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1) It’s Easier to Think Outside the Box if You Leave the Box Every Once in a While
It’s a big world out there and, for better or worse, there are many different ways of approaching life’s problems.
On our year anniversary of traveling, I wrote the following line:
“We fail to question all the little assumptions we make every day about the way we live because when everything works as well as it does in our modern society (and so cheaply), we have no reason to think differently.”
But I am sure we can all agree that our modern world still leaves a lot to be desired.
(After eight months back home, still living humbly at my parents house, with just a glimpse into the lives of the disenfranchised, this lesson is still unfolding.)
Doing things a certain way just because it’s the way you always have isn’t going to get it done. A view from the outside—looking in or further out—provides a fresh perspective, which could lead to some innovative solutions.
2) It Can Always Get Worse
So yes, you just spent last night sleeping in a van and you’re feeling pretty lousy. But because of your overtired stupor, you put unleaded gas in your diesel-running van and it won’t run anymore. And now you’re sitting in a McDonald’s parking lot contemplating your options with the persistent taste of gasoline in your mouth because you foolishly thought you could siphon the gas out of the tank.
It can always get worse and often does. When it does, please take solace in lessons three and four.
But don’t expect things to get worse. Don’t dwell on the idea that bad things happen to good people. I almost let my fear of being mugged ruin the last four months of our trip. I felt like things were too good and we were too lucky. It was a hard feeling to shake. But we never got mugged.
When we went for an off-road bike tour of the Ankgor Wat temple complex in Cambodia the following happened: My bike tire needed to be replaced. My bike chain broke and needed to be replaced. Nellu fell into a flooded rice paddy, dunking his camera. (We got it replaced in Japan.) I slipped into a flooded rice paddy. I got stuck up to my knees in mud and almost lost my shoe. My tire popped and we replaced the tube. And we got stuck in a major downpour. Which leads me to lesson number three…
3) Tragedy + Time = Comedy
That’s a line from a famous Tig Notaro comedy set. Days after she was diagnosed with breast cancer, Tig turned that bad news into a refreshingly honest and funny routine: “It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equals comedy. I am… just at tragedy.”
(Um, you might have to hear it for yourself. Tig Notaro: Live can be purchased on iTunes.)
But it’s true. Not to say that we suffered anything close to tragedy on the road. We had mishaps and minor setbacks. And after getting a little distance from it, it was clear that we had some entertaining material on our hands.
I would notice spikes in the number of hits on our blog when I wrote about some of our more trying times on the road.
“Our friends like to see us suffer,” I joked with Nellu.
Apparently what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger and will also make your friends laugh.
4) It Gets Better
The good news is that after you’ve had a rough go at it for a while, your bar for better is a lot lower. Getting to blow out my hair was a luxury I looked forward to on the road. I still makes me feel better.
5) Wherever You Go, There You Are
This is the title of a Jon Kabat-Zinn book. It’s particularly relevant to travel (and I guess life too.)
Seriously, you are where you are. Stop trying to get ahead of yourself. Unless you’re a character from a J.J. Abrams production, with a clone or something, you can’t.
There’s something about traveling that makes you take things one step at a time. You can get more from the world around you and yourself by just paying attention to where you are.
Moreover, life has a pace of its own. (Recognizing that there’s no way to control that pace—I’m still working on that one.)
6) There’s Always a Jackass
You know the expression “expect the unexpected?” Well this is a similar strategy. Expect the jackass. Sometimes it’s the guy that insists on following you, harassing you to buy something. Sometimes it’s an actually donkey that wakes you up, braying at 3am.
There’s always a jackass. Expect it. That way when the jackass appears, you can quickly identify him/her as such and move on.
Sidebar: When I first sketched out this list when we got home, I led with “there’s always a jackass.” Apparently jackasses lose relevance over time.
7) People in Groups Are Assholes
Think about the last time you were with a group of people in public. Let’s say three or more people. Chances are, you collectively acted like an asshole. You probably laughed a little too loud at each other’s jokes. Maybe you walked too slowly or took up the whole sidewalk. You probably didn’t notice, but someone else likely did.
Now that you aware of your assholery, don’t let it happen again. And if you often find yourself as the odd man out of the group, invest in a quality pair of earbuds.
8) Be Open To Random Acts of Small Talk
I know this can be particular painful to some people. I used to be you. I am very approachable. Apparently my face says, “Talk to me!” even though my mind used to scream, “Why are you talking to me!?”
Now I love it. Sure, this is just one of the ways that I may be turning into my mother. But I think there’s a lot to be said about the rewards of a casual conversation. It might just be a quick tip: “Oh you may not want to buy that apple, I saw someone lick it.” It might be something more…
Today is technically the one year anniversary of the start of our adventure (and consequently the liquidation of our jobs, apartment and some of our stuff). On this day April 3rd, 2011, we left for São Paulo with little idea of what we had started and what it would mean. We didn’t even have time to contact our credit card company to let them know what we were doing.
In recognition of the event (the fact that April Fools’ Day was around the corner and that we were leaving the African continent for a while to come), I decided to shave off my Africa beard, which I had been growing since January 1, and compiled a list of important metrics from our trip so far :
We still have a couple of months to add to this and much to see. The adventure continues….
In the next couple of posts, we’ll wrap up our African Adventure. But it’s been a year since we first took off for our round the world trip, so I wanted to offer up a few words on leaving…
A year ago, we got on a plane at JFK airport in New York and woke up in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Nellu and I barely talked the whole flight. We were both still carrying the stress of the last week (and months really) — moving out of our apartment on Thursday, quitting our jobs on Friday and packing up everything so we could be on that Sunday night flight. Monday morning in Brazil, on a bad night’s sleep, we tried to follow the detailed directions to get from the airport to our host’s downtown apartment, communicating in broken English sprinkled with “obrigado,” the Portuguese word for thank you. This would be our new reality.
Now we’ve been gone for what seems like such a long time, our friends have started to ask if we’re ever coming home. We are, probably in June. But with a month at home last July and the extra month we needed here at the end to see family, friends, and a little bit more of Europe, we’ll have 14 months of distance from our old lives by the time we get back.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from all this time on the road: the importance of stepping outside the institutions we live in – or more simply – the importance of leaving. It’s so easy to think that our world is the whole world. We give undue attention to minor bumps (it’s the end of the world). We miss opportunities because we’re so singularly focused (or perhaps so generally distracted) that we’ve got our blindsiders on. We fail to question all the little assumptions we make every day about the way we live because when everything works as well as it does in our modern society (and so cheaply), we have no reason to think differently.
I’m still dumbfounded that the only time we’ve used a clothes dryer in the last year was during our month at home. I also can’t tell you the number of times we’ve bought milk in bags or paid more than $5 for a gallon of gas.
We don’t have jobs when we get home. We’ll be summering in Connecticut (my favorite euphemism for living with my parents) until we get our acts together. I am not exactly sure what we’ll do but I’m hoping to find a middle ground between this life and our old one.