“Life on the Road — Part 1: Reflections on Europe” can be viewed here.
After having returned for the second time from 10 months of travel, one of the most common reactions I’ve received from friends and family is surprise that I’m the same person as I was when I left, I haven’t resurfaced as a changed man, and that I haven’t evolved into a “higher being” as a result of my travel experiences. My counter is that for someone to leave and re-emerge as a changed person, he or she has had to have experienced the world in another way, seen things in a new perspective, or learned what it is like to look through someone else’s eyes. To have become a different person, one has to have experienced life differently than they would back home. That part is the key, and why I have returned the same person as I did when I left – albeit with a bit more confidence. The single most striking lesson I’ve learned from my travels is that despite the fact that art and architecture may have evolved down alternate paths, cuisines differ according to the ingredients available, the local politics may push or pull one’s opinion in one direction or another, and manner of dress depends upon the local climate, people are still universally the same wherever you go. We all go through the same emotional highs and lows throughout our life, we all ask questions about why we are here and what our purposes in life are, we all want to provide everything we can for our children and loved ones, we all desire to have a long and fulfilling life, and we all seek out happiness wherever and however we can.
This realization that people all over the world have far more in common than not didn’t appear as a sudden epiphany for me but rather a conclusion that I slowly drew based on a multitude of experiences over nearly a year on the road — and as the number of cultures and countries that I’ve visited continued to escalate, this fact only become more clear and evident. Whether it is the realization that communicating wordlessly (a necessity due to a language barrier) is embarrassingly easy to do, finding yourself laughing at the same silly things as a local passing you on the street, the understanding nod and smile shared with someone from another culture over a cold beer, seeing the same joy on the faces of playing children as you do back home, or the fact that you’ve found yourself lining up at the same food stalls with people from all walks of life in the hopes of satisfying your hunger on the tastiest food possible, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that the world is really one and we are all simply humans, despite any political or geographic borders imposed therein. It is easy to allow our own belief systems and biases cloud our views of the world and color the experiences that we’re likely to have while traveling, but if you keep your eyes open and take an honest look at the world around us, you’ll find the similarities that exist in far-flung lands, the universality of all of the cultures across the world, and you’ll see a little bit of yourself in each of the laughing and smiling faces that you encounter along the way.
Getting down to the nitty-gritty of traveling, and having just spent the last four months in Southeast Asia, there are certainly things that I miss from back home. Besides the ability to walk outside without the feeling that you just stepped into a sauna, some of the little things come to mind, such as not having to share my room with any creepy-crawlies, napkins at a restaurant that are more than just a roll of toilet paper or a box of tissues, pancakes that are actually real pancakes, being able to cross the street without having to say a quick prayer first, not having to worry about or prepare for inexplicably sudden downpours, or (most importantly) a toilet that consists of more than just two foot prints and a hole in the ground.
Beyond these minor inconveniences, however, I’ve run into an unanticipated situation: that my life on the road is beginning to replace my normal life back in the United States as what constitutes my default mental state. I’ve grown fully accustomed to life in hostels; I’ve long-since realized that if I can’t fit something in my backpack, it isn’t necessary; I’m intimately familiar with the inner workings of airports and train stations; and I’ve come to know all too well the feeling of not having a home. At first, these slight adjustments seem like a positive change — and, in actuality, they are probably a necessity for the sanity of any long-term traveler — but along with these changes, however, comes the realization that the novelty of international travel has worn off and my level of excitement upon entering a new city or country isn’t what it was when I first began. To continue to have passion and drive to dive head-first into the world, I knew I had to take another break, if for nothing other than to reset my “normal” before I found myself simply going through the motions of travel. After all, travel is one of the great joys of this world, enriching our lives and expanding our collection of experiences, and I certainly don’t want to find myself taking this gift for granted.
As I similarly reported after returning from Europe, the moments of my Southeast Asian trip that will remain etched in memory the longest won’t come from touring the ancient temples or the modern cities, from imitating a bum on the perfect strips of white-on-azure-blue beaches, or from seeing the beautiful juxtaposition of towering limestone mountains butting right up against the coastlines. Instead, it is the more subdued, the more subtle, the more sensual moments that stand out — the daily ritual of shopkeepers “cleansing” the sidewalks in front of their shops with buckets of water, the smell of joss smoke wafting through the air as you pass a near-by temple, the building Pavlovian anticipation of delicious food-to-come while waiting in line at a particular street vendor, the often exceedingly vibrant splashes of color (be it from likes of a paper umbrella or the robe of wandering monk) that jump out from around every corner, the little old ladies who will grab you by the arm and show you where you need to be when you’re clearly confused, and, more generally, the welcoming smiles of the inhabitants of the country that you’re currently visiting. Beyond these, however, I have managed to boil down the list to include a few of my favorite experiences while traveling through Southeast Asia, as listed below:
- After having spent over 24 hours traveling, having passed through 5 airports, and not having attained a single wink of shut-eye then entire time, I was a bit apprehensive and uncertain as to what I’d find when touching down on the continent of Asia for the first time. Would it look the same as what I had seen in my thoughts? My first destination was that of Singapore, and after taking the subway from the airport into town in a zombie-like, sleep-deprived state, I wasn’t the slightest bit prepared for the teeming hornet’s nest of activity that I was thrown into when first emerging from the dark, subterranean metro station back to street level in the heart of Chinatown in full-on Chinese New Year mode, complete with bands playing traditional music, lanterns and colorful decorations hung everywhere, food vendors hawking rice cakes and strips of shiny pork, and a standing-room only type of crowd. My indoctrination into Asian culture, needless to say, came quickly.
