Living with depression is hard enough, but traveling with depression can be much harder and even dangerous. And I’m followed by its shadow around the world.Read More
Budget travel allows you to see the world on the cheap, but sometimes that extreme low budget travel breaks you. This is one of those times.Read More
What is this feeling I get in winter, and why am I feeling it? Some call it the winter blues – this seasonal depression that descends upon everyone when the cold grips us by the neck to steal our warmth and make our bones ache.
I don’t think that’s quite it.
At least for myself.
I know that it’s not just winter that brings me down… I have a feeling that it has to do with where I am right now. I don’t get these winter blues everywhere. Just when I’m home. Or in Washington D.C. which was once-upon-a-time home. I know now it can no longer be called home.
It snowed for the first time this season recently, blanketing every visible surface in white. I stared out the window as it floated to the ground, watching my breathe cling to the window, and then disappear, as if winter outside tried to steal it from me. This was the first time I had been close to snow in over 2 years and it was beautiful. So pure. So fresh. So new. And so finite. There is no doubt that winter in the essence of the season can be something to admire. Even to love. You begin to appreciate warmth. You grasp a hot drink or another person as if you won’t survive without it. Relaxation and coziness become a priority. You shiver and dream of spring as if it’ll never come.
There’s also the never-ending longing for something that I feel here. On cold and lonely days when you don’t have someone to help warm up the doldrums of winter or enough of something in your life to brighten your day in that monochrome world — that longing feels like I’m gripping ice until it burns.
It hurts. It’s a nostalgic cold, one that no matter what I seem to, can’t be thawed. A numbness. A void. I stare out the window at the captivating cycle of change and life and death before my eyes wanting to feel something. Aching to feeling something. Trying to trick myself into it. But I feel nothing. It’s as if I stare out the window trapping myself in this place and I want to leave, yet at the same time I keep myself locked in because I don’t have enough in me to leave. I’m lonely yet I don’t want to see anyone.
I look outward and my reflection stares back at my inward. I’ve been here before, eyes locked at my reflection and wondering what’s wrong. I wait for it to tell me, but I never get an answer. Why am I so cold? Why can’t I feel warmth right now? My whole being from bones to soul aches.
Before my recent return to the US, I was optimistic about opportunities in my homeland. I hadn’t truly experienced winter in years and looked forward to it. When I was in Scotland just months ago, I remember seeing snow on the peaks of Glen Nevis and wished I could touch it. And even seeing it now, I want to be outside in it and feel the bite as it melts on my skin. Yet, at the same time, I can’t gather the energy to.
In my mind, my return would provide me the much needed rest physically and mentally after 2 years of travel. A span of time filled with, to be honest, absolutely cray adventures, but not much time for productivity. Here, I’d have a space to set my belongings down and not have to move every couple of days. Being productive and creative would be top priority.
Instead, each day I stare outward and inward into the void and do nothing. Just stare. Trapped. Not in the house, not in a physical space, but trapped by the nostalgia this place brings. Trapped in the depression I thought I destroyed. Except, we can never destroy it, can we?
Good ole’ Jack can sum it up perfect sometimes. The longing for the road. It calls to me, and as much as I’d like to trick myself into thinking I can slow down for a while, there’s something inside of my that laughs at the thought. Something restless.
On this first snow, I did leave the house eventually. Not far, just into the backyard of my friends house where I’m crashing. I had to touch it. I had to feel it. Everything in sight was ice-covered and frozen in time. Still and quiet and empty. The only noise was a slight breeze that whistled faintly through the crooked branches clawing at the sky. I stood for a while, listening to the wasteland and knew just how much it mimicked my own feelings. I was frozen in place waiting to thaw. I bent over and picked up a pine cone that pricked me. I laughed to myself. It felt good to feel something.
It’s strange how a chaotic pile of rotting, frozen, and splintered wood can relate to you. Some days here I’m devoid of emotion, and other days I can’t pick through the random heap of them all thrown together. For someone who never tries to live too far ahead of himself and the in the moment, I can’t help look into the future longing for the feeling of happiness that I have when I’m on the move. To escape the fragments of nostalgia that linger here, winter or not.
I have yet to visit my parents graves, and I didn’t before my last trip either. Am I still afraid of that reality? Closer to detached. I’ve come to terms with their deaths but I didn’t expect to feel this way again when I returned. I know what my old “home” does to me. When I’m here, I feel stuck and stagnant. I can’t seem to gather my thoughts. I sit around and stare into nothingness. I swipe through dating sites just for the distraction but no real yearning for connection. I watch television without even watching. I think about drinking more than I ever do when I travel.
Was I lying to myself to think that I could come back and slow down? Was telling myself and others that I could supplement it with exploring the USA?
I don’t think so. But I know now that home is not, and will never be this place again. The only warmth and light I feel now when I’m in Maryland is when I’m with my friends and family. Spending the holidays with them has been one of the only times in the past month that I felt. And felt happy. It’s my crutch here. They have been keeping me up emotionally since arrival in November. But it’s not a constant. Home is somewhere outside of this place that I can’t help but feel trapped in. For now, home will live in them and when I see them.
Sometimes I can feel the warmth here and see the lighter side of things. It’s fleeting, like a snowflake landing on my open palm that disappears in moments. I’m in a job I really like. I’m happy to see people I haven’t seen in years. Not so bad huh? It’s not the situation that does this to me. and most of the day I don’t know why I’m up or down. It’s torturous. And difficult to hide most days. But I do, I hide the blue.
Somewhere out there I can call a place home even for a little while and feel just as alive as I do when traveling. For now, I stare out the window beyond this nostalgic prison. Beyond the depression that takes hold of me here.
I’m still waiting for the thaw.
After 2 years of travel, I’ve returned to the USA. Is this the end of my travels? With a feeling of dread, I discuss my return and what’s next.Read More
Have you always dreamed of faraway places? Want to see the world and don’t know how? Here is how to make your dreams of traveling the world a reality!Read More
After 4 years traveling around the world, I’ve had some wild and crazy and scary experiences. But it was my flight to New Zealand — my first flight abroad ever, that was the scariest moment of my life. Besides a panic attack on the plane, there was another big reason I was so scared.Read More
This is a travel love letter. You always remember your first love. And you always remember your first travel love, and this is my story. I’ve never written a love letter, so here goes.Read More
It was a strange feeling sitting atop the jagged rocks in Great Falls National Park — fighting for breath after running and jumping and climbing through the Billy Goat Trail. I was beside one of my best friends and we had just scaled a rock face 20 meters high. We were exhausted. Sprawled out and catching our breaths, we looked out over the river below; at some points it was rabid, frothing and surging through the gorge, and others it was calm and flowing gently. The water from millions of years ago in the ice age had carved its path through solid rock, little by little. Now it was following a path, sometimes calm and other times ferocious, that it had created against an otherwise opposing element.
A path it had created little by little.
I sat there thinking about all that I had done the past 8 months abroad, all of the places I had seen, all of the amazing people I had met, and all of the experiences I had. Also on my mind was the path that led to my unplanned return to the United States. My mind rewound through it all during that short rest.
Two days ago I had arrived back in Maryland after taking a 15-hour long bus ride from Toronto.
A week before, I had taken a flight from Munich to Madrid where I stayed overnight, and then flew Madrid to London, and London to Toronto over the course of 24-hours.
Two weeks before, I had taken a train from Rome to Munich where I spent my last week in Europe where I had decided to ultimately return.
A month before, I was just beginning to travel around Italy.
Two months before Italy, I had arrived in Europe after being forced to make the decision to leave Thailand just as I was about to begin teaching English.
And it was a little more than 8 months from this very date that I had taken a 7-day train journey across the United States, DC to Los Angeles, and flown out to Thailand to teach English.
Somehow it seemed so long ago, yet at the same time still raw in my mind. Not nostalgia, because it wasn’t a stinging pain that hit me thinking about an adventure coming to an end.
So why is it that I’ve found myself back in the United States?
There were many things that contributed to my early return: a lot of cause and effect that factored in, a lot of missteps on the road and mistakes made, and many things that I hadn’t planned for that I should have.
The main reason comes down to money. I had almost completely run out of money after returning to Italy for the second time.
When I first left Thailand I had a vague idea of what I would do next, and even less of an idea of what to expect in Europe. I wasn’t headed back to Thailand any time soon, and though I thought about teaching English in another Southeast Asian country, I had a friend’s wedding to attend in two weeks in Slovakia. I figured I’d find a cheap place in Europe to lay low, somewhere in Eastern Europe that wouldn’t rock my dwindling budget that was causing me a slight bit of angst. I knew nothing at all about Europe in terms of travel; it was a new and unknown place and one I had dreamed about seeing as a little boy.
Sometimes the world steers you in different directions, ones completely opposite than what you had planned. It turned out that the cheapest last-minute flight into Europe from Thailand was Rome. Sure, Rome wasn’t the main destination in Europe I was headed for, and it damn well wouldn’t be the cheapest, but excitement filled me. I was veering off from my original plan and leaving Southeast Asia and I didn’t know what would happen next. Italy was always the country I wanted to visit the most. I would go to Italy.
