Well folks, I did it. I went to Southeast Asia, made it through with neither a guidebook nor a bite of pasta, and have been back in the U.S. for about 8 months now. In fact, I left on my trip exactly one year ago. You’ve all been asking me questions. What have you learned? Do you miss it? Do you keep in touch with the people there? Did anything get stolen? Have you lost weight? If I haven’t yet annoyed you with my stories of this and that, or with annoying sayings such as, “Well, in MY village we did it THIS way,” or “In Cambodia, it only cost xx cents,” then here’s your last chance to read even more.
I promised one more update, and here it is. Why so late? Well, I didn’t want to write until I got a job. So I waited…and waited…still waiting…no, I finally got a freelance copywriting job, and actually, the wait is due to an entirely different reason. While visiting all my friends upon my return, I arrived at one friend’s home and was speaking to her mother. The woman looked me directly in the eye as I was telling my tales, and with a wise and knowing voice, said, “I’ll be real curious to know how you feel several months from now. Once you’ve had a chance to really sit and think about it, I bet you’ll feel a little bit differently from how you do now.” She said it with such confidence that I thought, why not? Why not wait, say, half a year and then see how I feel? So I bring you my thoughts, a year to the day of my departure. A plane delay until 12:30AM on August 27th essentially gave me one more day of stalling to complete this final letter. If you’ve lost interest so late in the game (or never had it to begin with), well, I’d be happy to remove your name from this mailing list.
To answer the question, yes, my thoughts and feelings did change. While I thought about the trip much more fleetingly upon arriving home and stuffing my face with pasta, bagels, and brownies, these days I think about it quite often. Small moments and memories bring forth emotions and feelings I wasn’t aware existed.
Have you ever gotten that feeling of your heart being up in your throat? I hear most people feel that way when being in love, but for me, I remember that initial feeling when I stepped onto the trade floor of the first Fancy Food Show of my life. It was three massive stories of free food, and I just remember feeling so overwhelmed and full of excitement that I almost wanted to burst into tears. Sad, but true.
This is the same feeling I get when I remember my trip. It isn’t the articles I read or tourist pictures that spark these emotions, but the random bits of similarity that bring forth memories. It’s hearing that obnoxious, crooning Asian music played on random streets in NYC. It’s walking through Brooklyn’s Asiatown and seeing a familiar vegetable that I ate in Vietnam. It’s hearing a scooter and remembering the crazy bike rides. It’s smelling a food that I smelled over there in the markets, or seeing a photo of mine that almost makes me want to cry. I want to be there again. The sudden flashbacks of such an amazing, scary, simple, lonely, awkward, and unique experience make me smile with a sad fondness, if such a term is even posssible. But of course not everything was hunky-dory. So why do I miss it so much?
I think that we, as people, tend to remember events and experiences on either the good side or bad side of the spectrum, often forgetting the middle. The middle is boring: It’s the things we don’t talk about, the sleepless nights that weren’t mice-infested enough to be talked about in a bad way, nor the walk through the park after volunteer work that wasn’t beautiful enough to be raved about. There’s so much of the in-between in any experience that often, we simply choose not to remember it existed at all.
I freely admit that I am the same person I was when I left, but little things have changed, and one place is in my thoughts every day. I still cannot forget my Thai mountain hilltribe village. Out of everywhere I stayed, it is absolutely the place I would return to. Realistically, sure, I picture myself there again and can recall how bored I was. How Supermom™ made me feel ill at ease, how I sometimes felt used, how the mice kept me up at night, how terrible the food was, how I didn’t feel I was helping much. But then I remember what comes naturally: The sheer beauty, the relaxed pace of life, my tension-free body, the happiness and generosity of people. How they shared their home with me. My friend Sanit. The freedom. The walks. The lack of worry, the lack of expectations. No need to rush. Finding amazing insects and hearing animal noises I’d never heard before. Learning a whole new way of life, and settling into it with no problem at all. I just cannot forget any of it.
Was I doing anything to actually help these people? This is a situation anyone wrestles with upon visiting third-world countries. Should I help? Can I help? I do still want to help if I can, and if any of you have ideas for donating to a fund so my “little sister” Janjira can go to medical school, please let me know. She has worked hard and wants to learn, and I think she deserves that.
