Archive for the 'Struggles' Category

Not Making It, In Manhattan and Hanoi

Manhattan. Blackout. Metaphor.

AC, bedspread, feet stretched out in front of me, laptop on my lap just the way it’s supposed to be. Picture in the box in the screen; I smile and he smiles — “It’s good to see you!” we both say and laugh.

The background is the same: the narrow walls of the apartment, canvases stacked against them, the dimness that gathers in the closet and the entrance to the bathroom. But it’s Angelo that looks different — tired, I think, for lack of a better word. “How’s the new job?” I ask.

“It’s cool,” he says with a shrug.

“Really?” I ask, unconvinced.

He rolls his neck and laughs. “No, it fucking sucks. It’s just like ‘move this here’ and ‘move this there’ and I don’t give a shit about expensive perfume or whatever.”

Since the last time we Skyped, Angelo lost his job at that hot-shit gallery where he spent his first full year out of university working as an art handler — drilling shit and hanging shit and packing shit, pulling late nighters and driving semis around Manhattan to do $500,000 installations in million-dollar apartments. “Living the dream,” he’d called it.

It’d been what he’d wanted, what he’d thought he’d wanted, a step in the rung of the ladder of the art world. He’d worked his ass off for it — years of interning while taking full-time classes and working catering gigs and living in his ridiculously rent-controlled Manhattan apartment. He’d been flown to Art Basel Miami, and Art Basel in fucking Basel. He’d met some of his favorite artists and he’d gone to big-deal parties and he’d make connections with gallerists and dealers from around the world.

But secretly I hadn’t been surprised when Angelo had first written saying he’d been laid off. He’d been getting sick of it. He’d said as much the last time we’d talked, when there’d been an opening and he’d worked the door to the VIP lounge. “So, you know, I get to like stand there and be The Man,” he’d laughed. “I’ve got the power, right, of who gets in, and I gotta know the right people and I gotta schmooze and be mad like that.” He’d laughed again. “But it’s also kinda whack. It’s all these people pushing around, trying to be all big and in with this person or that person, and pretending the art is way better than it is. And I’m not even in the real thick of it. I get to play The Man for a couple hours, but the rest of the time I’m just, you know, the grunt. The blue-collar end of it.”

He’d seemed characteristically positive when he’d first written with the news he’d been laid off. He was gonna be getting unemployment, had a few good job leads, was using the extra time to get this website together. Then came an on-call gig doing display installations at Saks in Midtown.

It’s been a month now and he seems worn thin: he fidgets, picks at food wrapper, pushes up his glasses, gets up to get a glass of water then sits back down.

“You alright?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Yeah, I mean, whatever. I work til like 3am and then I take a cab home to my rich-boy apartment while all the other chollos haul it an hour and a half on the subway, just to turn around and do it again. And it’s like the only kinda job I’m qualified for, other than catering which is a fake job. Like, I spent all this time in school and all ‘I’m gonna be an artist” and all I know how to do is move shit. I just feel like, you know, what the fuck is it all for?”

He looks down, picks at the empty food wrapper then balls it up and tosses it across the room.

I sigh. “Well isn’t that the question of the hour?”

It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about — the what-is-it-all-for, the fallacy of the idea of “making it.” I’ve been in Hanoi six months now; everyone’s started asking me what I’m doing, how long I’m staying, what the plan is now that the Cambodia-book-project thing fell apart. It doesn’t help that my 30th birthday is looming on the horizon, sitting there like a big fat question mark I can’t see over or around or through.

I want to tell Angelo something now, this thing I’ve been thinking, been feeling churn-churning inside me but don’t have words for yet. “It’s a good thing,” is all I come up with.

He raises his eyebrow. “What?”

“That you got out of that world. That shit wasn’t for you.”

He looks dejected.

“Not like that,” I say, still searching for the words. I sigh in exasperation at myself. “I mean, I know it sucks. I’m no fucking role model — I’ve pretty much given up on writing anything for money. But it’s good, I think, to not get sucked into the scene of it all. To question the whole making-it thing.”

I pause. You’re too smart for that art-world bullshit, I want to say, though I don’t actually know if that’s true.

“Check it out,” I say instead. “I’ve been thinking about this whole thing a lot lately, and I’ve been trying to write this essay about it but it keeps falling apart. Which might be metaphor, I think,” I add with a laugh. “But I’ll send you the link if I can ever get it together.”

“Sweet, sweet,” Angelo says as he cracks open a soda can. It hisses and he yanks the tab off.

