Screaming Into The Abyss

It feels somewhat appropriate to be discussing this topic in the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide. He was one of the most astonishing actors I’ve ever seen, both in the versatility of his roles and the emotions he portrayed. More than that, he was the funniest human being I’d ever seen, both on camera, and on the stage as a comedian. And yet, all the time, his face was filled with a powerful sadness and solemnity, even whilst he made those around cry with laughter. It wasn’t as great a surprise to me as for others that, behind the persona he gave off, there was an ordinary, scared man, screaming into the abyss.

When you scream into the abyss, does it echo? If it doesn’t, you’re alone with your misery. If it does, you’re still alone with your misery, only now it’s screaming back at you. 

I can’t claim that I’ve ever been more than mildly depressed. I’ve never contemplated a suicidal thought, nor thought about hurting myself or others. But even mild depression allows you to clarify one misconception about the human mind that others, who haven’t experienced mental illness, believe to be true.

You find out, for certain, that the human mind is not a rational creature. If it was, you could go up to a depressed person and say, “You’re just not thinking positively! Snap out of it!” and they would. Why? Because that’s the rational option. It’s the one supported by reason and evidence and logic. But the human mind does not respond perfectly to these things. Rationality does not hold ultimate power in the mass of neurons and synapses that we call a brain.

Mild depression also makes you believe one thing to be true, which is not. 

Any time I’ve gotten into that state of mind, I’ve always used one mantra to pull myself out:

“Happiness is a choice.” 

Forgive the language, but disguised in this statement is the following: 

“You fucking dumb piece of shit. Get up off your whiny little arse, quit feeling sorry for yourself and enjoy your life. The only reason you’re like this is because you let it get this far. The only reason you’re sat here alone is because you chose to, rather than finding the people who care about you and spending time with them. So shut the fuck up, and start being happy because, and only because, you can. Idiot.” 

Bet you didn’t think all that would fit, right? In any case, you understand my mindset. Being happy, for me, comes when I allow myself the privilege of being happy. And once I get this into my depressed mindset, it works its magic. I can and do just “snap out of it.” Those four words, and the implications of them, the idea that I am responsible for my own happiness, get me out of my mental state every single time. Nowadays, I intercept that vicious cycle of self-pity so soon with this phrase that I rarely ever slip too far into it. It really is a wonderful thing to realise that the only reason you are unhappy is because you’re choosing to be unhappy. 

The misconception I got from this, of course, is that this works for all stages of depression.

It doesn’t. And the reason is simple: Humans minds do not have unbounded control over their brains. Mild depression may, in some people like myself, be cured by the mind simply choosing to be happy, because the mind was previously choosing to be unhappy. But with moderate to severe depression, the prior cause is not the mind. The prior cause is the brain, influencing and controlling the mind. By the laws of complex organic chemistry, enough chemicals in the brain will always completely overwhelm the will power of the mind. 

This is why it is irritates me when people look at people like Robin Williams and say, “He had so much wealth, fame, and loads of fans and a family who loved him! How could he possibly be sad enough to kill himself?”

The mind cares for wealth and fame and love. The brain does not. You may have come away from the paragraph two above with the notion that the mind and brain are two separate entities. If so, allow me to correct it: The mind is a subset of the brain. It’s an interface between the real world and the neurons that has grown more and more complex over time. Ultimately, the interface yields, in totality, to the operating system. 

Happiness is a choice, but only up to a certain limit. I hope that I never allow myself to pass that limit, because for the life of me, I wouldn’t be able to fix myself. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that others can’t. 

If you are depressed, seek out people who can help you, even if it’s just some guy on the street. Speak to someone who knows you. When depressed, one thing you I tended to do was remove myself from the company of my friends and hope that someone would come after me. It was a silent call for attention. I was just screaming into the abyss, at no one in particular. Why was I surprised when no one came after me?

Surround yourself with people. Never let yourself be alone with your own thoughts. Never let yourself get into a state where your mind can’t beat your brain. Intercept yourself at every given opportunity, and let others do the same for you. 

Finally, as a tribute to an utterly unique actor, I created this very simply image. Some say he was one-in-a-million. I say he was quite clearly one-in-seven-billion. When he died, he left a legacy to share laughter in the world.

Oh Captain, My Captain, you will be sorely missed.

Oh Captain, My Captain. 

Thank you, Robin. We’ll take it from here. 

