TRAVEL + LIFE | FIRST PERSON
The ‘Me’ Left on the Beach
I’m not nostalgic. The old journals and photo albums get moved from home to home, but carrying my history isn't the same as caring about it. I prefer not to look back, but once in a while, my past finds me.
Ready for a story of coincidence? Jaw-droppingly wild? Wild in an I-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-it-was-in-a-movie wild? Settle in… here goes.
My brother sent me a text the other day with a photo of a much younger me. “Is this you?” It was one of those quarter-of-a-polaroid shots that used to pass for passport photos, faded with time. Not flattering, but familiar. Kind of.
So my brother was cleaning out his attic, I assumed. “Where did you find it?” I asked… and this is where it started veering into the surreal. He responded with a photo of a page of a book, with writing — in pen — in the margin: “Is this your handwriting?” Again, vaguely familiar, my writing, but the handwriting of a me long ago, a cursive not yet solidified with its own style, a distant echo of a passage I read that mattered enough that I did what a librarian’s daughter never does and wrote in the margins in PEN. I wouldn’t have defaced my brother’s book and he wouldn’t have a book of mine in his attic.
The phone rang.
It was past 11 pm in California, but I picked it up instantly.
My brother was recently on vacation in a beach villa in the north of Bali, Indonesia, with his family. A hotel that was built only 3 years ago. There was a small library. He picked out a book — ‘An Imaginary Life’ by David Malouf. He opened it and the photo fell out. *My* photo fell out of the book with *my* writing.
He thought it was me but my sister-in-law who met me years / pounds / hairstyles later thought it impossible. But the resemblance was uncanny enough that my brother photographed the photo and the writing in the book. He assumed it was impossible, but did it anyway, assuming he found a picture of my doppelganger — coincidence enough.
I asked the name of the town. “Lovina…” “Lovina Beach!” I interrupted (I interrupt a lot — an exceedingly rude habit that I have tried, and failed, to erase for as long as I can remember). I was there in 1983/4. More than 35 years ago. 35 years ago. THIRTY FIVE years ago.
The photo was my 18-year-old self, a spare passport photo carried to mollify my parents in case I lost my passport in my travels. The book must have been mine (I can’t imagine I would have written in a book that wasn’t), and the passage was vaguely familiar in the way a scent of my grandmother’s nursing home is, stirring a deep-but-shapeless memory.
It was midnight, but I dug through boxes in our spare room until I found the photos of the trip: not one of the triplets of the original, but pictures of an 18-year-old with the same haircut, exploring a market in Bali. Then the journal.
At 18, I somehow convinced my parents to let me backpack around Bali — on the proviso I at least started the trip with one other person. I advertised on a notice board on campus and another first-year uni student, Mandy, a whole year older than me thanks to a gap year, was going to travel with me for the first while. We started in Kuta Beach, at the time a grimy place, the Cancun of Bali, catering to Aussie tourists staying in cheap homestays, drinking cheap beer, buying cheap crafts and knick-knacks. We quickly headed inland then up north to a town where we had heard it was less touristy: Lovina Beach. I was there for eight nights, according to my impeccably-detailed travel journal, staying at the Mangallah Homestay for 1,000 Rupiah/person/night for my half of the double room with a private bathroom — $1.12 AUD at the time, probably about $0.84 USD.
The journals tell the tale of an awkward me, a me a year out of an all-girls’ high school who had grown up without a father who didn’t know how to be myself around men. Me desperately hoping and imagining I was liked by the men I met and fearing it just as much, traveling with a guard up that contrasted sharply with the casual experimentation of most of the backpackers I crossed paths with. They were there for mushrooms and beaches and alcohol and partying and perhaps the occasional hookup. I both wanted to be included and was terrified about not being in control. To fit in, I ate mushrooms one night only to have my fear turn to paranoia as the other backpackers wandered down the middle of a darkened road, swam into the night sea. I was scared they’d die and felt responsible for stopping it.
The journal covered more than daily updates — it lists every travelers’ cheque cashed, tables of spending on gifts, prices of every homestay, addresses of everyone who ranked worthy of a postcard, lists of new acquaintances met on the trip. I counted every rupiah. There is none of the carelessness one associates with youth, with agendaless backpackers. That was not who I could be.
Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the sense of the long warm days, reading on an empty beach, drinking beer with Italian, Canadian, and Finnish backpackers who had been on the road for months, years, and one, for decades. It was a time of trying on different selves, away from anyone who knew me, who knew anything about me. The closest I came to finding me was a few days traveling with an Englishwoman called Rosalind Emrys Roberts, a textiles designer who sought out obscure villages where specific ikat fabrics were created. It was travel with learning and a purpose and I felt I belonged.
The photo of my young, cautious self had lived in a book left in a homestay in a small village in a then-barely-traveled corner of Bali for thirty-five years. It had passed, with the book, perhaps never opened, from one owner to another, until it was added to other second-hand books in a library in a beach villa for rent by the week. And my brother, thirty-five years later, rented that home, settled in to read a book, and found the self I left on a beach long ago.