“Eat when there’s food, take a piss when there’s a bathroom, drink when there’s water, sleep when you get a chance and so on.”
So I was told prior setting out to the Philippines. And that turned out to be a pretty valuable piece of advice I got right there as these travels through Asia are turning out to be much more challenging than anything I did so far. First step; gotta lower your western standards big time.
“The world is not in your books and maps, it’s out there.”
If there’s one thing I noticed that is common throughout Southeast Asia it is how absolutely everything is just ridiculously chaotic and seem impossible but strangely enough, someway somehow, it almost always miraculously works out just fine. Only carried out in a total different manner than what you – as a westerner – were expecting. Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing. It just goes beyond our understanding is all. Anyone of you that’s already been to S.E. Asia will know what I’m talking about.
For instance, unlike what we’re used to, here when you need to arrange transportation you don’t just get on the internet and get a ticket, nah that would be way too easy. First of all, most places don’t have an internet connection at all and second, even when you miraculously get online, it’s only to find out that ain’t absolutely nothing online; no schedule, no info, no website, no transparency, no nothing. Actually when you’re browsing the net you systematically find everything and its opposite, which is so confusing that you quickly just leave it alone.
So here it is, you gotta do it the local way. Gotta interact with a local, knowing that most of the times you have no language in common and a total different culture. You are aware that it seems like they have no clue whatsoever what you want, that they could perfectly misunderstand and fix you a buko shake instead of a boat ride to the next island but someway somehow, in the end it’s gonna work out. And believe me every time it works out, it is already a little miracle in itself. Of course it will never be the way you expected it to be, never on time, never really easy and often far from being stress-free given that up until the point where you’re actually arrived, you’re never sure where you’re headed, never sure that you won’t get tossed out of the bus half-way through the journey at some random spot with no further explanation and so on.
“You have not lived until you have fled a city in a country where you do not speak the language in the middle of the night.”
And right when you think your bus will make no more stop until its destination as there’s absolutely no more seats available at all, that’s precisely when another 15 new passengers come in. Basically they gonna keep on packing it up till it gets so cramped that you literally can’t even reach your water bottle anymore. Later on they eventually took another 5 passengers in. Those guys ended up traveling on the rooftop (literally) – hanging onto our backpacks that god-knows-how were strapped up there. And off we went for another couple hours through the jungle. I travel a lot, I hate having my life disrupted by routine.
“Adventure, yeah. I guess that’s what you call it when everybody comes back alive.”
Found out in the Philippines about what they call “Island Time” (say a common 2 to 3 hour delay) which later turned out to be something that applies to S.E. Asia in general. Only don’t think that you can just turn up at your bus stop an hour late and “be on time”, nope that’d just be too easy as well. Sometimes you’re told you’d be picked up at 6 and it actually means that your bus is gonna leave the town at 6 and so they may totally pick you up by 5 as they got several pick-ups to do all across the city. Yes you got it, when you got to catch a bus ride or anything like it, be sure to be there roughly an hour early and bear in mind that from there you could totally spend 3 hours waiting and still not be sure that your “booking” has ever been taken in account. Welcome to mindfuck-land.
And in case you were thinking “yeah whatever, I could just throw more cash in and go through a better travel agency so I don’t have to fuck around so much.” Well I’m sorry pal but ain’t no better company around here. Let me get this straight; each and every company is fucked up one way or another and so such kind of plan B is not part of your options.
I gotta say it takes quite a while to adjust but before you know it, you no longer worry about what time the bus, train or boat arrives, you just accept that you will get there whenever you get there and it doesn’t take long until you consider an 8 hour ride a short journey.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”
For the record, several times we’ve had to change our whole itinerary just because there was just no way to get to the spots we wanted to check out. In the Philippines you often end up going where they’re ok to take you rather than where you were initially planning on going to, as there’s just no choice and you don’t quite have a say. No matter where you’ll wind up, just go with the decision that’ll make for a good story.
“Greatness is not in where we stand but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But sail we must. And not drift. Nor lie at anchor.”
Makes me think of something else that is pretty common in Southeast Asia; whenever you book a certain type of room, a certain type of transportation or even a certain tour with this and that option, when you pay extra for a little bit of extra comfort or anything like that, always bear in mind that NOTHING IS EVER GUARANTEED. Matter of fact most options you pay extra for are just widespread scams as at the end of the day everyone will get the very same standard service. It’s gotta be upsetting at first but to be fair you quickly get used to it and soon enough, when you actually get hot water for your shower or when the fan in sorta working in you room, it’s a little like a Xmas in August.
Of course, all those times you get ripped off you could just run down to the reception and make a fuss about it, yes, you will try that the first time, maybe even the second time as well. Only you’ll find out that about the “no english” thing and quickly you’ll just give up, get back to your crappy room and learn to be content with what you got as that’s just the way it is. Gotta face it, there’s just no point in arguing with them as it’ll just get you nowhere and could only drive you even more mad. Now whether or not they actually don’t speak English at all or they’re just pretending so they don’t have to put up with guests at all, this is another story. Because ripped off you will be, and countless times so you better get used to it. Matter of fact I believe that scams currently represent roughly 20 to 30% of my daily budget.
You never gonna pay twice the same price for a given item and you’re gonna have to haggle from dawn to dusk, from the price of your hotel room to a bag of roasted peanuts. Sometimes you just wanna say “just tell me the price and let me enjoy it” but it doesn’t work that way and it is tiring sometimes. That is probably one of the main reasons why most Westerners can’t handle it for very long.
