Experiencing As the Opposite of Writing

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After writing last week’s troubled blog post about my writing-not-writing situation, two quotes came to my mind.

Somehow, it seems, my brain thought it was time for me to do some changes so it picked these quotes from the long shelves of thoughts and memories, giving me a perspective on my current writing situation.

Funny enough – the quotes have made a difference.

Let’s just dive in and start with the first one. The quote is by Benjamin Franklin and goes like this:

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

If you have read my posts from the previous two weeks, you know I’m longing for writing something worth reading. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past year and half, writing almost daily – fiction, journal entries, blog posts. It’s what I know and love.

But now, as Mr. Franklin/my brain conveniently reminded me of, I’m doing something worth writing.

Or am I – really?

Learning About Prioritizing

Because –

I wonder if one can travel great lengths without actually doing anything worth writing about. Just linger, wander, pass curious details and interesting human beings without really seeing them and taking in their existence – and if I’ve done just that.

You see –

During these past months of travel, I’ve been looking for opportunities to write and been disappointed when day after day I haven’t had the possibility to do so. I’ve been having many negative thoughts of what I should be doing and what I’m not and, to be honest, it has consumed me and my energy.

And as I’ve been in this gravel pit of negativity, I wonder if I’ve actually given myself the chance to enjoy and experience, to take the days as they come.

However, the thing to realize here is that in the mode of experiencing, to write or not write becomes more like a side product of that mode. You have to be willing to ease on the writing part of being a traveling writer and focus more on experiencing.

But I haven’t let that happen.

I’ve kept writing as my main mode, my first priority, and that just may have hindered me from it’s opposite – experiencing.

Experience Requires Patience

This is where I’d like to introduce the second quote my brain reminded me of. It’s from a film called Stuck In Love I saw earlier this year (a movie recommendation for those looking for films about writing – it’s not a super awesome movie but it’s about writing and that’s the best thing about it).

A writer is the sum of her experiences.

When I was little, I read a fantasy book called The Prophecy of the Gems by Flavia Bujor. It was Bujor’s first (and only) book but the thing that made it cool was that she was only 14 years old at the time. I was amazed by her young age and, as I already at that point had my dreams of becoming a published author, thought I could do the same.

But the thing is, it is very hard to write about themes such as love, loss, freedom and loneliness if one has never experienced those things. No matter how much I would have wanted to write a publishable book at the age of 9, I don’t think I could’ve done it because I didn’t have enough experience of the topics that make books feel real.

Becoming experienced in this thing we call life takes time and waiting out time takes patience. And during that time you shouldn’t just sit and wait but experience, instead.

And even then, you’re not done.

Even though I feel I’m somewhat more experienced than I was at the time I read Bujor’s debut and could put together a realistic novel, at the same time I realize I’m not done experiencing.

There’s so much more to learn about life’s quirks that I haven’t gotten to yet.

I believe one of those quirks has been presented to me during these last couple of days.

The Lesson To Learn

I don’t think it’s too late for me to switch my focus and re-organize my priorities. Even though writing is one of the most meaningful things in my life, I can let it rest for a while – that doesn’t mean I will never get back to my writing routines and never become a published author.

I just have to be patient, give time to this period in my life. Remember that experiences give me something to write about.

And even though I’ve been obsessed about writing-not-writing, I think I’ve squeezed in some experiences and observations:

I have used my senses in the desert landscape of Northern Australia: seen the drought, felt the heat and sweat in the small of my back. I’ve heard the wind rustle through the dry hay, smelled the smoke coming from forest fires, tasted the refreshing water after a hike.

During the long days of driving, I’ve had time to listen to audiobooks and in the evenings, listened to audiobooks or read fiction. Thought about my own works of fiction, the characters and what makes a book feel real.

I’ve had time to think of who I am as a person and as a writer, thought about what life’s meaning really is about and if it’s necessary to find something that feels meaningful or if the meaningfulness of things already exists there or here, I just can’t see it yet.

So I’m already on a good path here – I just need to be patient and forgive myself for not writing.

It won’t be an easy switch to just ”forget” about writing and only write when the opportunity presents itself. And I need to be careful not to put too much weight on experiencing and instead just take the experiences as they come.

This road trip might be about learning to enjoy, to experience without stressing out about experiencing, and write when the opportunity presents itself – but not force myself to do anything.