A 25,000-Word Blog Post (I’m Lying)

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In that spirit, this blog post is my longest ever, coming in at exactly one opening paragraph over 25,000 words. The poetry behind those words is that you don’t have to know exactly what they are. That’s good for me, because honestly, I have no words to describe the place I’ve been to. I’ve spent a long time on this blog discussing my experience in Thailand. It’s single-handedly the most beautiful place I’ve seen in my life. I think it’s about time I show you why:


Time and Reflections: Part II

I was getting a much-needed haircut yesterday, and we all know the awkward conversations we have with our barbers/hairdressers. As it turns out, this one wasn’t as awkward. The radio blaring in the background gave us enough to talk about, from ridiculous headlines to the latest casualties in Gaza. Eventually we got onto the topic of the martial law enforced previously in Thailand, at which point I mentioned that I had just come back from it. The rest of our conversation was just upon this, talking about which parts I’d been to, what I was doing there and where I planned to go next. She told me that she could tell: I had the travel bug. At first, I thought she was telling me  that I was ill, but no – the travel bug is the urge to travel again. It’s what some people get having travelled once, alone. She would tell me about her experience in Vietnam, how her kids were spending four months in Malaysia, how a friend of hers went to China for four months of rural teaching and never came back. As it turns out, he called and told his parents to sell his house in the UK, using the proceeds to buy himself a house in that Chinese village. The last she heard, he had married a local and had four kids.

Was she right? Yes. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be back in the UK with places I’ve known for years. I want to somewhere else, in some rural part of South East Asia, meeting new people and finding new worlds, worlds apart. When I see people here, all I want to do is talk about Thailand and tell those stories. Meeting people who haven’t travelled, now, bores me. People who don’t want to travel, who want to stay in one place and “settle down”, scare me slightly, and I don’t understand them. I always thought I’d like the idea of travelling. But I never thought it would capture me like this.

In the afternoons, we would sit on sunbeds at the beach after school, occasionally dipping into the water as a cooling off period. When the girls were done tanning, they’d put towels over themselves and fall asleep (to avoid sunburn). I did this even whilst they were tanning (I’ve said before, I’m pre-tanned). One time, I put my earphones in, and played a song on repeat – Laughter Lines, by Bastille.

“I’ll see you in the future when we’re older,

When we are full of stories to be told.

Cross my heart, and hope to die.

I’ll see you with your laughter lines.”

I fell asleep, to this song, for four hours. Every time I play this song, with all the meaning in the lyrics, I think of Thailand. I think of that beach, next to Thong Krut Pier, on Koh Samui. And I get a little shiver. This isn’t the only song that takes me back to a memory. If I play Wake Me Up, by Avicii, or Counting Stars, by One Republic, I think of Fresher’s Week in Uni, because these were the songs that played a thousand times over in clubs, and the songs that I would play at eleven in the morning, hungover from the night before, as I walked to the local shop to get a Red Bull. If I play Lithium, by Evanescence, I end up thinking of the rolling coastal hills of Greece as seen from my coach window on our school trip there. Once again, I fell asleep to this song.

All of these songs put me in a certain mood, and form to me a memory. The sights, the sounds and even the smells are recalled from the abyss, as well as the moods and the emotions. Given that Laughter Lines played at such a happy time, it’s strange to me that I feel sad listening to it. It’s because I know I won’t be able to go back for years. I won’t be able to experience that again. I know how little point there is to brooding over this and missing it, but left alone with my own mind, there’s little else I can do.

Laughter Lines is a beautiful song. But I’ve decided that I’m not going to listen to it until I’m travelling again. I know from experience that these place-associated songs lose their power with time. Lithium struggles to take me back to Greece anymore, because I went there in 2009, and have played the song too many times here. I don’t want the same to happen to my most recent attachment. Laughter Lines, as good as it is, must only be played in Asia.

This post is called Time and Reflections: Part II. Upon viewing this, you may have expected a follow up of the events of Time and Reflections, published almost two months ago. Unfortunately I can’t provide that. The reason they both share the same title is that they both hold the same theme – personal change. Allow me to quote myself:

“An average human life in the UK can be approximated at about 82 years. As it turns out, about 82.14 years, or 82 years and 50 days, corresponds to exactly 30,000 days. Of that, 0.87%, or 87 for every 1000, of all the days I’ll ever know have turned through time and vanished since I started university life. Without a doubt, the change I’ve undergone in the last 0.87% have been the largest I’ve ever been through in my life.”

Time and Reflections, 11th of June, 2014.

I can only look back and laugh. Thailand changed me more, it did. In three weeks. I changed more in 0.07% than in 0.87%. And this seems to be so utterly common amongst the people I met there. I’ve met girls who are 23 who act like they are 19, because travelling made them feel younger. I’ve met guys who are 19 who could pass as 27, not because of how they look but how they talk. There’s an discrepancy between the years they’ve lived and the experience you can see in their eyes.

Until next time, DFTBA.

These Islands: Part III

This probably won’t be the last time I talk of my time in Thailand. But this is the final blog I wrote when I was still there. 


