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Daria Salamon
Saturday
Dec122015

When My Daughter Went Missing In Thailand, I feared the worst. 

This story originally appeared in The Globe and Mail on December 12, 2015.

We’d been travelling for seven months when we lost our daughter in Thailand. Now, that I think about it, I’m surprised it took this long for it to happen.

One day, my son had a yen for street meat. I’m always in favour of procuring street food of any kind, so Oskar and I wandered over to the stalls that were lined up on the road right out front of our guesthouse. We embarked on a bit of an expedition to find our favourite supplier of meat – a guy who sold pork satay grilled on a charcoal barbecue hooked up to the back of his bike. He moved around a lot, but we were determined to find him – his sticks of greasy pork were worth the extra effort.

“Where’s Mum and Oskar?” my 6-year-old daughter asked my husband as she climbed out of the pool.

“They went for street food. They’ll be right back.” She ran off to find us.

The strangest thing has happened over the past seven months of travelling with our kids through numerous countries. The leash has gotten longer and longer. We often let them run off in pursuit of frogs and chickens and monkeys. They have forged makeshift friendships with children from all over the world.

“Mum, quick, gimme the keys. I met this Russian boy and he wants to see the back of our van!” Isla said, ripping through my backpack when we were camping in New Zealand. In Bali, local boys took Oskar off into the rice fields and taught him how to fly his red nylon kite. It was all pretty magical. They only real tragedy they encountered was when a couple of cheeky macaque monkeys in Malaysia swiped ice cream cones right out of their hands.

Before we left on the trip we talked about strangers and safety. The kids picked a (rather weird) “safe word” – butter. (The idea being that if a stranger tried to lure them off to see a puppy or eat a Popsicle, they must know our family’s secret word.)

We certainly ate enough butter on our travels, but we never did have to use the word to stave off any bad guys. The kids were free to explore and play, and they developed a new kind of confidence in themselves, and in the world.

Then, my daughter went missing.

When Oskar and I arrived back at the pool, our mouths slathered in pork and peanut sauce, I asked where Isla was.

“Didn’t she find you?” my husband asked casually.

“No?”

I jogged out into the street, expecting to see Isla in her little red bathing suit, her blue towel trailing behind her. She wasn’t there. I went in one direction, my husband the other. My son and a family friend waited for her at the pool.

I was angry at my husband for letting her wander off after us. But I knew if it were me, I’d have done the same thing.

Sairee Beach on the island of Koh Tao is a charming and slow-paced town. We’d strolled along the narrow, pedestrian-filled streets past the shops and cafés many times over the past several days, and we all knew it well.

Isla was used to being swept into the laps of sweet, elderly Thai women, treated to mints and cheek pinches. Even the transvestite burlesque dancers stationed at the corner of our street would wave and smile warmly at the kids as they handed out flyers for their nightly show. This small island was an easy place to let your guard down and get swept up with the simplicity of life.

Ten minutes had passed.

“Have you seen a little blond girl in a red bathing suit?” I asked every person I passed. I asked the guy who sold us the skewers. He shook his head apologetically. The burlesque dancers kept a look out for her from their post. No one had seen Isla. How could no one have seen her?

Twenty minutes passed.

Trying to breathe through a hurtling wave of panic, I wondered whether I should start faxing Isla’s passport and photo to the ferries and airports. But there were 15 boats tied up out on the beach. If somebody had wanted to take her (because that’s where my mind was going now), they weren’t taking her to an airport – they’d put her in one of those boats and I’d never see her again.

After almost half an hour, I was back at the hotel when I looked up and saw a little blonde girl in a red bathing suit, a blue towel draped around her shoulders, skipping up the street toward me.

“Where were you? I lost you!” I threw myself around her.

She looked at me, perplexed, and brushed the tears from my cheeks, the way I’d brushed tears from hers at least a hundred times on this trip. “ I wasn’t lost. I knew where I was, Mum.”

“But I didn’t!”

A young backpacking couple were standing a few yards behind Isla Blue, keenly observing our reunion as I hugged my daughter yet again, still unable to stop the stream of tears. They hesitantly stepped forward.

“You’re her mum, then?” the twentysomething girl asked in a thick Irish accent.

“Yes,” I said, wiping the snot from my face with the back of my hand.

“We just wanted you to know we asked her if she was lost or needed our help. But she said she wasn’t lost, that she was okay.” They smiled at Isla. “But we followed her anyway – at a distance. She went half a mile, almost to the end of the strip, before she turned back. She kept peering back at us over her shoulder.”

 

“I went to the restaurant way down there where we have breakfast every morning,” Isla chimed in. Her eyes were bright and excited, like she’d been on an adventure and had solved a great mystery. “Can we get some satay now?” Isla pleaded.

“Thank you for staying with her and watching out for her,” I blubbered through more tears. By then Rob had returned, shaking his head and tousling his daughter’s hair. Amid our family anarchy, I never got the names of these kind strangers. I would have sent them a note confessing I had feared the worst in people, but they reminded me it is more likely that, anywhere in the world, people will watch out for our kids rather than try to snatch them. And at least twice on our travels I had reunited teary, wide-eyed children with their mothers.

