What are the antidotes to saying frequent goodbyes to great people and places? It’s the first big lesson of travelling for me.
Here are the top 10 things that have helped me with goodbyes...
I had the travelling luxury of 3 weeks with Maura in Chiang Mai. We ate deep fried pumpkin and banana blossom at markets. We saw a little girl eating purple candyfloss twice the size of her head. We swam in a rooftop pool. We danced on the tables at Roots Rock Reggae bar. We learnt about massage from a laughing blind man.
The best nights Maura and I had out in Chiang Mai were dancing to live music at the North Gate Jazz Coop and Zoe in Yellow. Saxophonists, flute players, guitarists, drummers, singers, pianists, percussion players, DJs – played incredible music for us all night.
So I booked myself a flute lesson on the morning of Maura’s departure. The flute teacher was Ralph Thomas, one of the best jazz musicians in town. I hadn’t picked up a flute in 20 years so wasn’t sure if I could still play.
Originally from Chicago, Ralph has recorded with Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Jermaine Jackson. He plays saxophone, flute and pipes like he’s having a lively conversation with friends. His music makes you move.
The 1 hour lesson was magical. I remembered most of the fingerwork. Ralph quickly steered me in the right direction when I played a wrong note. My breathing technique was rusty, but Ralph reminded me of exercises I learnt 20 years ago at school.
By the end of the lesson, I could play a recognisable version of a tune called ‘Wave’ to a bossanova beat.
Ralph quickly conveyed a feeling of lightheartedness about playing the flute. The clue is in the word ‘play’ – it’s meant to be fun.
‘You just have to let the flute know what to do,’ Ralph said. ‘Easy.’
There was still some sadness when I said goodbye to Maura at Chiang Mai airport. But thoughts of the flute lesson that morning and the shared experiences with Maura filled me with joy in the tuk tuk back to town.
Writing always soothes me. It makes sense of every feeling I have. Later that evening, I wrote about Maura. It came to me that her name – Maura Natali – is an anagram of ‘I am a natural’. Perfect description for an authentic woman.
And then it was my turn to leave. That afternoon, I’d said goodbye to Hannah – an American girl bubbling with vitality and fun.
We’d celebrated Hannah’s birthday with pesto pasta and a cake with a pink chocolate car on top. And with Hannah leaving, the last of my original set of friends in Chiang Mai, I thought it was perhaps my time to move on – despite the hold this town has over me. So I booked my bus to Chiang Rai.
My Thai family at Britannia guesthouse (O, Dom, Thom and the dog) threw a party for me. O cooked a delicious meal of spicy crab and noodle salad, shrimps marinated in lemon and chilli, roast chicken, sticky rice and tom yum soup.
James Brown on the stereo.
Conversations in Thai and English and French around the table. Laughing at everything that was lost in translation.
A night to remember....
4) Staying longer than planned
...and then the Earth wobbled.
At first, it felt like I was passing out. Then I looked at the walls of my guesthouse and they were shaking. The pictures of the King and Queen of Thailand were swaying. The bottles of Coke and Chang beer moved along the table. Our Thai hosts were wide-eyed and gripped our hands.
We felt three tremors from the Myanmar earthquake in Chiang Mai on March 24th and 25th. We soon heard that in my next destination Chiang Rai, there had been a fatality and damage to roads and buildings.
So it was a simple decision for me to stay the weekend in Chiang Mai until Mother Nature settled.
5) Body painting and dancing
My second leaving party in Chiang Mai turned tribal!
Britannia guesthouse became a body painting shop as we were transformed by a local tattoo artist into tribal queens and kings, ahead of the Tribal Cave party.
The artist’s face was calm and focused throughout 4 hours of brushing red and black and neon paints over our arms and legs, our faces, our backs and waists.
Dancing definitely helped me with the goodbye to Chiang Mai and its people.
We jumped up and down together.
We were entertained by drummers and firedancers and DJs.
We danced until our legs gave up.
