A little less than a year ago I departed the United States via Los Angeles International Airport. With an already grungy backpack and 10 month’s savings in tow, I was off to explore countries about which I knew nothing. I dreamed of pristine turquoise beaches, daunting limestone cliffs, rice paddies, and splattered glow in the dark paint at a Full Moon Party. I thought my Tom’s would be my number one trekking companions and I’d wear out my long black skirt with daily temple hopping. I planned on being gone 7 months and graciously dished out an allowance for one month in each country.
I was right about all those dreams and thoughts and plans. But I was also wrong.
There’s a certain beauty in having no plans. What to some may have seemed like wasted days on the beach were not; there were fresh fruit smoothies, good talks on the beach, golden sunsets, and giggling late night skinny dipping sessions. Other days I sat in my hostel bed curled up reading a good book, and sometimes I just laid there soaking up the treasured air conditioning. I stayed in cities longer than expected to meet with friends and left cities sooner than anticipated to escape less desirable company. I jumped on busses and trains and vans uncertain I was the going in the intended direction and with no concern about when I’d arrive. I had to stop and slap myself when I had anxiety about where to go next because having the world at your feet is certainly not the worst problem. I extended my trip and decided to live in a small Thai town, and with a click of a button had no return date in sight. I never made it to Laos or Indonesia and did only a quick stint in Malaysia. I didn’t climb a volcano or learn to surf or make it to many of those pristine temples on the front of the guide books. That time was spent in places with people I had come to love because, really, what’s a good talk on the beach, a golden sunset, and a late night skinny dip without them?
Of course Southeast Asia was beaches and temples and elephants, but it was much more. It was the moments that took my breath away, made my jaw drop, my heart smile and cry, and sit and wonder “am I really here?” It was that first exhilarating motorbike ride and everyone thereafter; grabbing the warm body in front of me half worried we would crash and arriving safely, wondering why I was ever scared. It was saying yes to things like eating a snake heart and realizing life’s best moments are when you stop thinking about it and just do it. It was my Thai grandmother who didn’t need to share a language to let me know I was loved and the kids who thought I was a superstar despite butchering The Star Spangled Banner. It was a magnificent sunset after a long day of traveling and the feeling of being 30 metres underwater and looking up to see you’re surrounded beauty. It was that long trek where I cursed the rain and wobbly paths only to be rewarded with sore shins and images of grandeur I couldn’t have conjured up in dreams. It was having complete strangers invite me to a wedding in rural Cambodia and rejoicing in the moment together as if I was family. It was the sadness in seeing eight year olds on the street begging for money and those even younger sleeping on the beach at 2am. It was learning about Cambodia’s horrific past and the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War and seeing the kindness and forgiveness they’d granted to those who’d wronged them. It was the Filipino people during the typhoon, staying up all night to watch over us, and the palpable sense of community I awoke to as they cleaned up the wreckage the next day.
The people I met from Southeast Asia were exceptional at smiling, superior at forgiving, remarkable at accepting. They never judged and didn’t waste moments on worry, spent more time with family and built strong relationships with neighbors. They were people that loved hard and weren’t afraid to show it and people whose years of hard aches and troubles haven’t seemed to wear on their kindness.
So above all– above riding elephants and lying with tigers and swimming amongst fish, above the beaches and the sunsets and the limestone cliffs– these are the best memories I’ve brought home with me.