This is a guest post from one of the Lagawones, Arven Pinuela.
I believe that everyone has their own fair share of “first times.” First kiss, first love, first heart break…and the list goes on an on.
Aside from these aforementioned firsts (which, by the way, I also experienced), there was another first time I recently experienced that had left an indelible mark in the pages of my life’s history. That first time was to travel abroad for the first time…and all alone.
“Well, what’s the big deal with that?” You might say. Well, I think traveling for the first time to another country or territory with a prepared itinerary or with a very specific purpose is one thing. It is another thing to visit another country with what you only get is an assurance from a friend that he’s going to take care of you when you get there.
It came about when one of my Vietnamese brothers in the seminary I studied before invited me to visit him and his family in Vietnam while he’s on vacation from studying in the United States. When I read his email with the invitation included, my heart suddenly began to beat uncontrollably, like a bird trying to get out from a burning cage. The very first thought that flashed in my mind was: I WON’T SURELY DIE WITH AN UNSTAMPED PASSPORT!
When you’re doing something for the first time, it is natural that you would feel afraid, tensed, agitated and restless for some time. I had my share of these feelings as I started counting the days of my scheduled flight to Vietnam. Because the invitation was in short notice, I did not have much time to prepare mentally and psychologically. So after booking the cheapest flight from Manila to Ho Chi Minh City via Cebu Pacific, I began packing my things without knowing what to bring. In retrospect, I realized that preparation does not only happen physically, but it also entails preparing one’s state of mind wit the right perspectives.
There were several images of Vietnam that I toyed with in my mind and even dreamt of in both my waking and sleeping moments. I couldn’t help but imagine the Vietnam I visualized while reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and watched in Sylvester Stallone’s film series, Rambo.
The night before my flight, I was sweaty, feeling cold and restless, and ambiguous. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and excitement hang over above me like a cloud during the cold, rainy days. I tried to get a good sleep in preparation for my travel but all I ever did was toss in bed, and imagined what would happen next. Who could blame me? It was my first time!
And finally the day I dreamed of all my life arrived. I woke up earlier than usual (though I only slept for a couple of hours) and readied my self to live one of the most unforgettable days of my life. It was time to literally “seize the day!”
I tried to eat in one of the restaurants at the airport but I didn’t have much appetite to finish a scoop of rice and a piece of chicken leg. That was how anxious I was!
“You’re too early for your check in, Sir,” said one of the airport personnel when I fell in line at the check-in counter.
“It’s alright, I’ll just wait,” I answered with my voice shaking.
After my ticket was validated, the counter personnel instructed me to proceed to the immigration booth. My body froze for several seconds. I never felt so afraid in my entire life than at that very moment. I know it sounds crazy and ridiculous, but if it’s your first time to travel abroad, alone, (no hotel reservation and itinerary) and you still have a clean passport and you’ve heard plenty of Filipino’s being offloaded everyday (for whatever reason it may be) by disinterested immigration officials, you’d jump in ecstasy when you finally pass those sacred booths.
When I was being interviewed by the immigration personnel, I kept thinking of a phrase I learnt in high school of the famous European statesman Otto von Bismarck: “Life is like being at the dentist. You always think that the worst is still to come, and yet it is over already.” Another voice in my head was also saying, “It’s far from over yet!”
Because I did not have any hotel bookings to show, they asked me where I would stay in Vietnam. So I politely informed them that I was invited by a Vietnamese friend to spend some days with his family. (A constant reminded I read from travelers is that you MUST and always be VERY polite and condescending when talking to immigration personnel). They then asked me how I came to know my friend, where we met, and more questions ensued which I understood to be a validation of my claim to have been really invited by a Vietnamese national.
I almost fainted while trying to answer those questions as best as I could.
The first personnel was not satisfied with my answers. I felt like I was being softly killed, little by little by every question he threw at me. They felt like sharp blades that cut my very soul. So he asked me to proceed to another personnel for a secondary interview.
The next immigration personnel was more sympathetic-sounding (and looking) and approachable. She asked how I came to know my friend and requested if she could see my friend and I’s conversation in Facebook messenger or emails. Obligingly, I showed her the thread of our conversation and she scanned it without pausing to read. She thanked me for showing it and told me, “Okay, go.”
Wait, did she just say “OKAY, GO?”
Yes, she did. Those two words made me want to jump in joy and relief.
Finally, I passed the spectral gaze of the Sphinx and I was allowed to enter the chambers of the gods. Only those who passed that “gaze” for the first time could perhaps fully relate to what I felt that moment. A feeling of pure bliss. I exhaled a deep sigh of release of all the pent-up emotions that were kept for so long.
Since I was really early for the boarding, I managed to take a power nap in the middle of the night. It was the most powerful nap I ever had to date made possible by the ultimate release of tension and anxiety I had just let go. So when the hour came for me to board the plane, the only feeling that vibrated throughout my body was pure excitement and happiness.