6) Asking questions
Whenever I have challenges in life, my mind forms questions. And I always assume there is someone out there who can answer those questions.
I knew the crowd at the Chiang Mai Writers Club and Wine Bar would have something helpful to say on the subject of saying goodbye to incredible people and places whilst travelling.
I chatted to Bob Tilley, former Telegraph foreign correspondent and owner of the Chiang Mai Writers Club. He told me a story about working with a news team at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics and how the team formed an amazing bond.
‘This tough news man got quite emotional when it came to an end,’ Bob says.
This reassured me that everyone feels some sadness when great times come to an end.
Thanks Bob, I've loved talking to you whilst I've been in Chiang Mai.
7) Getting excited about the next steps
Journalist Tom Fawthrop and writer James Goodman enthused me with tales about two of my next travelling destinations – Laos and Vietnam. Tom insisted I visit Mr T at an organic farm in Phoudindeang for a mulberry shake and to teach English to kids. Vietnam expert James excited me about Hanoi – he told me about the artistic community and the original streets still named after the commodity once sold there.
8) Keeping in touch
And Cat Nesbit, author and world traveller. After 45 years of travelling and 70 years of life, I knew Cat would have a few things to say about goodbyes.
I met Cat for Sunday lunch at the Writers Club, the day before I left Chiang Mai. She walked in with a bright smile on her face, wearing a purple and white tie dye T-shirt, flared jeans and sandals. Only days until her next adventure to France and Spain.
Cat told me about a time when there were only letters – she’d send letters to friends she’d met on her travels whom she loved. Sometimes letters would come back. But eventually as people moved on in their journeys, the letters stopped.
‘It’s a lot easier now to keep in touch with the internet,’ Cat said. ‘The saddest was my great friend Christianne who I met in Beirut. I decided to surprise her in France but when I arrived she had left a week before on a boat to Israel. And I never heard from her again.
‘The way I learned to accept goodbyes is to cherish the memories. And I remember that the alternative is being stuck with people that you are counting the minutes until they go away!’
Laughter. The antidote to everything.
Here I have to thank Thom, the manager of Britannia guesthouse and my Thai Mum for the last 4 weeks. She has a totally unique brand of hospitality, laughter is guaranteed.
Her catchphrases include ‘don’t worry, be happy’, ‘sabai sabai’ (chill out), ‘choop choop’ (kiss kiss) and ‘don’t forget my arse’.
I ask Thom her advice about saying goodbye – I figured she must know a thing or two being in the hospitality trade.
‘If I so love the person, very hard to say bye bye,’ Thom says. ‘I say, look, I love you, I never say bye bye, I say good luck and all the best come to you and come back see me here – Britannia, Soi 9, Moon Muang, Chiang Mai.’
Thom’s crying and laughing at the same time when she says this. And then she writes a message in my notebook.
‘My name Thom Big Mouth, Chiang Mai. I love you when I saw you first and now. Never say bye bye to you because you someone I love. You just come back and see me here. Choop choop.’
Choop choop Thom xx
10) Feeling ‘joy-pain’
And now I’m on the bus to Chiang Rai, curled up in my seat. I'm watching the world out of the window as the bus twists up green hills into a white sky. I'm listening to Fur Elise, a song I have played on the piano since I was a child. I'm remembering the colours and smells and sounds of Chiang Mai.
I close my eyes and experience a feeling I have come to know as joy-pain (an expression given to me by my friend and guide in London, Hilary). For me, joy-pain is the emotion that describes precisely what it is to be human. Joy-pain is a perfect fusion of intense happiness and sadness, felt in the same moment - it's the experience of the magic and beauty of life combined with the awareness that everything must come to an end.
I allow myself to think of the most exquisite memories of Chiang Mai...
And my whole body is taken over by the feeling of being alive. Every cell beats with gratitude...for the way my life is today...for the people in my life...for the freedom I feel...for the gift of sensitivity...