Thursday, February 5, 2015

Song of the Open Road, or, My Best Sales Pitch





I have frequently been asked some version of this question: 

“I want to go travel long-term, or live overseas- what should I do?”

While I can give you concrete answers and practical advice, websites and organizations and applications, this is not that. The details are easy to find, but sometimes what you really need is a cheering section and a push and a note to tuck in a back pocket for when your brain starts going sideways and telling you why you can't. What I offer here is a rambling anthem of encouragement, a call to leave, a humanist blessing for your journey. Often difficult and uncomfortable, with an unpredictable edge, is where I've preferred to live and travel for the past three years. I can’t recommend it enough. It forces you into things you might never have chosen, because you didn’t know the options existed. It teaches you things you didn’t plan on knowing. You become a person you didn’t know you were capable of being.

This change happens because daily, in myriads of subtle ways, you reorient to a new system of interacting with the world and the people in it. You will come to casually accept situations that would previously register as strange. A policeman lets your friend play with his gun at 3 a.m. in a bar, and your main concern is that it’s raining and you have to walk home without an umbrella at some point. Your neighborhood is on fire and you calmly pack a bag and pour into the street with hundreds of others. Upon waking to find your Russian bunkmate has pissed in your boot in the middle of the night on the first leg of the Trans-Mongolian railroad, you just laugh about it, buy a smoked fish at the next stop, and stink up the place until the piss smell is gone.  You make friends with prostitutes after dancing all night with them. When it’s too late for a tuk tuk, you don’t think twice about hitchhiking in the back of a truck to a club early in the morning hours. You see unsupervised, gleefully naked babies running down a busy street, fresh from a bath in a bucket, and you don't think to wonder where their parents are. When the Estonian guys at the postcard shop you’re in ask if you want to check out the attic to see the famous watchtower clock from the inside, you’re up those stairs, and, later, you start a dance party with them in the street for the musicians busking on the corner. Inadvertently helping a little old lady hide cigarettes and booze on the train crossing the border from Serbia to Hungary also makes friends fast.  You sit far too close to the barrels of fireworks buried in the beach at New Year’s, right under a fiery banner of stars and spiderwebs, all those flaming colors slightly hazy from the explosives that made them and could unmake you. Your friends ride home in the trunk of an embassy worker. The club you are in is raided. The TV is playing news about a military coup as you have a rowdy dinner with friends at your favorite pizza restaurant, and you brush off the news as overblown media hype. You consistently wind up in strange places with strange people but if you think about it at all you realize that you have to remind yourself why it’s strange, because at this point it seems normal.

Your new normal also means that: when the power goes out while you’re teaching you don’t even notice anymore; untended fires on the side of the road are probably fine; you reintroduce “hold on a sec, the page is loading” into your internet language; you learn how to dominate aggressive street dogs and handle a brick when needed; the statement “I have some extra de-worming tablets if you want them” is an appropriate thing to say in casual conversation. Hospitals, potable water, sidewalks, well lit streets, fire codes, regular rubbish collection, animal control- you let these things go. Sanitation standards become an unrealistic theory of the past, and restaurants that look like truck stop bathrooms are happily patronized at 3 a.m. after a night out. You gladly receive any food offered  out of a pot bubbling over an open fire,  from the dirty hands of a child in a yurt, pulled from an unidentified sack on a train,  taken off of the back of a donkey on a beach – eat it all.


Delicious homemade tofu in Cambodia. Not pictured: any kind of food safety regulations.

It’s good to decide to graciously give up your personal space and privacy, because it won’t exist anymore. Know that buying a ticket for a seat means nothing, and your lap might become a stranger’s seat, your shoulder a pillow. Sleep on strange couches or random floors, and open your home to travelers to do the same. Revert to the community space of early adolescence, slumber parties and “Can I borrow a shirt to sleep in?” and waking to lazy Sunday mornings. Rent cars or motorbikes and drive in as many countries as you can, even when you need to translate the maps through three filters of references and several writing systems to know where the hell you are going. 


Somewhere in the mountains around Christmas, celebrating having taught myself tor read Greek via Google maps. There was some trial and error. 

Hold any baby when he or she is given to you (this will happen), smiling nicely for the inevitable picture that follows. If there is water in which to swim, swimming is always an option, regardless of the absence of towels or bathing suits. Devote time to aimless city wandering, purposefully trying to get lost, walking down unfamiliar streets, figuring out maps and finding landmarks. Climb everything unless you are explicitly forbidden to do so. If the trains stop running at one a.m. and start running again at 5 a.m., you choose to stay out until 5 a.m. when it’s time to make that choice. Always check random doors on interesting buildings, abandoned or otherwise, just to see if you can go in. Related- when rowdy Balkan gypsy music comes spilling out of a basement stairway and crosses your path on a random Sunday afternoon, you go down that stairway. And above all else, if there is music, you are dancing- no excuses about sunshine or sobriety allowed.


