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.

I love design, but I also hate design.

The unbearable lightness of designing

Most of the time, I love my job. I love being able to create something out of nothing. I love helping my clients figure out what it is they need, and how to give it to them. I love making things look beautiful. I love that I can listen to aggressive music and drink wine while I work. I love that I get to use both the left and the right sides of my brain in equal measures. I love making gorgeous things that people use and love, and I adore that feeling that I’m producing something tangible.

But sometimes, it’s so wildly frustrating that I want to throw my computer out the window.

When I was sixteen, I went through a phase of experimentation with religions, trying different ones on the way you’d try on a pair of shoes. Buddhism appealed to me quite a bit, and, while I ended up discarding it eventually, the concept of dukkha stuck with me. Put succinctly, dukkha is the idea that, once we achieve a goal, we are left unsatisfied—wanting more. In effect, this means that it’s impossible to be satisfied with an accomplishment, because each one leads to a redoubled yearning.

I don’t necessarily think this a bad thing. In fact, part of the issues I have with Eastern philosophies is that I feel they reject part of what it means to be human: that constant striving. Sure, it creates suffering and unhappiness, but I believe that’s an inherent part of being alive. We are constantly fighting: against entropy, against death, against our own limitations and restrictions, against ourselves and against others. It’s this striving that makes humanity learn new things and create great things. Enlightenment might be nice, but it’s analogous to death in my mind.

Even though I think it’s normal, positive, and healthy, I still struggle with dukkha on a regular basis. And being a designer—well, being a designer really brings that out in me. Every time I finish something I’m happy with, I get this brief, momentary feeling of elation. And then, almost as quickly as it appeared, it falls. I see something else that’s better. I realize it’s not quite perfect. And then that happy, satisfied feeling dissipates, and I’m left wishing I’d done better. Frustrated that I failed to achieve some impossible standard.

Sometimes, I think this is because I spend too much time poring over the details of a project. It’s very rare that I don’t hate a piece of work by the time it’s finished, simply because I’ve spent so much time staring at it and adjusting it, pixel by pixel. This problem is then compounded by those projects that drag on forever due to causes beyond my own control. I’ve been working on a fairly extensive and involved website design for the past year and a half: at this point, I’ve been staring at it for so long I just can’t tell if I like it anymore.

I think it’s very difficult to love something you worked on two years ago, simply because design tends to be a temporal thing, and often can become dated, especially when you’re working in web design. Some of the work I actually end up liking again (once I’ve ignored it for a while) is the work that’s timeless, but I’ll admit there is a great deal of it that doesn’t stand up to the passage of time. And when you’re a web designer, time is particularly important.

Wicker Emporium blog
This is part of the Wicker Emporium’s greater redesign, and the only part that’s live as of yet. The original CSS code was written a year ago. By the time we launch, I’ll have basically ripped the whole thing up and rewritten it, just to meet my own quality standards.

I’ve always said that a year in internet time is like ten years of normal time, and I still maintain that’s true. Thing is, web design changes so quickly. I was thinking the other day about the ageism in web design when I met an older fellow who I thought was—let’s be frank—just terrible. I finally realized it’s not that being older makes you a worse, or less relevant, designer—and in fact there are a great many fantastic designers who are over forty, and god knows I’m not getting any younger—but in order to stay relevant, you need to stay on top of the ever-changing trends and technologies of the web. Sometimes it feels almost as though, just to stay on top of everything, I need to spend half of my time reading and learning new things.

Admittedly, this is something I love about design anyway, but I do always feel as though I’m out of time. Just on the creative side of things, I’ve taught myself a great number of things—I’ve dabbled in letterpress and screenprinting, both of which I intended to get more involved with but ended up dropping for logistical reasons. I taught myself calligraphy and still have best intentions to get really deeply into lettering. I very nearly signed up for a typography workshop in Boston, then decided it was too extravagant an idea. And then there’s all the technical stuff you need to learn. Responsive design. Retina images. How to prevent my WordPress site from being hacked this week. The latest developments in bizarre CSS selectors and how they work across six different browsers. Best coding practises. Using a CDN to make sure that my site runs crazy-fast, even if it’s hosted on GoDaddy. Sometimes I’m convinced I’ll just never be good, smart, or fast enough. When do I have time for a life outside this?

