Six Things I Learned in Three Years on the Road: Getting Lost, Finding My Way

I have been lost many times on this trip, but I have always found my way, often by dead reckoning.  One thing I know: there are many ways to lose the path.

This is a hard story to write.

 

In his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales writes at length about the process of getting lost.  It doesn´t happen all at once.  When it does happen, getting lost is compounded by the tendency to never look back.  However, looking back in the direction from which you came can save your life because a path looks completely different in the other direction.  The hiker needs to be able to recognize the path he took in case he ever needs to backtrack.

Getting lost is a gradual process.  Hikers usually look at a map before they set out, forming a mental image of the path they will travel.  According to Gonzales, as the hiker loses his way, the mental picture of his path becomes increasingly vague as he presses on.  Even when he knows the five-mile path from where he came will lead to the car, he thinks “Just ahead, around the next bend, I´ll find the trail I´m looking for.”

Denial about the situation results in going miles out of the way.  There is a tendency to “bend the map”, which means that the hiker thinks he sees features of the landscape that are on the map.  In other words, the hiker reframes what he sees to match the map.  We see what we want to see.

The second stage is panic.  The hiker has wandered far off course, the sun is setting, and he has no idea where he is.  What he should do is hunker down, rest, and start again at first light; instead, he doubles his pace, exhausting himself.

This can be the beginning of the end, especially if the hikers abandons gear, starts running, or hikes when visibility is low and falls down and breaks a leg.  It is not unusual for people hiking in a panic to take off clothing, thinking they are too hot, and die of hypothermia.  Survival depends on maintaining body heat and staying hydrated.  Food is much less important.  An empty water bottle can be filled with mud; the mud can always be dumped out later if water is found.

Adherence to a plan when the plan needs to be changed kills people.  One example Gonzales gives is of 11 survivors of a plane crash who believe, falsely, that help will find them if they stay put.  A seventeen-year-old girl refuses to buy into group-think and finds her way to civilization.  Everybody else dies.

The last stage of getting lost is deterioration.  By this point, the lost hiker is desperate and has abandoned valuable gear and squandered resources.  His strength is depleted. He is dehydrated, exacerbating the fall of his body temperature.  He loses the ability to make decisions.  Finally, he loses the will to live.

According to Gonzales, attributes of survivors include awareness of the environment, accurate assessment of conditions, fast reaction time, ingenuity, focus and the will to survive.  According to the author, the defining characteristic of survivors is Resolve.

The lesson is that getting lost is a process.  What starts out as a small navigation mistake of a few degrees off course gets bigger and bigger, one innocent step at a time, until the hiker finds himself in a fierce fight for his life.

Getting lost is not a matter of the place you are in. It’s a state of mind. It can happen in a forest or it can happen in your life.

You can lose your soul.  I nearly lost mine.

I lost my way in Thailand.  I had a mental image of Thailand as a magical, tropical paradise. I thought it would be the perfect place to retire.  I loved the orchids. I loved the food. I loved the temples.  The notion of living in such an exotic place was alluring.

However, reality didn´t match the dream in my head.  Thailand and the Philippines are epicenters for the sex trade.  Although prostitution has been illegal in Thailand since 1960, it’s estimated to be worth US$6.4 billion a year in revenue, a large part of the country’s GDP.   Dr. Nitet Tinnakul, whose research focuses on Thailand´s sex industry, estimates that 2.8 million people work in the sex trade: 2 million women; 20,000 males, and 800,000 children.

The majority of Western men who live in Thailand are there for one reason.

One of the reasons I moved to Chang Mai was because there was an AA meeting every day.  The first thing I noticed is that very few woman other than tourists attended the meetings, but I shrugged it off.  I went every day, in spite of the deeply disturbing things I heard.  Things such as:

“I wanted to raise my own wife, so I married her when she was 16 and I was 52.  I paid her parents $4,000.”

“My wife kneels at my feet and puts my shoes on every day.”

“I´m here to tell you that a 70-year-old man can have sex with a 15-year-old girl.”

Every day, I heard things like this. I also heard that it was the fault of Western women that these men had been forced to come to Asia to find women. We were ball-cutting feminists, too fat, too demanding and bad in bed.  These things were said to my face.

Instead of realizing I was on the wrong path, and retracing my steps, I doubled my efforts and forged ahead.  I baked the boys muffins, for God´s sake.  I even helped paint the clubhouse.

Fueling my denial was the fact that I had paid serious money for a long-term visa and had told everyone I was going to live in Thailand.

I was in complete denial.

Until something terrible happened.

I had been corresponding for several months with a guy I met in the US.  He was also in the program.  Things progressed and we decided he should come for a visit.

I cooked my socks off.  I had been taking Thai cooking classes and I knew that he liked Thai food, so I talked my cooking teacher into showing me several special dishes.

