Losing Control in Southeast Asia

There comes a point in nearly everyone’s life when the impulse to try to control every outcome and stage-manage all circumstances reveals itself to be futile. It always was, of course, but somehow many of us—O.K., I’m mostly talking about myself here—believe it had a measurable effect on keeping things orderly. Those who know me might agree that I have tried for most of my life to control things to an unprecedented, dare I say, unhealthy, degree. Some of the unfortunate targets of my search for control have included friends, family members, numerous daily tasks, and most notably, my weight. But over the past couple of years, I have slowly and finally come to accept that complete control is not only impossible but also undesirable. I am 45 years old, so this realization has come slowly, perhaps a little later than would have been ideal; it most definitely would have made things easier had I learned it in my 30s. Nonetheless, I honestly can report progress in my ability to let go a little and “go with the flow,” if you’ll excuse the cliché. I am not talking about giving up the central tenets of my life or revamping my entire paradigm of reality—you won’t find me taking advantage of Colorado’s new recreational marijuana law or booking a trip to a nudist resort in Mexico—but simply trying to incorporate a more relaxed view of the world and the impossibility of perfection and total control in any realm. The world just does not work that way. I thought it did for a large portion of my life, but the Universe has finally beaten into me that life functions according to its own set of standards, which often means no standards at all.

That I have tried to embrace a more accommodating attitude helped during my husband’s and my recent vacation to Vietnam and Cambodia. There is nothing like a vacation abroad to underscore the fact that events often occur NOT as you would hope and regardless of your travel itinerary and sense of propriety.

Sometimes those events take place even before you have left home. It was 9 PM on New Year’s Day, the night before our scheduled 6 AM pick-up from our house in Boulder, Colorado, in time to catch our 8 AM flight to Seattle with connecting flights to Tokyo and Ho Chi Minh City. Bags were packed, a late dinner about to be eaten. My husband and I were feeling relatively relaxed and excited about our trip. The phone rings, but who answers their landline after 9 PM when most of those calls are solicitors anyway? Except this wasn’t a solicitor, it was United Airlines with an automated message informing us our flight to Seattle was cancelled. No explanation, just a suggestion that we call to be rebooked on another flight. After an hour and a half on the phone with a United agent, we decided to go with what seemed like out best option: hope for standby seats on a nonstop flight from Denver to Tokyo the next day, which if it worked out, would have us arriving in Tokyo with enough time to catch our connection to Ho Chi Minh City. The United agent advised us against this option; the flight already was overbooked and we were not likely to get seats, meaning we’d have to wait at least another full day to be rebooked. But we gauged our standby chances as preferable to the alternative: a 6 AM flight the next morning to Chicago, where we’d hook up with a flight to Tokyo that would allow just enough time to make our connection to Ho Chi Minh City if all went according to schedule. Which it never does. Lo and behold, at 9:45 AM the next morning, we secured seats on the noon flight from Denver to Tokyo. We grabbed the seats, raced to the airport, and congratulated ourselves for making the best choice we could under the circumstances. A choice that worked out in the end. Having scored that victory, the 11-hour flight to Tokyo didn’t seem all that taxing, nor did the connecting flights.

All went smoothly during our first couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City. We had adjusted to the 14-hour time difference between Vietnam and Boulder and were feeling pretty excited about being back in this lovely country after our first trip to Hanoi in 2009. The hotel we were staying in was glorious, the weather comfortably hot (mid-80s, not overwhelmingly humid), and our plans included a trip to the Mekong Delta region and visits to the city’s museums, districts, and restaurants.

On our last day in the city, we awoke with plans to travel to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to spend a few days touring the temples of that region, including Angor Wat. We also awoke to the sounds of both our mobile phones beeping with incoming texts. Our dog sitter was trying to reach us with the news that our hot water heaters had burst and leaked water all over our finished basement. Several calls to a plumbing company and $5,300 later yielded two new hot water heaters, and a few more calls (highly expensive ones, as we had not signed up for a temporary international calling plan, believing we would be fine with texts back and forth with the United States) yielded a company to clean and sanitize the carpet. Peace of mind was restored. Remarkably during the whole ordeal, which actually took less than two hours to resolve thanks to the resourcefulness of our dog sitter, we did not panic or feel that our vacation would be negatively affected by the incident. Likely it was because we were dealing with it remotely and others were handling it for us onsite; we never had to witness the chaos of the actual event. Regardless, we moved on and continued our journey in Southeast Asia.

