March 21, 2009.

In human language, I’ll be boarding a twenty-something hour flight from New Orleans to Thailand FOR FREE,  thanks to Conde Nast Traveler’s grand prize trip for a five night stay at the Banyan Tree Phuket.  Banyan Tree has been rated the number one spa in the entire world per various travel magazines, and as part of the prize we also receive a $300 US dollar per diem for meals at the resort. How did I manage to come across this fine deal? I snapped a picture of a burnt field with a hundred sheep starting vacantly at me in the Tasmanian wilderness. To see my aforementioned winning submission go here. And because I can write AS MANY WORDS AS I WANT on my website, here’s my submission plus a few extra notes: When I slam on the brakes swerving the car onto the shoulder of the road, I haven't encountered a single living creature in the five days I've been driving along the Tasmanian coast. Tasmania, the island off the tip of Australia, is a wilderness state: brittle burnt fields smack up against pristine turquoise ocean, and pervading all, emptiness. But as I step out of the car and approach a field filled with sheep, one of the creatures lifts a cautious head to peer at me, and then, suddenly, they all do. Hundreds of wide moist eyes hover before me as if expecting my arrival. The next instant they turn away, moving into the shadows as quickly as they had come. Yet, in a terrain of solitude so complete that every living thing scuttles away from every other living thing, I have briefly encountered an intense moment of connection. 3/25/09- Phuket, Thailand. I suppose Conde Nast must have known that mermaids need as much water as possible because our Villa has two swimming pools, a hot tub, and a lagoon. The day we arrive to Thailand we roam our Double Pool Villa all day long, and I stress ROAM, for our villa rests on nearly an acre of land complete with two swimming pools, a lagoon, a gazebo for gazing at the lagoon, and the actual living quarters The bedroom is made entirely of glass, suspended in the middle of a turquoise swimming pool. Frangipani trees and sculptures rise from the shimmering water on tiny platforms, making this modern day moat appear more like an exotic island garden. One bedroom wall holds a pair of transparent sliding doors that dip down to submerged steps leading to a small table and chairs bathed in cool water, suitable for sitting and relaxing during the hot Thai afternoons. A cobbled stone wall encompasses the pool, rising ten feet in the air to maintain privacy. At night, the lights cast streams of silken illumination on the sculptures and flowers, making everything light up brilliantly. Each morning we peddle our gold painted bikes to breakfast, and wherever we turn we enact the traditional Thai greeting-- hands in prayer, slight bow of head, sing-song utterance of “hello:” Saaa-waaa--teee--kaaa. Thai is a tonal language, the inflection of your voice is as important as the words you speak. So me and the merman practice the exact pronunciations of our syllabels wherever we go, restaurants, the beach, the various art galleries and craft stands that line the shores of the Indian Ocean. Tassie, mate. Sheep that probably thought I was going to give them food. Hello Sheepies. The 100 word caption I wrote while languishing on the Staten Island Ferry on my way to tutor high schoolers the SAT. Why was I teaching the SAT after spending 200,000 dollars on a Columbia education? Hmmmmm. The follow up shot: a bunch of sheep butts after I provided no food. Anyway, the trip should be especially sweet since we’re staying for at least eight months in Southeast Asia and plan to hit Indonesia, Vietnam, Lao, The Philippines, India, and Nepal. And starting our budget travel in a 1500 dollar per night room with$300 dollars a day for meals sounds AOK to me

Bedroom walls overlooking private moat perfect for mermaid lounging.

edentulous: \ee-DEN-chuh-luss\ adjuctive  having no teeth : toothless

Because we mer people are LOKs (Lovers of Knowledge) we are always trying to increase our comprehension of the known (and unknown) world. Thus a word of the day to enlighten you humans:

All CONTENT AND IMAGES © LAUREN MCCABE 2009

A tiny video of the lofty Banyan Tree Double Pool Villa.

Double pool Villa Bedroom includes mood lighting to mimic the golden glow of evening.

Don’t let this architectual splendor fool you. Only your gaze, not your mermaid self, can swim from the pool through the foyer through the hall out the front door.

The merman wanders through the bedroom peering out the windows for a tastee midday snack.  Though these waters may shimmer with the perfect blue of the sea, no fish are in sight.

After an evening of rainfall, we get the hairy eyeball from a tree frog clinging to the glass of our bedroom wall.

Scouring the shores of the Indian ocean, Mermaid and Merman catch a glimpse of a boat at sea, doing the same.

Migrations Big and Small -- 3/31/09 Kata Beach, Phuket

Leaving the Banyan Tree was more than a little difficult and not just because we were going from a 2000-dollar a night double pool villa to a 12-dollar motel.  We still had to plan our month of travel in Thailand and the general idea was to do that in Phuket while snorkeling in the pristine sea and sipping mango smoothies.  We heard that Phuket was overly touristy, but the Banyan Tree was in Phuket and it wasn’t that bad, plus it was Thailand’s low tourist season with hotel prices nearly a quarter of normal cost, and tourism was down 70% in the region according to the New York Times.  How bad could it be?

