The deck shudders under my feet as the hull of the ferry slams against another wave. Neesha squeezes my hand. Out the window, the rain-blurred horizon pitches at wild angles. My stomach rolls in a different direction.
We are sitting at the back end on the lower deck of small ferry taking us from Lanta Island to Phuket. This is apparently the best location to minimise sea sickness, but the number of green-hued faces around us say otherwise.
The engine hums as it pushes us through waves too big for the boat. The smell of Gasoline fills the air.
We crash into another wave and the deck shakes against my shoes. The troop of cocky lads from London, who’d boarded with their caps on backwards and swaggered right to the front of the boat, stop laughing and put on life jackets.
When we arrived, we knew it might rain. We knew there may be storms.
After all, it was low season in Ko Lanta, or green season as the locals prefer, and the cost of being there vastly reduced as a consequence.
But the large swathes of trash on the beach were a surprise. Our first walk along the beach felt like a post-apocalyptic scene, a tale of two lone survivors amidst the wreckage of human excess. Under a golden pink sunset, we dodged mounds plastic bottles and broken fishing nets, forgotten toothbrushes and small ziplock baggies.
A local explained that this was a “natural” phenomenon of sorts: in the low season the tides sweep all the trash onto the beach, and in the high season it reverses and sweeps it all back to sea.
“There’s a clean up effort, it’s called Trash Heroes,” she told us, “You can join in, if you like.”
That Sunday afternoon we found ourselves wearing white gardening gloves, holding heavy duty black garbage bags.
We’d been comparing notes at the ridiculous things we’d found.
“Look at this,” Neesha said, holding a small green oval between white-gloved fingers, smiling.
I leaned in, squinting. A tiny green toy boat.
“That’s ironic,” I had said, “shipwrecked on the beach.”
Neesha rolled her eyes. “Dad jokes? Already?”
My bad joke seems worse now.
The boat pitches left and throws the young blond woman angling for the bathroom into the arms of another traveller, who rights her. Her blond hair is bedraggled and damp and frames a round, child-like face, eyes wide, lips set in a line. She stumbles on, approaching our seat. I notice she’s wearing baggy, traveller-chic trousers with an elephant pattern, distinctly Thai. The crotch of the trousers hangs low and swings pendulously as she walks, demonstrating the reason for their nickname: shitswingers.
She must on a gap year. Making memories.
My stomach clenches and I start to count my breaths. Inhale, one, exhale, two. Like my meditation app says. Let the feelings and thoughts come and go.
A sense of nausea lurks just beneath a calm veneer.
Gap Year bounces off another seat then grabs hold of the toilet door. She waits a few beats as the boat slams against another wave. Then she shoves it once, twice, each time it croaks open half a meter. I admire her fortitude. She hasn’t puked on the door, or on us, or on anybody else. I look over my shoulder through the stubborn sliding door and into the toilet as she steps through. Inside, a dirty water dipper floats in a red bucket, ready for the customary Thai Toilet Flush – dip some water, pour it down the bowl. The bucket is half full, sloshing in opposite direction to the waves and onto the floor. There’s a window, slightly ajar, rain slanting in.
I turn away. It looks like the last place I want to be right now, sick or not. She shoves the door shut in three half-meter heaves.
Neesha looks up at me, lips turned slightly down, eyes pinched at the corners, and says “Do you have a plastic bag?”
I squeeze her hand. “No, I don’t.”
The stairs clatter behind us. A Thai man, one of the crew, barrels down the stairs. He smiles and his dark face widens in two, his lips open and reveal a half a mouthful of teeth browned from too much smoking.
He looks like the happiest man on this boat. A shining ray of hope.
I wave at him and he tips is head toward me, still smiling.
Maybe he knows that we won’t capsize. Or maybe it’s his first day.
“Do you have a sick bag?” I ask.