The problem is that there will always be a million people who are better than me. I’m not so much an egoist to believe that this wouldn’t be the case regardless of which particular career path I’d chosen. But with design—and especially with web design—I can see everyone who’s better than me. If I were a doctor, at least I’d only be competing against the other fifty doctors in the hospital. But as a designer, I’m completing against an entire world full of designers, lots of whom are way, way better than I’ll ever be. And if I’m feeling frustrated and angry and like my work will never be good enough and I should just pack it all in and move to Costa Rica to become a banana farmer—a phenomenon that usually occurs about once a week—the only way to avoid seeing work that’s better than mine is to unplug my internet and hide in bed. That’s not really a sane option.

Book cover mockups
Book cover mockups I’ve been working on this week. I was really happy with them at some point in the process, but I can’t tell anymore if they’re any good.

Ultimately, I think that, in order to be a designer, you need to have this feeling of dukkha. Striving for more is what keeps us constantly learning, changing, and developing. To be a good designer, you need this bizarre mix of humility and self-confidence, just to keep from going completely insane. Most of us are strong enough to withstand the pressure of an art-school critique, something that’s hard enough on its own. But once you’re out in the real world, you need to be your own critic—pulling apart and attacking something you created, something you poured your heart into.

So maybe the trick to being a good designer is embracing the existentialist angst behind it all. Realizing that no matter what you do, you’ll always be frustrated. But that it’s that willingness to throw yourself to your own inner critic, to face your own demons, and to suffer through endless self-doubt—it’s all that that will make you a good designer.

And ultimately, maybe all that turmoil and suffering will make me a better person, as well.

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.

Ankor Wat

Things I lost in Cambodia: my purse, a phone charger, my mind.

From Bangkok, I took a bus to the border, made my way through two brutal little border towns (the Wikitravel page for Poipet, on the Cambodian side, actually makes a point of rhyming the town with “toilet”), then continued along to Siem Reap. I spent a week there, swimming in my $8/night guesthouse’s pool, visiting Ankor Wat, and firing off machine guns at the rifle range on Valentine’s Day. (No cards needed!) I spent another week in the dusty, chaotic, and infinitely broken city of Phnom Penh—a city big enough to hold millions of people, but so broken it couldn’t sustain any form of public transportation. I then took a series of boats and buses into the Mekong Delta, and, after a few days, ended up in Viet Nam’s capital city, where I drank tar that masqueraded as coffee until I flew back to Bangkok, my newest adopted home.

All told, I spent just shy of a month travelling through Southeast Asia, and I’m not entirely sure I liked it. That’s new for me. I’ve visited dozens of countries and hundreds of different cities, and I’ve never really landed anywhere I just didn’t like. I think I may have liked Sai Gon, but it’s hard to tell, as I spent the vast majority of my time there working from waking to sleeping. Cambodia, though, where I spent vast leagues of time, I despised. I think I’m attracted to places that are chaotic because they’re so far from what I know—but Cambodia was another world altogether, and I just never felt that I really enjoyed it.

As with anything though, I learned things. And while I don’t think I’ll ever go back to Cambodia, and I don’t think I’d ever say I was happy while I was there, I don’t for a second regret doing it. Beyond anything else, it taught me an awful lot about myself, about how I work, and about parts of the world I’m not comfortable with.

Ankor Wat

Playing hide-and-go-seek in Angkor Wat. As much as I loathed it for being, well, basically a lot of falling-down buildings covered in tourists (I’m over ruins, alright?) it was pretty neat. I liked that you could jump around in and through the whole thing—except when they considered you to be inappropriately dressed, which I so frequently am.