Because Vietnam is under GMT+7 timezone and the Philippines is under GMT+8, I was literally flying back in time during the course of the flight (another first time!). During the 3 and half-hour flight, I only thought of seeing my friends after so many years. So when I finally met my friend at the arrival area, we hugged each other warmly; a sign that our friendship was never lost after many years of separation. It’s not everyday that one finds a friendship and brotherhood like ours.
When we went out of the airport, I instantly sensed that there was “something different” in the air. Strangeness swept over me like a giant wave crashing on the shore. I did not understand a word everybody was saying and the people look slightly different. But I never felt un-welcomed and not-at-home during my entire stay in Vietnam.
My friend, my friend’s friend, and I walked towards the parking area and looked for their motorbikes. Motorbikes are the usual mode of transportation in the city.
When we left the airport’s premises and hit the main streets of Ho Chi Minh, I inhaled a deep breath and decided to just soak it all in.
Although I just saw these sights in passing, they instantly made a pleasant impression on me. The next thing I knew, we were at the hotel which my friend had booked earlier and that I slept a dreamless sleep for eight hours.
I was awaken by the news that another Vietnamese friend was waiting for me downstairs. So I hurriedly prepared myself and jumped in the stairs when I saw him. Again, it’s not everyday that you find good friends whom your meetings you always look forward to.
After a hearty breakfast with my friend and his family at a nearby restaurant, they told me that they would take me somewhere south of Ho Chi Minh City, a place which is a couple-of-hours drive from the city.
On our way, I was impressed by how well the roads, alleys, and streets that lead to the country sides were immaculately maintained and kept. Everywhere you look, you’ll see well-manicured gardens, parks, and important landmarks, all clean and dandy.
When we passed by a seafood market, we stopped and bought a basket of steamed shrimp and crabs. The aroma of these freshly cooked seafood has the power to keep you salivate and crave for it in an instant.
During the night, my friend’s family dined at a restaurant located on the top of a hill, overlooking a perfect skyline.
One of them asked me, “Why are you always carrying your bag where ever you go?” I answered shyly, “Because I’m afraid to lose my passport.” They laughed heartily, and I did too when I realized that what I was doing was really ridiculous. Or was it?
The best thing about that night was that I felt I was one of the family; welcomed and treated just as equally as every member of their own family. Then I slept that night assured that I was just in another bed in another place, but not in a foreign land.
The next day, my friend’s family drove me around the amazing places in Vung Tau. I couldn’t remember all the names of those places, but in my mind, heart, and soul, I can still see them vividly when I want to pull them up from my troves of most-treasured memories.
Everywhere you look, you can’t help but notice the remnants of French colonial heritage all over the place. The streets, the coffee shops, the architecture of the buildings speak of a place once dominated by Europeans.
After we visited the statue of Mary on top of a steep hill, we walked the way down where we came from and I took a last look of the place. Because I did not know if I would ever see the place again, I took it all in, took a deep breath, and thanked the heavens for the opportunity it gave me.
Because my friend’s brothers needed to return home to their respective homes that afternoon and I’m scheduled to fly back to Manila that evening, we had our last meal together in a floating seafood restaurant in Lang Lon Son. The warmth of the people enjoying a sumptuous lunch in the company of their loved ones was quite obvious. All over the place, everybody was enjoying the present moment over a seafood soup and a cold beer. The language they spoke was alien to me but it produced a cacophony that sounded pleasant to my ears (strange, isn’t it?).
After the lunch, I bid goodbye to my friend’s brothers and their families. I felt sad because deep in our hearts we still wanted to share more moments together. Nonetheless, those fleeting moments will surely be one of the most memorable moments we’ll remember of each other. I thanked them profusely for welcoming me into their families and for the time they spent with me. I didn’t speak Vietnamese but I felt that they knew what I ever wanted to tell them.
After a couple of hours, we were back to Ho Chi Minh City, and the rest of the afternoon and evening, I spent visiting some of our other brothers in the seminary.
Saying our goodbyes were the most difficult part in my entire trip, matter-of-factly. It was more difficult than trying to understand the Vietnamese language and the unique culture of the people. It’s a universal human experience and nobody is exempted to the pangs of separation. So when I said my goodbye to my friends there especially to the one who invited me, I couldn’t help but shed some tears. But those tears were not of sorrow. Instead those are the tears you shed when your heart is bursting with so much happiness, gratefulness, and hope for the future.
From this “first” that I experienced, I learned that the world is not so bad after all. There is obviously so much differences between people, places, and cultures. But it should not stop us from establishing good and lasting relationships with people who are different to us in many ways. Instead, those very differences should be our passport to enter a different world of colors, shapes, and textures. After all, we human beings are of the same nature, we share the same feelings and emotions, and most of all, we share the same need: to be loved, respected, and embraced no matter how stark our differences are. And thankfully the world provides endless roads to discover these doors that would open us to understand the value empathy in diversity. You just have to open your heart to understanding new people and always keep your sails on ready.
And by the way, don’t forget to always renew your passport too.
If you wish to share your unforgettable “first time” as well, share it in the comments section below or email me directly at email@example.com.