It’s Not You, It’s Me

The time has finally come for me to end things with long-term travel. We’ve had a good run, this nomadic lifestyle and I. But now after almost nine months, I’m making some changes and moving on to a different way of life. I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t been difficult-even horrible-at times over the last few weeks. Breaking up is hard to do.

Initially, comparing my current existence to my recent past made me feel like I was dating a guy who’s ex looked like a supermodel; occasionally feelings of insecurity or inferiority worked their way into my mentality. Really though, it’s a pretty hard past to ignore or dismiss. I have spent the last nine months learning  to surf off the coast of New Zealand, chasing kangaroos through sun-soaked vineyards in the Australian Outback, swimming with giant sea turtles and weary sharks in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. I fell in love in and with Bali, the country where I participated in a ceremony under the stars at the holiest temple before climbing 6 hours to watch the sun rise over its highest mountain. Bali, the country where I lazed about by turquoise waters, drinking my body weight in fresh fruit juice and Bintang, where every minute inspired a smile bigger than the last.

I spent the past nine months doing things like getting three-dollar massages, taking cooking classes, meditating with monks and getting lost in dense jungle after finding hidden waterfalls in Thailand. I have trained elephants and trekked to remote villages where I lived, slept, drank, and bathed in an ice-cold stream with a tribe in northern Laos. I have experienced the complete chaos of Hanoi, sailed through a thunderstorm in Halong Bay, and walked through the Hanoi Hilton where American POW’s were tortured during the Vietnam War. My nomadic lifestyle allowed me to eat fresh papaya and befriend the locals on an island paradise in Malaysia, to experience authentic hot chocolate and churros while watching the running of the bulls in a small Spanish village outside of Madrid. It let me spend 35 days walking 800 kms across Spain with my mom and sister, and drink a bottle of champagne with my best friend on a hill in the center of Barcelona. I have made friendships to last a lifetime, seen and done things that changed my entire outlook and perspective, and experienced a period in my life that, at times, doesn’t even seem real.

I think it’s easy to see why, even though I haven’t returned home to the States and am still technically traveling, the abruptness of being stationary and having to return to a life that is a bit more conventional has been an…interesting transition for me. Even if I am in Norway, even if I am making new friends and building new relationships, even if I do have a new language to learn and a new life to love. To be honest, for the past couple of weeks I’ve been having a hard time moving on. Like typical post breakup behavior, I’d find myself lost in memories, sadly reminiscing about all of the good times while looking through pictures, reading with jealousy how friends I’d met along the way were still traveling to exotic places. Then, just when my wallowing was getting to a point of shamefulness, someone awesome reminded me that what I’m doing now is an adventure all in itself. Simple words for a simple truth, but it’s all I needed to hear to start the wheels turning. When you hold on to the past, all you’re really doing is holding yourself back. It’s hard to discredit the immense importance of letting go and opening your mind and heart to what’s around you, a fact which we all forget at times. Every experience has the opportunity to become an adventure…whether it’s great or a great disappointment is for you to decide. Your perception is your reality. Ultreia!

The Fight

Another beautiful day in Madrid; sunshine, sky so blue it’s almost purple, light breeze. As soon as I woke up I headed to a café close by to read and people watch while I enjoyed a coffee. While I was staying on the Perhentian Islands, one of the locals gave me a book called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Someone had given it to him, he told me as he put the slim paperback in my hands, with the message that if he read it all of his dreams would come true. Maybe the same would happen for me, he suggested with a serious look in his eyes.

The book was fantastic. I immediately fell in love with the style of writing, the message being portrayed, the truth behind the words. I finished quickly, and afterwards was craving something with the same sort of substance, so I purchased another of Paulo’s books: The Pilgrimage. I had no idea what the plot of the story was before I started reading, so imagine my surprise when it turned out to be an account of Paulo’s first time walking the Camino de Santiago-a 500 mile ancient pilgrimage path that I myself will start walking in just a few weeks.  Sometimes life’s coincidences are funny that way. Anyways, the point of all this back story is that today, as I was reading The Pilgrimage under the flawless Spanish sky, I got to a part that is so perfect, so relevant and applicable to all of our lives, that I have to share.

