When you travel long enough with the right person, a bond forms so tight that not even the Large Hadron Collider could split it apart. Sometimes that person is the one you got on a plane with from the very beginning, sometimes you meet this person totally by chance on an island so small you can’t find it on most paper maps. To understand how impossible this story is, how the universe could only have been paying attention to only two people on this one particular night, we must first go back to the very beginning of how I met Marika.
After a month and a half backpacking through Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand, it was finally time to say goodbye to my travel partner and childhood friend Will. His last day with me was on the island of Kho Phi Phi in Thailand. I had already checked off two items on my bucket list that very day. One was to go to Maya Bay which I had been wanting to visit since I saw the movie The Beach. We hopped off our boat and swam to the beach, and along the way saw sharks, successfully checking off the second item on my bucketlist completely by surprise: to swim with sharks.
It was already the best day of my life, which is probably why a song came to my head, lyrics and all, completely out of nowhere. I played the song for hours on my guitar with Will jamming along in our two-bed hostel private room. I don’t know how I did it, but it was the single best song I’d ever written. It was the only song I’ve ever written that I’ve truly been proud of and had the urge to show other people. After playing the song on repeat a few dozen times, we decided to grab a couple beers and call it a night since Will had a long flight home the next day. The next day would also be my first day ever travelling alone in my life.
As we exited our hostel room, sitting around a circular table outside were three Swedish girls smoking cigarettes and chatting. They had been listening to us the whole time and they asked us to play our song for them. That’s when I first saw Marika. Marika was clearly not traveling with these two other girls. As the other two girls were taking selfies and Snapchatting us playing for them, Marika was just listening in silence and feeling the music. As she took a puff from her cigarette, I noticed she had a music note tattooed on her wrist. Something told me her and I would get along.
We spent the rest of the night together, just her and I, talking on the beach, making up games, drinking Chang beers, and eating toasties from 711. Around 4 am we were already comfortable enough with each other for her to suggest that we have sex on one of the long tail boats floating on the shore. We searched the beach for an hour trying to find one that didn’t have any locals hovering around it. Unfortunately, we could not find one that night, but I was not disappointed because I knew there was no way I wasn’t going to be with this girl.
We made plans to hang out the next day but horrible wifi reception sent my messages to her into the abyss. We were supposed to travel to the island of Koh Tao together, but without being able to get ahold of her, I went by myself in total disappointment. She made it to Koh Tao a few days after I did, totally confused because she thought I never contacted her. Slightly hurt by my digital silence, she spent a few days making friends while I did the same on the other side of the island. I finally ran into her on a pub crawl, but by then it was too late. The English girl I had met a few days before was hanging off me like a necklace, and I saw Marika disappear into the night with another guy. I’ll never forget how I felt seeing them walk away. How could I let this girl get away twice?? Now she’s with someone else, thinks I ignored her, and saw me with another girl. These may be “vacation problems,” but I for some reason felt feelings for Marika even though it was against everything I wanted when I started the trip. I didn’t want to fall in love again while traveling. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of saying goodbye.
Fast-forward a month to the island of Koh Rong. By this time, Marika and I had been traveling together since a couple days after that pub crawl night on Koh Tao. We talked everything over and decided to travel together as friends. Friends turned into special friends. Special friends turned into a travel couple. The idea that we were just a travel couple started to tear me apart. Over the past month, we got the same tattoo together in Chiang Mai, watched the sunrise at Angkor Wat, cried at the killing fields in Pnom Penh, jammed songs with me on guitar and her on the ukulele in our hippie hut in Pai, and she met my best friend Lee in Bangkok. The clock was ticking towards the day of her flight home, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to let her go. Every night I held her tighter and tighter hoping somehow that would slow down time.
One night on Koh Rong we decided to make right what we couldn’t do on the island of Phi Phi: have sex in a long tail boat. Koh Rong is an island off the coast of Cambodia. It is tiny: you can walk the whole thing in a matter of a couple hours. It is stock computer desktop background gorgeous. The sand is white, the locals are friendly, and the seafood BBQ is fresh and only $3 for a giant plate. It was already paradise. We set the alarm for 3 am so we could sneak out into the night to find the perfect boat to rock. We were both pretty grumpy with only a few hours of sleep, and I almost called the whole thing off when Marika got impatient with me taking my time brushing my teeth and getting ready. It’s hard to get in the mood when you force yourself to, but we decided to just get it done to cross it off our list.
