380 Days of Life Lessons and other musings

Hi Everyone!

I have been looking forward to writing this post since returning to Canada as I have spent almost every free moment of my time reflecting on our time spent abroad. My last few days in Koh Tao were also spent reflecting, and I have found it very interesting how my thought pattern has changed since returning to Canada. While still in Thailand I had nothing but positive thoughts about the journey and how we carried ourselves throughout. Since returning home I have been riddled with doubt; Did we enjoy every minute enough? Did we go to the right countries? Should we have spent less time in one country versus another? Will I ever get to travel to this degree again? And on, and on, and on my mind races. I think it has something to do with all of the subliminal messages we receive on a daily basis from the media and those around us. We constantly compare ourselves and our journey to others and that leaves us feeling inadequate. In addition to this, few people understand what Chris and I have gone through or experienced, and most people doubt what we have done to some degree. A common interaction we have with people is to tell them what we have been up to for the past year and have them answer,”You did what?” …and then slink away giving sideward glances as if we have some sort of ailment they can catch simply by speaking with us. This is an adjustment in itself as meeting other travellers on the road where everyone is in the same boat to some degree sparks amazing conversation and discussion and mutual sharing of information between both parties about where we have been, where we are going etc.

I am also still processing many things about the trip. With the pace and ferocity of our travel itinerary it did not leave much time for reflection. It was “on to the next country” without a backward glance at the country we were leaving. It takes a lot to fully digest all that we were able to see and do and I expect this is a process that will continue for a long time. I think that is part of the beauty of it, and why travel experiences are so long lasting. As time goes on, memories strengthen and the emotions surrounding the experience intensify rather than a normal memory which often fades. I am grateful I have such a plethora of memories to sift through at my leisure.

I have been asked an innumerable amount of times since returning barely a month ago, “How are you ever going to adjust to”normal” life again?” I often reply, “Isn’t that the million dollar question.” I think the bigger issue isn’t adjusting to other peoples norms, but finding a norm for myself (and Chris of course). By no stretch of the imagination will our norm ever be the same for the average person, but I think we have to do some work to truly define what our normal will look like. Traveling will always be a big part of our lives, however we have learned that long term extended travel for a year isn’t something we are overly interested in doing again any time soon. For now we are content with our average 3 weeks a year (Gah, we need to move towards a vacation time similar to Australia) and knocking off countries close to us. We also want to spend a lot of time exploring our own country and have several trips planned for the upcoming months within country. How long will we be content with this set up? I can’t answer that right now. The travel bug has been subdued for now but it is only a matter of time before it rears its head again.

How have I been coping so far? I would say that to this point I have been surviving. I started work less than one week after landing back in the country and it felt like my world was turned upside down. I had just spent the last year of my life doing as I pleased, when I pleased with absolutely zero responsibilities. I then began work where I was at the mercy of the position and had (what felt like) all of the responsibility in the world. I found it incredibly challenging despite how much I had reviewed and prepared. Nothing can really prepare you for your first week back at work, especially in health care which is the definition of unpredictable. Not to mention the massive changes that have happened since I last practiced in a community setting over 2 and a half years ago. I have drawn upon all the lessons learned while traveling to get through the first few weeks back at work, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of these lessons with you all. This is not a cookie cutter list that you will find if you google “Lessons learned while traveling.” It is an honest and real list, while many of the other lists I have read are written only about the overwhelming positives aspects of traveling. I hope you enjoy, and I would love to hear your feedback or lessons learned while abroad!

Travel specific:

  • Always be a traveller, not a tourist. Be conscious of your impact on a place and make a concerted effort to really get to know where you are. Talk to the locals, read the paper, listen to the radio or news. This is how you will know the real story of the country you are in.
  • To enjoy experiences to the fullest you need to accept that things are disorganized, chaotic and without reason. If you allow yourself to become frustrated because things are done differently (and more logically) in your home country, you will have a disastrous time. You are in their country, stop asking “Why.” Things will shift from infuriating, to fun.
  • That travelling doesn’t allow you to “find” yourself. So many people have the idea that if they go far enough somehow they will all of a sudden realize who they are. The contrary is true. I read a fantastic (and honest) list of travel lessons at markmanson.net and he said, “Rather than discover who you are, you begin to question who you are.”
  • Be present in the moment. We are so obsessed with pictures as a culture and we are missing out on really experiencing things because we are behind the lens of camera. The difference between a story and a picture is only one of them can make you feel the emotion of an experience. A picture is one moment in time, but a story changes and evolves every time you tell it. If all you can say is, “I got a great picture,” then you missed the experience and the opportunity for a wonderful story. I am not saying don’t take pictures, take a picture, then set the camera down. Drink in your surroundings and try and memorize every detail of what you are experiencing. *As a side note I would love to learn about the psychology of picture taking and the effect it is having on our society. Days before our visit to the Taj Mahal in India a Japanese man died trying to get a selfie. The same thing happened on “Death Road” in Bolivia. It would be an interesting topic for discussion!
  • Communication is the single most important tool in life, and it is not only verbal. Learning to be a good communicator via body language, hand signals etc. can be very effective and powerful. Some of the best conversation we had during our year was with people who did not speak a single word of our language, and us of theirs.

