What it now means for me to be “political”

It is true that I’ve had moments where being home has left me disillusioned. What did it mean for me to come back to a place that is inherently wasteful, where people deliberately shield themselves from discomfort in order to carry on their merry way?

More importantly, I found myself asking the question, “Am I proud to be from this place?”

Every individual human functions within their own constructed reality — and that truth has never been more apparent to me now with how divisive everything in our country has become.

Our Facebook feeds are nothing more than statuses and articles curated by algorithms to match our opinions. I remember when I was in India a week before going home, I decided to read through the timelines of people whose opinions were contrary to mine, let’s say for the sake of research, but more out of a sense of morbid curiosity.

What I found particularly unsettling was the re-appearing archetype I encountered: people who are libertarian-minded, support gun ownership, are openly critical and wary of Fundamentalist Islam and terrorism which sometimes borders on Islamophobic, and highly critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve noticed 3 different individuals who I’ve met on different occasions from different parts of the world quote Milo Yiannopoulous, and use the exact same wording of describing BLM as equivalent to the Westboro Baptist Church. I don’t see that as a coincidence.

I also don’t think these people are explicitly racist, or are “bad” people in any sense. They are people that also have perfectly curated methods of consuming news and information, have their own trusted sources, have found their own credible testimonials from people who reinforce the reality that comforts their opinion — it’s not like I haven’t done the same. These people aren’t hardcore Trump supporters (at least I hope), who support feminism and are against rape-culture, and who are generally empathetic of the refugee crisis.

But these are people who are also highly critical of what has been dubbed as ‘coddling millennial Social Justice’, who do in fact feel attacked by the growing social consciousness to be progressive about feminism and diversity. I’ve been condescending about this in the past, but I’ve realized now that doesn’t really do much in bridging the gaps in how we understand one another. So no, this isn’t a defense of conservatism — this is more a dissection of it, in a way that I really just want to understand. In a way that I’ve never tried before.

I think about impoverished people from rural parts of the midwest who have suffered from economic ruin in the shadows of forgotten America. I think about the black, Latino and Asian people, and especially women who support Donald Trump for president, amongst other things. What reality do they live in that I have completely failed to grasp?

While traveling I had the privilege in taking parts in workshops that revolved around the importance of holding space for people. At times, people share things that are uncomfortable, things that others may disagree with, things that in our normal everyday lives are too “deep” to bring out into the open.

I walked away from those experiences in awe of the power of empathy — what it meant to truly put ourselves in each others’ shoes, if we open ourselves to situations where we can relate to one another without preconceived notions of what we think the other person is like. That has also been a hard transition for me while being home, and one I try to take with me into interactions with everyone in my life, whether they be acquaintances, close friends, or family. Don’t waste your breath on small talk. Talk about the things that matter, and the things that are worth sharing, to make our understandings of each other that much deeper. That much truer.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to love someone pointing a gun at them. I don’t expect anyone to try to love anyone that they feel inflicts violence against them, whether with their opinions or with physical actions. When I think of the last time a strange man tried to put a hand on me, or someone said “Ni hao,” to me while I walked alone on an empty street at night, my first emotional impulse was not love and forgiveness.

But I think a lot about the divisive lines that we’ve drawn in the sand. Whether they were encouraged by a media, that does not necessarily have an agenda meant to polarize, but is only feeding into the emotions/anger/rage that we ourselves now produce based on our logical reactions to the violence in the world around us.

I always find myself deeply disturbed and internalizing of pain, in a way that feels personal, when I realize that there are friends/acquaintances/people around me that actually see the world in a very different way. Which is unfair. And just another consequence of realities being shaped by completely different variables.

More than anything the party warfare of Republicans and Democrats seems so intensely myopic. There are real stakes with this election, the difference between imprisonment or freedom to many. And in the past, I’ve laughed and said things that I felt wholly justified when criticizing conservative movements, because I see their opinions  as violence against me and against people I love and care about. But it’s the likelihood and simplicity of someone I interact with on a non-political basis having similar views. And being able to recognize that they’re still a good person, with good intentions, at their core. Me passing judgement on the fact that I think they’re only trying to make it better for themselves, or intentionally mean to do harm to me, is something that encourages this divide. And in the media and on the internet especially, I find the back and forth vitriolic on both sides. I wouldn’t say in equal amounts (but again that’s just my opinion), and all of it just feeds and feeds and feeds into itself until it completely warps our sense of understanding of the world and all the people in it.

