Reverse Culture Shock

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Imagine, somehow, that you’ve avoided looking in the mirror for 4 years. Then one day you look.

Beforehand you would probably have a good idea of what you’d see. Everybody knows their own face, how they look. But after 4 years there would be some differences. A few more lines, a receding hairline, more facial hair, a bit more grey here and there. You may have even forgot a few things. Like the small scar on your chin or the freckle under your nose. [Read more…]

Returning Home After Travelling

tyne bridge newcastle reflection

After almost 4 years of travel, last week I returned to England, possibly for good.

The feeling is bittersweet. In many ways, it’s the end of an era.

We’ve all been there. Graduating from high school, or university. Leaving a job we’ve worked for years. Times in our life where we have to transition from one way of living to another. [Read more…]

Should You Force Yourself To Travel?

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If you so much as stood on an airplane 50 years ago, you’d probably made it in some way. You could afford the luxury of air travel and that meant something. You had status. But for most, travel was a fantasy – something that people did in books or the National Geographic.

Skip forward to now and jumping on an airplane is as normal as riding a bus. Those fantasies have become not just real but affordable. Economy air travel has opened the world to people of all classes. Everybody has the opportunity to go to foreign countries and experience different cultures.

Once a thing becomes affordable and everybody is doing it, it takes on even more importance in terms of your status.

Most people own a car and have a house. As well as serving their practical purposes, they also show our status. The bigger your house, the better you’re doing in life. The newer the car, the richer you are. I’m not saying this is true, just the trap people fall into.

We get pulled into this battle of status with others, we can’t help ourselves. Maybe we have insecurities and the only way to feel better is to prove to others that we are equal to them because we can afford the same commodities. It’s the basis of advertising and capitalism. We need to keep buying so we’re equal to others.

Few people buy a new iPhone because they’ve yet again revolutionised the phone. But rather because they need to keep up appearances. They can afford the new iPhone, so they have status. Life is a battle for status.

Travel is now affordable for so many that it has become something a person needs to do to keep status. If you haven’t travelled, or don’t go on regular holidays, many would have you believe that you’re not actually enjoying your life. This idea is strongly held by many young people and the problem with this is that it’s now no longer a matter of if you should travel, but simply when. It has to happen at some point or you’re not going to have any status.

Since travel now adds to our status, there becomes a lot more pressure to do it. With houses and cars, most people need them, they serve a purpose and fulfill a need. But I always struggle to figure out what purpose travel serves.

This is partly a trap I’ve fallen into. I believed that if I didn’t travel, I would somehow be missing out. I looked at my friends that had travelled and thought I had to do it too. However, I realise that travel hasn’t made me any better than anybody else. I have grown, but growing is something we all do no matter where we are. All travel has gained me is happy memories, which are easy enough to come by at home.

As with all social pressures, this can create tension for a lot of people. Let’s go back to that new iPhone. Those with less money, who can’t afford a new iPhone may start to believe that they lack status or aren’t good enough as people. It’s a stupid thing to think, like a new phone matters, but people still believe it.

In the same way, those who can’t afford travel may feel they don’t measure up.

Since many people can afford to travel though, another problem comes about. Those who don’t even particularly want to travel end up doing it. I truly believe that travel isn’t for everyone, it takes a certain type of person to do it. But since we’re in this mindset of competing with others, we often don’t ask ourselves whether we want to do things because we’re putting our status ahead of what we truly want.

You may sit at home and believe your life is a waste because you’ve never travelled. Work yourself up into doing it, then find yourself thousands of miles from home and miserable. At this point you could be tempted to push on, travelling to keep up status. But really you should search yourself and ask if you truly want to do it. Do you want to travel, or do you simply want to fulfil the needs of others who believe travel is needed?

We should live our lives as we want which sometimes means admitting “I don’t like doing something, even if others tell me I should. So I’m not going to waste my time doing it.” It’s hard to go against the grain of social conventions, but worth it when you realise you’re actually living your life, instead of a life others believe you should have.

Going On A Day Trip

riding camels in the sahara

After a few weeks in a country, the food starts to seem a little less tasty, the land a little less mysterious. We would be comfortable sitting by a pool all day reading a book, letting the rest of our time slip away into idleness. But our comfort is tinged with guilt. Did we really travel half way across the world to relax and read books? We shouldn’t be relaxing, we should be out see things! Isn’t that why we’re here? The guilt gnaws at us until we cave in, deciding to once again set out to find a Unique Cultural Experience for ourselves.

putting on mud at dead sea

A Unique Cultural Experience

It’s about now that the offer of a day trip starts to sound appealing. The day trip is such a pleasing idea. You can wake early in the morning, travel to exotic locales, experience a day packed with culture and adventure, then by supper you’ll be back in your air conditioned hotel room, free to sleep in a comfortable bed.

