Ryanair Roulette #1: Baden-Baden

Fun fact: I have never gone to Germany on purpose. I’ve often ended up there because it’s in between other places, or because flying into Frankfurt was cheaper than flying into anywhere else, or for a work thing or a conference. But I’ve never really headed there just because I wanted to go there, and, if I’m being perfectly frank(-furter), I’ve never really been interested in exploring it much.

But Baden-Baden was the first spin of my whimsy-wheel, so to Germany I went! It feels somehow appropriate given that a) I’ve never even heard of it, b) it’s somewhere I’d never wind up otherwise, and c) it’s famed for its ridiculous casino.

Yes, I played actual roulette on my first Ryanair Roulette trip. I’m pretty pleased with how that worked out.

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Let’s see how everything else played out!

Deliciousness of wine: ⭐️⭐️

Well, I did fly home with a hangover, but I’m not sure that’s a good indicator of anything, since I can’t even count the number of flights I’ve taken with a hangover. (I can probably count the number I’ve taken drunk, but it’s a smidge higher than I’d like to admit, so I shan’t.)

Baden-Baden is actually near some pretty good wine-producing parts of Germany, so the wine was pretty available and pretty decent. That said, best of luck finding anything open even remotely close to late-night. Myself and my partner-in-crime got to town around midnight, utterly starving, and there was a single bar open, who were kind enough to serve us a bowl of chips and some mayonnaise. Turned out to be a pretty great little pub with good flammkuchen and the most fantastic cherry sorbet I’ve ever tasted, but the rest of the town was a total ghost town past ten.

The casino, which we went to because it seemed the thing to do, had a €26 minimum to use a card at the bar, so we bought overpriced beers instead. Apparently I loathe gambling and don’t understand the point, but the people-watching was pretty worthwhile, particularly if you stand around like a creep and make up elaborate back-stories for the most interesting characters wandering about.

Run-friendliness: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

My default behaviour when looking for a good running path is to seek out a river, because the paths are almost always pretty and they’re generally at least flat-ish. I live in Edinburgh, so this is basically the only sensible approach that won’t lead to my running up a bloody cliff.

Baden-Baden is like 90% hills too, so I was a little concerned I’d be running some really lovely but paths while my legs slowly fell off. As it turned out, I found a tiny little man-made stream that wound through town and gave it a go. As it turned out, it was perfect: flat and pretty, and I could stretch it into a good 5k run if I ran across a bridge or two and looped around, or ran through an Alice-in-Wonderland style hedge maze that sat to one side of the river.

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Lichtentaler Allee. Mountains to the left, river to the right.

It was well-lit (for the most part) at night, but people were absolutely terrible at moving to make way, which gave me murdery feelings. I didn’t see many other people out actually running; seems Baden-Baden is more of a slow power-walking town, which makes sense given that it’s a getaway town for the rich and idle and the vast majority of its inhabitants eclipsed me a few times over in both age and income.

I dug this run so much I did it twice: once at night and once during the day, in addition to spending a day hiking through the paths winding through the forests at the edge of town. Full points for scenicness, but a minus point for why on earth don’t people move out of the way when there’s a panting sweating woman barrelling toward them at full speed?

Pain-to-travel ratio: ⭐️⭐️

The airport in Baden-Baden is extraordinarily tiny. Most tourists drive in from neighbouring parts of Switzerland or France, or from other parts of Germany, and there didn’t seem to be many English-speaking tourists at all. I’ve no idea why Ryanair runs a flight from Edinburgh here, but our flights both ways seemed to mostly be full of Germans (including a few bekilted ones on the way home).

When I got off the plane and on the bus that takes you to the terminal, I realised I didn’t have my passport on me and started to quickly panic. After checking every pocket six times and getting increasingly more frantic, I rushed back out and back on the airplane, where I finally found it had slipped out of my coat pocket and down the side of my seat. Really, really pleased I didn’t have to spent the night stuck in a limbo between immigration and whenever the next flight out is, which I’m guessing would have been a lot longer than I’d have liked.

The airport isn’t super well-connected—there’s one bus that services it, but it only runs once an hour and doesn’t go all the way into town. You need to catch a connecting bus at the train station, which also happens to be way outside of town, because apparently the urban planners really wanted to discourage excessive walking, I guess. Luckily, we managed to catch the last one that night (they stop around 11pm). Otherwise, a taxi looked like it would have run around €40 or €50, which basically nulls the advantage of that cheap flight.

Workability: ⭐️

There were lots of cafes but they were all a bit small and lacked good space to work from. I don’t think I saw anyone anywhere with a laptop, which isn’t surprising given that it’s a spa town.

It didn’t help that my charger decided to give up the ghost on me, making working a bit of a challenge. There were apparently a few shops that sold Apple stuff around, but the first one was definitely someone’s private home, and the second one looked as though it had been shut for the last three weeks.

Enforced holiday! Okay, I’ll go hiking instead then.

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Broke-o-meter: ⭐️⭐️

Flight from Edinburgh: £19
Airbnb rental: £97 for three nights
Cash blown on a vice I don’t much enjoy: £35

Final verdict?

Worth a spin if you like long quiet walks in the woods, or if you’ve a lot of cash burning a hole in your pocket you’re dying to be rid of.

Next up: Carcassone, France!

Ryanair Roulette: kismet is my co-pilot

There are a lot of things I love about working remotely—a thing I’ve been doing for so long now I often forget that most people still have to be somewhere at a certain time every day. One of those things is the freedom to pack up at the drop of a hat and swan off somewhere, just because “it’s there”. (Note to self: stop giving this as your reason for being somewhere to immigration officers. They don’t much care for it.) I travel so much—both for work and for the why-not of it all—that I’ve become a bit nonchalant about it.

I’ve also noticed that as I’m getting older, more and more of my decisions are becoming driven almost entirely by whimsy. I say “as I’m getting older,” but that could well be total nonsense. I lived in Mexico for three months because it was “on the way” to Thailand. I took a five-hour flight to the Canary Islands to spend Christmas Eve on the beach with my little sister because the flight was cheap and I like sitting on beaches reading books with her. I moved back to the UK because I couldn’t think of a compelling reason not to and, depending on who you ask and how much it’s rained that day, the weather is generally nicer than Canada’s.

What I’m trying to say here is that whimsy has always been a pretty enthusiastic driver of my decisions.

So I’m embracing it. For the next year, I’m letting kismet and whomever is in charge or pricing airline tickets make (most of) my travel plans for me. Yes, there’s an inherent amount of privilege exposed in basically turning international travel into a flight of fancy. That’s okay. I’ll try not to be too much of a brat about it. My hope is that this may introduce me to new places I’d otherwise never bother visiting. I’m letting fate be my travel agent.

Here are the rules:

1. Search Skyscanner for “everywhere”.

Skyscanner’s everywhere search is magic if you happen to be a whimsy-driven human like myself. I’m going to aim to do this once a month, so I’ll be searching for either the upcoming or the current month, depending on how last-minute this is. (Chances are “very”.)

Generally this means I’ll be searching from Edinburgh, but I’m allowing myself to fly from elsewhere in the UK (Glasgow, London) if convenient and if it makes for an interesting trip.

If I happen to be elsewhere at the time, I’ll run the search from there. Probably need to avoid spending long periods of time in Montreal, or I’ll be headed to fabulous Sudbury a whole lot, and I might wind up broke.

2. Select the cheapest destination I’ve never been to before.

Where “been to” equals “left the airport and did something, even if it was just eating lunch or walking through town”.

Note that whilst technically this means I could wind up flying with almost any airline, I’ll likely be flying a lot of Ryanair flights. Super looking forward to that.

3. Remove impractical flights from the pool.

Remove any suggested flights that lead to a stay longer than four days, and any that conflict with existing plans. Because otherwise I’ll end up spending three weeks in Copenhagen and that is not copasetic with my budget.

I’m still torn on whether or not to allow flights to UK cities I’ve never been to in here, because I absolutely loathe the thought of flying when I could just take the train instead. They turn up pretty rarely, so I’ll play it by ear.

4. Be a judgey jerkface about it.

Luckily, this comes pretty naturally to me, having had years and years of constant practise.

