Traveling: feeling that door shut behind you as you wander down the unlit hallway of your life

Traveling is great and it’s also hard. It can feel shitty to talk about what’s hard about it because as someone who’s able to travel like this, I’m in a huge position of privilege and opportunity, and I’m grateful for it. But the reality is, nothing’s as perfect as Instagram makes it seem, including “the trip of a lifetime”. 

Traveling alone sometimes feels like this.
Traveling by yourself is an incredible feeling. You can go where the wind blows, learn what you’re capable of, face your fears, learn to navigate (or at least improve a little bit), and meet people you never would’ve met if you already had a friend or partner with you. But sometimes you don’t meet those new people, and sometimes you just get tired of having the same introductory conversations with new people over and over. Sometimes all you want is to go to dinner with friends who feel like that perfectly worn-in sweater, and have a laugh-filled conversation where you don’t have to try at all. 

The reality is, if you travel like this, you’re leaving a lot behind. You’re choosing one door over another. Even if the door in front of you is exactly what you wanted, it’s painful to close a door you’ve cared about for a long time. 

Years ago, I spent two months of the summer in the south of France with my then-boyfriend. When I got back to university that fall I was chatting with some friends about our summers. One person talked about how she worked in a trailer park running programming for kids, and shrugged off her experience as boring compared to France. But to me, it didn’t matter that I was in France and she was in Ontario. Our lives weren’t that different. Mine looked glamorous on paper and on social media, but my day-to-day was pretty boring too. I wasn’t doing anything particularly special, I’d just bought a plane ticket. I reassured her that what I did wasn’t any more interesting than what she did. 

Of course, I’m personally drawn to traveling, and I do love a lot about it. But sometimes I wonder why on earth I do it. Traveling has its moments–the views that blow you away, the people you never would’ve met back home, the conversations you have, and the skills, knowledge and empathy you gain. But you also have desperately lonely days, important events that you miss back home, friends and family you can’t be there for, and relationships that end. Is the trade-off really worth it? 

Most people don’t travel indefinitely. Eventually, after some amount of “getting it out of their systems”, most people settle down somewhere, put down roots, hang out with their friends, maybe have a family, and build a life. Now, I do believe that building a life can mean a lot of different things, and it doesn’t have to be one where you have deep roots in one place. But for me, after traveling for a while I start to crave the normalcy, routine, and old favourites that I left behind. I miss being able to see the people I love in person, our favourite dive bar, my yoga studio, the coffee shops I felt comfortable in, and the bagel shop that I would sometimes start my day with. 

As I’m settling into a new city, where I’ll be for three months, I feel itchy. I’m desperately craving places where I feel like I belong. After three months of traveling, unpacking my backpack feels great, but I’ve been here for three weeks and I don’t feel grounded. I know there’s potential here, and I know it takes time to meet people and get to know a place, but it’s this feeling that makes me want to just pick a place and root down deep. 

The trouble is, I don’t know which lifestyle I’m built for. When I lived in a place where I could’ve rooted down, I felt restless. And now that I’m completely free from ties, I feel aimless and alone. Maybe I’m not built for either. But then, what do I do? 

This feeling of restlessness and searching for purpose and belonging is in no way limited to traveling. I know that many people my age are struggling with these feelings too, and I’m pretty sure these feelings don’t magically go away when you reach some milestone either. So I’d love to hear from anyone with advice in resolving their conflicting desires for adventure and belonging, or about making friends as an adult, or whatever other advice you want to share. This happiness thing isn’t easy. 

Fitting feelings of YOLO into a long-term life strategy

A few years ago I excitedly got on a trampoline for the first time since high school. Upon my first very normal rebound off the trampoline a wave of impact rippled through my joints, reverberating in my knees, hips, and up my back and neck. I stopped dead. Holy shit, I said out loud, that’s not at all how it used to feel. That’s when I realized, I’m getting older.

Graffiti quoting one of my favourite Grey’s Anatomy lines on a wall in my Kathmandu hostel.
That was three years ago. I’m 26 now and my own fragility has only become more apparent. Now, I recognize that 26 is not old, and if you’re much older than me you may be scoffing at my wimpiness. To clarify, it’s more the transition that I’m observing; compared to the carefree, resilient years of my childhood and teens, being in your 20s is the beginning of a confronting reality check—you are not invincible.

This new reality shows itself in big and small ways. Last year on a bike trip in Québec I had a small wipe out on a gravel path and scraped my knee. No big deal; it didn’t need much first aid, and didn’t inhibit the rest of my trip. But I was astounded when it took more than a month for it to heal, and a year later I can still see the white-ish mark where it had been. It’s possible that it always took that long to heal from simple injuries and I just never noticed, but it seems to me like my body’s ability to bounce back is a little bit less impressive than it used to be.

I also feel myself being more cautious than I was even just a few years ago. On my first trip to India, I was pretty well convinced that I could get through most things that might occur on my trip. As a passenger on the chaotic and dangerous roads of India, I acknowledged that I may very well die during that ride, but was able to mostly let it go. In planning for this trip, however, I found myself considering the odds of being in a car accident or train accident pretty seriously. It didn’t keep me from traveling, but it was a lot more apparent and disconcerting than it had been last time.

Paragliding in Nepal
Although it had been on my bucket list for a few years, I hesitated for about a week before I committed to going paragliding. I worried that I’d injure myself, particularly on take-off and landing. But I’m so glad I went for it! And it turns out that you land by just standing up on two feet, easy peasy.
More confronting has been seeing some of my friends and loved ones affected by serious illnesses, accidents, and the realities of aging. Every time something terrible happens I find myself thinking about what I want in life, and whether I’d do anything differently if I knew I was going to die sometime soon.

Since I’m on what looks like a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, it may or may not surprise you that I would change what I’m doing entirely if I knew I was going to die in a month or two; I’d go home to be with family and friends. If I knew I was going to die in a year, I might keep traveling, but I’d want to do it with loved ones if at all possible. Clearly, if my priorities were set in order by a life-threatening event, I would lean way more toward relationships and connection, and away from seemingly frivolous adventuring. 

Meanwhile, with the optimistic assumption that I’ll get to live another several decades, I see obvious inherent value in the trip that I’m on. In the long-term this kind of open-ended exploration is an adventure, a challenge, and an investment in my future self. 

