Long- term travelers of all kinds will tell you that one of the most important preliminary steps to taking off is The Purge. That period of time that you devote to deciding which material possessions will still be necessary and dear to your heart after traipsing all over the globe in pursuit of clarity, freedom, connection, adventure, and knowledge. Clothing is donated, items are sold to pay for gear, and maybe a tupperware or two are packed to the brim with things you can’t bare to say goodbye to just yet. Everything else, everything that will represent your existence for the time you spend abroad will be packed into a backpack or suitcase, a necessary piece of gear that looked far bigger before you started packing it.
The act of purging everything was a huge undertaking that occupied our minds and our time for months before we left. The fact that we decided to get rid of almost everything helped in that we didn’t have to think much, we just had to get rid of it. Easier said than done.
For the past several years I have considered myself someone who does not really need all that much. Not a minimalist, but certainly not a materialist either. In new York, my husband and I participated in the consumerist culture far less than our teenage foster daughters would have liked. We didn’t eat at McDonald’s; we didn’t believe that we “needed” anything in a commercial with a catchy jingle; we didn’t eat out more than once a week; we bought local whenever possible instead of feeding the corporate machine of mass made goods; we had a family rule that if you were going to bring a new piece of clothing into your wardrobe, you needed to get rid of another piece first. By most accounts, we were doing pretty good at not getting sucked into the consumerist machine.
And yet, as I cleaned out our closets and gathered our things in boxes, I realized just how much stuff we had. How did that happen??
I don’t know about you but I live in one pair of shoes, depending on the season. Fuzzy boots for winter and flip flops for summer. So how the heck had I accumulated over 20 pairs of shoes?! Aaron could wear the same five shirts over and over again without complaint so why in the world did he have bags and bags of t-shirts to give away?!
The more we purged, the more guilt I felt. While it felt great to get rid of so many uneccesary possessions. I couldn’t help but feel this nagging feeling that despite my best efforts, I had still been pulled in by the “just in case” notion that consumerism thrives on. In fact, when I really took stock, more than half of what we owned could fall into the “just in case” category. Why, in New York City, I was so consumed by the notion of “just in case” (without even being aware of it!) is beyond me. If I really needed something I could just go out and buy said item when the need actually arose. I could have even *gasp* asked a neighbor if I could borrow theirs. Instead, I had filled my house with a bunch of stuff I didn’t even need, “just in case”. What a waste!
Adding to my guilt was the realization of just how many things we had been throwing away. Shoes whose soles had worn through, toys that no longer worked, tools with missing pieces had all gone into the garbage and, eventually, into a landfill. As I packed our entire life into backpacks, I realized just how wasteful we had been. Everything I packed had to do at least double duty. Anything that ripped or became worn we would have to try to repair before replacing it due to budget constraints and lack of resources in some areas. It did not bother us to think that we could not easily replace things on the road so why had we been so flippant about throwing things out in New York? We are very aware that much of the rest of the world lives without the ability to throw out and quickly replace anything they desire so how did we get caught up in doing just that?
Without fully realizing it, my husband and I had been participating, more than either of us cared to admit, in the consumerist culture we didn’t endorse. I have come to think that there is no way to completely avoid consumerism when the entire culture around you embraces it. Convenience becomes an easy thing to pay for and, before you know it, you have lots of stuff and lots of waste. There are some tough souls who are able to resist this culture to a very impressive level, no matter their surroundings. We put in a strong effort, but when we really looked at the evidence we had to admit that we just didn’t do as well as we had thought.
Long-term travel is an amazing educator when it comes to sustainability. Cars from the 50′s troll the streets of Mumbai, serviced and repaired beyond what any American would think is “reasonable”. Cobblers make a decent living on streets around the world where throwing out shoes with small holes is inconceivable. Chicken wire is taken down and repurposed over and over again until it finds a home within the walls of a cob house in Guatemala. Baby food jars become perfect containers for homemade salves, creams, and cosmetics in Puerto Viejo. Most of the world survives easily without a constant need for new things.
The initial purge is just phase one in a long journey to recognizing the reality of our personal roles in a consumerist society. The continuing journey can be eye opening in terms of illuminating just how much “need” (I use the term loosely) we really could eliminate just by shifting our thinking away from a mentality based in scarcity and replacing it with one based in abundance.
I no longer by things “just in case”. In fact, we no longer buy anything without checking first to see if we can make it, borrow it, or Macgyver it. I still carry a little but of guilt about how much I use to have (and waste) but then again, once you know better, you do better.
