Escape to Southeast Asia

Terror. Sitting in the food court of the San Francisco International Airport in January waiting for my one-way flight to Saigon, I was convulsed, nearly nauseous with fear that just kept building and building like an ascent on a roller coaster whose summit was forever out of view. If I still had an apartment, I might have said "screw it all" and fled home, but my husband and I had already given up our cozy, rent-controlled one-bedroom, donated most of our clothes to charity, sold many of our books and CDs, put half our furniture on the curb and the rest in storage.

We'd said our boozy good-byes to good friends. I quit my regular freelance gigs and my husband turned in his key to his sweet studio space that he got for free in exchange for a few hours of graphic design work each month. We'd sloughed off the easy, easy life we'd built, the life we often felt outrageously lucky for living, and in exchange we were getting only the promise of uncertainty. Our existence had been luxuriously domestic, full of gourmet suppers with lots of earthy red wine and evenings spent curled on the couch watching films from the '40s.

But for the next year, we'd be floating unmoored through Asia, from hostel to hotel to bungalow to pension, looking for what? Why on earth had we decided to do this?

Wisp of a Notion

Arriving in Saigon nearly 36 hours later, engulfed by the smell of garlic and fish sauce emanating from street stalls, the frenetic blur of speeding mopeds carrying multiple passengers, whole families whirring by on two wheels, dazed in crowds of stooped old women in conical hats and rushing businessmen chattering into cell phones, communist propaganda billboards competing for space with Coca-Cola signs, I knew.

The rush of the unknown scours your brain, forces you to exist in the moment because all your powers of concentration are required to cross the chaotic streets. It annihilates routine and renders all the prosaic details of life fascinating. The ironies abounding in this old embattled country racing forward, the extremes of beauty and squalor all tumbling together -- it's a drug making everything brighter, deeper, more intense. In the United States, some complacent neocons have prattled on about the end of history, but here the aftershocks of world events feel immediate, the future uncertain, and everything volatile and desperate and alive.

Even though our trip had just started, the tradeoff of security for sensation finally started making the kind of sense it had when I first fancifully envisioned it, months ago in San Francisco.

Actually, the idea for taking a chunk of life off to backpack around the world was planted, obliquely, in 1998, at a going away party for our friends Ted and Julie, who were off to spend their year traveling. At the time, I was completely absorbed by my nascent writing career and by the buzz and crackle of the money-drunk new media scene.

"I could never do what they're doing," I told a woman at the party. "I could never give up work for that long."

"Maybe not now," she said, "but I bet a time will come when you just want to go."

And gradually but inexorably it did. The first sign, I think, came when I realized that whenever I was depressed and anxious, which was disconcertingly often, I'd be seized with an overpowering desire to go shopping. As a teenager I'd lived on $50 or so a week, sleeping in an expansive squat with seven friends while going to college on a scholarship, arrogantly relishing my genteel indigence.

Now I'd spend twice that on a spontaneous trip to Sephora, where, despite years of women's studies classes, I'd become entranced by the idea of self-transformation through pots of glitter eye shadow and earth-toned lip gloss and $30 cheek stain that promised a fetching post-coital flush. When I did drag myself out in the evening, it was always to bars where everyone seemed to be, like me, in their mid-20s, but all more buff and fashionable and vivacious, and I would dutifully paint myself up to blend in.

It was sometimes fun and never exciting -- not like it was when I was a teenager, when my girlfriends and I would giddily huddle outside of nightclubs and eagerly submit ourselves to the judgment of some imperious 6-foot drag queen with a clipboard because when she pulled back the rope it was like all the glittering possibilities of the world exploding open at once. No, pretty as all the moneyed young things in hipster hangouts were, the atmosphere seemed drained of potential.

The nights were the same -- forever making myself presentable so as to stand around a room full of people exactly like me, sipping $8 cocktails and shouting in my friends' ears over the increasingly dreary thump of down-tempo electronic music spun by some self-serious twerp behind the decks.

There were things that still delighted me, but more and more I lived for the trappings of yuppified adulthood -- I could be brought to raptures by a fantastic four-star meal, or a gorgeous pair of leather boots, or a great old movie on TV. Maybe that's part of growing up -- the muted sensations, the blasé exhaustion, the pricey, sedate pleasures -- but I'm only 25 and it just seemed way too soon to give up on thrills.