Estonia was a real good time, y'all.

When you get wherever you are going, remember you can do whatever you want. Leave before you planned on leaving if you don’t want to stay. Stay longer than you thought you would if you don’t want to go.  Write things down- you will forget them, even if you think you won’t. Speaking of, take the time to send postcards home whenever you can. You’ve held them in your hands and they went from you to the people you were thinking of when you were far away from them. That means a great deal, because wherever you go in this world you came from somewhere first, and that point is what anchors you while you roam. What it means to be anchored to that point will change. 




As to timing, and plans, and organizing-  make a budget you cling to amorously, write a letter of resignation if you want to leave for good, make a rough wishlist of the things you want to experience or see or do, pick a date to leave, and set your face irrevocably to that day.  “Someday maybe I’d like to possibly” has never been a date in this world of time, so it will never happen, I assure you. 

A word about traveling companions: ask people to go with you, if you want, but be ready for a no or, worse, an endless hedging, hazy, sometime maybe promise with no heft. Know when to stop waiting for those sometime maybe promises.  Any companion who would join you will join you emphatically, with a heavy commitment you can pick up and test for strength and durability. If you find yourself with a date to face and no partner with which to face it, don’t worry- anyone who doesn’t join you at the beginning of your trip is already on the road, waiting to be found.  You'll find them along the way, just like I found my people.

Post baptism in a mud lake in Vang Vieng, Laos


Serbians know how to party.

Albania is another universe, but they still have watermelons.

No one costumes as hard as we Halloween

We Christmas pretty well, too.

I want to end by talking about ending, specifically, dying, and the fact that, even as I write this, and even as you read this, we’re both, ever so slowly, but most definitely, dying.  To that inevitable destination of dust we travel in this outrageously miraculous concoction of bones and flesh, and for most of us, it’s a healthy home and excellent mode of transportation for many years.


I got here in my body! 

But don’t take that for granted. 

One day you will hopefully be very old, but you will also move slowly, and your bones will ache, and you will be frequently tired and need things like doctors and hospitals nearby, and loved ones who check in on you to make sure you are Okay, the capital O signifying that this is a synonym for “hasn’t died yet, because at this point dying would not be a surprise.” That time is not now, but it is coming for all of us, and it’s running fast although you won’t be doing anything very fast when it gets here. It might come even faster in the form of cancer or a car wreck or any other number of things that can befall a human being in the course of being a human. 


Me + everything I own + a very appropriate sign outside of a hostel.

I promise on everything I own (which isn’t much at all, but I’m including my mind full of stories and my heart full of memories of all I’ve known so far, and that is quite valuable to me) that this will work. You’ll make it work because you’ll have to, as long as you’re willing to have no attachments to enduring definitions of what making it work means. Define right expansively, and wrong narrowly, and find yourself surrounded by right as a result. It’s handy to take control of the definitions that way. 

You’re always right in going and doing something if the only defining characteristic of being wrong is not going and doing something.

So go.

Just go.

That’s what you should do.



Friday, January 30, 2015

A Weekend in Albania

I found this tonight in my journals from Albania. I had almost forgotten about this weekend. This is why I write things down...
_________________________________________________________________________________

Dec 2012

Last night there was a get together at my apartment (actually, our apartment, now that my roommate, Malwine, has moved in). A handful of us gathered together around some homemade cookies- Bobby’s recipe, so he was there in spirit. Malwine had made them earlier, with us watching through the oven glass and curled up against it for the warmth. I’m not ashamed to admit that we meowed like cats at one point, mocking the fact that we were this excited to feel warmth. Drinks and an electric heater rounded out the amenities, and soon friends were trickling in out of the cold.

We lounged on the couches, leaning in close towards the heater and talking about pointless things, unwinding from the week, eating cookies and crackers and swapping drinks to taste. A two liter Coke bottle filled with raki sat in the middle of the coffee table: from the contents to the recycled receptacle, it was truly a perfect centerpiece for a gathering in Albania. Tiara and Joe eventually headed out with Malwine and her friend, Katarina, to scope out the live music on hand at Tirana Ekspres. Kevin, Scott, Robert, and I stayed together for a bit longer, discussing the inadvertently political work landscape in which we found ourselves, and considering the merits of a local blog consisting of pictures of Tirana's dumpsters.

