Tales of a Nomad “Settling” in Auckland

Tales of a Nomad “Settling” in Auckland

I’m about three and a half weeks into my “new life” as a Professional Teaching Fellow in Auckland, New Zealand.  And I’ve been meaning to write something about it, something about this place, something about living life the way most people exist, something about unpacking suitcases and a building routine.  But I didn’t have anything unique to write about the place, but more importantly, I don’t think it’s hit me that I’m here,  and going to generally be here for 49 weeks (not that I’m counting…).  So I decided to write about this weird “in limbo” mental state, where I’m still meeting dozens of new people, still entering people in my phone “first name+city” (so now I’ve got dozens of people last name Auckland), still tagging Instagram photos of my new city as #travel, and still keeping my backpack by my pillow, half packed.  #InDenial.  The wanderer might not be wandering right now, but my nomadic tendencies are still strong. In thinking about what to write here, I was flipping through “How I Write: The Secret Lives of Authors” Edited by Dan Crowe, where contemporary authors send in photos and descriptions of meaningful objects in their workspaces that help them battle writer’s block. Everything from their belly button lint collection to special pens to photographs to quotes from authors that inspire them.  One passage, written by Turkish author whose lived all over the place, struck a cord and contributed some insight why I’ve been fighting myself over settling here. “A bird can use its wings either to reach home or to run away from it,” says my grandmother, knowing too well which of these I have opted for all these years.  And she adds in haste, “Even birds take a breather to build a nest.  No rest, no nest”.  A nomad is not an immigrant.  While the latter is future oriented and aspires to settle down once and for all, the nomad lives a perpetual present with few possessions.  To live the life of a nomad means to be able to make new friendships, meet new challenges, but most of all, to let go- of your possessions, of your old self.  A sorrowful enrichment attends the soul along this quest… Just like every nomad, deep inside I harbor a fear of orderliness and pure tranquility- both of which remind me of nothing but death” -Elif Shafak, A Purple Pen  Unlike a friend who walks into an hotel room and two seconds later, his clothes are neatly folded on the shelf, shampoo is in the shower and toothbrush by the sink, “settling in” doesn’t make me comfortable.  I’m the exact opposite… I leave everything in my suitcase so I could zip it up and be on my way to somewhere else in two seconds flat.  Changing, evolving, growing, moving and teetering on the edge of my comfort zone is where I feel happiest. Repetition, routines and commitment is what terrifies me and makes me feel trapped.  Like the author quoted above, I associate orderliness and tranquility with stagnation, complacency and sluggishness.  And now, I’m in one of the most perfect places in the world where one third of the population owns a boat, the biggest issue is whether to make the flag look less Australia and a tenant who drops the f*bomb when his landlord lets out his dog makes front page news.  New Zealand is a gorgeous, laid back and lovely… the perfect place to raise a family and let the kids run wild, camping, beaching and “tramping”. But for someone who has seen the world, who knows that happiness is just a small part of the spectrum of human emotion, it’s hard to find this place satisfying.  The fact that there’s nothing wrong with it disturbs me.  You need heartbreak to inspire great art and music, you need conflict in order for inspiring public figures, you need controversy to write important books.    Struggle, conflict and challenge lead to growth and development.  Living in New Zealand is like living in Disney World (maybe except for the Maori people) and I find it hard to connect to, because it doesn’t feel real.  I keep wandering around, looking for a soul, a spirit, an imperfection in this city to make it more relatable…. I still feeling like I’m traveling, even though I’m supposed to be creating a life.  It’s easy for me to be fully present in a fleeting moment, but harder for me to feel alert and alive in familiar settings. “Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen.”...

