Friday, May 26, 2017

Get Lost on Purpose

The other night at my local climbing gym a few of us bid farewell to a friend who is embarking soon on a trip across the world to live abroad for awhile. In conversation about her upcoming travels I could tell she was nervous, excited and straight-anxious. I would be too if I were packing up everything I owned and hopping on a plane in a few days. I wanted to give her one piece of advice that I always try to follow when I'm in a new country, city or state: get lost. I tell this sole piece of advice to just about anyone I know who goes abroad for an extended period of time because it's such a treasured, important suggestion.

When you arrive in a new place for an extended period of time- you're trying to do everything in your power to acclimate and assimilate. What clothes should I wear? What social cues and habits do I need to learn and master? Where do I buy my food? How do I ride the public transit system? Should I bow in a gesture of thanks every time I enter a room? You ask yourself millions of similar questions in an effort to settle your excitement and nerves.

Back in 2011 I lived in Vietnam for four months while studying abroad with Loyola University Chicago. It was a special opportunity, as we were the first group of American students permanently studying abroad in Vietnam for a long duration of time, according to the U.S. Consulate a few blocks down the road from our hostel/dorm/Vietnamese government-sponsored housing. I remember the weeks, days and the minutes leading up to arriving in Saigon, being just astronomically stoked to be half-way across the world in South East Asia for the next four months...but also crazy nervous too. I was a skinny, 6'2 tall snowman from Wisconsin that didn't know more than "Hello" or "Thank you" in Vietnamese. I was going to be living, working and going to school in a country where there were very, very, very few other Westerners. I luckily met a somewhat healthy handful of Europeans and Australians but I saw almost no other Americans from January till May (truth be told, I was okay with that). I couldn't read Vietnamese, didn't know the currency or where to go to do what or get what. This was going to be a full-on, cultural immersion and shock. Bring it on, I thought when grabbing my suitcases and getting into a white, air conditioning-less Vinasun taxi cab. I had been wearing for the past twenty-two hours wrinkled dress pants, black dress shoes and a button-down blue and white-striped shirt. It was in the mid 90s, humid, and dusty. The air thick from a combination of motorbike exhaust and industrial smog.

But none of that scared me. If anything it gave me fuel to get out and explore that fascinating, incredibly beautiful and wild country that is Vietnam. I've always had a sense of adventure growing up, being in Vietnam was the chance to really unleash it fully, with no boundaries or limitations. One of the frequent ways I broke-into adapting to life in Vietnam was on days where I didn't have class or working at an NGO (non-government organization relief organization)- I would pack a daybag (with my camera, water bottle, cheapo travel phone, a few Vietnamese dong and my Lonely Planet guidebook), leave our residential compound, past the usually drunk, armed security guard and just go for a walk around Ho Chi Minh City (formerly called Saigon, which is what I still refer to it as). Ho Chi Minh City is a sprawling, never-ending, constantly growing metropolis. It's a loud, fast-paced, busy and urban jungle home to nearly ten million people. All living within about 809 square miles of each other. But it wasn't just a walk. I would purposely set-out to get lost. I'd think to myself, "I'm going to walk straight for twenty minutes, than take a right, keep going for ten minutes, take a right, than a left and then a right....etc, etc..." It was so much fun. For hours at a time, I'd just be walking around the biggest city in an entirely new country, on a completely different part of the globe taking in the surroundings, talking to people and learning what life is life over here first-hand. It was absolutely wonderful. I'd carry a journal with me, jotting down notes and thoughts or observations. Snap photos on my obnoxiously large Canon Rebel DSLR. I'd throw-down a few coins at a petite iced coffee shop, indulging in gloriously good iced milk coffee as I watched the world go by outside in front of me. On some turns I'd walk down a quiet alley lined with shops selling everything from knock-off, black-market iPhones, whicker baskets, clothes, motorbike parts, foods of all sorts and name it. On some turns I'd walk along a stream, polluted with mysterious colors and smells- with tin-paneled huts on stilts perched above. Some turns I'd walk straight into a roundabout, buzzing with buses, taxis honking, and the endless whirring and crackling of motorbikes dancing around it in circles. It was like it was all in perfect sequence and harmony.

Sure there were plentyyyyyyyy of times I was definitely lost and had no clue at all where I was. But that was the fun of it. It was that adrenaline rush of being in a foreign country, not just one that you're visiting but one that you're actually a resident of and calling home. Yeah, I was lost and not really knowing how to speak proficient, accurate Vietnamese, there would be times I felt kind of hopeless. But those were the times where you really figure out just how capable you are on your own. I'd look for landmarks or towering skyscrapers of glass, shed my shy shell and just attempt to ask for directions or advice in bits of broken Vietnamese mixed with hand gestures or dive-in to my Lonely Planet guidebook that was littered with scribbles of notes and underlines, paging to the back for maps. I never once, got lost to the point where I couldn't get home. You just have to breathe, smile, realize where you are and go forth to make the best of it.

So go get lost, on purpose, walk and wonder for as far as you can and as long as you can. Do it alone, too. Take it all in and don't be scared, each foot step you take in unfamiliar territory is only helping you grow and appreciate the vast, diverse world we're apart of. I did the same thing, getting lost on purpose, while in Reykjavik, Iceland this past fall.


P.S. Stay tuned, I'm going to be re-publishing all of my blog posts from when I lived in Vietnam in 2011 on the blog soon.