In September, I listened to Tim Ferriss’ podcast Lessons Learned Traveling the World in which Tim interviews Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel. Potts discusses the “double-edged sword of technology” and how it can take away from travel experiences, substituting inspirational serendipity for modern convenience.
In other words, before travel influencers and bloggers took over Instagram, you were mostly left to rely either on travel guides or guidebooks, or the advice of locals.
Rather than starting your trip with a quick internet search of “Top 10 Things to Do in So and So City” the vagabonding traveler, who didn’t hire a lardy-dardy company to strip their trip of spontaneity, was left to chance, suggestions from serendipitous encounters with those friendly strangers whom you find yourself sitting next to on the bus, sleeping next to in a hostel, sharing space in an Internet cafe.
Potts went on to describe the impact our constant connectedness can have on our health – something that I, too, frequently contemplate. We have been sucked into this era of instant gratification, expecting timely responses despite the volume of communication we are all now bombarded with, and without consideration of the disconnect we have wedged between ourselves and our own minds.
Obviously, the newfound convenience technology presents in travel can be extremely beneficial for many reasons. I use three different booking apps on my phone to find hostels at reduced prices – with a quick search and a few clicks, I can reserve my bed for the night. I can use the Google Translate app to communicate with virtually everyone around me, and Google Maps has certainly rescued me more than a few times.
Let’s not forget the enormous benefit of remaining connected to home – I am lucky enough to live 10,000 miles away from my family with the ability to catch up whenever I want, even face-to-face with video chat. The fact that I never have to be alone is beautiful, life-saving, and comforting – but, of course, it presents its own drawbacks.
Potts argues that while loneliness and boredom, “can lead you to moments that force you into a new version of yourself, force you to be more extraverted,” constant access to technology can eliminate these moments. Think about it like this: when you are alone, what is the first thing you typically do? Check your phone for updates, scroll through social media, answer messages – even if you are sitting in a public place, surrounded by other people you could talk to?
We have lost the ability to be comfortably alone with our own minds, and as a result, we have lost the ability to comfortably approach others. Unplugging is so important, yet we allow ourselves to fall victim to the virtual expectations of others, choosing Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snap Chat, messaging (I have four apps for this on my phone alone!), and email responses over much-needed breathing space.
As I listened to this podcast preceding my month-long vacation from school, I strongly resonated with the idea that our “technologically-enhanced micromanaging” – aka our desire to plan our reservations in advance – compromises our flexibility of travel and the potential to follow inspiration. Particularly because, for the whole month of September, I found myself stonewalling my own vacation plans.
I spent hours at the computer researching potential trips – reading the advice of other travel bloggers, scouring for the most affordable package deals and bargain flights. No matter what I found, my expression, my feelings, my excitement remained unchanged. I was looking at traveling to Indonesia, Nepal, researching yoga retreats – excursions that I have no doubt I would enjoy, but yet my gut told me to hesitate. I was impatient, but I listened.
I ordered Potts’ book, Vagabonding – Maybe more of his insight will get me on the right path! – but the package arrived late; sardonically, as I discovered later, the book was waiting on my desk the day after I left for my trip.
I was vexed – continuing to receive questions, “Where are you spending your month off? What are your holiday plans?” and have nothing much to say other than, “I don’t know yet,” a jaunty grin disguising dismay – and with uncertainty chose to read a book I borrowed from Jenn, The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield.
Now, I have to admit: I was not a fan of Redfield’s writing style, somehow both elementary and excessively didactic, yet – as you might have inferred by now, I’m one to listen to my intuition – I felt the need to finish the book for the lessons it offered, regardless of the less-than poignant prose.
“We must assume every event has significance and contains a message that pertains to our questions…this especially applies to what we used to call bad things…the challenge is to find the silver lining in every event, no matter how negative.”― James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy
Just as I was beginning to give my parochial frustration far too much of my attention, I received an email from Andrea Knauber.
It’s an assiduous April 2018, abounding with preparations to live abroad. In only around 8 weeks, I somehow really did sell all the furniture in my apartment, temporarily relocate, apply for my visa, get vaccinations and accounts transferred… it was quite an agenda. I was still working full time for half the month and, on top of it, pursuing my TEFL certification with hopes of completion before leaving the US. Of course, none of this was possible without the many supplications that were so fortunately fulfilled.
One of my certification requirements was to complete a practicum with a local school or organization, teaching ESL students and/or classes. My dad helped me secure an opportunity to work with Gulf High School’s ESL program, shadowing Mrs. Duncan: an emphatically talkative woman, whose loquaciousness proved valuable when she remembered, “There’s a teacher here who has been to Thailand before. I’ve got to introduce you two.”
Andrea is a beautiful Spanish woman, very petite, with olive skin and bold and black-framed effeminate glasses. Her ardent eyes and accent drew you in and her elocution kept you there.
“I was visiting my friend who was teaching at a refugee camp in the very northwest corner of Thailand, near the Myanmar border. Between that camp, Mae Hong Son and nearby Pai, there’s a forest monastery. They practice Vipassana meditation and everyone is welcome with no charge.
You really should go. It’s an absolutely magical place. If you give me your email address, I’ll send you the information.”
Meeting Andrea and hearing her suggestions was a true delight, but when she forgot to email me, the thought got lost amidst the month’s sedulous arrangements. I moved to Thailand and met many others with alluring recommendations. As the days passed, my memory of the monastery sunk further into the back of my mind, nesting with unconscious cerebrations, until September 26th.
I’m ruminating at my computer, eyebrows furrowed, allowing my thoughts to get needlessly ahead of themselves. Dismayed, I close all of my tabs and decide to retreat to bed. As an afterthought, I open my somewhat-neglected email account – after entertaining a desk job for so long, at which I grudgingly complied to use email for a large majority of my communications, I’ve happily retired my email usage to a once-per-week basis.
I read the first line of my inbox. From: Andrea Knauber. Subject: Wat Pah Tam Wua.
Hi Sam! It’s Andrea from Gulf High. I’m so sorry I forgot to email you the monastery information before! Here is the info for the monastery I told you where you can go and meditate! It’s a magical place…
A sharp inhale of excitement, a feeling of complete disbelief, an unmistakable confirmation of exactly what I was reading in The Celestine Prophecy: we must assume every event has significance, and we must honor each and every event, including our accompanying intuition, with that knowledge.
For the past three weeks, I couldn’t explain why I didn’t want to book any reservations, why nothing I came across during my hours of research was exciting me.
I couldn’t explain why I received Potts’ book late, despite my expedited-shipping efforts and timely order. As excited as I was to read it, those words weren’t what I was meant to read at that time – ironically enough, they weren’t the words that would convince me to embark on my spontaneous journey.
I still can’t explain why something reminded Andrea of her promise to me five months after our brief meeting, a mere four days before my month-long vacation was to start.
What I can explain is this: I listened to my gut and it paid off. Synchronicities aligned in my favor and I just happened to be listening.
I purchased a 50L hiking backpack and packed my essentials, bringing only this bag for the next month. Pee Som, her husband and her mom all gave me a ride to the Phitsanulok bus station – they were going to Phitsanulok for another commitment, and this bus station sells direct trips to Chiang Rai.
– So, where exactly are you headed?
– Northwest, toward Wat Pah Tam Wua.
– Are you going straight there?
– No, I thought I’d check out Chiang Rai first.