A travel metaphor in which I reflect upon our current situation through the lens of past experiences living abroad.
Not long after my wife, Wendy, and I were married, we had an opportunity to move to Thailand and volunteer with a nonprofit.
So we did.
Would we advise other young couples to make a big move to an unfamiliar country and culture without any real social support system right after getting married?
We would not.
But it seems to have worked out for us, so who can say really?
I think it was March when we arrived in Chiang Mai, a medium sized city in the north of Thailand.
I remember vividly sitting in the backseat of a car, looking out the window as we bounced along a dusty road, feeling low level panic.
Everything was so foreign. It all seemed dingy and dirty, different than how I had imagined it.
Thai people did not speak English. They spoke Thai! Some of the signs had English translations, but everything else was in Thai, a language that did not even use the Roman alphabet. It was like hieroglyphics, but even less understandable.
The differentness was almost overwhelming.
I couldn’t believe how I felt, to be honest. I had traveled a bunch, even lived overseas as a kid. I thought I was a true global citizen, a man of the world. But I was just as scared as any other noob traveler.
After resting from nearly two continuous days of flights, airports, and one questionable motel in Bangkok, we decided to push ourselves into further discomfort by getting a ride into the city to walk the streets and see the night market.
The taxi driver was a regular fixture outside the guesthouse. He spoke English well enough, so we knew getting into the city would be fine. To get ourselves back, we had a business card with an address on it.
The night market was hopping. Loud. Lively. A little crazy.
It was all about the tourists. There were vendors selling wooden trinkets, pirated music CDs and DVD movies, leather jackets, custom tailored suits, custom photorealistic drawings and paintings, and tons of street food. We even passed a McDonald’s.
We had a blast.
And we got back to the guesthouse safe and sound.
Telling other foreigners about our first night adventuring also gave us street cred.
As time went on, we got settled in an apartment (luxurious by Thai standards, pennies on the dollar by ours), bought a little well worn motorcycle, and began an intensive Thai language course at the local university.
We used to ride our little motorbike everyday through the pouring rain to the university where the language course was, rain ponchos whipping in the wind, ripped to tatters and trailing behind us like superhero capes.
Despite all those things, we still felt out of place. We ate out because it was cheaper than cooking, but we missed homemade meals. The work we were there to do wasn’t panning out the way we expected. The motorcycle tried to buck us off like a wild stallion once, and driving on the other side of the road with all the other swarming motorcycles was stressful. We missed home and we missed our friends and family. We missed normality.
About two months in, the organization we worked with invited us to go to India since our work in Thailand had stalled.
We ended our apartment lease, said goodbye to our new language course friends just before final exams, left our motorcycle with friends, and hopped on a plane to Bangalore.
India is not a place to be entered into lightly.
If Thailand had made me uncomfortable by its differentness, India, a country I had actually been to several times before, downright shocked me. Having been to India, I can confidently say if I went anywhere in India tomorrow, I would reenter a similar state of shock upon arrival.
Like I said, it is not a place to be entered into lightly.
Long story short, we were in India for about a month all told. In Bangalore for three weeks, where we watched the 2004 presidential debates and my wife accidentally killed a baby squirrel, then onto Delhi for a week, where I learned precisely how sick a person can become before actually suffering death or long term bodily injury.
By the time we returned to Chiang Mai from our Indian holiday, we were almost kissing the ground, we were so happy to be back.
Everything that had felt so unfamiliar and uncomfortable in those first days and weeks now felt like home. We were so excited to get back to our favorite restaurants, to drive around on our wonderful little bike which had been a flesh burning death Honda only weeks before, to walk the safe and quiet streets where people mostly ignored us and wore smiles as their default expression. Happy to see our fellow expat coworkers again.
And then finally, about nine months into our Asian adventure, we ran out of work to do in our roles with the organization and decided it was time to head home.
We rejoiced. Our friends and family rejoiced. Back home. Back to normal life.
We were happy we had the chance to spend time in India, and would happily go there again. But we never missed it, except the food, which fortunately we can find a good selection of pretty much anywhere we live or travel to.
On the other hand, we’ve never really stopped missing Thailand. As happy as we were to get back to the States and friends and family, there was an element of sadness in leaving a place we had come to love so much.
(And for the record, I'm not trying to disrespect India. There is a lot to love about India, and there are parts of India that are breathtakingly spectacular. I have also met some amazing people in India, and we definitely would go there again. This was just our unique experience. Your mileage may vary.)
When I think about this whole quarantine pandemic coronavirus thing, I can’t help but wonder what life will feel like on the other side of it, whenever that happens.
As a society, we have all gone to a new, different, and uncomfortable place.
When we emerge back to the familiar, will we be happy it’s over?
Finally… back to normal.
Or will some part of us miss the place we’ve been to, the place that caused panic and stress and discomfort while we were in it, but which we might look back on fondly when it’s ended?
Is the quarantine the metaphorical equivalent for me of my month living in India? Or of my eight months in Thailand?
Of course, I have no idea. Nobody does. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it.
What do you think? Will you miss it?
Top photo by Nate Green, titled ‘Lizard on fence in backyard, 2020.’