From Full Moon to Full Circle

Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher, once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

The year was 2010. Huddled over a computer monitor the size of a refrigerator, Ketut, a Balinese video editor, and I were going through footage I’d taken of myself feeding monkeys. There I was, aged 22, on my first backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, trying fruitlessly to apply for a travel blogger job, and about to realize I might have rabies.

Watching myself on screen, I cringed.

“They warn you here in the monkey forest,” I watched myself say, noticing for the first time that I often talk out of the side of my mouth. “To take of all your valuableth and anything that th-arkle-th our off your perthon.”

That slight lisp my grandmother tried fruitlessly to correct was coming back to haunt me. “The monkeyth might just jump down from a tree and th-teal them!”

It’s just part of your charm, I clung to my dad’s comforting words, some 15 years after he first uttered them to me. I was so focused on “analything” my on-screen self that I almost completely missed it.

“Ha!” Ketut laughed. Before I could say “It’s just part of my charm,” he tapped vigorously at the screen with a toothy smile. “Monkey bite you!”

getting bit by a monkey in Thailand

Lena getting bit. The kid can’t even watch.

We watched the clip again. And again. And one more time before I finally got the courage to separate the stack of bracelets on my left wrist. Sure enough, there, etched into my wrist like the stone carvings at the Temples of Angkor, was a complete imprint of strangely human-like top and bottom teeth.

Three rounds of rabies shots later, I would leave my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia rabies free, but with an entirely new outlook on life and, as a result, two custom Thai-made pant suits I would never wear again. My first jaunt to Thailand, like Sue’s and most early 20-somethings who make the post-grad pilgrimage to the East, was largely spent frolicking down the well-trodden backpacker track, while trying not to land face first in a vodka-Red Bull bucket—a backpacker favourite that doesn’t just give you wings, it gives you a jetpack! While I look back and shake my head now, the aimlessness of that adventure was essential for me, and the seeds for our upcoming adventure were sewn.

Before this first brush with travel, I was, historically, a textbook uptight type-A anxious overachiever. (Not unlike Sue’s counterpart in It’s Only the Himalayas.) My world was as large as the distance between my university campus and my front door. My mind was as open as my Canadian Communications Policy textbook. I imagined then that my future would be marked by pant suits and board rooms, hard-hitting meetings and white walls.

My 22-year-old self wouldn’t recognize me now. That’s not to say I’ve lost my drive; it’s just been entirely transformed. Since then, I’ve abandoned my ambitions to climb any sort of ladder that doesn’t involve a mountain peak. I’ve gone on to travel backpacker-style through South America, volunteer in Guatemala and live among locals in Nicaragua.

These trips led me to start believing in my creative abilities, and pursuing them—to my great surprise—with great success. In Nepal, I unearthed a new passion for climbing and getting really dirty, which led to my most recent endeavour: fulfilling a dream of completing an alpine climb, bagging an unlikely summit of Mount Rainier in Washington.

mount rainier summiting

Lena summitting Mount Rainier, Washington’s highest peak. (Mike Powell/Courtesy Lena Desmond)

It’s funny: when I would hear of someone’s plans to go to Thailand, I would say, “If you run across the piece of my soul that I left there, say hello for me.”

I’m ready to shake hands with ghosts of my past and thank them. Combined, all these experiences led me to Outpost, and to my friend and fellow writer Sue Bedford. Now we’re about to head back to the beginning, going back to Thailand to film and chronicle our adventure as—yes!—real travel writers… for you! A real, living, breathing, travel-hungry audience. From a rickety shack studio to a travel professional, I’ve come full circle.

Indeed, we don’t ever step in the same river twice and, no, I am not the same person. A new travel partner, a new goal, and a country I’ve been to once before. I don’t know what will happen as we try to get off the beaten track in a very well-trodden country, but two things are certain: I’ll be keeping my distance from the monkeys, and my s’s have drastically improved.