What do you think? Has travel influenced your perception of consumerism or changed how you view your consumption habits?
Photo Credit: tarotastic
A couple of years ago, while riding my bicycle down Burma’s Irrawaddy valley, I somehow managed to destroy my khaki trousers. These were the only pair of pants I had with me at the time, so I stopped off in a town called Pakkoku and — faced with no other realistic clothing options — purchased a long, cotton lungi to cover my legs for the rest of the trip.
In the event that you aren’t familiar with fashions in this part of Asia, a lungi is a tube of silk or cotton cloth that Burmese men wear around their waists. Essentially, it looks like an elegant, ankle-length skirt. And, unless you count the kilt, there is no fashion equivalent for men in the West.
Thus, having no instincts for wearing a skirt, I encountered all kinds of functional challenges while wearing my new lungi. For starters, I invariably tripped over the hem when walking on any surface that wasn’t completely level. Somehow, Burmese men could stride up staircases in their lungis while still looking perfectly masculine, while I was forced to lift the cloth and mince up slight inclines like some kind of “Gone With the Wind” debutante. Even more difficult was riding my bicycle.
The more the Burmese giggled, however, the better I got at wearing the lungi. By the time I arrived in Rangoon nearly two weeks later, I was able to walk and bike gracefully on all variety of surfaces. Impressed locals gave me the thumbs-up at the sight of my dapper Burmese threads, playfully asking me if I was from Burma.
I had, it seemed, successfully “gone native” with my travel wardrobe. And it felt good.
When I flew on from Rangoon to Bangkok, however, I quickly learned that – - by backpacker fashion standards — going native is far more complicated than simply buying local clothing and learning how to wear it.
As I strolled in my new lungi through the Khao San Road backpacker ghetto (where I’d hoped to buy a new pair of khaki pants), I noticed that many of my fellow travelers were giving me funny looks. Since Khao San is a place where Westerners with, say, chicken bones through their noses and dreadlocked armpit hair hardly garner a second glance, I wondered what the problem was.
That afternoon at my guesthouse, a sun-browned Australian traveler clued me in. “Look at ya, mate,” he said. “You’ve got it all mixed up.”
I looked down at my outfit. In addition to my lungi, I sported a nylon fanny pack (which made up for my lack of pockets) and a North Face dry-wick shirt (which had kept the sun off while biking). This ensemble didn’t strike me as particularly strange, but — according to the Aussie — wearing a fanny pack (stereotypically favored by middle-aged tourists) and a boutique safari shirt (which, while functional, is the modern fashion equivalent of a pith helmet) effectively canceled the lungi out.
The problem, it seemed, wasn’t that I had “gone native,” but that I had gone native in an incomplete and bourgeois manner. “From the looks of it,” he said, “you don’t know if you just walked out of a jungle or a shopping mall.”
Going native to one degree or another, of course, has always been a part of the travel experience. Until the past couple of centuries, in fact, going native wasn’t a travel option so much as a travel necessity. From Herodotus to Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark, eating local cuisines, learning local languages and wearing local clothing was simply how the traveler survived in foreign lands. This all changed, however, as British travelers and expats alike were increasingly expected to maintain the same decorum overseas as applied back home. Fraternizing with locals was discouraged, safari parties trotted off into foreign jungles sporting woolen raiment and, as late as the 1930s, officials of the British Empire could be fired for wearing native clothing.
What this colonial protocol overlooked, of course, was that going at least partially native has always been an important step in experiencing other cultures. Wearing native clothing isn’t necessarily a prerequisite, but abiding by local dress codes (particularly in regard to modesty) is essential if you want to be accepted within the cultures you visit.
But it’s often difficult to determine where the propriety of “going native” begins and ends. Travel is not the same as emigration, after all, and no combination of culinary and fashion savvy can truly make you a part of your host culture. At some point, then, many attempts to “go native” cease to be an inquiry into other cultures and begin to be a token of status within travel culture itself.
In “The Songlines,” Bruce Chatwin observes that nomadic animal species tend to be less dependent upon hierarchies and shows of dominance, since the hardships of the journey naturally weed out the weak. However, now that humans’ nomadic life rarely involves natural selection, travel culture seems to have utilized fashion as one subtle kind of litmus test. Ostensibly, a Shan jacket worn with a Mao hat and cotton pajama bottoms implies that you had the Darwinian oomph to survive northern Burma, communist China and the Punjab. As with all fashions, however, the accepted vogue for going native tends to be fickle. In Jordan, for example, scores of Westerners trade ball caps for Arab khaffiyeh scarves to better keep the sun off — but few of those same travelers would don conical peasant hats for the same purpose in Vietnam.