Once the cookies had been eaten down into a shape occupying less space, a candle was added to the baking sheet, allowed to drip onto the parchment paper.  It was far from late but had been dark for hours, and between the wine and the cold and the rain we found ourselves dozing. Kevin drained his last glass of wine- from a peanut butter jar, repurposed, like the Coke bottle- and headed out for home, leaving just us neighbors. Scott wasn’t long for this world, and somehow summoned the fortitude to walk the 6 steps from my door to his with Robert’s help. I stayed up a bit longer, curled up by the heater, and Skyped with Bobby before taking my turn to crawl in to bed.


This morning, Scott woke me up with a knock on the door. He was fully dressed and ready for the day, and I was bedheaded and bleary eyed. This is a common theme. We had decided last night over cookies and raki that a full on pancake breakfast was in order, and prep work was already in full swing.

Teamwork

Tiara soon came up the stairs, bearing ingredients for pancakes, and Scott and Robert drifted off to New Grocery Store to procure a bottle of Bailey’s for the coffee. Malwine was showering, I was googling pancake recipes, and Tiara was scoping out pots and pans and mixing bowls. The boys came back bearing bacon, Bailey’s, eggs, and fresh bread- still warm, and wrapped in brown wax paper. Music playing, with our apartment doors open to our short bridge of a hallway, we cooked on both stoves so that we could enjoy having everything finished and hot at the same time. Malwine set the table while I sliced bananas, and Tiara continued to pour and flip and plate pancake after chocolate chip pancake. 



The internet predictably went out at this point, so I switched over from 8tracks to iTunes and queued up Radiohead as we all sat down to eat. The bowls and pans were passed, our plates were filled, and the food was thoroughly enjoyed. 

Tiara said that it felt like Christmas morning. I looked at everyone around me and couldn’t believe that I was lucky enough to be at a table with them.


I’m filled with gratitude for the freedom I have in my day to day life, and all the things that make it possible. I live in a place where I can nonchalantly and realistically say things like “If I’m not in Kosovo this weekend….” or “Should we go to Greece or Montenegro for winter break?” or “That weekend in Macedonia was amazing”. 

Despite my short time here, impromptu social gatherings easily materialize, with little planning or effort. The pace of my evenings and weekends is exactly what I choose to make of it, from laid back naps and books after work to dinner and dancing or weekend road trips. I sleep in as I choose, I stay up late when I want, I go out to eat or cook elaborate meals, and I get to do it all while traveling and teaching and spending time with amazing people. 

I like living organically, with the ability to say yes when I want to do something and no when I don’t want to, with the flexibility to change my mind at the last minute for a new plan. It seems so simple, but that’s a luxury many people don’t have. I’m trying not to take it for granted. I’m trying to be aware of what a privilege it is.

It’s cold and rainy, and my bed is warm, and I’m going to sleep without setting an alarm so I can enjoy a morning of sleeping in. Nothing I just wrote really captures what I want to say, but it comes close to catching the sides of this feeling I can’t wrap my hands around.


Life is good.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

So Many Homes in So Many People



Traveling and living as I have been the last few years has meant that I have experienced some of the most intense and randomly wonderful connections I’ve ever had. People can come into my life for even a few hours, maybe just a few days, but they change me irrevocably. We share stories and pour our lives out into each other and talk about things as easily as if we had known one another for years. We split taxis and tuk tuks, dinners and drinks; we give advice and listen and wipe tears and give hugs and encouragement. We laugh until we can’t breathe and stop in the middle of it and look at each other in wonder and say we are so glad to have met! We are filled with joy at one another’s ventures and adventures and misadventures; we fiercely love each other’s plans and hopes and we want to protect them as if they were our own. We travel next to one another as strangers but walk in an intimacy that springs up as easily as turning a key in a lock. We work with one another, live next to each other, share our lives and build a family within the bookends of a teaching contract. It is the very best of the human experience of falling in with your people, seeing them for who they are, knowing they will be good to and for you, and knowing you can be good to and for them. I have found pieces of me in other people because they have shown me things I didn’t know I had inside of myself.

And then, as is inevitable, they leave or I leave.  They slip out of my life as easily as they have come, a bird held in my hand for a moment before it darts off again into the sky. Just like that, all of who they are and were to me is gone and I know my only reasonable expectation is that they are gone forever.

It does feel abrupt; it’s a suddenly violent absence, regardless of the length of shared time, hours or months. One moment you are mixed up in the heady magic of human connection, of reveling in these people around you, counting your lucky stars that your paths crossed, and the next moment their path or yours jumps off on its own and it’s almost, almost as if they were never there. In the solitude after you sit with a heavy nostalgia so large that it feels like a traveling partner you picked up to replace the people you just left.

