Travel Inspiration for 2015 And My Journey Toward Increasingly Unconventional Living

Travel Inspiration for 2015 And My Journey Toward Increasingly Unconventional Living

This post has been rumbling around for weeks now, after reading a good book and a conversation with a friend, but I’ve been dragging my feet to write it because I didn’t want to join all the bloggers posting travel resolutions for 2015.  Especially because I don’t really believe in New Year’s Resolutions, which is how I responded to my Belgian friend when he asked about mine, “If you don’t like where your life is headed, why wait until January 1st to make a change?”.  I paused and added, “And most of my most important life changes happened unexpectedly, when I had to scramble over obstacles that I didn’t want to be there.  Not because of anything I tried to do on purpose”.

He thought about what I said and responded, “I don’t think people should wait until New Year’s to make a change either.  In Dutch, “resolution” translates to “intention” so instead of focusing on what we want to change, we try to set an intention for a better life.  New Year’s is a good time to check-in with yourself and reflect, that’s all”.  Apparently Belgians and yoga teachers share a similar obsession with “intentions”.  Potato, potatho, tomato, tomatho… whether you call it an “intention” or a “resolution”, what does it matter? Why wait to reflect on New Years?

Elfie, the hedgehog I had to give up when I started traveling more

Elfie, the hedgehog I had to give up when I started traveling more

Even though I pretended to refuse on principle, my mind inevitably started to think about the past year, a year when it seemed that everyone I knew was moving in with boyfriends, getting engaged or thinking about babies.  And I was somewhere that I never dreamed my 26-year-old self would be… hedgehog-less, without a permanent address, out of the country more than in it and stretching out graduate school until I found something worth graduating for.

Fortunately, I found it: a post-doctoral research position in South Africa, working on evaluating the effectiveness of teacher workshops.  But when I tell people about it, they look at me like I have six heads… they think, “wait, after five years of getting a PhD, you WANT to move to a backwards country where you can get ebola, raped, shot or worse?” And I look at them like they have six heads when they ask me how much I would make and I think “it’s an amazing opportunity.  As long as I have food and a bed, why would I care how much money I make?”.  In the meantime, I’m thinking about moving back in with my parents… not because I can’t afford to live on my own, but because when you travel so much your friends have stopped trying to keep track of you, you start to appreciate the family who will always be there for you and hanging out with grandma seems like a good way to spend my last few months before I leave the country for a couple years.  I’m pretty sure my 22-year-old-self would judge my current self condescendingly, and not understand any of it.  So what led me to an increasingly unconventional life?  How can you find one too?  Looking back, most of these random events didn’t seem life-changing at the time but somehow they combined to form the perfect storm and helped me to relinquish control, take risks and embrace adventure.  It’s not the easiest way to live but I have found it to be infinitely more rewarding and I want to continue to live that way more purposefully in 2015.  Without further adieu, here’s the story about how I found myself here, hopefully a tale that will provide travel inspiration for you.

“Normal” Existence

Through my first year of graduate school, I was well on my way to a stable, secure, ordinary life.  I went to a good college, chose a practical major that would get me a good job and at that time, I was dating a nice, practical engineer who would have happily married me.  In college, I was the poster child for the “Excellent Sheep” William Deresiewicz writes about in his book about “the miseducation of America’s elite and the search for a meaningful life”.  You know, the modern day “Renaissance Man” who plays sports, gets A’s and participates in a half dozen clubs and has leadership positions in three of them and is smart, charismatic and driven, engaged in the “resume arms race” with the rest of the world because how else would you get into a good college?  Get a good job?  Accomplish anything in life?  I balanced these things pretty easily, doing a good enough job at all of them, but not being particularly extraordinary at any of them because who has time to go above and beyond the expectation?  Each evening, I wrote out a checklist of the things I had to do and a strict schedule on the whiteboard by my bed, making sure to fit in physics labs, 2500 meter swims five days a week, Asian American Association meetings, a short window for socialization, community service… my roommates joked that my days were so packed that I’d need to reserve a two minute break to brush my teeth.  Was I happy?  I had no time to really think about it but life seemed pretty good.  Schoolwork was easy.  I liked my extracurriculars.  I felt like I was accomplishing things.  I had a good routine.  I was surrounded by people like me and we all got along.  We were all the same, trained to be sociable, so it wasn’t hard.

