People are always (never) asking me what it’s like to quit adulting and become a funemployed traveler, so I’ve put together this top ten FAQs for your convenience.
- How many shirts do you have in your bag?
If you, like the “kids” in my post about KL, need to know how many shirts are in my bag, the answer is: Seven. This is about four more than is needed. You begin to think about physical stuff much differently when you have to carry all of it on your back every 3-5 days. Remember the Where’s Waldo books where you have to find Waldo in his trademark red and white-striped shirt somewhere in a sea of people? You know how he loses some item that he’s carrying on each page and you have to find it, too? It turns out, Waldo isn’t just really forgetful and careless. Waldo knew what was up. When you’re traveling for a long period of time with all of your belongings on your back, you find yourself leaving things behind to lighten the load or to make room for a souvenir or because you just didn’t need it in the first place. Where’s Waldo should be remarketed as The Art of Unpacking. Pure genius. It’ll be YUGE!
I end up wearing the same shirt over and over again anyway. My now self frequently looks incredulously at my past self for having packed that dress, those impractical shoes, that makeup and hair product, and that learn German book. Alas, these are items that I don’t want to part permanently with a la Waldo, so they remain heavily in the bottom of my bag. They are helpful, however, in deflecting temptation to buy things when I don’t have a disposable income or space in my bag.
- Is it safe?
It’s totally safe, but a healthy amount of vigilance and caution are required just as in any mid to large-sized city in the good ol’ US of A. Is it annoyance free? No. For instance, I recently decided to treat myself to a relaxing morning of blog writing at a coffee shop while Nate stayed back at our Airbnb to interview our host for his podcast. Within an hour, I had the following conversation with Nate over Messenger:
Ants on my touchscreen computer now strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the type of annoyances that are found in SE Asia. Put a person used to the privileges of first-world living and put them in a third-world setting, and expectations are rarely met. The meal you ordered will never look like the picture you pointed at. The songs over the loud speakers will be covers of pop songs, never the original (hence the conversation above). The sidewalk is always interrupted by garbage or motorbikes or in general disrepair (If the sidewalk’s a rockin’, don’t come a walkin’). And the prices you pay will be inflated in accordance with the whiteness of your face. Here is a recent conversation we had with the driver of a local public transportation vehicle:
J&N: “Does your truck go to this address?”
J&N: “OK. 30 Baht, right?”
Driver: “100 Baht.”
J&N: “But your truck says 30 baht” Points to 30 baht sign painted prominently on the side of the truck.
Driver: “That’s only for locals”
J&N: “I don’t believe you.”
Driver: Drives off.
Of course, these are just that: annoyances. Annoyances generally don’t threaten our physical well-being and can be dealt with easily. We know we will be disappointed if we order a cheeseburger. End of story. To avoid disappointment, we order a local meal and let our taste buds go on an adventure. It’s usually cheap, delicious, and comes with built in insta-posts and bragging rights. Creative sidewalk navigation can be counted as extra steps for those exercise nuts out there. The other things, cover songs and inflated prices, are trickier to deal with and often require insider knowledge. Even with them, though, the effects can usually be dulled with a bit of rational thought. Like in the example above, we’re talking about a difference in price of $2. In reality, it’s not going to break the bank. We are just wired to get the best deal possible. No one wants to feel cheated. When weighed in the grand scheme of the adventure we’re having, though, it’s small potatoes, so don’t be a Debbie Downer. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer.
- Do you ride elephants for entertainment?
No. Riding elephants costs money and probably violates several animal protection laws. We do shell out our money on occasion for some bigger, often physically-challenging adventures like guided bike tours, surfing lessons, and Muay Thai lessons. But, most of the time, our entertainment comes in the form of no-cost wandering around without a map to see what we can find, like Temples, markets, street art, monks doing monk things, and new types of street food to conquer.
I particularly like to find odd usages of English, while Nate loves finding local strangers to chat up.
We also spend a great deal of time entertaining ourselves via listening to downloaded podcasts (RadioLab, That1Podcast, The Dollop, CarTalk, etc.) reading Harry Potter aloud to one another (we just finished book 2!), or journaling.
- What do you and Nate talk about all day long?
This is one area that I received a little advice about before I left the country. My dental hygienist recounted her experience of hiking the Appalachian Trail for a month with her husband before they decided to have children (I nodded appreciatively as a straw sucked my face inside out). “We talked about everything. We talked about what Halloween costumes we wore when we were 5.” She was right. Nothing is too big or small. We talk about everything from what shade of yellow our pee is on a daily basis to aspirations for the next iteration of ourselves. We’ve also graduated from the honey-moon phase of being uber-interested and sensitive and now talk to each other with all the honest brutality that best friends should have.
J: “I don’t understand hashtags.”
N: Eagerly. ”Do you want to learn?”
J: “Meh. Not really.”
N: Disappointed. “You suck sometimes.”
J: “I know.”
N: Shows me how to use hashtags.
- What are your aspirations for the next iteration of yourself?
Nate and I spend a lot of time talking, thinking, and journaling about this. Which is super nice. I think as Americans, we don’t give ourselves too much time to think about what we really want to come next. We’re wired to follow a certain path, usually the path traveled by our family and friends before us: school, job, family, house, retirement in Florida. I felt this way about my bachelors and my masters. I dove right into both because I felt that was what was expected of me. I didn’t really feel passionate about either though, so I floated through my coursework without direction or conviction. Luckily, I came out the other end with a line of work that I really do love, but I fell into the trap again of just moving into jobs that provided security and health insurance without stopping to notice that I was in a vortex of soul-sucking stress.
