Thursday, 21 July 2011

The True Friend Travel Test

Traveling helped me separate True Friends from Imposters.

And the people in the True Friends camp were not exactly the ones I expected.

I first noticed this phenomenon - I'll call it The True Friend Travel Test - on my 15-month deployment to Afghanistan.  Some of the people I assumed would send me letters, care packages and emails didn't.  And other people, people I didn't expect to give a hoot about me, did.  In fact, they showered me with letters, care packages and emails.

I've also noticed a similar phenomenon called The True Friend Dream Test. This year, when I summoned up the courage to dedicate myself to writing, to be myself, to be authentic, some of my "True Friends" didn't "get it."  No one's been outwardly critical of my aspirations, but indifference hurts more.

Like the True Friend Travel Test, the silver lining is that others - people I hadn't met before, people I considered mere acquaintances before I announced my dream to the world - have materialized.  They've commented on my blog, sent me emails.  They've rung me up to congratulate me, encourage me, and tell me that they're inspired.  They've given me strength.

Life is odd.

Again and again I see the parallels between traveling and following one's dreams.  Both are lonely, frightening, and uncertain.  But, I'm thankful for the slew of True Friends I've acquired (and reconfirmed) in the process.  I hope I can support them on their journeys as well as they've supported me.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Travel versus Graduate School: A Fork in the Road

Before I left for India, I applied to eight graduate writing programs.  Pending acceptance, I imagined returning to America and writing my heart out for 2-3 years.  Travel changed everything, including my ideas about what constitutes an education.

Growing up, my parents encouraged me to value a formal education.  They assisted me with homework, and praised every "A."  They never said it, but I understood the expectation:  I would get a bachelor's degree and a master's degree.  I came to associate an education with an institution.

From the first day, it was obvious that travel rivals a formal education.  I had thousands of light bulb moments about politics, religion, and geography.  The world became a classroom and every person I encountered was a teacher.  (In retrospect, I learned more in 19 weeks than a year at university.)    

In India, I was accepted to four writing programs.  The news thrilled me.  But I couldn't help but ask, "Could I get a better education from travel?"

I've always been a realist when it comes to writing.  I know that a Masters in Fine Arts is not a requisite for a writer.  I know an MFA does not guarantee publication.

I don't even believe that people can teach you how to write.  You teach yourself. Still, I applied to eight graduate writing programs because I believed that an MFA could give me the resources I needed to teach myself.  It could provide me a writing community - something I've found valuable as an artist.  It could help me make contacts in the publishing world.  Above all, I believed I could improve more in two years of concerted, focused effort than six years of working full-time and writing on the side.  

When it came time to accept or decline my offers of admission (April 15th), I was in the Middle East.  I was seven weeks into my trip, travel fatigue hadn't set in, and I wanted to travel indefinitely.  The alternative to an MFA was this:  come home, cancel my cell phone, sell everything (including the car), and buy a one-way ticket to southeast Asia or Africa.

From there, my plans were vague.  I figured I'd go where I pleased and find employment along the way.  People I met on the road extended their travels by teaching English, working at restaurants and hostels, and volunteering in exchange for room and board.  I believed that I could pull it off - I still do.

I'm single, childless, and debt-free.  This may not last long.  The conditions may never be this stellar again.

At the same time, I knew the opportunity to get an MFA might not come along again, either.

MFAs are surprisingly competitive.  The schools don't care if you have a 4.0 GPA from Harvard - at least not much.  Ninety-percent of the admissions decision involves the writing portfolio.  Even if your portfolio is excellent, it may not be what the school is looking for.  When faced with two excellent portfolios, a school may choose the portfolio that most closely mirrors the type of writing that the faculty themselves are doing.  Really, it's a crapshoot.

And the stars aligned this year:  In 2010, I took a writing course at the University of Washington and had a polished portfolio.  A writing instructor and Army supervisors agreed to write me letters of recommendation.  My GRE scores hadn't expired yet!  

April 15th loomed and so began a series of sleepless nights.  Wavering, wobbling, and weighing the pros and cons.  To MFA or not?  To travel or not? Being decisive has never been my strong suit.

In the end, I chose the MFA.

It was Sister #2 who talked me down from the ledge by suggesting a compromise:  extend your trip by six weeks, then do the MFA.  That's what I did. I spent another six weeks in eastern Europe and north Africa.  Travel fatigue set in.  By the end, I was exhausted and ready to come home - at least temporarily.

