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!

No boys allowed

A year ago, I found myself in a tiny little café-slash-bookshop in Budapest, drinking Turkish coffee. There was a display of books on the wall opposite me: books that looked interesting, books I thought maybe I’d like to read. But then I noticed something that got under my skin: every single one of them was written by a man.

Women are half of the world’s population. (Actually, we’re a hair more than half.) We’re not a minority in any society, language, or culture. We’re technically the fucking majority.

Why are all our stories told by men?

Don’t get me wrong, I love men. Ask anyone who knew me when I was twenty-one. I love straight white men. I even have some friends who are straight, cis, able-bodied white men (probably).

But I’m tired of that same point of view always being the default.

Books written only by women.

I ransacked my bookshelves and discovered I barely even have enough books written by women to fill a whole shelf. I’m not proud of that fact.

And so I decided to read only books written by women—for the entire year. It wasn’t a particularly revolutionary experiment or a novel (ahem) idea. It’s definitely been done before. But I was curious. Maybe reading more books written by women would help me be less of a female chauvinist pig. Maybe it would reignite the passionate feminism of my youth. Maybe I’d just get to read a bunch of great books.

Here’s what happened

I didn’t expect what actually happened: I rediscovered my love for books.

I’m something of a book snob. I spent part of my high school years in a special audition-only arts school, writing sexually-charged poetry and over-engineered fiction. (Please don’t ask for samples.) As a result, I tend to lean toward classics and literary fiction. But somewhere between being constantly busy and exhausted from work for years on end, I stopped reading very much. I stopped finishing books. According to my Goodreads profile, I read a whole *two* books in 2015 (both non-fiction) and I’ve been reading Sexus since 2010. (Maybe it’s time I switch to a shorter book.)

Somewhere along the line I had lost my passion for literature. Limiting my choices actually made me fall back in love with books again.

What I read

I read thirty-five books in total—not exactly the OED, but a definite improvement over two. (Interestingly, my shortest book and my longest book were both by the same author. Thanks, data nerds at Goodreads!) Ten of those books were by women of colour (28%), seven were by LBGTQ-identified women (20%), and eight were predominantly set in non-“Western” countries (23%). Compared to a quick scan of my bookshelves, this is reasonably more diverse than I’d usually end up with. Without really trying, my choices started being a lot more intersectional* and diverse, just by virtue of limiting gender.

*Footnote: Apparently my browser doesn’t think “intersectional” in a valid word. Clearly The Patriarchy is in charge of dictionaries, too.

What I loved

I used to always read Russian literature during the winter—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov. My theory was that they were always colder, drunker, and more depressed than I was. (Not always true, but often true.) Before this year, I wouldn’t have been able to name a single female Russian author. Turns out they’re amazing: The Dream Life of Sukhanov was a lyrical delight and The Slynx was a viciously inventive distortion on typical dystopian narratives.

Perseopolis (I can’t believe I’d never read this) kick-started a fascination with Iran, leading to The Cypress Tree. I finally read Anaïs Nin. (And, unlike with Henry Miller, I actually managed to get through her totally-a-reasonable-length book. Thanks for your brevity, girlfriend!) I fell in love with the incomparable Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun made me cry like a baby and finally call my temporarily-somewhat-estranged little sister while I was in Bali.) I read a lot of good plane books (YA dystopian fiction!) and (mostly) don’t feel guilty about it. I rediscovered my long-lost love for Margaret Atwood, who is always best when she’s dropping the convoluted plots and focussing on world-building instead.

What’s next

Toward the end of the year, I realised it would only be right to make 2017 my year of only reading people-of-colour. That’s a bit harder to define than “women”, depending on how you want to look at it, but I’m going to use my best common sense and follow how people self-identify. Given that I’m a white woman, I expect this to be a lot more eye-opening and perspective-shifting for me. I’m giving myself an opt-out for work-related books, mostly because there’s an SVG book I avoided all last year that I’d like to finally read, but everything else: no white perspectives.

Books by non-white authors.
All my books by people of colour didn’t fit on this shelf, which I think is a better sign. And yes, I have bookends shaped like a hippo and I absolutely love them. I also own a squirrel doorstop and a hat with ears. I swear I’m a grown-up.

So far, it’s been pretty great: the first six books I finished this year were all written by women (so it looks like that may stick) and I’ve found some books I’m really excited about. I’ve been discovering a lot of books by Korean authors and Nigerian authors in anticipation of visiting both those places later in the year. (I ended up having to cancel my Korea trip, but my fondness for strange Korean literature cannot be cancelled.)