Part III: July 26th, 2014

I’m in Bangkok International Airport, waiting in the departure lounge with a friend I met in volunteering. By coincidence, we had the same flight back to Heathrow. She’s next to me now, handwriting her journal, trying to hide it from me, claiming her writing to be bad. I don’t believe her, but it doesn’t matter. She’s turned out to be a very good friend of mine. We were happy when we found out when we were on the same flight back to Heathrow. But even so, we won’t talk much.

It’s partly because we don’t usually talk much. Both of us are comfortable being quiet with each other and doing our own thing. We would spend nights in the beach or sipping ice coffees in the bamboo cafés up and down the shoreline. We laughed with the others at our last breakfast, and we said goodnight in the hostel we stayed in near the airport on our last night. We work well together, and we don’t have to talk to do so.

The other reason we won’t talk is because we don’t know what to say. Friends usually talk about what they’re going to do next week, or films they want to see together. But she lives in Aberdeen, and she’s going to university in Dundee next year. I live in the West Midlands, and I go to university in Southampton. We can make half-hearted plans, but the overwhelming likelihood is that we’ll never see each other again. I can’t speak for her, but I don’t want to be the one to acknowledge it. Herein lies the traveller’s mystique I discussed in a previous blog. When I tell my stories to my other friends, I’ll do so with an undertone of sadness, because I don’t like the idea that the person I should be telling the stories with is instead confined to the stories themselves. It’s feels like a fiction without someone to share it with at home. I’m still not a traveller, but I will be one day. I want to be. I’ve had my first taste of the true diversity of cultures, of landscapes, of ideas and perspectives. It’s something that will never cease to amaze me.

I’m not going to have a lot of time over the next three years of university. But as soon as I’m done, I’m taking a year out of life to go travelling. I decided that last night. I’ve asked a few people here, and the best route to take through is going from Thailand to Vietnam to Cambodia to Lao, and then maybe spending some time in Australia (though I’ve been warned: it drains your money). My task over the next three years, I’ve also decided, is to find someone to travel with. That’s probably going to be the harder task. I’ve been told that if you can travel with someone for year and not be sick of them, you should marry them. I don’t quite know about that. But it gives me an idea of the magnitude of my challenge.

My mind drifts back to a novel turned film I’ve read and watched recently, called The Fault in Our Stars, by author John Green. It’s one of the most incredible books I’ve read, and it’s about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love. The title derived from Shakespeare, who I believe said in Julius Caesar, “The fault, Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” It’s supposed to be said to people who blame their circumstances for their misfortunes rather than take responsibility for their own choices and mistakes (“Our stars” being circumstance). John Green’s title simply points out that sometimes, our misfortunes, truly, are down to luck, that the fault really can lie in your stars. The two main characters in his novel, Hazel Grace and Augustus, have cancer not out of choice, but out of bad luck.

I wonder if being separated by distance from close friends is my fault or not. It does seem unfair that the closest friends I’ve made have been ones who I probably will never see again. But then again, I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew that this was how it would turn out in the end. The only question you have to ask yourself if you wish to spend part of your life travelling is this: Are the memories you make with the people you find worth the pain of losing them to your stars later on?


These Islands: Part II

Part II: July 15th, 2014

Every day, we are fed at the school with a wonderful lunch. In the small community in which we live, every house has a child, and the likelihood is that we are teaching or looking after one of their kids. There are tens of cafes down the road, as well as laundry services and shops, and all of them know who we are. They also know that we are teaching at the school for no pay, and that is what amazes them the most. The people here are incredibly grateful and are absolutely lovely to us. I purchased a six pack of large water bottles from the 7-11 down the road. It was about half a mile walk back to the house, and they were heavy without a bag. An old man was riding his scooter the opposite way to me. He saw me struggling, stopped, turned his scooter around, and drove me half a mile to the house. I thanked him profusely, and he said in broken English, “No worry. You teach my grandkid English. He teach me some too, so thank you.” He smiled, turned his scooter around and drove off again. I was astonished. If that had happened in the UK, I would have thought, “Damn, Jesus must have come back.”

I’m told that in this country, people operate on a binary switch. That is to say, they will be as kind and polite and humble as it’s possible to be to you, but if you insult them, they’ll spin on a dime. I’ve been told a story by a friend of mine here: He was in Bangkok, in a club and he met some Thai guys, and they were having drinks and swapping stories. By the end of the night, they were best mates. Later on, a girl walked in, and my friend began to chat her up. Eventually they started to make out. What he didn’t know is that the girl was of the guys’ sisters. He doesn’t remember the moment, but according to his friends, they hit him in the back of the head with a glass bottle and then chased him from the club, quite literally half way across Bangkok. At one point, he hit a dead end and climbed over a wall, only to fall into the sewage canal that ran through the centre of the city. He swam across it, drunk and bleeding, with glass in his head, and woke up in hospital the next morning having been taken there by a kind old Thai man who found him. He would take a picture the next morning of himself with the man and the hospital director of himself in a wheelchair and bandages on his face, with the caption “Good morning, Thailand.”  It’s quite a story, and there are similar tales from others, though none quite as mortifying.

