I remember sitting on a rocky ledge overlooking the canyons of Tiger Leaping Gorge (hu tiao xia). It was immediately after a heart-rending trip down to the actual tiger leaping rock, and I was peacefully pressing foliage in my journal as I do when I’m crouched on mountainsides. I often get teased for having the added weight of a notebook in my backpack, and sometimes I never write a single word during an entire trip. But it has always given me comfort to have it there.
As I was sitting there, Old Mr. Lao (one of the two Malaysian men who saved me during my suddenly-alone travels across Yunnan) asked me if he could borrow my journal.
He disappeared for a good 45 minutes, and I clambered around the rocks until I found him, perched on another ledge, drawing quietly with an ink pen. He had reproduced the stunning view with black ink on paper, and I begged him to sign it.
I heard later of his passing away not too long after that.
I sifted through all of the bookshelves at my childhood home and found the drawing. When my fingers flipped to it, my heart jumped. While staring at the penned drawing, I at once could feel again the coldness of the river, the wildness of the Mordor-like fog, the wonder of the village children, the generosity of the farmers, the weakness in my knees.
During that same trip to Yunnan, I stayed at a farmer’s home for a few days. We bathed next to the roosters and donkeys, and ate eggs for breakfast by candlelight. I dropped my camera during a hike to a glacier, and mourned the loss of this inanimate thing. I felt preoccupied by this loss. I had spent my hard-earned money, and suddenly I wouldn’t be able to take photos for the rest of the trip.
I wandered into one of the tiny village plazas one night, and heard singing and guitar. I didn’t understand any of the words, but felt an unspeakable nostalgia overwhelm me. It turns out, they were singing in min nan hua, the language of my ancestors that I have never learned. The troubadours had abandoned most unnecessary material luxuries, and were living in harmony with the land. They only used what they needed, and grew everything themselves. They saw I was alone, and held me in their light and love for as long as I needed it.
I forgot about the camera, and had an ink drawing to remember by.
That was the year I turned twenty one, during which I struggled with many of the same questions as I am struggling with currently (almost a decade later).
Even now in my travels and movements across the world, I contemplate what drives a people. I think and write about it daily in New York City, where each individual is occupied by a myriad of dreams and struggles and trivialities. Even friends I have known since childhood will sometimes ask, “How can you be so patient with your ever-ready smile in the face of so many irate people?”
Usually I joke, “It’s because I’m from Texas,” but I know there is something deeper there.
My mother proclaims to people that out of all “the kids,” I keep everything from the past like a little history museum. She was laughing on the phone with me the other day, that sometimes she considers starting her own journal to remember all that has happened – but then she thinks in her head, “It’s ok. I can just ask Rose, she will have it written down, and she will tell me the whole story- she will tell me everything.”
This life is short. Maybe some of us travel to fulfill bucket lists. Maybe some of us travel to run away. Maybe some of us travel to run toward.
I worry a lot about my direction- whether I should worry more about money, or my career, or hunting down a willing husband to have a family with before I’m 37.
“Life is not about money,” my dad told me on the phone a few days ago. “Or jobs. Or things. Life is only about loving people.”
I thought about this… maybe, then, it’s also about pushing to experience as much as possible, and to let ourselves feel as much as we can, so that we’re prepared to receive —and understand, and relate to — others, no matter how well we know them or how different we appear.
The tools we pick up along the way help us speak to those around us, and hear them when they speak to us. What we learn, we use.
And so it is. I worry less about the things I have. There are no shortcuts, and this life’s love story is my bucket list.
The tools I’ve picked up (including a smile on a crowded subway ride) may be simple. But this is being human, you know? Experience as much as possible. Feel as much as we can. There isn’t much time.
Notebook in tow, the uncertain fog and canyons in front of me, the sun warm on the backs of my knees.