Maybe these ponderings are quite damning; maybe I’m being convinced to dismiss bigotry in the hopes of alleviating my own personal anxiety and tension I’ve built up over the past few months. These are just illogical rationalizations so I can sleep at night, because I’d rather think people who vehemently disagree on an controversial topic can still understand each other as humans and use that middle ground to reach a sense of peace. Or even love.

There’s just so much hate in the world, and it’s gaining traction. And maybe there are people on opposite party lines that you believe truly support and preach hate. But I’m realizing more and more, beyond comments on the internet or the plethora of articles we are inundated with everyday, is that there are people that are just like me that happen to fall on different ideological lines. And our media and party wars have pushed us into further, compartmentalized boxes that label us in a way that we no longer see the things about ourselves that make us the same and allow us to relate to one another.

I’ve lost count of the number of terrorist attacks that have occurred across the world in the past few months. When I wake up to headlines, I wonder if my heart can take anymore pain. And then I am exposed to the differing reactions to that pain — the increasing xenophobia, the hatred, and heartache of those who are lost. And I see how these men act alone, how they feed off the pure violence and hatred that ISIS preaches; it’s become the perfect avenue and opportunity for them to act out their personal desires. I see how angry people have used movements to release their hatred. With Brexit. With Trump. And in a way that I can’t perceive, someone has easily said the same thing about the movements I support, like BLM.

I take a step back. I am privileged enough that I got to spend almost the whole last year of my life out of the country. In that time, I’ve seen worlds and realities that exist light years away from anything I previously knew. Good, honest, amazing people, who live in realities far untouched from the one I feel consumed by everyday when I read the news. But in an insidious way, our problems are still all the same. It’s ignorant to think that ways of life across the world go unaffected by the goings on of the globalized world. Every economic policy, sanction, lack of environmental protection, changing power dynamics between super powers, influx in immigration patterns — everything that happens has a domino affect and creates links of changes that we don’t even really notice until we have the retrospect of time.

One of the most formative experiences for me in 2015 was visiting the Philippines for the first time. In those 3 weeks, more than connecting deeply with my ancestral roots, I learned to appreciate at a visceral level what my parents did for me, in order for me to have the utterly amazing life I have now. I am the manifestation of my parents’ American dream. I may not necessarily be proud of America, but I am proud to be an American. And my duty as an American isn’t just to vote tomorrow. The problems that continue to divide this country will not go away after Tuesday Nov 8th. Maybe I am just another overly idealistic optimist who will continue to be disappointed by the trials of history. But I will not stop believing that there is an inherent goodness in people. I will not stop working for a better America. And most of all, I hope that you won’t either.

A final word on a new beginning

IMG_4557

Throughout traveling, I always end up leaving parts of myself behind in different places. And at the end of a journey, I’m always a little overwhelmed by how much of me is missing, and how much more of me I discovered along the way.

The parts of myself left behind are not lost, they are breadcrumbs, bookmarks for each chapter spent in a different country to mark a particular point in time across the linear passage of my life; where I can remember exactly where I was, exactly how I felt, and exactly who I was in that specific moment.

What I’ve learned is that travel doesn’t always have to be an exotic backdrop to your personal adventures. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be about you at all. It can be about everything you experience within a place — the ability it gave you to observe a world that, at first glance, appeared unlike your own.

Our lives are more or less a consequence of geography and history; we speak different languages, prioritize different cultural values, worship different gods (if any at all), and are born into vastly different social and economic circumstances.

And yet every place in the world has their own definitions of God, duty, love and happiness. Though we become convinced that the ways in which we’ve defined these things divide us, we don’t realize that attempting to define them at all is what connects us universally to being human. And upon closer inspection, you come to learn how these subjective meanings, when it comes down to it, are really not that different at all.

The forces pulling me to come home, to see the people I love and who I miss dearly, remind me that though time appears linear, our lives create a cyclical pattern that continues expanding outward. That you can revisit the same place in the world as a completely different person, while still remembering exactly what it felt like when you were there before, is a testament to how time can feel like a flat circle.

The feelings that so acutely overwhelm me remind me why it’s just as important to honor where you come from as much as the places you go. Home is what establishes the lens in which we see the rest of the world. What begins as a bias can become an invaluable tool, once you step outside of the culture you know and realize how intensely unique each individual person’s lived experience really is.

In all its ugliness, there are still people in this world who block their ability to truly empathize, who cannot bring themselves to walk anywhere in someone else’s shoes because they don’t yet have the courage to take the first step.