Life:

  1. Sometimes life lessons come at unwanted times and give you unwanted truths. This is part of the beauty of growing as an individual.
  2. Compassion begins with having it for oneself, before being able to give it to others.
  3. Take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally. The most important relationship you will have is with yourself. If you are hard on yourself, you will inevitably be hard on others.
  4. People are inherently good, kind individuals. Treat them as such.
  5. The grass isn’t always greener on the side (in fact, it hardly ever is)
  6. Meaningful conversation is a rarity, cherish the people in your life you are able to share it with. Endeavour to make the effort to deviate from small talk to meaningful conversation with new and old friends- it can be life changing.
  7. The best memories are made in the smallest moments. The first few seconds of waking up in a tent in the fresh air of a new place, a really good cup of coffee after thousands of cups of instant, making dinner using fresh local ingredients, etc. When I think back on the trip it is often the smallest of moments that elicit the biggest of smiles. The “highlight” reel isn’t necessarily what I conjure when thinking of the trip.
  8. The same goes for adventure. Adventure doesn’t have to be a big, grandiose thing. It can be a trip to the grocery store. It is all how you approach it.
  9. The power of vulnerability (Big thanks to Rilla for introducing this concept to me). This goes for both as a person, and being in a new environment. We often cannot handle the feeling of vulnerability but when we learn to embrace and focus ourselves on experiencing it, it can lead to powerful moments. *There is an amazing TedTalk on this concept if you are interested.
  10. Being uncomfortable is part of daily life for almost every other person on this planet. One of the best things you can do to gain perspective and grow as a person is put yourself in situations in which you are uncomfortable. 4 months tenting throughout Africa where showers, sleeping mats (or beds), refrigeration, warmth, etc. were novelties taught me a lot about comfort and how it isn’t to be taken for granted.

Bonus but more personal: The mountains are always the answer to the most difficult questions life hands me. For inspiration and perspective, hiking through the mountains is where I will find both.

Privilege:

  1. I am privileged beyond belief both in Canada, and outside of Canada.  This is a lesson I was reminded of daily.
  2. Personal safety is not something to be taken for granted. Growing up in a place where doors were left unlocked, keys left in the ignition, personal belongings unattended and being able to go anywhere at any time of day (especially as a woman) is a great privilege. There are many countries in which people fear for their personal safety (even in their own homes) as part of daily life. These aren’t just war torn countries either. In South Africa people build concrete walls around their properties to keep people out and their families safe and car hijackings are an everyday threat.
  3. “Space” in this world is a privilege. Both personal space (think India) and personal land are things we take for granted as Canadians as we have the most of both out of any country in the world.
  4. The four seasons are a blessing and something beautiful we are privileged to experience in Canada.
  5. Being able to say, “I am bored” is a privilege. I hate this saying, and feeling, but no where else in the world do they have the privilege. They have to collect water, hunt for food, try and find shelter etc. There is no time for boredom as they have to fight to meet their basic needs.

Career:

  1. No job in the entire world is perfect, there are negatives to every single position. Accepting this, and realizing your job is the least interesting or important thing in your life will lead to increased satisfaction with the position. Life is about what you do while not at work.
  2. Without creativity there is no inspiration in life. This is something I need to integrate into my “work” week. My career leaves little room for creativity so I need to have a “second” job in which I attain opportunities for this, like continuing with this blog.
  3. As Canadians we agonize over our positions and what we would change or how would do things differently and it seeps into our personal lives. Showing up for work, giving it your all, and leaving it all behind when you are finished are important things to make a concerted effort in doing.
  4. It is never too late to change. We met countless people who had late in life career changes and are happier than ever. Not that either Chris or I are thinking of this, but it is an important lesson to remember if the need ever arises.
  5. Find the balance. If this means working less to maintain a better quality of life, then so be it. You will be more productive while at work and while not. Life is not about money (we are really good understanding that lesson).

And finally, the biggest lesson of all? Chris and I are unbelievably lucky and blessed to have shared every single moment together. Most couples struggle to make it through a week in Mexico at an all inclusive resort. We spent every waking moment together for 378 days, and are still smiling. How lucky are we?

I will leave you with a quote from Anthony Bourdain that I found and thought was appropriate for this post.

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Cheers everyone, looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the post!

Thailand: Part 3

Hi Everyone!

