The last few months have been really interesting for me. As most of you know, I visited Thailand in February. What a fascinating country! I stayed in Phuket, but I visited some islands (including the infamously beautiful Ko Phi Phi). Much like India, Thailand is defined by contrasts... social constrasts and otherwise. Initially, you might find it to be a grimey, slimey, somewhat dirty place. Prostitutes are everywhere, children are caring for children, and severely physically disabled people are strewn all over the streets begging for loose change. Thailand is not easy to stomach at times (literally).
That said, I actually found the country to be an extremely warm and welcoming place. Why was I surprised? Well, Phuket is a tourist's heaven and a backpacker's nightmare. There are foreigners everywhere... irritating ones... which is why I was surprised at how NOT jaded most of the natives are. They have a lot of stupid people they have to put up with on a daily (seasonal?) basis, yet they are still wonderful, hospitable people.
Perhaps the best thing about Thailand was the fact that I left with a bit more wisdom then I came there with (that has a tendency to happen when traveling, I suppose). For starters, let's discuss the old adage... "Don't judge a book by its cover." When I arrived in Phuket, I hired a transfer van to get me to my hotel. The men driving were a bit odd, and I'll admit it, I was a little paranoid that there were two of them and one of me. But let's face it: we live in a crazy world. I'll also admit that I prejudged these guys the minute I met them. Dirty clothes, jerky movements, stealing glances at me in the rearview mirror, sharing somewhat ominous laughs together-- all bad signs, right? I began recalling some self-defense moves I learned in my body combat classes...
At one point, the driver pulled over the side of the road and let the other guy off at what struck me as a pretty deserted place. We sat for a moment while the driver retrieved his cigarettes and lit one up. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. I was feeling really jumpy at this point, and when I get like that, I usually blurt something out... inappropriate or not. So, I sloppily struck up a conversation with the guy, asking him what kind of cigarrettes he smoked. Thai cigarettes, of course. Okay... good one, Katina. To my surprise and thankfully, he took my communication as a desire to chat. He began asking me about my life, what I do, where I'm from, etc. I slowly began losing my white-knuckle grip on my seat-belt. His name was Sowpaan (pronounced SOW-pahn). We exchanged information about ourselves, and before I knew it, I was asking him about various phrases in Thai. Things like, "Will you marry me?" (Tang-ngan-kan-mai?) You know, shit that comes in handy when you're in a foreign country. He found my ridiculous curiosity pretty humorous. We shared a few laughs, and I think it might be safe to say we became best friends by the end of the hour-long carride. The only regret I had when I alighted from the car was how much time I wasted in getting to know him because of my stupid assumptions and insecurities. Aside from that, it was one of the best cultural exchanges I've ever had with anyone. So, life lesson learned: don't prejudge.
Leaving Thailand was difficult beyond my imagination. My time there confirmed my addiction and genuine love for traveling. It also confirmed my suspicion that this is what I'm supposed to be doing right now. This is where I'm supposed to be... and who I'm supposed to be. Saying goodbye to that country left a dull ache in my heart, but I guess I've felt that everytime I've left anywhere. Sadness usually consumes me in the last few hours before boarding my plane. It's true that leaving a place feels much like a breakup-- one that you didn't want. And the worst part of it all is you're not sure if you'll see this place that you've personified ever again. You do your best to muster up a proper goodbye, but you know that your words would fall far short of a worthy farewell. This place, these people, the sun, the sand, the water... it's given you so much. Your time here has changed you, and you can't go back. You can only trudge on with a heavy heart and the priceless gift of a new perspective, perhaps even some answers. I love you, Thailand.
So, I turned 23 a few days ago. Another year gone by. But where oh where did it actually go? How is it that time passes so quickly and so slowly (a phenomenon everyone hates to ponder)? I'm not going to lie, turning 23 scared me a lot. It didn't scare me because I'm "getting older." I'm not one of those lunatics who things 23 is old, believe me. It just scares me because time seems be speeding up. How am I supposed to take advantage of everything, do everything I want to do, when the time frame to do it all in seems so limited? I want so badly to get life right. And foolishly, I've been wanting someone to give me all the answers.
