National Geographic Traveler of the Year Shannon O’Donnell reveals how a trip to Southeast Asia helped her niece blossom

Our pickup truck shuddered to a stop after five hours on a winding journey through the mountains of Northern Thailand. My niece Ana sat across from me in the bed of the truck. Her body, like mine, was wedged between the handful of other travellers visiting this remote hill tribe village for the weekend. In response to my raised eyebrows, her eyes crinkled at the edges. I knew she smiled at me under the facemask intended to block the clouds of circling dust. She threw me a quick thumbs up, confirming that she was still in good spirits after our bone shattering ride on the pothole-strewn mountain roads.

As the adults gathered their wits and shook off the dust, Ana jumped from the bed of the truck and skipped to our guide, Lee. Two months earlier, she had been a much different kid. We had landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand to start our six-month travelling adventure. Each day, she clung to my hand during new interactions and sheepishly murmured Thai greetings to new friends.

During the first few days of our trip, Ana and I had a detailed conversation about how to respond if she were to ever get lost. At 11 years old, I knew she had enough maturity to accept some responsibilities and freedoms. Part of encouraging her to grow during our travels was empowering her with knowledge that would allow her to venture outside her comfort zones. Before she could find the courage to leave my side, she needed to believe that she could navigate her own safety if needed. But in those early days, she was tentative and I wondered if she’d ever sink into the travel experience. Thai friends dismissed my concerns with a breezy mai pen rai. This meaning of this quintessentially Thai phrase hovers somewhere between “no worries” and “whatever happens, happens.”

Months later, our group unloaded the trucks on that rural mountainside. Ana’s natural curiosity and growing confidence had taken charge. She peppered Lee with questions. She wanted to know everything from how to greet his mother in Akha — the native language in this village — to what she could help carry into the house. Throughout our weekend, Ana poked at the edges of her interests. We were visiting the village as part of a Coffee Journey, a trip designed to show what takes to grow, harvest, and sell a cup of fair-trade coffee. Far from luxurious, our ragtag group spent New Year’s Eve on a rural mountain huddled around a bonfire. The Milky Way galaxy slashed across the sky in a riot of stars. Our group shared few common languages, but a sense of camaraderie settled over us nonetheless. For my niece, I planned this weekend trip with a hope that she would find compassion and humility as she glimpsed a way of life so different from our own. We sat on logs around the fire and sipped piping hot soup brimming with veggies pulled straight from the ground that morning. We cuddled close that night, sleeping communally in a large, wooden, one-room hut.

We sat on logs around the fire and sipped piping hot soup brimming with veggies pulled straight from the ground

If Ana gained curiosity in Thailand, resilience themed our travels through Myanmar— a country of contrasts. Beauty exists alongside poverty, pervasive kindness in spite of a harsh history. Resilience is a skill that’s hard to name in practice, but it’s an underlying presence during so much of long-term travel. As we thrust ourselves into new situations, I can only know that it’s a skill she honed to a tee. The buses in Myanmar rocket through the night in near-freezing temperatures; they arrive in the wee hours of early morning. Ana was always helpful, keeping good spirits as we found our next hotel and navigated through the following day — both of us bleary and exhausted. By this point, months on the road had taught us how to adapt to each new high and low thrown our way. It’s only because of her growing resilience that she and I passed such a memorable sunset on the top of a temple in Bagan. We shook off the weary memories of our frigid, sleepless overnight bus ride and watched a pink and orange glow descend over the ruins. The sun sunk lower. Monks and tourists alike perched on the temple’s ledges. We all let out out a collective sigh as the last light faded from the horizon.

On the road together those many months, my niece wrestled with warring desires. She wanted to return home to her old friends, but she also found untold delights in the new friends she formed on the dusty back roads of Southeast Asia. These temporary friends taught her adaptability in the face of impermanence — a skill hard to master for even the most seasoned of adults.

During our final week in Southeast Asia, the rains began. We had travelled south into Cambodia by this point. For weeks, Ana had bubbled with excitement about our plans to snorkelling the country’s turquoise coastal waters. My timing was off, however, and the rains came early that year. Instead of lounging on white beaches and exploring underwater sea life, a steady rain drummed on our bungalow. I was disappointed that I hadn’t planned our trip better. Of the many things I could control, the summer rains weren’t one of them. I chafed at the knowledge that my poor planning would end our amazing adventure on a sour note.

But she proved me wrong. Over the course of our trip, I watched my niece become comfortable with uncertainty. In the early days, when something went wrong — the bus broke down or our accommodations had no record of our booking — she fretted and worried while I sorted it out. But travel changed her. After waiting days for a break in the weather, I broke the news to her that the rains wouldn’t clear before we flew home. She flicked a glance at the apocalyptic clouds gathering on the horizon. With a grin, she opened the guidebook and declared, “Well sheesh, there’s no use worrying about it. We’ll just find something else to do; mai pen rai.”

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