x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Around Asia: From India to China and everything in between

Effie-Michelle Metallidis takes a career break and visits as many countries as possible in a two-month odyssey between leaving the UAE and returning to the United States.

When I first landed in the UAE three years ago, I dreamt, like most people, of travelling to all the places the country's close proximity to three continents offered.

Unlike most people, my dream itinerary came from the Failed States Index, a yearly guide to the world's worst nations as ranked by Transparency International. The glorious Top 20 were in my reach from the UAE: Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan; it was all there, a cornucopia of dysfunction mere hours away.

During my time in the UAE, I've managed to see a few of the Top 20 and several in the greater 100. But my grand vision of completing the list was indefinitely put on hold when I decided to return to school in the US this autumn for a degree in public policy.

Limited time required a new travel route with minimal security detail and the largest square-kilometre coverage to maximise the UAE's potential as a travel hub.

Enter Southeast Asia. Aromas of tropical gardens after the rain, tuk-tuks careering down crowded alleyways, fried garlic in steaming bowls of soup; elephant orphanages, tiger temples and monkey shrines: fewer regions brim with the variety in sights, sounds and, well, stenches, than does the long stretch between India and China.

Originally, I wanted to trace the old maritime route of the Silk Road, part of which stretches across the Arabian Sea, over the Bay of Bengal, down the Malacca Straits and up to the South China Sea.

But Patty, the Taiwanese-American Lewis to my Greek-French American Clark, who is travelling with me, made it clear that "we are not supporting the regime in Myanmar, Effie", despite the fact that it ranks 16th in the Failed States Index.

So the trail was redrawn: India first, with its close proximity to the UAE and its tumultuous monsoon season - good and refreshing after years of parched desert; Nepal next, home to a children's orphanage and a monastery full of kung-fu nuns in Kathmandu I've been meaning to visit; then over to Thailand for a romp through the street markets of Bangkok and the verdure of Chiang Mai to check out an ecological architecture project.

Afterwards, we fly to Luang Prabang, in Laos, with a possible pit stop in Vientiane, make our way down to Siem Reap in Cambodia, wander through the temples of Angkor Wat, sail down to Phnom Penh, and then head over to Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam chiefly, and unabashedly, for big bowls of soup and criminally underpriced tailoring.

We then dive down to Indonesia to seek out a Balinese healer, Eat Pray Love-style, who comes highly recommended by a friend, and from whom I am interested in learning about alternative medicine. Finally, we'll fly up to Shanghai where me, Patty and a busload of Chinese from the diaspora will "ooh" and "aah" on a government-sponsored tour of the motherland.

While this is no failed states tour, I'm hoping that there are still some lessons to be gleaned from these - let's call them decently dysfunctional - Tier 2 countries. After all, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia and China have no shortage of what they call, in policy parlance, "challenges" to good governance.

Perhaps it's the Greek in me that revels at the strange sort of efficiency governmental failure brings; that despite the broken-down gears, the graft, the bureaucracy, the injustice, the poverty and the pain, it still somehow all comes together in the end. Or perhaps it is the fact that once back in the orderly heartland of the US, where dogs are walked on leashes and people wait at crosswalks, I will crave the strange beauty of disorder ever present in the developing world.

One thing neither of us is looking forward to is the wide swathe of mosquito-borne pestilence that sweeps its way through the region during monsoon season. Dengue, malaria, Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever - to say that mosquitoes will preoccupy me on this trip is putting it mildly. It would not be hyperbole to say that I'm on a kill mission. I have been known to leave a bloody body smeared across the wall as a warning to all the others. If I could, I would mount their heads on toothpicks by my bed.

Patty, whose career in crisis management makes her an ideal asset in countries prone to public health epidemics, has spent her pre-departure time doing preventative planning. She has flooded my inbox with pictures of collapsible mosquito nets and insect repellents. Debates have raged not about where we should travel or what sites to see, but if we should try to smuggle industrial-grade pesticide in our luggage or just go with local sprays.

Armed with five vaccinations, 70 anti-malaria pills and three kinds of repellents, I feel OK. Not great. Not fully equipped. But good enough to mount an assault if and when necessary.

Yet, even this overarching obsession has done little to quell our desire to explore. In the end, it is an inescapable wanderlust that compels travellers towards the new, the different, the landscape that shakes reality and elicits a new perspective, a new understanding.

During travel, the senses are heightened, the eye views things anew, and the soul takes a moment to breathe in that small, brief space of time where it is responsible only to itself.

Next week: Goa, the first stop on our columnist's travels.?????