Every time I finish a book, I add another three to my wish-list. The Amazon man is usually bringing me books instead of socks. (Remember when Amazon was for books?) And I feel like I’m learning more about the world without even leaving my house.

Maybe next year, I’ll finally read a book by an old white guy again. But I don’t think I’ll ever read as many as I used to, and I’m happy my world has become a little bigger.

Brexit

Sunset over the British Empire

Last week, I discovered a sense of patriotism.

I have never had a strong sense of nationalistic identity. I’m not emotionally invested in the outcomes of sports games, the only flag I own is from the USSR, and I don’t fully understand why people tear up at national anthems. The strongest inkling of national pride I have ever felt was when I watched that episode of Doctor Who with Winston Churchill. (In hindsight, that may have been extremely patriotic of me. It could only really be more quintessentially British if everyone were drinking tea and moaning about the weather.)

I was born in England. My first memories are of the UK. We moved to the Netherlands after my little sister was born; I spoke Dutch at school, and English at home. A few years later, we moved to Canada. In a misguided attempt to fit in, I developed a mental chart of English-to-English “translations” and picked up an accent that more closely resembled that of the American south than Canada. Some years later, I watched my dad’s citizenship ceremony and thought the whole thing was a bit strange.

I remember, at nine years old, being incredibly uncomfortable when teachers forced me to sing the national anthem. There’s a line about “our home and native land” that always bothered me. Canada wasn’t my “native” land, and it frustrated to me to identify with something that negated a part of my identity and experience. I didn’t understand why living within an arbitrarily drawn border meant I was suddenly something different.

I was a pretty weird kid.

This probably contributed more to my feelings of outsiderishness than my mangled accent or my ever-so-slightly different cultural background. I was awkward and read too much and was always being pulled out of class for special enrichment classes—all of which would generally be more than enough to make me an easy target for taunts. I think I would have felt like an outsider regardless.

But I also remember being made fun of for having a funny accent and for being English. Refrains of “tea and crumpets!” or a rendition of “Pinky and the Brain” were the most common selections. It wasn’t terribly insulting, but it was successful in making me feel like I didn’t fit in, which may have been the point. I’ve never really felt Canada was my home in the same way that Britain was—even though I’ve spent more of my life in Canada.

Last week, my country collectively voted to leave the European Union. I was in Vienna for WordCamp Europe and had indulged in one or extra two ciders the evening prior, nervously anticipating the referendum result. I woke up at 7am to a hangover that scored somewhere between “substantial” and “incapacitating”, and immediately Googled “referendum”. My heart sank. My home was ripping apart.

Most of the resulting chaos wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t even 6am in the UK yet, but the pound had already hit a thirty-year low and the prime minister had resigned. In the following days, I checked the news compulsively, as things unravelled. The markets tanked. The Labour party more or less dissolved. Northern Ireland, Gibraltar, and Scotland started eyeing up prospects for leaving the UK, or at least remaining a part of the EU. Protests were occurring everywhere, from both sides of the argument. Scores of Leave voters immediately regretted their decision, calling it a “protest vote” or maintaining they didn’t know what they were doing. And worst of all, racist and xenophobic harassment and abuse in the UK spiked dramatically.

As a country composed of other countries and various post-imperialistic remnant states, the United Kingdom is a complicated concept to grasp, both politically and culturally. And while I’m pretty supportive of Scottish independence right now, the thought of the UK tearing apart breaks my heart.

That’s an awfully emotional feeling about a political entity.

But the trouble is that people vote emotionally, particularly in a referendum. People voted Leave primarily out of a conviction that the EU was holding Britain back, or out of a fear of “people who don’t look like me.” A shocking number of people voted for an outcome they neither expected nor wanted.

While I’d be happy if a Scottish independence referendum were called tomorrow, that’s largely based on emotional, rather than rational, reasons. I’m not certain enough about Scotland’s economy—or about how negotiations between a post-Brexit UK and the EU, or between Scotland and the EU will shake out—to say that it’s in Scotland’s best interests to gain independence. But I feel betrayed by England, and I feel like Nicola Sturgeon has been the sanest voice in this whole mess, and I literally just bought a flat in Edinburgh three days before we collectively voted to tank the economy.

