The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

67
Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

Memphis Time: On Slowing Down (A picture book)

I took a walk on the Mississippi River and saw a fisherman in his boat.  I watched him circling around the river, directing his floating chariot, unaware of passersby or stalkers like me, content to float downstream.

Memphis, Tennessee
I thought of the fisherman in Myanmar fishing, alone for hours. The water might not be as blue here, but I suppose fishing in Myanmar has the same basic objective as fishing in Memphis: to catch a fish. 
I sat by the Mississippi, letting the wind kiss my face and creep up my shirt. It took me back to boating on the Inle Lake and the wind ripping through our hair. We spent hours on that boat, getting sunburned, watching the chorus of fisherman dance their way downstream, casting nets with the grace of ballerinas.  
Inle, Myanmar
The scenery is certainly different in Memphis; it’s very flat. But the company is more consistent. Maybe because of that, life feels tangibly slower. It’s definitely more predictable, which I always thought I would hate, but I’m starting to see the wisdom in a slower way of living. It’s not nearly as stressful because you know what to expect. You get a lot of time to snuggle with these:

It’s difficult to stop planning my next move. But who knows, it may come sooner than I expect. 

An Ode to My Tevas

One of the weird subjects you end up discussing when backpacking are your own feet. Specifically, you talk a lot about footwear. For example, I figured out many years ago that I hate flipflops and would rather go barefoot than wear uncomfortable shoes (which I have done many times). Nothing ruins a trip faster than blistered feet.

The best travel investment I ever made, hands down, was my pair of Teva Women’s Tirra Athletic Sandals (which I have conveniently linked here for you in hopes of getting a kickback from Amazon. Just kidding.) I actually didn’t buy them at Amazon but at a local store in Princeton. I’m sure you can find them at boutique shoe stores and most outdoor stores, too.

The same pair of shoes lasted me through all my hiking in Israel, my fall break in Europe, my walks to class in the US, and all over Southeast Asia until the very last trip I took, to Myanmar, where they finally said “enough.” The stitching between the sole and the ankle strap on the right shoe had unraveled. Even so, I managed to wear them for the remainder of my trip by just velcro-ing the ankle strap around itself. But I decided to leave them at my hostel in Shwan State in order to save room in my backpack. I still think of them there, stuffed in the trash can. It was a very poor ending for a very noble pair of footwear.

I really can’t recommend these shoes highly enough. Many people over the years have asked about them, and I always say how much I love them. We’ve been through a lot together. They are currently in five of my facebook profile pictures. Clearly, I’m obsessed.

So here is one final eulogy to the most comfortable, durable, reliable shoes I’ve ever had. Rest in peace, Tevas.

Dancing with my Tevas in the Golan Heights.

I found you in style, inside a new store
Where brown paper shoe linings littered the floor.
You cost me much more than I then could afford
Yet you tempted me, won me
With cushy, soft soles.

Your velcro and criss-crosses gave me a tan
That’s stayed on my feet through summer and winter,
tatooed shadows reminding me
of hot afternoon climbs.

With socks, you warmed me
in Autumn in Prague.
In water, you carried me
through rocks and through fog.

Up mountains, down valleys,
down cobblestone alleys,
Your grip made me sure
I’d not slip nor unravel.

We spent four long years
foot by side,
we saw ten fine countries,
and a lot of goodbyes.

Till one fine day in May,
your crevices caked with clay,
your velcro delayed
and—riip

Farewell, dear friends,
my trusted travel companions.
I’ll miss your reliability,
your light-weight portability,
your eternal tan-lines.

I hope you enjoy retirement in Myanmar.

With love,
Melanie

PS-Sorry for the stinky feet.

Magical Myanmar

Four months later and I’m writing again. There’s a lot to be said and many apologies to be made but for now I’ll say that I’m home in America almost fully recovered from a nasty parasite and spending quality time with family. I don’t plan to return to Thailand, but I don’t think this is the end of my wanderlust. I’d love to give this blog a makeover and write about travelling even while stateside, but I will need a few boot-camp classes in technology first!

Anyway, I want to write about Myanmar. Myanmar is unlike any other place I’ve been, and I think it was the best time I had. Here’s why: it really does make a difference when you give yourself plenty of time to spend in-country (especially if you’re going to buy a visa anyway). I spent nearly three weeks in Myanmar; I could’ve easily spent four, but I hadn’t planned for four so my money was low, and as it turns out, that timing was perfect. I got infected (>.<) the day before I was scheduled to fly back to Bangkok. 
Here’s what I loved about Myanmar: when you start exploring, you start to feel like you’re stepping back in time or into a fantasy world. There is so much natural beauty in that land, and it feels pristine and untouched. Coupled with an unbelievable history and the strong yet gentle spirits of the locals, and I quickly understood why so many people claimed Myanmar as their favorite stop in Southeast Asia. It’s just different. 

Understandably so. Myanmar (formerly Burma) had been closed off since its 1962 military coup and engulfed in civil war and war crimes for the past 60 years. According to Wikipedia, the military junta official “dissolved” in 2011 (the same year that the Lonely Planet guide was published, incidentally), but things had been loosening since the late 2000s. Still, when I went, there were in fact some ATMs and even whispers of Wifi, but nothing as self-serving as the resorts of Thailand. And that is exactly what I wanted.
Hiking the mountains in northern Shan State. Can you spot the tiny dots in the foreground? Those are houses.
In Myanmar, I hiked above the clouds, learned how to spot green tea plants, met the niece of the last Shan princess to rule in Northern Shan state before the military takeover, walked barefoot over sun-soaked marble temple paths, and climbed a lot of pagodas. A lot of pagodas.
One of the several thousand temples left standing in dusty Bagan.
We also did a self-guided city tour of former capital Yangon (Rangoon) where we spotted old mossy-grown British colonial buildings, the famous Strand Hotel, the old Post hub and other relics from a century long occupation.
Old governmental meeting house built under British occupation in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
I didn’t really want to leave, but my body and my wallet felt otherwise, and so with a heavy heart and a weak stomach I departed Yangon for Bangkok three weeks after I touched down in Mandalay. I took a total of two fifteen hour overnight buses (with varying degrees of comfort), climbed an ungodly number of steps, and drank about seventy-five cups of green tea. Watch the video below to see how villagers in the Pa’Oh mountains in northern Shan State gather and process hundreds of pounds of tea!! (The video turns direction at one point…sorry about that, but trust me, it’s so cool!)
I miss travelling. Until next time, I’ll relish the pictures, the stories, the teacups and the hand-rolled Burmese cigars. Ahh, the simple life!
With love,
Mel