There are other cultural aspects I’ve discovered about this place. They are incredibly loyal and reverent towards their King, who, like our Queen, has places on all the coins and notes. In the UK, if a note flies out of your hand in wind and falls on the floor, the easiest thing to do is step on it to stop it moving. No such action is allowed with Thai notes. To do so is to lay the lowest part of your body on the King’s face, which is an incredible insult. If you sent a letter from Thailand, be sure never to lick the stamp. You may as well have just slobbered on the King. The respect they have for their King is slightly unnerving in some respects. There is always a large picture of the King in most rooms, and at least once in a building. This gives me chills, but only because it reminds me of the custom in North Korea, where every room has framed portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (their “Dear Leaders”). Obviously the degree of this is not the same as in North Korea, but it is too similar. Other quirks include the exchanges between older and younger people. In Thailand, you are not allowed to touch an older person on the head, as an adult might do to a child. It’s an insult to their age, and I kind of understand it: it would feel as if a child is patronising you. A slightly strange one for me is that men are allowed to look monks in the eye, but women are not. Apparently it’s due to temptation. Has there never been a gay monk?

I discovered all of this in the first week, one which was fairly tranquil and routine. The weekend was anything but. Because it was Buddha day, school was off on Friday. So at about midday, we took a ferry from Koh Samui to a neighbouring island called Koh Phangan (pronounced Koh Pan Yang). Koh Phangan is famous for its nightlife – specifically the Full Moon Party, the monthly (moon cycle) party that happens on the beach near the port. Full Moon has such a reputation here now that the party mostly consists of tourists, which outnumber locals by a factor of twenty. It also comes with its own merchandise, like headbands and T-shirts and body paints (a feature of Full Moon which few other events use). Because of the number of thieves, they also provide bum bags, which you’re supposed to tuck into your shorts so that no one can steal them.

Full Moon usually happens on the Friday night. But Buddha day took priority, so it was on Sunday night. This had the benefit of two days of pre-parties which lead up to the final night. Friday night saw perhaps a thousand people on that beach. Saturday came to around fifteen thousand, and all thirty thousand turned up in one go on the Sunday night, dancing to Thai rap and hip hop, drinking horrendous amounts of alcohol, along with mushroom shakes, weed, cigarettes and laughing gas.

I should make a note here: In Thailand, alcohol is not served in glasses. No, they are too small. Instead, alcohol comes in buckets. I’ll estimate a bucket to be about the same volume as a 1.5 L bottle, and you usually have vodka mixed with something else. If you have a sip and say it’s not strong enough, they’ll take the vodka bottle and pour it into your drink until you’re happy, and it would be the same price. That’s a distinction between Thai and British alcohol venders: In Britain, they try and be conservative. Here, they just want you to be drunk as hell. The net result is absolute carnage. Approaching 2 am, people were in the shallow waters, whilst couples were doing it in the water shamelessly. People who’d had mushroom shakes were sitting on the sand at the waters’ edge, staring aimlessly into the abyss (it didn’t look back; it was also high). As the sunrise approached, which you’re supposed to be awake to see in order for you to say you’ve had a successful Full Moon, there were hundreds of people asleep on the sand, some passed out, and some drunk. Others had fallen asleep on rocks at low tide, and were still asleep on them when the high tide rolled in. No one died, but a few people had to be rescued with boats.

But the one thing that distinguishes Full Moon from every other beach party is what happens at the end. The announcers turned off the music at about six in the morning, just for ten minutes, and said to the beach, “Everyone turn to watch the sunrise.” We did. It was beautiful. But what was more beautiful was the fact that it was being seen by thirty thousand people who were still drunk. There’s no other party like it. The music turned back on shortly afterwards, and it went on until eight in the morning. A friend and me were the only ones from our group of eighteen to make it to this point. The others had either gotten tired, or more commonly, passed out because they didn’t pace themselves with the buckets. As soon as the sun rose and the day was light, we went back up to our hotel and had breakfast at the pool. A week later, I’m still recovering from the sleep deficit.

And then we went back to school. With kids, and teachers, and lunch at 10:30 am, with cleaning up little scratches on the playground and tidying up pens and paper from the floors where they would write (there are no tables, but the floor does very well for one).

