I’ve just now arrived in Phrae, a low-key town with airy teak houses and unpretentious local food. A car backfires in the distance every ten minutes or so. Locals emerge out of their dark shops as they see me walking by; they smile and wave while encouraging their timid children to do the same.
The lady who owns this guesthouse has a scattered mind. She is bustling around the place while posing me questions: What’s my name? How old am I? Do I have a boyfriend? she asks while absorbed in her tasks. No, I say. She stops her bustling and looks at me intently with thick glasses that make her eyes look comically large and says: Freedom.
I will never claim to be on a spiritual journey; I will also never attempt to “find myself” via travel. Knowing oneself has less to do with one’s geographical coordinates and more to do with mental work that is honest and unabashed and often ugly. Traveling with the intention of leaving your problems behind is like running from a grenade that’s still attached to you.
That being said, there are larger contemplations on my mind and it’s still unclear whether my journey through Asia will aid or abate them. I’m attempting to recover and heal from things that happened and didn’t happen, needing to square with uncomfortable flashbacks and haunting regrets that still make me shiver. I’m trying to reckon with my father’s miserable death not two years earlier. I want to know how I can be the best possible version of myself, and then even better.
These affairs are compounded by my resounding aloneness here in Northern Thailand. Beyond the cultural immersion and good books I’ve brought and compelling conversations with affable strangers, I am still utterly alone in my thoughts and steps. I think it speaks to the nature of my struggles. Just like I choose precisely what I do day to day – what I eat, what I see, whom I talk to – only I can make better what I deem in need of fixing.
My dental hygienist couldn’t believe my plans; much of my extended family was dismayed by the news that I was leaving again. They were probably scared for me, unable to see the value in solitude and travel. “America is the best country in the world,” my grandpa, who didn’t speak a lick of English, sagely advised. “You need to be here, with us.”
Two days into my stay in Bangkok I met a Brazilian guy my age. While I couldn’t – and still can’t – define my trip with sound precision, the rough plan and general purpose, our ideas operated on a similar wavelength: he’d given himself eight months to backpack around Southeast Asia and India before returning to Sao Paulo to pursue a career in civil engineering, maybe.
I spent three full days with him exploring the city. It was so easy to be around him. We saw eye-to-eye on most things philosophical and personal, we were both very energetic, eager to see as much of Bangkok as we could, and we even walked the same pace.
In that situation, it would be easy and natural enough to continue on together for at least a couple more stops. But in our connection, there was also this unspoken mutual understanding, the way I understood it. Our journeys were not to be shared. The people along the way mattered but they also didn’t matter at all. Whatever he and I were trying to achieve, the mere lengthened presence of another would tarnish that somehow, some way.
It’s me, not us.
I said my goodbyes and set off without looking back. A familiar serenity overcame me, the one that tends to accompany my brand of detachment. With no one around, I could be in my head again for better or worse. I could sit and observe and wonder and dream; I could think about my dad, as I’m still unsure how I want to remember him. I could take the knowledge that addressing one’s issues is a matter of going deeper into them, sifting through them, facing them, accepting them, before they could become benign fixtures of a past long gone. Companionship at that very moment was the most overrated thing in the world: it was just me and my backpack, large but light; there could be no secrets between the two of us because it already knew what I carried.
After navigating the Sky Train into Bangkok’s center, I found the small bus station and hopped into the back of a local pick-up truck. We started rolling as soon as I entered. A little girl sat across from me, wind whipping her long black hair into swirls, as she coolly stared at me, my backpack, at me, my backpack. A few stops later, she smiled and waved goodbye as her mother ushered her off the truck.
As the girl grew smaller and smaller with distance, I wasn’t entirely sure if I was on the right ride. But I didn’t worry. I didn’t care. If I didn’t know where I was going, anywhere was alright with me.∗