We went to see our street meat guy, Isla hopping along ahead of me. Of course, he wasn’t there. We can never find that guy when we need him.

Send in your story from the road to travel@globeandmail.com.

Wednesday
Nov042015

Apparently, We Don't Want to Leave Winnipeg.

Before walking up to the check-in counter.

You know that moment when you're about to board your flight to Rio, but then the ticketing agent asks for your Brazil travel visa and you're like, "what travel visa?" And the next thing you know you're sitting in your parents' car in their driveway in Fort Richmond drinking beer?

To buy said beer, you have to walk across the parking lot of the liquor store through fog and sleet, in your tank top and sandals. I'm supposed to be in Brazil, you awkwardly tell the sales clerk. 

Rob doing the walk of shame out of the airport.

So, how the heck does this all happen, you 're wondering? Me too, actually. I mean, we've been dealing with travel and VISA requirements for 7 months. 

We were looking to fly to Peru, Ecuador, Argentina or Chile initially. We checked the VISA requirements for all of these countries.  But when booking flights a really great last minute deal for Rio, Brazil, popped up. (Obviously, not such a great deal now). We jumped on it it without double checking entry requirements. Seems Brazil is the only country in South America with a lengthy VISA application process. Who knew? (Almost every country we've been to (11 in total), you acquire visas online or at point of entry). We've made more than a few mistakes this year, but not one this epic!

The neighbour's kid has pink eye. We're thinking of going over there and rolling around in some of her eye goop! Damn. Pink Eye. We couldn't fly. Had nothing to do with our non-existent visas. 

We're re-jigging our flights. It'll be okay. We should be off within a few days. In the meantime, I'm waffling between drinking heavily, laughing, crying. Hopefully at some point, I'll get out of my parent's car. 

In my last blog post, I believe I might have said, it's not about the destination, it's about the experience. Well this experience is bullshit!

Note to my editor Sharon at Turnstone Press: I think this travel memoir is going to be pretty good!

Find us on Instagram...if we ever get out of Winnipeg!

 

Tuesday
Nov032015

The Gap Year Forges On


Two Months Ago:

Ring. Ring.

I woke up Sunday morning in our guesthouse in Downtown Bangkok to one of the kids’ iPads ringing.  I pulled the covers over my head, rolled over and tried to fall back asleep. We’d arrived late the previous night, after a 5-hour, white-knuckle ride up the coast of Thailand in a jam-packed van. Travel days are hard.  Today was a day for sleeping in. Later, we’d grab breakfast on the street and head to the market.  

Ring. Ring. Ring.

I flung my arm across the bed. Empty. If we were staying on the coast, Rob would be out running along the beach at this ungodly hour. But we were in a big city. Cities meant insufferable heat, and really f’ing good coffee. I’ve really learned to appreciate the simple things in life – like not instant coffee. I smiled at the thought of the Flat White that would be delivered shortly.

Ring. Ring. Ding. Ping. Ring. Ring.

The pillow over my head wouldn’t block out the noise. Now both kids’ iPads and the computer were ringing and dinging with calls. Something has happened. Bangkok had been bombed the previous week. Twenty people, mostly tourists, died. Had Bangkok been hit again? The city was still on high alert. 

Last night, Oskar had proudly navigated us, via metro, across town from the bus station to the guesthouse. At every subway station, our bags were checked; we were required to walk through makeshift security scanners. The city was eerily quiet.

The previous week there were a lot of messages; people wanted to know that we were okay. This traveling is risky business.

I rolled out of bed and checked the messages and missed calls.

Call home.

I pulled on some clothes and went down to the lobby. Rob had just returned. He handed me a latte and held out his phone. It told him to contact his mom immediately.

His dad had passed away.

Two days later we were supposed to fly to Cambodia, but we were on a flight home to Winnipeg.  

 Bike Tour of Bangkok prior to flying home.  Check out Isla's face! A fairly accurate representation about her feelings about the trip at that point! Hot cities, bike tours and 6 year olds do not a friendship make!

 

Coming Home

A week earlier, we were watching wild Asian elephants cross an open plain, now we were hauling our bags into my old bedroom - pink floral wallpaper, from when I was ten years old, still intact. At least I’d taken down the Duran Duran posters before I moved out twenty years ago.  (Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to ask the lovely Irish family who is renting our house for the year to move into my old bedroom).

Coming home was really hard. We had some heavy boots and heavy hearts. And we felt lost. (Except for Isla Blue. Our little creature of habit had been begging to come home for weeks.) We privately mourned the loss of a parent; the world changed.

But we were immediately reminded of how incredible our roots are and we were buoyed by a whole lot of love, family and friendship. I met friends for wine and dinner, gorged myself on my mom’s mashed potatoes, had conversations like these with my dad:

Me:         Man, I’m so tired by Friday night?

My dad:   Why? What do you do all day?

Me:          I write, dad. It’s like my job.

My dad:    Go get me a rum and coke.

 

As I was driving out to Stony Mountain one evening, I pulled over on the highway to watch a sunset.  A combine rumbled along, engulfed in a haze of wheat dust was silhouetted on the prairie horizon.  This rivaled any sunset I’d seen in the South Pacific.

