Choosing Joy and Lessons from the Universe

The universe has been trying to teach me a life lesson lately: Being happy is my choice when things aren’t going my way.

This isn’t a new lesson, I’ve been learning it for at least 30 odd years, but lately it just seems to be smacking me in the face.

Sitting by a fireplace with a friend, a story and a steaming Americano this morning I was feeling good as I shared how the universe and I were finally making peace with this lesson.

You see, last month when I was wandering my way around Asia I was carrying a lot of baggage. Usually most of my baggage is in my head, but this trip I was carrying it in the form of suitcases- overstuffed and overweight.

If you watched the Become a Travel Hacker course on CreativeLIVE you know that checking baggage is against my publicly preached principles of “travel hacking packing” (even if it means fighting a gate-check battle and carrying my stuff  in a trash bag). But here’s a big confession: sometimes I just don’t feel like schlepping stuff and against my best judgment I leave my bag to the fate of the airlines.

On a recent quick trip from Singapore to Bangkok I was flying on a business class award ticket and was transiting between two of the most efficient airports on the globe (the odds were in my favor). My bag had slowly been growing full of winter clothes I’d been acquiring in Asian markets along my journey in preparation for wintering in my new American home (details coming soon) and was weighing in at nearly 18kg. (Yes, a little too heavy to lift with ease into an overhead bin). Against all of my best judgment and frequent flyer know-better I checked my bag.

This all felt good, until the moment about one hour after my flight when I was standing empty handed at Baggage Claim Number 4 in BKK airport staring at an empty baggage carousel spinning under a sign flashing LAST BAG.

My bag was lost. I wasn’t as angry with the airlines as I was with myself. I know better. I waited a few minutes with some expectation that it would materialize, but finally reconciled myself to the fact that I would be baggage-less in Bangkok. I went to the lost baggage area, filed a claim and tried to ‘mai pen rai’ smile in the very Thai way while my ugly-entitled-American self simmered centimeters below the surface. I wanted my stuff. Not now, but 30 minutes ago.

I left the luggage office feeling defeated. I had planned for 48 hours of fun in my favorite Asian city of angels and I was destined to spend it on the phone with Thai Airways organizing baggage location and delivery (not fun).

Walking back through baggage claim, I noticed an art installation on the wall and paused beneath a beautiful blue Buddha painting. It caught my attention like the painting was saying, “Stephanie, stop and take a breath. “

I stopped. I took a picture of it. I Instagrammed the picture (because BKK airport is the most Instagrammed location in the world and I want to feel like I’ve contributed to that). And in that moment I had this very thought:

You can let not having a bag ruin the two days you have to reconnect and eat sticky rice and mango, or you can choose to walk out of this airport and be glad you’re here and alive.

I chose joy.

Instantly my step was lighter. As I passed by baggage claim number four on my way to the exit the craziest thing happened. The universe delivered my suitcase to the empty carousel with perfect synchronicity. It was as if the world was secretly cheering for me “Yeah Stephanie! You passed the test. You chose happiness. You get your bag back.”

As I recounted this exact story by the fireside this morning, I got trapped in my ego again for a moment, “Way to go, Stephanie, good thing you mastered that lesson. You’re pretty awesome. The world can’t get you down. You’ve got this!”

And then my friend left and I opened my opened my email to this message: Your American Airlines Flight tomorrow has been canceled due to bad weather. You will not be going home for the holidays tomorrow (or probably ever because air travel in America is cursed).

The Universe whispered, “Test time again. You can spend the next 43 minutes sending hate tweets about airline incompetence or you can practice your joy while you wait on hold.”

I managed to eek out some happiness while humming to the reservation line hold music and I think I passed with at least a B+. Tomorrow I’ll be transiting tropical Chicago in lieu of icy Dallas. If my next test comes in the form of a mid-western blizzard that traps me in the windy city, you’re invited to join me in practicing happiness from the O’Hare United Club. There will be snack mix.

And for you- whether you’re delayed or dismayed – or just tackling the every day -I hope you’re passing your own test today with joy and flying colors.

<- PS. Proof of my miracle moment 


lessons from a bangkok bus ::

Picking the first of 100 travel stories to share wasn’t hard. Starting at the beginning with the story of my first passport stamp made sense.  But what story to tell second?

I’m not much of a person for order and chronology, so lets skip ahead a few years to Thailand in 1997 for travel story 2/100.

In 1997 I moved to Bangkok to teach English writing at a Thai university.  I was young, impatient, idealistic, and determined. (I’m still impatient, idealist and determined, but older now).  Bangkok 14 years ago was also much like it is today: crazy, chaotic, congested and operating by its own set of western-logic-free rules.  In short, Bangkok was ready to eat me alive with a smile.

For some unknown reason, idealistic and determined me chose to train for my first ever half-marathon in Bangkok, one of the hottest and most air-polluted cities in the world. This story could be about how many times I tripped in a gaping hole in the pavement while running and fell flat on my face while smiling Thais looked on and giggled, or about how I both passed out and placed in that very race I ran.  But those stories are for another time.  This story is about my weekend running ritual.

My 1997 home in Bangkok was approximately three miles on foot from the well-known Jatujak weekend market.  It was the cheapest place to buy anything I could possibly ever need or not need.  Each weekend I’d brave the heat, grey air, three legged dogs, and missing sidewalks and put in some miles.  On days when I needed to shop, I’d defeat Bangkok traffic by running one way to the market, doing a few laps around the park, finishing my shopping, and hopping the bus home.