I’ll be rating each place based on the things that are important to me in terms of living my usual life, since I’m less of a traditional tourist and more “that weird girl who turns up and just wanders about a whole bunch and also I think maybe she spends twelve hours a day on Facebook?”

That basically boils down to the following: quality of wine (better wine = happier Sarahs), run-friendliness (because sometimes my favourite thing to do is go running in a new place), pain-to-travel ratio (because I’m inevitably going to fly Ryanair a whole lot and I might murder someone), and workability (because I can’t finance even super-cheap Ryanair flights if I can’t get my work done).

You know, the tourist essentials.

5. Write a post on my flight home.

Seriously, this is just a really expensive and convoluted way to force myself back into the habit of writing blog posts. I’ve already not succeeded in this endeavour for my first location, having come home a solid week or two ago and still having written nothing.

But my final rule may help with that:

6. No booking the next months’ flight until you’ve actually written up the current/previous months’ flight.

You utter disaster of a woman, you.

With that all set, I spun the wheel to see where I’d be headed in January (crossing my toes for someplace warm!) and I got: Baden-Baden, Germany, a little spa town on the edge of the Black Forest I’ve never even heard of before. Seems like a good start!

How I nearly died in the Himalayas

There were an awful lot of things in Nepal I thought might kill me. Just landing at the Kathmandu airport was a bit hair-raising. Then I did some white-water rafting. I rode an old Royal Enfield through the mountains, careening around hairpin turns and sputtering down steep dirt paths. I went paragliding. I took more than one brain-scrambling bus ride along a dirt road hugging the edge of a cliff. Rappelling down a waterfall, my feet slipped on the wet rocks and I ended up with a bloodied-up hand. And the comically slow wi-fi speeds and constant power outages could very well have driven me to death by defenestration.

None of these thing even came close to being as fatal is it felt. The thing that did—well, I barely even noticed it was happening.

Let’s go see some mountains!

I met up with a friend in Nepal, planning to do a bit of exploring and then head out on an independent seven-day trekking tour in the Langtang valley. It looked pretty, a bit less well-trodden than the Annapurna circuit, and we’d get to see glimpses of Tibetan culture without getting China angry. We spent a couple of weeks in Pokhara and then headed back to Kathmandu to get started on our trek.

I genuinely thought the bus ride from Kathmandu to Syabrubesi would kill me. It takes somewhere around nine hours to travel a mere 150km, most of which takes place on dirt roads that cling to the side of steep mountains. The buses have all the suspension and grace of a go-cart, and they’re often overloaded with extra people, packages, and goats—both on top of the bus and inside it. The roads redefine “potholed” and are subject to landslides and washouts, depending on the season. The roads aren’t wide enough for two cars at once, so people hang off the side of the vehicle and use a system of knocks to communicate with the driver. On a particularly sharp corner, we saw a bus carcass lying far below in the gorge.

I’ve been on a great many uncomfortable and terrifying bus rides in my travels, but this one by far took the cake. Not just took the cake, but devoured it, smeared icing all over its face, and laughed maniacally in my face.

So as we started heading up to higher ground, I was more worried about the inevitable ride back than I was about anything those mountains might throw at me. We spent our first night at 1800m in Barabal, an absolutely tiny place with no other trekkers, and the second in Bamboo (2100m).

When it all started to go pear-shaped…

Before we left Bamboo that morning, I threw up a few times. I took that as a sign to take some Diamox and start drinking more water. I felt mostly fine, so we headed off for another six hours hiking uphill, stopping for the night when we reached Ghora Tabela (2900m). The next morning, I felt nauseated, but I didn’t have a headache, so I figured the Diamox was doing its magic and I was acclimatizing alright.

Once you leave Ghora Tabela, the forest gives way to wide, “flat” (don’t believe anyone when they tell you a path is “flat” in Nepal; “flat” is just code for “not vertical”) panoramas surrounded by huge snow-capped peaks. It was gorgeous, and after three days of forest, I was happy for a change of scenery. I was still nauseated and I had the trails of a headache coming on, but I felt okay to keep going, so we started out.

We’d nearly reached Langtang (3500m) when I started slurring my words. We stopped for a rest, and I realized I was having a lot of troubles taking things in and out of my backpack. I chalked this up to exhaustion, but I think my trek-mate was concerned. Once I stopped being capable of walking in a straight line, he decided something wasn’t quite right, turned me around, and we started heading back downhill.

It was like I had all the shitty parts of being drunk and being hungover, without the deliciousness of wine: I couldn’t focus; I couldn’t walk straight, or speak without slurring; I had a headache kept throwing up; I couldn’t function quite right. But I felt great: energetic and chatty and just a tiny bit stumbly.

Mountains: pretty, but generally out to get me.

About an hour later, we ran into a man who worked as some kind of EMT in the US park ranger service. He took one look at me, asked “Does she normally talk like this?” and then got an extremely concerned look on his face. He asked me to close my eyes and touch my nose with my finger. I was pretty sure I’d passed this test, which I guess meant I was fine and I should stop being such a weakling and get my butt back up the mountain.

I later learned that I apparently completed this task with all the grace and agility of a newborn puppy on LSD. When I opened my eyes, the stranger was giving my friend some highly-illegal dexamethasone, along with strict instructions that, were I to pass out, he was to put one under my tongue and it would buy us another four hours of me-be-conscious in order to keep hiking. He told us to just keep walking down, and not to stop until I quit acting like a crazy drunkard, even if it got dark, which would have been pretty treacherous in and of itself. He told me I had all the classic signs of a cerebral edema.

My friend was a lifesaver. He refused to let me carry my own backpack, and refused to let me stop for anything. We kept on trudging down for a few more hours, and by 2500m, I was walking in a straight line again. The term “come down” has never felt quite as literal as it did then.

Once my head was on straight again, we stopped for the night, and suddenly it hit me how badly that whole thing could have gone. If I hadn’t had someone with me, I might never have turned around, and while technically there are a couple of army helicopter landing pads in some of the bigger settlements, the logistics of getting me back down once I’d passed out would have been pretty nightmarish, if not downright impossible.

Let’s talk about altitude sickness

HACE (high-altitude cerebral edema, where your brain swells) is a rare condition, especially at the altitudes I was at. HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema, where your lungs fill with fluid) is the more common progression of AMS (acute mountain sickness, sucky but not life-threatening). Both conditions will kill you like it’s their job and they’re in line for a big promotion. In the case of HACE, which is what I had, most people die within twenty-four hours, and they fall into a coma before that. Basically, you have a few hours to descend before things start getting catastrophic.

Mountain sickness doesn’t discriminate based on age, fitness levels, or overall health: there’s no real way of telling who will get it and who won’t, and having it once doesn’t mean you’ll get it again (or vice-versa.) Diamox will help your body acclimatize more rapidly, but the only cure for HACE or HAPE is to get back down to somewhere where the air has more oxygen—something that’s often a challenge when you’re up in the mountains, with limited access to basically anything.

If you’re planning to trek in Nepal, or generally hang out anywhere above 1500m: read this article. Twice. Make sure to drink lots of water. Bring some Diamox. Hold off on the booze. Pay attention to how much you ascend each night. If you start experiencing symptoms of AMS, drink a litre of water and stop ascending until you feel better. (If your headache goes away after the water, you’re just dehydrated. Drink more water!) If you start experiencing symptoms of HACE (slurred speech, confusion, loopy walking, general drunk-acting) or HAPE (rattling breath, wet or bloody cough, breathlessness, fast breathing or heart rate not caused by exercise), head for lower ground immediately. Do not stop, do not pass Go, just keep walking until you’re not sick anymore.

I count myself extremely lucky. Had I not had people with me who recognized I was sick and helped me out, my story may have ended on a very different note. I’d read up on altitude sickness time and time over again, and I was doing everything right to prevent it, it still hit me, and I didn’t even realize what was happening when it did.

Royal Enfield #21, buffalo
Number one plus of not having died of mountain sickness: I can ride another one of these one day! (This bike’s kick start gave me a bruise on my calf the size of a tennis ball.)

I’d like to go back up into the mountains, and this experience hasn’t scared me off of them. But for now: I think I’ll be sticking at sea level for a while.

