News from afar

Posted by Darrel Bristow-Bovey on 26 January 2018

The great thing about travelling is leaving your life behind. But sometimes it can bring you back to life.

The call came as I walked back from the beach, pushing a bicycle I’d rented for the week. I was on a narrow strip of road with long grass growing on the edges, and on my left was a rice paddy and a water buffalo and beyond it a small house with red walls.

When I go away I tell my family not to call should anything bad happen at home. Some people want to know the moment bad things happen but I do not. When I was nine my father died at 3am and the hospital called my mother. I remember lying in bed listening to my mother’s voice on the telephone, then listening to her cry. I didn’t understand why they didn’t wait for the sun and give her one more night without a broken heart.

When I go away I like to pretend that it’s the 19th century and I can’t be reached except by letter. I don’t want to spend part of my trip grieving or sad or wondering whether I should fly home; there is plenty of time in the rest of life for that. Usually I don’t even take my phone with me, but this time I did, and it was on, and as I pushed my bike to my rented cottage in Phuket with no shirt on and my hair still wet with the Andaman Sea, it rang, and someone at home told me my friend had died.

Being in a faraway place when you hear news like that is like being in a theatre with the curtains up when the house lights come on. The spell is broken. The magic flees. The sets in front of you seem cheap and fake and the people seem suddenly pale and unconvincing.

I wanted to be even more intensely present as a kind of tribute to my friend, to live for him, to experience the things he couldn’t experience any more, but I couldn’t. Everything felt distant and dull. I wasn’t there; I wasn’t anywhere. I went back to the beach because I didn’t know where else to go. I sat and looked at the sea and the bay of Nai Harn and the green bluffs and the hazy low clouds like islands, and I tried to talk to myself but the words didn’t feel real.

The sun went down from a gold sky into a gold sea and the corrugations and footprints on the beach became defined with shadow on the landward side. I remembered him, but hazily, as though the memory of him was already fading. I thought about calling someone but I didn’t know who and I didn’t know what to say.

The night came and I sat there and felt the sand cooling under my feet. Some stars came out and then faded again behind the clouds. The world felt fake to me. It felt drab and empty and there were no surprises in it and there was no joy. I may as well go home – there was no point in being here now. I would go back to the rented cottage, and then I would fly home and after that I didn’t know.

But as I pushed my bicycle back along the narrow road in the blackness, I saw a tiny light, and then another one, and another. They were brighter than stars, and warmer, and they weren’t above me, they were below. Some of them were gold, some were green. I had never seen fireflies before. I stopped and stared and as I did, something broke inside and the world came back to me, beautiful and frightening and unexpected, and I remembered my friend, very clearly, and I knew where I was and I knew that I was still alive.


This story appears in the February issue of Getaway magazine.

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Our February issue features 12 of the best tented-camps around the country, fun-filled water adventures in Northern KZN, Madagascar by motorbike plus a guide to finding everyday magic in underrated Lisbon.