My home sparkled.  I filled it with orchids, including in his room.

We had a lovely meal.  The next day, I suggested that he go to the meeting by himself so that he could meet the guys.

I baked banana bread for him to take to the meeting.

When he came back, he said that he had decided to move to a hotel.  I was confused and upset because we had not had a disagreement.

I didn´t know what I had done wrong.

Like Zorba the Greek, I dance my sorrows as well as my joys.  That night, I went Latin dancing at the Meridian Hotel.  To get back to my apartment from the hotel, I had to cross the red light district.

I saw him coming out of a brothel.

With two guys from my home group.

I went to the Seven-11 and bought a six-pack.

I left Thailand, but it took me time to find my path again.  For a long time, I didn´t go to meetings.  I dipped my toe in the water again in women´s meetings.  Now I go to mixed meetings.

Today, I pay attention to my path.  I turn around often and make sure I´m on the right one.  I don´t try to pretend things are great when they are not.  And I change course when needed.

I like it here in San Miguel.  It is sunny but cool in the morning and evening and warm during the day.  San Miguel is a walking city; there are no traffic lights.  I go to meetings to listen and share, but I watch people to see who they are before I open up.

There are lots of artists, writers, and musicians here.  I am painting again and trying my hand at writing.  I`m learning photography and studying Spanish.  I dance and wear flowers in my hair.

I found my path.  I don´t want to lose it again.

Six Things I Learned in Three Years on the Road: The Art of Slow Travel

This morning, I walked to my dance community event.  As is the custom in my neighborhood, we greet each other as we pass.   I know many of my neighbors by name.  In the afternoon, I went to the market to buy fresh bread, cheese and produce.   In the evening, I relaxed outside on the patio swing, drinking a cup of tea.  A pleasant breeze stirred the leaves.  I watched the sun set and listened to the birds.

I need connection.  Living out of a suitcase in a cramped hotel room is alienating.  The frantic pace of tourists who rush from one destination to another is not for me.

I believe in slow travel.  In the past few years, I have spent six weeks in London, several months each in Spain. Kenya, and Vietnam, nearly a year in Thailand and a year and a half in Mexico.

Slow travel has a lot in common with the slow food movement that began in Italy in the 1980´s with the aim to preserve local food traditions from farm to table.  Slow travel is about making a connections with the places we visit rather than rushing from site to site snapping pictures.

Slow travel is a mindset. Places are to be experienced rather than checked off a bucket list. It´s about staying in one place long enough to know your neighbor´s names, to have a favorite coffee shop, to linger over fresh flowers at the market.

Slow travel is thrifty travel.  Instead of blowing through a wad of money for a two-week trip, renting an apartment and cooking at least some of your meals is much kinder to your budget. Staying lowers transportation costs. You walk more.  Your body gets stronger.

Instead of site seeing, the slow traveler takes classes, learns new skills, meets people and joins groups.  It is an embedded experience, as compared to being on the outside looking in.  Slow travelers learn at least some of the language, and if they stay long enough they become fluent.

I travel by my senses.  Walking a glorious way to slow down and experience the world around me.  Sometimes I focus on looking, really looking.  Other times I focus on sounds.  There are layers and layers of sound around us, yet most of the time we are oblivious to them.  Other times, I use my nose, sniffing the air like a puppy.   In my neighborhood, my nose tells me where all the good cooks live.

Becoming familiar with the local food markets and taking cooking classes is pure pleasure.  Learning popular dances of a region is a great way to make friends.  In San Miguel, Mexico, where I live now, I could go dancing every night.  Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Cumbia and Tango are popular here.

My mantra is Joy.  Dance joy.  Cook joy.  Speak joy.  Paint joy.  Sing joy.  Slow travel is playing in three dimensions, staying long enough to enjoy the place and connect with its people.  Each new place brings new challenges and new opportunities to make connections by joining in local events, volunteering and making friends.

By nature, I am an introvert.  When I first started slow traveling, making connections was something that I had to force myself to do.  Now, I do it naturally in each new place I live.

Slow travel has shown me how to embed in a new place, to learn the culture and to build relationships.  It is the single most valuable gift I have received during these years on the road.  Like a Bedouin pitching a tent, I can make a home anywhere.

Slow travel opens the world to me and lays it shimmering at my feet.  It offers an intimate experience of place and people. It demands authentic engagement.

All it takes is time.

Six Things I learned in Three Years on the Road: Resourcefulness

The defining characteristic of travelers who successfully spend months or years on the road is not their resources, it´s their resourcefulness.

The dictionary defines resourcefulness as “the ability to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations and difficulties.”   Resourcefulness is not a theoretical concept.  It arises from challenging situations and problems.   In other words, you learn it when your ass falls off and your hair is on fire.

