Thinking about the fact that I’m writing this from an island I didn’t know existed a year ago in a country I didn’t know much about beyond Pho (a Vietnamese noodle soup) and the Vietnam War, I’m amazed. And at the same time… I’m not. As we set out from Boston almost 10 months ago, we had a plan but I knew that by stepping on the plane we were agreeing that the plan was just as much out of our control as the plane that we were riding on. There is an inherent beauty in any journey if you look hard enough and the journey through 2015 is no exception. Lucky for us, we don’t have to look very hard or far to see it. We have seen some of the most amazing natural wonders, we’ve met some of the most generous and beautiful people, and we’ve overcome every challenge that has presented itself to us. We come to the end of 2015 very much in awe of the world that God has created; very much changed in the way we view people who look, speak, and think differently from us; and very much in anticipation of all that is yet to come. Before we enter back in to the English-speaking world (we’re Australia-bound tomorrow), I wanted to take some time to share some of my reflections for the past year.
Waiting for the plane in a snowstorm
It’s hard to even remember how crazy our lives were a year ago. When the height of our daily worries usually revolve around where to eat lunch and whether or not to rent a scooter to explore, and when the “work” we do is writing blog posts or editing pictures of Angkor Wat, it feels so far away that I was working at a company I had essentially helped create more than seven years earlier. It feels so far away that I was serving as an elder, helping to lead the search for a new lead pastor at our church or that I was spending every other day shopping at REI for trip gear, or trying to spend as much time with friends and family before we would venture out to spend the next year with just each other. As 2015 started, we had roommates (Hey, Johnny and Nikki!) and only a dusting of snow. I was in need of a break from a job that had grown to be something I was doing “just for the money” and I had stayed at it as long as I did in anticipation of our great departure. I was in need of a break from the seemingly overwhelming responsibility of my commitments and what often felt like nightly meetings to discuss this or that. I was ready to leave everything behind and go explore the world.
This all probably seems a bit dramatic and it is. It wasn’t as if I didn’t enjoy my life in Boston, the work I was doing, the things I was involved in at our church, or even all those meetings. I did enjoy it. It was just exciting to know that it was all coming to an end for something new and different. And the closer we got to our departure date, the more all those things would wear on me as I wanted to make sure I was “leaving well” and that all these responsibilities would gracefully be transferred to others to pick up where they were left.
As we moved from January to February, we took a short vacation out to the Pacific Northwest to visit friends in Portland and Seattle. At the time, I remember thinking how crazy it was that we were taking a vacation right before we were leaving to go travel for a year. Looking back, I realize how nice it was to be able to take a relaxing and, at times, luxurious trip to see friends and a part of the country we have fallen in love with. It gave us a break from all our responsibilities and from the non-stop trip prep. I know that it’s easy to look at our travel, the beautiful pictures, the incredible places we go, and think that traveling all over the world is a vacation. It is truly all a gift, but it does sometimes feel like work. Probably the most amazing work I’ll ever get to do, but still work and like any work, it’s occasionally not fun or relaxing at all.
Entering March, we were spending more and more time packing up the house, celebrating with our friends, and getting ready to head out. The moment in all of this that sticks out to me was the moment I sold our car. I bought my first car, days before moving to Boston, so I had lived over 10 years in the city, always with a car. Walking out of the dealer, I felt so free. I love the ability to go where we want, when we want, but I also felt like we had an unhealthy excuse to be lazy and drive places (like every Sunday to church) when we could have taken public transportation. As I would see five months later, when we spent a few weeks in Boston, there is a wonderful balance between taking the subway or bus and enjoying the time to sit and read or think, and being able to use a car to move some things back to our storage unit in 90 degree heat.
As we hugged our good friend Lauren goodbye, and headed in to the airport on March 10th, the skies were sunny. The snowstorms of February had ended and with it, much of our existing responsibility. We would quickly learn new responsibilities – to tell the stories of our journey, of the places we go, the people we meet, and most importantly, the things we learn and feel.