“Now tell me about that Sandy shit,” I say.

**

I got the essay together. Kinda. It’s not terribly uplifting. You can read it here.

A Year and Counting

The good ole’ lake

A year ago today, I laced up my running shoes and walked down the steep cement slant of my parents’ block for one final run around Lake Merritt.

It was a drizzly cold day, nothing like Indian Summer is supposed to be in the Bay Area, all crisp skies and fogless mornings. It was brisk but in a good way, a way that makes your run better, that invigorates you—that, when you come around the bend to the intersection where you usually cross the street and go back up the hill, you keep going. You go another lap, dodge the geese shit and dinging bells of the bicyclists, pass the cackling dreadlocked dude always posted at the bridge; the patch of trees that smell like maple syrup; the playground you used to go to as a kid; the boathouse you used to drop off time sheets at; the hedge maze they planted when you were a kid that never grew, all the geese eating the seeds so that it’s still just a mossy stump, raising like a ringworm in the ground. Know every step, every inch of gravel, the tree roots to avoid cause they’ll twist your ankle.

Stop back at the intersection, your hands on your knees and breathe. It’s the first time in all your 28 years that you’ve ever ran twice around the lake.

Switch back to the first person: I left my home a year ago today. After that run, I went back to my parents’ house, showered under that gloriously high-pressure nozzle in that green bathroom they remodeled when I was 12 (time capsule letter still nailed to a stud inside the wall somewhere). I said goodbye to the cat (who was so old I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see again, and I was right), and carried my bags to the car.

We went for lunch at a neighborhood sushi joint; I had a seaweed salad; we walked over to Boot & Shoe where I got a cappuccino and a pastry for the plane and said one last goodbye to my co-workers. Hugged my mom. Drove across the bridge with my dad. Looked out the window at the familiar landscape: the skyline of San Francisco, the row of billboards, the bend in the road, the traffic tangling then loosening, roadside giving way to the clapboard suburbs of South San Francisco. Planes arching, Airport Parking and shuttle buses—knowing again every inch, each sign, a route I’d taken a thousand times, it felt like, on a thousand trips but this time I wasn’t coming back.

Hugged my dad on the curb. Walked into the airport, alone.

I was rereading the posts from a year ago, all the commotion and to-do leading up to my leaving. It could have been worse, could have been a lot more dramatic and I think if I’d decided to run off and be an expat any earlier in my life, it would have been. I was struck by the anxiety of those posts—I didn’t remember being that anxious. I’d already edited that out, made my leaving and my last summer in the States into something more bittersweet and stoic than it was actually was. It was hard.

The whole time I knew I was making the right decision, knew that for whatever reason I had to go; I’d grown all I was going to grow in that life there, as good as it was. I felt this kind of bell tolling. I thought the bell was Cambodia, I thought the bell was supporting myself as a freelancer while writing a book on a subject that terrified me. That didn’t turn out to be it at all, but I still believe there was a bell.

I was thinking a lot about what I wanted my one-year post to be about. Nothing is how I’d envisioned it’d be a year ago, when I stood in line at the check-in counter, my three ridiculous bags strapped to my body at various angles. The freelancing dream lasted four months before I had to start teaching. The book project crumbled just about the moment I reached Cambodia. Cambodia, well, that’s another story, one I don’t even know how to tell yet. And now Hanoi—four months and starting to feel like home, starting to get it dialed in to this perfect, almost-cocoon-like existence. A city I hated the first time I visited—who’d have thought?

So I’ve learned a lot. A fuck of a lot. I’ve learned I’m a lot happier working a job that pays my bills and writing for the love. I’ve learned that I’m a shitty freelancer. I’ve learned that I’d rather tell people I meet that I’m a kindergarten teacher than a writer. I’ve learned that you have to deworm every six months, that boiling tap water doesn’t necessarily make it safe it drink, that there’s a kind of humidity that’ll sprout mold on your clothes in two weeks time.

But I think the most important thing I’ve learned in this year is that there’s this placeness, this center at the center of me. Does that make sense? Like, all those posts from a year ago, I was so mad anxious about leaving home for the first time. About not having a base, a place to come back to, my familiar people and places all waiting. Of course I was—I’d never really moved out of Oakland. It was a big leap.

