The Paradise Island Controversy

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The past five days we’ve been on an island that at first glance felt like one of those paradise islands you see on TV or in travel magazines: coconut trees, bright blue ocean and drinks at the sand beach.

When we came here, I was ready to relax by the sea after exploring the north of Thailand.

So, we booked an Airbnb-apartment owned by a lovely retired French couple who fixed us up with a scooter and gave us recommendations on the best beaches and restaurants.

The first day, we took the scooter up the steep hills to a place called The Jungle Club and sat there for three hours just taking in the view. I even cried a little, to be honest, because the view over the sea was so beautiful and I felt so relaxed after the 28-hour-long bus journey from Chiang Rai to Koh Samui.

But after a day or so, the paradise island began to feel like there was something wrong. In a way, at first, we were seeing this one side of the island but then starting to realize the other side of it – like two sides of a coin. One side of it was the perfect beach days and drinks at sunset, while the other side of the coin was a modern colony.

It sounds harsh, I know, but I’ll try to explain why this feeling came to me.

The Expat and Tourist Island

Koh Samui is an island in Southern Thailand with a population of over 63,000. It’s one of the more popular tourist resorts of the country but in addition to a great amount of tourists even in the off-season (as the rainy months are rolling in), there are many expats who live on Koh Samui year-round.

The active expat life is clearly visible on the island.

While driving around the island with the scooter (I was the one sitting in the back and in charge of navigating so I had time to look around while my partner focused on driving alongside all the other vehicles), I could spot French boulangeries, English and Irish pubs, restaurants serving French food or the German currywurst.

The Thai culture, however, shined with its absence in many parts of the island – at least that’s what it felt like while we explored the island.

Of course, there are many local restaurants owned by Thai people and in many of the restaurants, hotels and spas the workers are Thai – but they are all there to serve the tourists, to make them feel comfortable. This is done by serving the food the tourists know and like, and by having the menus in foreign languages the westerners are familiar with.

Or if they are not the ones in charge of the usually small family businesses, they are the ones to do the service work for the westerners. They drive the car, clean the house and the pool, cook the food or provide other necessary services. The Thai people just as the rest of us need to make their living – and the rich westerners are there to give it to them.

In one way, there’s nothing wrong with this. But the thing is, it comes with a cost.

Oh, The Controversies

Koh Samui is a paradise – if you have the right kind of house, scooter and car for it. All around the island we could see new construction building up these houses that are advertised as luxury pool villas. The houses with many bedrooms are built out of concrete painted white, a terrace looking over the view and a pool to swim in.

But oh, the controversies in this perfect picture.

Water is regarded as something precious here and tourists are asked to save water whenever possible – but the villas need to have their pools to be attractive to those with the money to buy them.

Concrete is far from the more environment-friendly building materials – but it’s cheap to use for building and the demand for villas is growing.

The main source of income for the island is tourism and the streets are filled with small food stalls selling fresh fruit shakes, pork and chicken on a stick and coconut water – but there is nowhere else to put the plastic trash than on the ground. The amount of trash in this country is shocking.

It’s like the westerners have taken over the island and they do it at whatever cost on the environment and the local culture as long as they get their paradise.

Missing the Local Culture

The tourism and the expat life on this island are the ones that make it thrive, yes, but at the same time they are the ones killing the island, slowly but surely. During our first two weeks of travel, I had gotten used to the northern cities where it was often a struggle to find a way of communicating with the locals, where in many restaurants the menus were primarily in Thai and the city was about their own culture. I can’t say they have the same here – and it makes me sad.

It even feels a bit wrong to be here, to support the very western culture of this island and I can’t help but wonder how the local Thai people feel about the development. Are they truly okay with working for the westerners? Are they aware of the environmental damage this kind of tourism is doing to their beautiful island?

As we are leaving the country to the next (hello, Malaysia!), I’m left with mixed feelings about the South. I loved the Thai food here, the ocean and the amazing landscape, but the enjoyment comes with a cost – even I, a westerner, am adding to by being here.

The Great Thing About Traveling Slowly

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We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks now. It isn’t a very long time, for sure, but it feels like we are now getting into the groove of traveling. We are finding our routines, figuring out how we want to spend our days on the road.

In the mornings, I write. It’s been relatively easy to get going with my morning routine of writing although I’m no fan of writing before I’ve had breakfast and a cup of coffee. However, nothing beats the feel-good after a rewarding writing session.

