24 years old from Oakland, CA
I remember one day when I was teaching a grade 5 class, my students had burning question for me.
They couldn’t for the life of them figure out a way to say it in English and could only repeat the Thai word over and over. They tried drawing pictures and miming actions but I remained oblivious even through their best efforts. As their frustration grew, so did my curiosity. Finally, they brought a talking dictionary to the rescue.
“Teacher, you have?”
Ahhh, I see now. They must have seen Annie, one of my coworkers, around school and wondered if she was my twin. It definitely wasn’t the first time someone brought this uncanny resemblance to my attention. When I met with the Head of the Foreign Teachers, Mark, on my very first day, he observed, “You remind me so much of Annie.”
And what a compliment that is. Annie is open, brave, completely down-to-earth and unendingly curious about the world around her. She denies categorization (she even wanted me to title this post just “Annie” without the qualifying “on the road” part) and constantly questions societal expectations, not afraid to do what she thinks she needs to do even if it’s not “accepted” or “expected.”
When she graduated with a degree in Psychology (our similarities extend beyond physical appearance), Annie lived with her parents and worked to save money.
Then she bought a one-way ticket to India with very little in terms of a plan: “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was young and India sounded good. I knew it was a colorful place. I’d seen pictures of it and felt something.”
She had no idea what to do when she got there, but if there’s anything I’ve learned from Annie, it’s that when you’re traveling, the best plan is no plan.
Work exchanges were a good way to travel slowly: Annie could stay in one place for a while, working in exchange for food and accommodation. “I worked at a rooftop bar in the desert in Jaipur. I spent a month in Goa doing the hippie beach thing. Then I hitch-hiked through Nepal with my Indian friend. We bought a tent together and lived in the jungle. It was nuts.”
She slows down, emphasizing the word “nuts” – probably one of the most distinctive of her idiosyncrasies – and I grin widely. I told her I was going to write about the way she said “nuts” and she was making it easy for me.
Throughout her travels in India, Annie was afforded the opportunity to get to know a wide variety of people. In the beginning, she felt she “didn’t have the clarity to backpack” or become involved in the backpacking community. Instead, her experience was shaped by the many locals she was able to meet through Couchsurfing.
Annie stayed in India for a year before returning to the States to save up again so she could continue to travel. It was logistically impossible to stay in India by that time since her visa was expiring, but it also just felt like the right time to go back: “Sometimes you learn the most when you’re home from a trip.”
She couldn’t be more right about that.
After another stint at home, she took off again through Birthright, a free ten-day trip to Israel for diasporic Jewish young adults. After two months in Israel, Annie concluded, “I didn’t feel a connection to the place as much as I thought I was expected to. There’s no mystery to Israel. There’s mystery to India; I think that’s what I like about more undeveloped countries. There’s just more to discover.”
Every time Annie went back home to California to work and save money, she was troubled by the rift that had developed between her nomadic lifestyle and the lifestyles of her friends who, by now, had settled down and gotten “real jobs.” She was disappointed to find that they were so busy working that she only got to see them on the weekends. Because connecting with others is one of Annie’s top priorities, she knows she wants to keep traveling as opposed to settling down and only having time for friends once a week.
“The hardest thing is seeing my friends stuck…it’s hard to tell when you’re traveling and you’re talking to people at home if they’re happy or not. They don’t know how to answer that question because they’ve never been asked.”
Nevertheless, Annie really values her family and her friends and any opportunity she gets to spend time with them. She feels grateful to have parents who support her backpacking lifestyle.
This brings us to Thailand.
Annie and I sit in our usual corner in the back of the neighborhood McDonald’s. The night market is bustling outside the glass walls, and people are quietly picking at fried chicken and french fries on red, plastic trays all around us. I have a bag of guava that I bought on the street (the way it’s always served in Thailand: unripe and alongside a bag of pink sugar) that I’m passing to her and we crunch away at the fruit.
“So, why Thailand?”
“It was either Thailand or somewhere in South America. It was a hard decision actually but I knew Thailand was closer to India and I wanted to go back to India.”
She’s been in Thailand for about 8 months, most of which she spent teaching K1 (the same grade I’m now teaching – I took her position when her contract expired) at Kasintorn.
The million-dollar-question: “What do you like better: Thailand or India?”
“I think the way you connect with the country you’re in has a lot to do with where you started your travels. I started in India, where you get off the plane and it hits you in the face. Its colors, the amount of people, the tuk tuks, the smells…Thailand is subtle. It’s quieter.
“There’s something about India that pulls me in in a way that Thailand doesn’t. Who knows, though, If I were with different people living in a different neighborhood and working a different job, it could have been a whole different ballgame. It’s hard to say if it’s ever about the country you’re in or the people you’re around.”
Now that her contract has expired, Annie is free to continue to travel with the money she has saved. Her upcoming plans will make themselves clear as time unfolds. She doesn’t plan that far in advance because she likes to leave room for changing her mind. She has observed others getting stuck in places doing the same thing for years on end but, she notes, growth is natural; it’s not natural to have to stick to just one thing forever.
What she does know about the future is that she wants to help people in some way.
She wants to find the balance between “selfishly” having fun and selflessly doing good in the world.
“We have our whole lives to figure out the best way to help people, or create art or music, or whatever you think you can give to the world. But this is what it is to be young; we have to enjoy these years.” Annie squints her eyes slightly then widens them again. Her mouth parts into a smile and she nods her head slightly. “Yeah…” she reasserts herself. Her facial expression is bright, as if she were experiencing a moment of sudden realization.
Annie inspires me, questions me, gives me hope. She makes me think. I often find her profound words echoing around in my head long after our habitual McDonald’s dates have ended.
“You need less money than you think you do. You need fewer things than you think you do. And when it comes to traveling, or really anything in life, it’s totally up to you to do it – no one is going to buy the plane ticket for you.”