(Teacher Ryan in Thailand)
When I arrived in Rome, I immediately began on the wrong foot.
As is my normal travel behavior, I didn’t plan a single bit for Europe. I would just roll with it and figure it out as I went along. Immediately I was gobbled up by the new surroundings and spat out. The first few hours were filled with self-induced misery as I wandered lost about lost in the Eternal City since I hadn’t pre-booked a hostel, my electronics were dead, and I had no clue where to look for accommodation. Oh, and that I had lost my adapter in route from Thailand to Italy. So, besides nobody around the city knowing where a hostel was, I couldn’t charge my electronics to search for one.
Then the shock of the Euro slapped me.
You cannot compare Italy to Thailand at all. Just don’t. Well, maybe with the insane drivers and the bum-guns on toilets, but price wise it is drastically different. Right away I could see my wallet weeping as the cheapest hostel I could find was 30 Euro a night. That cheap flight to Rome would be outweighed by the prices to stay there. I kept trying to tell myself that I shouldn’t compare prices, but I couldn’t help but think about how I was paying $3 USD a night in Thailand. Even trying to eat cheap I was spending well over 50 Euro a day with hostel and food.
I was freaking out a little.
But I told myself it would be fine. I’d enjoy being in the city I always dreamed about visiting, and in a week I’d head over to Slovakia and spend much less. And I did. I visited the ancient Roman sights, explored the Colosseum, and wandered the city for hours in the day.
Except I left Thailand with $2,000 left which was my budget for 4 more months at least, but within a week in Rome I spent nearly a quarter of that in accommodation and food.
Instead of heading directly to Slovakia, I took a flight to Prague and met up with a friend from the US who had been traveling with me in Thailand. We hung out and explored Prague for around a week until heading to Slovakia after enjoying the gloriously cheap food, beer, and accommodation in Prague.
(exploring the Colosseum of Rome, and super giddy)
Fast travel makes a slow traveler panic.
At least, it makes me freak out a bit when I didn’t know what to do next, and I’m one to usually call myself chill about most situations. But, I’m usually quite the slow traveler. Spending months on end in another country is what I like to do, and it isn’t often I bounce around from country to country every week. And after going from Rome, to Prague, and then to Bratislava, I could feel a slight anxiousness settling in. I was pin-balling from one country to the next without a plan, and that turned out to be more expensive in doing so. I had no clue what to do, and I was watching my budget sink from a comfortable $2,000 to below $1,000. When we arrived in Bratislava, we were both shocked at how expensive the country was. Hostels were on average 20 Euro, and food was comparable to Italy in price. Both of us were low on money, and had to think of how to last it out until the wedding.
We went to Hungary for a few days since I had found a few hostels that were advertised for 6 Euro a night. A bus ticket to Budapest and sleeping in those hostels, and then busing back, would be cheaper than staying in Bratislava. But when we arrived in Budapest, these cheap hotels seemed mythical. They didn’t exist. The only ones we could find wanted 20 Euro, so we were again in the same predicament.
In a predicament, but still in Europe, and still exploring as much as our broke asses could.
This is when the bread eating began.
We did eventually find one of those cheap hostels in Budapest, but they are so hidden and usually tucked into an apartment complex with no sign that it was only within the last few days we discovered one. They do exist! But it was too late. We both had been eating cheap rolls of bread and only drinking water since we both couldn’t afford much else. Though my friend had already planned on returning to the US after the wedding, I was hoping to keep the adventure going afterwards and find a place to base myself to keep traveling.
Though staying in Europe or continuing traveling was fast becoming unlikely.
I was getting extremely low on funds and I didn’t even have a ticket back to the US even if I did run out of money. I attended the wedding, and went back to Prague since it had been the cheapest destination I had visited in that part of Europe to come up with some sort of emergency plan to keep going.
(one of the “signs” for the hostels, painted on the ground where we didn’t look)
There was a back-up plan. Though not a great one.
Just before leaving Thailand, I had announced that I was brought on by a popular travel booking company to be a content writer. It was, and still is, a sweet gig with a high pay-per-word rate and a promise of a long-term writing contract. I assumed that this would be the ticket to traveling long-term around Europe and offer me a bit of padding while I figured things out. Well, I had fully banked on this, but it would turn out to be a bad gamble. Not bad at all because of the company, but because I was relying on a job that was just starting, and if you are a freelance contractor, you know it doesn’t happen quickly. And I had naively thought it’d be instant return.
Since they are a major travel company, I hadn’t realized I would need to be added to a payroll and file taxes in the US, which means payout wouldn’t be as soon as I wanted
*I still write for them and love it, and it was silly of me at the time to think I could just hope for them to pay me a huge amount after only a couple of weeks on board.*
What was I to do when faced with no money left?
While I was in Rome the first time, I had attended a few Walks of Italy tours around the city where I had met a guide who was setting up her own travel blog tour in Italy, and she had invited me to attend one in June. I promised her that I would attend, it seemed like an amazing opportunity to explore more of Italy. Yet, here I was in Prague, broke, and I had to figure out a way back to Rome while only having around $200 left. Once on the trip, most of the expenses would be included, so I gambled again. I told myself that if I could make it to Rome and get on this trip, I should have my paycheck by then. And after, I could decide better how to make my next move.
I used $175 of my remaining budget for a flight to Rome, and used my last bit of money to book a hostel. For a day and half my only food was a sole banana.
Finally I could eat again.
For that week and half before returning to Rome, I had been living on bread rolls and ketchup (for flavor) and stayed cooped up in hostels since I had no money. I had already explored every inch of Prague and most parts of Rome that I could walk to, so I just waited it out until the blog trip. I couldn’t even afford a coffee so I could go to a café and write. And cafés are my creative zones. To be honest, I felt a bit trapped leading up to it. But the day came where I linked up with the group of other bloggers to kickstart our gnarly #ThisIsYourTime blog tour of Umbria and Ponza. I was stoked. If I had to leave Italy without actually exploring other parts of the country, I would have been super bummed.
To say I gorged might be an understatement. We were in red wine country and I drank my weight in wine from vineyards like Fontanaro Farms and stuffed myself full of pasta and meats. Sometimes people would comment with something around the lines of, “Wow, you must love to eat!” and my response would be to smirk through my bulging cheeks and declare, “You never know when you’ll be living on bread and ketchup!”
South of Rome we visited Ponza Island where Prosecco flowed like water and I ate some of the most delicious seafood of my life. I was again in the company of amazing people, tasting the flavors of a country and of the sea, and sleeping in comfort knowing I had a bed for the night.
(cheesing in Ponza, and happy to have food again!)
Of course it wouldn’t last. It couldn’t last.
The blog tour had been an amazing 10 days, and during that time my worries had faded and I was enjoying the experiences to the fullest. What else should you do in that case of course? I had to soak it up baby! But once it was over, I was back in the same position. I had no money and I was in Rome, the most expensive place I had traveled thus far. Linnea, our amazing blog tour guide and now a person I am happy to call friend, had a boyfriend on the tour that was equally an amazing person. Knowing my situation, he offered me to stay in a tiny loft above a theatre he owned in the heart of Rome. It would save me from finding a quiet alleyway to sleep every night, and would give me time and a bit less pressure off my shoulders to figure out my next move.
Again I was eating bread and ketchup to save the bit of cash I had. Some family sent a bit of money at random to which, they may not have known, helped me eat for the day. And allowed it to not be just bread once or twice a day.
(my little theater window)
This was the moment where I began to think that I might have to return back to the United States.
However much I wanted to try to keep traveling, and however much I stubbornly didn’t want to return earlier than I had intended, I had to consider my position. I had little to no money and no income at the moment. Living on a tight budget is not at all a difficult thing for me. Though I love eating the dishes of all the countries I visit and exploring, I also have no problem surviving on instant noodles and toast and exploring. But when you have no budget at all, when you are completely bottomed out, and you know that bread roll is what you’ll eat for the day because you can’t afford something else, it saps a lot of the fun out of the experience.
Some people can do that, and I definitely have been down that road in New Zealand where I slept in my hammock above Wellington and nibbled on what I could afford because I was out of money. Even though bits of that were wonderful, like waking up in the woods everyday to the sun rising over the city, most aspects of being forced into that position weren’t pleasant.
I sat each day atop that theater looking out of my small window watching people wander around, and each night watching groups heading to go grab a drink or a bite to eat. It was an absolutely romantic scenario living above a theater in the heart of Rome, but I still felt trapped. If I wandered around and met new friends, I couldn’t do anything they would be doing around town. I couldn’t explore parts of Rome I hadn’t seen since I couldn’t afford the subway. And I couldn’t relax in a café in the city while I wrote.
Even though there was a play every night in the theater I lived in about a brothel romance with ladies in lingerie strutting around.
(why yes the theater came lingerie ladies & nightly plays about a romance in a brothel)
That’s when I decided it was my time to head back to the United States.
If I was going to explore more of Europe, I wanted to have a budget that would allow me to do even the most minimal things around the city. Some opportunities presented themselves for possible work, and working in Rome would be a dream come true, but I had already used up 2 months of my allotted time in the Schengen Zone and I would have to leave soon anyway.