At this particular point in the story, Paulo has been walking for a couple of weeks, accompanied by his Guide, who brings to light various lessons throughout their time together. In this particular instance, the lesson to be learned focuses on dreams.

“The good fight is one that’s fought in the name of our dreams. When we’re young and our dreams first explode inside us with all of their force, we are very courageous, but we haven’t yet learned how to fight. With great effort, we learn how to fight, but by then we no longer have the courage to go into combat. So we turn against ourselves and do battle within. We become our own worst enemy. We say that our dreams were childish, or too difficult to realize, or the result of our not having known enough about life. We kill our dreams because we are afraid to fight the good fight.“

“The first symptom of the process of our killing our dreams is the lack of time…the busiest people I have known in my life always have time enough to do everything. Those who do nothing are always tired and pay no attention to the little amount of work they are required to do. They complain constantly that the day is too short. The truth is, they are afraid to fight the good fight.”

“The second symptom of the death of our dreams lies in our certainties. Because we don’t want to see life as a grand adventure, we begin to think of ourselves as wise and fair and correct in asking so little of life. We look beyond the walls of our day-to-day existence, and we hear the sound of lances breaking, we smell the dust and the sweat, and we see the great defeats and the fire in the eyes of the warriors. But we never see the delight, the immense delight in the hearts of those who are engaged in the battle. For them, neither victory nor defeat is important; what’s important is only that they are fighting the good fight.”

“And finally, the third symptom of the passing of our dreams is peace. Life becomes a Sunday afternoon; we ask for nothing grand, and we cease to demand anything more than we are willing to give. In that state, we think of ourselves as being mature; we put aside the fantasies of our youth, and we seek personal and professional achievement. We are surprised when people our age say that they still want this or that out of life. But really, deep in our hearts, we know that what has happened is that we have renounced the battle for our dreams-we have refused to fight the good fight.”

“When we renounce our dreams and find peace…we go through a short period of tranquility. But the dead dreams begin to rot within us and to infect our entire being. We become cruel to those around us, and then we begin to direct this cruelty against ourselves. That’s when illnesses and psychoses arise. What we sought to avoid in combat-disappointment and defeat-came upon us because of our cowardice. And one day, the dead, spoiled dreams make it difficult to breath, and we actually seek death. It’s death that frees us from our certainties, from our work, and from that terrible peace of our Sunday afternoons.”

Like I said, fantastic book with an awesome message. Hope you’re all able to fight the good fight today.

Declaration

As many of you may have guessed, I’m a little behind on writing.  And by a little, I mean a few months. Since Bali, I have traveled (slowly and by many hard earned hours on various buses) through the awesome and weird that is SE Asia, worked on my tan on an island paradise in Malaysia, spent a few extra days eating, drinking, and relaxing in Bangkok before an expensive two day extended layover in Dubai, and now I am finally in Madrid. I have every intention of backtracking to share stories, tips, trials and triumphs from my journey over the past three months, but today I feel like I’m entering into a new stage of my travels. The transition between East and West, if you will. It’s also a bit of a momentous occasion in my book because I don’t have a ticket out of Europe, and truthfully (visa permitting), I have no plans to leave for the next couple of years. So that’s where I’m at-a crossroads in front of me with the anticipated path already shimmering, faintly visible to my wandering soul.

