Today is our 12th wedding anniversary and I have been working on having this post ready for it. It’s the story leading up to how I met Jack. It’s a story about finding love on the other side of the world, and how it never would have happened without the friends that lead me there.
Three of my closest friends (Elliott, Chris, and Sean [R.I.P.♥]) were back in Canada in the summer of 2003 for Elliott’s wedding. By this time, they had all been living in Taiwan for several years. One night we were having drinks at my Vancouver apartment, when Elliott proposed the idea of my moving to Taiwan. Asia was never high on my list but living in Vancouver was relatively very expensive and I missed Elliott, Chris, and Sean, so the idea was alluring. Within a few months my stuff was sold, plane tickets bought, and I was on my way to new adventure.
Immersing into Taiwanese culture, was exciting, challenging, and really different from other cultures I had been exposed to. Elliott, Chris, and Sean did everything to make the transition easy for me. I’m still blown away that Elliott and his wife Amanda had a driver pick me up from Taipei airport and bring me to my completely furnished apartment in Taichung. He got me the excellent job I kept the entire time I lived in Taichung, too. How spoiled I was!
Like a lot of people in Taiwan, I worked hard. I taught English and Visual Art, day and night, Monday through Friday. Weekends were for markets, sight-seeing, and getting together with friends. There was always so much going on and although I mostly hung out with my core group I also made many new friends from across the world.
I took Jessica (Chris’s partner)’s dance classes on Saturdays, went out for delicious dinners and unique experiences (Shrimp fishing!) with our gang, and took road trips to places like music festivals in Kenting, peaceful cabins at Sun Moon Lake, and surfing in Daxi. The night life in Taichung, was remarkable with rad DJ’s, exotic bars (Soundgarden!), and lots of foreigners and locals. Taichung was electrifying!
I moved to Taiwan with a boyfriend who I met at University. Soon after we arrived he met the love of his life, and they would ultimately marry. It took some time before I found out he was secretly seeing us both. Once uncovered I was hurt and angry but as soon as I let him go I was stronger. I had new freedom combined with a passion to live in a more fulfilling way.
Thus began an unforgettable time in my life. I was no longer guilty for my racing heart when JP walked into the staff room. I started making art again, seeing more of the island and building new friendships.
Sean and Alice were fully onboard with my fixing up and moving into the sunny, unused suite above their apartment, in the heart of Taichung. A little elbow grease turned that place into an ideal home and it was a huge bonus living above Sean and Alice. I loved that Sean called me “The Fonz”, like the Cunningham’s over-the-garage biker tenant.
Eventually, we got big news … Chris and Jessica were getting married! I was thrilled that Jessica was going to be a forever part of my life! They were going to have the wedding in Phuket, Thailand and along with Chris’ family from Canada, our whole group of 7 was going. I had heard so much about Thailand and couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.
The school year had ended and my flight for Thailand was leaving just hours after graduation. Everyone was already in Phuket, staying at the luxurious Katathani resort where the wedding was to take place. My plan was to fly into Bangkok then take a train South. Upon arriving in Bangkok, I called Chris and he said “Forget the train.” He insisted that I get on the next flight to Phuket to make the pre-wedding party.
There are three reasons why this was excellent advice:
- It saved me from at least a full day of questionable travel by train;
- The flights were cheap, frequent, and easy to book; and
- The pre-wedding party was one of the most memorable nights of my life.
My flight landed in Phuket and I took a minibus to a lovely hotel just a few blocks West of the Katathani. After a quick dip in the pool and some yummy street food I got cleaned up and walked over to the party. It was dark and things were well underway but before I could join in, Jessica whisked me away to her swanky suite to give me a gift along with some thoughtful words. I couldn’t have been more full with love. I should have been the one giving her a gift on this most special night! I kick myself for not thinking of it back then.
The energy that night was monumental as we celebrated with our very best friends in true paradise. Everyone was so happy – it is a night I will never forget.
The picture perfect wedding was on the afternoon of July 11, 2005. I’ve never been to a more beautiful celebration of love.
After the wedding we stayed on some extra days. Then everyone went back home to Taiwan and I was to continue my exploration of Thailand alone. I spent another day and night in Phuket before heading for Koh Phan Gan. I boarded a dilapidated overnight boat in Surat Thani and thought I’d be most comfortable on the upper level. As I climbed up and settled on a spot way at the back, I noticed everyone looking at me. Then, I started to gather clues:
- It’s all men up here;
- There are no tourists up here; and
- A kind Thai man pointed to a sign that said “THAI ONLY”.