It hurts. I would never say it doesn’t.

I am terribly sentimental about humans, and I love them dearly- their mannerisms, their ideas, their faces, their voices, the things they want to be and do. If my friends all over the world could know how often my thoughts turn to them, if they could feel them when they come out of me, they would never have reason to feel alone or unloved in this life. I adore them, and it’s not too strong a word. When I find my people, I mean it.

But they leave. But I leave. So why do it at all? What is the point in these connections with end dates? Is it just so much churning to produce nothing? Why pour so much energy into something I don’t get to keep? Why do they do the same to me?

It’s because loving other humans isn’t about keeping them. Caring about someone, building a friendship with them, this is not a cage. It is not a leash or a collar you put on another person. It’s simply not contingent on their staying. Companionship is not a contract or a condition of terms. It’s given and taken freely because in the end the only thing we have to give one another is our humanity at the highest level of good we can give it, and the only thing we can freely take is the same when it is offered to us. All of these leavings of wonderful people who have slipped in and out of my life, binding me to them like a running stitch, has confirmed to me that this life is filled, absolutely overflowing, with the best people- with an inexhaustible army of them, in fact. As one leaves my side I can be sure that they will continue to travel on and others will meet them and, like me, will appreciate who they are and what they give and others will give to them as I have. And new people will come into my life and it will start all over again. When I think of it on a large scale, I imagine us all criss-crossing the world connected to each other, all these shining strands. It never stops, as we travel on down our respective and far flung roads, weaving a pulsing, beating, breathing thing, a sprawling web of connections made. I wonder who is coming down the road towards me next. I wonder who I am moving down the road towards at the moment. I am excited for what I will learn, what I will teach, what I will take, what will be taken from me.

The world has never felt so expansive or so small, so simultaneously. I feel both knitted together in a small tribe with these people, and I feel blown to pieces and expanded infinitely by how many more of them are out there. The ever expanding potential of human connection is eternity to me. That is what I believe in. The ability to change and be changed is ever present. It is an irreplaceable treasure and comfort to realize with conviction, based on experience, that everywhere in this world I have traveled there have been people there with whom I belonged. Wherever I head next, others are waiting for me, and I for them. It makes me know with certainty that, in places I have never been and will perhaps never see, there are others with whom I belong. I am a part of this, whatever this is, and I have much to give and much to learn. I am enamored with the truth of that. It is a light inside of me regardless of anything else that falters.


So I will always embrace the hello, knowing the goodbye curled inside of it, welcoming the leaving that begins as soon as the beginning happens. I’ll see you when you get here. I’ll find you when I get there. We’ll know each other when the time comes. 

Tomorrow I Start to Finish

A visual representation of life in Laos. Although this was taken across the river, in Thailand. Same same but different.

During undergrad and my first master's degree, I worked full time and went to school full time, maintaining a scholarship during the former and volunteering an obscene amount of time during the latter. I also filled in any spare moments with gallivanting, socializing, and, during my master's, I managed to pay off almost $20,000 in debt while making about $35K a year and wringing every bit of fun I could out of Dallas, Texas. I was a freak of productivity nature, without even trying it seemed. I just did it. Yes, I was a spectacular procrastinator, but that's nothing new. It was fairly easy to be breakneck, constantly busy. It was normal to be occupied from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m., almost every day. I just killed everything in my path and kept on going.

And then I went back to school for this, my current master's degree, in education. 

What happened to me?

I started this program in 2011-2012, with my internship year. I was supposed to finish my master's in 2012-2013, in Albania. That didn't happen. Last year, 2013-2014, I planned on finishing. That... didn't happen. I had my reasons, big shitty life reasons, on top of personal issues and illness, but still. I find myself staring down the barrel of this, my last semester, and I see that it is 20effing15, and I am pretty disappointed in myself that I am STILL doing this. 

I start tomorrow on my last semester. I am inordinately terrified that I am not going to finish. I was wrecked with pneumonia for a month last semester and still pulled that off, so I'm not sure why I am so nervous, but it's there.

Actually, I know exactly why I am nervous- I am so tired of going to school, and that exhaustion is insidious, and it is more powerful than what I thought was my all powerful drive to Get Things Done. I want to spend my time reading and writing and belly dancing and weight lifting and seeing friends and finding new music on YouTube and reading cool blogs and news articles and studying Lao and being a prolific pen pal and Skype date. I want to research trips and watch dance videos and apply for weird jobs and read poetry and sprawl on my bed at 3 p.m. for naps sometimes, because Sunday. I am so frustrated with myself for how long I have dragged out this degree. I cannot wait until it is finished. Come June, I'll have two master's degrees, and one of them will actually be worth something! Excellent.

