Last year, I traveled around the world; sometimes I would write things down. Coming from the USA certainly had a tremendous impact on my travels and the way I experienced things. Below are some comments about the United States and being American that came up in conversation with different people I met. Some were volunteered and some were prompted, some are positive and some are negative, but they’re all sincere. And that’s what I appreciated the most.
I’m someone who is always questioning myself and who I am as a person. I think this is important to become the best possible version of myself. In the same way, I think it’s good for people to question where they’re from and what their country is before celebrating it.
I’ve replaced people’s names with the place where they’re from, and I’ve added a picture I took of that place. Note that these quotes are all between March and July 2016.
The US is a very nice place with lots of problems. -Berlin Germany
I can never go to the United States. It is too dangerous. -Gifu Japan
When I was younger, I really wanted to go to the US and live there. But now, I would never. It’s a scary place, no? And now, maybe Trump can launch an atomic bomb haha. -Berlin Germany
Americans are great people, but I don’t like the United States. They’re crazy over there, really crazy. You best stay here in Italy. -Tropea Italy
Americans have this amazing quality where at any point in their lives, they can completely change. – Berlin Germany
The United States is a good place for money – that’s what your grandfather used to say. But as they were filling him with drugs and killing him at the hospital, he begged to return to Italy. America has a sickness, and I don’t like it. -Ricadi Italy
Here in Cambodia, we are poor. But we have food, we have shelter. There are children in the world who do not even have these things. I wish that if you have money to give, that you would give it to those people. -Siem Reap Cambodia
[travel journal excerpt, 15/5/16]
A friend led me to a forest temple in Petula village, tucked and hidden outside of Ubud. It wasn’t a very official or grandiose temple, and maybe it wasn’t even a temple. There were some shrines and some baths that dispensed water from the river that ran through the forest. The local people called it sacred water, but it appeared to be just clean water for bathing and drinking. I didn’t really know what to do there. With my phone and camera gone, I couldn’t take any pictures or videos.
My friend bathed first, washing himself in the river water that flowed from some carved stone fountains that the villagers used. He did a little prayer motion with his hands and continued bathing. I followed suit, washed my face and chest, put my hands together as in prayer, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was a bit anxious because there were some villagers waiting to do their thing. I felt guilty for using their space for some sort of amusement or whatever. I motioned to my friend, indicating that we should leave; we left the fountain and began to leave the forest. A man smiled at me as he took my place in front of the stone fountain. I passed an old woman bathing alone in front of another stone fountain and continued through the forest, leaving the fountains behind me.
An enormous spider caught my eye as it sat in its web that was spun between two thin, tall trees. I stopped in my tracks and just stared for a moment. My friend continued walking, perhaps not realizing that I had stopped. I’m not sure why I stopped – perhaps to marvel at this spider or maybe to just really take it all in so that I could remember the scene. I looked at the serene, green forest and listened to the tranquil, flowing water. For a moment, I was the forest; and time slowed down. I blinked, and the weight of my eyelids shut the light from me for what could have been a lifetime. The forest looked back at me as if it were another person. It was kind. And I felt God.
“Thank you,” I whispered. And I was at peace.
The sun was rising in the most peculiar way over the ancient structures of the main Angkor Wat temple. It was as if the sun was ignoring the horizon and starting out further up in the sky. It was amazing, and everything was orange and beautiful. Angkor Wat looked even more magnificent that I had imagined. But a strange feeling came over me that was completely unexpected. I felt almost…underwhelmed. It wasn’t that what I was experiencing wasn’t absolutely breathtaking or awesome or wonderful – it had all to do with what brought me here.
It had been years since I had first read about Angkor Wat. Sitting in the uncomfortable chair of my shitty desktop at my shitty job, I wanted a distraction. I clicked on my Stumble Upon button, and my browser loaded a page showing a map and images of Angkor Wat. What I saw was incredible – I couldn’t believe that something like this actually existed on Earth. My mind was in complete awe as I read more about it, and I told myself that one day I would most definitely visit Angkor Wat myself.
It was pure fantasy. It was a promise I made to myself to get me through the day. And then day after day, I made myself more promises: “one day I’ll do this” and “some day I’ll go here.” But they weren’t real. They were all just pure fantasy. And as I walked up to this incredible ancient temple – the first of many on this journey I finally decided to take – it occurred to me that I could have actually done this at any point. When I first saw Angkor Wat on my computer screen and told myself that I wanted to go there, I could have literally booked a ticket that day. The trip would have costed me maybe one paycheck, but it was totally doable. If I really loved myself and really wanted to welcome happiness into my life, I would have just went to Angkor Wat that year. But I didn’t. In fact, it wouldn’t be until I sat at several more desks at four more different companies before I would even actually bring myself to actually go to Cambodia. And that thought – that I had basically created this fantasy which I wasn’t really intent on realizing just to get me through another day – was upsetting. It gave me an emptiness. I had deceived the best part of my humanity – wonder.
Wonder is that emotion that children get before they’re about to open a Christmas present. Wonder is what you felt when you first learned about your favorite animal. It’s that budding excitement you get when you see something that you wished you had dreamed about but you didn’t. It’s when, for a moment, reality defies your understanding of what you thought could have actually been, and your imagination does cartwheels. And wonder is something that fades as we get older because, obviously, we learn about most of the things that we’ll ever learn about.
When I first learned about Angkor Wat, it was wonder that I felt. And it felt good – it felt amazing. I was a child again, and the world was full of things that left me in awe. My imagination was doing cartwheels. But instead of running with that emotion, I used it. I harnessed that wonder and used it to get through another shitty day at my job. And that’s not how people should live. If you ever feel wonder – if you ever find yourself wide-eyed and quivering with excitement about something, just go for it. Accept it for what it is and go for it. Think about what your 8 year-old self would do if he were you – an adult in the free world that could probably do almost anything but instead continues to sit at his desk wasting away all the excitement in his life.