Back in San Francisco, sitting at my coffee table, I can’t help but feel like I blinked and this long-awaited trip to Southeast Asia has gone by without a trace. That’s the funny thing about being in other countries: when you’re in the thick of it, I mean the real grungy parts where you can’t eat without running to the bathroom and you’ve slept in so many hostel bunk beds that you’ve become accustomed to falling asleep to your neighbor’s snores, time can feel as though it is crawling. These are the moments when you get tired and you second guess your choices and all you want are the comforts of home (ie. a toilet that flushes), but once you’re back and you have all of those things, you can’t help but think of the next trip, the next time you get to haul your backpack around and be sweaty and confused and just a bit scared.
It’s not “just a phase,” not just another tick off the bucket list. This longing to explore more places unknown and just out of reach of my comfort zone so that I’m constantly a little nervous is so ingrained in me that it flows through every fiber of my being – but that is not to say that this feeling is insatiable. I am always happy to have a moment somewhere familiar to breathe, rest, and reflect.
This trip to Asia was different than the others, and it didn’t go by “without a trace,” as referenced to earlier. It left a big tattoo right on my forehead, teaching me and opening me up in ways in which I am permanently changed. Each country had its own quirks, its own smells, its own traditions – yet somehow they all taught me similar lessons, as if they got together, decided what I needed to be reminded of, and then presented these ideas to me in a neatly wrapped box that says “don’t forget about us!” Sometimes when you clear away all the external distractions, all the pressures to become a certain type of person – stress takes on a new meaning and it becomes apparent that if people who sell things on the street day in and day out to put food on the table and will likely never leave their hometown, much less their country, can live with hearts full of generosity and kindness, then we should be able to, too. I mean, we should be glowing with kindness and emanating generosity through our pores! (I don’t mean to come off as though I’m yelling at anyone or being pushy with my ideas, just mostly reiterating these thoughts to myself).
Being born in a developed country, with supportive parents and endless opportunities for how to spend my time and money is a privilege that I often overlook. So many of the locals that I met said they would love to go to the states to have those same freedoms, but they can’t afford a plane ticket or the cost of living. Instead of letting the power of choice suffocate me and cause me turmoil like it so easily does, I have been reminded that I need to embrace it with open arms and realize how lucky I am each day that I have the power to change what doesn’t feel right.
I’ve also been reminded of the importance of being fully present, of spending quality time with family, and of having less stuff. In Bali, women weave offering baskets each morning and deliver them to temples, lighting incense and praying along the way. In Vietnam, men were often seen huddled around small plastic tables enjoying tea and noodle soup together for lunch. They take time for things that are important to them, and put their full attention and energy into tasks that we would maybe brush off as menial or too time consuming in our ever busy day-to-days, running from meeting to meeting, pausing to eat food without always tasting it. The people we met along our trip realize that their loved ones are not going to be around forever, and real, intimate conversation overweighs any amount of “likes” or tags monitored through a screen.
All in all, Southeast Asia is hot, overwhelming, and messy, but it is special and beautiful all at the same time. I’m so grateful I was able to slow down and explore a small part of what it has to offer, and am forever indebted to the selflessness shown along the way.