Love in Southeast Asia: One Last Thing

Five months ago, I landed in Los Angeles on a plane from Seoul, Korea. Twenty Eight days of international travel. Eleven flights. Four Countries. Nine Atavan.

Countless lessons.

Writing about my trip has been a way to relive it. To soak up the powerful moments and deepen their meaning.To share my experience, and my insight.  To feel gratitude for the courage (and everything else required) to spend an entire month abroad.

Writing my final blog stirs feelings from my last night in Cambodia: reflection, sadness, humility, love.

My deepest love is for my seven travel partners.

In Bangkok: the fearsome foursome. Parker, Edward, Werner and Me.

Werner, the storytelling, sarong-wearing, little brother I never had. The sweet and sensitive boy who is a compassionate, middle-aged man inside. Traveling together, I could picture him in the future, vacationing with his kids. Creating goofy traditions and friendships out of chance encounters. He will both embarrass and enlighten them. He will tell them about reading Steve Jobs’ biography on the Indian Ocean and how we almost died at sea. He will teach them how to say “we own the Green Bay Packers” in all the languages of countries they visit. He will make his whole family feel cherished and loved.

Edward, the center of our social universe, locally and abroad. The most considerate man I have ever met. Edward is part frat boy, part diplomat. In Sri Lanka, Edward taught us about “fan death,” the mythical child-killer of Korean-American parental folklore. In each new destination, he attended to our diverse group’s spectrum of needs. He balanced all the emotions, intentions, desires and quirks. He handled every. group. check. He indulged me in mid-Ocean heart-to-hearts as we dove through cresting waves (Phuket) and relished the glassy stillness (Phi Phi).

In Sri Lanka, our group swells to seven:

Diana, the source of an unexpected female friendship. Within hours of being together, I wanted her to be my best friend. I fell in love with her the way women of my generation attached themselves to the fictitious Carrie Bradshaw. She is soft and confident, doesn’t take herself too seriously, and is visibly present in each moment the way I can only struggle to be while meditating. I will cherish connecting with her on our trip long after the memories of our moments together fade.

Manal, the would-be mean girl who isn’t. She is open-hearted, loving and accepting. She is one of the most gorgeous women I have ever met, effortlessly stylish and flawless. She was the President and social chair of our law school, a woman who could easily be catty and exclusive, but instead is warm and inviting. She gives me hope that we can all be good to each other.

Priyan, our tour guide and native host. A man with a perfectly executed hairstyle, even in ninety-percent humidity. Priyan educated us about Sri Lankan culture and history, occasionally exaggerating for dramatic effect (“that’s Pride Rock, where The Lion King was filmed”). He is brilliant and sophisticated, high-brow with a social justice sensibility. A rare combination of elitism and a lightweight sense of humor. I adore him from the depth of my soul. I could make a life as his partner if only our gender and sexualities aligned in a more practical way.

In Southern Thailand, Fred made a triumphant appearance. He is a survivor of monsoon-season jungle trekking and under-vaccination. Fred gives the best hugs of anyone I know. He wraps everyone up like a treasure, holds them firmly against his heart. He has easy-going energy that relaxes everyone in his presence. He is sincere and genuine, thoughtful and smart. He made us laugh and surrounded us with love.

And of course, Parker.

Every day. Every meal. Every flight. Every hotel room. Every night and every morning. Every, single, minute.

Parker was there.

He is both my alter ego and my other half. We are simultaneously soulmates and adversaries. He is relentlessly practical and efficient, I am whimsical and disorganized. He is fearless and task-oriented, I am anxious and easily distracted. He is worldly and well traveled, I was brand new to every experience on our trip.

To him, my biggest thanks. For planning every detail of our incredible adventure. For his patience with my fear of flying and picky-eating. For looking out for me like a big brother, and for telling-it-how-it-is like a best friend. For listening and understanding. For talking about feelings, over and over again.

Even early in our friendship, I knew I could trust Parker with everything. There aren’t many people who could get me on a twelve-hour flight to spend a month away from the comfort of familiarity and my compulsive routines. Parker lives his life saying yes to opportunity. Yes to change and newness and progress. He dives head first into everything, without hesitation. With him leading this way, I found the willingness to follow. Following him, I was able to take the most incredible journey of my life.

Love in Southeast Asia: Cookies for My Facebook

About three times I week I decide to delete my Facebook account.

I call my best friend:

“I’m going off Facebook.”

“Oh great, I should do that too.”

She knows I’m full of shit.