Petra above the Monastery

A single white female in the Middle East

Last week, I was in Amman, Jordan. It was the middle of the day, and I was walking down a fairly trafficked street toward the city centre. A little boy came up to me at a crosswalk. He was probably around eight or ten. Kids—and people in general—in Jordan are quite friendly, but when he offered me his hand to shake, I was still a little wary. But I didn’t want to be rude. What’s the worst that could happen? I figured he’d just try to steal my purse, but I had my eye on that.

He didn’t grab my purse. He grabbed my breast.

I was pretty thrown. I may have moved to hit him with the purse that he apparently had zero interest in stealing, after all, before I collected myself and realized that retaliation of any sort was probably a bad idea. So I just kept walking, with my arms crossed over my chest, trying to look as invisible as possible. (Note: when you’re a very white redhead in an Arabic country, this is harder than you’d think.)

I’ve told this story a few times since. Everyone has thought it was a funny story. To me, it wasn’t really funny at all. I felt violated. It doesn’t matter that it was just a little kid, and it doesn’t matter that it was a “relatively harmless” act. My personal space was been invaded. I don’t want anyone—boy, girl, old, young, pretty, ugly—coming up to me in the street and grabbing any part of me. I don’t think I’m alone in that.

A lot of people have reservations about travelling alone while possessing lady-style genitalia. Wikitravel has a whole page of tips for women, although it’s actually surprisingly short. I know women who don’t feel comfortable walking around foreign cities at night or without a tour group. I’ve had people give me all kinds of advice on what I should or should not do in certain places, and generally I’ve ignored it. Most of the time, I chalk this well-meaning advice up to the kind of naive xenophobia often experienced by people who haven’t travelled a great deal. The world is a surprisingly safe place if you pay attention and know what you’re doing.

I’d be lying if I said I’ve never had bad experiences. I landed in a Thai jail after being robbed of most of my most useful belongings (and probably assaulted). My drink was spiked with something in a nightclub in Budapest, and I didn’t make it out until the next day. I had too much to drink with a fellow in Colombia and ended up having to physically fight my way out of his apartment.

Some of these stories wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been drinking. As a result, I’ve learned to be more careful about when and where I drink. But my bad experiences aren’t only travelling stories. I’ve experienced various forms of sexual assault in my own country, and from men I trusted. My stories aren’t uncommon. Travelling alone may make me more vulnerable, but lousy humans exist in all corners of the world. Once you’ve been alive for long enough, you’re almost guaranteed to encounter someone who thinks they have more rights to your body than you do.

Travelling in Islamic countries makes me think about this a lot. I hate to further perpetrate the cultural, political, and ideological rifts between the Arab world and the Western world in saying this, but this part of the world is different, and in some ways, I’m not quite comfortable with it.

This isn’t true of all Muslim countries. I had no problems in Malaysia or Bosnia-Herzegovina. I absolutely loved Turkey. And I’ve met a great many individual Muslims—and Arabs—who have been interesting, respectful, considerate, and absolutely lovely people. Certain aspects of the culture, particularly the strong sense of hospitality, are really wonderful to experience.

But denying there’s a difference is essentially sticking your head in the sand. Generally speaking, most Muslim countries, especially those in the Arab world, have huge gender gaps, in both a cultural and legal sense. Jordan is touted as “one of the most modern and liberal nations in the region,” and as a result, I expected to feel more comfortable there than I did in, say, Morocco. But while Jordan has a lot going for it—the people are friendly, there’s lots of great food and cool restaurants & cafes—it’s nowhere near “progressive” by Western terms.

Did I mention it’s gorgeous? It is so gorgeous. I have far too many horrible photos of mountain ranges that don’t even begin to express how gorgeous they are.

For starters, you just don’t see that many women around. Simply by virtue of being a woman walking down the streets, I was attracting attention. I once made the mistake of going out in a skirt that only came to my knees, and every single person on the street openly stared at me. The few women I did see glared at me. No matter how hot it was, I always had to wear jeans and full-length sleeves, making sure all skin that wasn’t on my face was covered. Even then, I was constantly greeted by comments, in various languages that I did or didn’t understand, about my appearance.

It made me feel like public property. There’s something discomfiting about feeling that people think they have rights to you, because you’re dressed a certain way or because you’re a western woman travelling without a male companion.

I went down south, to Aqaba, within walking distance of the border with Saudi Arabia. I thought I’d spend a couple of days swimming in the Red Sea before I headed back to Israel. I was a little uncertain about appearing in public in a bathing suit—for once, not because I was self-conscious, but because I didn’t want to be disrespectful. But then I figured, what the hell. It’s hot as balls, and I’m not going swimming in my jeans.

For the most part, it was fine—the beach seemed mostly populated by westerners on holiday. A woman did come by to tell me something in Arabic that I didn’t understand, but given that she kept pointing at me and then miming a beard, I think she was chastising me for lying on the beach in a swimsuit without a man to chaperone me. At first I felt guilty for being the thoughtless, scandalous foreigner who can’t respect the local traditions. But then, as I thought more about it, I realized there’s a double standard there. I don’t care if a Jordanian woman comes to my country and wears hijab, and I don’t care if a European woman comes and sunbathes topless on my beaches. (You know, if she can find any that aren’t covered in snow.) Tolerance goes both ways, and I don’t feel like I need to buy a ‘burquini’ just so I can uncomfortably wade/drown/splash about in the water, basically fully-dressed.

I am a big fan of tolerance. And though I’m quite staunchly secular myself, I have often argued with anti-religious types that people should be free to believe whatever the fuck they want to, provided they don’t impose those beliefs on other people. But the idea that women should dress modestly so that they won’t lead men to sin is fundamentally sexist, and it’s 90% of what I dislike about religion (and our delightfully slut-shamey society) wrapped up in a neat little package. The more I read about Jordan-this so-called “progressive” country—the more perturbed I was by it. A man still has the right to decide whether his wife works or not. (And most don’t, which is a big part of why women are often excluded from the public sphere.) Honour killings, while not legal per se, are still common, and are still punished less severely than other murders. The Jordanian legal system is still primarily based on the incredibly misogynistic Shari’a law, which states that a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s (because we’re weak-minded and prone to forgetting things), that divorce is almost entirely in a man’s control, and that women have substantially less rights than men, pretty much across the board.

The result of this is that I found myself in a country where I constantly needed to police myself. I was overwhelmingly struck with the idea that people looked at me and saw, not an independent, strong, and valuable human being, but a piece of as-yet-unclaimed property. And because I’m obviously not a Muslim, my value as a human being is even less.

I’m used to comments. I get them a lot anywhere south of the United States—Mexico, Argentina, Colombia. But while the catcalls and stares annoy and frustrate me, I don’t feel like I need to police my behaviour in order to travel there. I don’t feel as vulnerable walking down the street there, and I think it’s because—while people still think the catcalls are okay—it’s more about machismo than it is a general disrespect for my personal autonomy.

I’m happy to be back in Israel, where I could walk the streets in a tank top and not feel like I was being violated by everyone I walked past. And though Israel is trending towards increased gender segregation, it’s still a very modern, Westernized country, where you see women out and about in public, wearing what they want and not being attacked for it.

But I think it’s going to be a while before I return here. It’s been an interesting experience, and I’m glad I did it, but I’m in no hurry to repeat it. (I said much the same about Morocco when I was there.) There are huge tracts of the world that I still haven’t explored, where I can feel safe as a lone woman.

This just isn’t one of them.

Little Petra
I spent three nights camped out in the desert with a super-friendly group of Bedouins who very nearly restored my faith in the men of this part of the world. These mountains, scattered throughout the desert, helped too.

Bushplane in Costa Rica

I came home; or, how giving up isn’t always giving in

Six months. I’ve been meaning to write a blog post for six months. During that time, at least once or twice every month, I’d say to myself, very sternly, “this week, I’m going to do it. This week, I’m going to write a damned blog post.”

This week, I’m going to write a damned blog post.

I actually wrote the above, and a great deal of the below, over a month ago. I just never got around to writing the last paragraph and coming up with a title that wasn’t completely asinine. Somehow, writing this post has become an insurmountable task.

