Hmm, April 2009 is the last post before this one. I accept it - we’re not going to win any awards for most frequent bloggers. In our defense, we entered Myanmar soon after our last blog post, where it was impossible to do even basic things on the Internet, let alone update a blog. Then we moved on to the Philippines, where blogging was supplanted by wrestling with monkey-like kids, swimming all day, and getting married. Then, we spent the last of our money floating down the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo, drinking freshly picked tea in the Cameron Highlands, and cycling through the ruins of Angkor Wat – again places where the Internet was a fuzzy thought in the back of our minds. Excuses, I know, but good ones!
Since then, we returned to Portugal for a stint, and moved on to the United States, specifically Chicago. We’ve battled our way through unemployment, temp jobs that make us question our sanity for leaving the simple life behind, (gratefully) living with both sets of parents, and readjusting to life without backpacks. Barely a day goes by when we don’t bring up something from our trip – a memory triggered by one of our senses. Usually, (and this may show where our priorities lie), it’s while we’re eating, and one of us will turn to the other and say “remember those shrimp we had in….” or “this reminds me of that butter tea we choked down in…”. Memories of this trip are sometimes what get me through an otherwise monotonous day of life in Chicago. Somehow, two years have passed since we first left for this adventure – which just doesn’t seem possible.
Now, approaching April 2011, we’re both gainfully employed – no longer intrepid budget backpackers, but random, functioning members of society. We just filed taxes. We’re going to IKEA this weekend. We may be saving up for a bread maker. We’ve observed a growing trend as of late – when we say the words “we have good news” people immediately respond with “you’re pregnant!?”. (for the record, I'm not!) We just renewed our lease for another year, setting the stage for what will be the longest we’ve lived together in one place.
We’re in a more comfortable position than we were 2 years ago– perhaps even settled. The 21 one year old version of me cringes in horror at that word. Actually, the 25 year old traveler version of me cringes at that word. My biggest fear as we were boarding the plane out of Kuala Lumpur to take us back to reality that day in June 2009 was that this would be IT. That, we would, against our best intentions, get sucked back into real life and never be able to jump back out.
Both of us have landed great, full time jobs – our traveling plans lately have turned into a weekend in May, not so much 6 months of wandering. We still have our goal of taking an “as long as possible” trek right before we start having kids and it’s not as if we won’t travel in the future. But I depressingly realize that the chances for this type of travel - for us to quit our jobs, leave our apartment, forget about things like insurance and taxes, and set off around the world with only each other, our backpacks and a Lonely Planet to guide us, are numbered.
However, there are advantages to being settled. I’m able to look back on our trip from a different perspective; realizing that once again everything I was certain I knew – I didn’t know. I’m able to remember the good and bad times, and come to conclusions and life lessons that I couldn’t see in the moment.
As a result of our trip, we appreciate every single day that we have. There’s something about seeing people desperately begging for a piece of bread that makes us grateful for every morsel of food that we put into our mouths. We now have one goal in our collective lives – to be happy. As simplistic and whimsical as it may sound, we truly value being happy above all else. Because of the trip, no one will see us chasing money, cars, or fame. We’re happy with every penny we have, happy to be together, content to have a roof over our heads, a full belly, and a night out now and then. With a simplicity that didn’t show itself before our trip, we know what’s important in our lives. We also have reached an acute awareness of how truly lucky we are. How lucky it is that all our basic needs are taken care of, and how fortunate that we have the luxury of the goal of happiness.
On the flip side, I’m also able to realize that we were just a teensy bit arrogant in our newbie backpacker naivety. That we prided ourselves a little too much on being able to bargain with the locals over the price of a rickshaw ride or a souvenir. That we unjustly patted ourselves on the back anytime we saved a dollar or two, and that we quickly lost perspective on how expensive was “too expensive”.
