The Corner of Lost Souls

I’m sitting on the bus on my way off Cat Ba and out of Vietnam after 90 days in this country. It feels so weird. It’s the longest I’ve spent continuously in any country after UK and HK. I certainly would’ve never envisaged that I would be doing that here and certainly not that long in a small town on a small island. I remember arriving here in May (which feels like a lifetime ago) and thinking “shit, I’m going to spend three months here”?. It’s funny how quickly that seems to have passed.

Usually Asia Outdoors only give out six month contracts, but as luck would have it, through disorganisation of outgoing and incoming hiring people and their needing staff quickly I managed to negotiate a three month contract. I don’t regret my decision to leave after three and I’m glad I didn’t impulsively extend. Some people have been here over a year and I don’t quite understand how. Being here during the progression into rainy season probably doesn’t help much as it has made it such an effort to go climbing on days off. I can’t remember the last time I went to Butterfly Valley on my personal time. Climbing out in the bay is stunning but also expensive as you need to hire boats for the day. And going out DWS with the company on days off is something I didn’t enjoy too much. The fear of falling and jumping into water from high up severely hampers my enjoyment of the activity. So for me, my time here has felt like a time of being lost and trying to experience more, whilst lacking any real direction. And perhaps that’s where I come from so I’m projecting but I see a lot of people in the same boat as me – particularly those who have been here for over six months. The Corner of Lost Souls as I called it in a conversation with one of my past colleagues.

It’s been an interesting social experiment to see how people react to me. The locals and even westerners would often think I was local or could speak the language. Even this morning on my last office shift I had four people try to speak to me in Vietnamese and one westerner ask me if I can ask the Vietnamese staff of the neighbouring tea stand for some ice. It’s often quite amusing, particularly the embarrassment of the westerners sometimes. There would’ve been a time where it particularly bothered me – a time when my sense of identity was more fragile. Nowadays, I can shrug it off pretty easily. Of course I don’t expect you to know that I’m not local, I am Chinese after all.

I have missed long travel times alone like this when I usually default to escaping into my thoughts. There has definitely been a lot of distractions in Cat Ba. But also, the idea of sitting in a room by myself never seemed that appealing and neither did I find anywhere external to the hotel that I felt comfortable enough to relax.

The butterflies here are exquisite. That’s been a pleasant surprise that I’ve really enjoyed. I remember there was a particular week period around the end of May when Butterfly Valley really lived up to its name. I got distracted regularly whilst belaying by the variety and how many butterflies there were. Even now, there are still some beautiful and vibrant ones around.

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Cynical Optimism

I’m in a rare pensive mood today which I haven’t been in for a long time. Rainy days will do that to you. Although, my brain is pretty unbridled today so apologies for the lack of flow in this entry.

It’s been almost a year since I embarked on a one year sabbatical. An unintentional one year sabbatical, mind you but I think it was for the best. There was lots of processing and healing that needed to be done and a lot of personal growth to be had in the time I’ve been away. If I had gone back in May like I had planned, it would’ve been premature and possibly detrimental as I was not ready and was on track to jump back into my old life.

On some levels, I miss it. London was and will always be a big part of who I am but like so many big influences that occur, it kind of happened as opposed to being purposefully conceived as an aim. Most of my friends live there for one, so it will always hold a big draw. Particularly because I am the kind of person who sees close friends as family. But family are not so easily lost over distance and having not seen my closest friends since January, I am still in constant contact with them which is testament to the strength of our friendships. I will miss the vibrance of the London recreational scene. There’s so much to do and it is a beautiful city – all you have to do is look up to admire the beautiful old and new architecture all around. But having gained some perspective from being away from it, I can now see I was naturally burning out from the lifestyle. The pace of life and the consistency in which there are things going on, leaves little time for a person to fully catch their breathe. There are almost too many distractions. As a wise man once said:

Creativity is the residue of time wasted.

– Albert Einstein

The modern pace of city life is certainly one that does not allow for much contemplation which in turn, in my opinion, is the gateway to ideas and inspiration.

