Choose Your Own Adventure
I cannot fall back asleep. Presently, it is 7:30am on a rainy Sunday in Northern Wales; my pants smell like a potent medley of grass clippings and dog shit, and my shirt is the same one I was wearing every other day on this trip. It has developed some holes. Or is it 10:00pm on a dark snowy night in the Swiss Alps, where I have just finished hauling firewood and am settling in for a less than restful sleep in a room which usually hovers around 45 degrees at night? Or maybe I am in Paris, trying to use the toilet, while water drips on my head from the broken water heater. Oddly, that last scene could have been in Belgrade or Bucharest, too. Europe needs to get a grip on their water heaters..
Actually, it isn't any of those. I am sitting opposite Jill in the steamy salon of a bouncing sailboat in the bay of a desolate island in The Sea of Cortez. As I marinate in my own sweat for the 15th day consecutively, I stare down at the brownish stains on the front of my pants. Is that oil, fish blood something else? Regardless, I have been wondering today, the 1 year anniversary of our departure, why Jill and I so willingly choose to suffer this way? Because let's be clear: traveling out of your backpack for a year gives you a lot of opportunity to clearly define your own level of suffering. I have always enjoyed a nice, uncomfortable, dirty, adventure, and I reckon I always will. But why?
Louis, shrinking in the shower after poop got all over the kennel. Wales
Tolerating a bit of discomfort certainly can get you some places. Depending, of course, on your definition of "bit" and "places," this can be a great thing. Working for our host in Southern Italy was not easy. The work itself was not all that hard (though I do still have nightmares about cleaning out the cheese shed), but nobody we lived or worked with spoke any English at all. Each night, we had conversations using Google Translate on our phones, and there were a lot of delightful misunderstandings. There was also the inherent discomfort of staying in a stranger's home for a month. But in the end, we knew going in that living in a stranger's home would feel strange, and we certainly knew that we would have to work. What we got in return was far beyond our expectations. Home-cooked Italian food twice a day, a great pack of dogs, a loving community, and another home away from home. I would trade a lot of discomfort for another month like that.
A little hardship later, we got to see Macklemore at "Les Déferlantes" music festival in the south of France.
But what about when the struggle is not worth it? Generally, I have done a good job of making the right sacrifices for the right rewards, but I have met some people for whom things had maybe gone further than necessary. For instance, our dear friend Dion. Bless him, but we would not advise sacrificing as much as he did. Dion was a 6'4" Dutchman, with massive doe eyes and a wide flashy white-toothed grin. He always wore a denim jacket and his accent made absolutely no sense. He sounded like a New York mobster. We wonder who taught him English. Anyway, we met him at a hostel called Little Bucharest; possibly the second-most wretched hostel I have ever stayed at and warranting an entire post of it's own. Dion worked Reception and greeted us the night we arrived. He wasn't on shift, but he was sort of drunk near the front desk and invited us out for drinks. I politely declined, as I was now feeling that we had made a grievous error in our hostel selection. I was feeling the weight of my reality. My fears were confirmed when I went to the bathroom.
The beds were just awful, and we could never sleep for the constant rattle of other travelers shifting in their bunks.
Dion asked us out again. He was trying to keep the hostel social and meet girls. We consented to grab some drinks, got smashed on the cheapest imaginable beer and karaoked "Teenage Dream" like you wouldn't believe. We developed a fondness for Dion and his antics. His catch phrase, "Damn, Andrew!" yelled in his strange nasally drawl, became endearing, and we became friends. We learned a lot about Dion. Turns out he was there to research life in Romania for a book he was working on and had not been there for very long. We also learned a little too much about the hostel: about the management, the business. After just a few nights sharing the same quarters as Dion; sleeping on plastic-coated mattresses atop squeaky metal frames that barely supported my weight, screaming techno music blaring just below the window until wee hours, the homeless woman from outside sneaking in to sleep in the corner, it seemed to me that this place was not offering a great experience for patrons or employees. I am not even sure that they paid him.
Dion was insufferable, and could get me to drink anything
But one thing is for sure; he saved money and got to live in Bucharest for a while. Though there was the reward of living in Bucharest and researching his novel-in-progress, it just didn't seem worth it from my perspective. It didn't turn out to be worth it to him, either, since he left and we ended up meeting him again in Amsterdam where he fully recounted to us his woes about his time working in the hostel from hell.
For me, traveling out of a backpack is about liberation from the confines of my self-prescribed needs and comforts. Life of any kind can be incredibly hard and always brings challenges. Nobody needs help finding struggle, but we don't always get to choose what difficulties we face and not all adversity is growth; sometimes it just tears you down. This form of travel allows me the opportunity to construct my own reality just for a time; to set my 'difficulty level' in the game of life.
Gathering firewood in the harsh mountains was hard work, but well worth the views
First, I must strip away my desires to the bare minimum. How many days can a pair of underwear really be worn? Is sharing a room or possibly a bed with someone I just met actually that big a deal? Do I actually, really, truly need a toilet? Don't get me wrong, I love a good jar opener, but nothing makes you feel more like a man than opening a jar of jam with your own bare hands! Relinquishing all of my comforts is usually uncomfortable, but I gain a better understanding of my own limits. As long as I am aware of what I am getting into, and choosing the situation, this can feel very empowering. Seems positive, but how does it lead to awesome adventures?