If I learn that, I might have an experience on my hands really worth writing about.

The Traveling Writer, Pt. II

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(You can read part one here.)

I haven’t written about writing in a while because it has been… complicated.

The thing is, writing and traveling don’t go too well together. It’s because both forms of doing consume time and energy. It’s an either or situation where you have to choose what you want to focus on.

However, that has not stopped me from doing it. I mean, you’re reading this blog post that I’ve written while sitting in a rooftop tent in Kakadu National Park in Australia – so I am traveling and writing. It is possible!

But you have to fight for your writing time, for sure. Be prepared for compromises, for flexibility. Give yourself a little mercy for not being as prolific as you’d wish to be.

And realize that maybe traveling and writing don’t go together as well as you might have thought in the beginning.

When Your Focus Goes Elsewhere

While traveling, it is easy to just go with the flow, to be consumed by all the things that come to traveling: planning the route, the food, and where to stay the night. You focus on what you see, smell and feel. In the end of the day, you are tired and ready to go to bed – although you haven’t written a word.

In Vietnam, as we preferred our homestay rooms more than the touristic sites, I had plenty of time to write. I got into writing regularly and could keep up with my writing projects. But now, as we’ve changed country and continent (yay for Australia!), my writing time has decreased noticeably.

It has been on hold because we have been preparing ourselves for a different mode of travel.

As the best way to travel in Australia is by car, we decided to buy one. After a few days of searching, we found one that we liked and had a reasonable price, and bought it. Then, for a few days more, we prepped the car: cleaned it, fixed small things, got necessary kitchen equipment and a rooftop tent.

I didn’t have the time or the energy to write.

After that, when our traveling home was ready for the road, we started the engine and were off. (A side note: there is something very symbolic about starting the motor of your car for the very first time).

As it is in the beginning, new things take so much time and energy to focus on planning: where we want to drive, how long it takes, when do we need to fuel up or go to the grocery store. It takes effort to put up the rooftop tent, to cook food, to clean up and prepare for the night. It’s a full-day job to be on a road trip that will take a few months – it’s nothing you can plan too well before-hand.

So, even if we hit the road, I didn’t have the time, the space or the energy to write.

But I have noticed my feeling of restlessness growing from one day to the other – I want to write, I know I have to write. Get those thoughts, ideas, plot twists and character developments on paper.

Finding the Balance

I know I have to make traveling and writing work together – because I, as a writer, am most satisfied when writing. But how?

A week ago, I tried something: instead of writing in the morning, which is my best time for writing but also the best time for waking up and getting going in Australia, I changed my writing hours to the evening.

Why? Because when the sun goes down, the bugs come out from their hiding and take over the world. Therefore, at 7 PM, we pack everything in the car and take the steps up to our rooftop tent to take shelter from the blood-thirsty devils. But who wants, or even can fall asleep at seven in the evening? No one. It is the perfect time for writing.

Or… You’d think it’s the best time to be writing.

I’ve noticed that although it is the perfect time for writing, it’s not the perfect time if you plan on sleeping after writing. It’s the blue-screen-brain thing – sitting in front of the computer for an hour does not make you sleepy. After you’re done with your words, you lie in the rooftop tent literally for hours waiting for sleep to come. And you wake up tired.

It’s far from an optimal situation. But at the moment, it’s the best I’ve got. Otherwise I’ll be scratching my writing minutes together with blood, sweat and tears and it’s not nice. But I have to say – especially when traveling together with someone, it’s tough to combine both writing and traveling. You can’t be in two places at the same time.

I’ll keep on working on my writing and trying to find a way to keep going with this traveling writer thing. Sometimes I do remind myself of the fact that I have actually managed to put together over 25,000 words while on this trip and that is something to be proud of. But at the same time, I know I could’ve produced twice as much if not for traveling.

An easy choice would be to choose – for now – traveling over writing. But it feels like something I don’t want to do, it feels like I’ll be betraying myself if I just let my laptop rest instead of trying my best to write.

I can’t choose writing over traveling, not quite yet, but until then… I’ll just have to keep on finding that time for writing and find a way to see my situation in a better light, from another perspective.

I’ll let you know how I’m doing.

Unsuited For Travel

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For so many years already, backpacking has been something many dream of.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just leave everything behind and live from your backpack for months while traveling around the world? Be free from the ordinary life you’ve learned to know, let the days melt together and forget the meaning of Fridays and weekends?

