Location: Coutures, FRANCE
The ego is a precious thing. Every now and then you must remind yourself that it’s just your stupid ego beating out a cacophony in your head as a three-year-old kicks and screams in a supermarket over some stupid, shiny, foil-wrapped piece of crap.
Ego, the way you use it, is your whole identity wrapped up into one neat little word. It’s how you identify objectively and physically, as well as subjectively–in relationship to the world.
“My name is Maria. I am a female traveler. I am a fitness trainer. I espouse whole foods plant-based nutrition. I have a bad memory and commitment issues.”
There you are: in a nutshell.
It used to be: “My name is Maria. I am a philosophy student at Yale. I am an Olympic hopeful for the 2008 Games. I am very proud of myself.”
And everyone around you was the same: Ivy-league-educated, tall, strong, smart, heavily decorated. Everyone with their mind on the same goal.
Row, eat, sleep. Gossip. Row, eat, sleep. Gossip–
–until the end of days.
Everything revolved around rowing. Every arbitrary decision made by a coach had to mean something! Your identity was so small that small decisions affecting it were so big–so impactful. These decisions would ultimately help determine who is best, something every competitive person places as a priority.
Aaaand… your ego wanted immortality.
You remember sitting at Gold’s Gym SOMA last summer, in San Francisco, just two weeks before you would quit your job. A new-hire, Bret, sat across the table from you, and engaged you in conversation after several weeks of failed attempts to get to know you better. Granted, some harmless sexual scheming on his part may have led you to put up a few intimidating walls of jadedness–in order to deter his advances–and hence, you curtly synopsized your life to him as one of physical trauma, broken dreams, and existentialist flippancy.
Bret listened, politely wide-eyed, with the corners of his mouth subtly smirking his acknowledgement. Then he surprised you by saying, “I know exactly how you feel,” and regaled you with his own similar saga–of being a big-time football player with an opportunity to go pro, and then broken hips and shoulders.
Little binds two people faster than shared suffering.
Bret continued with his solemn tone, certainly misunderstanding that your monologue had been a ruse–that you were seldom haunted by your former broken ego. He described with admirable honesty his own broken ego.
His details were quite unexpected. And you softened.
“Listen, Bret,” you began. “See Joe over there? Joe is a body builder. Joe was Mr. San Jose! Joe used to work at a gym just two blocks from here. He made more money than all the other trainers. He had more clients than he could handle. The gym management envied his success so much, that they upped his rent, Joe had to take his business here. Joe is the best female figure model trainer here. Joe is so busy, so important. His business is expanding. Everyone knows who Joe is at this gym.
“Now let’s take a look at that guy,” you continued, waving your hand at an imaginary person. “His name is Peter. He’s a big, fat, hairy whatever, but little do we know, he’s San Francisco’s best BDSM Dom, and he is famous for his rope work. His knots are so beautiful, so expertly tied, so intricate, that he actually travels around to BDSM conventions and holds exhibitions, workshops, and charity events. He has a handful of interns and apprentices, and dozens of groupies, and he gets to have sex or dominate a new person every night of the week, if he chooses.
“And now let’s look at Mike–” fictitious Mike”–who’s an investment banker. He lives in Marin in a 2-million-dollar home, grosses over $350,000 a year, has a hot wife with real tits, drives an imported car, and is the envy of his shallow peers. He moves more money around on a daily basis than most people amass in a lifetime. He’s the kind of guy that gives homeless people 20 dollar bills because he can afford to. His friends are all made of money, and together they think they move the world. Mike doesn’t give a single fuck about body building; and he doesn’t even know that BDSM rope-tying is a skill!
“Peter doesn’t give a damn about money because he’s comfortable and gets to live out his fetishes every day. Joe cares about money, but he doesn’t know how to earn it without sweating; and kinky shit scares the daylights out of him. He’s only ever heard about bondage, and the closest he ever came to it was when I tied him to the stretching table. He’ll never meet Mike, because Mike is too busy cooling down from his 6-mile run with an arugula salad, reading economic news on his iPhone.
“These people are all the centers of their microcosms, and yet they’re all here in this gym. If Pete keels over from a heart attack, Joe and Mike won’t notice the ripple caused in the BDSM community. The only people that will notice are people who share that microcosm. They are the only people who matter.
“But there are so many microcosms: you can be a football player, a rower, a body builder, a knot tier, an I-banker, a gamer, a tattoo artist, a basket weaver. It doesn’t matter. You’ll meet more people over your lifetime who have absolutely nothing to do with your interests. They won’t experience you as a failed opportunity in football–and if they do, it’s because you told them. Rather than focusing on what you once were, you should focus on what you are doing.”
