Why I Travel

I’ve noticed that a lot of travel bloggers lately are writing and sharing posts specifically dedicated to “why they travel.” Check out any travel blog–you’ll see what I mean. Not surprisingly, a lot of them offer anecdotes of heartbreak, boredom, apathy, curiosity, and a desire to see the world (the usual suspects). And it makes sense–readers want to know how and why the people they read got into this whole messy business in the first place. And it certainly helps put many bloggers into context.

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In these posts, though, there’s usually more than just a brief story about how they contracted the travel bug. These posts often follow up with a disclaimer about how they’ve been able to do it: some talk about jobs that allow them the freedom to travel, some admit a lack of interest in material possessions, some talk about how they sold their house, their car, cashed in their IRAs, and headed out unabashedly into the horizon, and some have a really big savings account from a well-paying job they no longer have. Many emphasize that anyone can travel if they want to, given a restructuring of priorities and an understanding that living or traveling abroad can be all the more cheaper than staying at home. There are stories of redemption, of change, of enlightenment, and of being an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. And I’m certainly not immune to this: I’m one of these travel bloggers, too! Even on my own About Me page, I made sure to make the important rhetorical move of alerting people that I don’t have a financial backer and I haven’t inherited a fortune, because of course I don’t want people to get the impression that I’m a privileged girl from the West.

Because, quite frankly, that’s exactly, 100%, without-a-doubt, what I am.

I was born straight into middle-class America to two incredibly loving and supportive parents who’ve never let me down and who’ve always made sure I had what I needed. I had a tough time finding my direction early in life, and I faltered a lot in college about what I wanted to do with my life. So, boyfriendless and armed with the luxurious college degree of Spanish literature (which was possible due to my first trip abroad, a fantastically liberating and inspiring summer session in Valencia, Spain, the trip to which I owe a lifetime of wanderlust), I decided to do what I’ve always had the privilege of doing: I went again the grain and moved myself to Colombia for a while. By that time in my young life, I had met so many other travelers, and not only ones from the United States–I met travelers from across the Americas, from Europe, from Africa, and from all over Asia. We were all–and still are–searching for something, for the kind of awareness that comes from a grappling with the self and the self’s cultural identity. (And I mention these places to suggest that my privilege is not uniquely American, but it is also not universal.) I made the decision–because I was able to make the decision–to devote my life to trying to make it as a writer, as a storyteller, and now, as an amateur photographer. And so far, it’s been no piece of cake, but I’ve got a lot of gumption and a lot of words up my sleeves. And I can’t wait to see where life takes me next.

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I’ve met many people in my travels who respond to this decision in two ways. The first reaction is one of incredulity: “You get paid to travel?” (Um, not exactly, but that’s for another post). The second reaction, typically from those people whose reality is not one of leisure, they are often surprised and confused. For instance, I remember one moment in particular that has never left me: during an exercise at La Fundacion Esperanza in Cartagena, a place for teenage boys to come and learn life skills, a place where I was volunteering on Saturdays, we were asked to draw a picture of what we wanted out of life. When we shared our pictures, many of the boys showed images of themselves as proud fathers surrounded by a wife and children and standing in front of a two-story house with a driveway. My picture, on the other hand, was a picture of me sitting at a desk, writing, with a bookshelf behind me, my name scrawled onto the spines of some of the books. When I shared mine, there could have been crickets echoing throughout the room. One boy raised his hand. “But what,” he asked me, “is the profession?” Another looked at me. “Don’t you have children?” At that ripe age of 22, I realized that my notion of being a writer–being a travel writer, at that–was absolutely impossible for anyone else in that room to understand. Where were the rest of the my dreams, the ones these boys had dreamt about every day since they decided to leave the slums and dedicate themselves to something better? I had left those dreams out of the picture, and I was suddenly very aware of this privilege. I could work at becoming anything I wanted, I really could; that is not everyone’s universal.

And that is exactly why I travel.

