Story by Melanie Chu, 2014-15 CivicSpark Alumna, Sacramento Region

Around this point last year, I was going through all the contemplative “what ifs” that had been jumbling in my head – a typical existential crisis period for all 20-somethings. I was mostly anxious about what will happen after CivicSpark ends, as most of you are grappling with these feelings right now. During my service year, I was learning to adjust to the somewhat mundane lifestyle of a 9-to-5 professional, which I found physically exhausting after having to sit in front of a computer and look through data all day. The weeks were starting to drain me after aimlessly coming up with tasks to keep myself busy until some major turn of events progressed our Climate Adaptation Plan further. At times, it was hard to see where all of my energies were going, and it was becoming more difficult to be excited about my work.

So when my service year with CivicSpark ended, I decided to pack my bags and travel for the next 3 (which got extended to 6.5) months in Southeast Asia. The decision came easy for me. I was lucky enough to have some savings from living at home during my service year. I fortunately graduated college with 0 debt accrued, and my parents were happy to have me live at home without paying rent or other expenses. Southeast Asia always had a calling for me for some reason – maybe it’s the exposure of Southeast Asians during my childhood both in Hong Kong and California, or my love for the cuisines in that region. Either way, I had 2 friends who were ready to take a 2 week vacation in Thailand at the end of November and I thought, “why not stick around for a bit? It’s not like I have any responsibilities to go back to yet.” And then when November finally rolled around, I had my 55 liter backpack and was ready to go.

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On November 14, 2015, I embarked on my flight to Bangkok. Within 6.5 months, I visited 7 countries: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia (in that order). I wish I could tell you everything but I don’t even know where to start. I got to celebrate Thailand’s annual lantern festival called Loi Krathong/Yi Peng in Chiang Mai. I crossed the Thai-Laos border via slowboat and floated down the Mekong River for 2 days.  I visited the tragic S-21 Prison in Phnom Penh to learn about the Khmer Rouge genocide, and cried when I saw the photos of the numerous ways prisoners died from torture, starvation, and/or disease. I climbed to the top of a pagoda one early January morning, and watched hot air balloons rise above the 2000 temples and pagodas sprawled amongst the ancient city of Bagan as the sun majestically rose above the mountains. For 2 months, I drove a fake Chinese Honda motorbike for over 2,500 miles from the northern tip of the Vietnamese-Chinese border to the southernmost island of Phu Quoc, and immersed myself in beautiful landscapes and the hospitality of the locals. I stumbled onto a private beach owned by a local in West Sumatra, and spent a week snorkeling with tropical fishes, sea turtles, and stingrays while picking up useful phrases in Bahasa Indonesian every day. The list goes on and on. So if you ask me what was the highlight of my trip – well it’s everything!

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Being out of the country for half a year doesn’t feel like a long time when you’re exploring new territories each week. I was embodying my youthful spirit to seek new thrills and push myself to uncomfortable limits. My worldview has expanded a bit more, and my thirst for the unknown is now greater than ever. For the first time in my life, I truly felt bold. And it is with this empowering spirit that allowed me to regain the vision that I had for my professional life before all the shenanigans took place – to become a socially- and environmentally-conscious urban planner.

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So now I’m in Sacramento again, getting myself back on the grind. This time with a little bit more fervor and purpose. And this time, as a Climate Change Project Coordinator at LGC! I can’t wait to fight for climate justice again, right here where it all started for me. 🙂