1. I can cross any street.

I’m an enthusiastic pedestrian even in my hometown (wherever that may be). When I land in a new place, the first thing I do is walk for hours. I’ve done this my entire life, and it’s bar none the best way to get a feel for a place. I love getting lost in strange places. I love accidentally discovering interesting places I may not have come across were I driving. I love walking down a street and drinking in the environment surrounding me.

In Southeast Asia though, sometimes this is a trickier task than you’d assume. There are people everywhere. And the further you get into Viet Nam, the more bikes there are, which means that instead of two columns of traffic, you suddenly have to cope with twelve. In Cambodia, there’s usually four streams of traffic, all going in opposing directions: crossing is less “look both ways” and more “look everywhere constantly”. Viet Nam, in spite of having about a hundred bikes to every car, is far more organized, but the crossing-the-street situation is still so intense that, in the tourist districts of town, there are people there solely to help tourists get across the street. When I went to the grocery store in Ho Chi Minh, I walked along a “hem”—basically a series of tiny little criss-crossing alleyways-cum-streets. Most of the way, it was about wide enough for two people to walk abreast, and I was walking along, in the dark, next to two streams of motorbike traffic heading in alternate directions, desperately praying they’d stop for me when there was another bike passing at the same time.

I was actually quite terrified just walking down the street.

And I’ve adjusted to the strange cadences of street-crossings in all kinds of other cities. Cities where there’s no such thing as right-of-way, and marked crossings are clearly just decorative. I remember when Rome and NYC made my nerves spike as I crossed the streets. The rhythms of Southeast Asia, however, are wildly removed from anything I know. When I first landed in Bangkok, there were certain streets I had troubles crossing. I’d watch for a local waiting, and follow them across the road. Now, after Cambodia and Viet Nam, streets that once left me paralyzed seem calm and laid back in comparison. I no longer am thrown if I’m left standing in between lines of traffic, waiting for the next seam.

I’m pretty sure I can cross any goddamned street you could throw at me, at this point.

2. A traveller and a tourist are very different things.

The Mekong delta was gorgeous, and interesting, and I’m glad I went. But honestly, I would have rather explored it myself. I’ve had this trouble before, in a place with a similar feel (the Amazon) and a similar motive for me: I don’t think I’d have been able to explore either of these tropical, water-dwelling places without purchasing a tour, but I didn’t like it either time.

In the Mekong, they kept waking me up at 6am to go do something wretched, like see a fish factory. By the by, a fish factory is pretty much as disgusting as you’d expect: it reeks, there are some fish, and that’s pretty much it. Of course, I tend to go to sleep around 4am anyway, and in Asia, because I’m twelve to thirteen hours off from most of my clients, my night-owl tendencies have become infinitely worse, and I tend to go to sleep somewhere between sunup and 10am. So waking up at 6am for four mornings straight was basically my personal idea of hell.

Cambodian killing fields

Skulls at the Cambodian killing fields in Phnom Penh. The killing fields were actually ridiculously serene and beautiful, which made it seem all the more chilling. Honestly, given the massive genocide and fucked-up-edness that Cambodia/Kampuchea endured, and how recent its genocide was, it’s no surprise it’s rather on the destroyed side.

But that, I could have handled. What threw me was being, essentially, stripped of my independence. Sure, I had lots of time to go visit places and wander about on my own. But ultimately, I felt as though I was on someone else’s schedule, and that bothered me intensely. I spent much of that time feeling like a little kid being taken on a field trip. I know lots of people do this and have no problem with it. I, on the other hand, cannot handle it. I’d rather spend a week wandering about cafés in a city on my own, never seeing anything, than I would be led by the hand through a place.

I’m certain this ties into other things as well, like my reluctance to travel with other people, my inherent introvert nature, my gazelle-like desire for space that’s mine and empty of anyone else but me, and my tendency to avoid tourist traps, even if they might be tourist traps for good reason. My style of travelling is just different from most peoples’, even if I’m not working, which doesn’t happen more than once every ten years. It’s nice to try other people’s styles from time to time, but I can’t sustain it, and it’s best if I just admit as much and let myself absorb a place the way I want to.

