I Found the World So New

It’s brightly lit in my bedroom, where I’m sitting and writing out my latest blog entry from under the throes of a pretty severe cold I contracted on the flight back to San Francisco from Shanghai. It’s strange to think about how just a few days ago, I was in Shanghai at TianZiFang, having pizza and applying deet to avoid mosquitos. Even more recently, I bought my last Costa Coffee at the Beijing airport before boarding my final flight that would take me back home.

The only visible remnants of my trip are my pretty solid suntan from Ko Phi Phi, and now the cold I brought back on the plane ride. When I got back to the city, I became overwhelmed with how “white” everything seemed. People everywhere were speaking English, and (surprise), I got service with an actual smile at the arrivals counter in the SFO airport. Getting on BART was shocking. The transportation system seemed so inadequate, small-town, and quaint compared to the metro systems of Shanghai and Hong Kong. A voice with a southern drawl and bored tone announced each and every BART stop we were approaching. I had grown accustomed to hearing electronic voices and seeing blinking lights announce stops in Shanghai. “Now approaching, South Shanxi Road.” “The next stop is XinTianDi.” “Please mind your belongings.” All this had changed into: “Neeext stahhp, Col-muh. Col-muh stay-shin.”

San Francisco seemed like a quiet, deserted little town compared to the buzz and immense energy that is Shanghai. When I arrived in San Francisco, I noticed how broad the streets were, and how few people and cars were on the streets. There were no gargantuan marquees with television blaring from the buildings…no bikers, no pedestrians, and no cars trying to run everyone over. After being on a 12 hour flight, I immediately wanted a massage. I was tempted to walk over to the Jin Healing for Women massage center near my house, and tell them in mandarin, “Give it to me for $15. I know how you people work. Don’t shit me – I just got back from China. $55 is way too much.” I felt somewhat sad knowing that this tactic would probably result in failure.

Today, missing the tastes of Shanghai and hoping to clear my sinuses with a little Sichuan food, I drove my near bedridden self to Sichuan Home in the Outer Richmond district, a few blocks from my apartment. I ordered the ShuiZuYu, or hot chili oil fish, and found it to be a bit of a disappointment compared to similar dishes I’d had in Shanghai. Guess I’ll have to get my spicy fix next time.

Upon return, however, I’ve delighted in familiar conveniences I’d been without for two months: fresh produce, well stocked and easy-to-navigate supermarkets, home cooked meals, yummy avocados, readily available medicines and an extremely comfortable bed.

Not to mention, my beautiful girlfriend whom I’ve missed so much. It’s so nice to be able to fall asleep next to her every night again.

With that, I leave you with a song that reminds me of vacationing and exploration – a song I heard while being whisked away in my father’s car to a Halal restaurant in Shanghai.

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Lonely Planet

7 days ago, I was on a flight headed for Ho Chi Minh City. “Headed for” are the key words here. What I was really doing at the time, and what I was unaware that I was doing, was that I was headed on a flight to Beijing where I would miss my connection to Ho Chi Minh city and have to spend the night all by myself with a stranger in a less than delightful hotel room in a less than delightful city.

The time between leaving San Francisco and arriving in Ho Chi Minh city was spent completely alone, since Tracy was on a different flight. I found myself idling away hours in the airport, walking through dozens of duty-free shops, bookstores and travel stores. I purchased a simple alarm clock, a small container of hand sanitizer, and a few pens so that I could write whenever I felt the urge to share something with someone. I thought about the title of the popular travel guide series “Lonely Planet,” and decided that it was aptly named. As I made my way slowly to my gate and noticed the travelers streaming past me, I felt an incredible sense of loneliness, but simultaneously, a strong sense of lightness and freedom. Having left my devices at home, with nothing to entertain me other than reading the manual for my cheap travel clock or scribbling down my thoughts in the notepad I’d purchased, it dawned on me that there was no way for anyone to reach me, and that I was in an airport alone, flying to a foreign country alone. I watched as families and couples walked past me, many of them excited about the trips they were about to take, scurrying around in a frenzy to reach their gates on time.

Most of the time, I am well aware that it can be lonely on this planet we live on. For anyone who has ever felt alone in a crowded room, I am sure that it is easy to relate. Traveling alone brings this awareness to a whole new level. Stripped of the distractions and the people we depend upon to quell this feeling of loneliness, we become completely aware of the artifice of the constructions we have made around our lives, and how easy it would be to destroy those constructions and build new ones. The lightness is all at once freeing and unbearable.

Richard Bach once said, “Every person, all the events of your life, are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to you.” As I wandered by the shops and restaurants, I became increasingly aware of the truth in this statement.

A few foreigners standing in front of me in line at a Starbucks attempted to order a coffee in broken English. I walked to my gate, sat down, pulled out a book and began to read.

25 Semi Productive Things to Do on a Five Hour Layover

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25 Semi-productive and pleasurable Things to do during a five hour layover (without a computer, wireless access, a phone, sleeping in compromising positions, or reading trashy magazines.)

