“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky.
I read an article, about this time last year, about the death of the American basketball coach Jason Rabedeaux in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Rabedaux was found dead in a taxi in April after a night of heavy drinking, with mysterious bodily injuries and no shoes.
The tragedy, claimed an “accident” by the Vietnamese police, started a discussion about the role of Southeast Asia in the lives of unhappy, disillusioned Westerners.
The article claimed, in a rather generalising way, that people who come to countries like Vietnam are seeking some form of “escape”.
ESPN journalist Wright Thompson, wrote:
“Rabedeaux was a refugee and a runaway in a city founded and sustained by them. Throughout the long history of this part of the world, people would come south toward the Mekong Delta when they had nowhere else to go. Saigon was founded by exiles.”
This isn’t the kind of sipping-singapore-slings-on-the-beach-for-two-weeks-before-getting-back-to-a-life-of-excel-spreadsheets kind of escape.
This is escape founded on desperation, on the dark, latent motive to put your hands up and run away from your life back home in seek of an imaginary existence full of coconuts and sunshine on the other side of the world.
I’m not here to comment on Rabedeaux’s life. It’s not my place to guess his motives for coming to Saigon, or speculate on the reason he passed away.
Rather, it’s about starting a conversation about the reasons we travel, and to get us thinking, before we step on that plane why we really, truly feel like living somewhere completely different from back home.
Anyone who’s been to Thailand, Cambodia or the surrounding Mekong belt will have come across certain expat stereotypes.
Old men with pot bellies and oversized shirts, sitting with their arms around beautiful young men and women, finding some semblance of love and power they don’t have back home.
Professionals in positions of considerable status, with little more than an undergraduate degree and an American passport, snapping up work and throwing a middle finger up to home countries full of dying economies and gentrification.
I’m not here to judge: everyone’s life is their own, and we are what we make of it.
I for one, started life in Vietnam after graduation in university, believing I had little prospects and limited time to join the yuppie race.
I came to gain some life experience, to add notches to my belt and stand proudly so that when I went back to Scotland I’d be a hotshot.
I was running away from what I saw as a depressing future, one full of wasted potential while everyone else thrived around me.
Yet, after some time my reasons for traveling changed.
Instead of seeking solace from pain and looking for things to add to my CV, I began looking back at my life in Scotland and realising I had it pretty good.
From this perspective, back home there was free health care and education, high levels of equality, wealth, solid infrastructure; there were tons of friends and family that I had in self-pity distanced myself from because I was ashamed thinking I wasn’t good enough.
It emerged that I had come to Vietnam to find a better life, when in reality, it was pretty damn good to begin with.
With this mindset, things started to look better.
I treated my time truly as an adventure: zipping around on two wheels, spending weekends on the beach, going for beers with local and foreign friends.
It was now about becoming a better person.
Taking the late Terry Pratchett’s words into account:
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
It was about coming home, to where I started, with new eyes and a fresh mind.
Traveling, rather than healing, was self-empowerment: so that when I returned, all the experiences and connections I made would shape the way I approached life.
There is undoubtedly a lot of pain out there.
Which is why it’s important to reflect before you take that flight, on why you’re doing it.
So to recap, the reason I travel, and why many of us travel Mr. Thompson, is not to run away from something.
It’s because we love what we do.