But I’ve learned that there’s a stillness in me. It’s hard to get there and most of the time, I don’t think it shows; I’ll catch myself picking at my nails or digging at the scar of an old wart in a way that I know makes me look nervous, unsettled, like a goddamn lunatic. But there’s this other me, underneath that me, that’s always kinda been there. It’s the me I sink into on long bus rides, staring out the window and thinking about nothing. It’s the me I write from, in the best of times which isn’t very often—when the buzz of that other me dims, turns thin, goes away and my fingers move on the keyboard, almost independent of me, as though one part of me were telling another me a story.

And it’s the me that was sitting in the departure terminal of SFO a year ago, bags checked and pastry greasing up the thin bag, watching a guy in a Hardly Strictly Bluegrass shirt chase his tangle-haired toddler around. There was the surface me, sitting there tweeting some dumb shit, but there was also the center me, ready and waiting to board. A year ago today.

Things To Consider Before Trekking Fancy Pants Mountain

1. It is not actually called Fancy Pants Mountain. If you are unable to stop calling it Fancy Pants, because you cannot either remember or pronounce its real name, take this a sign.

2. Fansipan Mountain is the highest peak in Indochina (which sounds totally colonialist, but what the hell do you call the Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos region: “the region formerly known as Indochina”? RFKAI?) As such, you’ll be trekking up. As in, UP UP. It’s only a 15km trek up and you’ll probably think, “I’m back to jogging 10km a few times a week, I can toooootally handle it.” Kilometers are for suckers anyway.

It may be worthwhile to listen to your own bullshit detector.

3. Everything you read prior to the trek will use grandiose-sounding verbiage such as “conquering Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is an overly zealous translation. You’ll also read that at the trek’s completion, you’ll receive a certificate verifying that you’ve “conquered Fansipan Mountain.” You’ll think this is a product of the Vietnamese affection for paperwork.

But consider this. Really consider this.

Fool’s Journey

4. As the highest peak in RFKAI, Fancy Pants Mountain will be cold. They’ll tell you this: “It’s cold up there.” Remember you haven’t been in anything close to “cold” in a nearly two years. Briefly consider the fruitless time and effort you’ve invested in finding clothing that fits you in this country. Decide not to bother trying to get real hiking boots or weather-resistant clothing. Borrow some long pants from your roommate, and put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

5. Consider the fact that you are not a good trekker. You don’t even really enjoy trekking. Remember La Ciudad Perdida? Yosemite’s Half-Dome? All those Muir Woods day hikes your parents took you on as a kid? You have never for one second liked trekking, or been any good at it.

Despite this, “getting out of the city” will seem like a good idea. Consider briefly of the itinerary: an overnight train; arrival at 6am; trek beginning at 9am; the trek; sleeping in a “longhouse”; trekking back; overnight train back to Hanoi at 7pm.

Consider that this is your weekend.

Or don’t. Buy some bottled water and a granola bar, put on your three-year-old trainers and a pair of leggings and DO THIS SHIT.

Comfy on the train

6. Dream about Roberto Bolano on the overnight train. Dream you’re sitting around a table at a youth hostel, freestyling short stories; dream that he is staring at you across the table.

Wake up giddy and in a puddle of your own drool. Consider how many times people must have woken up in puddles of their own drool ON THIS VERY PILLOW, whether or not they were dreaming of Roberto Bolano. Rinse your face; chug from the plastic bottle; swish the water in your mouth and spit it out; look at yourself in the foggy scratched mirror, your reflection foggy and scratched.

Think: “Let’s Do This Shit.”

7. Doing This Shit:

i. The trail will be muddy. Like, mad muddy. Shlup, shloop, gloop, glup, ankle-deep and sliding around, falling-in-the-shrubbery muddy. The porters will hand you a walking stick; this stick will become your best friend, despite the little blisters your own clutching causes.

ii. The trail will be foggy. You won’t be able to see shit, not more than a few meters in front of you or behind you.

iii. The trail will be rocky. It will not really be a trail so much as a series of rocks to climb up. Really, it should be called The Fancy Pants Mountain Rock-Climb, not a trek because you don’t actually get a good stride going very often.

iv. Your feet will get wet and muddy. It’s better to just accept it and slosh through than try and fight it. It’s faster too.

On the mountain with my “waa” face

v. The porters won’t speak English, so it’ll be best to go with a group of people who speak Vietnamese. Though Vietnamese won’t be the native language of the porters; they’ll speak Hmong. The porters will speak Hmong because they’ll be Hmong, and it’ll be the only trek you’ve been on with a female porter.

