Each month we have a guest blogger write an article for the #looptheworld Letterbox. This month we have the wonderful words of Chris Penner. We first met Chris at one of my shows at Harmony on the island of Ios, Greece. We instantly got along really well, as I often do with Canadians. After we’d hung out a few times, Hannah and I agreed he would be the perfect candidate for our guest blogger this month. He confirmed that with his enthusiastic response when we asked if he’d be interested. Thank you so much for your words Chris. I hope you all enjoy this colourful perspective of the beautiful island of Ios.
For those highly unfortunate souls who are unfamiliar with John Stamos, he is an actor who portrayed Uncle Jesse in the 90’s blockbuster television show Full House, alongside the Olsen Twins and Bob Saget; however, more importantly John Stamos is the most handsome Greek man of all time. Even before I wrote this I did a quick google search on the Greek god and one of the first articles was “John Stamos still has amazing hair and side burns”! Have Mercy!!
On June 8th this year my close friend Michael Budd and I decided we would venture to Greece in the hopes of finding this “ómorfo ándra” (beautiful man). It was less of a hunt considering we had jobs lined up on the island of Ios to teach watersports for Mylopotas Watersports on Mylopotas beach, so much repetition in that sentence, my English teacher would be so proud. So! We spent two nights searching the bars in Athens, knowing full well he lives in the U.S.A., we hopped on the ferry to Ios, with an Irish guy named George who we’d convinced to join us, and started our summer in Ios.
As a very sheltered Canadian from outside Toronto, whose travel experience includes all-inclusive resorts in Costa Rica and Mexico with my family, the move was a bit of a culture shock. Not in any dramatic fashion because Ios is still a tourist destination, it’s not like we were shitting in pots or practicing Ainu Bear Worship, it was the little things. The pace was much slower than Toronto, which should go without saying, and in no offence to Greece, but we realized once we were on the island that we were on Greek time. Meaning if we sat down for dinner expect to wait a bit longer, if you’re told something will arrive in 5 minutes, expect it to be a about 15. This concept wasn’t very difficult to grasp considering the beauty of this island, you can sit, relax, tan, soak in the majesty of what is Ios and colour me surprised, I learned to love it. Furthermore what really shocked me were the showers. Never in my life did I think I would yearn for a showerhead. For those in Canada reading this you’re probably thinking “Cant wait for hockey season to start” but after that you’re thinking “what do you mean lusting for a shower head?”. While I was using the washroom in the first place Mike and I stayed at, I asked where the showerhead was, not realizing it was stuck to a hose in front of me. If you’re lucky the water is hot but you have to spray your body, soap up then hose it all down like you’re getting rid of all your change at a cheap car wash. But that is the extent of my displeasure.
“I’m Living in Paradise” This is a sentence I repeat to myself everyday. I say this to myself on the walk down to work from the village, when times get a bit frustrating at work and mostly when I see the sun set on this island and I truly believe that. I have never been to a better place in the world. It’s sunny everyday, the temperature is perfect, there are never any clouds, and it’s acceptable to drink every night. But beyond the weather and the acceptance of alcoholism are the people. Before I left I had my very tight group of friends that I was content with, more than content to be honest, I never considered travelling and as much I love meeting new Canadians I was a bit apprehensive of experiencing new cultures and people. Will it be difficult? What are they going to think of me? Will we get along? Will they be rude or closed minded? Which turned out to be the complete opposite and my absolute favorite part of travelling, besides the late night wakeboarding, sunset cruises, smashing drinks and skinny-dipping as the sunsets over the Mediterranean. I had met so many wonderful people, friends I will have for life, which I believe is the greatest part of travelling. Opening up to stranger and discovering what it is they love, what are their struggles, their future plans and experiences is like food for the soul. Finding common interest with a person born on opposite sides of the world is exhilarating and I’ve fallen completely in love with it. Which brings me to Simon Wright and Hannah Blake.
