Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Stress, Travel and Americans--the Vietnam experience

A Joseph Campbell Journey in real time.
"To travel is to take a journey into yourself."
Danny Kaye

All travel is a journey.  With travel, problems will happen.  Problems always happen.  Why?  People's perceptions.  In many ways, I expected this trip to be more troublesome for a few.  It's not Japan, England or France.  Thailand is more developed than Vietnam and Cambodia, and it isn't very convenient there.  Try to get Neosporin there.  Just try it.

The pace of the movement and locations visited by the team was rather frenetic.  It was frenetic for me, let alone less seasoned travelers in SE Asia.  Remember, I did relief work in rural Thailand.  I filled a trashcan to have water to take a shower.  What is often not known is that Thailand is considered a 3 star vacation spot overall.  Not 4, not 5, but 3 stars.  It is known for being a budget destination, which means budget issues.  If you want real 5 star accommodations, go to Europe.  To get those 5 star accommodations, you will pay for it in SE Asia.  You are talking about places that might be 90 degrees plus 80 percent humidity on average.  Cambodia and Vietnam are not in the same economic condition as Thailand.  When you travel, you have to be like Andrew Zimmern of Bizarre Foods.  Be open.  Be willing to try anything.  Be willing to be uncomfortable.    

Some people almost had almost a mental breakdown, I thought.  We would stop by a location for a day and then move again.  For a few people who don’t travel at all, it was enough to drive them loco in the cabeza exponentially.  I actually found this interesting.  I think Americans don't necessarily travel that well outside of certain comfort zones.   We have a higher propensity for culture shock.  

My theory.  Stress.  Americans are stressed out.  We stress about our doctors.  We stress about our jobs.  We stress about our grocery order.  We can't leave that stress; it carries with us.  It then gets into the travel discourse, because we can't separate the destination from our stressed out symptoms of American life and expectations.  Consider this.  As an American, you can't drive without thinking about cops, about photo radar, red light cameras, your psychotic road rage drivers, and making it to work.  This is only before getting yelled at by your boss.  Then you get more stressed out when your friend tells them about a bad date they had or a letter from the IRS.  Right from the beginning you are stressed.  Combine this angle with travel which can unhinge you, and you got the picture.  

Why Stress Yourself Out?  But don't go "bamboo."
"People who don't travel cannot have a global view, all they see is what's in front of them. Those people cannot accept new things because all they know is where they live."
Martin Yan 

I view every moment in my existence as a learning moment.  You have an opportunity for a new experience the minute you walk out the door.  This is sort of a Buddhist vibe, but again as before, I’m a horrible Buddhist.  To gain anything requires a sort of analytical methodology to travel. The food, the streets, the random gatherings are all mirrors into a human society governed by certain norms.  It is up to you to perceive what those norms are.  Crossing a street in Vietnam was an adventure.  Go steady.  Be clear in pace.  People will ride around you.  What must occur is an ability to be in the present.  When you can do this, you can engage a country more effectively.  For all the insanity of the trip, Vietnam has peaked my interest.  This is at least my conclusion, but then Anthony Bourdain seems to also have the same sensibility. 

I like Vietnam.  There is more to study.  It is also a test bed for the role of the artist in a society in transition.  It would be important to track this.  It is also important to see how a country defined by almost a century of perpetual war comes to grips with stability and peace.

There is a symptom that exists with Westerners.  They want to move to SE Asia after visiting this part of the world.  They often hate being there, but they miss it when they come back to the USA.  One thing that my logical mind tends to point towards is not to go bamboo (deciding to move to a SE Asian country and leave everything behind).  Yes, Vietnam has its attractions, but be clear about what you are getting into.  It is Vietnam, not Georgia, Arizona.  It's Vietnam.  Do not go "bamboo!"

Americans are not used to certain things that exist in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.  Freedom.  Although Vietnam is a Communist country, in terms of daily life, there are more freedoms. There are obvious restrictions like free speech; however, there is this ease in life that that doesn't exist here.  If you decide to travel there after reading my nonsense, avoid going "bamboo."  My advice.  Go there for real for a few times, not just once.  Wait until the luster wears off.  Experience a power outage when you are showering.  If it doesn't bother you, then go for it.

For many expats in Thailand, there is a prominent theme.  "I can't live in America.  America isn't what it was.  When it becomes great again, I'll go back."  They probably aren't going back.  On the other hand, there are plenty of stories of expats who died due to going overboard in SE Asia.  Essentially, I think people go "bamboo" for the beauty of the place.  There is beauty in real people.  There is beauty in real nature.  There is beauty in things that are not American.  See the beauty, but know that beauty has layers.  See the layers for what they are.  All society's have their benefits and drawbacks.  Just do not get into "the grass is greener on the other side" mentality.  Grass is just grass.  If you move there, you will give up something.  The question is what will you gain.  That would be something only you can answer.