Archive for the 'Successes' Category

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.

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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.

This is Not About Travel

Ten years ago today was the worst day of my life.

This is not about travel.

Have you ever been broke down, beat up, tore back—I mean wiped out, swinging from a greasy rope, “with no knot in it”? Have you ever had to admit total defeat?

This is not about travel.

Have you been 17 and scared? Have you been running, running from an unnameable blackness inside you? Have you ever found the thing that would save you, keep you, sing to you sweetly in the jagged alleys of adolescence, a song of calloused fingertips and swollen livers that lullabyed you into a half-consciousness that made everything more manageable? Have you ever fallen in love with a sickness?

No, no, this is not about travel.

Have you woken up, bloody-elbowed and wobbly-toothed? Have you walked through the house with kitchen knives in both hands, watched the walls bleed and the shadows twitch, recoiled from your own hungry pupils in the mirror?

And has life ever stepped like a steel toe on your chest? Have you ever laid choking and gasping on the bottom bunk, the weight pressing down, pressing, pressure (that’s how diamonds are made).

Have you ever realized that the thing you thought would save you was gonna kill you faster than what you were running from?

This is not about travel in the traditional sense—not the route between physical places. This is about a different kind of journey, a spiritual journey, but one where there’s no arriving, no achieving. Where, no matter how far down the path you get, you’re always the same distance from the ditch.

My last drink was like this: Sunday afternoon, the parking lot of a West Berkeley warehouse, “backpack beer”—the warm remains of yesterday’s 12-pack. It was a place we’d go to drink during shows at Gilman; it wasn’t my part of town, and I didn’t know where else to go. We’d taken the bus an hour, to buy a half ounce from the kids above the pet shop, walked a couple blocks west to chill out before the trek home.

But the spot looked different during the day, naked and stark, not shielded under a blanket of dark that obscured everything, made you less able to look at it, see it. We crouched beside a stairwell, I drank two beers, got the cuff of my jeans wet when I squatted and pissed.

We took the bus back to Oakland, through a spring afternoon I didn’t deserve. It was too soft, too aching, too bird-singingly pure. Spring break had come and went, and the fragmented remnants of the week-long blackout were still jangling in me, sharp as glass. School would be out soon, graduation was coming, and I’d wear a white cap, march single-file into a future that was only getting heavier, deeper, more liquor-soaked and desperate.

I’d go home and eat dinner. I’d sneak a glass or two of wine, to take off the edge that was already sneaking back. I’d bag up the half-ounce and smoke a little of what was left. Listen to some music, maybe write a little. I would not meet fate, would not break down sobbing in a wretched little ball as it all caved in, crashed down, crushed the very bones of me. I would not get sober that night.

Ten years ago today was the first day of my life.

Travel and the Lonely Girl

"When that open roads starts to callin me..."

I have been in a post-trip funk.

It’s embarrassing to admit, especially since the trip that propelled me into the sucking black of it wasn’t much of a trip: 10 days, in-country—shit, wholly within California. No form of public transportation was ridden, no bulky backpack bulged to the max: Traveling Lite, Reduced Hassle.

But it wasn’t just that trip that launched me soul-first into the aching void. It was the accumulation of trips, the momentum and gathering steam, wheels spinning and dust pluming. It was a short drive through my own backyard than confirmed what I knew was true, solid and sore as a cancer, sitting unmovable in my gut, in the way that things we suspect (but don’t want to admit) are true do: I like myself better when I’m traveling.

God damnit. I’ve been restless, irritable and discontent since I’ve come home, an itch in my veins, mounting, rising with the blood and coming out (this part is true) in a pink dry rash on my arms and legs. On one particular night last week, when I felt like I was going to crawl out of my own skin, it dawned on me: I’m far less lonely traveling, even solo, than I am at home.

What the fuck is up with that? It’s one of those logic-defying spiritual axioms. But it’s not just the loneliness, because I’ve always been lonely, not in a no-friends kind of way, but in an ache-in-the-center kind of way. (“She had a funny way of looking, too, that was like bird looked: you know, with the head turned, never dead at something, but kind of past it, past it like she could see something nobody else could see; and whatever it was she saw sometimes scared her like a ghost. ‘I’m lonely,’ she says.“) No, it’s more than even that central fact. It’s that I feel like I’m a better version of myself when I travel—as though being on the road irons out all the rough spots, calms all the kinks and hushes me with a lullaby of engine roars and brake squeals.

