Reflections on a 14 month nomadic odyssey in Asia

Our good friend Sharon R. asked for some reflections on our 14 months odyssey in Asia… “Do you feel changed by your time in Asia? By your nomadic style? What have you gained, lost, how are you different from when you began?” 

Here are our “top 10” reflections on our 14 months of a nomadic lifestyle in Asia.

1) Travel as change agent:  For us, a constantly reinforced truth throughout our travels, is that experience trumps “stuff” anytime.  Every experience contributes to changing who we are.  Every new experience contributes a distinct colour that goes, like in an oil painting, on top of our life canvas.  No matter how long (Viet Nam, 5 months) or short (Sharjah, 16 hours), a new destination yields new visuals, new friendships, new sounds and tastes, and all this goes on the canvas to make our life painting richer.  Of course, it’s not always fabulous and it is inevitable that as one travels, one encounters logistical or other frustrations.  But that too is part of the overall picture that develops.  We have learnt to quickly rebound from these inevitable “bumps on the road.” These challenges are small and we deal with them as they come and move on. We feel enormously grateful to be able to travel and live as we do.  The funny thing is, the more we travel, the more places surface that we know precious little about, which beckon us. 

What we knew intellectually, namely that people are people everywhere and that all the barriers which are created in  societies around ethnicities, religions, languages, political and economic models, cultural particularities, are artificial. ~ All these barriers and preconceptions dissolve instantly when we (constantly) meet and engage with locals wherever we travel.

In Viet Nam, (for example) we had to deal with an impenetrable language and yet… within a  very short time, our hand gestures and ability to play charades made any linguistic barrier simply disappear and we found we could communicate sufficiently, without language.

In Sri Lanka, we were hosted by a Muslim family that has lived for generations in an enclave (Galle Fort) where Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus live in harmony.  The battle lines drawn by practitioners of Islam far away in the Middle East leaves them baffled.  As they say “That’s not Islam!”

In Laos and Viet Nam, both hard core “communist” political systems, there was nothing that would denote a fundamentally different universe. People are people. Countries have governments with distinct political platforms but on the whole at the grass root level, it is about caring for your children, feeding your family, pursuing dreams and enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

So ~ are we different from when we began? Most definitely. A nomadic lifestyle is life changing. It is less about possessions and more about experiences.  We have added richer colours and more texture to our life canvas…

2) Life and Death as continuum:  Perhaps one of the most striking differences from a Western cultural mindset: EVERYWHERE in Asia, (no matter the language, political system and economic achievements of the country) ~ is that the stark line that we trace in the West between white and black, life and death, is just not stark at all.  
There are many more Buddhists in the world than there are Judeo-Christians, and there are certainly a lot more Hindus as well, for whom the continuum of reincarnation is a given. The continued interaction with departed family members, the spiritual world, is an integral and important part of every day life… Cutting across the regions of Asia we journeyed through is a dominant feeling that ancestors, no longer present in the flesh, are still around, but in a different form.
While the specific rituals differ from one country to the next, the overall feeling is that spirituality, the daily engagement with the spirit world and one or several gods, is omnipresent.  It is hard to explain, but there is something entirely different about religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in Asia. Spirituality and religion are core personal elements that people integrate into their lives.  This differs from the uncomfortably judgmental (for us) fervour of religious believers in the West who translate their personal belief systems into political platforms and judgement of others.
How has this impacted us?  We perhaps are more inclined, when in need of some extra “help”, to call on our departed family members as spirit guides – Daniel (Peta’s brother), Georges (Ben’s Dad)  to jump in there and help us get through bumpy flights (literally and metaphorically.) Our Asian travels have taught us that the spirit world is an integral part of every day life and is more a choice of whether you “tap into it”, or not.  

3) Addiction to travel:  One might think that, after 14 months, we might be reaching a point of saying “Ok, enough, we’ve seen the world, time to settle down”. Hardly! ~ To be sure, there are attributes of a non-nomadic lifestyle that we do miss.  Most notably, having our dogs and cats around, as they are important part of our lives, when we stay put in one place. Living out of a suitcase, gets old. But on the whole, after 14 months, the general feeling is…. but what about Tibet? Mongolia? Bhutan? and what about Malaysia? Brunei?  And we do want to go to Africa ~ Ivory Coast, Senagal, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique… you get the idea… the world is like Mary Poppins’ bag ~ there is an unending supply of amazing stuff that comes out of it… so far, we are still just scratching the surface…We still both love the feeling of landing in a new place and exploring a new city for the first time. We are lucky in that we have been able to visit and have time with our families, at least annually. (Not easy considering how many different places they live in… L.A, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Nicaragua and Ashkelon.)

