Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Years Present

One year ago I was holed up in a dusty, nowhere town in the middle of Laos, musing about an impending 2-day trek through the Phu Hin Bun NPA. I was worried that if nobody else signed up for the trek I’d be spending the last night of 2009 sitting around a campfire at my guesthouse with a few other disconnected backpackers who also hadn’t planned their agendas quite correctly, feeling awkward. (As it turned out the trek was a go and the evening was spent playing dominoes and drinking with the locals of a tiny, poor village, followed by sleeping on the floor of a simple hut in said village with the only two other travelers who had signed up for the trek: Jane from Australia and Sophie from France. It was purely delightful. If you’d like to read more about it, visit my travel blog . The entry is entitled “Happy New Everything”)

New Years Eve 2008: Me, Aussie Jane and Frenchie Sophie in village in Tha Khaek, Laos

I remember what promise and hope I felt for the year ahead as I lay tucked under my mosquito net in the ink-black night. How could I feel anything but pure optimism? In the space of 12 months I had spun my entire life in a dizzying 180: I’d left a 15-year career plus another job to boot; sold my home, put my stuff in storage and was now four months into the adventure of a lifetime with no end in sight. The world was truly my oyster.

Flash forward one year. My name is on the lease of a cheap, crooked old apartment in a somewhat disadvantaged area of Montreal. I am surrounded by my “things” again – a huge chunk of which I have gladly divested myself of through several more rounds of charitable donations. (You know those teeny, tiny, useless closets those old apartments have? Two of them are actually enough to house the bit of my clothing that’s survived the endless edits. ) Occasionally I get paid to write, which is still incredible to me; but I also work odd jobs to cobble together enough money to cover rent and all the other expenses one doesn’t have to worry about when in a high-end career or on a world tour, like cable and car repairs. I am going through a difficult and bewildering transition where many of my friendships are concerned, and it’s isolating and lonely and tough on the self-esteem. I don’t know what’s happening. My orbit has changed and I wasn’t prepared for that. And to top it all off, I’m still single.

So to sum it up: I have a ramshackle home in the same city I left behind, no career to speak of, no money, no boyfriend and some wonky friendships. Given all of that, it wouldn’t be hard to look upon the last half of 2009 with feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, depression. Of my adventure people seem to like to say, “Play time is over. Back to the real world, now, Cara.”

I say, go tell it to someone else.

Sure there are difficult days (and weeks. Occasionally even months.) How could there not be? No adventure comes without fear, risk, unknowns, and, yes - failures. That’s why so few embark on them.

But as I write this on the last day of 2009, I am at my sister’s home near Calgary, witnessing dawn colour the tips of the Rocky Mountains a pastel pink outside my bedroom window. I spent Christmas week here with my family, playing with my little niece and nephew and visiting with my parents and siblings. I had 2 unexpected and glorious days to reconnect with my soul sister Shauna (whom I first met on my island) at her parents’ home in Edmonton. We spoke of everything. She has gone back out into the world now, where she belongs, and where we will surely meet again; out there, somewhere.

Me, Shauna and a fully Canadian reunion: December 26, 2009

Tomorrow I will head home to Montreal and continue setting up my home office. I will not dread going back to my desk job in the corporate world, because I don’t have one of those anymore. I haven’t had one for almost two years now.

I will find some new odd jobs. Maybe at another garage. Maybe at a cafe. Maybe both.

I will exchange emails with Sam, my dear friend and the caretaker of my perfect plot of land on Gili Air, as he updates me on the progress of the fruit-tree-planting on my island paradise. Soon I will have succulent mangos, papayas, and avocados growing outside the door of my hut that I am going to build there. He will tell me about the rain.

I will continue to dream of future travel destinations - maybe trekking through New Zealand with Shauna?

Listen to me. I’m telling you.

The adventure continues.

Life is not about the knowns. Not for me; not anymore. It’s not about the security of a desk job and a paycheque and a house full of belongings and two weeks at Club Med once a year, as comforting as those things can be and have been. Comforting, but - and I must remind myself of this frequently - not the real world.

The real world is out there. It’s in the leaves of the seedling mango trees growing on my land on Gili Air. It’s in the creases in my worn map of Bangkok. It’s in the dirty hands of the children of the village in Laos who clung to my leg on New Year’s Eve 2008, begging for nothing more than attention. And it is in the faces and hearts of the people that I will meet in the odd jobs that I will do, have to do, to make money to survive.

As it should have always been, it is about the search. It is about the struggle, the desire and indeed the demand to discover and feel life in every moment of every day. To question, to seek, to find and then to seek again. Life is not in the comfort, but most certainly in the discomfort. It is not in the standing. It is in the stumble, the fall, and the getting up again.

So as I trip and stumble my way through the last day of a fantastical, difficult, transformative year, I wish you not comfort and security but life, in all its tangled glory.

Happy life. Happy New Year.

