The great and prolific Mark Twain once said, "Don't let your schooling interfere with your education." So we listened to him, took Ajaan Kai's Economics exam early, and caught a cheap flight to Vietnam via Bangkok.
I should explain that Ajaan Kai does not teach at St. Lawrence, nor did we set off from Canton. We started instead from Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand during our semester abroad in October. Two flights, one night on Bangkok airport benches, five Vietnamese visa acquisitions, a Hanoi taxi ride and a five hour blind faith bus and boat trip later, we emerged from a foggy haze and found ourselves looking out at the South China Sea in the late afternoon. We stared out at an ocean shining at once blue, gold, green, and orange, at rock formations rising from it, and at junk boats coming in from a day out fishing.
I’m from Vermont, so as much as I have always loved the ocean, I have always felt uneasy away from mountains. Here, where mountains rose from the sea, I found the perfect balance. We woke early and headed out on the bay on a junk boat. We stopped at a floating fishing village where nets hung in the water holding live fish waiting to be sold. Dogs paced between the nets, anxiously watching the fish below in case they tried to jump out. We slid into kayaks and out on the water, moving around the bases of mountains and rock faces rising like fossilized icebergs from the surface. The day was bright and beautiful. There were hardly any waves among those cliffs, just a gentle ebb and flow as we paddled on. We journeyed past rocks balanced at impossible angles, under shelves whittled away by water, through archways and caves, all the while in awe. We were discovering again that the world is a truly beautiful place. There are few moments in my life that have been filled with such awe, such utter euphoria or with such gratitude.
We spent that day exploring. We maneuvered around that quiet bit of ocean, two of us per boat. We passed more fishing villages, temples on beaches and plant life growing inverted from rocky heights. We traveled through dark, water-filled caves and emerged in bright quiet lagoons. There we jumped from our boats into the warm still water, floating for long minutes in a world which was perfectly still and distant from all else we knew. Only a jellyfish moving with slow determination on its solitary path disturbed us. We climbed back into our boats and traveled on. Minutes turned into hours, until the sun began to set. Sunburned and tired, the junk boat took us back to shore.
That night we walked away from the bright lights of the hotels and bars and down the road until we were in the part of town where most tourists do not feel inclined to walk. We walked through dark alleys and popped out on new streets. We stumbled upon a fruit market lit by bare bulbs, and stood for long minutes selecting the first course of our dinner. I cannot describe to you what a glorious thing it is to bite into a mango that is ripe and still warm from the day’s sun, or the taste of sugar cane freshly cut by a machete, let alone the flavor of a rambutan, mangosteen or guava. Our first course ended with sticky smiles, fruit juice all over and laughter from Vietnamese families eating dinner and getting haircuts nearby.
Our second course came from a restaurant that doubled as a family’s living room. There, while the youngest daughter (no more than two) played with the family’s puppy, the mother cooked us dinner. We settled in with a hot bowl of Pho, Vietnamese noodle soup with beef, lemongrass, basil, and cilantro. It tasted of all things good in the world. As we ate, the little girl smiled at us through the slats in the back of a chair and the puppy looked from behind her legs.
Course number three came in the form homemade coconut ice cream with sticky rice, soy crisps and other undetermined delicious things. It was served to us in the shadow of a bridge by a smiling old lady and her husband. We ate in silence with the knowledge that we would probably never taste something like this ever again in our lives.
Mark Twain knew what he was talking about. There are risks you should take in life and traveling abroad is one of them. Planning a trip all on your own while abroad is another. Go blindly. Have faith in the world. Trust humanity, and the rest of humanity will trust you. Do talk to strangers. How else will you make friends? Always trust your gut, but remember that sometimes you have to give it a run for its money, push your comfort zone and try something new.
Study abroad is what you make it. You will always remember moments like these, they will stay with you forever. As I head into Finals Week, I keep thinking about packing a backpack, booking a budget flight and discovering how beautiful our world is again. In moments of stress, when I sit in ODY preparing for my global studies presentation, or for my psychology exam, I take a moment and close my eyes. I visualize jumping from that yellow plastic kayak into that warm lagoon, laughing while trying to cross Hanoi traffic, trying to hold onto a half peeled mango as it slips from my hands, or making faces at the girl in the restaurant to make her laugh as she peered out through that chair. It makes all that studying easier because I realize that school is in no way getting in the way of my education. It is teaching me how to make the most of the education I will be receiving throughout my life.