3. Every now and then, take a goddamn break.

I’ve been working from the time I wake to the time I sleep—and then sleeping about four hours a night—for the past month. Maybe longer. It’s really grating on me, and I can feel myself getting horrifically burned out as a result. Last weekend, I took the whole thing (almost entirely) off–I think I only worked a few hours Saturday morning, and a few more Sunday evening. Having two days off was pretty fantastic, and I suspect I would have completely lost my shit had I not done so. As it is/was, the stress is/was biting into me so deeply I spend/spent some nights doing nothing but drinking, working, singing along to sad songs, and crying. I honestly don’t know what it is that’s setting me off: is it that I feel so displaced and lost? Is it just that I’m overworked and overdone and teetering on the brink of burnout? Either way, I think there’s a certain balance to be met. Yes, I need to work a lot, even if it isn’t healthy for me. I run a business, its rhythms are as unpredictable and wild as Ho Chi Minh City traffic, and I can’t always be in control of them. But if I’m determined about taking one day off, once a week, that may help me hang in there until the 18-hour days are over and I can finally go back to being human again.

This may not suffice. It’s entirely possible that I need real, live, actual time off. It’s been some time since I’ve felt so overwhelmed and burned out. But part of running a business means that’s not always possible, and I’m so freaked out about money that I’m motivated to keep working like a madwoman. Ideally, everything I’m doing—much of which is unbillable, investment-in-my-future type work—will pay out in the future. However, the longer I do this, the more aware I am of burnout. That awareness, I think, will be enough to drag myself out of it eventually.

Mekong delta

Floating markets in the Mekong delta. I’ll admit, as much as I was annoyed, misanthropic, and depressed most of this trip, I got to see some really cool things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I think this boat was the one on which I accidentally met some older Canadian gentlemen when I loudly stated how I was planning to throw myself under a bus when I hit sixty. They were pretty fantastic, and I wish I’d told them when we parted that, if I turn out to be like them when I’m nearing sixty, I’ll change my stance.

Ultimately, I suppose I just took a trip and I didn’t like it so much. That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me, and so it’s a bit of a challenge for me to deal with. But I don’t, even for a single second, regret it in the least. I did learn a lot—mostly about myself, but also about the world around me. And really, that’s what I’m aiming for here. This whole crazy trip of mine is all about pushing my boundaries, learning new things, and making myself stronger.

Even if I spend a month or so going through hell, I’m coming out of it infinitely stronger, more adaptable, and more aware of the world around me. As miserable as I’ve been, that’s still a win as far as I’m concerned.

Siem Reap

Lost and displaced like never before: a farang in Asia

I’ve been in Asia a little over a month now, and something strange has been happening. Something I’ve never experienced before. Something I never expected. Something I just don’t know how to handle.

I’m homesick.

I have never, ever, been homesick before. Maybe that sounds strange coming from someone who travels so much, for such long periods of time, or in such a weird way, but I think I’m suited to being a vagabond. I feel more grounded when I’m constantly moving and my environment is always changing. I miss the people I love, and it’s often heart-wrenching to say goodbyes, but there’s a part of me that really enjoys being a temporary presence in people’s lives. (My abandonment complex may also take pleasure in leaving others behind, rather than them leaving me, as a defense mechanism, but that’s between Freud and my brain, so let’s just ignore it.)

Admittedly, Asia is different from anything I’ve ever seen or experienced before. Europe, Mexico, and South America, while culturally quite different from what I know, are still infinitely more familiar than Asia is. The difference between Occident and Orient is far larger than I ever would have anticipated. I feel, to a certain degree, “at home” in European-derived cultures, given that my upbringing was mostly British in nature and Canadian in environment. The west, barring the small differences, isn’t really all that different, once you get right down to it.

