A final word on a new beginning

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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.

My time in Nepal

Reflections by Alyson Sagala – Conscious Impact Nepal from Jonathan H. Lee on Vimeo.

I am excited to share with you a glimpse into the past few months of my life, and an attempt to convey why exactly this project means so much to me. Thank you again to Conscious Impact, for being more than just an organization, but a loving family with a vision to serve others while in service to ourselves. Shot by the insanely talented Jonathan H. Lee and edited by yours truly.

Any support towards this project is appreciated beyond belief – whether that’s being interested in volunteering, being able to donate any sum of money, or just sharing this with your networks in hopes of spreading the word about our work. The tiniest of actions can catalyze the greatest of changes – both within this world, and within ourselves. 

The fleeting state of happiness

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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.

General update:

I know I haven’t been as diligent as I planned with updating this website. The good thing is, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing. On the contrary, I’ve been writing a LOT. Mostly snippets here and there, observations or thoughts and emotions I’ve experienced in one of the many countries I’ve visited in the past 5 months.

Wow. I can’t believe it’s even been that long. Since visiting Malaysia and Thailand in September and October, I’ve been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia, Myanmar, and am now back in Nepal. I’ve had some very profound experiences in every place that I’ve been, and I plan on sharing stories about my journeys in due time.

A very good friend I met in Nepal back in November told me that the worse thing you can do is write for other people. I find that I have the biggest problem with this; sometimes I don’t always write what I mean to say out of fear that maybe someone reading may take my words the wrong way.

But really, what’s the point of writing in the first place?

I won’t have internet access again for the next few weeks, so unfortunately this place will continue to be neglected. But website or not, I’m still writing, still reflecting, and still continuing to grow in ways that I hadn’t even dared to imagine.

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Introspective birthday thoughts

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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

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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

My time in northern Thailand

Hey friends! Made a short video documenting my time in Chiang Mai, Pai, and the Elephant Nature Park during my time in northern Thailand (I had a lot of time to kill on that 10hr bus ride to Bangkok). Forewarning: it’s literally just 5 minutes of my goober face, but it features some awesome cameos by amazing people that I met during my travels 🙂

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.