The language of a changing heart

Truth be told, I’m speaking a different language than you. You just haven’t realized it yet. You think I’m speaking English. You think you’re speaking English too.

Do you know what it means to ask for the check after having dinner in Thailand?

First, there’s a little dance that happens. You have to get your waitstaff’s attention. They speak a little English but not much. They’re uncomfortable around you. They’ll struggle to understand your request. So they instinctively pay less attention.

Second, you have to make the motion of writing with a pen or pencil in your fingers and mouth the word “check.”

This is one part of what it means to be a traveler in Thailand. This is one phrase in a new language of thought and action that is gradually accumulating in my brain as I travel.

A small tuk tuk deposits me and my three companions at the near end of a stone bridge on the road north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. On the other end of the bridge, a football field’s length away, a monolith of dark moldering rocks showcases a gargantuan face overlooking a tunnel. The approach to the tunnel is flanked by two rows of stone statues, facing us down along each side of the bridge and acting as both walls and somber guardians. We have evidently stepped into the land of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

This is the entrance to the temple park of Angkor Wat.

I’m here with Melissa and Amelia, boon companions from my Remote Year Earhart group, and Melissa’s brother Anthony, visiting Thailand and Cambodia for a week. We booked the trip from Chiang Mai, Thailand, as a 3-day excursion to see this massive historical and religious site that is hailed as one of the seven wonders of the world.

As we pass under the large grassy wall and enter the temple complex, I begin to realize that almost none of my expectations about this place were correct.

Based on my limited prior experience with temples, the picture in my head consisted mainly of a lot of old buildings infested with tourists and street vendors, with southeast Asia’s usual mix of ancient tradition and modern cheap commerce side by side — ornately carved walls shoulder to shoulder with the cheap metal siding of a 7-Eleven.

That mental picture is almost entirely wrong.

Our driver, Mr. Chenda, invites us back into his tuk tuk on the other side of the wall and explains the route that we will follow. He will be driving us from site to site within the Angkor Wat temple complex. He’ll drop us off at each site, where we’ll explore to our heart’s content and then meet him again to move on to the next site.

The temple complex is huge. And over the centuries the Cambodian jungle has been tamed and terraformed into something more like the grounds of an estate. Buckingham palace would be right at home nestled amongst the trees and wide roads.

Instead of Buckingham, we see the first massive temple. Individually, the stone blocks that make up the temples are far too heavy for one person to lift; together they elevate the scale of the walkways and parapets and columns to an imposing level of grandeur. The weight of eons rests upon the stones here. A tribe of monkeys scampers around in the rubble. They seem to be right at home. The temple is overgrown in parts and feels almost like part of the forest.

As we climb towards the top of the temple, we are accompanied by other tourists. They observe a certain solemnity. The rules of Angkor Wat require modest clothes (primarily aimed at and enforced upon women, unfortunately) and encourage respect for the religious and cultural heritage. But there is much conversation about the construction this place and the practices of the people who have come here over the years to offer the sacrifices and observances of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Four temples later, we approach the top of the grand Wat itself, a mountainous temple of 3 spires with causeways and columns galore. The sun has been shining for most of the day, but we spy clouds on the horizon and they gather closer the higher we climb. As we wander around the outer top rampart, rain starts to fall in the midst of the sun and for a few minutes the air is lit up with liquid drops of sunshine. The constructed beauty of the temple is briefly enhanced by the natural beauty of a sunshower.

I wonder aloud what it would be like to travel back in time to Angkor Wat in the days of its first construction. There would be no motor vehicles; we would be on foot. No cameras, no cell phones. Perhaps the jungle would be a little less tame. Perhaps the religion would be a little more fervent.

But to walk through the halls of the temples as a simple pilgrim, to see the stonework with no accumulated time or accumulated grime, would inspire even more awe in me than it does now.

When we gather together at the farewell junction for the month of September — Hanoi — we are in an upper room at a country retreat called “The Winding Path.” The name of the retreat seems apt. It’s a winding path that’s led each and every remote to the place where we find ourselves today. It’s a winding path through the ins and outs of our personal lives that leads us to start digging deeper into what makes us who we are.

We sit in a circle in the upper room. Cross-legged on cushions on the floor or legs askew on a bench or chair, we unravel ourselves piece by piece with the assistance of Karen, who has come to meet us today at the Winding Path and start a conversation around re-scripting failure. We start to share what’s on our hearts and minds. The accumulated stresses of our jobs and relationships and lives start to unwind and relax a little like the slow loosening of bandages on a healing wound.

We feel disconnected from our old lives. When we talk to our family and friends at home about Remote Year, they don’t really get it.

“You look like you’re having such a fun time,” is the most common reaction. And it’s not an incorrect statement; we are having a fun time, in a lot of ways. But it’s the wrong reaction. Having a fun time doesn’t capture what it means to be on this journey.

It’s hard to match words with emotions and adequately convey to others what this trip means to us.

Perhaps we don’t quite have the linguistic tools, the vocabulary, to translate back into the language of our older relationships from this shared language of community and excitement and frustration and growth and stress and discovery and, yes, boundary-breaking heart-pounding fun.

“I’m so jealous,” they say back at home. And maybe for the wrong reasons. This life isn’t easier; for most of us it’s harder. More rewarding, but harder. Don’t be jealous of the things we post about on social media; be jealous of the risks we take that pay off. Be jealous of our commitment to pounding out work late into the night, in order to meet the obligations of our jobs in different time zones around the world. Be jealous of the trust we build with each other as we help each other through the difficulties that arise from continual foreign travel, like sickness and sorrow and language barriers and figuring out how to find the basic necessities of life in new countries.

We know what it means when we talk to each other about street food and surfing and hand signs and travel hacks. It means a million little experiences and emotions all bundled up into shared experience. It means a new language.

It means something that’s hard to communicate to other people, even lifelong friends. It means translation is required.

There are a lot of things that have changed in my life over the course of this trip. Some for better, some for worse. There are beliefs that I held deeply and am learning to let go of. My heart is changing.

But I suspect I will always love to hear a good story. That’s built into me and into you as human creatures. We tell each other stories to understand each other.

Listen to my story, and I’ll listen to yours. And maybe we’ll learn each other’s language.

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