It’s difficult to not become discouraged and jaded by the world when you see how hard it is for people to love and understand one another – how sometimes it’s hard even for you to accept people that stand far away from you across ideological lines.

But that doesn’t mean we stop trying. If I’ve learned anything in the past 322 days, it’s this: don’t let your heart become hard. Let life change you, in all the best ways possible. Always hold yourself accountable. Always love yourself. And always love others, even when it’s not easy.

As the old adage goes, this next voyage does not mark the end of my journey, but the start of an entirely new one — one whose uncertainty and grace I will gladly embrace, in hopes that I, and therefore the world, will become better for it.

The fleeting state of happiness

IMG_3800

As I get closer to the end of my time in Nepal, I can’t help but reflect on how much has changed in my life in the past 9 months. I’ve written and repeated this last sentence several times, but I’ve learned more about myself than I ever thought possible.

Loving yourself is a struggle. Don’t let anyone ever fool you into thinking this is easy. Most of us go through life being conditioned to measure our self worth based on validation from other people. Whether that’s having the right job or the right relationship, being worthy of praise in some way by the things you do, or the clothes you wear, or the places you go, or the things you achieve. We spend so much time investing in actions that are supposed to ensure happiness down the line. We forget that the only thing that matters is whether you’re happy right now.

And see that’s the thing. There’s no such thing as perpetual happiness. Happiness is fleeting, the same way warmth wanes away as we fall into winter, the same way rivers go dry only to overflow again when the rains return, the same way people dance in and out of our lives like the tides recede and then overtake the shore.

Growth is exponential. Every year of my life, the change that I see in myself isn’t just more than the year before, but growth in multiple directions, creating different dimensions of the person I’m slowly becoming. There are more layers, more depth, and more ways to explore what it means to hurt, to love, to understand, and to empathize. That also means there are more places for demons to hide. Though self-discovery makes my insecurities seem lighter, they become no less intricate in their design.

We search for symmetry in beauty the same way we find peace in the immaculate creations of nature. There is symmetry in all things, especially in the soul, as long as we allow space for that balance to exist. This all may just sound like the rambling of another millennial, new-age pretentious hippie — but who cares? What people think of you isn’t the important question.

Who am I? What am I doing to make the world better? It doesn’t have to be anything big. It can be reminding your grandparents that you love them, and that you’re grateful for the life they gave you. It can be forgiving those who offend you, by trying to understand the perspective that they view the situation. It can be planting a tree. It can be smiling at someone who needs kindness. Love is not just the supernova, it is the collision of particles at the subatomic level. It exists at every level of creation.

Change is catalyzed by the experiences of life. I have fallen in love. I have lost a friend. I have been alone. But in this moment, for however long it will last, I am happy.

Introspective birthday thoughts

IMG_9366

In the spirit of being overly introspective on one’s birthday, I have a few lessons to share that I’ve come to understand better over the course of my travels. Trying to articulate myself within the limitations of human language almost feels like a disservice to my actual thoughts, but I can still try my best.

1. Celebrate your insignificance. Extract pleasure from knowing that the sun will continue setting, and the moon will continue rising long after your time has ended. In knowing that your dreams, your tears, your laughter, all of it is just another lowly spark in the explosive fire of the ever expanding universe. You are everything, and you are nothing. You are part of a shared consciousness that exists between all things, and it is there if you choose to feel it.

2. Time and space move in such a way that we cannot possibly fathom the deepest changes within our souls, the same way we cannot feel our cells multiplying as we grow, or feel the turning of the earth as it moves around the sun.

3. Stop lamenting the past you didn’t have. See the magic in your own individual journey. And if you feel that there is none, go out and find it.

4. Your greatest fears about yourself do not disappear; they are only monsters that evolve in form. We are not meant to conquer them, but how we face them determines the extent of our spiritual growth.

And now for some birthday resolutions:

Do and say everything with intention. Don’t write empty words. Don’t perform actions for validation. Don’t feel the need to announce your intentions before they are fulfilled.

Trying to present yourself as special is not the same as being special. Focus your energy on cultivating yourself rather than creating a cult of self which people only perceive externally.

I feel like I have lived multiple lifetimes in the span of 11.5 weeks, and have grown in more ways than I ever thought possible. Like love, knowledge is not singular and is not meant to expand in only one direction; it spreads outward in an infinite pattern, allowing you to discover connections and understandings between all things that have always existed and are waiting to be discovered.