I will pick up where I left off: our journey from Koh Phi Phi to Khao Sok National Park. We had to catch an early morning ferry from Koh Phi Phi back to Krabi Town, where we were picked up by a mini-van and driven to a tour agency. We waited around for half an hour before piling into another mini-van and beginning our several hour drive to the National Park. My biggest tip for these mini-van journeys? Resist the urge to be Canadian. Do not be polite and let everyone else board the mini-van first as you will be stuck in the very back seat where the air-con doesn’t reach, with absolutely no leg room whatsoever, leaving you glued to the person packed in beside you for hours on end. Board the mini-van immediately, scope out the best seat, and snag it. You won’t regret it.

We made it to Khao Sok late in the afternoon and checked into our adorable (and rather luxurious for our standards) bungalows, chatted with the owner about possible excursions, and immediately headed to the park to do a bit of a walk. As it was late in the day our walk was more similar to a jog, but the trail was lined with bamboo trees and made for a beautiful walk despite the pace. We attempted to visit a waterfall but realized quickly that the Thai version of waterfall and the Canadian version of waterfall are quite different; what they call a waterfall, we would call a brook. It was nonetheless entertaining and felt very good to be moving having atrophied our leg muscles with so many days spent lazing on the beach.

We splurged and went to a restaurant that served pizza as one of the guys had heard from a fellow traveller that the pizza was outstanding. The restaurant was run by an adorable family, with the two daughters who were both under the age of 8 being integrally involved in the family business. It was placed on the bank of the river that intersects the town, making for a lovely ambiance. The pizza was indeed outstanding, real wood-oven style and we were all very content after our meal. We headed to our soft-beds full, happy, and ready for our big excursion the following day.

We were picked up via mini-van bright and early the following morning and laughed as we boarded the van as the people we had met the previous day on the journey to Khao Sok were also partaking in the excursion (we drew the short end of the stick and were stuck in the back for this ride, which they teased us about relentlessly). Our guide for the day was an absolute nut and had us laughing the entire time, starting on the drive with his “rules” for the day. While we were stopped at a local market I saw yet another person wearing a, “Bike for Dad” t-shirt and was able to get to the bottom of what this campaign was all about. Ever since arriving in SE Asia we had seen signs, parades, t-shirts, etc with this slogan on it and had been confused about who “Dad” was. It turns out the people of SE Asia call the King of Thailand, “Dad” and the event was in celebration of his birthday. I was overjoyed to finally get to the bottom of the slogan!

Khao Sok National Park is a man-made lake created in 1982 by blocking off the Klong Saeng River with a dam. The dam provides electricity to much of the South of the country, and the resulting lake has become a major tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the stagnant water killed numerous fish and plant species, as well as necessitated the removal of many indigenous people living in the area. The people are paid a monthly stipend for relocating out of the area. The dramatic limestone karats that rise from the lake are the major draw for tourists.

We boarded a long-tail boat and after a sputtering start, took off at full-steam ahead with a boy of no more than 15 at the helm. Our tour guide cracked us all up as he sat on the bottom of the boat with a life-jacket used as a canopy to protect himself from the sun. We were rendered speechless as we made our way further into the lake, the scenery was out of this world. We snapped dozens of photos, none of which can come close to capturing the beauty of the park. We stopped the boat at one spot that is said to resemble both Ha Long Bay in Vietnam as well as a famous lake in China. Our tour guide had us all pose in hilarious positions while he commentated, and then we proceeded to the floating bungalow village for lunch.

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The pictures of the bungalows advertised, and what we actually visited, were entirely different. As with the rest of Thailand, the high demand for tourism resulted in dodgy bungalows that looked like they were about to capsize at any minute. The floor in the restaurant area was rotting, meaning you had to be very careful where you stepped or you could easily end up in the water. In fact, at the end of the day, that exact thing happened to one of the girls in our group. Luckily she had wanted to go swimming anyway, and didn’t have anything of any value in her hands at the time of falling in.

After lunch we boarded the boat and were taken slightly upstream and dropped at the edge of a piece of land jutting into the lake. We then began our “jungle walk” to the soundtrack of the Lion King theme song being belted by our tour guide. We arrived at a point in the trail where our guide informed us was the point of no return; we either had to wait there while the group carried on to the cave, or go to the cave and walk through the entire cave. You were not able to back out of the cave walk once we reached the cave as we did not exit the same way we entered. I am not a super fan of caves, but I knew I would regret not going so I forged on.