Living out of a backpack, a tent, and a bag of Snickers
I think the best thing we did was hightail it out of our life of having everything at our fingertips and never lacking for comfort straight down to the southern tip of South America, where we literally lived out of our bags for 10 days in Torres del Paine, Chile and then onto El Chalten, Argentina for more hiking and more remoteness. We were completely disconnected from everything and everyone that was not within sight and sound. We made friendships – some that lasted just a night, others that we continue to value. We learned to trust God in ways we’d never had to before. We learned to struggle alongside each other to overcome some of the hardest physical and mental challenges we’ve had to face. And we were able to do it all in the midst of great natural beauty.
Emerging from the remoteness, we stepped back in to Buenos Aires, excited to be in a city, excited to be around friends, and excited to find something close to a community for a few weeks. These two extremes are a great example of the struggle we know we will feel as this trip winds down in 2016 – how do we find a place where we can embrace the great open outdoors, the remoteness and disconnectedness, while not forsaking the ability to have a community and a place to make an impact on people and the world? How do we live our lives in a way that allows to experience places like the Salar del Uyuni, Colca Canyon, or Machu Picchu? How are we more than just tourists taking a quick trip to see monuments built by God or Man and to be able to experience them as well people and cultures? And at the same time, how do we invest in people and communities by giving our time and talents to help improve them?
A wave from ten thousand miles away is nothing compared to a hug
Being in South America was a bit of a weird experience for me in this respect: I was further away from home than I’d ever been, but I was in the same timezone. (For reference, we are “only” a thousand miles further away now and on the opposite side of the day.) This gave us the great opportunity to continue to connect with friends, family, and occasionally, even our Dorchester community group over Skype. To see and hear friends was always a thrill, but the thing I missed most in our travels was grabbing a beer with a friend. When we decided to spend the summer back in the States, visiting friends and family, much of the reason was because we craved that human connection. They say there is nothing like distance to make the heart grow fonder. Well, we came back to Boston with renewed love for the city and our friends. It was never lost, but it may have become hidden under the weight of all those commitments, responsibilities, and seven feet of snow. Having the opportunity to spend a few days to a few weeks living with friends and family across the northeast, was such a unique opportunity. To share meals, discussions, life, and the evening whiskey before saying goodnight, rather than goodbye. Bliss.
Witnessing life and beauty among the ruins of war
If there has been one thing that has been constant in our travels since we left the States at the end of September, it’s been that we’ve been in places that have known war since I was born or not much before. And I don’t mean war, like I have always known: “over there” on the other side of the world, in someone else’s backyard. I mean bombs dropping on the house next door. I mean neighbors riding bikes with one leg, because the other one was blown off by a landmine. In Trogir, Croatia, we could see buildings that still bore the scars of bombings and in old town Dubrovnik, a town that has been beautifully restored, we saw a map showing how much of the old town was hit by bombs. In Montenegro and Albania, we could read about the struggles to overcome occupation and break from communist rule. While Thailand has had a relatively peaceful existence, Cambodia and Vietnam have had the bloodiest recent pasts. It’s easy to see the mark of war while taking in the beauty of the Angkor temples – bands of landmine victims are often playing traditional Khmer music nearby. The beautiful sounds mixed with the gruesome sight of lost toes, feet, legs, is made all the more surreal that this sight is not as uncommon as it should be. Several times, during our travel around Siem Reap’s countryside, we saw men riding bicycles with one leg and a crutch. Heading to Hanoi, we could experience the place which was the seat of power for the North Vietnamese and is now the home to many iPhone-toting, Facebook-browsing, coffee-loving teenagers. There are even Viet-Cong themed cafes (with really good coffee!).