There are so many who would love to do that. Who love to backpack, travel to foreign, exotic countries, sleep in hostels, spend days sitting on buses and trains, do things you wouldn’t or couldn’t do back home.

But there are also people who do not have a need for that backpacker life.

After more than two months of travel, I’ve realized I’m one of those people. Those, who do not get the thrill of visiting new cities and towns, who don’t get excited from the freedom of spending their days doing whatever they want.

While traveling in Southeast Asia, we had all our belongings neatly packed in our backpacks. We were constantly moving around, from hostels to homestays to Airbnb apartments. Every three or four nights we would pack our things and get going, take the bus to another city to settle down there for a few days. We would explore the city for a few days before packing up everything again and moving on.

That’s how we traveled in three different countries. For me, it was exhausting.

An Introvert On A Holiday

As I only see people loving this lifestyle we’ve tried for two months now, I’ve been trying to figure out why I seem to feel different about backpacking. Why am I not enjoying it like everyone else? Am I not a backpacker, am I not able to adapt to this kind of lifestyle?

One explanation to my discomfort could be my personality.

First of all, I have a tendency to try to please other people. When a people-pleaser like me, who tends to believe the best in people and give almost everyone benefit of the doubt, is forced to say no and know locals are only after a money… It’s uncomfortable. It is exhausting to constantly shake your head, or worse, ignore the seller.

And for the second, I’m an introvert. While I enjoy meeting new people, to play cards, drink beer, go on hikes with people I’ve never seen before, I also need to balance out that social life with some privacy, my own time and space. Otherwise, I’ll drain my energy.

But as being social is one of the essential parts of backpacking, I tend to feel guilty for taking time off people, shut the door to the room or the curtain to my bed. Somehow I feel like I’m doing it wrong – backpacking. And still, I know I need that time for myself.

Backpacking is a balancing act for an introverted person. It can get tough, exhausting, even frustrating at times, compared to an extrovert who doesn’t seem to have any problems chilling with people around the clock.

However, at the same time I know being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t do certain things. You can be an introvert and a backpacker at the same time – you just have to be selfish enough to take the time for yourself.

Which makes me think there is something else that explains my unsuitability for travel.

Freedom, Sex, Distraction

It feels like many backpackers come to Southeast Asia for freedom.

It’s the kind of freedom you see in their behavior: how they drive scooters without helmets on, how they drink rice wine and have random sex with random people in shared dormitories, how they spend their money how they wish without needing to think about the consequences.

Many travel to Asia to escape something and to get something they can’t get at home: the freedom, the sex, the careless attitude. The also get the kind of attention they don’t get in the western world: the friendliness of the locals, the attention they give you when they want to sell you something.

It’s attractive.

And they have a great time in Asia because their money actually has more value here. They get the benefits they would like to have back home without having to dress up, drive a fancy car, behaving according the etiquette and social norms and have huge amounts of savings and investments.

But even more than the freedom and sex, they get a distraction. In the chaos of Asia they momentarily lose themselves, their former goals and dreams or the lack of them. For a while, they don’t need to think about the future, their career plans, the expectations they are expected to meet. It’s liberating to backpack, to be free.

However, what I’ve realized is that I have no need for that kind of freedom – and that, reader, is liberating.

I’ve realized that I have things going on already that I like and enjoy. I already have my plans and dreams for the future, I already know what my own expectations for myself are. Therefore, I have no need to escape the feelings of helplessness and anxiety that come from not knowing what one wants to do with his or her life.

This comes from the fact that I’ve already discovered the thing I can see myself doing the rest of my life: writing. Writing both fact and fiction allows me the escape and the freedom many seek in backpacking, and I’m comfortable to do it wherever I feel at home.

(Where that place is, is still bit of a question mark but I do believe there is a place where I’ll feel comfortable enough to actually stay.)

The Realization

Realizing this, the difference between me and 80% of the people we’ve met on our trip, has helped me get away from those guilty feelings of introverted behavior and the thoughts of am I doing this wrong when I’m not enjoying it?

I get tired of constantly moving around, of constantly meeting new people and getting excited about things that mostly have to do with the freedom of an exotic, foreign country. Part of it can be explained by my personality, my biology, but it’s also about the fact that I don’t get the thrill of backpacking because I already find it somewhere else.

