I experienced love at first sight—and it was real

When you tell your friends and family you have decided to quit your job and fly to the other side of the world, the responses are not always what you hoped for. For me, when I decided to leave my job as a tutor at a rural high school in my hometown to backpack through Southeast Asia for six weeks, my parents were none too pleased and my friends were skeptical (except for the two who were joining me, of course).

All three of us needed it, for different reasons. One was stuck in a rut with her job, another wanted one last escapade before starting graduate school, and I was nursing the lingering affects of pretty bad breakup from a few months prior. I was tired of being made smaller; I wanted to be bigger, not bitter, and stretch myself halfway across the globe to prove to no one but myself that I could. So we set off: three girls, three backpacks, and three connecting flights from Washington, D.C. to Bangkok, Thailand.

Our plan was that we had no plan. We knew we’d start in Bangkok and travel clockwise, but we made no reservations and thought only a few days ahead. The lack of structure was invigorating. The culture shock of landing in a large, Asian city for the first time was strong; locals formed stick-straight parallel lines on the subway platforms for efficient entry and exit on the sleek train cars and bowed to each and every statue of the Buddha that they passed, be he large or small. They bowed to us also, both in greetings and goodbyes. “Sawadee,” they said softly, with their hands pressed together to form the shape of a lotus flower, index fingers pressing against their upper lips. The goodness in me acknowledges the goodness in you.

I was so touched by this sentiment and I felt it from each person I encountered, whether they were in their home country, or they were travelers too. There was Nam, the Thai flight attendant who showed us around Bangkok our first night, taking us to the best street food. When it was just the two of us for a moment, she whispered into my ear, “Whoever he is, he’s not here anymore.” It was as if she’d read my life’s whole book by the freckles on my face. There were the other travelers—gregarious Irishmen, a sweet couple from Oregon, a girl traveling alone and barefoot. Befriending people from all across the globe, who by pure happenstance we could sit next to and break bread (or rather, rice) with, proved to me the world is small and it is ours, if we want it.

Our trip was so full, and ripe with adventure. We hopped islands in Southern Thailand; got lost in a jungle and experienced simultaneous meltdown over the realization that the little worms we kept flicking off of our legs were actually blood-sucking leeches; hiked to a Northern Hill Tribe village and rode on bamboo rafts back. We took overnight trains, and buses, and the backs of pick-up trucks to get to PDR Lao, and then Cambodia. We learned so much about the history, and culture, and essence of the land we traversed.

By the time we made it to Sihanoukville, it was my twenty-fourth birthday. To celebrate, my friends and I decided to get tickets for a party boat that toured the gulf. I hadn’t exactly realized it was the kind of party where they shoot hard alcohol into your mouth with a super soaker (if you want it) and decorate you with body paint (whether you want it or not). As I stepped onto the boat, I jolted as if I’d hit my head on the entranceway. A deeply bronzed guy with the thick brown beard and wide eyes was looking right at me. I whispered to my friends, “I’m in love with him. I heard their you’re silly sighs and felt their hands on my back pushing me forward. I was embarrassed, like I’d just dropped a romance novel on the subway.

The boat was crowded with people dancing and socializing, but when it stopped and everyone climbed up to the top deck to jump into the water I kept a lookout for him. The water was so salty and dense that floating took no effort at all.

Later, as I sat on the railing to catch a breeze from the moving boat, breaking from dancing, he walked towards me. My heart raced, my stomach turned, and I may have had to close my eyes.

“Who are you?” I think he said.

“I’m sorry, what?” I replied over the loud music.

He had to get closer to me for us to hear one another, I leaned forward from my perch on the railing and even though he was quite tall, since I was so elevated, his chin tapped my shoulder as he talked straight into my ear. I didn’t mind. Everything about him was engaging, but mostly how he pulled away from me and flashed a bright smile so contrasting his dark beard when he found something I said funny.

He told me his name was Ryan and he’d been traveling alone for six months, just making new friends and tagging along with groups and staying in locations long enough to get a real feel for them. He told me about the job he left, his ex-girlfriend, his family. He told me I was the prettiest girl on the boat and I believed him, even though I’m sure the salty water had done nothing becoming for my hair, and by this time in our trip my eyebrows were undoubtedly unruly.

When he perched himself next to me on the railing, the neon yellow body paint on his shoulder pressed against the orange design on mine and we were both left with new, mirror images. In my memory, Ryan’s eyes are navy blue—so dark I could see my own reflection in them. “I wonder if this is how he sees me?” I remember looking at myself in them and thinking.

It makes sense that the dock our boat left from and came back to was called Serendipity. It makes sense, too, that I fell in love with him at the end of our trip, when I was so open and had a few more freckles on my face, because when I did, in a way I fell in back in love with myself.

We spent the rest of that first evening walking around the little beach town, holding hands, and pouring out to each other our motivations, or fears, and our dreams. There weren’t candles or roses, just us and the electricity I felt between our palms. It was authentic, and condensed—one day was all we got because it was all we needed. Even though I’d have to fly to the West Coast of Canada to ever see him again, I’m happy just to know that he exists. I’m happy to know that there are people who want to know you and invest in you for whatever amount of time the stars allow. I love him for teaching me that I can be loved.

“You always meet twice,” Ryan said when we couldn’t delay our parting any longer. Fingers crossed.

It turns out, for me, falling in love isn’t necessarily about being swept off your feet. It’s more so about standing firmly on them, in a place you got yourself to, reaching your arms out as wide as your can, and embracing the entire world, with all its peaks and all the valleys. Then saying, to every passing stranger, “Sawadee.” The goodness in me acknowledges the goodness in you.

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