[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]ith an unsettling nausea looming in my stomach, masked by overall uneasiness, I hesitantly stepped out of the taxi—it being the sole comfort that I had holed up in for the past hour, sheepishly peering out the windows with pure ignorance combined with wonder. Jetlagged, starving, disoriented and profusely perspiring—and despite the fact that just a mere handful of hours before I had walked across a stage and received my college diploma, ostensibly obtaining some level of agency over my life— I had no idea what would happen next.
Fast forward to the long anticipated and forceful hug I was braced with as I walked into the hostel. My two friends’ eager faces were inches from mine, faces I had met just one year before in Italy and hadn’t seen since we parted ways in that ancient, romantically slow, and winding city.
The city of Bangkok, Thailand was muggy and smelled of unfamiliar food. Within the first several hours of my time on this new continent I got sick. As I pulled my head out of the toilet I searched the room with weak eyes for anything to remedy my condition. With no toilet paper, paper towels, running water or soap, I felt defeated and utterly terrified for this adventure. I thought about walking out of the bathroom, out of the dirty restaurant into the streets where I would catch a cab and take it to the airport, fly back to the states and never come back. I let this thought cross my mind, before I wiped the sickness from my mouth and left the bathroom, to go anywhere but home.
We enjoyed the bustle of the vendor-filled markets, munching on street mango sprinkled with chili powder and packing our stomachs with curry and fried rice. We quickly escaped to the north of Thailand on a night train, its noisy lurching and my utter excitement for the remaining month of the trip keeping me awake.
In the haven of Chiang Mai, Thailand we got very lost on a hike, and despite my closed-mouth smile and encouraging nods, I truly believed we were going to die in that forest, only to be found days later as a tabloid tragedy of idiots abroad. We went to an elephant sanctuary where the docile creatures snuck bananas out of our bags and we took a cooking class, picking the ingredients for our curry from the garden.
On the island of Koh Samui in the south of Thailand, we relaxed on a remote beach as our savings in Thai baht quickly dwindled, forcing us in our last days to live off of a large bag of oatmeal, and due to the fact that we were living in a primitive bungalow, we were preparing it cold, referring to it in a hungry delirium as porridge. The morning we left, we had to beg a cab driver in near tears to drive us to the airport at 5 am in the pouring rain so we wouldn’t miss our flight.
Next was Siem Reap, Cambodia. If a city has a color, this city is a searing hue of orange. Clay caked roads and brightly colored buildings lined the unsystematic streets. We biked to Angkor Wat– the famous temple ruins, weaving through treacherous six-way intersections–shared by cars, motorbikes, bicycles, walkers, and pushcarts alike, –with no stop signs. We found ourselves at night dancing on tables with local teenage Cambodians at the bars, and during the day viciously downing amok curry and more fried rice.
In Hanoi, our cab driver slowed to a stop in a sea of young Vietnamese people all chicly clad in black, and then we remembered it was 10 o’clock on a Friday night. He craned his neck to face us and shrugged, pointing down the jam-packed street in the direction of our hostel. We trekked the bottle and cigarette butt adorned streets that were occupied with small plastic chairs and tables where young locals happily sucked down balloons of laughing gas in the sweltering night.
Cat Ba, an island in Ha Long Bay is truly striking. A mountainous and lush jungle, it is enveloped by dramatic rock formations that sit in tropical clear water. We kayaked through the plentiful caves and crevices and swam out to untouched islands, finding exotic shells and wildlife. That night, desperate to find some remedy for the muggy and inescapable heat of the island, we snuck into a hotel beach to go swimming—or rather, skinny-dipping. Minutes later, a fluorescent and irritating light was blinding our vision. We had been caught by a security guard and his trusty flashlight. Dripping in water and shame, we were awkwardly herded off of the beach and out of the hotel property by the looming security guard.
We hiked the national park in Cat Ba, in which we were face-to-face with spiders and insects so plump and enormous that the only natural and rational reaction is an explicit and guttural squeal. This hike was arduous, with what seemed like little reward because there was no tree line to surpass and therefore no visible panorama to gawk at. Luckily, the other end of the trailhead lead us through a low point between peaks in farmland where we were able to admire the natural grandeur of the park—from below. After a hike, we always hungrily devoured a plate of steaming fresh fried rice, and for a moment always considered the notion of ordering another.
In Hong Kong, our final destination, we stayed in my older brother’s tiny and smelly apartment, where we slept on his couch and woke to find a cockroach or two trying to cuddle with us. Our horrific sleeping situation was only compensated by our trip to the beach on a cloudy and cool day, in which we got to surf. We stayed out in the trash-filled and undulating dark water so long in our childlike frenzy, that we got nasty rashes from the boards, which went unnoticed until it was too late. One night, we mysteriously ended up in an exclusive night club, sporting T-shirt dresses that hadn’t been washed in weeks, sports bras, tangled hair and Chacos, with barely enough cash to afford one shot, drawing attention from the usual clubgoers with our terrible outfits and maniacal laughing.
Although the planned bucket list bits are amusing and often fulfill whatever preconceptions we may have had of our adventure, the true gems are the unexpected—and often ugly—moments: the awkward cultural exchanges, the various benign illnesses, and the lack of personal hygiene are all just bonuses for your experience that in retrospect make your trip that much more colorful. I found importance in letting go of any and all romantic ideas you hold of traveling. That is, once you let yourself really sweat, you truly start to enjoy.
Katherine Fischer is a graduate of the University of Vermont, but she’s a Jersey girl at heart. She is an animal-loving, kale-eating, skiing, running, and soccer fiend.