That moment when you walk along the wet street. It could be a flood. Or it could simply be muddy and wet. But, that day you are wearing flip-flops. There’s no point in wearing proper shoes when it’s the rain season (unless you are craving your private-walking-lakes). When wet, your flip-flops get nasty and tickle your legs with endless splashes. This is how it all started.
Disgusting face quickly became whatever face. It’s just mud. Whatever. I wear backpacker’s clothes (and I am so ready for a new wardrobe), so whatever. Backpacker’s clothes can also become handy tissues? Right? When did I adopt the Hippie Asian Worry-Free Style? It happened. I don’t exactly know how and when. Sure thing; it happened.
Backpacking in Southeast Asia was one of the best experiences of my life. It was not always easy, but also not that hard. It was cheap, it was disgusting, it was insane and it was quite something. It’s not always as beautiful as Instagram can suggest. You can’t feel the vibes (and the traffic), you can’t hear the loudness, and you can’t smell the reality… on Instagram. But, it does exist. It’s out there.
Coming from the western world, Southeast Asia can be shocking for some of us. Although, there is a couple of things I can’t miss out.
- I can easily be shocked by the difference; but my way isn’t necessarily the way it has to be;
- People are much happier than western people with western (and rich) problems.
Let’s introduce the art of letting go. Honesty, I suck at this. I still suck at it. But, let’s say it’s getting better. We all start with little daily things, right?
Accepting our reality isn’t always as easy as it sounds. What if you don’t like your reality? Then, you simply handle the harsh incapacity of letting go.
In the western world, we easily (constantly) compare ourselves with others people. The grass looks greener here and there. We roughly take a look at the yellow-ish grass of some others. We watch TV, movies and a lot of YouTube videos and then, we look at our backyard realizing that we should have bigger needs. We aren’t very happy about our current situation/location/occupation/status and we’re hoping for something better. We know what it could look like and we simply love the idea of it.
With these kind of glasses, it’s easy to be shocked or even to judge a different lifestyle. Especially if the backyard isn’t grassy at all; let’s say concrete covered in rubbish. So if this said concrete is my little life paddock and it looks pretty similar around me – or it can also look worse if you live in slums or in your own tuk-tuk, I’d say I’d look pretty good with my piece of concrete. This might sounds way heavier that it actually is, but I just want you to picture it. (This is just an example; because, as far as I know, Southeast Asia has the most beautiful 50 shades of green! Hello rice terraces! Hello tea plantations!)
I was talking with two Filipinos girls about how Filipinos look genuinely happy and they gave me the perfect explanation. They said something like; Filipinos are the happiest people – they accept their reality. They know it might not change just yet, they don’t have any false expectations or anything, and they simply move on. They are proud of whom they are, of their beautiful country and they trust their beliefs. People are happy because today, that’s the way it is. As simple as it sounds. For most of us, this is almost too simple. We’d rather add a few more complications in there, because we love complications, don’t we?
I could even mention the current political situation in the Philippines, because I know that from an international ear, it might sound much worse that it actually is. (Thanks to the journalists who are very good at writing catchy headlines!) I chat about it with the immediately concerned; Filipinos as I was pretty worried when I was reading the “famous” news to realise that most of them are pretty happy with the changes. Their country is becoming safer. Good for them! I won’t comment any further on this topic as I don’t particularly want to launch a big debate here. Let’s just say that I support Filipinos and their decisions. (And I will never consider boycotting this country!) Haters you can enjoy yourself here. #lettinggo #winwin
I don’t know when or how I started to let go… But, it happened.
It could have happened in the rice terraces
3 days trekking across the rice terraces in the Philippines was such a great (and challenging) experience. You can read the whole story here. I was literally terrified, frozen in fear. (I didn’t have time for tears here.) The guide was too patient with me. Here he was, holding my hand when I needed him. If it wasn’t of him, I don’t think I would have managed to finish the trek. I made the decision to trust him and somehow, it ended well!
The first night, I met a lady in the village. She gave me a massage. It wasn’t a quiet and peaceful one. We actually had a long chat about our lives. She never had the privilege to leave her village. She “works” on the rice fields so she can eat all year long. She manages to get a bit of money so she can provide food and school materials to her kids. She reckons she won’t be able to send her children to high school as it’s too expensive (and too far). We also talked about relationships and I was surprised to realise that even though she wouldn’t be happy with her husband, she would stay with him anyway. This used to happen a lot in Canada one or two generations ago. This still exist though. And I understand. If I was in her shoes, I’d probably do the same.
It could have happened in that 27 hour bus
In the middle of crazy Java during the Ramadan, I ended up spending 27 hours in a bus… without A/C. You can read the whole story here. Nobody spoke English. I was the only unhappy one in that bus. Everybody was laughing and smiling. I guess the picture was quite funny though; that western girl freaking out dying from the heat. Oh dear, this was me. I needed to get to my destination; what can you do when the bus is stuck in a traffic jam? What can you do when the street is flooded? What can you do when you were the one who decided to take the cheapest option; the bus without A/C? Not a lot, really. It took a while to let go, but between two impolite words and an insane mood, it happened.