I don’t think I’m qualified to make the decision regarding Scottish independence, and I’m certain that the vast majority of voters aren’t, either. Isn’t this what we elect politicians to do—understand the nuances of economies and political relations, and negotiate those relationships in our best interests? Of course they often mess this up, but the people aren’t doing a better job, are they?

As it turns out, nobody bothered to think about this, or ask these questions, until we’d actually made a decision. The sheer irresponsibility there is unquestionable. The prime minister who called the election, the morons who campaigned to Leave and made empty promises without any backing, and the treasurer in charge of ensuring our economy doesn’t tank, have all pointed fingers at one another in the days following the vote, each maintaining that it wasn’t their responsibility to think up a plan for what “Brexit” would actually mean. Incorrect. They were all responsible for figuring out a plan. We needed as many plans as possible, and the people that we elect to take care of these things for us should have at least given it a passing thought before just handing an uninformed populace the ability to vote for their own uncertain future.

But the voters also should have asked these questions. Not by Googling “what is the EU” after the polls closed. Not by voting for a massive political turnover without bothering to ask what that would actually mean and entail, in a desperate attempt to express dissatisfaction with the established powers.

Michael Gove said “Britain is tired of experts” in response to the dizzying array of third-party analysts who warned that a Brexit would invariably lead to a recession, and it turns out he was right. The people are wilfully ignoring both their elected leaders, who begged them not to choose the nuclear option, and the experts who warned them it would be a catastrophic choice. The response is either an embracing and turning toward hatred and xenophobia or a profound feeling of regret.

The future is pure conjecture at this stage. There are a huge number of variables, and it’s unlikely we’ll know the outcome for years to come. But one thing is almost certain: everyone loses. The economy likely will be in shambles for years. Ironically, the people most likely to have voted Leave are also the most likely to be hardest hit by the incoming recession. Remain voters lose out on the rights and freedoms afforded by the EU, like the right to bum around Europe for as long as you feel like and the right not to be totally screwed over by big corporations. It’s likely we’ll choose to stay within the EEA as an EFTA member, either via a Norway-style arrangement or a Switzerland-style arrangement, either of which means we’ll need to contribute to the EU budget, and accept the free movement of people—both of which were huge contentious issues for the Leave campaign. We’ll need to be bound to EU laws without being able to influence or shape them any more. So basically, we’ll be in the same position we were before, except we’ll have a weakened economy from an extended period of speculation and market volatility, we’ll have wasted a huge amount of time and resources trying to get everything sorted out.

I travel a lot. I have been to over fifty different countries. I can’t remember the last time I spent a month straight in the same place. The concept of a “country” doesn’t always mean a great deal. Sometimes there’s a huge cultural variation within a country, and sometimes three different countries can be more homogeneous than three different areas within the same country. I consider “country” to be shorthand for “a place with some sense of cultural identity that makes it different from another place”, but it doesn’t really mean all that much in the long run. People are more or less the same everywhere. It’s just that the wrapping is different.

In spite of that, over the last few years there’s been rising nationalistic movements all over the place, particularly within Europe. The obvious comparison feels cheap. The irony, of course, is that the EU came about more or less to prevent this kind of nonsense—to bind the constituent countries of Europe closer together, so we wouldn’t spend all our time and resources actively trying to murder one another over religious differences or border disputes. Economic recessions always prompt people to look for a scapegoat, and it’s easiest to blame the people with whom we identify the least. Because that worked out just fine for Europe the last time.

And so the UK democratically elects to leave the EU and suddenly there’s a huge rash of hate crimes, directed at everyone: from Muslims and Indians to Poles and Italians. It doesn’t even make any sense—these assaults are directed at anyone who looks slightly different or who speaks slightly differently, regardless of whether they’re EU citizens or born-and-bred in the UK. And we’ve already established (sort of) that we won’t be doing any mass deportations, right? Trading all the EU citizens who contribute taxes to our economy for the pensioners living in Spain would be a travesty on several levels. So all the taunts of “go home!” and the graffiti and the leaflets and all the terrible things people are doing—it’s all just baseless hatred, rooted in unchecked emotion and unfounded racism.

This is what breaks my heart the most.

