Full Circle

travel 992 days, seven countries, two passports, dozens of visa runs, countless experiences, new friends from all over the world — Zambia, Republic of Congo, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, Russia, Canada, England, Turkey, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia and Spain — to name a few. Numerous challenges and rewards beyond what I could’ve ever imagined. I embarked on this journey nearly three years ago — I meant to stay for six months. I never knew where the path would lead and in many respects I still don’t. There has been nothing constant about this international life. Jobs come and go. Visas expire. Fast friends are made and they depart just as quickly as they entered. You say more hellos and goodbyes than you care to remember. It’s hard to rely on any one consistency but yourself and it’s even harder to make your loved ones 8,000 miles away relate with your experience. But you make a home where you are. You experience the kindness of strangers. You surrender to the ride with its highs and lows. You trust. You get comfortable outside of your comfort zone pushing your limits further and further each day until the boundaries are expanded. You learn. You love. You live. You let go. Your heart breaks with both the inexplicable beauty and suffering that is the world and the human condition. You do the best you can with what you have which is much less than you ever had. You place more value in the experiential than the material and come to realize that the former is much more satisfying and rewarding (thank you Yetters!). You try to push aside the differences and find your similarities — with everyone who crosses your path. People from vastly different cultures and walks of life take residence in your heart and never leave. Ultimately you are changed in ways that are beautiful and painful. And perhaps most importantly, you hope that what you came abroad to do — to be part of the solution on some small scale — had meaning and impact knowing full well that you, yourself, were often the one most impacted. travel 2 It’s become evident that it’s my time to go — the ticker on my Thai meter is running dry. I am not entirely prepared to leave and I depart leaving a huge part myself here. The problem with going is, this once foreign place is now home and returning to the land of my birth seems more frightening than it was to come here initially. Always so easy to leave your homeland and much more difficult to return, in my experience. There are so many reasons to stay and yet no one ever meant to stay forever and it often seems impossible to do so. I am, after all, a foreign national. Contracts end. Visas expire. Savings dwindle. In Buddhist philosophy we accept that the only permanence in this world is impermanence. We accept that seasons come and go, time passes, the planets continue rotating. We cannot stand still if we tried. There is no choice but to move forward. Such is the comedy and tragedy of life. Leaving is a stinging, bittersweet pill that is mighty hard for me to swallow. I choke on it daily. There will be goodbyes that make me feel my very heart is being ripped out of my chest. There will be the uncertainty of going back from whence I came and wondering if there is a place there for me now or if I will feel like a foreigner in my own land. There will be the feeling that this wild, adventurous, thrill of a ride is at once coming to an end. It feels like a sort of death. travel 3 Of course there are numerous things I won’t miss about this country — dripping in my own sweat, breathing the toxic belches of tuk tuk exhaust, a language barrier that limits me daily, the passive-aggressive and oftentimes incompetent nature of the locals, being taken advantage of at every turn because I’m a foreigner, lack of directness and critical thinking, the mai bpen rai (never mind/don’t worry) attitude that can be, at times, a little too lackadaisical and complacent, a serious lack of customer service, rampant corruption and lawlessness, exploitation and inequality, the ubiquitous Thai prostitute, societal obsession with white skin and plastic surgery, and the shittiest education system I’ve ever witnessed. Still, there are many more things I will miss terribly. The Thai smile and way of thinking, motorbiking winding mountain roads, colorful hill tribe villagers, neon green rice paddy fields, the scent of frangipani, fresh coconut, lychee, pineapple, and mangosteen, the ability to pamper oneself on the cheap (hair cut $10 USD, pedicure $16 USD, eyebrow wax $2 USD), the amaziness that is Thai massage ($6 USD), lawlessness, being able to drive with complete abandon and not suffer any consequences, piping hot tom yum gai and grap pow gai khai dow for less than $2 USD, Thai pharmacies, a slower, more relaxed pace of life, a complete lack of the dog-eat-dog mentality, being accepted for who you are no pretenses necessary, Asian energy and cuteness, feeling the ultimate freedom that comes with being a Westerner in Southeast Asia, restaurants on wheels, whiskey, soda water and ice buckets on the roadside, the numerous locals who have come to my aid and helped me navigate this country when I’ve hit bumps, and the very land itself with its white sanded beaches to the south, Azul waters of the Andaman Sea, village roads, and dense, green, tropical forests to the north. Grand Buddhist temples, Saffron robed monks collecting alms at dawn, the absence of road rage, and Asian people who never try to negatively impact another. The true essence of live and let live.

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Thailand is a dreamer’s dream. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where you can have such a high quality of life for such a low-cost. With its wide-spread development, solid infrastructure, renowned medical and dental care, and easy-going attitude, it’s easy to take root here. Living in Western corporate culture with all it’s rules and regulations feels all too confining. Thailand has meant freedom for me. A kind of freedom I’ve never experienced elsewhere in the world. This country has changed my life, my attitude, my mentality, the way I view the world, and, most importantly, my heart. It has expanded my heart exponentially and shown me that living in the mind is a dangerous proposition.  It has shown me that the west is all to rooted in the mind while the east is much more focused on the heart. I now reside somewhere between the two — a mighty fine balance. Thailand has allowed me to realize my dreams and it has given me more gifts than I could’ve ever anticipated. Of course it is the people who have touched my life and whose lives I’ve hopefully touched in return who I will miss the most — the Thais and farang who have let me into their homes, hearts, tuk tuks, bamboo huts and villages and have taught me so much about myself and the world.