Lots of us also talk about a need for a “nomadic lifestyle.” What this means, usually, is a restlessness, an inability to stay put for any length of time. It evokes a kind of necessary “traveling ethos,” a reputation built not on sitting still and smelling the roses but rather a reputation built on ephemera, a fleeting moment, a kind of being identified through refusing any other identity. While this is a kind of willful nomadism, it doesn’t quite capture the word’s original intentions, which, according to Etymonline.com, are: from Latin Nomas (genitive Nomadis) “wandering groups in Arabia,” from Greek nomas (genitive nomados, plural nomades) “roaming, roving, wandering” (to find pastures for flocks or herds), related to nomos “pasture, pasturage, grazing,” literally “land allotted,” and to nemein “put to pasture,” originally “deal out,” from PIE root *nem- “to divide, distribute, allot.” The kind of wandering associated with the “nomadic lifestyle” promoted by many of us travel bloggers is quite different from the notion of communities who had no permanent housing and who moved with the flock. (Mind you, my very first travel blog was sponsored by the domain nomadlife.org – but what did I know then? And, actually, it’s kind of a beautiful and romantic notion, so….) I don’t disparage the notion of nomadism; in fact, it’s a very important of travel blogging and marketing. What I seem to take issue with, though, is the idea that this nomadism reflects the idea of a perfect global village, a harmonious place where the writer just flits around in, untethered, unmoored to anything or anyone. For many people around the globe, this is hardly the case.

Some people (myself included) like to allude to this definition in some ways, claiming that we appreciate the kind of “slow travel” associated with getting to know local people, engaging in sustainable practices, shopping and eating locally, avoiding tourist traps, refusing the negatively-connoted word of “tourist” at all. And yet, a lot of the travel I’ve done lately is basically the antithesis to this kind of “pasturing” or “grazing;” instead, I’ve been whirled around countries by local experts, furiously taking notes and coming home with a head basically whizzing with images, conversations, ideas, and questions. I’m expected to write about and hopefully convince others to engage in similar practices and follow similar itineraries. I’m encouraged to spread the word, to be a new kind of marketeer, to engage in a kind of travel that is intimately related to tourism. I’ve done this for three reasons: 1) because I’ve been invited and the costs have been graciously covered, 2) because I am building relationships with people and organizations in the industry 3) because I adore traveling. It’s in my blood, it’s who I’ve become, it’s what I dream about when I think about my future. (The whole house/kids/retirement narrative has never been the first thing that comes to my mind–instead, my dreams are of sailing in the Andamon Sea, meeting a camel in India, dancing tango in Argentina, having the chance to physically see the places that continually fascinate my imagination and play in my dreams. That kind of thing). And it’s not that I don’t want those other things (I do!), but for the people who have the privilege of choosing, some people are homebodies, and some, well, are not.

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I am not one of the homebodies. While I love a night on the couch in Tucson with my fiance Ryan, a ball of crochet in one hand and a cup of green tea in the other, these nights provide the necessary diversion from that other life–the life of living out of a suitcase, of packing and unpacking, of living with my camera slung around my neck, eyes and ears perked for the beauty and intrigue of this world. This is why I worked and wrote blog articles for 3 years before receiving a single piece of monetary compensation for it (looking back, I might not have done that, but, well, such is life). I travel because, yes, I’m selfish, curious, able-bodied, and just so happen to be a liberated woman from a democratic society that doesn’t demand a whole lot from me. I travel because my fiancee doesn’t mind (though, of course, I’d like to make my solo travels a duo at some point here). I travel because I do believe–as naively as it might be–that my ability to move my feet, speak English, and have long and interesting conversations with other people has been my life’s ultimate and random gift from the universe. I travel because I ended up being exceptionally lucky and pretty good on my feet in unfamiliar places. I travel because the world’s economy is distorted, because technology allowed us to invent airplanes, and because I didn’t necessarily want what life initially expected of me. We should always remember that not everyone has the ability to, as Mark Twain so elegantly put it, “throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” But because I could sail away, I did just that, and I consider myself very fortunate.

