Testing the bounds of the benefits of travel and teasing the edges of the disadvantages of living abroad.
“Just take a bag and put it inside,” the landlord said.
He clearly said bag, but I couldn’t believe that he was telling me to just use a plastic bag to fix a sewer gas leak. Mandarin is full of homonyms and near homonyms, so certainly he must have been referring to some kind of plumbing apparatus that was outside of my vocabulary set.
“Can you do it for me?” I asked.
He looked at me funny and then fetched a plastic grocery bag.
Having a plastic bag wrapped around the base of my kitchen sink’s drain meant that odorous sewer gas was now being belched from the sink itself along with where it spills into a gaping pipe on the floor. Not necessarily an improvement.
I should have been more cautious when selecting an apartment, though the set up in my kitchen is the Chinese standard — even in nice places. At that time I had no idea that sewer gas could so easily leak into a new apartment building (it should be getting blocked before entering) and that it could so thoroughly make an entire house smell like dead ass. I also had no idea that the bend in sink drains is called a water trap, and its main function is to block the entry of sewer gas into a home. I thought that curved piece of piping existed solely to keep stuff from falling all the way down the drain. Though my ignorance does not seem to be uncommon, as most Chinese apparently don’t know what that curve is for either, and sinks in the majority of apartments here merely have a flexible plastic tube that runs straight down into an open PVC pipe that sticks six inches up out of the floor.
Then there’s the mold. I am staying on Xiamen Island, it’s one tick above the tropics, it’s a giant petri dish. Mold is everywhere, everybody struggles against it. It irritates your eyes, it screws with your lungs, and, if you’re allergic to it, can have more invasive health impacts. An infestation of mold is what flushed us out of our last apartment and lead us to renting a brand new place that was just built on the coast.
Though after a few months the mold has gotten us here too. Our clothes are covered in mildew, permanently stained with little black dots. We wake up in the morning and our shoes have fuzz on them. My backpacks need to be washed daily to stave off fungal colonization. Entire ecosystems thrive beneath beds, couches, and the refrigerator. We spray vinegar, scrub with bleach, but it’s ultimately a losing battle.
These are problems that I’ve been successfully able to subvert for the past 15 years. The traveling life is way to indefinitely sustain adolescents. You can be a big cry baby and get what you want out here just by stomping your feet or walking out. For almost all of my adult life if there was something like sewer gas leaking into my room I’d just grab my bag and leave. If my air conditioner didn’t work I’d just walk downstairs and tell the person behind the desk that I want to change rooms. Shit like that just wasn’t my responsibility. It’s incredibly how many problems in life can be solved by leaving.
This was by design. Travel isn’t just about seeing new places, it’s an intentional lifestyle to increase the good in life while cutting down on the onerous. Leases, landlords, and committing to places, people, engagement that you cannot just leave at will is the onerous; being able to do whatever you want, wherever, whenever is the good. It’s a lifestyle that above all else is about not locking yourself into rounds of commitment where you must sacrifice the enjoyment of daily life for broader ambitions or larger benefits.
I was a master at this lifestyle for nearly a decade and a half. Then I got greedy. I wanted more, I wanted the benefits of the sedentary life and the benefits of the traveling life. I wanted a longer term camp where my wife could have a real profession, where my kid could go to school and learn language, culture, and make friends, and where I could take on complex, time consuming projects — like writing books — while remaining fully mobile and able to travel wherever and whenever I pleased.
I was receiving diminishing returns from being a tourist — and all travel that’s just for the hell of it is tourism, no matter how remote the roads or empty the pockets. Writing about the perpetual travel experience was also becoming redundant. I’d been blogging about that since 2005. While in Colombia I realized that I was putting huge portions of time into just living — into looking for accommodation and cheap food and scraping together enough cash to keep going. The work of travel was becoming too much of a time suck. Traveling with a three person family meant three times the effort and double the cash of traveling alone. I realized that I wasn’t able to put together the blocks of time needed to really accomplish anything — like actually learning about the places I stopped in, like developing continuous relationships that would provide deeper insights and knowledge, like finishing the books I’d been working on for years. Moving between places will never get old, the excitement will always be there, the craving to leave will never be satiated, the pure fun that comes from tempting serendipity with never fade, but I needed to combine the raw travel with something else.
I have an obsession with accomplishment. I need to see a tangible product from the time of each day. I need to collect things, I need to get better at things, I need to build things. I make to-do lists. I lie down each night and I say to myself, “What did I complete today?” and I run through each of the tasks I crossed off the list. If the output doesn’t seem to add up to the input of time and effort, then closing shop on the day just doesn’t feel right. Work is a metaphysical activity: it’s a way of actualizing time and life.