It’s nice to know this. At the same time, it took two months in Southeast Asia to realize it – and I can’t yet say if the trip was worth it. But here I am, aware of what is important to me and what is not.

And that is very liberating.

The Trouble With Tourism

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For a developing country, dealing with increasing tourism can be an extreme challenge.

After exploring Southeast Asia for a few months, we’ve seen this with our own eyes and through our own experience. Already in Malaysia, but especially in Vietnam, we could see what kind of a weight tourism puts on a country’s infrastructure. And it’s not pretty.

During the past ten years, the tourism in Vietnam has grown from 4,25 million to 15,5 million tourists. Generally, increasing tourism is seen as something positive. When more people visit a country, they bring in more money – and they, with their money, create more opportunities.

The Vietnamese have taken advantage of these opportunities. However, from what we’ve seen, the opportunities come with a cost – especially if you don’t know how to benefit from the opportunities in the long run.

Easy Money

As the amount of tourists visiting a country increases, it becomes very attractive to take a job that has to do with tourism. Driving a taxi, running a homestay or other forms of accommodation, organizing trips and courses, running a restaurant… There’s a lot to choose from.

And those who don’t have the money needed for the investments to drive a taxi or run a homestay or a restaurant, can get money from the tourists by selling smaller items such as fans, scarfs or sunglasses; selling fruit or drinks; or posing for a photo together with a foreigner.

The possibilities seem endless and the money easy – and that makes business in tourism so attractive. However, as there are such easy money sources available, it can become too tempting to get a little bit of extra income while you’re already at it.

That’s what we call haggling (or scamming), something that characterizes many of the Southeast Asian countries.

It can be seen as an opportunity – but it really is not. Not, at least, in the long run.

Short-Term Success

Haggling and tricking tourists for money is so attractive because Vietnam as a country has been poor for a very long time. Many of the locals who haggle are living their life on a day-to-day basis because they don’t know what life brings them the next day, if they even live that long. Therefore, what they gain today, they spend today.

That’s why haggling seems like a good idea for the locals – it gives you the possibility to spend more money today than you did yesterday.

Seen that way, it makes sense. However, when you look at haggling from another perspective, you can see that it only brings you short-term success and is actually more harmful in the long run.

The benefit of having fixed prices with your products is that it allows you to take a peek into the future. If you sell ten t-shirts, all for the price of one dollar, you know you’ll have ten dollars when you’ve sold all ten shirts. And if you, in a month, sell one hundred shirts, you’ll have one hundred dollars. In a year, if you sell one hundred shirts every month, you make 1200 dollar – and that allows you to ask yourself the question:

What do you want to do with that money?

But if you have 100 shirts that you end up selling them for 100 different prices – how much money will you have? Can you do anything extra with it? Is is worth saving the money from todays sales if you don’t know how much you will get for your shirts tomorrow?

Haggling only brings you success in the near future. However, if you’re playing the long game, you are not doing a favor for yourself.

Developing Harmful Behavior

The Vietnamese are not in any way stupid – they know that Westerners have money and that for us, their products and services are cheap. We can afford the price they ask even if they’d ask us a bit more. But that’s where things start to go downhill.

In a taxi, the drivers have taxi meters that tick in an incredible speed and that mean you end up paying four or five times more than the actual cost would have been. In a restaurant, there is one menu for tourists with fixed prices and another for Vietnamese without prices. Somewhere else there are sudden extra costs for something or someone comes up claiming there is a parking fee for motorbikes. And if you need to haggle for the product you want, a tourist will certainly pay a higher price than a local.

It almost becomes worth it to play dirty – but how does that affect your personality, your ethics? In the long run, haggling doesn’t make you a good, trustworthy person. When you’ve lied once, it’s easier to lie again. When you’ve successfully tricked someone, your likely to trick again.

Haggling isn’t sustainable – but it’s too tempting to ignore.

The Bad Loop

Although haggling maybe gives the locals the thrill of debating and is part of their culture, it’s actually more harmful than beneficial for the locals.

It’s not a sustainable way of doing business because it doesn’t build for a better future – or for a better personality. However, that is the only way of business the locals know and because they know it, they can also use it to their benefit when it comes to tourists.

Tourism invites the locals to keep up their harmful behavior. It keeps them in the short-term loop instead of helping them to look longer into the future and help them develop better ways of securing their income.

