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The Experience That Defines You

There are these experiences, these moments, in which you discover who you are and who you are going to be.  This experience happened for me in the summer of 2012, right after I graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder.  A few friends and I planned to backpack through SE Asia for two months.  Now I hadn’t done a whole mess of traveling up until this point.  The summer before I did take a 3 week Euro-trip with my sister and that kind of got my travel itch going (more on this trip to come).  But Asia? I had not really considered it at all.  That’s like really far away, man.

Now, I could start to unload a daily digest of what we did leading up to the trip to prepare and how we travelled from country to country and what we did in each one (don’t worry, I am going to save some of that stuff for other posts).  But this trip, this part of the world, this experience, totally rocked my world and everything I thought I knew about it.  Our trip took us to India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.  And some things happened. Some of them weird. Some of them eye-opening.  Some of them jaw-dropping.  And all of them life-changing.  To quote Anthony Bourdain, “Asia ruined me.”

To start, I learned about the human condition.  I wandered through a slum in Mumbai and saw open sewage lines running right though the main walkways.  Right next door to this slum, I saw an orange Lamborghini.  In Northern Thailand, women waded through ankle deep mud planting rice among a sea of neon-green fields.  I floated along the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos where villages dotted the river banks.  They fished with bamboo poles while perched on jagged rocks, barefoot and shirtless, and just waited.  In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I went to the Killing Fields.  Just a couple decades ago, this was where an oppressive government murdered over 95% of the country’s intellectuals and 25% of the total population.  In Southern Vietnam, the local market was on water and people shopped with motorized longboats.  I could go on.

The floating market, Mekong Delta
Skulls from the killing fields

But everywhere I went, people smiled.  While lost in that slum in Mumbai, children were laughing and pointing as young girl stood on a rooftop and pretended she was spiderman.  They were skipping over the sewage lines and giggling like kids playing hopscotch.  The Thai people greeted me everywhere with an ear to ear grin; a tuk-tuk ride with a smile, green curry with a smile, planting rice with a smile.  In Laos the love was truly felt.  After a kayak ride, our guide took us into a small village off the bank of the river to have us meet his future bride.  We drank moonshine, ate some sticky rice, played foot volleyball (more of this moment to come), and laughed our asses off.  In Khe Sanh Vietnam, where some of the fiercest fighting happened during the war, I made best friends on the side of the street: sharing beers, then motorbikes, then a microphone in a karaoke bar.

Just your typical night out in Vietnam

Then we had the weird stuff.  I had more pictures taken of me at the Taj Mahal than I could take pictures.  One woman made my friend Phil hold her baby. The ladyboys in Thailand.  The monsoon thunderstorms.  The nifty stomach bug that took several months to get rid of after my travels (I could say more to come on this, but lets just leave it at that).  The Muy Thai fight in Chiang Mai, in which four fighters drunk and blindfolded went at it while the crowd roared.  I shared my spot on the slow boat ride in Laos with a feisty rooster.  Asia was weird, and I loved all of it.

Picture inception in India
That rooster

The food. Oh the food.  Sitting on little plastic tables and chairs along the street, sipping a cold beer, and watching your food being made with fresh ingredients tossed into fiery wok is now the only way I want to eat food.

A hot pot in Vietnam
Prawns n’ beers in Thailand

The limestone mountains, tiered waterfalls, pristine beaches, and untouched jungles were hard to ignore as well.  Often I said to myself “Well, thats the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Southern coast of Vietnam.
Kuang Si waterfall in Laos

There were times on my trip when I just sat there and thought “I am on the other side of the planet.”  I would repeat that to myself over and over. And it didn’t matter what I did each day, just being on the other side of world and watching what locals were doing and how they interacted with one another was exciting for me.  I learned about different cultures and customs.  It became addicting.  The buzz of the markets.  The zips of the motorbikes and constant barrage of car horns.  It was loud. It was vibrant. It was colorful. And in one word: different.  Asia was just different, and it made life after my trip difficult to cope with.  The day-to-day life back home became boring and monotonous at an alarming rate.

You just don’t see this on your way to work.

Since that trip, my travel itch has become a rash.  I salivate at the next opportunity to hop on a plane.  The next adventure is always in the pipes.  I was supposed to graduate college and use my business degree to get a well-paying corporate office job but that quickly dissipated after my SE Asia experience.  My focus has changed.  I want to wander. I want to explore.  I want to keep learning about people and their culture.  And I want it now.  The world is out there, and I’m going to see every corner of it.  I am David, but I am going to be a modern Magellan.  

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