As we get older, it’s natural to define and refine our tastes and preferences based on life experiences. For example, I know I don’t like OKRA. I’ve tried it fried, baked, and mixed with other vegetables, and I just know that it has been slimy and gross every single time I’ve tried it. When people serve it, I don’t have to taste it again to know that I’m going to gag as soon as it hits my tongue. I’m good with that.
I’ve also noticed, both in myself and others, that life experiences and this refining process have the potential to close doors…sometimes when we don’t even remember why. Like the one time I visited Martha’s Vineyard years ago and heard someone say that tourists are always hurting themselves by renting motorcycles they don’t know how to drive. I don’t know who was hurt, how they were hurt, or anything specific, but motorcycle rentals were just kind of checked off of my life list – which is kind of odd because people also warn me regularly about walking alone, traveling by myself, eating food from street vendors, and traveling on night buses, but I do all of those things.
So, when Jason arrived in SE Asia three weeks before me, I had a growing sense of agida as he texted how much he was enjoying motorbike trips after a lesson at a bike shop. Yep, one short lesson put him on a bike in the heart of the crammed streets of Bangkok traversing over bridges, across highways, and through intersections bursting with people.
I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City two days after school was dismissed with a feeling of being transported into a world of impending adventures. Canceled flights, mechanical problems on planes, missing luggage…all lost in a sense of curiosity and wonder about what stories would fill my empty journal pages. So, when Jason asked if I was ready to be on the back of his bike for the next four weeks, all of that “I’ll never do that” stuff just kind of got lost in the jetlag shuffle, and I was on the back of a bike heading to the Cu Chi tunnels.
We quickly learned that maps provided general guidelines on where to go, but the best way to find our destinations were quick stops where we combined hand gestures, smiles, and questioning eyes with the name of our destination to unsuspecting, but willing locals. Our first ride started to feel a bit like a parade with us waving our arms and yelling, “Cu Chi?” to everyone we passed. It was the first of many rides that were longer than expected and where Jason focused all of his energy on navigating dangerous potholes, people, and unexpected obstacles while I enjoyed hours of reflecting, daydreaming, and sightseeing from the bumpy backseat.
Time in SE Asia renewed my focus on “what comes next” in life. These summer adventures are more than opportunities to get away. To me, they are stepping stones. What inspires me most are interactions with people who are living life successfully in all different ways. When I am invested in life at home, it’s easy to forget that there are people living in non-traditional ways – making money and just being in the world.
I should have blogged during the trip because I like the way it highlights more authentic emotions as they are uncovered, but I couldn’t even jump start my motivation to jot postcards on this trip. Dreaming was good enough for me. So now, that story is over, but after reading this blog post by Elizabeth Gilbert about traveling, I was struck by her words and a desire to take a few minutes to reflect on the highlights of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.
I have just passed a memorable three weeks of adventure, shared with two people whom I love with all my heart — two people who will not live forever. I will not live forever either; that’s the contract. But I have filled my mind with stories and encounters and pictures that I get carry around with me to the end of my life.
I have given myself something to remember me by, when I am old.
That’s why I travel. ~ Elizabeth Gilbert Author of Eat Pray Love
The first days in Asia are stimulating and a bit tiring for no reason other than your senses are in overdrive with the sights, sounds, and smells of the city. They are so different, but enticing. Outside of the Cu Chi tunnels, most of the time in Ho Chi Minh City was spent eating noodles and drinking tea and fruit drinks. The tunnels offer perspective on hardships faced during war and history lessons I wish I learned in school. An AirBNB in Hanoi was a bit off the beaten track, but near a small lake with local restaurants and lotus-filled ponds. I couldn’t help but laugh when we had our fancy chicken dinner with feet that were more fun to play with than eat.
