A door is not a door

Breaking rules and busting heads

In the past twelve hours, I’ve booked two flight itineraries for six different flights to be taken in the next three weeks. In December and January, I’ll have visited around eleven different cities (possibly more), in five different countries, on two different continents. In February, I’ll be adding even more countries and cities to my list. By the time I return to Canada in the summer, I’ll have lived in seven different countries in four continents.

I am, without question, a vagabond.

Booking a flight can make my heart race. The feeling of landing in a strange city, lost and confused, gives me great pleasure. I actually get a huge rush of endorphins, like a high, at the exact moment that I feel an airplane leave the ground. I am happiest, and most sure of myself, walking through a foreign place and watching everything around me. If I stay in one place for longer than a few weeks, I begin to get intense wanderlust.

It struck me the other day that what I’m doing is not exactly normal. Most people don’t take off from their homes for long stretches of time, and those who do most often travel in a way that’s markedly different from mine. When I meet new people, I often get thrown by their questions: yes, I’m travelling, sort of. But I’m still working. And I live in the countries I travel to. No, I probably haven’t seen that famous monument, and I quite likely don’t care much to, either.

A door is not a door

This is actually the only photograph I have taken in San Francisco, and it’s technically in Mountain View. Still, I find it more interesting than a snapshot of a monument that’s already been photographed a million times over, by people exponentially more skilled than I (and likely wielding better cameras than the one in their phone).

I went to San Francisco last week, but I didn’t see Alcatraz or the Golden Gate Bridge. I went to México City prior to that, but didn’t bother with the pyramids. While I recognize that some things are tourist traps with good reason, the more I travel, the less interest I have in these things. Part of this is because they’re often crawling with tourists, especially in Europe, but another part of it is that visiting often feels empty. Sure, they’re beautiful or breathtaking or interesting, but I’ve invariably seen them already in movies and photographs. The crowd of tourists mindlessly snapping photographs of these much-photographed monuments, as though checking off items from a scavenger hunt, only exacerbates this emptiness.

I don’t want to see the world through a lens. I want to taste, smell, and feel it as well. That’s why I’m travelling instead of watching a documentary or zooming through Google Street View. I want to experience and interact with the world around me.

The true journey, as the interjection of an “outside” different from our normal one, implies a complete change of nutrition, a digesting of the visited country–its fauna and flora and its culture (not only the different culinary practices and condiments but the different implements used to grind the flour or stir the pot)–making it pass between the lips and down the esophagus. This is the only kind of travel that has a meaning nowadays, when everything visible you can see on television without rising from your easy chair.

The incomparable Italo Calvino, “Under the Jaguar Sun”
(About travels in Mexico! Must find prior to leaving.)

I’ve always been prone to making up my own rules. While I technically wrote something of a business plan (in about two hours, at four in the morning, off the top of my head), I didn’t do most of the things you’re supposed to do when running a business. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I ever made it work, and how it continues to work for me. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t really do much of anything in the traditional way—my work, my education, my relationships, my pastimes, and my travels are all plotted out according to a set of rules that exists solely in my own head.

Puente en Ensenada

Seriously, I live here. This is not always what comes to mind when people think “Mexico”. I like it for its dirty parts as much as for its pretty parts.

Somehow, though, it all works. I become more and more delighted with my life as I veer further and further from the orthodox.

I’ve noticed that sometimes people don’t understand this. I received a birthday card one year that said “Don’t worry, you’ll find your place and settle down eventually,” and it took me a while to stop being offended by the implication that I’m unhappy because I haven’t roped down a man, staked out my plot in the woods, and started producing children yet. While I know that many people are happy with this sort of prescribed life, I know I’m not one of them (or at least, I’m not yet, but I sincerely doubt I’ll ever be). It frustrates me that sometimes that means people will see me as a failure, because I’m choosing to do things in such an unusual manner. I absolutely love my life, and not everyone who “has it all” would say that. Some of the coolest, best-adjusted people I know are weirdos like me.

So buck with tradition. Drop out of school, live out of your car, take six different wives. Don’t break the rules solely for the sake of breaking them, but don’t allow them to fence you into a life you didn’t choose. The world is full of people who are stuck by circumstance, but as a citizen of an affluent country, you have such a myriad of options open to you. Don’t follow the status quo just because it’s what we’re trained to do.

I want a world full of free-spirits and vagabonds.

Teeth

From a dentist’s window in Ensenada. I’m not sure if this is considered an unorthodox marketing tactic in Mexico or not, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll choose to believe that it is.

Graffiti

Five tricks for staying sane as a long-term nomad

A little more than a month into my Grand World Tour, and I’m still utterly thrilled by it. My sense of time is all skewed—it feels as though I’ve been away from my “home” and the people I love so much longer, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve been living in México for a month. I’ve been absorbing, learning, and changing so much, and I don’t think I have, for even a single moment, yet regretted my decision to undertake this grand venture.