In the end, then, “going native” is a mixed endeavor — part attempt to understand your host culture, and part extension of how you want to selectively showcase your travels to others. Properly balancing these urges is part of the challenge and fun of travel.
Just for the record, I now own three Burmese lungis — two cotton and one silk. I find them comfortable, functional, and stylish. And chicks dig the look.
But until they make them with pockets, I will — fashion be damned — continue to wear them with a fanny pack.
Originally published by SFGate, March 14, 2004
About a decade ago, on a whim, I took a trip to Costa Rica and opened the door to a world I didn’t know existed. I still remember crowding around the computer with my friends and studying ticket prices. I remember feeling a little silly that I had never been out of the country except for one brief trip to Canada when I was 10. I twas confused but determined as I applied for my first passport. Beaches, monkeys, and learning to surf were all I thought about as the weeks ticked by. When I returned I couldn’t shake the feeling that everything I saw- the waterfalls, the monkeys, the flowers- might be different if I were to return. I felt incredibly grateful for having been able to experience what I had at the exact time that I had.
Months later, already bitten by the travel bug (but not entirely aware of that fact), I was off to India. I touched the walls of the Taj Mahal and drank my weight in chai. I wrapped myself in a sari for a wedding and was genuinely surprised to learn that New Delhi in December is cold. One morning, at dawn, I found myself atop the Golden Temple in Amritsar. As the call to prayer went out, everyone around me dropped to their knees. The newness of the moment and my ignorance of cultural practices made me pause before I followed suit and for a brief moment, I was alone, standing atop the Golden Temple, the whole colorful world around me, on their knees, connected in an invisible way by their love, their need, and their devotion.
Travel is full of these moments. The moments that take your breath away. Moments that suddenly illuminate a belief that had always lived inside of you but you never knew you had. Moments that happen in an instant that you will replay in your mind and retell to your friends for the rest of your life. Cliche as it may be, these moments feel nothing sort of magical, especially in those early days of travel.
But here’s the thing about moments- if we don’t take them out of the memory box they don’t do us much good. If we romanticize the moments and forget to employ the lessons those moments taught us, the growth it encourages within us, then those moments become great stories and not much more. Travel is gift but if we forget to actively employ the breathtaking moments and incorporate them into our everyday thoughts and actions, we miss the opportunity to “connect the dots”. Travel cannot fix all things. It cannot replace the day to day work of being a thoughtful human being, connected in a meaningful way to one’s core beliefs and values.
If we do not do the work in our day to day lives; If we let the lessons we have learned slip by the wayside when we return; If we write blog posts about our experiences but forget to turn our philosophical ponderings into action, then those moments never get to work their real, transformative magic.
Having that brief moment of realization at the Golden Temple was amazing. It is a moment I replay over and over and it still takes my breath away a little, each time I think of it. The real gift, however, has been the constant development and deepening of my belief that we are all connected by our shared humanity. That moment has touched my life far beyond the 60 seconds it took me to take it all in, take a breath, and drop to my knees. It is a moment that reminds me to never forget connect the dots between the other wondrous moments and my day to day life.
Moments like these do not have to happen atop the Golden Temple. Where have you experienced wondrous moments?
As magical as the Grand Canyon is from the top, peering down into red and purple shades of rock so far down your eyes lose an ability to judge the distance, it is yet more magical from the very bottom peering up. Perhaps because of the feeling of accomplishment that comes from a journey down, and perhaps from a feeling of quiet, peaceful seclusion from the modern world.
Whatever the reason, it’s well worth a trek down just to spend the night at the bottom in either Phantom Ranch or nearby Bright Angel Campground. It may not feel that way as you wade through the tedious reservation process for Phantom Ranch, but that is not the logistical detail I’ll be going over in this post.
In this post, I’d like to give a little bit of insight for potential hikers trying to decide which trail to take, as there are 3 major trails leading down to the bottom, North Kaibob, South Kaibob, and Bright Angel Trail. Having hiked the entirety of each of these trails at some point, I’d love to give a hiker’s perspective.
Bright Angel Trail
Distance to Phantom Ranch: 9.9 miles
Access points: Phantom Ranch and Grand Canyon Village at the South Rim
Bright Angel Trail is probably the easiest trail to recommend because of its frequent water stops and moderate distance. Hikers who are not interested in going all the way down to the bottom of the canyon can hike down to the Indian Gardens region 4.9 miles down instead.
