What We Gain By Being ‘Lazy’

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In Georgetown, Malaysia we met a couple at our hostel. They had already been on the road for three months and still had months and months of travel ahead of them. As we were eager to hear their story we sat down at the same table to eat breakfast and drink coffee.

Up until May, the couple had been living their life in the UK, working and saving up money for their own house. But then they had realized that the kind of life they were building for, they weren’t ready for it. Not yet.

So, they quit their jobs, took the money they had saved and hit the road.

At some point, however, they intend to return to their home country and start working again. And this was clearly something they had been thinking about because the woman said:

“I hope that the employers don’t see our travels as being lazy.”

This got me thinking because what she said really is something worth hoping for.

Study-Work Continuum

In many western countries, both education and work are seen as something incredibly valuable, something worth focusing on. Many grow up learning that either you study or you work but there’s no option in-between which means that after you’ve finished your education you continue to the work life and stay there until you’re ready to retire. We are encouraged to fall into the school-work continuum.

The decision to sell your belongings (or store them somewhere), leave everything you have behind and hit the road is, however, the complete opposite of the school-work continuum of a western modern society. Because being on the road, traveling, is neither studying or working.

At least from the society’s point of view – because taking a year or more off to travel leaves a big gaping hole in your CV. I can only imagine the job interview where the leap year is noticed:

“What did you do during this year?”
“I was abroad.”
“Hmph, and where did you go on holiday?”
“Southeast Asia, mostly – I traveled around. It was really wonderful! Affordable, the people were so friendly and the nature amazing.”
“I see.”

The employer might very well think you spent the last year chillaxing on the beach or riding a motorcycle without a helmet on. And he probably thinks that you, during that time, didn’t so much as lift as a finger.

But the thing is, traveling and especially backpacking isn’t being lazy.

It’s a lot of work. Almost like a full-time job, really.

Gaining Knowledge

During these six weeks on the road, we’ve slowly but surely gotten into the groove of traveling. Currently, we are in our third country in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, and plan to be here three weeks before flying to our next destination.

During these six weeks, we’ve familiarized ourselves and adapted to three different cultures: Thai, Malaysian and Vietnamese. We’ve learnt the basics of their social norms and etiquette, we’ve learned some of the key phrases of their language and figured out how their monetary system work. We have gained understanding of their culture, their cuisine, religion, and infrastructure.

At the same time, we have gained perspective on our own country, our infrastructure, the western culture and social norms. We have seen how things can be done, how they shouldn’t be done and how different the people in Southeast Asia see their world, life and future compared to the western cultures.

This, for instance, is extremely valuable in the ever more globalized and multicultural world.

In addition to this, we’ve also become pro at planning and executing the plans. Every few days we sit down, take out the computer and connect it to the best wi-fi we can find. We research our travel options, figure out when and where the bus or the train will go, where we will end up in and where we are going to stay.

In a new place, we learn where the ATMs are, where the best local food is served, where we can find the nearest convenience store for water (and ice cream) and learn to know other backpackers and travelers staying in the same place.

We try to find out where we can do our laundry, where we can find proper, vitamin-rich food (believe me, it’s a struggle) and where’s the pharmacy when you get sick (just did this in Hanoi) or how to deal with bedbug bites (unfortunately, it did happen).

The ability to adapt is a good skill to have in the modern society – and something not all people have.

Learning New Skills

Being on the road, carrying all our belongings with us, is a rollercoaster ride of new skills, constant adapting and evolving, conflicts, success and learning to be social with so many people from so many different cultures.

In other words, being on the road is far from being lazy. The couple we spoke to during that breakfast knew it and we know it.

Being on the road gives you competences that staying at home never can give: you gain unique perspective on your own culture, social norms and the structure of your society; you become a thinker and a doer, and you are more okay with adapting to new situations and new people. You are constantly kicked out from your comfort zone which forces you to self-development.

People who have been on the road are actually golden in modern societies that are constantly changing and becoming more multicultural than ever before.

And if the employer doesn’t understand this when you tell him/her about your year on the road – maybe you’re applying for the wrong job (or the right job but with the wrong boss).