I'm going to take you back with me to Thailand for a minute to illustrate this for you. Well, the flight from Thailand to Taiwan. I sat next to this man named John. John was a forty-something Pakistani living in Los Angeles. His work, however, is in Taiwan. He splits his time between his home in Los Angeles with his Taiwanese wife and newborn son and his work in Taichung. John was probably one of the most interesting people I've ever talked to in my life. He grew up in Pakistan, studied in Sweden, lived all over the EU, and has traveled just about every corner of this earth. John has worked as a computer technician, electrical engineer, gemologist, and he currently owns a company that makes medical equipment. The man is a jack of all trades. I had a pretty blunt conversation with John. I had nothing to hide from him. I couldn't if I tried... I was crying practically the entire flight home.
I asked this man about so many things. I was so hungry for conversation with someone who understood me, someone who could lessen the burden of my ever-present worries, someone who could help me process my feelings of isolation (after all, I did just break up with my boyfriend). I have never focused so hard on a conversation in my life. I was eating it all up, soaking in as much information from this man as I possibly could.
John is a nomad. He admitted to me he had no place he actually called home. He's been somewhat of a "lost boy" all his life... relying only on himself and the few friends he made wherever he went. He told me he has never truly felt attached to anything until his son came along. Having been exposed to so many people and so many vastly different cultures, he has no sense of national pride, no "stances" on anything, no die-hard opinions about anything... he's just an in-between kind of guy. So, I posed this question to a man who has seen more and knows more than most: do you think you can ever know too much? Do you think we are meant to be born in one place and love it and call it home forever? Do you think if we see too much and inevitably erase everything we've ever regarded as true we might permanently fuck up our hard-wiring? Can we ever be happy when we go back to start our "real" lives?
Basically, I've been worried about my ability to simplify things. I think I've lost it. My brain has been feeling much like my messy room right now. I don't know how to find anything, where to put anything, or how it even got that way. John seemed to understand this all too well. You don't know how to identify with anything anymore because you're so far from home and yet you're such a stranger in your current environment. Nothing fits. You're a limbo kid.
John's response wasn't quite what I expected. I thught he was going to serve me the predictable, "Katina, stop worrying. Stop overanalyzing." Instead, he confirmed the legitimacy of my concerns, which frightened me a little bit but I was really glad to get a straight answer. As much as traveling is good for you it can be equally as detrimental to you-- depending on who you want to be or who you CAN be. Sometimes seeing life in a different light requires you to change who you are, and if the important people in your life don't understand, what then?
So, here I am... getting answers from John. I swear, while it was all happening, I thought this man was my deliverer. I told him flat-out that he was an answer to my heart's prayers or something because I really needed to talk to someone in that moment. He looked pretty taken aback. I gave him my travel notebook and asked him to write in it. He wrote this and nothing else: "Live today. You will live forever."
After our goodbyes, I hurried to the bus counter to buy a ticket back to Taichung. As I was standing there, I felt someone smack their hands down on my bag. Naturally, I was a bit startled, and when I spinned around, I saw John. He asked me what bus I was going to catch and that he wanted to ride with me. I thought this was a little odd. Then he asked me where I was sleeping and if I wanted to get a late night drink. That's about the time when I realized who this person truly was. Wife or no wife, son or no son, he belonged to no one. He subscribed to no moral code, had no real convictions... he was a directionless, wave-rider. His understanding of our conversation was that he was saving this young, impressionable girl and that maybe, if he said a few "profound" things, she might trust him. I was a project, not a person.