Sapa, Vietnam was dreamy. Riding through the rice fields, mountains, and even the clouds is the reason I’m glad I gave up the motorbike bias because of the opportunities to see the smallest parts of nearby villages. Stopping on the side of the road at a makeshift fire pit grill for corn, potatoes, and bamboo rice provided the perfect warmth for another otherwise cool and rainy day. At this point, I was sniffling a bit and feeling congested. While I tried to keep it to myself, Jason soon found himself in the same boat – but much worse – “ravaged” with a sour stomach, headache, and more…all while enjoying at least one 20 hour bus trip from Sapa to Laos. Okay…in the spirit of full disclosure, I made fun of him saying he was “ravaged” and didn’t really have much empathy. While looking at pictures for this blog post, I spotted this one, and a sense of guilt welled in my heart. Sweaty, pale, and thin…I think he really was pretty sick.
I can’t think of one word to sum up the overnight buses to Hanoi and then to Laos. Generally, overnight buses are a great way to travel because you save hotel dollars while moving to new spots without losing daytime hours. As soon as we squooshed ourselves into the sleeping capsule seats, we recognized that the overnight buses in Vietnam are definitely built with locals in mind. With our knees crouched to our chests, and carry-on bags in our laps, we “slept” and traveled for a few hours at a time before a leg would fall asleep and we’d have to do a shake and flip.
The trip to Laos started with the overnight bus, continued with a border stop and switched to a smaller van. As we sat on the van, with two others who quickly became our friends, our seats and aisle were quickly filled with bags of rice, appliances, boxes, and a few mini chicks who were quacking from their seats on the roof of the van. With a big bump, one of our van tires took a dive into a small roadside hole. We all climbed over the stuff, took a peek, and watched the bus driver and male passengers push the van out of the hole. Me…I took pictures.
After a few hours, we did a quick change to another van. What makes this fun is that you never know what to expect on these journeys. What is sold as a 12 hour ride may be closer to 19. We quickly gathered that a “direct” trip is never really direct with multiple changes of vehicle and lots of surprise twists and turns.
About 17 hours into the trip, the man sitting next to me began wobbling from the heat of the missed air conditioning and the motion of mountain bending curves. Wobbling soon turned into gently falling on the floor next to me which quickly turned into sounds of vomiting from below. Sometimes, when I don’t know what else to do, I start to giggle. I know…it seemed like I was lacking empathy (again), but it happened, even while I was feeling very bad for the young man next and found a bag to hand him. I looked to the girl behind me and we had an instant bond of “uh-oh” as Jason suggested I comfort the man by rubbing his back and grabbing his bag of vomit to toss out the window. I didn’t exactly rub his back, but gave him a few shoulder taps as I reluctantly pried the bag from his elevated, half-conscious hand. Clearly this had happened before because the bus driver – who really lacked empathy – barely glanced back and kept driving. At our next stop, the vomit van baked in the hot sun. Opening the door to the sour stench told us we needed a hero to clean it up…like a two time veteran of war who prides himself on his ability to do jobs that others might resist. Sure, Jason was sick, but it was clearly a perfect leadership opportunity for him. We were all lucky that he thought so, too.
This was my first trip to Laos with visits to Luang Prabang and Veng Vieng. We spent the week with our new friends Eva and Joao from Brazil who we met on the vomit bus…proof that you can make new friends under the most unusual circumstances. I love meeting people on road trips because you share so much in a short amount of time that you develop quick and cool bonds you might not have with familiar friends. Our days with Eva and Joao were filled with mini adventures like waterfall swims, jumps off of tree limbs (or watching those jumps), morning monk walk, motorbike rides, motorbike wipeouts, batty caves, riverfront beers, sunsets, delicious meals, rustic bungalows, and surprise storms. As I write this, it all seems like a dream.