Now I have the luxury to really figure out what I want to do when funemployment is no longer an option, but it is a daunting task. I came across an article about how to make decisions about big life changes like a career shift that made some pretty good recommendations about how to do just this. My favorite was to create a personal board of directors to consult on the matter. So, I’ve been busily emailing a lot of my mentors, friends, and coworkers to ask their opinion about my possible paths. With their sage advice and Nate’s unconditional support, I’m mostly settled on – drumroll, please – applying for a doctorate program in Applied Linguistics with a focus on English for Specific Purpose. Now I just need to study for and pass the GRE, find a research interest, find a professor with a similar research interest, write a statement of purpose, procure several letters of interest, and apply. Looks like I know how I’ll be spending my spare time in 2018!
- How are you surviving without an income?
It’s not as hard or as scary as I thought it would be. Having a finite amount of money in my bank account changes my mindset about spending money. There is a constant calculating going on in my head.
I could buy this $45 bike jersey to remember an awesome bike ride through the National forest OR we could use that money for a 2-hour Muay Thai class.
We could buy the first class train tickets ($12) and have our own room with AC, or we could buy the third class tickets ($1.50) and spend the difference on a couple nice meals.
Experiences and food usually win out over one more thing to shove in my bag or a bit of comfort. Luckily, all this is going to be good practice for being a poor student again (see number 6 above).
As part of low-budget traveling, we also usually try to find free transportation versus taxis. This means we walk a lot or find free buses. We also almost never eat in a restaurant, preferring to find a street cart that has the same food for half the price. We also try to find the cheapest accommodations possible, including free Couch Surfing when available.
- Is Couch Surfing really free? What does the host get out of it? Are you scared of being murdered?
Yes, it really is free. Nothing generally. Not anymore. Take Bangkok for example, Nate put out the call to several hosts in the city, but we weren’t hearing a lot back because we were going to be there over the New Year’s holiday. Then we got a hit from an angel named Sanyo. Sanyo explained that he’d be going out of town for the holiday, but that we could use his apartment. That’s it. No strings attached. He waited for us to arrive to his apartment complex, handed over the keys with a hug, and ran off to catch a flight to Taiwan. Sanyo gave us free reign of his 14th-floor, luxury apartment in the heart of Bangkok for five nights completely free. We didn’t have a lot of time to chit chat, so he even took the time to write and scatter adorable little post-it notes around the apartment. The kindness of strangers!!!
Bangkok is also where we met Christopher Ryan, an American expat photographer. He reached out through Couch Surfing explaining that he couldn’t host us, but he invited us to join him and his boyfriend on an epic boat ride through the canals of Bangkok so that he could take some photos. We got to see an artist at work and see parts of Thailand that we’d never see through a run-of-the-mill tour.
- Did you trade your corporate life for creativity?
Yes! When thinking about what I would do with all my funemployment time, top of my list was being creative in some form or another. I wanted to do a 180 from my usual work day which included staring at a computer and spreadsheets all day long. Unfortunately, most creative/artistic things require materials, and materials cost money and are typically hard to transport. Think sewing machines and canvases. These attributes do not make for easy hobbies when one is never in one spot for very long. Of course, my blog has been a wonderful creative writing outlet that is constantly evolving with each entry. But, I’ve recently discovered a whole new world of mobile phone photography and digital editing that has me really excited and conveniently only requires a cell phone and a computer! Ok, ok…I didn’t get away from the sitting in front of my computer part, but at least I’m focused on colors and images now instead of crunching numbers.
Naturally, Nate and I are always taking pics with our cell phones to record our experiences for our families and for my blog. I took this photo in Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and was obsessed with how perfectly the women in the center was posed. I wanted to find a way to edit the photo to make her stand out even more, so I did a quick search for free photo editors and came across GIMP, a free, downloadable editor that has similar tools as Adobe Photoshop. I’ve been teaching myself how to use the features. The black and white with color pop effect has been my favorite so far. It lets me use my stylus to essentially turn the photos on my computer into an adult coloring book. Zen-like relaxation, artistic expression, and skill-building at the same time!
- What do you miss the most (apart from people/relationships)? What don’t you miss?
- Condados Tacos
- Nail polish
- Free access to hydration
- The mostly worry-free lifestyle that comes with a steady income
- Routine fitness
- Washing machines
- Work stress
- Alarm clocks
- Working toward goals that I didn’t set with tools I didn’t have or was never equipped to use
- Being in a windowless office during the best part of the day
- Are you happy?
Yes. And sometimes grouchy, indecisive, silly, fussy, annoyed, in love, anxious, ambitious, scared, overjoyed, and hangry. The stressors and the amount of time spent on those stressors is totally different from pre and post funemployment. Before, I was stressed constantly about keeping clients happy, keeping my staff happy, and keeping my boss happy. It was stress that caused me to lose sleep and gain a whole lot of gray hair. It was a lot of responsibility for things that I didn’t always have control over. Stress now comes in the form of not drinking enough water, ants on my computer screen, and indecision about which delicious street food to eat. It’s a lot more manageable, usually undone within minutes. Without that all consuming stress, I now have the space to really think about the possible future me, about relationships, about creativity, about life, about all kinds of things. That all might go away when I join the rank and file of graduate students, but at least it will be my own ambitions that are the root cause of all that stress.