Is my help even wanted? If you are to actually live with these people in my Thai village, you find that perhaps above everything else, they are happy. Not a faked happiness, but a general good attitude towards life. These people work hard, raise kids, have almost nothing to look forward to, and die young, yet they are the happiest people I’ve ever met. Unless you’re dealing with some remote tribe of undiscovered indigenous people from Papua new Guinea (wearing loincloths, of course), anyone you meet is mostly likely to have had some sort of contact with, or at least knowledge of, the outside world. Even the poorest communities have cell phones, have seen television, or have eaten dog. These people aren’t clueless. But I think that because they have never traveled to these places or even seen a single example of something that might be on television (a furnished house; skyscrapers; waffles; a vacation), these things only exist in a fantasy world. They are so completely unattainable for your average farmer here that there’s no reason in even trying for it. It’s not even a goal; it’s simply impossible. They live in their own little world, seemingly uninterested in what else might be out there, and happy to do their own thing as it has been done for generations and generations. And so what you end up wondering when you leave this kind of place is, well, What did I do? Did I help at all? Did I step in and make anything better? What is better to them? Because in the end, they are happy, much happier than I would say we are as a people. Happier than I am, happier than you are, and happier than anyone you know will ever be. And who am I to change that? Who am I to say that technology, meals-in-minutes, or medical advances make people happier? To these people, life is life and death is something not to be mourned for long. And when I think about it, I was happiest in the village and on the island snorkeling. My body was relaxed, time was not a worry or a limit, and day-to-day living was easy. Yes, we can make the argument that we’re not on this earth to be happy, but to further the world. But why isn’t happiness the ultimate goal? Aren’t vacations, marriages, and relaxing the stuff dreams are made of? Why do we always feel this need to push technology on the poor and unfortunate? What are these notions of grandeur we have, seeing photos of volunteering Americans with poor kids sitting in their laps, then thinking that we are going to change their lives? Are we actually wanted, and do we actually help? A few days or weeks is almost nothing, but a month, a year, two years? I am left with more questions than ever before.
I always wonder if, in the end, I actually did anything. Or was just being one of them good enough? Perhaps it all comes down to not making a big deal of anything, but instead making just the smallest statements in fitting in and living with each other to say Yes, we are just regular people and can get along. I’m not arguing against giving and teaching all we can to those who desire to learn. I just think we all need to realize that we are not the ultimate models or givers, that we don’t harbor the answers to everything in life, and that “better” is a relative term that’s hard for people to understand. After all, they’re the ones who don’t even need to pursue happiness to attain it. They’ve been living it this whole time.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve gone off to visit friends, work and earn quite little, and play outside all over the country. There’s been snow tubing in New Hampshire, hiking in Massachusetts, archery and golf in Vermont, a wedding and rope swinging in Maine, crabbing in Connecticut, eating in Maryland, camping and climbing in California, and hiking and exploring in Oregon. I guess I can’t really complain, because although I’ve wanted to be working and earning money, I’ve realized that I’m just not meant to have a standard, full-time job. Some people live to work, or work to live, and that’s fine. Since this trip, though, I feel that I’m wasting every day I’m not exploring and learning, and I just can’t do that. I’d rather keep up my wonderful freelance jobs, including my creative ideation gigs, my tasty food reviews, and my small volunteer teaching positions, then try to find fulfilling work in the meantime. I enjoy not knowing what I’ll be doing one month to the next, and if I’m poor doing that, then so be it. I do have a plan for my next escapade, so that’s what I’m in the midst of researching. And yes, of course it involves travel and outdoor adventure!
The worst parts:
-The Southeast Asian computer viruses that have wreaked havoc on thousands of my photos, as well as ruining a lot of my time in Malaysia, much of which was spent trying to fix the computers I accidentally infected at my volunteer host’s business.
-Witnessing the hunger for money in such poor countries.
-The Malaysian holistic practitioner who randomly “read” my personality after meeting me for two hours. It was amazing, but what he figured out about me was absolutely accurate. And sometimes the truth is very, very depressing.
-Having to physically rip guys off of my pack and my body as they fought to have me use their taxi service.
-That I feel pretty badly about feeling used by my family. I should have been a lot more giving and less self-absorbed.
-Realizing I’m never going to look like the model-perfect flight attendants on China Air. I believe they were made from a combination of silicone and implanted politeness chips, sans the “r” and “l” buttons.
-Losing some of my favorite photos, despite having them doubly backed up.
-My crazy Malaysian host, who said (heard through the grapevine) I was an American freeloader, then accused me via email of bringing fleas into her bed. I plead not guilty.
-My family, who unsurprisingly didn’t seem to care very much about the trip, and who only heard a few stories I begged to tell. Yeah, it hurts, but that’s not new news.