On the day of this story, I had run to Jatujak , picked up a few things I needed, and jumped on the bus for a quick lift.  Only that day, like most days in Bangkok, there was nothing quick about the bus. If you know anything about Bangkok traffic you will understand that many days walking is actually faster than being in a “moving” vehicle.

We had gone about a mile and then came to a dead stop.  Everyone around me was patient and smiling and serene.  I on the other hand was dripping with sweat, legs cramping and completely frustrated. I’d had enough with the non-moving bus.

I grabbed my bags and pressed the button for the bus to let me off. It didn’t even have to stop to open its doors because it hadn’t moved in so long.

Free on sidewalk, I started running.  With my shopping bags.  At midday under the Bangkok sun. May I remind you, that on a regular morning jog people started at me like I was insane when I took to the road for a jog.  Let alone a foreigner, running in the noon heat with their shopping.

I got about 10 minutes down the road, as the traffic along side of me thinned.  Sure enough as I was jogging along the bus I had defiantly disembarked crept up behind me.   If this had been in the US, I’m sure the bus would have blown by me as the passengers remarked how dumb I had been to get off and run.  But in a pure Thai manner, the bus began to honk its horn to get my attention.  (and perhaps to ensure that anyone in the entire vicinity who hadn’t already been watching me was now).

The driver pulled the bus up beside me, opened its doors and beckoned me back in. In my perfect memory all the people on the bus cheered when I hopped back on, but perhaps I was just hallucinating from near heat exhaustion, and they were all just smiling in their patient way that I obviously hadn’t mastered.

I rode the bus the rest of the way home that day.  Embarrassed and educated in my own impatience.  To this day when I’m stuck in traffic or nearly losing it in a long line and contemplating if I should change lanes, I sometimes remember the lesson I learned from that day on the Bangkok bus.  Perseverance is the fastest way to getting where you’re going, even sometimes when you’re stuck in a traffic jam.

Are you a waiter or a runner?



bkk embers ::

Things in Bangkok seem to be getting back to normal.  While I’ve finally come to understand that one never can be sure what is going on in the mind of a khon Thai, the land of smiles looks like it is getting back to smiling and it’s way of mai pen rai.  At least if you take it at face value.

I popped down to the heart of the city on a Saturday morning stroll, and the sight was so different from the images broadcast on CNN just weeks ago.

From the platform of the skytrain you could see the damage around the main intersection where the redshirts had camped just weeks before.  People wearing “I heart Central World” t-shirts lined the busy road in front of the burnt out shell of the supermall, replanting flowers and cleaning the streets.

The Erawan shrine was crowded with worshippers laden with flowers and incense in hope to make merit before the four headed elephant god on the corner.  People bought fruit and flowers from carts along the road which had returned to its normal state of traffic jam.

While the bullet holes in the remnants of the building remained as evidence of what happened just weeks ago, the evidence of one other things seemed stronger- the people wanting things to be back to normal- or at least pretend things are that way.

The problem with smouldering embers is that  just a little bit of wind will restart the fire.

“To bring the dead to life / Is no great magic. / Few are wholly dead:/ Blow on a dead man’s embers / And a live flame will start  – Robert Graves

backwards to bangkok beginnings ::

Krueng Thep- the city of angels.  It was October of 1998 when I had last seen her skyline from an EVA Airways plane flying me back to America for my 25th birthday and my best friends wedding.   Now, nearly 11 years to the day I’m walking down the familiar streets of a crazy city that I still think of as my first foreign home of my nomadic adulthood.

There are remnants of the city I remember from long ago, but around these familiar sights, the city has exploded.  I walk past the Asia books and remember my first trip there in April of 1997.  I pass the Robinson’s department store where I ate too many meals in the food court after church.  Bus 136 is still running, and of course there is the JW.  I walk through the shiny black lobby feeling the cool air conditioning on my skin and smiling with the memories of amazing friendships that grew over pudding and pancakes on the 9th floor.  I’m thankful for my past and for my new future and puzzled how it’s all come full circle.

I’m amazed to see that the streets and the sois of the city, once quiet for walking and grabbing a bowl of noodles, have turned into  a mecca of markets- filled with foreign shoppers tripping over themselves and the crooked sidewalks in order to get a bargain on an elephant pillow case or a pirated dvd set.  It used to be like this a little bit, I remember it well, but the proportion of the insanity has multiplied exponentially. Bangkok has gotten busier, it has gotten dirtier, the exploitation of women and girls for sex tourism seems even more in your face than remember it from years ago.  The skytrain that was falling in pieces from the sky in the early days of its construction when I left has now been whizzing people back and forth above the traffic for ten years already.  Girls dresses have gotten shorter and the malls have gotten taller and fancier.  There are now 84 Starbucks, and a dozen other gourmet coffee chains in the same city where I first discovered how much that I hate Nescafe.  It’s almost as easy to find a latte as it is to find pad thai. There is a new efficiency and a bit of cosmopolitan flair mixed with the old mai pen rai, and I think maybe that I kind of like it.

What hasn’t changed about Bangkok though is the best part.  It is the warm smiles of the people,  the smell of free flowing curries, the beat of the mortar and pestle making som tom in the street and of course the taxi driver that laughs with me all the way to the airport as try to recite the days of the week in Thai completely tone deaf to the rhythm of the language.

The Thai smiles is contagious.  As my flight takes off for Phnom Penh I find myself grinning-  filled with a sense of gratitude for all that has been, and knowing that whatever lies ahead in this unknown place I’ll soon call home will somehow be good.

Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending. – Maria Robinson