As a writer and storyteller, I am constantly reminded that popular narrative shapes our realities. I learned so many valuable life lessons while travelling in Asia. Previously, I have only shared my travel guides. I think it is time to share some honest experiences.
Coping with change – Part one
Coping with change, especially unplanned change, is a tricky business. We have all had a huge helping of change in 2020. My own shift started in late 2019 while travelling in South East Asia.
What to do when everything changes
It never rains, it just comes pouring down, or so the Dire Straits version of the saying goes.
Around November time, two unplanned and entirely unwanted situations developed while I was travelling. I would like to think that anyone reading my travel guides at the time did not notice; however, the more astute may have noted a reduction in frequency and shift in tone.
Those that personally know me may even have sensed that something had shifted for me. I have not written about the things that happened to me on that trip. A reflective piece is overdue. There is a point to this article beyond self-indulgence. I learned a few valuable lessons from my experiences that I feel are worth sharing.
Unplanned change one.
One of my principal reasons for visiting South East Asia was to meet up with Lucy, who had been working away for eight months. As far as I understood, we were going to spend a couple of weeks together when I arrived, and then I would start a travel itinerary heading South from Chiang Mai. Lucy would meet me on her weeks off, and the general vibe would be one of planning our future in Asia together.
I have adapted some of my diary notes to aid with the story:
Coping with change-realism
Lucy’s taxi arrives at the hotel where we have spent a strained few days. She is heading back to Krabi airport. There remains a weird disconnect between us. Two days at Rayleigh beach and an odd stay on Kho Lipi have confused me. Her parting message is clear. “It’s not what I want, but I think we should both move on”. Then she is gone.
I stand for five minutes in the early morning light. A few market traders have begun to arrive at the food market opposite the hotel. Completely numb, I try to process what has happened. Returning to the hotel room, I sit for an hour before logging into Agoda and booking a new hotel. I need a fresh space. Somewhere that will be just my energy. I spend the day wresting the urge to run back to the UK.
In retrospect, my travel guides show telltale signs that all is not well. Instead of the detailed break downs of every city, I cobble together an article which covers three cities. I can’t summon the enthusiasm to write in great detail. There are gaping holes in my timeline from Krabi onwards.
There is precious little we can do about what happens to us; however, we have total control over how we react to situations. I remain pragmatic. What has happened has happened. I may as well deal with it in Asia. There is nothing, and no one to go home too.
Coping with change-acceptance
There were many choices I could have made when Lucy and I took separate paths. I could have resisted her decision and her truth. This may have resulted in attempts to put things right. Maybe I would have fawned, begged even. Possibly, I would have made her feel bad about the situation leading to a short term fix. What is the point in such behaviour though? Lucy was absolutely correct. At that point, we wanted different things, and the energy that had held us together had moved on. Fighting reality is the very definition of futility.
Lucy and I are supposed to be spending Christmas together on Nikoi, one of the resorts she works at, and the offer still stands. I can’t see how that will work for me, and so I decline. Despite my confusion and the vulnerability of finding myself in Asia alone, my acceptance leads to positive outcomes. Instead of running for home and feeling sorry for myself, I have decided to have my own adventure on my terms.
With around fourteen days left before having to leave Thailand, I focus on the second draft of a ghostwriting project. It is a good job that I opted to stay grounded, as I could not have foreseen what happened next.
Coping with change-These things are sent to try us…
Having adapted fairly well to my newfound single status, I find myself keen to dive into my second draft. I have a few friendly conversations with Lucy over the first few days of our break up. We are both keen to maintain our friendship. I am concerned for her when she tells me that the cough she had when she arrived in Krabi has gotten worse. She has been feverish and ends up having to go to the medical centre on Bintan where the doctors tell her she may be developing pneumonia.
Around three days after Lucy has left, I start coughing. Within five days, I am running a fever. I have never felt so ill in my life. I contact Lucy again, and she says she is feeling better, but that she is keeping an eye on her laboured breathing. By day six, I cannot leave the hotel, save for a short stagger to a restaurant over the road. For two nights, I hallucinate with the fever, I am hopelessly out of breath and wake up with my heart racing at regular intervals. I try to forget my predicament by burying myself in my writing, which serves only to keep me from overexerting myself physically. I am constantly rehydrating as the fever is causing devilish sweats.