Other than that, I'm feeling a major amount of pressure in other ways related to these last months here in Laos. I've sketched out some ambitious personal and financial goals for myself, on top of the priority of finishing grad school. I know what I want to accomplish, and I know what I need to do, but again, a part of me is worried I won't do it. These last two years in Laos have been something of a surprise, deal with it! detour for me- they were not planned, but it was the path I found myself on and the wheels were set in motion, and the logical course was to continue. I have gained so much from living and working here, but at the same time I have fallen into a kind of easy rhythm. My drive, my unending energy for fulfilling obligations and pursuing goals, has been significantly diminished in the face of endless weekends and lazy days and a general culture that values slow and laid back. It's a singular and isolated world here in this dusty little river village, and it can crawl inside you a bit and tell you to just rest. Just sit under this palm tree with a mango shake and rest. It's hard because it's a developing country, but in terms of external pressures to Do Things... not so much. That's well and good sometimes, but I can feel that it's time to be in a place that puts a bit more pressure on me. I need a push sometimes, and Laos is a sleepy side hug in a hammock. It's been lovely, but there is a limit. I needed to come back for this second year. I need to leave at the end of it. 

And so I have about 5 months to accomplish a hell of a lot of things. To do this I need to change basically everything about the way I've been living the past year and a half. I am grateful for the break, for the breather, for the experience of not giving a shit about being so productive and on my game for a bit, but I know that it's time to gear back up, to focus, and to start planning for the next venture. For that I need funds, and organization, and at least something of a plan. 

I have to remember all the crazy things I have accomplished under intensely difficult circumstances. Compared to many things I have done, my plans for the next 5 months are not that hard. Compared to what I've been doing the past year and a half, they seem pretty daunting. I feel like I've been sedated for my own good, to heal up and rest and recover, and now I'm coming out of it and need to start learning to do things again. This is perhaps the most accurate way to describe it. The rest was necessary, but now I feel out of shape for what I need to do. It's time to get to work. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Right Now in Laos: Backpacking Detritus, Much Needed Showers, and Planning Sessions

Meet Martin and Erica. We had great times making train curtain Vogue fashion shoots on the night train. I tried to convince Martin he'd make a great living as a prostitute in Bangkok. I reveled about solo travel with Erica as we gave each other "that's right, girl" eye high fives from her upper bunk to my lower bunk. I'll never see them again.

I knew exactly what I was doing when I went hard and booked a homecoming night train for Saturday. Rolling into Vientiane on a dusty Sunday morning less than 24 hours before I had to return to work, after 16 days of not working, is not normally my style. I like to give a bit of a buffer/comedown section to my vacation, where I check my wounds and my bank account and do laundry and reflect on what I just did and ease back into Teacher Style. Not this time. I wanted to wring everything I could out of this vacation. I am wrung. I am out. I am not quite Teacher Style yet. Mostly because all of my teacher clothes are dirty.


Meet Scott. Erica, Martin, and I all piled on his bunk while the cabin attendant made up our beds, before any of us knew each other's names. And then we had that train curtain photo shoot you saw above. I crawled into my bunk and listened to Scott talk about his plans while he picked Koh Phangan out of his beard. I fell asleep as he was talking and didn't see him in the morning to even say goodbye and thank you for the bedtime story. On down the track.

The last two days I've been in a daze, head swimming with possibilities, plans, and a fiercely focused motivation I haven't felt in years. But please be assured, that motivation is entirely within the intimate parameters of the inside of my skull, and does not in any way bleed out into my day to day life at this point. I haven't showered since Sunday night and it's Tuesday night, my backpack is flayed open and bleeding clothes all over my floor, my clean laundry that was rejected for the trip prior to my leaving is still lounging on my couch, water bottles and medicine bottles and errant socks and splayed open books skitter across my floor, and crumpled receipts and ticket stubs and notes speak to people and places that I just met and went to and already feel so far away. I am in the middle of this wreck, posted up at my kitchen table, one leg up and one leg down, stretching and working on my splits while I bang this pointless thing out. I should be cleaning, folding, hanging things, doing laundry, picking through all of those stubs and notes, but instead I'm researching those plans rolling around in my head, listening to music, ignoring how tired I am and how much I want to go to bed at 6:24, right this moment.

I wanna get with this, but I wish it looked like this at the moment. Get yourself together, apartment. I know we've been together almost two years, but try a little, damn...