Now it was time to figure out how the hell to get back to the United States. During that last week in Rome I finally received a chunk of my pay from my freelance contract, but it still wouldn’t be enough to pay for a last-minute flight back. A friend I had met while traveling in Thailand invited me to come visit them in Munich, and after realizing flights were drastically cheaper from there to the US, I said farewell to my friends in Rome and took a train to Munich.
During the week spent in Germany, I sucked up my pride and asked friends back home if they could help spare a little cash for the difference I needed for a flight. I knew that in Washington DC I had friends I could stay with and that I could have two jobs in a jiffy, so that would be the plan. Return, work my ass off again, save money, leave.
And after three flights in 24-hours and a 15-hour bus ride, I was back in Washington DC. I was somewhere I never thought I’d see myself again that soon.
But, I also had never thought I’d see myself living in Thailand or exploring Europe either.
(at the John Lennon wall in Prague)
So, was running out of money all a mistake?
Or going to Europe a mistake?
The thought of course had crossed my mind a few times. I could have planned better, or come up with one that would have allowed me to stay abroad. There are times when my thoughts about this beat me up, and that I feel bummed about returning to the US. Maybe I should have gone back to Southeast Asia to teach English. Sometimes I think “dammit, I could have saved money better here by not doing this” or “if only I would have done this than I’d still be traveling.”
Then I have to shake that bad mojo off. I left what-ifs and I-could-haves behind, they are all useless thoughts.
This is the essence of travel. This is what makes it exciting and demanding and difficult. And ultimately, why traveling is so rewarding. If it were easy and everything was laid out before you, then the soul of the adventure wouldn’t be there. Was it all for naught? Absolutely not. Are there things I would do differently? Yes.
Lessons on the road are the best lessons learned, because it is a trial by fire. They are situations you may never find yourself in at home, and whether it be figuring out how to save money for something special you want to do, or budgeting just so you can make it to the next destination. Traveling the past couple of years after leaving the United States for the first time taught me to open up my mind to the possibilities that are out there once you begin to look for, and follow your dream.
I gained knowledge and important lessons about Southeast Asia and Europe that couldn’t have been read in a book. And being quite new to travel, each lesson will make the next trip better.
(looking out over Loh Dalum Bay in Thailand)
This trip also showed me another key piece to my life.
When I began traveling just a mere 3 years ago by going to New Zealand, my heart and mind were filled with sudden possibility and inspiration. But my heart was also still filled with things that always held me back. Though that first trip was life-changing, it had also been used as an escape from something I was running from most of my life — however much I told myself I wasn’t running.
When I had to leave New Zealand after 9 months of traveling the country because I was out of money, I berated myself for failing. I had told everyone that I was going to travel for a year or two, and I snubbed my nose at my brother after he had disowned me for wanting to travel. I would prove the world and my brother and society’s demands that I was better than it all and could chase my dream. In that sense, my dream became about other people and other things, it was no longer in pursuit of my own happiness. When I returned early from New Zealand, I faked that it was no big deal, but inside I was crushed. I had felt like I failed at pursuing my dream. And worst of all, I was thinking about how I had set out to prove others wrong and failed.
By being consumed by this fear of failure, something I always struggled with growing up, it had taken the true meaning of my dream and replaced it with self-loathing. The fact that I had traveling nearly across the world, and the fact that I was the first in my family to leave the US, and the fact that I did it for 9 months — that all didn’t matter. I had failed at something I set out to do. I had failed at my dream.
As was one of the first articles to be published on this blog when I began it again last year, I shared how this exact mentality and demoralizing view of my own self drove me into a dark place, a place filled with depression and monster that I had hidden away. It was a place where self-worth did not exist, just personal demons I created and that I succumbed to. During this period, things I had never dealt with — the deaths of my parents, the feeling that I would never be good enough, and the feeling that I had failed myself — it brought me into an abyss where the choice of living or dying was the only thing left.
When I shared the affects of keeping this all hidden in far corners of my mind since I was a child, it was after a time when I had hit the lowest point in my life. My drinking had gone beyond bad. I felt worthless and ashamed. And I was also facing a possible jail sentence because I had been drunk and broken into a house, one which I thought was mine that I had simply and drunkenly locked myself out of.
After months of facing the consequences of those actions, and looking at the internal monsters for the first time that manifested, I knew I had to make that decision to live and change, or else end up dead. There was a choice to be made, a choice that could only be made by me and carried out. The day I walked from the courtroom found not guilty, I vowed to live my life for myself and do whatever possible to chase my dream. A vow I had said before when leaving for Thailand, but one I had said while still holding onto things from my past.
(standing atop a temple in Angkor Wat)
The significance of this trip was that, this time, I don’t feel like a failure.
Months before I had even began planning my trip to Thailand, I began to share personal memoirs about those struggles I had faced, and some of the most personal events from my childhood that had haunted me for years. That had led me to that dark place. By sharing the stories, it was almost like self-counseling. I finally revealed to myself the things I never could face before, and it helped me discover clarity and strength.
Sure, before I left I had told people that I wanted to travel for a year, teaching in Thailand, and then maybe moving on to explore other parts of the world. It was a rough plan, and though teaching in Thailand was a main goal of mine, everything was truly up in the air. I was just ready for another adventure. Even with my trip only lasting 8 months when I wanted to travel for a year or more, it was still 8 months abroad. I still lived for 8 months in other countries. I was able to experience multiple cultures and make friends from all over the world and share experiences and laughter with them.
I was pursuing my dream. I still am pursuing my dream. Because a dream isn’t a destination or a finish line, it is the journey of the body and mind and heart and soul in pursuit of what makes you happy. In pursuit of what you love. It is something that, if you are truly chasing, you can never fail by not reaching some peak or apex, since the glory of a dream is never-ending. You can only fail if you choose not to follow it.
And this is why returning. Though it is something I didn’t think to do this early, it wasn’t something I am going to let bring me down this time. The choice was made by myself to return, and though eating bread and ketchup everyday could have helped with that decision, I know that I will make my time back in the States another piece of the adventure. A catalyst for continuing my dream.
What comes next in the journey?
Well, I’ve come back “home” as I can say, though I know that even if I grew up in Maryland, my home is somewhere else out there. It’s in the wind and the mountains and the forests and the road and everywhere else. Fernweh, that longing for a place I’ve never been still holds on tight. So my goal (which I don’t often set goals unless relating to travel) is to work and save and travel again soon.
To be honest, I am also very excited to be back for fall in the Untied States. Autumn in the US has always been magical for me — Halloween is my favorite holiday, pumpkin flavored everything is my obsession, and the beauty of the changing leaves. And since I will be in the US for a bit, I’ve been considering going much more in-depth about travel around the US and places I’ve been. This is the perfect time to add this aspect to the blog, and maybe a perfect time to become a tourist of my own home country.
Where might I be looking to go next?
Since I had always wanted to visit Europe, the good thing about traveling there and spending two months hopping around different countries is that it gave me a sample. A tantalizing taste. Of course I want more. And it also clued me in on what to expect and what to plan for when I do save specifically to travel Europe. So that is an option, but there are many others. Each time I embark to a new countries, my mind changes and grows and evolves, and I discovers different possibilities that suddenly change my desire or course.
Maybe I’ll want to return to Southeast Asia and explore and teach in Vietnam or another country. I also will be researching what it takes to stay longer in Europe without having the 3-month cap to worry about. Also, I’ve always wanted to explore Central America and South America, and Africa. Hell, I want to see it all!
During my time back I’ll be doing exactly that: deciding where to go on the next trip. I’d like to give myself 6 months to save up, so I’ll be working hard to accomplish this. I’ve already had two interviews at previous jobs, and this month my freelance writing contract should finally have the kinks ironed out.
There is also the idea of moving to New Orleans after fall when it cools down and the festivals take over. New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world, and I’ve been wanting to spend a few months living in that city for a while. It’ll be crazy busy and should be a great place to make some money.
All of this did, in fact, pass through my head during that brief rest in Great Falls.
Not nostalgia at all, but a pang inside my spirit of a sudden excitement — the excitement of a new adventure and continuing the chase.
We had been scrambling up fissures in the stone formations, leaping over moss-covered logs, bounding off angled boulders from one to the other, scaling sheer rock-faces, swinging from branches, and running full sprint while dodging sharp outcroppings. We were hot and tired and slightly cut up, but invigorated. We had been running free for the sake of the spirit and for the challenge. We were creating a path where no path existed. Sometimes head-on, and sometimes with caution.
We were creating our own path in that forest and in the gorge even though obstacles stood in our way. Yes, it felt strange being in Maryland again and sitting atop the high jagged rocks, but as the water below us flowed forward, and the breath came back to my lungs, and the memories raced through my mind, I knew one thing for sure — little by little I would keep carving out my own path.
Though the adventure seemed to end, it hadn’t. It never does if you don’t let it. Step by step, little by little, I will keep pushing forward.
Here is to today, and the adventure it holds wherever I find myself, and wherever you find yourselves chasing your own dream every today following.