It’s pretty intense what I’m doing, and I often find myself overly emotional—not in a negative or positive way really, but I think it’s my way of processing the general instability of this way of life. Everything around me is either constantly in flux or constantly unfamiliar, and it would be easy to become unbalanced by it.

One month in, here are my tricks for staying sane. Nine months (and two or three more continents) in, I’m checking back with this, to see how much of it stays the same.

1. Realize that sometimes a day will be a wash.

Some days, you’ll be sick. Some days, you’ll be tired and jetlagged. Some days, you’ll be melancholy and homesick. I struggled with this with my recent trip to México City—I was only there for eight days, and I wanted to absorb as much of the city as I possibly could. It’s fascinating, chaotic, and a challenge to comprehend, and I castigated myself for being asleep or working at ten am. I should have been out exploring! Then I realized that running myself down just doesn’t work long-term. I’m not on holiday for a week, I’m living my life in a foreign place. Not every day will be productive work-wise, and not every day will be revelatory travel-wise. Some days will be neither. That’s okay.

Colonia Roma

Some days, you get totally lost for hours, because all the streets in Mexico City go in circles and have six different names. But then you accidentally bump into beautiful old buildings covered in graffiti, and everything works out.

2. Stay in touch.

My biggest fear is loneliness. This is my first time travelling for more than five weeks by myself, and I know that I’ll miss the social structures, and the people I care about, more than anything. Luckily, the internet is a magical thing, and it affords me roughly a thousand different ways to keep in contact with people. So I use Facebook and Twitter more than I would normally. I send texts to my litttle sister via WhatsApp. I send emails and make phone calls. I had a Skype date with my roommate, in which we both drank wine, talked, and made faces at one another for two hours. I send stories written on the back of postcards. Keeping in touch with the people who made my “stable” life so rewarding (and in fact were pretty much the reason I stayed in Halifax as long as I did between trips) goes a long way to keeping me sane and bridging the old life with the new. When everything around you changes, you change immeasurably too. Keeping grips on your alternate self helps you realize the things that remain constant and true throughout, and help you to be more assured of who you are, even when sometimes it feels as though everything’s been torn out from under you.

3. Make new friends.

While it’s important to stay in touch, if I didn’t make new friends, I’d be horrifically lonely and homesick. This was the biggest mistake I made in Argentina, when I wasn’t travelling alone, and it contributed greatly to the deterioration of my relationship with my travel companion, as well as my own sense of self.

Jaguar!

I didn’t make friends with a baby jaguar, but I really wish I had.

I tend towards being a hermit. I’m a bit of a misanthrope to begin with, and I work by myself all day, so it’s easy to spend a day in which I don’t talk to anyone. So I’ve actively been working against that, knowing that while yes, sometimes I just need time and space away from humans, but more often it’s healthy for me to meet new people and make new connections. I live with a roommate, I couchsurf a lot again, and I make it a rule to generally say “yes” when someone asks if I want to go out. As a result, I’ve met a ton of awesome, intelligent, varied people, and I’ve learned more about the culture and hidden undercurrents of this country than I ever would have if I’d isolated myself. Sure, sometimes I end up stuck at a party where everyone’s speaking Spanish and I feel lost and uncomfortable, but most of the time I find myself having a great time, making new friends, and learning new things. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a more valuable part of travel than seeing pyramids.

4. Focus on the little things.

I find, the more I travel, the less I care for typical touristy things. Sure, lots of these things are famous attractions for a reason, but I no longer beat myself up if I miss one or two (or sixteen, depending on the place). Usually, the guidebook attractions are swarming with people (this becomes especially true in Europe), and, while impressive, can feel like a one-hit-wonder. It’s nice to see, but then it’s over. I’ve seen so many tourists storm through an attraction, taking photos every two seconds, not stopping to consider anything or even look at the thing they’re photographing so enthusiastically. (Watch people in the Vatican if you don’t believe me.) It feels empty.

Graffiti

Really gorgeous graffiti in Colonia Roma. As much as I like museums and such, I think outdoor art installations (whether “legal” or not) are far more interesting. Art should be contextual and integrated into daily life. México City is full of great museums, but I liked the series of coffee cups installed outside the museum better.

I’m finding more value in taking a six-hour walk through a city, getting lost and finding interesting signs, buildings, or things happening. I’ve discovered that I love urban parks of all shapes and sizes and beautiful, multi-level bookstores (I’ve been to #4 and #6!). I really enjoy finding a perfect little café to work away my day in. Long-term travel isn’t so much about the awe-inspiring or the impressive as it is about the everyday.

5. Remain flexible.

This is, above all, my most important rule when travelling, living, or navigating relationships. Things will always fail in unexpected ways, especially when you’re in constant motion. You need to be super-flexible in order to make it work. Every time I embark on another long strange trip, I change the rules up, adjusting the formula until I hit on something that works.

If you want stability, stay home. If you want adventure, learn to adapt.

Centro

This doesn’t properly capture the chaos of Mexico City, but imagine that there are a few million people jammed into tiny streets overflowing with street vendors and old buildings. I’ve left the orderly world I lived in behind; there’s no room for rigidity here!