My worst week in Asia
Neal O’Grady – @NealOGrady

My worst week in Asia

and what kept me going

The sun glistening in the cloudless sky above illuminating the red dirt of the Vietnamese countryside. The roar of the motorcycle between my legs filling my ears. The endless tide of bump and crash as I rattled along the giant pothole they called a road. Freedom oozing out of every orifice.

I could go anywhere, do anything. Everything I needed was right there with me.

Suddenly, my thoughts about the world, and my place within it, were broken by a scooter passing me—a rare occurrence with my lively driving. The local riding it turned to me and began to gesture. I assumed he was waving, as the locals are prone to do at tall, bearded white guys. In reality, I discovered, he was pointing at the back of my bike.

Confused, I risked turning my head despite the road conditions. To my horror, my backpack, holding 95% of my worldly possessions, was gone. One of my two luggage straps left dangling uselessly behind me. Fuck.

In a blind, flash of panic, I slammed on the brakes and pulled a fast U-turn on the narrow road. If I thought I was going too fast before, this was madness. My eyes darted from one side of the road to the other, desperately scanning for the burgundy of my bag. The bag holding my $1800 laptop that I use to write, create apps, earn my living, and delve into hobbies. This was the third time in 4 months of travelling where the laptop wasn't strapped to my back. I was fuming. The rest of the bag, the hard drive, go pro, clothes, light gloves, spirit hood, toiletries, prescriptions, headphones... EVERYTHING was nothing compared to that laptop.

I continued flying down the road, looking into businesses, homes, and ditches trying desperately to find it. I continued back for 20 minutes, with no luck. I turned around again and went slower, hoping to see it in a kind local's hand, gesturing me down with a smile.

I stopped at some point, defeated, and set my laptop to erase itself, and display a message to email or call me if found. No luck.

So there I sat, between two towns you've never heard of, in Vietnam, with only my passport, phone, wallet, clothes on my back, and a few odds and ends. I felt lost. Furious. Defeated. I could barely believe this was real.

How I felt

I kept riding, trying to think of other things, but my mind continuously drifted back towards self-hatred and pity. Being the stoic I strive to be, I eventually calmed down and accepted my fate - "it's all a part of the experience", I told myself, "and now you can truly be the minimalist you claim to be."

I reached the top of a hill and stopped by the side of the road. With a gorgeous view to soothe my soul, I posted on Facebook in a slightly venting fashion. Several dear friends sent me their love and understanding, and I messaged with them for a while. One of the messages in my inbox, however, was news that a dear friend from back home was hospitalized in Bali with Dengue Fever-an excruciatingly painful, and potentially fatal, mosquito-borne virus.

Fuck, I got off easy. You can replace possessions, but you can't replace your life.

Dalat

I later reached my destination, Dalat, a surprisingly nice and Vancouver-like town in the mountains, where it was cold as hell—at least by SE Asian standards. I checked into my hostel, confusing them by my utter lack of luggage. "I'm just as confused as you, man"

I wandered around dazed and confused, not knowing what to do, until my friend, Allan, arrived by bus. He helped me focus my mind and get the shit that I needed to survive until the next day: a $8 jacket, $1 gloves, $1 pack of socks, $1.50 tooth paste and brush, and $2 deodorant. Vietnam is a great place to replace lost items.

It was hard to concentrate, and to socialize. The subject of my lost bag came up in every interaction. I was torn between desperately wanting to talk about it, and never wanting to speak of it again.

I felt absent. I was just floating around, lost, and easily annoyed by others. I was trying to maintain a level of normality, but it was difficult. I'm lucky my closest friend was there to keep me going, his presence gave me clarity enough to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, however, that night upon crawling into bed, he messaged me from another dorm room; his girlfriend of 3 years, and mutual friend, had just broken up with him. One lost everything, another hospitalized with Dengue, and the other dumped—not a good day for us Vancouver boys.

Two days later, I was beginning to accept my new, possession-free state. Nevertheless, I decided to not do the big attraction of Dalat, canyoning, due to lack of clothes and ambition. Instead, I planned an easy day riding to some gorgeous waterfalls. The ride rejuvenated me. "Life is fucking great," I thought, "I'm alive, lucky to be in this beautiful country, and the lost shit can be replaced."

I drove to the first waterfall, 40km out of town, using the GPS on my phone along the way. To avoid reaching into my pants each time to check the map, I put my phone in the pocket of my shitty new jacket. Shallow pockets. At one such map-check on my way to waterfall #2, I realized I just missed my turn. I stuffed my phone back in my pocket, pulled a U-turn and then took an immediate right down a small road. I drove for about 30 seconds before my hand absent-mindedly patted my jacket pocket. I hit abdominal flab—no hard surface.