My kids were an absolute dream the past two days and I'm reminded that I love them, truly. I'm finishing up my first Virginia Woolf book and the way she writes about the complexities of human interactions and thoughts is so perfect. On the ride to work today I realized with a start that my motorbike is slowly falling apart under me, surreptitiously, cautiously, but the rot is there and it's unavoidable and today I started thinking of ways to buy a motorbike I can actually take with me somewhere at the end of this contract. My motorbike is actually a solid model, but I had a vacation fling that has me wandering.

Okay, it's not really fair towards my dependable and steady motorbike, but I got distracted by this little hot pink chick in Krabi and all I can think about is glitter paint flashing in the sun and tight brakes and new tires. I'm only human.


I'm making some lists and schedules and budgets, and they look so nice all black on white and reflected off my laptop, and I hope they feel as nice to live as they look to read. If all knits together like I think it will, I'll be a very happy cat come June. Tomorrow is my first day back to belly dance and I can't wait. I'm researching training programs for weight lifting and aerial conditioning. I'm thinking of places I can hang a silk or a rope and practice dragging my ass up and down it until it's effortless. I'm imagining motorbike trips on weekends and friends coming to visit and more Lao lessons and reading  and writing as much as I can while I'm in one spot. I have big plans for my classes, pen pals to write back, pictures to sort through, Skype calls to make, grad school to register for, and lots of phone calls to make for financial things.

But right now I am dirty, sweaty, tired, and happily being lazy and forgetting all of what I need to do. That desire for sleep right this moment is pushing back on me and I'm giving in. The windows in my little corner kitchen are open and the fan is whispering dust into the air. The palm trees are curling green into each other, crowding their hands into the window and then fluttering back out again. I have a cold shower calling my name with fresh towels and a clean bed to crawl into with wet hair afterwards, with the palm trees sliding their curling green against the pane all night long until the birds wake me up with sunshine and another day.

I won't be long here. 6 months is a blink.

Monday, January 5, 2015

I Have Heard What the Talkers Were Talking

When you listen to people talk about their dreams, you see one of two things:

There are the bright eyed ones who you just know, I mean know, will do it. They share their plans not for validation, or approval, but out of sheer bursting desire to talk about this excellent thing they have built inside themselves, this thing that powers them on down the road, that leads them into often uncertain paths. The physical presence of their commitment is so much that, as they talk of their plan and the next move, you almost feel as though it were a partner, a flesh and blood person sitting next to them, nodding and murmuring along. It feels real, like a happiness you can clasp to yourself and admire before handing it back to them and saying good luck, you'll be great. The other side is the storyteller- the territory of the tentative, a squinty maybe. It's a well told, cold statement with no blood in it; you get the feeling it's been said a lot, the way it rolls off the tongue. And that's the problem. It's been said a lot. Said. Talked about. Mentioned. Brought up at random intervals. But talking isn't doing. The practiced art of the story of the idea, that's the hint, that's the clue- it's never, ever going to happen. They will be telling that story, that future "someday I will..." potential plan until they get too old to do it. And then they will never tell that story again, because they will be too filled with regret to be able to talk about the time when they were young and free and healthy, and had This Thing they Wanted to Do, but they never did it. So it wasn't done. And it never would be.

It's no impossibility, you and I and they can make these stories real, but that's the point- you have to make them real. That's the jump, and it's where most people, absolutely myself included, stay standing on the shore, content to tell the story, to trot it out as small talk introductory fodder at parties, or with friends when they get drunk and want to talk about dreams, or as an imaginary fallback they can grasp for security, an empty threat to shout into the wind when things get almost hard enough to motivate them to do it. It's not doing them any favors. It's never done me any favors. It's a lie you tell yourself about some future shining day when This Thing you want to do will be Done. But why do you want it, and will you ever do it? I am asking myself the same questions, trust me. My own frustration with my choices is at the base of this.

I've realized that I have to unilaterally, unabashedly, and without regret give up on what I'm not going to do. I'm not going to waste my time stroking a story of a dream that will never be real. Life is short and the world is large. There are things I wanted to do that I haven't done yet and now I won't be able to do them. Oh well. I can't do them, but I can do something else. As long as I am actually doing something, I'll be fine. My God, but regret is heavy. I can put it down. I don't have to make a mistake twice. I don't need to tell ghost stories about dead things- it's not going to happen. Let it go.

This trip, maybe more than any other so far, changed me. I can't say why:  it wasn't terribly earth shattering culturally, I didn't go far, I've backpacked far longer in far more remote places, Thailand is a familiar neighbor at this point. But something about this time in Thailand shook me up. I've been complacent here in Laos. It's been good for me, but I feel it in my bones, in every bit of me, that it is time to roll on down the track. Security, stability, contentment- I have that here. But I've grown dependent on it to the detriment of other aspects of my life, and myself.