It could have happened in Lashio
After my experience in the insane bus in Java, I wasn’t particularly impressed by the local overnight bus that took me to Lashio. Good news; I wasn’t particularly in an insane mood either. It was around 2AM when the bus driver parked the bus. Road works. There was no way we could get through it; there were tons of trucks already waiting for the morning to come to finally leave this place. In a middle of a canyon, we had a long stop this time; about 4 hours.
I made it to Lashio. Fair enough, it took roughly 8 hours longer, but I made it. I learned a lot about the Chan community and about the history of Myanmar while I was in Lashio. I stayed one night in a Chan village. It was the first time this family was hosting foreigners for the night. It was such a great experience. You can read the whole story here! Most of the kids from the villages aren’t going to go to high school as it’s quite far and also pretty expensive too. Oh, for the record, school is free; but you still need to provide accommodation to your kids if you want them to be able to go.
I was enjoying the view at the waterfall when I was talking with one of the local girls who is working with Myanmar Adventure Outfitters. She was pretty young –early twenties- and she was telling me how she was missing her family. She hasn’t seen her family for a while she said. I couldn’t believe we were talking about years here.
Then, I met this, let’s say; business-local-young-guide-kind-of-guy on a trek in Hsipaw who was saying out loud how a lot of Burmese are lazy and they don’t want to evolve. Well, long story short, let’s say that I’m a social worker and I own my opinions. We ended up in a huge debate on the topic; I knew enough not to agree with his words. Sad truth; a lot of tourists will be misinformed about Myanmar.
My point is that I have so much respect and understanding. If I was in their shoes, I’d obviously be considering a different kind of farming (let’s say associated to drugs) as it’s a quick way to make money, isn’t it? Could you work in the rice fields? Regardless of the weather? Could you carry a heavy basket on the top of your head? Could you spend your days trying to sell stuff on the street? I know, I couldn’t. Of course, if I was born there; this could be my day-to-day life and I’d be so happy if I was the first one to spot a foreign face; perhaps, I could even make more money!
It could have happened during the temple hopping
I went temple hopping when I was in Siem Reap. Obviously, this is one of the main things to do over there, am I right? Our tuk-tuk driver was 29 years old and he was very interesting. Let’s say that I probably enjoyed more our chat than the temples… Shame on me? I’m simply not a fan of touristy spots and I have seen so many temples in Asia that I’m not as impressed anymore. (Personally, I think Myanmar wins the Temple Award!)
Anyway, we asked a lot of questions to our driver; about his job, about his life. On a good day, he will be able to make roughly USD 20 (I have a doubt here, I can’t remember if it was even less than that) after fuel and food expenses. Most of the time, he will make less. There are thousands of tuk-tuk drivers just in Siem Reap and the competition is real! He’ll be up in the middle of the night if his customers are after the sunrise and he’ll be up late as he’ll work until the city gets less busy. He has to work every day. If we consider that this reality also affects taxi drivers, we can feel the struggle here.
Could you ever do his job?
It could have happened the day…
I continued to eat despite the dead fly on my plate;
I understood that I could get sick from the food more than once (even though there were no flies on my plate);
I had to handle the lack of toilet paper when I was sick;
I crossed a flooded street;
I stepped in a hole full of water and my foot was suddenly black;
I realised coconut was the meaning of true happiness;
Mother Nature decided to punish me (the risk of travelling during the rainy season was still my decision);
I realised someone stole a lot of money from me;
I broke a tooth while eating fried pork;
I saw floating villages, slums and the struggle;
I got scammed (it happened more often than we think);
I saw that lady emptying the water off the boat we were on;
I forgot my phone charging at the airport (and realized it when I landed).
Backpacking is Southeast Asia showed me a whole new world. What can seem weird and/or disgusting in the first place just has another meaning now. When I look back on my trip in China, I’m smiling. I was so in shock and barely enjoying myself over there. You can read my first impressions here. Today, I’m smiling because somehow I realised that this was… Asia. Same, same, but different.
Backpacking in Southeast Asia made me appreciate my life, my luck and especially the power of my passport. We’re all born somewhere. It’s just paper with our name on it. This paper rhymes with a whole culture, a whole perspective, a whole story. This paper might be powerful too. We’re all born somewhere… and this world is so huge that it makes every place look different.
Backpacking in Southeast Asia taught me to let go, to be a bit more patient, more tolerant. I have so much respect, love and admiration for the locals I’ve met along the way, for the people I’ve seen in this journey. You are fascinating. In a weird way. I’m going to miss this somehow… I know it will happen.
In the end, we’re all same-same.