What is “Reality”? 2015 in Review

What is “Reality”? 2015 in Review

“Back to reality”, I  mumbled to myself as I roamed the Oslo airport in search of a place to camp out during my five hour layover before my flight back to the United States after a 6-month, 4-continent, 19-country trip basically to… everywhere.  After a couple laps, I stopped somewhere to charge my laptop (grimacing at global dust cloud emanating off my backpack), then propped my feet up to combat the swollen ankles that I tend to get on long flights and settled in to watch towering Scandinavians select packs of bacalhau (dried fish) to bring abroad for Christmas gifts.  As soon as I got comfortable, I remembered an email from a friend that I received a couple months ago and how meaningless the end-of-trip, “back to reality” phrase is for me these days. “What is your ‘real world’? I ask because everyone who is away from their home refers to their home and job as the real world. I’m sure you’ve heard this before? ‘When vacation is up, I’ve got to go back to the real world.’  I don’t want a real world.  I’m addicted to living in the ‘other world'” For most people, “reality” and “real world” means alarm clocks, breakfast on the go, deadlines and to-do lists.  I think I responded that my real world was my backpack but I didn’t live 2015 entirely out of my backpack.  In addition to visiting ~25 countries, I earned a PhD, I got hired for a “real job” and somehow people flew me to Brazil, Colorado, China, South Africa and New Zealand to do an assortment of professional, responsible things.  None of this was part of a larger strategic plan… most of it just happened. “I cannot be still for long.  There is a riot in me all the time.  A needy, restless voice my heart endlessly urging me onward.  I ache for new experiences and my hunger for adventure is boundless.  My entire life is a perpetual loops of longing for something else” -Beau Taplin, Something Else Well maybe it wasn’t part of a plan, but it probably has something to do with my inability to sit still, my desire for new perspectives and perceived need to exploit the flexibility of a research position that could be done from anywhere before I commit to a “real job”.  I guess it’s obvious that I like to collect new experiences but according to my star charts, I’m on the hunt for greater meaning.  So I’m some sort of philosophizing pack rat.  I guess greater meaning is what I’m trying to achieve by writing this post, trying to digest some of the hundreds of memories from 2015 but I’m officially stumped.  Facebook failed to help me… their simplistic attempt to construct my “year in review” had six photos, two of which were in the same place, with the same person.  There’s no way I spent one third of this year in one place, or with one person.  Sorry Facebook, but my slightly schizophrenic life isn’t so easy to summarize.  Here’s my best attempt to briefly present some of the highlights and hypothesize about what it might mean going forward. A Year in Review In February, I experienced my second hospitalization abroad with a broken bone in Peru but surgery went swimmingly with the help of my amazing brother who somehow kept up with the coco-chewing porters and evacuated me out of the jungle.  Subsequent travels continued uninterrupted thanks to the help of an old friend, and I even pulled off a faculty workshop at the University of Sao Paulo.  In addition to reuniting with three Brazilian friends from my past, I met up with into a guy that I used to teach nerd camp with who just arrived in Brazil with the intentions of starting a skate tour company and doing some bio-med start-up things.  I told him jokingly, “Back then, I had no idea that you were cool enough to move to another country! But then again, back then, I doubt I’d see himself here either” and we both smiled because kindred spirits often hide in plain sight. After about a month of self-imposed hermitude, as a one-handed cat lady, miraculously, I finished writing my dissertation.  After a short road trip through some new states in the south, after placing my dissertation on my advisor’s desk, I regained enough sanity to defend my dissertation and somehow became Dr. Foote.  Placing the capstone on 22 years of education was a bit anti-climatic… I filled out a few forms, left the day after my presentation and spent my graduation day on a sailboat in the Florida Keys, instead of wearing a funny hat and announcing the world that...

Long Term Travel & Simple Secret for Meaningful Life

Long Term Travel & Simple Secret for Meaningful Life

While Christmas is the capstone of the holiday season for many Americans, I always preferred Thanksgiving and up until this year, it was the one holiday I always made it home for. I love how its a holiday you smell before you celebrate it.  I love  how a lazy morning watching the Macy’s Day parade suddenly turns into a chaotic rush of pre-party preparation in the kitchen. I love nibbling on breakfast in preparation for the big feast. I love how my mom thinks about modernizing her menu each year but has to keep mashed potatoes for my cousins, Uncle Bo’s cornbread, Billy’s devil eggs, broccoli for my sister, pecan pie for grandma to an extent that the meal remained the same for decades. I love how the holiday is centered around a big meal so no one has to worry about buying gifts or dressing nice since everyone’s zipper is going to be tight after eating anyway.  And I don’t even eat turkey! This Thanksgiving, there was no turkey, there wasn’t even time to Skype my family and it definitely wasn’t in America, but it did involve giving thanks (who would have thought?).  So it took traveling abroad to reconnect with the true spirit of the holiday that I usually forget when stuffing my face back home.  I woke up in Amsterdam on the couch of an old friend that I didn’t know I’d see again but a 14-hour layover gave us the chance to catch up. I took a moment to thank the dozens of strangers who have shared their couches with me over the years, and the universe for unexpected opportunities to cross paths with some of these people again. Instead of being woken up to the smell of turkey, I had to drag myself to the airport before dawn. I stopped at a convenience store to pick some stroopwafel and satisfy a craving that I’ve had since my last visit to the Netherlands. I felt grateful that I had the freedom to eat carmelized waffle cookies for breakfast and a job that I can do from anywhere so I have the funds to indulge in small luxuries like these and that I’m worldly enough to know what stroofwafel is! I passed quickly through immigration, thankful for my American passport that gets me most places without a hassle and being born to a middle-class family who gave me the education and support I need to make a life of travel possible. The short flight to Morocco passed quickly and I landed in Casablanca grateful for another visit to my favorite continent, where I immediately felt like I was in another world. Instead of Amsterdam’s digital clocks ticking away the seconds and constant stream of trains, I had a few hours to spare before I could take the train to the city. I drank a terrible tasting cappuccino at a basic cafe, got 10x overcharged the cost of a local SIM card but relaxed knowing that spending a few extra dinars won’t ruin my trip. After waiting a few more hours to catch a train Mohammedia, I arrived to my couchsurfing host with frazzled hair and tired eyes but his crazy hair and warm welcome put a smile back on my face. Although his home was humble, he treated me like a princess, with fresh, foamy mint tea and a homemade tangine. We chatted for a few hours and then he let me crash around 6 PM. I feel asleep grateful that he let me have exactly what I needed (blankets and a place to pass out for 14 hours!) and his incredible generosity even though his house lacked some of the things I took for granted for twenty years… clean, running water, essentially unlimited food (if there’s ever a natural disaster, my dad’s cabinet can keep you alive for at least a few months!) and heat in the winter (an unthinkable luxury almost worldwide!). “Happy” Although I’ve basically essentially traveling for the past 1.5 years, this 6-month trip has my longest continuous journey through some of the most “complicated” countries and over the greatest distances. I hopped back and forth across the equator and bounced between 18 countries (Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, China, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Italy, Tunisia, Turkey, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Morocco and Spain) on 4 continents. While most of it involved general wandering, I taught a three-week course in China, gave some academic talks in South Africa and interviewed (successfully) for a job in New Zealand. I celebrated my 27th birthday in Vietnam, where a night bus dumped me on the streets of Hanoi at 5 AM where a pouty, tattooed lady named Ling Ling...

Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Going with the Flow: Traveling South Africa

Sorry for the long delay in updating my blog- for whatever reason, I was relatively uninspired when it came to writing during my time in South Africa.  It’s not because my month here hasn’t been thought-provoking- actually, it’s the exact opposite.  It’s a huge country, incredibly diverse, in what and who it contains, which makes it difficult for an outsider to completely understand and/or describe.  After traveling South Africa, I quickly realized nothing about this country is simple.  When it comes to employment, whites complain that affirmative action initiatives make it impossible for them to find jobs, blacks complain that their opportunities are limited because whites still have the highest paying positions.  The Apartheid and accompanying Bantu Education act (which prevented blacks from getting an education above what was needed for them to work as laborers) weren’t that long ago.  The xenophobic attacks on new African immigrants are an ongoing issue, and generally speaking clashes in the townships amongst people cramped together but all coming from different places, different values and different ways of living.  It’s a country with first world infrastructure (deceiving at face value) but third-world politics, with a significant amount of corruption. Since it’s my last morning in this crazy country, I have two extra hours before my plane takes off, I decided to down a second cup of instant coffee and write something.  That being said, yesterday was a crazy adventure and my mind is a bit fuzzy and still recovering.  After two days of severe food poisoning, I made an ambitious attempt at recovery: a damp, cold 12 km hike/rock scramble in the snow-covered Drakensburg Mountains.  I was dropped off alone at a smoky pool bar where I shared a beer with the South African equivalent of rednecks then spent hours in the cold drizzle waiting for a bus that was two hours late.  Around midnight, I successfully made it to Johannesburg Park Station just in time for insane adventure trying to find a hostel, hidden between industrial buildings.  Thankfully, my cab driver was the sweetest man who didn’t dump me on the streets of the city and eventually we were able to penetrate its fortress gates (he even offered for me to stay at his place if our efforts failed) so I’m leaving South Africa with my warm, fuzzy feelings about the country restored, even if I’m not happy about the atypically cold temperatures that make me a little delirious, as well as sleep deprived.  You are forewarned. For a bit of (boring but necessary) background about this journey that got me here.  I came to South Africa because I was offered a post-doc research position at the University of Johannesburg, looking at teacher training workshops in the famous Soweto township.  I was recruited by an enthusiastic but vague Brit retired professor who had been involved with the South African Institute of Physics.  Although I accepted the position after my defense in March, I was a bit skeptical that it was even real when they failed to produce a contract or provide me with useful information in the five months prior to my arrival.  But with some skillful flight coordination for my teaching gig in China, I was able to arrive in the country without paying a penny.  I figured I wanted to see South Africa anyway so what did I have to lose? “I love Johannesburg.  Every time my plane comes in to land, circling over the scruffy yellow mine dumps, the thin, thrusting skyscrapers and glinting glass of central Johannesburg, the snaking motorways encircling the city, the turquoise spangles of swimming pools and psychedelic splashes of bougainvillea in suburban gardens, the serried ranks of new township developments mushrooming out to the open veld, and the rashes of untidy squatter settlements, my chest tightens with excitement.  Jo’ burg is in your face, and overfamiliar from the moment you touch down” -As old as history itself, Sue Armstrong I arranged a workaway, tutoring 10th graders math in a township near Pretoria so I was close enough to check out the situation at the University but not tied to a sinking ship, so to speak.  I loved the area immediately.  I loved the subtle beauty of the grasslands- boring and barren at first glance, but containing a rainbow palette of warm hued vegetation.  Even though I haven’t been on a “real” safari yet, I’d encounter zebras, springboks, wildebeest on “average” hikes through nature reserves or private property.  I adored listening to lyrical melodies of Zulu and related African languages, laughed at the local slang (they call traffic lights “robots”) and the dainty accent that made me feel like adding “Cheerio!” to the end every conversation. I loved the spirit and spunk...