It’s weird, but I seem to be much better at managing the odd post here and there when I’m travelling. It might seem that the big gaps between posts are when I disappear off into the jungle somewhere, but in actuality it’s the reverse. When I’m in Canada, chained to a desk sixteen hours a day with super-fast internet, I write notably less.

I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s that my stories are smaller: border crossings are less thrilling, I’m not constantly being thrown into new situations (or jail) or having my things stolen repeatedly. Maybe it’s that the stories are harder to tell because they’re somehow even more personal. I’ve been this vagabond woman for a few years now, and I feel as though it almost splits me into two people. Somehow, it feels as though Canada Sarah’s stories just aren’t as interesting as Travel Sarah’s.

This story belongs to both Sarahs.

So the craziest thing happened when I was in Colombia: I came home early. I’m pretty certain that’s the first time that’s ever happened. When I went to Argentina a few years ago, I only intended to stay three months. When I realized I hadn’t tanked my business by running off to South America, I changed my flight to stay an extra two months. Since then, my trips have invariably ended up lingering on the longer side, and I’ve always been a little crestfallen to come home.

But this time, something changed.

I flew to Costa Rica to travel with a boy I’d met in Thailand. We’d spent a few months together in the UK and travelling through eastern Europe since, so I thought I was sure of him. We were somewhere in the dusty, empty space between Nicaragua and Costa Rica when things took a sour turn. Turns out we weren’t the friends I thought we were, and he wasn’t the person I thought he was. Of course, we were still travelling together. So: we fought constantly; I felt trapped. My stress levels skyrocketed. I couldn’t work for an hour without triggering a massive argument. Everything I did became a trigger: wanting to go for a twenty-minute run, having ten-minute conversations with the bartender, texting a friend at home who was going through something traumatic, refusing to have a third glass of bourbon, checking my email, listening to music on a long-distance bus while trying to fall asleep.

Jardin Secreto
My best night in Nicaragua was when I prevented my friend from drunkenly squaring off with a particularly vicious-looking cactus, then went for a long run through the broken, unlit, and uneven streets of the town at 2am in an attempt to “de-stress.” Said attempt was largely unsuccessful.

It’s scary being stranded in a foreign country with someone you suddenly don’t trust. Far scarier than being in a foreign place all by yourself. I didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t know how to graciously back out. In all my misadventures travelling, I’ve never felt as unsafe as I did then.

So I didn’t.

I bade my time a bit, waiting until we were somewhere I felt secure enough of my exit strategy. Then, I picked a massive fight, escalated things, and, in no uncertain terms, kicked him out of the place we’d rented. It wasn’t a pretty scene, and I wish I’d be able to do things in a cleaner way.

When all the dust settled, all I wanted was to be around the people I loved.

For the first time, I actually wanted to go home. I missed my friends. I missed feeling safe. I missed being around the people who cared about me. I missed being around people who treated me like an independent created. I missed being loved without having my agency stolen from me.

I had a return flight to Colombia from Costa Rica, and a return flight from Colombia to Canada. My original plan was to return to Colombia, miss my last flight leg to stay in Bogotá, then wait for my flight out: either by hiding in an airport hotel a few days, or absconding off on a very brief stint to Curaçao. Waiting wouldn’t have killed me. All told, if I’d followed my original plan, I’d have been home in a little over a week. I’d been in South America three months already, I liked Colombia, and I don’t exactly have troubles keeping myself busy.

But I’d had enough. For the first time, I just wanted to go home. I wanted for things to be easy. I was tired of fighting.

So I booked the first flight out of Costa Rica that made sense, and came home.

Costa Rican bushplane
On the plus side, when you fly in Costa Rica, the plane is tiny and holds fourteen people. Boarding is a breeze, turbulence is wild, and you land on mostly gravel runways at airports that are largely just sheds. Not recommended if you like flight attendants, or people telling you to buckle your seatbelt. Highly recommended if you’re not a fan of transit-related ridiculousness.

I’ll admit it, after cancelling my flight, I felt awful. I was sad to cut my adventures short. I was disappointed, and I felt as though I was taking the easy way out somehow, or afraid to brave new adventures or face things that make me uncomfortable. I worried that maybe I was running away from my problems. I felt like I’d failed.

But I’ve devoted most of my life to doing things that make me uncomfortable. I often genuinely believe that, if something terrifies me, I should make a point of doing it, just so I know that I can, and so that I can face my fear head-on. I don’t think I’m in any danger of losing that quality.

Coming home wasn’t a failure. Not then. It was, in many respects, much harder than just sticking it out for a few more weeks. Staying would have been more of a failure on my part than leaving.

I’ve learned a lot about travelling as I’ve become more entrenched into my vagabond lifestyle. I think one of the most important lessons has been that, sometimes, it’s okay to make things a bit easier on yourself. You don’t always need to do things the absolute hardest way possible, just to make sure that you’re getting a “full experience.” Doing something because it feels right, or because it will make you happy, isn’t a sign of weakness.

It’s a sign you know to get out before you get devoured.

I came home. But I came home sane, and I came home retaining my sense of self. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a win.

Cartagena centro

I love heels: confessions of a materialistic traveller

Sometimes, I can be awfully stupid.

A month ago, I left Montreal for a three-month trip to Colombia. My flight was at 5am, and I made the mistake of having a little bit (see: “rather a lot”) of wine before I headed to the airport. By the the time I came to my senses, I was standing outside Pearson, smoking a cigarette, and my carry-on bag was nowhere to be seen.

Unfortunately, that carry-on contained two pairs of subscription glasses, my flat iron, my portable speaker, an assortment of “just in case” malaria tablets, the overwhelming majority of my clothing, all of my beloved girly things that prevent me from being a snarling untamed beast, and various charging cords.

I landed in Bogotá six hours later, hung over, tired as hell, and desperately wishing I owned a toothbrush. It took a few days to get myself sorted out so that I looked human again and could charge my phone. Assembling what approximates a sensible array of clothing took still more time. (Although the latter point was not helped much by moving through a variety of different climates in short succession.)

Cartagena centro
These guys are better equipped to walk the streets of this city than I was when I first got here. I’ve since bought a pair of jeans (too hot for Cartagena most days, the only acceptable attire in Bogotá) and a few more dresses now, but I still have brutal blisters from my footwear.

It’s not the first time I’ve lost important things while travelling. I lost my iPhone my first ten minutes in Argentina. Bangkok and Phnom Pehn claimed two of my purses, one containing only a knife and a phone charger, the other containing a phone, money, and one of my passports. I left yet another iPhone in a bus station in the south of Spain, and then had almost all of my electronics stolen in Lisbon a few weeks later.

As a result, I’m pretty aware of how vital an item really is to me. Computer: vital. Phone: pretty damned important, especially when in transit. Charging cords: awful to be without, especially in places where replacements are hard to find. Hair straightener: technically not the end of the world. I’ve been known to hide my laptop under couch cushions and mattresses in relatively safe places, just in case.

Colombia hasn’t been what I’d call easy to me thus far. I later lost a sweater and my Kindle to Medellín, and chose to fly to Cartagena so I wouldn’t go insane on a twelve-hour bus with no reading material. I landed in Cartagena late at night, went to my previously-arranged hostel, and was rudely informed they were completely full. I ended up wandering the streets for a few hours, knocking on every hostel’s door only to be rejected by them all. I contemplated sleeping on the beach or in a park for a while, before I finally found a hotel in a different neighbourhood. I did eventually sort out an apartment for myself, but it’s a bit less fancy than I’m often accustomed to. There are no screens on my window and no air-con, so closing the window is out of the question and I get eaten alive by mosquitoes at night. At one point there was no running water for over twenty-four hours, and it never comes out of the tap hot (or cold) anyway. There’s no fridge in my kitchen, so I’m intimately aware of how quickly certain foods go bad in tropical heat. The heat and my tiny, uncomfortable bed have teamed up to make it extremely difficult for me to get to sleep like a normal human.

Cartagena balcony
Even in the historical centre, Cartagena can be a bit shabby. I have to be really careful walking or running through the streets. Especially in my part of town, there are huge holes in the sidewalks, big enough for me to fall into, and filled with trash and stagnant water.

