Stop 1 - Vietnam: On Fire

On the first article of my blog, I told you about the sum of moments that led me to go on a completely unexpected travel journey. A sum that resulted in the ending of a relationship, an undefined career path, and a total lack of purpose and joy.

Let me be clear though. I did not decide to travel because I wanted to escape. Far from it. My decision to travel came from my desperate need to find myself again. And I know how cliche that sounds. But for the first time in my life, I wanted to give myself permission to get a taste of that dream I had allowed to turn into ashes the day I decided that I needed to be “realistic.” That dream of becoming a documentary photographer travelling around the globe the way Vivian Maier and Henri Cartier Bresson did. Or even the war photographer, James Nachtwey. What I'm about to tell you guys will be the first chapter of this journey that was anything but the “Eat Pray Love” glamour.

As I was sitting on the seat of that airplane, I couldn't feel anything. No fear. But no excitement either. I had exhausted every bit of emotion left in me and so I was entirely numb. It's like it still hadn't dawned on me that I was about to set foot on the complete opposite side of the world. I had no idea what I was searching for exactly, or what it is I would find, but I felt calm. And if I've learned anything at all it's that if you've made a decision that makes you feel at peace, it means you're on the right track. Even if it happens to not work out in the long run, chances are, you've learned something.

It wasn't until I took a step out of that plane, when I felt that burning heat and saw those palm trees, that I started to feel a rush of excitement. It's the small things like that that remind me so much of what home feels like (I grew up in Venezuela), and so just the sight of palm trees automatically gives me such a sense of comfort.

Guillermo, my best friend, picked me up at the airport. Guillermo and I have known each other since we were five years old. We grew up together. He's the kind of person who's more like a brother to me than a friend. When we were both eighteen, he moved to Turkey to go to university. We never imagined that of all places it would be Vietnam where we would reunite. Nor that it would take six years for that to finally happen.

After a few days of catching up and touristing, we fell into a regular routine Guillermo would go to work and I would stay home. Some days, I'd go out on my own to see the city and get conned into buying beautiful souvenirs. And even though being in a country so different from anything I had ever seen fascinated me, I'm ashamed to say that most times, I had no desire to go out. Not even to take photographs. I really just wanted to stay home and rest. This wasn't that ideal for Guillermo who was so excited to take me to places when he came back from work. The few times that I did fight against my lack of motivation to go out, I would end up completely exhausted from the amount of motorcycle traffic, the massive tourism and the overall air pollution. To my surprise, I was craving being closer to nature, somewhere near the ocean. A real shocker, as I've always been a city type of gal. And don't get me wrong. Ho Chi Minh is a very interesting city where you can have a lot of fun! But for the first time in my life, I longed for something I had never quite experienced before. Nature, and the peace that comes with it.

And so I was caught in the middle of that fight between my heart and my mind again. On the one hand, a resentful voice in my head scolded me for wanting to stay in instead of going out to see every place in that city that I could. On the other hand, my heart simply did not feel like it. As exciting as it was to go on such a spontaneous trip, certain realities started to kick in. I had gotten on that plane with not that much in my savings and I had no plan other than going to a ten day meditation retreat. After that the options were endless. I could go volunteer in Cambodia, return to Vietnam to work as an English teacher and become Guillermo's roommate, or go on the typical backpacking route through the region. At least until my money ran out and it was time to go back to Canada.

One morning, I woke up and said to myself, “That's it. No more worrying. I'm going out today. It's time I got out there and took advantage of the fact that I'm in Asia!” I was tired of questioning everything and was ready to take action. But when you don't listen to your body, be sure that the universe will put you where you need to be.

That day began like any other. I made my breakfast, meditated and journaled. After a couple of hours, I decided to cook lunch before heading out. And that's when everything changed. “Boom!” A flame of gas the size of my own body grazed over my legs and vanished over my feet. Before even realizing what had just happened, I was screaming and slapping my legs as if I could brush away the consequences the way you brush off an insect off your body. When I saw a flame that big hit me, I instantly believed my body was on fire. But as I stopped to look at my arms and legs, all I saw was some burnt hair. Everything seemed fine. “I'm okay, I'm okay”, I said to myself as I gasped for air.

Well it turns out that second and third degree burns take a few extra seconds before you can feel the slightest sting of them. It's like the deeper the burn, the longer it takes for the skin to fully absorb it. Those few seconds went by and that's when I started to feel the intense sting on my legs. I'd never felt that kind of pain before. It was truly unbearable. The kind that paralyzes you. I panicked and the first thing I could think of doing was to call that person who will always pick up the phone no matter what. My mother. It was 1:00 AM where she was. Guillermo didn't take long to come home and immediately took me to the nearest hospital.

After the doctor sent me back home covered like a mummy from hip to toe, I felt surprisingly calm. That afternoon, we were already laughing about how strange the incident had been. To this day, none of us have been able to understand how that accident happened since the gas stove had no issues with it and there was no prior smell of gas. Perhaps I did something wrong, but that wasn't the point. The point was that now I had to stay put for a couple of weeks until the burns healed. In a way, I was sort of relieved that I had an official excuse to do so.

My mind had refused to give my heart what it needed, so my body stepped in and gave it no option. Funny how instead of just listening to our body, we let ourselves get to the point of injury or sickness.

For the next two weeks, I would have to go back to the hospital daily to change my wound dressings. On the first day, I received a piece of information that should have been obvious from the start but still sort of caught me off guard. “Even when your burns finish healing, you still won't be able to expose them to the sun for the next few months if you don't want the scars to become permanent”, said the nurse. “For how long?” I asked. “I don't know. Six months to a year maybe.” And that's when I realized the consequences of this would mean a lot more than just a couple weeks of down time.

If what I wanted was to be immersed in nature and the ocean – how the heck was I going to make that work if I had to cover my legs the entire time? How was I supposed to comfortably stand that kind of humidity and heat? How would I even go swimming? I couldn't believe that in less than a week I had already managed to severely injure myself! (A couple more injuries came later.) And so the wave of goddamn self doubt hit me the way that flame of gas hit my legs. Would I be able to continue travelling under these circumstances? Was this a sign? Was this big trip idea a huge mistake?

That's when I realized I had to make a decision once and for all. Feel sorry for myself and give this whole thing up by cancelling the trip and going back home or buckle up and carry on. Truth was it could have been far worse. Like that gas flame landing on my face, for instance. Who cares if I had to wear long pants for the rest of the trip? At least I had two working legs still. At least I could actually walk. The lessons that were waiting for me on the trip were far more important that my temporary discomfort. And so my last days in Vietnam passed as the skin on my legs slowly healed.

The date of my meditation retreat was getting closer and I must admit the thought of spending ten days completely alone, silent and without any distractions was terrifying. But deep down I knew that it was what I needed.

It wasn't until I stepped foot at the airport on my way to Thailand that I felt like a true “backpacker.” From that moment on, I was left to fend for myself. You could say that's when my trip really began.

Ps. My next blog post will be all about my ten day silent meditation retreat and the lessons that came with that part of the journey. If you want to know how I survived that and how it changed me, stay tuned for the next post!