But those Europeans, oh those Europeans.

Each morning an event occurs in Phuket that I call THE GREAT MIGRATION. Packs of speedos rise unanimously at some appointed AM hour, stretch their sun burnt limbs, gather food and water, and began a steadfast trek to the ocean with their topless wives and potbellied children. Perhaps you are in the migration’s vicinity and can hear the mishmash of British guffaws and Scandinavian quips that rise from the resorts like cicadas in the evening. Or perhaps you are already on the beach admiring the giant mountaintop Buddha gilded in the morning sun.  One speedo will skirt across your gaze, another will flicker in your periphery vision, and suddenly INVASION like the onset of termites.  By 10 AM jet skies are whizzing dangerously close to swimmers, and the persistent drone of techno has begun.

This, let me stress, is Phuket in low season.

Yet true to the nature of bar happy vacationers, THE GREAT MIGRATION starts later rather than earlier, so merman and me always rise pre-migration to get a few hours of beach all to ourselves.

One dawn we catch the orange robed monks making their rounds with rice bowls, seeking food from the good will of the people. Thailand is 95% Buddhist and it is generally expected that all men will join the order at some point, even if just for a few months.  Sure enough even in southern Thailand (the country’s more Muslim region), in the Province of Phuket (the speedo capital of the world), a smaller, earlier migration occurs— one resonates with Thai traditions. It is quite incongruous to watch the clean-shaven monks delicately scurrying along the edges of Club Med and down the avenues of sports bars to garner a bit of food from the early rising Thai workers.  But there they are, at the crack of dawn, while everyone else rests.

Here are some pictures from The Similan Islands.  They were pretty, there were a lot of tourists in speedos, Europeans kept on extinguishing their cigarettes in the sand. Grrrr.  Beautiful all the same.  Check out these pictures:

Coming soon... Ton Sai Beach.  AWESOME place.  We spent a week climbing and trekking to hidden lagoons and stuff.  Yeah. More about that later.  Here are two pictures of me and mer rock climbing:

Ko Tao has some seriously funky bars.  Try chugging beer on this portable bar.  Anchored to shore, of course.

Dangling at the end of a dock, one of our favorite restaurants in Ko Thao makes a lovely sight for the evening.  Note the flowy walkway leading to the restaurant.

Is that the ocean pulsing over the bar tender’s head or just an exceptionly flowy ceiling? Ko Tao leads you to ponder such mysteries.

Ko Tao 4/17/09 Flowiness: Ko Tao

One thing I really love about Ko Thao is its flowiness.

Men wander the beaches with pants so flowy you’re sure they’re skirts.  Women billow along in flowy T-shirts—or are they dresses?  Sarongs wave off balconies, waiting to serve their flowy purpose as flag-dress-towel-curtain-loin clothe. Image dozens of beautiful young backpackers wandering along white sand beaches lost in their exceptionally flowy clothing and you’ve got Ko Thao.

The Merman is particularly excited about this stop because Ko Tao is one of the scuba diving meccas of the world.  This relatively small island (7 Kilometers by 3 Kilo) churns out hundreds of dive certifications each week, and for the cheapest price around—240 US dollars.  Taking into account that this includes all dives, materials, and four nights of accommodation, there’s no reason not to get certified if you happen to be in Ko Thao, which is why even I, a full-fledged mermaid, decide to get not only my certification but my advanced certification.

We end up staying on Chaluk Bay, about 5 kilometeres from the main drag.  Giant boulders line this small crescent shaped beach with water so shallow that you can walk out 200 meters and still be standing in ocean up to your ankles.  Bars perched high on raised decks offer stunning views of mountains and sea, with cushions for sitting and lounging.  Bare chested fire twirlers roam the shores every night, performing for beer sipping onlookers.  Ko Thao is the ex-pat’s dream come true.

After a delectable dinner of spicy Thai curry, me and mer wander along the maze of wooden walkways twisting through boulders and trees and ocean.

During the day, you can enjoy a banana lassi while watching the boats go to and fro.

4/20/09-- Ko Tao, Thailand:  Adventures Afoot (or Asunder...)

The Merman shoots out of bed, a strange muffled cry trapped in his throat.  I flick on the lights and stumble blindly towards him grasping for my glasses.

“It’s okay!”  I call to him thinking he has had a bad dream, though I’ve never heard him shout in his sleep before.  “Merman!”

“Something bit me!”  He flings the sheet off the bed and a shadow flicks across the room.  “My back-- do you see something on my back?”

He turns around and sure enough two pricks rest on skin, faint splatters of blood scattered around the edges.  Clearly something has bitten him, but what insect bites so badly that it actually breaks fully through the skin? Big hairy spiders? But we were staying in a really nice bungalow with actual walls and screens on the windows and hot water.  Mosquitoes couldn’t even make it in there, much less a giant blood-sucking creature.  What could it be?

