Why I Keep Going Back

Outlook in Nusa Ceningan, Indonesia

I sat down knowing I wanted to write about the endless allure that Asia holds over me — why it is that I keep going back. January 2017 was my last visit and the itchiness of my travel feet has grown increasingly intolerable. Shopping Black Friday flight deals, pulling up Google maps and globe spinning to the quadrant of contemplation on the daily, even re-reading my long neglected travel blog. A little less than two years doesn’t sound like a terribly long sojourn from a continent on the other side of the world, but in the cadence my life has developed this is actually a long and awkward pause. So what is it that keeps me returning year after year? Pouring through my photographs to pick a cover photo for this piece reminded me how complex that answer is.

Asia is obviously an enormous continent with a history rich in its depth of time, cultures, natural wonders and achievements. To say I am beholden by “Asia” doesn’t say much. More specifically, thus far, I’ve been captured by SouthEast Asia. And more specifically still, I find that I can’t help returning repeatedly to Thailand. And to Indonesia. To Malaysia. To Cambodia. To Laos. I find that I’m utterly at odds with myself when I sit down to plan out a trip; part of me is bound and determined to branch out — to try Hong Kong or Sri Lanka, Manila or Seoul — while the other half of me says ‘why don’t you just fly into Bangkok and decide what to do from there?’ Sneaky, sneaky me.

Buttered Shrimp at Cu Cha Restaurant, Kuala Lumpur

It’s the FOOD! How the thick, dark, sweet street coffee in Bangkok makes me shine with delight. Meat on a stick has never been better. Sticky rice out of a plastic baggy eaten with my fingers is one of the purest joys I know. Simple roti in — just the slab of butter, egg, ovaltine and sugar — is all I need to smile. Or the butter shrimp in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve never smoked crack, but this stuff has to rival its addictiveness. Babi Guling in Bali, when you can hear a pig being slaughtered as you order your delicious pork meal. It’s not at all how we eat in the United States {for the most part}. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. It’s unnerving to hear someone’s meal dying. Not knowing what you are ordering can be unsettling. You re-learn the art of patience again when you order chicken for dinner and see the waiter drive away on his motorbike, only to return 15 minutes later with a still-feathered chicken slung over one of the bike’s handles.

But the food is only one little piece. The PEOPLE are amazing. There are assholes everywhere, of course that’s just a fact of life, but there is an unassuming grace and openness to so many people I’ve met in these countries. On my first trip to this part of the world I recognized someone on our flight from Bangkok to Siem Reap. I’d just seen him on the CNN Heroes award show. We introduced ourselves after the flight and congratulated Aki Ra on the amazing work he does. The next night we were at a very local restaurant sharing a meal with him and my mind was racing to fathom how different life could really be. Child soldier, losing your parents when you are still in single digit age, living in the jungle, fearing each step could be your last. Humbled, grateful, ashamed — that night I walked home working through a mess of emotions. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. That’s where we grow.

Not all of the people stories are like that: at once tragic and uplifting. Many nights are a blur in my memory filled with cigarette smoke and Chang beer and laughter. Service industry folks we befriended, got drunk with, and whom inevitably ended up teasing us about accents, poor chopstick skills, not knowing how to get home, or any other manner of cultural naivete. How rough but also how tender all of the mahouts were at the wildlife center where I volunteered. For two years I wore a bracelet that the sweetest restaurant owner in Krabi gave to me. It was one of those woven leather bracelets that tie at the end. It fell off in the shower one night, and I guess that ushered in some type of new start for me. Now I am embarrassed to admit, I can’t remember the restaurant owner’s name. But I’ll never forget her smile.

Elephant Bath Time at Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand

It’s the other travelers you meet, too. Volunteering at WFFT still counts as one of my most rewarding experiences. Sharing a room with 3–4 other women (and girls) — strangers to me — of all ages, from all over the world, woke my ass up and out of my comfort zone quickly. The routine of the place gets you settled in, moves you through the discomfort with work and with shared experience. Early mornings. Scheduled animal care duties. Working in teams. Harvesting banana trees. Meals together. Sharing in the communal horror of cold showers, learning the finer points of manual flush toilets, and testing the powers of deduction guessing at what is in tonight’s curry; all of this creates bizarrely strong bonds. By the end of the day you are so dirty, so sore, so smelly and so tired, that the cold shower isn’t even that awful, and all you care about is cracking a few beers with your mates and laughing at whatever hilarities transpired that day. You are rendered unselfconscious. It is okay to ask what you might otherwise consider dumb or rude questions — they will answer. They want to help you understand. On the other side of the world, in a rescue center built in the middle of a jungle, literally filled with wild animals, I found myself feeling safer than I do almost anywhere else.

It’s the places. The smells. The sounds. The sensory experience there is so bursting with energy, so viscerally alive that I too have no choice but to feel that much more alive. Sidewalks turned rushing rapids in a late night downpour. Night markets abuzz with grease smoke and sizzling laughter. Jungles busting at the seams with a cacophony of cicadas, tropical birds and the melodious secret songs of gibbon couples reaffirming their love to one another for all who will hear. The rush of motorbikes slicing in and out of traffic and the chorus of honks signaling a language ranging from ‘hello’ to ‘fuck you’ and much more between. It’s the beaches. The road signs (one of my favorites is the ‘Elephant Crossing’ sign). The light beer. The spicy food. Thieving monkeys darting past you on the road with a stolen mango in tow. Images of the King everywhere. The BTS Skytrain. Incense filling the air with morning offerings, haunting gamelan music floating through your ears and lodging in your mind. Calculating currency exchange without having to think about it anymore. Negotiating via calculator passed back and forth.

There is no one thing that keeps me coming back over and over again. Some of it might even be chasing memories and feelings from some of those past trips. So much about this part of the world is spectacular. I’m sure other parts of the world are equally charming and special. And I actually think I’ll discover them someday, too {Asia isn’t the only place I’ve traveled, I swear!}. But there is an element of safety in my discomfort here in this part of the world. Simultaneously, I am far outside of any semblance of a comfort zone and I am also safe. Simultaneously humbled and confident. The opposing forces constantly clashing about in my head seem to work out to a logical equation here. A stranger at home in a country that I can’t claim as my own, but it’s a home of mine all the same.