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.



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