Olivier and Sven goofing around in Asia

Dream as if you will live forever, live as if you will die today

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Re-adjusting: the real challenge? :) (Sven)

Posted by goofingaroundinasia on October 1, 2009 at 3:13 AM

I've been back for about 2 weeks now... and I must say that - although I had read a book about and talked a lot to experienced travellers about the psychological aspects of this kind of trip - I could never have predicted what I feel now. I first thought of it being a personal feeling, but yesterday I got an e-mail from Olivier describing the exact same feelings... so I thought it'd be worth to mention and try to describe. Let me be honest with you: there's no way I can put this experience/feelings into words in a proper way... but I can try :)


One year was a lot of time away, more than enough in one stretch anyway. At the start of our trip I was full of energy, eager to explore, excited about it... But after a while you get so used to it, backpacking becomes your new "way of life" -- I got used to the culture differences, I got used to the hectic traffic situations, I took planes like I used to take buses back home... And I adapted to everything quite easily - I arrived in a new place without stress, just like "let's do this"... Which is great on the one hand, but the thrill is gone to some extent... It all becomes so normal and your energy and excitement to travel and explore new places decreases after a while. Which makes it harder for you to keep on carrying on, handle travel annoyances (like people trying to rip you off all the time, inefficiency,...). Also, one of the hardest things about travelling this long is certainly not having family and close friends around. Of course I met many people, and some of them became really good friends, but it's not the same like having a conversation with a friend back home who has known you all your life... And also, by the time you make really good friends in a place, you have to carry on to your next destination.


I don't want to sound negative about my trip at all though. This experience was FANTASTIC!! Before doing the trip I actually had some doubts but now I'm positive about it: this has been worth it all the way !! It's been such a life experience, learning how to be independent and to adapt to new situations, places and cultures, learning about and understanding other cultures and religions, seeing so much beautiful nature, dealing with yourself and others in difficult situations, being able to peek at our Western society from within Asia and realising the good/bad things about it, having time for myself I never had before in my old "stressful life"... I can go on for hours. The trip hasn't sure been easy all the way, but it was the best life experience possible which I will always remember and which has made me a different person to some extent. In one year I experienced more than in about 6-7 years of my former life... It's an experience I would recommend to everyone!


Of course I also knew that this trip wouldn't make my life easier. The more you break away from what "you're supposed to do in your life" (as to what our society describes :)), the more exciting and adventurous your life becomes, but you also make your life harder -- you're breaking away from certainties, you keep on wondering more "what's out there for me?",  "What's the meaning of life?" and "What do I want to do with my life?"... and many other questions. This trip made me realise that our Western society and what it tries to oppress to us as "the ideal way of life" is not the only way of life, neither is it the best one. Yes, we live in a fairly good society, we're relatively wealthy, we pay a lot of taxes but get a lot in return (like social security), the level of health care is perfect, our roads are in good condition and clean, it's easy to get food and hygiene standards are good... But travelling around in a totally different society I realised that we pay a price for that. People here have become individualistic and egocentric to some extent, leading their stressful lives and always being busy with their career, not having much time for friends or family. Kids are brought up by a domestic help / child-care as both partners have jobs and once people get old we put them away in retirement homes...  Also, society here pushes people so much to lead a stressful life... Causing a lot of burnouts... Also, children get stress from a very young age, they don't get any more time to play, and some can't cope and get depressions at an early age (how many 13-18 year olds get depressions nowadays? Quite a lot...). Or, people live their whole life "living up to what society tells them to do" and eventually they get the marriage, the career, the big house and big car... everything society told them to live up to... retiring at some point and suddenly realising that that's not what true happiness is about, realising that there's still something missing in their lives but failing to identify it. We have everything we ever needed and are probably never going to experience poverty, but we're whining and complaining all the time about things that don't really matter in life. We don't make any efforts anymore to talk to our neighbours or smile at people in the streets, we're so in need of our privacy, at night people rather sit inside watching their whole list of terrible soaps and TV-shows rather than go outside and meet their friends. Speaking of TV, watching the news nowadays doesn't make you happy either - misery all over, murders, roadkills, family dramas, politics being one big circus,... oh what a wonderful society do we live in :)


Travelling around in Asia made me realise how much life is different over there, how we evolved towards a smarter, richer and more advanced society, but not necessarily a happier one. I met people in Asia who don't have anything, who don't have a job and who basically live in slums and have no future... Why would they worry about the future, they'd better worry about today instead: every day they struggle to get food on the table for them and their family and seeing they don't have social security or money to pay for medical care, they might just die if they catch a disease. What hope do they have... they don't think about tomorrow, they think about today instead. I talked a lot to people there... And realised that, even though their life is so hard, even though they struggle constantly and even though they don't have any hope, they don't get depressed... they don't just sit there whining and complaining... they're not bitter about life, they accept it. They just carry on and try to enjoy every day in their lives. They smile at people and welcome them into their houses - showing a great deal of hospitality sometimes, they care for and look after their friends and family, they still hold dear some values and principles that are far beyond gone in our Western society... Although their lives is so hard, they're generally happy... even more so, they probably feel more happy than we do in our society where we have "everything we ever wanted".