Something caught my eye as I was exiting the Dubai airport a couple of days ago. When you make it through passport control and have collected your luggage, there is a point right before the exit leading to awaiting taxis and shuttle buses, where you have to choose one of two paths: “Goods to Declare” or “Nothing to Declare”. In the past, I have always gone through the designated “Nothing to Declare” route. It is easy, hassle-free, and at this point I’m always genuinely relieved to not have to wait in another line or explain my travel plans to officials once again. Besides that generic feeling of easy relief, I’ve never given much more thought or recognition to the final process of airport control and security. I’m not sure why those two signs made me mentally double take in this particular instance. As I passed through the gate that determined I had nothing to claim, I mused at the fact that I felt slightly cheated. We all have something to declare; we all have stories, dreams, fears. We all have lived a life different than the person next to us. It’s spectacular and overwhelming and monumental when you consider the infinite number of stories that you’re surrounded by, on any given moment of any given day. I will never forget the instant when I felt that I really grasped the vastness of humanity. I was sitting at a downtown sky bar, enjoying a cold beer and watching the busy chaos of Hanoi pass by below me; the hundreds of motorcycles, cars and pedestrians all blending into one constant blur. Between sips the full force of what I was witnessing-what I was missing out on from my observation tower-hit me. I was simultaneously saddened and thrilled by the thought that every single person swirling in the lights below me had their own story, and I would never know…could never possibly know them all. But I could try, I told myself. I could give it an honest shot. Isn’t that a big part of the reason why we travel-why I’m traveling? To find out what other people are holding onto that they want to declare, to discover my own story worth declaring? I think so many of us go through life consistently and consciously choosing the other path-“Nothing to Declare”. After all, it’s easy and hassle-free to pass through the world undetected and uninterrupted. But we all have a story to tell, and you should never underestimate that impact that sharing your own may have, or the number of people who would be truly interested in hearing it.

Funnily enough in Dubai, when I had breezed through the unguarded screening for the “Nothing to Declare” gate, I was stopped by an officer and asked to retrace my steps to exit instead through the scanner and additional inspections required by the “Goods to Declare” gate. Maybe my eyes look like they have a story to tell, I thought to myself as I turned around to do as instructed. Maybe I’m starting to look like I have something to declare.

Bangin’ Crew

My first full day in Bali was spent in the company of my sarong, kindle and ipod, posted up on the immaculately maintained stretch of golden sand beach reserved for the guests of the Sanur Bali Hyatt. My first full night was spent in complete agony, thanks to the horrific sunburn that I had managed to acquire throughout a day regrettably sans SPF. I hardly ever burn, and was not prepared nor accustomed to dealing with the unfortunate condition of my delicate, lobster red skin. I ended up canceling the plans that I had made with a group from the hostel for a night out in Kuta, deeming that it would be a near impossibility to maintain any level of attractiveness were I to combine alcohol and crowds with my already uncomfortably heightened level of body temperature. Instead, I ate some cold tempeh from a 24 jam (hour) shop close to the Big Pineapple, drank a large Bintang, took a cold shower that seemed to pierce my skin with dagger-like pressure, and crawled into bed, painfully aware of the straps of my pajama top resting tortuously on my shoulders.

The next morning I awoke, eyes slightly swollen and body tender, and stepped outside into brilliant sunlight. I knew I had to get away from the sun and the beach, escape to somewhere darker, cooler for a few days in order to recover, and I had to do it fast. I went downstairs to the reception area table with my laptop to consider my options, and overheard an American girl, skyping with a friend, mention that she was planning on driving to Ubud that afternoon. I didn’t have any set plans for my time in Bali; I prefer traveling and living with as high a degree of spontaneity as possible.  I knew Ubud was further inland and a friend of mine had recently been there and had given some great tips and suggestions for the area, so I decided to ask the girl if I could join her. Another American guy-a Californian-had just showed up and with a “hey, why not” shrug of his shoulders, decided to join the small group. We rented our mopeds directly from the Big Pineapple for $6 a day, paying for the first day and squaring away the rest whenever we decided to come back. We were in the process of re-packing and strapping our reduced belongings to our assigned bikes, when two guys on motorcycles pulled up, apparently part of the group as well. Europeans. Of course they were. For all of the fantastic aspects associated with being raised in America, there are some key elements of life in which we are severely lacking in comparison to our European counterparts. The first of which is our deficiency of, and resulting discomfort with, public transportation. Except in a few major cities (NYC, D.C., San Francisco), we don’t have it, and we don’t know how to use it. This unfamiliarity always seems to make traveling that much more of an adventure for Americans. The second is that the vast majority of us drive cars-automatic at that. This puts us at a huge disadvantage in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Asia, where the primary source of transportation is the motorbike. Most of our European friends, however, either drove a moped before a car, or have their motorcycle license. The third, and most problematic (in my opinion), is that we simply don’t travel like the rest of the world, especially the Europeans. During my five months on the road, I have met only a handful of Americans. People always assume that I’m Canadian and seem genuinely surprised when I tell them that I’m American, stating that we just simply don’t travel that often. Out of curiosity, I always ask the local restaurant and hostel owners where most of their guests come from, and they always tell me Germany, France, England, Denmark…but never America.