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In Mae Sai, it was the youth of DEPDC with their tenacity, optimism and unparalleled bravery. This is where I first learnt of statelessness and what it is like for Burmese migrant youth living in northern Thailand. This was my first taste of anti-trafficking work and the reality of what it looks like on the ground. I was not only surrounded by incredible locals but also international colleagues — most of whom left long ago — but left impressions on me for life. Our unique experiences together in the Most Northern Point of Thailand have kept us all connected wherever we happen to be on the globe. I made some friends for life in that small, strange border town. My most incredible Shan students for being some of the most brilliant people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.  Magic took place within those four walls and those moments are etched on me for life. I’m not certain who learned more but I’m pretty sure it was me. In Chiang Mai, it was new friends and colleagues from England, Thailand, Turkey and Africa. I never imagined I would discover so much about the African continent in Asia but I did in a way that has altered me for life. My friends used to joke that if there was an African within a kilometer of me, I would be guaranteed to meet them. Cameroon, South Africa, Rep. of Congo, DRC, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, and Tanzania. Africans have challenged me, schooled me, taught me survival and positivity, shared their joys and struggles with me and taught me that there is no problem without a solution.  We have debated, discussed, danced, lived and laughed. I am a better person having known them.  I also happened to fall madly in love with Christin – a Congolese photographer/filmmaker who had me at hello. Despite our cultural differences and backgrounds, he often feels like my other half. My soul mate, my copilot, my best friend, my everything. It has been the greatest love and joy of my life even through the turbulent times. He has changed me on a fundamental level and given me the greatest gifts of my life. I love you boo. Always have, always will. In Mae Rim, it was colleagues from England, Australia, Thailand and America who showed me the light and dark sides of anti-trafficking work. It was often a heart-breaking experience but I learned invaluable lessons from it.  I’m still trying to make sense of it all.  Mae Rim stripped away the shiny veneer and showed me the truth. And it was 22 ethnic minority hill tribe girls — survivors of exploitation — who showed me how unbreakable the human spirit can be and just how strong girls are. It was their smiles and joy that lit up my world and made me realize just how truly insignificant my problems are.

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In Bangkok, it was three African men who took me in as family and as brothers.  I’ve always hated being an only child and this was the first time in my life I felt what it must be like to have siblings.  We laughed, we loved, we argued, we talked, we learned, we listened, we played. We challenged and changed one another with open hearts and minds. They kicked the American ego right out of me and taught me the realities of Africa – a continent whose history and politics are so often distorted through our western media and education. They had my back at every turn and helped me through many difficult circumstances. They held me up when I was down and taught me never to give up. They taught me not to sweat the small stuff and they helped me navigate this megatropolis. They taught me joy, dance, cuisine and culture. They made me stronger. For the first time in Southeast Asia, I was without western influence of any kind.  A very special and authentic Asian and African cultural immersion that I will always be grateful for.  What an amazing gift.  I will miss my BKK crew something fierce.

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My life has collided with so many other lives over the course of these three years. It was a all-encompassing experience richer and deeper than any other I could’ve imagined for myself. Better than any master’s degree and about as raw and real as it gets. To say we live in an incredibly diverse world is obvious. What’s less obvious is how easy it is to connect with people who have walked such different paths in life.  And therein lies our common ground, our interconnectedness, our humanity. It is a beautifully strange and awesome phenomenon. I don’t think it is possible for me to completely leave this region.  A part of my heart and soul will remain in Southeast Asia for good. DEPDC, COSA,  Wichai Wittaya, Elite, Volunteers in Asia, Mae Sai, Chiang Mai, Mae Rim, Bangkok, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Nepal. I cannot possibly list the names of those who have touched my life and left deep impressions upon me – there are far too many. What I can say is every minute of every day, every challenge, adventure and reward has been an absolute gift.  Thank you for a remarkable, fascinating, educational, adventurous, hilarious, mind-bending, life-changing experience over the course of 2 years, 8 months and 18 days.  It’s been an absolute thrill of a ride and the best damn risk I ever took.

ฉันมีความสุขถ่อมและสำนึกในบุญคุณโดยมันทั้งหมด

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6 thoughts on “Full Circle

  1. You write so beautifully, from the soul – you made my heart ache for you. I wish you the best in your next adventure and pray that it brings you contentment and not resentment. Love you, Joanie

    1. Joanie,

      Thank you for your kind words of support. There is no resentment – just change and the path that leads you forward. I will take this experience with me wherever I go and I’m in no way, shape or form done with Southeast Asia. Just need a break and some perspective on it all.

      Hope all is well with you and yours,

      N

  2. Well put woman! Ilook forward to a welcome back hug and to hear of your many stories. I assume you’ll be back in MT? You are welcome at our home anytime. Xoxo hodee

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