Everyone's had a moment like that in life.  A moment at the fork of a road.  A moment where both paths are appealing.  Yet, you're cognizant that choosing one over the other will radically effect the rest of life.

I think I made the right decision.  I believe that formal education will improve my writing and I tell myself that when I graduate, I'll go back.  But so many things could change between now and then.  Kids, spouse, loans.  All the things that make travel difficult.

In the end, I realize that nothing is guaranteed and uncertainty is the only certainty.  Yet, I'm certain of this - travel changed me.

I can now name all 196 countries of the world.  I'm learning French.  Yesterday, I read an article about Bahrain with interest.  Bahrain!  Last year, I didn't know Bahrain existed.    

I sense that travel will be an important part of my future, an important part of my continuing education.


Monday, 18 July 2011

Five Benefits of Owning Fewer Possessions

Instead of renting a U-haul to drive out to Roanoke on August 1st (expensive when unemployed), I decided to ditch everything that would not fit into my 2006 Toyota Prius (and buy a cheap bed/dresser upon arrival).

It all has to fit in...there? 

I willed all of my furniture to Sister #2 and fiancee.  They were grateful for the upgrades (and ability to relinquish that green, fart-stained couch that witnessed too many frat parties).  I warned them that I might take it back in two years when the MFA is complete.  But more than likely, I'll do something overseas when I graduate (Peace Corps?), so they'll be able to keep my furniture longer (perhaps indefinitely).  I cut my supply of non-furniture items (e.g. kitchenware, clothes, books) by about 40% by making donations to Good Will.  (If I was more frugal, I may have thrown a yard sale or sold my belongings on Craigslist or eBay, but at this point it wasn't worth the hassle.)

I attempted to pack my car like it's August 1st.  The remaining items do not all fit into my Toyota Prius.  Looks as though I'll need to downsize.  Again.

Pre-Good Will book collection.

What has this experience taught me?

First, nothing I've done is radical.  When I was traveling, I met people who sold everything to afford a year overseas.  They were literally carrying all of their possessions in a backpack!  Still, this has been radical - for me.

That said, downsizing is less painful than expected.

Here are five benefits of owning less:

#1.  Money Saved.
I no longer have to pay extra money for a storage facility, or a larger apartment to fit my extraneous belongings.  I can funnel that extra buck into my travel and retirement funds.

#2.  Increased Gratitude and Awareness.  
I really appreciate the things I have left.  The stuff that fits in my Toyota Prius represents about 20% of my total belongings pre-RTW adventure.  But it's the finest 20%.  It's my favorite clothes, books, blankets, and jewelry.

Moreover, I'm more aware of what I own.  I can almost list every item off the top of my head.  That, to me, is a litmus test of value.  Try it sometime.  Sit down with pen and paper in hand for 30 minutes and list your every possession. Then, compare that list to what you actually own.  If you forgot to name that wicker chair or book on beading or wool sweater, then chances are they really aren't that important to you anyway.  

#3.  More Travel Expedient.
Owning fewer belongings makes travel, relocation and living abroad simpler.  It's easier to pack it all up and take it with you.  It's easier to convince a family member or friend to store a dozen of your boxes in their attic as opposed to 12 dozen.

When your boss offers you a chance to work at the corporate office in Beijing, or the kids move out and you can finally execute a RTW trip, or you get that hankering to volunteer at an orphanage in Maputo, you're more likely to go for it (and less likely to use your belongings as an excuse for not embarking on the thrill of a lifetime).

#4.  Other People are Happier.
Think about how many books you own that you've read once and never opened again.  Or how many clothes, in the depths of your closet, that haven't been modeled since 2005.  If you're not using an item on a regular basis (say, once per week) consider that it's just taking up space.  Someone else would love to read that post-noir novel or slip into your Jimmy Choos.  Spread the happiness.

#5.  Less Likely to Overspend Again.
When you're constantly buying things that you don't need, it becomes a habit. You start to do it automatically, oftentimes to fill some physical, emotional, spiritual or mental void.  Once you downsize, you may realize that life is possible without the clutter.  You might find other pastimes to fill aforementioned voids that don't involve a credit card swipe (e.g. walking, frisbee golf, french kissing/petting, people watching, the public library).  In the future, you'll be less inclined to live outside of your means.

The bane of my existence.

Consider that living outside of one's means is a key reason why we're experiencing the current economic downturn.