The punk that encouraged me to live at the edge of my comfort zone...

The punk that encouraged me to live at the edge of my comfort zone…

Then what happened?

One summer night at nerd camp, a less-traditional friend of mine challenged me to a rock hopping competition around the parking lot, something that made no sense to my very logical brain.  “Why would you hop on rocks?  Why is that fun?  Why can’t we walk by the bay like normal people?”

With a devilish grin, he asked, “What is life without risks?  Embrace a little adventure.” I looked skeptical.  Grown adults do not play in parking lots.  But since I was hanging out with him for the night and he insisted on jumping on rocks, it appeared that was my only option.  I looked around, hoping no one would witness me looking like a fool and started half-heartedly hopping on low-to-ground rocks, making sure that my face revealed that I was Not. Having. Fun.  He made fun of my frown and at some point, I started to get into it, eventually attempting to swing from a tree branch between two rocks.  My Tarzan attempt failed and I tweaked my ankle so I figured it was probably time to say goodbye and drive back to Connecticut, giggling the whole way because there was something liberating about doing something that made absolutely no sense.

In true blitz-mode, I  packed up my life belongings with a wobbly ankle to move back down to North Carolina and drove down there before investigating my swollen joint that didn’t seem to be getting any better.  Three days later, I finally went to the doctor and learned that my left ankle was broken, my right foot had a stress fracture (related to regular fourteen mile runs, thirty mile bike rides and four hours of swing dancing every weekend) and my limited mobility would last a couple months.  So all of a sudden, my action-packed life was stopped in its tracks, I was stuck in an empty apartment and forced to think.  About many things: all the high-achiever friends I had were great when we could multi-task our socializing with eating lunch at the dining hall but what happens when meeting becomes an inconvenience? Why exactly was I trying to do a half-million things all the time?  When I couldn’t do all the things in my schedule, what did I actually WANT to do?

“Perfectionism is merely an endless treadmill of self-destruction that’ll only build momentum until you’re running at unsustainable speeds.  Rather than remaining a slave to the illusions you perceive as safe, step off the treadmill and live as the piece of art you are: messy, colorful, fluid, mistakes, shifts, surprises, pain and of course, immeasurable moments of beauty.  It is there outside the enclosed grey walls of perfect self-imprisionment that you shall touch the meaning of freedom” -Victoria Erickson

Wishing for fast healing with my broken ankle

Lime green reflection from my glow-in-the-dark cast covering a broken ankle… wishing for fast healing so I could resume a normal life

While struggling to acclimate to an empty apartment filled with puzzling questions, graduate school had also shifted focus to something unfamiliar.  I had basically taken all the classes, passed all the exams and now, all that was left to get a PhD was to “do something no one has ever done before”.  My advisor cheered me on, “you can do whatever you want!”, but when I demanded to know what I should be doing, he just responded with a silent smile.  It sounded easy.  It sounded fun.  But all of a sudden, I realized I spent my life following other people’s examples and instructions.  I could memorize anything.  I could ace tests.  I could speed-read all the literature but I had no idea how to come up with something new.  I threw myself into writing fellowship applications, where at least I had an example to follow, and hoped inspiration would follow.

It was a bumpy road to recovery.  I jumped right into six and eight mile runs which immediately caused another injury and a freak-accident scuba incident caused exercise-induced migraines which slowed me down for four more months.  When most sports became impossible, I un-enthusiastically resorted to yoga, which is not good for the resume: no team building skills, no leadership potential and you can’t win!  But eventually yoga won me over and forced me to slow down, survey my mental and physical state and, even when life picked up again, yoga made sure that I didn’t get so lost in the craziness that I forgot to check in with myself.

India... the country that changed my life

India… the country that changed my life

So I was broken, I healed and now what?  Where does travel come in?

Between my injuries and the slow and rocky start to my research, I was finally forced to think about what made a meaningful life.  I didn’t think I was living it.  And then I went to India.  Where everything was chaos and nothing got accomplished.  But everything was so colorful and live.  And I taught students who weren’t swept along with the stream of their colleagues, just going to college and following their parent’s footsteps.  They were blazing new paths because they were often the first people in their families to be able to dream of an advanced degree.  And everything’s so competitive in India, they had to work for it.  And nothing was guaranteed.