(Lately, I’ve been practicing writing adventure/action scenes – it’s tough because I’m more for the relaxed or deep-talk-kind-of scenes.)

After I’m done writing, the rest of the day is free for whatever activities we feel like doing. For the most part, we do what tourists do: walk around, say “no thanks!” to tuk-tuk drivers and when the heat of the midday gets unbearable, we step into one of the many 7/11 –shops with the greatest air conditioning, pick an ice cream flavor we haven’t tried before and eat it outside the shop before walking on. We visit temples, try new fruits like mangosteen and sometimes exchange a few words with other backpackers.

A New Perspective on Traveling

However, as we have travel plans into October which means we’ll be on the road for a few months more, the perspective on traveling changes. The days aren’t about wake up as early as possible to see as much as possible like they usually are on short city holidays because we have time. We have days upon days! We’ve been in Thailand for two weeks now and we still have 1,5 week to go before we hop on another plane. That means we can stay a few nights longer in every city we visit and take the time we need to get to know places.

In other words, we are in no hurry. And because we don’t have to count every hour of the day, we really get to see what we want to see.

What made me think of this was an evening a few days ago when we were still in Chiang Mai. We decided to visit one of the many temples of the city, a temple called Wat Chedi Luang. We went to the area, paid 40 Baht as a supporting fee to the temple and started walking around the area.

First we visited one of the viharns, assembly halls, which are usually the golden, colorful, pompous even, buildings – but which I rarely find fascinating. The reason to this is that the viharns are very often built in the 20th century which makes them very new and fresh and I am more for the old buildings and ruins.

Therefore, as visiting the viharn with all the other tourists was a small disappointment, I was beyond excited (I might even say I was momentarily breathless) when I saw the real thing. The Wat Chedi Luang.

Taking In The Quiet, The Calm

It was already in the evening and the sun was about to start setting when we came to the old temple. The ancient layers of stone, the carvings, the details put into the chedi were all beautiful – partly because it was well done, partly because the evening sun gave it a wonderful color and partly because I was awestruck by the fact that this temple was built in the 14th or 15th century.

Many of the tourists who also found their way to the chedi, were happy to just walk around it once, take a photo of it and then leave. We, however, decided to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet of the temple area – we had the time.

An hour flew by as we sat on the white bench, watching other tourists walk by, take a selfie with the chedi and then leave. We also saw a young man sit down with his sketchpad to draw Wat Chedi Luang (he also took almost an hour to draw the temple), some stray dogs and many of the monks go on about their daily business.

We took in the quiet, the setting sun and the beautiful warm color of the chedi as the sun shined on it. As we sat there, it felt as if I could feel the temple, the serenity of it.

There were so few who took the time to actually sit down and look at the building, to take in every detail of it, I really wonder what they can remember of it. Of course, they have the photo to remind them of the temple – but can they feel it as I do even after days of seeing it? I wonder how many historical buildings, artefacts and paintings I’ve looked at (probably numerous) without really seeing them.

It’s time to change that.

As there is slow-food, there is also slow-traveling. It’s about getting into the groove, about feeling things rather than only looking – it’s almost like mindfulness, finding yourself in the moment of now.

 

The First Week of Travel – Heat, Traffic Jams and Empty Pages

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As I’m writing this, heavy raindrops beat the roof of our guesthouse room on an otherwise silent street. It’s the first proper rain we’ve had during this first week in Thailand – and I welcome every drop of it because rain helps calm things down: the traffic, the people, the mind.

Thanks to the weather, this is the first time I actually find the time and place to sit down and write how my traveling life has come to a start.

First Reactions to Bangkok

We arrived in Bangkok almost a week ago. The city was hectic. As a citizen of Finland, leaving a country of five million people to enter a city of eight million is somewhat of a shock. Especially the traffic jams felt insane: the way drivers have the courage to switch lanes although there’s no guarantee it’ll work out (but it always does), and how the scooters and motorbikes crisscross through the endless lines of cars…

It’s a lot to take in.

In addition to getting used to the traffic and the number of people, the heat has taken a great deal of energy. I know this kind of weather (the tropical heat of 35 degrees Celsius) is normal in Asia, but in Finland, it’s nothing we are used to. Therefore, dealing with the amount of sweat and the liquefied feeling of one’s body and mind has taken some time as well.

But even a Finn gets by in Bangkok. One simply needs a great deal of patience and the ability to stay calm in the heavy masses of people.

