When you’re on holiday, soaking in the tropical vibes of Thailand as a young adventurer, the last thing you expect is the sudden death of your fiancé. Yet that’s what happened to Shannon Leone Fowler, the author of Traveling with Ghosts. When 25-year-old Sean was stung by a box jellyfish, officials tried to rule his death a drunk drowning. Fowler, who was studying to become a marine biologist, knew the truth—despite no warnings on the beaches or in the travel guides.
Traveling with Ghosts is a gut-wrenching memoir, rife with adventures around the world that rarely match the filtered travel blogger version. Fowler is unflinchingly honest about the war-ravished, less-popular places she travels. Mourning the passing of her beloved through Slovakia, Israel, Bosnia and Bulgaria, Fowler includes flashbacks of growing up in California and travelling with Sean through China and Europe.
I spoke with author Shannon Leone Fowler about her life as an explorer, her process writing Traveling with Ghosts and her complicated relationship with the ocean.
Note: Conversation has been condensed for clarity
Q: What is your relationship to adventure?
A: I’ve always loved the outdoors. I grew up in California. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so our holidays were camping trips with my dad. We also visited my grandmother and spent a lot of time on the beach. That's where I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist. I was eight years old.
I also love the mountains. Getting away from the phone, commitments, everything. . . it’s so relaxing. I feel like I can breathe.
Q: In Traveling with Ghosts, you describe different hikes and adventures both alone and with Sean. Why did you seek out these experiences?
A: Sean wasn’t a huge hiker, but I brought him on some treks in China. I went to Eastern Europe right after his funeral, which was only a few months after our time in China and his death in Thailand.
While backpacking through Eastern Europe, I picked places where I could hike. I was there in the winter, so I usually didn't see anyone else on the trails. I needed that time alone, being outside and not trying to communicate. I needed to process Sean’s death and be with my thoughts—or sometimes, not think at all. Hiking is just one foot in front of the other.
Hiking alone in the winter brought me back to those hikes we’d done together, even though the experiences were very different.
Shannon and Sean
Q: What was your experience hiking alone as a female in the wilderness?
A: There were certainly wolves and lumberjacks to worry about when hiking alone in Slovakia. Ironically, even though Sean had been killed by a box jellyfish, there’s still a big part of me that would rather take my chances with an animal than with a human being.
There are rules you can follow when it comes to animal encounters. That being said, Sean and I weren't breaking the rules in Thailand, and he still died.
Q: When Sean passed away so suddenly, how did you cope?
A: Most people think that being so far from home made it harder, and I do think that’s true. But I also think being in Thailand with pressing things to do—get his body released, then get it home, deal with insurance, communicate with our families and the Australian consulate—got me out of bed in the morning.
I had no choice. No one else was going to do those important things. I got through that week with the help of two beautiful strangers.
Q: In Traveling with Ghosts, flashbacks intermingle with a forward-moving journey. Why did you choose to tell your story in this way? Why did you feel the need to write it?
A: Because that’s how I experienced it. Even when I was in Eastern Europe, I was constantly remembering little moments with Sean: a kiss, a joke. . . each memory felt like a gift. I wrote it all down so I wouldn't forget.
I also wanted the world to get to know Sean. He was special.
Q: Are you still afraid of the ocean?
A: Scientifically, the chances of Sean dying how he did are freakish. He's more likely to die choking on a hot dog.
I carry a huge scar from the ocean, which is Sean’s death. But I still love the ocean. I miss it physically, the way you would miss a person. I don’t love jellyfish, though.
It took me a long time, but I take my kids in the ocean now. We went swimming in Hawaii and Barbados. It still crosses my mind, but I made the decision to not be scared of the water.