So the seeds were in place: I realized that life on the edge could be fun (although broken bones aren’t an ideal outcome), I was finally paying attention to what made me feel good and I witnessed the energy of a place where people were blazing their own paths, not mindlessly swimming in the stream of American self-entitlement.  Then opportunities started to pop up: research fellowships in Brazil and Singapore, presenting at a conference in Taiwan, more teaching in India… Free international trips?  How could I say no?

At some point, when I was on the other side of the world, the travel bug bit and as Michael Palin says, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life”.  All of a sudden, I wanted to spend any extra cash or free time going somewhere, meeting new people and discovering more about myself.  Less than 48 hours after my research grant refunded a year of student fees, I was on a plane to Spain and Portugal.  I connected strongly with a couch surfer I hosted, so of course, I had to visit him in Turkey.  I ended my apartment lease before teaching in India this past summer, so of course, I had to take advantage of not paying rent by going on an American road trip with my brother.

“Then things changed.  One near-death and other soul-jarring experiences made me, in common with many others, face the fact of my mortality and adopt more of an “only-one-life” policy… I eventually recognized the power and impetus of the child within, the child who had never lost his lust for things wild and undiscovered, for places and people that most of us only read about… for experiences that stretch the envelope of existence to the breaking point.” (I can’t remember where I found this quote)

Yes, I’ll be the first to admit that nearly forty countries and over two dozen US states in 3-4 years while getting a PhD in physics is probably excessive.  I justify it to myself because when else will I be able to work from anywhere?  When else will I be free from leases, serious relationships, and kids?  But when it comes down to it, life is short and happiness is too precious to postpone.  And here’s the thing about you that most of you don’t know about me.  Either my first or second year in college, suddenly I was struck by a mysterious illness which swelled my joints, and at its worse, made it nearly impossible to get out of bed.  I could barely type and certainly couldn’t walk at a normal speed.  I was an eighteen-year-old with arthritis.  After many months, the doctors finally figured out it was lupus (Dr. House would have guessed that from the beginning), got it under control and, thank God, I haven’t had a major problem since but it still is a chronic illness that could strike again anytime.  During the flare, no matter how much time or money I had, there’s no way I could have gone anywhere… I could barely make it across the street and my mother wanted to buy me a cane, for heaven’s sake! When I was struggling to shuffle across streets before the pedestrian crossing count-down passed, I realized how good health isn’t something we can take for granted.  There’s nothing that guarantees that we will be as healthy today as we were yesterday.  If an opportunity presents itself, it could be now or never… there’s no way to know what’s going to happen tomorrow.

Wrapping up, naturally I’m a conservative, logical, analytic person.  I like the comfort of routine.  I like having money in savings account.  I like waking up in the morning to a familiar face.  I like contributing to society in socially acceptable ways.  But I’ve learned that there’s more to life than that.  There’s more to life than having every detailed planned so you can exist on auto-pilot.  I’ll leave you with a quote that captures one of my main messages here and then the four principles that I plan to pursue more purposefully in 2015.

“Today’s young people belong to a post-emotional generation- that they prefer to avoid feelings that are too chaotic and too powerful… I do believe that it’s essential not to shy away from the challenging parts of the self- not to deny the impulses and doubts that threaten to knock you from your chartered path.  The archetypal wanderer in Western Literature is Odysseus; indeed the title of his poem his become synomous with the life-changing soul-making journey.  Odysseus roams for a decade, experiencing a world of gods and monsters that lies beyond his imagination and being tested to the limits of his strength and ingenuity.  He is rescued, at least, by Athena, his protector.  But that figure who had sent the storm that blew him off course to begin with, all those many years before.  She saves him, eventually, but she knows that the best thing she can do is push him into the sea in the first place- into turbulence, into tracklessness- to force him how to improvise and change direction and discover what the world contains and what he does” -William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep

1) Make Room For Serendipity

Many of the most important things in my life have happened by accident.  I ended up teaching in India because a Romanian’s sexist behavior toward me (his teaching assistant) and the female students in our class frustrated me so much I invented my own nuclear science nerd camp in North Carolina.  When the dates interfered with a research fellowship in Singapore, all of a sudden, I offered a teaching job in Mysore, India instead.  I started writing for Epicure & Culture because I got click-happy after reading a Huffington Post article the author wrote lamenting relationships that failed because of her traveler lifestyle.  That “internship” brought me to Panama, encouraged me to rediscover my own backyard and connect with inspiring people in my city.

