Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Year in Review

It's hard to believe one year ago (now a little more) we landed in India with 12 months of unknown adventure ahead of us. India was the perfect place to get started with our trip -- you learn how to spot scams and cons; how to bargain prices (Indians are hard bargainers); and sit in crowded and blazing hot busses for hours on end... These are skills that have come in handy throughout the year, on a regular basis. Same goes for the rationing of precious toilet paper; skill with cleansing one's self with hose sprayers or ladles of water (for the TP-less bathroom visits); the ability to balance on the edge of a bobbing boat as you step into another during off-shore boat transfers (there have been many boats during this trip, they are like busses in many places); the ability to find sound sleep in a bungalow visited by rats, frogs, roaches, gigantic spiders, and mosquitoes.

But most of all, on this trip, we have learned to abandon control: you would have a hard time traveling as a control freak -- you almost never know what's going on or when it's going to happen. Questions are answered, "No problem," or, "Don't worry..." I have learned to put my 'need to know' on the back burner. Somehow, you always end up where you wanted to be -- perhaps a few hours later than planned, but what are plans when you have all the time in the world? And, somehow, there is always someone that points you in the right way, transfers you to a different bus, or at least tells you, "Get off here." It might appear you're in the middle of nowhere, but no time will be wasted -- someone will arrive shortly to get you to the next place (with the exception of India, at times).

The year has flown by and it almost seems surreal, the places we've been and the sights we've seen. We've slept on the crest of a sand dune in India's Thar Desert (with our transport, camels, nearby but not within spitting range); we've hiked the Great Wall and ridden horses in China's version of the wild west (camping under thunderstorms while sleeping on boughs of pine needles and using stinky saddles as pillows); we've traversed Vietnam's Central Highlands by motorcycle on the Ho Chi Minh Highway; explored the glory of Angkor Wat (for the 2nd time) and volunteered with orphans in Cambodia -- in fact, we've become sponsors for one little boy, Sayorn; we've soaked up sun and sea in Bali and Lombok; lived in a 150-meter high treehouse in Laos; explored the temples and hill tribes of the enigmatic Myanmar; learned the ancient art of traditional Thai massage in Chiang Mai and discovered the art of doing nothing (also ancient) on the islands and beaches of Thailand... And this is only the short list... perhaps things that jumped to mind because they are among my favorite experiences, now memories.

In the last year, I have discovered my 1st (OK... 2nd, 3rd, and possibly 4th) gray hairs; celebrated my 34th birthday -- Benjamin his 36th and (soon) 37th; we've missed Easter, July 4, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Xmas, New Years Eve and Day... Friends have gotten married and babies have been born; my little brother graduated university and my retired father has returned there; friends have quit jobs and started businesses. We've missed the changing of the seasons, holidays and birthdays, the Super Bowl, Olympics, and the Oscars...

Along the way we have met people from all over the world: Africa, Australia, Europe, North America (and of course Asia). We've shared many a beer and conversation with -- literally -- hundreds of people. I've met and befriended more 'new' people on the road than during several years combined at home. Some of our friendships are fleeting -- they may last only one evening. But a surprising amount of people are now in my address book, my inbox, and in a filed email folder marked 'travel friends'. We have friends to visit the world wide: England, France, Australia, Singapore...

Along the way we have seen relics from the past -- ancient temples, colonization, war... It's amazing how long the effects of a war linger. The Vietnam War (or American War depending on who you are) is still visible in many SE Asian countries. Laos still struggles with Hmong guerrillas (American trained) and hidden land mines; Cambodia still suffers from KR years (a genocide helped along by its own political instability paired with fighting along/within its border with Vietnam and American bombing campaigns); Thailand's sex tourism industry flourishes -- the seeds of which were planted before the war, but watered and fertilized and cultivated by GIs on R&R (ha ha, what a great metaphor when you think of it).

Yes, wars continue long after they're fought, long after the bomb craters fill in and napalmed forests grow back and people greet the 'enemy' with kindness because they were 'enemies' before their time. Even once all these things happen, the war goes on because people have been affected -- familes have been ruined -- I've met several women from France, for example, for whom the tragedies of war continue and these women are my age. Their families were refugees, their parents are from another place, another culture and don't understand their daughters' Western ideas about life, marriage, independence. Their families are somewhat broken, even now, even in a different country.

Europe's need to colonize Asia, even older than this recent war, is seen everywhere: architecture, food, language. The Brits had India and Myanmar; the French had Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia (formerly known as Indochina); the Dutch had Indonesia... what are the effects? Pilfered resources for one (i.e. Teak forests in Myanmar have been decimated)... Communist politics itself -- in a unified effort to break from foreign rule, political affiliations were born from a need for independence, or at least a change. On the plus side (for me), French bread and imported cheese can occasionally be found... It's ironic that the colonial days, like the war, have impact on society and government today. I've met English, Dutch, and French who complain about the immigrants, or 'asylum seekers' as some call them. These are people from former colonies, hence one-time citizens, who have moved in or are currently on the 'mother' country's doorstep and who are not completely wanted. Seems to me the consumerism of Western societies is not a recent event: there is a long history of using something up, spoiling it, throwing it away and then repulsion that the trash stinks.