While the prospect of the UK breaking apart and the EU dissolving is saddening, watching people violently attack one another in a place I call home is utterly and indescribably heartbreaking. The wide-ranging array of immigrants and the resulting cultural diversity within Britain is one of the things that makes it Great. It’s one of the things that makes me love it in spite of all its many faults. For fuck’s sake, we have “The British Curry Awards”. The unexpected side effect of hundreds of years of imperialism and destroying other people’s countries is that you absorb bits of pieces of those cultures. And so in Britain we have curry and halloumi and pierogies and jerk chicken and duck pancakes and gnocchi and thank heavens we do, because otherwise we’d all be eating mushy peas and boiled potatoes.

Farage declared the referendum a victory for “decent people”. While not inherently racist, this is unquestionably code for “white British people”, or whoever the fuck these lunatics think counts as “real British people”. From a national standpoint, I am British, first and foremost. But I wouldn’t for a second say that makes anyone else any less British, and I don’t dare presume that anyone is any less British than me because they look different. (Actually, generally I assume they’re more British than I am.)

National identity isn’t about where you were born, or where you live, or what colour your skin is, or even what it says on your passport. It’s a fluid concept that can change over time. It’s based on arbitrary borders that may not remain consistent throughout a lifetime. And like any other aspect of personal identity, it’s yours to choose. It’s nobody’s place to police whether or not you’re “British enough”.

Farage called this Britain’s “independence day”. Many have pointed out how incredibly offensive this is, given that most other countries in the world celebrate “independence day” as an independence from British colonialist powers. The irony there is pretty palpable.

And so there’s a little part of me that thinks maybe this is for the best. Britain has felt increasingly like a country at odds with itself, both politically and culturally, for a long time. The referendum result is a clear indication of that split, and of how the desires of one political entity can drive the choices of the entire union.

Maybe the country that I love, and loathe, and have extremely complicated feelings about but have always, always, felt like it’s my home and a part of who I am—maybe that country is dead. Maybe the United Kingdom is too broken to fix. You know how sometimes you’re in a relationship and you have this really sad realisation that it’s just not working, or you have a terrible fight and say awful things and nothing will ever be the same again? That’s how I feel about the UK right now. We broke it and we can’t fix it.

Maybe it’s better if we all went our separate ways and try to stay friends.

Our belongings, finally 'home'

Life redux

Six years ago, I bought a one-way plane ticket to London. I sold all my things, applied for a passport, and said my good-byes.

Then the airline went bankrupt.

I took it as a sign from the universe and stayed in Canada. In hindsight, I’m happy I did. My business grew. I made new friends. My empty passport inspired me to start travelling all over the world. I learned to appreciate Canada’s unique values (friendly people, good wifi, poutine) while recognising its failures (winter, a strange infatuation for Tim Horton’s, winter). I moved from Lunenburg, to Halifax, to Montreal. I developed stronger ties to the family I like, and I broke ties that were toxic. I even broke a few hearts, including my own. I grew up a little bit. Somewhere along the line, I almost turned into an adult.

By the time I was ready to try again, I had a partner-in-crime to keep me company and a bank balance greater than $2.48, two things that I would have sorely missed all those years ago. I loved my life, but it felt like time for a change.

Change No. 1: A new house

And so, one cold day in February, I packed up all my things and moved to Bristol, England—a town only twenty minutes from where I was born.

The thing nobody ever told me about moving countries is that apparently it’s a pretty big deal. Do you have any idea how hard it is to do normal human stuff like open a bank account when you haven’t lived in the country since you were four?

Our belongings, finally 'home'

We sold everything that plugged into the wall, and almost everything that was furniture. This is what was left.

We didn’t have a flat until May (we cheated and lived in Athens, where it’s cheaper and sunnier, for a while) and the cargo ship that contained all of our worldly belongings (a monk’s bench on its second voyage across the ocean, forty-six boxes, and a thirty-nine year old motorcycle) didn’t arrive until June. Up until last week, our mattress was sitting on a large cardboard box on the floor.

Now, months later, I have a bed and a National Insurance number and I’m starting to feel almost as though I have a life established again. But I’m still saddled with a credit record that affords me a credit card at 35.9% APR, and I still feel like a foreigner in my own home. The road to normalcy is long, slow, and full of potholes.

Change No. 2: A new job

In the middle of my move, Automattic offered me a job, and I accepted.

This change was a long time in the making. I’d been looking, on and off, for nearly a year, trying to find a job that fit my (rather exacting) standards. My business, as much as I loved it, had stagnated. I didn’t care enough to invest the time and energy to help it grow. I was pretty sure that growing it would require me to do less of what I love (making stuff) and more of stuff I’d rather gouge out my eyes than do (network, answer RFPs, dress in business casual).

