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Student of the World: Lessons in Unlearning

VIETNAM: Sunset my first night in Phong Nha.

Everyday Mother Nature is putting on a show; for three months I had a front row seat. Exactly a month ago I came back from an 83 day solo backpacking trip. I'm careful not to call it a trip of a lifetime because I hope it's just the first of many adventures to come.

I made stops in Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, India and Sri Lanka. In addition to getting more stamps in my passport I learned a few things about luck, loneliness, identity, and privilege.

I am a very lucky girl

“You are a lucky girl” she said to me. Nook, the girl working at the reception desk of the first hostel I stayed at commented on my luck as I checked in when I told her I took public transportation to get from the airport to the city center. Apparently, the bus I caught was notoriously unpredictable. I shrugged it off because I had left out the fact that a nice lady wrote the name of my stop in Thai on a slip of paper for the conductor; I initially got on the bus going in the wrong direction before finding my way. By the time I made it to the hostel I felt like the universe owed me small win and my luck had nothing to do with it.

Upstairs, I started unpacking and as I was orienting to Bangkok’s blazing heat that found its way inside the hostel because the AC didn’t turn on until 5pm, I realized that my debit card was missing. I used it not three hours ago at the airport ATM which meant it was in Thailand and not safely tucked away somewhere back home. Within hours of landing my confidence had betrayed me and did not feel like a lucky girl.

Downstairs, I showed Nook my ATM receipt to identify the exact location of the betrayal. After a mix of charades and words to explain the situation Nook jumped on the phone and made several phone calls in speedy Thai while I stood next to her helplessly Googling different phone numbers and exhausting all the options that did not involve me cancelling my card.

I couldn’t figure out whether I was sweating from panic or heat but I later realized (and much later accepted) that I’d be perpetually sweating for the next three months.

After the fourth call she said, “They are going to call me back in one hour if they can find it. “But don’t worry” she quickly added after reading the worry on my face — “you’re a lucky girl.”

That phrase continued to bounce around in my head desperate to latch onto some sort of reasoning that could explained how my luck had turned against me so quickly. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I had used up all my luck trying to catch the right bus earlier that morning. Ridiculous thought. We tend to question our luck most when it’s down and there I was expecting the luck that I had shrugged off an hour ago to come to my rescue.

Whatever lucky star Nook thought I was carrying, I now understand she never realized that with every call she made and every hoop she jumped through on my behalf she was fanning the flames to keep that star burning. It’s not my luck that got me to the hostel but the lady who wrote the bus stop name in Thai and the bus driver who stopped mid-route to let me off and pointed me in the right direction. Now, I am sure that’s how my card found its way to airport security and to the bank teller who agreed to hold the card for the next few days until I flew out of Bangkok to Chiang Mai.

The two questions that I’ve been most asked are 1) What was your favorite country and 2) What was the scariest moment? This was the scariest moment — when my own confidence shattered and I had no one to blame but myself.

For the next three months for every “pinch-me-is-this-real-life moment”, which there were no shortage of, I made sure to remind myself that I really am a very lucky girl.

Solo but never alone

Last year I went to Costa Rica for my first and what I then thought would be my only solo trip. When I came back, I declared that traveling is an experience that’s meant to be shared.

I conveniently forgot about this until September when I was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on my way to Thailand. The hypocrisy of the situation was brilliant, hilarious, and concerning all at once. I remembered how I felt after the twelve day trip and couldn’t even process the impact of the next three months.

Three days into the trip, my first morning in Chiang Mai, I wandered into the lobby of Stamps Hostel, still in my space llama pajamas and leafed through the brochures on the table trying to figure out what to do that day. What happened next can only be described as a seamless creation and separation of groups of people who had very little in common other than being under the same roof at the same time. Every morning for the next five days in that lobby I found faces both familiar and new who shared meals, scooters, and sunsets with me. Sometimes we’d spend a few hours together, sometimes a whole day, and occasionally I met people who helped define the experience of entire cities and even the whole country.

Before I went on this trip and even more since I’ve been back, friends and family have asked me about the experience of being alone for so long. People expect solo travel to be lonely because we experience loneliness even when we are surrounded by people close to us.