I gave a lot of advice on this trip. All of it boomeranged right back to me and hit me in the chest with an accusatory "And what about YOU?" It's hard truth and it's undeniable. I've checked out a bit the last two years, licking wounds and swimming in grief and doubting what I was doing. Life was harder than I thought my life would ever be, so I took easier paths than I ever would have before. I fucked up easy things. I neglected important things. I made bad decisions and terrible mistakes. It was all necessary and I own it all without shame. I went through it; I came out the other side with pieces missing, with things in my possession I didn't want. I'm sifting through that now, and it's a long job. I'm thankful to all the people I've met along the way who laid the groundwork to get me to these realizations.

I don't know exactly what I want to do next, but I know what I don't want to be doing, and that's as good as the former being certain. I am ready for whatever happens next. I am okay not knowing what that is. I'd rather say I don't know than tell a sweet story that will never be real.



I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the
     beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.


There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Walt Whitman

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Highs and Lows of Solo Travel

So right now, I’m on vacation, and I’m sitting alone at a Starbucks in southern Thailand waiting out a rainstorm, the power has gone out again, and I am hating traveling and wanting a home I don’t even have.

This is what you’re not supposed to say about traveling, or traveling alone. Everyone wants to hear the stories of meeting random people who are amazing, of falling into crazy situations, of getting your claws in experiences that yield stories that taste sweet no many how many times you tell them.  Yes, I’ve had that on this trip in spades, and in the years I’ve spent living and traveling overseas, I’ve had more joy and revelation than I ever thought I could have or deserve. These are the times where I felt like everything was slowed down like movement in amber and I could see the life going out of me and crystallizing into that moment to make that memory live forever as a touchstone of why I do these things. I crave my solitude and freedom and hours spent in thought alone on buses and trains and planes fill me with joy as I sit anticipating what awaits me around the corner in the next country/hostel/city/party. I can't believe it's my life. Most of the time. 

But the truth is that there is a trade- off, and it’s often a big one. The highs are really high, like outrageously silly high to the point where it feels like you are living in a movie starring your invincible, pulsing self shooting through life like a glorious comet. And then there are lows when you find yourself sitting alone at a Starbucks, hating traveling, and your big stupid strappy backpack, and hostels filled with other backpackers, and the constant churning growl of plane engines and train engines and bus engines, the searching for passports and locker keys and checkout times, trading colored paper for more colored paper when an imaginary line renders them useless, heading into each new place with a new burst of MAKE FRIENDS ENERGY! And sometimes, shitty things happen and you have no one with whom to commiserate, or from whom to get reassurance, or even help. 

Like last night.

The day before yesterday I was ending an excellent week spent between Phuket Town and Patong Beach. Circus school, city wandering, beach lounging, dancing, late nights, interesting people, two great hostels, hilarious banter- I had it all in spades. I was riding a wave of travel magic as I have so many times before. This came on the tails of a great start off in Bangkok with random connection and interactions that filled me with happiness that I was once again traveling, and traveling alone. It was incredible.

Yesterday I left the group of people I met in Patong to head off to a new adventure. I left them all at the beach before taking an hour long open local bus through the hills to Phuket Town. Then I waited for two hours before getting on an enormous, 1980s looking bus that barreled through thunderstorms and mountains, narrowly avoiding killing us several times, whether from hydroplaning around sharp curves and fishtailing back into place, or almost colliding with a logging truck while passing a car on a hill. We ended up on the side of a Thai highway- no, not, thankfully, in a wreck, but, unfortunately, at what passed for the bus stop. There was nothing distinguishing this patch of highway from any other, but somehow it was the bus stop, out in the middle of nowhere. I had booked, so I thought, a bus that went all the way to my destination, Krabi. No, no it did not. It actually went to Trang, a town I had never heard of, which made sense when I was dropped there at 9:30 in the evening- it’s not much to speak of, for sure. The bus, due to the thunderstorms, was delayed an hour and a half, and by the time I got to my “bus stop” there were no taxis to be found. The bus attendant dumped my bag on the side of the road, told me to look for a tuk tuk, and then left unceremoniously, without so much as a second glance back. I stood there, alone, under a weak yellow street lamp with my backpack on, sweating in spite of the night. I had left my water bottle in the bus station bathroom when I left, but I had assumed that I could get more at the bus stop. Clearly I could not.  I thought of my friends in Patong, who were either lounging in the hostel or at the cocktail bar dancing in the street, or perhaps already on the beach at night, talking while people set off lanterns over the water and fireworks burst off and on. I felt very, very alone.

