Reflections On Southeast Asia

Traveling is an amazingly revealing time and experience in a person’s life. From sitting on top of a sun soaked hill surrounded by olive trees and rose bushes in Tuscany, and realizing that traveling is a possibility; to kayaking through a silent lake and indigenous forest alone, below towering glaciers in New Zealand, and seeing how magnificent the natural world can feel; to attending a small German wedding and knowing that despite language I can understand the vows taken, and the condolences and sympathy shown to me by strangers and new friends. I have been moved more times during my journeys then I could ever explain or find comparisons for. Perhaps that is why when I had the idea of the RAvolution, I knew it had to contain travel. Never did I imagine that I would be moved or impacted as deeply as I was by the places I visited in my time in Southeast Asia.

I left for my trip through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos with few expectations, which is unlike me, but I went there with an open mind. Or I should say an open mind is what I thought I left my familiar world with. There was so much I had to learn and how much I did learn. I learned as much about myself and the world and its complexities in a brief respite of travel as I did in the past 18 months, and before that 32 years. I came home a more confused, humble, grateful, and enriched person. I saw so clearly in the contours of these different cultures and countries how simply I arrived and how the places along the journey were making such profound influences on me.

If the news that came in the middle of the night from 6000 miles away that my mother had died changed my world, then it was as sudden, shocking, and disorienting as the phone call from my sister. I felt in that split second the world stand on end and stop on its axis and then as suddenly as it seemed to stand still, it started again but this time in the opposite direction. Later a good friend told me it was life pulling the rug out from underneath me, and indeed it was. I can see the difference between me before that moment and after so clearly. A person who fell asleep believing in a certain order and reliance in life and the existence of the universe – a world imperfect yes, but possible of the dreams I continued to hold onto; I woke and had to adjust in that split second and the many days and months that followed to a future, a life pattern, and a world order that stood on end to everything I believed in before that night. I had to grow up in an instant, I had to grieve the dreams lost as much as the mother who died. And I had to realize how inexplicable, unpredictable, and unimaginable life can be.

If this awakening to a new awareness seemed to happen in the shocking split second of being jolted awake, then my trip was the opposite. I grew as much in five weeks of travel as I did in the 18 previous months of living without my mother. But it was not a split second catapult into a new reality but rather a slow and gradual journey to a new and fuller person. I felt that with each day my eyes were further opened, and it was as if the wonderful people I met along the way so gently peeled back each layer of sheer gauze, which I had previously looked through. With each experience and each moment I could see the silhouette of what my former self would have perceived and rushed into labeling and addressing, and I could see as the veil was lifted the way there was so much more to understand. I learned to accept the way life and the world is so much more complex, expansive, and unknowable in each filter I felt fall away.

I had to see the narrow tightrope of life and death as we passed a bus accident in Cambodia and saw corpses lay along the road as they tried to save lives. I had to face my preconceived notions and fight not the guilt of what I thought I might feel from a war fought in previous generations, but rather see that the guilt I tried to run from was guilt of being born to the fortunate circumstances of life in America. I had to see that the world I still held onto so deeply filled with old folk songs was a lifetime ago and not even true then. There are no simple answers. In a world where people earn as little as $30 a month I had to take every concept and see that a single person no matter how well intentioned could not possibly perceive and try to resolutely solve any problem bigger than opening their own eyes. I had to learn to humbly accept my inadequacy and see that at best what I could do was pay attention and try harder not to understand but just to see and be moved.

And I was moved. I was moved in the places where I saw history in the remains of a world changed; I was moved in the places I could see history will eventually come crashing through; but mostly I was changed by the people. I was changed by the way I had to see the world adjust to this new more complicated and less sure existence. A place where my own hopeful optimism wasn’t enough and I couldn’t break out into song like Nurse Nelly in South Pacific. I had to see how life might continue to morph and expand, how it might never seem clear just when I think I have a grasp. But mostly I learned how pointless it was to even try to figure it out. Life is harder sometimes than it seems. People are always stronger than we think, both of ourselves and others. The smallest bit of generosity or the attempt to understand or share ideas can go so far. The world isn’t so different and there is no need to travel far to see or say that, but sometimes it is easier to see the simplest things in a foreign place.

And in this new place of seeing the world as greater than the narrow image of my preconceived hopes or dreams there is room. There is room for change. There is room for growth. There is room for flaws. In the 18 months since my mother died I began to see the world not as a strict black and white but for its many levels and layers of gray that exist. And then I went to Southeast Asia and gray seemed as inadequate a range of color as my emotions or my ability to convey them or relate. On my travels I learned that even gray was too narrow a lens. I learned in my travels to see the world around me for the black, white, gray, and the many new layers of brown, along with a splashing multitude of glorious rainbow hues. My world, and indeed myself, are richer for the experiences of the trip, for meeting the people along the road, hearing the stories, from feeling wordless in the simply confounding world that I found myself in. I am grateful for the places I saw, I am grateful for the people I met, but mostly I am grateful for the experiences that helped me grow up in the face of a changing world.




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04 2011

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