I am in the process of planning my adventure after Korea. Coming back from Iran, I have the option to spend a day in one of the following cities: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, or Stockholm. Which should I choose? The city with the most votes wins!
I’ve been working on this post for a few weeks and thinking about if I wanted to post it. After the events yesterday, I think it is pretty relevant. Though, as friends have pointed out, bombings like the one that shook Boston occur the world over without provoking such a reaction. I think that’s the scariest thing: that we just ignore atrocities or only give them a cursory glance because they happen in a ‘conflict zone’. Events like what happened at the Boston Marathon, on the perceived ‘safety’ of our native soil, serve as a bitter reminder of a reality that many people around the world face daily. That by no means lessens the evil of what happened yesterday, but it does deserve some reflection.
So, here’s the post…
Several months ago, when I was rushing through Vietnam, I had an experience that really shook me up. While my friend Paula and I were on an awesome tour of the Mekong Delta area, we got off to explore a market for a bit. As we were getting off the bus, our tour guide nonchalantly directed our attention to the sidewalk and remarked, “Look, it’s a victim of Agent Orange.”
Agent Orange was a chemical agent deployed by the United States as a weapon against Viet-cong forces during the Vietnam War. It was meant to deforest areas and ruin crops, both eliminating cover and a food supply for enemy forces. It did that and more. There were horrible side effects caused by toxins in the compound which were suffered by people in targeted areas; deformities much like the one I found myself looking at.
I looked out the window of the bus without even thinking, and found myself staring at one of the most disfigured people I’ve ever seen. The man’s head was grotesquely swollen to probably twice its natural size. His skin was discolored and stretched over tumorous lumps of flesh. Facial features like his eyes and mouth looked like crude holes cut in a papier maché skull. This weapon had taken the human form and warped it almost beyond recognition.
It wasn’t the man’s appearance which has haunted me, however. It was my reaction to it. You want to know what I felt when I saw him? It wasn’t pity, it wasn’t compassion. It was horror and disgust. These emotions were immediately followed by a deep shame. How could I disregard the person beneath that disfigurement? Was I really so shallow?
What I saw and my reaction to it got me thinking. Why had I felt the way I did? Why did I find it so difficult to see past the man’s physical deformities? Part of the reason was the simple fact that I had never seen anything similar before. I was born and raised in a nice area of Washington state and have spent nearly my entire life in first world countries. I’d never really been exposed to something quite like the Agent Orange victim before. My reaction was my mind’s knee-jerk reaction to maintain one thing: my ignorance.
I think this ignorance of horrors which we love to cloak ourselves in is one of the biggest obstacles we face in changing the current state of the world we live in. It’s so easy to carry on when we hear some horrible story on the news. We sigh, shake our heads, then carry on with our daily routines. If it’s not something that affects us personally, we relegate it to the ‘bad things happen’ bin and let it pass us by. Apathy towards evil is one of the reasons atrocities are committed the world over as the majority of us sit passively by.
I strongly believe a key element in the solution to this problem is travel. It’s one thing to hear about a band of armed rebels from the Philippines taking over a small Malaysian town or sectarian violence breaking out between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar when you are in the comfort of your native country. It’s entirely different to have friends who live in those areas or to have walked the same streets now choked with rubble and stained with blood. It’s different when you’re confronted by children with limbs blown off by landmines in Cambodia or victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
Travel acquaints us with these far-off places and breaks down the barriers we use to divide ourselves. When we interact with people from different cultures, creeds, and circumstances, they cease to become statistics and become what they actually are: humans, same as us. People who possess the same needs, dreams, and flaws as we do. Apathy disappears and is replaced with an empathy for the plight of others.
It’s hard to hold onto a belief that people who follow a certain religion are inherently bad when one of them welcomes you into his home with a cup of tea and an enthusiastic smile. Or to think of a person who supports a different political system as an enemy when you’re working together to survive in a harsh climate.