But what this trail is especially good for is the journey back up, regardless of which trail you’ve taken down. While it’s not the shortest of the trails we’ll talk about, it is the shortest one with water stops. Both of these details are extremely important for an upward journey. Hiking up the canyon can take significantly longer than hiking down and can be far more fatiguing.
The atmosphere of this trail is interesting as well. It will lead you through a quintessential red-rock desert type of environment until you reach the lush area of the Indian Gardens. After this point, you descent towards the river and complete the last part of your journey walking alongside it.
South Kaibob Trail
Distance to Bright Angel Campground: 7.1 miles
Access points: Bright Angel Campground and Yaki Point along the South Rim.
I chose this for an ascending hike one year and it was the most difficult Grand Canyon hike I’ve done. It is steep, has no water stops, and leads you through a dry, winding cliffside that offers little relief from the sun at times. Hikers who choose this route should be very intentional and realistic about the supplies they pack with them. It is indeed a shorter hike, as the shortest of the trails we’ll mention today, but the most strenuous one, so take this into account.
I recommend this trail mostly for descending. Particularly if a person is concerned about making it to the bottom in time for a scheduled dinner. (All meals at phantom ranch must be reserved and fall into a strict schedule). And while it’s not impossible to use this trail for ascending, it’s not to be taken lightly.
North Kaibob Trail
Distance to Phantom Ranch: 14 miles
Access points: Phantom Ranch and the North Rim Trailhead.
I chose this one to discuss last because it is my favorite, and I’d like to share a piece I wrote about it after hiking it last month.
But first, the logistical details: This trail is the longest of those mentioned today. Significantly so. And yet, it is not a strenuous 14 miles comparatively. It is not as steep, and the environment transitions frequently. There are plenty of water stops and as long as you are providing a realistic amount of time for the hike (anywhere from 5 – 9 hours), this is a wonderful choice for a descending hike. Anyone considering this hike for the ascending trip should remember that ascending hikes take significantly longer than descending.
This is not a very popular trail, as the only trail leading up to the North Rim, but I’d like to reference the thoughts I made in a post last month to advocate for this trail as a favorite.
“The North Rim is quiet. If you stand and listen for a moment you don’t hear the chatter of a high traffic tourist destination as you would on the South Rim. Instead you hear the wind through the pines. In fact, the beginning of your trek does not feel like quintessential Canyon red rock dust and desert. Instead you’re in a gentle pine forest. In fact the first stretch of the North Kaibab Trail hike begins in this setting until the vegetation shrinks back and you can see the height of the cliff you’re standing on. The view opens up and you make your way down along cliffs into the floor of a side canyon. And then the landscape changes again. Every few miles, in fact, the landscape of the North Kaibab seems to change into something new as the canyon walls rise around you, layering back until the rim disappears behind the cliffs nearest your path.
These early miles of the trail find you descending through an ancient solidified display of the earth’s history- a core sample of the layers of earth in front of your very eyes till you reach the most ancient layers of subtly glittering Vishnu Shist, so ancient it lacks any traces of organic, biological matter. This amazing artifact of geological history lines the later miles of the trail like gravel, kicked along humbly by the feet of hikers.
This is also where you reach a little canyon creek that slips like melted glass through desert rock and brings green life wherever it goes. Most of the remaining 7.2 miles of the North Kaibab follow this creek. As I looked at it, I wondered at how different it seemed from the forest creeks I grew up with in Ohio, clouded with decaying plant life and stirring up mud. This water, cupped by canyon rock seemed more pure and more lively. And the plants that line the banks are so foreign to someone who grew up far from the desert. Prickly, spiny, spindly little plants keeping themselves as inward as possible, not spilling out clumsily into one another like the leaves and grasses of the east. Orderly, linear plants.
The creekside portion of this trail levels out significantly and you find yourself anticipating each bend will reveal the little cabins of Phantom Ranch.
It’s always further than you think. But I don’t mind in that environment. Even tired and hungry, I’m happy to be there.”
Five months of extended, slow travel taught me valuable life lessons that I never could have learned from a one week vacation or a weekend getaway. Once I got past the initial lure of traveling to new places (including Guatemala, Taiwan, Australia, and Ethiopia), seeing new things, and doing different activities, the time spent traveling really became a deeper, personal experience; travel became introspective and a journey within to make discoveries about myself and my place in the world.
These are the lessons about life that I have learned after five months of travel around the world…
Be a little nicer to others.