Siem Reap was lovely, interesting, dusty, and hot with a surprisingly vibrant night life. Going downtown for dinner felt like immersing ourselves in the craziness I always associated with a place like Phuket, Thailand, rather than one of the world’s largest religious sites. People were drinking cheap beer and dancing in the streets, vendors were hawking everything from raw chickens to cheap sandals, and the overall vibe was one of raucous partying and mischief. I suppose human behavior is pretty consistent regardless of where you are in the world, at least the behavior of tourists on vacation in a relatively inexpensive, no-rules type of environment.

We were scheduled to spend the last week of our vacation on Phu Quoc Island, located in the Gulf of Thailand and claimed by both Vietnam and Cambodia, but for all intents and purposes a Vietnamese island. We headed off early in the morning for Siem Reap’s airport for the short flight back to Ho Chi Minh City, where we would then board another flight for the 45-minute trip to Phu Quoc. That was the plan, anyway. Until we arrived at the airport and realized we had purchased only a single-entry visa for Vietnam, and we already had used up that entry during our initial visit to Ho Chi Minh City. Our options included paying $75 to apply online for an expedited Vietnam visa and waiting for it to come through, supposedly in as little as four hours; applying for a visa using the normal process, which might yield one by the end of the day if we were lucky; or foregoing our Phu Quoc Island visit entirely and heading home. We opted for the expedited visa and miraculously, it arrived by noon that day, three hours after we submitted our application online. We took a 1:40 PM flight into Phu Quoc, a mere four hours after our original 9:45 AM scheduled departure; managed to squeeze in a workout at the end of the day; and enjoyed a lovely dinner on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. I wouldn’t have believed it possible that morning as we waited for a visa in the Siem Reap airport, but sometimes things have a way of working out.

So really, all our little travel snags proved to be no more than minor inconveniences, nothing that affected either of us health-wise, and we handled them all calmly and with minimal fretting, as you have to do when you are traveling outside your home environment and subject to numerous circumstances beyond your control. Lanse caught some sort of mild travel bug or food-borne illness midway through our week on Phu Quoc, but even that passed within 24 hours and never was cause for overwhelming concern.

Our last morning on the island, a Saturday, we finished packing and prepared for an early breakfast and a short trip to the airport for our 25-hour odyssey back to Boulder. I was in high spirits as I brushed my teeth, excited to be headed home after two weeks on the road away from our yellow lab, Eli. Being the thorough person I am, flossing follows brushing which precedes mouthwash. I never made it to the mouthwash phase, after the crown that had faithfully served as my top front tooth for nine years went flying across the bathroom and landed in the wastebasket as if I planned it that way. I hadn’t. All that remained was the post onto which the tooth had been cemented. Luckily, the tooth was intact, so I was able to jimmy it back on to the post and keep it there as a decorative device and embarrassment avoider throughout the flight, despite pieces chipping away as I tried to eat at various points during the journey. We arrived home late Saturday night Mountain Standard Time and fell into bed, my tooth still relatively intact and not at the top of my mind. I planned to call a dentist first thing Monday morning for an emergency repair but figured I was in the clear until then. Alas, the remnants of the tooth disintegrated while I ate dinner Sunday evening. Despite the fact that my regular dentist was on vacation for two weeks and unavailable, I was able to find a dentist who crafted a temporary tooth for me Monday afternoon, a tooth that was soon replaced with a shiny new permanent crown that looks spectacular, in my opinion. In the meantime, the situation provided an opportunity to whiten the rest of my teeth so that they look far better than before the “Katie Crown Affair.” Lemons into lemonade, my friend; lemons into lemonade.