Sure, there’s the departure from reality aspect: no work, no bills, no floors to be swept and trash to be taken out. Free of mundane tasks and responsibilities, travel allows you to turn to loftier activities, reflecting on life and culture (and street art and soda pop). Traveling isn’t “real” life—or rather, it’s realer life, a sudden plunge back into the ice water of all that surrounds us, but we’re just too wrapped up, too nose-to-the-grindstone, to see at home. It’s either an escape or a return, a reverse kind of homecoming—I haven’t decided which yet.

But it’s something more than that too, I think. Somehow, when I travel, I feel more connected, even when I don’t speak the language, don’t look like anyone around, don’t know anyone for hundreds or thousands of miles. I’m more curious, less shy and inhibited, more apt to  engage (even wordlessly) with a stranger or go traipsing off on some impulsive adventure. I’m totally consumed with my surroundings, and all the shooting sparks and trembling brain waves usually spent hamster-wheeling around myself are redirected, sent to other, sleeping parts of the brain that yawn and stretch and come to life only when I travel.

It’s not that I don’t love my home or my life. It’s that I think about myself less when I travel. Freedom from the bondage of self is what it’s all about, right?—the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling whole and content and, holy shit, not lonely.

Of course, there are spiritual practices that can achieve the same effect. (“When we retire at night, we constructively review our day… Were we thinking of ourselves most of the time? Or were we thinking of others, of what we could pack into the stream of life?”) But I want it now, I want it the fast and tangible way, the board-a-plane-and-stuff-a-bag-and-drain-my-bank-account way. I don’t want to sit crosslegged on a lotus leaf and wait for, not enlightenment, but something to ease the itch and fill the void, the little lonely I carry, that I sometimes think we all carry.

I’d planned to go back. I’d switched my shifts and made hasty arrangements, was going to go back to LA. I told myself it was attend the renaming ceremony of John Fante Square (as much for the ceremony itself as to witness whatever bizarre cross-section of humanity would come out for such a thing—myself included, of course). I told myself it was to take more pictures and get more material and possibly go to a print studio that sounded pretty killer. But really I just wanted to relive my last trip—to get back to that place, that elusive illusive place, where I’m not just happy, but something that resembles content. It’s not actually a place at all, an anti-place—or else it’s every place, the possibility and freedom of the open road that courses through the world and ourselves and that, goddamn, I wanna get back on, wind-rattling and dust-covered.

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!

Reaching Out My Tentacles

The inky arms of this blog have stretched out, past the confines of this page and onto other travel sites.

Voureen Taylor over at The Travel Nerd asked me a couple weeks ago if I’d like to be the first interviewee in her new weekly series profiling budding travel writers. Seeing as though I was the girl who, at 12, was convinced she’d be interviewed on Oprah by 16 for writing the great American novel—um, yes, I’d love to be interviewed.

The questions really made me realize how far I’ve come in a short period of time, and just how much I love both writing and traveling. Plus, I got called a prodigy—who doesn’t like that? You can check out the full interview here.

Matador Abroad editor and kick-ass writer Sarah Menkedick asked if I’d be into having an edited-down version of my recent post “The French Won’t Save You” published on Matador. I was especially stoked because Sarah and her man Jorge’s blog is one of my favorites. The slimmed-down version went up today, and I was happily surprised to see so much of the original post remained: my Oakland references, my back-handed throw-down to Futurism, even some profanity survived the editorial process. I’m super interested to see what kind of discussion the post generates.

And finally, Girl’s Getaway republished the post I did on my emotionally brutalizing day in Marrakesh. “Marrakesh, You Broke Me Down” appears in full, even with some of my own photos (though the girl pictured in the header is most definitely not me). It’s been rather life-affirming to read the other ladies’ comments. And you know how they say that writing is the ultimate revenge? Well, sometimes it is.

I was surprised when the editor at Girl’s Getaway approached me about the Marrakesh post, since it seems like a bit of a deviation from the other articles on the site. But it was encouraging to see, in both republished articles, that there’s a place for some of my less servicey pieces.

My next narrative piece for Girl’s Getaway will be a lighter, more cheerful one: when Melissa, Georgina, Alicia and I, sick of the incessant street harassment of Puerto Vallarta, snuck into a cheesy package resort and spent the day amid the overweight middle-management dudes and their budget trophy wives at the swim-up bar. Just in case you need a sneak preview…

This should be a good one… one more written appendage reaching out, grasping at the invisible sparks of web pages and wireless signals, submission guidelines and editors’ emails—and finding something to grab on to.


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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