Friday, September 18, 2015

When Are You Coming Home?

It's been three months since my last day of work in Laos. On Saturday morning I woke up in Czech Republic. Saturday afternoon I arrived in Munich to make my final stop in Germany. Monday afternoon I said farewell to the friend I met in Berlin and traveled with in Prague; we missed each other in Vienna and after Munich he was heading to (still undecided at the time of this writing) and I was on the way back to Switzerland. Tuesday morning I got on the bus from Munich to Zurich, and now, Wednesday morning, I am on the train bound for Milan. Five days, four countries- not my usual style, but it sounds more hectic than it really was.

Home sweet home on my back

Even as I sit here on this train and type that paragraph, and even though I have been doing this for three years now, it still seems totally surreal. I never dreamed of doing this when I was growing up. I can’t say that, as a high school student in Brookesmith, Texas, I had these plans of working overseas and backpacking and conscious homelessness and owning only what I could carry and taking whatever jobs came my way in whichever country happened to offer them. I had no idea that this kind of thing was even possible. Even when I went to Japan, 22 years old, just graduated, wanting a bit of adventure after not being able to study abroad during university, I saw it as My Year Abroad- that one time I did that one thing. Sure, I sold or gave away all my things except keepsakes and clothes, I had no car or pans or sofa to return to, but I knew I was going to return. The year in Japan I collected souvenirs so I could decorate the apartment I would get when I was finished with Japan. Everything I did held the importance of being the first and last time I would have that kind of experience. Or at least that’s how it started.

Up in the air, about an hour from my apartment in Toyama

As the months racked up, I started thinking, somewhere in the back of my brain, that I wanted to stay. Not in Japan, necessarily, but I wanted to stay out. I wanted to keep traveling. I had bumped into backpackers that year here and there, had met people in hostels, had talked to co-workers who were saving up to travel Thailand and Vietnam and Cambodia after our contract. I really liked teaching; maybe I would keep doing it? My best girl, Jess, was living in Tokyo and had already started her side business of private tutoring. She had an apartment, and did I want to come at the end of my contract and live with her? Yes, yes I did. My last two months in Japan I was tortured with two conflicting desires: the wish to see my family, to go home, to reunite, to not be gone so long and be so guilty for it, and the wish to move to Tokyo with Jess, work, save, and travel. I applied to programs in Thailand and was accepted. I researched volunteering in India and had more than enough money to do it. South Korea looked nice, Singapore maybe? I applied for a job in Tokyo and the next day it was offered to me- $45 an hour, 25 hours a week. I was 23 years old, no kids/mortgage/marriage, nothing to keep me from saying yes, I wanted to say yes, and instead, I said no to all of it and came home.

Goodbye, land of udon and print club photo booths

The reason? I had this idea that Japan wasn’t my Real Life. And I had the expectation that I needed to start my Real Life, and staying in Japan would somehow be cheating, deferring, stepping out. After years and years of working to get things like school clothes and cheerleading uniforms and my first car and to pay my way through college, working full time and going to school full time, keeping scholarships and three jobs, things in Japan felt too easy. I was only working full time- nothing else. I was making more money than I knew what to do with, even servicing debt back home and saving while traveling. I had never planned on being a teacher, I just happened to become one, and I liked it- and something about how easy, how unplanned, how smooth it all was felt so foreign to me that I didn’t know how to just accept it. The guilt I felt at living overseas, so far away from my family, was another factor. And finally, I had no template for the reality that it was actually a viable life plan to live and work overseas just because you could and you wanted to, so you should. So instead I came home.

I know I wasn’t the best person to be around when I returned home from Japan. My family and friends graciously put up with my reverse culture shock and what I am sure might have seemed like ridiculous homesickness for a place I had only lived for one year, but they seemed to understand that it was more than Japan, it was about wanting to get back out and do more traveling like that. I was unemployed, living with my father, living off of the bonus I got at the end of my contract, feeling simultaneously ecstatic to reunite with family and friends and miserable every time I talked to Jess and heard stories about Tokyo. I knew as soon as I got home that I should have stayed, but at that point I was also stubborn- I was going to make this work.

I made a plan to pay off my debt, get my master’s degree, save up some money, and leave in 2-3 years. I ended up staying double that before I left again, and I have no regrets at all looking back on the 6 years I spent in America before going back overseas. I would never have reconciled with my sister, or spent as much time with my Great Granny, before both of them died. I know that a part of me would have been irrevocably damaged had I not had that time with my sister- the conversations and experiences we shared after I came home were sometimes the only thing that could get me through those first few months without her. Thinking of going through that without the peace of our understanding is something I can’t imagine. I met some of my best friends in those 6 years, and reinforced my relationships with people I had known in college and high school. I met Bobby, who was there for me through the hardest times I’ve ever had and who also supported me in achieving so much, and who is still a great friend to me to this day. I volunteered on political campaigns, served as an elected official, and was a delegate to the state convention. I picked up yoga and became a much healthier person. I started writing much more. I earned two master’s degrees, I became a licensed teacher and discovered a career I love. I traveled all over the U.S., and I made countless memories and connections with my family and with friends.