I deduced that this floor was for local workers and it was time for me to go. I collected my things and took the walk of shame past them all, back down the ladder.
It was about 5 a.m. when we disembarked at Koh Phan Gan. I found a cheap room off Haad Rin Beach at the Sea Gardent bungalows. No, that is not a typo. It was called the Sea Gardent and I do regret not capturing a shot of the sign.
There I met a fellow Canadian, Simran, who would become an irreplaceable friend. We ate together, hung out on the beach and even got tattoo’s together. I am pretty sure she is happy with hers but the best part of my tattoo is that I did it with Sim. Luckily its on my back so I don’t have to look at it much.
Haad Rin is famous for its’ monthly Full Moon Parties. The nights leading up to it are the half moon party, quarter moon party… you get the idea. I was drawn back to the beach each night for these parties. But by the time my last night rolled around and along with it the Full Moon Party, I was spent. There was no way I was going out again.
Locals and tourists from the surrounding islands flooded Haad Rin all day to join in the evenings’ festivities. It was crowded and I just wanted to get ready to leave early the next morning. Sim had other ideas for me, though. She pressed that, at least, I meet her and her friends for dinner. It turned out to be a blast and they swayed me to the beach one last time.
There I was people watching and noticed a guy Sim and I had seen earlier that day. He had dark skin and short dread locks. I remembered him because he stood out big time with colorful reggae pants and a bright Jamaica t-shirt. He did not appear to be a local, I was thinking maybe Jamaican. You do the math.
Jamaica-boy was sitting with his friends at the Full Moon Party. They were all laughing and playing in the sand but he was just looking down. I thought he might be tripping out so as I was leaving the beach I asked if he was okay. He turned to me with an angry face and rudely stated he was fine. I was immediately put off and stood to walk away when he asked where I came from. I thought for a minute then decided I would mess with him for being rude. “Taiwan”, I said. He looked confused as he eyed me up and down “Taiwan?”
After a few questions I clarified that I was from Canada, living in Taiwan. I was surprised to learn he was Thai. To this day, Jack is convinced I was trying to pick him up but I wasn’t! According to Jack, I was the second woman to try that night, so he must have been hot stock! Ha ha! I do not make the first move and was on my way to call it a night.
Selfie before they were called that stupid word. The day after we met.
We chatted a bit then I told him I was splitting. He asked if I wanted company and together we left the crowded beach to go for a walk. We ended up at the end of the road. We picked up 2 noodle cups from 7-11 and Viola! A first date, sitting on a curb eating noodles in front of Sev’. His romantic ways have not dimmed a bit.
I learned that Jack was living in Koh Samui, where I was heading the next morning to later fly out of. He insisted we take the first boat together to beat the crowds, and that I join him at his brothers’ Reggae bar. He promised he would feed me and show me the best parts of Koh Samui in the short time I had left.
At the Reggae bar Jack made the most amazing breakfast of egg envelopes filled with ground meat, and diced veggies alongside fried rice. It was gorgeous. Here is a picture of that very breakfast:
Jack borrowed a friends motorbike to take me around the island. What an astonishing place! Turquoise and green with thatched roofs, vivid flowers, smiles, and lots of sunshine! I enjoyed every minute with Jack, and I wished I could stay longer.
Back at the bar my departure time was nearing. Jack, his brother, and Sarah sold me on the idea of extending my stay. It took a travel agent friend just minutes to make the change and soon I had 4 more nights in paradise with Jack! The next morning we rented a motorcycle of our own and a room for the remainder of my stay.
I met Jacks’ friends, went out dancing, and hung around the Reggae bar. Anyone who has been to Thailand, knows how crushing it is when it’s time to leave. The lush natural beauty, slow pace, and some of the tastiest food on Earth make it feel like heaven. I look back on Taiwan fondly now, but I had a pit in my stomach over going back there. It felt so dull in comparison.
I really connected with Jack and more than any guy I had been close to he was genuine, relaxed, and treated me like he wanted to be together. He made me laugh and lived in wonderland. Physically, I was attracted to his dark skin, his short dreadlocks, and the big Buddhist amulet he always wore. It seemed this was the summer romance I wanted since I was a teenager (finally!).
