Friday, June 25, 2010

And the World Spins Madly On

Returning home I have realized two things: Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. And I am caught, somewhere in between, trying to find solid ground in a world that is constantly spinning on.

It feels a bit strange to write this blog of “closing” because if anything, I feel I am still at the beginning. Of something…I’m not sure what…but maybe, simply, life and living? Sitting back and reflecting I have realized that this trip wasn’t “the trip of my life,” but rather a trip I took in my life, part of a continuum of experiences and opportunities, that is not the sum of who I am, but rather part of building “me” and how I see the world. Before I left, I might have assumed that this would “be it, THE trip,” but somewhere along the way I realized that traveling is, and probably will always be, part of my life. Maybe the connecting thread is that I am a traveler; what changes is only where I am or where I am going. Viewed in this light, I can say as I have finished this particular trip, I am not at the end of something here, but rather in the middle, or constantly beginning.

As I reflect on my journey, I also think of other great journeys and how to some extent the desires encompassed in “a journey” – self discovery, action, adventure, learning, challenge – are a part of all of us. Great journeys may not have built the world, but they have changed the face of the world, and therefore her people, too. Literal voyages across seas and mountains; inner voyages of personal trial. Great stories, the classics, the Odyssey, the Iliad, are built on the dual dynamic of physical journey and inner exploration. Odysseus was tethered to the mast of his ship, but what is it about what he learned during that time that we connect with? We don’t have to look farther than our own media to see the truth of our attachment to stories and personal growth. Current day authors recreate new stories, recycling the universal themes of struggle, love, conflict, and desire. Human interest stories draw us in because we find pieces of ourselves in the stories of others. We live hopeful, cognizant or not, clinging to the hope that things might change for the better and that life is going somewhere. These same desires might be what fuel my interest to keep exploring new places, learning more about myself and where I come from along the way.

While there are many stories I could tell and many planes to my learning, the following are a few reflections.

Accept and celebrate good things and good people.

Despite the news stories carrying a constant stream of “bad news bears,” when one actually gets out of the box and interacts with real people who make up the real world, what did I find? More kindness and generosity than I probably deserved. Yes, there are scams. And everywhere one finds the mix of good and bad; giving and taking; a mix of cheats and thieves and troublemakers.  An interesting realization I had along the way was that I felt quite safe traveling other parts of the world. In fact, at many points I felt safer in other countries than my own. I notice this especially in Asia. In Laos, I felt less threatened in kilometers of cycling than I did walking to or from my apartment in Los Angeles.  But all in all, it is a minority of people causing trouble. However, I often get the sense that news broadcasts, especially international coverage, creates the image that most of the people outside of our country are “the bad ones.”

What sort of evidence do I have from my trip to demonstrate my “good people in the world” theory? Well, I don’t have any hard evidence, but I can relate nine months of experience from different places and meetings with many people. In Thailand, the people smiled. In Laos, when I was cycling through, people waved and said hello. In India, inquisitive but non-threatening stares followed me wherever I went. In South America, the hospitality of the people was unbelievable. In nearly 1500km of hitchhiking, my friend Sophie (from France) and I didn’t wait more than 20 minutes. Additionally, many of the local people we met along the way opened their homes, their floors, couches and patios to let us sleep on. I shared conversation, coffee, mate (South American tea), on the generous spirit of people who opened their lives with strangers and trusted us with their things, in their space, and with their thoughts and ideas. In nearly 4 months in South America, I spent more time in peoples’ houses, or camping, than I did in hostels. This is the generosity and hospitality of people of the world; I have much to thank them.

While mentioning all the good, I should also mention how overwhelming the proportion of good:bad was. The only thing stolen from me in eight countries: an old pair of pants drying by a fire (did someone else need them more than me? I will never know). The only thing lost: a carabiner forgotten at a table in a café in the middle of Laos. Yes, maybe I got cheated a few dollars to a taxi or tuk-tuk driver, falling for the difference between “local” and “foreigner” pricing. And yes, I absolutely used discretion on where and when I went somewhere. And in all the kilometers of hitchhiking, to some people we did said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” But all in all? There are some great people in the world. It’s good to live with caution, but it also feels great to breath a little easier and have reason to trust people a little more.

Being Fully Present. The “Be Here Stick.” Slowing down might be better than speeding up.

