Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Vagabond Heart - Wisdom from Traveling in 23 Countries in 2019

Quản Bạ, Ha Giang, Vietnam
2019 has been a wild and wonderful ride! Someone pointed out, if you did the math, it's a new country every 2 weeks. A lot of people ask, why do I travel so much. I say, because I can, and have the freedom to do so. I can take my work with me. And I am constantly on the lookout for places and experiences that I would like to bring my tribe to. Travel has been my greatest university (see post). For the first time in history of mankind, ordinary individuals have the tools to learn, plan and share trips to almost every corner of the globe.

The other popular question I get from friends is ‘what was the best place of them all’. To that, I’d say it’s not the places that define my experience, it’s the people I met. I’d to like to share anecdotes for this and six other key insights from coddiwompling through 23 countries in 2019.

My travels were defined by the people I met

One afternoon in Sarajevo, I sat outside a traditional restaurant enjoying the sunny afternoon having lunch. I started a casual conversation with the lady next to me who was also eating alone which went on to become one of the closest friendships of the year. She saw my work with children in the summer on Facebook and suggested I meet with her husband, a music professor, who also works with children in the summer in Turkey. A few month later I had the opportunity to visit Turkey and her husband become a dear friend and a partner in creating transformational experiences for Turkish children. We toured spaces that could serve as perfect venues and met his friends who would be ideal collaborators to make this happen in the future.

Kuang Si falls, Luang Prabang, Laos
In another chance encounter, when I found myself pushing a scooter with a flat tire on the side of a highway outside Luang Prabhang Laos, I met with some Japanese fellows who also had a flat. Over the course of finding a shop and getting tires fixed, we became friends and are in touch to this day. I tell you this story as it sticks out in my memory more than many breathtaking views or knickknacks I bought on that trip.

Spiritual adventure rather than physical places

I was driving the campervan from Romania to Hungary, a 5 hour stretch. Out in the middle of nowhere I notice my fuel gauge just entered the red (E) zone. Optimistic about finding a station within that range I kept pushing on. With a gas station no where in sight, the gauge hit bottom. From experience, I knew it would pull on for another 10-15 miles. Another 10 miles and still no pump in sight. At that point I had to stop and find help. I pulled up to a spot with two farm houses on either side of the road, hoping they could give me information on the closest pump. Language is major barrier in the countryside. Without cell reception, Google Translate is useless. A man in the first farm indicated, from what I understood, a gas station was 10 miles away. I knew I couldn’t make it. So I took a chance at the other farm house. It was a beat up looking place with a fence around it, looked like it may not have been inhabited for some years. I called out and made some noise which got the dogs barking. Slowly behind the dogs came up a man who looked in his 60s. To my utter surprise, he responded in perfect English. What was a well educated man doing in the middle of nowhere in a run down house? Turned out he was the driver of the Ambassador of Japan to Romania. He had been detected with a malignant tumor and had come to his farm to rest while he awaited surgery, which happened to be scheduled for the next day. On hearing my plight he went over to a shed and brought a 5 gallon can full of diesel. I probably paid him three times for it but I still look back in amazement at how that all came together. After a few such incidents, I’ve become, dare I say, too confident that the Universe will never let me run dry, out in the middle of nowhere.

Countries visited in 2019

Define, question and own my values system

My ethics, especially around food as a vegan were tested to the limit in some countries. While cities are usually not a problem, the countryside can be very challenging. One such testing ground was Tsumago, a tiny Japanese village on the Samurai trail, known for its cobblestone streets across picturesque hills and rivers. The famous dish of the town is soba noodles, but every one of the restaurants used fish stock in the soup base. So I had to make do with rice dumplings wrapped in seaweed from the convenience store. But never did my eyes light up so much upon seeing a wild trees laden with persimmons as it did that day. Didn’t matter I had foliage in my hair and cocklebur all over my pants. The delicious fruit was like a coveted prize for my persistence.

Tsumago, Japan

Who am I and what's mine?

