When you tell people you’ve just returned from five months of travel, they tend to react in one of two ways. They either say, “Wow, I wish I could do that. It must have been fabulous.” Or they say, “Ewww, why would you want to travel for that long in all those dirty places?” There’s nothing in between. Even my own reactions and expectations didn’t allow for the Middle Ground where I spent a good bit of my time.
My journey through south Asia certainly included a number of priceless experiences. I met some people who I will forever carry in my heart. I moved beyond the insulation of my life as an American citizen. I had experiences that broke through the heavy door of my own skepticism. But I also struggled with my situations, my reactions, and myself throughout the journey, perhaps in part because I visited so many strife-torn areas. I mean, who planned this itinerary anyway? India, one of the most heavily populated places in the world, with the attendant problems of poverty, pollution, and disease; Sri Lanka, slogging through a multi-year-old civil war; Cambodia, whose history during my lifetime alone contains more death, destruction, and horror than I can comprehend; Indonesia, where various islands struggle for independence, where the government is shaky following the end of Suharto’s 30-plus year dictatorship, where the economy is still in a shambles. Maybe the difficulty was due to the mostly unacknowledged expectation I harbored that travel would have the same effect on me as dunking an Easter egg in dye. Complete change. But even if I came out a different color, my essence would be the same. I’d STILL be a boiled egg.
During this trip, I learned how difficult (impossible) it is to have no expectations. I practiced meditation (with some success). I tried to figure out the meaning of life (with no success). I contemplated religion, but the only conclusion I came up with is that it’s easy to believe there are reasons for everything until the bad shit happens to you. I learned the value of covering small sections of territory vs. the expanse (but that didn’t keep me from trying to cover the expanse). I learned that just because someone speaks English doesn’t mean someone can tell you what is going on. I learned more about dehydration than I ever wanted to know. I listened to the Karmapa Lama speak. I wondered why I was traveling. I planned future trips. I met a seer, who knew things about my past by simply touching me. I developed a profound appreciation for air-conditioning. I underplanned, after overplanning other trips. I became aware of how much comfort I get from being in my own nest. I was touched by the grace and joy of providing for others. I was reminded that each person’s soul is a piece of God; each of us has a spark of the fire.
A Few Observations
Riding a camel hurts. Contact lenses and sand dunes are a bad combination. It’s hot in the desert. There’s nothing quite like being in a small vehicle with a dozen other people to remind you you’re in Asia, and to make you feel like you have a huge Western butt. When there’s a commotion, there’s probably something interesting to see. The bus stops when the driver has to go. The island is bigger than you think. (Corollary: Don’t try to walk around it if a boat is waiting for you.) When you’re getting directions from a policeman, and he asks if you’re going by bus or on foot, your destination is probably far away. If you leave the water bottle open, you will knock it over. Rainforests are humid. Riding a motorcycle in the rain can be painful. Just because you can get into a country doesn’t mean you can get out. Swimming at low tide in rough surf over a coral reef is unwise. Having an airline reservation doesn’t mean there will be a flight. When the first thing the crew hands out is life jackets and the second thing is vomit bags, it's going to be a rough ride. There are good people everywhere.
A Few Suggestions
Never try to enter India without a visa. Never assume the thing you’re about to step on is solid. Try not to puke on the cab door. Always carry toilet paper. Whenever you’re thinking your job is difficult, remember how people make gravel. (Walk down to the river. Stoop, lift large stones, and drop them into the basket on your back. Trudge up the hillside. Dump rocks in a pile. Squat beside rocks. Pick up your small sledgehammer. Pound stones until they’ve all been broken into tiny pieces. Repeat.) Don’t wash your hair with bar soap for an extended period of time. Try to step beyond, not in, the gutter. Don’t smear jam all over your toast before tasting the jam. When someone says they’re coming to pick you up, don’t assume a vehicle will be involved. The back of the boat and the front of the bus are where you want to be. If you have to shit in a squat toilet, move forward more than you think you need to. Always walk on the inside of the path when a donkey train is passing. Never, ever put anything on the back of the toilet. Do not take a heavy sleeping bag, long johns, and a synchilla top to the tropics. If you hate your guide, get another one. Always travel with good earplugs. Don’t pay too much attention to guidebooks. Ignore a lot. Ask before taking pictures of people. Be tenacious. Try not to be peevish. At the very least, learn how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the native tongue of each place you visit. Buy food from street vendors. Don’t buy non-refrigerated chocolate on the beach. Carry antihistamines, especially if you’re allergic to bee stings. If you order barracuda and are served a piña colada, ask some questions. Make frequent checks to see that your passport is still where it’s supposed to be. After applying mosquito repellent, and before removing your contacts, wash your hands. When in countries inhabited by people of smaller stature than you, remember to duck frequently. Don’t smear oil near your eyes without knowing what’s in it. Always buy snacks before boarding transport. Try not to offer cigarettes and food to Muslims during Ramadan. See if the bathroom door has a knob inside before closing it. Always pack more candy than you think you need. When you have a connecting flight, remember to check your bags through. Take clothes with lots of pockets. If you’re going to climb a coconut tree, don’t grip with your knees. Take your time. Don’t use antibiotic eye drops while wearing contact lenses. Ask for filter coffee; otherwise, you’ll get Nescafé. If you see something you want, buy it. (If you don’t, you’ll wish you had later when you realize just how inexpensive it really was.) If you leave your bedroom door open, don’t be too surprised if a monkey wanders in. When stopped by oncoming traffic on a narrow street, remember your feet. Don’t travel to the tropics with meltable medicine. If you sit under a palm tree, be aware of where the coconuts fall. Don’t accept torn or taped bills; the person you try to give them to won’t. If you go down the hall to shower and you decide to wash the clothes you’re wearing, try to remember that your towel might not be big enough to cover your naked body for the trip back to your room. If you change flight reservations, remember the connecting flights must be changed as well. Don’t let yourself run out of cash on a Sunday. Pay attention to intuition. Try to find travel clothes that don’t make you look like a pathetic slob. If you have home mail forwarded to someone else so they can pay your bills, remember to include ‘in care of’ plus their name with the change of address. (Otherwise, your bills will end up floating around in the ether, not getting paid.) Do not, even for a minute, consider taking any white clothes. Take the kind of headphones that won’t break when shoved into baggage. Take lots of duct tape. If you really want to rile a bureaucrat, ask “why?” Always say “I love you” early in a long-distance phone conversation. Try to keep your eyes, mind, and heart open. No one else’s path works for you; follow your own path.
A Few Final Words
I’m beginning to realize that my path frequently crisscrosses that unmapped Middle Ground. While I’ve never really wanted to spend much time here, I inevitably find myself returning. Like all fertile earth, Middle Ground harbors its own treasures. I’m learning to look for them.