In Thailand, you hear this funny expression from the locals when they're trying to sell you something that's similar to something else: "same same but different". It's such a widely-used expression that it's now on flourescent over-sized tanks sold at tourist shops and cheekily used to name restaurants and cafés. And it sort of sums up how I feel about myself post-trip right now. I'm same same. But different.
To be honest, this trip had way less of an impact on my life than my two week overlanding trip a year ago in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. That trip was life-changing. Because that was mind-blowing. I flew to Bishkek and met a group of strangers and spent two weeks in a truck camping in the middle of Nowherestan, sometimes in a yurt. It was eye-opening, mostly because I had been in the day-to-day working world rut for so long I'd forgotten how immense and cool our planet was, and how seeing it is way less difficult than we think. It made me immediately crave more adventure and travel, and as soon as I returned to San Francisco, I started cooking up plans of how I might be able to quit my job and travel for a prolonged period of time.
In a weird way, I was so focused on getting things in order to put my plans in motion, I stopped fantasizing about what I'd do when I got there. I mean, I started plotting an exit from my job almost six months before quitting, which was hard — I had to really put my head down and focus on work itself, not spend my time daydreaming about distant lands. I didn't want to give myself away, after all. For six months, I saved aggressively, which meant spending many nights at home, saving money by not socializing. I cooked most of my meals, didn't shop, and didn't travel at all, except heading to Asheville over Thanksgiving to visit a friend and a trip to Puerto Rico (which was graciously financed by the Bank of Dad). And then I worked, worked, worked, right up until a few days before leaving. Mostly, I decided that until I left, I'd focus my attention on the people I loved, and trying to spend as much time with them as possible and appreciate all the good stuff in my life: my lovely apartment, my family, my awesome friends.
The night before I left, I'd arranged drinks at Lucky 13 for friends in San Francisco for a farewell toast. I was floored by the number of people who showed up; when two friends showed up together saying they'd gotten a sitter to take care of their son, I nearly cried. I knew it was a big deal for them to be out together, and I was really touched. Looking around at all my amazing, awesome friends, I suddenly felt sad about taking off the next day. Why was I leaving this awesome group of people I was lucky to call my friends? Why was I going to travel when I knew such cool people?
By the time I landed in Bangkok, I barely had had time to prepare for the trip, let alone get excited. I'd worked up until 3 days before leaving, then spent those 3 days running around town like a maniac crossing things off my list. I got on the plane panicking about things not settled before leaving, like discovering the morning of my departure that my hostel in Bangkok didn't allow late night check-ins. And then suddenly I found myself in hot, crowded, polluted Bangkok, jetlagged, confused and overwhelmed. What was I going to do with myself for the next four months? How would I fill the time?
But there I was, and with four months wide open before me. I had no choice but to crack open my Lonely Planet and iPad and start figuring things out. The first few days felt a bit like a disaster. For starters, it was the height of summer in SE Asia and temperatures were over 100 every day. The day I visited Siem Reap, temperatures topped 105 degrees — it was already in the high 90s when I left at 7 am to visit the temples. And if I found the heat oppressive, then there was the humidity. I felt like I was making mistakes about hotels and guesthouses and my route and budget — would all the money I set aside be enough? Had I planned right?
I left Siem Reap a day early and took a 16-hour bus ride to Sihanoukville and followed by a 25-minute motorbike taxi ride in the dark to a bungalow resort in Otres Village near Otres Beach. When the British woman running the place greeted me, I nearly fainted with relief. After a night in the clean, quiet bungalow, I decided to stay four days, just to get my mind wrapped around what I was doing. At least it was a little cooler here at the beach.
Things got easier as I went along. There were adventures and mishaps, but the journey started to flow. I started to find I had a particular rhythm for travel — I like the sense of momentum and movement that comes from heading to a new place every day or so. I don't like to linger. (This might really change if I was travelling with someone else, but being solo, I like to keep going.) I started to get more social, which was hard for me in the beginning but after a couple weeks, I began engaging anyone and everyone in conversation since I'd sometimes go days without any real human contact.
At times, I regretted the routes that I'd taken. I should have worked my way in Vietnam from north to south, I'd think. I should have stayed longer in Myanmar. I should have done something weird, like go to Siberia, just to freak everyone out. I'd think these things, then realize that if I'd done things differently, I'd never have met certain awesome people along the way. I'd never have hung out with Saj in Cat Ba for the weekend, or met Leeya in Bagan, or my amazing trekking crew in Myanmar, or the British couple I had dinner with every night in Penang, or the countless others from all over the world that could fill a whole other blog post. It was these connections and conversations that kept me going; my new friends' warmth and kindness and friendship that served as the fuel that kept me going through periods of intense isolation and loneliness.
After time, I realized the route was less important to the point of the trip, anyway. If you're travelling for ten days and trying to cram in a lot of sightseeing, your itinerary matters a lot. But four months of travel is a different beast. Sure, it's important to see the incredible natural and manmade wonders of the world. But really, four months of solo travel is about the bigger journey — the funny or weird or annoying things that happened along the way were what counted, and those were unpredicatable.
As time wore on, what I found myself really excited about was home. That's not to say I wasn't loving travel. I loved seeing new places, and, even more, I loved the satisfaction that came with knowing I'd gotten myself there. I'd be standing at the top of Sigiriya or inside the grand lobby at the Grand Hotel in Nuwara Eliya, thinking, I got myself here on my own initiative. I'm nobody's concubine. Nobody paid my way. I'm here through my own hard work and desire and savings. And that felt really good. But what I found myself daydreaming about most was home. Hanging out with friends and family. Hiking. Making delicious food. Flushing toilet paper down the toilet. Fresh air. Being cold.
Now that I'm home, the importance of the trip is starting to emerge in ways I didn't predict. Because it basically served as a big, ol' reset button to my life in San Francisco, a great distillation of the things I love from the things I don't. Staring at the ocean for days on end in Cambodia, I decided I definitely wanted to go back and work in advertising. Being solo so much made me aware of just how much I cherished my friends and family. And while living out of a backpack ambling around the world is fun, I don't think I want to be a straight-up nomad; I like having an apartment, community and roots, especially when that place has a mild climate and a lot of sunshine and fog and burritos. I came back filled with a deep appreciation for the goodness in my life and reenergized to work for the things I want. What I want most is a guy to share my life and love and travel with — we'll see how that goes.
So, I return with no dreadlocks, no Thai tramp stamp, no plans to run off and marry a Laotian villager or throw jungle raves or earn a living selling coconuts on a beach somewhere in the Indian Ocean.
Just a little older and wiser, a little more familiar with a big corner of our planet, a little more worldly and whole a lot more grateful.
You know. Same same. But different.