The more I talk to people, the more I realize how the universe runs on seemingly random events.  In my research, I study institutional-level educational change and switching a department to studio-style instruction can happen for serendipitous reasons.  The University of Iowa switched to active learning classrooms after a massive flood destroyed their campus and an administrator stumbled upon a youtube video.  The TEAL classrooms at MIT started because of a disgruntled physics professor who was challenged to re-examine the way he looked at teaching by his wife who worked in the Teaching and Learning Center and that had a massive ripple effect that landed me in Taiwan, Singapore and heading back to Brazil in a few weeks.

Charles Wheelan reminds us, “interesting, successful people rarely lead orderly linear lives”.  I hope to live flexibly enough to take advantage and set sail when the winds change direction.

Eri, the girl who inspired me to travel as a solo female and try couch surfing

Eri, the girl who inspired me to travel as a solo female and try couch surfing

2) Stay Curious

The best way to avoid being an Excellent Sheep drowning in what everyone else is doing is to stay curious and see what OTHER people are doing.  A guy who got fed up with rat race in New York and decided to walk across America with his cello and a spice collection in a shopping cart (his blog here).  Then fell in love in Georgia and gave it all up.  A Japanese girl who recovered from a divorce by selling all of her belongings to backpack across Europe solo, work on a cruise boat for Peace and now returned to California to promote permaculture and similar causes (her blog here).  A self-described Australian bum who found happiness in a rural farming village in Mexico and takes the most incredibly photos (his tumblr here).  A Laotian American chemistry major who was turned down from 300 jobs so he decided to visit his parents and Laos which inspired him to open a restaurant even though he had no culinary and marketing experience.  Now, Bida Manda is one of Raleigh’s finest eateries and even Elton John places special requests for Bida Manda‘s pork belly soup when he comes to town!  Another perpetual traveler who funds his adventures through selling erotic novels on Amazon (I’ll keep that one anonymous!).  All sorts of other people who the world might categorize as aimless bums but have an aura of contentment that is so hard to feel in “normal people”.

If you’re not happy with your life, explore other options.  According to Vladimir Nabokov, “curiosity is insubordination in its purest form”.

3) Allow Experiences To Transform You

Traveling allows you to see many beautiful places and have incredible amounts of fun but it also can be incredibly depressing.  You realize that the world’s problems are so much bigger than the homeless man on the corner of Blue Ridge Road and Western Boulevard.  In India, billionaires in Beemers blaze by piles of bones of a person who may be dead but is probably alive.  In Bosnia, people are still recovering from a relatively recent genocide and blinding hate still divides the various ethnic groups.  In the Philippines, the poverty and living conditions were so bad that the tourism-board-sanctioned restaurant had their food out on a folding table in mismatched tupperware with flies buzzing around.  It’s incredibly overwhelming to realize how much work needs to be done so the world’s occupants can obtain a humane existence but I encourage you to let those experiences rub you raw and grab at your heartstrings.

Kids in Cambodia who could barely afford clothes but were so happy!

Kids in Cambodia who could barely afford clothes but were so happy!

When you see things this heart-wrenching, it’s tempting to distance yourself, try to put up an imaginary glass window and look at these things like its a museum exhibit about some problem in the past or a zoo display about some exotic specie with no relation to us.  But as much as it hurts, I think it’s important to tear those walls down and let these experiences get under your skin.  As an “ordinary individual”, it’s hard to imagine what role you can play.  I probably haven’t reached an optimal solution, but I carry these stories and experiences with me, try to share them as much as possible in the hopes of connecting a “need” with an eventual solution.

So I think there’s two parts to this goal.  First, you need to seek out experiences that aren’t safe and comfortable- experiences that stretch you as a person.  That doesn’t mean you have to move to a war zone for months.  It’s amazing how short exposure can leave a big impact.

