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Finding a “strangel” and swimming in the rain

July 3, 2011

I’m in Southwest Florida. It’s summer. Now, if you’re anything like me you might not really have thought about one thing about Florida. It’s tropical. It rains. A lot. Since the rain started (which I believe was a bit late this year), it’s rained almost every afternoon, which is when I usually get to thinking about venturing out to do something interesting. The other day it wasn’t even just the afternoon. It rained all day.

After staring glumly out the window wishing I could actually enjoy my semi-proximity to the beach for once, an idea hit me. I had a pool! So I threw on my bathing suit and hopped in the pool.

Swimming in the rain was fun, freeing, spontaneous — it gave me a bit of that special travelin’ feeling. And it brought back a memory of another time I went swimming in the rain…

I was coming off a semester studying abroad in Thailand. Most of the other students had flown back home, and I was faced with two months to kill until I had to be in Australia for my summer internship. No use flying across the globe and back when there was traveling to be done!

So I began my first real solo travel experience – far, far away in Southeast Asia. After a short stint in Laos, I had traipsed all the way across Thailand and into Malaysia (overland — a story in itself!), destined for Pulau Perhentian Kecil, an island a friend had recommended to me.

My first afternoon on the island was pleasant but lonely. I laid on the beach for a bit and met a couple people, but no real connections were formed. Everyone seemed to be on the island to dive, and that’s all they seemed to talk about. In the evening it poured, a cyclone-like funnel appearing in the distance, and I was beginning to regret my decision to come to the island. I was having difficulty meeting people, the weather was less than wonderful, and I wasn’t exactly impressed with my accommodation. The island was expensive (comparatively, after so much time in Thailand and Laos) and staying at the cheapest bungalows on the island I was still paying a whopping 25 ringgit ($6) for a basic hut (read: bed and mosquito net) at the Rock Garden “guesthouse” up a big set of stairs away from the beach.

The next day the rain continued and I spent most of my time reading and eating. By the following morning I was more than decided to ditch the island and find some other way to bide my time before heading back to Bangkok. I was returning from breakfast, walking up the stairs to my hut, when I was called over by a couple guys. Two of them were workers at Rock Garden, the third a guy from Canada. They coerced me into trying some fish chips (eh) and we got to talking. Soon I found myself actually laughing and having a good conversation, something I had so desperately needed after so much time alone with my own thoughts.

It turns out I had met one of my favorite kind of people on the road — a strangel (as in, solo travel angel — or stranger angel if that better suits you). A strangel is a person you meet when you’re feeling at a particular low on your travels, struggling to go on. It can be tough traveling solo, sometimes you can go days and days without having any kind of meaningful conversation with another person and you begin to wonder what the heck you were thinking going it alone. But when you meet a strangel everything turns around. They remind you why you’re traveling — they inspire you, or invite you to do something crazy, or just bring a little fun/happiness/meaning into your day. My strangel was a mysterious Canadian (in true strangel fashion, I don’t even remember his name — sometimes the people who make the biggest difference aren’t going to end up as your friend on Facebook!) and he was about to turn my trip around.

I had told the guys that I was probably going to leave that afternoon. They urged me to reconsider, insisted the weather would get better, etc. I was still pretty sure I didn’t want to spend any more time on the island. But my strangel got the better of me with a crazy suggestion that my more reserved self would usually turn down. “Let’s go swimming!” But it’s raining….

Suddenly I thought, who cares? I ran back to my hut to put on my swimsuit and met the Canadian on the steps to the beach. We raced to the ocean and jumped in among the waves. The water felt amazing, and the rain just added to the experience. (And obviously made it memorable!) The rain was also causing some decent sized waves — it was like being at the wave pool at a water park, but it was real. Soon we were joined by a bunch of other travelers who were sick of spending their vacations huddled under their huts, and the beach was brought to life.

From there, my whole trip turned around. One of the guesthouse workers from before, “Joe,” had come out with a boogie board and we were surfing the waves and talking. He offered to take me out snorkeling the next morning if I promised to stay (how could I say no?) and assured me he would do his best to help me spot my most desired sea creature: the sea turtle.

So I stayed. That evening the guesthouse guys invited me to eat dinner with them. I had a very authentic dinner with some true blue locals — I’m talking fish and rice, all eaten with our bare hands! It was one of those experiences you travel for. And that night I had a great time getting to know locals and travelers alike — I had finally come into my own. The next morning Joe stayed true to his word and took me to his favorite secret snorkeling spot (which was quite an exhausting hike across the small island over lots of rugged, rocky terrain) where not only did we see some of the most incredible huge, bright coral I’ve ever seen and spectacular fish but also the elusive sea turtle! (My first spotting — though I have been lucky enough to have since seen them in the Galapagos and Ningaloo as well.)

I’m glad I stayed and enjoyed Perhentian, and I’m glad I found my Canadian strangel. It’s a funny thing about travel, how you can think back on people who really left an impact on you, people who you think about now and again even though you don’t keep in touch, may not even remember their name. It’s an incredible (though admittedly, a bit bittersweet) thing. Since then I’ve met many, many other strangels on my travels, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been one a couple times as well.

Do you have any special strangel memories? Please do share, I find them fascinating! I hope to share a few more of mine in the future as well.


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