And so I quietly launched a hire-me! website that took me nearly a month to build, and started looking around my a job that’d light my fire. I had a pretty clear concept of what I wanted: something that let me combine design with development, that paid me fairly and allowed me to travel, that didn’t require me to keep “office hours”, and that allowed me to work with smart, interesting people who’d challenge me to learn more.

Automattic ticked all the boxes. Culture-wise, it’s the perfect match for my sometimes flighty work habits: autonomy, rather than constant supervision, is underscored. They put me through a trial-by-fire that, combined with my move and my ongoing client work, meant I had very little sleep for a few months, and eventually offered me a full-time position.

Libretto WordPress theme

My second theme for WordPress.com, Libretto

What does this mean for Triggers & Sparks? Well, for the time being, it is no longer. This website will remain, in some form or another. I’ve only recently gotten around to rebuilding the theme so it’s less business-focused, more story-focused. It’s a work in a progress, and I’m still figuring it out. My goal is: more stories, more travel, more ramblings about design and life.

Oh, and the tattoo on my shoulder? Yeah, that’s still my most beloved tattoo. I ran a business for nearly ten years. I’m super crazy proud of that, and I’m happy to have a permanent reminder in my skin.

The Aftermath

I’d love to say I handled all this change with grace and ease, but that’s an outright lie. Fundamental parts of my life changed all at once, and I didn’t handle it well. Individually, I think I would have been able to handle the change.

But when everything changed all at once, it threw me for a loop. I was already exhausted from my trial and emotionally drained from personal issues. Trying to stay on top of all the minutia of re-starting my life in a new country, while learning the ropes at a new job, took a toll.

I stopped exercising, something I usually do every day. I stress-ate. A lot. (Translation: I ate chocolate like it was going out of style.) Unable to prioritise my health, something I’d worked hard to make time for, it deteriorated. I gained around twenty pounds, enough to tip me into the “overweight” band of a BMI scale. (Thanks, overly muscular frame.)

The move damaged my relationships, some irreparably. While it breaks my heart to lose people I care about, I know that these are relationships that were on their way out anyway. Leaving, whether temporary or permanent, strains a bond: either it snaps, or it builds up extra layers. Every time I move I end up with fewer, better, friends. I’ll probably never have a huge party, but I know some fantastic people who love me fiercely.

And the recovery

Slowly, as I begin to feel more normalised, I’m re-establishing my priorities. I exercise almost every day, and I’m fitting into my jeans again. I’ve revamped this website and I’m aiming to start writing in it a bit more. I have plans to get back into hand-lettering, and to reboot Suitor, but I’m adding things to my life one by one, as I think I can juggle them.

Rather than focus on what I’ve lost, I’m focusing on what I’ve gained. Recently, I met up with one of my all-time top-rated humans on the planet in Barcelona, and we spent a few days drinking mojitos before noon and hanging out on the beach. Simple, non-flashy, and I didn’t even add a new country to my list, but it was the most exhilarating trip I’ve had in some time. Every night, I’d wandered back to my hostel, tired but with a giant smile on my face.

Changing my life was a violent, tumultuous process. But I broke through to the other side, and I’m happy here.

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.

I love whiskey! And also, sometimes other people. But mostly just whiskey.

What I did on my summer vacation

This summer, I did something absolutely unheard of: I took a holiday.

Anyone who’s ever met me will attest to the sheer implausibility of this ever occurring. I’ve been accused of being a workaholic on more than one occasion, and I struggle constantly to maintain a healthy work-life balance. But at a certain point, I realized I was burnt out. I was stressful and panicky, I was overworked, and I couldn’t deal with minor problems well anymore.

So I took time off. I took (almost) the entirety of August off. I hadn’t had an actual holiday since 2010, when I went to the Amazon. And that was mostly a holiday because I didn’t have hot showers or power, let alone wifi. And it was Christmas. Maybe it was time to try it again.

Luckily, my clients are fantastic and understanding. I had a holiday. A classic type-A personality, I couldn’t just laze around on the beach all day. Here’s what I got up to.

1. I went to Brazil and read a lot of Wikipedia.

It seemed fitting that I go to Brazil again. (Maybe in four years’ time, that’s where I’ll be for my next holiday!)

I skipped the Amazon this time and went to Recife instead. I was really hoping for all the fantastic food and lively culture that I’d experienced in Brazilian bars in New York and Lisbon. Instead, it rained for days. The city was difficult to navigate by foot, and the beach was infested with sharks. I stayed inside and read a lot of Wikipedia.

