I have a million experiences to share this last year, but there is one that keeps me awake at night. It’s not as adventurous as climbing the Khongor sand dune in Mongolia, and not as exciting as running from a landslide in China. But this seemingly common interaction is forever burned into my waking moments and is the basis as to why I will fight for this travel life until my last breath.
Her name is Chantell. Or, so I think. Embarrassingly enough she didn’t speak much English and I don’t speak much Thai. When I asked her name, this is what I heard and I came up with the spelling myself.
So yes, I don’t even know how to spell her name, but meeting this woman wasn’t coincidence and our connection is beyond my comprehension.
I’ll try my best to explain…
We’ve been in Thailand for over 4 months, we lived and laughed in Bangkok, got educated about elephants in the North, and were in LOVE with everything Thailand. There is a reason this is one of the most tourist-ed places on the earth. I can sing it’s praises forever but that’s for another time. Anyway, we were in Chiang Mai which is in the north and decided to work our way down to the islands in the south, specifically to the island of Koh Lanta. On the way to this island, we took our time and rode the train to a place called ‘Cha Am’ - this place sucks, don’t go there. But 20 minutes down the road from that hell-hole is 'Hua Hin’. This unremarkable place was a vast improvement to Cha Am so after we found a cheap place to sleep for the night, we found ourselves sun bathing on this beach with thousands of old, oiled up Europeans. I remember it being unusually hot this day and we didn’t eat lunch so when my stomach growled I sat up and scanned the beach hoping to find something cheap and fulfilling. Instead, I saw a cute woman with a styrofoam box selling ice cream. She was covered head to toe even under the murderous UV rays, as all Thai woman are to keep their skin white but there was something about her specifically, something in her eyes that told me to engage when all I wanted to do moments before was sit there in peace and be left alone. She went down the line and asked every single person if they would like to buy something, so I waited for my turn - for her to ask me. When she did, I pointed to a purple Popsicle and said 'song’ (meaning two in Thai). One for me, one for Noah.
She liked that I used a Thai word and sat down under the palm tree with me. She wasn’t even sweating. She asked me where I was from and when I said 'America’ she was surprised and pointed to everyone else on the beach and said 'Europe’ I laughed and said, “I know, I bet you don’t get many Americans here” she shook her head 'no’. I asked her name and she smiled and said, “Chantell, and you?” I told her my name and then in true Asian fashion she asked me, “You have baby?” I shook my head but asked her the same and she put up 3 fingers. Normally, when a vendor sits to chat with you, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. There is always another angle (I don’t blame them) but you get jaded after awhile and just want them to get to the point or flat out ask you for the money. This felt different though. I knew she would never tell me a story about her struggling family that ended in a plea for money, she genuinely just wanted to sit and chat and I was glad for that, I just wanted to sit with her too. Her presence was instantly calming when I didn’t even realize I was still tensed up from the mishap of Cha Am and before I knew it, my ice cream was gone so I ordered another from her.
We chatted some more using small phrases, nothing earth shattering, no talk of politics, or our purpose here on Earth. Just pleasantries under a swaying palm.
After her quick break, she got up and we said our goodbyes.
I would spend 4 more nights here in Hua Hin and saw her each day, buying two ice creams at a time. She called me her friend and when we parted, we gave each other a quick hug and she went off towards the line of tourists and I went the other way exploring the rest of Hua Hin. It became a fun little routine we developed. My day began with an ice cream and a quick chat with her and I would seek her out in the evening for a chat, hug and dessert.
Then, on day 3 something happened that I will never forget for as long as I live. We were traveling with 2 British friends we met on the train from Chiang Mai, Noah and I usually seek out a lonely palm tree for shade on the beach but on this day the 4 of us decided to pool our money together to purchase beach chairs with umbrellas. We sat there for hours laughing and having a great time with the crashing waves as our soundtrack when I spot Chantell and called out to her. “My Friend!” she shouts back and comes over to where we’re all sitting. Then she does something I don’t expect. She touches her heart and says, “My friend” then begins to give out ice cream (2 a piece!) to all 4 of us! We take out money and she refuses to take it. I don’t understand and insist she takes our money but she refuses again and is putting her hand over her heart, pointing to me.
What an amazing gesture. A giving soul, a beautiful gift.
And then she kneels in front of me and her calloused hands are holding mine and she stared into my eyes and didn’t let go.
She looked right through me.
Time stopped and the waves were silenced.
I felt like I had no where to hide, everything I am and keep only for myself was all laid bare to her. She saw my faults, my ego, my fears and my passions. I was embarrassed and ashamed but she loved me just the same. She smiled a familiar smile that I’ve known all my life and I began to feel my eyes swell with tears just as hers did. I wasn’t scared and I wasn’t sad, I was being wrapped in love.
Pure, wordless, ancient love.
She held my face in her hands, softly kissed my cheeks and wiped away my tears. I never wanted to leave this moment. I was hers. I was safe, I was finally home.
It could have been 30 seconds or 30 minutes, but the sound of the ocean waves started to roar back into my ears and I can’t fully remember but I think she finally broke the gaze and just gave me a warm hug. We both were crying, but we weren’t a sobbing mess so it was easy to pull ourselves together and acknowledge the boys who sat and saw the whole scene play out. Just like we have before, we said our goodbyes and we went our separate ways. I didn’t participate much in conversation with the rest of the group as I was trying to wrap my head around what happened between me and Chantell and desperately wanted to go back to that time and place that I knew neither of us would ever reach again.
The feeling of deja vu wouldn’t leave me, and my heart started to ache as I knew that tomorrow would be our last day in Hua Hin. I would have to say goodbye which is never an easy task any way, but this one really stung.
I thought of all the things I wanted to say to her, but knew that everything was already said in that moment we shared so I settled on buying her a card and enclosed it with a U.S. dollar as a token from her American friend, a currency she doesn’t get to see too often.
I had my hostel translate my thoughts:
ขอขอบคุณสำหรับทุกสิ่งทุกอย่าง ผมจะไม่มีวันลืมคุณ ฉันรักคุณ
“thank you for everything. I will never forget you. I love you.”
The next day, I looked for her:
I’ve met Chantell before, I don’t understand where or when but we’ve been in each other’s presence long before that shady palm. There are things in this world that cannot be explained and in my life, this is one of them. Despite my initial fear of the “great, big, bad, scary world” travelling has made this possible and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to connect and in some cases, reconnect with people from all over the world.
I don’t speak Thai, and she didn’t speak much English. Love is our common language.