1. Write a seething review for the airline that caused you to miss your connection, and thus have to deal with said five hour layover. Plan on posting it when you get home, and then performing a few search engine optimization tricks to make your review come up first when people search for the airline. Vengeance can be so sweet.
2. Finish a book that you’ve always wanted to say you’ve read, but never had the patience to get through.
3. Try a new food.
4. Write handwritten letters to people you love.
5. Buy things, and then play with them.
6. Plan your trip. Read through your guidebook and pick a few places you absolutely want to see.
7. Write. Write anything.
8. Buy locks for your bag to make them more theft proof.
9. Roll out a yoga mat if you have one, and if you have no shame, perform some airport yoga in front of your gate.
10. Reorganize the contents of your entire bag, making it much easier to find your things.
11. Listen to the news or a podcast and learn something new.
12. Jog around the airport and get some cardio.
13. Get yourself a drink.
14. Go to the bathroom and apply makeup so you look great for arrival.
15. If you have your clothing, change into a different outfit so you feel refreshed.
16. Charge your accessories.
17. Pluck your eyebrows.
18. If possible/desired, get your nails done or get a haircut.
19. Get a massage.
20. Purchase some anti jet lag products, or some Pepto/pain relievers if you haven’t already.
21. Purchase a travel pillow.
22. Strike up a conversation with another (willing) traveler. Do this either by your gate, or at an airport bar. Be careful not to approach travelers who seem tired, busy, unfriendly, or otherwise agitated.
23. Talk to your airline and see if it’s possible for you to get on an earlier flight free of charge. Sometimes airlines have no-shows for certain flights, and you could be lucky enough to take one of their spots.
24. Buy a travel notebook and pen so you can write down your thoughts.
25. Walk around the airport and stay active. With so many hours spent sitting on a plane, why exacerbate the condition by sitting and waiting some more?

Change – On Traveling Alone

There is change in the air, and I’m afraid to admit it sometimes, even to myself. In the next few days, I will officially be giving notice at my job to embark upon a three month stint in Southeast Asia and China. The month of March marks the last month I will be spending in the United States before everything is thrown out of balance. Not surprisingly enough, that month is filled with activity – birthdays, last get-togethers, planning, packing, and making arrangements to be largely alone for a few months. Alone. That is the part of this equation that somehow always manages to throw my excitement out of wack – the part of the equation that I know is necessary, even good, but the part that I’m definitely not salivating over.

A few months ago, I read a very well-written article on what a person can gain from traveling alone. The writer passionately listed all the reasons he thought one should go it alone – perspective gained from distance, listening to one’s inner voice, clearing out the noise, learning independence, and finding yourself. Ah. Finding yourself. This must be one of the most cliched reasons travelers cite for rucksacking it alone in a foreign country. “I’ve come here to find myself…to figure out what I want to do with my life.” As much as I hate to admit it, this is perhaps one of my largest motivators.

I want to learn that fear should not be a motivator, and that desire should be what inspires me. Fear has always been one of the primary driving forces in my life. I studied in college for fear of not being able to get a respectable job upon graduation. I don’t always speak my mind because I am afraid of the possible consequences. I work hard at a job I’m not always satisfied with because I am afraid I’ll get fired and end up living in a box on a street corner in the SOMA. I can just see it now…shopping at the Home Depot to get a sheet of plastic to fix my sagging cardboard rooftop.

Fear isn’t the only thing I want to take out of my life. I want to conquer passivity. If I am completely honest about why I ended up in San Francisco, just 45 miles away from where I was born, I’d have to say it was really because I just let it happen. I applied for jobs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and didn’t hear back from anyone except for a company named Yelp in San Francisco. If I remember correctly, my last thought before packing my bags for the city was, “Guess I’ll just go back up there and see what happens.”  For once, I want to take control, and steer my life in a direction, instead of passively letting life sweep me into its current. The direction does not matter – all that matters is that I’m the one turning the wheel. For much of my life, I’ve felt like a bowling ball rolling resignedly down the gutter. Not the most inspiring sight.

Dr. Seuss has been quoted many times as saying, “You’ve got brains in your head, you’ve got feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” For the first time, and while I have the opportunity, I’m going to take that advice to heart and do something that I believe matters. Believe it or not, bone-crushing loneliness may be just the thing I need to learn who I truly am, what I really want, and make me start taking my life into my own hands.

I spoke with a friend today who recently went through a traumatic breakup. She told me that it was the hardest thing she’s ever been through. She suspected that her dependence on the relationship was the main reason why it was so difficult.

“It is hard.”

“But I’m doing okay.”

“I do have it in myself to be on my own, and slowly but surely, I am getting there.”

On your own. That’s just the thing. We’ve heard it time and time again, but it is only until you are comfortable being on your own that you can truly be whole. You don’t need someone or something to complete you – you need to feel complete by yourself. Where else but in the depths of loneliness can you hear your own voice, loud and clear, unhindered or influenced by the expectations of others? It is only until you can be content in the company of yourself and your own thoughts that you can begin to understand who you really are and what you really want.

Shanghai, you may not be the be-all-and-end-all for me, but I sure as hell know I’m going to learn something.