If the locals would give up haggling and tricking and settle for fixed prices, they could end up with more time and energy – two of the resources needed for making more money. But they can’t see that because they’ve learned to see only the opportunities right in front of them – the opportunities growing tourism gives them.

Vietnam has developed into a lower-middle income country, which means that tricking for money shouldn’t be as necessary than it was before. As their GNP is growing and the average income is on the rise, there shouldn’t be a need for haggling and tricking.

However, it takes a long time to change behavior.

And tourism, for sure, is not helping with this.

 

Vietnam – A Tough Nut To Crack

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Tourist boats taking off in Trang An in Ninh Binh, Vietnam.

During our two months of travel, I’ve written about many of the places we’ve visited, how I’ve felt and experienced the different cities, attractions and the traveling life in general. But writing about traveling in Vietnam has been tough and I’ve been avoiding writing this text for a couple of days now.

Why? Because I’m not having very warm feelings towards this country.

Two months ago, we started off in Thailand which, after leaving Bangkok, was a surprisingly friendly and gentle introduction to Southeast Asia. After Thailand, we travelled to Malaysia, where I experienced my first culture shock but as we got out from Kuala Lumpur, I had a great time exploring the country.

Vietnam, however, continues to be a struggle even after two and a half weeks. I’ll do my best to explain to you why.

Dread Behind Every Corner

We started in Hanoi which was a traffic hell and where we learned the hard way that in this city, the locals are after the tourist’s money.

(The money itself takes a while to get used to: the value of Vietnamese Dong has drastically reduced because of inflation and you end up with a lot of zeros. 25 000 dong equals one euro or one dollar. So, in Vietnam, you have the chance be a millionaire. Your million, however, isn’t very valuable.)

For instance, in a restaurant, there’s a separate menu for tourists with fixed prices and one for the Vietnamese locals without prices. And here, many of the taxis drive according to a taxi meter but some of the meters tick with hell of a speed – an 8-minute trip ends up costing 250 000 dong, more than 10 times we agreed upon with the taxi driver (yes, we got scammed).

We have learned that this hunger for money is the only reason many of the locals are friendly – they want you to buy something from them. Whether it’s tailored clothes, a trip to Halong Bay or just a photo with a Vietnamese fruit seller – they want your money. Or they try to sell you motorcycle parking, a fan or even a squirrel (or maybe it was a photo with the squirrel) – it’s about the money.

Behind every corner there is someone who wants something from you.

And the things is, when you politely say no thank you, their friendliness disappears. Suddenly, the smile fades away and the friendly words feel fake. We have met only a handful of genuinely nice locals – and that’s sad. This has led to the point where we, subconsciously, are taking distance from the Vietnamese people.

The Language Barrier

Another issue has definitely been the language. There are some in Vietnam that can speak good English but the majority in this country can only the basics of it: hello, thank you, one cold beer, bye bye. But that’s all – and that only gets you so far.

In Thailand and in Malaysia, things were very different. In both countries, it was easier to communicate with the locals and deal with unexpected situations such as problems with transportation or food orders. In Vietnam, however, it is almost impossible.

Because there’s a different price for tourists, and it is mostly higher, we would like to bargain or argument for our own benefit. In this country, it has proved to be difficult. For instance, with the taxi scam, the driver kept on yelling police! but didn’t understand (or listen to) a single word we were saying, therefore making it impossible to deal with the situation.

And, in a restaurant, when we tried to explain that we had the same day in that same place gotten a cold water for the price of 10 000 dong, and the lady was now asking for 12 000, and why aren’t we getting the same price again – she didn’t understand but thought we wanted a cold Coke instead (that would have been 15 000 dong).

This leads to the point where we try to avoid all sorts of communication with the Vietnamese people. We just end up loosing and it doesn’t get us anywhere – or we end up having to say no thank you to all their offers on “great” deals and prices and get the fading smiles and some Vietnamese words said in a sour tone.

How To Trust and Understand If…

The continuous trouble with money and the difficulties with communicating have led to the point where we have the feeling that we cannot trust these people.

This is a generalization, of course: some of the hostels and homestays we’ve stayed at have been wonderful and we’ve gotten very good and genuinely nice service.

