Before you even continue reading, I would like to clarify that this is not a romantic love story. Rather, it’s a recount of friendship, of taking chances, and of believing in the magic of possibilities. I could even aptly title it “Rye’s Misadventures After Trusting a Stranger He Met on Instagram”.
I was browsing through Trisha Velarmino’s Instagram photos when the comment of Mechelle, a fellow follower, caught my attention. What it was about I couldn’t recall, but it possessed enough magnetism to pull me into the eye of the vortex.
I followed her, and she followed me back. She’s a Belgian-Filipina who had been living in Cebu until the middle of this year. Just recently, she also quit her job to embrace possibilities. She’s been teaching English in Hanoi since June.
Initially, I intended to stay in Thailand for at least a month and do some volunteering. I was excited as a freak when Chiang Mai aroused a feeling of comfort in me but, alas, like many plans, mine didn’t materialize. For one, I could stay in Thailand for only 30 days at a time. (Visa limitations, I’m talking about you!) I reckoned it was too short and, as a beginner in the long-term travel arena, I figured I needed a longer time to adjust to my environment.
It didn’t help that I already spent more than a week sightseeing and getting my bearings.
I got two confirmed Workaway hosts – one family wanted to practice English and Spanish with me. In exchange, I would receive free accommodation, a daily dose of spicy Thai food, and rare insights into northwestern Thai culture.
The other one was a day care center where I could teach English informally and even receive a bit of volunteering allowance on top of a private air-conditioned room with a fully-functional kitchen.
In Vietnam, however, I had the option to visit without a visa for a maximum of three weeks or apply for a paid three-month visa. I chose the latter. All of the organizations based in Hanoi that I contacted via Workaway immediately accepted my application to volunteer to teach English in exchange for free food and accommodation.
I didn’t have much choice. It had to be Vietnam. It had to be Hanoi.
Moreover, I could meet Mechelle there.
On my last day in Chiang Mai, I woke up to a pretty dawn perfumed with stars and the harmony of crickets continuing the lullabies of the previous warm Thailand evening. Being the cheapskate that I was, I booked the cheapest train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.
It would be a 13-hour ride on hard wooden seats. It was uncomfortable but bearable. Besides, Vietnam was not part of my plans to begin with so I had to take the cheapest route. Time wasn’t of the essence.
To be honest, I thought it was a far more enriching experience (at least for me) than the more elegant coaches. Our train had open windows, which meant plenty of fresh air to drown our lungs. It also meant opportunities to stick my head out the window.
The frequent back-and-forth peddling of the local Thai vendors from one end of the train to the other was not a nuisance, if at all. I felt Thailand enter me as though it totally belonged to me. Oh, thank God I find delight in the smallest of things.
As with every cheapskate, I got what I paid for. What was supposed to be a 13-hour ride would turn to 15. We reached Bangkok at around 9:30 PM, and I needed to catch the last airport bus heading to Don Mueang International Airport by 11 PM lest I’d pay $12 for an Uber ride which I could avoid anyway.
However, we were still an hour away from the train terminal and, from there, I would still need to take two subway lines to get to the airport bus. It didn’t help that the train would stop anywhere periodically to let the passengers alight. Calculating carefully, I realized I didn’t have sufficient time to travel from the terminal to that subway station.
With the help of Google Maps, I traced my location and searched for the nearest subway stations near the rail tracks. I couldn’t afford to wait until we reached the terminal before I’d get off the train! I was so desperate that, when the train stopped near a subway station, I quickly got up and gathered my things, except that my huge backpack was still tightly tied to the luggage rack with my bicycle cable lock.
The train started to move, and I shouted to one of the train attendants to stop the train. It was the first time in my life that I made a commotion in public – not to mention in a foreign country!
It wasn’t the end of my affair with anxiety. The moment I got off the train, I darted across the street to the subway station. It was the fastest sprint I’d done in my life. Picture me running with a 45-L North Face backpack, a laptop bag, and a smaller backpack on my front. You get the picture?
So I caught the airport bus and reached the airport at midnight. My flight was at 8 AM the following day, so I had to be in the airport by 5 AM. Therefore, staying in a hostel was already out of the question. I slept on the airport floor, instead.
I didn’t plan any of these. One day I was in Thailand. The next day I was on a plane bound for Hanoi and I was seated beside a young Swiss guy and a Vietnamese professional who happened to speak Japanese. We were so noisy that we committed a flight taboo.
And I did it all because of a stranger I met on Instagram.
I arrived at Hanoi’s airport without an onward flight as proof that I’d exit Vietnam. Remember that Vietnam didn’t come into the picture until the past week. What I had, however, was my ticket for my flight from Bangkok to Canada.
I stayed with my first Workaway host for two days only. I left because of unfair and unethical practices on the side of my host. During my first dinner with them, I met a fellow volunteer from the US. She seemed happy when I asked what she thought of the English center we were volunteering for. But I picked up a hint of dishonesty and anxiety in her voice and body language.
Sure enough, she was gone the following morning – and I should’ve understood that clue from the very beginning. Instead, I stayed for another day. I was expected to teach English three hours a day for five days. But because I was the only volunteer left, which was an unforeseen circumstance, I was made to work six hours (four classes), instead, and such didn’t include the 40-minute motorbike ride from our apartment to the English center every time there was class.
To make things worse for me, they locked the gates of the apartment most of the time. To be honest, I felt like a prisoner, and I almost cursed myself for dreaming about long-term travel in the first place. But there wasn’t any criminal activity going on; they locked the gates to protect the apartment from theft when there were no classes. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from being attacked by pangs of anxiety.
What if they lock me to prevent me from escaping?
That evening, I plotted my escape plan, but not until I had talked to Mechelle via Instagram. She assured me I was welcome to join Mercury, the English center where she was volunteering for that time. Another friend also coached me to ensure that the gates were already open before I headed to the lobby with my luggage. After all, they could easily deter my escape plan if they noticed my motive. That’d be a journey to complete failure.
So the next morning, I tiptoed my way to the lobby. The gates were open, so I rushed back to my room and carried my bags without hesitation. I explained to the secretary my reasons for leaving. Clearly appalled, she tried to change my mind, but my mind was not up for any changing. I told her it wasn’t her fault but that of the organization.
I walked away from the apartment without looking back. They were furious but I had the right to leave because they wouldn’t respect our contract. I saw a nearby commercial center with coffee shops. Presented with the choice between Starbucks and a local coffee brand, I surprised myself by deciding on Starbucks. I’d been under a lot of stress since I reached Vietnam. A sense of familiarity felt like an emotional salve.
As I sipped my matcha latte, I looked back at all that had happened so far. I smiled to myself. I knew it was a sign of great things to come.
I would meet Mechelle for the first time the following week and, also for the first time, I would rap in front of fellow international volunteers. 🙂
Watch out for the details of my two-month Workaway volunteer stint in my next blog post about Vietam! 🙂