When you travel, you make yourself vulnerable by leaving your comfort zone and putting yourself out in the world. You need help because you normally don’t know where you are, what to eat, and how to speak the local language. People are out there to help you, as long as you let them. You’ll see how people will open themselves up once you show some compassion and kindness.
I once heard a 103-year-old woman answer the question, “What’s the best advice you can give to others on how to live their lives?” She simply replied, “Be a little nicer to others.” All those years of experience and wisdom and she understood that life at the core is made of all the interactions and connections, big and small, that we have with others.
Be nice. Be extra nice. Bring out the best in yourself and others around you.
Money doesn’t buy happiness.
You don’t need a ton of money to travel and you don’t need millions of dollars to be happy. If you’re always comparing your net worth to others’ net worth, you’ll never be happy.
Happiness starts from within. If you’re pursuing things that you’re passionate about and give you purpose, you’ll be happier. When you help others for unselfish reasons, you’ll be happier. And when you connect with a purpose that’s bigger than you, you’ll truly be happy.
I’ve met some of the happiest people in some of the poorest countries in the world and I’ve met some of the most depressed people in some of the richest countries in the world. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Living life on purpose will give you all the happiness you’ll ever need.
Fulfilling work, quality time with your kids, “me” time, nutritious meals, regular exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, and meaningful travel are all the ingredients of a healthy life. You can have it all, as long as you make balance your goal.
Sometimes you overwork yourself for weeks without end. You sleep less. You don’t go to the gym when you should. You eat junk foods and load up on coffee. Then you crash. Hard. And your body needs two full days to recover. You need balance every day all the time.
Too much of anything isn’t healthy or sustainable. Balance is essential to healthy living.
Live your life.
Your life is yours and yours alone. Be who you are. Follow your passions. Trust your gut. Don’t compare yourself with others. Stay true to what you believe.
The key is to live. Many people are dying a slow death in a profession they are bored with; others are in destructive relationships; some are using escapes from actually living by abusing drugs, alcohol, TV, Internet, etc.
You need to choose to live your life. That choice begins with trusting yourself and moving forward with your heart.
Love the journey.
Life is not a race, so enjoy the journey. Each step you take and each personal connection you make hopefully gets you closer to your truest, most authentic self. When you value the journey more than the destination, you are grateful for each step and blessing. You realize that failures exist not only as small lessons, but also as opportunities for mercies to come through. And you are present in every moment.
When you let your heart lead the way, you’ll be on the path towards realizing your dreams. Sometimes what we want isn’t what the world says we should want, what our parents say we should want, or what our peers say we should want, but your path ultimately is the product of your choices.
Stay the course. Listen to your heart. Let the love flow.
Love the journey and you’ll be on your way.
For more about Cliff’s travels, visit his website: LiveFamilyTravel
I am often asked why I travel. What is the benefit? Is all the work, preparation, and planning worth it? So, I set out to identify what it is I really feel I have gained through travel. While this list may not be the same for everyone (and I expect it wouldn’t be), I bet most travelers can identify with each item on this list. So, here it is…. the top five gifts travel has given me.
5. Patience. Anyone who travels long term will tell you that patience is a major key to making it all work. Waiting for a train in New Delhi, cooking a meal for 4 on a single burner in San Marcos, dodging touts in ChiChi market, crossing the border into Panama, trudging through monsoon rains in Kolkata, avoiding eye contact with leering men in Egypt, or trying to coordinate travel plans in a foreign language in Nepal- the longer you travel, the more you value your own ability to call on your patience like a super power. Cultural differences and language barriers make time, space, and dimension very subjective terms. Patience is a virtue that gets practiced and (almost but not really) perfected the longer you travel.
4. Connection. True human connection, that which transcends cultural barriers, is something I value on a very deep level. Traveling allows me to see, smell, touch, taste, feel, and experience what visitors and immigrants to my home country hold in their memories and consciousness. Travel presents the opportunity for me to recognize the common human experience between myself, a circus performer in El Salvador, a business woman headed to work in Switzerland, a genocide survivor in Guatemala, and everyone in between. I get to connect with people all over the world, all the time and experience our shared humanity on a regular basis.
