When I quit my job and sold all my possessions, I was sharply aware of my mid-thirties age. I fully understood, though few others did, that my commitment to traveling indefinitely isn’t just a gap year of hostels and beers and hookups. It isn’t a vacation. It isn’t a phase before my real-life begins. This adventure is a full scale reset for everything I’d labored to construct, everything I called my real life. I bought a backpack. I filled it with 46L of stuff. I said goodbye to family and friends, reminding them to Skype. I boarded a one-way flight to Indonesia and began my solo journey around the world.
I was searching for something in Southeast Asia, something that felt both vague and specific. Perhaps I fell victim to naive backpacker dreams of lands that feel initiatory. Rights of passage. Passport stamps that prove you’re A Real Traveler. Beyond an unrelenting craving for authenticity, I wasn’t even sure what I was searching for. The moment I stepped barefoot onto the grounds of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon it washed over me like a tidal wave. I knew it instantly, deeply. Myanmar was the Southeast Asia I’d been seeking.
From that moment forward the country unfolded itself in the most astonishing and joyful ways. Sailing the Irrawaddy and experiencing Myanmar by way of its lifeblood was profound. Every day filled with images that will live with me forever. Villagers washing clothes, bodies, teeth, and pots on the river banks. Rickety wooden boats, the only indication of a village hiding in the trees, bobbing in the wake of our ship. Golden stupas poking through lush treetops. So many stupas. Gold everywhere. Traveler’s water pots, bamboo thatched houses, monks and nuns in the farmer’s market. Children. So many happy children who just wanted to giggle and take selfies with the tall white stranger kneeling in their dirt to say hi.
The Irrawaddy itself is shallow and wide, muddy from thick sandbars. Watching Burmese life unfold along that river made me question: What are we connected to in the way they’re connected to that river? Their rhythm of life, their constant interaction with the river in one way or another all day long, the sense that they know every inch of every sandbar and every tide. Their lives, all day, every day, are dedicated to this river.
I left on my epic journey around the world because I felt disconnected from the life I’d created. And then I meet the Irrawaddy and the people who live happily beside it. The Irrawaddy taught me, cynical academic me, how important it is to feel connected. To something. To someone. To anything. Burmese life is hard. Every day is dedicated to surviving the next 24 hours. I’m not romanticizing the reality of what they face. I am honoring what I experienced as their ability to live in the present moment. Fully. Completely. Happily. The ability to connect and dedicate their energy to something. It was a beautiful lesson.
Until next time, cheers to adventure,
Recap: Viking River Cruise’s Myanmar Explorer