A Beach Walk in Phuket by Syd Blackwell
The beaches of Phuket in the 1970s, had vast stretches uncluttered with tourism. One day while walking alone on one of those beaches, I overtook a couple. They greeted me cheerily, so I slowed my pace and joined them. They looked older than my parents. In months of travel in Asia, I had not seen any other travellers like them. Of course, I was curious to learn more.
I asked them where they were going.
“Australia”, they quickly answered, in unison.
“When do you plan to get there?” I enquired, but they didn´t know. And, thus began their tale of travel.
He had been a civil servant in England; she a stay-at-home mother. They had retired to a quaint cottage in Cornwall, just as they had dreamed and planned for so many years. After a couple of years, on a sun-dappled afternoon while they were reading books in the garden, he put his book down and asked his wife, “What are we doing?”
Somewhat nonplussed, she answered, “We´re retired. That´s what we´re doing. We´re being retired.”
“No, no, that´s not it”, he quickly responded. “That is not what we are doing.”
“Alright, then,” she continued, somewhat exasperated, “just what are we doing?”
“We´re waiting to die.”
This stunning announcement led to a much-spirited discussion, but in a stunningly short time, a great decision had been made. They would sell everything and they would go travelling. They had never travelled very far their whole lives. They had never even been outside Great Britain. On this particular afternoon, they had agreed that life as travellers was better than sitting around “waiting to die”.
Naturally, their family and friends were shocked and dismayed and tried to dissuade them. But, this was not to be. They had made their decision. They were now travellers and they were going to travel to Australia.
By the time we walked together on that Phuket beach, they had already been on the road for fourteen months. Everything they owned was in their backpacks. They had traversed Europe and followed a traditional backpacker route through the Middle East and southern Asia, through countries not then violated and disrupted by greedy manipulations. They had been unencumbered by plans, schedules, or expectations. They just made it up as they went, adjusting to what they found, stopping whenever they wanted and leaving when it felt right. They told me they were in no hurry to leave Thailand. They wanted to see “the bridge on the River Kwai”, and the ruins at Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai, and maybe venture into the Golden Triangle, and visit Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand with a twelve-meter tall golden Buddha, that was not even on most backpacker itineraries. Australia seemed a long way away.
I reassessed my walking companions. Yes, they were certainly old, but I had failed to notice they were also lean, muscular, and well-tanned. In short, physically quite different than so many others of that era who were also in their late sixties. Undoubtedly quite different than what they themselves had looked like more than a year before.
I asked them why they had decided to go to Australia. They explained that Australia was the farthest away place they could imagine. (They weren´t wrong by very much as the actual antipode to England lies south of New Zealand.) That seemed a perfectly reasonable response to me.
Then I asked them what they would do after they had reached their travel destination. They sort of avoided the question by telling me Australia was an awfully big country and it might take them quite a while to get around to various bits of it and that would give them lots of time to think about where they would next travel.
“So, you wouldn´t think of staying there, in Australia?” I probed.
“Oh, we might for a while,” he replied cautiously.
“But not long enough to be ´waiting to die´,” she quickly added with a giggle.
We walked and talked a long time more, until I felt a wave was threatening to engulf me on that Phuket beach, a wave that would sweep me away with them to Australia. This couple, both well past twice my age, had enchanted me with their serendipitous travels and their unbound enthusiasm.
But, I was westward bound and would soon be in Nepal. It was time for us to part. I wrote their names in my journal, but their English mailing address was in a country where they would never again belong. I knew I would never write. I knew we would never meet again.
Now, I am older than the English couple were on that Phuket beach. In the intervening years, I have often recalled that walk, thought about them, and wondered about their further travels. Today, of course, they would write a blog, and thousands, most of them complete strangers, would follow their footsteps. Then, there was just the moment, a spiritual sharing, an inspiration, that has travelled beyond the boundaries of lives.