Finding Time To Write

So, I’ve become used to all of this: the people, the traffic, the heat, the way Thailand works and functions. But what I haven’t become used to, is writing while traveling.

Honestly, it’s been difficult to get any writing done. It’s a shame as I have been hoping to be able to record the whole journey in my diary and in these blog posts, maybe even let the experiences give some color to the stories I’m planning on writing. However, the pages have stayed empty.

During the few weeks of sailing, I was able to write during the windy and rainy days when we stayed in harbor. Here however, a little rain or wind doesn’t stop us from stepping to the streets and finding a nice café to order an iced latte from or find our way to a local restaurant. We’ve been active most part of the day – in other words, there hasn’t been any particular time of the day (or weather) that would have suited as writing time.

It’s been difficult. So many thoughts, vivid pictures of events, feelings and ideas that have been going through my head and nothing has been recorded – not properly. And that’s why I’ve realized that if I want to write, I simply need to decide when and where I want to write – and also what I want to write.

(It may sound obvious to someone but for me, it has clearly taken some time for the thought to become something worth to think about.)

Writing Routine for Traveling

So.

During this year of blogging, I’ve been an active advocate of routines as a skill for time management and efficiency. And I believe in those same routines even when I’m abroad.

If I want to stay in touch with my writing, I need to hold on to my writing routines. It was already difficult to get started with this blog post because it’s been over a week since I last opened a Word-file. For me, it’s a long time.

Writing is about routines, about persistence and continuity, and taking a week of from writing can be good but it can also be bad. Therefore, if I want to be a writer, I need to hold on to my writing routines and keep my ‘creative muscles’ active.

For me, it probably means writing in the morning either before or after breakfast but before we get going on our day and leave the guesthouse we are staying at. I will try to go for my usual 1,000 words per day five days a week and hopefully, in a few weeks, this has become a simple routine for me even though the cities, villages and countries will change every few days or so.

Dedicating a few hours five days a week to writing instead of exploring the cities we visit is a trade-off I’m willing to make, easily. This way I’ll keep up with my writing and let the travels influence my writing, something I’ll most likely value in a few years.

We’ll see how my plan works out. It’s a good thing I already have routine from the past year – now I simply need to learn a new twist to it: how to keep up with my writing routines while traveling.

 

A Traveling Writer

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Before I get into traveling and writing, an announcement: this blog celebrated its one-year birthday on Monday! Yay! Thank you, reader, for being here – it does mean a lot.

But now – let’s start the second year of blogging!

As we sold most of our things in June and packed the rest in four boxes and two backpacks, for the past month, I have been a writer without a desk. Or, at least I’ve been a writer without my usual desk – the white, steady desk of perfect height on which I wrote the last 30,000 words of Yellow Tails and my very first NC-17 fanfic, among many other things.

For the past three weeks, I have been a writer and a traveler.

But you know what? It hasn’t been that bad being a traveling writer. This was something I kept writing about in my journal every now and then for a few months before the Great Departure, wondering how I would keep on writing without my usual routines. Would I be able to keep on editing Yellow Tails? How about writing fan fiction I’ve enjoyed so much – could I still write and be active on that writing forum I decided to return to?

A Prolific Sailor

The first two weeks that were spent on a sailboat were the first test for me to try out being a writer while traveling. Sailing is usually the type of activity that keeps one continuously active – you’re steering, adjusting the sails, cooking food (which is a challenge on a rocking sailboat), navigating, fixing things or just focusing on the sea around you. There isn’t much time for anything else.

I was prepared for writing only in the evenings, maybe squeezing out a few hundred words on some current writing project. However, this sailing trip was somewhat different. The weather was almost always against us – most days the wind was too strong or from the wrong direction which meant that half of our time on the boat was spent in harbors waiting for calmer seas.

For the traveling (or the sailing) writer, this was excellent news.

I was surprisingly prolific during those harbor days! I started publishing a short (around 2,000 words) series of fan fiction on a writing forum and wrote about 3,000 words on a new one. In addition to that, I wrote a blog post and an article for a sailing magazine.

Although we were four people crammed in a small space, the wind kept howling in the mast and the boat was continuously rocking because of the waves, I managed to be creative and efficient in my writing. I did just fine.

An Hour A Day

This experience calmed my worries about the travels we have ahead of us. Many trips are filled with activities that begin early in the morning and end in the evening, keeping the traveler active 12 hours a day. We, however, won’t be in a haste while we travel – we plan on taking the time we need. This means that I can squeeze in at least an hour of writing time in the morning (maybe in a nice café?) or maybe an hour in the evening, depending on the day.

