Travel and Transformation: Same, Same, but Different

In a Canoe on Lake Louise, Canada
Canoeing on Lake Louise

I wrote this post a few years ago, after we came back from an extended trip across South East Asia, New Zealand and Australia.

Some things have changed.  Today, I have two great kids, and I’ve moved to British Columbia, Canada, one of the most gorgeous areas I’ve seen in my travels, and where I can see the mountains everyday.  But I still struggle with that surreal juxtaposition of our adventurous, nomadic travels, and returning to our so-called normal, everyday life in Canada.  And Cosmo still cuddles us at night.

Today marks six months we’ve been home. Six months in Calgary, Canada, in a nice, comfortable duplex with dusty pink walls and a little vegetable garden in back. Our cat, Cosmo, snuggles up to us at night, we watch movies when we’re bored, and we go for walks by the river most weekends.

We expected to come back changed; transformed after a year traveling through Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra, Thailand, Cambodia, Australia, and New Zealand. Instead, we are in the same city we started from, doing the same jobs, with the same lives.

In some ways it’s like we never left. Our friends are the same, we go to the same birthday parties, attend barbeques in the same backyards, catch a beer on the same restaurant patios. We rarely mention our trip; it exists somehow so far outside our everyday existence that it’s hard to conjure up in my imagination. Images come to me sometimes: a flash of bright red, beetle nut-stained teeth, an aboriginal man disappearing like a ghost into the Australian outback, the startling, intelligent eyes of a wild orangutan in Sumatra, the hot, sweet stench of open sewers in Bangkok …

When Charles and I left on our trip, I thought that being away would give us some perspective on our lives. There would be some foreign place that was so unique and beautiful that it would transform me. The air would be so clear, the smells so intoxicating, the people so untouched that I would be changed forever. I imagined sitting in a hammock by the turquoise sea, where an epiphany would sweep over me, and I would be transformed.

For 12 months I waited for this epiphany. I waited on a beach in Ko Lanta, a mountainside in Bukittinggi, a sailboat in the Whitsunday Islands, an overgrown Dutch graveyard in Melaka. It never came. I never found that place.

Was I looking for something that simply doesn’t exist; some place that can’t exist in a world of golden arches and cell phones? Everywhere we went we found our old world: Coke sold in bottles in the heart of Sumatra, where not a soul spoke English. A Thai boat captain in the isolated south Andaman sea who carried a cell phone, and poured gasoline into his boat’s engine from a reused Evian bottle.

Yet, along the way we met so many people who seemed able to transform their experiences into change, despite the Pizza Huts and Dunkin Donuts dotting the cities across Asia. There was the sailboat captain in Penang who left his high-paying job in England to sail around Malaysia. Sean, the engineer we met in Ko Samui who decided he wasn’t going to help large oil companies exploit the environment any longer.

Most of the people we met were just like us, though. They were getting to know the people, navigating the squat toilet, taking rides on buses filled with smoke from clove cigarettes, and wondering why every picture of the Sydney Opera house shows a gleaming white building, when it’s really made of off-yellow tiles.

Maybe I was wrong to expect an epiphany. Maybe sometimes change comes in little pieces, and maybe it’s not always so obvious on the outside. I may live the same life as before we left, but I’m essentially changed. I know that I can survive a four hour hike through the jungle after a three-day bout of stomach flu. I know that our guide on that trip, Ono, who only completed a year of school, but speaks flawless English, Dutch, and German, supports his entire extended family. I even know how to use a squat toilet (although I never quite figured out how to use the water hose without soaking all of my clothing).

Maybe it’s like the Thai’s are so fond of saying: same, same, but different.