I watch the cycle of life repeat itself in Jiangsu Taizhou. My travel strategy has certainly changed.
I watched an old woman in Taizhou beating flat a bunch of wheat that was spread out on the side of the road. It struck me as a familiar scene, and this was what was startling about it. Each year farmers throughout China harvest their winter wheat, covering roads, sidewalks, and parking lots with it, and then smack it with a wooden paddle that spins at the end of a pole to separate out the chaff.
This time of year the farmers also start burning the leftover vegetation in their fields. In about 30 days there will be another airpocalypse and everyone will act surprised at how smoggy the skies get.
Soon, it will be crayfish season, and all the restaurants will start selling massive quantities of these boiled red crustaceans. People will all get together and head out just to eat them.
Then there will be a Dragon Boat festival.
Then it will get stifling hot.
I know all this because I’ve seen it before: last year.
Once you’ve seen the seasons start repeating themselves again you know that you’ve been somewhere a long time. In traveler’s time I’ve been in China for an eternity. For 14 months I’ve been moving around this country, using Jiangsu Taizhou as my base, only exiting briefly on visits to Taiwan’s Kinmen Island and Macau. Maybe it’s time to give up my traveler’s card and call myself an expat?
Luckily for my vagabonding career China is an entire world in and of itself, and I’ve been traveling through it at a good pace over this past year. I have definitely logged more overland miles this year as I have in the two that preceding it. This country is huge. It can never be traveled completely. I could be in China for a decade and still have only scratched the surface.
This country is like a black hole of travel: you can fall into it, keep going deeper and deeper without ever popping out the other side. One interesting region, one culture, one landscape, one context just gives way to another, over and over again across the country. This is one of the most diverse places on earth. It’s full of mountains, deserts, jungles, plains, and massive cities. This is a country that has it all.
What’s more is that it is all changing and churning incredibly quickly. The moment you think you know this place it’s different. This is a country that is straddling two times: one foot is in the future, the other in the past. The most modern, futuristic examples of engineering and city planning are popping up all over the place in China, while a huge sect of the population are using almost ancient tools, and folk belief systems and traditional customs are still being practiced on a mass level.
The learning experience in China never ends. There is always something to check out, something to explore, questions to ask. You can never have the feeling that you know what’s going on. If you do, you’re deluding yourself. The shear size, diversity, history, and rate of change of this place makes it an all out mystery. Once you get hooked on this story it’s difficult to stop reading. Once you’re really into China it’s hard to leave.
That said, my past 14 months in China have not made my travel ambitions go soft; I still thirst for other far off lands, but I am feeding something here that is almost insatiable. I’ve built up a massive body of work around one country, to leave now would seem like starting over again. But this is what travelers do: they leave.
My travel strategy is always morphing, ebbing and flowing to meet changing circumstances. I’ve never really had a model for travel that I’ve followed for years and years on end. I’ve traveled as a backpacker, a tramp, an archaeologist, a student, a laborer, a journalist, a blogger, an anthropologist, a husband, a father. Each of these roles demand a different strategy.
As far as family travel is concerned, I’ve tried out a few different methodologies. At the beginning, when my daughter was hardly two months old, we traveled around the American Southwest between archaeology projects in a station wagon. Then we began traveling internationally, doing 1.5 to 3 month stints in each location, setting up bases of operation in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. Then, as my daughter got a little older and sturdier, we tried to go back to a standard backpacking routine in Colombia, but abandoned that after three months and return to Mexico.
It was at this point that finances were looking a little bleak: we could live in Mexico and Central America indefinitely but we couldn’t really go anywhere else. After more than two years in Latin America, with only a two month break in Iceland and a visit to the USA, I was feeling the urge to get back to Asia. I wanted to set up in China again, where I spent a good amount of time between 2005 and 2007. My wife was also ready to get back to work, and the wages paid out to teachers in Chiapas is hardly worth the time and effort.
So a new travel strategy emerged: we would go to where my wife could find a job teaching, do a year contract, then move on to somewhere else for a year and repeat the cycle.
I didn’t know at first how much I would like this strategy, I like just traveling and living off of blogging, but we really needed a change. My wife was bored as dirt with the housewife routine and the kid was getting to a stage where she’d want to have longer lasting friendships. Her language learning was also a motivator, and staying for a year at a time in the same location in targeted language countries would surely secure her a better linguistic foundation than jumping around every three months.
So I compromised. What I didn’t expect was how much this compromise would end up benefiting everybody involved.
How this is good for the wife and kid is obvious, but how it benefited me was surprising. I found that I could go off and travel on my own — which means that I could move quickly, cheaply, over extremely large distances, observe, record, and be focused on my surroundings 100% — as I did prior to being a family man. I also realized how streamlining my family’s living situation would mean no longer needing to invest large amounts of time and resources into regular moves.
Included with this set up was a solid base of operations that I could return to, write, research, and publish with few impediments. In this way, Taizhou has became my work cave: I go into it and don’t come out again until all my stories are published. When I would get one trip written up, I’d go on another.
But this strategy meant not traveling in fluid, linear paths — the beautiful lines that you can paint around the globe simply by continuous going in one direction. There is just something that feels sacrilegious about returning to places you’ve already been. But as far as travelers are concerned, I’m a heathen: no matter how much I intend to travel in clean paths across large expanses of geography I always end up doubling back, revisiting the same places, covering the same ground, going back to the same countries, and moving through the world in jagged lines, starts and stops. I guess this is just my style, and what’s really the difference if I use the spokes of a wheel travel strategy for three months or one year?
There is one key difference:
Having a central location means that I can spend more time learning about a place, continuously monitor its news, building up rapport, developing relations with cultural “informants,” and, in general, understanding far more about where in the world I am than I could otherwise.
My problem with long term linear travel is that you never really stop in any place long enough to learn much about. All those mainstream travel books (Paul Theroux) which show an author traveling a linear path across huge spans of geography that he seems to know all about are the result of tons of research done before and after the trip from the comfort of homes. Going to new places every few days is enough to gather a lot of surface impressions, but not much else.
I know this because I’ve experienced it.
So I sit here in Jiangsu province of China, a place where I’ve had a base of operations for 14 months, planning a trip up into the far northeast of the country. I’m watching the life cycle of this place repeat itself, I’ve even had two birthdays here, and I’m smiling because this new strategy seems to be working:
I can travel over vast distances and do research for my projects.
I can have a solid base of operations to return to, where I can work efficiently, without the annoyances of always having to set up a new mobile office.
I can have a family who loves it when I’m home but who are also alright when I’m gone.
My wife can have a life, she can build her career and have regular friends.
My daughter can have longer term friends, can go to school, and learn to speak multiple languages.
If I looked at this strategy five years ago I would have spat on it and snubbed it out like a cigarette, but now things have changed — and perpetual travel is about perpetually changing your strategy to meet changing circumstances. There are parameters to all lifestyles, and mastering any way of life means realizing what you want, understanding the inherent boundaries of getting it, juggling probability and possibility, and taking the middle road where you can actualize the dream.