Staying in a hostel eliminates the first component of loneliness -- physical isolation. Hostel dorms make it impossible to feel alone by flooding your senses with more than you’d like to hear, see, and smell. However overwhelming that experience might be it's far less overwhelming than feeling alone in a foreign country.

The second source of loneliness comes from feeling disconnected with those around you. Connection is sparked by commonalities which can take time to discover. But for the last three months the best moments, the most breathtaking views, my triumphs, and my deepest laughs, all which I now struggle to put into words to share with those closest to me, I got to share with “strangers”.

Our lifestyles are lonely because we’ve made them lonely. Our world of closed doors, one-way glass, and two-step authentication all meant to protect our privacy start to feel like barriers that leave us feeling alone even when we are together. Solo travel strips these barriers away and brings us together through the most powerful bond we have: shared experiences.

What happens if identity is relative?

People talk a lot about how solo travel is about finding yourself. I wasn’t seeking out any self-discovery experiences but what I didn’t expect is a minor identity crisis every time someone asked me “Where are you from?” A seemingly innocent question that would launch a mental ping pong game in my head to determine how the rest of the conversation would go. Should say I’m American? Should I say I’m Indian?

Alone, neither answer does justice to how those identities ebb and flow in my life everyday. However, a hyphenated answer presents a longer sometimes more complicated discussion than warranted.

I eventually learned how to read the context and subtext of the question depending on who was asking. When a native in Myanmar or Sri Lanka asked me “Where are you from?” the intent of the question wasn’t around where my passport was from or where I call home but they were trying to identify the familiarity they saw on my face and in my skin. Which is a more complicated answer. Made even more complicated with language barriers.

When a fellow backpacker asked “Where are you from?” the intent was around identifying my accent and where I physically belong. Those times I felt more comfortable leading with “American” yet the answer didn’t roll off my tongue easily and was usually followed by what now feels like a disclaimer.

I changed my answer to this question pretty much every time I was asked. None of them were a lie but some answers were more truthful than others. I’m not sure what I learned here, maybe that there’s no answer to this question, maybe the answer will always be changing but it was oddly unsettling to realize that something like identity, which we expect to be permanent is actually relative.

Privilege is inherited with compound interest

Privilege is a sensitive topic, whether you have it or you don’t, whether it’s earned or inherited, and most of all what you do with it.

I didn’t expect to think about privilege while backpacking mostly because backpacking is one of the least glamorous ways to travel. Between the 14-person communal bathrooms, dorms without doors, and cockroaches larger than my toe there weren’t too many times where my circumstances were “Instagram worthy”.

I also didn’t expect to think about privilege because before I left I’d been convinced by others that I’d “earned” this trip or “deserved this break”. That somehow this trip was a culmination of my four years in New York and my hard work. I put these words in quotes not because I didn’t work hard but because to say either of those things would be a gross negligence to all the invisible effort that went into making this trip possible.

I felt it first and the strongest in Myanmar’s airport lounge. After spending weeks in a country that functions on scarcity the contrast of the big chairs, endless buffet, and glitch free WiFi was dipped in privilege and drizzled with discomfort. I realized that my privilege wasn’t just that I had the means to be on this trip but more importantly that I had the ability to opt in and opt out of whatever experience I wanted.

Before I started the trip my dad jokingly said, “If you ever need it call me and I’ll use my points to book you a hotel nearby.” Meaning if I ever needed a more comfortable bed, Western food, or English speaking service, I could access it. Before you ask -- no I didn’t take him up on the offer but I was pretty tempted the night I found five giant cockroaches in my room. (I trapped two under drinking glasses, waterboarded one in the bathroom, and went to sleep hoping the other two wouldn’t go get help.)

I credit my parents for this, of course literally, but also because they left the comfort of their own country and culture so that one day I choose to experience the rest of this world on my terms.

When I got back my mom read me my great-grandfather’s journal from his Europe backpacking trip in 1950. He spent weeks on a ship to get from Mumbai to Europe and then spent the next several months navigating Europe in the 50s while counting his pence. I have also inherited my need for adventure.

Over the course of three months it became pretty hard to deny the cumulative efforts the universe had been putting in to make this trip happen. We talk so much about the things we’ve earned, whether material or experiential but often forget that we are standing on the shoulders of giants...and I have to say the view from here has been killer.

SRI LANKA: View of Sigiriya at sunrise from Pidurangala.

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