It’s a wonderful contrast. It amazes me how real teachers do it, to move from the simplicity and complexity of their job to the nightlife. I’m imagining telling my pupils the things that happened at Full Moon, with all the grown up nights and the grown up problems like money and alcohol. They aren’t plagued by all these issues, and won’t be for a long time. They have their own fair share though – there are two “special needs” children in my class. Both act up, refuse to talk and make eye contact, and will scream if they register any kind of physical contact. It’s clear to the westerners that these kids are both severely autistic and need one on one training. To the other teachers in the school, these are the kids to be ignored, and hopefully the “dark spirits will leave them with age.” We’ve spoken to our supervisor, Millie, about using Gap360 to potentially support a one on one expert to work with these kids, and she knows how necessary it is. She’s going to try, but all she can do for now is educate the teachers in the school that their behaviour is not a result of “dark spirits.” It is sad to watch, and we try and help them wherever we can, but there’s little we can do.

Koh Samui has two major centres. One is Lamai, which is the shopping district. All the best markets are here. The other is Chaweng, which is near the Big Buddha port, one of the two ports which let you on to the island. Chaweng is famous for its backpacker hostels (Some of the best in Thailand), and for it’s nightlife. There is a thriving night market here, but all the major clubs are here, as well as the restaurants and the cabaret shows. At the request of a friend who really wanted to see a cabaret, or “lady-boy”, show before she left for Vietnam, we stepped into one. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I was notably uncomfortable at first, which is why I think it was me who they asked to get up on stage. I did so (Ah, screw it. What’s the worst that could happen? was my thought process), and they got me to do the Cha Cha Slide with them. They were perfectly decent to me, and at the end, I got a free drink for being a good sport. All I have to do now is make sure that the pictures of me dancing don’t end up on Facebook for my family to see. My parents are pretty liberal, but I think that this goes, for them, too far. I would have felt the same way a year or so ago. But in the last year, the best revelation I’ve come to is this: I may feel stupid, but if I’d watched someone else do it, I’d have laughed along and patted them on the back at the end. Human minds, as different as they are, find union in this emotion. That night was one of the funniest and the saddest of my life, for at the end of it, that friend who had dragged us to the cabaret show got in a cab to her hostel, to begin her next journey to Vietnam.

These Islands: Part I

It’s been 22 days since my last blog. I think that may be a record for me, and not a good one. Right now, there’s a Word document compiled on my computer which details most of my experiences in Thailand, ready to copy onto WordPress. I don’t quite know why I’ve left it this long to upload, and I hope you’ll excuse me for that. Perhaps it was because once I blog about Thailand, I turn it into a story. You’ll understand why I don’t like stories in These Islands: Part III. They are in different parts because I wrote them on different days. Part I was written on the 12th of July, Part II on the 15th, and Part III on the 26th, in the departure lounge of Bangkok International Airport. I hope I can convey to you the magnitude of my experiences there.


Part I: July 12th, 2014

Over the course of the last week, I’ve found myself quite unwilling to sit down quietly with a laptop or a phone and blog. The conversations I can have with others here are far more interesting. Others have found time to write their journals whilst sunbathing at the beach. Sunbathing is one of the most depressingly monotonous activities it is possible to participate in. Given that I’m Indian origin, it’s also utterly pointless for me. I’m pre-tanned. I’ve tried to write several times, but none of what I’ve written is up to scratch. I suppose that’s the difference between a blog and a journal – the journal is only for me. Here, on this blog, I want to make sure what I write is engaging for you. I imagine myself on the other side of this, reading this for the first time, and so many times, I’ve thought, “I’m bored already,” and started over.

I guess I’ve been putting it off because I procrastinate on huge tasks. And this is a huge task. Not a lot happens in a week at home. Here, I pack so much life into my days that it feels as if I’ve been here for many months. My last blog was on the 8th of July, so it’s been twelve days. In that twelve days, I’ve done eight days’ worth of teaching, had a million conversations, met some Brazilians, visited a neighbouring island for the Full Moon Party (take one beach, put 30,000 people on it, add monstrous amounts of alcohol and music, and then wait until sunrise), had a four-cheese pizza, been swimming in quicksand, danced with lady-boys and done laundry twice. It doesn’t all sound exciting, but give it a second.

There are four schools on Koh Samui. Of those, three have enough pupils to be government funded. The fourth, Sante School and it’s nursery section, is funded only by donations and taught at by a handful of parents and volunteer teachers and assistants. It’s not unusual to have forty to fifty kids in one class, especially with the younger years. Before we began on our first day, we were warned that the kids would play up as soon as they saw that there were new teachers. They weren’t so bad. Like us, even they are depressed and tired on a Monday morning, so “playing up” was being a little loud. We taught for a couple of hours in the morning, and then we went onto the playground. You saw some signs in the classroom, but it was on the playground you got the true feel of their free spirits.