Gifts from Takure

IMG_9258

Throughout my travels I always find that the people I meet are looking for beauty. We hike pristine mountain ranges, watch picturesque sunsets from white sand beaches, enjoy the buzzing hum of busy cafés on Saturday mornings. It’s strange that people rarely go looking for beauty in themselves, and yet ironically that is where the truest form of it can be found.

It would be absolutely false of me to say that Nepal is not serenely beautiful. Nestled between the mountains of the Himalayas, the village of Takhure is by far and away one of the most perfect places I have ever been to. But it’s not the mystical sunrises, breaking over the horizon like a rosy pink smile, or the whispering trees, or the terraced hills with their weathered faces carrying hundreds of years worth of stories to tell. The beauty I’ve found is in the Nepali people, who have welcomed foreigners from a different land with unbelievably kind open arms, the purity of their smiles like gifts I didn’t think I was worthy of receiving.

Love, we tend to forget, is a universal currency. And the people who have chosen to call this place home are the richest people I know.

I have learned countless lessons during my short time in Nepal. To recount them now within the limitations of human language almost feels like a disservice, but I can still try my best.

I’ve learned to love more heartily than I have in a long time, to love the fleetingness of moments, to love strangers that quickly become family, to love the earth as much as I always should have.

You’d be astounded by your ability to gain so much by living with so little. The luxuries the world has to offer you cannot be quantified with a price. I’ve never known so purely the joy you we are rewarded with from simply living off the land, and creating tangible, useful things with your bare hands.

There are some journeys we begin, which we don’t realize until we’re part of the way through, that we can never return the way we once were. My time here has forever changed me, and I am eternally grateful for the healing it has bestowed upon me. I hope that in time, I will be able to return the favor, with whatever it is I have to offer — with intention, with my continued growing sense of inner beauty, and most of all, with love.

Thank you, and namaste.

The truth about traveling

I remember renting a car with a friend back in January 2011, and driving down the western coast of Morocco with a group of travelers who hitched a ride with us back to Marrakech. A bootleg Bob Marley CD was playing over the speakers, slightly drowned out by the sound of wind running through my hair as we sang along to the music, our laughter and voices mingling with the crash of white crested waves breaking against endlessly rocky shores. That was my first taste of it; the start of a lifelong addiction to waking up in the morning and not knowing what the day would bring … and despite those risks, not caring at all.

You may have noticed I haven’t been as engaged with social media the more I’ve continued into my travels. There are a couple of reasons for that: 1) I’ve changed cities every 2 days since the beginning of October and therefore haven’t had much time and 2) I’ve forgotten about the need to feel validation online through other people witnessing my experiences. It’d be hypocritical of me to act like that was never a motive before, but I’m posting now because I also believe in the good stories can do, by being open and honest and sharing thoughts that come from the innermost part of one’s self.

Bear this in mind: what I post online is never meant to encourage any type of comparison to other peoples’ choices or situations, especially mine. I hate the notion that sharing my stories would ever make someone feel bad in anyway. Maybe that is absolutely presumptuous to say, but I remember what it was like sitting at the other end of a screen for 2 years, constantly comparing myself to other peoples’ highlight reels because of what I read online.

Here’s the truth about traveling: it isn’t always great. There’s the constant worry of what you have to do next, what place you need to be, how much money needs to be exchanged, the anxiety of meeting new people over and over again, sometimes being stranded, struggling with language barriers, and most importantly, trying not to feel lonely. Traveling the way I’ve chosen to is definitely not for everyone, and that’s totally okay. But I feel motivated to share my experiences to encourage anyone who’s ever thought about it — even in the slightest — to take that risk and really go for it. Because as hard as it can be, out of everything I’ve ever done in my life, nothing has ever beat the exhilaration of travel. And don’t do it for the likes, don’t do it to say you’ve been there – do it to learn about yourself, do it to learn about the world, do it to learn that regardless of the different languages someone speaks, or where they grew up, or the things they believe, every person on this earth is just like you, searching for happiness and meaning in who they are, even under circumstances you may not begin to fathom.

In the end, everyone I’ve ever met in my life has stayed with me, a fond memory like a flash of color or burst of warmth that I hold close to my chest like a worn out trinket. Even more so now as I tumble through life like a chopped off piece of planetary dust with no trajectory, I juggle between feeling both the greatest fear and truest happiness that I’ve ever experienced in my life. So to anyone who even managed to read all this, I wanted you to know that wherever you are in the world or in your life, you are not alone. I feel just the same as you, and regardless of the lack of confidence in the choices we make, we’ll get through it together.