What have I learnt over my last year of travelling over Europe and SE Asia? On the face of it, I’ve had some amazing experiences like diving, trekking and seeing in person incredible natural landscapes. In essence, the main thing that matter the most is learning that humanity is the same anywhere you go. Sure, the culture and language is different. There are differences in the ways things are regarded like being outdoors for instance, where it’s a much more common thing for someone to go for a hike or go on holiday to spend in the sun, here in Asia you would be hard pressed to find local people who are on holiday out in the sun without being covered up and holding umbrellas. There are also differences in terms of politeness, generally the Vietnamese and Chinese are much more brash and less concerned with queuing and being elbowed out of the way. There are always going to be such differences. But everywhere I’ve been to so far, close knit families prevail. People are just looking to survive and live their lives. Sometimes that’s in peculiar ways (to me), like the floating villages in Lan Ha Bay. 4,000 people live on these floating homes – there are even floating restaurants and grocery stores. Some of these people will never step a foot on solid land and yet most of these people also cannot swim. It’s bizarre in that sense but they have adapted to surviving by fish farming and shellfish collecting to feed their families and to continue their existences. Their aim is something I’m sure anyone can fundamentally relate to. I just have the luxury to be able to choose how it is I want to adapt.

I suppose the reason I’m feeling as introspective as I am today is partly because it’s time to move on. I’ve enjoyed and learnt so much from my time travelling SE Asia and working here in Cat Ba but it is time to move on with my life. I’m done running and healing. I am grateful for all the time I’ve allowed myself to have and for every spectacular human being I’ve met and travelled with on this journey. It’s helped me get to where I am right now and I’m excited for the future. There are so many unknowns that it’s completely uncharted territory for me. But I head on forward with a cynical optimism (the fault of my British upbringing) that no matter how things go, there will always be a way to go. One step at a time, taking deep breathes in and out.

Journeys of the Heart

I’ve recently entered into an incredibly intense and mind-blowingly amazing relationship with a guy I met here and it’s thrown up a lot of uncomfortable feelings I have experienced and dealt with in the past. Largely the main enemy is insecurity, which I’ve learnt long ago is rooted within oneself most of the time and not in the other person. When you discover something so rare and precious, then you stand to lose so much and that fear is what drives the insecurity and anxieties. Or at least it is in this case. I’ve successfully managed to deal with it in previous relationships, partly because I cared less for the others and stood to lose less. But this, this has really taken me for a turn.

As if planned, I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind last night which is one of my favourite movie. I love it because of its’ storytelling and the complexities within the plot and also the use of a sci-fi-esque invention within the movie to explore relationships. One of my favourite parts is at the very end, after Joel and Clementine discover all the messy events that have led them to be where they were because they had reached the breaking point in their relationship previously. Despite this they are still drawn to each other but knowing there is all likelihood that they will end up down the same path of confrontations and arguments. Joel simply looks at Clementine and goes “Okay.” with so much acceptance and resignation because he thinks it’s worth trying.

I also saw something a friend posted on my Facebook feed today. “life is tough, but so are you”. And I know I’ll be fine no matter what, I’ve been through enough to know that. But life sometimes makes you build walls in order to protect yourself and to open up to let that someone on is terrifying. To then run the risk of losing them is even more so. But like Joel said, okay.

Getting from Lost to Found

So one thing that I’ve realised on this trip is that:

1) I don’t really want to move back to the UK. I feel like it’s time to move on

2) I really don’t mind what I do but I would prefer to work online so I have the freedom to move around.

With a job background in media planning/marketing and data analysis, I am currently looking into different avenues of how to get set up.

a) Get freelance digital marketing jobs online.

b) Set up a successful content site to work as an affiliate

c) Apply for teaching English online

d) Decide where I want to move and try and apply for a static job there

It’s not the first time I’ve considered it but it’s always seemed hard to make into reality, partly because I’ve not done enough to commit to it. Travelling in the past six months has shown me that I have what it takes to be successful and I have a good logical, business brain. Lack of confidence has been a large factor in my hesitation and failure to commit in the past. It’s time to knuckle down.

Halfway Through

If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.

– Lewis Carroll

I’m about halfway through my time here on Cat Ba and it has been a quite a ride so far. The work continues to throw up interesting challenges daily and there is continual staffing shifts which changes the dynamic of the group frequently. As July approaches I become more and more acutely aware that a decision on what I want to do after will have to be made soon. A friend/colleague introduced me to the quote above a couple of days ago which really stuck with me. There’s been so much anxiety over picking THE thing I need to be doing next but there’s no grounding for it. I have no aim and no real preference for what I want to do so there’s no need for the anxiety.