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“How’s China?”, a friend Facebook chatted me. “Uhhh… I’m fine”.  I snuggled further in my sweater in my air conditioned room as I listened to Spotify, responded to work emails on Gmail and drank out of my water bottle.  “I’ll have to get back to you about China”, I responded.  Despite having lived five days at Duke-Kunshan University in China, I honestly have no idea what China is like. I landed in Shanghai’s Pudong airport which was like any airport but with infinitely more instructions- how to ride the escalator, how to board the train to the arrival terminal, how to get off the train, how to sit on the toilet, how to wash your hands… I waited for my co-workers in Starbucks, where I flipped through the Chinese version of Cosmopolitan.  Despite the foreign characters, the Western models and celebrity gossip in their version made the magazine familiar, even though there was a blaring void of sexy stuff, so much so that they renamed the publication “Cosmopolitan Success”.  Behind my magazine, I engaged in my favorite activity of people watching, which didn’t undercover anything too interesting.  The march of men in suits didn’t surprise me but I definitely giggled at teenage boys with sequin-splashed shirts and technicolor pants so colorful that I wanted a pair.  My boss encouraged us to grab dinner, so we went upstairs for pizza at an Italian Restaurant since we thought our access to Western Food might be limited (it isn’t… there’s a Western option for every meal on campus).  Besides the fact that the waitress insisted on unfolding our napkins onto our lap and pouring a shot-size glass of Evian water as if it were liquid gold (it almost costs that much), we could have been eating at any Italian chain restaurant in the US. A driver shuttled us to the Duke-Kunshan University campus which would be our home for the next month.  As a bit of background, Duke University has a Talent Identification Program where a talent search identifies gifted students who qualify for a 3-week academic summer camp (or as I affectionately call it, “nerd camp”).  I’ve taught for this program in India for two summers but this will be the first pilot of the China program, hosted at a brand new collaborative university developed under collaboration with Duke. Security guards in suits dramatically opened the doors to the “conference center”, whose white marble floors, spacious reception desk and colorful modern furniture made us all feel like CEOs.  Campus is located in an area of China known as the “Venice of the East” because of all the rivers in canals.  The architects designed the campus to appear floating on lakes with lily pads to embrace the ambiance of the surrounding area.  Staff helped us with our bags across the connecting bridges and directed us to suites so new that I had to check the wall to make sure the paint had dried.  Our two-floor room (designed for four people but inhabited by two for this program) had high ceilings, a flat screen TV, vanity sink section and so much space that I couldn’t even talk to my roommate without voyaging from one corner to another.  Instructions on the desk taught us to connect to the high speed internet without problems (although I first thought it was broken because Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and all the websites I normally go to were blocked by the government but a Duke VPN quickly took care of that) and provided a cup so we could take advantage of the filtered water spigot to quench our thirst.  I hopped in the shower, half bracing myself for cold water (as was typical in Vietnam and Hong Kong) but instantly relaxed with the warm stream coming from the “water massage” shower heads. All this felt great to my semi-homeless gypsy self, especially after living out of a backpack for so long.  I’ve enjoyed being able to enjoy a shower instead of view it as a necessary evil, to eat raw vegetables and put ice in beverages without having to worry about whether it’ll make me sick and to unpack for a bit in a place where I have access to all modern conveniences.  Staff from the university has even taken us out to the town to spoil us with a traditional Cantonese meal and allow us to stock up on supplies at the local shopping mall but all we saw were relatively empty streets, nice cars and modern looking buildings. Kushan feels like a wealthy suburb and business center, where everything is neat, organized and efficient.  Is this China? Not really.  We’re at an international university with top-tier resources and being able to drink the water, have consistent (and unfiltered) internet...

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next. Setting the stage Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.” As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point. After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas. When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West. Anchoring Under Sail After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by...