When I attended my friend’s wedding in India, I didn’t need a transistor to explain the side ways smile on her groom’s face as she walked towards him or the joy she radiated when she finally got to see him after a full week of ceremonies and preparations. When her parents visit and I am offered a cup of chai I am reminded of hot, humid, monsoon mornings in Mumbai and I can almost hear the chai wallahs, just like they can. When I beg her to make me mattar paneer and she chides that it’s “not really healthy, you know”, I know that she is smirking because she is (not so secretly) thrilled that I loved an Indian dish so much and that I know exactly how it tastes in her hometown. When she asked my friend and I to be present at her son’s birth, her parents hugged me and told me to take care of her, knowing that only true friends would have traveled to India to see their child get married years ago. My friend is an awesome person and I would be friends whether I had traveled to India to watch her get married or not, but I am thankful for the richness travel has brought to our friendship. Sometimes I think we over think things and place too much emphasis on cultural differences (as beautiful as they are) and forget to look for the moments that don’t need translation. Do you have to travel to find connection? No. Does travel magically make connections happen? No. But travel has expanded my understanding of what connection can mean, presented opportunity after opportunity to explore human connection, and made my circle wider and deeper than I ever thought it could be. My connection with this friend and every single person who has touched my life along the way, is a gift I carry forever.
3. Clarity. Time spent away from home and all things comfortable has a way of clarifying that which is most important. Trekking from place to place with everything you own strapped to your back will make you think twice about your material “needs”. Watching a mother drop her child off at an orphanage because she doesn’t have the money to feed all three of her children will make you reconsider what “good parenting” means. Working with an NGO in a foreign country will forever make you look more closely at where your donated dollars are going. Visiting Mother Theresa’s homes in Kolkata will make you question the party line about mission work in the third world. Watching the sun cast shadows over ancient Mayan temples will make the history you think you know look dull. Meeting living victims of your country’s foreign policy will make you wonder just what else is being done in your name.
If it sounds like travel raises a whole lot of questions and not a whole lot of clarity, that is only partly true. Travel certainly and inevitably does raise innumerable questions…but the clarity lies within those questions. Clarity does not mean “figuring it all out”. Some questions will be answered, some will not. The very realization that the questions exist is clarity in itself.
2. Empathy. Over the course of this long, continuous journey, I have come to the conclusion that pity and empathy do not look the same. Pity is what I had for people who were “less fortunate” than me back before I had met any of “those people”. Pity allowed me to see myself in some small way as “better than” and in no way did it serve me or those I thought needed me to do something for them. Pity paralyzed and disconnected me.
Empathy is what I hold now that I have helped birth babies, cook meals, and redefine education with people who would have previously been considered “less fortunate”. The key word in that last sentence is WITH, not FOR. I recognize the core of our shared human experience reflected in circumstances I will never fully understand. I have learned to actively remind myself that poor is not synonymous with “less fortunate” any more than rich is synonymous with “happy”. I still struggle with the “why” of our world’s inequality but I now know that the “how” for doing something about it depends on our ability to empathize, not pity.
1. Perspective. Triumphs and tribulations have a way of seeming really, really big when we have nothing to compare them to. Exploring our vast and varied world has given me the opportunity to step outside of the day to day that we all get caught up in and see the larger picture. Long term travel reminds me regularly that no matter the political, philosophical, or economic agendas being pushed back home, this is the one and only shot we have got at this life. I could spend every day hemming and hawing about the socially acceptable way to live this life (according to my home culture) or I can actually live it. The mundane must still be dealt with and the day to day must still be lived but at the end of my life, I will be damned if I look back and think ” I should have done more”.
What are the best gifts travel has given you?
How many among us have made the trek back to a favorite destination of years past and realized that, well, it just isn’t the same anymore? The bus drops us off in the sleepy surf town we remember fondly from our first backpacking adventure and we wonder where that Roxy store came from. We hop off of planes and out of cabs and are amazed to see teenagers, clad in jeans and Abercrombie t-shirts, hanging out at Mcdonald’s where women in Saris used to dole out samosas from a road side stand. Dirt roads that once flooded with every rain are now paved and outfitted with perfectly placed gutters. Little girls who used to sell flowers are now young women, married, and calling after children of their own- children who will never sell flowers to help their families make ends meet.
We sit in our favorite restaurants and coffee shops (because, thankfully, some of those are still standing) and reminisce about the crazy party hostel that once stood where the Marriott now towers and the place on the corner where you used to be able to by a $1 beer to enjoy while you watched the sunset on the beach. We whisper that the taxi drivers have certainly figured out how to fleece the tourists and pray that the charm that has always made this place special doesn’t get erased completely. Mostly, we are just happy that we saw this place as it was, way back, before all the change happened.