It’s a pity that you can’t always take your own advice…
Fast forward past not one, but two quarter-life crises, and here you are.
You’re going to focus on the identity of low-budget traveler and list a number of ridiculous arguments you have had with yourself, with Katie, and with others about which decisions a traveler must make in an attempt to (covertly) determine–again–who is best.
THE DECISION LIST
1) Accommodations (hotel, hostel, CS/BeWelcome/Hospitality Club, invite from strangers, paid camping, wild camping, stealth camping)
2) Transportation (plane, rental car, train, bus, ferry, metro, rental bike, hitch hiking, walking)
3) Food (including local cuisine–low end products and high end products–and general nutrition)
4) Urban attractions (i.e., museums, shows, festivals, and activities)
5) Outdoors attractions (i.e., hiking, running, boating, swimming, skiing, etc.)
5) Independence (i.e., not being a “free loader”)
6) Budget (daily, monthly, or yearly)
7) Gear (a ratio of weight to instrumental value)
8) Bad-assery (i,e, “anecdotal value”)
It seems now that you are back on the road, this time with better equipment, more money, more time, and much loftier goals and aggressive itineraries, you can’t help but interrogate every other traveler you meet about his/her methods.
“How to you get around? Do you ever camp? How did you earn the money? What’s your budget? How heavy is your bag?” etc. etc.
You are desperate to determine who is best in the microcosm of lifestyle travel.
Mark is a 27-year-old Canadian, a serial Couch Surfer with a huge backpack, which includes a tennis racket and goalie gloves for soccer. He has a large, two-man tent which he uses occasionally when he doesn’t make it to his destination in time, and it is is strapped awkwardly to the outside of his backpack. He drinks, parties, cycles around cities, hikes, goes days with poor sleep, does hand stands on mountain tops, plays tennis and goalie now and again, and loves to take pictures with his large SLR camera. He travels with a netbook. He does not like walking with his back pack. He hitch hikes everywhere, and sticks to Couch Surfing. He has never done work exchanges–they don’t interest him very much, and he’s nervous about the idea, having heard about some others’ bad experiences. His budget is about $20 a day, but frequently less. He has a work visa for the UK, but prefers to make money sitting at a poker table. In two weeks, he won $3000 dollars. He is not concerned about money and can buy new things as old ones wear out, and you’re pretty sure he eats a lot on-the-go. He started traveling at 24 and speaks enough French to get by.
Levi is a 22-year old Romanian who speaks 7 languages. He’s a former junior national team martial artist and serious boy scout who has also participated in survival camps. He has been a serial couch surfer for many years, and sleeps in a new place every few days to a week, getting by exclusively through hitch hiking, with an occasional cheap flight in the EU. He is the Couch Surfing ambassador for his region, has lectured on how to hitch hike, and has participated in numerous CS events. He does not explain how he makes his money, but claims to make plenty through simple, practical business ventures in tourism (which later failed) and in the spice trade (current). His budget is 5 euro per day, and he spends it every day–sometimes more, sometimes less–because he likes to make at least one dinner for his hosts. He eats a lot of processed food, and is not ashamed to ask for part of your lunch. His stuff fits into a school bag, and does not weigh more than 7 kilos, and includes his netbook computer. He does not carry a tent or any form of camping gear with him, though he does own gear–the best gear–which he leaves at home in Romania and re-visits from time to time. He is not concerned about ever becoming stranded en route, and explains that he will “either make a shelter in 30 minutes, or go to the nearest bar and go home with a woman.”
Manon is a 27-year-old French girl who has been camping, work-exchanging, couch surfing, and hitch hiking for several years. She travels alone and with friends, and has very little in regards to savings. When alone, she carries a camping tent, but only for emergencies. She eats little–and healthily–but drinks a lot. She does not usually think about traveling on a daily budget; rather, she stays in a place long enough to earn enough travel capital, then takes a trip to a new place for a few weeks before needing to hunker down and make more money–wherever there’s an opportunity. She speaks English, French, and Spanish fluently, and prefers large social gatherings over drinks and tobacco to physically strenuous activities–though she enjoys a good hike. Her backpack is small, but suitable for her stature, and is largely filled with clothing and personal effects, after her sleeping kit. She does not travel with a computer or any large electronics.
Nicholas is a 25-year old American who bought a backpack and decided to visit a relative in the UK before heading to France to do work exchanges, with the goal of being able to speak French fluently by the end. He has been doing work exchanges for a full year, and little else. He has hitch hiked, but doesn’t like it, and prefers trains and buses, the costs of which are offset by the fact that he spends almost nothing during the course of his work exchanges. He eats whatever his hosts provides, without preference or complaint. He has no intention of returning to America any time soon, and will continue to do work exchanges.
