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.
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.
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