7 Lessons Travel Made Possible

What I like about travel is that it contains a dearth of opportunities to observe yourself. Having no job is a preferable ingredient. There are other ways to observe oneself if shucking your job isn’t an option. Meditation, therapy, and prayer come to mind. However, traipsing around in places where core functions are different — from what’s for breakfast to how strife is dealt with – practically forces the traveler (at least subconsciously) to learn about, compare, and evaluate all the different ways of being/operating/living.

I should say here that this entry is entirely and unabashedly about me. And hokey. You’ve been warned.

Why do I want to observe myself? At the risk of sounding terribly artificial, I want to be a better person. I want to stop yelling at my partner for unreasonable reasons. I want to stop obsessively compulsively following up even the tiniest and vaguest commitments I’ve unthinkingly made that ultimately add no value to my life. I want to stop making tiny and vague commitments. I want to figure out how not to be a work-a-holic. Or, figure out how to be a work-a-holic without the stress. I want to learn to recognize when my insecurities have slipped into the driver’s seat. I want to stop assuming negative things and thinking ungenerous thoughts about strangers.

 So far project observe and change is coming right along. Here are some lessons and narcissistic discoveries:

  • I can chill out. Formerly, I fretted over every unaddressed responsibility in my life. Deadlines at work, domestic chores waiting for attention, family and friends to stay in touch with, planning and research to be done… Usually the stress resulted in an OCD-all-night work session in which I drew up a huge list full of urgent to-do’s, subsequently accomplished 5%, and went to bed worrying about the other 95%. After five or six days of accomplishing a little and worrying a lot, the bulk of the list still remained. At that point my motivation completely evaporated, leaving me slumped in a depressed heap wanting to cry and consume copious amounts of ice cream in honor of being a huge loser who could never get everything done. What I’ve discovered, quite by accident, is that my brain is pretty good at running my life on auto-pilot and that worry and stress don’t make the jet fly any faster. On multiple occasions, as traveling distractions have taken over, one of my infamous lists has faded into oblivion. Returning to the list a few weeks later, I discovered every time that most of the list had naturally been completed, particularly the priority items. This is big news. The time which used to be spent constantly berating myself about what I wasn’t getting done and worrying (usually as I was trying to fall asleep at night) numbered several hours per week. Essentially, I’ve hit the jackpot of free-time and eliminated some disease-inducing, life-shortening stress all in one go. Hallelujah!
  • These guys are definitely not Americans!

    I know where you’re from! One of my faults is thinking that my knowledge is common knowledge and my skills are common skills. So I laughed out loud when my friend Elizabeth made a comment about gear and “you Americans.” I explained the gear wearers in question weren’t Americans and we people watched for a good hour while I explained why that couple is probably French (Quechua gear), why that guy is definitely not an American (stubbies!), how to pick out Japanese (subtle gear tip-offs and mannerism), etc.

  • Probably because I was a slightly chubby adolescent with a unibrow, few social skills, and parents who refused to pay for the brand names all my friends were wearing, I’ve cultivated a committed apathy about my appearance. In fact, I have a downright aversion to making an effort, lest I fail and my dearth of confidence and fashion sense be revealed. No scarves, elaborate earrings, patterned clothing, or hot-pink shoes for this woman! I’ve convinced myself my style (or lack thereof) works in my favor when traveling in developing countries. I assume people will see my lack of jewelry, stylish clothing, and swank accessories and be less likely

    How it often feels to be a tourist.

    to categorize me as a westerner flush with cash ripe for the picking. Maybe they’ll even pause to consider that we might have something in common?! The truth is, dressing like I’ve always dressed just keeps me feeling and behaving like I’ve always felt and behaved. In addition, being intentionally frumpy rarely has the intended effect — as evidenced by a concentrated effort in the Philippines to appear unattractive which still immediately drew flattery. Thanks to cultural obsessions with white skin, as well as a hegemonic reverence for those with wealth, I’m sort of shooting myself in the foot here. It turns out that I like wearing pretty things. It doesn’t change the way people treat me too much in either direction, and it’s fun. And fun is infectious. Win-win!

