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The Tidal Pool Treasures of Thailand

There is a place in Thailand that, to me, is the most magical place on Earth. I found it by accident, but I think I’d like to die there someday. I won’t say where it is, but if you ever want to go, tell me and if you’ve been kind to me over the years I will hand-draw you a map. In the mean while, I think we could all use a little magic during these tough times, so I’ll show you what I found there.

It all began when I woke up in my cliff-side bungalow the morning after I arrived, and looked out the window. By the first light of dawn, I saw something interesting outside:

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It looked like the entrance to a cave off in the distance. I’d stayed here once before but this was a new bungalow—two years ago the jungle was covering this particular view and I didn’t know the cave existed.

While eating  breakfast I chatted with an adventurous Slovakian couple. After finishing, the man hopped over a low rail partitioning off the dining area from the rocky cliff, and waved goodbye. I turned to his partner, and asked where he was going. She pointed to the rocks below. I was amazed they were going down there, because not once had the idea occurred to me last time I was there. I assumed it was too dangerous and stuck to the several sandy beaches, each offering its own slice of nature that was more than fulfilling for me. Minutes later, she finished her yogurt and prepared to walk down to find her mate. Knowing nothing about them I thought perhaps they were the rock-climbing type, and asked about the decent. “Yeah the path is kind of treacherous but it’s worth it,” she said, climbing down in flip flops.

Surely if she was wearing flip flops, I could do it in sneakers. But she wasn’t lying about it being treacherous. When I climbed down later there was barely a path through the jungle overgrowth, and I crabwalked and bouldered down most of the way. When I finally reached the bottom though, it was magnificent peaceful rocky heaven.

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I quickly realized that the hot sun was just about to round the cliff at noon, and once it did I would fry. I had one bottle of water with me so that would be the measure of how long I would stay down.

A stark contrast from the bustle of Bangkok’s Kao San Road, where I’d been just 48 hours before, I was completely alone in nature out here. It was glorious. I found a little rock hut and hid from the sun to write in my notebook, examining the tiniest of hermit crabs and volcanic rock around me. I noticed little pools of water where larger crabs had made their graves and turned bright red, cooked from the sun. That first day out there, it felt like a seaside wasteland. I imagined living out there for years, and how I would pass the time. When I would miss humanity and how my brain would cope with the lack of socialization.

I took off my bathing suit top and jumped in the water with my snorkel. The Slovakians were nowhere to be found, nor was anybody else, so clothes ceased to be of importance. Under the sea were brightly colored tropical fish floating lazily among the thousands of barnacles. I was one of them. They weren’t afraid.

I felt myself getting dehydrated so I climbed along the cliff while the sun beat down on my back. My sunscreen was no more but I wasn’t going back up the way I came. I saw the cave, looking inviting as ever, but I was out of water. I knew it was for tomorrow unless I wanted to die there today.

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I found a path through the jungle leading out to the main road and walked back up the steep hill to my bungalow, ready to collapse. I drank a ton of water, in a race with a dehydration headache, and realized that I did what I always do: pushed myself too hard. As Hunter S. Thompson once said of The Edge, “the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” But the edge is where I tend to perch, and oh, sometimes it cuts me.

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I woke up the next day sore as hell from using all my latent rock climbing muscles and burnt to a crisp. I usually don’t ever burn, but after coming from Sweden and a long European winter, my skin was shocked. I picked up the tube of sunscreen I’d purchased at the Bangkok Airport Boots and squinted at the back. There was a sticker in Thai over the description and when I ripped it off and saw the English words: “Not waterproof, reapply after swimming or sweating,” I groaned and chucked it into the corner of the bungalow.

It didn’t deter me though. The next day I went back down, earlier this time before the sun was too hot. Everything was different, rearranged. Even the heavy rocks had shifted slightly. I realized the tide must come all the way up to the cliff and back down on a daily basis. The crab corpses were in different holes today. I made a game out of walking along and looking in each watery hole. Each one had a different surprise in it every day, a different combination of urchins, nematodes and patterned corals.

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The strange thing was that if you saw the holes at low tide, everything looked dead, devoid of color. But once the water came in, everything glimmered with life.

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I approached the cave, carefully stepping on the dry rocks since the wet ones were treacherously slippery. Getting here during high tide would be nearly impossible. It was a silly hunt at first, and I expected to find nothing more than some 3-foot deep enclosure, something I would do as a child on the playground and then pretend whatever I found meant much more than it was. But when I approached and saw it went THROUGH to somewhere, I delighted.

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Light at the end of the tunnel is always a good thing, right?

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Still tapering my expectations, I lingered in the shade, grateful for a reprieve from the rays. But when I crossed over, the sight took my breath away:

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With everyone smashed so closely together in NYC, it’s rare to feel both truly alone and out in the open. You can go inside the boxes we build for ourselves to feel alone, but there is no nature. Or you can go outside and know that there are hundreds of people around you at any given moment, maybe watching you and maybe not, but not definitely not. Not not enough to wander around naked feeling totally free.