If you also want to check out another article by a travel friend, Flora of Flora the Explorer Blog, it shows another perspective as she suddenly is returning home after traveling 3 years. Read: After two years of travel I am returning to London
And so the lost boy arrived in the Eternal City. But I hadn’t actually arrived yet. Having an aisle seat made me envious of the red-shirted woman with the views out the window. But the worst part of that envy wasn’t because her face was smushed against the window and she was wide-eyed at the Italian landscape below — it was because that woman was dead asleep as we began our descent. Oh how I was tempted to just lean right over her to peer out the window. But I suspected that if she were to suddenly wake up, I might appear to be sneaking a smooch instead of my simple desire to see Italy unfold below.
She’d be wrong though, I’m not quite into stealing a secret kiss from a drooling elderly woman with a slight mustache and a snore worse than mine.
We arrived on a reasonably smooth landing, with only a few jolts and shakes exciting my fear of flying before screeching onto the landing strip. After that mad rush subsided that happens when all flights come to an end and people scramble for their luggage, I was waddling with my bags toward the exit door.
Finally, I was staring out at a land (which arguably didn’t look different from most airports) that I had waited all of my life to see. I took a deep breath, my nostrils full flare and filling up my lungs with as much of the brisk Roman air as I could take in. It smelled more like burning rubber and jet fuel than fresh air, but it was still marvelous. Then I realized I was causing an annoying jam while exiting the plane, so I continued on waddling down the stairs. Though there was a slight anxiousness in me that I couldn’t explain. Stark shadows of our figures cast long across the tarmac from the early morning sun just beginning to peak over the Roman umbrella pines in the distance.
I stopped into a bathroom once inside the Fuimicino airport terminal to change out of my spiffy clothes and throw on something much more normal for me (leather jacket, jeans, boots). Reading about a trick online that says it’s possible to get upgraded to first class if you dress nicely, I decided to give it a shot when checking into the airport in Bangkok before leaving for Rome.
Did the dress-nice-for-an-upgrade trick work?
Well, with a button up shirt on, a vest, dress pants, and schnazzy shoes, I approached the Sri Lanka air counter with confidence.
At first it didn’t seem like I was making any leeway with the girl at the counter. I was smiling. I complimented her. I asked her how her day was going. But all I received in return was business attitude. She went through the standard routine of asking me for my passport and credit card. She really didn’t even look up at me after the initial greeting I received. But, after putting my backpack on the weighing machine and cracking a few jokes, the barrier broke down finally.
“You look like a rock star.” she said and smiled.
I laughed, “I get that a lot.”
“Are you in a band” she asked.
“No, just a writer”
“Oh wow, so you have a book or something?” she asked.
“Not yet, but I write a blog though”
“Maybe I can read it sometime” she said.
So, of course feeling like a cool cat, I pulled out my wallet and I passed her my blog business card.
“This is my website if you want to read it”
“Okay I will. By the way, I moved you to seat 20H” she responded and flashed a smile.
With a thank you I walked away — a small bounce now in my stride. I had no clue what my seat was changed to, but she told me she had changed it. Could it be to first class? I’d only know when I boarded the plane.
Ultimately, it was not first class.
It was an aisle seat that allows you to just peek past the curtain and see the happy people donning suits in first class. I wondered whether first class seats while wearing dress pants gives you less of a wedgie.
So, either this was a failure at the attempt at an upgrade, or a victory. Though I was teased by seeing the “greener grass” ahead of me in first class the whole flight — she had also placed me in an exit row which gave me more space to stretch out my legs than I’ve ever had on a prior flight. And there was nobody in front of me to flop backward and crush my laptop.
After I was out of my stuffy suit I headed eagerly for the train that would take me into the heart of Rome. A great big green and white and red colored beast huffed and puffed on the platform waiting to take people into the city center. I nearly missed the train as I stood in front of a door waiting for it to open sesame, until someone pushed past me and pressed the button on the door to enter.
I would have totally missed that train otherwise.
We pulled out into the rural Roman countryside. Small farms and more Dr. Seuss-esque “truffula” pines flashed by while the occasional graffiti that was rebelling against the bland concrete buildings it was sprayed on broke up the views. An Italian flag flapped in the wind , except unlike the American flag in the United States, it would be the first and the last I saw that day.
As I sat on a fold-down seat by one of the doors, I scribbled observations in my leather journal. One observation was someone who I deemed The Man with Overblown Expectations. It can get exhausting having expectations about places you visit. Sometimes a city or a country can exceed expectations, and sometimes the expectations are crushed by disappointment. So I try not to have expectations, just an excitement from the mystery of a new and unknown place.
This is why I don’t read guide books about places I visit. It sets expectations for the place to be sunny and beautiful and that going there will be flawless. That isn’t really how travel is. So, instead, I wait until I arrive to really begin the experience, and whether or not it is good or bad, it isn’t influenced by an outside force. Usually at least.
Standing over me was The Man with the Overblown Expectations; flowy white buzzed hair, bushy eye-brows, tan pressed slacks and a golf shirt, giant Nascar-like glasses dominating he face. He had a gold watch on, alligator skin shoes with little gold plates on them. He looked uncomfortable standing in the crowd of strangers on the train. He had tucked himself into the corner near the doorway and strategically place his absurdly large rolling luggage as a barricade between himself and the rest of the car. His wife sat on her luggage with what seemed to be a permanent frown that had hardened over some years.
“Gardens. Gardens everywhere you look. Do you see these gardens?”
The train was now passing by older apartment complexes or smaller houses alongside the tracks that had little patches of flowers or vegetables sprouting in their back yards.
“Gardens. Do you see these?” he asked his wife.
“Gardens, yes, I see them” she said without looking, and obviously not as amused as him.
“We finally made it to Rome” He said with excitement.
It seems those small and not-so-Roman gardens had triggered it. And it made me glad I had not waited until I was much older to visit, even though I most likely had 1% of his budget to explore with.
I was excited as well, but peering out at that window I was observing something much different.
Life; the beauty and the bad. It seemed as though he was blind to this. Blinded by his expectations I believe. Everything had to be the way he imagined it to be. And however cookie-cutter perfect that may sound, that can take away from the unexpected joys and surprises. He refused to see anything in the landscape other than what he wanted, which I think takes away from the actual soul and life of a place. Its reality.
We passed through an area now lined with small tin-roofed shacks close to the train tracks; half rusted or half collapsing but fully occupied. Stained and tattered clothing hung on the clothes lines outside. Rusted bicycles lay unused and overgrown with weeds. Trash strewn across their yard which was a 5×5 patch of dirt surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire. I guess there wasn’t much neighborly love there. The tin shacks were half hidden by infertile corn stalks growing all around them.
“Oooh! Little balconies! Look honey, everyone has little balconies!” He said.
Apartment complexes with exteriors of faded paint rose up beyond the tin shacks which were hidden from view, except by a passing train like ours. They did have balconies, but had nothing distinctly Roman about them. Nothing out of the ordinary. The area more resembled pulling into Bangkok train station which had the same tin shacks lining the sides of the tracks with the dated high-rises behind.
“Balconies…wow. Beautiful” the man said under his breath.
The train screeched to a halt into the Roma Trastevere station. The station was shaded by a massive metal awning; pieces of the cracked and aged black paint has chipped away to show the rust beneath. The wrought-iron construct was adorned with twisted metal, spiral designs, and intricate hammered iron leaves — beautiful in its day surely, and beautiful in its decay still.
The Man with the Overblown Expectations seemed to quiet after a while as his wife was ignoring him and wearing her seemingly standard frown. But he still would whisper to himself in amazement at the cute hanging laundry and balconies. He didn’t ever mention the graffiti, or the people living on the side of the tracks, or how this landscape had shown centuries of the numerous rises and falls of this region.
After all, Rome is one of the most war-torn cities of the past 2,000 years.
We left the station and passed more embankments covered with the same infertile cornstalks like the ones that had hidden the tin houses before. Not producing anything, yet still growing. It made me think about how this region may have been a vast farmland in ancient Rome before the urban decay that has sprouted up all around.
It reminded me of when I was a little boy and would help my mother with the gardening.
We used to grow corn in a small patch of flat land at the bottom of a hill in our yard, and I used to help my mother tend to them. More like I would sneak newly ripened cherry tomatoes into my mouth. Over time after my parents split up, nobody planted anything there. Weeds grew, but still even without care those corn stalks sprouted each year to the dismay of my father. But infertile still, the only thing they could bear was the memories of a time past just like these alongside the tracks.
It began to seem as though we were passing through different decades as the train continued to close in on Rome. Through the 1920’s to the 1980’s, buildings with distinct styles for their era rose up around us. Some with the pre-war pastels, some with the cold-war staunchness.
We had been leaping forward through decades shown in a timeline of aging apartment complexes, and then history unraveled before me and we plunged back centuries.
Above us towered an ancient aqueduct, the first of its kind I had ever seen. Bricks nearly a third of the thickness used in modern construction, stacked perfectly upon each other and held together with mortar to a height above most buildings in the surrounding area.
We passed under one of the archways holding up this aqueduct and I marveled at how old the structure was, yet how dominating it was to the modern buildings around. That arch towering above was our gateway to the Eternal City as we crept into the Termini station.