Thomas is 27 years old, from the UK. Thomas is a freegan. After buying a backpack and a ticket to Australia, he bounced around for a while until he ran out of money. Then he sort of “forgot” his things. He had nothing. Just the clothes on his back and a passport in his pocket. He admits to having stolen a little cash from a tourist information center once, but that was the last. Since then, he’s lives almost entirely without money. Australian authorities shipped him back to the UK, but he began moving around, squatting in squats, crashing in sheds, getting clothing from bins, fishing his meals from the trash, hopping trams, and working perhaps a week here or there at any place hiring, before losing interest in work.
You could go on about other travelers you’ve met or have heard about, but you have less insider information on how they do it, and wouldn’t be able to provide an accurate portrait. Turner, for example, has been floating around for years and makes his living free-lancing, and even managed to spend a long time in Japan, which is the most expensive country in the world–though he accrued significant debt in doing so. Later, he would move to San Francisco, another famously expensive city, and live frugally enough to become debt free in a year. Then there’s this guy, Francis Tapon, who is a bit older (a late-starter), and sounds like a well-rounded bad ass with a cushy budget and a love of lightweight thru-hiking.
As you consider these different characters and run them through the items on your decision list, you try to answer the question: who is best. It sounds like a question that is easy enough to understand. But then you try to break it down…
Who is the best traveler? What does it mean to be the best?
- Does it mean you see the most countries (Francis)?
- Do you travel the longest with the least effort (Nicholas)?
- Do you carry the least amount of gear (Francis)?
- Do you meet the most people, but spend the least money (Levi)?
- Do you immerse yourself in a place for longer periods of time, before moving on (Manon)?
- Do you travel with the least regard for money (Mark)?
- Do you float from place to place indefinitely (Turner?)
- Do you take the most risks (Levi/Manon)?
It becomes less clear.
And the question cannot be answered. So you wonder then, why you get all up in arms every time you think about how much shit you’re carrying all the time. Just under 18kg without food or water. You wonder if it makes you somehow less of a traveler, having so much security in that bag of yours.
In your twisted head, you have this definition of the best traveler as someone who travels with the least money and the most independence, with the most variety in experience, with the most badassery (example: doing things that are difficult, often because they are difficult).
These criteria, of course, are valued arbitrarily by you. By your own stupid ego. Because you want to be best. You want to be that traveler that all other travelers talk about and say, “She took it to another level.”
But by every single criterion, you have not.
Who gives a damn about whether you have more merit-badges in badassery than the next traveler? No one.
There isn’t anyone back at home reading your blog that bounces in their chair, clapping their hands in approval every time you do something stupid and live to tell about it. You doubt there is anyone devoting an iota of scrutiny to your choice in gear or superfluous spending.
Maybe other travelers… Maybe some. But most of them–the non-competitive ones–are just doing their thing and it works for them.
The minority of travelers like yourself who have tried to make it a competition sport… well… the result remains to be seen. Modes of travel are as varied as sports themselves.
What you’re doing is like comparing two sports to determine the best athlete.
TRAVELING AS A FEMALE VS. TRAVELING AS A MALE
First of all, you should know better than to compare yourself with men (and yet you always do). The game they play is so very different.
Men are more hard-wired for loneliness. Women, not so much. While you have traveled alone on many occasions, you do not prefer it–and yet you have met so many boys who go it alone. You know that traveling alone becomes more of a couch surfing marathon or a work-exchange marathon, rather than the extended outdoorsy-homeless-chic trip you prefer.
You envy the guys that can walk by themselves for weeks on end, carrying the bare essentials.
But then, that’s all they do. When they’re done, they go home. Change into some clean clothes as a courtesy to others, because they know they must smell like hell.
Yeahhh… about clothing! There are differences in requisite clothing. Guys can get away with t-shirts and jeans/shorts and easily borrow these items from other men. What women wear is about 100 times more complicated in style and variety, and is not easily borrowed (especially at your size). It is furthermore complicated by Islamic countries.
Requisite toiletries: pads/tampons, shit required to deal with long hair.
Minor inconveniences: hormones and cramps, toileting, and yeast infections.
Major inconveniences: sexual harrassment. You’ve been groped, pinched, grabbed, kissed, intimidated, stalked, masturbated at, and strangled by men during your travels. You’d wager that the dudes you know who travel around don’t get mistaken for prostitutes or solicited for blow jobs. And while you personally have not been date raped, you’ve met two female travelers who have.
If that doesn’t earn you a merit-badge in badassery, you don’t know what does.