We entered the cave and turned on our “flashlights” that we were provided by our guesthouse. The lights were capable of illuminating no more than a pencil thin stream of light that just barely sufficed in allowing us to see where we were stepping. Out guide wasted no time pointing out the massive huntsmen spiders scattered amongst the rocks we were stepping on, cautioning us to watch where we stepped. Easier said than done with our ridiculously underpowered lights. The further in to the cave we went, the higher the concentration of bats hanging dangerously low on the roof. I have an intense fear of bats owing to their status of the animal that carries the highest risk of rabies, and my unrealistic fear that one will swoop down and become entangled in my hair. I was quietly dealing with being stricken with fear and panic over the bats when we came to our first section requiring us to wade through water. My fears were immediately surpassed by Rilla’s all encompassing fear of being in water in which she cannot see the bottom. I went into survival mode and focused all of my intention on getting her through the water as there was no other option at this point. We gingerly made our way through this cave in the same fashion as the last cave we had tackled together; holding hands. It felt like a lifetime passed as we slowly traversed the caves obstacle course, having a near miss when Rilla thought a stick was an eel and had us all in hysterics. We exited the cave with a massive sigh of relief, thankful to be back in the light and on solid ground.

A quick stop at the bungalows to gather our belongings before boarding our boat one again to head back to the mainland. The drive out was just as, if not more, beautiful than the ride in. I mused to myself how entirely different the park felt compared to Koh Phi Phi; if you told me it was part of a different country I would have believed you.

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We had one final supper together that night at the pizza restaurant. The next day Rilla was leaving to meet up with her friends, the guys were heading to Koh Phangan for the infamous full moon party, and I was staying at the national park. We had some very fun and interesting conversation over our pizza, discussing our life plans over the next five years. We joked we would have to have a reunion in 5 years to see how accurate our predictions were.

The following day everyone departed and I was left alone in my beautiful bungalow. I opted not to go to the full moon party as I wanted time to relax and unwind at the end of such a massive trip- the last thing I was looking for was a party with approximately ten thousand (literally) 18-22 year olds. I spent my day planning how to get from Khao Sok to Koh Tao, and finding a place to stay on Koh Tao.

The following day had be rising ridiculously early and with 2 bus transfers, 1 boat transfer and 8 hours later I arrived to Koh Tao. I had booked a room at a small hotel nestled in the hills overlooking one of the islands bays. I was picked up at the pier by one of the workers on his scooter-and experienced a thrilling ride uphill to the hotel. When I arrived I was overjoyed with my room as it had floor to ceiling windows overlooking the bay, as well as a deck to sit and relax on. I spent the afternoon Journaling and taking in the view before spoiling myself at the onsite restaurant with a delightful steak dinner.

The next day I was dropped in town by the free shuttle service from hotel on which I met two Canadian guys who were going to grab a quick bite and invited me to tag along. They had been laid off from their mining jobs back in Canada and decided to use the opportunity to travel, the ultimate lemons into lemonade story. We had a lovely lunch together before parting ways, they to their diving course and me to my thai massage. I decided to spoil myself with one final massage before leaving Thailand, and it turned out to be the best yet. I was one happy girl!

I then walked the beach back to town where I was once again picked up by the hotel. It was an early night for me in my king sized bed.

The next day had Chris join me at my luxury hotel while the guys opted to stay in the town for more of an atmosphere. Chris and I had a lovely sunset dinner at our hotel before sitting on the deck and filling each other in on our 3 days apart. That may sound ridiculous, but having spent every waking moment together for over a year meant 3 days felt like a month.

The next day we had a lazy start to the day before heading into town to check out the Canadian poutine restaurant called (I kid you not), ‘The Moose Knuckle.’ The poutine was mouthwatering, we had no regrets about our decision. We then headed to the guys hotel where we had a few social beverages before heading to a beer pong bar. We had fun playing a few social games before heading back to our oasis in the hills.

The following day was a long travel day from Koh Tao, to the mainland where we caught a flight back to Bangkok. We spent one night in Bangkok, did a bit of last minute shopping the next day, and then headed to the airport to catch our flight back to Canada.

Just like that, 380 days on the road came to an end. It felt as abrupt and rushed as the tone of this post; time morphed into warp-speed and before we could process what was happening we were on our flirst flight home. We had a 5 hour layover in Shanghai, in an airport terminal with no insulation or heating in sub-zero weather. However, there was a Starbucks. We proceeded to Toronto where we had a very short layover, during which I fulfilled a life long dream of being driven through an airport in the airport golf carts (Home Alone style) before arriving to Stanfield International Airport a mere 27 hours later. In my minds eye, it was the fastest 27 hours of my life.

All at once, it was back to business as usual. Life rushed at us from all angles and we quickly had to adjust to keep up. I will cover in much more detail what it has been like being back in Canada in my next post.

Cheers everyone, to the journey of a lifetime. Thank you for joining us every step of the way. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed writing the blog, and how very happy I am that people other than my loving parents have read it. I hope to continue writing (forewarning: much more bland content) as a hobby. Who knows, maybe one day I will even follow my dream of publishing a book.