Certain moments in our trip haunt me to this day, especially when I’m standing in line at Argo Tea, waiting to pay for my $4 chai latte. They come back to me in a flash while I’m standing at my kitchen sink doing the dishes and letting my mind wander. They sneak into my head when I’m finishing up our budget for the month, looking at the thousands of dollars we spent in four weeks on…what exactly? Moments such as:
When we were in Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, we came to a small temple, one that was hidden away from the main roads, and tucked into a corner of the landscape. We were the only ones there. It was 6pm, we were among the last of the tourists that would visit for the day, when we were approached by two small girls selling bracelets. They offered us a bracelet -$1. Having already given away some money that day, we smiled politely (patronizingly?) and shook our heads. Then they offered us 10 bracelets for $1. No, we politely declined as we walked down the hill towards our bikes. We had already spent $5 over our budget for the day. They gathered closer, pressing in a bit tighter, raising their voices and talking over each other. “Please ma’am, 20 bracelets. One dollar!” The desperation in their voices left me feeling extremely uncomfortable as I tried to ignore it. “50 bracelets! $1!!” No. Walking faster. “100 bracelets, $1!” “One dollar sir, 100 bracelets!! Special Friend Price, Just for you!” We reached our bikes and rode off.
I would give anything to be able to go back and give them $10. Or $20, the amount we just spent on greasy fast food hamburgers for lunch. Or $100. Or to pick both of them up, put them in my backpack and carry them home to get an education, constant food and shelter, and a new life. A life away from begging and selling things for money that probably went straight to an adult in their lives anyway.
Even closer to my heart, the trip cemented my already lingering feeling of needing to help my family in the Philippines. What’s the difference between my numerous cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relatives and me? What’s the reason for the large discrepancy in the quality of life between us? Luck. Simple dumb luck that I was born to this set of parents and not another. If I hear the call to help loud and clear when I think of other countries visited, it is deafening in my ears when I focus on the Philippines. My more immediate family is lucky enough to benefit from the selfless generosity of my parents. This generosity is a large part of my inspiration now because it has shown me how effective a little extra kindness can be. However, what about everyone else on the island? Everyone else in the region, everyone else in the country? I might be American, but my heart lies in the Philippines, and I’m afflicted with an inescapable tendency to follow my heart above all else.
When I really start to think about it, or when I daydream about our next trip, questions pop up at me. Things like: How to reconcile being a budget backpacker with being a rich Westerner? To us, we were living on $40 a day damnit, we were poor! To them, we’re white (ish) people who have a life full of privilege. We can travel halfway around the world and pretend to know what it’s like to “rough” it. We have the luxury of taking time off to Find Ourselves, while others just want to put one foot in front of the other. What’s the level of personal responsibility? Just because we have enough money to travel on a budget for six months, does that mean we should have to give money to everyone we see? And if we don’t, at what point are we being selfish?
Backpacking is different from a vacation in, say, Rome. In Rome, while poverty also lurks everywhere, a person can have a guilt free couple of weeks without thinking too much about the subject. On these vacations, poverty isn’t a constant confrontation on every corner, and it’s possible to spend freely thinking, “I earned this money, I deserve a break” Simple and clear-cut. If we had decided to backpack through Europe, I wouldn’t even be having this inner dialogue, but we didn’t. We chose Southeast Asia, where we became aware that every dollar we spent was a luxury, and just how much a dollar was worth. A dollar could be the difference between a family going hungry for a night or not. The difference between “need” and “this would be nice to have” became crystal clear.
Naturally, this created an awareness - an awareness that now I can’t shake off. It’s seeing something that you can’t ‘unsee’. Can I continue to do nothing at all, when I’ve stared poverty in the face? If I really think about it, this question can apply to my life now. I spend hundreds of dollars a month on things that I don’t need. If I can spend $75 on a single night out with friends, can’t I give even more? Where’s the limit, what’s the line, to what extent are we obligated to give - in our own country and abroad?
I try to give freely now, mostly of my time, but of money too, when I can. To somehow atone for the frugality and selfishness that were necessary in order for us to achieve our goal of backpacking. Unfortunately, at that egocentric time in our lives, in order to achieve our dreams we had to step on countless others. One day, as I was running along Lake Michigan, pondering the state of the world, I realized I can now have a new dream. One that, in order to achieve it, I will have to help (hopefully) countless others. Which is where “I Can See the World Through You” comes in. More than the name of the song that Sergio and I first danced to at our wedding, more than the title of our blog, I think I’ve just found the title of a group I want to start. And on this blog, where it all began is where the next step can begin as well.
What started as a self-indulgent wish to see the whole world might just have become a selfless need to serve a tiny part of the world.
We are going to start a non-profit. One whose early focus now is the people of the Philippines, specifically those in my mom’s home village, but if it works (and I have faith that it will) it can spread to many other places.
I believe it was the great Mother Theresa who said “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” This blog, this project, this goal is my small thing in which I’m putting all my faith. And hopefully, with a little luck and a lot of help from others, it will become resonant with strength.