When I arrived at the Beijing airport after completing children's summer camp I found out that my checked in baggage would cost me extra.That’s not the first time I’ve paid for checked baggage, but when the agent calculated it to be $800 for one-way from Beijing to Istanbul, I decided to abandon my optimally packed 50lb duffel bag that hosted everything I had decided to keep from the 2.5 month camper van expedition in Central and Eastern Europe. I moved just the essentials into my stroller and backpack, including my portable recording studio which I used to make guided commentaries for the mobile apps. Thus started a one month tour across Turkey with carryon luggage. That trip taught me how little I need to get by. Going from a 21 foot RV to 3 bags to 2 backpacks showed the incredible elasticity of human capacity to be happy with so little.

Danube from window, Bratislava
Then there was one another incident where my laptop got stolen from my camper van while I was parked on banks of the Danube in Bratislava Slovakia. I felt part of my identity, including 7 years of my work, memories and collections were taken. Breathing into it and letting it go, 6 months later, I am still here, with all that I really need intact within.

Slowing down brought a whole new perspective on life

One of the secrets I’ve realized to make travels go from good to exceptional, is not rent a car or hotel rooms. Both these will bring you closer to people on the streets and in homes. You are obliged to meet people, ask for help, sit next to strangers, where you will gather information and/or connections that can change the course of your travels and perhaps your life in some ways. I’d like to share two such stories.

Lake Garda, Italy
Mother and I parked our motorhome in Brentonico, a picturesque village by Lake Garda, Italy. Our routine was to make day trips on public transport to explore the nearby scenic spots. On a local bus that day we met a lady who became very fond of us and insisted we go to her home for a cup of tea. That tea turned into a local guided tour and then another meal, until we became family by the end of the day. That couple’s kids had left home recently for college and work and they were lonely for the first time in their lives. Their love was so genuine and profound, that I went back to visit them two months later at the end of the European tour. It's a wonderful feeling to know you’ve got family in different parts of the globe. But you know that funny feeling that you’ve been there, done that and may never actually return to see some of them? That’s unlikely here, because I am being invited to Italy to lead meditation retreats and Lake Garda is one of the top spots in the world for kitesurfing, which I’m passionate about.

More recently, in the month long stay in Baja Mexico, I chose not to rent a car as everything in the village was within a kilometer and I was focused on kitesurfing and recording new meditation series. Only time I really needed a vehicle was to visit a friend over Thanksgiving in a town 2.5 hours away. So I went online to find a local rental. There wasn’t a company but an individual posted his Jeep was available. When I went to pick up the vehicle, the couple got very interested in my background, both as an Indian and a meditation teacher. Turns out the wife had spent time in India studying Ayurveda and now makes Ayurvedic products. Over the month, we became very close and I left with an invitation to go back to lead a retreat at their beach front resort and the lady will cook Ayurvedic meals for the gathering. You can’t make this stuff up!

Offering my services where I could made me rich

You may remember my story where I stood up at a restaurant in Kyoto and ended up meeting a Mexican mother and son on the same day that I bought tickets to go to Baja Mexico. At dinner, they invited me to host a meditation gathering for their grieving sister in Cabo San Lucas. That one connection ended up being three different meditation workshops during my one month in Baja. Most valuable outcome is, now I have a ton of friends on the beautiful coast of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

One last insight, I never want to haggle with a poor vendor, instead I'll skip a fancy meal at a restaurant. Particularly relevant in developing nations, it doesn't make sense to save a dollar on a person trying to get by, when you don't hesitate spending $20 on dinner the same day. I’ve realized that some of these countries are held together because of tourism.

So, those are my top seven lessons from 2019. I’d love to hear your insights and any thoughts on what I’ve shared.

I’m off to my personal 10-day silence retreat now. Be back in touch then :)


yunfeng-yi said...

Amazing experiences.Beautiful man.With God by your side,what is not possible?

Jay Chodagam said...

Thank you. You seem to have heard my guided meditation :) What is your name?

yunfeng-yi said...

You said I am a police,so you should can guess who I am.