When I was 18, my host mother sat a new dish in front of me and in Slovak urged me to eat. The entire family looked at me, smiling in anticipation for what was sure to be a delicious treat of “Ham.And.Eggs” with heavy bread, while I looked at my plate perplexed. Was it finger food? Should I use a fork? Do I eat all the flavors at once, or each bite separately?
When I was 21, my host mother brought me to a sushi restaurant for the first time in my life. I took a few pieces and saw something green. Ah, I thought to myself, this is the thing from the Princess Diaries meant to cleanse the palate! I helped myself to a tiny spoonful. Spoiler – it was not ice cream.
Now at 28, I’m much better about these things. I insist in new countries that my hosts show me how I am meant to eat a new food first, and when showing off a taco salad bar to backpackers from around the world I make sure that an American goes through the line first and we chat about the usual combinations before forcing a newbie through.
Alas, I’m still not perfect.
After six weeks in Thailand, I was feeling pretty good about my abilities to munch on the varying dishes and relied on my local friends only to tell me “spicy!” or “not so spicy”. So when I sat down in Lampang with my generous hosts, Chat and Bam, at a local restaurant while assuring them I could eat noodles, I wasn’t concerned.
The waitress brought my plate out first and my friends insisted that I begin eating without waiting for them. I reached into the cutlery box on our table and pulled out chopsticks and a spoon and dug in.
“Wow!” remarked Chat as his bowl was set in front of him. “You’re really good with those!”
My pride swelled. Little farm girl from Iowa can eat with chopsticks, huzzah!
Chat continued, “You know we eat that with a fork, right?”
I came to Thailand with no plan – and I mean no plan. Do I need any new vaccinations? Nope, sweet. What kind of visa do I need? Thirty days exempt on arrival with an option to extend, brilliant. Where should my base be? Bangkok is hot, not much for beaches, look that city is in the mountains, done.
I booked a place on AirBNB for a month and waved goodbye to the land of Hobbits. Did you know Chiang Mai has more temples per capita than any other place in Thailand? I didn’t. There were three practically within spitting distance of my apartment, but even with dozens in Old Town alone, I still managed to be at the same one at the same time as a Thai Princess on Christmas Eve. The nerves of the guards preparing the courtyard for her were palpable as they instructed the small crowd to stand and take no photographs. I was intrigued watching her casual demeanor and clothing as she snapped selfies with her German Shepherds in the pagoda and revealed her hip tattoo as she raised her arm to get a better shot of the temple. Of course, along with every smartphone shot, an official photographer was trailing behind.
My lack of research wasn’t a hindrance, though. Within days of arriving in the mountains, I found myself a social group thanks to the Couchsurfing app and the fact that digital nomads tend to be slower travelers with two-month condos instead of two-day hostels dorms. We celebrated Christmas, my birthday, and New Year’s together – and then remained friends through festivals and farewells. I’d eavesdrop on their recommendations of restaurants and apps, temples and tours, massages and nail salons, yoga studios and meditation retreats. Stepping outside of the Trip Advisor recommendations meant that I could find interesting places with short lines instead of decent places with a two-hour wait. Through the voices of expats and locals, I found my favorite attractions (special shout out here to Wat Umong where I had my birthday blessing, and the Blue Temple where I got blue coconut ice cream) and modes of transportation (red trucks will rip you off, and Mobike lets you peddle orange bicycles all over town) with minimal headaches.
Oh, but watch for the food poisoning. Pepto-Bismo doesn’t exist here but pop into any pharmacy (not 7-Eleven), and they’ll hook you up to minimize the agony. Mostly. And, uh, watch for opium, too? While the illegal sale of it is supposed to be gone from the Golden Triangle, the legal sale is astonishingly casual. I’ve had several friends be prescribed medication only to realize afterward what was in it.
I’m still 60% sure that I’ll die in traffic this year, and that has only become more solidified since landing in Vietnam. Lanes are made up and the traffic lights don’t matter; every form operates on a different plane of existence. But hey, I managed to ride a scooter around Pai with a helmet that wouldn’t protect me from a tree branch and didn’t crash yet! Which thoroughly convinced me to never do that again, so you can breathe easy, Mom!
Long term travel is a completely different time frame than short vacations. The last seven weeks have passed by perfectly on schedule: not too quickly, not too slowly. When I spent 10 days in Europe for Zuzka’s wedding, it may as well have been a year. But 49 Thai days after 12 New Zealand months felt completely natural and the rhythm made sense. That little farm girl from Iowa still gets thrown off kilter in the chaos of Asia, but the flame of adventure leaps with giddiness at every new neighborhood. Wish me luck in Vietnam as Glenna and I explore our fifth country together!
Also, please forgive me for the self-promo, but I wrote an actual paid article, so I want to show off. Check out my listicle of best things to do in Dunedin!