Honestly, it was rather lovely.

2. I learned to play tennis.

Fresh air and sunshine, exercise, an excuse to wear adorable outfits–how on earth didn’t I pick up tennis before this?

3. I took up hand-lettering.

I spend 90% of my day staring into a light source, swearing at Photoshop. It makes me incredibly happy to get away from the machine and make something with my hands. Ink has always been my medium of choice, and lettering allows me to combine my love of type and calligraphy with my love of time-consuming, detail-oriented work.

I love whiskey. And sometimes, other people. But mostly whiskey.
This may or may not have served as the invitation for a far more formal event than the skulls would belie.

I’m aiming to start integrating hand-lettering into my work more as I improve. I taught myself a Uncial script for a client and hand-lettered the header on her site, which was probably a cost-ineffective exercise, but since I wasn’t running my timer, I’ll never know. (Note: it wasn’t. But it was a lot of fun to do, and the result looked lovely.)

4. I drank wine at lunch.

I’ve decided this is a habit I should make a part of my daily routine.

5. I built an app.

Everyone I know is looking for work, and I realized there wasn’t really a good way for people to track their job application process that wasn’t an Excel spreadsheet. So I made one. I call it Suitor. (Because you wear a suit to a job, right? Do people still wear suits to jobs? I’ve been working in my pajamas for so long I don’t remember what offices are like anymore.)

Suitor screenshots

It’s like an Excel spreadsheet, except smarter and prettier. So, like an Excel spreadsheet in the same way a Mercedes is like a Kia.

Suitor was intended to be a simple project, a quick one-off project so that I could re-learn Rails, get some UI experience, and build something useful in the interim. It’s turned into a much more complex beast than that. I’ve improved my git workflow, I’ve become passionate about UI, I can now write jQuery without having to constantly consult the API docs, I’ve set up a server, implemented a deployment system, and configured mail records, I’ve integrated Mandrill for transactional email, I’ve tested until I’m blue in the face–this project has taught me a thousand new things. It’s a labour of love, and I’m not sure what (if anything) will come of it, but it’s taught me a lot.

And I’m currently offering up some limited invites to the beta: sign up for an invite here.

6. I learned the world doesn’t fall apart without me.

Sometimes my ego wishes it would, but it doesn’t. Taking time off allowed me to learn new–mostly complementary–skills that I might not have had the time to incorporate otherwise. It allowed me the space to step back from my work. And, most importantly, it allowed me the opportunity to get excited about my work again.

I’m going to do it again next year.

Down with shared hosting!

Shared hosting sucks. For nearly ten years, I hosted my own sites, and some of my clients’, with a popular and well-known provider of shared hosting (who shall remain nameless). Even with all the speed bottlenecks, sludgy response times, restricted access, and security holes, shared hosting was cheap and easy. And until last year, I had no problems.

Then everything fell apart.

Completely out of the blue, all my sites slowed to an absolute crawl. Most of the time they wouldn’t load at all, but when they did, it took several minutes. I had clients emailing me, rightfully angry and worried, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. My hosting company’s customer service dropped the ball, telling me that it was a server problem and they were looking into it, but with no estimation of when the issue would be solved. I didn’t have enough control to do anything to fix what ended up being a server configuration problem.

This went on for days.

And it wasn’t the first time. I’d had sites that were hacked. I’d had days where my sites weren’t working, for reasons beyond my control. I spent a lot of time talking to customer support and getting frustrated. This wasn’t the only time I’d had a bad experience with shared hosting, but it was the one that made me realize it was time to do something different.

By the time the whole experience was finally over, my sites had been completely inaccessible for over a week. I needed a month-long vacation somewhere very warm (with very plentiful mojitos) to recover from all the stress I’d been under, and my clients weren’t happy.

So I decided to do something about it. I moved my own site to a private VPS and, with the help of my programmer boyfriend, started learning to take care of it myself. It was certainly a steep learning curve. Server administration isn’t a skill designers often possess, and it’s a lot trickier than I would have expected.

But after a few months of tweaking and configuring and sleeping next to my phone (set to go crazy if the server went down for even one second) I finally figured it out. Now the server is rock-solid: it’s fast, it’s stable, it’s secure. I’ve been hosting this site and a few clients on it, and for the past six months it hasn’t had a single issue.

Wordpress, with love

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.