Beyond a trip to a local waterfall and swimming holes, being cave explorers was probably one of my favorite moments. The thing about caving in other countries is that you just kind of get to go and see what’s inside the deep dark corners. One cave required a motorbike trip that was estimated at 3 kilometers, but was more like 7 – through the mud. After tipping a few times and needing to stop to collect Jason’s flip flops from the mud, our main concern was exploring the cave and getting back to the paved road before the impending storm broke. We arrived at the cave entrance, picked a locked gate, bent into the dark space, and let Jason lead the way. As we walked deeper into the dark cave, we heard a swoosh over our heads and watched Jason’s flashlight follow fleeing bats. He not quite screamed, but definitely high-howled. When we left, he swore that the “girls” were scared of the bats, but our video proves that there was only one person howling!
From Laos, we spent a few days in Chiang Mai, Thailand which included a daylong motorcycle ride to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Outside of catching occasional GoPro footage and waving to locals in our typical parade style, my only jobs on these long trips were to hold on tight and watch beautiful things go by. By this point, I embraced my hours on the back of the bike as opportunities to dream and work on important mind tasks. For example, if I knew I wanted to send an email, I would remind myself that I could think about the details once I got on the bike. If an idea popped into my head that needed consideration, I would write myself a note and think about the details from the backseat. The bikes also provided serendipitous road sign/side adventures like a quick turn on this trip that lead us to a hiking trail leading to a beautiful waterfall swim. As we traveled home in rainy conditions, I was thankful for Jason’s strong spirit and sense of calm under pressure.
The White Temple was a bit crowded when we arrived, and while it was very cool to see, it felt a bit dark to me. The ceramic hands reaching up from the underground gave a sense of helplessness. It was an unusual array of ancient and modern symbols of evil things that made me feel heavy while also feeling like I was surrounded by a tourist showplace. At the same time, you couldn’t help but be a bit awed by all of it.
Myanmar (Burma) was the final destination of this journey that was the “something special” place I had been dreaming about. After years of conflict, Myanmar is opening to visitors which offers fresh and welcoming interactions with locals. Meeting people who have never met Americans provides an opportunity to be loving ambassadors.
Our first days in Yangon were rainy. That’s what I remember! Rain, being a little grumbly with boredom, and just more rain in a busy city. The special event was meeting Jim in our hostel breakfast room who shared his story of having an NGO, adopting children, and preparing to open a café in Kalow with his children. Jim is an American who has lived in this area for years, building relationships and doing cool things. He’s the kind of guy who seems to have mastered dreams of living in a way where his gifts influence the lives of others in meaningful ways. He invited us to visit his home later in our trip – which we did – spending a day cooking with his family and learning about plans for the café.
One of my favorite memories of this trip took place in Myanmar, and it’s one of those permanently stored travel memories because it was an adventure that unraveled before our eyes and left me wondering exactly what would happen next.
Motorbike adventures became the theme of the trip. My “I will never” attitude shifted to a “what was I thinking” perspective as we continued seeking bike opportunities where they might not otherwise exist. Thailand and Vietnam have strong motorbike cultures for tourists. It’s kind of a thing to do with visitors sometimes even buying/selling bikes at the beginning and ends of their journeys. You could easily rent bikes for 5-$10 per day and knew they were easy to find. Myanmar was a bit different with strict laws denying access to tourists in major cities. When we visited Mandalay, Jason found a bike via the hostel front desk clerk – one of this “gotta guy” things that began with a warning not to ride the bike up steep hills. EVERYONE says that you must visit Bagan as the “must see” spot in Myanmar. It’s a land filled with temples that can be explored on foot, bikes, and by horse-drawn carriages. Google Maps suggested that this was a 3 hour and 18 minute trip, so we left with the confidence that we would enjoy a lovely afternoon at the temples with time to return for an early night of sleep before our early morning flight the next day.
