The Traveler’s Itch: Next Stop, India.

It’s been years since I first experienced it. My first overseas trip was for a study abroad opportunity in college. I went to Oviedo, Spain (in Asturias, near the northern coast) and lived with an eccentric, if not crazy, host mother by the name of Angeles. I studied Spanish by weekday and explored on the weekends. After four months I was ready to return home, that having been the longest time I’ve spent away, but it wasn’t long after that I began to develop that pesky little problem seasoned travelers know well – The Itch.

“See and be seen” is a motto in this part of Spain. This is Angeles in her usual outdoor attire. She liked to be seen.

For two years, The Itch ceased to disappear with the brutal reality that I couldn’t afford to travel. I could barely pay my rent each month, let alone afford an expensive plane ticket to somewhere exotic. But The Itch doesn’t care about reality, and it doesn’t dissipate when you try to relieve it with the calm understanding of “Not now. Maybe later.” Instead, it gets louder. It becomes so painful that you can’t take it anymore. Soon, you’re researching enticing getaways, from the southern coastline of Argentina to the high peaks of Tibet and everything in your body (and your more-than-amazing group of friends) is saying, “Just go. You only live once.”

But here’s the problem: When you scratch the itch, it still doesn’t go away. It just gets worse. Mine has become so bothersome that it even approaches me while I am traveling! After three or four months in Thailand, I was counting the days for my next big adventure. My feet began to dance around my tiny wooden hut as I became restless from remaining in one place for so long, and antsy with anticipation of my upcoming two months of escapades around Southeast Asia.

Mine was the middle hut. Photo courtesy of Jon Watkins, Editor

When I returned to Oregon, I stayed for less than three months. I admit my departure was a bit premature – I wasn’t quite ready for the next stop yet; the newness of home had yet to wear off – but my wallet was empty and an opportunity to teach presented itself far too easily. So I snatched it. I knew that if I didn’t, in one more month I’d be kicking myself with regret and searching for a way, any way, to get out of my beloved hometown.

Now, I’ve been in China not quite four months and I’m rearing for another adventure. It sounds selfish, I know. I’m living in Asia, teaching English to an amazing group of kids at a job that requires only 20 hours a week for a paycheck more than twice that of the locals, and includes two months of paid holiday. Two months! But perhaps that’s why The Itch is back. I’ve known these two months were approaching, and that they’d be here before I knew it. I knew this back when I was battling homesickness and fighting with China, so I booked my ticket to India.

My freshmen students during their mandatory military training.
My freshmen students in China during their mandatory military training.

With the prospect of a new adventure looming not far in the future, my spirits were lifted. I knew I didn’t need to go home, I just needed to satisfy The Itch. Sometimes a plane ticket is all it takes…at least for a little while.

Tomorrow, I fly into Delhi. Five weeks later, I fly out of Chennai. The middle is to be filled with camel rides in the desert, yoga in the mountains, and Couchsurfing with locals, but all the details are up for debate. Afterward, I’m going to return to Thailand to visit my friends in Suwannaphum and get my fix of the relaxed Thai culture I’ll undoubtedly need after the hustle and bustle of India and before I return to the crowds of China for yet another four months of teaching.

After that, I know I’ll be eager to return home for yet another harvest with my family and good times with my friends before I leave for my next, slightly different but still exciting adventure: graduate school in Colorado.

I have yet to miss a wheat harvest in 16 years! Elvis is my companion.
I have yet to miss a wheat harvest in 16 years! That is my companion, Elvis, and I.

However, the more I travel the worse The Itch becomes, and I’m beginning to wonder if it will ever leave me alone long enough to stay in one place for more than a few months before the twitch between my toes returns with a vengeance.

The answer? Probably not.

The Traveler’s Itch: Next Stop, India
Written by:Jessica J. Hill

I Miss My Ex, But Not All of It

After teaching in China, I’ve been forced to admit how much I didn’t enjoy teaching in Thailand. It’s like the opposite of the phrase, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”

I relate my experience more to a bad relationship – one where you don’t realize it’s bad until you’ve moved on to realize what a good relationship actually is. Now that Thailand and I broke up, I have not forgotten all the things I love about it – it will always be my first love, an affair that taught me a lot about myself and my partner – but I have since discovered one thing I didn’t like: Teaching.

My freshmen university students here, in China, are absolutely fabulous. They actually want to be in class, for starters, not just because their teacher is white, but because they want to learn. They understand what I’m saying (it’s a dream come true!) and actively participate when asked. Even the not-so-enthusiastic classes will come to the front of the room and speak, even if reluctantly.

