I’ve been adjusting to life in Asia over the past two weeks, and continue to be struck by how travel puts me in touch with my core being. I think that immersing myself in new surroundings and redefining the limits of my experience and comfort zone reintroduce myself to the “true” me. I don’t mean this in a philosophical or religious sense, but instead in the most tangible way possible. Identity markers and attachments from home are lost as I navigate the bumpy streets of Thimphu, Bhutan, replaced with a strong[-ish] body, an open mind, and boundless curiosity.
I’m still “me,” but I’m only me in the sense that I cross mountain passes, spin prayer wheels with my right (clean) hand, and attempt to eat red rice harvested from local paddies for the fourteenth consecutive day with my core qualities intact. I hope I’m writing sensibly [enough] here. I don’t seek to project much of myself onto the landscapes, villages, and monasteries that I’m experiencing. All-American me (questionable to begin with, especially given the fact that I have entertained myself on the trail by carrying on internal conversations in Italian, French, and Spanish) doesn’t have a place around the dinner table in a yak herder’s house, where opportunities to learn about yak cheese (sorry, inedible), subsistence agricultural practices in western Bhutan, and night-riding (an interesting sex tradition, research at your own risk) abound.
So I recede a bit, and limit myself to “survival” mechanisms–eating, sleeping, hiking, exploring, and repeating, in whatever order necessary. Attending to my most basic needs has allowed me, thus far, to absorb as much as I possibly can from this wild and, at times, out-of-body experience.
I woke up yesterday morning in the truly “boonies” town of Wangdue Phodring, Bhutan, about nine hours east of Thimphu by very bumpy and nauseating road. I’m still recovering from our 100-mile trek in the western reaches of the country, and could surely have used more than nine hours of sleep, but the mountain “pigeons” divebombing into the hotel’s haphazard tin roof interrupted my peaceful reverie. The hotel would probably fall under the category of “one-star” in the West, and after nine nights of tent-living (five stars in my book), I’m realizing something about myself.
I enjoy “roughing it,” but I’m much more comfortable living a bit on the wild side in an orange and gray Mountain Hardwear tent than in Wangdue’s Hotel Tashiling or Paro’s Pelri Cottages, where bathroom sanitation and clean sheets aren’t guarantees. I’m not shooting for the stars here; I don’t need “luxury.” But if I’m going to be surrounded by filth, it may as well be my own. Put simply: I don’t do the “in between” thing. It’s either a tent and a sweaty sleeping bag, or simple frontcountry lodging with clean sheets and hygienic bathroom facilities. And to be clear, this isn’t a new conclusion gleaned from two weeks of travel in a developing country. I’ve held these convictions for quite awhile now, but the juxtaposition of tent living and frontcountry survival, complete with dirty toilets, cold showers, and powdered milk, has yielded a host of insights into self.
I’ll say it once more. It’s either a five-star hole in the woods or a squeaky clean porcelain throne. Nothing in between.