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The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

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The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Profile: I, alone, braved the jungles of Asia

The green viper snake struck as Riley Sluder tossed it some watermelon, hoping to distract the reptile’s eyes away from his nervous hands.

Sluder, 22, a junior in civil engineering, didn’t notice the green viper next to his candy bar wrapper when he bent to pick it up from the jungle floor in Thailand’s rainforest.

“It was at that moment I thought to myself, ‘nobody in the world knows where I am right now.’ The viper snake made me ask myself, ‘What if something were to happen to me?'” Sluder said.

Sluder returned from a seven-month stay in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia in December.

Apart from the company of tigers, monkeys, and vipers in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Sluder spent the majority of his time abroad. The trip was possible in part to arrangements made through the U Study Abroad Program. What’s more is Sluder traveled alone.

Getting to know ‘you’

“It’s a rush. And it’s a really great way to get to know yourself. Traveling alone really gives you time to figure yourself out,” Sluder said.

But traveling alone in underdeveloped countries didn’t come without safety risks. One afternoon in Cambodia, after having waited three hours for a bus under scorching sunlight, Sluder took a bus headed toward the Thailand-Cambodia border. After arriving in the dark, he learned that the border was closing in 15 minutes, and in that time he had to get a visa. “Three guys surrounded me and said they could take me to get a visa,” said Sluder. “Against my best judgment, I went with them. They got me the visa, and when we crossed the border they offered me a ride in a beat-up old Toyota. We drove 10 minutes on terrible dirt roads, and came to a stop,” said Sluder.

Sluder describes the stop as a “this-is-it, I’m-going-to-get-robbed-and-killed” moment.

“There was a straw shack with eight shirtless men inside. One man opened the car trunk and pulled out a funnel,” said Sluder.

Much to Sluder’s relief, no robbing or killing took place.

“They were just stopping for gas. We drove three more hours on the awful roads, and when we arrived at my destination, they gave me dinner and one of them ended up being a great travel guide during my time in Cambodia,” Sluder said. “I guess you just can’t trust people until the end.”

Imprints of countries

Shirtless or no, the people of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos left a positive impression on Sluder. “They aren’t afraid of other people. Americans are scared to open up. They are much more relaxed. They have a loving family lifestyle-they’re genuine, warm people,” he said.

In spite of the United States’ controversial international standing, Sluder says that being American didn’t seem to be a problem.

“They weren’t anti-American. They have a high respect for Americans. They aren’t overly concerned with U.S. politics. The only resistance I received for being American came from Europeans I met while traveling. I met some French people and one French guy said, ‘I had a feeling you were American,'” Sluder recalled. Apart from bonding with the peoples of Southeast Asia, Sluder has endless bonding stories of a different nature. He encountered animals in the rainforest, on his college campus in a small town outside Bangkok, and even in his own bed.

“One morning I woke up and pulled back the sheets, and a big, eight-inch centipede went scurrying out from under my blankets,” Sluder said.

Sluder said the centipede was awful, but he found that scorpions and millipedes are of a more benevolent nature.

“Once, a rainforest guide started sticking a stick into a hole in the ground. He pulled out a giant black scorpion, and let it crawl on his hand. He asked if anybody wanted to do likewise, and I jokingly said yes. But he took me seriously, approached me with the scorpion, and put it on my hand,” he said.

The guide told him not to make any sudden moves because the scorpion’s large, upward-curled tail was capable of inflicting great pain. But millipedes, on the other hand, don’t hurt anybody, according to Sluder, who handled millipedes of lengths of up to a foot long. “They’re like potato bugs,” he said.

Sluder said that at times his college campus seemed more like a wild animal park than a school. “There were elephants walking around campus. You could walk up and feed them. People would just be leading them around by a rope. But they would put car blinkers on their behind, and to me, that seemed like a mockery.”

The awakening

Sluder finds that he’s more laid back after having lived in Thailand. He credits his relaxed attitude to the cultures he encountered.

“I spent a night with Buddhist Monks. Buddhism, to me, seemed to be about compassion. It was about the idea that we all suffer in the sense that we’ll never be fully satisfied. It’s about not worrying about material things,” he said.

The Thai people are not like Americans in their rush to get things done in life, according to Sluder. When asked about their plans for the future, or even for the night, the Thais often respond with uncertainty. “They just take it one day at a time. It’s a simple family life. When my parents came to visit me, they had all these plans for their trip. I had to explain to them that that’s just not how things are done in Thailand. You have to go with the flow,” Sluder said.

Aside from Thais’ worry-free approach to life, Sluder fell in love with the physical beauty of the people. While volunteering in an orphanage, Sluder met a Thai woman who became his girlfriend.

“The women look almost Latin. They have big eyes and big lips. They’re very beautiful,” he said. But recognizing faces and remembering names was difficult at times, because everyone had black hair and many people had the same nickname, according to Sluder, who also found recognizing Thai words to be a challenge.

“It’s a five-tonal language. You can say ‘ma’ in five different tones and the meanings of ‘ma’ include horse, dog, come here, and mother. People would always laugh, and point at me. But it wasn’t mocking. They had a genuine enthusiasm to meet me.”

Returning to the states was meaningful for Sluder.

“It was a shock to have a car again. But after Bangkok, which is the biggest awful concrete jungle you could ever imagine, cleanliness, fresh air, being understood, and space were really nice,” he said.

Surprisingly, Sluder didn’t get sick even once during his travels. But he did catch one bug-the traveling bug.

“After this experience, all I want to do is travel. For Spring Break I’m going to Costa Rica, and in the Summer I’m doing Central America,” he said.

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