FUCK! I pulled the same brake slam and U-turn maneuver as before. I ripped along on the wrong side of the road tracing my steps. I reached the intersection, left the bike and scanned every last inch of where I was in the last few minutes. I continued doing so for 45 minutes until some locals stopped me to figure out what my problem was. Despite the immense language barrer, I managed to explain the problem, and got them to tell me where the nearest Internet cafe was (I still don't know how I managed that).

In this small cafe, hidden in cramped residential streets, I sat beside 10 year old Vietnamese boys playing video games and stealing glances at the first white guy they've ever seen in person. I set my phone to erase, but it never turned on again. I emailed my mom and messaged a couple friends, venting. I sat there for an hour refreshing the pages over and over, hoping the responses I would receive would somehow fix my problem, not sure what to do otherwise. I eventually sobered up from despair and moved on with my life. That meant paying the thirty cents, and riding back into town.

I later made a dumb, delirious decision and got an overpriced shitty Asian brand android phone. Great life choices.

Nha Trang

The drive from Dalat to the next town, Nha Trang (Russian heaven), was so gorgeous that I forgot my problems for a while, even during the period of intense full-body shivering as I rode through a damp mountain pass. Life was good. Unfortunately, along the way I realized the hostel in Dalat never returned my passport when I checked out—despite me asking for it multiple times, and then forgetting myself. Luckily they sent it by bus to Nha Trang later that afternoon. The driver responsible for giving it to me, however, spoke zero English and would give me one second of attention before turning away. Luckily, another local stopped him and translated for me.

On the way to Nha Trang. Notice the lack of luggage.

The rest of the day was wandering around with friends and eating food. Some of that food, however, was not my friend. At 4am I was rudely awakened by crippling food poisoning. When I stumbled downstairs to choke down breakfast, a travel buddy informed me that my bike's rear tire was flat. "That's future Neal's problem," I muttered, and made my way back to my bed. Well, bathroom first, then bed.

I spent the day in the fetal position, eating the odd ritz cracker, and throwing it up whenever I got frisky and decided to stand up. In this weakened and defeated state, I wanted nothing more than to drive to the nearest major city, sell the bike, and go hide in Montreal for a while. Fuck, drive the $230 bike into the ocean if I had to. A town with a real airport, however, was at least a two to three day drive away, if I could get out of bed.

The next day at breakfast, which I somehow managed to choke down, I listened to a Dutch guy talk about the quality of Swedish blowjobs that he based on the sample he received in his dorm bed above mine the night before. Slightly disgusted, but glad I was too dead to hear it the night before, I got my tire fixed. I had to sit down while I waited, standing still made me dizzy.

Somehow, I survived the seven hour ride to a stunning ocean side hostel on the side of the highway. I had to weave my way through super narrow back alleys teeming with locals going about their daily lives.

Ocean-side hostel

I checked in with the nice British ex-pat owner, and immediately collapsed into bed. Dizzy. Sick. Tired. Head pounding. How on earth did I manage to dodge psychotic bus drivers on dirt roads all day? The owner dragged me out for a barbecue and karaoke, which cheered me up. Nothing but the sound of small Vietnamese children eating the microphone as they sing English and Vietnamese pop songs could have warmed my heart for this enchanting and frustrating land. It gave me the strength to keep going.

Hoi'An

Early the next morning, I set off to drive the remaining eight hours to catch up with friends in lovely Hoi'An. When I arrived, I realized I was still not 100%. I re-assumed the now well-practiced fetal position, and hoped the world would stop spinning. A British girl in a much worse state rallied me out of bed and got me into the common area. There I met a pair of lovely and fun Aussie girls, and hordes of Dutch people.

Over the next few days, I ate Anthony Bourdain-famous foods, had replacement clothes custom tailored for cheap, and was offered a Vietnamese wife at a random farm side end-of-year celebration complete with buffet and endless drinks. I even bumped into a few great friend I had made earlier on in my travels. Hoi'An, the lovely people I enjoyed it with, the gorgeous scenery, and all the small moments that put a smile on my face, are the only reasons I didn't fly home right there. I cont

Today

All this happened to me almost four months ago now, and I won't lie, it really sucked. I still run into situations where you need something you used to own. Even now, almost four months later, I still remember different items that would come in handy.

Nevertheless, losing everything, and having one bad thing thrown at me after another, were extremely valuable lessons in minimalism and stoicism. Having less was alright, and still is. Even though I'm much less mobile now that I'm in Europe and working a full-time remote job, I still have no desire to have any more than fits in carry-on. At least, not for now.

Even though this was easily the worst week of the trip, and one of the worst of my life, I have no right to complain. The people who found my possessions needed them more than I did, I can guarantee that. My trips to Asia and Africa have taught me that, as a middle-class Canadian, my worst days will never be as bad as some of the best days of millions of others around the world.

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