Throughout our travels, we have become increasingly aware of how lucky we are in so many respects. Before we left on this journey, I think we were both very grateful and thankful for our lifestyles, but traveling throughout Southeast Asia has really forced us to look more closely at the smaller things that we take for granted. Here are some (but not all) of the items we don’t take for granted now. (This list is not intended as criticism to the beautiful countries we have visited and love. Every country has its own story and develops in its own unique way. This is just a reflection on the luck and privileges I previously sometimes took for granted).
1. Electricity, especially 24-hours a day, 7 days a week
Mitch and I have stayed in many places that didn’t have electricity all day long. If you recall, we stayed in a scary little town on the Mekong on our way to Laos that had random blackouts. (To be clear, the town wasn’t scary because of the blackouts, haha 😉 ). Throughout Burma and in one of our home stays, we experienced random blackouts, and in many of our beach huts, electricity was only available via a generator for six hours a day. Because we didn’t have to live like this permanently, we were generally fine, but these experiences really made us think about the people who don’t have access to electricity because of scarcity (like in our island beach huts) or because they can’t afford it. How else does this affect them? It probably affects:
– Access to information: If people can’t listen to the radio, read the news online (if they have access), or watch the news on a television, they are probably less able to remain informed and educated about what is happening around them, which is detrimental in general but especially in countries with an oppressive government.
– Health: What happens if someone in your family is ill and needs to stay warm? Without access to electricity, more illness and medical costs abound.
– Education: similar to access to information, but additionally, how likely is one to study when access to proper lighting is unavailable? This, of course, affects opportunities to make a better living for one’s family.
2. Water (much less warm, clean water)
In Oakland, I am so lucky to be able to be able to turn on the tap for some water when I’m thirsty. I can drink the water and brush my teeth with it, knowing it is tasty and clean. I will always remember our home stay host in Thailand telling us about the dead rat in the town water that people had been drinking for about a week…
3. Free Speech
Many of the countries we visited do not have freedom of speech. In Burma, the press has only been able to publish without pre-approval from the government since 2012! Singapore strongly censors political and religiously sensitive material.
Mitch and I have experienced food poisoning twice so far, and I cut my toe pretty badly (borderline needing stitches) during this trip. There are also many other scenarios where the possibility of needing to use healthcare abroad entered my mind (getting mowed down by a motorbike, for example, is actually a large possibility). While the U.S. has room to grow in terms of its healthcare system, I have to say that I am grateful that I can trust the ingredients label on my medications, that I have access to healthcare, and that public hospitals have decent equipment and facilities.
Not only do I have access to good, clean, healthy food on a regular basis, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to some of the best food in the country! When I get home, I know I’m going to appreciate my meals, my farmers market produce, my Safeway produce, so much more. I admit to sometimes being a food snob in the past, but those days are over. I will still enjoy delicious meals and even celebratory fancy meals, but every time I eat, I will always try to be mindful of what’s happening. I’ll think about where the food came from and how it arrived on my table and who was involved in this process. I’ll savor the flavors and remember to be grateful for my meal, knowing that so many others eke out a living with so much less and many others don’t survive.
I am lucky to say that not only did I attend good public schools from K-12, I attended the best public university in the world (Go Bears!). Not everyone can say the same; we have met many young students desperate to learn without access to or opportunity to attend a solid educational institution.
Let’s not kid ourselves here, I am not a fashionista, but I do enjoy the occasional (OK, maybe more than occasional) addition to my closet. Well, for the past four and a half months, I have been living out of two backpacks with a fixed number of clothing articles, shoes, makeup, hair stuff, and general accessories. This is definitely a challenge for me, which is sad because we have seen tons of people living with much less. I have worn the same sweaty outfits more than once before being able to wash them and “survived” with just one beach cover up when in the past, I have been known to bring one or two cover ups per day for a beach trip because I told myself I couldn’t be in the same coverup in all my photos. Ah, the ugly truth comes out. I have way too many clothes and I cared way too much about clothes (and this didn’t even result in being anywhere near fashionable!).
Before I left for this trip, I actually performed a relatively successful closet purge in which I donated about four or five large trash bags of clothes and accessories. After this trip, I know I could have done more. When we return, I plan to do another massive closet cleanse as well as a “stuff” cleanse. We honestly don’t need all the things we have, and I truly believe we would actually be happier with fewer things and more positive experiences.
When I think about what makes me happy, I think about this once in a lifetime trip with my husband; the dinner at James and Sarah’s before we left; hiking with my friends; that time Jarrett couldn’t stop laughing in Yosemite cabin; skinny dipping in Big Sur (definitely didn’t involve clothes); staying up until 2 am whenever I’m in San Diego because I can’t get enough time with my mom and Joey, Arra, and David; teaching Hannah to knit in college; giant Thanksgiving dinners with my Dad’s family; crazy evenings and delicious dinners at Jeana and Bob’s; evening strolls around Lake Merritt.
Which brings me to my last point:
8. Friends and family
Guys, as much fun as we’ve been having on this trip, we miss you. This was pretty evident when we met up with Mitch’s dad in Singapore (post to come soon), and I started crying the second I saw him. You are so important to us, and we miss you all so much and can’t wait to return to spending quality time with all of you.
This post has been all over the place, but I guess what my heart is trying to say is that I am seeing more and more clearly now what really matters to me, and those things are family and friends; experiences and memories; and using my advantages and privileges to help others who haven’t had the same opportunities.
We still have two months left on this journey, but I am already excited about my clearer perspective and the changes — even small changes can be meaningful — in my attitude and lifestyle upon our return.
See you soon! XOXO