I have never lived a rat race kind of existence. I’m not running from any cubicle and I don’t cringe at the concept of work. I’ve never been beaten down and belittled by employment. I have few negative emotional bookmarks that make me shy away from investing energy and time for money. Work is challenge, it’s a game, a battle of wit and an acquiring of skill and experience. It’s how humans stay stimulated and occupied. Work isn’t the curse, boredom is. The most miserable people I’ve ever met on the planet are those tribes of listless retired guys in tropical backwaters. They go out to paradise and quickly find that they have nothing to do.
Though I’ve tasted the difference between working for someone else and working for myself. When you step over the line from working for someone else to working for years, from being an employee to an employer, there really is no going back. Once you become hooked by your own projects you trash your resume. You will starve before sending in an application for employment. Sometimes I win at this, sometimes I lose, but in the end what is truly gained is greater than any monetary measurement. There is nothing I’ve ever known that’s as energizing than running your own little enterprises — whether it be running a small company or selling baked goods in the streets. It’s a creative endeavor that turns even the most mundane business into an art form. It’s a competitive challenge, as you find yourself wrapped in the passion of improvement and the concept of “winning” that each day feels like playing a sport rather than going to work. Money becomes something that’s less like a monetary unit and more like a way of keeping score.
So I returned to China a couple of years ago with the intention of engaging the place deeper, and taking on some larger scale projects. There have been many trade offs along the way.
If I want my daughter to speak multiple languages I need to make sure that she’s in a place where she can develop continual relationships with friends and neighbors.
If I want to write books I need to have large amounts of time for research, planning, and writing. It helps to have a steady base of operations to work out of.
If I want to write books I need to make money. To make money I need to have a living situation that is suitable for running an array of micro-businesses.
If I want my wife to be satisfied in her work (Montessori teacher), she needs to be able to advance, get better paying jobs, higher ranking positions. Switching schools every year doesn’t help.
It was a worthy attempt, but two years in my wife and I are debating the benefits of the experiment. Is life still good?
Over the past two years I have been able to travel through China extensively — east and west, far north and far south. I can leave at will and my family is not left in a compromising situation. My wife is used to me being away — and is probably sometimes relieved — and it keeps the relationship fresh. I signed a book deal with a good publisher and finished the first draft. I’m working on a couple more. Vagabond Journey seems to be getting out of its rut, we have an excellent team of contributors, and a loyal core of readers have remained reading. I have a business that is showing signs that it could do well. I’ve become an FBA seller — any traveler who isn’t doing this is either independently wealthy or an idiot.
My wife is advancing in her profession. She was offered a fat raise (nearly 50%) and a manager position running the Montessori programs of three schools.
My daughter is fully bilingual. She goes to Chinese school and has just about linguistically caught up to her peers. She got to China young enough to learn the language like a baby does, and speaks Chinese naturally. You really have to listen to her when she talks to people now as she sometimes ask those little kid questions that are not too polite (i.e. “Why do your teeth stick out of your mouth?”). She says that when she grows up she wants her job to be traveling to new countries and learning the people’s language, about what food they eat, the clothes they wear, and the way they dance. Parental influence on kids can be a hit or miss endeavor — they seem to either really embrace or completely reject what you try to teach them. I take Petra around to interesting cultural spheres and encourage her to meet people and ask them questions about what they are doing/ life/ etc . . . The anthro-kid experiment is going well.
Travel is about trying new things. It’s about engaging the world and taking what you can from it. It’s about learning, developing, honing, collecting, experiencing. Sometimes this means spending two years on one very large country, sometimes it means fixing sewer gas leaks, sometimes it means compromising the ability to leave at will and go wherever for the benefit of obtaining a deeper knowledge and cultivating larger projects that fill your days with little feelings of satisfaction. As far as the measurable details of accomplishment go we seem to be doing better than ever.
Though there is always the danger of building up the walls of a life just to realize that you’ve trapped yourself inside. It is easy to weave a web of responsibility and ambition that becomes very difficult to escape from. Once you’ve invested years into lines of study, into intrigues, into projects, into building relationships it becomes hard to just leave them behind. The rounds of karma approach from behind, you don’t see them until you’re wrapped into a taking an almost endless duration of of actions that require other actions which require other actions which invariably leave you tangled up, locked into a life. The wisdom of the traveling life is perhaps knowing when to dive deeper into a place and when to come back up for air. Have I woven myself too deeply into China?