Sunday, August 31, 2008

One is the Luckiest Number.

To what I’m certain will be the infinite relief of those closest to me, I finally understand why my personal situation is the way that it is. I was never sure how I felt about having children, but I have spent year upon lonely year lamenting my singledom, to which they all can unfortunately attest. I have lived most of my adult life in contention with the fact that this (not having a life partner) is one of the few things that I have minimal control over. It’s either in the cards or it’s not. Health is another one, but one that many of us take much more for granted, unfortunately.

But I get it now: the universe (the sneaky little guy) has conspired to bring me to this point. It cannot be dismissed as purely serendipitous that I am, at the age of 39, single with no dependents, no home, no job, no debt, a little money to travel with, health, a good chunk of free time, and the presence of mind to realize it all and do something with it.

True, some of these results are owed purely to (perhaps insane) choices that I have made. But others were granted to me by the powers that be, for which I must now be grateful. Were I attached and/or if I had children, I’m fairly confident that the decisions and choices of the last few months would have been much more complicated to make, if it had crossed my mind to make them at all. To that end, one may apply different lenses at will: quite likely if I were happily settled with the love of my life and had a fulfilling career, the entire epic of the last few months would have never unfolded and this blog would have no reason to exist.

Regardless, I am here, now, and I must believe that this is where I am supposed to be. Alone. It feels odd to take something that has been a source of heartbreak and pain for so long and suddenly regard it as precious; to now thank God for it. I saw the look in the eyes of my dental hygienist when I told her about my upcoming voyage. She said it was the one regret she had; that she had not taken the opportunity to travel before marrying and having children. (Of course, families also travel all the time: it just presents a few more logistical challenges and demands considerably more luggage.)

Still, while I accept that I am both alone and doing this alone, there are countless moments when I wish I had someone along to share the adventure, in all its ups and downs. Someone to turn to and say “Can you believe we’re actually doing all this?” or “We’re definintely being scammed by this tuk tuk driver,” or “Look over there, they’ve got salwar kameez on special, 2 for 600 rupees!” Having to rely on oneself, especially in the low times and at key photo opportunities, can be depressing and sad. But I know there will also be many times when I will be grateful for it.

So for at least a while, and hopefully forever, my friends and family will be spared my incessant “Why am I still single?” whining. I will try to regard my singledom as a gracious gift that has allowed me this incredible opportunity instead of as a cruel joke or undeserved punishment for an unknown crime. I will polish off the tarnished notion I have of being alone and I will do my best to relish it instead.

Oh, look at the time. I’ve got to run. It’s the world calling. We’ve got a blind date.

The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” Henry David Thoreau

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"Come, and trip it, as ye go/ On the light fantastick toe"

Despite how it may seem, the decision to travel wasn’t made on a whim. I’ve been knocking around the idea of an extended trip (in various fashions) for a couple of years; although in earlier days the logistics were different (i.e. I’d be taking a 3-month leave of absence from my work and maybe renting out my house; not quitting altogether and selling my abode). Recently I’d been thinking about what would make a meaningful 40th birthday present to myself, and it always came back to travel.

Wanderlust has gripped me for quite some time. I may have even been born with it; the offspring of a father who, at 21, hopped on a ship in Austria and sailed to Canada in search of a new life. I have pictures of him on long motorcycle trips in the ‘50s through unrecognizable mountain ranges with unknown comrades. I have his worn passport, stamped with exotic destinations. He took me on my first international trip (to visit family in Austria) in 1975, when I was five. Were he here to witness this today, he would be cheering me on all the way.

My own adult relationship with travel began in Europe in 2001. The moment I first set foot in Florence, I wanted to live there. I had it all figured out. I would teach English and double as a tour guide around the Duomo on the weekends and live in a tiny flat on the other side of the Arno and have just enough money for bread and wine. Despite various (admittedly rather feeble) efforts, I never did make that happen.

But as far as travel was concerned I was bitten; and since then, the lure of travel has pulled me into all sorts of adventures. On that first trip to Italy, I wound up a passenger in a convertible Porsche as it glided through the picture-perfect hills of Tuscany. On the return trip a few months later, I perched shivering on a small balcony in the heart of Florence, surrounded by my raucous Italian friends, watching New Year’s Eve fireworks displays exploding across the city skyline at midnight. The third trip had me lounging on the cliffs and terraces of Capri,

defying death on the hairpin curves of the Amalfi Coast Highway and consuming vast amounts of homemade bread, cheese, sausage and wine at an idyllic farmhouse in the countryside. Even if I haven’t yet figured out how to live there, Italy is my dream.