I’m left with a bit of a riddle then: How might I balance the liberating YOLO (You Only Live Once) mentality that often goes along with youthfulness and traveling with my desire to live a long, thoughtful and fulfilling life?

Let’s think this through then. Along with going home, what would I do if I knew I only had two months to live? 

  • I’d say yes more, just to see what would happen.
  • I’d probably go get those tattoos I’ve been thinking about for a while. 
  • I’d stop giving a single shit whether people like my true, vulnerable self. 
  • I’d start expressing myself fully, talk to more strangers, laugh more loudly, and cry more openly. 
  • I’d spend every single day with people that I loved and be present for every minute of it.
  • I’d sing and dance to my music as I walked down the street. 
  • I’d tell people I loved them a whole lot more freely. 
  • I’d enjoy every sip of gorgeous coffee and eat my favourite foods as often as possible.
  • I’d stop worrying about what job I’d have next and whether I’d make a good living. I’d just go find something interesting to do, maybe something that helps other people. 
  • I’d let go of my ego and apologize for things I’ve done, and forgive others for whatever pain they’ve caused me.
  • I’d knock down these walls I keep up to protect myself from the people around me. 
  • I’d stop caring about how I thought I looked to other people. I wouldn’t care if I gained any weight and I’d wear whatever the hell I wanted. Maybe I’d dye my hair a lilac purple. 
  • I’d be terribly sad that I’d never be a mother, and that I wouldn’t grow old with someone. I’d be sad not to see my sister and friends do the same. 

Sounds pretty great, minus the last point (and other obvious downsides of having only two months to live). In fact, sounds like a number of cliché-sounding pop songs from the last several years. There’s also a great (in my opinion) show on Netflix called No Tomorrow that plays out the scenario of having eight months to live and checking off everything on your bucket list in true YOLO style. It’s clearly pretty easy to buy into the idea of living like today was your last day.

Yet it seems to me that we rarely live like this for very long. Why? Because most of us have longer-term visions for our lives than the next few days or months. And that’s a good thing. I personally think saving for retirement is a pretty good idea, never mind the regret that might come along with those tattoos you got when you told yourself to live in the moment. A character on that No Tomorrow show runs up his credit card care-free so that he can live life to its fullest. That’s not exactly sustainable. 
It can also be pretty exhausting to maintain the belief that you might die at any moment. Adrenaline isn’t meant to hang around that long in your body, and emotionally it can be pretty draining. So should we do something about the insights we have when we’re reminded of our own mortality? How might we balance living like we actually appreciate each moment with looking ahead and investing our time and energy in the futures we want? I don’t have answers for this, but I think a big part of living within this balance is realizing that we (likely) have a lot more choice in how we live our lives than we think.

Over the last several months it’s really started to sink in that there are so many ways to live our lives. While I’ve worked within the assumption that my life generally plays out in an office, there are people out there who make their livings on YouTube, or by writing for magazines, farming, making movies, running a restaurant, teaching Pilates, or helping others settle in a new country. Some spend their whole lives traveling and working online, and others spend their lives raising kids and volunteering in their communities. Some dedicate themselves to public service, and others to storytelling, artistic expression, or pushing themselves to the edge of their physical abilities. While most of us won’t have a career on YouTube, thinking about these options makes it clear: the rules and expectations we live within most of the time are pretty much made up, by ourselves, our families, and our societies. The more we can step out of our bubbles and see our assumptions about life for what they are the more we can build our lives more freely and intentionally toward the things that really matter to us.

For example, professional success and earning a decent living are pretty important to me. But when I reflect on how much they drive my life, I realize that I’ve got pretty shaky definitions of success in these two arenas: I don’t actually know how much money is enough; and I have a fairly limited definition of professional success. More importantly, these two things aren’t ultimately what I’m after. What I’m really interested in is what they offer me: freedom to choose; safety and security security; the ability to provide for a family; the ability to enjoy my leisure time and relationships; interesting things to work on; the ability to change course and u-turn if I want to; and the ability to explore my passions and curiosity. With this clarity, it’s starting to sound like an office job and linear professional accomplishments aren’t necessarily the only way to achieve these things. As a prof of mine used to say, what’s the next right answer?

Sure, one of my possible futures has me working in an office, continuing the professional trajectory that I’ve allowed to be a driving force in my life. But in other futures my next step looks a lot more fluid than that. Maybe I’ll find a job online that allows me to travel and volunteer in interesting places. Or maybe I’ll explore my own country, teaching yoga and serving tables from coast to coast. Maybe I’ll find an inspiring organization to work with for a year or two and then take a sabbatical, much like right now. Maybe I’ll finally become fluent in French and bike across France. Maybe I’ll find myself having a baby in the next couple years, or maybe I’ll find myself in grad school. 

For me, it’s taken some time and space from the life I used to lead to start seeing these options, and honestly, they’re still pretty tame. But I hope that I can maintain and develop this mindset, and have faith in myself that I can find and create the life I want to lead regardless of which path I take.

Doing my best to stay safe while living dangerously.
Fortunately, finding a fulfilling balance in life doesn’t have to be expensive or dangerous. Many of the items on my two-months-to-live list above are, in fact, danger free. For example, I don’t have to run up a credit card or risk my life to express myself more openly and lovingly to those around me. While a lack of deadline makes some of these items a whole lot more scary (for me anyway), I know that challenging myself to be more vulnerable and courageous will pay off both today and decades from now, even if it sometimes makes me uncomfortable.

Sometimes when I’m having a rough time, feeling full of doubt, or completely lost or uninspired, I imagine 80-year-old me looking back on this time of her life with fondness, gratitude and wisdom. I hear her tell stories to her friends and grandkids about that time she took a risk that was probably stupid but led to an incredible adventure. Or that time she fucked up at work and thought the world was crashing down only to discover that life is so much bigger than that. Or that time she swallowed her pride and told someone she loved them even though it made her cry. I’m inspired by 80-year-old me, because she knows from experience that there are far fewer rules than she thought there were at 26.

We all have those people in our lives, or at least on social media, who inspire us with their courage, vulnerability, and openness to others (or whatever characteristics you want to take up yourself). What do you think helps them do this? How might we be more courageous despite a lack of pressure and liberation offered by an explicit mortal deadline? How do you find the sweet spot between living like you’ll die tomorrow and several decades from now?