She will be a bad ass. Like, the definition of a bad ass: big phat tribal earrings the kids in SF would pay $300 for; knee-high rubber rain boots; skirt tied with a sash; sturdy-ass legs from doing this trek a minimum of TEN TIMES A MONTH, your friends will translate. All your food and gear will be stowed in a whisker basket she totes on her back. She’ll smile and have three gold teeth; you’ll think about how you miss gold teeth, seeing just a few as opposed to a whole goddamn grill the kids are sporting these days. Her fingers will be stained, black-rimmed nails, and she’ll never be out of breath.

Consider that she will be the coolest part of the trek.

Girl crush

vii. After seven hours you’ll arrive at the 2800 meter point. Consider you won’t know what this translates to in feet; consider that you won’t care.

You’ll go into the longhouse where you’ll be sleeping and it will no shit be one of the most squalid places you’ve ever seen. Consider that you’ve slept in some squalid situations, both urban and rural; consider that an old boyfriend lived in a West Oakland punk house called Dead Rat Beach. Consider that this longhouse will be worse than that.

Consider: the walls made of aluminum, a material that traps and magnifies the cold; the gaping hole in the door of the aluminum, through which a howling wind straight from the cold chest of China enters; the muddy-ass walkway; the raised wooden sleeping platform, damp from the cold; the trash beneath the sleeping platform; the scurry of the rats beneath the sleeping platform; the thin sleeping bags they’ll give you; the fact that the sleeping bags don’t zip; the fact that this trek has become mega popular with Vietnamese young people and that a group of sixteen with enter the house a couple hours after you do and that they will, in full Vietnamese fashion, talk and point and shout at each other for 6 of the 8 hours you attempt to sleep, and that this will annoy even the Vietnamese people you’ve come with.

In the longhouse with my cold face

Consider that the dinner will be nice, quite tasty really, more Chinese than Vietnamese, and that you’ll gorge yourself by the candlelight and that one of your trekking mates will have brought a bar of Toblerone and that he’ll break you off a chunk and HOLY SHIT that’ll be the best piece of Toblerone you’ve ever tasted.

Consider that you don’t even really like Toblerone. Consider that.

viii. Consider that the toughness-to-reward ratio of the trek will be low enough to inspire you skip the “conquering” bit. You will not get up at 5am will the others in your group and carry on to the top, but cuddle up and clench your eyes against the swimming of the flashlights, clamp your ears against the shouting of the other trekkers, and shiver inside your unzipped sleeping back, inside your roommate’s pants and the leggings you haven’t changed out of.

Your trek-mates who made it

You’ll head down the mountain around 8am with another girl in your group who has also bailed. Only now will you consider that the whole “I did it!” thing has never been a motivation for you. Only now consider that on the treks you’ve done in that past, you’ve never felt the swoon of accomplishment, victory over a physical challenge, but more of a “Now why did I put myself through THAT?”

Consider that you’ve always felt life was hard enough without CLIMBING A FRIGGIN MOUNTAIN on your weekend. Consider that the real “I did it!” for you is and always had been the everyday survival—the existing in the world—not this outdoor mountain shit. Consider that the real victory for you is the fact that you’ve damn near made it to 30 without killing yourself.

Consider that as you slip and slide and crawl on your ass back down the mountain.

Consider that the way down is always harder than the way up. Consider how that’s a metaphor. For all of it.

8. The best part of the trek will be when it’s over. You’ll get back to Sapa, a lovely little town you wish you had the energy to explore, and you’ll feel like you’ve been gone longer than 30-some hours. Since your friend arranged the whole thing through a tour agency, you’ll have access to a hotel room with a shower. It’ll be a dingy little hotel room with the same faded pink paint as your apartment in Phnom Penh, but the water pressure will be strong and the water will be hot and HOLY SHIT it’ll be the best shower you think you’ve ever taken. Consider that you like hot, strong showers, and have taken a lot of them.

Stagger across the road to a touristy cafe and order a burger, fries and a chocolate shake. Consider the last time you indulged in this trifecta; consider that you won’t be able to remember and that you won’t care. Consider that the shake will be a literal interpretation of a shake—milk and chocolate powder that were seemingly stirred together—and that it’ll still taste goddamn amazing.

9. Consider the train ride back. Despite the fact that the AC in your cabin won’t be working, you’ll konk out at 8pm. You will not dream about Roberto Bolano, and you will feel slightly ripped off by that.

You’ll arrive back in Hanoi at 5am, all matted hair and lip crust, everyone in your group too tired and sore to give proper goodbyes. You’ll hop on the back of a xe om, whiz through the sleepy pre-dawn streets.

