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By Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC
I recently returned from a journey halfway around the world. The flights were long, giving me time to ponder such deep thoughts as it’s impossible to travel farther than halfway around the world because if you go any farther you get closer to home.
My thoughts got deeper as I journeyed through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I’d heard many stories from other travelers, but the stories didn’t begin to prepare me for the actual experiences.
Yes, I “knew” Vietnam was noisy and had heavy traffic. That didn’t keep my head from spinning when I was actually immersed in shoulder-to-shoulder motorcycles making their way hundreds at a time through narrow streets amidst the scattered cars, buses, tuk-tuks, and trucks. My first evening in Saigon, I just stood on the curb frozen like a deer in the headlights, unable to cross the street until someone took me by the arm and helped me navigate the chaotic congestion. There was a constant chorus of horns, as if their cacophony was needed to alert a cyclist there was oncoming traffic.
Yes, I “knew” they speak foreign languages over there. They speak a foreign language here in Mexico too, but I manage to communicate and understand enough to get by. On my Asian travels, though, I was confused and bewildered not only from being unable to talk to anyone, but by being unable even to read the letters on the signs around me. To go somewhere in Bangkok, I needed the hotel clerk to write my destination in Thai for me to give to the taxi driver. I’m generally pretty good at picking up new languages, but after two weeks in Vietnam all I learned to say was Happy New Year. Two weeks in Thailand and I could say thank you and hello. As someone who makes her living via talking, it was a daunting experience not being able to communicate, especially when there was so much I wanted to know. I treasured those few locals I met who had enough English to answer my questions and share about their land and their life.
Perhaps the most resounding experience for me was seeing the dire poverty. I visited villages where I saw people who made our poorest locals look well-to-do. Large numbers of people with missing limbs begging on the streets. Mothers with babies pleading for money to feed them. Children with big eyes and outstretched hands whose first words were undoubtedly “one dollah” as they were taught to beg from the well-heeled tourists. How much more aware of their poverty these people have likely become as their borders opened to tourism exposing them to a continual parade of affluent visitors.
Yet for all the poverty, I did not see people feeling beaten down or sorry for themselves. I saw industriousness and optimism for the future. I heard deep feelings of patriotism and pride. I wish I could feel as much pride in my own homeland and its policies. I sensed a prevailing attitude of acceptance and hope alongside a fierce protectiveness of their freedom and independence. I considered the influence of growing up in a place where spirituality and faith (predominantly Buddhism) are instilled in them from birth, at home, in school, and in the workplace.
As I witnessed so many people living in such very basic conditions, I felt a profound sense of gratitude for the relatively easy lifestyle I take for granted at home. Running water, a soft bed, more concern with losing a few pounds than having enough to eat.
My journey was an awesome experience. There’s nothing like traveling to far away lands to better see and understand your own home.