Rin, where soft breezes whisper tranquility over a secluded thread of caramel colored sands and turquoise waters.
It was from here that my solitary adventure began. Smiling, exuberant and shiny clean, I set off into the jungles in hunt for adventure. I easily identified the small sandy trail leading into the dense green rain forest. It invited me into its thick vegetation like an old, welcoming friend. A slight curve along the gently sloping trail led me upwards onto the cliffs, with a sea view so breathtaking, I almost cried. Sunlight sparkled from the heavens onto shimmering crystal waters of turquoise and blue, which fanned out from the secluded bay and crashed its white foam upon the giant rocks of the sea. Enormous green mountains, carpeted with gently waving trees of coconut and cashew palms, towered above. Into this mysterious, thriving interior, I entered.
I weaved my way along my trusted little trail, whistling happily while passing looming palms, and spying gargantuan lizards from the tops of flattened rocks. The echoing calls of jungle animals resonated through the hot air, as a cooling mist descended from the canopy of green upon the moist earth. Out of the blue, deep within the interior of the forest, it began to rain. It poured – whirlwinds – in what was previously a peaceful refuge of blissful tranquility, bouncing from palm to palm as if it had a mind and a vengeance of its own. It whipped my hair around my head in a tornado, creating what would soon be a beautiful nested retreat for the birds, now in hiding. For me, though, there was no retreat, no refuge, no shelter. Had I lost my way? The thick palms became impenetrable. It was then, deep in the jungle with the rain pouring down my neck like a water hose, that I knew I was in trouble.
Feel no fear, my mind shouted. Overcome the challenge. Like a mad person, I screamed out into the whipping wind, proclaiming my strength of courage. I was bound to become one with this great spontaneous storm; bound to overcome anything that came my way. With that sudden determination, the rain stopped. Immediately, the sun started shining its warm rays upon the glistening green. The sweet, joyful chirping of little birds filled the air. They dived and soared among the treetops. Did that just happen? If I hadn’t been soaked through (and if those birds weren’t so busy trying to penetrate my hair), I would’ve thought I was hallucinating; a little trick played by Mother Nature. This, I realized, is what I love about Thailand – the most unimaginable things happen when they’re least expected.
I was still deep within the palms. My trail was hopelessly lost, and so, I recognized with a conceding laugh, was I. I figured that if I continued into the jungle without any sense of direction, I would end up in Vietnam. There was no turning back, for the sole reason that I didn’t know where “back” was. I stood, a tiny animal stuck in the middle of an unfamiliar rainforest, a babe lost in the woods. I was completely relying on my own survival skills – as I had asked.
I figured my best bet was to follow the shoreline. I could trust the direction of the coast, which would lead me to another beach where a faithful, steadfast long-tail boat would be floating innocently on shore, decorated profusely and awaiting my arrival. Confidently I set off. My happy whistling echoed through the forest behind me. I could hear the alluring sounds of crashing waves, of swishing waters that I knew must be warm and welcoming to the touch, loving and soothing. I broke into a run, deliriously happy to reach the shoreline, where I knew sweet salvation was mine. There I stopped short.
Massive, monolithic rocks protruded like the teeth of mountains jutting out from the sea. This dangerously rocky barrier seemed to laugh in the face of my fallen hope, boasting that I could not conquer the magnitude nor the magnificence of Mother Nature. Far off in the distance, a gleaming strip of sand shimmered like a ribbon of caramel taffy. It was my only hope.
I leaped onto the first rock and into the face of danger. No problem. I was here, without the knowledge of a soul, to prove my strength of spirit, my invincibility. One monster tooth down, a million to go. I bounded across sea and sky. My self-assurance swelled as I hurdled confidently from one stone to another. I leapt. I dove. I soared through the air. Hour upon hour, I seized any trace of fear and squished it with my resolved courage. This was my challenge, my adventure. Crashing waves smashed angrily onto the rocks, straining to swallow me, but failing to claim me. Into the blue, I shouted. I will not be taken! I was the world’s greatest acrobat.
As if in answer, I heard the fiendish laughter of Nature yet again. It echoed across the empty space that lingered before me – an empty space that stood as my last hurdle, my last hope to survive this arduous test and to emerge alive. Four horribly extensive meters separated me from the closest protruding rock. My body ached. My heart ached. Biting my lip, I stood motionless as I deliberated. The sun was lower in the sky. Could I go back? Could I swim? Could I wait for an imaginary, lone fisherman out in the waters to hear my cries and come rescue me? Each option equaled suicide. If I held even a sliver of hope to live, I had only one chance. JUMP.
