“It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to” (Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring).
For as long as I can remember, I have found much resonance with journey metaphors. The idea of physically moving along the path of life makes the vastness of the human experience seem that much more manageable, something I often feel that I need. No matter what’s going on, there’s an aspect of the journey metaphor that is applicable; deserts, mountaintops, and deep valleys all have their respective places.
Most recently, I’ve been struck by the sheer danger inherent in the journey. To journey implies that one leaves behind the safe and familiar and heads out into the unknown. Now, I recognize that no one, even those who never venture physically beyond their front doors are still on a deeply profound journey of their own and I would never hold myself in judgment of their choices. But those, whose lives become a journey, in reality as well as in metaphor, must acknowledge and embrace the danger inherent in going out your door.
These thoughts and reflections on the dangers of the journey come at a point of ‘road-weariness’. Six months in to this particular leg of my journey, I have felt overwhelmed by dangers that have not, to this point, showed themselves. That is not to say; however, that the weeks since my last update have been without moments, even days of sheer enjoyment, because there most definitely were. Perhaps that is itself the danger of this journey; that in the span of a few days (or minutes, depending on one’s emotional state) it is possible to experience a refreshing oasis and scorching desert heat, or to be plunged from the highest mountain to the deepest valley. Once the initial excitement and new-ness of a place has worn off and a routine established, it’s easy to be lulled into a sense of security. After six months, I was pretty sure that the dangers of this stage of my journey were over and that I had done a pretty good job conquering them. I’d weathered storms, both physical and emotional. I’d come through deserts of loneliness. I’d adjusted to new foods, climate, and culture. As long as I could focus on the task at hand, things were going fairly well. But then my routine shifted, and suddenly I lost my way. It all started with a much anticipated visit from home. As part of my funding, I’m helping to coordinate a study tour in May with students from Biblical Seminary in Philly. And as preparation for that Steve Kriss and Miguel Lau came to Vietnam and Cambodia at the end of January. Although I’d been in Vietnam for almost six months at that point, I’d yet to venture to HCM City for anything more than a transit point on my way to DaLat. I’d spent a few days there three years ago on the EMU cross-cultural, but that was the extent of my experience with the city. So, off I went to the ‘big city’ and indeed I did feel a little like the poor country mouse that went to visit her rich city cousin. The day and a half in HCM City were full of luxuries and experiences that I hadn’t had for a long time, and some that I didn’t even realize that I’d been missing. We then travelled back to Long Xuyen for a few days, then on to Chau Doc and Phnom Penh. It was a whirlwind week, and one of the best I’ve had here simply because, for the first time, I was sharing the experience with people from home. (The duffel bag full of goodies from home didn’t hurt either ). Although I was still in Vietnam, it was an entirely different context than my routine and it felt great. Phnom Penh also proved to be an amazing experience. Upon returning to Long Xuyen on 3 February, I immediately began my extended TET holiday, which only proved to deepen my disorientation.
For those not familiar, TET is the first month of the lunar year and the most important holiday of the year for the Vietnamese. As a result, the university shuts down for two weeks as staff and students return to their hometowns to celebrate. Due to the fact that the country essentially shuts down for that time, the other volunteers used this time for much needed vacations, but since I had just returned and was told that it is a good idea to stick around during TET, I decided to stay at the University. Let me just say now, BAD IDEA! I had the worst week that I’ve had in all of my time here that first week of the TET holiday. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had not been coming off the high of travel and spending time away from the routine. What I realized during those very quiet and lonely days is that the shininess has worn off of my whole experience here and when I took a good hard look at what I’d accomplished in my time here, I couldn’t point to anything concrete. The idea that I’d failed weighed heavily on my heart and mind that week, and I gave myself permission to wallow in the sorrow and frustration that surrounded me.
Now that life has largely returned to ‘normal’, I am regaining perspective on my time here. The shine; however, is still gone and I have to face the fact that what I thought I’d be able to do is not possible here. I accept that this is not entirely a reflection on me; but that there are circumstances beyond my control. I can honestly say that I have given my best efforts and will continue to do so for as long as I’m here, but I no longer labor under the illusion that this work will reap the harvest that I had initially hoped for. Given that I still believe in the IC3 project and the importance of its lessons for a globalizing world, I am beginning to weigh potential options for the 2010-11 school year. The bulk of those options will keep me in Vietnam or at least SE Asia just as I had planned originally. But there is the off chance that my journey in SE Asia will be shorter than imagined and I may find myself in a totally new context or back at home earlier than anticipated. All that remains to be seen.
On this journey, one thing I know I’m learning is that sometimes the map you leave with proves to be inadequate, and you have to chart a new course to get where you want to go. So, as I work at discerning that new path, I invite your prayers and encouragement. I know that I do not journey alone and that I am indeed surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.