So, what have we gained? Knowledge of geography, culture, history and of course rich life experience.  The knowledge that people are innately good and friendly where ever we go. We have been consistently rewarded with general kindness, helpfulness and hospitality wherever we have travelled. The knowledge that there is not only one way to do things, one way to live. (The U.S. value system is just that… A value system, which has it’s limitations, like any value system.)

What have we lost? We have lost a societal constraint,  that sense that traveling is something that one can only do on a rare occasion, neatly compartmentalized between blocks of “work time”, during rare vacation time.  And any sense that travel requires a lot of money… all depends how one travels. Of course, that is a positive loss. We have lost possessions, continuously, trying to travel as light as possible. The lighter we are, the happier we feel. (We also have paintings in a few locations, albums in Nicaragua, some boxes here or there.. )

4) Things work out:  Perhaps the most prevalent observation, other than the fact that people are fundamentally good, the world over, is that… things do work out. Fretting about logistics is an integral part of traveling, it seems.  By now, we are pretty relaxed about the logistics of our travels. We trust things will work out, and they do. We usually secure a place to sleep for the first night when we arrive in a new country, especially if we arrive at night.  We read a few travel blogs, we land, we get a general sense of the direction we want to go in,  we find a market place and we walk… and that’s it … everything falls into place and flows organically from there. Occasionally, of course there are logistical problems.  Motorcycles that break down (Viet Nam) , trains that get stuck mid-course on steep hills (Thailand), hotels that turn out to be sub par or  noise levels that make one cringe (India), falling ill and needing to get hospital treatment (Ben in Viet Nam). But it all works out!

5) When “over there” becomes “here”:  One very interesting reality is that the metamorphosis from “over there” to “here” is instant.  Often, before we go to a new country, it seems so “far away, over there”… a far distant land, unknown, feels so distant ~ hours of travel by whatever means… it is not part of our reality (yet) and, well, it’s foreign in every sense.  We had that feeling before going to Viet Nam ~ sure, we were excited and intrigued and eager to go, but it was a clear case of  going “over there”… far away. And yet, within minutes, there becomes “here”. Where ever we are becomes our new reality, our new “here” and everyone else is out “there”. The local newspapers start to convey a new geographic reality ~ the articles talk about local matters, the people we encounter have realities grounded in the “here”, and “there” becomes the U.S., Europe, Nicaragua, South Africa.  Once we land, we are “here” and our reality adjusts, like a GPS signal on our computer, to local time, local reality, local geography.  We have switched our reality, to thinking and feeling we live where ever we are at a given point in time.

6) Looking for a home base: Our globe trotting is part travel and discovery, part searching for our next “Nicaragua”.  We have been exceedingly successful in the sense that we have found several towns / cities that we would gladly call home ~ Hoi An in Viet Nam, Ubud in Indonesia, Luang Prabang in Laos, Fort Gall in Sri Lanka…

How has this changed us?  We are now completely clear that we can live pretty much anywhere.  So far we have identified at least 4 or 5 cities/towns where we could easily plant our flag and achieve, should we want it, geographic stability.  This is a big deal because one tends to limit one’s options of where to live based on proximity to family, ability to get income, language etc… but in fact, wherever we choose, eventually, to settle down (for a while) will only be a flight (or 2) away.

7) Geopolitics – a different perspective:  It is one thing to read articles and surmise that China is rising.  Seems like an abstract concept, perhaps of interest to economists, bankers and military strategists.  But, having now spent months in China’s neighborhood, our perspective is very much “first person”.  We read every single day, no matter what country we are in, about China’s incursions in the region.  China is flexing its considerable muscle and there is no doubt that a coming monster clash between the West (or perhaps just the U.S.) and China is in the making.  China has initiated land grabs that conflict with the status quo in Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and they have more amicably essentially taken over Sri Lanka and Laos.  Chinese tourists today are what Europeans referred to as the “Ugly American” in the post WWII era.  They generally, come across as arrogant, disrespectful of local customs, observing locals as animals in a zoo, with oversized cameras and are very much big spenders…  Chinese travelers are now the number one travel market in the world, with over 100 million Chinese traveling the world last year alone.  This is of course just the beginning.    We are now extremely aware of this mega shift in spending power and geographic expansion and China is the 800lbs gorilla.  We are grateful for having seen this first hand as it has changed very much our reading of world events.  To be clear, “the Chinese are coming”, no doubt about that.

