The last few days on the program went by incredibly fast. We had our last exam and headed back to the airport in Jakarta, Indonesia where we would fly our separate ways. That night we stayed at a swanky hotel with a roof top restaurant and bar. Even though we checked in late and were exhausted from traveling, we all crowded the rooftop to spend one last night together ordering deserts and drinks. Some of the group members were leaving in the early morning, others had flights the next afternoon, so we were saying our goodbyes that night. I’m sure we looked pitiful to the hotel staff as we gave each other misty-eyed hugs. Bittersweet is probably the best way to describe the ending of the program. We had all been on this incredible journey together, an opportunity that not too many have, and had formed the type of memories that you hold for a life time (cheesy I know, but it is still true!). But we had to get through twenty goodbyes and return to our normal lives.
It was such an abrupt end to the program that it felt like whiplash leaving the hotel without the group. I wish we could have had a day with nothing planned to debrief with each other and just enjoy being all together for the last time. How do you go from spending every waking moment with the same people to living in separate states? I know we all plan to stay in contact as best we can. Social media makes it easy to do so, but I hope I get the chance in the future to reunite with my friends for a Pacific Northwest Wildlands trip of sorts. Who knows, maybe I will get to utilize my cougar encounter knowledge again!
After traveling with such a large group, it was lonely traveling back home. Thankfully I had another Western student with me on the flight back so I wasn’t totally on my own yet. Being abroad, I had missed the comfort of a Washington rain, and when we stepped out of Sea-Tac into the night it was such a relief to feel the mist on my face rather than pressing humidity and heat. I had missed winter in Washington almost as much as my family while abroad, as strange as that may sound. I was happy to leave the tropical weather (I am too used to the cold at this point to change) but I was going to miss the attitudes and culture I experienced.
Being in Thailand and Indonesia, I was struck by the cultural differences in the pace of daily life compared to the US. In the US, or Western culture in general, time is money. People move through their activities trying to get to the next task as quickly as possible. Even being in the airport I noticed this. People were rushing around, snatching luggage up and scrambling to find transportation home. In Thailand and Indonesia, it felt like the attitudes of the people were more relaxed. There wasn’t a pressure to rush, and people were much more aware and attentive to one another. Strangers talked to one another much more freely and you were more likely to catch someone’s eye and get a wave. Navigating Sea-Tac, I was struck by how involved people were with their own business. No one was interested in each other, let alone sharing a quick smile in acknowledgement. I have heard of the differences in pace of life between Western and other cultures before, but I didn’t notice it for myself until I came back home. The more relaxed and attentive attitude I experienced in Thailand and Indonesia will be one of the things I miss most. I hope I can adopt some of this mentality into my life and become more aware of others and less focused on tasks or rushing through my day.
One of the biggest takeaways of the trip for me was how welcoming and warm our hosts were. Everywhere we went we were greeted with genuine warmth. I wasn’t expecting the degree of openness we encountered from the locals or guides we were staying with. They sincerely wanted to teach us about their culture, and these interactions were some of my favorite moments from the trip. It impressed upon me how differently my culture treats foreigners. I wish I could say that foreigners in the US are greeted with as much hospitality and understanding as I experienced abroad, but that is not the case. Being a foreigner was perhaps the most important experience I had on this trip as it made me aware of how different the experience is for other people. Being an American abroad carries a privilege that impacts how you are treated. I felt this privilege when we were rushed seating in a restaurant or when we weren’t reprimanded for breaking cultural norms. In future travels, I want to keep this awareness so that I am more conscious of how I interact in another culture. I hope that it allows me to be more respectful of cultural differences and humbles me to be more mindful of others.
This trip exceeded my expectations in so many ways. I did not expect to learn so much in the short time frame we had. I started the trip with no knowledge of tropical ecosystems or of SE Asian cultures. Now I have a strong foundational understanding of both that is bolstered by first-hand experience in addition to textbook knowledge. I posses a much better awareness of the cultural differences between my culture and that of Thailand and Indonesia which has helped me reevaluate what I have assumed are “norms”. Most of all, I have a group of individuals across the US and abroad that I call friends and share memories and bonds with. If I were to do the trip again, the only thing I would change would be what I packed and how much research I started the program with. I came into the trip determined to immerse myself fully and keep an open mindset. I didn’t want to come home with any regrets about missing opportunities because I was holding myself back. And I believe I accomplished this apart from one aspect. I wished I would have had one last Thai tea.
I hope that this blog has been entertaining if not informative. Describing this experience has been much more challenging than I have anticipated. Ultimately, my goal was to interest other students in exploring abroad options and helping that find resources that would allow them to pursue and finance these programs. If you have taken the time to read all of this, I appreciate you bearing with me as I navigate my first blog.
This seems like an appropriate place to end, so happy travels!