In the UK, we are Health and Safety crazy. Parents in the Western world, in my opinion, are far too protective over their kids to the point where they may as well send them to school in bubble wrap. If a kid gets a scrape, they’ll fuss over it, and profusely blame the teachers for not keeping an eye on them. Forgetting, I might add, that kids are going to fall over whether they are being looked after or not. No such rubbish takes place in a Thai playground. When the kids go out onto the playground, they fall over in the dirt, cry for a while, get told, “You’re okay, now shut up”, and then get up and move on. They’re like monkeys on a climbing frame, they go far too high on the swings, and the boys get into play fights all the time. The teachers usually don’t intervene because they aren’t real fights. You can tell them apart easily, and usually, they’ll wrestle each other on the ground for fun, or kick at each other, and it’s all just a big game for them. They’re inadvertently training each other to handle themselves later on in life and end up best friends two minutes later. The most fascinating part of the day for me, is just before they get put down for a nap in the afternoon: mediation.

They come off the playground, and the older classes gather in one room with the head teacher, sit on the floor, cross their legs, place their right hand over the left face up, close their eyes, and be silent. The change you witness is stunning, and all the energy they’ve self-induced on the playground is dissipated in ten minutes of silence. After this, they are all given soap and are taught to wash their hands, before having lunch and sleeping. You can tell from how responsive they are that this is something they are used to, and most importantly, they all understand the purpose. If you tried this with five year olds in the UK, you’re lucky if they do as their told. But they would never understand the point. They would just sit there, smirking at each other and waiting for it to end. If you watch the kids here, you can tell from their breathing rhythm and their posture that they are really lost from this world. We participate every day in mediation. It’s not a religious tradition, although it can be. It’s just part of the constant cycle of self-assessment and inner peace that they like to instill into their children.


The Traveller’s Mystique

I’ve travelled, but I wouldn’t call myself a traveller yet. I haven’t had enough experience to know what the word really means. But I’ve met travellers before; they spend their lives roaming the world, making friends and losing them, getting into and out of trouble and packing more life into their life than any other creature on Earth. In the last few days in particular, I’ve met a lot of them, on my trip to Thailand.

I’m staying in an accommodation, and I’ve already mentioned its many problems, and more importantly, how they don’t bother me. The experience is worth the experience, and it teaches you not to expect perfection in everything, nor comfort, nor special treatment. I’m here for three weeks, and I’ve been shown the ropes by the more experienced in this house and with this school (my next blog will be on the school, by the way; I’m waiting for a couple of days before talking about it). They tell me how they make the best friends they’ve ever made in their lives in this place. And then they leave, and they know they might not ever see them again. This is alien to me – the idea that such perfect interactions should be allowed to be temporary. Most often, reunions with people who they’ve met on their travels occur by accident. I wonder how accidental it is. They may not have planned to meet, but it’s no surprise that the minds of two good friends converge on similar places and ideas, more than once.

They adapt to every place, and every time, and every culture. Every misfortune is another opportunity, every difficulty is just a challenge, and when you’re in a place you’re unfamiliar with, in which you’ve spent so little time, those challenges happen a lot. It changes you as a person. I’ve always talked about the importance of seeking perspective. Travelling gives you it. You forget about the little things that irritate you at home because you’ve lived with worse elsewhere.

Last night, I was sat on the decking of an outdoor cafe lit by lanterns, at nine in the evening, sipping an ice hot chocolate and eating pineapple from a plate. I sat with a mate of mine who I’d met less than three days ago, chatting about everything from his crazy experiences in Bangkok, being chased through a canal by dogs and scuba-diving in Australia, to university, politics, ancient history and our days in the school. There was a warm breeze rushing through the tables and it was just cooling down for the night. The night was pitch black, and you couldn’t see the ocean, barring the occasional light from the moon flashing off the waves, but you could hear it crashing against the beach. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had. Others would join us later that night, and we sat and laughed, exploiting the Wi-Fi and cracking jokes and drinking with the owners.

I’m never going to have that conversation again. I might never see any of these people ever again. I’m two days in, and I already know I’m going to miss them when I leave. Travelling, for me, breaks this rule: Time flies when you’re having fun.

It doesn’t. It really doesn’t. Every day passes slowly, and you live in every moment. I’ve packed more life into two days than could get in a month back at home. It makes me wonder why I would ever want to go back.

The traveller’s mystique is the air of sadness coupled with ecstasy that surrounds them when they speak of their experiences. Everything is so temporary for them, and they know it is. So they live the best life they can, meet the best people they’ve ever known, see things they’ll never see again and then miss them dearly when they have to leave. Most people thing that they travel because they are bored of home. In reality, travellers love home. So much so, that they make everywhere home.


Sunday’s Blog on Monday

This trip to Thailand is picking up a Wi-Fi theme to it. Right now, I’m writing this blog post on a Word document, because as yet, the Wi-Fi in our accommodation is down. Apparently the guys in charge forgot that they had pay for it. So I’ll upload this whenever I get Wi-Fi.