In Thailand, if a student was adamant about not speaking (which is the reason they were in my class), they would simply run out of the room shed. I do understand there are some vast differences between my high-school-aged students (eighth graders and sophomores) and my college freshmen when it comes to maturity and taking control of their own education, as is true in any country (in fact, I spent a lot of time defending my Thai students for these very reasons), but there are some other huge factors that play into it too.

Chinese students are told on the day they are born how important it is to be educated, and they spend their entire childhood studying and stressing about their college entrance exams. It’s a part of the culture to be studious, and more than half of my students named reading and studying as hobbies (as well as sleeping and eating, but that’s another story).

In rural Thailand, the emphasis on education is much lower. A priority list with education at the top exists for few, and not one of my students was ever caught reading a book. Students will skip class for reasons such as helping with the family farm or being too tired from a field trip (like I was after this one), and it’s perfectly acceptable in a country that allows students to drop out after freshman year of high school.

Many of my Thai eighth grade students will choose that option, and the few who do finish twelfth grade won’t further their studies at university. They have other priorities, like caring for the family and helping mom with the family’s street-food stand.

I realize it’s completely unfair to compare China to Thailand – they are very different countries in almost every respect of the word. However, just like a girl can’t help comparing one boyfriend to the last, it’s hard not to make these kinds of connections.

Living in China could (and will) never take away the unbeatable adventure I had in Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia, but I loved those countries for their people, their culture, their food, their sites, etc., not necessarily because I loved my job. I’m forced to see that now, as unfair to my ex (Thailand) as that is, but teaching is the only contrast I will allow myself to make.

I foresee my time in China being no less than wonderful, and though I know my job will be more fulfilling and beneficial to my future than any of my days in front of a white board in Thailand, I don’t believe the rest of my China experience will ever be able to top my village life in Thailand.

Sapa, Vietnam: A Storybook Paradise

After walking around, dripping sweat, for the majority of my two months of travel around Southeast Asia (some days were 110F with intense humidity), I had come to the end of my road. I stepped off the bus in Sapa, a countryside village set high in the mountains of Northern Vietnam, and shivered.

Not only was I standing amidst the terraced rice fields, foggy mountaintops and hill tribe villages of a storybook paradise, but I was cold for the first time since Thanksgiving, seven months prior.

The goosebumps that rose on my skin were a welcomed site. It had been another one of those cramped, overnight bus adventures, and the heat had been getting to me. My first mission was to find coffee (if you’ve never tried Vietnamese coffee, you really haven’t lived) and a place to drop my bag for a few nights. I ordered my cup of crack joe hot (it comes with condensed milk, which tastes like white chocolate – my favorite – and is dripped, individually, to perfection) and tried, unsuccessfully, to warm up.

On my way in I had noticed the abundance of North Face shops around town. The famous ski-wear brand is produced in Vietnam, and the very same jackets we pay an imported price for in The States are available in nearly every local shop for a bargain price – literally.

I found one I liked and haggled the saleswoman down to something like $35USD, probably half of what I would pay for the same jacket back home.

I later bought a scarf, which unfortunately I had to wear with shorts and sandals, but it felt good to be bundled, and I knew I would need the extra protection and warmth for the motorbike journeys that were to take place between coffee breaks over the next few days. I’ve missed Fall weather, I thought, as I inhaled a heap of fresh, dry air for the first time in too long, and it sent a chill through my bones.

When I returned to my hostel that night, after a photographic adventure without a map that led me through a minority village on top of a mountain, between endless rice plots at various stages of the process, and past giggling children who played on the dirt roads that led me blind, I looked up the day’s weather report.

The average, for the same day I spent near teeth-chatter, was 70 degrees.

Maybe I wasn’t ready for to return home afterall.

Street-side in Southeast Asia

I miss the convenience of street-side service in Southeast Asia. Not only are the sidewalk vendors usually the cheapest in town, they’re also the best. Whether it’s scrumptious local cuisine for $1USD or a quick haircut for $5USD, you never have to walk far or make a reservation or appointment.

Purple sweet potatoes, grilled bananas and hard-boiled eggs. Yum! She was fixing her hair for my picture, but I snapped too soon! In Luang Prabang, Laos.

A fruit shop in Hue, Vietnam.

Need a haircut on the fly? A barber stand in Hanoi, Vietnam.

A woman selling flowers and trinkets to use in the temple at Mt. Phousi in Luang Prabang, Laos.

The floating market near Bangkok, Thailand.