“Once I was making a mental list of all the places I had lived in, having moved about so much, and soon concluded that the common-sense or factual approach leads to nothing but error. You may live in a place for months, even years, and it does not touch you, but a weekend or a night in another, and you feel as if your whole had been sprayed with the equivalent of a cosmic wind” -Doris Lessing, Under My Skin

The second part involves allowing yourself to carry these experiences to the place you go next.  Don’t leave India in the slums of Delhi.  Let it change your life.  And tell other people about it so it can change their lives too.  And who knows?  Maybe one day, it will circle around and help the very problem you had no idea how to fix.

“Birds in flight… are not between places, they carry their places with them.  We never wonder where they live: they are at home in the sky, in flight.  Flight is their way of being in the world” -Geoff Dyer

4) Inspire Others To Take Risks

Some people have asked me why I chose to study physics and it requires a somewhat long-winded answer.  From the first day of kindergarden, I knew I wanted to teach.  Then I took math and I liked math but it would be boring to teach.  Then I took physics and you could do experiments, solve problems and see it work in real life.  I also loved it because initially everything seemed so organized and predictable- you could calculate where a ball would land after rolling off a table and put a cup there to catch it.  But then I learned about special relativity and quantum mechanics which said nature is inherently (and unavoidably) random and unpredictable, which actually resonated better with my life experiences more than orderly worldview did.  But generally speaking, I still chose physics because I wanted to teach it.  I wanted to teach it because its hard, you need to struggle to understand it and it makes you think about the world differently.  And what better opportunity do you have for impacting someone’s life than when they’re vulnerable and need a whole new way to think and study?

My engineering class with their PVC catapults

My engineering class with their PVC catapults

My proudest moments as a teacher so far isn’t that I got a roomful of 12-year-olds (who had never seen vectors) to solve 2 dimensional projectile projects or skip lunch to master the quadratic formula (even though that was cool).  I was most proud when my videos of North Carolina State University’s bookBot bolstered their aspirations for studying in the United States, when my travels inspired one of my students to come to America for Space Camp even though she never left the country and when one of my students jumped on the opportunity to participate in a trivia competition in Japan because he knew he was going there.  Initially I was shy about telling the gifted and talented youth about my travels because I thought I needed to appear professional and responsible.  However, these are the stories that stick and inspire them to try something a little crazy.  They follow my adventures on Google+ and send me e-mails, “Ma’am… you have the coolest life EVER! How do I do that?!?!”.  Top talent, like these kids, are most at risk for being swept into the Excellent Sheep syndrome and it’s important for them to know that brains can be used for other things too: whether its globe-trotting or mastering an instrument or writing profound poetry or something else.  I should say this explicitly: traveling is my passion and how I hope to help make the world better.  I’m not saying travel is the only answer… you should do whatever fires you up and gets you excited, whether it seems “practical” or not.

I’ll end on a quote from Sylvia Plath.  I’m not saying that I don’t want to get married but I aspire to ignite people and shake things up by letting  people know that turbulence and tracklessness can be a good thing.  I hope this post is a good start!

“That’s one of the reasons I never wanted to get married. The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from. I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket” -Sylvia Plath

Song of the Moment: Taking The Long Way Around– Dixie Chicks & Coming of Age– Foster The People

Be Sociable, Share!

5 Comments

  1. Sky
    Jan 14, 2015

    Such a lovely post. It’s amazing how something as simple as rock skipping can turn into a life-altering choice. Regardless of what everyone else thinks, as long as you are fulfilling what your heart wants.

  2. alex21
    Jan 16, 2015

    Was this the first time you broke your ankle?I was in a cast too.I broke my wrist and thumb playin soccer.I had my third cast removed about 5 weeks ago.Best wishes and take care.

    • Katie
      Jan 16, 2015

      Hi Alex! Yes this was my first time breaking a bone and recovery was a long process but eventually it got better. I hope your wrist and thumb get better soon! And thanks Sky for your wise words!

  3. Rohit kumar
    May 23, 2015

    its such a amazing post.your jurney is to inspiring and attractive…india is also so lovely….for her culture…awesome..

    • Katie
      May 26, 2015

      Thanks for reading Rohit! Yes, India will always have a special place in my heart!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Dangers of Solo Travel But Why It's Worth It - Gypsy Soul, Itchy Feet | Gypsy Soul, Itchy Feet - […] and not living is worse than dying.  I think being stopped in my tracks with a lupus flare and having…