Though I had stifled my expectations that had been building up since I was a very young boy, I couldn’t help but secretly hope that it was just as the books had made it look when I flipped through them at age 8.
Years and years of wandering the history sections of libraries and always finding myself pausing at the books about Rome. Years of hearing stories about Italy from other people who had visiting and thinking of Rome as a fantasy place. Something only in imagination and on pages. Years of that feeling of fernweh, the longing for a place I had never been.
Even though the train had just pulled into the city, the sight of that ancient aqueduct made it unbearable to hold back the excitement. I had a big ole’ cheesy smile on my face.
No longer was it just for books and stories and photos, for I had arrived in the Eternal City.
*The next part of my Rome series will be landing soon, so make sure to keep stopping by, or sign up for my weekly newsletter!*
How was it when you first came to the place you always dreamed of? Did it live up to your expectations, or like me, did you try not to have expectations? Share your story and your place of your dreams below!
Something haunts me as the thunder rumbles deep outside. Lightning streaks across the sky every so often, white-washing the rolling grey clouds like the flash of a camera. The pouring rains rat-ta-tat-tats on the rooftop and weeps down the window front — headlights and tail lights from passing traffic shimmer across that waterfall before me, creating a kaleidoscope-like obscura.
Something else, less literal, hangs dark and foreboding above my head. A cloud looms over me, darkening my mood. It is fear. A creeping fear. The type of fear that waits for the right moment to drill into your brain and tighten more and more. Each time it tightens on your mind, it strips away confidence and positive thinking and replaces with the soul-destroying “what ifs” that fester in the darkest parts of your mind.
Things that you subconsciously create to hold you back.
That fear has caused me to gnaw off my fingernails, and to lay awake at night trying to find distraction from swimming in this melancholy the past few days. Struggling to keep my head above the waters so not to drown in despair.
It is the sudden fear of a dwindling budget.
And I am sure many travelers at some point during their journeys finds themselves looking up above to see that darkness following them. That pressure weighing down on you.
When I first left the United States again to embark on this new and exciting road, I knew what mistakes I had made in the past that cut my trip short.
My year-long escape in New Zealand was cut short when I found myself dumbfounded that my bank account showed $25 as my balance. I had completely run out of money without even realizing it and didn’t even have a flight booked home. Luckily I was able to use $20 of that for a bus ticket to a kiwi picking town in the south, as well as charity from family and friends to keep me afloat until I got a paycheck. After a few months of working in a factory 13 hours a day, I had saved up a little money, and with that I decided to return home and reset. Return home to work again for the next adventure.
I vowed never to make that mistake again.
Yet, here I am haunted by that fear. Not because I have $25 left to my name — after nearly 6 months abroad I still have close to half of my original budget. But at the same time I have no income flowing to my bank account.
One of my goals coming to Thailand was to hit the ground running and to teach English here, guaranteeing me an income and prolonging my budget. And, though I have yet to start teaching, I did not abandon that goal fully. In February I took a TEFL/TESOL course and received my English teaching certificate which unlocks many doors and many ways to sustain traveling. But when I received the certificate, the end of the school year was wrapping up. Though I could have searched for teaching opportunities, it was not practical seeing that I would be coming on board a month before school let out.
So I decided to wait.
All the while I watched my budget dip lower and lower.
Seeing red rising.
I have been pretty conscious of my spending each month. The past couple of months I have managed to keep my budget under $30 a day, some days even as low as $10. So I’m not frolicking about throwing around Thai baht like I’m rich, that’s for sure.
Tracking your spending has it’s downsides though. Obviously I don’t want to be oblivious about where my money is going and how I am spending. But tracking every penny that gets used and having no income adding back to your budget is just watching it slowly disappear. Almost like watching the sand in an hourglass trickle down ever so slowly until time is up. Constantly imputing red mark after red mark. And if you let it, and can become and obsession and a fear.
And that is what has happened the past few days.
On my most recent travel newsletter I discussed this sudden fear gripping me — fear that I would run out of money again even though I am not necessarily close to doing so yet. And this feeling seemed to grow in intensity after I decided to temporarily abandon the English teaching goal in favor of my one true goal.
Finally pursuing freelance writing.
My ultimate goal when I left stateside was to find the time I needed — no, to make the time I need — to pursue freelance writing outlets and to focus on furthering my travel blog.
Except the past couple of months while doing my TEFL training and afterward, I barely wrote any articles. I was caught up with the classes or feeling burnt out and lazily lying around my apartment. I realized that, just like back in the United States, I was letting things distract me from focusing on that main goal.
So dived back in head on.
The past couple of weeks I have felt a fury inside of me for writing. It seemed as though I finally found my mojo rejuvenated and the creative juices flowing. I haven’t been able to pull away from the keyboard, and the only thing that really does is when I need to either tinkle or when I start passing out on my laptop. Sometimes food. I’ve slurped down uncountable amounts of coffee. Café dweller could be a nickname, because it hasn’t been uncommon for me to spend 10-14 hours a day writing or scouring the web for freelance opportunities.
And even though I am in a foreign country and spending my days as of late sitting in a café, my mindset is that the hard work will pay off if I keep focusing on the goal and putting forth all of my energy.
But, like the budgeting downside, that also had an opposite effect as well.
The number of emails I have sent out to companies to write for has been in the hundreds. Every freelance travel writing opportunity that has reared its prospective head, I’ve zeroed in on. The problem is, I haven’t received many responses back. And the responses that I have, the companies aren’t actively looking to bring more writers on board.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Passionate endeavors rarely are. I know that freelancing is like a war zone and you’ve gotta’ fight for opportunities. Or it is who you know. Yet I was finally giving it my all and receiving nothing back. It was demoralizing. I know I can’t expect instant payoff, but I couldn’t shake it off. And as much as I kept telling myself, “it’ll be fine, just keep pushing” the fear of failure was beginning to take hold.
What if I wasn’t good enough? What if they don’t like my writing? What if I can’t find any work and have to give up? What if I have to return home?
That damned phrase “what if” — something I’ve tried to eradicate from my vocabulary — was suddenly grasping my spirit with a death grip. I was beginning to think that maybe I should just give up the hunt for now and take the “easy” route by teaching. Not that teaching English is remotely easy, but it would almost be a guaranteed gig.
Surely I could teach and write? Well, if I did that then I would be focusing most of my time and energy to something else. Again I would be getting further and further behind on my main goal. I’d be supplementing the fear of failure or running out of money with a guarantee. A safer bet.
It’s a sick cycle.
I had been raised in a family where my father was a conservative and headstrong realist. He knew the hardships of life well, and though I do not know what his pursuit of happiness may have been once upon a time, I know that he ended up taking the guaranteed route. Throughout my childhood and into adulthood, he would constantly tell me when I had a lofty dream that it was nonsense. He would tell me to “get your head out of the clouds“. He would emphasize that it would be too high of a ladder to climb.
I used to despise the way he would crush any dream I had that wasn’t a “normal job“. These days I don’t blame him though. Life was hard and we struggled to get by. Maybe he knew how it felt to pursue a dream and have reality slap him across the face. Possibly he knew the effects of a failed attempt at something different, and he just wanted to protect me from that hurt. Maybe one too many failed attempts at it broke his spirit.
But I didn’t face other fears and other “what if” worries to leave the United States for nothing.
So how the hell do you beat this fear?
That fear is the reflection of your own ultimate being. When you sit there daydreaming, envisioning this person that you want to be doing all of these spectacular things you want to do, what happens? You see yourself as this unreachable entity that far surpasses the limits you have mentally imposed. Suddenly, fear crawls across your skin and you feel like cowering away from what you saw. Cowering from your own greatness.
As that fear takes hold, you may instantly deem it as some crazy idea or unattainable goal. But what you saw — that is the person you are meant to be. That fear that you experience when you see yourself doing something amazing; a slight tingle in the back of your neck and maybe even causing your heart to beat faster — that is the test. Fear of risks stems from fear of something great inside you. That is the a challenge to your fortitude to see if you want it badly enough to face the fear. The fear of failure. The fear of trying out that wild dream you have, but going into it already telling yourself you won’t make it.
Don’t let fear beat you, because on the other side of that fear, is who you are meant to be. And only you can beat it.
It’s full steam ahead now.
I am tired of constantly beginning to pursue my passion only to allow fear to make me turn back and do something safer. I’m tired of thinking I have to do something else to be able to keep inching toward it. The truth is if I focus on it fully, I can gain much more traction.
Though I have been feeling demoralized lately, by writing about this fear that has been haunting me, it has actually helped refocus my mind.
There was also a good opportunity that came my way from the recent writing blitzkrieg I’ve been on. Opportunities I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of if I was focusing on other things. Hipmunk, a nifty flight booking company, has recently asked me to be one of their “destination experts” to create content for their website. And I am super stoked. Though it won’t pay all of the bills, it is a small start to being able to sustain my travels with my writing.
So I will keep at it.
I will keep working hard and even though that fear will surely creep up on me, I will not let it destroy my confidence. I know my goals and I know my self-worth and I know I can do this. And even with my budget dipping lower, I cannot let that stop me from moving forward. I will not be afraid of failure. Because through trial and error you can fail a thousand times, but if you keep at it, eventually you will succeed.
