Into the Murk

Murky skies hindered visibility over Myanmar and Thailand on a visit early this year. It’s an apropos metaphor for the challenges we face now. Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

We descended into Bangkok, Thailand through a thick, brown cloud that hung like burlap over the cityscape. The local news would tell us the haze was part of a pollution problem, which rocketed to nearly two times levels deemed “safe,” a seasonal problem attributed to agricultural fires and wildfires.

It is a remarkable experience to descend into any airport or city, one which we so often take for granted. It is the amuse bouche, the appetizer for the travel feast to come. Lush jungle meets the intrepid traveler when landing in Bali. A desert flatland, encircled by five mountain ranges, greets visitors to Tucson, Arizona. Geometrically-satisfying farm fields, split by the wandering Mighty Miss, form a visual poem for those who travel to Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Bangkok spreads out a textural wonder of welcome, a vast cityscape reminiscent of lego blocks that stretch for miles and miles. But not this time.

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The view from the sky. Smoggy air prevents passengers from seeing the countries they are about to visit, until they land. Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

The murk was more than a cloak that obscured the jet runway from our travel-starved eyes. In time, it has become an extended metaphor for our current, global human experience.

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Murk over mountains. Photo by Charish Badzinski. 

It was late January, 2020. A mysterious illness was reportedly spreading in China. Every day, the front page of the Bangkok paper was part pollution coverage with hazy, sepia skylines, and part public health officials cloaked in hazmat-like suits, or apocalyptic shots of crews in gear fogging the streets of China. It was into this reality that we prepared to hide out in a stilted hut for nearly two weeks, after which I would continue to travel solo throughout Thailand, Myanmar, and beyond. Every flight in the region soared initially above the murk, hiding the planet from view, and descended through it into the unseen. In my beloved Chiang Mai, the smog stole the magic of the golden Buddhist temples from our approach and blind departure. In Myanmar, the murk hid the hundreds of pagodas I’d traveled so far to see, rendering the success of a once-in-a-lifetime splash-out: a sunrise hot air balloon ride, uncertain.

True travelers not only realize that travel exposes us to the unexpected, often revealing what is otherwise unseen–they welcome the uncertain. Universal truths. Personal discoveries. Lessons, especially the tough ones. Epiphanies, sometimes found on a tiny skewer in Japan or in a clouded cup at a cafe below the Acropolis; often revealed only in retrospect, while safe at home with the snoring dog, mind wandering back while seated in front of vapid sitcoms or scrolling social media.

The murk is an essential part of the travel experience. If we wanted certainty, we’d have stayed home. 

As travelers, we go and go and go to seek answers to the unknown, even if we aren’t wise to the questions. The murk doesn’t often phase us, as it precedes and permeates every travel experience. Arguably, a person increases the likelihood of circumnavigating murk the more they spend on a trip, but it’s always there, even for luxury travelers. How will I get from point A to B? Will I get lost? What does the local food or drink taste like? How do the people make a living, or make a life? What if I get sick? How will I communicate with locals, get cash when I need it, access internet, get help if something falls through? Am I overpaying? Will I be safe? Will I be brave? Will I miss my bed? How do I get myself out of this mess?

The murk is an essential part of the travel experience. If we wanted certainty, we’d have stayed home.

Upon my return to the states, the murk spread, grew thicker. Not the seasonal murk in Southeast Asia which has most certainly cleared by now, but the existential murk that permeates our human experience.

A global pandemic. To mask, or not to mask? A run on toilet paper. Empty grocery shelves. Lockdowns. Zoom takes over the world. Businesses fold. Layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. Parallels to the Great Depression. A single, $1200 check. Locust swarms in Africa, threatening mass starvation. Social distancing. Mass graves, everywhere from Europe to Brazil. Economic ruin. The parade of Karens. Graduation goes virtual. The unjustifiable death of another human at the hands of law enforcement. Kpop joins the resistance. A thousand COVID-19 bodies a day in the United States. Mass marches. Minneapolis burns. Tear gassing of peaceful protestors including religious leaders. Journalists targeted. Truth targeted. Looting and rioting. And the latest: wildfires just miles from my house that spew smoke and stench across our city, a cloud that turns blood brown by evening’s light. Today, 800 homes are potentially in her path. Is this the fourth horseman? Or the fortieth?

To even write this paragraph is incredibly unsettling. The murk is everywhere, we are steeped in it. The past four months have been an epic journey through the smog of uncertainty; if not the dusky, putrid breath of hell. And though some are pushing to see the horizon, to disregard the uncertainties in favor of returning to normal, normal is nowhere on the map in front of us. When destinations offer to pay your medical bills if you travel and contract coronavirus, when Vegas waives resort fees and parking and gives away flights, when restaurants serve at 50% capacity and with masked servers, it’s clear the only thing that is normal is our insatiable hunger for wealth.

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Zoom meeting with my siblings, in lieu of a trip to Las Vegas together. I dream of the day we can be together again, in person. Hugs and all. 

The pervasive murk; the uncertainty; this novel, global, acrid smog, has obscured so much from us, not the least of which is our peace. I cannot embrace this murk as I do the unexpected twists of travel, it is at times suffocating; my eyes burn. But I do know we will get through this.

Social distancing during a short road trip from Tucson. One of few responsible ways to travel until the pandemic abates. Photo by Charish Badzinski.

Will we travel again? Surely. We will ascend to the crystalline-blue clarity of the upper atmosphere. The murk will dissipate, as it always does. And we will see the temples, the pagodas, the Mississippi, the mountain ranges surrounding Tucson, the jungles of Bali and beyond. They will be different, we will be different, and hopefully the way we travel will be different, more sustainable, more humble, less selfie-focused and more outward-looking.

For now, the trips not taken are the trips that save lives. And leisure travel is taken at the risk of harming others, if not yourself. I’ve been to a lot of places and have had more experiences than perhaps any average girl with a dream deserves. But through it all, one truth has always been clear. There is neither a leisure trip worth dying for, nor one worth killing for. Not for this traveler, anyway.

So we rest for now, stars of our own soft-focus sepia story. We close our eyes and imagine what we cannot see: distant places, kind people, wholeness and healing and oneness and light. We count the bodies and we count our blessings. We let the smell of home baked bread take us back to the winding cobblestone streets of Barcelona, the Champs-Élysées, or that little bakery with the olive-oil soaked focaccia in Monterosso al Mare. We watch videos featuring the places that feel like home but are so impossibly far away. We cannot see what is coming, but we can relive where we’ve been in a million little ways, and yes, we can dream of where we might go, someday . It may be just enough to get us through the murk, until we can clearly see the possibilities ahead.

Charish Badzinski and camels in the Sahara, a transformational travel momentCharish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.

Posts on the Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World travel blog are never sponsored and have no affiliate links, so you know you will get an honest review, every time.

Find Charish on Twitter: @rollrbaggoddess and on Instagram at @rollerbaggoddess. You can also read more about Charish Badzinski’s professional experience in marketing, public relations and writing.




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