What got me up off my butt and gave me a reason to travel came about while I was sitting on said butt. Lying on it, to be more accurate.
The acid had almost worn off and the sun had already begun to boil the stale air in our living room. No central air-conditioning. I lay on the couch, head swerved as my eyes reacquainted themselves with everyday reality by watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.
The man was doing his thing in some foreign country: eating their food, drinking their alcohol, sharing their culture. And I was mostly unemployed, preparing for another sweltering California summer.
I had used up my town. Used up my surroundings. Was done and needed something new.
I watched Bourdain order a drink at a bar in Tokyo, watched him attend mind-shattering performances at underground venues, and I thought Shit, why can’t that be me.
No more wallowing in my decaying lifestyle in Azusa. I needed something radically new.
Travel. It cycled through my mind on repeat. A hint at first. Then a suggestion. Then a blaring declaration that no one else could hear (remember I was under the influence of a powerful substance).
In the span of the following two months, I acquired a passport, received a teaching certification, and (with a number of obstacles plowed through) boarded a plane bound for a small city in China.
Not quite Tokyo…but it had to do for now.
For my first 22 years of life, I had, as most people do, an interest in the world outside of my cramped little sphere. My wealthier friends made use of their parents’ money and went on vacations to Italy, France, all the usuals. But, none of their stories upon return sounded so grand. I maintained my interest nonetheless, in a protected sphere in my mind, invulnerable to the disillusioned mediocrity with which my high school classmates viewed their travel opportunities.
In university, almost the same story. Surrounded by fellow students whose massive tuition fees were covered by well-meaning parents, I found myself working in a dishroom on campus to scrounge together enough money for rent and pasta. Sure there were better jobs available, but damn, I could wash a dish like no one’s business.
The school offered plenty of study-abroad opportunities…not so much any work/study opportunities. Colleagues went to England, Germany, South Africa for a semester. I made do with riding a bike around town.
Graduated. Got a job. Quit the job. Got others. Quit them. And then found myself on the aforementioned couch.
The First Travel (a.k.a. Arrival)
I touched down in Putian, China with two bags of luggage and a sense of what the fuck have I gotten myself into?
Then I got a dose of Chinese traffic and their unique method of operating motor vehicles. I do not mean this in a derogatory way, but I was somewhat terrified for my life during the drive from the airport to my temporary living quarters. Ignorance is not always bliss.
The driver had a precision the equal of which I have yet to see. He would manage, without fail or any variation, to go from speeding down the freeway to within an inch of a stopped car ahead of us, over and over again.
Like this: Forward, accelerate, the car ahead stops, accelerate, the car ahead is going to be rammed by us!, stop within an inch of said impact.
The man is wasted in picking up dipshit foreigners from the airport.
I made it to the hotel. Was left alone with a phone and a wallet filled with all the money I had to my name. In a city where no one spoke English. Car horns blaring outside. No wifi to let anyone back home know I was even alive.
I did what any reasonable fellow might. I popped down to the nearest store for a snack and something to drink.
A bout of frantic gesturing at the store clerk managed to get me a sealed bag of what I thought was some sort of chips, and a pint of what I thought was whiskey.
I was wrong on both counts.
America had taught me that brown liquor was either whiskey, rum, or at worst, tequila. This prestigious beverage I had elected to consume demonstrated my error in a rather poignant and unforgiving manner.
I drank half the pint anyways.
Since that first night in my beloved Putian, I have continued my exploration of the world. I’ve thus far managed to travel to Holland, Belgium, England, Taiwan, Sweden, and (soon) Turkey. At the time of writing this, I am living in Russia with an intent to relocate to a new country in the second half of the year.
I have stacked up encounters in each place I’ve been to. I have slept in hotels with mold on the walls, apartments with cockroaches crawling across my bedsheets, flats a hundred meters above the ground, and also slept on the actual ground.
And the oddest thing about it all is this paradox that has been forming in my head ever since I got off that first plane in China. That is, the world seems to be smaller than I once thought, but ever more filled with wonder and new places.
With each new place I visit, the people there are less foreign and more familiar. More unique and more connected. I feel less like someone engaged in an abstract practice called travel and more like a kid walking through the woods behind his house, discovering things I had always hoped were there, realizing they were within reach all along.
Over the threshold:
For myself and many other people in the US, we are isolated from the rest of the world, not only in our ideas, but geographically as well. The connective nature of the internet has alleviated this to a degree, yet articles and photographs cannot imbue one with a sense of understanding as much as experience based on immediate interactions can.
With that first step over the threshold into a new way of life, I realized I could not return to my old life in the States. Each new city I visit demonstrates just how much more there is out there. Rather than filling my cup and going home with a couple stories to tell colleagues and friends who will forget them before we finish our beers, I find myself drawn to further explore, to pursue the new.
Though my journeys were inspired by a drug-fueled epiphany and a poorly-buffered streaming of No Reservations, they are now so much more than I had originally hoped. If someone were to ask me why I travel, I could do little more than shrug and point out the nearest window.