I’m a fresh vagabond.
That doesn’t mean I smell like a baby’s butt or am still slightly steaming from the International Vagabond Press, necessarily; but rather, I haven’t been doing this for very long, and this first year and some months has brought with it a high number of experiences, revelations and challenges that I never expected from the comfortable, flatish fields of Ohio. Of all the revelations I’ve encountered and otherwise greeted along the road, I’ve found that vagabonding requires a certain frequency of introspection and analysis: Where am I? What am I doing here? Do I even like what I’m doing here? How long will I be here?
This isn’t to say, of course, that regular life shouldn’t involve these questions. I am a strong advocate for asking ourselves these questions as much as possible – whether in jobs, relationships, cities, whatever. The answers might not always be known, but these questions are especially necessary components to vagabonding, which utilizes “now”-living in a way that sometimes goes overlooked amongst the routine in the hometown or urban adult landscape.
It’s that hometown or urban adult landscape that gets to us after awhile. How often do we look at our apartments or jobs or the unvarying suburban shuffle and think “What am I doing here? Do I even like what I’m doing here?” And sometimes those answers are “I don’t know anymore” and “No”. So what’s the remedy? Some choose more material possessions; others choose weekend trips. Some choose ultra-packed schedules denying them the time to think about what they’re doing or why. And others flee.
Vagabonding, backpacking and other variations of long-term travel are initially interesting because they offer a sense of ‘escape’ from regular life. More variations exist than you can stick your backpacker hiking stick at. (Editor’s Note: for purposes of this article, I claim the title of “passive vagabond”, where one sits for an indeterminate amount of time in various cities, interspersing regular life with travel to new places. This is in contrast to “regular backpacking”, where cities are visited for days or weeks, typically utilizing hostels or couchsurfing, mostly for purposes of sightseeing, heady foreign airs, titillating cuisine and racking up the country count.)
I was mired in my hometown landscape, looking around at life and thinking that while there were a lot of great things, I needed to leave for awhile. I needed to pack that bag and get the hell out. I really wanted to say adios to the routine, the familiar sights, the same old drive to and from work, the same restaurants, the same air, all of it – at least for a little while. Sure, I loved the comfort of my dad’s house, and snuggling with my puppy at nights, and having that perfect cup of Keurig coffee every morning. I loved the air, especially in the spring, and especially before thunderstorms, and especially in the crisp high point of winter. And I love my friends and family – to a desperate, crippling level, really. But I craved the open road, that fucking feeling you get from having a significant sum of money in your savings account, a one-way ticket to somewhere and generally no plan. Come at me, life!
I was, in a sense, looking to escape my routine, which a lot of people commonly associate with their notion of what’s wrong right now in my life. Many people travel to not only escape routine but slice it in the throat and leave it for dead — Routine is to be avoided! Routine is the devil! God, this damn routine is killing me! There can be something very suffocating about routines. Like a never-ending road forward, with no foreseeable variations except for a two or three week period “off”, and long weekends when the government decides. Awesome.
So I quit it. I quit the long dreary drives to and from work, I quit the morning Keurig coffee, I quit even the best, most fulfilling parts of my city that I’m pretty sure nowhere else can ever do better. And it fucking killed me to quit that part. It still hurts a year and odd months later.
I arrived to Chile with my earthly possessions in two bags, a freshly re-issued passport, and (just) enough savings to warrant the kind of crazy-eyed, open-ended trip I was initiating. I had a clear goal: do whatever I wanted. This of course didn’t mean sleep with male prostitutes, join a drug ring or sleep til 5pm everyday, but it certainly meant live the life I want to lead. Which, in my case, meant devoting myself full-time to writing, practicing a crap-ton of yoga, continuing my vegetarian lifestyle, and finding creative ways to sustain myself for an interminable life abroad. Things I felt I wasn’t able to do satisfactorily back home.
The very beginning was fresh and new and thrilling. The second half of the beginning was frustrating, irritating, and sometimes downright intolerable. The logistics of my living situation were far less accommodating than what I was used to, which had forced me to a lower level of Maslow’s Pyramid than I’d been in my entire life. What emerged from this difficulty in daily life was a desperation to just get my routine settled – find a place where I could have a reliable schedule everyday, internet I could count on, a living space that nourished me instead of crippled me.