My plane journey was pretty typical: Watch two movies, try to get to sleep, fail to get to sleep, consume airplane food against my will, close my eyes and wait for it all to end. I want to be an Aerospace engineer. I do like planes. I really do. I just don’t like being in them. I definitely don’t like the food. You think this is a full English? No, ‘tis not a full English. ‘Tis a full English that has been passed through the digestive system. ‘Tis a turd.  I distract myself by thinking of the physics and the aerodynamics, which are far more interesting.

I also reflect on facts I’ve picked up about commercial aeroplanes. I’ll give you an example: You know those oxygen masks that drop down from the ceiling like angels to save us all if the cabin depressurises? Yeah, they’ve only got 12 minutes of oxygen in them. It turns out that if the cabin depressurises at 37,000 feet, the pilot has to get down to a safe height of 10,000 feet where everyone can breathe. That takes almost exactly 12 minutes to happen, and so that’s all the oxygen the passengers get. The pilot has his own supply, which is fair enough (he’s flying). In any case, it never ceases to amaze me that we can make things which fly through the air. The next time you fly, remember what you’re in: a 300-foot metal tube of pressurised air moving through the stratosphere at the speeds that compare to the rotation of the Earth, and the only thing keeping you in the air is the difference in pressure between the top and bottom surfaces of the wings either side of you.

Thailand is a beautiful place. It’s the single most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Koh Samui is a 15-mile stretch of rural paradise off the mainland. Oh, and I’ve stopped calling it Koh Samui island, as the word Koh means “island” in Thai. It’s not Island Samui Island. Nothing quite compares to the breathtaking views you get from the beaches. The sands are stunning white, the oceans are vibrant blues and turquoises, and the sunsets and the thunderstorms are both beautiful in their own ways. The water, whether it pours from the sky or washes around the sea, is warm and tranquil. My volunteering hasn’t started yet (it’s Sunday as I write this), and today has just been about orientation over the island. There are so many things I could talk about, including the night life. I didn’t expect to be introduced to this on this trip, but I like it. The clubs are on the beach and the shots are 25 baht (about 50 pence). I’ll tell you about that later, but the most important part of this trip for me so far has been the people I’ve met.

There are people on this course with me who haven’t been home for five months, having travelled the whole Southern Hemisphere with their friends. Woody is an astonishing character who always has a story to tell, no matter what. There are two girls here from the North of England who have been travelling Thailand for ten days before coming here, friends from school and university. The youngest of us has just left secondary school, and is about to start her first year at Dundee University, doing Law. She’s pretty cute. Everyone thinks I’m older than nineteen for some reason. It feels like a good thing. Everyone has a story to tell. Some people are loud but hilarious, others are quiet but always know what’s going on. The more experienced here give us advice on the food and how to deal with the locals (who are lovely). You’ll hear more about them as I learn more about them.

There are only two showers between thirteen of us, both of which flood the bathroom on every use, the toilets are flushed by a hose, and they don’t accept toilet paper (which must be binned instead), the kitchen is tiny, the power goes out every time it rains, we need four fans and no blankets to keep us cool at night, there aren’t enough plug sockets, we have to go to the shop across the road to get Wi-Fi (and only if you buy something), and my roommates snore.

I love it.

45 Minutes of Free Wi-Fi

Right now, I’m sitting in the departure lounge of Terminal Five in Heathrow International Airport. I’ve connected to the Heathrow Wi-Fi, for free, but I’ve only got 45 minutes of this treasure left before I am returned to the eternal nothingness of Wi-Fi-lessness.

This is the first time I’ve willingly travelled on my own (I say willingly: I got lost in Heathrow aged 6, located by security and returned, crying, to my also crying mother), and it’s quite unnerving. I’ve always travelled with my friends, at least one of whom is more intelligent that me, my parents, both of whom are more intelligent than me, or with my school. My school’s pretty damn smart. It’s curious that, technically, I’m not actually in the UK. Until I pass through customs, I’m still in international territory. And the departure lounge of any international airport is technically within that boundary.

It defintely feels like international territory. I’ve never heard such an amalgam of cultures and languages so concentrated in one space. I’m listening to people talk around me in dialects I never even knew existed, and wear clothes which wouldn’t look out of place in Middle Earth. All of this coupled, of course, with the extortionately high prices of the Duty- Free. There are very few places on Earth that are so diverse. In ancient times, the city of Babylon became the crossroad of Eastern and Western civilisations, in Mesopotamia (the so-called “cradle of civilisation”). In the first millennium, this title would pass to Baghdad (owed to the period known as the Golden Age of Islam). Venice would follow in the Middle Ages (the port town which served as the trade route between the Mongols in East Asia and Europe). It is a sign of modernity that now, in the 21st Century, the crossroad of civilisations can be found at Heathrow Airport.

