THIS IS ONE OF THOSE BIG MOMENTS. Those moments when you know you are at a crossroads.You don’t know what lies ahead, but you know that whatever it is, it is different from where you just came.
We just reached our hotel in Khao Lak, Thailand and for the first time in several months we have almost no decisions to make. We don’t have to figure out how to get anywhere, where we are going to sleep tonight, what time the bus or train leaves, or where we will go next. We are staying at a 5 star Marriott resort for the next five days, using up the last of Travis’ hotel points that he accumulated over the last few years through traveling. We walked into the spacious lobby adorned with chandeliers and regal statues in our crumpled, wrinkled clothing, sweaty backpacks weighing us down. I didn’t even want to set my bag on the marble floor for fear of making the floor
dirty. The concierge took our bags and handed us freshly squeezed juice. Was this a joke? We don’t belong here. I feel like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places. It gets better. Since Travis is a Marriott
Rewards member they upgraded us from standard room to a two story loft suite with a private patio overlooking the longest swimming pool in Southeast Asia. The second
bathroom is about as big as most of the hotel rooms we have been staying in. It’s ridiculous. There’s nothing to do but lay in the sun and drinks margaritas. Something feels wrong.
All of this free space in my mind has given me a lot of time to reflect. These reflections have drifted in several different directions – ghosts of ideas weaving in and out of doorways, ducking down hidden passages, sometimes turning around to end up where they started, sometimes so distorted by the path they took that they can’t find their way back. I am re-living moments from our trip while simultaneously trying to hold on to the moments we have left. Wondering how it has changed me, wondering if I got what I wanted from it - if I went the right places, made the right choices, veered off the beaten path enough. Then there is a subtle hint of sadness, knowing that it already over, knowing that this adventure has come to an end. But
there’s a sense of pride too, and accomplishment. Confidence was gained. Knowledge learned. Experiences had. Relationships created/strengthened. Life lived. Laughter laughed. And then there are questions about returning home. Will I experience culture shock? Will I be happy to be home? Will it feel the same as it did when I left? And practical things too. Like, where will we live? Where will we work? These questions are not easily answered. Thoughts, not easily quieted. With little here to deter them, they have free reign of my mind.
Long term traveling has a very distinct rhythm. Just like at home, your life develops a sort of routine. Our routine for the last 5.5 months has looked something like this: Take a bus/van/boat/train/airplane to said destination. Arrive at destination. Argue with tuk tuk/taxi/rickshaw driver about price to hotel. Agree on price. Arrive at hotel. Shower. Find restaurant. Eat. Nap. Explore. Take pictures. Sleep. Eat. Shop. Explore. Take pictures. Make new friends. Drink. Arrange transportation for next destination. Arrange hotel for next destination. Sleep. Repeat. It is the same exact process repeated over and over again, just in different locales. And yet each time it is completely different. The interactions
are different, how you respond to the place is different, what you experience is different. And thus, the phrase that best sums up not only Southeast Asia, but the entire travel experience: “same, same, but different.”
One thing I hoped to get from this trip was knowledge about how other cultures differ from ours. I wanted to learn what other cultures value, how they live, how they love, what they believe in, how they function. I’m actually kind of a global cultures fiend - I can’t get enough of this type of stuff. And while I definitely did learn about these cultural differences, I was surprised to find that I was much more intrigued by our commonalities. Perhaps, my largest discovery is that geographic location has no affect on the commonalities of humankind. We have an innate sameness that is not affected by where we are in physical world. This sameness may be expressed in different ways, in different words, but it is always there. Here are a couple of these ‘samenesses’ as observed by me: The inherent goodness of (most) of human kind
. I have always believed that on an individual level – when all of the
politics, fears, and struggles are stripped away – people are inherently good. This trip has reaffirmed this belief for me. Wherever we went we were taken care of. When we were lost, people gave us directions. When we were hungry, they fed us. Sometimes, they fed us when we weren’t hungry (ahhem, Nepal). But more important than these tangible things were the smiles. The smiles that came from the old, the young, the rich, the poor, males and females, Christians and Hindus, Burmese and Nepalese. They came from children on the streets, women behind fruit carts, old men with deep wrinkles drinking beer. They came from everywhere. Everyday. Resilience
. An innate desire that we all share to keep on going, keep surviving, keep thriving. No matter how dire the circumstances human beings do not give up. They make the best out the things they have. They will struggle until their last, final breath to keep on living. This resilience was seen everywhere we went in Asia – in the rich cities of Tokyo and Singapore as well as in the slums of Mumbai. I met a woman who had lost her son to hunger in Goa, a man that
was raised as a slave in Munduk. And yet, both of these individuals were standing there, telling me their story, fighting the good fight, happy to be alive. Creation and appreciation of art
. It seems that all cultures have a desire to express themselves creatively. Every place that we visited took pride in their unique version of creative expression. We saw paintings and statues, puppets and plays, singing and dancing. We listened to a traditional Nepali band in Kathmandu, a rock show in Bangkok, an electronic dj in Koh Phangan. We watched a water puppet show in Hue, a Kathalki performance in Ubud, a tribal performance in Wayanad. We played the drums with a musician in Munduk, marveled at tribal art in Chiang Mai. It seems that both creation and expression are integral to our being. Desire to learn.
People are interested in things that are new. They have a desire to seek out explanations, answers. This is perhaps why we created such as stir wherever we went. We were different, foreign, unknown. This thirst for knowledge manifested itself in myriad ways throughout our trip. We saw it in the Nepali pre-school students as they recited the English
numbers 1-100, in the Indian boys who asked us where we were from and why we were there, in the numerous conversations we had with travelers about American culture. Connection.
This is perhaps the most widely shared value of all - the desire to connect and love others. Family. Friends. Community. Everywhere we went we saw mothers carrying children, friends holding hands, lovers exchanging glances. We met so many people who shared their story with us as we shared ours with them. We shared New Years with new friends in Alleppey, connected with our host family at the dinner table in Chapagoan, partied in the ocean with people in Nah Trang, had long conversations with new friends around a fire in the mountains of Nepal. These connections with people are what I will remember most from this trip. The scenery and landscapes will fade and blur, but these connections - both large and small - will stay with me forever.
And now, it’s time for me to bid farewell to this continent. It’s been swell, but it’s time to leave. And so, without further ado: farewell to scent of plumeria flowers, the thickness of the air, the
beads of sweat on my upper lip. Farewell to the dart of the gecko out of the corner of my eye, the background chatter of words I don’t understand, the bleary eyed mornings in unknown worlds. Farewell to the long hours of watching the world go by through a window, the rhythmic crashing of the waves, the sight of the neon green fields. Farewell to the food, the people, the smiles. I will miss you. But don’t worry, I’ll definitely be back. : )
Travis’ collection of pics from the entire trip is now complete! Check it out here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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