Reading to entertain, to inform, and to prepare
Being in places with such history has really piqued my interested in the conflicts of these countries and the reason behind them. But it’s not limited to just the places we’ve been. If there is a theme to the non-fiction (and even some of the fiction) books I’ve read over the past year, it’s been about the struggle for equality and justice and the willingness to fight against what is wrong and stand up for what is right. In Africa, in Cambodia, in Germany, in America, everywhere.
A couple of takeaways:
- In disaster and in war, there is often a murkiness to what is right and what is wrong morally. What looks so clear in the light of day does not always look the same when you consider the darkness that was surrounding those making decisions.
- We can learn a lot from the way South Africa emerged from apartheid. A powerful minority and an angry majority, both afraid of each other, were able to reconcile and find a path forward that didn’t have to be about one side winning and one side losing. This was in no small part due to the ability of Nelson Mandela to bring humanity to the table.
- Someone willing to fight for something has a reason. We may not agree with it, but if we did a better job to understand, we may find there are other ways to resolve differences than war.
- In war, there are no winners, there are only losers and the biggest losers are always those who are the most vulnerable – the poor, the uneducated, and female.
- What is happening in the world today is not a sudden turn of events; it has been built up for decades and centuries. The one book I’ll call out here, Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon, was an eye-opener for helping to bridge the history of the struggle of blacks in America and what went on between the end of reconstruction and the start of the civil rights movement. My knowledge is limited and others can comment on this better, but the struggle of black people in American has been constant and the events we see today in America are a continuation of the struggle from slavery, to oppression, to civil rights, to being treated as equals. We don’t do nearly enough as a country to educate ourselves and understand this struggle and therefore it continues.
The many books and the many things we’ve read have given us much to discuss, to debate, to understand, over many dinners. Having no one else to talk with most of the time, I’ve entertained, angered, inspired, and bored Danielle with my thoughts on so much over the past year.
When there is nothing else to do, you still gotta eat
It’s not all dark and gloomy here at the end of 2015. I have come to realize that above all else when traveling, there is one thing that I value most: food. I love food and I love eating. Working backwards, this year has given me some great food and here are some of my favorites from the places we’ve been:
- Phu Quoc: Squid with pepper sauce, Roasted local fish
- Hanoi: Pho, Bun Cha
- Siem Reap: Fish Amok
- Chiang Mai: Tom Yum Goong (really spice shrimp soup)
- Bangkok: Anything curry
- Albania: Roasted tuna
- Montenegro: Pizza
- Croatia: Wine and cheese and the best espresso in the world
- Peru: Ceviche, Alpaca
- Bolivia: Salteñas (Empanadas – Bolivian style)
- Argentina: Empanadas – Argentinian style, Croissants every morning
It’s not about having no fear, it’s about being brave
When we were hiking in Torres del Paine, Chile I was reading the first of the Game of Thrones books. There was a quote from it that I think applies to this year and especially to Danielle. She has worried that sometimes she isn’t a great travel partner, that she’s not brave because she gets scared on the trails or when we’re careening down steep Bolivian mountainsides in a bus with a crazy driver or when we’re riding a motor bike up and down steep mountains or sliding around on sandy roads and I’m the crazy driver. No matter how scared she has gotten, she has always kept going. She hasn’t quit no matter how many times I said we could pack up, go home, and forget about all this craziness. No, she continues to keep moving in the uncomfortable, traveling to the unknown, and packing up her backpack to move to yet another place we’ll only stay for a few nights.
Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That’s the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.
On to a new year, a new place, and a new purpose
2015 has been a year like none other. It’s been a year and a journey that has allowed Danielle and I to grow together, to be better friends, to be better partners. My hope and prayer as we move in to 2016, is that it has prepared us to be better citizens of our community and of our world. That the experiences of this past year and the experiences of the next, will continue to move us to the uncomfortable, whether it’s a place to live, things to do, or people to interact with, in order to bring people closer together and build a better world. It’s an ambitious goal, I know. So was the idea we had four years ago to go travel the world. It seemed ludicrous and impossible, but so do most dreams, until they come true.
Happy New Year!