Cat Ba is an interesting mix of environments. The town itself is a horrible over packed seaside town which the Vietnamese come to invade during June and July. But going out into Lan Ha Bay for work provides some sort reprieve from the hustle and bustle that is this neon town. It’s a funny lifestyle living here as an adventure guide. Going out onto the bay for work and escaping deep into the island on days off to climb. We work and play as a unit which makes it all very intense, particularly if you strike up a romantic relationship with someone or have a disagreement with another.

I love driving out of Cat Ba Town; I even own a scooter now. My first moving vehicle! Heading out from the busy town onto quieter roads always feels a bit cathartic, especially when you’re turning up the gas so that you pelt along at some speeds.

I’m interested to see what the next half of my time here will bring. If it brings anymore clarity to my future plans, that would be most welcome.

My Temporary Abode

So after being on the road consistently since January, it got to the point where I felt quite tired of moving around. So I’m now on Cat Ba island in Vietnam for a couple of months working here as an Adventure Guide for Asia Outdoors. It’s pretty cool. I would have never imagined myself working outdoors like this in a foreign country. The bay is beautiful although it does make me really sad how much rubbish is floating around. The locals litter a lot as do the big tourist cruise ships which is heartbreaking. The education in Asia really needs to be improved to make the locals aware of how delicate the environment is.

The work is cool, I work with a really good bunch of people who all love the outdoors and are really good fun. The days are long and tiring, it’s proper honest work though which does give you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Cat Ba seemed like a good place as there’s plenty of climbing here to go to do on days off. So far, I haven’t quite had as many sport climbing days as I’d like but I’m hoping that will change.

Deep water solo is also an awesome activity that is on offer here that’s perfect now that we’re heading into the hot and humid summer.

This whole travel adventure has thrown up a lot of questions about what I want from life. It’s caused me a fair amount of stress from not having even a rough plan of what I want to do. But one epiphany I had from climbing the other day is that life is like climbing. As you move through the different foot and hand holds, you’ll come across different options but you won’t know until you get there. It was a nice summary of where I was at. It doesn’t matter if I don’t end up living the cookie cutter lifestyle I always thought I had to live. I don’t want that and it’s in accepting that there are other ways to live that will give me the freedom I’m seeking.

Indonesia: Water, green and wilderness

That will be my memory of Indonesia. In the not-quite three weeks we were there, we ended up splitting the time between Nusa Lembongan, Labuan Bajo/Komodo and Bali. What we saw was beautiful.

Despite being quite touristy in some places, there are still lots of wilderness around, particularly underwater. The diving here is phenomenal and definitely some of the best that I’ve experienced. The variety and size of coral and fish in Komodo was astounding. It was easy to feel dwarfed by the monstrously sized marine creatures swimming in those waters. We were lucky enough to come across a lot of mantas at a dive site called Mawan. These mantas were easily 5m wide and much bigger than the ones we saw at Nusa Penida. They are amazing, just so graceful and calm as they swim playfully past you.

I was a bit sceptical about spending too much time on Bali knowing how popular with tourists it is. We spent a couple of days in Amed, which had a great relaxed pace. It was fun to hire scooters and zip around seeing the beautiful coastal scenery.

Here we also got to see an example of a freediver, Joan Capdevila, in action. Snorkeling at the Japanese Wreck, he manages to dive down and stay to inspect the wreck in detail for three, four minutes at a time with ease. It was mind boggling enough to see that knowing he is managing it all with one single breathe. To then extend that thought to trying to comprehend his deep dives to the depths of 70/80m is something my brain instinctively shuts down. It’s amazing what human beings can achieve and it’s another stark reminder that our biggest limitations are the mental walls which we box ourselves into. I doubt that freediving is something that I will be pursuing obsessively any time soon, but the learnings are just as applicable to my love of climbing.

After Amed, I spent our last few days in Canggu. Going from sleepy Amed to Canggu was a bit overwhelming initially. The traffic for one, is much more intense. But Canggu is pretty cool. Kind of like Hipsters on Holiday vibes. Surfers and skaters revel here as do digital nomads. The main streets are decorated with shiny shops, shiny cafes and shiny signs. As much I liked the pseudo westernised environment to soothe my cravings for home comforts, the place still has too much of a sheen for me to feel completely comfortable. It was also nice to see the rice paddies that still existed just off the main streets, but also sobering to consider that they will probably no longer exist in a decade or so to make way for more perfectly curated shops and cafes.

Indonesia has been an interesting experience. Personally, it threw up a lot of questions about what I want to do with my life, particularly after I call it quits with travelling (the number one reason why anyone travels right?). But the country is beautiful, and I would love to revisit to explore more.