by Jackie Bowes
Photography by Jackie Bowes
My first day in Bangkok was a blur. After spending the month of January in Dublin studying the late, great Irish dramatists by day and the art of properly pouring a pint of Guinness by night, the teeming, smog-filled Asian hub was a shock to my senses.
I spent the next two months in Southeast Asia through a company called Pacific Discovery, traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. We built homes in Cambodia, trekked through rural mountain villages in Laos and rode motorbikes in Vietnam. It was thrilling, but often felt like a break from “real life.” I couldn’t connect this new adventure to my life at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts, where I study theatre in a rigorous, often life-consuming conservatory.
When I made the decision to pursue my own study abroad experience outside of those provided to the School of Theatre, I was scared. What does it mean for a conservatory student to take time away from her main goals and attempt to explore alternate possibilities? I was terrified stepping away from theatre would inevitably lead to me falling out of love with it; that I would find something else that I also loved and that would negate all the work I had put into my career.
I did fall in love with many new things abroad. I fell in love with sticky rice and fresh mangoes. I fell in love with seemingly impassable mountain climbs; I fell in love with the view from the top. I fell in love with the generosity of strangers and putting foreign words in my mouth to taste them and my stupidly heavy backpack that somehow contained everything I would need for six months and nothing that would adequately prepare me for all of the growth to come. Falling in love with these things did not usurp any love I had for theatre or extinguish my desire to pursue it as a career. It did, however, inspire me to think clearly about my priorities and focus my energy not on what I thought should make me happy, but instead focusing on what actually does.
Every now and then during my travels, I would question and wonder to myself how this experience of backpacking through Southeast Asia would impact my life as a theatre artist, or how it would benefit my training. I struggled with this because I couldn’t put any of it into words—and of course I couldn’t. I was in the middle of the experience. It’s impossible to tell when you’re in the middle of something how it will impact and change you later in life.
Ultimately, I did find ways to weave my theatre artist self into my experiences as a traveler in Asia. There is value in finding those connections, but if I’m being completely honest, the majority of my trip had nothing to do with theatre. I couldn’t have been happier to take that break. If we are lucky enough to be born into privileged and successful communities, unlike many of the sweet children I met throughout Southeast Asia, we are used to putting a severe amount of pressure on ourselves to cultivate our careers. This, of course, has value. But what are we ignoring when we narrow our path so early in life, and what opportunities to explore the world—and ourselves—do we miss because of our career-oriented tunnel vision? I don’t have answers, only my whirlwind experience of learning that maybe there is more out there that can nourish my spirit and light a fire in my soul.
I went back to Bangkok after a month of solo-travel though Southern Thailand. It surprised me how much it felt like home. Before I left, I mentally scrolled through all of my new possibilities: leading outdoor education trips, teaching yoga on a beach, working with arts organizations in the developing world. I would never have discovered my passion for these things if I hadn’t taken a risk, leapt out of my comfort zone and challenged myself to explore possibilities beyond the ones I had already determined for myself. I am still a theatre artist, but I like to think that maybe, one day, I can be all of these other things too.