Photo Essay

The Lone Backpacker

Whooo are youuu?

After a year of teaching outside of Seoul, I packed my remaining monster bag, red to scream emergency and don't touch!, and headed solo to Southeast Asia. Seoul had its charms. It had more money, it was moving up in the world, learning about world trade, business and democracy. But it felt like 1950's America- steeped in fear, resentment, and thirst for power. Women wanted to be Paris Hilton, men craved the fortune and fame of Bill Gates. Removed from Seoul's bubble of metropolitan neon lights and stilettoes, I was immediately transported to Saigon, a city of wide smiles, shining eyes and sincere hearts.

Even the incessant prompting by street peddlars was warm-hearted, as if requesting pardon for a lifestyle that could not be helped, and compassion to be geniune in my exchange, whether it be a monetary gift, or just a smiling acknowdgement. I found much less of the ethnocentric, anxious pride of Korea, or the blase shunning of us Americans for the bums of our urban streets. It was exhilarating being out of the confines of the conservative public school system of a foreign country, and into my own world of adventurous spontaneity.

Of course, I couldn't be as oblivious of schedules and time as I wanted to be. I had to have a schedule if I wanted a mix of tourist richess and the realistic nitty-gritty poverty of my travel destinations. I planned to skip China (the Olympics were too crowded and insane for my taste), and go straight to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. In Thailand, I would stay with a friend for two weeks and then go off on my own again. The trip was mostly solo, three countries in two months. Some days I felt like a pirate or a famous journalist, craftily shaping my own literary adventure, captain of my destiny, delving head first into the chaos and poverty of the third world, living with the natives, eating the way they ate, and living the way the lived. I would rent a bike a disappear in a mass of people, cycling in flocks through Saigon or Phnom Penh. Most days, however, it was all too obvious I was a tourist, a little starved for home, and a little sensitive to my own expanding solitude.

My big blue eyes and white skin were an instant give away. "Happy hour!" old Vietnamese women would scream a foot under my eyes, peering up expectantly with baskets of glaring fish eyes and dried fruit. "Tuk tuk!" old Thai men would insist, following me doggedly in their carted motorbikes, skin leathered by years of endless sun. Some days I was on cloud nine, some days I felt close to death, wondering if my next plane ride would send me crashing into the middle of Cambodia never to be heard from again.

Many days just streamed together, a mixed bag, or backpack really, of communication bumblings, sightseeing curiosity, blissful gazes into other worlds, skies, cultures, exchanges with brilliantly smiling children with short practised English expressions. Some natives would stare coolly at my foreignness like it was a disease. Others saw it as a business venture, and still others approached open hearted and compassionate hoping to aid this lone girl in her obvious state of precocious confusion with a sense of universal camaraderie. Here, have spaghetti (in soy sauce). Here, be okay, breathe in our air, be at home here.

Well, here are some photos from a trip through some of the most breathtaking, rich, poor, and earnestly tender scenes of my too short backpacking adventure through SE Asia last Fall, 2008. Words in a short story capture only a small glimpse of all that is seen, felt, and understood travelling abroad. These faces describe more of the essence behind any counties I share in words.

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5 responses

  • Rey mos

    Rey mos gave props (10 Jun 2009):

    thanks for sharing your travel experience and your images showed that you did enjoy your trips.

  • Rey mos

    Rey mos said (10 Jun 2009):

    love traveling too and there is so much to explore in SEA, including my home country the Philippines. Coming from a developing country, I think working/living abroad is much easier. There might be a culture shock but Im sure I will survive as Im doing now...far away from home!

  • Karen Foto Fiddler

    Karen Foto Fiddler (Deleted) gave props (10 Jun 2009):

    Yes I vote!

  • shang zheng

    shang zheng said (27 Jun 2009):

    yes I vote 2. feel free to cover Malaysia in your next SEA trip.

  • Lorraine Charles

    Lorraine Charles said (11 Sep 2009):

    Beautiful! You have captured my feelings about travel in SE Asia. I have travelled there many times and have lived in Asia and it has a special place in my heart. I feel more at home in SE Asia than anywhere else.

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