Experiencing My First Culture Shock

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In 2016, I did a semester in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. Before leaving, we were warned several times about something called the culture shock – “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”

In Ireland, I never experienced those feelings of disorientation because the country is very western and pretty much what I had expected. It was easy to adjust to the culture, to start saying ‘how are you’ to random people on their morning stroll and ordering a pint of Smithwick’s in the pub.

And even after the exchange period, I didn’t even think about culture shock because wherever I went, it was easy for me to adjust and navigate through the customs and norms of the different countries.

But that was when I was traveling in Europe. Now I’m in Southeast Asia – and things are a bit different.

Bugs, Dirt and Worn Out Towels

From Koh Samui we took the bus back to Bangkok and then flew to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We were welcomed by the business city of magnificent sky scrapers and the taxi drive from the airport to our hotel into the middle of the bustling city center felt exciting – something so different after the small cities and islands of Thailand.

But then we checked into our hotel.

“A New Hotel!” the sign said, and the name of the place even had the word royal in it. But when we got into our room… I’ve never cried because of accommodation but now I did. Partly because I was so very tired after many days of energy consuming travel, but partly because of the shock of how much worse the room was compared to the thai standard we had learned to know and deal with.

Why it was a shock, you wonder? Well…

The bed sheets were filled with holes and dirt that doesn’t come off anymore. The walls were dirty, the paint was peeling off, the towels felt and looked like they had been used for 10 years already. The wi-fi didn’t work, there was a smell, we had no window in the room and worst of all – there were so many bugs who liked to spend their time crawling on the beds.

I wanted to check out from the hotel the same second we had checked in, I was sure I couldn’t take it for the three nights we had booked at this place. However, my partner convinced me to wait a moment, that we would consider everything after we had eaten some food.

Realizing the Social Norms

Food helped me take a breath, to gather my thoughts. The friendliness of the locals also helped a great deal. We decided to look around the nearby city quarters, check out the Chinatown and even hop on a tourist bus to see the city. For a few hours, everything was okay and I managed to forget the hotel room I didn’t want to return to.

But then the evening came and I started noticing more things that didn’t feel quite alright. How there were almost no women on the streets, only some other female tourists and a few Muslim women with their husbands and families. How no one asked me what I wanted, only what my partner wanted because he’s a man. How I wanted to avoid eye contact with the men on the street because it didn’t feel safe.

It felt confusing not to see what you’re used to and realize that in this city there are different social norms that steer the society.

After a one-hour hop-on hop-off bus tour we hopped off in the city center and went for dinner at the busy food street next to our hotel. There, I was again faced with things I had not been expecting.

Noise, Always Noise

I was overwhelmed with what I saw, what I heard and what I felt.

I saw people who had lost some of their limbs; a man with severe burn marks on his face; another with a physically distorted body – all sitting on the ground begging for money from the tourists walking by.

For me, it was so hard accept that I couldn’t do anything to help them.

And if the local people weren’t there begging, they were doing everything in their power to try to sell me food or other products (or mostly my partner because he’s a man and the culture in the country is very dominated by men). They were ringing bells, yelling, honking, shoving menus in our faces, some of them walking after us persuading us to eat at their restaurant. It was so primitive – to use noise to attract attention, because if they get your attention it’ll be easier to sell you things.

I wasn’t enjoying the city at all – how could I? Kuala Lumpur was filled with noise, always noise wherever we went, whether it was noise made by people or the honking cars. Or there was always people trying to get your attention – there wasn’t room or silence to sit down and think.

I just wanted to get away from everything, I just wanted to find a quiet place.

For a while I thought I wasn’t fit to travel, that I couldn’t do it – I wasn’t even having fun.

But after a couple of day of negative reactions to everything around me, I realized what was happening. I was experiencing a culture shock, something I had heard about years before.

It explained why I had so much trouble adjusting to the new country.

Peace Through Understanding

When I realized this, it became a bit easier to understand the awful feelings and thoughts inside my head. This was a natural reaction when exposed to something completely new – and the most important thing was to know that even this feeling of disorientation will pass. By understanding it became easier to sleep in the room (after getting rid of the bugs); we started going somewhere less crowded where there weren’t bell-ringing or yelling locals trying to get my attention, and I got used to seeing more men than women on the streets.