You can only be a failure if you quit.
What is your greatest fear while traveling? Have you ever felt this way?
Something felt off. Well, I felt off. But I could have never guessed what would come later, possibly in connection with the way I had felt the entire day after arriving in Chiang Mai.
And then I looked up from my sandwich in a Subway in Chiang Mai to see the glass before me shaking violently and the concrete walls of the building I was in shift back and forth.
“What the fuck?” I said with a mouthful of chicken teriyaki.
I looked up and it seemed as though the world was warping, as if I was staring into a funhouse mirror as the events played out around me.
Everyone from the top floor and base floor scurried out of the building quickly, snatching up all of their belonging in a mad panic and fleeing into the streets.
Me? I just sat there completely confused and feeling on the verge of vomiting. And once the shaking stopped, it dawned on me that I had just idiotically sat inside a building while an earthquake rattled the city.
I think the reason I hadn’t gotten up to run outside like everyone else was because of that exact feeling that I had bothering me all day. And right before the earthquake it, I felt faint and near collapse — thinking I hadn’t eaten enough that day. Thinking at the beginning it was just me.
Earlier that morning I had driven back 3 hours from the northern town of Pai, through the 762+ turns up and down the mountains without stopping. I just wanted to make it back to Chiang Mai as soon as possible.
Right as I got back I started feeling a little off. I figured I had slight jitters because I only ate a small breakfast and chugged a coffee to get the blood flowing before hitting the road. But I made sure to drink plenty of water on the return route, and even after going to the café and eating an entire sandwich…nothing changed.
All day I stood or sat slamming down keys for a post on the blog, and gradually throughout the day I felt worse. It began with just a slight drowsiness or lightheadedness. and then my arms began to tingle. I felt weak. My head slowly began to give me the feeling of the spins, and my forehead felt hot.
Eventually, it got too much to bear. I packed up all of my belongings and decided to head home for the day and lay down, hoping that feeling would subside. But it didn’t.
It was about 5 minutes before the earthquake hit that I felt on the verge of vomiting. I thought I might collapse and so I hobbled down the stairs and decided that I’d try to down some more food just to see if it helped. Then, right before everything began shaking, I felt like I’d faint. My vision became a little blurry, my dizziness took hold, and I was preparing to run to the bathroom in case I had to hurl.
And then it hit. At first I thought it was me. My shoulders tingled down to my arms and into my fingertips. I thought, “Yep, stay seated Ryan, you are going to faint”
Things started slow. The windows vibrated and the walls moved and I grabbed my head with both hands to steady myself. That’s when everybody began running outside. It worsened. The glass wobbled and bent as though it’s explode and I could literally see the building dancing before me. Yet I couldn’t get up. I was disoriented and still couldn’t get my legs under me to work. I watched as the lights shook and pictures slide.
I’m sure if I began seeing things breaking or cracking I’d be able to get the energy to run outside.
After it stopped, I could see the hundreds of Thai people massing in the streets on their phone, seemingly tweeting or lining or snapping freak outs about what just happened.
And I sat there and finished my sandwich.
Not more than 5-10 minutes after the earthquake, that intense ill feeling seemed to wash out of my body. I was still a tad bit off, but I didn’t feel nearly as bad as I did hours before.
The earthquake registered a 6.3 at its epicenter near Chiang Rai north of Chiang Mai, and seemed to crawl all across Thailand down to Bangkok and into neighboring Myanmar. As I checked Twitter, immediately the social network was flooded with tweets about it. Luckily, everyone I knew weren’t injured. Just really freaked out or confused.
Throughout the night and into the next morning, my house vibrated with aftershocks. I spoke to my roommate the next morning about how ill I felt and she mentioned the exact same symptoms, telling me that she thought it was a large thunderstorm coming that caused her to feel that way.
Maybe I have “Spidey senses” one of my close friends quipped after telling her about the incident since it seemed to dissipate after the earthquake came and went.
I’ve now been through my share of earthquakes; plenty of aftershocks in Christchurch that made it feel like I slept on a water bed, and the annual occurrences in California. Hell, I was even giving an iPad class in Washington DC at my Apple Store when one hit — of course I stood there as everyone else crawled under tables.
Even though none compared to ones that have rocked Asia before, or Christchurch in New Zealand, or caused the destruction in Haiti that I observed even 2 years after, it is still pretty nerve wrecking.
I do not like the ground feeling like Jell-O beneath me.
Have you ever been through an earthquake? Ever have symptoms like mine hours before?
Sometimes it’s hard to turn off the fear of something bad happening when you travel, especially for first time travelers. And quite often, one of those fears is being robbed, and something you are always warned about when you first start traveling.
Here’s an experience of my own in Thailand that stuck in my head for weeks, and an experience that should teach everyone a lesson.
The gears of the rusted motorbike clanked as he up-shifted and changed lanes, cruising down the canal loop that rings the outside of Chiang Mai’s old town. I was clinging on to the back, jolting every time the gear changed and the bike had a seizure. Besides the fact that my ass was close to slipping off the back of the bike, I had a pit in my stomach from offending the man earlier and mentally on edge as to where he was taking me now.
I did not know this Thai man; white discolored tank-top, torn and stained jean shorts, and faded tattoos etched into his leather colored skin. For some reason his appearance is another element that had made me hesitant. Which is a very rare thing. I pride myself in not judging people by the way they looked. And it is actually quite stupid I made that judgement because here I was, wearing a tank top and shorts, and covered in tattoos myself.
Hell, we even had the same hat on, though his had clearly seen rougher days than mine.
Yet, I still didn’t trust him as we pulled off the freeway and into back alleys of Chiang Mai that I was unfamiliar with. Though I was tempted to pull out my iPhone and check my whereabouts, instead I clipped the chest strap of my tech bag, securing it tightly and readied myself for escape if I needed to.
Fear is quite an odd emotion. Fear can electrify your body with adrenaline to accomplish feats that you never thought possible and make the reward for doing so feel astronomical. Fear can also prevent you from doing things you want to do or wish to do — turning your stomach into knots and squeezing the courage out of you. Fear can heighten your senses. Fear can also obscure your judgement.
Either way, I did not know where we were going and what the outcome would be, so I made ready for whatever would happen. The alleys became a labyrinth; left turn, right turn, left turn, past closed shops. Deeper and deeper away from main streets.
And then on a secluded side street we stopped.
Before I had gotten on that motorbike, I was strolling through my village north of the Chiang Mai airport headed toward the freeway to hunt down a Songthaew (truck taxi). The bag on my back was chock full of the standard stuff needed for a days work, which is pretty much my whole life. Macbook Pro, iPad, chargers, harddrives, cameras, lenses, and all of my other doohickeys that make the bag weigh more than my big pack full of clothes. Needless to say, if I lost this bag, I’d be destroyed, and always hold it close.
And I am very cautious when carrying it around any town.
As I walked down the long road leading to the freeway a man on a motorbike pulls over beside me.
“Where you go?” he said.
I hesitated immediately as a flood of thoughts went through my head. What does he want? Why is he stopping to give me a ride? How much will it cost me?
I’ve been to a few countries where a motorbike is the taxi and when somebody waves you down to offer a ride, it’s not a favor. Jakarta and Bangkok, for example, have the overpriced motor bikers who ask you every time if you want a ride for an atrocious price compared to other modes of transport. Though Chiang Mai is known more for the 20 baht truck taxis, I assumed this was a freelancer seeing an opportunity to take advantage of a foreigner.
“Um…I’m going to Kad Suan Kaew” I said, a local mall I go to for the gym.
“Okay, get on. I go into town.”
“How much?” I asked him, thinking he was a motor bike taxi of some sort.
And then I immediately felt stupid.
The look on his face when I asked for a price was pure offense. He gave me a look as to say, “what the fuck man” and suddenly I felt ashamed.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I said to him, approaching him with a wai, a sign of respect with a slight bow. I reached out my hand and introduced myself, and though I felt terrible for making that assumption after he just wanted to do me a favor, he brushed it off immediately with a care-free smile.
“My name is Tawan. I go to town now. I take you”
“Kad Suan Kaew?” I asked. He nodded.
Tawan motioned for me to get on, so I did, and we sped off down the road. I still felt shame for asking him the price, but now I was wondering what would happen next. Many times in other countries I’ve been to, favors have turned out to be requests for money afterward, or agreed upon prices changed in a “lost in translation moment” even after verifying three times.
But I also know that we were suddenly passing by all of the streets that would lead to the mall I was trying to go to, and instead snaking through those unfamiliar back alleys.
The whole time we were driving through, I was attempting to remember the way we came. I tried to remember landmarks and ways to get out, and noting where people were walking around.
Until we stopped and there was nobody around in sight.
I hopped off of the motorbike quickly and glanced around to make sure I was safe.
I was completely safe.
“This is my tattoo shop” Tawan said with a smile. He lifted the metal rolling gate and turned around to me.
“This is your shop?”
“Yes, mine” Tawan said.
“How long have you been tattooing for?”
“Three years. But I am artist. Painter. My love” he said proudly.
