It’s sweltering. Ninety-five degrees with 80% humidity means Natalie, Katy and I are sweating just standing outside. So, when we don our 30-ish pound backpacks and start walking from the train station to our hostel, it’s less than a minute before we’re dripping.
We’ve just flown from Siem Reap, Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand. Here we have a short 20 hour layover till we head to Madrid, Spain via Moscow in the morning. It’s going to be a long 48-hrs and we’re already tired, but luckily the hostel we booked is nearby.
“The email said it’s close, right across from the station,” Katy tells us.
I’ve learned the word “close” is a relative term when traveling. It could mean five minutes or five miles depending on who you’re talking to. But in this case, luck is on our side and close means about 50 meters.
“That’s it, right there!” I announce, spotting the hostel sign just across the street. Thank God. My back is aching from the backpack, my stomach hurts (thanks to parasite number two on this trip), and I’m starting to feel overheated and nauseous.
We make our way across the street, and before entering the hostel, we remove our shoes. After more than a month in Asia, we’re used to this standard, cultural norm.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel much cooler inside than out, but at least we’ve made it and we can take off our packs. After nearly 4 months of international traveling, we’re also used to this standard, travel drill. What used to seem novel and exciting is now easily described in a 13-step process we must complete anytime we change our location from one country to another.
- Packing our stuff – this is getting more and more difficult as we buy new clothes, are given gifts and accumulate souvenirs along the way
- Checking out of our hostel
- Getting to the airport – this could be via taxi, train, walking or (in the case of Cambodia) a motorized buggy also known as a Tuk-Tuk
- Checking into our flight – these days we’re so causal about international traveling that we often don’t remember what airline we’re flying on until we arrive at the airport
- Going through security – this process varies from country to country but inevitably involves a metal detector, pulling out my laptop from my overly-stuffed daypack, ditching or downing my water and removing my jewelry
- Boarding our flight
- Flying from Country A to Country B – this could range from a non-stop flight to one with 2 or more stops and can take anywhere from 1 to 20 hours
- Going through customs – sometimes this takes 10 minutes, other times an hour. Sometimes the agent is friendly and welcomes you. Sometimes you get grilled about your travel plans or you simply get no eye contact and no response when you “hello,” or “thank you”
- Picking up our bags – amazingly not one has been lost or stolen this entire time (knock on wood)
- Withdrawing money and converting any foreign currency we no longer need – turns out money exchanges don’t take coins so we all have a wide variety of change from around the globe
- Getting to our next hostel (see #3)
- Checking into our new hostel – this always includes filling out forms, showing our passports and paying in advance
- Unpacking our stuff – much less time consuming than packing but still a mental puzzle as to where to put things since most hostel rooms are small, have multiple bunkbeds and there aren’t any closets or drawers
The routine is far from glamorous and always takes more time and energy to complete than we think it will or want it to. And on this particular day, with the heat and feeling pretty lousy, I’m over it.
I’m wondering if maybe my emotions are indicating that it’s time to wrap up this Great Enlivening. But just as I start daydreaming about a less transient life, one without backpacks, shower shoes and checking for bedbugs, I’m interrupted by a chipper voice behind me.
“Hello and welcome!” says a bright-eyed woman with a broad smile “Please, please, sit down,” she says ushering us over to the table and chairs before rushing to a fridge to get us each a cool bottle of water.
She appears to be a few years older than us, but she’s moving at light speed with lots of energy and even more enthusiasm. In less than five minutes she’s checked us in, settled our individual payments, prepared a special herbal tea for each of us, offered us Thai cookies and shown us a laminated sheet with all the key words and phrases we need to know to navigate this new country.
With keys and the wifi password, we are just about to hoist our bags and climb up the stairs to our room, when she makes one final comment.
“Tonight there is a special Thai market, it’s for locals but very good for you to see….will help you understand more this country. If you want, I go with you.”
She has all the eagerness of a kid on Christmas and there’s no way we can say no. We agree to meet her at 6 p.m. and she’s thrilled.
Once in our room, we can’t stop gushing about how incredibly nice and hospitable this woman is. Fastest check in ever! Free food and drink!? An offer to be our personal tour guide?!? For the record, this is NOT the typical response when checking into a hostel and we’re not entirely sure this woman isn’t some sort of mythical unicorn of sorts.
But her energy was so infectious, her desire to serve so selfless and genuine that it’s a unanimous consensus. Unicorn or not, we love her.
After a brief rest, we venture into the city for a few hours to get lunch and explore a bit. Of course I had to get Pad Thai in Thailand!
We return back to the hostel and at 6 p.m. we head downstairs to meet our escort for the evening. “How long does it take by train to get there?” I ask.
“Oh, you can’t take a train,” she explains, “But I will drive us in my car.”
This woman continues to amaze me. And then I realize that I don’t even know her name.
Over the course of the 20 minute drive, we learn that Ja bought and opened this hostel a year ago because she loves traveling and wants to help those who come to her country. But this isn’t her full-time job, she also works 6 days a week as a pharmacist.
After refusing to let us pay for parking, Ja leads us to the market and through a cacophony of sights, smells, shops and seemingly thousands of people.
Turns out that true Thai markets are pretty cool.
On the outskirts is the only place not packed with people. And apparently you can buy all sorts of stuff…
Like sunglasses available for purchase out of the side of a truck…
Life-size statues of Elvis. Doesn’t Katy look good with the King?
And you can even buy a huge shrimp pillow. Because everyone needs one of those.
The street art was amazing…
And they had some cool old cars too!
After two hours we had fully experienced an authentic Thai market.
“Thank you so much!” I gush as we get out of Ja’s car back at the hostel. “You’re such a lovely host and this has been such a special evening!”
Ja smiles and explains that making her guests feel welcome and giving them a taste of Thailand is her pleasure. And I know it is.
Unfortunately, Natalie missed the market because she wasn’t feeling well, but we all sat down and enjoyed a nice meal in the hostel kitchen. Ja made sure we had everything we needed and wished us well on our travels as we would be leaving early the next morning.
As I laid in bed and reflected on our day, I thought of Ja. How her kindness and generosity had blessed each of us. How meeting and spending time with her had made our day so much brighter and richer.
The truth is, what Ja gave us was much more than tea, cookies, and a tour of a Thai market. What she shared with us was herself and the very best part of it. She shared her joy, her passions, her time, her knowledge, her love, without counting the cost or asking for anything in return.
I know this is what God asks each of us to do. To give the gift of ourselves to others. And I also know that I don’t always do this. Sometimes I’m just selfish or I think I don’t have anything of value to offer anyone else. Sometimes I’m just so consumed with my own agenda and 13-step routine that I fail to notice who’s around me and how I can bless them.
But every now and then I live wholeheartedly. I focus on others. I do what I can to meet their needs. I use my God-given gifts to make their lives better – even if it’s just to make someone laugh or speak an encouraging word. I think of my time with the Cambodian Children’s House of Peace and how pouring into their staff and kids enriched my life in the most beautiful way.
While I hope I had the same effect on them as Ja had on us, I know that when I’m being the best version of myself, I feel really good. I feel fully alive and that my life has deep meaning and purpose.
Nearly four months into this trip, I’ve learned that sometimes what I think will enliven me, does the opposite. And that sometimes what I think will drain me or cost too much is the very thing that enlivens me the most.
I’m not sure I’ll ever see Ja again, but meeting her inspired me. My prayer is that I allow God to use me in the same way as I travel and continue this Great Enlivening.