He nods and pulls two from his back pocket. He holds one out to me and puts the other back. My left hand is glued to Neesha’s, so I reach across and take it in my right hand, then pass it to her. She takes it, then holds it pressed against her thigh, looking straight ahead.
From behind the toilet door, the jagged sound of retching. I reach into my pocket for the small black pouch that holds my headphones, unzip the pouch and start fiddling with the stupid adapter that connects to the lightning thing to the iPhone.
More retching, this time louder, drier.
I open Spotify and scroll through my playlists, choosing “Have a Great Day!” Hoping for a pick me up.
Hall and Oates start singing about making dreams come true.
The sun had started to set over the beach during clean up day when I found a fishing net tangled in a tree stump. I tugged at it but it was tangled in tight. I found a shell and started sawing at the thread with my right hand, pulling the thread with my left.
“How does this netting end up here, so tangled?” I said. The thread snapped but the net still held. I began sawing another thread.
One of the clean up organisers, working through a mound of plastic bottles nearby, heard and replied. “Well, boats capsize and sink quite often out here.”
“Oh?” I said. I stopped sawing.
“Yeah,” she continued, “It can be bad in green season. Two weeks ago we had organised a clean up day for the children, but we almost cancelled it because of that big boat that sunk.”
“There was a tourist boat, it went out in bad weather. And then it capsized. About thirty people died. It was horrible.”
“Oh my god. That’s terrible!”
“It is, but unfortunately it happens,” she said as she shrugged. “Thai safety standards aren’t good. And the weather in the low season is so difficult to predict.”
I stood up and looked out at the ocean. Small, tufty clouds, blushing pink and orange, floated in above gently rolling waves. A woman walked along the hard wet sand, a dog trotting in front of her. I tried to picture the scene differently. Wild waves, bucking ships to and fro. Dark horizons hidden with rain.
I turned back to the lady. “But wait, why did you almost cancel the clean up?”
“We didn’t want the children to find any dead bodies.”
I look out the window of the ferry. I don’t know enough about boat accidents to know the best ways to avoid becoming a dead body on a beach. But I am determined for us both not to become one.
I pull my phone out my pock and hold it flat in front of me, top pointing to the front of the boat. I open Google Maps. It shows us as a dark blue dot in the middle of a light blue swatch of ocean. The dot wears a hat, a blue arrow that points north and past Phi Phi Island, where we’ll be changing boat. I rotate the phone, coaxing the little hat to rotate with me. I stop when the arrow points to the island and my phone is pointing to the front left of the boat.
I lean toward Neesh. “That’s the way to land,” I say, pointing in in the same direction as the little blue hat. “If the boat goes over, try to remember that.”
She looks at my phone and back up at me, then nods.
Creating a plan has a calming effect, even though I suspect it’s probably placebo. If something did happen it was going to happen quickly, and it probably would not matter what bearings we took now.
“We’ll grab two life jackets each and get out as quickly as possible. Then we swim that way.” I waggle my finger.
Neesha nods again, staring straight ahead.
The man across the row from us is vomiting in a bag. His jaw works up and down. It looks like he’s chewing backwards. He makes no sound, and I can’t smell anything except gasoline.
The Gap Year girl lies down on the seat in front of us. She holds that position for twenty seconds or so, then sits up, holding a plastic bag that hangs taut with the weight of previous use. She opens it and retches again and again. Nothing comes out.
Four or five rows up from us another woman is vomiting. Then one of the laughing lads from London has joined in. It’s spreading, like an unwelcome yawn.
Neesha is holding my hand so tightly it hurts. I unglue her hand from mine and stretch my wrist. She grabs my thigh.
Out the window, the light suddenly brightens, as if someone has opened a curtain. I look out the window and see the rain back off and the horizon retreating to a healthy distance.
“Hey. See that? I think the rain is stopping.” I say.
“MNNN.” She says, looking ahead.
“Yeah. I really think it is getting better. Bout fucking time.”
