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  • Writer's pictureJoanna

The Comfort Zone

Updated: Jan 21

It's always difficult starting something new. For me, anyway. As daunting as it can be, I always try to mask my insecurities with a façade of confidence.


Fake it till you make it?

Isn't that what they all say?


People are continually telling me how brave I am, but it's not necessarily always true. Not at all. Not one bit, actually. Stepping out of my own comfort zone is frightening. In saying this and fully acknowledging my own fears, it would seem that stepping out of my comfort zone has pretty much become the foundation on which my entire life has been built. It's almost become a habit, if that's actually a thing. I'd like to think it gets easier, but each situation comes with its share of obstacles, hesitation and self-doubt.


What if I'm not what they're expecting?

What if I hate it?

What if they hate me?

What if I end up being absolute crap?


With each step into the unknown, I never really know what to expect, what or who I'm going to encounter... and that's precisely how I felt that morning, heading out to meet my new team. Without knowing too much, I had committed to an entire month of volunteering with NK Seeds. Now… don’t get me wrong, when I sign up to do a volunteer stint, I have nothing but full intention of committing whole-heartedly and fulfilling my obligation to completion, regardless of any circumstances. 



On one hand, I do this in order to learn new skills, make a difference, help people, give back, as well as develop my own confidence and sense of purpose. But… on the other hand, I want to immerse myself into a new culture, spend a little bit more time in one place without moving around so much… and I want to make some friends.


I think the latter is precedent.


I love traveling solo, but sometimes I need friends. As much as it's easy to meet people on the road, it is a very transient atmosphere. Travelers come and go so frequently. If my need for social interaction and human connection goes unmet for too long, I start to develop an awful hollow feeling. Loneliness has the uncanny ability to sink in quickly and it can be destructive to anyone's self-perspective.


Like most others, I need those people in my life to swap travel stories, boost confidence, gossip and laugh with, whether I'm at home... or on the road.


This was one of those times.

It was time for some friends.


The morning I was set to begin my volunteering, I headed out from the hotel with all my junk in tow. On Google Maps, the NK Seeds building appeared to be not too far walking distance from my hotel. It was just up one of the main roads, left on a dirt alleyway and somewhere around there... give or take. It was a little less give and a little more take, as the exact location didn't quite mesh properly with the online map... and there were no signs to point me in the right direction.


I texted Tea, the volunteer coordinator, and let him know that I was slightly lost. Not necessarily lost, but legitimately disorientated. He came out into the alleyway to look for me and I spotted him right away.


Our first initial meeting wasn’t great. It was probably the furthest thing from great and reassuring that I've ever encountered.


"Tea!" I hollered at him.


He turned around and instead of greeting me in a courteous and welcoming manner, he immediately dove into this bizarre one-sided discussion about how he was actually waiting for another volunteer... who was coming for a month.


Huh?

Wasn't that me?


"I think that's me." I said, confidently, my hand stretched out to greet him properly.


"No. Not you."


My hand retracted.


Pretty sure it's me, buddy.


There he stood, this Laotian man of short and small stature, grossley over-fitnessed in appearance, and very austere in expression. Although every inch of his body was chiselled to Olympic standard, there was something about his demeanour that oozed vanity.


All at once, every single one of my insecurities flared up. I managed to maintain an exuberant smile on my face, but my flabby body was trembling. Metaphorically, I was gasping for breath, buried alive in my own lack of confidence. His manner was haughty and apathetic, and I could almost feel what I figured he was thinking.


Who was this slob?

Why was SHE here?


His manner of speaking was pragmatic, but his words lacked depth and appeared to be used only to confirm his own grandiosity. Seeking out answers or further communication was borderline torturous, as everything was convoluted and circuitous.


His continual affirmations of another volunteer, mirroring my exact circumstances, stood strong and although I continually tried to convince him that this person was, in fact, me, he wouldn't budge on his conviction. 


All me, buddy.

All me.