Longtime friends know I am not as easy-breezy as all this sounds, but I must say, even as my own worst critic, I am amazed I handled it all as calmly as I did. The four massages I had while traveling might have had something to do with it; as anyone who has traveled in Southeast Asia knows, massage is dirt-cheap in that part of the world, even in more upscale places like the spa at our resort on Phu Quoc. One of my two-hour massages cost me about $20. But no, I don’t think it was the massages per say. It was the overall feeling of relaxation, connection with the larger world, and intuitive sense that hot water heaters don’t matter that much in the end. Easy for me to say because of course we were able to replace our failed heaters with ease and did not have to worry about the cost. The same with the tooth. The same with the visa. And really, the same with the flight uncertainty at the beginning of the trip. If for some reason we had had to cancel the entire vacation, it would not have mattered that much in the end, except to limit our exposure to different cultures and places in the world. Life would have gone on, and quite satisfactorily at that.

So what is my take-away? Hmmm. I wish I had some profound thoughts on the matter, but really, the main thing I am left with is that I wish I had that same equanimity, peace of mind, and easy-going attitude I possessed during the bulk of this trip ALL THE TIME. Can you imagine a relaxed attitude 24-7? Can you imagine what you’d accomplish on a daily basis if you didn’t worry about every last detail, or if not every last detail, most of the insignificant ones that don’t matter in the end? So many days I set out hoping to lose myself, by which I mean hoping to lose that oppressive sense of getting tied up in my proverbial underwear about everything from what type of dental floss I use (hopefully not the kind that removes crowns in foreign countries) to making sure I’ve gotten the best deal on the toilet paper. So many days I aspire to wake up and effortlessly NOT CARE about anything except the things that really matter, like the people in my life I love and the rest of the world at large, most of whom I don’t know quite as well but who still need and deserve a helping hand, a smile, a warm gesture from me. Those are the things that really matter, and now that I am 45, I realize it more and more. Not every moment of every day, maybe not even a preponderance of moments in a given day. But I have gotten to the point where I think about it at least a portion of every day, and that is something. So while I might climb out of bed in the morning wanting to be as flexible and relaxed as I was in Southeast Asia, I climb into bed most nights knowing that I can’t shed myself entirely—i.e., my particular neuroses—but that at least I made an effort to be a better, more relaxed, intuitive, in-tune-with-the-Universe- type person who does not stress about the stuff that, in the end, does not matter very much.

Except the dental floss. I am hoping my new crown lasts a while, at least until my next epiphany regarding the meaning of life or our next trip abroad.


6 thoughts on “Losing Control in Southeast Asia

  1. Kelli says:

    Love this, Katie! I feel like I am on a similar journey and finding similar peace. I fully enjoyed reading this, keep the posts coming. I love your insights.

  2. bcrane says:

    thanks for communicating. You’ve got a great “voice”, and I enjoyed reading about your saga and your insights.
    I’ve come to think Life is a washing machine beating you about until you let go of your ideas about the way things should be, or other people should be. It forces you to let go of your preferences, cultural mandates, other peoples projections, mind pictures, etc.etc. even your own will, beating you until you see, feel, and KNOW that all is actually already perfect,
    warts and all!

    • Thanks for reading my post, Barb. I like your washing machine metaphor, and I completely agree. Letting go — it is a challenge, isn’t it? But a worthy one that yields many rewards, mainly greater peace of mind!

  3. Cheryl Maturo says:

    Katie, It is wonderful to read your adventuresome prose. As you know this last year has been challenging for me and I’m also now of the mind to “let it go”. It seems you have come to this end (or beginning) after a journey; mine has come from an encounter of health. Travel is learning; living is learning. Enjoy your new-found freedom. I am. Thanks for sharing. Hope to see you both soon.

    • Thanks for reading my post, Cheryl; glad you enjoyed it. Also glad your journey has allowed you some new-found freedom, despite the difficulties you had to endure to get there. I am happy the worst of it has passed for you and hope this coming year brings easier times.

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