The first time I left United States I was nineteen years old and scared out of my mind. Well, okay, I’d been to Canada before, but I grew up in Buffalo, New York, where Canada is considered just an extension of the United States — an extension that happens to have a lower drinking age and people who say “eh” all the time. (To my Canadian friends, I will apologize. I have since learned that Canada is actually not a part of the United States — at least not any more. I’m not really sure when Canada stopped being a part of the States, but I’d like to wish all of you the best of luck with your brand new country!)
It was during my freshman year at a small liberal arts college in the middle of rural Ohio, that my roommate and I had hatched the plan to do something exciting and daring together during our summer break rather than just go back to our respective homes. I suggested we go work at the nearby Cedar Point Amusement Park. Growing up in a big family, I had never really traveled much. In addition to our annual Christmas pilgrimage to Indiana to visit my grandparents, the only other trip we took on a regular basis was to Cedar Point in the summer (usually on the way to Indiana… you can understand why as I kid I thought all roads led to Indiana). My brothers, sisters and I would spend the weekend fighting over bunk beds in the camper van, avoiding the campground showers, eating fried dough and getting sick on roller coasters. As you can imagine, we pretty much thought Cedar Point was heaven (or at least I did!).
Every summer, I’d watch the college-aged workers patrolling the grounds at Cedar Point, and wonder how on earth they’d gotten so lucky as to be able to live in a land of endless fried dough and roller coasters. Suited up in bright yellow overall shorts, they appeared charmed… if unfashionably so. While I knew I lacked both the complexion to wear yellow and the ankles to pull off overall shorts, I couldn’t help wanting to be one of them one day (Think I’m crazy? Just watch this adorable recruitment video for Cedar Point staff and you’ll want to spend your summer sweeping up gum wrappers in yellow overall shorts, too!).
My roommate, despite being the type who actually looks good in yellow (yes, we hate her), had other plans. She informed me that we were going to apply for student work visas and spend the summer working in London. My roommate won. After applying for my first passport, we got our visas, booked the flight to London and showed up overpacked (apparently, we didn’t think they’d have sheets or towels in London) and scared (Well, I was scared. My roommate was ready to conquer the world; I, on the other hand, could barely conquer my bowels). We spent our first week in a hostel while we looked for work and a place to live. Within a week we’d both found jobs (her at Planet Hollywood, me at Gap Kids) and a tiny one-room flat (located conveniently next door to the hostel, which luckily saved us from having to haul our overpacked bags full of sheets and towels across the city).
While in London, I fell in love… both with a man (a dental student from Canada) and a way of life (living abroad). My romance with the dental student didn’t last — sadly, seeing as I seem to have teeth with the consistency of Swiss cheese. I can’t help thinking that if only I’d worked a little bit harder at that relationship, maybe, just maybe, I could have had at least one free root canal out of the deal! My love for living abroad, though, has not died. And, luckily for me, I eventually ended up living abroad in Japan, where they have excellent dental insurance. I’m telling you, should you ever need a root canal, move to Japan! I got two root canals there for the price of one in the States. Bargain!
Admittedly, I can’t say I did much in London that summer that I couldn’t have been doing had I just stayed in the States. I spent most of my days attempting to sell baby khakis at Gap Kids. And, because I was not very good at selling baby khakis, I ended up having to get a second job at a pub. So in the evenings, when I wasn’t being obnoxiously in love and making googly eyes at my boyfriend, I was pouring pints and emptying ashtrays in a bar. Aside from the occasional glimpse of Big Ben that I’d get while walking over Westminster Bridge, I didn’t see any sights or do any traveling.
My roommate took a trip to Amsterdam and Paris, and the boyfriend left me to go backpacking through Europe; meanwhile, I stayed in the flat, eating crackers and watching EastEnders. Aside from EastEnders, I could have easily done all that while sitting on my parent’s couch in Buffalo… or, say, in the Cedar Point employees’ dorm in Ohio. But, it didn’t matter, I was eating crackers and watching TV in London. Just being able to say I had done all these things in a foreign city lent more mystery and charm to my life than any pair of yellow overall shorts could have ever promised! I was hooked.
I spent the next two summers working abroad; first in Dublin and then in Edinburgh. After graduating from college, I got a job teaching English with the JET Program and moved to a tiny fishing village in Japan. And, after a couple stints in the States and a one-year teaching gig in the Amazonian region of Brazil, I finally decided to get my Master’s degree in English as a Second Language Education so that I could have a means of living abroad permanently. I then promptly moved back to Japan.
While living in those countries, I never felt much desire to do anything besides just live there. Despite spending three summers in Europe, I didn’t once feel the urge to backpack through it. In Brazil, I stayed one night in Rio and never went back. In Japan, I did the touristy things: visited Tokyo (meh… I prefer Osaka), climbed Mt. Fuji (not recommended… especially if you’re doing it in the middle of the night on four hours of sleep), and drank beer under cherry blossoms (okay, I do love cherry blossoms… and beer). But, more often then not, during my three years in Japan, most nights you could find me curled up on my couch, watching cable TV and eating crackers (or popcorn… or maybe a large, extra garlic Domino’s pizza).
