I sit in front of Tonsai pier. On the southwest center of Koh Phi Phi, I look out to see towering limestone formations draped in shrubbery, a stretch of water between me and them. The bay is crowded. To the left is a neat row of longtail boats, the traditional vessels adorned in ribbons to bless the journey and honor the ocean. To the right, clusters of speedboats abound attesting to the booming tourist industry here.
Behind me is a paved road cluttered with shops boasting of imported goods for the tourist’s consumption.
To understand my emotional response, we need to turn back the clock three weeks.
I arrived on Koh Lipe- an island five hours by boat from my current location- on Thanksgiving. More remote, it is in the midst of a transition Phi Phi’s already seen.
In the past nine years, Lipe went from having four resorts to over 200. The island’s center, once swamp, was converted to a “walking street market”. The local Chao Lay people- originally semi-nomadic fisher folk- are being crowded into an increasingly smaller pocket of land away from the shore.
When the students arrived to Lipe, we met with the Chao Lay group and learned about their community organizing efforts. They told us their story of selling their land to a business man some thirty years. They explained their unfamiliarity with the notion of land as something to own; the enticement of short-term profit without a sense of long-term costs; the twenty-year lag before any consequences came. When the man (now in jail for his role in a human trafficking ring) sold it in plots to hotel owners and other developers. When Lipe joined Phi Phi amongst the must-see spots of Thailand’s attractions.
We spent the next week paddling around the Adang Archepelago camping on neighboring islands. Surveying tourism’s other costs as we snorkled at dwindling reefs whose fish populations decline every year. (To be fair, commercial fishing and changes in climate also contribute to the reefs’ threatened state).
I probably should have better considered all of this when scheduling an island vacation to directly follow. Or perhaps this is the best time to really examine myself as a tourist.
Either way, here I am. Peering into Lipe’s future as I step onto Phi Phi.
Getting off the ferry, there was a line of tourists 200 deep. Just one of six departures for today, as I too am one of countless boatloads being ferried in.
While I want to handle all of this with the complexity and nuance it deserves, today I feel the need to just respond emotionally.
To sit in my sadness. My fear. My guilt. To wonder where we are heading and what my role is in the future of this resilient though greatly taxed planet.
To ask: should I be here? How do I do so responsibly?
What is my every purchase supporting? What livelihoods- and life- does my presence threaten?
How do we account for the fossil fuel consumption, waste production, and cultural imposition of travel?
These questions crowd my throat, tearing at my voicebox. Begging for a response that alludes me. Stripping me down to the desperate inquiry: how do I find space to breathe in the midst of all of this? Leaving me fearful of the more pertinent: how are my choices choking off the planet’s own breath?
That’s where I land today. On Koh Phi Phi with a growing concern of what that means. I’ll leave you here to go find some trees. Whom I’ll thank for their important work of inhaling carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen. I’ll breathe in this gift as I unite mind, body, spirit with the breath of the world. As impartial of a response as it seems, I’ll return to my practice, inching closer to a disposition from which to view this crazy beautiful, deeply aching moment in time.
From which to be me: a tourist, an activist, a healer, a consumer. A living contradiction.