My friend Hana and I had a running joke while we were trekking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. It was about being fully present in the moment as both of us found our minds wandering and inhabiting different mental spaces than where our physical bodies were – traipsing up and down big rocks we call the Himalayas. In effort to be fully present, and soak in the Annapurnas while in the Annapurnas, Hana carved “BE HERE” in big letter at the top of a walking stick.  (I should also mention that that walking stick became necessary after Hana tripped, twisting an ankle, while day-dreaming.)  We laughed about the “Be Here” stick, but at different times, each of us found ourselves asking the other to borrow our physical symbol of where we wanted to be: in Nepal, appreciating the time below the fierce, Himalayan sun. When Hana and I parted ways, she carved me a mini travel-sized “Be Here” stick as a joke. We both laughed, but the underlying desire to be in the moment and balance the past and future is a sincere desire and will remain a constant challenge in life anywhere.

In this mental balance of being present, fully present, visiting many places actually impressed upon me an opposing observation: the value of spending time in a place and not rushing through to “check it off the list.” As the months kept passing I felt myself becoming less and less interested in place-jumping – joining the Southern or Northern marches on the backpacker trail – or being on an “experience hunt,” and more interested in spending more time in one place, exploring it more fully, before moving one. More and more frequently I found myself going somewhere because it felt right, stopping to explore just because, walking down a road if it seemed interesting, reading books by local authors, learning the history of a place, and spending most of my time with the people who lived there, and not just other travelers. This meant slowing down, not rushing because of an agenda, but letting the natural flow of the journey, the ebbs and flows, direct me. I was hoping to see a lot more of South America – Machu Picchu, the Bolivian Plateau, and Northwestern Argentina – and also explore Vietnam while in Asia. However, after deciding to see more through seeing less, I ended up spending an entire month in Nepal with Hana (fantastic!) and also getting trapped by the beauty and draw of Patagonia for another extra month (oops!). It’s just…what happened. I have no regret slowing down to learn more, listen more closely, and savor each experience. On the other hand, I would have regretted a mad dash through some spectacular places in the world thereby demoting them to simply “some mountains, more glaciers, another big city,” but without the soul of people and stories made in those places with my meanderings.

The United States is part of the world; we are not the world itself.

I like to think of it like this: As a small child I would take my stuffed animal “Twister” with me when I left the house, as he was something familiar and comfortable to bring as I stepped outside my zone of familiarity. However, in observing other travelers and also myself, I have had to ask, “How often do we still clutch our “stuffed animals” - the familiarity of home expressed through specific routines, types of food, and social expectations – as a “blankie” of comfort, even as adults?” We often cling to what we know, or give categories of comparison, this is better or that is worse, linking our new experiences to previous knowledge. However, in doing so, “different” often comes to signify “bad” or “inferior.” I would argue this line thought to be incredibly unhelpful in creating bridges to people unlike ourselves, thereby creating a less peaceful world. I would instead offer up the challenge to think on a broader spectrum of what general actions promote understanding and give others value, and what actions or ways of thinking take away from this.

Being present in many different countries and cultures placed me in position to question what I gather comfort from and what is essential to defining me and what I deem right or wrong, correct or incorrect belief. I think we should each feel comfortable retaining our own ideals while simultaneously not feel threatened by difference and what we don’t know. The measure of “right or wrong” might need to be bigger than our own personal belief system, and asked within the context of what an action or a thought does for building a more sustainable world for all.

After many border crossings, literal and internal, I am starting to feel less and less attachment to being from a particular place and more to being part of something bigger: the 6 billion of us that live on this planet. While the USA, my country, is mostly a good place, and I have much to be thankful for, it is not the only, the best, or the most important place in the world. I hope you, too, find that a freeing, and not a frightening, realization.

Wrapping it All Up: An Almost Conclusion

Exploring the world. Exploring self. I did both. I explored myself by exploring the world. And in the process, was both author and character in my own story. While it is easy to look at a chunk of time – 9 months – as a “choose my own adventure” – I also see that all that we do holds this same quality. Small daily choices lead us in a certain directions. It’s best to follow our intuition and “hunch” of what we should be doing, where we should be – that’s been a greater guide to me than all of the travel books and advice I read about where to go and what to do.