Sometimes it’s sad to return to a place and realize just how much has changed. You miss what you have romanticized and forget about that miserable night you got infested with bed bugs at that crazy party hostel. There is something very human in the desire to return to a place you “know” and wrap yourself in the comfort of familiarity. Change can wreak havoc on that comfort.
But there is a wonderful side to all of that change. Perhaps one of the most beautiful things that traveling affords us is the ability to see the world for the ever evolving organism that it is. Yes, things change. Yes, things we remember and love may not always be there. But isn’t that knowledge actually wonderful? It reminds us that the world is only “as it is” for this moment. It will never be like this again. We can wait until “someday” to travel or we can do it right now, knowing that “someday” will never look like today. As an added bonus, we can travel today AND “someday”, and our experiences will be inexplicably similar and different all at once.
The only real certainty is change. Travel gives us space to explore what that change means (and looks like). Eyes that have come and gone and come back again have the privilege of seeing change in a comparative manner. Minds that have explored new places and returned have the ability to put change into a global context and see history playing out before their eyes. Individuals that have returned have the opportunity to discover how change might even be shaped by the most positive and intentional parts of our collective humanity. We are so very lucky to see our world, as it is, no matter what it looks like in this moment. Because what is right now, is ours- just for this moment. There are no guarantees that it will ever look, fell, or pulse exactly like this again.
The world is changing, as it always has. So, then this is the perfect time to get up and explore our world. You wouldn’t want to miss what it looks like right now, would you?
People often ask us if there’s a social deficiency for our children, being raised on the road, weaving in and out of so many different cultures. It’s a serious question, and it deserves serious consideration.
My answer is always, “No, growing up in the world is the most socially healthy experience any child could have.”
They learn to adapt, respect differences, navigate generation gaps, live flexibly and develop language proficiencies that will make them infinitely more socially comfortable in our ever shrinking world than they would be if we spent our entire life in the little town we left. Nowhere was that more apparent than playing in the pool this week with the Korean delegation using the same techniques they’ve perfected for playing with kids when they are the ones who don’t speak the language.
There is not a social deficiency for our kids, or others that travel for a living, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences.
Our kids are what’s called Third Culture Kids:
“Someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.” According to my passport, I’m coming home, by Kay Branaman Eakin
These kids create a culture for themselves that’s a blend of their experiences, the upside is flexibility, adaptability, a high comfort level just about anywhere they’re dropped and the ability to roll with the punches like few people can.
The downside: they don’t entirely “fit” anywhere. My family traveled a little, just two winters of my childhood, and we straddled the international border between the US and Canada as a dual nationality family. Even that relatively small amount of cultural diversity I can relate to the third culture experience.
We love being “home,” in the USA and Canada, because so many of the people that matter most to us are here. Our children’s dearest friends are very “fixed-location” kids and they embrace one another as if not a day has passed and the cultural divide just doesn’t matter a bit to them, or to our kids, for that matter. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
We’ve witnessed this several times, with families in Germany & the Czech Republic, other traveling families in Central America and most recently when our virtual friends became real world friends. There is something that happens with Third Culture Kids meet other Third Culture Kids that is inexplicable unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. There’s an understanding, a belonging, of sorts, between complete strangers that bonds them deeply, and it’s such a joy to watch.
This weekend our worlds collided. The very best of our chosen family joined us for an Independence Day camp out. We laughed, swam, told stories, and caught up after a long winter on opposite ends of the continent, and it was GREAT. And then, two of our favourite traveling families joined the party and added such an interesting dynamic. It t was such a joy to have them all in one place and to have, for just a few hours, both of our lives intersect in one place. There was a “wholeness” that we sometimes lack in the time spent with all of them.
Our kids miss people wherever we go. This is a common experience for Third Culture Kids. Not a day goes by abroad that they don’t wish aloud that their fixed-location friends were there to share an experience. When we’re “home” it’s the same, they wish for their abroad friends to share the day’s joy here. Jeremiah, one of Hannah’s best friends, is spending the week with us. Last night he made a comment that stuck with me: “I’ll bet you guys could fill this whole campground with the people you wish were here!” And he’s right, we could. The very best and very worst of travel as a lifestyle is that no matter where we are, we make dear friends, and no matter where we go, we miss someone we love!
The air is unbreathable, hot, and terribly humid. The air conditioner perched at the top of the wall at my right is just an empty plastic shell that reminds me that there could be some extra comfort, if someone had cared to replace the wiring. Instead, rivulets of sweat pour down my forehead and temples, sliding down my spine and flowing over the small of my back, soaking into the elastic of my underwear. I had to take my shirt off to endure this first Indonesian live test.