And this takes us right to the next topic; the “meaningless yes”. Again, whoever has spent time around here will join me on this, whatever you say, whatever you ask, you will always be answered a “yes” accompanied by a blank stare that clearly means that the person has no clue whatsoever what you’re talking about. Sure it sounds funny when you read it but I assure you that it gets veeeeery frustrating on a daily basis. Never take a “yes” for an answer, always rephrase a couple times with the simplest words, mime it, draw it when you can and always use open-ended questions otherwise you’ll just get your standard “yes” that means nothing at all. And once again, bear in mind that even when you take all those precautions, you may very well not be understood at all and you may have to find an answer some other place. Once I even had a lady telling me “yes yes yes” while she was distinctively shaking her head. Mindfuck-land I’m telling you.
Or maybe it is not so much of a mindfuck-land, maybe it is just something called culture shock. I have to say, all along my travels, I had never experienced such degree of a culture shock. Indeed it is very disorienting to lose your ability to communicate, especially when even your memes are often not good enough to get you through because of the culture difference this time. You may find yourself to be as good as mute sometimes and it ain’t easy when you gotta get things done.
“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.”
Like at the restaurant, if you manage to have them take your order right, you’re the luckiest guy on earth. In fact quite often you can sorta tell that they did not get it right from the moment you ordered but again, knowing only too well the hassle due to the language barrier, most of the time you just can’t be fucked arguing for half an hour and get nowhere anyway. So you just kinda let go and let them bring you whatever they believed you wanted without moaning about it as you’re aware that there’s just no point, and sometimes their mistakes turn into beautiful culinary discoveries.
And you better be happy with what they bring you because here everything takes time. Matter of fact, here you don’t go to the restaurant when you’re just starting to get hungry or worse – already hungry, no, you gotta get there at least an hour beforehand otherwise you’ll end up starving to death waiting on your food.
But that’s just the way it is, you gotta adjust, again and again. Like at the hotel, independently from the fact that you actually paid for it, if there’s even the weakest wifi signal at the place you’re staying at, if you got working AC in your room, then again consider yourself fortunate. Gradually you learn or relearn to appreciate every tiny bit of comfort, anything you’re offered.
The measure of intelligence is the ability to adapt.
Now regarding the food, basically it’s kind of a constant love/hate thing. Sometimes you get lucky and the food’s amazing and the next day you wake up and you’d rather die than shoving one more grain of rice in your mouth. And let me tell you one thing, you have experienced nothing until you’ve had snake soup for breakfast several days in a row.
When traveling off the beaten path in Vietnam, at the restaurant, it is not uncommon to go and give them a hand in the kitchen. Then considering the fact that most restaurants do their dishes in a bucket directly on the sidewalk, right outside the restaurant, you better systematically wipe your bowl and chopsticks down prior eating if you don’t wanna get sick. Also you’ll get used to throw everything on the ground as they got no bins and it pretty much is the custom up here. Food leftover, cigarette butts, beer bottles and so on, it all ends up on the floor. It is there before you settle down, and will remain after you’re gone. Probably makes the cleaning easier after all.
Today we’re driving 200km. When I asked the driver how long would that take, suggesting a 3 to 4 hour drive counting large, he pissed herself laughing and said “nah, more like 8 or 9 hours without breaks”. What I didn’t take into account was the global condition of the roads around there that was just so bad that you just can’t go over 30kmph. To travel is to learn to let go. It is the ultimate learning that sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. To travel is to accept that you don’t control a thing and most likely the best option is to forget all you thought you knew and accept to be blindly guided through those foreign lands. If you don’t let the voyage destroy you a bit, you might as well just stay home.
Many times in Asia I’ve had the feeling that I was travelling back in 1950. It is nothing pejorative though, this is just a comment. And during this trip more than ever, I misjudged many people. The worst-looking folks often proved to be some of the most interesting and the ones that I could quickly bound with almost always ended up getting on my nerves.
Because I yet have so many things to learn. I realize I’m only at the dawn of the discovery of the second part of the world; the third world countries. I find it fascinating to humbly compare Western and Oriental cultures and habits. Anywhere I been in Asia so far (outside the touristy areas), I could spend hours talking to a local that had no English at all and try and have some sort of a conversation nonetheless. Try and overcome the language barrier thanks to mimes, patience and creativity. Everyone smiles in the same language.
It is just ridiculous how different our two cultures are, and on so many levels. Though just as much as I’m a couple hundred percent positive that our two worlds are not made to be mixed with each other, I truly believe that we both yet have much to learn from each other.
And even though it is just mind-blowing how most places in Asia are loud, chaotic and polluted, if you wander off the beaten track you may very well find hidden gems. Once I ended up staying at a very basic campsite lost on a secluded beach. This was the most remote and inaccessible part of the island, matter of fact you could only get there by boat.
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
Well you know what, I felt like I was actually relaxed for the very first time in my life. No wifi, no shower, no phone signal, no amenities, nobody, no notion of time, no nothing. The ultimate calm and quiet. At long last, a proper vacation. No phone, no laptop, no watch, no digital screen of any sort, and no feeling of guilt whatsoever. Nothing to worry about, nothing to do but to chill out and explore the island, disconnected from this world for good for an entire week. Never ever have I felt anything like that before, such level of serenity and relaxation. Totally off the grid.
No stress, no worries, no connection with the outside world at all. The time has stopped. The world out there may very well collapse you wouldn’t have a clue and that’s got to be the best feeling in the world. You know sometimes words fail.
“The greatest justification for travel is not self-improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace.”
When thinking about life, remember this; no amount of guilt can change the past and no amount of anxiety can change the future.