I see the beauty of the world -- the coral-fringed coastlines and soaring cliffs, rolling plains and mountain vistas, thick forests and crystal lakes -- and I no longer see boundaries of ownership... we all "own" the earth. But then I catch a glimpse of the news now and then and it's all death and violence over ownership of land, resources, 'correct' morals... it's saddening to live so peacefully and to see the immense beauty of our planet only to be transported back into a world of anger and stress and outrage with the flick 'on' of someone's remote (this, by the way, is one reason I'm dreading our return to the U.S. -- my mental state will surely decline and ignoring the news completely is not the answer). When we were in Bali/Lombok during the second terrorist attack in Kuta, the news was passed by word of mouth on the tiny island 'Gili Air' and I heard about it at night and wrote in my journal: I look up at the vast, starry sky and it seems so innocent, so pure, untouched... while meanwhile there is killing happening beneath its gaze. A small, inconsequential planet is so full of hate and anger and little ants of people are killing other little ants over a crumb or land or a personal belief: no good reasons. There can never be a good reason...

During our travels we have been followed around by Bush. As Americans, we are seen as The Ones Who Elected Him. Everyone wants to know, "Why?" Some are kind in their questioning, open-minded, curious... intelligent enough to know that governments don't always represent the governed. But others are combative and argumentative: sometimes being American is like having a disease no one wants to catch. I've not met one non-American who has a positive word to say about our president... and I've thought about how little I know about their leaders to even remark (we Americans are self-centered and sheltered... take a look at our news -- not many foreign stories unless we're involved in war). "Why?" they ask, "Why did Americans elect Bush?" It's an awesome responsibility we have, as Americans; our president is not only America's leader, but the leader of the world. We ought to be more intelligent about our decisions and that means knowing things about the rest of the world. Those of you who are now angry with me, please vent your feelings in the 'comments' that follow this post -- it will be handy for me to reference when people ask me 'Why?'

There has been much kindness shown to us by total strangers this past year -- simple things -- but a redeeming kindness that proves the world is not as bad as it seems at times: people sharing food on long bus journeys; locals looking after broken motorbikes, pride, and bloody wounds; good samaritans who notice furrowed brows and a lack of direction and guide us the right way -- sometimes leading us for blocks to the right street; wedding invitations, shared meals, roadtrips, and presents -- we've gotten them all from kind souls who don't see us as foreigners but as people.

I will be happy, once home, to abandon the label of 'foreigner' that accompanies us wherever we go. The very word implies a certain sort of alienation, 'you are not one of us'. The Chinese and Thais and others have special words for foreigners that translate, directly (and simply), to 'foreigner' and while it's obvious that we are what we're called, sometimes I don't feel the need to have it pointed out in form of address. However, I will miss the naivete I may claim as being a foreigner, "Oh, sorry, I didn't understand..."

Once home I will indulge in all the comforts missed on the road: a place to kick back on a lazy day (a couch!), Mexican food, friends and family, TV (yes, I'm not ashamed), holiday celebrations, phoning in an order for pizza delivery (extra cheese, please), a language I always understand (although it's easier to drown out 'chatter' in public when you don't understand a word).

I know once I'm home I'll tire of the routine that comes with 'real life' (though is this not 'real life', too?): working, bills, housework (I haven't had to wash a single dish this whole year). I'll look at photos and my journal and think wistfully about this year in Asia: the absolute freedom I've had on a daily basis -- only dictated by the expiration of a visa when you have to make a determined move. I'll pine for the barrage of foreign sites, sounds, smells, tastes, textures... I'll even miss the feelings of utter confusion and unknowing -- you feel the most alive when you're not all that comfortable. I'll miss the lack of rules and regulations, agreements and releases: there is no threat of free-for-all law suits here to curtail your fun. I'll remember the friendly community spirit -- the Asian tendency to hold conversations with strangers, the easy smiles, the informality. I plan to bring it all home with me but I had a dream the other night that after one week there, I'd lost it already.

Before leaving on this trip I went through several stages of fear: supporting myself without working for 1+ year, leaving employment, the safety of the 'known'... that was all dealt with over a period of months while planning the trip and then the fear switched to being a couple of people in a foreign land who have only themselves to rely upon... "What happens if?" became a concern. And then: fear of the unknown... I actually didn't feel nervous until our final layover in Bangkok on the way to Kolkata, India. I had the butterflies -- not the pretty ones, the poisonous kind.

Now that we're coming home, I have a whole new set of fears. Odd. I didn't think I'd feel anything but mild depression that comes when something ends. I fear the feeling of strangeness -- the culture shock of being back home. Although I have contradictory fears: the fear that it soon won't be strange, that I will be back as I was as if nothing ever happened. I fear the day that it's all a distant memory. However, by that time, I hope to be back on the road: not Asia -- I want to see the whole world.


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