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Traveling with Ghosts

A Memoir

About The Book

A “rich, unblinking” (USA TODAY) memoir that moves from grief to reckoning to reflection to solace as a marine biologist shares the solo worldwide journey she took after her fiancé suffered a fatal box jellyfish attack in Thailand.

In the summer of 2002, Shannon Leone Fowler was a blissful twenty-eight-year-old marine biologist, spending the summer backpacking through Asia with the love of her life—her fiancé, Sean. He was holding her in the ocean’s shallow waters off the coast of Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, when a box jellyfish—the most venomous animal in the world—wrapped around his legs, stinging and killing him in a matter of minutes, irreparably changing Shannon’s life forever.

Untethered and unsure how to face returning to her life’s work—the ocean—Shannon sought out solace in a passion she shared with Sean: travel. Traveling with Ghosts takes Shannon on journeys both physical and emotional, weaving through her shared travels with Sean and those she took in the wake of his sudden passing. She ventured to mostly landlocked countries, and places with tumultuous pasts and extreme sociopolitical environments, to help make sense of her tragedy. From Oswiecim, Poland (the site of Auschwitz) to war-torn Israel, to shelled-out Bosnia, to poverty-stricken Romania, and ultimately, to Barcelona where she and Sean met years ago, Shannon began to find a path toward healing.

Hailed as a “brave and necessary record of love” (Ann Patchett, New York Times bestselling author of Bel Canto and Commonwealth) and “as intricate and deep as memory itself (Jane Hamilton, author of A Map of the World), Shannon Leone Fowler has woven a beautifully rendered, profoundly moving memorial to those we have lost on our journeys and the unexpected ways their presence echoes in all places—and voyages—big and small.


Traveling with Ghosts one Haad Rin Nok, Ko Pha Ngan, THAILAND
August 9, 2002

THIS IS WHAT I REMEMBER about waiting at the temple—cold, bitter black coffee. Someone had pushed a tiny white plastic cup into my hands. A small dark pool at the bottom. The bitterness I expected, but the cold of the liquid surprised me. I can still taste it, thirteen years later.

It must have been around two a.m., but the temple was full of locals. It didn’t occur to me to wonder why. Women were passing out the cups of coffee and snacks, or sitting on mats spread on the rough tile floor. Men stood on the periphery, a small group of them gathered around a red Toyota truck in which the body of my fiancé lay, wrapped in a white sheet.

Two Israeli girls sat next to me on a low wall at the edge of the temple. They had ridden in the front of the truck with me on the drive from the clinic. These girls had been with me through the most intimate and terrible moments of my life. I didn’t even know their names.

We were waiting for a key. We had been waiting a long time. At the clinic, they’d explained that Sean had to be kept in a box at the temple. They said it was the only place on the island to keep his body cold. But they hadn’t been able to locate the key to the box.

“No problem,” someone would say every so often. “They will find the key soon. No problem.”

As we sipped the cold dark coffee, I watched one of the men reach into the truck and peel back the white sheet Sean was wrapped in. He gestured to the other men, who gathered in closer. They pointed to the red welts encircling Sean’s calves. Their conversation grew louder and more animated.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. The Israeli girls followed my gaze. One of them, the one with light eyes, jumped up, crossing the short length to the truck in a few strides. She snatched the sheet from their hands and tucked it around Sean’s body.

“Show some respect,” she said, motioning toward me with a thrust of her chin. “Leave him alone.” The men may not have understood English, but they understood. They backed away. Still, she continued to stand, blocking the opened tailgate with her arms crossed in front of her chest.

The other girl, the thinner, darker one, turned to me. “We don’t have to wait here. They’ll put him in the box as soon as they find the key. We can leave. Do you want to go home?”

“I want to stay with him. I don’t want to go back,” I said, avoiding the word “home.” Back in cabana 214, at the Seaview Haadrin, was the last place I wanted to be. Sean’s things spread all over the room, our sea view looking out onto the spot on the beach where he’d collapsed face first into the sand. The sheets on the double bed printed with colorful cartoon clowns, sheets still smelling of him, of our sex earlier that day.

I didn’t realize at the time that the Israeli girls were probably tired of waiting and exhausted. But they stayed.

The August nights in Thailand had been uncomfortably hot since Sean and I arrived in the country six days earlier. We’d spent many hours sweating on those clown-printed sheets. But as I waited at the temple, cold began to creep up from my bare feet on the coarse tile floor, seeping through my thin purple sundress as we sat on the abrasive stone wall. Sean had bought the sundress for me in Bangkok. We’d been pushing through throngs of intoxicated backpackers on Khao San Road when he saw it at a makeshift stall. Sean prided himself on his bargaining skills, but this time, he offended the vendor and we walked away empty-handed. Halfway through dinner, Sean decided the vendor’s price had been fair and he slunk back to buy the dress at full cost.