Also consider this:  a wide body of research indicates that once a person has enough money to meet their basic needs (e.g. food, shelter), increases in wealth have little effect on personal happiness.  According to this research, happiness is most closely tied to job satisfaction and personal relationships - not how many pairs of galoshes, ceramic mugs, and New York Times best sellers you have at home.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

My family lives in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis + St. Paul metropolitan area), and I've resided here for the past month.

I wanted to add Minneapolis to my travel blog in order to encourage people to visit Minnesota, The Land of 10,000 Lakes.  The stereotypes about Minneapolis tend not to advance Minnesota as a top American travel destination.  They are:

#1.  The weather in Minneapolis is akin to an arctic tundra.  Pack your snowsuit if you come - the temperature is below freezing much of the year.

#2.  Minnesota is nothing more than farm fields (think Iowa) and back woods (think West Virginia).  Translation:  Unless you love the Great Outdoors, there is nothing to do.

Here's my take on the stereotypes, having lived for 18 years in Minneapolis before going off to college and joining the Army.  (Like most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth to both assertions...)

Low-Down on Misconception #1

Stats:  Yes, Minneapolis has the coldest average temperature of any major metropolitan area in America.  (The average temperature in January is 13.1 degrees Fahrenheit).  However, despite the cold, winters are sunny.  And, these temps are not indicative of the entire year - summer days in Minnesota are warm to hot and usually humid.  (The average temperature in July is 73.2 degrees Fahrenheit).

My Take:  If only there was a way to cut January and February from the Minneapolis calendar.  Besides these two months, the climate in the Twin Cities is terrific.  By early March, the snow is melted and we transition into a pleasant, lukewarm Spring.  Summers in Minneapolis last forever.  Despite humidity, the heat is rarely oppressive.  Almost everyday is sunny, and rain, when it happens, is often accompanied by lightning and thunder (I missed summer storms when I lived near Seattle).

Having resided in several states, I believe Minneapolis has the most picturesque Autumn in America (there's a reason why the Twin Cities marathon, in October, has been dubbed "The Most Beautiful Urban Marathon in America.)  November is a draw - the leaves are down, it's grey and cool, but snow is unlikely. Minneapolis usually receives it's first snowfall in December which rocks - IMO, no Christmas can top a White Christmas.  But by January and February, you're wishing the snow (and the cold) would go away.

Bottom line:  If you find a winter sport to love (be that downhill skiing, nordic skiing, snowshoeing, ice fishing, snowmobiling, etc.), invest in high quality winter gear (e.g. North Face, Columbia), and keep a stash of hot chocolate and Bailey's handy, then January and February in Minneapolis can be more than tolerable, they can be some of the best weeks of the year.  If not, you may decide that the other 10 months make up for it.

Low-Down on Misconception #2

Stats:  The Twin Cities metropolitan area is the 16th largest metropolitan area in America.  With a population of 3.5 million people, 60% of the state's population lives in the Twin Cities.

My Take:  Since 60% of the population lives in the Twin Cities, people that travel to other parts of the state are likely to see lots of woods (northern Minnesota), lots of farmland (southern Minnesota), and not a lot of people.  If you're an outdoors enthusiast you're in heaven, but if you prefer concrete and Gucci, most of Minnesota's draws are clustered around Minneapolis.

Minnesota basically invented shopping - we have the world's first enclosed Mall (Southdale) and the world's largest Mall (The Mall of America).  There are theaters (30+ venues, 100+ companies), clubs, bars and restaurants galore. An enticing string of lakes wind through the Twin Cities.  If you're a fitness fanatic, you'll encounter a plethora of fit, latex-clad bodies (we're routinely ranked as one of the top two or three bike cities in America and have one of the lowest obesity rates in the nation).

Bottom line:  A City Gal or Boy will find a lot to love about the Twin Cities (the rest of the state, not so much).

...All these years later, I may finally understand the appeal of my hometown. And I may finally understand a little bit of what T.S. Eliott meant when he said:

"We shall not cease from exploring.  And the end of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."   

Monday, 4 July 2011

It's a Wrap

I've been back in America for nearly two weeks.  Enough time to reunite with family and friends, attend to administrative needs, and shift from travel mode to MFA writing mode.

These two weeks also gave me time to reflect upon my trip (I imagine I'll be reflecting upon this life experience for years to come).  As an intuitive person, I can't help but be introspective - I always try to see the big picture, to ask myself, "What did this experience MEAN?"