I’ve flown via private jet to Mexico; driven a car on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, where I took myself to celebrate my 38th birthday, and navigated a tiny scooter through the insane traffic of Taiwan
and on to the Oceanside at sunrise.

Fortunate I have been.

My point is this: these were all fantastical, often-unbelievable experiences. I couldn’t ask for more. But they were also all safe, controlled and measured. There was little, if any, risk involved (except maybe for the driving in Paris and Taiwan and Amalfi Coast Highway parts). For each destination I knew where I was going, when I was arriving, where I would sleep each night and precisely what date I would be back home in my own bed. And with the exclusion of the Paris trip, I never went alone.

This is not that.

This is not a 10-day escape from my everyday life, where I view bits of the outside world from the comfort of my perfectly planned itinerary, only to return home to find that not much in my own world has changed except perhaps the tightness in my shoulders for a few days.

This trip is not a vacation.

I don’t really know anything about backpacking. I’ve never even seen the inside of a hostel, let alone slept in one or taken a shower in one of their communal bathrooms or cooked a meal with strangers in their communal kitchen.

I am an almost-40 woman, heading out into the world with a 30-odd-pound backpack as my only companion and a rather loosey-goosey itinerary to follow. I’m taking the same amount of clothing with me for 4-5 months (or longer?) that I would normally pack for 4-5 days. I will wash said clothing in a bathroom sink and hang it between the bunk beds to dry. I will make teenytiny tubes of toothpaste last as long as I possibly can. Don’t even get me started on what I’m going to do about hair products, because I don’t know.

I will fall in and out with others along the route who are embarking on the same adventure, but at half my age (which, I might add, many seem to consider a more “appropriate” age for this type of thing. This mystifies me.)

Bottom line: the logistics of this voyage could not be more foreign to me.

But thanks to my parents I’m a great camper, and am often rather innovative in puzzling situations. I figure this is kind of like camping, except with lots of places that require passports and visas and phrasebooks and bone-jarring 13-hour overland over-air-conditioned bus rides and sleeping with a gaggle of strangers in my tent.

Again: this is not a vacation.

This is a voyage. A journey. An adventure.

“Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”
Lawrence Durrell

Thursday, August 21, 2008

No Man's Land.

Each of these changes and phases rocks me to the core. It’s not like turning a new leaf or closing a chapter. It’s like abruptly reaching the end of an entire encyclopaedic volume and starting another one, every time. For reasons yet undiscovered to me, I don’t seem to want to allow myself the feelings. I am unable to give myself permission to feel the full range of emotions, in all its terrifying glory. I tell myself it’s no big deal; get over it, move on. I am generally quite a pro at listening to my body – except in this instance. I try to find reasons and excuses for the laziness and fatigue, rather than just chalking it up to what it so blatantly is - emotional overload. I am overwhelmed.

Then, to add to the pile, I worry that I should not be worrying. That by stressing and getting wiggy, and then telling myself it’s no big deal, I am gypping myself out of fully experiencing all the nuances of what should be the most exciting time in my life. That years from now I will look back, like so many wives that I know, on my “wedding day” that was supposed to be the happiest day of my life but that was actually a complete blur of trying to coordinate photographers, bridesmaids, dinners and speeches, and discover that I missed it.

I worry that I am not wholly present.

But it’s difficult to live in the moment at the moment. I feel awkward and gawky. Out of place. I am in the home where I spent several years of my life, in my old room, with my old familiar things and with my parents. It should feel as comforting as a favourite sweatshirt. But it does not. And I need to accept that there is no “should” when it comes to feelings. In reference to my upcoming world tour, people often say to me, “You must be so happy and excited!” But just like there is no “should”, there is no “must”. I feel how I feel and that needs to be ok. I have left my job, my home, my possessions and now my city and my friends, and it’s ok for that to feel foreign and scary and weird. It would be alarming if it didn’t, in fact.