  • I love seaweed! For sale at 7-11, by the sheet or cut into strips, I can’t get enough of this stuff. What’s happening to me?!

  • Pre travel: Unflattering couple shot arriving at the airport in the New Zealand fresh from indulging – American style – at three different weddings and multiple going-away celebrations.

    I’ve discovered travel can be the “miracle diet.” And I’ve also decided that trying to change your eating habits and choices within the context of your culture is on par with getting a divorce but trying to immediately and peacefully share a house with your former partner. Living in a van in New Zealandtransformed the practice of eating considerably — opening the door for new habits. Food was expensive and annoying to prepare. I almost never ate at a table. I often ate out of plastic containers. No type of entertainment existed to distract me from my fork moving from my food to my mouth and back again. I began to recognize these mysterious “physical cues” the French have been known to go on about. Example: when my stomach reaches capacity, it pulls a compaction move. I subconsciously and automatically take a very deep breath. Every time. Big news. I learned to stop eating at this point, even if the food in front of me was delicious. It helped that buying more food would erode my already small budget and finishing my plate would mean no leftovers and therefore no easy snack later.

    Apparently we haven’t had our photo taken on my camera for awhile!

    The real test, as you can ask any recovering addict, was to return to my former neighborhood and mingle with my old “friends” — limitless food, a table, dining companions, and a bounteous spread. I survived the challenge (WWOOFing on several NZ properties), losing some battles but not the war! Next, a move to the Philippines meant filling my stomach in unfamiliar ways. In the context of culture shock, sometimes a meal (i.e. navigating strange new foods) isn’t worth the effort. For weeks I subsisted on mangoes and garlic peanuts! Afterwards, faced with myriad strange foods, I got lots of easy practice putting my fork down when the compaction move demanded it. Finally, a move to mainland SE Asia (Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos) where fresh, cut fruit is widely available, cheap meals from street vendors don’t come in oversize portions, and I’m still on a tight budget has made reinforcing my new habits and choices a relative breeze (relative to being confronted with no  convenient healthy options, huge portion sizes , and widely available cheap-but-unhealthy nutrient-devoid foods of the U.S.)

  • See.. bugs can be tolerable. Cute, even.

    I’m thankful for being increasingly desensitized to bugs — a category of creatures which is never going away. Six years ago in South America, when there were ants in my room, I freaked out and ended up leaving the hostel. In Arcata, CA I would lie in bed afraid that when I went to sleep, I’d wake up to find the Argentine ants swarming on the window sill had moved to my face. Now, I probably pluck five to ten ants a day off my arms and legs. When a whole herd shows up, I tend to observe them and make conjectures about what they must be after. That’s it. No killing, no cleaning, no obsessive sanitizing… I like it this way!

  • One of my favorite activities… just wouldn’t be the same with a kindle.

    I should have gotten a Kindle. Well, sort of. Really, I still can’t quite stomach giving up the last non-electronic frontier of idle pleasure in my life. I resisted an iPod. I resisted a digital camera. I resisted a shared cell-phone. I resisted taking a laptop traveling. I have caved to all of the latter. I still don’t want to snuggle up with a Kindle. I resent the thought of giving up the sensory experience of a book. But I also resent that the bibliophile in me cannot escape the bookstore, despite pre-bookstore self-coaching and repeated mantras, without several pounds of paper. I’m like a runaway truck the second I walk through the door. On one shoulder the devil bounces with glee on my shoulder as my pile-to-purchase grows, shouting, “There! Glass Castle! Get it!” while the Angel cowers on the other, all pouty-lips and downcast eyes that mean, “Are you really going to make yourself carry around TEN books? TEN?!   Ten that take up as much space as every piece of clothing you own combined? Ten, Jema? Really?” So far, my only answer is, “You’re darn right I am!”

Photo credit links: mirror clip art, look in the mirror t-shirt, stress cartoon (broken), stubbies,  bugs, woman reading.

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