Just two weeks ago today I returned stateside from a 16-day journey to SE Asia, more specifically, Myanmar and Singapore. Evidence of this adventure remains strewn about my house. Empty (well, almost) suitcases sit in the corner of the living room where they were dropped after a late-night arrival from the airport. Gifts for friends and family members cover the dining room hutch and table. Clothes suitable for summer hang in the laundry room waiting for the torrential spring rain to subside and for the warmth and light of sunshine to arrive for good.
While these inanimate, material things bear witness to an incredible experience, the truest testimony of my visit to the other side of the world lies within my heart and mind. I am different, if only a little. I’ve found this true over and over as a variety of opportunities to travel have come in recent years. Every time that I go and return, I am transformed by all I see, hear, and experience.
The colors and varieties of flowers, plants, and trees are indescribable. The photos don’t do them justice. I wish I had recorded the birdsong and lizard calls outside the window each morning. The birds sang beautifully, and yet it was unfamiliar. As for the geckos, I was more than happy for them to keep their distance, small or not. Nature’s greatest gift, though, was the sunset over the Irrawaddy River. Sitting under an acacia tree I watched the sun become a fiery orange ball before it disappeared into the mountains on the other side of the river. Surely, “the heavens declare the glory of God…”
And if nature is breathtaking, humanity is even more so. Myanmar is a place of unmatched diversity. How I long for friends and family to experience this richness! I listened in wonder to the myriad languages spoken around me and marveled at the many skin tones (so many beautiful shades of brown!) and various eye shapes (no makeup needed!). The ethnic groups wear the most colorful clothing, and they recognize one another by the fabric patterns and colors. After I was gifted a lovely Kachin scarf, I spent the rest of the week identifying Kachin skirts and blouses by the pattern.
While the natural world and human family spark ongoing awe, wonder, and appreciation for God’s beauty, creativity, and care on a gloriously grand scale that changes the way I look at the world and her people, my traveling companions impacted me even more. Someone once said (maybe?), “If you really want to know people, travel with them.” It’s a fact, proven or not. And the reverse is true as well.
Our authentic selves show up when travel is interrupted or delayed. The truth of who we are most certainly comes through when we are hot, tired, and hungry. Our real feelings are impossible to hide when bad news arrives from the far away land called “home.” The personality traits we despise rise to the surface in moments of frustration. These are realities when traveling with others.
But these are insignificant when compared to the most real and long-lasting memories made with our fellow travelers. Remember all the uproarious moments of deep belly laughter. (Who knew that a “heavy” suitcase and packing “faux pas” could provide days of giggles?) Remember the tender silences and the shared tears… the prayers for family back home. Remember the beautiful meals and animated conversation… the early morning coffee while watching the boats on the river. Remember the smells and sounds of the city… the sunset and the horse cart ride. Remember the giant prawns (if a prawn fork isn’t already a thing, it should be!). Remember the spectacular view from the 57th floor, the storm and the rainbow. Memories are absolute treasures to be sure. But, traveling companions are truly gifts of God.
Life, like travel, is largesse not to be taken for granted. Opportunities come, and if we embrace them, the most amazing experiences result. When we’re open and willing, those adventures transform us little by little. Perhaps we become more appreciative of beauty and more tolerant of differences. Maybe we develop increasing patience and compassion for both others and ourselves. But the greatest transformation might be to understand what fortune it is to live and journey in relationship with other frail humans. Yes, we see each other for who we really are. But, oh, what a joy to share the experience!