We started the journey with our typical “Bagan?” to people we passed who happily pointed us in the destination direction? After driving for a few hours, we were surely getting close…we thought…until we stopped at an ATM and the security guard drew us a map showing at least 4-1/2 more hours of travel. We followed his road plan feeling confident that his timings must be a bit off…and we rode and rode and rode…down busy roads and then a tiny two lane rural roads with sporadic villages along the way. As we passed a school playground, we stopped the bike so Jason could join their soccer game and I could try a few circle games. The teachers just stood around and laughed at the antics – especially Jason’s silly faces and fun runs after screaming students.
As we rode, the motorbike got louder and louder with a few surprising pops that we couldn’t identify but were surely ours. After a delicious lunch stop at a petrified wood themed outdoor restaurant, we debriefed on our morning and considered our next steps. It’s painful to abandon a mission, but it was nearly 3:00 and we couldn’t imagine the dark ride back on the isolated roads, so we turned around with assurances that Bagan would happen someday, just not on this visit.
Recognizing that we needed to stop and pause for bike repairs, the first of three, we watched three mechanics in a small roadside shop work on the bike for about an hour. Imagine our reverse sticker shock when they asked us for the equivalent to $1.50 for their services.
As we passed a local village, we stopped to watch a long procession that included horses, beautifully dressed people, instruments, and songs. As I sat on the sidelines, Jason moved ahead to take pictures with a front view. As I engaged with a woman and her thanaka-covered baby – who she handed to me – I watched as a monk stopped the parade so Jason could take pictures with the parade-leading couple and two monks. The parade continued and we “chatted” in body language with the monks whose foreign (to us) words and fingertips to their mouths let us know that they wanted us to have dinner together. A sweet young girl who spoke English guided us to follow the monks on their motorbikes to our food destination. As we glanced at each other, we had a “how do we say no, but let’s make this quick” look with the knowledge that there was a long road ahead in fading summer skies…and we followed the monks.
The monks led us around curving dirt roads to a cluster of houses. We park and walked around to the back of a house where hundreds and hundreds of people appeared, eating at low tables with plates of rice, beans, and vegetables culled from mountain-shaped community piles. The small field area buzzed with party sounds.
We were led into a home where a table was pre-set with about 15 small bowls filled with the same food we saw outside – along with bowls of meat. Not just any meat – but a bowl filled with pork – well I’ll say pig – because you could see small cubes of skin lining an inch of gelatinous fat with a thin layer of meat below. As we enjoyed the food and tried to learn about the reasons for the festivities, I blended all of the food items together – Burmese style including the herbs and spice mixes provided – while avoiding the meat. We ate and chatted and the monk showed us a tall stack of dollars as the English speaking girl used Google translate and showed us the word Philanthropist and pointed to a picture of the couple who led the parade. It appeared that they hosted this event as a gift to the village, and I assumed the money was donated to the monk.
In my daily life, but especially during the open-eyed awareness of travel, I often think about my brother Dave and feel his gentle nudges. When he was alive, he believed that any of my ailments could be solved by eating some meat. He judged my mental state on my weight. If I looked a bit thinner than his last visit, he suggested that I would feel better if I ate some meat…even when I was feeling just fine. “Have a Whopper, Nan,” was one of his favorite phrases. Before he passed away, he gave me a copy of the Pursuit of Happiness by the Dalai Lama – not because he was seeking a Buddhist life – but because he agreed that being happy was a choice and felt the book highlighted his views, too.
So – as we sat at that table, I couldn’t help but think, “Well played, Dave,” as the monk opened his wide smile and proudly hoisted three big cubes of pig onto my rice and waited for my reaction. Jason’s plate was next. Again…the eye contact communication…and a clear understanding that we were BOTH eating it. Who says no to a kindhearted monk who welcomed strangers to celebrate with his village? Dave won as one, two, three cubes exploded in my mouth and slid down my throat. YUM?
When we exited the house, we watched a spectacular scene as we learned that the stack of money wasn’t for the monks, but for the villagers. One monk friend gathered the people around him and began to separate small piles of money from the stack, throwing it high into the air for others to catch. It was chaos! It was exciting! It was even a bit dangerous as we watched a woman holding a baby fall onto the ground and into a puddle. This was definitely a once in a lifetime event that we won’t soon forget.