July 2008, Molson Amphitheater with Mark Hubner was the first time I saw Dave Matthews Band live. February 2010, Dan Hammonds basement with Sam Statham I watched Sidney Crosby score the golden goal for Canada to win the Olympic gold medal and June 2015 at Harmony restaurant with Mitch Bolton and Mike Budd, I saw Simon Wright play for the very first time. There are moments in your life that are burned into your memory with a cattle prong and watching Simon perform was certainly one of them. I am a music lover and a live music fanatic and there aren’t many words in my limited vocabulary to describe how I felt that night: Shocked, awed, amazed, blown away and chills. At one point during his performance he did a remix of the Game of Thrones theme song and being a GOT nerd I could barely contain the little girl scream I wanted to release. I kept it totally cool and just looked across the table at Mike showing him the hairs that were standing up on my arm and he returned the same gesture. I had never experienced a looping machine before and to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention during the first song until I thought there were about 6 people on stage only to glance over and to my great surprise there was just one dude. It was incredible! After meeting Simon and Hannah and discovering that their spirits and personalities outshined his talent was mind blowing. Here are two incredible people, talent and kindness taller than the CN Tower (had to get a Canada reference in here somewhere) and so down to earth. I feel extremely lucky to have seen Simon perform his music and extremely privileged to call them my friends!
At this point I’m sure you’re wondering “what happened to George who you convinced to come to Ios with you?” as you should be! Well, George got a 600Euro ticket and had to go home after 3 weeks, I miss him but Ios got the best of him as it does of many people. I myself have felt at times that the island is beating me, which is nearly impossible cause I’m a 6’5 man stuck in a 5’8 frame. Thankfully I’ve met the best people in the world to share my first summer abroad with and I enjoy everyday a little bit more than the previous, meaning to say everyday is the best day of my life on Ios!!
Thanks for reading,
A few people stared at me when I told them I was going to a small island in Thailand for a month. “Oh, make sure you go inland. Go see temples. Elephants! Don’t support elephant cruelty. Eat street food. Don’t eat street food. Have you packed enough clothes? Everything’s cheap there! But not that cheap. Don’t get ripped off. Hide some money in an inner thigh wallet. Don’t go down dark alleys. *and so on and forth*”
I have traveled a lot in my years on this planet and I made this decision, to be ‘stranded’ on a small island, very consciously. I cannot drive or ride my own vehicles. I can’t just saunter down the road and converse in broken Thai/English. No, what I wanted here was to sit down somewhere else and watch. Learn. Get to know the little things about one place instead of being in that strange frenzy one gets when travelling – the need to jump from place to place, to take selfies with the famous or not-so-famous symbol/monument/shrine of that place, to sample the local delicacy (or in some cases, non-delicacy) and in a sense, to lift your leg and splash your mark onto as wide an area of territory as possible. I should know, I’ve been in its grip before. Sans the selfie thing, I detest them.
I’ve been on Koh Tao for three weeks now. With one more to go. Sairree, one of the three ‘towns’ of the island is lovely. I stayed at the Banyan bar for the majority of this time and have slowly started to get to know a few locals. There’s ‘smiles’, the western guy that works at the bakery next door. You honestly have to try their pastries stuffed with pumpkin, spinach and cheese or the ham and cheese – they’re to die for! He, despite a missing tooth, always has a beam for me and a chat.
There’s the person that runs the healthy breakfast bar stand out the front of Banyan of which I have never been able to work out what gender he/she is. That doesn’t matter, after a few days s/he warmed up to me and now every morning I walk the 15 meters to get my breakfast smoothie or bowl of fruit and exchange ‘Good mornings’.
There’s Maria, the Asian descended, widely traveled woman who works at the Serenity Bar who can spell in ASL (American Sign Language) and thus established a bond the day I stumbled, sweating heavily, into that little place on the top of a practically vertical driveway that is at least 100 meters. That trek up nearly killed me with the kilos of camera gear on my back!
Fernando ‘Nando’, the manager of Fishbowl and instant fan of my photographs who is perennially trapped in the corner of the bar being surrounded by adoring suck-ups probably trying to get a free drink and patron of Simon’s music.
Over the road there’s a superb, cheap place to eat called ‘Orange’, run by what seems to be a husband-wife combo. The little dude, once his hair goes white, is going to be the epitome of what a ‘wise sensei-san’ looks like, perfectly unkempt little goatee and a shock of hair on his head.
There’s the tattooed Buddha with a ponytail just down the road past the seven-eleven that rented out a couple of bikes to my friend and I wave at him every time I go past.
One lean and mean, clean-shaven old Thai dude called Ali runs a crepe cart just outside the seven-eleven. He’s quite amusing to watch as he does his ‘performance’ with each and every crepe, jerkily yet smoothly smashing the dough onto the steel, stretching it, tossing the waste out the other end into a strategically placed basket and just doing his job day in and night out. He’s always there. He never smiles on the job. Lately, I’ve noticed a new person there, looks like he’s handing over the cart to him.
