“…and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”
And just like that, I put the novel down.
My literary friends would smile and point it out: how fitting, that I would finish Kerouac’s On the Road just before I began a trip of my own, in every way similar and dissimilar to a Beat cross-country reverie. If you are interested in my opinion of the novel, you can reach me between the hours of 6:00 AM and 11:00 PM for my riveting analysis. But, for the 99.7% of my readership who has no interest in such a tirade, I will spare you.
However, though I was dissatisfied with this literary classic, the divinity of travel is something that Sal and I can agree on. Because, to quote Kerouac, “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
And where, exactly, would the road be taking us? I’m glad you asked.
My roommates and I are planning a 16-day excursion through Cambodia and Thailand.
Now, when someone erroneously asks me how my time was in Thailand, I will be able to truthfully answer them.
And although such snark was not the reason behind travelling to these two countries, it would be difficult for me to pinpoint an exact statement of purpose for our little adventure. Ever since I learned of its existence in AP World History (thanks, Mr. Nolan), I have wanted to see Angkor Wat (or, more correctly, the city of Angkor) in person. We also decided that Japan and South Korea, while nice in their own rights, would be too cold and too expensive. We settled on Cambodia right away, but the second county in our journey was still undecided.
I watched what felt like hundreds of YouTube videos on the must-see sights of Southeast Asia, searching for something that I couldn’t live without seeing. We finally agreed that we just could not pass up the beauty of Halong Bay, in Vietnam. And only after that decision had been made did I consider the reality of this trip. The fact that I was really going to be in Cambodia on January 26th. The fact that I was going to walk out of my apartment in Taiwan, without adult supervision, and get on a plane, without adult supervision, and fly to another country using an itinerary that I created, without adult supervision.
It was a lot to take in.
This Fulbright experience makes the sixth time that I have been abroad. Three tours in mainland China, two in Taiwan, and one in Cuba. However, each and every trip was for educational purposes, as a student or a teacher. This trip will be the first time that I am travelling for recreation, for travel’s sake. I could, in theory, wander the streets of Cambodia for ten straight days, and there would be no one to chastise me for missing a planned tour or a scheduled group outing. Cue Invictus.
“I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
How wonderfully terrifying.
Because, although the first realization was a moment of triumph, the second was a vision of disaster, a swallowing of the wind that had once pushed my sails. Being the master of my own fate didn’t sound as appealing when Doubt tapped me on the shoulder and reminded me that I had no clue what I was doing. Where would we stay? What cities would we visit? Can I even name two cities in Cambodia at this very moment?
These inner-interrogations prompted frantic productivity. Before long, we had a Google Doc littered with websites, helpful links, traveler’s tips, and potential places of interest. Eric, with a passion for order, created not one, but three tables that are labeled “Trip Itinerary,” “Housing,” and “Transportation” respectively. What was once a scattering of information was transformed into a coherent plan. It looked like we knew what we were doing after all.
But as the trip began to flesh out and take form, I recognized a change in my demeanor that I deemed cause for concern. There were many small, inconsequential nuisances that surely added to my deepened sense of anxiety, but it goes without question that planning a trip of these proportions was wearing on me. I would lie in bed at night, contemplating how we would get from one city to the next with little to no knowledge of the language or the terrain. I felt as if no amount of information would be enough to prepare me for those first few hectic moments of Phnom Penh, and as I delved deeper and deeper into the wells of Internet knowledge, some less-than-pleasant things began to emerge from those depths.
I watched an entire 51:49 documentary on the Khmer Rouge, for example. I needed to be left alone for some time before I was ready to talk to other humans again after that.
But, I also spent a considerable about of time pouring over the CDC’s page entitled “Health Information for Travelers to Cambodia.” I pondered the percentage possibilities of contracting things like Japanese Encephalitis and Dengue Fever. However, nothing chilled my veins more than the section called “Malaria.”
“When traveling in Cambodia, you should avoid mosquito bites to prevent malaria. You may need to take prescription medicine before, during, and after your trip to prevent malaria, depending on your travel plans, such as where you are going, when you are traveling, and if you are spending a lot of time outdoors or sleeping outside.”
This triggered some small paranoia that I was previously unaware I had. I envisioned mosquitoes crawling over my shoulders and back, jabbing needle-like mouths into exposed flesh, and then the fits of nausea and delirium that would accompany my new-found friend, the Plasmodium parasite. I remembered my AP Biology days (thanks Mrs. Sutherland, although for less spectacular reasons), when we discussed malaria and the long-term, permanent damage that it can inflict. And, for some reason, I was sure that I was going to get it.
Even before my parents were informed of our travel plans, I had decided on malaria medication. Obtaining said medication and my personal decisions regarding the medication that I was prescribed are another tale. However, my slight bout of Hypochondriasis, coupled with crippling self-doubt, led to a panic attack, a constricting monster that seized hold of my airways while I sat at my desk at school.
It was then that I needed to re-evaluate.
My parents knew about our travel plans and had given us their hesitant blessing. At this point in the planning process, we had purchased every plane ticket and reserved every hostel and bungalow that we would be staying in, and we had even mapped out the bus schedule for travelling from one city to the next (thanks, Eric). I had acquired malaria medication using my broken Chinese, and I had even created a loose packing list with cultural sensitivity in mind (we are visiting many temples in both countries). We hit a slight roadblock when we discovered that the visa process for Vietnam was tedious and would require a trip to the Vietnamese Embassy in Taipei, but this was quickly resolved by deciding to go to Thailand instead. Nothing to cause great concern.
It seems that my excessive worry mostly stemmed from the immensity of the undertaking. In every minute of the planning process, I was forced to recall how I am somewhat incapable when it comes to reading maps, interpreting street signs, determining my left from my right, or even knowing exactly where I am more than 60% of the time. Thinking about how I get lost in my own city was unavoidable, but it started a spiral of self-doubt and fear that led me to question my ability to make this trip at all.
But it was time to break the cycle.
There is a Cambodian proverb that begins, “Don’t reject the crooked road.” My road as a Blundering Enthusiast is definitely not without backtracks and U-turns. At times, it can be quite crooked. But instead of fearing disaster, I am learning to embrace the madness.
I cannot with any amount of certainty say that we will not get lost, get stuck, miss a flight, or get a serious case of the runs. While we have done substantial research on every city that we will visit in these two weeks, we are still entering into places that are foreign to us. And uncertainty scares me.
There will be hiccups. That is a part of life. But if those minor incidents keep me from doing the things that I love, then am I living at all? Kerouac said it best, I suppose: “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.”
So, the next time that I am tempted to watch videos detailing the life cycle of the blood fluke, I will instead close my eyes and ask God to bless the crooked road, because courage is only fear that has said its prayers (thanks, Missy).
The planning isn’t over by any stretch of the imagination. But I cannot wait to see how it turns out.