We eye the corner of the room where he had sent the ominous figure sailing into a pile of swimming trunks.  Slowly, the merman begins poking around, and out squirms a giant six-inch centipede, the kind you see in jungles.   With one fell smack the merman extinguishes the creature, slipping it into my last clean zip-lock bag for further examination and to save it as a specimen in case its bite is seriously venomous. There we see what cased such a start in this peacefully slumbering merman: two giant fangs emerging from the nefarious creature’s mouth, ready to clamp on to any merman in its way.

Thus at 4:20 AM begins our 4/20/09 in Ko Thao, Thailand.

Three hours later merman and me arise for a day of scuba diving at Sail Rock, one of the premier diving sites in the region of Ko Tao. I had just received my scuba certification a few days ago, and now I was working on my advanced cert which would allow me to dive deeper.  But today me and Mer had decided to just go on a fun dive, paying extra money for an extra long boat ride.

I examine his bite.  It had swelled immediately following the incision, but now had gone down.  It appeared that the giant jungle millipede wasn’t deadly, just icky.

We board the boat and head out to sea.  The conditions had changed overnight from glassy crystal clear lagoon-like sea to ten-foot roiling swell, heaving coffee cups, dishes, and bronzed Europeans all around the boat.  Instructors clung to railings gluing their eyes to the horizon trying to keep down sea sickness, while I pranced along the deck, perfectly accustomed to the moving waviness of the sea’s unpredictable urges.

After a two and a half hour boat ride we finally make it to sail rock, but the captain was having trouble anchoring. Sail Rock is basically a giant boulder in the middle of nowhere in the ocean with not a spec of land in sight. Corals grow along its surface and giant whale sharks are known to swim amongst its caverns, but when the sea is at its fiercest giant waves crash relentlessly on to its face, sending white foam tens of feet up into the air.

Finally, the captain manages to weight the boat, and we hurl our aluminum air-tank clad bodies off the side and quickly descend to 98 feet.  The water ceases its churning and the soothing feeling of weightlessness overtakes me as I glide through schools of barracuda and up an underwater chimney.

Our reprieve from the testy seas is short but sweet, and after forty-five minutes we rise back to the surface and bob to the back of the boat where a submerged ladder awaits our return.  The seas, however have grown to nearly 3 meters, and each time I go to grab on to the railing, the back of the boat lifts nearly 7 feet out of the water and comes crashing down dangerously close to my skull.  After nearly ten minutes of this I manage to jump onto the ladder and am pulled into the boat.

The captain calls off the second dive at sail rock because of dangerous conditions. We manage to make our way to another dive site, a bit calmer, and easier to get up on the boat, but by the time we arrive back to Ko Thao, the seas had escalated to 4-meters, and a ferryboat destined for the mainland had sunk.  I was scheduled to go on a night dive as part of a requirement for my scuba class, and I was almost certain that it would be canceled.

Think again.

Not only did one of the instructors inform me that I had better grab some dinner because the dive was still on, but the captain actually switched from our large semi-study boat to a much smaller vessel.  I’m thinking: small boat, 12 foot swell, pitch-black night, middle of nowhere ocean: BAD IDEA.  But it’s amazing how bad ideas sound not so bad when you’re on dry land and had already paid 200 dollars for your advanced course.

I reluctantly board the boat and head up to the top deck, where my instructor starts to talk about night diving.  The second we leave the harbor a giant wave smacks right into the boat and I go flying across the deck, rolling once, twice, and then coming to rest flat on my belly.  “Holy shit are you okay?!”  One of the dive assistants leaps up to help me but another wave crashes into the boat and he goes tumbling.  “Fuck!”  We crawl on our hands and knees to the ladder to head downstairs where bolted tables and chairs offer a better chance of staying put.  But as soon as I sit myself down, the captain yells “Brace yourself!’ and a giant wave arches over the bow and spills into the boat, flooding the engine and causing the ship to lose electricity.

The boat boys rush up and down the deck bailing the boat out while everyone pulls out their underwater flashlights and starts trying to dismantle dive equipment.

Finally the original larger boat comes to rescue us.  We all hurl our equipment to the crew, jump across the chasm, and settle down for the bumpy ride home.

And then the boat turns back to sea.

“Whoa whoa whoooaaa. Where are we going?!” One of the instructors runs up to the captain.

“Night dive we go to night dive, good night dive.  Yes?”

“No! No no NO! Back to Ko Tao! Now!” The instructor is lobster read and shrieking over the sound of crashing water.

And so finally we turn back to port, bringing my 4/20 to a close.

The malacious centipede that crept into our bed in the wee hours of the AM.  Note the fangs on either side of its head that were thrust into the merman’s innocent pale skin.

April 29, 2009. Bangkok, Thailand