Beautiful sunsets happen everywhere.

I've done handstands all over the world. Couldn't resist doing one on a hay bale on the prairies!

 

We stayed in Winnipeg a little longer than anticipated, but it just felt right to be here. This thing we are doing - it’s not a vacation. It’s very, very hard. And this adventure requires a substantial amount of energy. It’s taken us some time to build up the energy to get back on the road. When we left last February – we had no idea what we were getting into. Now, we know! We understand the stamina, perseverance, patience and sense of humour that is required to travel long-term with young children. But, we also know that the hardest things in life are the most worthwhile; we will carry these hard-earned experiences around with us forever.

 

What’s Next?

We fly to Brazil tomorrow! We’ll travel around South America for three months to finish off our Gap Year. (If you want to see a kicking, screaming 6 year old getting dragged on a plane against her will – come to the airport tomorrow! Should be a good show!)

We have plane tickets to Rio, a place to sleep for the first five nights. And that’s about it.  There are a few places I’d like to see –Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, but really, seven months on the road has taught me that it’s never about the destination – it’s about the experience.  My absolute favourite aspect of this trip is waking up in the morning and having absolutely no idea what kind of magic or chaos the day will bring.

And when there’s chaos, I'll be writing all about it. Fingers crossed we don’t cross paths with any more lice!

Thanks for following! I’m actually really humbled when people tell me they read this blog.

 

 

Monday
Aug312015

A Gap in the Gap Year

 

Thank you for sharing our adventure for the past 30 weeks. It has been nothing short of incredible and life-changing.

Family, friends, and seeing the world have always been a priority for us and we've been living out our dreams in the fullest possible capacity.

We are taking a gap in our Gap Year and will be returning to Winnipeg to spend time with family as Rob's dad has passed away unexpectedly. My father-in-law was a colourful and adventurous man and he instilled that sense of spirit in those around him - including us. We are overwhelmed with grief and sadness.

Stay tuned for the next chapter in our adventure. We will return to the road, but look forward to some time at home. (Well, mostly, people's couches and spare rooms since we've rented out our house!)  I have some forthcoming posts in the pipe on some of our most recent ridiculous Asian antics.

My father-in-law and I shared an affinity for wine and downed a lot of it together. It's our last night in Bangkok before flying home; this glass is for him.

 

Love deeply & Live freely

 

 

 

Monday
Aug102015

10 Weird Moments From Our Year Abroad

6 months down. 6 months to go. Here's a few of the "Weirder Moments" from our trip. 

 

1. Five strong young Germans volunteered to pick up our rental van and lift it out of a ditch. (For the record, I wasn’t the one who drove the car into the ditch).

 

2.  Back home, we used to say “who cut the cheese?”, now we say ”who cut the durian?”(Durians smell so bad that in Singapore you’ll be fined if you bring one on the subway. But, then again, you get fined for pretty much everything in Singapore.)

 

 3.  We disembarked from an airplane and were walking through the Kuching airport toward the baggage carousel when the floor of the airport  actually, literally started buckling and bulging below our feet. THE FLOOR IN THE AIRPORT! Everybody started running, thinking maybe an explosion would follow. A few security people sauntered over and looked at the floor, bemused. And within about 90 seconds everyone carried on as though nothing had happened. When we came back through the same airport a week later, the floor was still buckled, but marked off with flimsy, yellow plastic tape. #asianinfrastructure

I started to pull out my camera to get a photo of the floor bucking - but Rob suggested we should move along. So, here's a picture of Isla in a barber shop in Samoa getting the side of her head shaved. Her idea, of course. Weird.

4.  On my 10th wedding anniversary we wandered around town looking for mosquito spray so we wouldn’t get Dengue.

5.  We had a jellyfish fight in New Zealand with a breed of jelly fish that don’t sting.

Me about to paste one of my kids in the head with a jellyfish. Way more fun than snowballs.

 

6.  I had my eyebrows waxed in a farmers’ market in Australia.

7.  When we went to the bathroom in Canada, there was #1 and #2. Since traveling, we have added #3.

8.  Isla fell into a sewer in Bali. (I’ve seen unmarked holes in the sidewalk up to 6 feet deep. How does it work if you are blind?) #asianinfrastructure

9.  In Fiji, We saw a guy who was sleeping on a deck chair get smoked with a falling coconut. I thought that the Watch out for Falling Coconuts signs were just for photo ops - but more people die from falling coconuts than shark attacks. (The guy was okay, albeit a little stunned - that'll teach him for lounging in a deck chair unarmed.)

 10.  A monkey came up to my eight year old son and plucked the ice cream cone right out of his hand. Another went after my 5 year old daughter's, but she would have none of it. She held that precious ice cream over her head and the monkey jumped all over her trying to get at it. Isla:1 Monkey:0 Needless to say, both kids start cowering if they see a monkey 50 feet away.

I wasn't quick enough to get the ice cream escapade on film - but this monkey jumped on Rob's back and refused to get off. Cheeky little things!

 

All sorts of other strange and wonderful things have happened on this trip. Can't wait to see what the next 6 months have in store. 

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