Why being a woman is my biggest barrier to exploring the world

Trigger warning: This post acknowledges the existence of sexual assault.

Traveling is an incredible privilege and adventure, but it’s not always easy. Especially as a woman. 

When I was preparing for my first trip to India, many people expressed concern for my safety, and some even urged me to reconsider. At the time, there were a number of high-profile, terrible cases of sexual assault in the news, and I’ll admit that they did make me feel a bit uneasy. Fortunately, I was also aware of a psychological phenomenon called accessibility bias—the fact that recent events are easier to recall and therefore seem more common (and more scary) than they actually are—so I tried to put these horrible events into perspective. I also knew (and know) that, unfortunately, sexual assault happens everywhere, and in a country with over a billion people there are going to be more assaults, and likely more high-profile assaults. 

While this logic helped me reason my way into greater confidence, I knew very well that the risk was real. I wasn’t naive to the fact that India in general has different views on women than I’m used to in Canada, and that a number of cultural practices continue to objectify women and define the boundaries of their lives very narrowly. 

Fortunately, the vast majority of this trip and my last were great, without major incidents. However, I’ve experienced ogling, despite my conservative dress (though, unfortunately, that happens everywhere), and had a few incidents of being grabbed or touched in busy crowds or traffic. There were only two times on my last trip when I was properly scared about what might happen, both in Mumbai. 

In 2013, on one of my last days in India, I was eating lunch in a small restaurant and having a conversation with the guy who was serving me. It was an awkward time of day (around 2 or 3pm), and I was the only one in the restaurant. After having what I would call a normal conversation, he randomly leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. I was very, very freaked out. I was suddenly extremely aware of the fact that he and I were alone in this restaurant and I had to get out immediately. In exactly the way I was socialized to do, I tried to act like a stranger kissing me uninvited wasn’t a big deal. With my body language I tried to communicate a balance of “that wasn’t ok” with “don’t get mad that I don’t want you”, and asked for the bill. He seemed to suddenly realize that what he’d done wasn’t ok and apologized. “No, no, it’s ok,” I said, hoping not to anger or offend him in any way. I paid, didn’t wait for my change, and quickly exited. 

Generally, I think western women (usually thought of as white women in India) are viewed as loose and available. Early on in my first trip to India, I was sitting in a tuk tuk (a small taxi) with the guy I was seeing at the time. The driver asked if we were married, and we said no. He then made some inappropriate remark about me being a loose woman.

Just two days ago in Kathmandu I was sitting in my hostel’s rooftop lounge where a bunch of fellow travelers were hanging out. Two Indian guys (not to pick on India), walked across the room and asked if they could sit with me. Glancing around I noticed that there were a couple other tables they could’ve chosen. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions, and I wanted to be a somewhat friendly fellow traveler. Since I was busy working on something anyway, I said that they could join me at my table but that I didn’t want to talk. They sat down and didn’t bother me for a few minutes. Then one of them looked over and offered me some of his beer, to which I said, no thanks. He asked again, and I repeated my answer. He reluctantly turned and started talking to the group of western guys sitting in the corner, and quickly directed the conversation to his current perdicament: he needed a girlfriend. More specifically, he wanted to lose his virginity to a white girl. Presumably out of amusement, curiosity and insensitivity, the western guys played along. The Indian guy insisted that the western guys could get him a girlfriend, and started asking for tips on how to get a white girl. Soon, two white girls from England sat down nearby. He noticed them, and as he called to them across the room I tried to give a signal that they might want to avoid him. But it was dark, and they were nice, and so they started talking. 

I wondered to myself if I was overreacting—what’s the big deal if he wants to talk to them? But after a few minutes it was clear they wanted out of the conversation. Again, in a way that was typical to the way women are socialized to behave, they said they were going to bed, opting to remove themselves from a situation that could’ve otherwise been enjoyable in an attempt to protect this guy’s ego. He, rather unbelievably, suggested that he go with them. To bed. They responded with nervous laughter, acting like what he’d said had been a joke, and left. 

He immediately turned to the western guys in the corner and started complaining that the white girls had left. They suggested he be more subtle. So he turned, again, to me and asked where I was from. I told him Canada, and he asked another question. At this, I looked at him directly and said, “you should probably give up on me. I’ve heard your whole conversation. I know you just want to sleep with someone, and I’m not interested. Also, I have a boyfriend.” (Having a boyfriend is not a necessary excuse for not being interested, but often helps to give weight to my “no”). He asked me if I could find him a girlfriend, and I said I didn’t have any extras. He insisted that if I wanted to give him one I could, making it clear that my earlier “no” had been rejected. At this point I just stopped responding to his questions, choosing to potentially come off as rude in front of this room full of travelers rather than let this guy think that this conversation was acceptable.

He eventually gave up on me, and started a conversation with the western guys about how much a woman would “cost”. Again, they humoured him, talking about the challenges of finding women in Nepal as compared to a place like Thailand. I found myself hoping that this guy was not in my mixed gender dorm room. Thankfully, he wasn’t.

Obviously, there are a lot of problems with this scenario. Of course, most guys aren’t like this. And it might be easy to dismiss what he was doing as part of a harmless pursuit of sex. There’s nothing wrong with trying to hook up with someone, but the approach he took clearly demonstrated that he saw (white) women as interchangeable objects of desire, rather than humans with lives and preferences, worthy of being treating with dignity. Worse than that, his aggressiveness and inability or unwillingness to pick up on social cues and listen to an outright “no” was scary. And I bet you any money that he had no idea he was scaring anyone. 

The second problem with this scenario is that the western guys, a group of five or six, decided to humour him in his actions. This is not ok. In an age where “locker room talk” by Donald Trump had no obvious effect on his eligibility for president, it’s more important than ever to stand up to inappropriate behaviour, especially if you’re the guy the creepy dude turns to for validation (ya, Billy Bush, that’s why you got fired). The parts of our culture that make sexual assault possible and permissible are more often subtle than they are overt. You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour. 

