That’s the best question I’ve asked myself in ages. The many facets of myself and answers that I discovered on my three-month journey humble and inspire me every day. I hope they at the very least entertain you, and encourage further thought in all of us.
Lost: my previous self. Not that there was so much “wrong” with me, but there was some serious re-organization and mental clarification in order. Also 10 lbs., in China.
Found: someone people appear to be finding SO much more palatable, friendly, engaging, positive, WOW WOW WOW!!!! Someone I don’t recognize much, but am enjoying getting to know.
When I left on this trip I had some serious anxieties – some I’ve had from my youth (will this person like me? How can I make myself likeable to others?!?!) and those I’ve invented in my adulthood (Why do people trust me? Do people LIKE me? Given this massive amount of education, what makes ME the expert?!?!?! Do I have the skills to keep myself safe and sound in places I know little about?) Amazing how the anxieties of my youth pervaded… or not so amazing…..
There’s nothing like REALLY being COMPLETELY in charge of one’s self to understand one’s true knowledge, skills, integrity, and mental fortitude.
Example 1: For 3 months I had no cell phone. Did I call Tom via SKYPE three times in the first month (when I was MOST safe and sequestered in lovely Thailand) and ask him to look into “turning on” my phone – yes. Did I investigate purchasing a “SIM card” in order to have cell phone access in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam? Yes. And what I found out was that there is little “overlap” between the systems in the three countries, and there is not much coverage in any of them. AT&T, my beloved carrier (COUGH!) doesn’t even provide service in Cambodia or Vietnam, and buying a SIM card in each is a temporary solution to the problem of not having one’s own phone. And how much do I talk on the phone?!?!? And who needs a phone anyways? Could I possibly memorize a new phone number, having not remembered even the most mundane calendar events for the past five years? Certainly not…. In fact, I believe that the lack of a cell phone during my travels had very little negative effect on my experience and a lot of positive outcomes, not the least of which is that I learned that I can figure things out without one if I really use internal skills and resources.
Example 2: What IS really important when traveling solo in a completely new country so far from home? General safety, reliable transportation/ transfer, and a safe/ secure place to sleep once the sun goes down, which is quite early year-round in equatorial countries. That’s it. If you’re not used to working on these three conundrums daily, that’s your job when you’re in a country you don’t know or don’t know much about: how can you be safe, where are you going to sleep, and how are you going to find that place and/ or get there? $12 reliable transports, though they ate away at the small daily budget, were a bargain; walking around aimlessly looking for a place to stay was immensely expensive, psychically and physically, which eventually eats up valuable travel dollars and – more importantly – the psyche.
There are those who would challenge my need to “splurge” for a for-sure bus/ airport transfer and/ or hotel/ hostel WiFi connection (through which I let my family know I was alive). Would I take that critique again EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE ??? YES!!!!!! Apparently, being homeless on a street in a completely unknown city in Asia with no communication device is something some people are completely comfortable with; by contrast, I was “neurotic” in my need to plan ahead and “be safe.” This neurosis/ anxiety served me very well on this trip, and is one I don’t feel the need to abandon.
I was not and I never will be – “lost” by choice – because I have discovered that the reality of having none of these niceties addressed can even rear its ugly head when one thinks s/he has considered all possible contingencies. Reality: don’t count on anything in a foreign country, because the mere fact that you are a stranger in that land and don’t speak the local language might make all of your plans for naught. If you can’t get to that “reasonably priced” (read: horrible) hotel/ hostel because the map you have is too small, or your cab driver can’t read, much less read a map, and is unlikely to even agree to take you ANYWHERE you are on your own. Do you have some MASSIVE mental reserves to deal with this conundrum? Yes? Great. No? Well, unless you can find a really expensive hotel and a McDonald’s, you might just be homeless and starve to death in China.
Don’t get me wrong: I had an amazing time in China, and I don’t regret a second I spent there. I learned more about persevering in adverse conditions than I possibly could have as a 23-year-old teacher in urban Cincinnati. By contrast, ANY US city is easy, because I know the language; I know how to read a map; I have contacts; and I have coping skills that work in my “home” environment. What’s amazing is how those coping skills must be adapted to the local environment, and when that local environment doesn’t give an inch, you might just walk a mile or ten.
Another great story: Chengdu is a MUCH larger city than I expected – with its 5 million people, it’s about as cosmopolitan as Beijing, without a local transportation infrastructure a savvy but monolingual tourist might actually be able to decipher and use.
If you love pandas and “alternative” Chinese culture, Chengdu is for you. It was an amazing place to end my Chinese and Asian travels, but when I left I was ready to go. I had a great time in Chengdu which did nothing to soften my conclusion that China is a mightily ROUGH place for the on-a-budget, street-level, solo American tourist to hone her traveling skills.
Example: There was an area of Chengdu that I wanted to visit, that was about five KM from the hostel were I was staying. The lovely women at the desk of the hostel gave me VERY specific directions to this tourist area and were kind of giddy to recommend the brand new (extremely limited) subway system which would transport me for about 1/3 of this trip.
I walked to the subway station, figured out how to purchase a ticket and rode the subway to a stop that, while on the map it looked close to the temple I attempted to visit, was just far enough to allow me to get completely lost. Given also that in China there is so much air pollution that I couldn’t use the sun to orient myself; and the fact that the streets of Chengdu are torn up while this subway system is built; and that my map was hopelessly small and inadequate, I got COMPLETELY turned around and lost. It became evident quite quickly that not only would I NOT make it to this temple, but I would also be lucky to find my way back to the hostel before dark. Did I panic? A little. But then I spotted three police men on one of the infamous torn up corners I couldn’t identify on my map, so I asked them for help.
Two of them rebuffed me completely, turning away as I approached. The third attempted to figure out what I was asking, and pretty soon had my map in his hand – upside down. He turned the map this way and that, and then squinted at the tiny print. I offered him my glasses, which he put on and, much to the entertainment of his two colleagues, wore until he was able to find and show me our exact location on the map. It was a very funny sight – a Chinese cop with my girly little glasses on, his colleagues snickering while he attempted to orient us all on my stupid tourist map. I wanted to take a picture, but figured that it might be pushing my luck to make light of a Chinese police officer who was attempting to help me. I look back at being THIS lost (and found) and laugh heartily.
I’ve written before that this trip, and China in particular, required me to summon strength I hadn’t known I possessed. Due to “successes” and the observation that when I’m positive, positive things and people open themselves to me, the anxieties of my youth and adulthood have subsided tremendously, and I have found a person who others and I like more; who is more focused, less edgy, more thankful, thoughtful, and effective. I am discovering people and opportunities that enrich and enlighten my life; setting better boundaries against those that don’t. I’m laughing more; talking less and listening more; opening myself to things and people who enrich me; and channeling my energy in a new way towards everyday and long-term goals.
Life is good.