Anyways, here we were, the five of us. The three Americans, nervously preparing ourselves for the moped ride: A troubled young girl from Miami with a flair for the dramatic, an easy going, easy to like guy from California with a wonderful, infectious laugh, and myself. Then there were the Europeans, confidently mounted on their motorcycles: A well-traveled Norwegian with an omnipresent look of adventure in his eyes, and a spitfire German with an exceptionally and charmingly dismal outlook on every situation. The Bangin’ Bali Bike Crew, as we quickly dubbed ourselves, began our way up north through the winding roads that led us past the small towns, roadside stands, and rice paddies of Bali. The wind provided refreshing relief from the humidity as it blew in our faces, the openness of the road called; each of us left with our own interpretation…and we rode, falling into a single-file, unstoppable line of earnest explorers, limitless in our newfound freedom.

Bali 101

The face of the young Balinese Customs Officer lifted as he made eye contact over the counter, his grin widening as he repeated his question. “Where is your friend?” he asked me, looking expectantly at the line forming for the checkpoint to my left. I matched his smile and, although I knew that he meant boyfriend and might not necessarily comprehend my answer, I replied in mock exasperation that I didn’t have a friend; not a friend in the world. He laughed appreciatively, handed my passport back and I continued on to the post-baggage claim x-ray. In complete contrast to the austerity of the official olive-green government uniforms, the men wearing them might as well have been hanging out on the boardwalk with a large Bintang in hand-a situation much better suited to their easy demeanor and casual body language. As each of my worldly belongings made their way through the x-ray on a slow moving belt, I stepped through the metal detector and was immediately met with another disarming smile. Again, the whereabouts of my lover were inquired upon. This time I responded simply that I didn’t have a boyfriend, amused at the fascination with the subject. A look of temporary frustration crossed over the Officer’s face as he looked around the room. I followed his gaze as he landed on a tall, blonde Westerner who appeared to be traveling alone. He quickly looked back to me, triumphant in his conclusion. “This is your boyfriend!!”  he confidently exclaimed, pointing to the unsuspecting man. I laughed again as I heaved my backpack up over my shoulders, shaking my head slowly as I walked away through the sliding doors and into the night, alight with a smile that would rarely leave my face for the next month.

I loved Bali immediately. The humidity that enveloped me within seconds was a welcome change from the windy chill of the winter that I had left in Sydney. The sticky, thick air was an intoxicating mix of incense, gasoline, tropical flora, and burning fields. My taksi driver barely spoke two words of English and drove like a mad man, weaving in and out of trucks and the dozens of mopeds and motorcycles that filled the left hand lane of traffic. He honked once, lightly, to signal that he was coming up behind someone. He honked twice, harder, to let someone know that they were getting a little too close. In the next few days, I would learn that if someone honked as they were driving up behind you, it wasn’t to tell you to move out of the way as we would assume as Westerners; it was to ask if you were in need of transportation. I had only ever witnessed this road lingo once before, in the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, and I couldn’t help but embrace the organized chaos that it represented. My mom once told me that I lived my life like that-in organized chaos-so perhaps I naturally spoke the language.