The above examples are exactly why I’ve said that being a woman is my biggest barrier to really experiencing the world. But while safety is a major concern, cultural differences between myself and well-intentioned, nice guys can also be a challenge. This is where I struggle to balance my feminism (and self-worth) with my desire to experience and enjoy other cultures.

For example, I just got back from an eight-day trek. It was supposed to be me, three others and our trekking guide. Instead, it was just two of us and our guide when we set out, and the the other trekker went back to Kathmandu on the morning of day four because he was sick. Spending more than a week straight with another person can be really frustrating if you’re not well-matched, and indeed, by a few days in, I was starting to feel irritated. The thing is, my guide was objectively incredibly nice. He offered to do things for me like get me water or carry my bag. Like most Nepali people, he prided himself on “treating his guests like gods”. Sounds nice, right? 

Problem is, I’ve never wanted to be treated like a princess. If you know me, you know that I insist on carrying my own bag, opening my own door, and generally being treated with the assumption that I can do whatever a man can do. More importantly, I expect you to listen to me when I tell you that I can do something myself. In fact, listen to me in general. Yes, I’m sure. I’ve said no three times. No means no, every time. Here are some things I said and thought over the course of eight days:

  • No, I don’t want to stop for a break. No, really. Really. 
  • Yes, I want my own room rather than sharing a private room with a man I barely know. Don’t look disappointed.  
  • If you wouldn’t mind, stop coddling and micromanaging me. 
  • Oh, I get it, you’re manipulating me.
  • Look at me with respect, goddammit. 
  • I’d like to understand what’s going on rather than just being told what to do. 
  • Stop looking at me like you’re waiting for me to just give in and make this easy for you. 
  • No, I don’t want you to tell me I’m beautiful. 

Now, I’m used to shit like men taking up more space, and making myself small on public transit, and, let’s face it, in general. But the small aggressions that make me feel less valuable, capable and respected because I’m a woman can be crazy-making. Especially because most of these feel invisible, particularly to men, and it gets even more complicated when the intention is very likely hospitality and respect.

Typical. This happened on the bus ride to and from the trek with two different men.
To be clear, I don’t want to discourage any woman from taking on the world like the badass and/or debutante she is. You can absolutely do it, and you deserve that adventure just as much as any man. But unfortunately, it can be difficult out there, so my intention with this post is to tell you that, more than likely, you’re not crazy. If you feel unsure about a situation, there’s probably good reason. The morning after the incident with the creepy Indian dude and the western guys in my hostel, one of those western guys commended my spidey senses on responding to the Indian guy when he first asked to sit with me. “Thanks,” I said, “It’s a skill I’ve been working on my entire life.” 

But as many before me have argued, this is not just a women’s issue. (And of course, safety is a huge issue for transgender women and men, POCs, and other minorities, which I haven’t written about here specifically but definitely want to acknowledge.) This is also a call to action to those western dudes in my hostel and all other men to be more attentive to, and put an end to, conversations that belittle and objectify women. This is your problem too.

What do you think? Do you agree, or does this come off to you as being overly sensitive? Do you think it’s a traveler’s job to adapt to the culture they’re in, absorbing what feels like disrespect in an effort to be easygoing? 

Author’s Note: The last sentence of the 12th paragraph has been updated to better reflect my intentions. It used to read: “You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but you’d do better (as men and women) to consider how you might be enabling rape culture through your permissive bystander behaviour.” The sentence now reads: “You may think you’d never take part in a sexual assault, but we’d all do better (as men and women) to consider how we might be enabling rape culture through our permissive bystander behaviour.”

Privilege and poverty in Kathmandu

When locals spot me, looking all foreign, and ask how long I’ve been in Nepal I say two days. Sometimes they ask me what I think of the chaos and I tell them that I’ve been in India for the last almost-two months and they say, “oh, so this is easy for you then.” Kathmandu is busy, but it’s nothing like Delhi or Mumbai. Don’t get me wrong, there are many lovely, friendly people in India, but in general, India is very confronting. People are hustling to make the money they need to survive, and tourism is a major industry. We foreigners are an opportunity waiting to be leveraged, and you can often feel this, especially walking through cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Varanasi. 

I know it’s a similar reality in Kathmandu. But so far I haven’t really felt like people are desperate to sell things to me, and conversations with strangers have been plentiful and easygoing. When I arrived in Kathmandu after 42 hours on two buses, a local man who was collecting his son from the same bus offered to drive me to my hostel. He even called them to get directions and then gave me his card in case I needed any support or wanted to meet up while I’m here. 

Speaking of that 42-hour bus ride, I had a massage today. It was at a place called Seeing Hands, which employs (and trains?) people who are blind as masseurs. Walking back out into the tourist district of Thamel, I met a guy named Suresh. It turns out he’s 27, about my age, and originally from Dharamsala, where I just came from in India. He’s been living in Kathmandu for 4.5 years with his wife and three kids. He has twin nine-year-olds, a boy and a girl, and a two-year-old boy. We walked around for a little while, toward a festival that was supposedly happening. He showed me a hidden-away temple and the art school where he studies mandala painting, a discipline that takes ten years to master, of which he’s completed two years. He told me about how he helped dig out students who were trapped in his collapsed school building in the earthquake that happened last year. Nine of his fellow students and friends died. 

It was after lunch time so I dug out the half-eaten bag of almonds I had stowed in my backpack. I offered some to Suresh, and he gratefully accepted a small handful. We kept walking and he cautiously invited me to his home for tea. He worried that I would be angry or put-off by this invitation. Of course, as a solo woman traveller, I was careful to note that he was married with three kids, and that the details he gave about his family were well-rounded and consistent. So I decided I could trust him. 

We took a local minibus to his “village”, as he called it. These minibuses cost maybe 10 – 30 Nepali rupees (NPR) depending on how far you’re going. This can turn a 500 NPR trip into a 20 NPR trip if you’re willing to cram yourself into a tiny van with 10 or 12 other people. 

While we waited for the bus, I offered him another small handful of almonds. Suresh told me that he really appreciated and enjoyed them, revealing that he hadn’t had almonds for a long time because they were just too expensive to buy. I insisted that he take the remaining two almonds left in the bag. His hesitant acceptance turned into excitement when it occurred to him that he could give them to his kids. 