I was naked underneath the dress. We’d spent the last two summer months traveling through China, where I’d often declared some days too hot for underwear. I’d tie my long hair up off my neck, and wear a simple sundress and sandals. Sean liked to joke that there was only a thin piece of material protecting my most intimate parts from all of China. But I never felt exposed. Until that night on Ko Pha Ngan.

That night I wasn’t naked under the dress because of the heat. Hours earlier I’d been wearing board shorts and a tank top. Hours earlier Sean had been alive.

We’d been holding hands, walking back to cabana 214 along Haad Rin Nok, or Sunrise Beach. The tall palm trees lining the edge of the shore were motionless. The sea was calm. Darkness was starting to fall, though it was still warm and sticky. It was like every other evening on Ko Pha Ngan. We were planning a quick shower, and then drinks and dinner. We knew we were spending too much money on food, but had decided not to worry about our finances in paradise.

Outside our cabana, Sean grinned and flashed his dimple as he set his glasses down on the porch—an invitation to wrestle. I hesitated. He was much bigger and much stronger. I had no hope of not being pinned, much less pinning. But I dropped my sunglasses and kicked off my flip-flops.

I lost badly. Soft white sand stuck to my coconut-scented skin, still oily from a cheap massage on the beach that afternoon. I was not a good loser, and threw sand at him as he disappeared into our cabana.

I headed straight for the ocean to rinse off, the water so warm I didn’t hesitate. I could hear boys drinking and laughing on the cliff high above me. Sean reappeared and made his way to the shore. Without his glasses, he couldn’t see where I was. I took off my wet tank and threw it at him. He grabbed it and waded over to me, laughing. “I had no idea where you were until you threw your top.” I hugged him and circled my legs around his narrow waist.

“You didn’t have to throw sand, Miss.”

I made excuses. “I was just playing . . . and I was losing.”

“Yes, you were losing.”

He knew me too well. He paused and I felt guilty for being so immature. “It’s only because it got in my eyes and I couldn’t see,” he said. I rubbed my nipples against the small dark patch of hair on his chest and apologized.

In my head, I was revising our plan for the evening to include sex before showering, and then drinks and dinner. He held me in the warm, waist-deep water as I wrapped my legs tighter around him. We kissed and I could taste the seawater salt on his tongue. I felt something large and soft brush against the outside of my thigh. I flinched and gave a short yelp. Sean had always been afraid of sea creatures and quickly asked what it was. He’d been particularly nervous about sharks and since our arrival on the island had kept asking me, “Don’t most attacks happen in shallow water?”

I was studying to be a marine biologist and knew how unlikely a shark attack was, especially in Thailand. I kept assuring him that he was more likely to be struck by lightning.

“I just felt something,” I began, but hadn’t finished the sentence when Sean flinched and dropped me. I was thinking that he was going to hear about this later, dropping me into whatever had frightened him in the water. But he was already making his way as fast as he could to the beach, running and pulling through the darkening turquoise sea with his hands. His movements were urgent and awkward, his elbows held high, his fingers splayed. I followed him to the water’s edge. He sat down on the wet sand.

“Miss, it’s all over my legs.” I bent down in the fading light and could barely make out a faint red welt rising on his ankle.

“It’s probably a stingray.”

Whatever bumped me in the water had felt substantial and solid. Other than the small welt, I couldn’t see any marks on his legs. After the ray brushed my thigh, Sean must have inadvertently stepped on it. I’d been with people stung by stingrays before and seen how excruciating it could be. So I wasn’t surprised when Sean said, “Miss, my head feels heavy. I’m having trouble breathing. Go get help.” He was quiet, calm, and coherent.

“Come with me.” I’d never heard of venomous marine life in Thailand. And he wasn’t sensitive to bees, so an allergic reaction seemed unlikely. I thought he was being squeamish. When we’d gone fishing the year before at Wilsons Prom on the southern tip of Australia, I had to be the one to bait the hooks with sandworms and then pull off the wriggling silver bream we caught. He’d even been scared of the tiny blue soldier crabs there.

“Come with me,” I said again as I looked down at him sitting at the water’s edge. His dark hair wet, his narrow chest leaned back, and his long white legs now covered with sand.

“I can’t.”

About The Author

Dorian A. Momsen

Shannon Leone Fowler is a marine biologist, writer, and single mother of three young children. Since her doctorate on Australian sea lions, she’s taught marine ecology in the Bahamas and Galápagos, led a university course on killer whales in the San Juan islands, spent a number of seasons as the marine mammal biologist on board ships in both the Arctic and Antarctic, taught graduate students field techniques while studying Weddell seals on the Ross Ice Shelf, and worked as a science writer at National Public Radio in Washington, DC. Originally from California, she currently lives in London. Traveling with Ghosts is her first book.

Product Details

  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books (February 27, 2018)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501107863

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