Despite all of this exploration – inner and outer – I still have questions, basic questions, which were by no means solved or answered during my trip. If I were still with my high school students we would use the label “Level 3 Questions” to describe these types of open-ended questions containing universal themes. How do we live together in peace? What is justice? How do I treat those I know – and those I don’t – rightly, and with dignity? While I don’t have answers, I am not bothered to be left with the questions. In fact, continuing to question is in itself a form of success, as real learning is rooted in honest questions. Success is not in arriving to an end, not ever. Right when you think you have arrived or finished, you then realize that the end was but a ghost and you must find reasons to keep moving. The success instead is buried in finding motivation to continue the pursuit and to keep desiring to go forward; it should not be measured in the attainment or one, three, or a thousand goals, but in having the goals, forming the ideas, dreaming the dreams, and choosing to act on them. It lies in the possibility, and possibilities brought about by the dreams.

Before I began this globe-trotting I said that I wanted to “swallow the world.” I quoted Salmon Rushdie when he said, “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the whole world.” And I said that I was setting out to swallow - to taste, touch, feel, see, and ponder - the world. Did I? Yes, I suppose so. I tasted: Noodle soup in Laos, delicious South Indian cuisine, chai in Nepal, pure water straight out of Patagonian rivers. I touched: Rocks of the Annapurna base camp in Nepal, an 18,600 foot pass in the Himalayas, the hands of school children in Laos giving high-fives as I cycled through. I saw: Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind, the Dalai Llama in Northern India, fishermen on the Mekong river, the dichotomy in the modern cities of Buenos Aires and Chile, progress living alongside poverty, the spectacular peaks of Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre, Paine Grande, Los Torres, Mounte Balmaceda, Nanda Devi, Nanda Kot, Annapurna I, II, III, IV, Dhaulagiri, Mount Everest from the airplane window; and I pondered: Who are we, Who am I, and What is my place in the world? My thirst is not quenched…my search for truth, for justice, for understanding, this is still beginning.

In that hunger to continue learning, I feel this past trip accomplished many of my hopes embedded in the journey. My conclusion is in the non-conclusiveness of life. I am grateful for the opportunity I had; I hope I embraced it to the fullest and that what I learned changed me and continues to change me in life-giving ways. I also recognize that it can seem easy to leave a place, and try new things, new ideas. But the test of change might actually come upon returning home and confronting the seemingly small challenges of living with people and living rightly; things harder than packing up and moving on to a new place if or when things aren’t working.

Thanks to those of you who followed along with me. I can’t say how much I appreciated your care and interest and random emails. I am grateful to have many incredible people in my life. Also, a HUGE thanks to my parents for taking care of my horses, and a special thanks to my mom, my faithful “secretary,” who I gratefully release from service (smile, Mom, or a huge sigh of relief!). I couldn’t have juggled selling horses, graduate school applications, battling W2 forms and taxes, etc. without her help.

I close with a simple, yet profound saying. The liturgy ending an Anglican Church service: (Deacon) Go forth into the world in peace…


Top 21 Photos:
9 Months at a Glance:

Sunday, June 6, 2010

A Few Stats and Facts

I figured some of you out there might be interested in some of the facts of my trip.  Here’s a quick summary and a few common questions.

Q: Who paid for your trip?
A:  I did. I taught high school for 2 years in Los Angles and saved my money.  I bought a used car, didn’t eat out very often, didn’t buy very many things, lived in a house with 5 other people, and automatically set aside a chunk of money from my paycheck monthly to a “Travel Fund.”
Q: Did your parents finance your trip? 
A:  Nope, not at all.  However, they were very supportive of allowing me to pursue my interests and dreams, and in caring for my horses while I was gone.
Q:  Were you ever scared?
A:  No, not really.  I wasn’t paranoid about where I went, but I was cautious, and always aware.  However, I could say that I usually felt pretty safe.
Q:  Wasn’t it lonely traveling alone?  Don’t you need someone to travel with?
A:  Not at all.  There are so many people out there who are also traveling, that inevitably I met people to hang out with .  Sometimes I spent a few weeks with someone, sometimes a few days, sometimes a conversation for a few hours.  Just because you don’t have someone to travel with doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go; I actually really enjoyed the ability to and do what I wanted to, being with other people as much or as little as I felt like.
Q:  How long did it take you to plan your trip?
A:  It was an idea I'd had in the back of my head for a few years:  Take some time off, travel for an extended period of time.  However, I wasn't sure when it would happen.  When things with Los Angeles Unified School District and the State of California got messy (I lost my teaching position due to lack of state funds), I figured it would be as good as time as any to go and travel for a while. 
Q:  Was the money spent worth it? 
A: Absolutely.  I am very grateful I had the opportunity I did and the support to make it happen; there isn’t anything else I would’ve rather done with this last year.

