Monday, March 5, 2012

Halfway thru

Today is March 1st, 2012 and we've been on the road for a little over 3 months. This is the midpoint of our trip and so far it feels like it's been an eternity since we left home. It feels like we've done so much already. Over 15 flights, countless bus and train rides, and 10 countries later, we have indeed done a lot. Our memory works like a superfast computer, trying to cope and register all the new sensations, words, directions, addresses, sights and smells we're encountering every day.

Blogging on the sleeper train.
Some days feel like sensory overload: our first day in Lima and now our first day in Hanoi. Other days are blissful and full of nothing but relaxation, massages, chilling by a pool or on some pristine tropical beach. We got a fair share of everything across the board: from dirty cramped hostel dorms to swanky hotel rooms, from gross self-made pasta to amazing fruit juices, from comfy plane rides across continents to miserable overnight bus rides. And all that in only 3 months. Sometimes I feel like time is compressed, and I get to live a lifetime of experiences in fast-forward motion. I often wish I was able to press a pause button and linger in one place for a while longer. But for now it's not possible. We have to keep going. We have a set schedule and we must stick to it. We are often telling ourselves that "this" and "that" place require more in-depth exploration and are promising to return some day.

Often times, during a long bus ride and many radio podcasts later, I catch myself staring out of the window daydreaming, pondering on the things I've just listened to or thinking about what I've learned so far. I draw mental conclusions which most of the time never make it on paper/screen. A lot of them get lost in the quagmire of memory and daily sensory load. Which is why I am now taking some time off from constant "experiencing," to put down a few thoughts on the last 3 months, before they quickly flee my memory.

1. The World is a Dirty Place
Last summer I went to Romania to visit my family. My dad took us for a swim and a game of badminton on the banks of the river Danube, where my home town is. I grew up there and each summer we'd go bathe in the river. The place is filled with memories and a lot of nostalgia. Going back there again last summer, my heart was ripped to pieces at the sight of all the trash lining the beach, especially all the plastic bottles, either floating on the water or resting on the beach. They were not there when I was a kid. Plastic bottles didn't exist back then, and glass bottles would yield a coin or two if you returned them to the store. Last summer I was frustrated at the lack of recycling spirit and love of the environment of my compatriots. Fast forward to my current trip around the world. It turns out, it's not just my home country that lacks the awareness of how bad this trash is for the environment... it's the entire world.

I have seen so much trash in all of the places I've been to, that if I cried a tear for every sight, I'd have cried an ocean by now. It's really bad and it pains me to see it. Gorgeous mountain sides and ravines in Bolivia and Peru filled with trash. Gorgeous beaches in Bali covered with trash. Every side of every road we drive on covered with trash. A local Lao woman on the boat down the Mekong river finished eating her potato chips and threw the plastic bag in the river. The world needs to become a cleaner place or else we're really fucked. As I see it, the fight needs to take place on two fronts: a) governmental action to provide recycling facilities and enforce recycling and littering rules and b) education of population on why certain types of waste are extremely bad for the environment. You can't blame simple people for their bad habits when you realize they lack the basic knowledge and awareness of how their actions harm the earth. Conclusion: I feel more passionate and inspired to contribute to these efforts, perhaps at a future job.

2. Being On This Side of the Dollar Bill is Awesome
I've said it before and I'll say it again: how fortunate we are to be able to travel! The world is a big place, and yet, the people we meet on the backpacker trail come from a very limited pool of countries: England, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, United States. Even if we travel cheaply, we're still in a very privileged position to be able to do this. You don't see people from Romania, Peru or India backpacking for 6 months. You see a lot of Western Europeans and North Americans on the road for months and years, but what does that say? The spending power of our currency, the nature of our salaries and savings allow us this incredible privilege.

