Exploring the World From Within: Leap Taken, Perspective Challenged.

What’s so real about the real world? …Written & Photographed by Ben Heiber
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Two days after graduation in 2011, I hopped on a plane to seek the unknown in a place I knew little about. I accepted a teaching job at an international university in Bangkok, Thailand – a living, breathing behemoth of a city. I spent a year exploring its wild night life and world class street food, travelling on holidays to places like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. I got the chance to swim with elephants in the Mekong, party with a Vietnamese pop star in Hanoi and play in a friendly match against Singapore as a member of the Thai national lacrosse team.

Bangkok was just the first stop in a two year hiatus from the county of my birth. After a year living in one of the most exciting cities in the world, I spent eight months working in a children’s home and school in rural Nepal – a time I look back on as the happiest of my life. I fell in love with the children, the staff and my fellow volunteers. Many of the children and people I worked with came from unimaginable sorrow and hardship yet had such resolve and spirit to light up your soul into a thousand smiles.

I had set out two years ago to search for purpose, meaning and to find the true me. Though the quest continues, these past two years have had a profound effect on the way I look at the world and myself. Having returned from Asia just three months ago, I still have yet to process it all. I hope to share some of what I have gained from it all, or rather, what I have recognized was already there (was I always so attracted to Asian women?). My goal is to get you up, out and exploring – not just the world out there, but the world within ourselves.

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The decision to move abroad two years ago was largely influenced by a trip I took out of high school. After my senior year, I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Costa Rica, living in a small fishing village with other American youths on a community service trip. We helped out the local community, building fences, repairing roads, rebuilding grills for tourists in a local park, and teaching basic English to the local school children. Though the impact we made on the community is questionable, the trip left a lasting impression on me and fueled my desire to explore and challenge the way I saw the world – for this experiment in perspective is far more powerful than any lesson you’d get sitting in a classroom or reading from a book.

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I knew I had to continue my travels somehow before I entered the “real world” of cubicles and coffee stains (On a side note: Who’s to say one world is more “real” than another?). My parents certainly weren’t going to pay for me to travel the world after school, so I had to figure out a way to finance the trip. The idea came to me from a former roommate of mine – a year older – who moved to Bangkok to teach English after she graduated. It was perfect: I could live in a foreign country, make enough money to support myself, and travel with the generous paid vacations offered to teachers.

There was one thing holding me back. Fear.  I wasn’t sure at the time that I could make such a brash decision. The economy was (and still is) in a precarious recovery, and I thought that the most important and practical thing I could do after graduation was to secure a career.  It dawned on me after much meditation on the subject that there really wasn’t much risk involved. What was the worst that could happen? If I ended up hating it, it would still be a valuable learning experience. And if necessary, I could save up for a plane ticket and go home. Although I still sometimes struggle, a great lesson I’ve learned is the importance of overcoming my fears.

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Stepping into the unknown is something that we tend not to do. Biologically we are wired for fear, and it’s easy to see how useful of an emotion fear can be when you’re getting chased by a pack of wild elephants, for instance. But fear can be destructive and self-limiting. Often if we look back on the risky decisions we may have made in the past, we find that the risk was much smaller than we initially thought. Fear amplifies risk to irrational proportions unless we look right at it and see it for what it really is: a fleeting emotion.

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This small risk I took turned out to be the most rewarding decision I have ever made. While living abroad for the past two years I have changed tremendously. I could go into detail about the places I have been to and the amazing people I have met – stories that may be valuable to share, but I would like to get across to you why such an experience is so valuable: I have found that the way that I look at everything has completely changed. When you’re put into a foreign place, you’re challenged to self reflect in ways that you never thought would be imaginable, and at times painful (do I have racial prejudice and I didn’t even know it?). Often I was surprised at what I already had within myself and previously failed to recognize.

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Predictably, I am now more appreciative of how fortunate I have been to have grown up in the US, but I have also come to recognize some of the not so great things about this country, notably the great unhappiness and suffering that many people experience here. While some of my views and opinions have been reinforced, others have been shattered and I now look at issues and problems more carefully. My human experience has been forever changed – for the better. So get out, explore the unknown, and take a risk. You may find something that you never knew was already there.

More Personal Discovery: How I Turned My Job-Eliminating Superstorm Sandy Situation Into The Greatest Year of My Life By Getting Lost in Travel. 

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