As of today, we have been travelling for six months. Six months ago, we were boarding a plane for Bangkok wondering about whether the very recent coup will make it dangerous, wondering about what misadventures the coming months will bring, perhaps even wondering if we might be making a terrible crazy mistake.
What a long time ago that seems now. The memories and experiences are packed almost as tightly as the little mesh bag that holds my socks and underwear. Thankfully, the memories are a lot more interesting, but maybe no easier to unpack, unravel, separate into their individual parts.
Have we learned anything? Are we different now than we were? At the beginning of this trip, I hoped to gain insights into the cultures I would visit, to glimpse what it is really like to live in those places. I was in search of the truth of how the rest of the world lives, and would be changed by the knowledge of it.
What I got instead is a sense of how profoundly the West has influenced the entire world, how we have travelled the globe searching for neatly packaged mouthfuls of "foreign culture" and have been served it on plates mass produced in China with Coca-Cola and Celine Dion as background music.
So I learned what I should have known all along: there is no authentic experience, no "true" culture, no life changing epiphany that will alter me overnight. There is exquisite beauty and sadness and tragedy here, moments that I've stumbled across without even realizing they were there. A little girl's wistful adult eyes gazing out a train window as if imagining she was somewhere or someone else. A little boy clutching his clothes -- all his belongings perhaps -- in a little plastic bag, sent onto the bus by himself to sit, scared and sad and brave, staring out into the future. A man who thanks us for visiting his temple and offers us tea, welcoming us amongst the hundreds of visitors, kindness and gentleness in his eyes. A pile of children's skulls broken by greed and hatred and fear while, in the distance, schoolchildren sing and play and laugh. A maimed boy telling us about landmines. A Buddhist monk giving me a blessing. Yes, there has been beauty and ugliness both.
Perhaps what I've started to glimpse is beyond a knowing of culture. This trip has given me a glimpse of humanity: our ability to destroy and hate and create beauty and love and suffer and feel happiness and pain. All of this spun in a web of experiences that will take too long to unravel here.
So have I learned anything? That we are more than who we are, here, in this moment, me writing and you reading. Caught in the everyday muddle of existing, getting by, finishing what we started and then starting the next thing on our lists. There is a world of tragedies out there and perhaps waiting for epiphanies and nuggets of inspiration is simply an excuse for doing nothing. Perhaps being a tourist in search of a string of incredible experiences is itself a an act of selfishness, of voyeurism.
Have I changed because of these travels? Well of course, yet I can't say how. It is hard to imagine these travels being finished and actually staying in one place for more than a few weeks. That is the frightening part, really: the seed of dissatisfaction that travelling sows, the curiosity of what is next, and the thrill of variety and change. Most of all, though, I cherish the act of writing my own story day by day, rather than playing a part that's been played already by better actors than myself.
Six months down; six more to go. I look forward with less trepidation that the first six, but with no less excitement.
I will close by saying that sharing my experiences via our blog has been one of the trip's highlights. Your comments have often been hilarious, fascinating, and enlightening. I've learned new things about my friends and family via this correspondence, and have been honoured to have you all along with us, if only virtually. Thank you for everything. I hope you will continue with us for the second half of our journey.
I cannot believe that six months has passed. At times it feels as if we left just 10 minutes ago and then I think back to experiences in Vietnam and it feels like another lifetime ago. Each day I am reminded of how much I am learning and how much more I want to know. It is my responsibility to learn about the world as obviously relying on our western media and educational institutions isn't enough. Why didn't I know more about China's occupation of Tibet or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia? Why is it that unless there has been a Hollywood movie made about it, I don't seem to know? When the locals here in India are amazed that I know about Gandhi, I remind that there was a movie made about him.
I spent the first few months of this trip revelling in the joy of not working and of experiencing new things. I soaked up the warm sun and the gypsy lifestyle of moving to new places each day. I have read more books in the last 6 months that I have in the last 5 years. I sleep more now and realize just how stressed I was at home. But, as the six month mark passes the end is now a distant, yet visible light at the end of the tunnel, the thing that I am struggling most with is, what to do when we get home. The thought of going to work each day and staying in the same spot is unbearable. Sure, I look forward to reconnecting with friends and family and of cooking Tibetan, Indian, and Lao food in our own kitchen, but then what? Each day I have to put these worries aside and go about being present in the place I am currently in.
I have learned so very much on this adventure but certainly not the things I expected to learn. The things I expected to be hard are easier and the countries I thought would be unmanageable are fine. The unknown is so much scarier than the reality.
I am surprised to realize just what a huge presence the USA is in the world. No matter which travelers we talk to in which country, they all know about the USA: its history, its foreign policies, its government. They know all the bad and none of the good. I had heard the term "superpower" used before, but I never really understood it. Perhaps I was just too close to it living in Canada. And going to school in the US and having friends and family there made it seem more of just a place rather than a superpower that influences every other country on the planet. Travelers know nothing about Canada and everything about our neighbour to the south. I just hope the American people realize the power of their vote during the next election and make positive change.
I have learned that I ashamed to speak only one language. We are the only travelers we have met who speak only English. It is embarrassing especially when we have to explain that "Yes, Canada does have two official languages, but no, I only speak one". Why is the two official languages fact the only one people seem to know about Canada?
I came on this trip to check things off my life list, but it appears that I just keep adding more. There is so much of the world to see.
I mistakenly thought traveling cured the travel bug, but apparently it makes it more contagious!
I am excited to be seeing animals on this trip although I realize that it is a race against time to see some of the creatures that I know will be gone in the coming years: the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the Sea turtle.
But mostly this trip has taught me that although there are many very sad, disturbing and unethical things happening in the world, I truly believe there are more good things happening and we just have to seek them out. I have been fortunate enough to meet agents of positive change at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, to see prototypes of solar-powered rickshaws that will ply the streets of India in 5 to 10 years, to shop at women's co-operative stores that attempt to assist rural and poor villagers, to meet young people with dreams of a different future, to visit areas of wilderness set aside for both their intrinsic and economic value, and to learn that for all that we have in the rich west, we can still learn from the very poor. We can learn to have more celebrations, to value our time with loved-ones more than our material objects and to place our community as high on the list of priorities as we can.
Wow - my brain is full, my thoughts reel. I can only imagine what the next six months will reveal. Bring it on...
Some statistics for the curious, mathmetically inclined, or those who are simply bored ...
In the first 182 days of our trip we have:
Visited 55 different towns/cities/villages
Slept in 61 different guesthouses
Gone on 4 treks sleeping at 7 different sites
Spent 8 nights on an overnight train
Spent 1 night on an overnight bus
Stayed an average of 2.3 nights in each place with our longest stay being 17 days in Chiang Mai, Thailand