It’s a true rollercoaster ride. I’m nervous. I’m scared. I watch a movie that features images from Greece and I do get excited. While silently supportive, I know my parents are terrified about my trip so I’m trying extra hard to be cool in front of them, which just makes me more stressed. I want to try to relax, but as my dear friend and lifeline L so wisely said to me today, “You can’t ‘try’ to relax. You will relax when you’re ready to relax.” Yoda gets it, too: “Do or not do. There is no try.”

So for now, I am balancing some down time hanging with the folks with frantic guide book reading, hostel research, deciphering the rainbow of Bangkok buses and which ones pull the least tourist scams, getting my IDP, endless hours on the phone trying to unravel all the red tape that goes with having no fixed address, paying off last bills, researching cheap flights, and the occasional jaunt to the gym. I’ve re-entered the cycle of broken sleep patterns, after quite a few weeks of sleeping rather soundly. I am starting to panic.

My flight leaves September 10th. First destination: Zagreb, Croatia.

Maybe then I will relax.

"Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow". Proverb quotes

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chapter Two.

This isn’t writer’s block. This is everything block. Mental, physical, emotional exhaustion. I’ve felt like a rag doll since the morning after the move and I can’t seem to kick it. I have very few concrete thoughts. I nap a lot. I move slowly. After so many weeks and months of planning and packing, anticipation and fear, it’s the big comedown. If I must confess, it feels kind of nice.

Perhaps it’s actually everything unblock.

It was odd, seeing all of my life’s possessions, stacked like so many cubes of Habitat ‘67,

in one 20 x 10 space. It was strange to pull down the rolling metal door and walk away. Curiously, this proved to be a more profound moment to me than that of closing the door and walking away from my former home for the last time. I would have expected it to be the reverse.

I found the storage facility itself to be a rather interesting place for some perspective: Row upon very neat row of locked boxes of various configurations, each withholding a different story of a different person’s life. Lives in transition. I found myself wanting to know what secrets were contained behind these other doors; to know something of the people who were attached to what lay tucked away safely behind them. Happy stories, sad stories, strange stories. Forgotten stories. Boring stories. In a way it brought me comfort to know that I was very far from being the only person who had a certain piece of her life in limbo, however important or insignificant. And this was only one storage facility on one street in one part of a city of a province of a country of a continent of a world. There are millions like me, everywhere, each with possessions to stash away for safekeeping; things we drag around with us from place to place, city to city, home to home. We pay someone to watch over it all for us, even if at the end of the day it’s little more than a hopeless jumble of rummage sale rejects that we don’t know what else to do with yet somehow can’t quite bring ourselves to part with.

We are funny.

The cycle begins early (what kid doesn’t have “mine” as part of their earliest vocabulary?), and commonly continues on for the rest of our lives.

And so it is that I temporarily break away from a hefty chunk of my creature comforts for the first time in my life. No more Montauk ABC chair. No more closet full of clothes. No more chipped bust of David that I stole from the Sir Frederick Banting Secondary School Library in 1987. No more Tempur-Pedic mattress (this I will dearly miss).

All of the possessions I will interact with for the next few months fit (I use the term loosely) into two suitcases. This will all be edited down to one backpack-full before I leave on my world tour.

It is a delicate blend of apprehension and relief. Part of me looked at that mountain of stuff in the storage space; the flotsam and jetsam produced by the ebb and tide of years of accumulation, and never wanted to see it again. Part of me wanted to dive into the middle of it all and never leave. We build our nests, line them with bits and pieces of whatever we can gather in order to feel safe and protected. It is against our nature to then leave it all behind. In the end, disappointingly, I didn’t get rid of nearly as much as I thought I had.

I went back to the storage facility the very next day and precariously picked my way through the maze, playing Rubik’s cube with the boxes and furniture until, sweating and tired, I located the box containing my dollar store Santa coffee mug (thanks mum – this made the cut). I fished out the mug and brought it to D’s house where I am staying, for my daily morning coffee. It is my favourite mug. It is a small piece of familiarity and comfort in my otherwise foreign surroundings (it’s also really funny because D and her family are Jewish, so the mug is very clearly “mine” and not “theirs”).

I may have flown the nest, but I apparently feel the need to keep a few twigs close at hand.

It’s all a process.

(Thanks to M and L for the quote below from the bible. I’ve never read the bible, but this is actually pretty cool):

/ 25 “That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? /26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? /27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? / 28 “And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, /29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. /30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Heartbreak Hotel.

Bye, home.