We walked along the beach in search of the right secluded little boat, but every time we thought we found the perfect one, paranoia would set in as we saw drunk tourists stumbling and mumbling far off in the background. At one point, we could swear some wasted guy was following us. I got into “protection” mode, making sure she was safe and forgetting about the boat entirely. Successfully ditching him, we ran into a very bizarre sight: some crazy drunk girl on her hands and knees in the ocean water, barely visible in the darkness, crawling and then getting up to do some type of thriller dance. We were a little scared and confused, and definitely not very horny at this point. Not one to give up, I took her hand and walked her to the very end of the beach away from all the discord of the tourists stumbling to their rooms after a night out at the bars. The boat thing definitely wasn’t going to happen, but since we were on a paradise island and were already up, I figured we might as well do it on the beach.
We found the perfect spot to lay down just before the sand turns into a forest and the only light shining on us was from the moon. Making love on the beach is usually better in theory, even in paradise. It took while to ignore all the sand scratching our rubbing bodies and getting in our mouths as we kissed. Finally, we were in that magical state of love-making where you are truly in the moment and nothing else in the world matters. We could have been surrounded by cops, nuns, and our parents but we wouldn’t have even noticed. The only times we took our eyes off each other was to look out into the ocean, because far off in the distance lightning began to dance towards us.
Just as we got into that state of silent after sex cuddling before any words are spoken, rain started falling on our naked bodies in the sand. We laughed about how we just beat the rain, but then it started coming down. Not one to let that spoil the moment, I took her by the hand and ran with her into the ocean water. I figured we were already naked, why not go for a skinny dip and kiss in the rain? As we splashed and laughed in the water with the rain ensuring we were as wet as possible and the lightning flashing in the sky like a strobe light, I noticed tiny little neon green specks sparkling and falling off Marika’s skin. Looking at myself I see that I am also covered in tiny lights that appeared the more I moved around in the water. It was the bioluminescent plankton! Having been so caught up in the moment, we forgot that we were in a part of the world where tiny plankton inhabit the ocean and glow green when disturbed to scare away predators. Actually swimming with these little guys was on both of our bucket lists, and checking it off could not have come at a better moment. We looked at each other in disbelief as it started to hit us what was actually happening. We played with the phosphorescent dots for a minute, throwing them in the air while looking at the lightning getting closer, the rain disturbing the top of the water around us allowing the plankton to show off for us even more. Then we kissed. Then we held each other even tighter and kissed even more. With the moonlight shining off her green eyes and the plankton dripping off of us like some sort of alien sweat from another planet, she said the words. Not the words you’re thinking of, but they were all I needed to hear to know what she wanted to say. She said: “I like you so much!” It was clear why she couldn’t really say it; why she decided to use the word like instead of love. The uncertainty of our future, the fact that we’d only known each other for a month, the question of whether or not we were just falling each other because of the bond traveling makes between two people. I didn’t care. I’m less careful than her and I knew what I was feeling. I wasn’t going to let a moment like that go to waste. There was a pause of about 5 seconds after she spoke that seemed like an eternity as I drew up the courage to say “I love you”. She said “I love you too” right back to me and laughed because that’s what she wanted to tell me but was too scared.
We stood there naked in the ocean kissing in between the freedom of finally saying “I love you” over and over again. That’s when the crack of thunder and lighting was suddenly as in sync as our embrace. The sky was lighting up like paparazzi camera flashes all around us. We were in danger. We had one last kiss willing to die at that moment before we ran as fast as we could to the sand to find shelter.
An hour later the storm subsided and we watched the sun rise on the beach with a fresh cup of coffee and a hand rolled cigarette. What happened already seemed like a dream and only added more to the pile of questions regarding our future, but we didn’t talk about those. We simply watched the local children play in the sand and the fishermen untie their boats for the morning catch. We were on a tiny island in Cambodia together and that’s all that mattered at that very moment in time.