After 4 days I had to leave and had to be realistic. I would say good-bye and let go of Jack. I was crazy about him and wished we could be together but it couldn’t work. I was done chasing men and there was no way Jack was going to be able to come after me. He didn’t have a phone, could not write in English, and he had no passport or money to visit me. This was going to be the last time I saw him.
Jack and I sat on a grassy hill at Koh Samui airport (Hello? Fantasy Island?) until the trolley came to take me away. We said goodbye and I was on my way back to Taiwan, devastated but having lived more.
I woke up the next morning in my Taichung apartment starting a new school year completely unprepared. I hated not being prepared and the reality of being back in Taiwan made for not-so-great a start. Only yesterday I was in dreamy Thailand with a beautiful man. Today I was in my Taichung apartment full of dead flowers given to me by students weeks earlier.
I dragged myself out of bed, made coffee and started sifting through my e-mails. I sprang when I saw a new message from “Kingrasta”. It had to be from Jack! His message was short and to the point. He was moving back to his home, a tiny village in the Southern Thai jungle, to take on family obligations. He wrote about being concerned that I would go back to Samui and he wouldn’t be there. He wanted to make sure we could meet if I was coming to Thailand. I still have those first e-mails he sent. Here is one of them:
I must have read the e-mails he sent 100 times each. It seemed unrealistic that this could flourish into something but, once a dreamer, always a dreamer. It felt good to be pursued so I dove in.
Jack got himself a phone, and the e-mails were replaced with calls. His English was poor and I spoke no Thai, yet somehow we managed to talk on the phone each night. After about a month, I was losing my mind. I needed to see him again to figure out what this was. We had only spent 4 days together in person, the rest was texting and calls. Were we wasting our time? I decided I’d take days off around my birthday and visit Jack for a long weekend. I was in for a surprise, as Napaya was not the Thailand I had experienced.
I arrived at Surat Thai airport in a tight, strappy, red dress which was so very overboard for Napaya. I don’t know what I was thinking and wonder what Jack and his friends thought of that number! I feel foolish when I remember that. Jack was adorable and gave me a tiny little cactus as a birthday/welcome gift. His friend, Maew, bought a cake with “Happy Birthday Irena” on it and we celebrated at the beach with a bunch of his friends.
Everywhere I had been in Thailand was manicured and geared towards tourists, until this point. Napaya is not a tourist destination. It is the jungle, raw and natural, slow and simple, with creatures I have never seen before. The cultural difference was an avalanche and even in this short 4 night stay I started to feel isolated and lost (a taste of what was to come).
We had a great visit. Jack took me around to meet his family and friends. It was apparent that this was a place with deep roots in their culture and traditions. I was confused and intrigued and wanted to learn more.
On the day I was leaving, there was a relentless, torrential downpour. It was just how I felt. I was falling in love with Jack, and was fascinated by his culture. I felt jealous of everyone in Napaya because they got to stay and live here. I could hardly enjoy my last hours. I wanted to shirk all responsibility and stay.
Back in Taiwan I could think of nothing more than going back to Thailand. A couple of months later I went back for a 2 week visit, during which many challenges presented themselves. Some days Jack made me so angry.
We misunderstood one another over stupid stuff. Like when he took me to see Haad Kho Khao in Lang Suan. He walked me half way up the hill then he made me continue the rest of the way up alone. I couldn’t understand why he would bring me and then not go see it! I urged him to come on but he absolutely would not come nor explain why. I was furious and he didn’t seem bothered.
If we had been better able to communicate I could have learned about the legend which says if you go up there with your lover, your relationship will abruptly end. It’s a superstition and he says he didn’t know how to explain it to me.
There was a lot of this kind of stuff at the start of that trip where we spent time upset or quiet. After a few days in Napaya I had to do something else, so we decided to take a trip to Koh Tao. There each day was a little different and there was stuff to see and do.
After about a week of miscommunication it felt like a wall finally came down. We both realized that we were going to have to work harder than normal if we were to be together. Let the uphill battle begin!
Being in a relationship with Jack for 15 years has been one of the toughest and most rewarding things I have been through. We are/were up against massive cultural difference and a language barrier on top of the usual challenges couple face. I’ve learned to love and embrace it all, and to let go of some of the small stuff, as has he. I can hardly believe we have come this far and overcome so much. This is just the beginning….