Also, making this trip gave me more insight in how different people and religions are and how that leads to tensions in many countries. Indonesia for instance is a melting pot of different cultures (it has around 300 ethnic groups, each with cultural differences developed over centuries, and influenced by Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Malay, and European sources) and religions, and although there are some periodic clashes, they all live together relatively peacefully - taking into account what a big country it is. In our small country of Belgium, however, we don't seem to be able to cope with our migration issues, understanding and accepting different cultures and religions at all.  Travelling around in Muslim countries, I realised that before I didn't know ANYTHING about their culture and religion. Only things I had heard - especially from people who were criticising them in a racist way - or read. Same with undoubtedly the majority of people voting on "Vlaams Belang" - they don't know anything about their culture or society or their intentions and neither are they even interested, they see them as a threat to their society and their solution is just "kick them out". I do realise that the problems we have with immigrants aren't that easy, but we shouldn't generalise and certainly not judge as we don't know or want to know anything about their culture.  Ignorance and hatred have caused so many wars in the past and we never learn... we just carry on doing exactly the same thing.


Rereading the above part I realise I'm describing our society in quite a negative way, though don't mean to (think it's part of my re-adjustment process :)). It's certainly not that much better in Asia - people trying to rip you off all the time, corruption everywhere, people dying on the streets, people sending their children out on the streets to beg, no environmental awareness - people just throw their rubbish in the streets and waterflows become heavily polluted, diseases and people dying because they don't have money and/or means for medical treatment, hectic, dangerous and unhealthy traffic, tensions between ethnic groups, pickpockets, prostitution - at a very young age,... We saw and experienced terrible things as well... but we managed to put it into a perspective. We managed to compare western society to Asia... and point out the good and bad things of both societies.


Oh, something else I realised. We spent quite some time in Cambodia, a country with a terrible history (the Khmer Rouge killed more than 1,5 million people, killed intellectual and educated people) and which is still being exploited (Chinese building and exploiting dams, Japanese exploiting Choeng Ek (the killing fields, where people were executed) as a tourist hotspot,... As there's so much poverty and misery there (check out our pictures of Stung Meanchey - the waste dump in Phnom Penh), a lot of NGO's are based here. However, in a country with so much poverty and corruption, the challenge is not raising money to help people, the real challenge is making sure that money is actually used what it's meant for. So unfortunately a lot of the money disappears into people's pockets (some NGO owners even who drive around Phnom Penh in  their big Lexus) and is never used to actually help people. It's a tough call; both Olivier and I talked to people involved in voluntary work there and we realised it's hard to get things done in that culture (you can't put a local in charge, they don't have the necessary organisational skills or they will run off with the money). Even more so - I realise that if you contribute money to some volunteering organisation, you never know whether the money is actually going to go to what it's supposed to go. Due to circumstances we had to cancel our voluntary work in Mongolia, but I'm more than ever convinced that actually going there yourself and helping people out there is the best way to help... not just contributing money and "getting rid of your 'white man's guilt'" as they call it :)


Coming back to Belgium after such a  long trip is a weird experience. Of course it's great to have the luxury of having a whole house again and all the luxury, having all my stuff back and not having to live anymore on whatever "15kg of stuff" I can squeeze into a backpack, having such a variety and abundance of food again,... And it was wonderful to see my friends and family again, something I had been craving for. But I'm also confronted again with our society, it's like coming home to a society which is not my own anymore. People are whining and complaining about things I don't care about (yet they have everything they could wish for), people want to buy expensive stuff (I broke away from that kind of materialistic mindset), people are so stressed out - to meet with friends I have to book far ahead, people driving on the road are more concerned about respecting the traffic rules rather than road safety (they won't drive too fast, but they drive in the most egocentric way possible...), when I watch the news I'm disgusted by all the misery - so am I when I watch the soaps, TV-shows and commercials,... Oh, and it's cold, haha :)


Coming home is exactly how people described: nothing and nobody has changed; life is still the same here and people are still into their old mindset. I have changed, however... and it's not easy to readjust.    


Don't be alarmed though, I talked to many people who have done a trip like this before, and they told me the process I'm going through is normal and I'll readjust eventually.  I have to find my own pace again and it takes time.


Finally, once again I'd like to thank all of you out there to make this trip possible and to support us during our whole journey: my parents (thanks for supporting me, for always being there, for arranging practical things like looking after the house and the cat,...), my friends (you know how important you are in my life :)), my ex-colleagues (the support I received before I left on my trip was unexpected yet wonderful), all the wonderful friends I met during my travels - some of whom who have shown me a great deal of hospitality, my girlfriend (for loving and supporting me in difficult times), the aquaintances who follow up and commented on our blog,... Thanks to all of you!!


Well that's it for now. I'll keep you guys posted about any further plans and adventures :)


I'm always open to sharing travel experiences; just drop me an e-mail at sven.delmeiren@gmail.com. It might take a while before I reply, but I'll get back to you for sure !





- Sven

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