A turn for the worst
By day eight, I start checking my health insurance, looking for details on how to claim, and who to phone. I am starting to get concerned, as I cannot walk further than the restaurant without getting insanely giddy, and feeling like I am going to blackout. During yet another disorientated feverish night I hallucinate again. The shadows of people fill the room. I am facing yet another situation I cannot control.
You don’t survive the nineties rave scene without being able to handle a weird trip or two. I resist the urge to flee the room, manage to type contact details for next of kin on my laptop screen, switch off the automatic screen lock and lay back. My limbs are aching. I have shooting pains in my abdomen and deep cramps in my calves and forearms. My neck is in excruciating pain. This flu is worse than the swine flu I had in 2012. I am accepting of the fact that waking up tomorrow is not guaranteed.
Coping with change-Going with the flow
It is day twelve before I feel anything like normal. (With the benefit of hindsight, what I was feeling was anything but normal, however, by this point I can walk to the restaurant again). The fever abates, and I am left wiped out. Any significant effort leaves me flat on my back for hours at a time. Although I can write, I find myself forgetting what I am doing, or staring at the page for longer than can be considered normal, even for a writer.
Despite these symptoms, I feel like I am on the mend, and set about booking a flight to Malaysia. With rational thoughts returning, it strikes me that a lot of travellers I have met claim to have been floored by a mystery bug. It is now late December 2019. I google “new Asian flu”.
I am intrigued by an article dated November 2019, which talks of concerns over an outbreak of a mystery Pneumonic flu virus in China. Another article dated November 2019 mentions Wuhan. I have never heard of Wuhan and read a few articles which seem irrelevant. A few random Asian news channels that have picked up on the story. No one seems too worried, and so I push it to the back of my mind. Lucy got ill in the last week of November, and I met a bunch of Dutch and German travellers who reported similar illnesses back in October, so I don’t make any significant connections.
All of this seems alarming in retrospect, especially given the dates. With no narrative to influence me, I just deal with the situation day by day. Beyond Lucy’s own experience and some anecdotal evidence of this flu being severe, I have no reference points. Aside from that one evening, when I barely had the energy to write up my next of kin, I have not been overly concerned for my life. Even having reached that stage in the dead of night, I still felt foolish the next morning.
Coping with change-no regrets
Back at Krabi airport, I am looking at a flight to Kuala Lumpur, then a connection to Langkawi. It is the 23rd of December. I am meeting some friends from the UK on the connection flight at KL. They don’t know it yet; I intend to surprise them. On the plane, I sit next to an American guy who is suffering from the same symptoms as I have just had. He apologises for his cough and the fact he is sweating profusely. I laugh it off and explain that I have just been through the same thing myself. I tell him I am heading for Langkawi. He looks at me as if I am mad. “Are you seriously flying all the way to KL and then flying back to Langkawi?”
Maybe the illness has dulled my thinking, but I had not considered checking the geography. When he realises that I am not teasing him, my neighbour explains. “You are going to travel for fifteen hours to end up on an island you could have sailed to in three”.
It transpires that Langkawi is a short boat ride from Krabi. I remain unphased. “It feels like I am doing the right thing. I got the flights for less than £20, and I am looking forward to surprising my friends in KL. I am happy to roll with it”. He raises a glass and we both laugh.
Coping with change-keep your temper
We land at KL safely, and I check the time. I have two and a half hours before the gate closes on my flight to Langkawi and need to get a Malaysian travel SIM, local currency, as well as food. I head to arrivals. The fact that I have an internal connection makes no odds; I have to go through the rigmarole of customs. By the time I am through, there is just over an hour and a half until my flight departs. I head out into the expansive airport mall and grab my cash, SIM and some food. Heading back into departures I am suddenly aware that I cannot see the right gate or airline for Langkawi and time is getting tight. In fact, I have just forty minutes!
I approach a uniformed member of staff and ask for directions. As I show him my ticket, he makes the kind of face you never want to see when you are running late. A sort of grimace, tinged with sympathy. He shakes his head and taps his watch. “Too late”. He says. “But I have forty minutes” I retort. “Train takes forty-five,” he says apologetically.
