Two Degrees of Travel Separation
By Dave Fox
Pulau Tioman, Malaysia: July, 2012…
There aren’t many cars on Tioman Island. The few roads that exist don’t really go anywhere.
There are walking paths through the jungle. They’re steep and slippery, unsafe at night. The island has monkeys, and snakes, and monitor lizards – creatures you wouldn’t want to encounter in the dark.
The trails are tricky. There’s an easier way to get around the island. For the equivalent of a few dollars, you can hire a boat.
Kattina and I have been on Tioman for a few hours. We’re wandering by the harbor when Kattina spots what just might be the cutest bar I’ve ever seen.
“Cute” isn’t a word I routinely use to describe bars. But look!
The Orange Chalet and Bar isn’t a normal bar. It’s a rickety shack, the size of two elevators, with a few cans of beer, a few bottles of booze, and a few plastic chairs on the beach. A few more plastic chairs serve as tables.
An un-Malaysian-looking woman pokes her head around from behind the shack.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
We order drinks. We chat for a moment. Her accent sounds familiar.
“Er du norsk?” I ask.
Her face lights up. “Yeah!” she replies in Norwegian. “Your English is so good, I thought you were American.”
“I am American,” I say. “It’s a long story.”
For the next four evenings, the Orange Bar becomes our go-to happy hour spot. Kattina and I hike over the rocks, from the scruffy resort where we’re staying, to watch the sunset. When we want to play dice games, Veronica, our bartender, upgrades our plastic-stool table to a cardboard box.
We get to know Veronica well. On our final night, we ask if she’d like to join us for a drink later. Then, Kattina and I wander down the beach for dinner. We linger. We lose track of time.
After we eat, we hunt for Veronica. We can’t find her. It’s getting late. But then, we spot her.
We ask if she still wants to grab a beer. And also, what time do the boats stop running?
A look of panic washes over her.
“You need a boat?” she asks. “Where are you staying?”
At a place over the slippery-hill path, we say.
She breaks into a sprint, tearing toward the beach, yelling a guy’s name.
We should have left a half hour ago. The water taxis have finished for the night. And the rooms on this part of the island are fully booked. We could be stuck outside overnight.
Veronica’s feet pound against the pier. We chase after her. She spots a boat, headed out to sea.
She flails her arms, calling the driver’s name. He’s so far out, we don’t think he’ll hear her over the drone of his motor.
But his boat turns around.
The boat driver seems annoyed as he bumps up to the dock. He wants to go to bed.
Veronica tells us to hurry. There is no time for proper goodbyes. The driver wants to go now. We clamber aboard and pay him. He zooms us safely to our bungalow, eight minutes away.
In the morning, I want to go find Veronica. I want to thank her for saving us. I’ve got a spare copy of my book, Getting Lost. I’d like to give it to her. It includes stories from my year as a high school foreign exchange student in Norway. She comes from a town near where I lived.
But there’s not enough time to look for her. Our boat to the Malaysian mainland is leaving.
We have not gotten to thank her properly. For weeks, I feel bad.
* * *
Oslo, Norway: July 2014…
Kattina and I have been traveling all summer. We’ve just arrived in Oslo. We’re at a pub, having a beer with my old friend, Linda.
If you’ve read Getting Lost, you know Linda. She shows up on page 91. (Or page 87 if you’ve got the self-published, first edition.) I haven’t seen her in a couple of years. She’s never met Kattina. We have fun catching up.
“We went to Malaysia a couple of years ago,” she says.
“You did?” I say. “Where did you go?”
“We started in Kuala Lumpur. Then we went to an island.”
“Cool. Which island?”
She can’t remember the name. “It was near the peninsula,” she says
Malaysia has more than 800 islands. We mention some of the bigger, more touristy ones, but they don’t sound familiar to her.
“It was a small island off the southeast coast,” Linda says. “There weren’t a lot of people there.”
Tioman’s a long shot but it fits her description.
“It wasn’t Tioman, was it?” I ask.
“Wow! Why Tioman?”
“My niece was living there,” Linda says. “She was running a little bar.”
Kattina and I look at each other, stunned.
“What was the bar called?” I ask.
“I can’t remember,” Linda says. “Wait, it was something like … the Orange Bar?”
It’s a crazy coincidence. Linda and I used to hang out in high school; and Veronica is her niece?!
I wonder, if I’d given Veronica my book, would she have figured out the connection? If she had read about a girl named Linda who graduated from Ski Gymnas in 1987, would she have realized it was her aunt?
We ask Linda how we can reach Veronica.
“She has a Norwegian boyfriend now,” Linda says. “She’s living in Nesodden.”
Nessodden is halfway between Oslo and Drøbak, the town where I lived as an exchange student.
So at the end of our summer wanderings in Europe, at an outdoor café in my adopted Norwegian hometown, we meet Veronica and her boyfriend. Two years later, due to a random conversation in a pub 10,000 kilometers away, we finally get to thank her.
Coincidences such as this are not uncommon among travelers. But why? You can read my thoughts in More Degrees of Travel Separation.