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I think that’s where this post is taking me–encouraging me to consider all the “why’s” behind why I travel. Of course, I travel for those other delicious reasons, too: the thrill of adrenaline in an airport, the body-numbing exhaustion after an unbelievable day, the taste of a new spice, the feeling of spilling a new word from a new language off the lips, the taking of unusual photographs, the meeting of new people, the questioning of my beliefs, the sharing of culture, the finding of a really awesome souvenir in a mom-and-pop shop, the smell of a food I’ve never tasted, the awkward moments that make me wonder how I ever got around anywhere, the joy, the fear, the uncertainty, the lust, the love, the hate, and the total and unforgettable engagement with this world we all inhabit. I travel because I have an adventurous spirit, am good-spirited, and whimsical. I’m spectacularly unable to sit still and I have a very short attention span. And I’m in love with interesting narratives.

Maybe that’s what this blog is all about–sharing this stuff while keeping aware of the other stuff, that important I’m-still-one-person-in-a-big-world stuff.

So where are we now?

I’m not exactly sure yet.

This is why I am writing my own “why I travel” post.

Yours in travel,

Kristin

Travel Writing 2.0: An Interview with Amie O’Shaughnessy

amie-300x200Continuing with our travel writer interview series over at Travel Writing 2.0, this week we’ve got Amie O’Shaughnessy–who just presented at the biggest travel blogging conference in, well, the whole world (this would be TBEX). Amie, the creator behind the popular luxury travel site for families, Ciao Bambino!, discusses what it takes to succeed in social media in a contemporary digital landscape. Whatever your blogging passion (luxury kid travel? culinary foodie? eccentric round-the-world wanderluster?), her advice is savvy, timely, and pretty awesome. As I’m still kind of trying to figure out my own “identity,” her ideas are really sticking with me….

Click here to read our interview!

Yours in travel and happy conversation,

Kristin

24 Hours In: Reflections on Kuala Lumpur

Some cities are hard to get to know–people are unpredictable, the weather can make a huge difference, and depending on where you go, you might get a cranky waiter, a tired taxi driver, a leering comment by an insensitive man on the street, or (insert annoying or frustrating travel experience here). Conversely, at first glance, some cities are romantic, alluring, sexy, and (insert positive adjective here), but will turn out to be noncommittal and dispassionate after a few good days.

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The Los Angeles group – Josephine, me, Nora, and Bill

Kuala Lumpur has turned out to be neither of these two extremes. Instead, in the two days we’ve been here so far, I’ve been greeted by a city that’s both surprised and delighted me–and not for the reasons I might have expected. Here are just a few reasons why I have been nothing but impressed with my 24 hours in Kuala Lumpur.

Malay: If You Can Spell, You Can Pronounce It

For one, though I’d bought a guidebook with a Malay pronunciation guide and key expressions and studied up before we arrived here on Friday, I immediately realized that I didn’t really need it. Everyone here will tell you that pronouncing Malay is about as easy as pronouncing Spanish. All of Malay’s letters–literally, all of them (no weird silent letters here)–are completely phonetic. There are no strong or unusual stress markers, no inflections, and most letters are pronounced exactly the same way as in English. For instance, their “a” will take on the sound of “a” in “father,” their “e” will take on the sound of “bell,” and their “i” will take on the sound in “taxi” (there are other variations, but these are just some examples). So, for instance, the word for “thank you” (which I recommend you take the time to learn because it’s a very kind gesture), is “Terima Kaseh.” How would you pronounce it? If you’re a native English speaker, exactly as you’d think: tear-ee-ma kass-eh.

Also, as I’ve learned, people absolutely light up when you take the extra step to address them by name. Our guide, Sim, told us to try it just once–ask a person you meet what his or her name is, use it later on in the conversation, and you’ll have a friend for life. I’ve realized that people keep doing this to me (nearly everyone I’ve met calls me Kristin after only meeting me one time!), and I’ve loved every second of it. I tried it on some of the other guides and people we’ve met so far, and yes, I can testify: it works. Not only will you elicit a huge smile, there’s no prouder feeling than making someone else’s day.