"The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul.” G.K. Chesterson

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Christmas week, 2008: I was navigating my way down the Nam Song River in a sea kayak in Vang Vieng, Laos as the sun beat down on my curls from high above the karst mountains. Later I got lost/trapped while caving with sweet Bretchje from Sweden, who had fallen out of a moving bus onto a highway just weeks before; we then rewarded ourselves for surviving our respective brushes with disaster by rope-swinging over a teal blue lagoon at the cave base. I mountain-biked through rugged and dusty terrain, searching for and finding nothing and everything. I discovered Luang Prabang and reconnected with Charlotte and Erwan from Paris, quickly knitting the warm fabric of a lasting and dear friendship. I swam under the waterfalls with all my newfound friends. I rose before the sun on Christmas Day, shivering as I knelt on the sidewalk, waiting to give alms to the monks.

Christmas week, 2009: Small wonder the season, like so many other things around me, feels so awkward this year.

Once upon a time not very long ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a bigger die-hard Christmas fan than I. I felt and acted “Christmassy” from the first day in November that it seemed socially acceptable (and admittedly much earlier than that within the privacy of my own home. What’s wrong with playing Bing Crosby’s “The Christmas Song” in October?) Lights were dripping from every window and doorframe of my home; a riot of garland was coiled around the stair rail outside; weeks were spent writing and revising gift lists until I was sure I had the perfect thing in mind for everyone. And of course, cookies, cookies, cookies.

The gift-giving part started its descent down the slippery slope of meaning a few years ago. My grasp began to falter. The commercial nature of it all; people lining up outside Best Buy in the middle of the night to make sure they were the first to get their hands on the door-crasher specials; everyone stressing over what to get for whom and how much to spend on it...I asked myself with greater and greater emphasis each passing year: Why? What does any of it have to do with the meaning of Christmas? Or – a depressing thought - has this become the meaning of Christmas? I felt like Charlie Brown when he went to the tree lot with Linus and was bombarded with all of the fake multicoloured, multi-material, artificial trees: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”

Ask any kid in a Spiderman costume what the meaning of Halloween is and you’re likely to garner an incredulous glare as the little one peels off his mask just long enough to shout, “DUH.....CANDY!!!” I’ll venture a guess that nary a one (nor any adults, for that matter) would have a clue that its roots lie in the Christian holiday of All Saints and/or the Celtic festival of Samhain, with the name Halloween deriving from a 16th-century Scottish term.

Has the same thing happened to Christmas? (“DUH....PRESENTS!!!”)

Traditional gifting for me eventually morphed into a combination of making home-made treats (some of you will remember, hopefully fondly, the Irish cream and the chocolate truffles) and donating to worthy causes and organizations on behalf of others. At least these were things that made sense to me.

Last year while backpacking, my material gift-giving amounted to the mailing of five hand-painted Christmas cards made by a Bangkok artist depicting Santa chilling in a hammock in front of a traditional Thai beach bungalow. The cards astonishingly arrived at the homes of my family and friends on none other than Christmas Eve.

“Giving” last Christmas meant something different. Sticky rice to the monks (who don’t celebrate Christmas anyway). Time, sharing and caring to my new travel friends. The journey of a lifetime to myself.

Things are – I am - different now. There are no lights in my windows this year. No garland on the balcony railing. No list of gifts to buy. (There is, however, Bing Crosby still singing “The Christmas Song”, because it will always be pretty and perfect.)

You must understand I’m not being a Scrooge. This is not “bah-humbug”. More like, “bah... huh?”

I’m just quietly watching. I believe if one wants to learn and understand something old in a new light, one should try to do so from a position of neutrality and objectivity. And so I float above the fray of North American holiday madness, observing it like I observed the Muslims celebrating Mawlid in Indonesia: Something foreign, unrelated to me; curious and often confusing in its traditions and customs.

I’m not a particularly religious person, but I am spiritual... yet the spirit of Christmas eludes me. Curious to understand more, I googled “Christmas spirit” and “definition”. Wikipedia offered up this gem: “The Christmas Spirit is a Christmas album and seventeenth album by country singer Johnny Cash, released on Columbia Records in November 1963 (see 1963 in music). It contains four original Christmas songs written by Cash and eight tracks originally penned by other artists, including "Blue Christmas", "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy".


In a few days I’ll be boarding a plane out west to spend the holidays with my whole family. It’s the first time in ten years that we will all be together on Christmas. I will catch up with my sister and my brother; I will play with my niece and nephew and watch the magic of the season fill their eyes and take over their little bodies; I will get up to silliness with my mother, as always.

I think that there, amidst the crumpled paper, commotion and cookies, lies what I might come to understand to be Christmas Spirit. My sister's home is good that way.

Although I am 13,000 km from where I was a year ago geographically and as a person much farther away than that, this Christmas is identical to last year’s in one important way: I will give with my heart.

Wishing you all a Christmas full of spirit and meaning.

“To perceive Christmas through its wrapping becomes more difficult with every year” E.B. White

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Wanderer

I realize now why everything feels so wonky and weird around me - my space, my friends, my skin...

Travel is the answer.

I am not meant to sit still. I am meant to travel.

I am not of this apartment, of this street, of this city. My heart and mind live out in the world now, and there is so much of it yet to discover. I have taken but a tiny bite of a corner of one sliver of a pie of unfathomable proportions, and it has left me famished. I need more.

I think I finally understand that this is why I can't get comfortable with anything since my return. It's like trying to wear someone else's skin.

For now, I will put my head down and work; do what I need to do. Save what money I can.

And then, I will leave again.

“Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quiestest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.” Pat Conroy