Shanghai
This was my first view of Asia that wasn’t from an airport—from a hotel room in Shanghai, which I booked because I was exhausted after spending twelve hours on various forms of transit between Ensenada to LA for my sixteen-hour flight. I lay down at 10pm to “close my eyes for a second” and woke up at 2am.

Asia, on the other hand, is a totally different world. As much as I’m always drawn to places that are far from what I’m accustomed to, the places I’ve visited and lived, up to now, aren’t all that fundamentally different from North-North America. If nothing else, at least in the western world, I can understand the script, if not so much the languages—with the minor exception of places like Serbia/Bosnia. Here, I’ve got no footing at all. The languages I’ve come across thus far tend to be tonal, and use sentence structure that’s bizarre to me. The scripts, much as I’ve tried to learn them, pretty much make my mind implode entirely. (I think I can recognize about six characters in Thai now. If I’m lucky.)

As much as I try to keep an open mind, I’m just not sure I like Asian culture. Certain aspects I think are charming: the barefootedness, the tendency to eat on the streets, the constant use of motorbikes everywhere. But then there’s the abject poverty and lack of infrastructure (Cambodia is the poorest country I’ve ever visited, and it’s a little heartbreaking), the subtle misogyny underscoring the culture (in a way that’s more pervasive in part because it’s less blatant than it is in machismo-heavy cultures like Mexico and Argentina), and the parallel concepts of subservience and humility (both of which are certainly nice in some respects, but ultimately lead to people being constantly trampled on by, and accepting, their horrifically corrupt governments, often without question).

These are sweeping generalizations, of course, but they’re overarching concepts I’m struggling to come to terms with at this point, and I think they’re a large part of what makes me feel displaced.

Siem Reap
Siem Reap, Cambodia. Surprisingly pretty, although because of Ankor Wat, it was insanely tourist-laden, which I didn’t much care for. Most notably, it seemed that most of the tourists were completely blind to the state of the country surrounding them, which interests me far more than the temples and ruins.

There are other things, of course. My interpersonal relationships have shifted substantially since Mexico: I’ve been lucky enough to have people come visit me, but I’ve had a grand total of a week to myself, and that was my first week in Bangkok. Since then, I’ve been sharing rooms with others and spending vast tracts of time with friends of mine, every single day. Which is great, I mean, I’m so damned lucky—I was most worried about becoming lonely and missing people—but it’s still hard on me. At one point, when I spent a week in Oaxaca and Mexico City with some friends, I fell into a pretty harsh depression for about a day because I’d spent so much time around other people. I love my friends and I wouldn’t be half the person I am without them, but I cannot survive without “recharging” time away from everyone.

Much of this article about “caring for your inner introvert” applies to me. I know a lot of people who don’t believe I’m an introvert because I’m friendly and open (most of the time), but much of that is exhausting to me. While I enjoy, require, and thrive on socialization, it’s best in small doses. I often need to force myself to socialize, because my instinct is to shy away from others, but I know it teaches me a lot and I really do enjoy meeting new people. That is, when I’m not feeling like a misanthropic hermit—which is only about 30% of the time.

A big part of travelling for me is that sense of independence I derive from landing in a foreign city. I love feeling lost and alone, forced to figure out my own way of surviving. I like walking down streets, watching, listening to music, turning at my own whims. With others, it’s a different experience altogether. There’s a certain amount of compromise that needs to be made, and you have to spend a lot of time talking. While it’s certainly enjoyable—which oftentimes, travelling solo is not—it’s different.

Din Daeng
My “home” in Bangkok right now. I think I’d feel more sane if I were back here, even, just for a bit of familiarity to my environment (even though it looks rather gray and sad). I’d hate to think a place only resonates with me when I spend time exploring its dark little corners on my own, but it’s entirely possible that’s the case. Can you be homesick for multiple places and faces simultaneously?