Still, I felt very happy happy when we traveled North to Georgetown in Penang three nights later. This is a small city with less sound, less tourists and better accommodation. This place is also chance to breath out, to realize what has been happening inside my head and give Malaysia a new chance.

Experiencing a culture shock was awful and for a moment it felt like traveling wasn’t anything for me. But after realizing what was happening, what I was experiencing, I thought that at the same time, the rollercoaster of feelings and thoughts about the city and its culture was a valuable lesson in the process of learning to know myself.

Now I know one of the possible downsides of travel and how I react to these things. I also know that I can deal with rooms without windows, I’m okay with taking a shower above the toilet, and I know to walk away from areas that are too touristic for my own good.

And the most important thing – despite the heavy shock I’m still on the road, still backpacking. I’m ready for the next adventure, the next town and the new people we’ll meet on the road.

The Great Thing About Traveling Slowly

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We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks now. It isn’t a very long time, for sure, but it feels like we are now getting into the groove of traveling. We are finding our routines, figuring out how we want to spend our days on the road.

In the mornings, I write. It’s been relatively easy to get going with my morning routine of writing although I’m no fan of writing before I’ve had breakfast and a cup of coffee. However, nothing beats the feel-good after a rewarding writing session.

(Lately, I’ve been practicing writing adventure/action scenes – it’s tough because I’m more for the relaxed or deep-talk-kind-of scenes.)

After I’m done writing, the rest of the day is free for whatever activities we feel like doing. For the most part, we do what tourists do: walk around, say “no thanks!” to tuk-tuk drivers and when the heat of the midday gets unbearable, we step into one of the many 7/11 –shops with the greatest air conditioning, pick an ice cream flavor we haven’t tried before and eat it outside the shop before walking on. We visit temples, try new fruits like mangosteen and sometimes exchange a few words with other backpackers.

A New Perspective on Traveling

However, as we have travel plans into October which means we’ll be on the road for a few months more, the perspective on traveling changes. The days aren’t about wake up as early as possible to see as much as possible like they usually are on short city holidays because we have time. We have days upon days! We’ve been in Thailand for two weeks now and we still have 1,5 week to go before we hop on another plane. That means we can stay a few nights longer in every city we visit and take the time we need to get to know places.

In other words, we are in no hurry. And because we don’t have to count every hour of the day, we really get to see what we want to see.

What made me think of this was an evening a few days ago when we were still in Chiang Mai. We decided to visit one of the many temples of the city, a temple called Wat Chedi Luang. We went to the area, paid 40 Baht as a supporting fee to the temple and started walking around the area.

First we visited one of the viharns, assembly halls, which are usually the golden, colorful, pompous even, buildings – but which I rarely find fascinating. The reason to this is that the viharns are very often built in the 20th century which makes them very new and fresh and I am more for the old buildings and ruins.

Therefore, as visiting the viharn with all the other tourists was a small disappointment, I was beyond excited (I might even say I was momentarily breathless) when I saw the real thing. The Wat Chedi Luang.

Taking In The Quiet, The Calm

It was already in the evening and the sun was about to start setting when we came to the old temple. The ancient layers of stone, the carvings, the details put into the chedi were all beautiful – partly because it was well done, partly because the evening sun gave it a wonderful color and partly because I was awestruck by the fact that this temple was built in the 14th or 15th century.

Many of the tourists who also found their way to the chedi, were happy to just walk around it once, take a photo of it and then leave. We, however, decided to sit down and enjoy the peace and quiet of the temple area – we had the time.

An hour flew by as we sat on the white bench, watching other tourists walk by, take a selfie with the chedi and then leave. We also saw a young man sit down with his sketchpad to draw Wat Chedi Luang (he also took almost an hour to draw the temple), some stray dogs and many of the monks go on about their daily business.

We took in the quiet, the setting sun and the beautiful warm color of the chedi as the sun shined on it. As we sat there, it felt as if I could feel the temple, the serenity of it.