There’s a woman in the money exchange cubicle just up the road from that cart who I have mentally called ‘Vain Dreamer’. She always has a heavy coat of makeup on and always looks bored with a faraway expression on her face. I wonder what her dreams and goals are. I hope she achieves them.
Moon-face owns one of the taxi boats on the beach. He smiles a lot as he handles his boat with superb skill through the shore reefs and out into the sea. He is never late to pick us up from whichever beach he has dropped us off.
Banyan is owned by Brian, a blue-eyed windswept hair guy. There have been some huge nights there but he never fails to turn up around midday and never seems the worse for wear.
These people and many many more I’ve begun to know. Perhaps not personally but their faces are inside my library now.
And then there’s Simon and Hannah.
I’ve known Simon since I was a teenager in high school. Over the years I’ve watched him blossom as a musician and the way he pours his heart and soul into every gig he does. The highs and lows. Over the years he and I have had many debates over a few drinks into the wee hours of the morning about music, why is this better than that? How can you justify that? What IS great music? In this respect I see him as my sensei and me as his kouhai. I hope I have given him fresh perspectives on music from someone who will never experience it in all its wonder and glory. He certainly has given me a lot.
That’s why I’m here.
When I arrived, I was presented with the most incredible sunset and then a lightning storm. The next night there was a massive water spout and several little ones on the horizon and some more lightning.
There have been crystal clear days and monsoon torrents. The sand is almost pure white and the water crystal clear. Weather changes here when it decides to and in many ways it can be slightly overwhelming, the island bends with the weather instead of trying to fight it.
This place reminds me that I am simply living on this planet. No matter what I may do, she has the final say.
I have seen thousands of fish and coral formations, some of which have colours I simply cannot describe. Some I would have said only exist when there’s blacklight present. Rainbows. Dancing ripples on the bed. Swarms of fish that you usually only see in documentaries. Mini-me sharks. If I didn’t have my snorkel and swimmers on, I would almost feel like Robinson Crusoe, stuck on a deserted island that has been almost untouched by time and man.
Palm trees everywhere, butterflies sparkling their ubiquitous zig zag along, birds zapping past, insects everywhere, geckoes being ninjas and one solitary huge bird circling overhead as the sun sets. Coconut carcasses slowly rotting their nutrients into the soil. Tropical flowers advertising their beauty where-ever you look, some very familiar and some not.
Then you walk down the ‘main’ road, watching the tourists, farangs, stumble around oblivious to the scooters hurtling past them. On the road, the car is king. Everyone parks where-ever they like except right on the middle of the road. It really interests me how when you remove the rules, there is still order in the chaos. I have yet to see anyone run over which in itself is a miracle. Or maybe not. You do need a lot of trust in others here.
I was fortunate enough to be here for the annual Koh Tao festival which runs for two days and nights. For a small island, they sure went all out! The main stage was huge. HUGE. I had just moved into a cabin right next to the sand on the beach a short walk ‘opposite’ the paddock where this festival was held. It was all fun until I stumbled home at about 11.30. Just to clarify, I’m completely Deaf. I can’t hear anything at all. I was kept awake until 4am, the hard spring coils of my mattress and the wooden cabin perfectly amplifying the roar of the enormous speakers from the main stage. Seriously, for me this was certainly an unique experience, being kept awake by thermonuclear explosions of beats over half a kilometer away. The next night I wisely decided to get slightly smashed and that did the trick, I managed to pass out at 2am.
At night, the island lights up. There’s thousands of lights and colours. On the beach you can see fire being twirled out the front of various bars. The horizon is speckled with the lights of fish trawlers. Music is everywhere then. The drinks flow ceaselessly and the smell of food is rampant.
Smells pervade Koh Tao. As a person brought up next to the sea, I recognise the smell of salt in the air. It’s kind of the base ingredient upon which every other smell is based on. Some of the scents are beautiful, Thai cooking, kaffir lime, fried food (of which this island abounds in) and massage oils.
And then there’s the stench. Dead fish on the streets, rubbish, burning garbage, stale alcohol and cigarette smoke as well as open sewers.
All these things and more creates a Pollock-esque mosaic that is at once instantly recognisable and ultimately unforgettable.
Once you’ve been in South-Eastern Asia, when you go back you know. It just is.
And that’s really all one can say about Koh Tao. It just is. I’ll be back.