For me, the appeal of travel has always been its unpredictability.  My Spanish teacher recently gave our class a list of disasters and asked us to talk about which ones we had experienced.  I had experienced all of them, plus a few that were missing.  Earthquake? Alaska.  Hurricane? Hong Kong.  Plague of insects?  Kenya.  Military coup? Thailand.

Before I started the first leg of my trip around the world, I planned each week carefully, with great attention to detail.  My first stop was to be a work exchange gig in a chateau in the Loire Valley in France.  Then I planned to hike 791 kilometers of the El Camino in Northern Spain.  Afterward, I planned to study dance for six weeks in London before returning home for Christmas.

It was buttoned down.  Nothing had been left to chance.

My entire plan fell like dominos less than 10 days after arriving in Europe.  The work exchange gig in France was a bait-and-switch scam. The place was a sweatshop. Workers didn´t live in the chateau, they lived in the barn.  Instead of six hours a day, five days a week, the owners expected 10-hour days and some of the workers had not had a day off in six weeks.   The operation was run by a chain-smoking wreck of a woman whose husband had developed dementia and was given to wandering around the grounds naked.  When he escaped, the staff had to catch him so he could be medicated and put to bed.

I left that mess, figuring I´d start hiking El Camino early.  However, the day I left the chateau, there was torrential rain and flooding in the Pyrenees Mountains. The region was declared a national disaster area.  Hiking that part of El Camino was impossible.

My glorious plan was in ruins.  I spent three days cold and dreary days in a hotel room in a small town in France, listening to the rain, having panic attacks, and trying to figure out what to do.

Resourceful people tend to be goal-oriented, creative problem solvers.   I blew into a paper bag and pulled up my goals for the year on my laptop.

My goals included studying Spanish, dancing, hiking El Camino, expanding knowledge of world cuisines and learning more about the Arab Spring.

What if I threw out my bucket list and used these goals to travel, I wondered?

What if my goals became my compass?  What would that look like?

What happened was that I fundamentally changed how I travel.

Rather than go someplace because it was on a must-see-before-you-die list, I began to evaluate places by whether they were healthy, walkable, creative environments for learning.

El Camino stayed on the list since it would eventually dry out and become passable again.  In the meantime, I decided to go to Southern Spain to study Spanish and dance.  In Sevilla, I joined an African dance group.  I bought castanets and studied Flamenco.

I wore flowers in my hair and walked everywhere.

I decided to go to North Africa.  I took cooking classes and spoke with Muslim women in their kitchens about the Arab Spring.  I wore an abaya and a hijab so that I could blend in and travel more freely.  I came away with recipes and a unique, feminine perspective on current events in that party of the world.

When the Camino dried out, I hiked it.  On the last day of the hike, I developed a hairline fracture in my talus, or heal bone.  There was no way I was going to be able to dance in London on that foot.  I could barely walk.

Another domino had fallen.

Back to the drawing board.

“You are 85% water,” I told myself, “Flow around it.”

What could I do in London that didn´t require a lot of walking, I wondered?  I looked at my goals again.  One goal was to start drawing and painting again.  I had a BA in Fine Arts, but over the years, I had gradually stopped doing anything creative in order to focus on a career in research.

I discovered that the National Gallery offered artists stools so they could sit while they drew.  I hobbled to the art supply store a couple of blocks away to buy drawing supplies, hobbled back to the museum and claimed my stool.  I drew at the National Gallery every morning and late into the night in my room.  In the afternoons, I sat in the pews of cathedrals and listened to concerts.

I decided to visit libraries, another good place to get off my feet, I figured.  In a library near Saint James, I saw a man was sitting by a northern window.  The light was spectacular.  He was dressed in a long blue canvas workingman’s coat and a blue watchman´s cap. It was a scene that Vermeer would have painted.

I introduced myself and asked if I could photograph him so that I could draw him.  I explained about the problem with my foot.  We started talking.  He was intelligent and very articulate.

The gentleman was homeless.  He belonged to a book club made up of other homeless men.

They were reading the Russians.

Would I like to join them?

I would indeed.

It was an amazing experience.  The guys turned me on to the British Film Institute, where a membership included access to viewing rooms.  The rooms held small groups of people.  We viewed films from a collection of thousands of the best, award-winning films from around the world.

We spent several rainy afternoons together watching movies.

They smelled like wet dogs.

I loved every minute of it.

I flew home to the US for the holidays.

The next leg of my trip would be Asia.

Over the holidays, people asked me often about my bucket list for the next leg of my trip.

“I threw the bucket away,” I would reply.  “I found a new way to travel.”

New Painting: Impermanence

“Once something has outlived its usefulness in one area of life, its purpose for being in existence is no longer the same. The leaf that captures a stream of sunlight, and then transfers its energy to the tree, serves one purpose in the spring and summer, and another completely different one through the fall and winter. ” Guy Finley