In my first blog post 7 months ago, before setting out on my Thailand adventure, I quoted Thomas Edison: “If we did all things we were capable of, we would literally astound ourselves.” Sitting in the Shanghai Airport, waiting for the flight that will take me back to America, I’m looking back at the ups and downs, the challenges and rewards of my time abroad and wondering, Well, am I astounded?
I astounded myself when I got off the plane in Bangkok, alone, and proceeded to wander around the crowded airport before finally finding my ride. More specifically, exhausted and terrified, I astounded myself by not breaking down. I persisted, despite the utter lack of control I felt by not knowing anything; What is going on? would soon become a common theme in my day-to-day life.
I walked in on the first day to find only 4 students in my Matthayom 6 (the equivalent of high school senior) class. Having planned an introductory lesson for at least 15 or 20 students, I improvised to fill the slowly ticking, empty minutes of our 50-minute period. This was the first of many lessons that fell to improvisation. With no curriculum, I made things up as I went along; while some lessons fell flat, others exceeded my expectations with the level of involvement and excitement my students responded with. Those lessons were some of my most exciting times at school: I astounded myself with my ability to be a teacher.
Outside of the classroom, I astounded myself physically. I took a yoga class instructed entirely in Thai and was able to follow along; I walked and ran miles in heat and humidity that used to drive me inside to the air conditioning; I hiked 7 kilometers to a waterfall and another (quicker, more stressful) 7 kilometers back with a fire blaring on the adjacent hillside; I climbed 1,237 steps up to the Tiger Cave Temple; I floated a river in the middle of the jungle on my body alone, my legs taking most of the blows from the rocks.
As time progressed, I was astounded by my openness: to new people, to new ways of living, to new customs, to new foods. I quickly abandoned my initial goal to, “Always say yes,” and replaced it with a new methodology: say yes to the things I want to do, even if they make me uncomfortable. In this way, I also astounded myself with my ability to say no; I spent my time doing what I wanted, not wasting it doing what I thought might make others happy.
In my final two months abroad, I traveled. I traveled throughout Thailand with Joey, and was once again astounded by his eagerness to travel across the world to me, as well as the ease with which we traveled together. When Joey left, I spent some time in southern Thailand alone; here, I was astounded by my ability to depend on nobody but myself and handle conflict when conflict inevitably arose. I grew in my willingness to rely on strangers, to ask for help, and to trust others. Eventually, I met up with Melissa and her friend, Megan, and together we flew to Bali and spent a week in Indonesia together; lastly, Melissa and I took our final journey together to Vietnam.
I could (and might) write pages about my time in each of these places, but the sum of my experiences made clear a truth that I had been sitting on for a while: the opportunity to live in a place is one that cannot be compared to simply traveling to a place. Traveling is exhausting; hostels are exhausting; being in a new place and pushing yourself to make the most of it in the short time you have is, quite frankly, exhausting. To live in a place, immerse myself in a culture, and slow down enough to enjoy the day-to-day while still adding in new adventures is where I experienced the most joy.
In my travels, especially towards the end, I found myself longing for exactly what I had set out to break free from: routine. I learned that a level of comfort that comes from routine is necessary, at least for me, in order to do the astounding things.
In Ninh Binh, Melissa and I ascended the steps at Mua Caves as we had done in Krabi months earlier. We unintentionally came full circle, sitting at the top, looking over the land before us, talking about life and reflecting on how we have grown since we’d sat atop Tiger Cave Temple. As I head back to America, Melissa is preparing to go back to Surin for another semester of teaching. We are different; we had different experiences. Her experience inspired her to return this spring, while mine has made me appreciate home in a new way. At the same time, my experience has inspired me to keep pushing myself, to live uncomfortably, and to not be limited by what I have always known or what people expect of me. What my future holds is as unclear as it was before I left, but when it comes to figuring out exactly where my life and career path lie, I am less anxious now than I was a year ago. For now, I’m going to try my best to enjoy the thrill of creating the life that I want to live.