I imagine all of the life-enriching consequences: All that free time! A break from my computer screen! A unique, non-digital identity!

But Wait! What if someone gets married or engaged? How will I know when to feel bad about myself?

I call my best friend:

“I can’t do it.”

“It’s o.k., maybe next time.”

At the Hanoi Cooking Centre in Hanoi, Vietnam, Priyan, Parker and I are taking a break from rice paper rolling and banana flower chopping. I’m eying three giant cookie sheets lined with freshly baked chocolate cookies. I haven’t seen a cookie in two and a half weeks. My first thought is to stash a couple of them in the front of my dress and sneak out to the patio to eat them.

Somehow, I resist.

As I’m ogling and drooling, a tiny Vietnamese man appears. He’s an inch or two taller than me and weighs maybe eighty pounds. I’m wondering how he ended up here, and not on the disney theme park circuit playing Tinkerbell.

He bounds in front of us wearing a flour-dusted black Cooking Centre apron.

“Do you want a cookie?”

Yes. He speaks my language.

“I like to bake cookies and put them on my Facebook.”

I almost fell over.

I am on the other side of the world having a magical moment at the intersection of globalization and social media.

I look up at my friends and I see their acknowledgement. This guy is my Southeast Asian soulmate.

I squeal with delight, “I bake cookies and put them on MY facebook**!” We jump up and down uncontrollably yelling nonsense back and forth. The words don’t matter. We are having a moment of pure, human connection.

Our cooking instructor calls us back to attention at the front of the kitchen. I reluctantly leave my new friend behind.

When class is over, we head upstairs to feast on our creations. I look longingly towards the oven in the back of the kitchen hoping to get a glimpse of my Vietnamese keebler elf.

No luck.

I sigh, it was good while it lasted.

Then, at the top of the staircase, I see him, beaming.

LET’S BE FACEBOOK FRIENDS! I scream in his face without even greeting him, “hello.”

With complete sincerity and uncensored satisfaction he says, “really? that would make me so happy.”

Minutes later me and Link are Facebook official, posing for our first tagged photo together, still overwhelmed by the joy of the entire experience.

Before we leave, my new friend invites us out for a beer with him in Hanoi to celebrate Vietnamese Independence Day.

When we say goodbye, I squeeze Link extra tight. I hold him in the space of our similarity, in awe of our unlikely exchange, moved by the first-hand experience of the truth that, deep down, we are all the same.

I traveled all the way to Vietnam, to finally find something beautiful, positive and life-affirming, on Facebook.

** I love to bake. I bake cookies. Frequently. I’ve never once put them on my Facebook. But my ideal self does. She posts exquisite shots of perfectly rounded, delicately browned, elegantly arranged chocolate chip cookies. In that honest moment with Link, my ideal self was talking.

Gratitude: Peet’s Coffee

My morning coffee is sacred.

During my trip to Southeast Asia, I drank a lot of questionable caffeinated beverages. In Sri Lanka, the coffee was grainy and thick. I’d drink eight or nine cups and barely feel a buzz.

In Thailand, I drank cold nescafe out of an eight oz. can from 7/11. The whole ritual would be over in 45 seconds and I’d immediately feel unsatisfied and homesick.

In Vietnam, I took one sip of coffee and felt like my heart was going to explode.

This morning, I got a medium, three shot, soy caramel latte from Peet’s coffee.

Damn was it good.

Love in Southeast Asia: I didn’t plan for this.

Southern Thailand is indescribable.

The water stretches all the way to the sky. They blur together at the point where my eyes lose focus. It’s that green-blue color I was obsessed with as a kid. Back then I called it “aqua-marine.” Today, I don’t even have a word for it.

In the days when I wanted my bedroom, my backpack and all of my clothes to be aqua-marine, I was afraid of the Ocean. I’d watch my brother fearlessly tackle giant, human-eating, white-capped swells. Every time I’d watch him go under I’d hold my breath until he appeared at the surface.

“Phew. That was a close one.”

For two days on Phi Phi island I swam hundreds of feet out in the calm, warm water. I felt peaceful and powerful. I soaked up the rare beauty of being in this quiet, remote place.

On the third day it rained. Hard. Harder than I’d ever seen. Harder than the year the River City Magic won a state championship at Cherry Island during “El Nino”, the worst winter any of our parents could remember.

We spent most of the day snuggled inside our dark bungalow. We watched Armageddon. And cried.

We read our books and snacked on garlic cashews.

We took a short break from all of the hibernating for an adventurous pool dip in a thunderstorm.

We wondered how were were going to get off the island in this weather.