But mostly, I’ve adjusted. As much as I don’t need all those things, I also don’t really require that many creature comforts. It feels like a facile statement, and it’s one that’s often made by people who don’t really understand its full implications. The thing is, it’s a lot easier to have nothing when you have money. It’s a really weird inverse relationship, because most people tend to associate the collection of material goods with financial wellness, and most often, they’re linked. But it’s easier to live with less stuff if you have more money. It means you can rent things you need. Go out for dinner six times a week. Pay for yoga classes instead of owning a mat. Wash your clothing at a laundromat every week.

Travelling long-term, stuff becomes important. I think about stuff a lot. What did I forget to bring that I wish I had, what do I wish I hadn’t brought? Ultimately, what I do bring gets smaller with every trip. Sometimes that’s just a matter of condensing many cheap things into one expensive thing—a Kindle, or these shoes. Sometimes it’s a matter of culling what you bring down to the bare essentials.

But while there’s a growing trend of travellers pushing toward ultra-minimalism, I’m just not there. I could travel with only travel-store pants that zip off into shorts, a pair of hiking sandals, and a bar of soap, but my comforts are important to me. A pretty dress, a tube of eyeliner, and a hair straightener makes me feel more like myself, and that’s worth the extra weight when I’m traipsing around the world, by myself, often lost, lonely, and adrift. Does that make me shallow and materialistic?

Ábaco y libros
My book collection doesn’t rival this, but it’s trying. If I were a “good” minimalist, I’m sure I’d get rid of the ten or so boxes of books I own, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Those books are a part of me, and eventually I’ll own an apartment and some bookshelves again.
This is a coffeeshop-cum-bookstore in Cartagena. It would be the best place in the planet to work if it didn’t have ceiling fans mounted beneath the lights. I feel as though I’m going to have a seizure.)

I’d like to think not. I expect there will be people who will judge me for being high-maintenance. For not being as thoroughly invested in travel as I should be. For focusing on material things that are ultimately unimportant.

But I think it’s about balance. And ultimately, travelling is as much about understanding yourself as it is about understanding other places, and about finding your own balance when the world around you is constantly changing. My entire world changes every few months. Very little remains the same, and sometimes I need things that tie me to my sense of self.

So if I need a flat iron and a pair of killer heels to feel like I’m at home? That’s fine. My back can handle the extra weight, and I won’t be seeing any less of the world because of it.

A motorcycle I named Katy

How I fell off the face of the earth for six months (while proceeding to criss-cross it)

My intentions have been good, I swear. I’ve started writing this blog post quite a few times. I’ve definitely thought about it a great many times. I’ve sworn, an immeasurable number of times, that no, really, this week, this week is going to be the week I’m just going to sit down and write the damned thing. And every time, something else comes up that becomes more important, and it ceases to be a Priority.

So in the interests of getting something written, and getting back into the habit of actually writing here on a regular basis, I’m just going to write about the last six months. No deeper meaning or message. Just a “here’s what I’ve been doing for all that time where it looks as though I may have fallen off the face of the planet.”

1. I lost more things, and had more disasters, in more foreign countries.

While I was still living in Barcelona, I ended up living above a rather curmudgeonly gentleman who took an immediate disliking to me. He proceeded to call the police on me, cut my power so as to leave me without electricity for three days, and scream obscenities at me in Spanish whenever there was noise in my apartment after 8pm. My “hosts” there sided with him, in spite of an absolute lack of empirical evidence, and nearly booted me from the place. (While it worked out in the end, it was an extremely stressful situation that often lead to my nearly living out of the fantastic co-working space there.)

I took off from Barcelona and started living out of a backpack again soon after that. I travelled down into the south, which I loved, and then spent a day hiking all the way across (and then up) Gibraltar, a country so tiny you can actually do that. (And in order to get there, you have to wait for the airplanes to land, then walk across a live runway.) I left my iPhone in a bus station in Spain en route to the ferry in Morocco, which meant I was suddenly forced to reckon paper maps pilfered from bus stations and information counters again, which I’d rather forgotten how to do. My power cord decided to fray and die on my last day in Marrakesh, which just happened to be the day it was a sweltering 48°. (I ended up sitting on the rooftop of my riad with tortoises crawling over my feet, reading German fashion magazines in a desperate attempt to stave off the conviction that I was slowly being roasted alive.)

And then, once I made it to Lisbon, things got crazier. I stayed in a gorgeous little house within the castle walls, near a hookah bar that was open for ages and made lovely cocktails. Lisbon was fun and exciting and gorgeous, and one of my favourite cities ever, I’m quite convinced.

And then I came “home” to discover that my house had been broken into. They stole anything that might possibly have any value: my laptop, my broken power cord, my hard drive (with all my backups on it), my hairdryer, my travel adapters, my tiny speaker, and a five pound note that could only be spent in Gibraltar.

On the plus side, now I own a new laptop with a Portuguese keyboard that confuses the hell out of everyone but me, and my bag was much lighter by the time I got back to Canada.

Katy the motorcycle

I named her Katy because I woke up one morning and had ‘I caught the Katy’ stuck in my head. Her key is tied with a big red ribbon that flies around while I ride her, and it’s basically the girliest thing I could have done to a sportbike beyond putting streamers on her handlebars.

2. I bought a motorbike named Katy.

I think my original plan was to head from Spain, stop in London briefly, spend a week in Iceland, then head back to Halifax. Somewhere in Spain, these plans all changed. (I’ve noticed lately that I judge time not by duration or season like normal humans, but by country of residence, then work it out from there.) Instead, I ended up crisscrossing up and down Portugal a bit, then flying out to the Azores—tiny little islands in the middle of the Atlantic that I wasn’t even aware existed—for a day before flying back to Montreal instead.

Technically, I now “live” in Montreal, inasmuch as I live anywhere. I’ll eventually have an apartment here, but for the moment, I’m still wandering a bit, and using Montreal as something of a base.

A number of people have pointed out that it’s a little strange that, within a couple of weeks of returning to Canada, I had managed to procure a motorbike, but had no particular intention of finding an apartment. I think this is utter nonsense. If push comes to shove, I don’t really own that many things. I can sleep in my motorbike like other people sleep in their cars.

At any rate, I came back for the summer. I learned to do crazy things, like ride a 125cc motorcycle on Montreal’s ridiculous highways. I got in the habit of singing/screaming at top volume, inside my helmet, when I thought the wind blast or insane traffic was going to send me careening off the road to my death. I went for long bike rides through Laval with my dad. I learned to ride at night, in the rain, with a passenger, and all combinations thereof. I learned a lot (although I still have a great deal to learn) and I learned a lot about myself in overcoming my own fears and self-doubts, and, even though I didn’t go anywhere further than Ottawa for three solid months, I actually had a rather delightful summer.

3. I went back to Europe again.

I lived a thirty-minute train ride from London for two months, and came to grips with the fact that, in spite of considering myself equal parts Brit and Canadian, England feels no more like home than Canada does. I did a whirlwind tour of eastern Europe, exploring various post-Communist bloc countries via long overnight sleeper trains. I returned to the hot baths of Budapest, much more intense at night in the winter, when the air is seven degrees and the water is absolutely mired by a layer of steam. I bribed the conductor of the Russian train for a sleeper car, using only hand gestures and my two-word command of Russian. I wandered through Transylvanian towns, thinking of vampires and gypsies. I was surprised by the elegance and charm of Bulgaria. I explored Belgrade’s strange bars and drank far, far too much rakkia for my own good. I learned bits of strange languages and fell in love, all over again, with the Balkans. I lived in a place that spoke English again, for the first time in an entire year, and discovered that it’s not really all that different.

Dia de los Muertos

Oh, and I did this for Hallowe’en: painted faces with black eyeliner and lipstick, and then went to a fantastic Rodrigo y Gabriela/Día de los Muertos show held by the Mexican embassy in the abandoned Tube Old Vic tunnels underneath the Thames.

4. I saw snow for the first time in three years.

And wow, did I ever see a lot of it. I came back to Montreal for the holidays, and had my first “family” Christmas in years. (Admittedly, it primarily consisted of my sister and I drinking a lot of champagne and then preparing a massive quantity of tapas, but it’s still the closest I’ve come to normality in ages.)

I was really, really, really excited to see snow. The first night I was back, I wandered around in the snow, absolutely fascinated by the strange quiet it induces in a place.

