“Sometimes, you have to be lost to find yourself.” I don’t imagine that the people who routinely photoshop this quote next to running feet and mountainscapes mean it literally. Certainly, you can find yourself through writing, taking a course for fun, picking up painting, or as I had hoped, by signing up for a week-long yoga retreat in Cambodia during your winter break.
Having already spent six months in Korea, I expected to have attained complete enlightenment by now. Last July, I whisked myself as far away as I could possibly imagine, and envisioned myself obtaining wisdom and clarity commensurate with every mile I journeyed out of my comfort zone. But so far, rather than “coming into my own,” I was feeling even more unsure than before.
And so, with dreams of zen master teas and headstands, I booked a trip to Siem Reap, where I was certain to find the inner-peace I craved. I arrived at the retreat center–a Utopian paradise of fresh-water pools and organic gardens–and tried yoga and meditating and yoga with varying degrees of success. Often, I was so fraught with anxiety and the anticipation of a sudden, majestic calm that I couldn’t concentrate.
Then, I literally got lost.
It was on the last day of my stay at Angkor Zen Gardens. Now essentially desperate for “inner peace,” I took up the suggestion of another traveler to meet with a “Wellness Coach” downtown. All I’d have to do, she told me, was bike into town and find this guy at a local hostel who would, on the spot, give me both advice and a new lease on life.
I regretted it instantly. The first few minutes of the half-hour ride to town, I had to fight to not turn back. What am I going to say? This is ridiculous. He probably doesn’t even exist. But gradually, I smiled to myself as the adventure went on. I greeted dogs that wandered down the bumpy dirt road. I felt the chill breeze blowing back my flannel and refreshing my increasingly damp skin.
The sun was shining on my face as I approached a tuk-tuk driver to help me navigate my small, handwritten map. “You know this spot?” I asked in unnecessarily-broken-English.
“Oh, it’s so far!” he laughed. “Towards the airport.”
I thanked him, happy for the long ride ahead, and hopped on my bike with a dwindling sense of urgency. I began to notice the ripples of the river, partially shaded by glimmering branches on either side. As I did, I stopped obsessing over my state of Zen.I impulsively pulled over at a gorgeous French-style cafe and parked my bike. Seated outdoors with my Kindle, I enjoyed a quiet lunch alone, for what felt like the first time in my life.
Full and content, I crossed motorbike intersections and followed increasingly winding streets until I finally arrived at a cottage-style house. I opened the door tentatively. “He’ll be back at 2.” The employee apologized.
No problem. I lost myself in a coffee table book about mindfulness for 30 minutes until I heard a chatting couple pulling into the driveway. The man, middle-aged and balding with kind, wrinkle-lined eyes, stopped, confused when he saw me.
“Hi, I’m here for a wellness chat?” I said hesitantly.
The couple whispered to themselves about room availability and he checked his calendar.
“Can you come back tomorrow?”
“No, I’m leaving in the morning.”
“I’m afraid we just don’t have a space available today, dear, thank you for stopping by.”
After exchanging some remarks about the town and other pleasantries, I backed out of the hostel. I hopped on my bike, took a deep breath, and realized I already had what I needed.
“Finding oneself,” it turns out, isn’t as much of an answer, as a question. It’s like a scavenger hunt with no prize: the point is just to look, and see what turns up. My tiny biking adventure made me realize that truth and peace and calm are in the searching, not the end-result, and that people come back from traveling with a renewed sense of self simply because they left.
It’s been a few months since Siem Reap and my close encounter with the mindfulness guru. From time to time, I still feel unsure and, depending on the day, more or less confused about who I am. But now, I also notice small successes throughout the day, like an effective lesson or bonding with my host family. I appreciate the creepiness of the tentacles in my soup and congratulate myself on being able to instruct a taxi driver to my home. Each day that I am here, I am learning to embrace this big, incredible chance to be lost. And maybe in doing so, I’m already found.
Maeve Wall is a 2015-2016 ETA at Sadaebucho Elementary School in Daegu.