But Even Still, Everyone Speaks At Least 3 Languages

One of the most amazing things I’ve learned in my few days here is that the Malay people are encouraged from a young age to learn at least 3 languages: Malay, English, and Chinese. In some places, there are almost no street signs in Malay–everything is in English and Chinese. This really, really, really surprised me. Though I haven’t traveled significantly throughout Asia yet, the other two countries I have visited, Taiwan and Thailand, are countries almost exclusively written in Chinese and Thai. Here, you’ve got three options to figure out what something or someone is saying to you. But in all honesty, you won’t really need much else to get by than English–nearly every person I have met speaks English with as much fluency as, well, any of my freshman composition students.

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One of KL’s common signs–English and Mandarin!

Something else I love about Malaysia is that by law, every child has the right to learn his or her native tongue. Therefore, if you live in Malaysia and your child is Hindi, the school your child attends is required to hire a language tutor who can teach Hindi. Tagalog? Same thing. I have never been to a place that respects and cares for differences as much as Malaysia does. It truly is incredible.

Happy Taxi Drivers – Cliche and All 🙂

The way a taxi driver treats me is one of the first indications of whether or not I’m going to like a place (and yet, I do realize that first impressions are often not the last ones!). My first day in Cartagena, Colombia, for instance, I had a taxi driver who promised me a price and then began arguing with me when we arrived at my destination and told me that because I was a white girl, I should give him the shirt off my back since I probably had a thousand more shirts at home due to how rich I was. (Despite this, I fell head over heels for the city upon subsequent taxi rides).

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Kuala Lumpur by day

Being a young woman in a taxi isn’t always a safe–or easy–place to be, so I’m very attune to how well I’m treated in those yellow cars. Here, in KL, I’ve taken three cabs so far and have laughed my way through all of them. The first one talked extensively about how much he loves Los Angeles even though he’s never been there. The second one, who picked me up in the pouring rain from a shopping mall and headed directly into a chaotic string of cars, talked philosophically about the nature of the human being. And the third, who picked us up later that night, let my colleague Bill fall asleep in the front seat while he quietly drove us home through the rain. While he did tell us the price goes up in the rain, we didn’t mind–we were so exhausted that an extra $9 USD wasn’t too much of an unnecessary expense.

Say Goodbye to Noisy Tourists Who’ve Imbibed Too Much

This could quite possibly be the best reason to visit Kuala Lumpur–though Malaysia is an incredibly diverse and accepting of all religions, because it’s nationally recognized as a Muslim country, it frowns upon alcohol in many contexts. Therefore, there is a noticeable shortage of bars and nightclubs. While they are definitely places for people to imbibe, dance, and mingle (rooftops bars are always a favorite, as the view is spectacular), you won’t see bar upon bar lining the streets in this city. So, because there aren’t many tourists sloppily stumbling around or locals getting angry with each other and picking fights, the streets are relatively quiet, incredibly safe, and unusually welcoming by night. (Even the night markets don’t feel chaotic, which is definitely a feather in KL’s night cap).

Basically, everywhere I’ve walked, I’ve walked with my head up, eyes forward, my purse slung over my shoulder. And I feel completely fine doing it. This is amazing.

Who Doesn’t Love a Good Malay-Chinese-Indian-Thai-Java-Arabic Dinner?

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A truly international Malaysian breakfast

 While some purist foodies scoff at fusion food, I am definitely not one of those people. In my opinion, one of the most rewarding and undeniably awesome parts about globalization is the way food has mixed, mingled, appropriated, re-appropriated, and blended across the globe. Here in Kuala Lumpur–which is perhaps the most truly international city I’ve been in–everything is fusion: in one meal, you might have some crispy roti telur, an unleavened Indian bread mixed with fried egg and cooked in margarine, some Malaysian nasi lamak, steamed rice with coconut topped with fried anchovy bodies, hard-boiled eggs, and a very spicy red chili paste, and some Cantonese yellow noodles–all on the same plate at the same time. Can I just say I can’t put my fork down?

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 A special thanks to Tourism Malaysia and AEROMEET 2013 for graciously hosting me on this trip. All photographs are the author’s own.