While I was back in Canada for the holidays, a number of friends asked why I’d stopped blogging. The simple answer would be that life got in the way, that I wanted to focus on writing fiction which already soaked up most of my free time. Of course, answers like this are never that simple. Admittedly, part of me disliked the possibility of classmates, instructors, or potential freelance clients reading my blog and using it to judge my writing abilities. While I try to avoid posts that are utterly illegible, I wouldn’t call my itinerant ramblings an ideal sample of my work. On top of that, I realized that a successful blog requires a ridiculous amount of time and self-promotion. I regularly feel guilty publishing my blog posts on my own Facebook profile, so how could I ever expect to expand my reach beyond a contained circle of family and friends? However, the truth is that I miss blogging. Nobody expects Pulitzer-quality craftsmanship on packing strategies for backpackers, and I don’t know 3/4 of the people who read my blog posts. As for the time issue, that’s a poor excuse for anything. The amount of time I waste getting sucked into click-baited videos and articles each day would be more than enough to write a post of my own. More than anything, I came to the conclusion that I’d lost a bit of my identity in the past year. I became so focused on school and supplementing my studies with as much work as I could handle, that I slowly loosened my grip on the other important things in my life.
There’s something strange about packing for home the way you would pack for a holiday, choosing what to bring and what to leave behind. That’s what I’m doing right now as I prepare to return to Canada. I’ll arrive exactly a year after I left. 365 days of traveling, living, and working abroad.
This time, I’m returning home with the dawning awareness that I’m not nearly the person I was when I left. As always, the places we go, the people we meet, and the experiences we have change us, and this year, these changes have ingrained themselves more deeply than before.
I’ve felt priorities shift, flirted with the idea of settling in one spot, but still found myself wandering as often as I can, stepping foot in new lands and encountering new cultures. As always, the friendships I’ve formed have been paramount in defining who I am and where I’m headed.
George Bailey: You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are?
Uncle Billy: Uh huh. Breakfast is served; lunch is served; dinner…
George Bailey: No no no no. Anchor chains, plane motors and train whistles.
-It’s a Wonderful Life
I lie in bed in the loft of my grandmother’s condo, a condo which overlooks a river that trails through a city. A city in the middle of nowhere, I could say. A city in the center of everything, you might argue.
As I lie here, surrounded by overflowing suitcases and half-packed boxes, I gaze up through the skylight. The starry sky shines with all the brilliance of a hot summer night. In the past week, the clouds have gathered, the rain has poured, and the province has flooded.
But none of this matters to me — tomorrow, I’m leaving. Read more
I lean my head against the taxi window. A plane sweeps down to land, so near that I can make out the seams of its massive underbelly. My leather jacket is creased with campfire ash — remnants of a night that already seems long past. Wet skin sticky with salt. Drifting to sleep to the clink of emptied wine bottles and scattered conversation. But now the rows of tarmac grow ever nearer.
I shift uncomfortably, my muscles tense from a bike ride along the Vancouver seawall. That morning, the tide had been out. Fields of bull kelp and green algae littered the rocky shore and I inhaled the Pacific in all its rawness. It smelled like our island.
I tuck away that ocean scent, along with that of the lingering campfire smoke. Snippets of Canada, the home that I’m leaving.
I’m not lucky, so please stop telling me that. My decision to travel was not a question of chance. No dice were thrown, no cards lain. This life of travel is all me: my lifestyle, my decisions.
When I was ten, my parents pulled my brother and I out of school and took us camping through Europe for six months. They used to grumble about the people who remarked how lucky we were to have that experience.
“It has nothing to do with luck,” my Mom would respond. “It was years of stringent saving.”
I can vouch for that. While all my friends were going to Disneyworld or Cuba in the years leading up to that trip, my family went to B.C. for vacation, and while other kids got Gameboys in their stockings, Peter and I received homemade gifts or books. (Maybe this spawned my future career choice?) Read more
“I was surprised, as always, be how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
These days, it seems that almost anyone with the “travel bug” will try to justify his or her affliction by quoting one of three literary figures:
St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do…”
Jack Kerouac: “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
I was no exception to this trend. My Facebook and blog were littered with my over-eager attempts to prove that a life of travel is the manifestation of a “carpe diem” mentality. But as more and more of these quotes began to pop up on my social media feeds, many from people who probably couldn’t even tell you who St. Augustine was, I started to feel a sense of obligation. If I was going to adopt Kerouac’s philosophy, I should at least have read his work. Read more
This was my entry for the 2013 World Nomads’ Travel Writing Scholarship to Beijing. I didn’t make the top three, but I did make the shortlist.
Considering there were 1125 entries, I’m pretty excited about that! Here is a link to the World Nomads’ Page with the winning entries and complete shortlist.
The porter’s eyes twinkle as he passes me the soap. It’s dark along the Inca Trail, but moonlight fills the campsite as hikers prepare for bed. As I wash my hands, I ask his name. He winks when he hears my Spanish.
The name slides off his tongue into a soup of Quechua vowels.
I find a grassy spot to sit nearby. He hesitates, but approaches. We gaze at the starry sky. Looming mountains split the world into light and dark.
“Did you like dinner?” he asks, bridging the silence.
I nod, and ask if the porters had carried the trout all the way from Cuzco.
“We fished while you were napping.”
I blush. A lazy tourist, was that me? I thought I was tough for tackling a four-day trek, yet I’d hired someone to carry my gear.
“How long have you been a porter?”
He brushes aside his thick, black hair, tucking it under his “chullo.”
“Two years, but I’ve worked since I left home.”
“How old were you then?”
“Seven. Now, I’m 23.”