It might be fair to say that Suresh and his family live in a slum. It feels strange to compare living conditions amongst the impoverished, but I’d say that this slum was probably a little more upscale than what you’re picturing. Their one-room apartment vaguely matched the others in the neighbourhood, with relatively clean, concrete walls and floors. Clear water poured out fron the communal tap maybe 15m from their doorway where a small boy and someone who might’ve been his father soaped up, working around the shorts they’d left on. Suresh’s apartment had electricity, mainly used for an overhead light. He apologized repeatedly about the heat, explaining that they couldn’t afford a fan. 

Upon our arrival, Kallo, Suresh’s wife, welcomed my unannounced visit by making milky ginger tea for the three of us to enjoy while sitting on their only real furniture, a double bed made of plank wood and thin cushions. I assumed that this is where the family of five sleeps at night, but during the day it serves as the living room, dining room and play room. I soon met Binnie, their two-year-old son, who quickly demonstrated the versatility of this piece of furniture by bouncing off the walls. Suresh took the two almonds out that he’d saved and gave them to the toddler, who quickly devoured them with a big smile. 

Suresh just radiates happiness. While we enjoyed our tea, he told me that most days, along with his studies, he works as a shoe-shiner. I later asked him what job he would do if he could do anything and he said he’d be a shoe-shiner. It’s a pretty good job usually, he said. But it’s been hard for him lately because he lost his “shoebox” in the earthquake and hasn’t been able to replace it since. This shoebox is the mark of a proper shoe-shiner, and without it people don’t trust him. Right now he works out of his backpack and business isn’t good. He makes around 100 – 150 NPR a day, which is about $1.30 – 2 CAD. With the shoebox that his father had given him he used to make 300 to even 800 NPR a day (about $4 – 10.50 CAD). 

As the afternoon petered along, I met his two older kids, nine-year-old twins: Badda, the boy, and Komel, the girl. I’m guessing at the spelling of all of these names, by the way, because while Suresh’s spoken English is conversational, he can’t read or write it. In fact, he speaks Nepali, Hindi and English but is illiterate in all three. His wife, Kallo, is in a similar situation, though speaks no English, and their children are destined for a similar fate. School is just too expensive, Suresh explained. It costs around 30 – 40,000 NRP per year, per child if you include the school uniform, food, books and tuition, a cost of about $400 – 600 CAD. When you have three kids and an income of maybe $1.30 – 2 CAD per day, it’s just not possible to send your kids to school. I found it hard to imagine how he managed to pay his rent of 5,500 NRP/mo (about $75 CAD).

He told me that he can’t afford to buy much food. He usually doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, just dinner if there’s enough to go around after his kids and wife eat. But he told me that money isn’t what matters. He told me, “I’m poor. We’re all poor here. But I’m rich in my heart. So I’m very happy.” I was astounded when he asked me to stay for dinner, and hesitant to accept an invitation to eat their precious food. But he insisted, and without telling me ahead of time, he went to his neighbour to borrow money so that Kallo could buy ingredients for our meal. 

While there was still plenty of daylight, I asked if it was alright for me to take some pictures of his village and his family. He excitedly said yes, and even thanked me for wanting to do so. We wandered just outside his small home and turned down the narrow alleyway that connected the many one-bedroom homes of his neighbourhood. I quickly came across some adorable kids and wondered if it was okay to take their picture. (Taking a picture of a stranger’s kids in Canada is super creepy, but it felt like etiquette might be a bit different here). Suresh assured me that it was fine. I took a couple photos of two children, squatting together on the ground, who might’ve been 18 months old, but looked wise beyond their years. 

In return, I showed them the photo I’d taken, and they were instantly fascinated and overjoyed to see their likeness, perhaps for the first time ever, on the magical device in my hand. Other kids very quickly caught onto the opportunity and jumped in front of me for a photo. The same excitement and joy overflowed every time I revealed the resulting photos. At one point, I probably had 10 children crowded around and on top of me as I squatted on the ground trying to show off a group photo I’d just taken. (This is where my history of getting lice five times in my life started to bring up lice-related anxiety. Fortunately, I’d tied my hair back tight as soon as I’d arrived, but I’ve been scratching my head with psychosomatic symptoms ever since). 

With my phone full of beautiful photos of enthusiastic kids and adults alike, I returned to Suresh’s apartment to try to learn as much as I could from Kallo’s cooking. She was a good sport to invite me into her small cooking space, on the floor between their bed and the small shelving unit that held their cooking utensils and ingredients. As far as I could tell, their kitchen was composed of a gas-fired double hotplate, a large mortar and pestle, a small wooden cutting board, a couple large metal plates with big rims, one sharp knife, and a few metal plates, cups and spoons. 

I was invited to clean the okra, destined to be the main ingredient in the curry we would have, by wiping each vegetable down with a cloth. As I dropped the clean-ish okra into one of the metal bowls, Kallo sliced it up into small pieces in another bowl. She pealed about 10 cloves of garlic (my kind of cooking), and put them into the mortar with about 1/4 cup of salt(!!). I got to mash the garlic to smitherines with a huge pestle (check which is which!). Meanwhile, she cut a red onion into fine slices. When I finished, she gave the garlic another good mash (I was learning after all), and then sliced up two tomatoes and a handful of cilantro into the mortar. She added generous spoonfuls of chilly powder, masala spice (curry powder?), what looked like turmeric, and one or two other spices that we couldn’t figure out the names of in English. 

Starting up the gas hotplate, she placed a metal bowl/jug/pot onto the flame and poured in a very generous helping of canola oil (more than a cup). Giving this a moment to heat up, she added the onions, which quickly started to give off the delicious signal that we were going to eat something wonderful. After a couple minutes she added the garlic, salt, tomato, cilantro and spices from the mortar and stirred them around until the smell was unmistakably Indian.

The okra was added maybe five minutes later, but by this time Suresh and I had started playing cards on the bed. I’d been interested to know what Suresh and his family did with their down time, and had asked if he plays cards with friends. He did, along with the occasional pick-up cricket game, so he pulled out a deck he had stored on an upper shelf. He showed me a magic trick that I was thoroughly impressed by, and I taught him the most basic card game of my childhood, Go Fish. 