Nearly a month later, and I’m less entranced. I remember why I’ve been avoiding winters for so long. Canada may have many things going for it, but it is a cold, cold country. I forgot how cold -20° feels. It’s cold.

But I’ve been spending time with people I love, which I’ve missed. And recently, I’ve been struck by the desire to “slightly redesign” my own website, which of course has turned into the sort of project I’d charge three figures for, because I’m an obsessive nutjob and I can’t stop with just one tiny little tweak. But I’m learning a lot of new things, and I’m refining my processes. I have all sorts of ideas for where I want to take my business, and this new site is just the tip of the snowy, snowy iceberg.

Snow!

Montreal in the winter. It proceeded to snow about four feet and destroy my plans of going to New York for New Years’, which I only just now realized would have a beautiful sort of alliterative-feel to it, and now I’m a bit sadder I didn’t make it after all.

Originally, I’d planned on writing a long post talking about my big nine-month cross-world tour. I had big plans: I was going to make this great big infographic with all kind of numbers and charts and pictures. In my head, it’s the most brilliant thing anyone’s ever written and/or designed.

Ultimately, I failed at putting it all together, I think in part because I’d built up so much expectation in my head, that I wasn’t able to translate it on paper. I was trying the sum up this trip as one single entity, when the thing is—I don’t think I ever stopped. I still haven’t stayed in one place longer than a few months, and I’m still constantly wandering about, exploring new places. Hell, Montreal is, in many respects, more foreign to me than London is.

In 2011, I spent five months in Canada, and went to seven countries in two continents. In 2012, I spent three and a half months in Canada, and visited twenty-two countries in four continents. I haven’t even returned to the city I originally left, some fifteen months ago, except for a brief stopover in the airport (where I was met with beers and tackle-hugs from my best friend.) Travel isn’t a passing infatuation or a temporary state of being for me. It’s who I am, and it’s a part of my life I don’t think I’m able to deny anymore. I’ve worked really hard so that I’ve been able to do this—to travel consistently, to make up my own rules, and to change my location without losing out. And, somewhere along the line, it started working. This is just what I do.

Maybe this means I can actually start writing about design again.

Graffiti in Granada

Point A to Point Z: the how-to of vagabond-working

Travelling, I meet a lot of new people. Invariably, I have the same conversations with them, over and over again, at least until we get past the formalities of who are you, why are you here, what do you do… The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: “I run my own business, so I pretty much work from anywhere I have internet.”

New Stranger Friend: “Oh my! That’s so cool! You’re so lucky!”

Me: “I know. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a whole three years, so I’m lucky I’ve been able to make it happen! I’m extremely fortunate.”

By and large, once people stop fawning over how lucky I am (depending on how magnanimous I’m feeling, I’ll either agree with them wholeheartedly or make a pointed comment about how I worked like mad to make this happen), they invariably start wondering how it all works.

Really, sometimes I’m sort of amazed things haven’t totally fallen apart for me yet. I’ve been doing this vagabond thing fairly permanently for the last year and a half, in which I’ve spent five months in Canada, and my business hasn’t suffered in the least for it. In that time, I’ve been to eighteen different countries, taken innumerable flights, trains, ferries, and buses, and crossed borders back and forth countless times. In all that, I’ve only taken five days of real, honest-to-goodness “time off”, when I was in the Amazon. Through it all, I’ve been working and (for the most part) I’ve managed to stay on top of running a business while running all over the world.

The second most popular phrase I hear from strangers is “How do you do it?”

I run my business in a highly unorthodox manner, I’ll admit. I wrote a business plan once six years ago. I wrote it in two hours and haven’t looked at it since. I tend to eschew a lot of common business practises, and I stopped doing any legitimate attempt at marketing years ago. My business probably shouldn’t survive, according to all common wisdom.

Graffiti in Granada

If my ‘business plan’ were a picture, it would look something like this. Maybe with Munsch’s ‘The Scream’ and a bit of Kadinsky thrown in for good measure and messiness. Graffiti in Granada’s old maze-streets.

That said, here’s how I make it work for me.

1. You need a reliable friend at “home.”

For me, this is my roommate-cum-househusband. I’m not sure I could do this thing I’m doing without him. (Thanks again, Dan!) Most of my clients still pay me by cheque, and having nine months’ worth of cheques piled up in a post office box is simply not a viable solution. Before I left for Argentina, I went and chatted with my bank, and they signed my househusband on to my business chequing account—I think he can only deposit money, but I trust him inherently. I invoice my clients in batches, so that all cheques are due either on the first or the fifteenth of the month. On those days, Dan counts up all the cheques that have come in, sends me a report of who’s paid and who’s outstanding, and cashes them. My business account is linked to my personal account, so I can transfer money back and forth when required using my online banking.

Oh, and it’s pretty vital to have a personal account that doesn’t charge you for foreign ATM withdrawals, because that will eat up your money faster than you can imagine. North America tends to be very card-friendly. Everywhere else (especially South America and Southeast Asia) you’ll be operating almost solely on a cash basis, unless you’re going to pricey restaurants all the time. Food stands don’t take MasterCard.

2. Technology is your new best friend.

When I started this trip, I was travelling with two laptops: my Air, which I bought with as much memory and power as I possibly could, and an old and impressively beaten-up Macbook Pro I called “Lazarus” after he was revived from the dead two weeks after I poured scotch all over him. A lot of people told me I was crazy to be travelling with two laptops, and lugging the extra weight around was a pain, but it got me out of a few scrapes.

Ultimately, my business is dependent on my having access to a computer. Rentals and internet cafés don’t suffice in this regard: I need all my fonts, files, and applications, and I need to have enough processing power to do my work relatively quickly. Every day I’m computerless, I’m losing money (and esteem). In some parts of the world, Apple stores either don’t exist or will respond much, much more slowly to service requests. I’ve hurt computers in Argentina, in Mexico, and in Spain, and every time I did, I was grateful to have my old beaten-up machine with me. (I actually mailed the machine home to save on weight just before I left Thailand, hedging my bets that I’d be alright in Europe, and I only lost a few days due to the Spain Incident.)

It’s important to have as many failsafes in place as possible, in case the worst happens. Statistically speaking, the longer you travel, the more likely it is that the worst will, in fact, befall you. I carry a teeny tiny little external hard drive with me and plug it in on a regular basis so that all my files are backed up. I use Dropbox to back up anything super-vital or super-current. Basically, so long as I’m connected to the internet, it’s extremely hard for me to lose data.

And of course, internet is vital. It always surprises me that the countries that seem more developed often have lousier access to internet. Ultimately, you can never really be sure until you get there. One of the first things I do in a new country is buy a SIM card for my phone and load it with data. Most of the time, this at least affords me immediate access to email (helpful when dealing with weird time zone displacement issues) and the ability to tether my computer to my phone for (sometimes snailishly slow) internet access anywhere within the country. (Being able to text and phone people within the country without paying a fortune is just a bonus.) Surprisingly, coverage, price, and quality of service is much better in Cambodia or Mexico than it is in Spain, where I usually can’t even make a Skype call over 3G (and have no way to pay for faster speeds). Keep an eye out for cafés and bars that have free wireless (FourSquare is useful in this regard, as you can search for “wifi” and find the password out in advance). Make sure your laptop can handle being sans-power for a while. (Power outlets are ridiculously difficult to find in some countries.) Whenever I find a good place to work, I tend to go back there frequently.

Useful iPhone apps for travelling: World Travel Guide (WikiTravel offline; great for reading on the place before you land in a foreign place and if you need a phrasebook/guidebook), CityMaps2Go (not as good as Google, but the best offline-maps app I’ve encountered thus far), MetrO (public transit guide for tons of cities), Translate (imperfect translations are better than none), Currency (so you know what you’re taking out of the ATM before you accidentally take $1000), OnTheFly (awesome flight searches), WhatsApp (free text messaging via your data plan), Foursquare (finding places Google Maps won’t recognize, figuring out where to go for dinner). I vaguely remember travelling without a phone, but I think it was harder. In spite of my phone having been stolen twice (Argentina and Thailand) the expense is always worth the value it provides me.