All of us need to be aware of the things that go on in our world, things which affect our brothers and sisters far and wide. We need to be shocked and horrified by the atrocities which are committed on a regular basis. We should even feel shame that it’s taken us this long to open our eyes to the realities which make up our world.
All that is pointless, however, if it doesn’t catalyze a change. Start small. Get rid of prejudices, indifference, and hate. Embrace differences in others, encourage them, love a little more. Lead by example. Then, if you’re willing and able, do something to make a change.
I visited Hong Kong for the Lunar New Year, visited the Korean DMZ, bought a scooter and rode all over the Gyeongsangbuk-do area, strolled through cherry blossoms in Gyeongju, visited the Korean Expo in Yeosu, hiked the beautiful mountains of Seoraksan, went rock-climbing all over Korea, frolicked in the mud at Mud Fest, ate dog soup, went to the beautiful island of Ulleung-do, played guitar and sang in front of an entire bar of people, finished a year of teaching some awesome kids, said goodbye to the many dear friends I made in Korea, learned scuba-diving in the Philippines, hiked the jungles of Malaysia, explored the urban jungle of Singapore, and finally made it to Thailand to play with elephants and tempt fate riding a motorbike through the northern mountains.
I am so lucky to be traveling the world and having the time of my life. Yet, in spite of my experiences and the fun times I’ve had, I know I’ve missed so much. I’ve missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family for the second year in a row. I’ve missed seeing my cousins grow up quicker than they should and hearing their stories. I’ve missed weddings and birthdays, new jobs and relocations. I missed my brother’s graduation from the California Maritime Academy and his subsequent departure on his first job in the field. I missed my sister leaving for a quarter abroad in Austria, where she seems to have had an absolutely wonderful, whirlwind of a good time. I’ve missed my parents slowly going crazy from having ’empty nest syndrome’. I’ve missed seeing my friend’s daughter growing up into a fast-talking, cute-as-a-button, Gangnam-style dancing machine!
I guess this holiday season is bitter-sweet. This has been the happiest, least stressful year of my life and I am having a fantastic time exploring the world. Yet, I also miss the family and friends – both at home and in Korea – whom I’ve left behind. As I look towards another year of travel and exploration, I feel my excitement and anticipation for the road ahead balanced by the weight of what it costs to live like this. To all of you back home and around the world whom I call my family and friends: know that you are always in my mind and in my heart. I miss you more than you know and can’t wait until I see you all again. Thank you for your kindness, your support, your stories, and your love. I love you so much.
Just what the title says, I wrote a little blurb that Tripping.com decided to throw up at the following address:
Pretty cool, eh?
Tripping is a site similar to Couchsurfing, but it also lets you set up rentals and homestays as well. So not only can you chill on someone’s couch, you can rent a bungalow on the beach or a castle wherever they have castles for rent. Definitely worth checking out 🙂
Thanks everyone who has sent my cards, letters, and emails while I’ve been away! You can only imagine how happy it makes me and how much I smile every time I get something. I pretty much grin like a maniac for the rest of the day and proudly show off the letter/card I got from back home; all while jealously guarding it from the grubby, rough hands of my students. I keep each and every letter to remind me of all the people I love who are thousands of miles away but still love and support me. Thank you all!
My Wall of Love
Ahh a new year. It’s not that I hated 2010, but it’s more that I can’t wait for what 2011 holds for me. After over two years working hard at a job that I enjoy but never ceases to stress me out, I’ve decided I’m going to give in to my wanderlust and spend as much time as I can overseas and living day to day. Just the decision to embark on this journey is liberating and terrifying all at the same time. I’ve had the privilege to backpack through several European countries a couple years ago, and my desire to travel has raged out of control ever since. However, that trip was tiny in scope compared to what I have planned.
I will be spending the next ten months saving money, making the necessary travel arrangements, and trying to find employment in Korea for the first leg of my journey. So, without further adieu, here’s to embarking on the journey of a lifetime!