Photo courtesy of @joenagraphy; on the speedboat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap

The beauty of Pai and the camaraderie of travel

It’s easy to say that Pai is beautiful. And it really is, ridiculously so. The world appears in saturated colors: lime green rice paddies, outlined in brown grass and planted in perfectly spaced rounded curves. Rolling viridian mountains in every direction, blanketed by thick baby powder white clouds. Driving through winding, poorly paved roads, sunlight peaking through head tall grass, the paths seem to stretch on forever with the promise of some unknown exotic adventure, so trivial and yet so enticing for a lone traveler like me.

I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Pai, each day characterized by its own wayward adventure. On the morning of my first day, a group of rebellious Thai boys taught me how to jump into a waterfall. My friend Lori and I made the dangerous drive to a remote hot spring, and both managed to fall off our motorbikes while trying to complete the journey in the rain. I walked away with a cut foot and some road burn, and her with a slight concussion. Needless to the say the experience bonded us in a way that we won’t soon forget, and while slightly traumatized we were able to laugh it off later over some bloody bandages and beer.

The second day I joined a few other friends from the hostel to go driving around town, and we had an epic day that consisted of visiting more waterfalls, playing card games under abandoned bamboo awnings to wait out the rain, eating the most delicious sweet potatoes and tamarind paste at a free organic farm, and taking photos on the treacherous slopes of a giant orange canyon.

That night, every single person at the hostel headed out to a nearby bar, and under the shrouded warmth of glowing rainbow colored lamps and pillowed bamboo balconies, we laid out drinking and laughing into the hazy hours of the early morning. I even commandeered the DJ table and played some of my favorite songs, dancing in fairy circles between groups of friends, feeling appropriately whimsical, calm, and wonderfully incandescent.

What I loved most about Pai were the people I met there, and the conversations we had about travel. This is the conundrum of conscientious travel: no matter how much fun I have, there is always a slight feeling of guilt in the back of my head knowing that my pleasure is dependent on the work of local Thais, who quite literally make their livelihood off my being there for fun. But at the same time, and maybe this is something special about northern Thailand as I would say the same about Chiang Mai, the mutual beneficiality of tourism (this is a made up word, I know) works in proper balance so that tourists are respectful and are actually there to take in the culture, and local natives are happy to share it with us, with the added importance of economic compensation.

If you’re going to come here, or anywhere in the world really, you should always treat the people who live there with dignity and respect. I shouldn’t even have to tell you that, but it’s quite sad that not everyone who travels considers this common sense. I dread visiting the south, as I’ve heard from many people that it’s quite different due to the more party oriented atmosphere, but I’ll just have to see for myself come January when I make my way there.

There is a camaraderie in backpacker traveler that everyone should experience once in their life. The familiarity of conversation, of repetitive questions asking, “Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been?” and being able to talk like old friends without even knowing each others’ names. I was insanely lucky to meet such a great group of people in Pai. Writers, journalists, teachers, doctors, even the occasional arrogant investment banker — colorful characters and wonderful people from different parts of the world that come together to create an intersection of perspectives, humor, and very different opinions. There is a serendipity to those connections as well, as the dynamic between groups of friends and lone travelers meshed rather effortlessly that week, and I wouldn’t have experienced any of it had I not been at the right place, at the right time, and with the right people.

I had the option of staying a bit longer in Pai, but in the end thought better of it. There is a famous Argentinian chef named Francis Mallman, who says that once two people have learned and grown all that they can together, that is the time they should separate. Maybe it’s because I’m too sentimental to let go of people in my life, so rather, I find myself feeling that way about the places I go. On my last night in Pai, I remember looking out over a balcony at all the friends I’d made in the span of 3 days, smiling as a group broke out in laughter over an inside joke from the other night, music quietly wafting in from the second floor above clouds of smoke and the sound of pool balls cracking. I realized how undeniably happy and at ease I felt. Sadly, that’s also how I knew it was time to move on.

The strange hypocrisy of traveling is that you crave familiarity, but hate feeling too comfortable. Pai was definitely all it promised to be and more. I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I won’t forget the friends I made there (who I plan on seeing again in the not too distant future), and the memories I made. Either way, I have the bug bites and motorbike scars to remind me for the rest of my life.