And I felt somehow bad about this – wasn’t that part of what I had left behind? Wasn’t I anti-routine? Once it all finally gelled and I had convinced myself to accept the truth, no matter how much I didn’t like it, I found that what made me happiest, what most stoked my internal fire of optimal Shannon, looked a lot like what I had been doing in the States prior to my departure. The surroundings were different, the language was different, but the substance of my days was almost exactly equal to what I’d left behind.
Needless to say, I was a bit dismayed to realize that I’d been dying to move abroad for years just so I could continue doing exactly the same thing I’d always been doing.
But ‘routine’ is still a loaded word for me. For most of my life, I thought I was definitively “anti-routine”, because to me ‘routine’ meant stagnant, boring and old. Predictable. Always the same, but in a painful and debilitating way. And yeah, routines require an inherent degree of sameness – but all that boring and stagnant crap? Completely my own attachment to the word.
So really, I’ve never been anti-routine; I’ve actually been “pro-routine”, but just “anti” the lifestyle I thought I was living. This is what vagabonding has afforded me – the chance to establish my life for myself. On my terms. With my eyes, ears, fingers and taste buds behind the metaphorical wheel. Some people can do this perfectly fine in their home country, and maybe far earlier than I managed to achieve it — but for some reason I had to leave my country (several times) to really do this.
I realize now that my desire to travel and live abroad is less about escaping what I know and recognize, and more about delving into that which I cherish and hold dear in my life. While family and friends might be left behind for extended periods of time, they are always in my heart and close at hand through technology. New friends are made, old ones meet up or wait up. What changes is the scenery, the language, the rhythm of life, and the social customs. Whether or not buses are used more or personal cars; walking versus biking; kuchen versus donuts; Spanish versus English; rolling plains of the Midwest or the craggy spikes of the Andes.
Travel is and has been the focal point of cultural commentary for nigh on a millennium simply because what one discovers most about, apart from the geography of the world and the culinary differences and the overall essence of humanity, is themselves. Pushing ourselves into that awkward, uncomfortable territory – not only exceeding but often times demolishing the comfort zone – is a fairly reliable route to self-awareness and discovery. There’s something crippling and awakening in seeing oneself a mere fraction of the masses, and sometimes feeling that weight, heavy on your chest, almost painful, when wandering the world; just one face amongst the sea swirling beyond our personal lens of experience.
Our uniqueness is both condensed and imploded; life stories shrivel and shine. Who are we under the paralyzing weight of humanity? Under the suffocating impressiveness of Everyone Else In The World? The answer, we find, is that we are simply Who We Are, just another face in the sea, for sure, but one that carries its own story and weight along with the rest.
This is why I travel the world. I travel so that I can continually tap into these nourishing and enriching benefits of world travel, of comfort zone re-shaping and expansion, of life experience and savviness. But what I’m doing when I show up to the new continent, country or county is pretty damn similar to what I’ve always done when left to my own devices.
The scenery, therefore, is not what is most important. Scenery doesn’t make you long-term happy (though it can significantly contribute to temporary satisfaction and a fulfillment of life goals). Foreign languages outside your window, the use of cheek-kissing versus hand-shaking, the fact that businesses close for an unpredictable amount of time in the late afternoon to honor ‘the siesta’, these are peripheral details. These elements are not a sure route to happiness or fulfillment. In my case, however, they are merely bricks in the path that leads to the end goal.
I travel so that I can learn more about the world both around and within myself. I travel so that I can find that unchanging, effervescent glow that hangs silent and heavy, deep within me, somewhere between throbbing heart and sighing lung, immobile yet constantly absorbing. I travel so that I can discover what nourishes it, amplifies it, dries it out or soaks it full of savory experience. And knowing these juicy tidbits about myself – and the world around me – has allowed me to be myself so much easier and truer than ever before, no matter where I am…
…But especially when I go home.