A friendly, female tour agent reels you in with her smile and a thousand empty promises.  She offers the world at discounted prices. Reeling off a list of tours which are all designed to show the best her country has to offer. “You wan’ ri’ elephan’?” We’ve already ridden an elephant, the hard, boney back drove itself right into my buttocks, I wasn’t able to sit for days. “How bou’ kayak? You wan’ kayak?” Ah kayaking, another past adventure, the stench of a putrid swamp, a hardened guide shouting in my face, “Paddle faster! Faster!”

Clearly having lots of fun.

Clearly having lots of fun.

Cooking schools that lead to food poisoning. Mountain hikes that lead to market sellers forcibly selling their wares. As the tour agent reels through the endless lists of Unique Cultural Experiences, that we’ve already decided we never want to experience again, I wonder why we’re bothering.

Then she mentions the words “snorkeling” and “tropical desert island” and before I know what’s happened my wallet is a little lighter. With great skill she’s found the one trip that had some appeal to us and convinced us we had to sign up for it.”Don’ worry,” she says, reiterating that we’re getting a discount.

The life of a tour agent is one of constant wheeling and dealing. It must take a good amount of cunning to pretend you’re not offering a service but instead offering help. They always have the best price for you only but as it turns out that’s the best price for them too. The one that makes the most commission. Agents are the shepherds and tourists are the sheep, waiting to be led (cajoled, pushed) towards the most convenient destination. The one that makes the most money. Jungles, mountain villages or desert paradises.

a tour guide

“Ok, 30 seconds to take a photo then back in the mini-van for 2 hours.”

Once you’ve signed up to a tour, once they’ve got your money, nothing else matters. The air conditioned bus is a pick-up truck with wooden seats. The free lunch is a packet of ramen noodles. The Unique Cultural Experiences are over-trodden places filled with other tourists. Pushing and shoving, cameras in hand trying to get the best photo for Facebook. One that shows the Unique Cultural Experience, but not the unique hellish experience of visiting the place.

A Day Trip

We wake up with the sunrise to snorkel on the tropical desert island. A dusty mini-bus arrives, weaving between hotels to pick up other pale tourists. The air conditioning works and everybody is jovial. Looking forward to seeing tropical fish and bathing in ice blue water.

As soon as we’ve started to settle in to our ride,the bus stops and we’re led onto a speed boat. The quickest way to get to our destination, thus the most expensive. If we’re going to a day trip, we may as well spend a little more to ensure we get the most out of it!

The words “speed boat” no doubt evokes in the mind a small white boat, speeding through the Florida Keys. Two stunning blondes in bikinis sitting at the back. A hunk of a man in sunglasses at the helm. Everybody smiling, having fun. Maybe they’ll stop soon to enjoy some champagne and oysters.

Instead, I find myself sitting in the back of a much larger lime green boat a little bigger than a mini van. Two rows of seats go along the sides, where I’m crammed with 20 other tourists drenched in sweat. An annoying American man (it’s always an American, sorry Jamie) continuously exclaims that he can’t wait to see the fish. Over and over.

The engines roar so loudly that it’s impossible to have a conversation and the American man has to shout to be heard. “I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THE FISH!” The further out the boat travels, the greyer the sky gets. The calm water of the beach is replaced with the high sloshing of waves.

The boat speeds across the water. Skimming along like a stone throw by a giant. As we hit the crest of a wave the boat hangs in the air for a moment, our stomachs lurch. The bottom of the boat slams onto the water with a large thud. I start to wonder if that’s natural. Are boats meant to go into the air? Does the driver have a licence? Probably not. No doubt he knows as much as I do about boating. My knuckles turn white as I grip onto a beam. The American man is now silent, his face grey. We make eye contact and I know he’s thinking the same thing as I am. “Why am I here?”

This is a thought I often get when travelling. Often when I’m doing something I have no real interest in. That’s just the way of the traveler. We don’t want to miss out, so we force ourselves to do these things. We tell ourselves that our time must be spent doing worthwhile things.

