Leaving the Facades Behind

Jason and Michaela on a cold morning in Bouddhanath, Nepal

As time has gone by since I returned from my travels to South Asia, I’ve been slowly and carefully revisiting some of the details from the journey. Until recently I’d sort of stowed them away for future contemplation. Or I guess you could say that I’ve been trying to piece together some of the realisations and/or lessons that maybe weren’t so apparent when I was immersed in the hurricane of mayhem that is Bangladesh, Nepal and India.

I’ve talked to a few people who have traveled in those countries but our experiences were so vastly different I’ve basically had a hard time opening up about things. Jason and I set off with a stack of plane tickets and absolutely no plan whatsoever while the people I’ve talked to since returning, start almost every sentence with “Our tour group took us to……”. It’s certainly a matter of preference and comfort level to how we choose to travel and neither is right or wrong. I happen to choose the former because it challenges me. I pride myself on being self reliant and I like it even more when that self reliance is put to the test, a big test. As scary as it may be, I also like to peel back that façade we tend to build around ourselves when we’re in a comfortable place and see what’s really in there, see how I’ll react in certain situations and know how I can bring those realisations back and be a better person, husband, father and friend.

What made me start thinking about this whole aspect of my recent travels is kind of funny. I was skiing this past weekend at one of the resorts here in Colorado and I was riding the lift with a very nice couple from the Midwest who were vacationing out here for a week. They were bedecked in some very spendy and fashionable ski clothing, told me they owned “property” there in the valley and considered themselves expert skiers since they’ve been coming out every year for more than a decade. When we got off the lift and the moment of truth was upon us (the truth about skiing abilities that is), well, whacking me in the helmet with a ski pole and wobbling off all helter-skelter in a rigid snowplow told me something a little different than what their claims suggested. Super nice people though.

Everyone wants to be accepted as part of a community or group, everyone. The hard part comes in the execution of that plan when you have to make yourself vulnerable in the learning phases and risk having your naiveté or fears exposed. Not to pick on those super nice people on the lift, but they obviously wanted more than anything to fit in to a certain group of people so they bought the clothes they thought would make them look the part, said all the right things and had probably even convinced themselves they were “expert” skiers. Sometimes travel and travelers are the same. It just takes time and practice for both to get to the black diamond stuff and be able to skillfully tackle it. Some people just like sticking to the easy trails though because it’s easier to have good form.

Part of why I like traveling independently is the façades get peeled away quickly when there is no safety net of a tour director to handle the hard stuff, much less the day-to-day, mundane things. When you’re on your own things like ordering breakfast, catching a bus, finding a room or getting medical help all involve a matter of risk at worst and simply being humbled at best. One thing for sure is if you’re a poser in any way, you’ll get found out in short order.

Because of the challenges of independent travel, especially in places like South Asia, the true “you” will eventually come out. It might come out kicking and screaming, but it’s going to come out…or you’ll go home with your tail between your legs. Once the kicking and screaming subsides the true beauty of why we choose to travel independently, blossoms. You can live honestly and simply. Why people can’t, or won’t, do this in their daily lives is beyond me.

When those façades are chopped away, amazing things begin to happen. Annoying little things don’t seem to bother you anymore, fretting about whether you should have 3G or 4G for your stupid iPhone becomes as truthfully irrelevant as it really is, and you really start to think on a visceral level about what things are most important in your life. But even more fun is you all of a sudden realize you tend to migrate to other independent travelers who are experiencing the same things. It’s almost like magic. Tour groups show up at pre-arranged busses, carefully vetted restaurants and “western” hotels and kitschy tourist sites where conversely, independent travelers show up at the cheapest internet cafes, the cheapest hostels, the cheapest (and scariest) busses and anywhere where you can get a cheap cup of coffee and decent pastry. And the best part of that migration is that it winds up being a true collection of genuine people who have no agenda other than traveling on a grassroots level.

Here is one of my favorite anecdotes from my recent travels in Nepal, or anywhere for that fact.

Jason and I had been roaming around Nepal for well over a month. We had begrudgingly made our way back to Kathmandu but the thought of possibly staying in the tourist shit hole that is Thamel made both of us a little queasy — sorry, no other way to describe it. Through word of mouth from some fellow travelers a few weeks prior, we wanted to check out a quaint little monastery in Bouddhanath, just outside of Kathmandu. It was there where we decided we could chill out for another week before heading to India-Thailand-South Korea then back home to Colorado.

Immediately upon arrival at the bus station in Kathmandu, after yet another death defying, eight-hour bus ride, we carefully chose between the 400 cab drivers attacking our bus and settled on a young lad in a microscopic car who was willing to deliver us and our backpacks half an hour away to Bouddhanath for 200 rupees (about USD$2.50). Every time we stepped off a bus we felt like a bloody pork chop being hucked out to a pond of hungry crocodiles. After a few weeks you get used to it and learn to pick and choose quickly…then hope for the best.

Well, the place we wanted to stay offered a few basic rooms…of which none were available of course. Tired, hungry and being late in the day, we set off to find another place for the night. Blah, blah, blah, we fortunately wound up at another monastery, which was quieter than our original choice, an enviable feature anywhere in Nepal. As usual, broken English-Nepali-Tibetan negotiations ensued and a short two hours later we were about 68.3% sure we had a room — and you think I’m kidding.

We got to the room, crushed from a hard day of travel, dropped onto our rock hard beds and blissfully shut our eyes for a few minutes. A real shower seemed in order but upon inspection we only had one towel. Not the end of the world but still, it would’ve been nice to have two — i.e. one each.