The only time I attempted to do any kind of serious traveling was the last time I was in Thailand, and I can’t say I did a very good job of it. I’m probably the only person who has ever stayed in Thailand for a month and never managed to see a beach (still haven’t!). I spent two weeks poring over my Lonely Planet, hopping from city to city in central Thailand in an attempt to fit in any sight described as either “amazing,” “stunning”, “gorgeous” or “must-see.” (Just a warning, should you attempt the same, the people at Lonely Planet seem to have a tendency to throw these words around a bit willy-nilly when it comes to Thailand… just saying). By the third week, I was exhausted and could barely trudge my way through Chiang Mai. On my fourth and final week, I landed in Nong Khai in the Northeast, which featured only one “must-see” sight according to my Lonely Planet: the Sala Kaew Ku sculpture park. I spent one afternoon visiting the park and the rest of the week hanging out at the guest house, eating pineapple pancakes, reading books and staring at the Mekong River. When I finally returned to Japan, I was so happy to be reunited with my couch and be able to sit in one place for longer than a week, that I vowed I would never undergo such a venture again.
Sure, I’ve dabbled in a few quick trips here and there: a week in Bali, Golden Week in Seoul and a ten-day winter break in Melbourne. But, I’ve realized that my travel style is slow… seriously slow. In fact, my preferred method of visiting a country involves my staying in that country (preferably on a couch… with some crackers and maybe a few DVDs) until my visa expires, at which point, I leave that country and move on to the next one. Which is exactly how I’m planning my current trip (that is if you could call what I’m doing “planning”). Instead of researching the cities or places of interest I want to visit in each country, I research how long I can stay in each country before they kick me out. Once I find out that information, I research volunteer positions, odd jobs or possible couches I can occupy the entire time I’m in that country before I’m kicked out.
In the past three and a half weeks that I’ve been in Thailand, I’ve seen more DVDs than I’ve seen sights. I’ve been managing about one sight per week (this week, it was the amazing White Temple in Chiang Rai) and about one DVD per day (this week, it’s been He’s Just Not That Into You, Knocked Up, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous and, because I thought I could use a break from all the cheesy chick flicks, No Country for Old Men, which I have to say was a bad idea… do not watch that movie should you be living in a jungle by yourself with only two cats and a machete to keep you safe).
In between DVDs, I spend the majority of my time killing ants, watering plants and talking to cats. This is not exactly the life of the would-be traveler; it’s more like the life of the neighborhood crazy lady who gives out pennies and prayer cards at Halloween. Sure, I could spend my days out exploring the area and sometimes I do (or attempt to… and then get lost and give up before lunch), but it’s been pretty nice taking regular afternoon naps on the porch with the cats and watching cheesy movies at night. Aside from the occasional huge man-sized spider that shows up in my bathtub, life is good.
I feel a bit guilty confessing all this. You see, I’ve recently joined Twitter where I’ve been connecting with all these awesome travelers and travel bloggers. A lot of my, ummm, “tweeps” (don’t worry… I had to Google that term before I knew what it meant, too) are either on or planning major full-scale around-the-world adventures. These are people who actually research the cities, cultures and sights of the countries they’re going to visit and not just how long they can stay there until they get kicked out. These people have airplane tickets, hotel reservations, itineraries and travel budgets. Some people have been scrimping and saving for years to take a trip of a lifetime; I saved for three months and have enough money to last me until the summer if I eat nothing but street food and noodles for the next four months. Others have been studying the languages of the countries they plan to visit. Here, I’ve been living in Thailand for almost a month, and I only know three words… and, yet, I still manage to mess those up. Yesterday, instead of “thank you,” I said “hello” to a man who had been helping me for a full five minutes. These people have cool travel blogs where they dish out travel tips and advice on things to do and see in each country. I have this blog where I write about my couch and eating crackers. As, you can see, I’m a bit out of my league here.
These people even have a special lingo they use to talk about travel; like “#RTW” means “Round the World” and “#TT” means “Travel Tuesday” and “#travel” means “travel” (yeah, I know… I had to Google all those terms, too!). And, well, I’ve been so excited about connecting with all these cool travel people doing cool travel things, that I might have gotten a bit carried away and pretended to be a cool travel person myself… which, in all honesty, I’m not. By dictionary definition, “to travel” means “to go from one place to another, as on a trip; journey.”
Sure, in the past week, I’ve gone from one place (the house) to another (the mini-mart down the street for a beer), but I don’t think this is what the dictionary has in mind by “journey.” I’ve even found myself using “RTW” in my tweets when, to be perfectly honest, the only world I’m going around is the one in my head!
So, I thought I’d just come clean and confess: I am not a cool travel person. I’m not even technically a “travel” person. I’m just a home-body whose home keeps changing. I do not have an itinerary, a budget or any idea how to say “Excuse me” in the country I happen to be living in. The only journey I’m making is the one between couches. I do not have travel tips or advice to dish out… but I do have some crackers…. care for one?