And so I thought about my mom and dad, my brother and sister. How long would it be before my broken body would be found? Would someone be kind enough to email my friends and tell them I had perished in such a courageous way? The relentless sea crashed upon the rocks again, breaking my stupor and pushing its command to jump. It was now or never.
Breathing deeply in preparation, I bolted from my runner’s stance to push my soles from the edge of the jagged rock, and through the open air of time and space. My body flew. Time transcended into slow-motion. With a sudden powerful smack, I grasped the rocky face just below its pointing peak. Holy Bonsai! I did it! Like a desperate spider monkey clinging to safety, I prayed for life. A smaller, flatter rock lay waiting two more meters to the right. But I couldn’t release. Ions passed. Limbs went numb. Fingers slipped. And there, hanging with tired desperation, I began to pray for a swift death. With a tilt of my head, I saw Nature’s eager response: the mother of all waves. It grew high in its volume; it swelled to the sky. Like the great open mouth of an angry tidal wave, it rose itself to swallow me, the little bug I was.
Life has a tricky sense of humor. It stretches you to your limits until you’ve gained just enough courage to do the incredible. So it was for me. I breathed. With strength of body and soul, and with a defiant gladiator’s scream, I catapulted myself into the air – the slow motion view of a girl insane, wild hair flying, crazed unwavering eyes, limbs outstretched to grasp life, to grasp the mountain, to grasp anything.
A thud notified me that I had landed. Laying motionless, I released a long breath of exhaustion. I had overcome. I was burning. The heat bore into my bruised and bloody body, initiating a desperate haste to escape from the cruelty of the rocks. With a few more bounces and leaps, I flew towards the smooth sands of the deserted beach below. When my feet touched solid ground, I almost wept. Whispering gratitude to the Universe for my safe arrival, I took in my surroundings. From one end to the other, only the gleaming sands of a silky caramel beach existed, soft turquoise waters gently licking its shore. Such beauty! I stood in a scene of liquid diamonds kissing glistening grains of maple sugar. A glance to my right – no one. A glimpse to my left – not a soul. That was all the motivation I needed: the clothes came off.
As my skin touched sea, I melted. The relief of cool water on my nakedness almost undid me. It seemed I was liquefying into the waters of ecstasy. Sated and dripping, I sprawled myself onto the shoreline – the lustrous sands and setting sun kissing my skin in arduous passion. Finally, relief. Time stretched. I would’ve melted into a languid sleep, only to be lost in the deep abyss, forever. In the darkness of my eyelids I could see the flashing headline now: “NEWS ALERT: Dead naked girl found on the deserted shores of southern Thai island…” With a sigh of frustrated surrender, I donned my now ragged, blood-stained clothes and went in search for life.
I found it at the other end of the beach, past a skeleton bungalow obviously chosen as the unfortunate recipients of a small hurricane. I greeted them with a smile and a bow, hands clasped in prayer, as is the Thai custom. The older, more formidable one was a tall muscular man, about 30 years of age, resembling a malnutrition Muay Thai boxer. The smaller Thai, around 19, smiled a semi-toothless smile as he puffed on smoky marijuana rolled in paper-thin leaves. I looked at the older one.
“I”, pointing a solitary finger to my chest, “am Shannon. Shan-non”. I smiled. He didn’t. I asked his name three times until I understood his monotonous expression of irritation: STOP ASKING.
After numerous attempts at conversation, to explain my dire circumstances, I finally understood that Mr. Friendly was about to trek back through the jungle to Whynam Beach. Choruses of hallelujah rang through my head. I trailed him like the ugly duckling trying to catch up with its mother.
From the initial opening of a tiny leaf covered trail, we marched up into the mountain, trudging past hordes of towering palms and across moist terrain, still wet from the storm. Animals called through the forest as we pushed our way through the green abundance. Smells of wet earth, lush vegetation and balmy air filled my senses. Relentlessly, I stuck steady with my silent guide while he stuck constant to the ever mysterious pathway. And then, with a blast of fresh air, we emerged from the brush into the fading light of dusk. It was home. Home.
Mentally, I yelped with joy; physically, I held my head high. Leaping with joyfulness was something I would’ve done 11 hours ago – eleven whole hours that had stretched out into eternity, pushing my limits, straining my nerves, challenging my sanity and spitting me out an unsung hero. Chin high and body bruised, I stepped forward into the fading light of the setting sun. A humble pride swelled within me as I thanked the Thai gods for this challenging, inspirational journey into fearlessness. And when I turned to thank my Thai warrior who had escorted me back to reality, he was gone.