In 2000 my friend and I went backpacking. Although we, aged 21, thought we were being intrepid, we actually took a well trodden tourist route taking in India, Vietnam and Thailand.
There's a brilliant scene that makes up the prologue to Jonathan Coe's The Rotter's Club. Patrick and Sophie are talking about their parents' pasts, specifically 1973:
- Was it really that different do you think?
- Completely different. Just think of it! A world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes. A world that had never heard of Princess Diana or Tony Blair, never thought for a moment of going to war in Kosovo or Afghanistan. There were only three television channels in those days, Patrick. Three! And the unions were so powerful that, if they wanted to, they could close one of them down for a whole night. Sometimes people even had to do without electricity. Imagine!
I think of this scene when I think about backpacking in 2000, albeit with some revisions. We'd not only heard of Princess Diana, we'd started to forget her. People had mobiles, but not everyone. I got my own later that year so I could have it for the beginning of my journalism course. We used email, but I also still wrote letters. I hadn't yet performed a Google search (I learnt about Google on a computer skills module on the journalism course - imagine!) Phones certainly didn't send emails. Instead we stopped every week or so in an internet cafe and touched base with home, sending what we thought we witty group emails to all our friends with pithy observations about life in South East Asia.
In August 2000 we were in Thailand and heard about a cookery school in Chiang Mai in the north of the country. We decided to go for several days and before we left I called my mum and told her where we were heading.
As far as my mum knew Chiang Mai was a small village and we were the only tourists. In fact it is a big tourist hub with lots of hostels and visitors. Consequently when a couple of days later she heard on the radio that a young British female tourist had been found murdered in Chiang Mai, and that the name wouldn't be released until the family had been told, she had no way of contacting me. For a short while, until the name was released, she thought it was me. My grandpa, I am told, who I never saw have an alcoholic drink, had to sit down and have a whisky.
It was a day later I went to an internet cafe. Although we were in the same town we hadn't heard the news - I don't remember the detail but perhaps my friend and I had had an early night or went for dinner the two of us and didn't speak to other tourists. A deluge of emails from my mum was the first I knew of the murder, the last sent after she knew it wasn't me, asking for me to call her anyway. I did, and my poor mum managed not to ask me to return home early. We barricaded ourselves into our hostel room that night, my friend and I, and didn't go out in the dark.
The woman who was murdered was called Kirsty Jones. She was 23 and from Tredomen near Brecon.
I hadn't thought about those few days that much for the ten years after returning home. Then I had a child. And now I think of it almost every day. I think of my parents hearing the news and assuming the worst. I think of the day my kids are going to come home and tell me they've booked a round the world ticket. And most of all I think of Kirsty's parents having the worst confirmed, and of Kirsty herself.