It’s been almost two years since I gave up my “real” job. And in eight more weeks, a whole year will have passed since I last swapped my time for money in New Zealand. I’m not gonna lie. It’s really fulfilling to be following my dream, and my ‘classes’ out here in the school-of-the-world are even more rewarding and educational than I’d hoped.
Affording a small period of ‘freedom’ or ‘early retirement’ has been a lifelong dream of mine. I’d always hoped for at least a year and in the spirit of ‘dreaming big’ secretly coveted even more time. Could I make it two years? Three? FIVE?!
But it’s not all roses. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining, and not for one minute would I trade for the ball-and-chain that an office desk is to me. I’m just saying the grass isn’t always greener. Friends and relatives conjure up assumptions about the ‘luxury’ of my current life so easily that I probably can leave ‘the good’ to your imaginations. On the sacrifice side, there are really two categories. Before, and now.
Before: I chose to be happy with less. For about ten years. Brown bagging it, cooking and eating at home, trading music and books with friends, clothes from thrift stores or hand-me-downs, driving a beat up old car, no daily coffee, no mobile phone, no cable, heavily restricted eating out, limited drinking, trading weekly child-care time for a gym membership, and constantly and actively managing my finances. When giving up a trip, a pricey night out with friends, or a concert made me cringe with longing, I comforted myself with my dreams of “someday.”
Now: I try to max out my spending at $20 a day. It’s not a terrible challenge, but it often means enduring unpleasant situations. I endure because the amount of money I spend dictates the amount of time I can afford to travel. To duplicate the comfort of my life back home, $60 a day would be more appropriate here. However, choosing that lifestyle would mean giving up two-thirds of my potential travel time and a heck of a lot of personal growth.
So, I take lukewarm showers. I sleep in hotel rooms with peeling paint and threadbare sheets. Usually the bathrooms don’t have ‘fancy’ western toilets. Almost everywhere I have to flush manually. Cockroaches make a daily appearance on the stage of my life. I eat food-like-substances from 7-11 on a pretty regular basis (on time-crunched travel legs). I sometimes wash my own clothes in the sink or shower. I choose a sleepless night on a long bus trip to save on hotel costs. I still restrict my eating and drinking splurges. I walk miles carrying my 30 pounds of stuff instead of paying for a taxi.
Usually I can combine these sacrifices with enough of ‘the good life’ that I come out feeling great. And I’m working on this whole “good attitude” thing. Other times, the going gets pretty tough. And the tough feel like screaming. Or crying. Or consuming endless ice cream while slumped in a miserable heap on the floor of a dirty bus station.
Our foray into Laos was one of these ‘tough’ occasions. First of all, being cheated doesn’t sit well with me. I am constantly looking for ways to more positively address this cultural struggle. I also abhor bargaining. I guess it’s because in the U.S. there are very few situations where it wouldn’t be rude to ask for a cheaper price. So when my strong feelings on both these issues collide, it’s emotionally draining.
Once across the pricey Laos border, the ruthless touts pounced. I finally bargained them down from fifty-times the fair price to a ten times what we should have paid for onward transport. I despised every minute of it. Then we jumped on a night bus and spent the evening careening around sharp mountain corners on a road that alternated between 100 yards paved, 100 yards dirt, 100 yards paved, 100 yards dirt. We arrived in Luang Prabang to find that prices had doubled, the amount of tourists had quadrupled, and the authentic atmosphere had mostly evaporated.
We spent a few days finding balance between budget friendly activities (going for walks to various temples and watching the SOTU and the GOP debates on YouTube) and budget unfriendly activities (eating, seeing the sights). After tiring of the scene, we skipped the second part of our travel plan. If we found Luang Prabang annoying, surely Vang Vieng — a place that’s basically been converted into an eternal spring break — would be doubly sickening.
We allowed ourselves to be scammed during our procurement of tickets on an overnight bus to Vientiane — too defeated to care anymore. The hacking coughs of myriad passengers could often be heard over the sound of the grinding engine. A western tourist was puking into a plastic bag before the trip even began. At midnight, the bus began to make the “clack, clack, clack” that speaks of worn metal parts needing to be replaced. Three hours later, a back-up bus arrived. I’d love to say that Vientiane welcomed us, five hours late, with open arms. No. It welcomed us with loud, aggressive touts jumping in our exhausted faces and demanding (locally) absurd prices to drive us the 12k into town.
On arrival, we found that prices here had doubled as well (again without a corresponding doubling in value) and that the once easy-going vibe had been replaced by constant money-grubbing. Oh, Laos. What happened? Who corrupted you? Shouldn’t tourists have to take a class on how not to let a culture get sucked into the black hole of money, money, money?
“We give UP! We’re going back to Thailand!” Oh, but we didn’t go far enough. The gnarly storm front of thoughtless, culture destroying tourism which begets a money monster has hit the border town of Nong Khai on the other side of the river. But by the time we figured it out, we hadn’t really slept for 36 hours, we’d spent most of that time moving between six different destinations, and we were dead on our feet.
We set the alarm for dinnertime a few hours later and woke up at 5 a.m. instead. We slowly discovered that all transport bound for Bangkok was booked so solidly that we’d have to spend another sleepless 24 hours on the road in second-class buses if we were going to make it in time to meet our friend. We arrived in the city to fully-booked hotels. We hunkered down at a street cafe, trying not to fall asleep while waiting for check-out time to arrive. Finally, finally, Pat found an overpriced room with two uncomfortable twin beds and a broken lock on the stranger-accessible window. We crashed and the madness was finally over.
So that’s what I mean when I say this kind of traveling is not all roses. It’s mostly roses. But sometimes the sacrifices all get piled on at once, without being tempered by the joys of this lifestyle. And the grass on the other side starts to look really, really, really green. ♣
When I’m miserable, capturing the moment is about the last thing on my mind. But I took a few pictures in Laos and one in Nong Khai. You can see how to spell “Sprite” in the Thai alphabet. Plus architecture and culture.