-Most people I’ve talked to, who sadly have never heard of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Genocide, Pol Pot, or the Temples of Angkor. How have American history teachers not found these to be of importance?
-Cucumber in watersoup™ for dinner. Not my fav.
-Speaking to a Khmer-American woman while in Cambodia. She had witnessed her husband’s murder, and her entire family had been wiped out by the Red Army. This was a woman who had eaten trees to survive, then lived in the mountains and escaped to a foreign land, and who had tears in her eyes describing how grateful she was to be in America. Yes, we are lucky.
-My friends, very few of whom challenged me in opinion or who truly wanted to hear my thoughts.
-Having no one with me to share experiences.
The best parts:
-Gazing at the rainbow-colored fish from a floating dock in the middle of turquoise water, then realizing that the three guys and I sitting on there were from four different countries, and even continents: We were from the U.S., Scotland, Iran, and Australia.
-The cheer that rose up from a group of Khmer workers passing the white chick who was sitting on the roof of a speeding truck.
-The rolling mountains and farms that went on forever in layer after beautiful layer.
-Learning everything I never expected.
-The candy, yarn, books, and notes friends and family sent me.
-Snorkeling for free, whenever I wanted, with turtles, manta rays, starfish, urchins, anemones, and thousands of fish I never knew existed.
-The food, going catfish fishing, and playing ping-pong in a village no foreigner has ever visited.
-The funeral in my Thai village. It was one of the most intriguing and singularly unique situations I’ve ever found myself in, and believe it or not, it was extremely enjoyable.
-Having no one to depend on and figuring out solutions for myself.
-Having my family come pick me up from the train, including my father, who had taken a day off of work. He had extra days to use up, I was later informed. But still!
-Finding the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in a place I’d never expect.
-My friends who challenged my ideas and my decisions.
-Meeting the most generous people of my life, and having hope that one day, I can be less stingy and more giving.
-Gaining the respect of those who have far less than any of us do, which is not an easy feat.
-Walks in foreign lands, with no knowledge of where to go and no time limit for doing so.
-Every incredible memory of every untold experience, which I will (hopefully) have as long as I shall live.
-Being alone for all the experiences.
I am always developing new thoughts on this trip, and on the world in general, and while I will definitely go on more unique trips in the future, this first, big, unknown trip will always hold the most magical place in my heart.
Overall, this experience gave me more guidance on how I want to live my life and enjoy every day. I’m more clueless than every about what I want to do with my life, but I do know what I want not to do. One thing that’s changed is my lack of tolerance for people I already had little patience for in the first place. To those who complain about their dull jobs: Do something about it. Change. If you don’t want to, fine, but don’t whine to me about it. There are the sayers and the doers, but don’t ask others for the reasons to change, because in the end, no one is going to make that happen but you. To stay in a bad job/relationship/place for a few months is one thing—and there is something to be learned in every situation, for sure—but for years? You’re probably never going to change, and only you can be blamed for that.
I know that many of you must think I pat myself for going on this trip, and that it wasn’t even unique, but I don’t think either is quite true. While I’m proud and happy that I took the trip, it was for a relatively short time, and half of that was fairly tourist-laden. I also believe that anyone who teaches abroad or does a program such as Peace Corps gets an experience that’s unlike the norm. Although my trip was short, the high number of first-time experiences and one-of-a-kind treks made it quite special to me, and had a big impact. And being alone to do it, with no other Americans, made it that much more memorable and challenging.
Am I a well-traveled gal? No! Are the people who have visited 14 European cities on a 30-day tour and cruise well-traveled? Heck no. I’ve spent some time in a few parts of the world, but well-traveled, no. I’m working on it, though.
I believe everyone should not so much just travel, but actually be immersed in a culture and place in order to understand different ways of life. I believe we always learn something valuable when we put ourselves in new situations. When I look back at my photos or hear those memorable sounds, I cannot believe how blessed I am to have experienced such beauty, such discrimination, and such different aspects of humanity. Every day I think of this journey and am transported to such magical places, not because it was all amazing, but because it was all such a journey. I believe that we should walk down that alleyway, because whether the end is a brick wall or an amazing sight, we will never know unless we sometimes go against our instincts. I believe that without being scared by doing something new, we are never quite challenging ourselves to everything else out there. When we choose comfort over the unknown, we miss out on the world.
There is so much more to say, but I think we’ve all likely had enough. Thank you so much for reading and responding to my notes, because I’ve been blessed to have you as my readers. I truly hope you enjoyed them.