You won’t have conquered Fancy Pants.

You won’t have conquered shit.

But goddammit, you’ll be on your way to conquer your own friggin bed.

You’ll pay the dude, slither down the alley, yank open the gate, crawl up the stairs and HOLY SHIT you will.

*

If you’ve considered all this and still want to do the trek, check out Mien’s much more informative and much less whiny post on the expedition.

Being An Asshole Abroad

I am one.

Not all the time. Not most of the time or even some of the time. But on ever so rare occasions (at least I like to think), I have been known to snap. I’d like to water it down, cushion the blow to the ego, but that doesn’t do anyone any good—I can be a big flaming asshole, and that’s just the truth of it.

That’s what my latest piece on World Hum “The Particular Anger of Powerlessness” was about. You guys might remember the piece—an earlier draft appeared on this blog around a year ago. It was a gamble publishing it for a couple reasons. One, it incriminates my parents for traveling illegally to Cuba. But the good news about having supportive parents is that they’re so stoked to see their kid get published, they’re willing to risk their own hides.

But the main gamble is that I was opening myself up to attack. It’s like going in for a knee in Muay Thai—better keep your hands by your face cause someone can clock you good at that proximity. Basically, I reveal myself to be an asshole in the piece. Or rather, I reveal myself at one of my asshole moments—one where I’m not the picture of cultural sensitivity or a deep, abiding sense of my own privilege. Instead, I’m the picture of An Ugly Westerner.

I knew I was doing it—leaving myself open. In fact, I knew I was doing it in the moment, when I acted that way, and it was mighty uncomfortable. It’s like I was watching myself do it and some other part of me was shaking my head—I knew how it looked. But I couldn’t help myself.

Why?

That’s the question I try to delve into in the piece. We all act like dicks sometimes, right? We’ve all flicked people off while driving; we’ve all snapped at grocery clerks; we’ve all been snippy at waitresses—whatever your version is, there’s been a moment when you’ve thought, “Fuck, did I really just do that?” There’s a certain vision one has of oneself and there’s moments that prove that vision, and there’s moments that contradict it. It’s easier to just push them aside and not think about them. It’s less easy to force yourself to go back and make amends. And it’s even less easy to delve into it, to look at it squarely—“This is not how I’d like to act, so why did I do it?”

My fifteen minutes on the Lao-Cambodian border last year was one of those moments. And the answer I came up with, after looking real hard at the situation, was powerlessness.

This may or may not be the right answer. But the point, at least I like to think, is that I wanted to look it. Cause travel pushes you beyond yourself, right? It pushes you out of your comfort zone; it exposes you to new things, some of which are exhilarating, some of which leave you fuming/confused/rushing for the bathroom. But the idea is that travel expands you, that you’re not the same after a trip, that you learn something—both about the world and yourself.

I knew some people would take up issue with it. And when the comments started to come in—“I thought we independent travelers were supposed to be culturally sensitive”; “Way to go, rubbing the guy’s poverty in his face, you definitely came out ahead there”—they didn’t really bother me. I mean, that was the shit I was saying to myself, in my own head. (I realize in retrospect that I should have worked that angle more explicitly in the piece, instead of leaving it hanging around in the subtext…)

The thing is, they’ve got a lot of valid points. The whole speaking-on-other-people’s-behalf thing makes me a wee uncomfortable, chimes itself of a kind of imperialist attitude—but yeah, you know, I get where they’re coming from. You do carry a certain amount of responsibility as an outsider in a someone else’s country, and there’s a certain level of respect one ought to conduct oneself with.

Which is a whole nuther rant for a whole nuther day. But what happens when you fall short of that? Or when you watch other people fall short of that?

It’s something I have ample opportunity to muse over, living here in the shitshow of Phnom Penh. I mean, fucking Cambodia—it’s Westerners Behaving Badly all over this MF. A lot of folks come here for the sole purpose of acting in ways they can’t get away with at home—sleeping with prostitutes, drinking all day, etc.

And believe me, I was way the fuck judgy at first. I remember standing in line at Lucky Supermarket, watching this guy in front of me totally berate the clerk for not wanting to accept a wrinkled $20. It was ugly. Being Cambodian, the clerk didn’t get back in the guy’s face, but instead apologized and groveled and looked real ashamed/embarrassed. Then I felt ashamed/embarrassed. I shot the guy dart-eyes and, after he left, apologized to the clerk on his behalf.

But you know what I’ve realized? Well, one, that apologizing for someone else’s behavior is not my job, regardless if we’re both Americans in another country. But more importantly, that milder versions of the same thing have happened to me. That—holy shit!—I’ve been on the other side of it. Maybe not that bad, but still. That afternoon on the Lao border was one of those times.

It’s humbling indeed to discover you have that in you. (As one friend says, “Cambodia reduces you to what you really are.”) I hate to say it, but I’ve snapped at tuk-tuk drivers, gotten mad at slow service, yelled at people in English when they’ve nearly run me over on the street. I’ve seen poor dudes from the countryside pissing on the sidewalk and blowing snot rockets and thought, “Ugh, poor people.” And I’ve been fucking horrified at myself.

I’ve talked to a lot of expats here about this and there’s always this cringy way we admit it. At least some of us admit it—that sometimes we snap and act like assholes. Maybe it’s the difference of living somewhere versus passing through on holiday—all the shit you could brush off in the moment becomes your life.

Whatever the reason, I realized I had to look at it. I mean, I’m here, this shit is happening, it’s not how I want to act, so I need to at least pretend to be a grown-up and deal with it.

There are some things I just don’t get. I mean, they can be explained to me and I can conceptualize some sort of understanding, but at it’s core it just seems wrong. Bribery and corruption are one of them. It’s a cultural difference, but guess what?—I’m culturally different. You will never convince me that bribery is okay, on any level, no matter how much it’s rationalized. (The same with pissing on the street. It just fucking smells.)

But here I am, in their country (which I can do, being privileged, and they by-and-large cannot)—so what do I do? Well, one is that I accept it bothers me. I don’t play the tape of oh-you-should-be-more-culturally-sensitive. Nope, I just accept that it doesn’t fucking seem right to me. The second is that I notice that it only reeeeally bothers me when my tolerance is down—when I’m stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. So, in the interest of not being a raving asshole all the time, I do my best to not get stressed/tired/hungry/lonely/hot/dehydrated/whatever. When I’m taking care of myself, when I’m rested and full and happy, it’s a helluv a lot easier to shrug and say, “Well, that’s not how I roll, but so be it.”

It’s what I’d do now if I encountered the border situation today. I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with bribery—I don’t think it’s right, but I’m not gonna fucking fight it every day. And when I see dudes like the one at Lucky that day? Well, I don’t apologize for them but I also don’t really judge them anymore. Most times I honestly think, “Fuck, he must be having a real hard time, to be spreading that kind of negativity around.” It’s the kind of compassion I’d like for someone to look at me with, if they saw me acting like an asshole.

I get lots of great examples, living in this fine city, of how I don’t want to act. And the cool thing is, I’ve learned how to take them as just that: examples and nothing else. And then I try to be my own example of how I do wanna act.

All of which is to say, I’m a lot less bothered by other Westerners’ behavior. It’s kind of not my business. Of course, if you publish a piece about it, then you’re making it everyone’s business. But I did it cause I thought it was a productive thing to do, to come right out and say it. Like I said in my response, I’d love to see a piece by someone who really lost their shit—cussed out an old woman or some shit. Not for the shock value, but because I think looking at those uncomfortable parts of ourselves is really fucking important. Cause we all have them, right?

Or maybe it’s just me. Maybe the folks that left those comments really have never had their moment of entitled asshole total-melt-down-ness. Maybe they’re uber-PC and culturally sensitive every minute of the every day, every trip they’ve taken, every waitress they’ve encountered, every shit driver that’s been in the fast lane in front of them. If they have, though, I don’t really want to know them—I don’t trust them.

Maybe I’ve just grown a really thick skin from all these years of writing. Maybe it’s one in the same—people are gonna say what they’re gonna say and do what they’re gonna do and god bless em for it.

And if I do see people who piss me off? Well, I’ve got a jam for that:

Confession: I Have Been a Bad Travel Writer

And it’s not just that my computer’s been stressing out and spinning that color pinwheel in endless stuttering frustration.

It wasn’t that I traveled with friends or that I didn’t leave the US. It wasn’t that I went to a crusty music festival, or that I lounged in a private Hawaiian villa, or even that I slept till noon and stayed out till 4am chasing boys in a leopard print miniskirt (successful method, btw).

It was that I never made the switch, flipped my brain over into traveler mode. I didn’t push myself to explore, to dig in, to muck around and get dirty in the soul of a destination (no, getting covered in other people’s beer and sweat didn’t count).

It wasn’t that I was a “tourist instead of a traveler”—I was worse. I was a vacationer.

If tourists are the people following around umbrella-wielding tour guides, clicking shutters and buying cheesy trinkets and (sin of all sins) wearing fanny packs, vacationers are their drooling, sedated counterparts. We could really care less about whether a tour is culturally authentic or not; we don’t have the energy to get off our asses and go in the first place. We go to the same cafe over and over, buy the same sandwich, because it’s good and why bother finding another spot? We spend an hour staring into space. It there were a Sitting and Staring Olympics instead of a half-Ironman while I was in Hawaii, I would have won. (I have photographs that document my decent, but I’m currently not even able to upload anything onto my computer.)

I haven’t vacationed in years, maybe not ever, really—guiltlessly wasting days away. No notes taken, no itineraries feverishly followed, no long rambles down alien streets. So it wasn’t just that I barely wrote any posts while I was gone—it was that I wasn’t even traveling.

I had fun, and I certainly still have stories to tell. And while I “got away from it all” (really, people are on to something with this whole vacationing thing), I didn’t get away from myself. I talked a couple months ago about how I like who I am better when I travel, how I become what feels like a better version of myself, freer and happier and more at peace, enthralled with my surroundings instead of the hamster wheel of self-will. And while I was certainly a more relaxed version of myself these last 11 days, I was still Home Me, not Traveler Me.

So that’s what my brain will be chewing on while my laptop’s in the shop—or rather, what my brain won’t be chewing on. Not articles or blog posts and pitches—just the image of what I stared at along the Kona coast, what’s burned into my retina, like the pink is onto my skin: a hammock, a horizon and a pile of black rocks. I’ll take my computer crashing as a sign, a circumstantial nudging that I need to take a step back and keep on being a bad travel writer.

Monetization Madness: Horn Players, Slam Poets and Why I Turned Down an Opportunity to Make Money on My Blog

From Flickr, not my stats

Yesterday I turned down an opportunity to make money on my blog.

Ridiculous, right? Isn’t that what every travel blogger wants? Isn’t it the dream that keeps us clicking fingers over keyboards and battling faulty WiFi connections around the planet: to fund our travels through a well-trafficked and heavily monetized blog? Click-throughs, AdSense, commissions. SEO and analytics and Top 100 badges. “Travel Blog Success,” “Monetize Your Blog,” “8 Steps to Building a Profitable Blog that Funds Your Travels.” Purchase an eBook, book a hostel, buy a flight. “Get advertisers contacting YOU.”

Well, I did. Without trying. And I shot them down.

It all happened, as most things do, via Twitter. A travel service that I actually have used and like contacted me wondering if I’d like to be a part of their “exciting new campaign.” “I’m hoping that we can create a relationship in which I email over exciting news, offers and competitions that (nameless company) has over the year so that you have some new content for your blog.” So, um, do you want to place ads or have me write posts related to your promotions on my personal blog? “The latter.”

It would have been easy and relatively painless. And also goddamn boring, both to write and to read. And if I wouldn’t want to read it, why would I want to put it up on my own blog? To improve traffic and make a little cash? I do contract work writing what is essentially marketing content for a trip-planning site. I pour hours into crafting pitches for sellable articles. I fucking wait tables. Why am I gonna compromise on the one place, the one thing, that’s really mine?

It sounds snarky, but that’s really just a defense mechanism for feeling unsure of my direction and a little jealous. Why jealous? Because if your goal is a have a successful and profitable travel blog, the trajectory is much more clear, much more linear: write on these topics, have a couple give-aways and contests, become an expert in something, brand yourself—get in where you fit in and get paid. There’s nothing wrong with that; being self-supporting through a blog is actually pretty bad-ass. It’s just that, when I browse through the most trafficked travel blogs, I realize that they’re (for the most part) not doing what I want to be doing. Which, I’m beginning to suspect, is write first-person narrative inspired by travel.

Trip-planning has its place. When I’m getting ready to go on a trip, I want to know what to pack and what buses to take and Top 10 tips and Top 10 undiscovered gems and Top 10 Top 10s. But that’s not what I want to write, not where my heart is. The travel blogs that I love and read regularly aren’t the most popular ones; they’re narrative-driven, thought-provoking and literary.

My blog is still young, in utero, 9 months old and dreaming fetal dreams of personage. “What kind of readers do you want to attract?” a friend of mine who’s helping me redesign my site asked months ago. “What are people coming to your blog for?” I’m starting to figure it out. And ads and stats don’t have much to do with it.