I pull at the threads of my alpaca sweater – a gringo tourist staple. We’re the same age, but my idea of work is sitting in an office, making more an hour than he does in two days.
“Why so young?”
“All of us children were sent to Cuzco to work.”
Avoiding his stare, I let my eyes fall to our legs, which almost touch at the knees. My feet glow in the night, but his are black; dry mud cakes his knockoff Adidas sandals.
“I’m studying to be a guide,” he continues.
I ask what he’s learning and he clasps my hand eagerly.
“English and Inca culture. History is my favourite.” He glances down, dropping my hand. My fingers tingle with the imprints of his calluses.
“I studied history too, in Canada.”
Aderlin sweeps his hand across the horizon. “Here, we follow a path that’s over 500 years old. Isn’t it the most beautiful place to work?”
I smile and tilt my head back. I search for the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia but for me the southern sky is an unmarked map. Aderlin explains that Quechua people find constellations in the spaces between stars. “Urcuchillay” the llama, and “Mach’acuay” the serpent. I squint to make out these shapes but I fail to see beyond the shadows.
When a cool breeze picks up, I wish Aderlin goodnight. At five the next morning, I’m woken by a soft call at the flap of my tent. Aderlin carries a tray with cups of coca-leaf tea.
“Your mate, miss.”
He gives me a steaming cup. I don’t see him again until he hustles past on the steep Inca stairs, a 20-kg duffel bag bouncing on his back and a grin on his face.
“¿Por qúe no tienes novio?”
It was always the most pressing question on the minds of the Mexican women I met. Why don’t you have a boyfriend?
I had come to Guadalajara to visit my best friend, who in turn was there to visit her long-distance Mexican boyfriend. Over the course of the month we spent there, we got to know the women at the bootcamp gym that we went to. These ladies just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
“You’re pretty and you speak Spanish. So why are you alone? Why can’t you find a Latin boyfriend too?”
Up until this point, my status as a solo/single traveler hadn’t bothered me. I felt safe, confident, and adventurous on my own. I was meeting new people, taking risks, and knocking items off my bucket list like they were bowling pins.
But as I practiced squats in front of the Real Housewives of Guadalajara, I couldn’t help but stop to wonder, why was I alone?
I compiled a list of possible reasons:
– Long Distance is on the out: “Is there someone back home?” That was always the next question. The truth is, maybe there was. Not back home, because I didn’t really have a home, and in the year leading up to my trip, I refused to get into anything. I’d done long-distance enough in the past. There was no way I’d tie myself into that during a 10-month trip. But for the first four or five months of my trip, there was always that tiny part of me that considered what would happen if I left South America and flew elsewhere. To a certain someone. I never did. Because if there’s one thing that life has taught me, it’s not to plan your life around something (or someone) that is uncertain. Things can change in an instant, and you don’t want to sacrifice your goals only to face disappointment.
– Still Hung up on Him: “Are you suffering from a broken heart?” Along the complicated path of adolescence, I made a mistake. I let someone go. It’s not like he didn’t fight, but I pushed away with both hands. By the time I realized my mistake, things were not the same. I tried to make them be, but then it was my turn to feel hurt. “It will take you until your trip to get over him,” my friends said. They were right. But, get over him, I did. Finally.
– I Have a 2-Second Interest Rate and Too-high Standards: “Haven’t you met any nice Latin boys?” Of course I had. The thing about backpacking is that you meet at least ten new people every day. When you’re a salsa-dancing backpacker, you meet a single, potentially good-looking Latino every single song you dance. Multiple these together, and you’ll really understand the saying “There’s plenty of fish in the sea.” Yet the problem was, rarely did I meet someone who could hold my attention for more than a day or two. Maybe my standards are too high. Or perhaps this was a sign that I wasn’t ready for anyone.
– The Trip Must go on: “But surely you’ve met someone.” I couldn’t pretend that, among all of those hundreds of guys I had met, there wasn’t anyone who meant something. Yes, there were a couple of people with whom I really connected. One or two instances in which I felt something. That purported “spark.” Yet the timing wasn’t right, or the person wasn’t right enough. There was nobody who could make me take root and settle.
– I’m Having one of Those Eat, Pray, Love Years: I was the girl who was always dating someone. I could never be alone. After a few months of solo travel, I noticed that I had changed. I was independent. Too independent, perhaps. Gentlemanly gestures that I had previously called sweet and thoughtful (guiding your elbow across the street, opening car doors, helping you do things) were getting on my nerves. My new attitude was: don’t you think I can take care of myself?. I truly had the sense that I was a new person after my cliché journey of self-discovery.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was a combination of all of these factors that made me single. Still, I couldn’t see why my workout companions in Guadalajara were so determined to set me up with a nice Mexican boy. I was fine being alone, wasn’t I?
It took me months to understand that there were some cultural associations underlying these women’s worries. I adore Mexico, and love (almost) all of the women I’ve met there. They’re fantastic cooks, caring mothers, and model wives. But that’s just it. Much as the country is progressing, Mexico still hasn’t reached its peak of feminine liberalization. You do see a handful of powerful Mexican businesswomen and leaders, but most Mexican women are defined first and foremost by their roles as wives and mothers. In their eyes, a relationship is not a side thought — it’s essential. It helps them forge a life and a family for themselves.
Having grown up in Canadian culture, I feel that my primary responsibility is to myself. Marriage and kids will come when the time is right, when I’ve formed my own identity and started a career. Or maybe these things won’t come at all.
People always tell you that you can’t go looking for love. Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. I think when you start doing what you love, love will find you.
— On a final note, maybe I’m single because I spend all my time writing about my personal life and embarrassing myself with horrible photos online! 😉