how volunteering in Laos saved me

I talk often about how those years living in England established my love of travel. I've written about how studying and living in New Zealand cultivated my sense of self, gave my heart a home, and led me towards a deeper understanding of what kind of person I wanted to be and what kind of people that person wanted to be surrounded by. What I sometimes forget, or maybe it feels so personal I just don't write about it, is that it was Laos that saved all of that. It saved me.

In 2014, I had left New Zealand after landing a stateside job, knowing I only had two months left before my kiwi visa would reach its expiry. Heartbroken and not prepared at all for life back in the U.S. away from the life I had spent the last almost year enveloping myself in. I played it off well. I would be making incredible money and saving all of it for traveling by living on the lower floor of my parents' house. I would get to reconnect with friends I hadn't really been around since high school. It wouldn't be New Zealand, but it wouldn't be so bad. 

And it wasn't. I did save money. I did reconnect with friends. I did a lot of traveling that year. But life seemed too breezy after being always on the go in Auckland, and the truth is I was so 'homesick' that I needed to keep myself full and busy until I could sort out a plan and make my way back to my precious little island and my favourite people. I did this by piling my plate full of everything. It's a nasty habit of mine: I force myself into side productivity while I am actively pursuing some big dream. I know that doesn't sound at all like a flaw, and sometimes it is admittedly my greatest strength. I'm proud of my ability to harness all my energy in the pursuit of my goals. The trouble comes when that habit takes over. 

I was working two jobs {sometimes juggling a third working track meets}, training for a marathon, starting my Master's program, taking care of a new puppy, flying off here and there to visit friends at every chance I got. I was attending Bikram classes {which I swear by} at 5 a.m. and running long distance of an evening. I took an art class downtown, despite having zero interest in pursuing art. I don't need to list everything, you get it. 

Then, suddenly, I got shaken up hard. I got sick. My body could not keep up with the pace I had set for my life. I had fainted at work, been removed by ambulance, and put on an IV drip. I had severe anemia to go with high blood pressure. I couldn't believe it. I ate plant-based foods and was {am} a vegetarian. I exercised daily. I couldn't be sick. For one thing, I didn't have time to be sick. But, more to the point, I live a happy and active life. What I had done was busied myself so much that I had forgotten to replenish myself. It's as if I had gone on a roadtrip and was so excited by the adventure that I had forgotten to stop for gas along the way. 

It was suggested that I slow down by a few {or all} of my friends and my family. But I didn't know how to slow down. I ran my marathon, got settled into a routine with my growing dog, and focused on my classes with better time management. I kept traveling. How could I ever give up something that is so integral to my identity? I couldn't and I didn't. Right at the year mark of being back in the U.S., I took off on the road full-time. I spent seven months living out of a suitcase going from Niagara to Nashville to Kansas City to New York to Montana to Vancouver to Taipei to Hanoi back to Bangkok. Finally, I arrived in Laos, already knowing in a month I'd be off for a few more traveling around the Southern half of the world. 

When I landed in Laos, I didn't know what to do with myself. It was my first trip that year where I either: a) wasn't meeting up with a familiar face or b) had long enough that I didn't feel the need to see everything right off the bat. I was going to be in Laos for a month, with my own thoughts, which on that day sounded a lot like...  Why am I here? Am I actually going to make a difference? What if I am absolute shit at this? It's so hot! My eyeballs are sweating. Is that possible? Should I go to the doctor and have them check my eyeballs for sweating?  

My first night at Cold River guest house might go down in history as the longest night of my life. I kept fidgeting with my mosquito net, deciding not to use it altogether. I made myself tea and sat on my balcony. Then night fell and it was so dark I couldn't see anything from my balcony. I found the remote to the t.v. and went to turn it on only to find out the t.v. was broken. I took three showers, just out of boredom. The WIFI was off and on all evening, so I read the book I had packed. Upon finishing it I realized almost no time had passed and I still had 12 hours before volunteer orientation. That's when it hit me...I had forgotten how to be still. Not just physically still, but I hadn't had a day of doing nothing in...I couldn't even remember.  

It's not that I wasn't busy in Laos. Over the next month of volunteering, I'd have a full-on schedule packed with teaching and temples. I was busy in a new way. One that allowed me to take care of other people while simultaneously taking care of myself. I was helping others and in some odd way I was refilling my own tank. I understood the balance that needed to exist. That I could pursue my ambitions and seek out self-improvement without diminishing my mentality or wrecking havoc on my body. 

And that's how Laos saved me. It slowed me down. It made me open my eyes and fully experience everything going on around me. For the first time in a long time, I re-learned how to listen to my body, how to engage fully in my community, and {most importantly} how to help others without drowning myself.  

Laos is magic. I know, because it worked that magic on me. I don't think I've ever been organically inclined to zen. Even now, while I wait for paperwork and certain call-backs, I find myself having to constantly remember to slow down. I came back and smashed out a TEFL, a French immersion course, an online event planning certificate, and dove back into a workout routine. I'm saying it's something I've had to actively practice. Particularly anytime I'm outside of places I call 'home' {New Zealand, Laos} or that feel similarly familiar {England, Montana}. Laos was my awakening. It pushed me into a space where my passions met my purpose. It stretched and challenged me. Upon my return last year to work in Laos, it reminded me of my resilience and independence and how important it is to trust yourself. And, once again, it lit a fire that has me excited for all the roads yet to be traveled.

Life is extraordinary, and so is Laos.