After a short visit to our English-speaking friend’s house for more food, and one more set of bike repairs by the monks and their friends, we were on our way back to Mandalay. With this special day under our belts, we left feeling the pressure of the setting sun, a thin dark road, and hours of riding with a bike that continued to pop – even after multiple repair stops – a broken speedometer and gas gauge. We wondered how late village gas stations would stay open and decided to fill our seat storage with water bottles filled with gas. Our light only appeared to have a high setting, so Jason used his headlamp as a source of light…a funny sight to see. It was exciting…being unsure of what would happen next on this daylong escapade. With one more motorbike stop that included an English-speaking professor who called a neighbor to open the local mechanic shop, and with a near-hanging muffler loudly blaring through the quiet alley, we pulled into our hostel at 12:30 AM – with time to spare to catch our morning flight.
The final days were spent in Bangkok – fitting and filling. Fitting in my last few $12 massages and filling the backpack with a few LIGHT treasures for home. The trip ended perfectly – with a near midnight ride through the busy streets of Thailand with a few slightly frowned up (or maybe illegal) trips along stunning viewed overpasses heading to the airport.
Yep…life in SE Asia was good – really good.
There were a few takeaways from this trip…always are.
The first is obvious. As I get older, I need to remember really reflect on the root of my “I will never” moments where incidents of the past determine decisions of today. Without an openness to get on that first bike, I would have missed so much. I appreciate Jason’s resilience, and while I am currently saying I will “never” ride my own bike, I just might. Sorry, Bones!
The world is changing so fast and getting smaller each day. Both our waterfall detour and village day ended with, “Are you on Facebook?” from young girls we met. We left Eva and Joao knowing that it was likely we would meet again someday because it’s easy to stay in touch. I am thankful that it’s easier than ever to stay connected with people we meet on life’s journey. At the same time, there something rapidly changing about our curiosity about the world. I feel it more and more with each trip. When we missed time in Bagan, it likely didn’t hurt as much because we felt like we had already seen so much of it while browsing Google images. We watched as children, who in years past may have craved interactions with foreigners, sat and watched Food Network shows or playing games on monitors while barely looking up. It’s getting harder and harder to stay curious while finding unexplored terrains, but it’s also feeling more and more important to just open up to new experiences while building real life people connections and friendships.
Speaking of friendships and connections, another takeaway is constant recognition that I am blessed by mine. Traveling with others offers challenges, and I felt grateful to have had a patient and generous partner on this trip who shares desire to be IN the world – even more than see it. There were moments when I had to stop and just say WOW – that is so cool! And…I certainly appreciate all that motorcycle driving that provided hours of “ME” time. I’m also aware that I have a team of well wishers and prayer partners who stay at home and send lots of warmth my way. It’s hard to miss home when there are so many cool people just a few keystrokes away.
Final takeaway? I am more determined than ever to make an international lifestyle my normal. In so many places, people have a non-traditional and location independent lifestyle. I am committed to making significant lifestyle changes for the next four years to get me there. I won’t exactly be retiring, but I’m calling this my “leaping” plan. Four years…saving all I can…gaining new work skills…and focusing on building international connections. It’s going to happen.
Other memories I want to store…
- Eating LOTS of Indian Food
- Stumbling upon the abandoned French monastery near Sapa
- Fishies eating our feet in the waterfall pool in Laos
- Splurging ($60 per night) for Inle Lake Viewpoint bungalow hotel with amazing breakfast and view
- Coconut Snowball Dessert in Yangon…amazing
- Delicious mangos bought on the streets for so little
- $12 massages – especially those in Thailand
- Dinner with Rafael and Lydia’s family in Yangon
- The “burro” carrying the items purchased to replace lost suitcase items