Traveling was the first major thing I did after getting out of the military, and I believe it set the tone for how I live the rest of my life.  It changed me in dozens of ways but I feel like I can place most of these changes under three umbrellas:






The most obvious change is that I'm more self-confident.  I gained self-confidence because I had to depend on myself for everything.  I had no one holding my hand, standing by my side, or giving me advice from afar (left the cell phone at home, and email was often sketchy).  Out of my comfort zone, I land navigated, practiced street smarts, decided who to trust and not to trust, secured food and lodging, translated and was translated to.  I cleared dozens of challenges every day, challenges that I don't encounter to nearly the same degree when I'm back in my comfort zone in America...

As a more self-confident person, I believe my opinion is valid.  I believe my opinion is valid because I don't feel that I'm below anyone anymore.  I feel like I have an array of life experiences to impart.

As a more self-confident person, I've noticed that my body image is improved. For the first time in 28 years I not only accept my body but I OWN my body. There is a distinct mental shift between the two. Reaching that next step on the road of evolution is empowering.

As a more self-confident person, my tactics toward endurance training have changed.  I've been an endurance athlete since I was 15-years-old.  I love pushing my body further and further on the swim, bike and run.  I'm excited to train for my second half-ironman and first full-ironman while I complete the MFA.

As I eased back into exercise these past two weeks (after not working out for five months), I noticed that I was more gentle with my body.  I'm enjoying the journey more and not taking everything so seriously.  I'm eating more protein and less sugar.  I'm making adjustments to my swim, bike and run form, and I'm backing off (and readjusting) whenever I feel pain in my joints, ligaments and tendons.  I'm more determined than ever to be a better athlete, but I'm less obsessive compulsive.

Tel Aviv





I've always considered myself a dreamer, but seeing the world in all it's diversity made me dream not only as big as I used to dream when I was a kid, but bigger than I ever thought possible.

That said, I realize that dreaming isn't action.  (In fact, dreaming can be self-indulgent and take our minds off of appreciating the here and now.)  Fulfilling those dreams requires risk-taking and work.  That's the truth and it's not glamorous.

I identified two stumbling blocks to fulfilling dreams - fear of uncertainty, and fear of non-conformity.  Those two fears remain.  But I developed two corresponding mantras:
-There is no certainty in life but uncertainty.  
-There are absolutely no rules to the game of life.






Risk taking.

Getting out of the Army, traveling, and pursuing an MFA involved a risk.  Some people would say that I committed financial suicide, but I knew that if I didn't take this risk I would regret it for the rest of my life. Ultimately, regret is more scary than failure.    

The past 10 months have been an emotional rollercoaster.  I've been wracked with fear on many occasions, but have noticed something peculiar:  when I set out into the unknown, "stepping stones" have continually appeared.  I've never been given more than I can handle (and some of the things I thought I couldn't navigate at first glance proved navigable).    

...I've noticed that many people talk about the great things they did in their teens and 20s (but what about ages 30-100?).  When you ask them about themselves and what they're proud about in life, they mention something that they did decades ago (with a whimsical, far-off look in their eye).  They say things like, "I wish I was young like you," or "Do it now because once you settle down it's too difficult..."  

That's not the way I want to live life.  When people ask me what I'm proud about 60 years from now, I want to mention something I did last month, last week, yesterday.  I want to keep on forcing myself out of that comfort zone.  I want to continue to do great things - not out of feelings of obligation or some masochistic desire to appear a martyr, but because I'm passionate and excited and ENJOY empowering people and affecting change.  

I don't believe that "settling down" is an excuse to stop being great and doing great things.  If I find a partner, and EVERYDAY with him feels like Sunday afternoon (comfortable, easy, no challenges, no risks) then it's time to look elsewhere.  I believe that the best romantic partnerships challenge people to grow and evolve, to explore, to take risks, and to get out of their comfort zone.  

I don't WANT to be the same person, to have the same ideas, opinions and perspectives I had at 28 for the rest of my life.  

If travel left one imprint on me it was this:  savor the journey but don't stop EVOLVING.    



...I've been trying to decide what to do with this blog now that my first RTW trip is done and dusted.  I don't want to write garbage, so I won't be writing as much as when I was on the road.  But I want to keep Random Road Revelations active. Travel is travel, and there are plenty of American cities to see before my next RTW adventure.

The plan is to live frugally, work hard, keep a budget, and save up enough money so that I can spend my 30th birthday next summer in southern Africa.