I came back there to that spot quite often. it just so happened that the sun set perfectly in the middle of the grotto. There was some kind of rare bird tending a nest high on one of the cliffs, and I would watch her and she would watch me, and it was very chill. One day I went out there and smoked a joint while I watched a fisherman cast and recast his line in the distance. I got very sad thinking how unfair it was that, as a woman, this feeling of liberation was so kept from me in most places and circumstances. Rarely is a woman alone given the respect to stay that way, unwatched, unpursued, unharassed. So rarely do we celebrate the fierce triumph of lonliness.

No sooner had the thought entered my mind then did two men walk out into MY secret grotto. I didn’t acknowledge them at first, I just went about my business looking at rocks. But when the sun was starting to set, they happened to be sitting in the best place to see it, so I walked nearer to assess them. My senses said, OK, and my eyes noticed they were actually quite cute, so I said something about the sun and we became friends. Turned out they were also traveling bloggers, from Argentina. We motorbiked around the island together and they invited me to go with them to the full moon party, but I didn’t want to leave my tide pools, my solitude. I do hope I see them again, somewhere around the world. Being alone is wonderful, but so is good company.

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I stuck with my tidal pool investigation. And after a few weeks something started to happen: the most exhilarating health I have felt in years. I was waking up early to go out there, and going to bed exhausted at night. I shed like 15 lbs. One day I wore yoga shorts and before going down the cliff, one of the ladies who worked in the kitchen told me: “Your legs skinny now. When you first came, much bigger!” OK cool thanks!

I don’t know if it was from climbing the mountain, or sweating, or just being so dazzled by nature, that I just became more healthful and alive than ever. My book topic crystallized, I began writing poetry, and painting. I felt like for once in my life, my body was telling me: “This is the way you’re supposed to be living!!!!!”

I began to feel the rhythms of the tides, and I started to find weirder creatures.

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I posted a picture of this ball sac looking thing on Twitter to see if anyone knew what it was, and got a range of answers, from alien spawn to… well mostly alien spawn. I mean, that’s why I didn’t poke it to see what was inside, but also, respect for nature.

Anyway, mystery solved, eventually a scientist suggested it may be an anemone bundled up for low tide. Who knew they did that? I went back to try to find it the next day, but obviously it was gone, because like the other forms of life out here, it was only visible out of water in a transitory state.

But the other stuff I found…

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Hints of what’s underneath.

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WTF NATURE!!! HOW ARE YOU SO BEAUTIFUL?

And my favorite gem, which now will grace the background of my newly redesigned website, arikia.com:

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The best thing about all this, is that if you don’t know what you’re looking for, all of this just looks like mud from far away. ALL OF THIS TREASURE. AHH.

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So this is what I did for a month in Thailand. I observed nature, and contemplated its ephemeral state of being as all these beautiful and resilient sea creatures got pushed in and swept out with the tide, burning in the hot sun and dying and ejecting spawn back into the sea because that is the life cycle. And all our stupid little problems revolving around paper that is printed to represent things people can have that they gain from the destruction of natural beauty and life on Earth? I had next to none of those pieces of paper when I was here, and I was happy! I vowed not to let myself worry when I go back to New York City, about death or taxes, about relationships or the new class of dictators we’re breeding in the US. Soon enough, the tide of life will sweep us all out to sea, and it will be over, and that will be great because that’s what’s supposed to happen. And none of their paper will matter. So why worry now? The anemones don’t worry.

I am not the only one who has been profoundly moved by tidal pools either. John Steinbeck once wrote in The Log From the Sea of Cortez:

“It is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”

The evening before I left my magical accidental island, I went out to the tidal pools one last time. But before I could even get to the tidal line, I realized I was not alone out here:

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The monkeys, John Steinbeck and me: tidal pool fans for life.

At first I thought, “oh cute! A monkey!” and walked nearer. But then it was, “Oh, and he has a friend!” “… and another friend.” And then I realized it was a whole tribe of 15 monkeys and I was alone out there. Was nature going to demolish me so soon after I made peace with death by having monkeys rip my eyeballs out?

I kept my distance, stepping back out of their path of destruction as they ravaged the magical creatures in the tidal pools like it was their personal buffet. And ravaged each other.

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Then one by one, in the most circular display of my own cycle in a place, the monkeys all filed into the cave and disappeared into the dusk.

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I was planning on going to the cave, but I thought: they clearly have plans. Nature had gifted me, on my last night, the presence and acceptance of these creatures on what I’m sure they saw as their own turf. What more could I ask?

I hope you enjoyed hearing about this leg of my journey, and that if you are struggling and stressing out in a box over pieces of paper on a concrete plot somewhere, as I will be in less than a week, to remember there is beauty in the world waiting to envelop you like a big hug and it has the power to break the societal spells that can make us so miserable over what is, in many ways, a fine mesh of illusions. Just find the nature around you and look closer. And when you reach the point of truly appreciating your exchange with nature, do your part to protect it. Or it won’t be here much longer.

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<3 Arikia

All photos by Arikia Millikan taken with an Olympus Pen EP-5. Not for reproduction without permission.

This post was cross-published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

 

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