No complaints about stateside travel here

But the fact still remains that when I came home from Japan I was absolutely, not in any way, finished with working and living overseas. It felt cut short, because it was. The break gave me so much, and I wouldn’t change it. It does mean, however, that I do still have all of this in me that wants to, and needs to, keep going. So that’s why I am where I am at the moment. I spent a summer backpacking to get to Albania, lived a year there, spent a summer backpacking to get to Laos, lived two years there, and now I’m spending a very long summer (I mean, it’s not even summer anymore, let’s be real) backpacking to get to somewhere I don’t know I’m going. I don’t know how long I’ll be there when I get there. I just know, for sure, I’m not finished yet.

I for sure need to make a return trip to Mongolia...

And Estonian islands desperately need more exploring

As a child, a teenager, and even a young adult, I didn’t have the imagination to know that living and working and traveling this way was even possible- I didn’t know anyone who had done it. American culture doesn’t have gap years like European countries, we have loads of student loan debt and very little vacation and a huge country bordered by only two other countries and two enormous oceans. Traveling and working overseas the last three years I have met people between 18-65 who are doing outrageous things on very little money, simply because they saved up, they wanted it, and they are doing it. Growing up in America we have so little contact with this kind of travel, and we don’t know that it’s possible- we aren’t aware of just how cheap it is, how heartbreakingly cheap it can be, to pack a bag and go. If we do want to travel, still, we get locked into our student loans, and then jobs right after college, or car payments, or mortgages, or any other manner of other things. I keep wishing that the gap year culture would take root in America. I can’t think of anything better than telling a teenager to save up during high school so that he or she can spend awhile wandering, exploring, backpacking, maybe working odd jobs, and just seeing the world without having to cram it into the two weeks of vacation we are lucky to get if that.

This little Cortney could have benefited from a year or two of wandering before college

If anyone is reading this and they take nothing else from it, I hope they take this- it’s never too late to do this if you want to do it, people are doing it at every age, and you can do it for as long or as short as you want. It’s also understandable if the thought of living out of a backpack for three months sounds like a really shitty plan and you’d prefer to have your house and garden and family nearby.
In the end you have to choose. I am choosing, for the moment, to be transient. I feel secure in this choice, however, because I built such strong connections and roots back home in the states. I have my family in Texas, the place where I lived almost all of the first 29 years of my life. I have friends I have had since my childhood still living in Texas. There is a whole new crop of kids coming up around me, the babies of loved ones, with whom I am working on keeping a relationship by sending home postcards and visiting when I can. I keep this blog, I keep a google voice number, I write e-mails and FB messages and post pictures and stalk my family members on social media- I spend a lot of my free time and energy committed to maintaining these relationships, even while working and going to school and traveling and doing whatever else I’m doing. I think of people doing this back in the day when all they had was letters or telegraphs, and here I am with FB and blogs and free internet phones and Skype and international mail that takes a mere week- I can’t complain. Nowadays staying in contact is as easy as just deciding that you are going to do it, and I make that decision as often as I possibly can.

Writing postcards in a freezing ger in Mongolia

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my family and friends back home and around the world. I want to return home eventually, but I want to return home happy and fulfilled, not wistfully thinking of how I wished I had done _______ or gone _________ or seen__________. 

I’m an hour away from Milan, and who knows how many weeks or months from my next home, but I know I have more homes than I can count all over this world with family and friends who would welcome me back the instant I called or messaged or Skyped them. I really can’t emphasize enough how much that helps me to know when I’m roaming. For all of you who have opened up your homes and hearts to me over the years, for everyone who wrote me at the beginning of this stray cat summer with enthusiastic invitations and possible plans and suggestions for travel or meeting up, for every message and voice mail and Skype call, I’m reminded that being rootless doesn’t have to mean being without connection, love, support, understanding, and help. I appreciate you all for putting up with me, and for understanding why I have to keep leaving, for now. 

The train is winding through some staggering mountains at the moment, with green at the base and the hillsides as far as I can see and tiny cottages dotting the valleys. A woman is making an announcement in Italian… now French… English will be next. I have the row to myself, a laptop to bang out what’s in my brain, and a good friend to meet up with in Italy. I miss you all, and I hope you know how much, even as I make my plans to head to the next place. I will be home, eventually. 

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