You could have someone with a similar education, job and experience as me who lives in Romania or India and they would not be able to travel like we do. I remember being on that side, being a student back in Bucharest and making $200/month. After paying rent, utilities and some basic food, I'd be left with about $10. Could I ever save to travel with that kind of money? At the time, it seemed as unattainable as flying to the moon. I see people like that every day during our travels. I talk to them and I know that few of them will ever get the change to leave their home town or even visit another country. Conclusion: I am so extremely grateful to life, fate, luck, etc. for allowing me to be where I am today.

3. Take It Easy
I read an article about mindful living recently and a few things stuck with me. I liked it so much, that I'm copying here a few fragments: "Listen to your breath, listen to the birds, the insects, feel the sunshine, step onto the earth and know you are stepping on the earth and do so in peace. These lessons allow me to reflect on life and consider how by letting go on many things is the best way to finding something within ourselves that is much more valuable." - Jessica Williams who lives at Mindful Farm near Chiang Mai.

Mindfulness is a word used in connection with Buddhism and meditation. Essentially it means to be in the present moment. It is knowing what we are doing while we are doing it. So often our minds are busily racing ahead thinking or worrying about the future, or alternatively regretting or reliving the past, mindful thinking brings us to the present moment. The distractions of our daily lives (television, internet, mindless chatter, etc.) prevent us from seeing what is truly going on in our minds. We constantly pour in thoughts about the past and the future, until we barely live in the moment.

4. The Backpacker World Is A Bit Disappointing
When we left home, we had this impression that all the people who travel for a long period of time are really cool, interesting and inspiring people. We were excited to stay in hostels and meet these people. We were wondering which one of us will find a true love. Nope, none of that happened. We met some interesting people along the way, but overall, the backpacker culture can be easily described as: "rich 1st world kids with a strong appetite for alcohol and partying." We found out that a lot of the kids who travel love to hop from one party destination to another, get trashed and brag about it the next day. Some of the more spiritual and witty people we met were older.

I guess you can't blame a 21 year old for having huge amounts of energy and libido, but I often wonder if they have any time left to observe the new cultures they're meandering through. On the backpacker trail it's very easy to isolate yourself in a "pocket of home away from home," a sort of "ivory tower" of Western comfort, and not interact much with the local culture. You can hang out at the Irish pub down in the hostel lobby with fellow backpackers, eat a burger, book a "boozy trip" and then claim you've been to Laos. Ask them what the coolest thing about Laos is and they'd say: the cheap beer.

5. Tourism Turns Locals Into Greedy People
I'll start off with two examples: yesterday I was sitting at a cafe sipping a beer when this Vietnamese woman walks up to me all smiles and giggles. She asks me where I'm from, what my name is, how long I've been in Vietnam. She seems genuinely nice and friendly. I innocently think she's a friendly, warm local who wants to talk to me. After a minute she pops the question: "Want to buy clothes from me?" To which I smile politely and I reply: "Sorry, no, I'm leaving in 30 minutes, waiting for the bus now." Hearing this, the smile on the woman's face goes away completely, she turns around like a robot and walks away. No more interest in me, no good-bye, nothing. I'm not a buyer, so why waste time talking to me? Yesterday, Anne and Daniel went to visit a museum. The guide, after being all nice and friendly, pressured them into buying a souvenir. When they didn't, the guide abruptly announced: "The tour is over," turned around and left.

Throughout our trip (but mostly in Vietnam), we have COUNTLESS such stories. Just when you thought a local, who sees you struggle with a map on the corner of a street, is genuinely trying to help you with directions, he/she immediately tries to sell you something. The more tourists a place is receiving, the more corrupt and greedy the locals become. You really need to go to remote places if you want to meet honest people, who love to talk to you, invite you to their homes, offer you a drink and not look at you as a cash machine. If there's anything I long to have more of on this trip is a more genuine and honest interaction with local people.

There is so much still left to say, but I'll leave it off to this for now, as we're about to get on yet another 12-hour overnight bus, and I have to finish writing this piece.