The steps behind us clatter as a staff member runs down into the boat and yells “Phuket! Phuket!” He jabs a finger at us and some other passengers, then points up the stairs repeating, “Phuket!”
“What’s going on?” Neesh asks.
“I don’t know, I think we need to go upstairs.”
“Let’s get off at Phi Phi,” Neesh says, “I can’t stay on a boat any longer.
I turn to ask the man. “Can we stay here on Phi Phi?”
He cocks his head and looks at me, blank. I try again, a little more slowly. No dice. Another passenger walks up the aisle and explains, “The way it usually works is, if you’re going to Phuket you need to change boat. We’re going up and they’ll transfer our bags and we jump across.”
“Oh. Thanks,” I say, and he starts walking up the stairs. I turn to Neesh. “I think we should head up anyway, in case they throw our bags and we don’t have time to tell them we want to stay here.”
She looks at me for a second, then nods, despondent.
We walk up the stairs and look around. There’s blue sky overhead, and calm waters around us. A large boat, maybe four times the size of the one we’re on, floats just to the left of the boat we’re on, and a few hundred meters behind the ferry Phi Phi Island rises up from the ocean.
The boats are sliding toward each other. Wiry brown men in dark overalls and plaid shirts stand on the sides of each boat, shouting in Thai as they manoeuvre.
“Alright, I guess that’s our boat.”
Neesha hangs her head and frowns. “I don’t want to get on another boat.”
“Me neither, but this one is bigger. And the ocean seems calm now. Hopefully it’ll be better…”
I’m not sure I believe myself.
Whoever is driving the boat flings the engine into reverse. There’s lots of shouting in Thai as the boats align. A belt buckle floats into view at eye level, golden and oval and cowboy-esque in the newly arrived sun. I look up at it’s owner: a Thai man with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, standing on the deck of the larger boat and swinging a thick rope. One, two, three swings and he lobs it over the gap. One of our crew standing below catches the rope and winds it around his wiry arm before leaning away from the edge, pulling the boats together. The gap between the boats narrows and closes.
The men on our boat start picking up pieces of luggage from the back of our boat, taking them to the edge and then heaving them over the gap. They’re stronger than they look; the bags sail up and over the deck of the other boat and into the hands of the other vessel’s crew, who catch them and efficiently stack them among the other bags. They work quickly, and suddenly I realise that’s Neesha’s green backpack sailing through the air and onto the other boat.
Neesha has seen it too and looks at me. “I guess we just get it over with, then?”
I watch as it takes two men to lift my bag and they one-two-heave it over.
“I think they’ve decided for us.”
Someone has lowered a plank to cover the gap for the passengers, and we’re lined up single file to use it. Two crew on either side of the gap hover at elbows as passengers step up and across. Presently it’s our turn and we step up and over.
The larger boat better deserves to be called a Ferry; it’s upper deck is bright and airy and the lower deck seats four times as many passengers. We sit at the back again, hoping to minimise sea sickness. The fresh air has done us some good and we take our seats, hoping that this ride might be better.
And it was. Marginally.
After leaving the calm waters around Phi Phi, the waves picked up again. The larger craft still shuddered when it lifted off the crest of one wave and slammed into the other. My seasickness continued to lurk. Neesha held my hand like a vice, but her open-eyed fear was replaced by a closed-eye hunched posture as she fought back nausea. A young Australian traveler took pity and offered her an anti nausea tablet, which she took, and her grip on my hand loosened slightly. I listened to Freakonomics Radio – I think it was an interview with Lance Armstrong, or something about the business of sports. Anything to take my brain as far as possible from the waves and wind and thoughts of past ships and previous passengers lost at sea.
About an hour and a half later the boat arrived at Phuket Island. We staggered across the wooden gangplank and onto a grey concrete pier and stood aside for a moment, letting the crowds pass. I turned my palms over to feel the cool lick of the light afternoon drizzle. The solid concrete was blessedly motionless under my shoes.
A deep breath. “We’re never getting on a boat again.”