3. Pack light. Stay long.

Working while you travel is different from how most people travel, and you need to take this into account while planning your trip. The first few times I travelled, I didn’t go for very long. (One week in Mexico, hopping around the Yucatan peninsula, followed by five weeks in Europe, where I rarely stayed in a single city much longer than a few days.) That sort of schedule is fine when you’re travelling like a normal person—when you have all day to go exploring and meet new people. But if you’re working as you do it, some days are just going to be a wash. Some days all you’ll see is the inside of the nearest café with wireless. It’s a slower process that requires a major change in the way you look at travel. Personally, I love travelling this way, but it’s not for everyone. For me, travel is more about seeing the way a place works and how people live there, rather than trucking around to every must-do tourist attraction on the list.

Horario

The hours of operation of a fruteria in Churriana de la Vega, Andulucía. It reads: ‘Open when we arrive, closed when we leave. Open 365 days a year.’ Spain, especially in the south and especially in smaller towns, has some really strange opening hours, which can take some getting used to. You adjust accordingly.

Either way, where you might stay a place for only a few days doing “regular travel”, you’d probably want to double (at least) that time for work-travel. Staying longer, luckily, opens up your accommodation options a bit more. I tend to use a variety of different methods to find homes and places to stay, but mine are all generally on the budget end of the spectrum. When I’m moving from place to place, I’ll couchsurf and stay in hostels for up to a couple of weeks consecutively, then I’ll splurge on a whole room to myself. My introvert nature can only manage the stress of sharing space with other humans for so long before I start going insane, and I plan for this.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from this trip, though, it’s that it’s much, much easier to buy a return ticket to one city, rent an apartment (or room) there, then do “offshoot trips” from that one home base. You’re a bit more limited in where you can go, and you can’t do some crazy all-the-way-around-the-world thing like I’m currently doing, but you don’t have to worry so much about lugging all of your belongings around, which means you don’t have to strip them down to the absolute essentials (and so you can keep your Lazarus!) At this point, I’m down to a backpack and a carry-on, but I started with a backpack, a tent, a carry-on, and an absolutely massive blue suitcase you could probably hide a person in. Things are always a liability (and even more so when you’re doing budget travel), and it’s nice being able to have them with you (especially if you’re gone for such a long time) without needing to worry about them.

I’ve managed to find some great apartments via AirBnB, both for short and long term. I can usually finagle a discount for extended stays, but I’m still paying more than locals do for rent. CouchSurfing will sometimes have discussion groups for a city, which can be a reliable way of finding a place to stay (especially with roommates) but there are some countries where it’s simply more practical and reliable to pay more for an easy apartment. (For example, my two-bedroom in Argentina cost $800, probably at least triple the “local cost” in pesos. Leases in Buenos Aires required a massive amount of paperwork, a two-year contract, and would generally take months to arrange. For five months, it simply didn’t make sense to go the cheaper route. Of course, since I haven’t had an apartment in Canada for a while, I don’t pay rent for an apartment I don’t use, which makes the financial commitment easier. When I return to Canada, I have vague plans of renting an apartment again, but I’m planning to use AirBnB again to rent out free space while it’s not being used, so hopefully it balances out for me again.

4. Be flexible.

Ultimately, the trick is to find out what works for you. I decided a few years ago that travel was important to me, and I’ve been figuring out a way to make it work for me ever since. This wasn’t a sudden thing; it’s something I’ve manipulated my business and behaviours to suit so that I’ll be able to do what I want to. Every time I take off, I play around with the rules a little bit. I still haven’t quite hit on the perfect formula. I’m not sure I ever entirely will, because the formula needs to take into account the culture of the place you’ll be immersed in, who you’ll be with (if anyone), and what sort of life you want to have outside of the 18 hours a day you’re working. All this will invariably shift, and you need to be able to adapt along with it.

I could go on for ages about this, but ultimately, the short answer to the “How do you do it?” question is this: I just do. It’s not magic, it doesn’t cost a fortune, and it isn’t unattainable. You just figure out how to make it work, and then you do it.

Ottoman coffee house, Istanbul

Between two continents and homes: doing the limbo in Istanbul

I left Bangkok at the tail end of Songkran, the Thai new year. At some point, Songkran was mostly about various Buddhist rituals of cleansing and blessings. It’s since evolved.

For three days, the entire country erupts into a massive full-scale waterfight. It was impossible to walk to the nearest 7-11 (in Thailand, this is always only a minute walk away) without being soaked through and covered in chalk, which strangers smudge on your face and arms like warpaint. In Bangkok, a city that’s blazing hot year-round, I swear the temperature shot up ten degrees the first day of Songkran. It was fiery out. The water, ice-cold at times, felt pretty fucking great. The whole city feels like it’s on holiday. Everyone reverts to acting like a five-year-old. Everyone is laughing and playing and running about dumping water on one another. There’s no notable difference, at least in my neighbourhood, between the Thais and the farangs. Everyone’s fair game.

I’ll admit I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Bangkok, and Asia in a larger scope. A lot of messed-up things went down during my time there, and I often felt disarmingly out of place. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Thailand, but I’m immensely glad I stayed the four extra days to catch Songkran. I’ve never seen anything quite so mad: it’s Thailand simultaneously at its best and at its worst. On the positive side, it’s delightful, childlike fun, and everyone forgets to be so guarded all the time. Of course, in Thailand, this means there are boatloads of fatalities from road accidents and insane drunken revelers. I read some pretty insane stories of people being stabbed when they didn’t want to play.

Songkran in Din Daeng, Bangkok

The only photo I got of Songkran, mostly because I quickly became very protective of my electronics and kept them hermetically sealed in super-resilient ziplock bags I’d bought for the Amazon. This is before things got really rowdy, so imagine the truckload of people spraying waterguns at the people on the street, who in turn are pitching buckets of water from those huge buckets at the passing vehicles. Also, make sure everyone’s covered in chalk.

Somehow this seems perfectly in line with my experience of Thailand and Southeast Asia. When I left Bangkok, I’d had three absolutely delightful days in which I finally stopped working. (And on a weekend, no less!) I relaxed, played, met new people, and generally fell in love with the country, really for the first time. There was some drama around my leaving that made it bittersweet. But then maybe that’s just how Thailand works: like their food needs to balance sweet and salty, sour and spicy, the experience never excludes the nastier aspects. Everything is balanced.

So I left with a bang, but ultimately made it out in one piece. I left for the airport, still soaked through and covered in chalk, with my giant suitcase and as many belongings as I could stuff into it. For me, this is “moving.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of home. It’s always been fluid, to some degree or another, but as I’ve become more and more a drifter, it’s become even more intangible. For me, all these places are home, even if they’re only temporary. Even if it’s only three months. Even if I have an end-date in mind. Even if I have an onward ticket (which I never do, because I’m a raging commitophobe).

These places are my homes because, in that temporary space of time, they’re where my life is. I develop routines, I work, I create my own space, I learn to salvage food from whatever I can find at the markets, I make friends, I form new habits. My life changes every time I move, because everything around me changes. But in that moment that’s who I am and that’s what my life is—there’s no sense that part of me is somewhere else, or that this specific moment is temporal and will pass.

And so every few months, I pack up and leave, and my whole life changes.

Turkish coffee in the Ottoman coffee house

Turkish coffee in the Ottoman coffee house in top of a hill on the Anatolian side of the city: delicious sludge.

It took me ten days to get from Bangkok, one temporary home, to Barcelona, my new home-for-a-while. I ended up in limbo. I spent eight excruciatingly painful hours stuck in the Mumbai airport, a little over a week in Istanbul, and fifteen hours in Athens en-route. In every place, I felt truly and utterly adrift.

I suspect that my sense of “roots” is different from most. In the past year and a half, I’ve made my homes in five different countries on four different continents. Travel has become an integral part of who I am: when I say I’m a vagabond, I really do mean it. I haven’t stayed in one place much longer than a month.

But in all that time, I’ve always had a “home” that anchored me. Even when travelling, I’d have a home to return to. I often have a matryoshka doll system of keys, where one key opens a room that contains another set of keys, and so on. In Istanbul, I didn’t even have keys, only couches and people’s telephone numbers. I didn’t have a place that was mine, and nowhere felt like home.

It was a truly bizarre feeling.

