Being Back to Normal

Tom Nickel
5 min readDec 20, 2017

Part of what I have been doing over the past month, and chronicling publicly, was an exploratory mission on 360 VR video and arts organizations in Cambodia. That’s a little weird; I mean, what does “an exploratory mission” even mean? I didn’t know when I started, and I knew that I didn’t know. I still wasn’t clear what the point was as I flew home, even though I faithfully lugged my laptop along with me instead of stowing it because, who knows, maybe I’d pound the keyboard with insights all the way across the Pacific, (I didn’t).

At the moment I’m not focusing on the so-called mission. I’m thinking about where the experience fits into my story about myself. My month in Phnom Penh was as much a personal exploration as it was about arts organizations and 360 video. It was my fourth post-retirement trip — one with my wife, one with our son, one with a close friend, and now one on my own.

Each time a bit more protection was stripped away. I felt a more emotional connection to the situation. The Cambodia stories I tapped into traveling with my friend and two Cambodians hit me deep and hard. They made me cry. They made me want to go back for more. With all the protections stripped away.

Sounds like it would take a lot of nerve, but if anything, it felt self-indulgent. More than that, it felt preposterous that a trip like this could actually happen. People don’t tend to go to a place like Phnom Penh for weeks to check things out. I did, and I wasn’t what you’d call a passive observer.

I did stand-up comedy, two talks in an auditorium full of high school students, a staff workshop, and a PechaKucha 20x20 presentation for Nerd’s Night. I learned more about some of the interesting people I met by interviewing them using a 360 camera and producing the results as 360Casts, a format I made up on the spot. I joined a Cambodia History book discussion group. I kept up my Khmer language lessons. I’ll always wonder what more I could have done if I hadn’t been sick most of the time.

Doing that stuff was fun, but the point was to learn about Cambodia and all the activity was a means to an end. I picked up on things and gained perspectives that wouldn’t have happened any other way, definitely not as quickly. Still, I learned as much about myself as I did about Cambodia.

I didn’t learn while I was busy. I learned when I was by myself, reflecting or just letting my mind drift. I didn’t like eating dinner alone, probably because I was active and stimulated all day and I wanted company to keep the buzz going. When I didn’t have it, as I frequently didn’t in the first two weeks, I noticed everything about how I was feeling, not just the upbeat parts. I noticed that I was lonely. I noticed that I was exhausted and running on fumes. I noticed that I wanted a “real shower.”

For me, and many others, travel tends to bring out a of stronger than usual sense of awareness, which does not always mean awareness of something I feel like sharing on Facebook. Part of it is just a matter of survival when surrounded by newness. Everything about the immediate situation is strange and potentially threatening, which puts normally inactive surveillance systems on full alert.

But dodging tuk tuks, which have a habit of joining pedestrians on the sidewalk if they feel like it, is just the top level. Without a dinner companion, heightened awareness extends into the emotional processing of the day’s events. Without someone else to accommodate, I could act with complete freedom. I don’t want to say, “I feel more alive,” because the implicit comparison sounds like a critique of normal everyday life awareness. So I’ll say, “I feel alive in a different way.” It’s not better and I’m not sure I could handle it all the time.

Hold on, though. There’s another nice benefit that comes with heightened awareness, for me anyway, which is that I’m much better at taking things as they come, effortlessly. I suppose I have less expectations about how things are supposed to be, so there is less to let go of when they’re not. When I’m traveling, things-not-going-as-planned is sometimes exactly what I’m hoping for. And other times, not so much. But it doesn’t matter. I was observably less reactive to the unplanned and unexpected over the four-week period spent entirely in the city of Phnom Penh than I usually am.

Then I came home — and the first time something about unpacking and doing the laundry didn’t go the way I thought it would, I didn’t just-notice it. I immediately lost my poise.

Why shouldn’t I try to maintain the less reactive travel-posture all the time? Why not keep the whole extended awareness package going? Stripping away all the protection of groups and family and friends in a strange land sent me into an altered state. Eventually, Phnom Penh would become routine, but for a month it was the key to a different state of mind. Is there a way to hold on to some of that non-reactivity while relaxing a bit on the tuk tuk vigilance front?

That’s what I’m mulling. Meditation definitely helps me just-notice unexpected road bumps. Some would claim that’s the whole point to the practice — emotional self-regulation. I can use more of that, not just in extraordinary times, which I seem to be pretty good at, but in ordinary times, where I still have a long way to go as far as just taking things as they come.

Having my own place in Phnom Penh for a month reminded me what embracing whatever happens looks and feels like. I know I can do that because I just did, every day for weeks even though I felt mildly sick most of the time — a perfect excuse to resist what is.

I would rate embracing as more enjoyable than resisting, as I often do in normal awareness mode. I’d say, “I can’t help it,” but Phnom Penh proves that I can and reminds me that it’s also more fun. Can the mental state be maintained in non-travel life? Not only big stuff like embracing cancer, prostate surgery and the common cold, but the little stuff too, like laundry mishaps? That’s the real exploratory mission.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos