Archive for the 'Struggles' Category



Trudging the Road to Travel Writer-dom: Struggles, Successes and a Couple Happy Dances

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The ole ball and chain

It’s been an exciting, exhausting week in my journey (bad pun alert) to become a travel writer.

It’s pretty counterintuitive when you think about it—trying to become a travel writer. As Tim Cahill said, travel writing is a forgiving genre, “because as soon as you step out the front door it’s travel writing.” By the same token, the moment your fingers start scribbling or typing, you’re writing. So, bingo-bango—I’m a travel writer.

But when it comes to the more pressing business of business, of embarking upon building a profession around overlapping passions, in an industry so tumultuous seasoned experts are scrabbling to make due—well, that’s another story. I’d like to say I’m writing that story, but I suspect that this is a story that’s writing me.

First with the successes. They say bad things come in threes, but I’m convinced good things do too. The travel-writing stork delivered three little bundles of joy to my laptop this week.

My run of good luck started on Tuesday, when a StumbleUpon link to my blog generated 346 pages views, making the day’s total 494. My previous record had been 97, so, yeah, I was a little stoked. I knew it would only be downhill after that (indeed, the downward slope in the line graph is a little sad), and the busted link-back kept the original Stumbler a shadow-shrouded enigma. But I was tickled nonetheless. There may or may not have been a happy dance involved.

Wednesday I discovered that a local TV station’s website had published an excerpt from my Dia de los Muertos post, along with a link to my blog. This is the closest I’ve come to being on TV. (Happy dance #2)

Thursday, the editor from the new female-oriented travel site Girl’s Getaway contacted me to see if I’d be interested in writing for them. Um, yes. While I brainstorm ideas of girlie stuff to do around the Bay, my post on getting hassled and humiliated in Marrakesh will be appear on their site (guess my grand entrance will be on the bummer-ish side). I’m now listed on their writers page, which evoked more of a happy giggle than a dance. My feet hurt—it’d been a long night at work.

Which brings me to the “struggles” side of things. I don’t mind the long hours at the computer, and taking my laptop over to the cafe and eating cake while I work may or may not be the highlight of my day. But that’s also indicative of the adventure level of my life right now. Which, even if you don’t want to be a travel writer, is pretty lame.

Here’s the scenario: this week, I wrote the post on Dia de los Muertos; worked on a sizable, ongoing freelance project from NileGuide (fun with regional descriptions); continued reading the Pico Iyer book I’m deep into; spent hours online reading and commenting other people’s blogs; wrote an article on Caracas—and worked full-time. This means that pretty much every minute I wasn’t at my actual job (the one where I make enough to support myself), I was at the computer, doing what I love. Now, I love writing, but this scenario doesn’t leave a lot of time for friends, for going out, for doing the kinds of things that generate compelling writing in the first place. If great writing is the end product of great living, this ain’t cutting it.

Something’s gotta give, and I don’t think it’s gonna be the writing. I’ve been grappling with financial insecurity this week, on working up the nerve to release my grip and leap into the unknown.

I face, of course, the American Dilemma. No, not Gunnar Myrdal’s—I mean health insurance. If I cut my hours at work, I lose my health insurance. I can stay on the company’s plan and pay out of pocket for up to 18 months, but the last time I did that, it cost me nearly as much as my rent. But wait—if I cut my hours at work, how will I afford another monthly bill? Ah well, who needs thyroid medication anyway? Oh wait—me.

So I’m working (in addition to working) on letting go of my comforts, and getting comfortable with the idea of less security. Or no security. Careers that offer security don’t appeal to me—thus the debauched grant writing stint. Sometimes, a lot of times, I wish they did. But we don’t get to pick what we love, now do we?

I read an excellent interview with writer and fresh lady (and perhaps role model) Daisann McLane, in which she talks about how scary a life without security can be, the life of a travel writer. But, she says, “when you travel to so many different places, and you see how people live outside of your little bubble, you realize how ridiculous the very idea of security is, from a global perspective” (Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing, p. 140).

Well, amen, sister. But now I’ve got some margaritas to sell… do you take salt?

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Hanging On: Porto and My Final Days

Porto, being hella beautiful

Porto, being hella beautiful

I´m nearing the end of my trip, fighting the blues and impending sense of finality not at all discouraged by the dark and brooding city of Porto.

Every place I go in Portugal seems to the up the ante. College-town Coimbra was a steep jumble of old streets and sudden squares with startlingly beautiful sights tucked inside every twist and fold. It was as pretty as a girl without make-up on, a girl who doesn´t know how pretty she is—clutching her parks and praças (plazas) and fountains to her chest like a Valentine. I wandered around the small city, sighing and thinking, This might be my favorite place in Portugal.

Then came Porto, sharply cleaved by the Douro River in a precipitous dive of rock and stone, bridges and dancing light. It´s the dark-haired, fiery-eyed counterpart forever in the Northern shadow of its shiny, more popular younger sibling, Lisbon. The two cities have a huge rivalry (most overtly expressed via football); I feel like an aunt that loves them both, for their different personalities, but that can vibe a little more with the darker side. At least, right now I can.

I spent the bus ride in yesterday not reading or writing or listening to my ipod, but staring out the window and wishing I would never arrive. Just keep riding, keep traveling, keep going. It was the last bus ride of my trip and I was savoring those precious moments of just sitting, thinking, living in that inbetween state—like when I used to ride the bus as a teenager. Having the time just to sit and stare is a huge luxury for me these days, and I´m going to miss it.

But more than even that, I wanted to hang on to the feeling of traveling, the mindset. When I´m on the road, everything seems possible; I´m more open to chance, more aware, more able to live life on life´s terms. When I´m at home, nothing seems possible; everything seems difficult and riddled with tedious and insurmountable obstacles. Of course, neither view is entirely accurate, but I enjoy the former much more than the nose-to-the-grindstone latter.

Two days ago, on the bus ride from Peniche to Coimbra, I began plotting and planning—sketching out timetables and earning versus saving projections (yes, really), trying to figure out when my next trip would be. I was seized by panic, stressed by the dismal prospect of not being able to travel anytime soon. Basically, I was future-tripping, trying to manage and arrange life before I even got home.

But I´m not alone in that. During my trip, I´ve slowly been reading Peter Matthiessen´s The Snow Leopard, a classic travelouge and meditation on the state of living. As timing would have it, Peter´s about to head back down the mountain, towards home, just as I´m about to hop on a flight and sleep in an airport and hop another two flights. In the passage I read today, he´s also losing the Zen of travel and stressing about home, “forever getting-ready-for-life instead of living it each day” (p. 244). He suggests that perhaps the greatest spiritual challenge is to live in the present, to “pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life” (p. 245).

So I rambled around the shuttered shops and lonesome graffiti of Porto this afternoon, the uneven stones in the street like a repeating mantra against my worn soles: be present, be present, be present. I wandered past baroque building facades adorned with trumpet-blazing statues, up gasping stairways, into gold-dripping cathedrals, past the darkly oxidized rock (“the awful and irrefutable rock-ness”) that jutted from the earth, bold and undeniable. I felt the murmur of Roman ruins beneath the surface, beneath my sneakers, and tried to hang on to this fleeting feeling of present.

Livin´ La Vida Português

Beach from a bus window: NOT the way to be enjoyed

Beach from a bus window: NOT the way to be enjoyed

Nearly a week into my Portuguese travels, I am convinced of two things. One, Portugal is a country best enjoyed by car. Two, Portugal is best a country enjoyed.

On my second day in Lisbon, my Couchsurfing hosts and I chased the sunset along the granite coast, driving through increasingly posh, and beautiful, suburbs where tan bodies gleamed in beach coves, green parks and umbrellaed cafes. My hosts, recently relocated Hungarians, had spent a month driving around the country, stopping in at whatever little village or beach enticed them. As we curved down the coastline, in pursuit of their favorite sunset spot, they told that Portugal was best explored by car. Infrequent and/or nonexistant bus service cuts you off from a lot of the country, they told me; cars mean the usual freedom from timetables, but also a better glimpse into Portugal. I stared out the window, at the pinkening sky and grey sheets of cliff, and nodded—I certainly wouldn´t be feasting on that sight if it weren´t for my hosts´car. Of course, traveling solo, renting a car was far out of my budget, but I lamented my inability to see more of the country, to get off the beaten path and into the dying villages the speckle the green countryside.

But as we climbed out of the car and scurried along the rocks just in time to snap photos and sigh at the insane beauty of it all, another thing occured to me: the Portuguese know how to enjoy life. They don´t initially bowl you over with siestas and late-night partying like their neighbor; coming from a night in Seville, Lisbon actually felt a little tame. While the Spanish are a bit more flamboyant in their lust from life, the Portuguese have a subtler, but equally infectious, approach to living it up: they´ve got the beaches. And the pastelerias. And futbol and fado and seafood and port. And all of it´s twinged with this hint of melancholy that really gets under your skin.

Old folks in Obidos

Old folks in Obidos

The theories converged and cemented today, as I treked off to Obios. The medieval village wasn´t initally on my itinerary, but two Portuguese guys and my hosts assured me it was the most beautiful town in Portugal, that I had to go there. An expensive touristy place to sleep, I booked a hostel in a nearby beachtown, filled with shirtless, sunbleached Austrialian surferboys. As they tossed their towels over their shoulders and headed out a day in the waves, I walked to the bus station. And waited.

The bus ran every two hours and, when it came, made a winding route through narrow streets, stopping at what felt like every crossroad. I got to Obios and, well, was a little underwhelmed. It was pretty, had a castle and cobbled streets and lots of stores selling lace and ginja, cherry liqeuor. I wandered amid the elderly tourists and billowing bougainvillea, half-heartedly snapping photos of the lush rambling countryside and gold-dripping cathedrals. Meh.

I´d been thinking about trying to make it over to another village, only about 30 km away. It sounded even more boring, but was home to a medieval monastery with a gruesome history—gruesome in the way Quentin Tarantino meant when he wrote the line, “I´m gonna get medieval on your ass.” Murals depicted scenes of the monastery´s founder ripping out and eating the hearts of the people who murdered his forbidden beloved, while making memebers of the court kiss her decomposing hand—metal enough to put Lords of Chaos to shame.

But, alas, the bus to Alcobaça only ran once every three hours, and would put me in town only an hour before the monastery closed. I debated: wait around in pretty-but-dull Obios for the bus and try to squeeze in one more sight, or head back to my hostel and do like the Portuguese: hit the beach. I´ll let you guess what won out.

Freshly shaved and bikini-clad, I took my crappy travel towel and joined the fat old men and tattered fishing boats along the gentle coast. The water was cold at first, but soon I was breast-stroking and wave-hopping with the best of em. I´ve been told the Portuguese love their beaches and escape to them at every available opportunity—and now I can see why. Rockless and clear enough that I could see my feet, it felt pretty heavenly. I stretched out in the sand, soaked up some sun, and stopped for an ice-cream cone on my way back.

I may not be making it out to the remote hilltop villages, and I may be spending hours twittling my thumbs at bus stations, but I´m starting to get the hang of this Portuguese living thing. And you know, it´s not so bad.

The Trials of Trying

DSCN3637I´m learning to become a travel writer—which has a lot more to do with learning to travel, and travel differently, than it does learning to write.

Sure, it´s its own genre, a new craft to negotiate. And, yes, it involves hours hunched over a notebook or a computer, weaving images and experience and attempting to capture the whiffs of a place, the strange sentiments it evokes—those vague stirrings that Viriginia Woolf lamented go “fluttering through the nets” of even the best writers.

But, for me, the tricky part has been the first half of the phrase, the “travel” part of “travel writing.” It means traveling in a different way, pushing myself more beyond my comfort zone and inherent shyness in order to experience more—more interactions and more adventures mean more to write about. It means forcing myself to follow those little nudgings, those whispers to, say, delve into that shadowed medina alleyway or say yes to going out on the town when I´d really rather sleep. Fuller travels equal richer content; everyone wins.

I knew on the on-set of this trip that it´d be different for me—my first long trip since getting serious about travel writing. And I set out blazing—tromping around, joyfully holding hands with serendipity, taking feverish notes and spending long hours at cheap internet cafes, searching for punctuation marks on foreign keyboards. I was feeling positive, productive, learning more each day to let go and follow my hunches, the random doors that open.

Then came Lisbon.

I loved Lisbon. Maybe that was the problem. Maybe its bittersweet melancholy sunk in a little too deeply. It´s hard to say. But I spent my last morning woefully walking its steep streets, ruing in a mosaic of regrets not too dissimilar from the sidewalk stone designs.

Vibing well with my hosts, I´d stayed a day longer than intended, and still felt like I´d wasted my time, hadn´t used it well enough—missed out on a chance to go to my first football game, didn´t make the trek to a huge experimental design expo, didn´t go inside a cool-looking vintage toy store that probably would have made a killer (and sellable) story. I´d dropped so many balls, as my friend Katie would say, you´d think I was trying to dribble.

I´m not sure why I fell off so steeply, as precipitous as the seven hills of the city (at least I´m making some anaolgies out of it). It´s possible I´m just being hard on myself. I´m a person that always feels like I should be doing more, working harder, being better. I´m excellent at rallying, at pushing myself—working six days a week for months, saving money to travel. I told myself that for every place I visited on this trip, I´d come out with at least one story. This didn´t happen in Lisbon, and I think there´s a lesson somewhere in there.

I arrived in Lisbon tired. Exhausted, and it wasn´t just the six hours of broken sleep on an overnight bus. I´d been power-traveling for over a month, never sleeping in the same place for more than three nights. My clothes were filthy, my chest blossoming in a recurring stress-related rash. I´d had on-and-off-again diarrhoea for almost two weeks, but hadn´t had a period in over six. My last day in Marrakesh was emotionally draining, and I was ready to relax. To hang out with fun people, to eat pasteries in a shady park and watch trashy American movies. Which is what I did. Rejuvenating? Yes. Fodder for great travel writing? No.

There´s no use in wallowing in regret; all I can do now is try to learn something from it. And while I need to continue to push myself to take risks while traveling—to push open those cracked doors, to go into that toy shop—I also need to go easier on myself. Working as hard as I could got me sick for a month with summer (with swine flu, a whole ´nother story); similarily, traveling as hard as I can will burn me out. It´s tough, cause my time is so limited and my resources are so meager, but I need to move a little slower. Schedule in down time. Take moments to breathe.

Of course, it´s a spiritual challenge as well as a travel writing challenge, a lesson I´ve had to have beaten into me repeatedly. Maybe this time, I´ll finally learn.

Marrakesh, You Broke Me Down

DSCN3558It was a long, hard, hot last day in Morocco, in Marrakesh, the pounding heart of the country´s tourism industry.

As I was venturing down the Atlantic Coast, south of Agadir and thoroughly ¨off the beaten path,¨ I was giving some serious thought to ditching out on my flight back into Europe, and spending the rest of my two weeks in Morocco. There was certainly enough to keep me occupied—I didn´t even make it to the Sahara!—and I felt like I´d hit my groove with Morocco. I was getting skilled at traversing the streets, haggling for taxis; I was in love with fresh-squeezed orange juice and mint tea; even my French was improving. We were vibing, Morocco and I, and it seemed a shame to cut out so soon.

But the prospect of Portugal, Western Europe´s ¨forgotten¨ country,  combined with a pre-purchased flight and a chance to wash my blue jeans and ditch that filthy blue scarf won out. I arrived in Marrakesh with just one day to soak in the crowning jewel of Morocco´s imperial cities, and its exotic lure.

I´d heard horror stories—travelers and Moroccans alike warned me that Marrakesh´s touts were the toughest, the street harassment the ugliest. I got off the bus from Tiznit suited up in my thickest armor, ready to do battle with a mean look and a linguistic sword of two words: la shokran, no thank you.

The problem with Marrakesh, or my problem with it, is that people like to touch. I don´t. As my grandma said, I´m ¨a real touch-me-not.¨ The men in Marrakesh really see no problem with poking you, grabbing your arm, pressing their bodies against yours, literally tugging you this way and that. I think it´s largely a cultural difference; Moroccans touch a lot, are extremely affectionate with one another, and I don´t think they view touching as the same kind of violation as Americans do. As in, get-your-fucking-hands-off-me, or touch-me-one-more-time-and-I-swear-to-God-I´ll-drop-your-ass-don´t-even-think-I´m-playing.

Not that I ever said either of those. But I thought it. And I suspect the wild-eyed, shocked look I gave the dudes who put their hands on me communicated well my very visceral reaction to unwanted contact. They, in turn, almost seemed offended that I was offended, got really defensive. It was one of those tough cultural clashes, and I refuse to admit I was in the wrong. Maybe just the different.

But there was, I have to admit, a kind of magic to the city. I always feel lame saying that about a place that´s really hyped up (as in, yes, Paris is all that). I was intermittently in awe of the city, and frustrated beyond belief.

I stayed right near Djemaa el Fna, the open-air market of insanity that really was everything it was cracked up to be. Imagine a county fair. Now add throbbing drums and shrill pipes; snake charmers and witch doctors; wrapped women hunched on plastic stools, ready to ready fortunes and paint henna. Picture billows of meat smoke, the glare of a thousand gas lamps on a thousand white tarps;  see gleaming date stands and pyramided orange juice carts; beggars hands and child shoe-shiners. Hear the zoom and honk of motorbikes; feel the buzz of bodies weaving around one another. Wrap it all in a breeze that comes eastward and touches everything, envelops it in one big ball of electric humanity, shakes it up furiously, like a snow globe—and you´re somewhere close.

I meant to treat myself to a fancy last dinner, but when I got to the white-linen restaurant, it felt sterile. I headed down to Djemaa el Fna, stopping to slurp  snails at a food stall along the way. I dined on a wooden bench under the white tarps of one of the skewer stalls, watching the multi-lingual touts and hustlers do their business, sometimes rudely, but mostly with a charming penache that was hard to refuse. The breeze blew, and I felt in love with the night, the place, the country.

I thought I´d seal the deal with some chocolate ice-cream. I made my way across the square, nimbly traversing the crowds, not responding to the barrage of ¨bonjours,¨eyes on the prize.

I heard a loud voice rumble, ¨Hey sweetie!¨ Though the crowd was thick, I had that prickly back-of-the-neck feeling that the call was directed at me. I didn´t look up, kept walking. ¨Hey sweetcakes!¨ it yelled again. Still, I kept moving. ¨It´s okay,¨ the voice hollered, ¨I like small boobies.¨

I whipped my head around and saw a reddened face laughing, jowls shaking in a grotesque mask of amusement. Other faces were turned to look at me and my shawl-covered chest (I mean, come on, a B-cup is not that small). My cheeks flushed; I muttered ¨piece of shit¨and stormed away, trying to lose myself in the throngs.

The face hadn´t been a teenager´s, but a grown man´s, which angered me more. It had seemed quite pleased that it had humiliated me, that other people had noticed and looked. I felt the blood in my body burning with frustration.

A well-dressed man sidled up next to me, holding a clip-board and a perky straw hat. I looked forward, didn´t acknowledge him.

¨That man,¨ he said to me, ¨you can´t get angry. You have to just accept and—¨ out of the corner of my eye, I saw him make a brushing-off gesture.

I sighed, not entirely sure of this man´s intentions, and not in the mood to risk it. ¨I know,¨ I respond. ¨But sometimes I get tired of accepting, of always being the one to have to accept.¨ I could feel hot tears in the corners of my eyes.

¨Where are you from?¨ the man asked.

I eyed him cautiously, as the question was usually a prelude to some kind of hustle. ¨The US.¨

¨Ah, welcome,¨ he nodded thoughtfully. He leaned forward, said softly, ¨Of all the things you remember, of all the things you take home, don´t take that.¨ He nodded again. ¨I´m sorry.¨ He paused, let the words and the sentiment linger there in the charged air for a moment, turned and was gone, swallowed into the crowd.

It was all a little too much for me, the intensity of extremes—the degradation, the laughing face, the twisted soul-sickness that makes someone humiliate another person—and now, such thoughtful tenderness. All of it from strangers, all of it strange, somehow finding me in the immensity of the crowd. The whole day had felt like that, a tugging between two places, between two sentiments, of both loving and hating a place.

DSCN3551I was exhausted. I decided not to fight it, not to try to be tough anymore. I went back to my hotel room and sobbed, for the overwhelming kindness and cruelness of it all. For being a woman, for being a person, in a place, a world, that is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful.


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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