“Cut the set short, I can’t breathe…” Sam screams from behind the drums, his man-boobs twitch, lucid with sweat.
“Why man? They are loving it!” I answer screaming on top of amplifier white noise between two songs.
“I said cut it fucker, I can’t fucking breathe! I am feeling sick! There’s no air!”
OK then, roger.
This is the best travel I have done recently, hands down.
We are at the back of Khansa Studio’s rehearsal room in Pamulang, somewhere in the sprawling suburbs of Jakarta, nestled between a row of halfstacks and a small melee of young Indonesian hardcore punk believers. They are probably twenty, but the room’s so cramped it feels like they are hundreds, all blowing hot air in our faces. One has just finished walking up the wall to my right, supported by a bunch of other lunatics pushing him at the small of his back. From my perspective, I believe for a moment that the room is rolling sideways, and this guy’s trying to run with it. When Sam hits the last of four strokes with his sticks, we launch into the last song of the night, and I wonder if this still makes sense. Looking at how the kids spin and jump and crawl on top of each other, forcing me to step back against the amps, I am tempted to say “yes”. But reflecting on the fact that I am sweating as if I were playing guitar inside of a Finnish sauna, our drummer is having a respiratory crisis, and tonight – and for the rest of this tour – we will never get paid a single rupiah, my European heritage materializes with a hammer to smash the bubble of underground dedication right before my eyes. Why are you doing this, Marco?
I don’t know. Probably because these days I only conceive traveling as a concoction of brutal anthropology, self-inflicted ruin and mind-numbing exploration of the weirdest fringes available in the world. But it does indeed make me feel good, for I know that I’m probably not the only one, but certainly one of the few, to have had this vision and this cross. Suddenly all of the problematic divides among travelers and tourists disappear, because they are not important anymore. I’m only trying to make my time on Earth meaningful to my own self, I guess. Is there anything wrong with it?
MARCO FERRARESE is a metalpunk guitarist who travelled extensively and lived in Italy, the United States, China, Australia and Malaysia. Since 2009 he’s been based in Southeast Asia as a writer, hardcore punk musician and researcher. He travelled from Mongolia to Australia in 2009, and hitchhiked from Singapore to Milano through Silk Road routes and the Middle East in 2012. He blogs at monkeyrockworld.com. Marco’s first Asian pulp novel Nazi Goreng was published in November 2013 on Monsoon Books. Follow him @monkeyrockworld
This week I’m in San Francisco, after riding my motorcycle from Washington. First, I have to say – the ride down the PCH was in-damn-credible! Thanks to a friend’s suggestions, I got off the PCH near Fortuna and took the Avenue of the Giants scenic route. Who would have thought that there was a scenic route to an already incredible scenic route? I’ll write more about this another time. Take my recommendation, though, if you are ever in southern Oregon, take 199 West and to 101 South, then just take that as far as you’re able. Here’s a couple pictures to wet your appetite.
Now – this week, I wanted to ask a question. When you travel to busy, vibrant locations (big cities and such) – do you feel a bit lost? A bit secluded?
The other night, I was talking with my friend Boris, who I met when trekking through Siberia (a real awesome guy, btw). Anyway – we were discussing what it was like to visit a large city like San Francisco when you’re traveling solo. We both felt that if you don’t already know someone there, it’s easy to feel a bit alone. It’s the reason he gave me some things to do in SF; recommendations that would get me started and he also introduced me to some of his friends.
Truth is – often when I’m traveling solo, I feel the need to some alone time to acclimate. I remember going to Göteborg, Sweden a few years ago. It was a great place to hang out with a vibrant night life. Before I could venture out, though, I had to spend about a day alone in the hotel to absorb the new environment. Only after that did I feel comfortable in going out to explore the city. Yet, on every adventure I’ve been on, I’m often traveling as part of a small group. In those instances, I felt comfortable in most situations (well – except for some really sketchy ones). I was able to jump right in and explore the surroundings.
I noticed the same thing at World Domination Summit a few weeks ago. I was fortunate to have a lot of friends to hang out with and springboard from; but, it’s something that I would have struggled with otherwise. I find that with small, intimate destinations it’s much easier for me to get involved and to be a vibrant part. Once there’s too many people, I tend to step back and observe, rather than participating.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts – is this just part of my introvert tendencies – or is this a more common feeling?
Chris Plough writes and podcasts at oznog.com, where he shares stories and advice from his adventures and from the incredible people that he’s met along the way. You can also follow him on twitter: @chrisplough.