Throughout our game I tried to get more information about this shoebox he’d told me about–the one that he’d lost in the earthquake, which had helped him bring in at least twice his current income. I wanted to know how much it cost to buy a new one. It seemed to me that helping him buy a small item that would double his income for the foreseeable future would be one of the wisest investments I’d make all year. He was resistant to my questions, saying that he just enjoyed having me in his home and as a friend. Eventually he relented and went to check with a neighbour who sells these shoeboxes if there were any for sale. Unfortunately, the neighbour was away and would be for a few days, so he also didn’t know how much it would cost. I promised that I’d come back in a few days and we’d look into it. 

With a mix of hesitation, concealed desperation and hope he told me that there was just one more thing. Kallo, his wife, had a mysterious lump on her leg, somewhere between a golf ball and tennis ball in size, protruding from her inner left shin. Together they told me about it, with her reminded him of the details in either Hindi or Nepali and him translated it into English. She’s had the painful growth for about a year, but until the last couple months it’s been quite small. It’s since become prohibitively painful and is cutting off some feeling in her leg. She’s not able to walk very far anymore, just to the supermarket around the corner. 

They saw a doctor last week about it; a visit that I’m sure was hard to afford on its own. She told them that she would need an operation to remove it, an operation that would cost about 45,000 NPR or $590 CAD. With the helpless realization that this was expensive even with my foreign dollar, I tried to express my empathy for their situation. They weren’t outright asking me to pay for her operation, but the suggestion hovered in the air, implied. 

I held my tongue as I did mental math, considering whether it might be possible or reasonable for me to raise the funds to help them. I didn’t say anything because more uncomfortable than being the white saviour is being the white saviour who doesn’t come through on a promise.

It was getting late, around 8:00pm, and I wanted to get back before it was too dark out. I asked if I could please give some money to at least buy the ingredients for dinner so he wouldn’t owe his neighbour anything for having hosted me so kindly. Suresh was fast to hush me and explain that accepting money makes him feel like a begger. While I understood that accepting money can be complicated, I was reluctant to just receive his family’s overwhelming hospitality and give nothing in return. He suggested that I could buy the family some rice and other staples instead and I jumped at the opening to return their generosity. 

We walked to the small grocery shop around the corner and Suresh started picking out food. He piled up a 20kg bag of rice, a couple packs of powdered milk, a box of tea, a 3L jug of cooking oil, 2kg of lentils, and a couple other things I couldn’t quite make out. I felt a bit overwhelmed by how much this must cost and tried to tell him that I only had about 1,380 NPR on me and I still had to make it home. Not having purchased proper groceries in India or Nepal, I naively hoped that I might be able to afford all of the items that the family needed. The shop owner tallied up the items and displayed a total of 10,300 NPR on her calculator. I did a doubletake–that’s $135 CAD, an amount that, even if I’d had it on me, I wasn’t comfortable handing over. 

I was starting to feel a bit unsure about Suresh’s intentions. And this is what I hate about travelling in developing countries; being in an unavoidable position of power and, to many, relatively unimaginable wealth. I suddenly wasn’t sure whether Suresh had planned on making this substantial request ever since we met in the tourist neighbourhood of Thamel. I wondered if what he’d told me about his life was true; whether the kindness, hospitality and playfulness his family shared with me was genuine or a show. It seemed like a lot of effort for a long-game hope that I’d buy this food, help fund a needed operation, or replace a lost means for income. 

Similar situations have arisen during my last trip to India, situations where opening myself up to connection with locals for a lovely afternoon twisted into a subtle or not-so-subtle request for money (or assumed romance). I hate the doubt that sets in as I try to make sense of these requests. By the end of my last trip I was disillusioned by the sense that foreigners are sometimes viewed as walking ATMs, while all I wanted was to get to know the local people in the hopes of genuine, untethered connection. 

By the end of this quiet debate in my head I decided that Suresh was likely trying to be both genuine and kind, and also leverage an opportunity to take care of his family. With this conclusion in mind, I happily bought what I could with 1,350 NPR; surprisingly not much–just two packs of powdered milk, which doubles as baby food. 

He asked if I’d come back the next day with more cash, and I explained that I wasn’t comfortable doing that, but that I’d be in touch soon and we’d look into the shoebox together. He walked me to the unmarked bus stop where a minibus to my neighbourhood waited. I gave him a hug and thanked him for giving me such a lovely afternoon, and wiggled myself halfway into the crowded minibus and it drove off. 

What do you think? Would you buy the expensive groceries? Do you think I should leverage my network to try to fund Kallo’s surgery? Would you react with suspicion or trust if you were in a similar situation? I know these aren’t simple questions to answer, and it’ll probably be hard for you to say. But why do I/we get to luxuriate in the privilege I was born into while others, by cruel chance, were born into a life of poverty and almost no socioeconomic mobility? Do I/we have a responsibility to do something? 







Dilemmas of a rolling stone, or Are we bound to settle down eventually?

Bittersweet doesn’t do this feeling justice.

In 23 days I’ll be on a plane to Barcelona. I know this because EasyJet keeps sending me reminders. I’ll meet up with my friend Sarah and we’ll end up in Istanbul, then to Mumbai and eventually I’ll be alone in Delhi where I’ll spend three or four months. This is the biggest adventure I’ve yet to undertake and I’m really excited about it. But it also means I won’t live in France anymore, and that thought breaks my heart more than a little bit.

I’ve become surprisingly attached to this place. Surprisingly only because I didn’t immediately connect with this city, maybe because it’s a city and not the southern French countryside and life in a city centre may not be for me. Starting my life over nearly from scratch definitely had something to do with it. I was beached on a bit of an emotional rock when I got here but that’s exactly what happens when you move somewhere alone and then promptly break up with your long-time boyfriend.

But now I love it. I have a small herd of reliable English-speaking friends, and a handful of French friends I’m proud to have made in the very grown-up fashion of actually participating in community events. I have favourite cafés, I’m a regular at a corner grocery store and at a bakery where the owners know my order, and my friends and I go dancing at clubs that have become habitually regrettable. I can give directions like a lyonnaise, I say “yes” when strangers ask if I live here, and I’ve come to do so quite comfortably in French. But there’s still so much of Lyon I don’t know. I haven’t come close to memorizing the Musée des Beaux Arts like I intended despite my free pass as a student, I still have loads of French to learn, and thanks to the ridiculous amount of holidays in May I’m continually finding new cafés and markets in corners of Vieux Lyon.