To put it another way, how many of your friends are interested in art? I mean, seriously interested. I’d wager that not many of them would be. Yet, everybody that goes to Paris will visit The Louvre, because it’s like you’ve got to. Even when you see the Mona Lisa and are completely overwhelmed at least you’ve seen it? It’s ticked off the list, despite the fact you could have spent your day doing something you actually enjoy like eating pastries.

couple look at pollock in moma

“I must pretend to find this interesting so she’ll sleep with me later.”

The day trip is perfect as it’s the quickest way to get those ticks. But then you find yourself on a boat, sure that you’ll die at any moment. Staring at an annoying, sweaty American, wondering where your life went wrong. Wondering why you’re putting yourself through all this for something you have no interest in.

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“Shit, we’ve only been here 5 minutes!? It feels like 5 days!”

After an hour of sitting in a cocktail shaker, the boat stops and I’m handed a snorkel and told to swim. I’d prefer to vomit. Not because I hate snorkeling, but because I’m feeling really sea sick. But I need to snorkel, otherwise the horrible boat trip will have been wasted. So I get in the choppy water and I’m no longer standing on a boat being rocked by a wave. Instead I am lying in a wave and I’m the one being rocked.

I promptly vomit in the water, which is annoying because immediately I’m swimming in vomit. I can’t help but feel a little amazed as I watch tropical fish swimming around in my breakfast.

Back on the boat I continue to vomit until the boat slams its way to dry land. The tropical desert island we were promised. I collapse on the sand and decide I’ll just spend the rest of my life here. Just me, a ton of giant lizards and some disgusting concrete toilets. I can’t stand the thought of the trip back to our hotel. Another hour on the boat of death. I want to sob. I vow to never go on another day trip. They never end up as I imagine and the price of a Unique Cultural Experience is too high. You’re paying more than just money. Often your dignity is at stake.

chinese tourists in hoi anq

A dignified tour group.

A year later, when I think of the experience it doesn’t seem so bad. It’s all but lost to memory. We find ourselves in a tour office. A young Vietnamese woman offers us the world and we believe her. The next day we sit on a large bus with broken air conditioning. We’re like dogs stuck in an overheated car, slowly withering away. All of this for a Unique Cultural Experience. Once more we vow to never do it again.

It doesn’t happen. We never learn. They always get you. Always promise that this time will be different. But it never is.

Our Impossible Problem

New York Highline

It has just struck me all of a sudden that we’ve been in Australia for 4 months now, which you probably wouldn’t know based on our blog. We’ve barely written a thing about it. A couple of posts at most.

Part of me wants to make excuses. It’s winter in Melbourne at the moment so things are cold and unappealing. We barely have any money and don’t want to waste it on going out. But I think the truth is that we’re not happy in Australia and have no compulsion to explore it.

We never really wanted to come here. It was an act of necessity rather than anything else. We had no choice.

Jamie is American. I am English. What this creates is a situation where we can only visit places where we can both get the same or similar visas. At the same time, we need to make money somehow as life doesn’t come for free. All of our travels are supported with hard work. We get nothing for free.

So wherever we go, we need to be able to work. This means options are limited. Before arriving in Australia, we had a number of options available to us:

  • Head to Southeast Asia and attempt to make a living off online freelance writing work, or make our own money through digital means. Something we’re reluctant to do as there’s so much competition out there and we barely even know where to start.
  • Head to another country where we could both get working holiday visas of which Australia is the only realistic one left.
  • Go back to teaching English in Asia for another year, which drove us to madness the first time.

Going back to one of our home countries wasn’t an option due to visa restrictions in the UK and USA. So we had to keep travelling. The choice was pretty much made for us. Australia it was!

The problem though is we both want to go home. Or create a home. Settle down. After travelling for almost 4 years I’m pretty sick of working menial jobs. I’m starting to feel like I’m wasting my life and need to do something with it. I’m almost thirty and although I’ve had some great experiences, I have very little to show for that time. I want to do something meaningful, be part of a community.

I need some roots. When travelling these roots just keep getting pulled up. Over and over. A tree can never grow if you keep pulling it out of the ground.

So we live in Australia, but our minds are elsewhere. Trying to make the best of a bad situation. Jamie works casually for a cafe for cash in hand and at the moment I’m unemployed, although I spent a few months in a call center. Our time here is spent mostly in misery, doing things we don’t like. Trying to save up money to put towards an unknown future.

If this sounds depressing, it’s because it is. Arriving in Melbourne, trying to find a job I didn’t even want, to live in a place that didn’t interest me. I started wondering why we were bothering. The only reason we’re here is to stay together, but that’s not enough when the rest of our lives are miserable. Without a light at the end of the tunnel, it seems like we’re just treading water.

