I never thought I had a death wish, but one experience on my recent travels had me reconsidering. I’d been traveling around South-East Asia by myself on a break from my studies to see the world. One day I decided go cliff jumping and snorkeling in Thailand; I’d seen signs all over advertising guided trips. On the same signs there were also advertisements for swimming with sharks. At first I thought it would be quite a day to do all three, but to swim with sharks I would have to get up at 6:00am. That is just not a time of day I wake up to go jump in the water with sharks. That’s not even a time of day I’m awake to see super models swim in the water…
I met my Thai guide, Musa, at 10:30 a.m., a much more civilized hour. We headed out of Phi Phi harbor towards the cliffs. Once out there Musa handed me a pair of diving gloves with thick rubber on the palm side, both for the left hand, but I shrugged it off. That’s Thailand. I took them and climbed out of the ocean to the first jump, around 15 feet. Soon I was up to 35’ and getting scared. On impact it felt like two hoses hooked to my nostrils and turned on full blast. When I got on land Musa told me to clear it out, so I huffed a huge farmer’s blow, which ended up all over my shorts.
Now it was time to muster up my courage to willingly jump from 60 feet into shark-infested waters. The shark diving site was only a half a mile away. Once I got up there I started to doubt myself. I could see for miles around, the whole town and across to the other bay. Five minutes crawled by.
Musa yelled up, “I come up to help you get past the fear!” He did, and then jumped, and it didn’t look that bad, so I told him to wait. I crept to the edge, peered over, and tried to psyche myself up, but I still couldn’t do it. I kept saying to myself, “It will be OK. Be a man. Jump!”
Just then a boat drove by and sounded her horn. It was time. I let go of the ledge. For two seconds my mind cleared and my body accelerated towards the ocean. I cleared the rocks, and then I hit. I had made it! And I wasn’t hurt! I gave Musa a cheesy high-five, then did my best Tiger Woods fist pump. But there was no way I was going to do it again, so we packed it up to do some snorkeling.
When we came back to the boat a short time later we heard a man screaming from the shore. He was yelling at Musa in Thai. Musa said it was a friend so we motored over. At first I could only see him; I thought it might be some sort of drug deal. As we got closer I could also see a white girl with the man. Musa swam over to the two and they talked for a while. Bizarrely, as I was peeing off the side of the boat, the other Thai guy swam up and asked me if I liked chicken. “I love chicken,” I replied. I’m still not sure why he asked me that.
Then I noticed the woman on the beach had something red all over her back. I didn’t want to believe it was blood. It looked a little too pink; I tried to figure out what else it could be. Thai guy grabbed a life vest from the boat and swam to shore with it. I realized it could only be blood.
Musa started bringing her back to the boat using the life vest under her for support. All I could do was put down the stepladder and wait to offer her a hand. While the two were still in the water I over heard her telling Musa in a tearful voice that she was from Sweden. I helped lift her on to the boat and offered her water to put on the massive scrapes that were on her back. She looked to be in her late twenties, beautiful with blond curly hair covering up some of the blood coming out of her head. She kept crying and shaking—she was in shock.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She tried to tell me, but spoke so fast that I could not understand.
“My name is Graham.” I put my hand on her uninjured shoulder.
She seemed to calm down a little. “Marika.”
I turned to Musa, “Do you have any idea what happened?” he shook his head, and fired up the boat motor. From what I could tell, she had fallen and scraped herself on the same sharp rocks cliffs that I had guarded myself from before. The cuts also covered her legs, feet and arms.
She kept saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I told her, “There is nothing to be sorry about and you’re going to be o.k.” I gave her my towel to cover up. It still didn’t make sense.
Then she blurted out, “I’m so sorry. I’m going to go to prison.”
The boat sped toward the hospital in town. The last thing I wanted was for her to avoid town for fear of being arrested—she needed medical attention. Drugs are the only things the foreigners go to prison for in Thailand, but she didn’t look like the type. I asked her once more, “Do you know what happened?”
“I know what happened,” she said. “I jumped. My life is screwed up. I tried to die. I’m going to be arrested.”
“You’re going to be fine,” I replied. “You’re not going to jail.” Neither, as far as I knew, was true.
She added, “I didn’t know where my passport is, and I have no money.”
Not knowing what else to say, I repeated over and over again, “Everything is going to be o.k.. I will help you.” But Marika was distraught. “My friends are angered at me for being so depressed, and the police are looking for me,” she managed. Then she broke down and cried, “I’m crazy, I heard the helicopter and I jumped.”
She seemed sure of this part. I had been less than a half a mile way from where she jumped all morning, and never heard any helicopter. When we got to shore Musa picked her up and carried her up the beach. She pleaded, “Please, will you stay with me?”
I held her hand as we walked her in. It seemed a little taste of what it must have been like on Dec. 26, 2004 when the tsunami hit. Now I was bringing a traumatized victim into the Phi Phi Hospital.
The place was primitive; they washed her wounds out with a garden hose around the back of the building. Then the head doctor turned to me. “How you know this girl?” he demanded.
She wasn’t telling them anything at first, and I thought I would give her some time to tell her own story. “I just found her on the shore bleeding with her guide, you can ask them,” I said.
The doctor, confused, began to question my presence. “She pushed on rocks. Maybe you push her!” he said, ignoring my denials. After about five minutes of this, she spoke up.
“I jumped. I’m crazy.” The doctor could not believe it at first.
Soon Ingrid, Marika’s friend, arrived. Ingrid looked at Marika and stood there in disbelief. Then they both started crying and hugged each other. I will never forget the looks on their faces. As I walked out the front door to take a couple of deep breaths the head doctor patted me on the back and announced self-importantly, “I think she has some psychological problem.” I let his comment float away.
What could I say? What I had just been doing for fun, Marika had been doing to try and take her own life. I don’t know any more than that. It would be interesting to know the details—how high did she jump? Why?—but it’s really not that important I guess.
This was an intense day in my life. I learned how I handle situations and rediscovered the joy of helping others. I do not feel like a hero. All I did was sit there and promise her things I could not deliver. I would have wanted someone to come back and check on me later in the hospital, but I could not do even that. I still don’t know why. I always wanted to meet a Swedish girl. Next time I hope it will be under different circumstances.
Now I now know that I do not have a death wish. I test death to know that I am alive.
—Graham Markel, 25, is a sailor and pastry cook. He works with his mother at peggymarkel.com and lives in Boulder, Colorado. Some names were changed in this story.