I missed the fever of the underground, but as America gentrifies and the culture is deformed by a deracinated bought-and-sold kind of hipness, all meaning lost in the vortex of fashion, I knew I'd find only a pale imitation of my old dreams at home. Having visited Asia before, I'd come to believe that there, among the expats and itinerants, was one of the last places where life could be lived richly and cheaply, where the lust for adventure and experience still trumped careerist ambition.

Besides, globalization has become such a hotly contested political issue, and I wanted to see it from the ground, to learn what people thought whose traditions and economies were being transformed, to feel, as I hadn't for so long, engaged and urgent about politics and the direction of the world.

That was my reason. My husband, Matt, who is far, far less neurotic than I, had simpler motives. He'd wanted to do this all along, had good-naturedly envied Ted and Julie, and when he suddenly had the money and my agreement, he was ecstatic. He comes from a family of travelers and feels most alive on the road. His father, a cameraman, has been everywhere, all over Asia, South America, Europe and Africa. When we decided to do this trip, his grandmother wrote us a letter telling us how her mother, an avant-garde artist, had done nearly the same journey in the '20s, sent away by her family to escape the "Paris scene" -- and the unsuitable Jewish suitor who became my husband's great-grandfather.

Many a Mile to Freedom

Luckily (and perhaps loathsomely), we had the money to escape the new economy because of Matt's years in the new economy. He worked at an Internet startup and sold half his options before the crash. We didn't get rich, but we became Internet thousandaires, with nearly enough money to put a down payment on a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a seedy urban neighborhood, which was what we planned to do until we decided to do this.

As soon as we decided, we wanted to buy the tickets as quickly as possible so that we wouldn't chicken out or postpone it indefinitely, waiting until there was less going on in our lives. The thing is, there's always something going on, something to give up, some reason not to do it. Whenever all those things seemed overwhelming, I would try to picture myself as a 70-year-old woman and I'd tell my present self that my future self would never think, "Damn, if only I had stayed home and worked on my career and bought real estate instead of seeing the world."

Anyway, once you set out on a trip like this, you become part of an enormous amorphous mass of Westerners doing exactly the same thing, and so it ceases to seem like a weird and daring lark and becomes normal life. It's both comforting and horrible, but however exotic the destinations sound when you're planning your itinerary -- whether you're going to Cappadocia in central Turkey or the Indian desert city of Jaipur or the Mekong Delta -- in many of them you'll find Internet cafes, hippie restaurants serving banana pancakes, stalls selling English-language books and shops peddling fashions that the locals wouldn't dream of wearing.

In other words, you may be trying to explore foreign ways of life, but much of the time what you're really experiencing is traveler culture, which has its own values, aesthetics, cuisine and weird literary canon.

All over Asia, wherever there are Westerners, one sees the same collection of books: Alex Garland's The Beach, a parable about young backpackers' hopeless quests for the authentic; William Sutcliffe's hilarious Are You Experienced?, a satire of the self-righteous young spiritual seekers who flock to India; Amit Gilboa's Off The Rails in Phnom Penh, a lurid exposé of expatriate depravity in Cambodia; and many more. The same themes echo in all of them, different as they are -- the desire to escape the numbing sterility of privilege, the fierce craving for experience that hasn't been predigested, and the longing for an endless adolescence.

These books touch on one of the odd things about traveler culture: the way its presence in a particular locale automatically downgrades that locale's value. Travelers in travel culture centers like Pushkar in India or Chang Mai in Thailand seem to walk around with a look that mingles shame and contempt, the latter because all the other travelers are ruining the exotic atmosphere for them, the former because they're doing the same thing for others.

The raison d'être of traveler culture is to find that unspoiled prelapsarian spot where you and you alone can revel in authenticity. Thus, when you get to a place like Hoi An, the lovely Vietnamese riverside town where I sit writing this, you find yourself exchanging stories with other travelers about the fantastic out-of-the-way spots you visited, spots that were fantastic precisely because the other travelers weren't there.

Then again, this constant churning nostalgia and conviction that everything was better before all the lame outsiders ruined it by overrunning the secret special places is a big part of any bohemia. And traveler culture really is a bohemia, perhaps the last one, a collection of middle-class romantics tripping on wanderlust and nostalgia de la boue. Where else does one find anymore that old-fashioned fetishization of poverty and scraping by on nothing?

