By Gary Barbour
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the part of Idaho called the Panhandle. Summers meant playing in lakes, rivers, and drying creek beds. The Coast, for us, felt as mythical as Olympus, Atlantis, and other places that should remain untouched by fingers sticky with peanut butter and jelly. It was a place for families who rented summer cabins on coastline bluffs. Our summer cabin smelled of old socks and failed attempts to bleach it out.
In school, I outright refused to believe that water could be salty. I knew this with the determination and vigor of someone who had grown up with mouthfuls of clean mountain water, excepting boating season and creosote scares. I remember learning about oceans in school and demanding the teacher repeat the information about salt and water.
That evening, I stirred a spoonful of salt in a glass of tap water to emulate the taste of the ocean. My mother walked in the room, and yelled, as she often did when I was committing acts of stupidity, “What the hell are you doing?” She dumped the water down the drain and reassured me that seawater was indeed salty but undrinkable.
This fact bounced around in my head for years, mostly because of my former denial.
I saw the Oregon coast for the first time after a two week community service project in Portland. My best friend met me in Portland so we could drive to Seattle. Deng wanted to go to the beach before we left, and I agreed. I was excited to see the massive expanse of sky and water that people showed in their vacation pictures.
And I felt underwhelmed. Whatever I expected, it was dampened by the steel sky over an ocean the color of slate. We found more fun in poking around tide pools at the colorful starfish and assorted sea life.
I felt momentarily tempted to lick my finger while Deng and I walked to the car. I held back under the self-conscious wave of “bumpkinism.” I strove to appear at least somewhat dignified, not like the chubby schlub I was.
A scattering of visits to various coastal points over the next few years proved that the Pacific Northwest coast is dim, cold, and gray whether it’s June or January.
I moved to Thailand in April 2012. My first stop, Pattaya, had a beach, but I never swam in it because I didn’t want hepatitis. I lived in the southern part of the country and rarely went to the beach, but the ocean was never far from my mind. My trips to different beaches always ran into bad weather, so I never did more than walk ankle deep into the surf.
I spent the New Year in Koh Samui, and I finally tasted the sea. I was swimming with friends, enjoying the sun, and avoiding swallowing water in case it had parasites. Three of us stood in a line, watching the sun bounce off the azure ocean. In the distance, a few boats bobbed lazily. We discussed upcoming plans for the evening.
Waves have a habit of coming from an angle which I was unaware of, so I didn’t notice the cresting behemoth wave until it crashed into my face and chest, pulling my down into the ocean and rolling me over rocks and sand.
I came up with a gasp. The sea water coursing down my throat burned, and I choked. I felt dehydrated by the brininess. The mystery was settled, but it didn’t taste as I’d expected. My mother was right to throw away my glass of water and teaspoon of salt. I was right not to taste just my finger dipped in water. Because I waited, I tasted the burning, cloying sea with all of his grit and life.
Gary teaches English to Middle Eastern students at an American school in Malaysia. Read about the convergence of this cultural mishmash on his blog, Collecting Sparrows.