Finally I just forced myself to fall silent and let him believe whatever he wanted to. Unfortunately first impressions were far from friendly or welcoming, and I could do nothing but hope they would drastically improve. I couldn't help but think I just didn't fit the bill in his eyes, so he was trying to compensate for the disappointment by creating a better version of me in his head. 


I had to brush it off.

I had no other choice.


There were a few other volunteers when I arrived, but they were all preparing their pack for departure. Only one was remaining and that was Georgia, a young girl from the UK.


My new home is very simple.

Very simple.

In fact, describing it as ‘simple’ seems a bit over the top. 


Perhaps the combination of simple & empty does it more justice.


I would also say bleak, but one cannot possibly describe anything as bleak, when it is so incredibly pink.

Everything is pink.

Peppa Pig pink. 

It's like I just moved into a bottle of Pepto Bismol.


It's an odd colour choice for a volunteer home, but who am I to say? I looked up what the colour of pink in a home is meant to represent and I found love, tenderness, innocence and optimism. I have vowed to try and concentrate on the optimistic side of pink, considering there must be nowhere to go from here but up. 


Apparently pink is also believed to boost creativity and feelings of calm, so time will tell.


We shall see.


The main living space is a large pink room with a small round plastic table, a couple mats thrown on the floor and a small bar fridge. Other than that, there is really nothing else... except pink.


Everything is just pink.


Tea asked me to wait until the cleaner had finished cleaning, but even after she'd been and gone, I saw no real difference except a quick tidy in my room. I highly suspect I am set to sleep on the sheets of many volunteers gone by.


My room is also a knockout shade of Peppa Pig pink and has two single beds, almost right beside each other. The mattresses are excruciatingly hard and trying to get comfortable on them takes me back to my days of sleeping on the ground of the olive grove in Crete. Without meaning to criticize or complain too much, the pillows are like padded rocks and it's a full arm workout tossing them about. 


If there is one thing that I have learned about myself from years of travel, it is that I am up for just about anything.  I can deal with cockroaches, spiders, dirt floors, sweltering conditions... anything!  Bring it. For fear of sounding too pompous, I really pride myself on being susceptible to change. I really do try to embrace each journey, and allow it to broaden my , challenge my beliefs, discover new ways of doing things...


Just about...


Until now.


Life has certainly thrown me a curve ball. As soon as I walked into the bathroom, I knew I was doomed.

A squat toilet.



Maybe you like them. Maybe you really do... and that's fine. To each, their own.

I do not.


~ I've never had to use them.

~ I've never had terribly good aim.

~ I'm not good at the squat position.

AND to LITERALLY add insult to injury... my knee will just not allow it!


I’m saying all of this from a first world perspective and I know that. Of course I am. I can handle many inconveniences life tosses in my direction... but… I think I’ve crossed the threshold of my own tolerance. This is too much.


I can't do it.


The bathroom is an elongated, rectangular shaped room... pink... and the squatter is located at the far end. It sits upon a raised area which is built directly into the left side of the wall, making it impossible to straddle the opening. The right side of the squatter is floor level, with a small, open hole meant to drain away the excess of 'anything' that gets incorrectly discharged, wash water, shower water... and 'whatever' else you find yourself needing & wanting to disappear down the pee-pee pit.


In front of the squatter is a large black bucket filled with water, meant to properly flush and rinse the squatter after each use.


I can't do it.

No.


I tried. Many times. I really have really been trying. I've had no other choice but to try. All my valiant attempts have resulted in splatters of excrement all over my feet, my clothes and my skin.


There is no dirtier feeling than watching urine drip down your legs, knowing there is really nothing you can do about it.


It's all a bit of a tripping hazard. The mixture of my tinkle, the water and the mud I inevitably track in, is slippery, for lack of a better word. Someone is going to find me sprawled out naked, lying on the floor, soaked in my own urine… I just know it.