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time doing Poetry Slams. The spoken word scene was popping off, Bay Area underground hip-hop was at its height, and every kid who could string a rhyme was taking to the stage. I took after-school workshops with an excellent literary non-profit and performed what felt like once a week. But I wasn’t a Slam poet. I couldn’t beat box, couldn’t freestyle (unless I was seriously faded), wasn’t a performance artist. I read Sylvia Plath and Charles Bukowski; instead of quoting Mos Def in my pieces, I quoted William Burroughs.

I learned, early on in that, to be okay with what I was. And that the kids that got all the applause and won all the competitions weren’t producing work that was necessarily any better or worse than mine—just different. A lot of it was bullshit, and a lot of it was really good. I met kids that weren’t into the scene of it all, but loved writing—kids I still keep in touch with and whose work I still respect. I’m immensely grateful to have been a part of that community, even if my own addiction-drenched lyrical poetry didn’t ever fit in, prompted more raised eyebrows and dead silences than standing ovations.

I’m finding myself again in the same situation. There’s a lot of great travel blogs out there, and I’ve “met” a lot of great writers. There’s really this awesome, supportive community out there, and I’m glad to be a part of it, however tangentially. But again, as usual and as always, what I’m doing and my vision of where I want to go doesn’t align with the dominant trend—isn’t raking in perfects 10s and bringing down the house. And again, I’m learning to be okay with that, and to stay true to myself.

When I was a teenager, amidst all the Slam Poetry woo-hah, I saw a documentary about Wynton Marsalis. He was talking about being a childhood prodigy, how he’d learned some fancy trick that horn players are hip to but audience go nuts for. He did it at a show and the crowd lost their mind and he basked in the thunder of their adoration.

After the show, on his way home, his dad was real quiet. Finally, he said, “Son, if you play for applause, that’s all you’ll ever get.”

I’ve kept that one with me all these years. And I’m still not performing for applause—or writing for advertisers.

It Itches!: Feeling the Burn of Wanderlust

Itchy itchy...

“I’ve been home for nearly 4 months. My feet are so itchy, it feels like I got athlete’s foot.”

Okay, it was a bad joke. But that’s what Twitter’s for, right?

It’s not that I’m counting the days (not really). It’s not that I’m unhappy in my life at home or looking for escape. It’s just that I have this “incurable wanderlust” (what @cultoftravel speculated was worse than swine flu), and the more I read about travel, write about travel, tweet about travel, and am generally immersed in a virtual sea of travel, the worse it gets. I don’t have any problem going to a bar and not drinking, but reading travel blogs and knowing I won’t be doing any serious adventuring for a few more months—well, that’s tough. Ever since my first trip, I’ve gotten antsy when I’ve stayed at home too long. This whole travel writing business is adding a little more heat to the ring of fire.

I may be chomping at the bit, but it’s all good stuff that’s keeping me home. I have a niece on the way, my dad is retiring, and I have four friends getting married in the early half of the summer. All totally happy, exciting things that I’m grateful to be a part of. Plus it gives me a chance to save up for my next long trip, a three-monther around Southeast Asia.

In the mean time, I’m plotting a little solo California roadtrip for next month. Partly to visit an old friend, partly to see the swallows of San Juan Capistrano. Partly because I haven’t driven down Highway 1 since I was a kid, and partly because I’m curious what kind of conversations you get into with yourself after days of driving solo. Partly to debunk my own stereotypes of Southern California as a cultural wasteland of SUVs, strip malls and Kardashians, and partly to practice toting my laptop on the road with me. But, honestly, the trip is largely a keep-me-sane tide-me-over until the funds and circumstances—aka The Travel Gods—see fit to unleash me on the world again.

So as my feet are itching, my fingers twitching and my plans to high-tail it down the highway taking shape, I uncovered an old poem about restlessness, impulsivity and the physical road that hit the spot.

MacArthur Maze

Let’s drive this thing

into the blood burning sky.

/

Let’s take this road

potholed and hissing

past the pitched roofs

and pigeon wings,

past electrical wires

and blown-out streetlamps,

brown hills

where the grass cackles

and waits

to be lit.

/

Let’s curve

into the black, under

the overpass, past

the vacated bodies,

curled in and sighing—

/

Let’s take this thing

where it leads,

if it leads,

or stampedes

/

us into a sunburnt sky

the color of our own

sunburnt skin.

Now get me on the road!


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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