Stripping down to the essentials doesn't necessarily mean foregoing the easiest route to your destination, but it often does mean exactly that. When you are trying to save money and really only spend on what is necessary, you start to do things a little differently, especially if you have lots of time. Must I fly from the nearest airport, or is it worth going to another country's capitol because there is a screaming deal from there? Must I take a beautiful train, or could I take a few days to hitch rides? How far is 400 miles really, and why am I so convinced that walking isn't "realistic?" Taking the long way 'round always puts me on the spot, solving problems that wouldn't otherwise need solving, and likely in a location where there is nothing interesting happening. If all of this sounds like a lot of work and maybe boring, too, thats because it can be. Budget travel is an endless compromise on comfort, security, and convenience, but putting yourself out there is how you end up seeing unexpected stuff and meeting cool people.
Scrumpy bit Jill and I on several occasions, but man am I glad we got to meet him.
Many times I have been asked how badly I miss the comfort of my home, or how tired I must be when moving from one dorm bed to the next. Truth be told, these things really do wear on me. But when I am the one who chooses to travel this way, it isn't so hard to tolerate. Ultimately, I have been preaching my philosophy around travel for so many years because I can honestly say that what I sacrifice in comfort, I get back in incredible experiences and relationships. I don't mean to say that I don't value a good hotel or a nice restaurant, because I really do. I love weekend getaways to a bed and breakfast, and I try to sprinkle that kind of living throughout my travels. But if I always traveled like that, I would not have met Dion in Bucharest, or graciously hosted by Juan in Mississippi. I would not have learned amazing new recipes in Nardò, Italy, and I certainly would not have eaten homemade fondue in Thun, Switzerland! Those are the experiences I get from taking the uncomfortable route--the experiences I end up cherishing for a very long time.
I find that often, when people raise eyebrows at my desire to travel the way that I do, it is because they are used to something entirely different: vacation. I have been on vacations before, and I do love a good one, but it serves another purpose--to relax, and then return to normal. During a vacation, I take everything with me. A beach chair, lots of extra clothes in suitcases, my Jewel Encrusted Jar Opener... More importantly, I take all of my same ideas, anxieties, and desires. This is good! You generally need all that stuff to have a good vacation, especially if you would like things to function at all when you return. But traveling out of a backpack is more like work, and you may not get to hit pause on the stuff back home like you do on a vacation. You pack light, put yourself out there, and hope that personal growth will occur. To me, living out of my pack means tension, problem solving, exploration, and freedom from my own rules. When I am full-on wandering--meeting new people, seeing new things, and eating new food--it means I am allowed to be different and examine from afar how I am defining myself in my life back home. I can look at why I make the decisions I make and act the way I act. Often, when I return from a trip, whether a month or a year, I am a new person with new ideas and a re-defined self. (This heady euphoria of travel induced douchery usually lasts a few months before things are back to normal, more tolerable levels of preachiness.)
I started this post all the way back in January, sitting on my plywood mattress, but I didn't want to publish yet because we just hadn't done enough at that point. Now that it has been one full year of messy, uncomfortable, amazing, inspiring, and sometimes outright depressing adventure, I can't help but look back on how much Jill and I have put up with, and how much we have gained. I wonder what it would have been like if we were millionaires. Would we have stayed in hotels instead of hostels? Would we have gone more places? Taken first class flights to each destination? Maybe, but I'd like to think that we still would have chosen some of the harder times, because today those struggles and how we overcame them are some of our proudest memories.
Getting ready for the hot Mexican sun.
I'll put it like this: As I write, it is 90 degrees outside and probably 70% humidity. Most days have been this way here in Mexico and I have the same 5 pairs of underwear that I have had for the past year, plus some running shorts. I haven't really showered in a while, just washing my hair with a hose on the deck a few time a week, and our boat was sailing for more than 28 hours continuously before we came to rest at our current anchorage around 2:00pm this afternoon. Now, we have enough crew for four shifts, so Jill and I didn't have to remain awake for that whole time, but I just want you to imagine: it is midnight, and the moon which had been lighting your way has just dipped below the horizon, revealing a whole new set of constellations in the night sky. You are wearing the same running shorts that you've been wearing for many days and they are very smelly. A meteor shoots by leaving a trail of stardust behind it, some algae falls out of your hair, and you sip some delicious tea which warms you in the face of the cool wind that silently guides your boat forward. You itch one of the many bites on your leg, then sigh and remember the pod of dolphins that was at your bow 12 hours ago, and the whale shark that swam beneath your dinghy the day before. Then your equipment tells you the water has gone from 1000ft deep, to 50ft. You wonder if maybe you're about to sink this boat on a rock, and spit into the ocean and curse Orion with his stupid belt for allowing this to happen.
We are tolerating a lot of discomfort constantly, but we chose it knowingly. Now we get to swim with Angelfish.