If you’re riding through Siem Reap, Cambodia, stop and get your gas refill out of an old whiskey bottle!

Ladies selling fruit on their bikes in Hanoi, Vietnam.

A woman making an egg sandwich for my breakfast in Hue, Vietnam.

A barbershop in Luang Prabang, Laos.

She wont bite…if you buy a banana! In Old Town, Hanoi, Vietnam.

Just cookin’ up my egg down below. No big deal. In Hue, Vietnam.

A fruit stand in Bangkok, Thailand.

Need an impromptu pedicure for those tired feet? Get one in Hanoi, Vietnam!

Seafood anyone? It doesn’t get fresher than this! In Hue, Vietnam.

Black Bears & Pristine Falls: Luang Prabang, Laos

If you’ve never seen black bears playing in a park like children at daycare, you should probably book the next ticket to Luang Prabang, Laos and head 30 kilometers south to the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Center. Here, there are 23 Asiatic Black Bears rescued from illegal poaching and trading, and all of them are prospering in an environment built to keep them safe, active and happy.

The Free the Bears organization has so far rescued nearly 800 bears in India and Southeast Asia, and their organization is growing with the help of donors like you. Click here to help them out.

I didn’t even know the rescue center existed before I booked a taxi to Kuang Si Falls, but there it was, just inside the park entrance, like an unexpected free zoo. I wanted to crawl with them on the jungle gym and cuddle the cute little guys, but something told me they aren’t as gentle as they look, so I snapped a few pictures and went to cool off.

Even in the dry season, Kuang Si Falls are a brilliant array of nature’s most vivid colors; and a much-desired respite from the overwhelming heat and humidity.

The friends I made on the hour-long taxi journey and I weren’t sure what to expect from the falls, and so we  thought this might be the best of it… until we ventured a little higher up. It was even more enticing.

Locals were flying through the humid air like Tarzan on a rope swing, fully clothed (like in Thailand, most locals swim in their jeans and tees) and plunging into the turquoise abyss below. So of course we joined them.

When my arms could no longer hold the rope tight enough to make the swing worth it, we ventured up even higher and discovered yet an even more stunning fall.

When we were finished with the sun and water, we bid goodbye to our new favorite spot. I was sad to leave, but walking out meant another look at my not-so-cuddly black bears, so I said goodbye to them too.

What’s the best thing you did in Laos?

Decisions in Luang Prabang, Laos

It was in Luang Prabang that I had to decide how I would spend the following year of my life. Colorado State University was pressuring me with a looming deadline to choose a two-year commitment to graduate school, but as I sat on the banks of the Mekong sipping my morning coffee, pen in hand, hovering over the paper that would cement my decision, I watched orange-robed monks glide by, children play in the muddy water and several local men share a BeerLao for breakfast, and I couldn’t imagine my travels ever ending. The idea that life should be lived in the slow lane is something nearly every country besides the U.S. has figured out, and sitting among people enjoying the simplicities in life made me realize college could wait.

I signed the deferral letter and that afternoon I managed to convey to a local internet cafe owner that I needed to “send paper through air” to a place in the U.S.A. It essentially gave me another year to drag my feet on going back to school, but also a mandatory 12 months to magically become a Colorado resident while secretly living in China (okay, it’s not so secret, but shhh!).

I have no regrets, but I do often wonder if I would have made the same choice had I not been sitting in one of the most blissful cities I have visited. Luang Prabang literally means “Royal Buddha Image,” which explains the more than 30-plus local temples, and the reason I saw more monks than regular residents wandering the sidewalks.

Unfortunately, I had hit a point in my travels, nearly seven months in, where I didn’t care to ever step foot in another Buddhist temple. So I didn’t. But I did climb the 328 steps to the top of Mount Phousi where Wat Chomsi sits for the dusk-to-sunset viewing.

Luang Prabang is a mountainous city surround by two rivers – the Mekong and the Nam Khan. One thing I found particularly interesting was the outer roads that wrap around the water, where most of the fancy, French-inspired hotels can be found (Laos used to be occupied by the French), the roads are spotless and well kept.

But when I ventured into the middle of town, where shanty huts line the trash-covered streets, I saw where the locals live – literally in the midst of the tourist action, hidden by those fancy dwellings. It’s possible the excess of trash was due to a recent festival, but the contrast from one block to the next was astonishing.

That night, after I faxed my “one time only” deferral request, I ended my day the way those local men started – with a large BeerLao, the only local beer available, but one of my favorites in all of Southeast Asia – and smiled as I watched the river flow slowly by, fully aware I had made the right decision.

What decision would you have made?