This is a problem I never thought I’d experience in my life. Trying to find a place where I can live and work happily with my partner. There seems to be no easy solution.

I’ve been searching my mind since we arrived in Melbourne. The result is nothing but despair. There is no easy solution and being confronted with that knowledge has meant confronting myself. Not long after starting my call center job, I started seeing a counsellor. I could feel my mental health dipping. Not wanting to get out of bed, sometimes not wanting to live.

We spent our time discussing how I felt about myself. Mostly how I didn’t feel good enough. All these problems thrown at me simply bring back a common feeling I’ve often felt, which is I’m simply not good enough. That I’m useless. That I can’t do anything. I revealed that I was finding it hard to look for work as I’d just look at the job descriptions and think, “How could I ever do this!?” My opinion of myself was low to say the least. I had no confidence. My counsellor found it to be a bit strange.

“How many people do you think can travel for four years?”
“I don’t know. Not many, I guess.”
“Ok, and do you think a person who isn’t confident could do it?”
“I suppose not, no.”

The counsellor was a bit of a revelation for me as so many of my incorrect views were shattered. I’ve always felt like I wasn’t good enough, like if I wasn’t the best then I was shit. But after some discussion I was brought to the conclusion that this is just some rubbish that’s stuck in my head. Just because you’re not the best, that doesn’t mean you’re not good at something.

Soon after arriving in Melbourne, I wrote about passion. At that time, I was starting to feel the expectation of a year in Melbourne on my shoulders. Knowing I’d be spending another year doing things I didn’t want to. To spend a year in purgatory.

To try to build a more balanced life, I decided to pursue some passions in the form of volunteering with some non-profits. The idea being that this can take me one step closer to getting paid to do these things I love when I settle down. When I finally plant those roots.

So far it’s been helpful. My time in Melbourne hasn’t been completely unproductive. It has some meaning.

But still that problem looms over us. Will we ever get to settle down and will it be together?

Our current shaky plan is to head back to England in January. The light at the end of our tunnel. We hope Jamie can find a place to study a Masters degree and get a student visa. It’ll give me enough time to satisfy the requirements for her partner’s visa. Maybe that will take us closer to settling down. Jamie’s not enthusiastic about doing it and it’ll mean more debt. But there aren’t many other choices.

Until then we’ll focus on getting by, try to make enough money to get out of Australia and still be happy enough until then. When we start again, hopefully it’ll be for the last time.

The Adventures of Housesitting in New Zealand

An old barn in Masterton, New Zealand. When Daniel told me we received an e-mail from a family asking us to housesit for five weeks, I didn’t need much convincing to say yes. What was even better was the fact it wasn’t just any old house (well, it was old). This was a farmhouse. And you know what that means? Farm animals. Daniel said there would be cows, sheep, chickens, a horse, dog, and cat.

“But wait, we don’t have any experience with farm animals,” I whined. [Read more…]

Motivating Yourself to Travel

canoeing in vancouver

Canoeing in Vancouver

Seven or so years ago, I was at university and severely depressed. I could barely peel myself out of bed in the morning, I didn’t have the energy for anything. Going to the kitchen to make breakfast was like climbing a mountain, so most days I didn’t bother. It was easier to starve. Eventually, the hunger would become too painful and only then would I stumble to make a sandwich. I was completely unmotivated.

I was completely unmotivated. [Read more…]

I Quit My 9 to 5 Job to Travel (And It Didn’t Solve All of My Problems)

daniel miserable on a beach

Around four years ago today, I was sitting in an office, staring out the window, dreaming of travel. I’d finished university a few years earlier and instead of continuing to chase my passions, I had stayed put. I was trapped like a deer in the headlights of life. Paralysed and unable to do anything.

My friends all seemed to have gone on to better things. But me? I still lived with my parents, moving between menial jobs, doing not a lot of anything. Just sitting in an office day-by-day. Staring out that window. Dreaming. [Read more…]

Learning About Generosity in Arthur’s Pass

arthurs pass

After we travel, it’s often the people we’ve met that we remember the most.

Mountains and meals blur over time until they’re lost in the haze of memory. Moments disappear in our minds, sometimes resurfacing years later when we hear a song or smell something on the air. Tour guides and hotel receptionists meld into one in the mind. But sometimes you meet a person that is impossible to forget.

Maybe they touch your soul or you just have such a strong connection that you feel like you’ve known the person your whole life. You can make friendships while travelling that are so fleeting, yet so powerful. Sometimes it hurts when you have to say goodbye to a person that you’ve barely even met. [Read more…]