So I go back downstairs to ask for an extra towel. The Tibetan kid at the front desk tells me (half in Tibetan, half in charades) that there’s already a towel in my room — he put it there himself. So, after fifteen minutes of trying to explain that there are two people and we’d like a corresponding second towel — well, uh, no, totally not getting it.

Meanwhile, a girl comes straggling in, dropped her backpack and told the same kid I was negotiating with that she had called earlier and made a reservation — partly as a statement and partly as a hopeful question. I knew (and I suspect she also knew) that a shit storm of confusion was about to unfold. I immediately felt bad for her because she looked just as exhausted as we were and was likely in no mood for it. Well surprise, surprise, it seems as if the “reservation’ she thought she made had somehow gotten messed up. The phrase you become so intimately familiar with in Nepal and India, from ordering breakfast to buying a bus ticket, is “Sir, there is a problem”. Long story short, another 30-minutes passed and I still didn’t have an extra towel and she still didn’t have a room. Welcome to Nepal.

While three Nepali-Tibetan employees were discussing what to do,all the while  pointing at scribblings on scraps of paper and gesturing wildly amongst themselves, I started talking to the girl (Michaela) and she explained she was traveling solo, had been for a couple of months, and had barely gotten out of Pokhara before some nasty weather had come in. Now she was simply trying to get a room and some rest – like the rest of us. She explained that the rather loud gentlemen standing behind us were now trying to find her another place since there was nothing available there. It didn’t sound promising.

Okay, here’s where the beauty of independent travel I love so much comes in.

Finally, after 45 minutes of my negotiations for the towel had mercifully come to fruition, I went back upstairs to tell Jason about the total “Charlie-Foxtrot” going on downstairs. We agreed we should just offer her up a space in our room since we had two twin beds and one of us could easily sleep on the floor in our sleeping bag. I went back downstairs and told her she was more than welcome to stay in our room if they couldn’t find her a place for the night. She said she might very well take us up on it but it seemed they’d finally found her another place — she’d let us know in a little while. We went on to tell her that we’d found another monastery for the next few nights and they apparently had a few other available rooms (since all the flights from Pokhara and Lukla had been cancelled due to  violent weather). And with that Jason and I went back upstairs and slept for 10 hours.

The next morning we checked into the monastery we’d told Michaela about and within fifteen minutes of sitting down for a cup of masala tea, we saw her and she informed us she’d also checked in that morning and would be staying for a few days. We wound up spending the next few days hanging out together, exchanging travel stories/nightmares, sharing our favourite cafes, sharing stories about our lives in the United States and Austria, dispelling funny rumors about each of our home countries (who knew everyone in Austria didn’t yodel?!?!) and philosophising about life in general.

There we were, basically total strangers from completely different parts of the world, traveling IN a different part of the world, talking freely and openly as if we’d known each other forever. Truth be told, we’d NEVER do that as part of our regular, everyday lives. But the common catalyst of being broken down to our true selves through independent travel quickly opened up the essence of our basic humanity and we immediately connected. There were definitely no facades to hide behind because we’d all been completely (and sometimes rudely) stripped of those over the weeks and months of travel. Think about what that could do for foreign relations between governments in today’s effed up world.

Now, as I quasi-attempt to re-acclimate to life back here, I find it hard to accept the obvious facades people put up to make themselves appear the way they think other people want them to be. I have to admit, it sometimes disappoints me to know people are judging me based solely on my appearance, my career choice, my travel choices or even the vehicle I drive. If you read my last post about being protective of my experiences and not sharing them with many people, that’s exactly why. Those experiences came in the most organic way and I want to preserve them as such.

Again, for me, one of the real rewards of independent or vagabond travel comes in returning with a new set of eyes with which to see old places/things/relationships/the world. I honestly feel spiritually closer to people I’ve met in fleeting moments through serendipitous circumstances than I do to people I’ve known for years. Why? Because they were raw moments in life without all the truth-disguising filters. Hell, Jason and I knew each other pretty well before we left but I think it’d be safe to say that our friendship grew infinitely once we let those hidden barriers down and subjected ourselves to the sometimes overwhelming stresses of independent travel. Not without challenges for sure, but I think I speak for him when I say we emerged as the truest of friends who we can trust and rely on for our entire lives.

I’m not ashamed of not knowing everything about everything, including about myself! I love it actually. Life would be incredibly boring if there was nothing left to learn. That said, every time I travel I try and go farther off the piste of normal just to find something else challenging and new. It also probably helps soften the blow of operating without filters since I don’t mind looking like a complete idiot sometimes.

Thanks Jason and thanks Michalea. The BEST of times.

Run long, climb high, ski hard, paddle far and be happy with what you have.

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One response to “Leaving the Facades Behind

  1. Great post. Too many of us use excuses such as “I’m too busy” or “I can’t afford to” or “What will others think?” to convince themselves to not get out of their usual comfort situation or place.

    Life is a journey. And a far too short of one. There are so many places to go and see, it is impossible to see and experience them all. Thank you for sharing your experiences with all the rest of us. I look forward to hearing more.

    This week, we finally got our bookshelves completed in our library. I had dreamed of having a library with wall-to-wall bookshelves ever since I was a kid. You know the kind, a library with bookshelves that are higher than a person is tall.

    The very first books to be taken out of their boxes were Chris’s. It was hard going through all of them… a lot of memories. Some were books I’d given him recently and others years ago that I’d forgotten about. Among all of his books were his treasured travel and mountaineering books about places where he’d been…. and places he hadn’t visited yet but was looking forward to.

    Most of my days are better than they were a year ago. But I am still sad. I suspect I will be always. I think of him every day.

    Live well, travel well and be well… Tom

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