In short, I just don’t feel done here. But I suppose the question is, would I ever?

I spent four years in Kitchener-Waterloo doing my undergrad and even then I didn’t feel totally ready to leave. I don’t know if you can ever be ready to leave the people and places you’ve come to love. And yet it’s a position I’ve put myself in multiple times over the past year and it’s a position I’ll be in again as I start over yet again in India.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this. On one hand, I absolutely adore travelling. I love it. I love exploring new places, meeting new people (when I’m not feeling overly introverted), immersing myself in new cultures and all that cliché tripe. And I’ve never been one to favour short stints of holiday visits to new places. If I’m going somewhere I go somewhere. I move there if I can help it. I can appreciate a week-long trip to Istanbul but I prefer three months in Delhi, if you catch my drift.

But inevitably, every time you move to a new adventure, you leave the previous one, and in my experience the exit is tear-filled and painful. On top of the difficulty of leaving, it’s no cakewalk to start up somewhere new. You don’t know anyone and you’ve literally left your comfort zone behind. (In an unconscious effort to find a universal comfort zone I often take to the bathroom; there’s something reliable and safe about a sink and a mirror and a bathtub, if you’re lucky. You can close the door, lock out the scary unfamiliar world, and no one will judge you for it–except maybe to think that you’re fighting off a bout of Delhi belly).

But even in the most comforting of bathrooms, feelings of loneliness can be downright overwhelming and I’ve found myself countless times questioning my own motives.

Why bother with all this? What am I trying to accomplish? Why go somewhere to build a life only to knock it down? Why don’t I just go home?

I’ve had this discussion with friends here and elsewhere who have or are currently facing the same situation of quasi-life abandonment. Most of them don’t seem nearly as concerned as I am, or at least they don’t let on that they are. The answers I get to my quarter-life crisis boil down to the same adage: live in the moment. Supposedly, if I just learn from what I’m doing, appreciate the people and environment around me while they’re there and grow as a person it’ll all be worth it.

But what if it’s not? Or at least, what if it’s no more worthwhile than living in the moment in one single place and skipping the heartbreak of travel all together?

Interestingly, the “live in the moment” advice is usually followed up by a complementary piece: Make the most of it, get it out of your system and then you can settle down somewhere [and really start your life].

But if the comfort comes from the solacing fact that I’ll eventually settle down–if the eventual goal is that I’ll be satisfied enough with the adventurous years of my youth that I won’t restlessly overturn my family life in a midlife crisis search for adventure–do these years of international displacements really serve anything more? If I could only come to these inspired moments of self-realization on my own could I skip the heartbreak and the adventure altogether? Could I settle down in Toronto, get a job, buy a house, have a family and a dog and just be happy?

When I think like this I immediately get a pang of pre-empive regret in my gut. Why do I feel like I’d be betraying myself to consider such a normal “end” to things for me? Why is it that I consider myself to have such an abnormally exciting destiny that Toronto seems insufficient, based on geography alone, regardless of what I might do there? (I can only hope that these pangs suggest high ambition rather than total self-righteousness).

But if I honestly consider the options, would it really solve anything if I settled down in London, Nice, Bangkok, or Madrid? Would moving across the globe every few years resolve it? Would a job where I travelled half the time do the trick? Or does my young and restless blood just need to chill out, grow up, and realize that at some point excitement in life comes from family, work and internal fulfilment rather than a plane ticket and recently updated vaccines?

I know that I can find my tribe pretty much wherever I station myself. There are interesting people everywhere and it might be true that “only boring people are bored“. But those interesting people are constantly in transition too. Life would move on around me even if I settled down. Perhaps that’s the lesson I’ve learned: everything changes, including myself. Everything is transient. Simultaneously, I am the only feature in my life that I will never escape. Wherever I go, there I’ll be, and I’ll be better off if I use this to my advantage; it’s myself who I have to rely on.

For now I’ll allow myself the silver lining to a pessimistic adage; if it’s true that we all die alone, you may as well see the sites.

Observations about France and the French

Photo: The National Library of Wales

In no particular order I present to you various observations I’ve made about France and the French given my experience so far. I’m sure this is only one of many chapters to come:

Being quiet after 10 pm is taken very seriously. Not in the way that people are actually quiet after 10 pm, but in the way that it’s justified to throw buckets of water on people outside a bar after 10 pm if you happen to live in an apartment right next to it. (Subtext being that my friend Jess and I had a bucket of water dumped on us by a man from his second floor apartment next to a bar called The Smoking Dog. We happened to be the unlucky victims who were actually hit among a group of 30 or 40 who were making all the noise).

Speaking of The Smoking Dog, the French seem to like to name things, shops, bars, restaurants, with English names for no apparent reason. This is also popular in advertising. And this doesn’t just stick to common English phrases in the way that an ad might use the phrase “c’est la vie”, if appropriate, because English-speakers will understand it. They’ll use an English punchline or catchphrase that requires an asterisk and a tiny French translation. Apparently this use of English makes you look modern.

What you eat and when is designated by whether it’s salty or sweet. People seem to be very aware of whether they’re craving salty or sweet things and when it’s appropriate to eat one or the other. For example, what you eat for breakfast here is generally sweet (think croissants, jam, etc.), whereas “American” breakfasts are both or either. Think toast with jam or pancakes or bacon and eggs. Or all at the same time.

Foods and dishes also have designations of when in general they are meant to be eaten throughout the year. I’m sure this is due to France having more tradition-based diets and because they pay more attention to what’s in season than Canadians tend to. Apparently, though, I have to wait until winter to eat a regional dish called tartiflette, a dish that’s been mentioned many times that I’d like to try. But no. Eating wintery things when it’s not winter like tartiflette is weird enough to be worthy of a joke.