After searching some back streets, my driver finally dropped me off at the Big Pineapple, a guest house  located in Sanur, about a 20 minute drive from the airport in Denpasar. Over the next few weeks, the Big Pineapple would serve as a home base of sorts. It was the place where, after spurts of exploring, we would come back to for a night or two to regain our composure and plan the next adventure. Mia, the woman who ran the place, spoke English well and was a source of information and assistance who was always quick to welcome you back and never surprised that you had returned. When I first walked in to Big Pineapple, there was a group of people gathered in one of the open rooms next to the pool watching a movie. They barely glanced up as I checked in and made my way up to the air conditioned dorm room that I had been assigned. Hungry and alive with the energy of being somewhere new, I claimed my top bunk bed and quickly set out by myself into the dark maze of streets in search of food. There is one thing that I strongly suspected-but wasn’t entirely sure of-before I started this trip that is now a proven fact: I prefer traveling alone. I like the disarming vulnerability that I feel, the adrenaline of knowing that I alone control my path, experiences, triumphs, failures, and their effect on my journey. I like that when I am alone, people smile easier, accept faster, and open themselves up more to me-and perhaps I to them. There is a certain fantastic challenge in successfully navigating the unknown alone; I’ve always liked challenges. That’s not to say that I don’t believe that most of us will be lucky enough to eventually run into that one person who fits into our own personal ideas of life, philosophies, and style of travel as easily and inconspicuously as a shadow fits to a body, but despite the best efforts of Balinese Customs, I didn’t expect my number to be drawn anytime soon.

It was late, and after walking around for thirty minutes or so, I ended up at one of the only restaurants next to the beach that was still open. I ordered soup and a small Bintang, and asked the friendly waiter to write out how to say “thank you” in Balinese on one of my napkins. This was a Western place and while the food wasn’t anything great, I still savored the warm liquid as it made its way down my throat, quickly following it with the soothing cool of the pale lager. On one of his routine passes by my table, the waiter conversationally asked where I was staying. Although I had liked him immediately, I was still wary to divulge too much information; my parent’s warnings about the risks of traveling alone as a female replaying themselves in the back of my mind. I answered vaguely in the hopes of deterring his questioning but he persisted, his eyes slightly concerned. After a minute or so more, he dragged the name of the guest house out of me, and quickly insisted that I not walk back by myself and that I should instead wait five minutes for him to finish his shift so that he could drive me back on his motorbike. I reluctantly agreed, appreciative of his kindness, but quickly tuned in to my intuition. Even after searching I could detect no internal warnings, so a couple of minutes later I followed him to the employee parking lot, climbed on to the back of his motorbike, and slowly relayed directions to him as he made his way down the nearly deserted streets towards the Big Pineapple. As I climbed off of his bike in front of the gate, I extended a genuine smile and a heartfelt thanks in the words that he himself had taught me not twenty minutes before: “Mah Kasih!”

Late Introductions

I realize it’s been far too long. The thing is, I’ve really wanted to write, but I just haven’t been able to. Since leaving Bali, I have spent the past three weeks languidly relishing in the memories of my month in paradise. Sometimes it takes a while to fully process a place or experience-at least to the point where you can do it justice outside of your own head. Today, I laced up my dusty tennis shoes and stepped out into the intense mid-day heat and stagnant humidity of Luang Prabang, Laos. As my music pounded in my ears and the relentless sunshine beat down on my sweat-drenched body, I came to a couple of realizations. The first (and more overbearing of the two) was that I was certifiably insane for not bringing any water with me; this confirmed by the look shot my way by each and every local that I passed. The second was that, assuming I’d make it back to the hostel alive, I was finally ready to write.