KL is vast. So vast that my terminal is three-quarters of an hour train ride away from where I am standing. Again, I feel the cold hand of inevitability slap me. I let out a resigned sigh, and thank him for his help. He gives me the warmest smile, squeezing my shoulder as if to say, I know what you are feeling right now. I amble to the train. I am not even going to bother running, and besides, I don’t have the energy.
Coping with change-Open your mind and heart
Arriving at terminal one, I immediately see my departure desk. The plane has been delayed by ten minutes and is still on the ground, but the apologetic desk clerk explains it is far too late for me to board. (I later find out that my name was called four times, and the plane was late taking off, as a result, My friends on the plane had heard my name and still not realised that it was the Sean Holland they knew).
The clerk points me to the airline help desk. There, I meet Paul, a Malaysian customer services representative with impeccable English. I am experiencing some frustration by the time I speak to Paul. I am tempted to start making demands, but rationality is the dominant voice I hear. This situation is entirely my fault. The anxiety of missing my flight passes almost immediately. Nothing bad has happened. The world has not ended.
Paul explains that I can buy another ticket for a flight which leaves in around eight hours. The cost will be $600. I bought the previous ticket for $7. I smile at Paul and explain that I don’t have $600 in my bank account. In fact, I have less than $300 to my name as I have been ill, and have not worked for two weeks. Paul listens and asks why I am heading to Langkawi. I explain that I am meeting friends there for Christmas.
Old me would very definitely have lost his temper around the time $600 was mentioned. My younger self would have opted for anger and intimidation to get his way. The experience would not have been pleasant for anyone concerned, but that is the way I had learned to deal with things. Something has shifted in me over the last year. My most recent experiences have demonstrated that acceptance of one’s reality is the most effective way to find the best solutions.
Coping with change-Deal with people kindly
I make a point of thanking Paul for his kind help so far, asking him if there is any way I can avoid $600 as I have no desire to start phoning friends to borrow money. Willing to take the cheapest flight out of KL to any destination if needs be, I ask only that he help me spend Christmas by the sea. After a moments consideration, Paul winks at me and says, (loudly so his colleague can hear), “I will put you on stand by for the next plane which leaves in half an hour, but if you are not called, then you have no option but to take the later plane.”
Paul then spends a good ten minutes messing around with his computer, and the look on his face says he is trying multiple ways to achieve whatever he is trying to achieve. Again, frustration rises in me, as it appears Paul has no idea what he is doing. I ignore the frustration. There is something about Pauls confused face and frantic typing that implies he is doing his best to help. Eventually, he speaks; “This will get you into the departure lounge. Make yourself know, and they will call you if there is space on the plane. I need to charge you administration, it is $54”.
I am relieved at the low administration fee, and once I have paid, grab the paperwork that Paul pushes at me. “Have a lovely Christmas, Mr Holland.” I smile quizzically at Paul and thank him for his help. I am somewhat confused by his conflicting signals, and as I walk towards departures, I look at the paperwork. In my hand is a ticket and boarding pass for the next flight to Langkawi, and a receipt for $2.00.
Coping with change-Acknowledge the blessings
This incredibly kind and unsolicited gesture from a complete stranger moves me. There is no doubt in my mind that Paul (not his real name) has broken several rules, and potentially put his job on the line. I now understand why he was trying to get rid of me once I had paid. A big part of me still expects to get turned away from the departure gate, but when I go to see the attendant and explain I am on standby, she looks at me confused. “No standby, this is a single ticket. You can fly”.
The law of attraction
I am open to the concept that we attract what we put out. That within any given situation, the universe presents us with choices that define us. My experience in KL was the culmination of events where I found myself completely at the mercy of fate.
The lesson has sunk in slowly for me. Always act with humility and respect for others. Whether it is someone close who you find is experiencing a different reality to you, someone unknown who is just doing their job, or an external force which hits you without warning, acceptance is the key to discovering the best result. Often, the best result is not what you thought it was anyway.
I managed to write my second draft despite my illness. Travelling via KL proved to be the best thing for me. Had I have got the ferry to Langkawi I would have only been granted a one month visa for Malaysia. On the plane, I got a three-month visa.
There is more to this tale, and it has to do with the law of attraction. Sometimes we meet the right person, at exactly the right time.
But that is for next time.