There were so few who took the time to actually sit down and look at the building, to take in every detail of it, I really wonder what they can remember of it. Of course, they have the photo to remind them of the temple – but can they feel it as I do even after days of seeing it? I wonder how many historical buildings, artefacts and paintings I’ve looked at (probably numerous) without really seeing them.

It’s time to change that.

As there is slow-food, there is also slow-traveling. It’s about getting into the groove, about feeling things rather than only looking – it’s almost like mindfulness, finding yourself in the moment of now.

 

Thoughts on Graduating

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I will be graduating in a few weeks.

When I get my Master’s Degree, it means that the eighteen consecutive years of my education come to an end. The journey started when I was seven years old and ends when I turn 25.

It feels weird to know that, in the future, I will be doing something completely different after such a long time of doing exams, completing reading lists and writing essays. It feels liberating, for sure, but also weird.

A new chapter is beginning. But what kind of chapter?

Six Years of Political Science

The first nine years of schooling are compulsory in Finland. After those years one can continue to high school or vocational school and after that, if one prefers, get a degree at a university or a vocational university. Both are optional but the majority decides to keep studying until they have a degree in something. Partly because it’s highly valued in the society and everyone is encouraged to get a degree, and partly because the education is free and most often of high quality.

I, too, have taken the opportunity to get a degree at a university in Finland.

My studies at the university have taken six years – but what exactly have those years entailed? Intensive studying at a library, a cup of coffee every afternoon to keep those caffeine levels high, feverish essay-writing a few hours before the deadline? Yes, sometimes. But even more than that.

Of those six years, four months were spent abroad studying Political Science and Sociology in Galway, Ireland as an exchange student. After that, I did a six-month internship at an organization. One year was spent in another city up North studying Journalism for a full year, followed by another internship at the local radio station.

During this time, I have taken up responsibilities such as being the chief editor for a magazine and been involved in different courses and trainings.

However, I’ve gained so much more than just a degree during these past six years.

Knowledge of Value

In addition to the life-changing event of meeting my partner during my studies through a friend, I’ve also developed as a person during these past years. Much of the progress has been recorded on this blog.

When I started at the university, I was depressed and only had a few routines to keep me going. I wasn’t a healthy eater, didn’t enjoy physical training that much and had difficulties getting friends at school. Looking back at that person now, six years later, I barely recognize myself. I went through a few years of therapy where I learned why I act the way I do (a development that has continued even after that), and during the past couple of years I’ve really learned to eat healthy and enjoy physical exercise.

I’ve also gained a new perspective on my life and learned to question and redefine my own values. I have a better understanding of what I want to do with my life, what and who I want to be. I discovered the pleasure of writing again after six long years of not writing.

I’m quite certain of the fact that even though these six years result in a diploma valued by the society, my personal development, and the knowledge and perspective on life and values I’ve gained are far more valuable than finishing a degree.

A bold thing to say, perhaps, but for me, it is the truth. I don’t quite know what I’ll do with a diploma – but I do know what I want to do with my life.

A New Phase

As this chapter in my life, the chapter of education, is coming to an end, I’ve been thinking about the things I’m leaving behind but also the new ones I am gaining.

Around me, I see many fellow students feeling reluctant to leave the life of a student – and for a reason. I’m leaving behind the freedom of being a student where one gets to decide when and where one studies and what courses. I’m letting go the monthly subsidies the state offers to students. And I’m letting go the daily discounted lunches and dinners with friends at student cafés.

All these things have been wonderful and I understand why many are unwilling to speed up their graduation, but I believe there is so much more to life than this comfortable, easy way of living.

Graduating will give me a different kind of freedom than the one of a student. It will also come with different kind of responsibilities. It will give me a bit more independence and a wider view on life outside the secure walls of the academic world. By graduating I am opening the world and finding out the different opportunities it has to offer.

There will be questions, there will be a harsher reality waiting for me, but I believe I’m ready for it.

Sweat, Strength and Tears of Happiness

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The first time I attended a yoga class, I cried.

I was 15, overweight and had had very few positive experiences in physical exercise. But doing yoga, although I wasn’t very flexible or have good core muscles, resonated with me. The calmness and the steady flow of breathing in and out in harmony with the movements did the trick and I cried out of happiness.