There’s a feel of adventure to this all. I really have no idea what to expect from this trip. I’ve got a connecting flight to Koh Samui, where I’ll be working in a rural fishing village, volunteering my limited abilities in childcare and teaching to a community school. More about that when I actually get there and start (on Monday. Somethings never change…). The next three weeks of my life are going to be documented here, for your amusement.

I’ve made it thus far, probably looking slightly too nervous to airport security, I might add. I’m waiting for my gate to be announced, so I can get on my plane to Bangkok. My only fear now is that I might do a Home Alone 2 and get on the wrong plane. It’s an 11-hour flight, and therefore the longest of my life. I understand why they say arrive on Saturday – we’ll need time to recover from the monumental shitstorm that will become my sleeping routine, and then adjust to the time difference.

Damn. My plane is about to board. Till next time, DFTBA.

A Self Diagnosis

There’s a phenomenon in quantum mechanics known as the Observer Effect. In the interests of drawing a curious analogy, I hope you’ll permit me to explain it:

How would you measure the speed of a car? Well, you find it, wait a certain amount of time, and find it again. If you know how much time has passed, you now measure the difference in position. Divide the latter by the former, and you have a measure of the speed. But what do I mean by finding it? How do you find anything? You see it, with light. This reduces, in it’s most fundamental form, to collecting photons. Suppose you were in a dark tunnel whilst measuring the car. To see it, you need to bounce photons off the car and collect them again.

Instead of the speed of a car, let’s try a tennis ball in a dark court. Shine a light at it, wait for a known time, and shine a light at it again. Photons in and out, time passes, photons in and out again. Note one thing: A photon has energy. When you bounce a photon off the tennis ball, it very, very slightly changes the energy of the tennis ball. And with the change of energy comes a change of speed. However, seeing as a photon is 20 orders of magnitude smaller than a tennis ball, the change in energy is absolutely tiny, even if you fire trillions upon trillions of photons.

Let’s move it down a scale again: Take a flea. Repeat the speed measurement, and you get an accurate result. A virus? Same deal. But note a second thing: The smaller the object gets, the more the energy of a photon is by comparison to the object. Therefore the more the object changes its speed when the photon collides with it, and the less accurate your measurement becomes.

Here’s to going all the way: An electron. How would you measure it’s speed? Same way as the car. Bounce a photon off it, wait, and bounce another one off it. But remember our two notes: We are now measuring the speed of an object whose energy is about the same as a photon. So when you bounce the photon off the electron, you are changing it’s energy by a huge amount, and therefore it’s speed. And because of the uncertainty of quantum systems, you don’t know exactly by how much. So when you wait your known time interval and fire the next photon, you aren’t measuring the speed you wanted. You’re measuring the changed speed.

Therein lies the observer effect: The act of measuring an object’s properties requires you to interact with that object. And at the quantum level, interacting with the object is to change whatever property you’re measuring by a huge degree, thereby making it very, very difficult to gain accurate information. Simply looking at a quantum object makes measuring it’s properties impossible.

The analogy I wish to draw from this is to a sentient mind. There are some mental problems which stem directly from thoughts. That is to say, thinking negatively causes the brain to fault. An obvious example is depression. Depression, unless chemically induced, is caused by environmental circumstances effecting your thoughts, effecting upon your brain, which in turn effects your thoughts. It’s a self-inflicting vicious circle which drains people emotionally.

Sad thoughts causing sad thoughts are running through my head. Right now, I feel in a state of complete boredom and I feel a distinct lack of motivation to do anything. I am finding myself in moments of self-pity, general laziness and with an unwillingness to smile. I recognise the symptoms as that of very mild depression. I wonder what will happen now that I’ve simply acknowledged this. Because to me, it seems that depression should follow the observer effect. That is to say, the act of evaluating my mental state destroys my mental state. Why? Because my current state is caused by factors which I know are in my control, and taking control is sometimes just knowing that you can. I would suggest that maybe that is the deeper meaning behind, “The first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.” In the cases of many mental illnesses, it reduces to this: “The only step to solving a problem is admitting you have one.”

I’ve given the symptoms. Now for the root cause: I’m not spending time with people. That, more than anything else, is the driving factor. I hate being alone with my own thoughts for more time than I want to. Humans aren’t meant to be alone. We’re social animals, and it’s part of our nature to seek pleasure from interactions. If you’re remotely depressed, just spend some time with people. It will help, on the most basic, instinctive level, to get you back to normal.

Cause, symptoms, cure: In four days, I’m heading off to Thailand for a childcare volunteering program. I’m going to try and keep myself busy with packing, and then I’m going to spend three weeks making friends. I can’t wait, and I’ve been told I’ll have Wi-Fi in my accommodation. If you’re remotely interested in hearing how this goes, keep up with my blog over the next few weeks. My time there starts July 5th, and ends on July 26th.

Oh, and I was right: Depression does obey the observer effect. My motivation is back.