With nothing else to be done, I stood and waited about 20 minutes on the side of this deserted highway in a random town in Thailand which looked for all the world like an abandoned meth town in New Mexico. There were no stores, barely any traffic going past, I had no cell phone service, and I had no idea what to do. So I start walking down the road, having a vague idea from the gesticulations of the bus attendant that Krabi was further on. The road splits. Cool, I don’t know, I’m walking a highway in rural Thailand alone, let’s go right. After a while a tuk tuk comes barreling out of nowhere, humid fog glowing eerily in the headlights, rattling and wheezing along the road with difficulty. I am alone on the side of the road with just a backpack and no one knows where I am. I am not feeling so intrepid or invincible anymore. The driver pulls up and his eyes are sliding different ways. Yabba, Chang Beer, who can say what he’s taken, but he’s not all there in any way that would give me confidence in his driving. He tells me 30 minutes, 600 baht, and I am somewhat relieved to see a license number on his windshield. It’s that or waiting for another random tuk tuk, after who knows how long, so I get in.  I pretend to call a friend on my phone that doesn’t work, as some sort of insurance that the driver will get me there since “someone is waiting for me”.

The next 30 minutes I spend clinging to the side of the tuk tuk as we charge down dark roads, the axle of the tuk tuk rattling to the point where we are rocking wildly. Everything is a maze of dark pavement and every moment I’m wondering if we’re going to turn off in the jungle and I’ll slip out of this world, when suddenly we are out of pitch black side highways, and a town blossoms light and street signs out of the darkness right in front of me. I’m here, I’m safe, I will not be found mangled in the ditch. Excellent. I need wi-fi to get my hostel address, so I ask the tuk tuk driver to drop me at a Starbucks, which seems, after the hours of transit I just had, like some kind of symbol of salvation via civilization. When I arrive, the hostel is quiet because it’s late on a random Sunday. I try not to compare it to where I just was. I go downstairs and put on a big friendly Texas smile despite being tired and sweaty and stressed after walking Thai highways. I am rewarded with four friendly new faces and an invite to go to a party on the beach. Yes. Yes is the only living thing. I’m in a tuk tuk again, in totally different spirits and circumstances, and I dance for hours on the beach under the stars with these people who took me in and took me out for no reason other than that I was staying in the same place. Things will change as they always do.

So, given that, here’s what might not make sense when I say it, but it’s true- I do this just as much for these exact kind of lows as for the highs I had a mere 12 hours before. I try to remind myself that no matter how low I get when traveling, no matter how often I hit a wall of dammit, I cannot, I just CANNOT, there is always another high around the corner. Always. I never leave a trip without an experience that I could not imagine having lived without, and that is worth all the random Starbucks corners on rainy afternoons where I allow myself to slide into a self-pity wallow, looking for the first plane ticket home, only even that isn’t home, because Laos is just where I am now, and I don’t know where I’ll be next. It’s not stable, it’s often not kind, it’s usually hard in some frustrating way, but you earn every shred of that investment back and then some when it all comes together and you’re back on the right side of things.

I mean it when I say I’ll take all the empty highways and loneliness in the world for the postcard shop in Estonia, or the hostel in Bosnia, or couchsurfing with friends in Poland, or training aerial silks at the Lao National Circus after meeting a backpacker at a local bar, or taking a spontaneous road trip up into the mountains where the US embassy says you shouldn’t go, or dancing all night in Serbia to wild music, or riding horses across Mongolia, or a crazy NYE in Bangkok at a brand new hostel none of us knew anything about when we booked it. It feels good to stand in those moments and know that you could have given up so many times before but you didn’t, and because you didn’t, your perseverance was more than rewarded. I love the way I am living now, but it can be hard, and stressful, and the reality is that I can’t do it forever, and I don’t want to be doing it when I’m older. I want to do it, and so I have to do it now. I am grateful to be able to and I welcome every abandoned highway that gets me further down the road of these experiences I want to have.

I am reminding myself to be patient. I can wait out the rain. It’s just a rest. The sun will be drying my face and my hair soon enough, and then it’s on to the next.


Post-edit: Two hours after I wrote that, I fell in with an amazing group of people. For the next three days we had more fun than I had initially thought would be possible in that town, and one of my fondest memories of this entire trip is the day we rented motorbikes, used a shitty tourist map, and drove all over the area down gorgeous two lane roads cutting through perfect green everywhere, before ending up at the best beach I’ve ever seen. High again.