It’s hard for me to admit that I’m having so much trouble. It feels, ultimately, like a failure on my part. I’m only halfway through my grand world tour—why the fuck isn’t everything all flowers and roses? Why is it that my brain keeps desperately contemplating booking a flight back “home”? I’m not even sure where I’m homesick for—I just want to be in a place that feels like home. It could probably be Bangkok, or Mexico, or Halifax, or even Buenos Aires maybe. There’s a part of me that is just screaming out for a space I feel is mine and for environs that feel at least vaguely familiar.

Having never really dealt with this before, I don’t have a good solution that isn’t “drinking large quantities of wine and hoping it goes away.” Luckily, I have a travel companion who’s good about understanding my particular quirks. I also have the resources to change and adapt my plans (inasmuch as I actually make plans) in order to ensure I don’t go stark raving mad. I have a few more weeks of travel through Southeast Asia before I go back “home” to Bangkok, and I’m more interested in seeing the Mekong Delta and Saigon than I am in giving in to the whiny little child inside my head who needs things to be a certain way.

Maybe the trick, then, is accepting it for what it is, facing up to it, and making adjustments to keep it manageable. I’d hate myself if I let my own frustrations stop me from seeing and doing all the things I’d like to do and see. Ultimately, I don’t think I’m a failure for finding things hard, but I think I’d be failing if I hid away from those hard things.

And so: I’ll just keep going. If I were to run back “home” now, I’d probably feel equally displaced. Maybe by the time I hit Spain, I’ll start to feel at home again.

Bombos?

The sacred and the profound: surrealism in Mexico

Mexico will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first country I travelled to on my own, impetuously, at a time when I was an emotional basket case on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I showed up late at night carrying only a vague address of a woman who didn’t seem aware I was coming, carrying nothing but a little kid’s backpack and a knowledge of Spanish far more rustic than I have now. I had a hand full of fresh new stitches and nerve damage. Everyone who knew me was pretty convinced I’d either come back dead or land myself in jail.

Buildings in Ensenada
Colourful buildings, replete with seemingly arbitrary paintings along the walls, are so common a part of the visual culture even in Ensenada, where I lived (mostly) for my time in Mexico. Just walking the streets makes me want to start painting in vibrant colours.

Instead, Mexico fixed me. My experience there is a big part of why I’m so driven to travel now. I have long wanted to return to Mexico, but I’ll admit I think a large part of my original infatuation with the country was an emotional one—I wanted a chance to see the country itself, rather than just seeing how it changed me.

What I discovered, living in Mexico for three months, was a place that never stopped surprising me.

There’s this story about French Surrealist André Breton coming to Mexico, and asking a carpenter to build him a table. The carpenter requested a drawing to follow. Breton draw a quick sketch of a table, rendering it in three dimensions, that way you would once you’re older than, say, six, and understand a bit better that very little—beyond paper and anorexic models—in the world is flat.

The carpenter, of course, came back with a triangular table with two legs shorter than the other two.

Go VISA
Somewhere along the highway between Mexico City and Oaxaca, I found this giant advertising structure built into the hill. This is, in case you’re wondering, in the absolute middle of nowhere, and it must be about twenty feet tall. Like their flags, apparently Mexico likes its ads giant. I also saw a man on an open truck, seated at a rifle mounted on the cab roof, and thought this the far more bizarre element on that ride.

This story came up a few times in different conversations with people. So did stories of a remote spot in the jungle near Xlitla. There, an eccentric British millionaire—who kept boa constrictors as pets—built a surrealist garden, complete with a stairway leading to nothing and something titled “The House on Three Floors Which Will in Fact Have Five or Four or Six”. In Tijuana, there’s a giant naked woman built by a sculptor who lived in her with his wife and children. Try as I might, I couldn’t find her anywhere; everyone I met in Tijuana had never even heard of her. And of course there’s Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, living around the corner from Trotsky in Mexico City, and a whole slew of surrealist writers and artists. Salvador Dali, apparently, at one point said that he hated Mexico.

He couldn’t, he said, return to a country that was more surreal than his own paintings.