As much as I enjoyed my time in New Zealand and Australia, I didn’t feel like my adventure really began until I landed in Bali. When I booked my RTW ticket, I had planned on staying in Australia for a full three months before heading to Bangkok, but about two months in I started to feel unsettled. Here I was, half a world away from home, no real responsibilities, living out of a backpack, staring at a sky full of different stars every night…and I felt restless. It was an exceptionally odd sensation; at first I tried to ignore it. I stayed in Sydney for a couple of weeks with a friend that I had met when I first arrived (she’s now traveling SE Asia with me), quickly and easily settling into a routine not too far from what I had at home: hot yoga, favorite bars, spots for brunch and good glasses of wine. I had a preferred running path, a small group of friends, a few dates. Maybe I hadn’t been traveling long enough to appreciate this sense of normalcy, or maybe becoming too settled makes me uncomfortable. Whatever it was, I felt an overwhelming desire to continue moving. Sydney is a great city, Australia a great place, but everything was so easy. I wanted to be challenged in every sense of the word. I was desperately craving a language barrier, unfamiliar foods, sweaty days of exploration that would end with a sunset and a cheap beer on white sandy beaches. The longer I stayed put, the more dissatisfied I became. One day I randomly went to the library and spent an entire afternoon with a gigantic pile of books in front of me; I had grabbed literally every single reference book on Bali that I could swipe off the shelves. That night, I canceled my original ticket from Melbourne to Bangkok in mid-June (STA Travel was, once again, amazing to work with and gave me absolutely no hassle) and bought a one-way ticket to Denpasar.

Looking back on it, I’m not really even sure why I chose Bali. I knew literally nothing about it besides the fact that when we lived on Guam, my mom and her best friend had gone there and I thought I remembered her enjoying it. Despite my lack of knowledge, I felt an almost indescribable pull and confidence in my decision to completely rearrange my travel plans and go there. I think these scenarios exist for everyone, and one of the best decisions you can make is to acknowledge the energy that the world is sending your way. If you feel an instinctive pull towards something-a place, a person, an idea- that’s powerful energy and I firmly believe that it’s not circumstantial. So I said my farewells in Oz, and off to the Land of the Gods I went; my taksi awaited.

 

 

 

All That Glitters

A relationship with long-term travel is really no different from any other; there’s a lot of give and take involved. I’ll be the first to admit that, most of the time, it leans more heavily towards the taking side. You float along, sustaining yourself on the feeling that the world seems to exist just for you; it’s at your fingertips and you don’t have to think twice about being selfish as you grab at it, take as much as you want of it, make it your own. Occasionally though, as you’re sitting contentedly admiring your newfound possessions, still glittering with the excitement of discovery, something will remind you of the part of the relationship that, as a traveler, you consciously avoid dwelling on. Sometimes it’s impossible to ignore what you’re giving in order to take with such carefree abandon.

The past week was a pretty difficult one for me, as far as weeks go. One of my closest friends got married on Saturday, and even though I desperately tried to stay awake past 2 am so that I could talk to her in between her bridal luncheon and pre-wedding pictures, I ended up falling asleep with our only communication having been a few text messages back and forth…nowhere even close to sufficing as a replacement for what would have been a place in her wedding party. The following day, I skyped with my parents and found out that my Grandpa isn’t doing well with his battle against mesothelioma. As I watched the computer screen relay the scene, a multitude of emotions crossed my mom’s face while my dad tried to explain the situation logically in the background. At that moment, I  despised the fact that I was traveling and wouldn’t be able to be there when they  visit him and my Grandma in June. On top of all of these occurrences (although by far the least dramatic), I had been in Sydney far longer than I had intended because I ended up catching a nasty cold after my return from Cairns; I was getting restless.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many glittering jewels life places in front of you, you just want to slip on the familiarity of that old ring that’s tarnished and faded and so old it stains your finger green every time you wear it. Then you remember that you lost it somewhere along the way, so you reach out voraciously to the world again, taking something with the hopes of hastily filling what you have given away.

For me, that something was Bali.