You find it here, in spades -- a nice contrast to the amok materialism at home and also a pretension carried to obnoxious lengths. Many hard-core travelers take special pride in trying to pay the same prices as the locals, despite the fact that the locals in a place like Vietnam earn two or three dollars a day. Thus, inevitably, when I give the ancient, bony driver of a cycle rickshaw 10,000 dong -- about 80 cents -- to peddle me through the streets of Saigon, there will be some dreadlocked fool in a Ho Chi Minh T-shirt to cluck at me that I'm getting "ripped off."

I remember an evening in Pushkar, sitting under the stars in the village square and watching local children put on a religious play, when a tiny urchin came around selling cups of tea for five rupees -- about 12 cents -- and the Irish computer programmer next to me tried for 10 minutes to bargain him down to four. These same proud misers will often rhapsodize about how traveling has freed them from the shackles of workaholic Western society while shooing away a 10-year-old kid who peddles postcards 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

In Search of a Soul

I'm doing it too -- venting my frustration at all the other Westerners whose presence is adulterating my "Third World" adventure. And I shouldn't, because I've got a year to find those isolated places and have found some already, like the other day alone on Mui Ne Beach near the fishing town of Phan Thiet, when I was walking along collecting seashells and soon a troop of little girls was following me, each presenting me with the loveliest ones they could find and shouting in my ears because, since I couldn't understand them, they assumed I was deaf. Besides, some of the best nights we've had here have been with like-minded couples, drinking in boho bars like Crazy Kim's in Nha Trang, a city by the beach in Southern Vietnam, and endlessly reviewing our plans, the faraway cities we dream of reaching so we can start the whole process of fantasy, arrival and discovery all over again.

Most people in the United States aren't aware of just how big the traveler scene in the Third World is, because Americans seem to go abroad less than people from England, Europe and Australia -- especially Australia, where a year traveling around the world is something of a right of passage akin to the American college student's Eurail tour.

But the travel bug is biting more and more young Americans. I see it among my friends, many of whom are undertaking journeys similar to mine. Edward Hasbrouck, travel guru at Airtreks, a San Francisco travel agency specializing in extended international trips, and author of the Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. Airtreks' business is growing at 100 percent a year. A "grossly disproportionate" and constantly increasing part of Airtreks' clientele comes from high tech, Hasbrouck says. Some, like Matt and I, are spending the stock options they were lucky enough to cash out with. Others are recuperating from burnout after years of 60-hour weeks, or fleeing the dotcom implosion. I put a query up on the message boards at asking to hear from dotcommers escaping to Asia in the wake of the tech carnage, and within two days I'd received six replies.

I ended up sitting next to a guy from San Francisco yesterday in the Internet cafe across the street, a 32-year-old named Drew Olin who's been on the road for 10 months and plans to continue on for nearly as many more. A marketing person for a snow sports company, he'd grown weary of a life of furious work and stress with weekends given over to "recovery."

"I needed to see a different kind of life. Our society is going in a direction that's impossible to sustain. It's entirely unhealthy," he says.

And the impossible irony is that he's right, that here where people work far harder and live with far more difficulty than we can imagine at home, it is possible for young Westerners to live the kind of carefree existence that people like Henry Miller once did in Paris. The other night I had dinner at the Tam Tam, an airy restaurant and lounge here in Hoi An with French hip-hop and Brazilian bossa nova on the stereo, old French airline posters on the wall and candles smoldering on the tables, where a three-course Italian meal -- one of the most expensive in town -- costs about five bucks and a big pitcher of Sangria with tropical fruits is cheaper than the cheapest beer at home.

Sitting there with a Canadian couple, we traded stories of the Vietnamese people we'd met, their hardships -- reeducation camps, husbands killed in floods -- and our comfort and good fortune seemed cruelly random and also miraculous. Traveling, one is forced up every day against the world's wonders and its ruthless unfairness. There's callousness in all the pleasure we find amidst so much misery, but there's value in thinking about it, in feeling the insane contradictions along with the blazing sunshine.

My mind cleared of all the ricocheting trivia that fills it at home, I can struggle through paradoxes and try to conjure a better way to live.


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