I became fascinated with the surreal in Mexico. The more interested I became, the more I noticed it. Almost everyone I spoke to about it had something to contribute, and a lot of people started to point out strange things to me. Much of the surreal in Mexico, I think, lies in the juxtapositions. The country still retains elements of its ancient cultures in a way many others don’t, but adds in the overwhelmingly oppressive influence of the Spanish conquistadoras, who quite literally built their Catholic churches atop the Aztec pyramids.

Aztec (I think) imagery
I think this was Aztec, but I don’t quite remember. The clean lines and bold colours are used throughout all sorts of Mexican art, both pre and post Colombian. Somehow it manages to be ornate without sacrificing a sense of simplicity. The colours used are so super-saturated that they verge on fluorescent and clashing, but again, somehow it works. I saw these sorts of colour schemes everywhere, especially in the folk art in Oaxaca, which used intensely bright colours on little surrealist animal sculptures.

I read somewhere that Mexico is actually one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and it doesn’t surprise me. Catholicism is evident everywhere, from the altars set up in the most unexpected of places to to the processions marching down the streets singing during various Christmastime holidays. I’ve taken to drinking a lot of tequila straight—sipping it like scotch, which you can do in Mexico because tequila isn’t firewater here unless you buy the lighter-fluid kind for six dollars—when these things happen, and just wandering out into the crowds to see what on earth is going on. My favourite was the first day of the Virgin of Guadalupe festival: there was a huge feria, with food and amusement park rides and gaudy images of religious figures to be purchased, all set up around the church (which was lighting off fireworks, of course). On the steps on the church, a priest was throwing holy water on the heads of the amassed throngs.

But Catholicism in Mexico is different from Catholicism in other places. Here, there are holidays that don’t exist anywhere else. There are saints and revered figures that don’t exist anywhere, in any liturgy, or in fact in any country other than Mexico at all. Santa Muerte is a prime example of this. She’s quite likely one of the most revered “religious” figures in Mexico, especially by the criminal and lower-class elements, but she’s actually shunned by the Catholic church. They just made her up.

In spite of this, people build massive shrines to her, and many pray to her more religiously than the any properly-sanctioned non-secular hero. Again, this goes all the way back into the country’s Aztec roots. The continued infatuation in Mexico with death has roots all the way back into the ancient pre-Columbian societies, who cannibalized their friends, sacrificed their young, and built elaborate graves for their deceased.

Crypt
An elaborately prepared crypt, found in a hole in the floor somewhere in the amazing Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The skull or skeleton motif recurs constantly in Mexico. It’s one of the unshakable realities of Mexican imagery, and I think a part of what draws me to Mexico as well, at least on a visual level. I was so excited for Día de los Muertos, and rather disappointed when I discovered there weren’t huge parades of people in costume those days in Ensenada (in Mexico City or Oaxaca, both of which I visited later, the story would be quite different, but Ensenada, while it has its charms, is not Real Mexico.)

This infatuation with death often manifests as a celebration of life instead. Far from grisly, the imagery is most often cartoonish, playful, or replete with bright colours. Skeleton figures are often presented as a bride and groom, perhaps mocking the institution that is so highly revered in Mexico. There’s a synthesis here between the ancient and the relatively new Catholic traditions, and they meet in strange and unexpected ways.

Bombos?
I have no idea what this vehicle is used for, if anything, but I like it. The hand-painted typography everywhere was really lovely.

Having lived in Mexico for nearly three months, I started to notice how incredibly rich the visual narrative of the country is, and that there are certain elements that recur consistently, no matter what you’re looking at. For me, the bright colour palettes, the continual images of death, blood, and violence, are as much a part of Mexico as the tacos.

I came to Mexico hoping to answer the riddle—to figure out where all the surreal rooted from. I learned a lot, and I saw a lot. But ultimately, I think I ended up leaving with more questions than I had when I first arrived.

I suppose that means someday I’ll be back again.

A door is not a door

Breaking rules and busting heads

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

I am, without question, a vagabond.

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

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

A door is not a door

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puente en Ensenada

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

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

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

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

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

Teeth

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