“Thank you so much Tawan, I will come back for a tattoo sometime.”
“Yes, please, have a good day!” He said excitedly, and I turned and walked away.
I was still unfamiliar where I was, but it seems like there was nobody around because the street I was on ran on Chiang Mai time and simply didn’t open until noon.
I emerged from the alley and to my surprise I was on the Sunday walking street, a place I frequented often. The rest of the afternoon my encounter with Tawan was on my head, and I still felt ashamed for thinking that way about him.
Fear of some ulterior motive from a person who was trying to be nice caused me to make an immediate judgement of his character.
Should I have been ashamed? I’ve heard on occasion from other travelers stories where they, or someone they know, were taken to a place and robbed at knife point by a person who had a kind smile. Or had their bag snatched. Or others things. Not specifically in Thailand, but all around the world.
After going about it through my head I ended up at a couple of conclusions. I have always tried to assume the best intentions of people until they prove me right or wrong, and that day I didn’t even give Tawan a chance. Also, I know as a traveler it can be wise to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
Being raised in Washington D.C. and spending most of my life there, I’ve always knocked the city for being a robotic and automated place where people are too busy to be nice. I left that city to search for a place where people acknowledged and interacted with others, people who smiled at another just to brighten their day, and a place where there wasn’t a “how much do you make? What do you drive?” standard.
In the land of smiles where I’ve come to know many local Thai people who are the sweetest people I’ve had the privilege to call friends, I gave Tawan no chance from the beginning. I distrusted him the moment he pulled over. I cannot explain why I did, it just happened on that day.
I am not ashamed to be cautious while traveling, we always need to be aware in an unfamiliar place. Or even aware in places you’ve grown comfortable in. There are some cities where you just don’t fuck around with being careless.
Bad people are anywhere in the world, but so are good people.
The one thing that bugged me most was that I allowed myself to fall back into that state of mind while in Washington DC; sunglasses on, headphones in, and “what do you want? Don’t talk to me” vibe. Don’t trust anyone.
I can be cautious, but I don’t need to be cold, and to be open to believing in random acts of kindness again.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain
>> Have you ever had a moment on the road like this?
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There was a fight at my hostel tonight in Pai, Thailand.
An older Scotsman (45ish) who has been staying at the hostel for the past 6 months has grown a kind of “I run this place” ego over every other traveler and backpacker, as well as grown a disdain for humankind — which usually seeps out after a few glasses of whiskey. He always loftily tells tales, true or tall tales, about such things as being let off by police for having the highest ranking shaman of a country come to his rescue, or sleeping in caves for weeks in the wild when he feels such immense hatred for people, or other things like being so well-known that even the FBI questioned him because they thought he was an agent of some sort.
Well, the past couple of nights his disdain for people who are “utterly disrespectful of the universe and disgraces to humankind” has been oozing out each time he stumbled about the great campfire — once usually made for communal seating and sharing stories and drinks, but of late empty and quieter than the crickets in the bush.
One night, a chap walked up behind him and slung an arm over his shoulder in a friendly gesture and the guy proceeds to shove him off, tell him to “fuck off and leave the hostel” lest he “fuck him up” and slapped him in the face. The other guy seemed to be quite the pacifist and apologized for what I observed to be no wrong. And if it was me in his shoes getting slapped, well, I don’t go looking for trouble, but if it slaps me in the face you can be damn sure there will be trouble.
Either way, later that night the higher than human kind man with the whiskey dragon breath stumbled about at 4:00am shouting out into the night sky, “I’ll fucking kill all you mother fuckers. You are disgusting. A disgrace! All of you!”
In the morning, my friend who is traveling with him saw the whiskey breathed hollering higher than human man who came and sat with him at the coffee table. Both ordered coffee and my friend made small talk as he was completely unknowing of the latest events. My friend had asked, “Did you hear that crazy person screaming and shouting outside last night? Something about killing people and stuff”
The man sipped his coffee and grumble, “If I would have heard some ignorant piece of shit shouting that late at night outside, I would have walked out and kicked his ass. People have no respect.”
Seems as though the man had no clue it was him. Ironic how he became the piece of shit in his own mind and never even knew it…
Well, tonight as the lot of us watched Game of Thrones season 1 on the upstairs balcony (season 4 is coming, we HAVE to recap…) everything seemed to be a chill night.
Until the shouting began.
All we heard was commotion — some ruckus of shouting we couldn’t understand. but as we ran over the opposite railing to peer down to the origin, we saw higher than human kind whiskey breathed hollering ironic man with his dukes up toward a much younger and larger backpacker.
Other backpackers scattered away from the fire, and another guy who had probably almost fought him in that instance as well, was dragged away from the scene.
Though I couldn’t hear, it seemed that words and threats were made by the older guy, while the backpacker who probably did nothing to rightfully offend him, stood his ground. It was on the cusp of a fireside brawl until the owner of the hostel, one who has allowed this man the courtesy to stay long-term, forced him back to his bungalow.
“Saw that coming…it was just a matter of time…” A girl said out loud to the group as we walked back to watch Game of Thrones.
It was just a matter of time. Not a matter of time that some young backpacker would purposely pick a fight, because nobody has, but a matter of time until this guy who perpetually gulped down bottles of whiskey per night and spoke about how everyone is driving the world to shit, picked a fight with someone.
And if he is allowed to stay, he will no doubt pick many more fights and may have the brawl he’s been itching for…but it probably won’t end up good for him.
All in all, this man who holds the world to blame for destroying it, who complains about the lack of respect, and who states just how disgusting we are through whiskey breath and wobbly steps — is a perfect picture of the monsters that he sees through blurry eyes.
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hatever you want to call them; Ghosts or spirits or just hopeful nostalgia playing mind games with a person who yearns for a long gone sentimental period in life — I’ve experienced something multiple times throughout my life.
Something otherworldly. Something I couldn’t quite see or touch, but something I could feel in the pit of my stomach or on the hairs of my neck that stand at attention.
Thousands of miles away from any semblance of scar or soul searing experience from my past, they still found me on the Island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
It used to frighten me much more than it did that Christmas in Thailand. It would usually send goosebumps crawling over my skin and my heart would pound against my rib cage the speed of a machine gun.
Most of the time you cannot see these wisps of residual energy left to frolic about between worlds, or those intelligent enough to taunt and torment the living. And that is terrifying. When you hear a voice as silent as a small breeze, or when you hear a creak in the floor boards as if they creep up on you, or when you catch the last instance of a shadow before it retreats into the darkness.
At those very instances it is nigh impossible to keep hold of your wits and senses because the concept of ghosts elude reality.
The first experience with a ghost would cause me to cower and weep. The second would provide a small insight and re-assurance. But more confusion.
[highlight]This time…it brought me to tears.[/highlight]
It was December 25th. High above the tourist ransacked town of Koh Phi Phi I sat with another backpacker on the upper porch of a bungalow under the dim yellow porch light. We faced out toward the blackness where the hill dropped steep into the now invisible Andaman Sea.
The wind was fiercer than the past few days. It swooshed up the slope to billow and gust through the rows of wooden bungalows. The palms swayed and danced in the darkness like some drunken shaman. Even with all of the commotion from what seemed to be a storm approaching, the night was eerily silent. The bungalow did not creak or make a peep. Our plastic chairs did not shift. Just the noise of the wind.
Here I would be suddenly reminded of those instances in my past where I experienced those mysterious somethings. It would also remind me of the age old book by Charles Dickens which tells a story of a twisted and wretched man whom believed he had no heart, and rediscovered it when ghosts came for a chat.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Little did I know that by the end of this night I would be visited again, and I’d feel like the changed Scrooge after his ghosts came to see him. My path was so very different now. I had changed course, and it had led me here.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
“Oh hell yes I do. I’ve had a couple experiences with them” I said.
“Now you’ve gotta’ tell me”
I stared off into that darkness for a few moments knowing all too well what my stories would reveal to a person I had not shared much with. All they knew about me, as with most people met on the road, was that I was a corporate escapee from the United States in search of adventure.
“Twice I’ve met ghosts. One was my mother on Christmas after her death. The second, my father after his death.” I said, very calmly still staring into the darkness.
My hands where now clasped together, and maybe the seemingly nervous writhing of them together like I was kneading dough gave away my discomfort.
“Oh, I’m sorry, you don’t have to tell me.”
The surroundings at that very moment almost urged me to tell the tale, like a camp fire does with its whipping orange flames. That night had a very “Are you scared of the Dark?” feel to it.
“No, no. It’s okay. I’ll tell you the experiences.”
The nervousness hadn’t been the thought of telling the story of my parents ghosts and knowing that it would lead to more questions. It was more that I was afraid they’d think I was a loon. I hadn’t shared this story with more than a handful of people, and I hadn’t even told my own brother the story. I knew he’d say I was batshit crazy.
But this person, a backpacker I had just met a few days before, now sat at the edge of their plastic lawn chair in anticipation. I could tell they were truly interested.
As I began the first story the wind fell deathly still atop Phi Phi hill. The palms stopped their ritualistic swaying. Everything became quiet as if the wind and the trees listened to the story as well.
