My Koh Tao fantasy goes like this: I decide to become a dive master and study marine conservation and ecology with Caro at Koh Exist. My buoyancy is perfectly neutral as I casually untwist enough marine rope to accept every kicked-off nubbin of still-living coral and transplant them to the artificial reef. I learn a new species a week and become casual about the tropical fish that swarm and sometimes nibble me while we’re gardening underwater. I can make two hundred bar last over an hour and recognize individual huge furry hermit crabs on the dive sites.
I learn Thai, slowly, and can tell the difference in tone between how it sounds to say ‘Come here!’ and how it sounds to say “Bring me that puppy!’ I rent a little bungalow–nothing fancy, but a great view–up on the hill away from the drunken shirtless backpackers and I make sure to wear my helmet every time I get on my motor scooter. I put my backpack away but I never own much more than what would fit in it anyway. I get some serviceable secondhand dive gear and my permanent tan– unseen since 1993—back, even though years in New Zealand have taught me to be assiduous about sunscreen. I lose my tendency to motion sickness, thank goodness, and eventually own no closed-toe shoes whatsoever. I learn to eat my noodles spicier and spicier.
Sometimes I take a short holiday to Malaysia or Singapore or Cambodia, just for a long weekend, when I’m not working on a reservoir project or doing my underwater mapping project for my dive master certification. I can’t afford to get a (painful!) massage every day, not like when I was on holiday, but I get them often enough so that the crunched up computer curve of my shoulders and back finally smooths out. I still spend a lot of time on Facebook, staying in touch with the friends I left behind in Wellington as well as those I left behind a much longer time ago in Miami and California and Seattle. Sometimes they come and visit, some of them. Sometimes one of the other divers or one of the other conservation students falls a little bit in island love with me, the kind of love that is more about wanting to make out with the water and the sky and reefs than anything else, but I learn kindness in my forties and I don’t let it go too far or get too bad. I encourage the other dive masters to stop their incessant smoking and I never work in an office again.
That’s what I thought about after I left the contemplative loneliness of Chiang Mai and spent twenty-four hours being delayed on trains and ferries before I could reach the island. I thought about it as I descended, literally, into the darkness of the night dive of my Advanced Open Water certificate and as I picked up discarded lightbulbs and aluminum cans and motorcycle parts on my cleanup dive. I thought about it as I danced like a soon-to-be-middle-aged fool on the sand at a ridiculous all-night beach party, and every time I drank a huge iced coffee (minimum one per day). I thought about it every time I answered, “I’m American but I live in New Zealand now’ whenever someone asked where I was from. I thought about it as I talked and laughed with new friends about how I never wanted to leave and texted old friends about how much I missed them and couldn’t wait to see them. I thought about it over stir-fried morning glory over rice with garlic sauce an open-air restaurant, vegetarian massaman curry in town, and chunks of fresh pineapple and watermelon between dives. I thought about it as I fell asleep under the double-bed sized towel they gave me a as blanket, every night.
On the final ferry to Koh Samui, on the three flights and two layovers that finally brought me to Wellington, at my first day at my new (office) job, I thought about it. I thought about it as I did a giant stride right back into my life here at home: the island, the reefs, the corals. The warm water, the silvery sand. The picking up and leaving, again. The many many many goodbyes.