I always knew that packing up and shipping myself out of my comfort zone, home country and job was going to teach me a whole bunch of life lessons, the kind of things I had anticipated. Things like making friends, managing money and dealing with language barriers. However, as is often the way, some of the most significant & interesting things I have learnt came delivered in the most subtle of ways – these are some of the unexpected life lessons that came my way whilst on the road in Southeast Asia.
1. Drop the expectations and live in the moment
Expecting the hamburger you just ordered to be made of beef (rather than the more literal ham version)? Imagining the room you just booked will have a real toilet, not a hole in the floor? Let it go. Things are not going to conform to your western expectations – and sometimes that’s a great thing! Learning to have no expectations opens you up to the opportunity to really experience life. Stepping out of the way you expect things to unfold lets you be pleasantly surprised (and sometimes entertained or amused) by all the unusual and fascinating ways Southeast Asia will present itself to you.
2. Always watch where you're going.
Each day I thank the universe that 4 months in, I still have not been somehow sucked into the abundance of giant, deep, dark and open drainage systems that exist on every street. Huge gaping holes – sometimes from degradation of the footpath, sometimes just open drains that run alongside the road. In Malaysia they are where the large, crocodile like monitor lizards hang out, in Thailand I spotted many large rats. If you are not watching your every step, you may just end up in one. If not a drain, then maybe struck in the face by a loose and dangling live wire hanging from a lamp post, or even run down by somebody riding their motorcycle down the footpath. Compared the world I am used to, Southeast Asia can be a remarkably unfriendly and dangerous place for pedestrians.
The footpaths (or lack thereof) of Southeast Asia teach you to put the mobile Facebook down and watch where you’re going. In the process of being present, I began to spot the little things around me: geckos climbing the walls, hole-in-the-wall food vendors, people doing interesting and unusual things as they go about their daily lives. Just being present as you walk around is an amazing way to soak in the real culture of a place.
3. Look after your body
I’ve quickly realised that the parts of Asia closest to the equator is most frequently one of two things: Searing hot, or bucketing with rain. Umbrellas help considerably with both scenarios. Sunscreen will only help you so much as it slides off your face in a waterfall of slippery sweat, the best way to protect your skin is by staying under the cool(er) shade of an umbrella or a wide brimmed hat.
Until I spent time traveling Southeast Asia, I truly underestimated the power of heat related illnesses, and the dangers of skin cancer from repeated burning and sun exposure. Oddly enough, despite coming from New Zealand (land of the ozone layer deficiency) and traveling frequently to Australia and the South Pacific, this lesson never properly hit home. In my old day-to-day life I had things to protect me – an office to work in, an air conditioned car to travel in just to name a few. It wasn’t until I began travelling full time, having to walk to the shops on a daily basis in the searing sun, that I have really begun to value my skin and respect the sun.
4. Being humble isn’t just a choice, its the culture
Loosing face is a big deal. In fact, for many people it is one of the worst things that could happen to a person. That is why you will rarely see people honking their horns, shouting at each other or making another look bad.
Although personally, I see many issues arise due to this cultural view, it is still a great reminder that sometimes it becomes a little too easy or acceptable to be rude or shouty with one another, and maybe taking a step back to evaluate the situation before acting irrationally or putting somebody else down can, over time, create kinder changes to your long term habits.
5. There are no road rules - expect the unexpected and be ok with it
Driving around certain parts of Southeast Asia can be a real test of your awareness. 3 lane road with 5 cars driving down it? Motorbikes whizzing up, behind and all around you? Driving on the footpath to get around traffic? Even cars hurtling the wrong way down a super-highway are all common occurrences.
Driving in the busier centres is a wonderful (and often terrifying) practice in expecting the unexpected. This is something that most Thai drivers seem to be completely at ease with – seeing a driver winding it’s way through the oncoming traffic barely turns the head of a local as they are ready to expect, and react to, anything that comes their way.
The style of driving in SE Asia is relatable to a lot of mindfulness practices, the kind that teach you to be present in the moment and ready for anything that comes your way.
Traveling has been, and continues to be, a life changing experience. Not just from the huge things I would expect though, I feel I have so much more time & energy to notice the little things in life that often teach the most important lessons.
What lessons have you learnt from the little things in life?