Type of Transport   #      Total Miles    Total Kilometers
     Walking               -         340 mi.               545 km.
     Buses (2 hrs+)    48     10,855 mi.          17,470 km.
     Train                    5        930 mi.              1500 km.
     Boat                     2            -                           -
     Plane                   9       43,411 mi.         69,863 km.
     Bike                     1         560 mi.              900 km.
     Jeep                    4               -                         -
     Motorbike            1         173 mi.              280 km.
Total distance traveled: 55,340 miles (89,056km)

$ Airfare (Total):  ~$2200
Denver→Seattle→New Delhi
Bangalore→New Delhi→US (Florida)
Miami→Buenos Aires
Punta Arenas→Coyhaique
Punta Arenas→Santiago
Lima→Denver (frequent flyer miles)

Average daily expenses (Includes everything: food, accommodation, ground transportation.  NOTE:  This budget is a reflection of staying in budget accommodations (clean but cheap) or with local people, eating simply, taking the most economical transportation available, walking a lot, and not doing any formal tours)
$ Average daily Asia - $15/day
    4 month total (not including one month on NOLS mountaineering): ~ $1800
$ Average daily South America - $30/day
    4 months total: ~$3500
9 months, 8 countries = ~$7,500 (would I sound like a MasterCard advertisement if I said “priceless?” ha)
That’s an average of $830/month…probably less than most of you pay monthly for rent/mortgage payment, food, gas, and insurance…

Justice Issues – Human and Environmental – I Encountered

Location  --   Issue  --  More Information
Patagonian Chile: 7 proposed Hydroelectric dams that will take water rights from the Chilean people.

India and Nepal: The Tibetan people have been unjustly exiled from their land in accordance with China’s ideas, not with respect to the Tibetan people

Laos: Unexploded Ordinances (UXO’s) dropped in civilian areas during the Vietnam War; Laos is, per capita, the most heavily bombed nation on earth and is still not UXO free.

Cambodia: Under the leadership of rogue Khemer leader Pol Pot and in “Year Zero” (1975) 30% of Cambodia's population was lost - an estimated 2 million Cambodians died by starvation, torture or execution...a silent horror most of the world doesn't even know about.

Argentina: Los Desaparecidos – people who “disappeared” (due to corrupt government) under the dictatorship.
The Malvinas Islands – Islands to the south east of Argentina that are currently claimed by Britain, but all Argentines claim as “theirs” (also know as the Falkland Islands outside of Argentina); many young Argentine people died in the Falkland War

Chile: Pinochet, ruling as dictator, committed many untold atrocities, including South America’s own “September 11th,” September 11, 1973, holding hostage citizens and foreigners who were considered “enemies of the state” in the National Stadium.  All told, between 1973-1990 nearly 3,000 Chileans were killed, and some 40,000 arrested, imprisoned, or tortured.

New Skills Learned

-    How to use a bathroom without toilet paper – wipe with the left hand (India, Nepal, Thailand) – this is a VERY environmentally friendly option…
-    Each noodle soup with chopsticks (Laos, Cambodia)
-    Take off shoes before entering an internet café, bus station, or house (Thailand)
-    Prepare and drink mate (Argentina and Chile)
-    Be ready for ANY type of weather (Patagonia)

Books Read or Recommended (* = I highly recommend; + = I haven’t read, but good recommendation)
          -    Midnight’s Children (Salmon Rushdie)*
          -    Shantaram (Gregory David Roberts)*
          -    A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)*
          -    God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
          -    An Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai)
          -    City of Joy (Dominique Lapierre)*
          -    City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi (William Dalrymple)*
          -    Nanda Devi Affair (Bill Aitken) +
          -    Annapurna Circuit: Himilayan Journey (Andrew Stevenson)*
          -    Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess (Inge Sargent)*
          -    Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos (Brett Dakin)
          -    The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War of Laos (Christopher Robbins)+
     Cambodia (all of these books I would like to read, but haven’t had time yet)
          -    Cambodia Year Zero (François Ponchaud)+
          -    First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (Loung Ung)+
          -    When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (Chanrithy Him)+
          -    River of Time (Jon Swain)+
     Latin America
          -    Open Veins of Latin America (Eduardo Galeano)* (Also author of Upside Down and Mirrors)
          -    Poetry by Pablo Neruda or Ruben Dario*
          -    Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende* (also author of many other books)