El Raval in the rain

Barcelona is gorgeous at all times, but I think it’s prettiest at night, in the rain. In El Raval, where I live now, there’s beautiful old buildings covered in gorgeous graffiti everywhere, and a million tiny winding side streets to explore everywhere.

A lot of people travel to explore themselves. This is especially true for people on a gap year, or people who’ve recently been fired, or people facing some kind of life-altering crisis. It’s a cliche to say that in exploring the world you’re exploring yourself, as mirrored in your own interactions with said changing world. But most cliches are true for good cause (and I believe that in itself is something of a cliche, and here we are with the infinitely looping mirrors and matryoshka dolls again). And it’s true: pushing your boundaries and exploring things outside your comfort zone teaches you more about yourself than it does about the world. It’s impossible to face so many external changes and not change, fundamentally, inside.

I’ve travelled 30,000km around the world from where I started out in October, leaving one home for a new uncharted one. (That’s just point-to-point, home-to-home, and doesn’t include all the offshoot trips I take from these homes. The map of my journey looks like a series of distracted loops blooming around fixed points.) I only have 6000 more kilometers to go before I reach my next home, months from now, and I don’t know who I’ll be when that happens.

But I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned my limits, and the things I need to stay (relatively) grounded. My original plan was to stay in Barcelona two months, then couchsurf my way around Spain/Morocco/Portugal/France/Iceland for the last month or so. But I’ve learned my limits, and I’ve learned how important it is to my mental well-being that I have a place, however small, however temporal, however tenuous, that is my own—that I can call home.

So as rootless as I thought I was, there are still anchors that hold me. I’d love to be a true vagabond woman, but I’m ready to admit that I’m not, really. I’m just forging my own strange path, as convoluted and seemingly random as it may be.

Elephant crossing!

My night in a Thai jail, and other sordid tales of despair

When I wrote about losing my mind in Cambodia, I wasn’t kidding. I really did start to feel as though I was losing my grip on sanity. I’d love to tell you I’ve beat it and everything is hunky-dory, but that hasn’t been the case. Some days over the last month, I’ve felt great. Most days, though, I’ve been breaking down into panic attacks at least once a day. I’ve been working essentially from the time I wake up to the time I go to sleep. I know it isn’t healthy, but I’ve been stressed about money—especially with my upcoming jaunt to Europe coinciding with that delightful time at which the taxman cometh—which means I’ve been taking on everything I can and trying as much as possible to get work out the door.

Working that obsessively for such a long period has only increased my stress levels. I wasn’t sleeping much either, so I went to a doctor in Thailand. He watched me as I wrung my wrists and rambled manically about all sorts of things, then prescribed me a whole slew of sedatives. I was hoping that would help me relax.

It did not.

The first night I was on these sedatives, I met a friend for drinks. Now, I’ve made some fairly wretched decisions in my life, and I’m certain I’ll make more. This was, undoubtedly, one of the absolute worst.

I remember a good portion of the evening. Then it starts getting hazy. Then it turns completely black until I’m somewhere, alone, shoeless, being picked up by the Thai police. I remember getting into their car only because I was convinced they had my purse, and they said they’d return it to me if I came with them.

Whether it was the Thai police or someone else who stole my purse, I’ll never know. My stint in the police station mostly consisted of me alternately breaking down into panicked tears or yelling at the police about my purse. Not surprisingly, neither of these tactics helped matters. At one point, I started rifling through the station, opening drawers and cabinets in the desperate hope of finding my bag. I didn’t, of course, but I did find a machete, which I carried around pretty purposefully for a bit before realizing I’d be in far, far more trouble if I threatened a cop with a machete.

Eventually, after my head started to clear, I started asking the police, quite aggressively, if they were planning on charging me with anything. They started being nicer to me. Somewhere along the line, I signed something written only in Thai. I’m so terrified of what it was, and honestly, I think this was the stupidest of my many stupid mistakes that night. With a clear head, I would never have signed something I couldn’t read. I’ve seen Brokedown Palace. I know how these things work.

But in a terrified, drugged haze, I signed.

And then I left, shoeless and lost. I was missing my Canadian passport, my money, my phone, and my cigarette-case. I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. According to the computer I snuck on in the police station, I was three hours’ walk from home. I debated the morality of the issue, then found the nearest subway station and jumped the stiles. I was so destroyed, I actually passed out on the floor of the train on my way home.

It was a nightmare.

Dragon temple in Kanchanaburi
Not the dragon that bit me, but he seemed about the size of it. He was part of a temple complex half in ruins outside Kanchanaburi, and he was at least thirty feet tall.

But landing myself in a Thai jail wasn’t even the worst thing I’d endured those last few weeks. I seem to be attracting trouble. First, there was the friendly gentleman who accosted me outside my house, grabbing his crotch and shoving it in my face until I shut the door on his. Then there was a man I met at a pub, who seemed perfectly pleasant until he attempted to forcibly have sex with me in an elevator. A muscled boy I danced with in a Khao San Road club pushed things too far. And I’m fairly certain I was attacked the night I ended up in the police station.

Overall, I’m not impressed with the men of Southeast Asia.

And then I had to deal with the Stolen Passport Problem. Of course it was a bigger problem than it needed to be, primarily because I’d last entered Thailand on my Canadian, rather than my British, passport, and thus I lacked the entry stamp required to exit the country. Fixing the Problem involved three separate trips to the Canadian embassy, a visit to a different Thai police station that nearly gave me PSTD flashbacks, and a trip to the Thai immigration bureau—a place that makes the DMV seem timely and organized. All this while balancing a complex array of impending travel plans, and soon-to-expire visas. Oh, and of course, I still had that giant pile of work that originally got me so stressed out to begin with.

The last few weeks have been such chaos, I can’t actually piece together in which order various events occurred. My sense of time is completely mangled. I can actually physically feel my stress levels spike.

So I did what any sane person would: I ran away from Bangkok. I didn’t even take my laptop with me. For twenty-six hours, I was actually incapable of working. In effect, I forced myself into holiday mode. For me, this meant swimming, sleeping like a human, then renting a motorbike and riding it around Kanchanaburi province.

Elephant crossing!
Hopefully I would have noticed if an elephant had been crossing. Otherwise, between me, the bike, and the elephant, I’m quite certain the elephant would have won.

I’m now in Malaysia for my last government-mandated visa run before I leave Thailand. My hosts here keep telling me to stop being such a workaholic, so clearly I haven’t entirely mended my ways. But I’ve been getting better, slowly, and I’ve stopped working quite so much. My stress levels feel as though they’re dropping, although I won’t be able to tell for certain until I’m back “home.” I’ve at least learned I can’t sustain working like a maniac every waking hour. For at least an hour every day, I’m stepping away from The Machine. It’s progress.

Something about that motorbike ride flicked a switch in my brain. When I started out, I was so terrified that I was visibly shaking. Mostly, I was worried that I’d make a mistake and break something—or myself—and have no way to cover the costs. Thailand happens to have one of the world’s highest motorbike-mortality rates: probably because they all drive like coked-out hyenas. And of course, I never have travel or health insurance. I consider them to be a form of gambling, which is the one vice I’ve never taken to. I was worried that I’d make another bad decision and end up in the hospital with no way to pay my bills and no way home.

But an hour or so into the ride, I realized something: I was doing alright! I started to relax for the first time in weeks, if not months. I started to enjoy myself. I smiled. I started to pay attention to the wind in my hair and the leaves on the trees, rather than focusing on where I was going. And when I pulled the bike back into the rental lot, the adrenaline surged, all my endorphins went crazy, and I was on the most massive high I’ve felt in some time.

I’d done it. One of the things that initially brought me to Thailand was the allure of renting a cheap bike and driving it about. Then my plans changed and I honestly thought it wouldn’t happen. But I did it! I drove a motorbike around Thailand, and I didn’t screw up once. I came out alive and unscathed, and totally thrilled by the whole experience.

Fiona, a Honda Click.
Fiona, my second motorcycle-love. Or maybe my third. I’ve got a lot of love to give, and I’m not stingy. I’ll always remember her fondly for my initial inability to get her started, and how ferocious she made me feel once I got a feel for her.

Thailand may have tried to take a bite out of me, and it sure as hell has given me some battle scars.

But ultimately, I came out the winner.