I have been backpacking Southeast Asia for the past four and a half months. Traveling alone is quite a learning experience. I find that the simplest things I easily take for granted when I am at home are inconceivably more difficult when I am traveling. But the longer I travel, the more I realize that there is a duality in every situation. For instance, safety.
My foremost concern in all occasions has been safety. Safety for my health, safety from danger, safety from theft, and safety from offending indigenous locals. If I can maintain these four principles, I will do anything, and go anywhere. I am not sure about other destinations, but I have noticed that there are two types of travelers in Southeast Asia. You have the fancy suitcase, marble floored hotel, colorful fanny packs, tour grouped, travelers and you have what the Vietnamese call “buoi doi,” which translates as “dust of life.” I follow under the second bracket of travelers. I often trek alone, take the road less traveled, stay in local guesthouses, and walk or bike instead of taking motorized vehicles whenever possible (it is more beneficial for the environment you know). Although it is easier to travel luxuriously and pay for an experience, I have learned that everything is exponentially more rewarding when accomplished myself. Thus, I would say the most important thing I have discovered in these last few months is learning how to deal with people, and cope with stress under various situations.
Whenever I arrive at a new destination or city, I become extremely instinctive and defensive. It is difficult to avoid this behavior because it is the best way to survive. Bus stops and train stations in Vietnam are notorious locations for ruthless thieves, aggressive hounding taxi drivers, and anyone who just wants to rip you off. In fact, the thing I dread most about traveling Vietnam is bus stops and train stations. Every time I immediately exit the depots, my eyes, and ears have to be alert and sharp. One hand is in my pocket clutching my wallet, my passport hidden in a secret pouch clutched inside my pants to my leg, my backpack is double strapped and sealed, and my handbag in perfect view to my right. I barge out, not speaking to anyone, waving off to decline any offers, and have a mental image of the city in my mind as I quickly march to my pre planned destination.
Traveling like that for extensive periods of time is both tiresome, and hardening. But unusual unexpected occurrences has oftentimes reshaped my thinking, and altered my personality. Because when you are overly defensive, it is impossible for anyone to help you. Therefore, you have to occasionally lower your guard. But the question is, how can one judge the proper occasion? The answer, instinct. There are always people who will attempt to harm you, but luckily there are less of those than the people who would willingly help you.
I remember one occasion when I was at the south-western Vietnamese border town called Chau Doc, in which a cyclo pedal driver completely astounded me with his offer of friendship. As I have previously related, taxi drivers are notorious for demon-hood in Vietnam. Cyclo pedal drivers are no different, and because their labor is more intense, oftentimes they are even more brutal. In Hue and Hoi An (central cities of Vietnam), most cyclo drivers offer illegal narcotics, and sleazy $30 prostitutes at the sight of anyone with wealth. Though they were a common scene in the past, with the recent introduction of motor bikes, and automobiles, they are now outdated. The ones who were unable to afford the upgrade to motors were left pedaling with their feet, upwards to 50 kilometers a day. So with this in mind, you can only imagine how hard their lives must be and how untrustworthy they usually are.
I arrived at Chau Doc at 8 P.M. incredibly exhausted, extremely sleepy, and starving from the lack of nutrition after an eight hour bus trip, and a couple of ferry rides. I was tired. I was also in a really foul mood. So when a cyclo driver kept badgering me if I wanted a ride, I was automatically defensive, judging that he probably wanted to offer the traveler’s packaged happy meals. I refused to talk to him, and even went as far as taking my guest house’s backdoor to avoid him. After dinner, he caught me walking back from the market and asked me if I was going anywhere that night, because he would be glad to offer his knowledge of Chau Doc, and cyclo service. I remember being really lonely so I said two things. Firstly, I asked him for the strangest delicacy Chau Doc had to offer. He answered: snakes, and cave bats. Secondly, I told him if he drank with me, I would pay for his dinner. He amusingly smirked, and answered that he does not usually drink, but he will because I seemed like a nice enough guy.
So there we were, the two of us. We were in a shack overlooking the river, swatting mosquitoes from our faces, drinking 30 cent local brewed beers, and munching on roasted cave bats. I knew he was hungry, but he was really hesitant out of fear of discourtesy. I told him he could eat as much as he wanted because I had already eaten; I just wanted to make a new friend. Four hours later, we were drunk, merry and beaming with the largest grins from stories, jokes and discussions of our lives. He asked me if I liked my hotel, and if I didn’t I could stay with his family. For the rest of my trip in Chau Doc, his family spoiled me, and was very hospitable. Wandering the streets, I didn’t fear anyone or anything because I had a town local for a friend.
Looking back, I realize I learned much from him that night, so it is difficult to relate it all. But primarily, what I learned through this encounter was that it is impossible to judge anyone. Though it is wise to be defensive while traveling, I should always trust my instinct. In this case, I was initially over defensive when I first met him, and because I later trusted my instinct, I made a great friend. This is probably the most important thing to realize in all situations. Be aggressive when the situation mandates, but amiable to everyone. Because over cautiousness never gets an adventure.
So now, I don’t bother judging anyone because most times I am wrong. Instead of thinking the worst of people, I now imagine how they are when they are with friends and family. I am not mad when people try to lure me, I realize that poverty generates poor behavior. However, I know when someone is tricking me and can successfully avoid traps in most instances. But even better, I can always sense whenever someone is attempting to help me, and welcome them with grace. And this is probably the best thing I could have learned during these past few months because it is absolutely essential for any maturing young adult.