Of course, every day cannot be a writing day because of traveling from one place to another or because of something else – but at least I know I will have some writing time almost every day. This makes me happy because it means I’ll be able to keep my passion alive and my mind calm.

I hope to be able to make another update on being traveling writer in a month or two, just to tell you how traveling goes together with something that feels like the opposite of traveling (although, now when I think about it – I will be traveling both physically and mentally because isn’t writing always like taking a trip somewhere in your mind?).

On Sunday, me and my partner fly to Bangkok, Thailand. It will be a 15-hour flight and I plan on taking my laptop with me on the plane – I’ve never written fiction on a plane (only some academic notes for my studies) so we’ll see how that works out!

What My Grandfather Taught Me

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Tomorrow is my grandfather’s funeral. He died peacefully at the respectful age of 95 on a beautiful Friday morning two weeks ago. I visited the care home that morning to see him one last time and I was happy to see the peaceful look on his face – it felt important to see him one last time.

After he passed away, I’ve been going through some old photos I found at my grandparent’s apartment before the place was emptied as they had moved to a care home.

Most of the photos I found have been taken by my grandfather, some of them have been taken by someone else as my grandfather is in the photo. The photos have made me wonder who he was, what he believed in and what of his values has he passed on to me.

He was a silent and a thoughtful man who did smile but not very easily. I remember how he was always reading the newspaper or sleeping. He liked sweets and baked goods. He was always organizing papers and staying updated about what was happening in the country – they subscribed to four different daily newspapers.

Those are some of the memories I have of him. But for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about his legacy – what he taught me through his way of being and how he lived his life. This is what I’ve realized:

Routines

My grandfather was a man who followed his daily routines. He would wake up at 4 AM to read the newspaper and then take a nap (it was usually my job to go and wake him very carefully and kindly for breakfast). Then he would read or organize his papers, maybe work for a while at his work apartment in the house next door. In the afternoons, he went for his walk. Every single day. Even at old age when Alzheimer was taking over his brain, he could remember all the streets he walked through during that afternoon walk.

I don’t know why he had his routines – I never asked. But he must have known they were good because they give so much more time and space for some proper thinking and for understanding things. Maybe I’ve simply taken after him?

Knowledge

When I was little and did some homework after school at my grandparents, I sometimes needed help finding out about a fact. Most often, I turned to my grandfather who was known for knowing great many details about what seemed to be everything.

However, when I asked my question, may that have been about history or geography or grammar, I never got a straight answer from him although he probably knew it. Instead, he would go to the great bookshelf and pick up one, two or three books about the subject. He then helped me find the right page where I could find the information I was looking for.

I believe he knew that if I would find the information myself I would remember it better – and I believe he was right.

Literature

As you might have realized by now, my grandfather was a man who respected information. He was a history guide and a tour guide on trips in Europe – and together with his team he won several years in a row a competition where the team is supposed to drive from one place to another and answer some detailed questions about the city.

He knew a lot without getting any help from Google, Siri or Sierra.

In addition to love for information, my grandfather respected books. My grandfather was the one responsible for buying us all a book for Christmas. He didn’t mind that they were fiction but I think it meant a lot to him to know that all his grandchildren were fond of reading (I wonder what he would think about Yellow Tails).

Although I wouldn’t maybe hold on to as many books as he did while he lived, I still like to think his love for literature and information has passed on to me.

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In addition to these things, I remember him for his good humor, wisdom and excellent board game skills. One time, me and my grandfather were a team while playing Star of Africa and we won the game by finding the diamond in time and returning home rich as any. He was a clever man.

There’s so many things I would like to ask him now – real grown-up things that I wonder about and would like to hear his thoughts on. I hope he would’ve written a diary of some sort to know what he thought and believed in. But I can’t do that, not ask questions or read his thoughts. It’s too late for that.

But I have his photos, I have my memories – rest of it I’ll just have to build up on my own.

The Idyllic Villages We Pass By – An Update From Sea

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Hello.

It’s day eight at sea. For the past week, we have sailed along the eastern coast of Gotland, visiting small fishing harbors and idyllic villages. We’ve had rain, we’ve had sun. Incredibly hard winds, followed by non-existent winds. My socks have been dry but they have also been completely wet.