And, let me just say, I'm not turning this into an issue of gender. I don't care that he's a man. All people are inherently selfish. He may have been able to relate to me, but he certainly didn't have the answers... nor would he have cared to give them to me if he did. My point is that John, the forty-something world traveler, actually knows no more than I. And on top of that, what's right for him is not necessarily right for me. How was I so naive to think that this stranger could cure me?
Reminds me of this Cat Steven's quote from the song, "Father and Son."
"If they were right, I'd agree, but it's them they know, not me."
No one can fix you. Absolutely no one... not a partner, a friend, or a charming stranger. No one can tell you what to expect around every corner or after every decision. You choose it all. You choose what you do, how you do it, and ultimately, whether you learn anything from it or not. It is human nature to want to relate to people, to focus on the similarities you have with others... it shields us from loneliness at times, there's no doubt about it. But the truth is no one has ever taken the journey of your life before. You are the first and last person to pave this path. I've come to realize that the only way to live life right is to live YOUR life right... you take it one gut-feeling at a time.
I applied this realization on the day of my birthday. I went to a waterfall with some friends just outside the city. You had to wind your way up the dizzying mountain, navigate a steep, gravel path, and hike a somewhat treacherous gorge to get to it. I wanted a birthday I would never forget, something that would require me to face a great fear of mine: heights. We got to the waterfall, and immediately my enthusiasm plummeted significantly. When I saw the dangerously narrow ridge to the "launching" area (I put launching in quotes because if this place was in the states, it would be blocked off), I started with the self-doubt and began searching for excuses not to jump. Lucky for me, I have extremely fearless friends that will peer pressure the hell out of you until you can't refuse (thanks guys).
I tiptoed my way along the side of the ridge, which is a slanted five inches at one point. Mind you, there is absolutely nowhere to get a good grip on the perfectly rounded rock. It didn't help that you had to walk out on this ledge quite a ways because if you fell up until a certain point you would land on solid rock. My heart was exploding in the moment. I wasn't sure what would happen first: a heart attack or falling to my death.
Miraculously, I made it to the "ledge," which is about 2 feet long and 4.5 inches wide. The rock you're standing on jutts out, so in order to clear it, you actually need to catapault yourself from the rock about 3 feet or so. At this point, I'm standing on the ledge looking down. I'm about 40 feet up or so. For those of you that can't imagine this, that's higher than the Olympic high dive. So, in addition to the overwhelming height, I'm looking at this great bit of rock I need to miss and thinking nothing but defeated thoughts. I even began voicing them, "I can't do it! I can't!" My screaming eventually prompted my legs to begin shaking violently. This was a problem for two reasons: 1) I looked like an idiot to my audience (my friends and random Taiwanese hikers), and 2) Shaky legs meant it was uncertain if I would be able to jump far enough to clear the rock. That's when my friend offerred to jump with me. I hate to accept help in those situations because it means I can't take full credit for such a brave act, but I did. I was too afraid to climb back, but I knew I wouldn't jump if someone didn't lead me.
My friend climbed out to me, grabbed my hand, counted to three, and practically pulled me with him. Unless you've felt that feeling of flying, you can't quite understand how freeing and frightening and wonderful and horrible it is all at the same time. Your stomach tightens up, your arms fly up in the air, your lunch rises to the back of your throat, and you're wondering just how much the landing is going to hurt... which is a lot, by the way. Smacking the water from such a height is not pretty. But, lord, does it give you the rush of a lifetime. It's an act that requires you to relinquish control. For those few seconds you're suspended in the air, you have no say in anything. And yet, the minute you hit the water, you feel more powerful and capable than you ever thought possible. Strange, isn't it?
On that day, the 23rd anniversary of my birth, when I jumped off the waterfall... I jumped into a new mindset. I've been heading in that direction for the past few months, but I finally fully immersed myself in it. You can't be in control all the time, which is why you just have to stop worrying about what's right or wrong, how you should be feeling, where you need to be, who you're becoming. No amount of questioning or research will ever answer life's deepest mysteries, nor will it ever shed any light on your reality.
That's all I got. I love you.