This post is the next installment in a series about my trip to Thailand to volunteer helping elephants.
I started dating my girlfriend in January. Even before our first date I had already been making plans for a couple of grand trips, including the one to Thailand.
On our dates I talked often about the upcoming trips and I was open about my feelings: anticipation, anxiety, fear, excitement. I spilled over like a volcano about to burst and I saw how this girl who I was breathlessly attracted to reacted: supportive and excited for me… then, as we began to fall in love, I felt the trepidation creep in for her.
But the trips were far in the future. That’s how I looked at it. So let’s got on with this romance, kay?
I credit my girlfriend with a lot of strength because she fell in love with me even though that is not how she looked at it. She was thinking more along the lines of “should I actually commit and be vulnerable to this man who will soon disappear for long stretches?”
She brought this up a few times and I spouted some stuff about “living in the moment”—and I believed this at the time. I wasn’t trying to sweep her feelings away, but I knew that these trips—particularly the one to Thailand—would scoop me up, spin, wash and dry me, and burp me out a changed man. A better man. And the relationship would benefit from this.
This intuitive foreknowledge came from such a deep place that I should have grabbed it by the lapels and shook it down for some winning lottery numbers.
Besides, my girlfriend and I had both gone through long stretches of our lives when we had been alone—not in a relationship with anyone—so of course we could both do “alone” standing on our heads, right?
So yeah, during these trips we’d talk on the phone or Skype if we could, no big deal. So what if we didn’t speak to each other a day or two here and there?
That was my thinking.
My girlfriend didn’t see it that way. She made sure we both had Skype, Tango, and Viber installed on our smart phones and laptops. We tested them all out before I left. Then she talked about phone cards and SIM cards, and at that point I pictured myself jamming a screwdriver into my iPhone to install whatever a SIM card was, and I couldn’t see this going any other way than the phone shattering on the ground or blowing up in my face or me accidentally stabbing myself in the eye with the screwdriver.
I emailed the organization I was volunteering with to provide details about what the Internet and phone connection would be like in the village. The evasive response was only that it was “unreliable.” My girlfriend’s opinion was that this was 2013, and you could communicate from anywhere. After talking with a cousin of hers who had lived in Thailand she informed me that these days people climb trees and hang out with monkeys and still talk on their smart phones.
I agreed, while wondering if her cousin was Dian Fossey or Jane Goodall.
Once I finally got to the village, it turned out that I wouldn’t be climbing a tree to call her, but a mountain.
On top of this mountain was the elementary school for the village. This is where the Holy Internet slept, a little Mickey Mouse wireless black box tucked into a dusty corner of a classroom for six to eight-year-old students. The school was the only place where you even had a shot of reaching the outside world—the village was just too remote.
On this fragile little box were pinned the Skyping hopes and Tangoing dreams of the dozens of loved ones of the volunteers, and each day—usually after the morning hikes—almost all of us would make the pilgrimage up the mountain to suck at the teat of the Holy Internet.
Let me draw emphasis to this: I would climb a mountain each day to use the phone.
It was an interesting hike, too—because the climb is more or less gradual until the last quarter mile or so—and then It. Gets. Really. Freaking. Steep.
But at least after the difficult hike I was welcomed to a glorious technological paradise of gold-plated phones, data-humming global connections, and little armies of school children fanning me while I relaxed in a lounge chair chatting lazily with my girlfriend. Dogs licked my phone-free hand.
Or actually, what it was really like: The school kids hopped around me like kangaroos driven mad, screaming at the tops of their lungs as stray dogs barked like hell hounds. I circled around the school yelling “Hello?!”, trying to hold a connection, feeling like I was guarding a match flame fizzling in the middle of a wind tunnel.
The connection was not “unreliable.” It was actually quite reliable. You could rely on it to suck. Getting a good connection was a shock.
If the spotty service wasn’t interrupted by the wind blowing, me leaning the wrong way, or a gecko sneezing, my girlfriend and I would “talk” on the phone for a half hour or so. If the call didn’t drop—and it would, fifty times in a row, so I would have to redial over and over while handing out tissues to the geckos—I would say something and my girlfriend would hear my words only after a delay of about six seconds (the delay went both ways—I heard her words well after she spoke them as well).
This is the sort of built-in delay radio stations use to bleep out swearing, which I was certainly doing a lot of, but I can’t say that we were conversing all that much. And with the weird delays we were constantly interrupting each other, misunderstanding one another, or reacting to the other person at weird times. It was frustrating.
Worse than frustrating.
I needed to connect with my girlfriend to share what was happening in Thailand. Jungles, elephants, bugs, squat toilets that laughed at me while I tried to figure out a kneel-sit-squat combination that would get the job done without me falling into the toilet—all of these things somehow didn’t seem real, didn’t seem like they were actually happening, until I shared them with her. It’s like having a great story locked in your head. It doesn’t have any impact or meaning until someone reads it—especially if that someone has become your closest friend and partner.
My girlfriend’s need to connect was about something different. And I didn’t grasp it at first. She was upset about missing me from almost the beginning, and at first I took her reactions personally, as my crackerjack deductive reasoning jumped in to help me decipher her feelings: I got it! She’s miserable that I’m having a good time!
A lot of the calls were sad and difficult for both of us—when they were not dropping—until I took a step back and realized that I had no idea what it was like for her 6000 miles away on the other end of crappy wireless connection, and I couldn’t pretend that I did. The next time my deductive reasoning opened his mouth I shot him and fed him to the dogs.
In my best moments on the phone, I gave her the room to express her feelings about me being gone for so long without judgment, without taking them personally, and without trying to fix her.
I hit that mark about 19% of the time. But it was a good 19%.
I later realized it took a lot of courage for my girlfriend to show me her feelings and risk me judging them, or getting defensive.
I missed my girlfriend too, but the separation was more tolerable for me because I was being bombarded with sights and sounds and experiences that were coming so fast that I couldn’t even process them. I would wake up at five in the morning and collapse at nine at night, and everything in between was a blur of snorting elephants, screeching cicadas, groping leeches, strange people and foreign words bouncing around everywhere… and hikes, soccer games, basket weaving, teaching, lectures, and eating rice. Lots of eating rice.
After 32 days in Thailand I headed home. I had a ridiculously long 10-hour layover in Seoul, South Korea, and even though we were soon going to see each other in person, we spent much of that time Skyping, Vibering, and Tangoing. I moved into the airport lounge with my laptop so we could text, talk, emoticon, and pixel-grin at each other.
The wireless connection was five out of five bars, a communication nirvana. Dogs licked my hand.
It turns out that my intuition about my trip was rock-solid: this trip did change me, and for the better—not just for myself—but also for the relationship with my girlfriend.
But what I also learned is that by going off to Thailand for 32 long days I had ripped a gaping hole in the relationship—I of course didn’t intend to do this—but that’s what absence can sometimes do to intimacy. The person who stays behind is left scrambling to plug up the breach.
When you’re the one —like my girlfriend—immersed in the “normal” routine of living, those feelings of separation buzz on the surface, and they sting you over and over.
The hard work is done by the person who’s not taking the trip. They’re the ones who have to wrestle with the feelings of abandonment, insignificance, loss, of Holy crap, what if this person goes away and comes back all different? They’re the ones who have to tend the relationship during the separation, to keep their faith and keep things together.
And I know this because I am a spiritual giant and an empathetic superhero.
I know this because just recently my girlfriend went away on a spiritual retreat of her own to Hawaii. It was only for 10 days, not 32, and of course I knew I could do 10 days alone standing on my head.
I was a basket case by the third day.