8) One can’t do it all!: We have long given up doing traditional tourist type things. But we have both learnt, that one cannot do it all and see it all and so we no longer even try to. We select maybe 1 or at most 2 things that we for sure want to do or see in a new place, but other than that, the rest flows organically. It is much more about being on the street, going to market places and just seeing what comes our way. We also travel slow. When we really like a place, we stay there. When we don’t resonate as much, we move on.

9) Stability is internal, not external: Home is not determined by owning a house for us any more, or staying in one place. We both noticed, that during a day, no matter where we are, one of us will say “Lets go home now”. Being together, looking out for each other brings us a sense of stability that is stronger for us, than a physical place. 

10) Other nomads abound: A nomadic lifestyle is not that unusual. For years now we have met countless nomads passing through Nicaragua and for the past 14 months crossing paths with us in Asia. To be sure our lifestyle differs from the conventional approach that has many living in one house, one country for many years… However, there is an increasing number of people who have a similar approach to extended travel,  trading geographic stability and possessions in favour of the experience that a nomadic lifestyle offers.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on a 14 month nomadic odyssey in Asia

  1. Sharon Rosenzweig

    Thanks for answering my question. Looks like you’ve gained resilience and lost fear, to summarize?
    As someone who longs for home whenever I’m away, there’s that lovely moment you describe in #9, where you say let’s go home now. This is the most surprising detail. I relate to the idea that home is where your partner is, and it helps make sense of how it all can work. Thanks for taking the time to reflect.

    1. Peta Kaplan and Ben Sandzer-Bell

      Well, you have the two largest economies in the world, US and China, inevitably colliding in a current and future world of depleted natural resources. Be it limited resources like oil, minerals, rare earth, water, food, etc… there is a zero sum game pretty much on all fronts in terms of access to natural resources. We see China moving its strategic pieces everywhere – from essentially “buying” Sri Lanka, which sits right next to China’s largest immediate competitor, India; They are establishing a new norm in most of Africa, where they are unhampered by the West’s tendency to link state to state relations with their perception of human rights violations; There is Nicaragua, where they are building a competing canal to the US controlled Panama Canal, which will give China unfettered access to ports south of the US border, etc… the list goes on… The U.S. policy under Obama, though not terribly well executed, is a “pivot to Asia”, a sort of “encirclement strategy” to create a ring around China… Of course, China has a much longer timeline and attention span than the U.S. and their response is to initiate a relationship with Putin’s Russia, to make the point that the U.S. encirclement strategy will not be taken passively…(Ben)

  2. Gili

    Yes, there are signs of China gaining in power all over the world, not only in the neighbourhood, even Canada, Australia, etc. Incidentally, one of their most grandiose projects is the new canal in Nicaragua, which will hopefully fail…

    1. Peta Kaplan and Ben Sandzer-Bell

      Gili – the Canal won’t fail. At best, it will be dismissed as a mere negotiation ploy by China that just happens to be in the middle of negotiating a long term (50 year +) contract with the Panama Canal. They may be able to convince the Panama Canal to make some meaningful concessions, which will make what is so far only a few million dollars, the best possible investment in public relations deception that China has ever invested in. OR, they may actually want to set up a comprehensive base in Nicaragua (my belief) and then there is no reason it will fail. From an engineering point of view, this is not something that is beyond Chinese capability. And from a financial point of view, we are “only” talking about some $40Billion – chump change from a Chinese perspective. Of course, there is the massive and catastrophic environmental impact that will cause, not only in Nicaragua, but in the whole central america region, which is counting on Lake Nicaragua as its largest repository of potable water. But THAT, the Chinese clearly don’t care about and the Nicaraguan government has demonstrated that it is quite willing to use coercive measures to expropriate land and to make sure that any popular revolt is squashed. The Chinese are coming!! The Chinese are coming!

    2. Gili

      I agree that they have a good chance of succeeding, I just hope they fail 🙂 On our way out, on the taxi to the airport, we passed a huge new factory, which the driver pointed out was a Chinese investment…

      PS, the Chinese are coming to Israel too. A few years ago ChemChina purchased a majority share in what was Makhteshim Agan and is now Adama, a major manufacturer and distributer of herbicides, pesticides, etc (that a certain family member happens to work at). It’s not a surprise that Adama is now expanding its operations in China…

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