[highlight]My mother came to me one Christmas Eve.[/highlight]
As the young and ever so cute little boy I was growing up, I had a Christmas ritual. Every year when the dark green pine would be slung up on the stand in the living room I would eagerly await the night when we could decorate it.
Silver tinsel would fly in a flurry as my tiny self tried to hurl it toward the top of the tree.
“You’re making a mess!” My mother would yell.
“I can do it!” I’d shout, and would twist away as my taller brother would try to steal my Christmas feat away from me. I could decorate the freakin’ tree. My mother would always laugh at my miniature confidence.
I would plug in those chains of Christmas lights and wrap myself in them like a glowing yellow and green and red and blue neon enchilada.
“When you get electrocuted I’ll tell you I told you so...” My mother would say to me. But nothing could snatch the joy of Christmas away from me. Nothing.
Every night up until Christmas Eve when my parents would remove the door handles so we couldn’t shake the present to guess what was in them, I would sleep beside the tree on the couch.
And then that Christmas joy was stripped away.
My mother had committed suicide sometime in my mid-teens. As I’ve told in the past, I repressed most of that occurrence into the depths of the deepest hole I could dig inside my brain which is the reason I cannot remember the exact year it happened. We also couldn’t afford a gravestone for her.
It had occurred in the summer that year, but still sat heavy in my heart as the temperatures dropped and the Christmas cheer was flaunted everywhere in town. To me, it was atrocious. It was a sickening reminder of a happy time long past. A smiling fat bearded man with rosey cheeks stared at me everywhere I walked aching for a punch in the face. I didn’t even decorate our own tree that year, deciding it was a bore.
Christmas had lost all of its joy and light.
But on Christmas Eve I awoke in the middle of the night after everyone had fallen asleep and crept silently into the living room. All of the lights in the house were turned off, and just the glow of the Christmas tree illuminated the room and a golden splendor. Something about it felt warm and calm. Some reminder or echo from my childhood twinkled in those lights and on the ornaments.
I curled up on the couch and sank into those familiar dark green cushions and stared at the tree until sleep overtook me. The lights blurred into a kaleidoscope as my eyelids fell shut.
And at some point during the night jolted awake. Something startled me enough to wake me and send my heart racing.
At first I thought I was dreaming. There was a distinct sound heard loud beside me. I heard two footsteps walk into the room and stop, almost as if admiring the tree.
When I fully came to I leapt upright on the couch shaking. My eyes darted left and right trying to discover who was inside the house when suddenly the footsteps ran past me and continued down the hall.
That distinct sound was one I knew very well. It was the sound my Mother’s church heels. Those tan generic heels that click clacked down the marble floors whenever she went to service, and I was the only one that would go with her.
“Sometimes when she came to church, she was the strongest woman I had ever seen. And other times, she was the most fragile.”
Those words our minister spoke at her funeral came echoing back with the sound of her heels by the Christmas tree. I didn’t know what to make of it. I was frightened and confused. I knew she had been there at that moment. Just as fast as she came she was gone again.
And an uncontrollable flood of tears poured from my eyes.
Her heels trailed off into the darkness of the hallway leading to my parents old room, as if she was getting ready to go to church.
I wept terribly at her memory in front of that Christmas tree like a child crying for his mother, and then suddenly the tears stopped. There was this immense calm I felt at that moment, as if I knew she would always be with me.
Nobody would ever hear of that story until nearly ten years later. And until the second occurrence, it would confuse me.
[highlight]It was a summer day when my father came to me, like the day he had passed.[/highlight]
Whether it be your eyes that see a ghost, or your ears that hear one, it can also be in your mind and in your heart that you know an experience to be true.
The summer after I buried my father I could not handle the torture of being in that same house anymore. I had to even quit the job we both worked at because every time I saw his empty chair I nearly threw up.
My brother had met his future wife and was always staying at her place every night for months, which left me alone in that great big house with its long and now lonely history.
This was a house once full of love, lies, smiles, violence, laughter, hate, growing up, breaking down, broken hearts, and broken dreams. It was the house of my childhood, and now it was empty. A big brick and wooden void in which most nights I would find myself sitting alone in silence.
The kind of silence that was so loud it hurts your brain and drives you mad. And it was slowly driving me mad.
Soon the DVD movies on the projector got old. Then I’d switch to trying to throw parties to bring some life into the house and then I hated people being there. Then I’d switch to drinking alone instead. I’d try to spark up an old hook up out of some desperate loneliness that might distract for a while, but soon I’d tire of that as well. And soon I’d tire of even watching porn as a distraction. I’d just sit in the loud silence like I was trapped in a cage of sadness.
While living in that big creaky house with the yellow shingles and the brown shudders and the hallowed halls with bleeding walls and the screaming silence, I rarely got sleep.
Most of the time I feared someone would break in. They would take the last bit of my childhood and my family memory away from me and so I never slept. It was just me on my back alone on that leather couch staring at the ceiling into the nothingness. Staring so long at the cracks in the plaster that the began to wiggle and writhe like worms. At the same time I couldn’t ever pull myself together to leave that prison of tormenting memories.
I finally moved out the summer after. Madness drove me to escape with a couple of my best friends, only temporarily, to work at a beach outside of town.
And at some point during that summer of sun and booze and hangovers and blackout hookups, my father came to me in the shit-hole of a beach house we all stayed in.
I was fast asleep on the top bunk of the rickety matchstick construct we all slept on. This time, I wasn’t startled awake by a ghost, but I met my father in the parallel plane where the body sleeps and the mind rules.
It was so vivid and real.
In the dream, the sun was beaming so marvelously bright. Everything was basked in some sort of warm hue, almost like the leaves of fall. I entered the house into the empty living room where the dust danced in the sunlight that peaked through the blinds.
“BUBBA!” My father called out to me in his joyful and raspy growl. I ran to him. So fast I ran, but I also moved in slow motion. It was as if I was a child again but in my twenty year old body. He sat in his favorite chair soaked in golden light and suddenly everything seemed right in the world.
He was wearing this familiar yellow shirt; one dotted with holes and oil stains and emblazoned with the faded logo of our weekend lawn mowing company. He always smelled like a mechanic.
I embraced him — clashing against his rotund belly and attempted to wrap my arms around his whole body.
“Where did you go, I’ve been waiting for you. I missed you.” I said.
My father patted my head with his large rough hands. I could feel the gristle of his beard scratching my face like the times as a boy when he would sit me on his knee.
“I’m on vacation. I needed a vacation for a long time and I went.” He said to me.
And then I woke up. It wasn’t an alarming awakening, more like I slowly came back into my body and was confused as to why I was in this run down beach house and not with my father at home in the golden splendor.
It was so surreal and yet so very real. As I sat there, I could still smell his shirt and feel his beard against my face.
He was just on vacation.
[highlight]Then a ghost came to Koh Phi Phi[/highlight]
After I had told the person those two stories about my parents (the abridged version of course) something strange happened.
“Though it frightened me the first time with my mother and slightly confused me the second, it was also a reassurance that they were still with me. That I wasn’t truly alone.”
Right as I finished the story and let the weight of it sink into the silence of the night, our bungalows power went out. Every other bungalow, more than 30 on the hill, all had their faint yellow porch lights still buzzing bright.
After a couple of seconds, the power came back on and the wind began to slowly swirl through the trees again.
“I’ve been here for weeks and that has never happened” the listener of my story said.
I was turned away facing the darkness as if I was looking around, but in truth I was hiding the two tears that had escaped my eyes.
It was my father and my mother who had come to me again that night, and they were telling me on that Christmas Eve where I felt lonely that I was not alone.
I was not alone.
Whether or not you believe in spirits, or ghosts, or the afterlife — I know what I felt in each of those instances. I believe we are all made up of some type of energy. The universe was created by accidental collisions of energy and atoms and molecules over the course of billions of years.
Those accidental collisions came to form the galaxies and the stars and the planets. We are born of the universe and our bodies are made up of it as well. Understand that we are pieces of the great universe made to be great. My mother’s and father’s bodies expired on this planet, but I believe their energy is still omnipresent. They have yet again become part of the universe.
They are now in the breeze and in the earth and in the trees. For so long I chose not to pay attention, almost yearning for a never-ending loneliness because it comforts you in a dark way.
But now I know for sure as their ghosts or presence visited me on that Christmas Eve. I am never alone.
I was a Scrooge for so very long not wanting to enjoy the company of other family and friends on that holiday — or in most instances. I could not stand to see people happy or successful and I resented everyone. Like a poisonous envy. And anyone that took me in for the holidays and offered their love would fall to break into pieces against my armor. I would sit in a corner awkwardly not knowing what to do with such a tainted holiday like Christmas.
And now I remember those times spent on Christmas with family and friends and it gives me a pang of sadness that I never took advantage of it.
Holidays on the road when traveling are tough. You have flashbacks of the food and the laughter and you yearn for it. You might even feel alone in those instances. But whether you are traveling and you have family at home, or if you’ve lost your loved ones and the nostalgia pains you, you are never alone my friends.
[custom_headline type=”left” level=”h2″ looks_like=”h2″]Have you experienced anything like this?[/custom_headline]