Even after the class as I got a searing headache I felt good, like the headache was good kind of pain that comes from doing something your body has been needing for a long time.

Aside from baseball, yoga was the first form of physical exercise I truly enjoyed. For most of my life, I had struggled with my eating and had trouble finding a sport I liked. Finding out about yoga was a relief – maybe there was a sport for me after all, a way to get fit.

However, it took a few years before I actually started doing yoga regularly.

First, I found my way to Youtube where I got started with free yoga classes from beginner and advanced to the intermediate level. After that, I managed to find a very affordable yoga class near the place I lived, and decided to participate on the beginner course of ashtanga yoga.

Diving Into The Practice

Ashtanga is a form of yoga that is dynamic and physically demanding. It builds core strength and even tones the body. During the first lesson I was delighted to hear that the yoga instructor herself had lost a good deal of weight after she began doing ashtanga regularly.

I believed that the same could apply to me if I just practiced ashtanga regularly.

I never learned to enjoy exercise when I was younger because I couldn’t find a sport I felt good at. I’ve tried water gymnastics, dancing, squash, instructed BodyPump and BodyCombat, even fencing but none of those sports resonated with me. Only running and biking have been sports that I’ve enjoy – and even then going out for a run is almost always a bit forced.

Then I found ashtanga yoga and noticed how much I enjoyed the disciplined, monotonous routine. As the series and the poses are always the same, I knew what was expected of me and could do my best, be better than last time. I could try to achieve perfection in my routine, to become as good as possible at doing the ashtanga primary series.

Despite this eager and ambitious mindset, I seldom managed to break a sweat during those lessons or get aching muscles from all the sun salutations and push-ups. I didn’t have the feeling I was developing that much as I always got stuck on those same poses, unable to get any deeper into them. And I didn’t loose any weight.

Despite of that, I kept going back.

Back To The Roots

I kept going back – until this Spring I started to question my reasons for keeping up with ashtanga. During the past couple of years I’ve been questioning almost all aspects of my life: whose company I enjoy, how I speak and what I talk about, what do I like to do, who do I want to be. But up until this Spring, I hadn’t been questioning my ashtanga practices or any other forms of sporting for that matter – until I got the opportunity to attend a yoga class at a real yoga studio.

It was a whole other experience. The atmosphere, candles, air diffusers, music, the 30°C temperature inside the classroom – it was something completely different compared to those ashtanga classes in a slightly chilly gymnasium.

For the past three weeks, I’ve been trying out yoga classes from yin yoga to hatha yoga and flow yoga. It has been nice as the calm exercises have given me an opportunity to balance out the stress caused by the thesis.

However, one class made all the difference: two weeks ago I attended a vinyasa flow class. It was a fast-paced but calm, extremely sweaty but not the kind that makes one’s heart rate skyrocket. Instead, it was pure bliss. In the end of that class, after almost ten years, I found myself holding back tears of happiness.

It was as if I had found back to the roots to the core that sparked my interest for yoga.

A New Perspective

After all the years of disciplined ashtanga practices and always somewhat forced workout sessions at the gym, I finally managed to realize something about myself. I’ve been doing the hardest, most demanding physical exercises because I act the same way in other aspects of life. I don’t go easy on myself on the work or writing projects I decide to take on. Instead, I push myself to give my very best.

But that doesn’t mean the hardest and most demanding form of working works for everything in life.

The vinyasa flow and power yoga classes I’ve attended make me sweat and give me properly aching muscles the day after, but without the pushing-my-boundaries-and-making-my heart-rate-race.

I’ve managed to find a new perspective on physical exercise that works for me: at the same time as I’m challenging myself with the different poses and the balance and core muscles yoga practices require, I’m also finding peace and calm in my exercise.

And just because the pacing is calm doesn’t mean I won’t sweat or get a good workout. After over 20 years of painful battle of finding balance between what feels good and what is good for my body, realizing this is a relief.

It’s time for me to adopt this new perspective for real and let go of punishing myself for not being the fittest runner, the dancer, the fencer, the squash-player.

Who knew calmness can equal sweat, core strength and tears of happiness?