But the common man we meet on the street, we cannot trust. For me, it’s very difficult to accept this because for the most part I like to give a chance to everyone. I like to give the benefit of the doubt – but here, I’ve been forced to change my attitude.

Trusting would be easier, if we could understand the locals (after all, feelings related to fear come from not understanding). If we could talk with the Vietnamese people, hear about their opinions and views on their country, about the heavy tourism, their view on their history and future, we would be able to understand these people better, meet them differently.

But we cannot. Issues with money and language aren’t solved overnight. Therefore, we are stuck in our situation, in feelings of discomfort and the need for distance from the locals and their culture. We have one week left before leaving this country and flying to the next and I’m happy for it.

Vietnam is a tough nut to crack – and I don’t know if I want to crack it at all.

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).

Why This Isn’t A Holiday

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It was the morning of another travel day. We were in the elevator on the way down, carrying our backpacks and ready to check out from the hotel we had stayed in. A woman rode with us down to the ground level and asked us:

“Are you on a holiday?”

I wanted to answer no, but instead, I said yes and smiled. It was easier that way because how could I have explained during those 40 seconds it took to get to the ground floor that this thing that we do is not a holiday, it’s something different?

In the world of travel, there are mainly two reasons to travel: to go on a holiday or to do business. It’s a question they ask when filling out visa forms or arrival cards on the airport, it’s what the locals ask us when we stop to chat with them: are you on holiday?

It’s like the stereotype for travel that makes it easier for people to place you, a foreigner, in their minds: either you’re on holiday just enjoying life or you are traveling to make money.

But as you might now, stereotypes are often very black and white and never quite tell the truth. The same goes for our ‘being on holiday’. For us, being on holiday would mean not having to care about your budget that much, it would  living the life of leisure and drinking mojitos instead of the cheapest beer.

That’s not what we do. The choice between holiday and business completely leaves us out.

So, what are we doing if we’re not on a holiday?

Backpackers?

Someone might say we are tourists. But isn’t tourist as a term a bit old-fashioned already? Back in the days, being a tourist actually meant touring around other countries – my grandfather, for instance, organized touring trips of that kind. All the travelers, the tourists, travelled in the same bus from one country to the other. Every now and then they stopped for lunch that they prepared in the small kitchen in the back of the bus.

That was being a tourist – but touring in a group is quite rare nowadays and we can’t say we would been touring the countries and cities we’ve visited (except for that hop-on hop-off bus in Kuala Lumpur), so… you can’t really call us tourists either.

One term that almost describes what we are doing is backpacking. We are on a low budget, comparing prices and staying in hostels instead of hotels, buying our food from food stalls instead of going to a proper air conditioned restaurant. But I wouldn’t say even backpacking is quite correct.

Yes, we carry all our belongings in our backpacks but, in the end, we carry our backpacks very little – from hostel to the taxi to the bus to the taxi to another hostel. We aren’t counting every penny, saving everywhere it’s possible and we don’t only stay in hostels with 6-bed dorm rooms and a shared bathroom.

So, no. We are not backpackers either, even though we are getting close.

So, for the rest of the world, we are on a holiday because we are tourists or backpackers but all of them are somehow wrong. What are we then, if we don’t fit in any of those descriptions?

Observers?

The best description I’ve come up with is that we are simply living our life while observing the world and society around us. (You might even call it exploring but that sounds too much like a cliché so let’s just stick to observing.) The core elements of being on holiday, being a tourist or a backpacker aren’t a part of our trip, of what we do.

Instead, both me and my partner are critically observing what we see and trying to figure out where the world is going. We wonder why people do things in a certain way when there are more practical and efficient ways of doing those things. We observe the infrastructure, the social norms, how they think and act. How tourism affects these countries we visit and observe.

Many of our observations are critical and yes, it does eliminate some enjoyment from those moments on the beach or chatting with locals or other backpackers. But for us, and for me… it’s hard to close one’s eyes from seeing all the things that are so crooked in the places we visit. It’s difficult not to see the amount of trash thrown away on the ground or in the sea. It’s hard to close my eyes from all the stray cats, the beggars and the efforts of trying to trick money from tourists.

(And still you see other tourists, backpackers and people on holiday go on about their lives in complete blindness. I wonder how they can ignore what they see.)

So, “are you on a holiday?” really should get a completely different answer than a simple yes with a smile.

But I don’t know if that woman in the elevator would have understood us.