At breakfast on the fourth day, the sky looked threatening. At 8a.m we caught a water taxi on the shore of the resort. Before we climbed in the all-wood boat, it started pouring. 400 yards from our hotel, the wind picked up.

We sat huddled together on the splintered seats. The rain splattered against our faces from all directions. We looked out over the bow of the boat and watched the size of the waves steadily increase.

We had a collective, unspoken thought: We didn’t plan for this.

I kept a steady eye on my garbage bag-wrapped suitcase. I imagined it flopping out of the boat and sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I felt confident I would survive going overboard, but I knew $800 worth of Lululemon couldn’t swim.

With our destination in sight, things got ugly. Our driver directed the boat sideways to cut the impact of nine foot swells. Every five and a half seconds felt like a new victory for survival. I felt my early morning sense of adventure transform quickly into fear.

At 8:52a.m, our tiny, resilient boat pulled into the pier. We scrambled onto the wood plank and dragged our suitcases frantically toward the ferry.

100 yards into our sprint we get backed up behind a swarm of angry travelers expressing frustration in a variety of languages.

The ferry is full.

The biggest monsoon over South Korea in fifty years is causing widespread upheaval up and down the Asian coastline, and Southern Thailand is no exception. Ferries to other islands are cancelled or delayed and we are stranded.

My travel partner, our resident alpha male, swings into action. We connect with a group of five other post-bar law grads who appear to be our east coast dopplegangers. Everyone is soaking wet, freezing cold and looking pathetic.

Glancing around the strategy circle it’s clear: We didn’t plan for this.

Our alpha promptly returns with his alpha counterpart, and options. We can take a speed boat for $200 per person to get to Phuket in time to avoid re-scheduling our flights. The water between Phi Phi and Phuket is raging with up to thirty-foot waves. A speed boat filled with 30 vacationers capsized the previous day leaving 29 of them in the hospital.

“Apparently we’re going to be here for a while.”

We slosh through the muddy roads to an internet cafe and plan our next move(s).

An hour and a half later we’ve rescheduled flights, changed hotel reservations and emailed our parents.

“For now, we’re safe.”

At 1:15p.m we board the ferry to Phuket. An hour later the ferry staff is passing out complimentary motion-sickness pills and barf bags.

Twenty minutes into the bumpy ferry ride, all of my friends are passed out. Parker is on the floor sleeping on my yoga mat. Edward is still clenching a half-full bottle of Chang beer. Werner and Fred are peacefully cuddled next to each other, dead to the world.

I am wide awake. Feeling every huge wave, hearing every sick passenger.

Praying we get through this alive.

Each time the boat shifts left or right, I brace for the worst. I start to wonder whether I should wake up my friends, get to the top deck in case we capsize, or take three Ativan and hope I join them in sleeping ignorance.

I start to think about the irony of dying in a boat accident. All of those years I’ve hated flying and all of those months worrying about getting on a plane to Asia sure would be wasted if I went down in a ferry accident trying to get back to Phuket.

“Maybe my friends and family will take comfort in the humor of it.”

“Maybe it will help them deal with the loss”

My worst-case-scenario stream of consciousness is interrupted when the sound of the engine disappears. Our forward motion comes to a halt and I wait for an audio confirmation of my anxious suspicion.

“Yep. The engine is dead.”

I didn’t plan for this. I planned to fall out of the sky in a violent explosion. I planned to feel every bump on an airplane and evaluate whether or not it meant we were going to crash. I planned to listen for sounds of safety, and vulnerability. I planned to be on high alert. Just in case something happened, I would be ready.

But I’m not ready for this.

When the engine comes back on the boat lurches forward. Eventually we’re cruising again, at a decidedly slower speed. I decide to keep my guard up to prevent further disaster.
Safely on land, I’m sitting in the Phuket airport, thinking about my plans. I think about all the fears that run my life. All of the things that stop my heart or speed it up when I worry about them happening to me or the people I love. All of the ways I plan to avoid them.

I started thinking about the real life things that have made my heart stop. Or speed up. Or break completely. The day last spring when I crashed my mini cooper, the death of my invincible friend Heather, my brother’s motorcycle accident. Countless moments of unexpected challenge, emotional struggle and sadness in between.

I didn’t plan for any of it.

Hours and minutes of attention and energy I spent planning I could have spent doing a million other things. I could have  been a more careful driver, a better friend or more connected sister. I could have made my friends laugh or cuddled with my mom. I could have been grateful for the moment I was in instead of fearful for the one I might face.

I could plan less and live more.