I have started stripping right down in order to pee.  Seriously. I take it all off. Especially just before I go to sleep, because no one wants to pee hard and be put to bed wet. It’s not a great feeling cozying up with your own urine... in soiled sheets... on the world's hardest mattress.


No wonder I'm single...

Just when I made the official decision to start drinking more water... my luck. Now I'm afraid to even touch it for fear I'll have to pee.

Don’t even get me started on pooping.


For the first three days, I think my body slunk into outright collapse and I didn’t defecate at all. I realize this is TOO much information... and I promise you all that this blog will be over momentarily. I was convinced (and ever so slightly terrified) that I was going into toxic shock.

In my desperate state of needing a wee without saturating myself, I started flipping the black bucket around and using it as my own personal throne. The plan only worked temporarily as the plastic structure of the sides weren't nearly sturdy enough to manage my weight for excessive use or an extended period of time. I knew that if I were to continue, the repercussions could be detrimental to my limbs. At my age... and with my knees... it's a long way to fall, doing my business on an elevated tile perch, into a 3-foot tall bucket. In addition, I had to wash the bucket out each and every time because… wellI peed in it.


There goes my shampoo budget.


I finally came to the conclusion that my best decision would be to completely ignore the squatter.


Easy.

Right?


I would simply force myself to pretend it wasn’t even there. As far as I was concerned, I didn't have a toilet at my house. 


What would I do, you ask?


Let me tell you my cunning plan.... I had full intention of just using the public facilities in the various restaurants scattered throughout the town. There were so many of them and although I'd only been in Nong Khiaw a short duration, I had already begun to suss out the porcelain potty locations. 


Win-win, right?


I would grace them with my presence... eat, spend my money & tip generously. In exchange, they would offer up their acceptable-to-me lavatories. Of course, I never informed any of the establishments of my decision, but I was confident it was fool proof.


It didn’t work for too long. It wasn't the best plan and it turned out I was the only fool... and hadn't taken many circumstances of my expurgation into consideration. Midnight wizzes and the occasional bout of irritable bowels proved to challenge my devious scheme.


Back to the drawing board...


It was challenging.

I have never felt so dirty.

The shower was there... and located on the wall, directly beside the raised squatter. I use the term shower very, very loosely. It was more like a pipe and a hose, sporting a cheap shower head. This hose had a number of functions; clean the squatter, fill the bucket I'd been indecorously peeing in... and it was also my shower. My cold shower.


This is a one stop shop, people.


My personal hygiene has plummeted. Rock bottom. I have been here over a week and despite my best intentions, I avoid my bathroom like the plague... whenever I possibly can.


I have no idea how I’m going to bear my own perception of hardship. IF I manage to make it out alive, I believe I will rightfully have earned a valid notch in travel versatility. Of course, I have had to deal with squat toilets before, but never for any extended period of time.


Now... I DO realize all of my nonsensical babble comes from an upbringing of pure privilege and a life which has made me dependent on the luxuries that only a first world lifestyle could and would provide.

I sound like a spoiled brat.


It is fair to say that although I knew it before, it has confirmed for me how rich I am. I have the luxury of waking up in a comfortable bed. I have hot water to shower in. I have electricity and heat. I have a roof over my head and a car in my driveway. I can willingly throw myself into debt, without ever giving up any of the day-to-day luxuries I've become accustomed to. I have clean clothes to wear. I have access to laundry, groceries, food, amenities, health care... at the drop of a hat. Anything I need or want is at my beck & call.


None of this is true for the majorirty of Laos locals in Nong Khiaw.


I have absolutely no right or valid reason to complain about anything, when I am slightly inconvenienced for a moment... let alone a month. It really puts life in perspective. 


But... it still sucks. I still hate it.

I just need to concentrate on the positives and I am really trying, as difficult as this situation is.


I have to take matters into my own hands. I really have to. I MUST. Yes... I must endeavour to pull up my big girl panties and figure out the toilet situation on my own...


... and that's exactly what I did.


⬇️⬇️⬇️⬇️

(thanks, Heidi) ❤️




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