It has been a ride – and at the same time, it feels as if I’ve been on holiday. A different kind but nevertheless, a holiday. Every new village and harbor we visit gives something new to see. We’ve seen some incredible nature (that reminds me of Norway, Ireland and Greece at the same time) and met some nice pub owners.

One of the best things to do in a new harbor after a long day of sailing is to eat ice cream. So simple, so enjoyable. However, finding ice cream can become tricky – these small idyllic villages we stay in for a night or two have their own way of doing things. In one of the harbors, the nearest grocery store is four kilometers away and only open until 6 PM. In another, the flea market that sells ice cream is open only when the owner feels like it.

Despite the challenges in ice cream hunt, these small places have been nice – as long as we stay there for a short amount of time. Otherwise, the place can start feeling too small. It’s a relief to know, that we are only passing by. Many of these people, however, are staying here all year around. I wonder how they do it.

The Italians, who serve pasta carbonara at their restaurant in a small fishing harbor. Of all the places, how did they end up there?

The owner-lady of the tiny grocery store where every item is still registered manually by number series. Is this her life work? What will happen to the store when she retires?

The woman who instructs a yoga class at her house every Thursday at 7 PM. A slice of something exotic in an otherwise traditional Swedish society?

I realize that I live a very different life now than they do. It takes time to adjust to the thought.

But before I have time to think about these people too much, we move on to the next place. The people stay in their idyllic houses, keep on their day-to-day lives while we raise the sails and head out to sea.

(Although, next up we have a 30-hour sailing trip ahead of us to the next island if the weather treats us nicely. That island is supposed to have a colony of seals – we’ll see if it’s true.)

Goodbye To All Things Familiar

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The Finnish Archipelago at 8.35 AM on a Tuesday.

I love sitting down at a random place to write: whether it’s writing notes in a notebook, a journal entry or a blog post, writing it somewhere else than home makes the whole thing much more enjoyable.

(I mean, it’s a raw fact that writing isn’t always pleasurable – it can be a pain in the butt. And still so incredibly rewarding.)

Therefore, I’m excited to be writing this particular blog post on a ferry that travels in the Finnish Archipelago. Together with my partner, I am on my way to a very small island.

Utö, the island we are going to, is the last island in Western Finland. After that come the international seas. And that’s where we are headed.

The Two Realities

The past couple of weeks have been extremely tough. First, my partner lost a family member. A week later, my grandfather passed away. So many, too many devastatingly sad things have happened in a short period of time.

At the same time, I have become a Master of Science, and me and my partner have been preparing for this big huge trip we’ve been planning for the past two years.

We have been going through our things – selling them, donating them, throwing away the things we no longer need and that cannot be recycled. In a way, we are more free now. We have emptied our apartment, sold our furniture. Last night we slept in our sleeping bags on the floor with three blankets to soften it.

The mind alters between two realities – in one, it is dealing with death. In the second, it is dealing with life.

Death waits for no one, neither does it care about carefully made plans. The timing of these two deaths has been so odd as they’ve happened precisely at the same time as we are planning on embarking on our journey.

But we don’t let Death make us wait – we don’t alter our plans because it paid a visit. Therefore, despite the devastating happenings we have continued making our plans and preparations for our journey.

It may sound harsh but for me it sounds like celebrating life, like I’m aiming on living a fulfilling life on this planet.

The controversy of the two different realities that take turns in my mind has been confusing. At the same time, life ends as it goes on.

I miss those who have gone onward and at times my chest fills with grief – and at the same time I feel excitement, pride and happiness for things to come.

From Ferry to Sailboat

So, at the moment we are traveling towards west to meet up with friends and join them on a sailboat (it’s a familiar one from before). From the little island of Utö we aim towards Copenhagen where we plan to be in two weeks. After that, we’ll see what happens.

We have all our belongings with us – everything we think we will need in the coming months are packed in two backpacks and two day-time bags. We have said goodbye to all things familiar and look forward to experience something quite new.

We mourn those who have passed but at the same time we remind ourselves of the good things that come.

I hope to be able to update you along the way from Utö to Copenhagen if I find wi-fi to do so. But just know that I am on the road (or at the sea) and –

I am celebrating life.

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(From now on, the blog posts may come on other days than on Thursdays. I aim to post once a week but as I enjoy these happening right now posts, I’ll probably post when I have the opportunity to sit down, write and, when finished, press ‘publish’. Maybe in this way I can transfer some of the travel feels through this blog to you, reader.)