The house of cards that is French bureaucracy is, as every single person living here including the French will tell you, TERRIBLE. (If you all know it’s terrible, why don’t you fix it??) I noticed this particularly through my attempts at obtaining an apartment, a cell phone, my student card, a bank account, etc. Absolutely everything was dependent on my finding an apartment, which was dependent on my having a guarantor who had a reputable profession and was a French citizen, etc. I’ve managed to get most of these things in the last few days, but here’s the ridiculous chain of steps required to get a city bicycle card (called a Velo’v card and used for borrowing bikes around town):

  1. Find guarantor for apartment (I was lucky enough to find a French roommate who kindly volunteered her parents as guarantors).
  2. Find actual apartment kind of where you want and within your budget. This is tricky enough on its own.
  3. Get student card. Requires civil liability insurance, (which I get with my bank account, which I can’t get without a student card… So instead I get a certificate of enrolment).
  4. Get carte de séjour/residency card. This, paired with my student visa, is what allows me to stay in the country longer than three months. Proof of address and proof of studentship are required along with many other things.
  5. Buy metro/transit pass. Requires proof of being a student and an address.
  6. Get French bank account. Requires a student card or certificate of enrolment and proof of address, (for which a lease is somehow not sufficient and instead a letter must be sent to the address and brought into the bank. I’m sorry, I’ve signed a lease committing myself to living in this country for the next bunch of months. How does that not prove I live here?)
  7. Get civil liability insurance (free with bank account).
  8. Pick up actual student card. Requires civil liability insurance.
  9. Buy phone and phone plan. Requires an actual bank card (just a bank account isn’t enough, you have to open your account, wait a week for some code to be sent to your home, bring said code into the bank and retrieve your bank card) and proof of lodging, (for which a lease does not count, and instead I have to wait for an electricity bill or get cheques from the bank, which I won’t have until I get my card).
  10. Get Velo’v card. Requires address and phone number (i.e. a phone).

I’m not sure when the concept of numbering apartments became popular but it seems it skipped France. Instead of allotting permanent numbers to each apartment that never change, i.e. 3, the doors of each apartment and each of the mailboxes is given a little plaque with the names of the inhabitants engraved on it. Sure, it looks classy, but you have to change them every time you move somewhere! Or tape a super classy post-it to your front door and mailbox, which defeats the purpose completely, does it not?

It is somewhere between incredibly difficult to impossible to find what I call a big-ass-coffee. I define this loosely as a coffee bigger than 8 ounces–that’s the size of “un grand café” or “un café allongé”. I’ve gotten used to it, but when those big-ass-coffee cravings come round my salvation is Starbucks. There are two in downtown Lyon and magically they offer the same familiar sizes we north americans all know and love: tall, grande, and good ol’ venti. Why are big-ass-coffees so scarce? Because you don’t really sell drip coffee here–that is coffee from your regular old coffee maker with a filter full of coffee grounds through which scalding water slowly drips, becoming coffee. They just don’t sell it, save for Starbucks. It turns out, though, that drip coffee is incredibly expensive here! In Canada drip coffee is like water–think Timmies. This starbucks was selling a tall drip coffee for almost 3 EUR! An americano of the same size (two shots of espresso with hot water) was less expensive. Luckily, I prefer americanos, but how on Earth is an americano less expensive than drip? My theory is that it must just not be popular and therefore, people buying drip need to also pay for the amount wasted with every brew. This observation is likely way less interesting for the average person but this boggled me.

It’s been harder than I thought.

I meant to write before I left, but it turned out to be much harder than I thought to leave.

My flight was delayed four and a half hours, giving Ryan and I extra time together, which I was grateful for. But we had been saying goodbye for weeks now. The last few days have been lovely, secluded, often just the two of us, but being so aware of losing someone for so long can make you crazy. I cried sporadically throughout the day today—every time Ryan did something I love and appreciate about him, I would burst into tears thinking about how I wouldn’t get to enjoy that thing in person anymore, for the next year anyway.

Of course, it was hard saying goodbye to my mom, and my sister a few days ago, but it’s easier with them. Of course I’ll miss them terribly as well, but I already miss everything about Ryan—things a computer can’t possibly accommodate for. A year is a long time to be away from your best friend. I felt literally sick to my stomach most of the day with stress and sadness, so much so that I wasn’t at all excited for my flight. I am completely mentally unprepared to arrive in France in a few hours.

Speaking of which, I write this while on the plane, somewhere just past the east coast of Canada with about four hours to go and I’ve been reminded a few times that traveling alone is unusual unless you’re in business class. I’ve flown alone before, to visit my dad in Nova Scotia years ago, but for most of my flight experience I’ve been accompanied by someone, usually my sister, Geneva, and most recently Ryan. I’ve never flown for so long, or over water alone before. Flying over water makes me anxious. It shouldn’t, really, because what would the difference be if it came down to a choice between ground or ocean from 10,000 miles up? But I’ve always had a fear of drowning, a fear of confined, vulnerable spaces, and especially a fear of the two combined. I do badly with the idea of cruise ships. I’ve been on two dinner cruises off the harbour of Toronto and both made me nervous. The worst is the idea of sleeping in a closed space while on the water. I’ve explained before that I would probably be okay on an overnight cruise if I were allowed to sleep on the deck—perhaps in a life jacket. As far as planes go, I’ve not let them interfere with my traveling, but instead resorted mostly to taking advantage of the various courses of free liquor offered by Air France and KLM. Unfortunately, Air Transat offers a mere glass of wine with ones meal, which for me isn’t until morning, so my usual plan has been of little help. It’s 6:22 am and liquored or not, I can never sleep on planes. I haven’t since Geneva and I were seated in business class as unaccompanied minors probably 10 years ago. We got lovely roomy seats with built-in massagers and I was asleep too fast to even enjoy them.

Although I’m alone, I’ve always been slightly annoyed by nosy seatmates on planes and buses trying to talk to me. I once had a clichéd old lady tell me to live my life to the fullest and travel the world while on a bus from Toronto to Ottawa. My sister and I had a Spanish seatmate when we were maybe 13 who spoke no English but we managed to have a broken conversation and he managed to spray my new aerosol body spray into the air and get us in trouble for stinking up the plane (that is when those types of things were allowed in your carry-on). I was hoping to avoid nosy seatmates this time but now I just wish I knew the person next to me, even a little bit. I feel so lonely when I should be so excited. Maybe that’ll change tomorrow. I think it will, I hope so. I’ll write when I’m not so sad next, but I thought it was only fair to record how I’ve felt today and how I’m feeling now, because it’s really easy to forget what you’ll miss when you have your eye set so strongly on adventure.