It was a Saturday afternoon and I had three internet tabs open. In the first, I chatted with a dear friend about her recent backpacking adventures. In the second, I browsed quirky hand-painted dishes for my apartment. In the third, I lackadaisically filled out an internet quiz meant to determine one’s suitability for long-term travel.
I cycled through my emotions in parallel with the tabs. In tab one, each new line of chat sparked a pang of unbearable jealousy; oh, for the freedom and resources to indulge in the whims of travel! A quick click to the second tab cured travel envy with a dose of retail therapy. Sure, my friend may have had an out-of-body experience in a remote Bolivian village, but did she serve from-scratch macarons on indie designer platters last Tuesday? I think not. The internet quiz in the third tab served as a distraction from the self-destructive cycle of the first two, until I finally pressed “submit” to learn my travel fate.
The internet robots tabulated my answers and planted me firmly in the 2% of quiz takers for whom travel is not recommended. While usually I avoid advice from anonymous web copywriters compensated for clicks instead of content, I read every word in the description of the “Resolutely Rooted,” the small tribe of travel-averse people on a travel website into which I had been grouped.
The quiz writers got a few things right. Though I’ve always suffered from wanderlust, I don’t have a lot in common with those who travel full time. Adrenaline junkies have some risk-taking gene lacking in my own code and I don’t fit into the backpacker scene unless I self-medicate with lots of beer. Hostel dorms and their oft-smelly inhabitants fill me with dread, yet I develop a sickly pallor around travel amenities for the rich as every ounce of awkward fiercely tamped inside slowly seeps through my pores. Large crowds do not bestow a zest for life upon me. Instead, my hands grow clammy, my mood irritable, and eventually I’ll sustain homicidal ideation.
More significantly, I’m okay with the conventional life that’s understandably abhorrent to many of my fellow travelers. To some degree, I enjoy the competitive spirit inherent in the American career rat race forged by that outdated Protestant work ethic wherein one’s work indicates one’s worth. Additionally, some trappings of stationary life genuinely douse my brain with happy chemicals, such as: caring for my cat, growing vegetables, collecting old books with real bindings, and cooking in my perfectly-seasoned cast iron skillet. Some people meditate. I ferment honey into mead and hand pound curry pastes until I reach a state of catatonic bliss.
Merge this complacency with life-as-we-know-it and a tendency to vomit when faced with the logistical snafus entailed by longterm travel and you’ve got one immobilized girl. Despite the seething jealousy felt deep in my bones when I spoke to well-traveled people, I left travel as something to be done in the future and talked about in the meantime. This phase lasted for a good six years, much to the dismay of my friends and their beleaguered ears.
My tipping point came at age 25, when several elements in my life started to shift and I was able to focus on the horizon. Beyond billable hours, the grams of CO2 emitted per liter of diesel fuel, and the thrill of my hometown’s emerging craft beer scene, the version of myself that I am supposed to be sharpened. That woman is well-traveled not out of privilege or boredom, but out of a curiosity in the workings of the world and the lives of others. She collects her own data to support world views forged by the flavors and pace of life abroad.
With the help and support of my sainted partner Andy, I arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand in December, 2011, having quit my job, secured care for my cat, and divided my belongings among friends and family. Squarely on the opposite side of the world from my hometown of Austin, Texas, I was armed with intentions to study Thai language and learn as much as possible about the country’s exalted cuisine. In many respects, I’ve been a terrible expat and southeast Asian traveler over the past nine months. I’ve refused to party in celebration of the moon’s fullness or welcome sunrise at Angkor Wat. I’ve left many an elephant unridden and tiger cub uncuddled. Most monks have escaped my presence without having had their photo snapped.
Yet I’ve found my own little pieces of travel transcendence in Thailand, mostly while slurping noodles on small plastic stools or picking frog bones out of my teeth in bamboo huts. My computer’s hard drive brims with photos of exotic-to-me fruits and notes scrawled in train berths between rounds of karaoke. Thanks to language lessons, I can engage Thais in small talk, and I’ve had memorable conversations in transit hubs across the region. Travel has had a physical effect as well–my waistline reveals my love of Beerlao and sun damage graces my face.
My mobile existence reflects my rooted life in terms of its focus on transportation modalities and food. Instead of helping tractor drivers repower their machines with cleaner engines, I marvel at the number of people packed on a motorbike and ruminate on the pleasures and absurdities of train travel. Rather than trying to understand a complex food by making it, I perceive each new place as the starting line for a delicious scavenger hunt, with each bite providing insight into a place’s history and culture.
In the coming months I’ll be journeying back to the United States along a circuitous route that includes covering over a quarter of the earth’s circumference on the Trans-Mongolian Railway, working my way overland across Europe, and crossing the Atlantic via ocean liner. It will be a flavorful adventure, I’m sure, though the route will be determined largely by infrastructure availability and not by a destination’s reputation among foodies. My goal for this column is to share my observations from the dining car, perhaps nudging one or two of you out of an immobilizing rut along the way.