Travel vs Vacation
From the outside, travel and vacation sound the same, look the same, but they’re not the same. It was clear that many of the people who heard about my trip didn’t understand that it wasn’t just going to be lying on beaches and sipping on cheap cocktails throughout South East Asia. I’m not saying there hasn’t been any of that, we all like to sip on a mojito at times, and if I happen to be in SEA at the time, well then that’s where I’ll be doing the sipping. But there’s much more to travel than that, and a certain responsibility that comes with it.
Many people’s reactions included coworkers expressing how much they wished they had had the opportunity to do something similar when they were my age, and how lucky and smart it was that I was doing it, friends asking how it was that I came to terms with quitting my job and going out there, and of course apprehensive family members. The point is that not everyone has the chance to undertake such an adventure, which is why it’s a traveler’s responsibility to not waste it by letting it turn into an extra long vacation.
My main purpose for travel was exploration. That may sound obvious, almost redundant, but if anything, it’s ambiguous. And with good reason. Because exploration can range from exploring the physical world, to exploring the various cultures upon it, to the various challenges they are faced with, to self exploration. You could almost add general people exploration to that list, because you meet such a broad variety of them while traveling. Sometimes, you can’t believe that someone so awesome can exist, while other times people will blow your mind as to how different they are. Over time, you actually start to feel a slight sense of enlightenment from that latter type.
Why this all differs from vacation is pretty obvious. Vacation is a break from daily life. It’s a period of time you dedicate to going somewhere (even if that’s only your living room couch for 3 days) and just relaxing, recharging your batteries, and resetting your mind so that you may eventually go back to your daily life, hopefully a little better off than when you left.
But when you travel, that IS your daily life. And the responsibility that comes with it is to truly explore the places you visit in every way. That means:
- Climb that mountain
- Eat that food
- Learn that history
- Take part in that festival, understand it’s culture
- Help that family
- Learn that skill
Opportunities for all these activities will present themselves, and it’s your responsibility to say “yes”! Many of them had actually manifested themselves to me quite recently, at a time when I hit a lull in traveling and thought I was getting over it, and they gave me a strong second wind.
Climb that Mountain
First off, was Ha Long Bay with my International Partner in Crime, Ajani. We finally arrived there after a long trip featuring multiple busses and boats, which was after a very early morning, which was after a rather late night. The first day on the island was the only day in which rock climbing was an option. After that commute though, I just wanted to recover by the beach, but when else was I going to get another opportunity to rock climb one of the Wonders of the World? I pulled myself together, strapped into my harness, and tied myself in. Unfortunately, only me, Ajani, and one other traveler decided to partake that day, and if you ask me, everyone else missed out big time!
But the mountain, of course, is figurative. It just means get out there and do it. It means wake up at 4am to see the sun rise over Angkor Wat or over the sand dunes in Mui Ne. It means jump on the tuk tuk that someone invited you to share to go see the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh (very sad, more on that later) after just having arrived at the hostel at 6am after an all night bus. It means saying Yes!
Learn that history (I’m skipping food, I think we all get that one).
Second was the devastating history of the Khmer Rouge. I had to really convince myself to go see the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, but I knew that if I was going to get to understand a country and it’s people, I couldn’t just pick and choose the happy without taking the sad, especially with events that are so recent and so significant. The images were harrowing, the stories devastating, and I definitely dropped my sunglasses a few times as my eyes started to tear up. But not only does it help me understand why Cambodia may not be as developed and help me be grateful for the country I was raised in, but it is now a story I can share, and awareness to these events I think is the most important thing.
Take part in that festival, understand it’s culture
Third was the festival of Songkran, i.e. the new year in Laos and Thailand. These countries, having been dependent on farming so heavily in their history, celebrate new year when they plant their crops. They pray for a bountiful rainy season and therefore traditionally drip water on each other. Nowadays, the festival has evolved into a joyful and slightly mischievous water gun fight that takes part throughout the city. I’m not a fan of walking around in wet clothes all day, and wasn’t impressed when a bucket of water was dumped on my head right after a shower. But this is culture, you come to a country, you partake. And as soon as you open up to it, you realize how interesting and fun it is.
Culture is about much than just festivals though. It’s food, it’s transportation, it’s religion, it’s a way of life. This way of life isn’t always done because of what a people’s likes or dislikes are, but often a tradition that was born out of a certain necessity or limitation. Food may revolve around a few simple ingredients because that’s all that was available at the time to their ancestors. Same with building materials and transportation. I got the chance to rid by ox cart when visiting the village described below. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was definitely exciting on a strange level!
Help that family
Helping a family was the most rewarding and enlightening experience I have had to date. We went to a remote village to help install water filters and bring supplies. I heard about this mission during a quick conversation with a stranger at the bar one night while waiting for a drink. It was already rather late and she was going very early the next morning. On top of that, it was going to be a blistering hot 40 degrees celsius that next day. At first I said that I could only do her the favour of spreading the world. Then I realized what an opportunity I was passing up on, and I promised her I would meet her at 7am the next morning. Best decision I made on the trip. You have not seen gratitude until you deliver something that can save a life to a family that has nothing, and you have not seen generosity until you see how much of what little they have they want to share with you.
More pics from this unforgettable experience here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10102494929064087&type=1&l=1a16b0080d.
I have come across many other such situations. Opportunities to volunteer to teach English at local schools, even for one day or one hour, are prevalent. And it’s astounding how eager those kids are to learn and how grateful they are to have you teach them. This is especially interesting coming from western culture, where children are forced into school, and often attend reluctantly until they are much older. I did it through Free to Shine. Please check it out if you’re interested in helping!
Learn that Skill
Life on the road is very different than life at home. If you truly commit to it and if you’re just open to undertaking the new, unique challenges you’ll be presented with, you will do things that will surprise yourself, and learn things you thought you’d never be able to. Before this trip, I had never rode any sort of motorized bicycle and yet I traveled the length of Vietnam on a manual motorbike. I got my advanced scuba license, I learned to belay a rock climber, and picked up kite surfing. There are probably things that I didn’t even realize that I learned that I just do naturally now, and things I learned about myself that seem so obviously part of me that I couldn’t imagine myself a different person.
Vacation is just fun and games. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be and we all need it at times: a quick break to get your head back on straight. We even need vacation from travel, which is when we actually do just sit on a beach and drink mojitos. Vacation will get you refreshed and leave you with a few nice memories. But travel is different. Even though every one of these events may have seemed difficult or unappealing at the time, when I look back on them, all I can think is how awesome they were, and say “yes, I would love to do that again!”.