- At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and weighing in at roughly 225 lbs, I certainly clock in at the larger-than-average category when living in the United States. When touring through Southeast Asia, however, those dimensions put me closer to the abnormally large, freak of nature, “put him in a circus” type of classification. And as such, I tended to draw quite a few stares from passers-by and often had a few laughing children shadowing my movements behind me. My favorite moments came not from the conspicuous nature of my presence, but the fact that every few days I’d be stopped on my street by a very courteous, “Excuse me, sir, may we take a picture with you?” to which I’d always oblige. So yes, me — the tourist in a foreign country — actually became a tourist attraction for the locals.
- Whether they strike you while wading knee-deep in the South China Sea, while trekking up a gorgeous mountain trail, or while watching the city below burst into an array of neon-tinged colors as the sun sets over you on a rooftop bar, a few more of my favorite memories are those amazing moments when find yourself incapable of doing anything other than smiling a ridiculous smile at how beautiful life can be and how lucky we are to have the chance to experience it.
- Whether it is scarfing down a helping of Cao Lau in Hoi An, slurping your way through a bowl of Bun Bo in Hue, sopping up the spicy egg broth of Chili Crab in Singapore, pounding back dirty mugs of Bia Hoi on the streets of Hanoi, tearing into your first banana leaf packet of Nasi Lemak in Malaysia, savoring the curry broth of Khao Soi in northern Thailand and Laos, or finding the perfect Char Kway Teow vendor on the streets of Penang, there is very little that compares to the experience of enjoying a favorite dish in the very place and environment where it was created. Being that food has come to consume the majority of my time on the road, this one is of particular importance to me.
- On another note, I’ll never forget my first day in Thailand’s notorious capital city of Bangkok. Upon arriving that first afternoon, I immediately met up with a few friends who had already scouted out the city a few days ahead of me. We decided to get into the swing of things with a few drinks at one of the city’s many rooftop bars, a swanky way to get the night started — a night that didn’t, mind you, come to its conclusion until roughly sunrise the next morning. Unfortunately, however, not only am I not at liberty to divulge any of the events, locations, happenings, or participants of that interim period , I’ll also vehemently deny any accusations that I was even in Bangkok that night, in lieu of any incriminating evidence, of course. If you can’t prove it, it didn’t happen!
- In Penang, Malaysia, I was “adopted” by a group of British expats and taken out for a night out on the town. Whereas traveling by one’s self doesn’t equate to loneliness (quite the opposite, actually), I’ve found one of the aspects of home that I miss the most is comforting feeling and camaraderie of traipsing down to a familiar watering-hole or restaurant with a close group of friends (as opposed to random strangers you may have just met at your hostel). Even though I was the new-comer to the group, I was still able to glimpse that feeling of home that I often have found lacking on the road, so thanks guys for making me feel welcomed and part of the group!
- And my final favorite moment is really a series of favorite moments. They are the sudden, and repeated, realizations that you have, somewhat miraculously and albeit only by the grace of god, managed to cross the street without being creamed by any one of the thousands of motorbikes that seem to form an impenetrable wall through the streets, alleys, footpaths, and anywhere else they are capable of squeezing their way through. And that’s not even mentioning the experience of riding on a motorbike through that same traffic — not for the faint of heart to say the least.
Taking a step back to look at the whole trip, I’m closing in on the half-way mark that I had originally accounted for when planning this whole crazy trip a year ago, meaning I’ve got just as much to experience going forward as I’ve seen looking back. After my brief sojourn back in the States comes to an end, I’m scheduled to tour around the Serengeti in Tanzania for a few weeks in July, after which I’ll be setting off again for another 4-5 month leg of my voyage — this time, starting in Japan, and moving through South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and into China. I haven’t worked out an itinerary yet further than that, but I know I’ll be making my way through Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka at some point, with the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Africa hopefully squeezed in there somewhere, too. And if I should find myself lucky enough to still be traveling after that, I’ll still have 3 continents left that I have left completely unexplored (South America, Australia, and Antarctica), so I won’t be lacking for future destinations. Until next time, cheers from the travel trail!
Post Script — I’ve recently broken the 1,000 subscriber threshold — Woo Hoo!!! So thanks for reading, everybody. I couldn’t be happier to have you guys along for the ride.