On the benefits of inefficiency: an ode to Greyhound

I spent the past two days travelling on the Greyhound, from Walla Walla, Washington to Tucson, Arizona. When I told my friends that I was planning to travel to Arizona by bus, a lot of them gave me a sideways glance before saying, “Have fun…” It’s true that after 46 hours hanging out on busses and in Greyhound stations, I was exhausted and pretty hungry. And yeah, riding the bus sucks a lot sometimes. But I want to spend a minute defending our nation’s slow, inefficient bus system.

Two main things put me on a bus. The first is that I was trying to minimize expenditures on this trip. I’m spending three and a half weeks in Tucson and Agua Prieta, Mexico doing research for my senior thesis and volunteering with No More Deaths, a humanitarian aid group. While a roundtrip plane ticket to Tucson from Seattle would have cost me something like $400 (and probably more, given how last-minute I planned this), my bus ticket was about $240 roundtrip (Walla Walla to Tucson and Tucson to Portland, where I’m visiting a few friends).

The second is that over the last two years, I’ve become somewhat terrified of flying for totally irrational reasons. I know statistically you’re way, way more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. You’re probably more likely to be injured or killed by a fellow Greyhound passenger than die in a plane crash. You can tell my brain these things all day and it will still make me stop being an atheist briefly during take-off and hyperventilate every time there’s bad turbulence.

Greyhound gets a bad rep. A lot of people say it’s slow, but so are trains, and I never hear people whining about Amtrak as much. Really, I think a lot of it boils down to the type of people who ride the bus. Because it’s cheap, you’re way more likely to get ex-cons, people with mental illnesses, drug addicts and all kinds of other interesting characters on the bus. It’s precisely because of this that I find it enjoyable, though. Planes are largely full of businesspeople who keep to themselves and read magazines, sprinkled with the occasional family going on vacation. Busses, on the other hand, have a way more diverse slice of life in the U.S. There are families traveling together, people making pilgrimages home after months or years away, people who just got out of prison, vets travelling to VA hospitals, veteran travelers who have crossed the country 30 times by bus, teenagers with skateboards and an encyclopediactic knowledge of bongs, and single men going home to Mexico. (That wasn’t some literary pretentiousness; those are all actual people I’ve met on the bus.)

I always love hearing people’s stories. It’s what draws me to journalism too. I love being the quiet girl with headphones half in writing down the best snippets of conversation I overhear and drawing roadmaps in my head, outlining the childhoods these people had and what their futures might hold. I love hearing people say things I would never in a million years overhear at Whitman, things like, “Somebody call 9 goddamn 11. I need a fucking cigarette.” Or, “I tried breaking someone out of jail in my car, so guess who don’t have a license no more…” (Sadly, she didn’t elaborate.)

I love hearing people’s life stories, like the woman who sat next to me for an hour going into Salt Lake City. She was an ex-Marine with a 16-year old daughter at Harvard. (“She has to ask me and her brother before she can go to a frat party. Guess how many frat parties she’s been to?” “Zero?” “Two. You have to learn to trust ‘em or they’ll rebel.”)

She’s also a world-ranked Overlord in some Facebook-related dragon game and was travelling to meet up with fellow players in Australia. She mostly talked at me for the whole time she was on the bus, and she had one of the most interesting lives I’d ever heard. She told me about running her house with discipline, like in the Marines, and how she’d had to give up some of her authority when she went to visit her (now married) son, who’s also at Harvard.

“He said, ‘Mama, this is my house, I’m married, I’m going to do what I want.’ You can’t argue with that logic. What am I going to do, send him to his room? I can’t send him to his to his room, I don’t need any more grandbabies!”

Stories like that just make you want to interview people all day.

Beyond just the people, I like the physical nature of the bus. I like that you interact with landscapes instead of just flying over them. I like driving past cement plants and Wal-Mart distribution centers and wheat fields and thinking about those spaces and what they mean. I love geeking out by combining my political ecology course with my in-the-field knowledge from Semester in the West and trying to work out how we might solve some of the problems facing the world in the spaces where they actually are. I like moving from Walla Walla wheatfields to Wallowa forest, Utah mountains, Nevada’s basin and range hills covered with shrubs to the cactus-dotted deserts of Southern Arizona. I like seeing the transitions, the highway signs, the way you can tell you’ve crossed a state line because the quality of the pavement changes.

Plus, on the bus, you’re still you. You can leave your electronic devices on and text your friends every time you see a funny road sign. You can stop at gas stations and buy food. You can stretch out across two seats and sleep in a position that’s somewhat comfortable. (I actually had quite perceptive dreams all night on the bus. On planes, on the rare occasion I fall asleep for long enough to dream, I only ever dream about plane crashes.) You can bring whatever you want with you, including liquids. The TSA’s security theater has left the Greyhound relatively unscathed, possibly because no one would be stupid enough to try to orchestrate a major terrorist plot on a bus. Perhaps in shared acknowledgement of how much Greyhound kind of sucks, people talk to strangers more readily. There’s a sense of we’re all in this together that I often find lacking on planes.

So yes, busses are slow and sometime uncomfortable. Yes, you might have it sit next to people who smell weird or won’t stop talking, and yes, it takes you two days to get somewhere you could fly to in six hours. There are definitely times in life when it makes sense to take a plane, assuming you have the ability to afford it. But I’m 21 and in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and as long as that’s the case, I’d rather stick it out on the Greyhound.

Advertisements

Friendship in a post-civilization world

For the next three weeks, I’m living in the Intag cloud forest region of Ecuador. The area is dotted with tiny pueblos which are tucked into valleys and nestled on top of ridges. The roads here are dirt and cobblestone, and they wind up and down hills through a green mosaic of forest and small agricultural plantations. I’m living with a family in Peñaherrera (population about 150 families) and commuting 20 minutes each day by overcrowded bus or motorcycle to Apuela, another small town where the regional newspaper I’m working for is based.
This year, I’ve spent a lot of time in places where life runs a lot slower than my usual mile-a-minute pace. When left to my own devices, I will triple-book myself from 8am-10pm, schedule conversations with friends to make sure I have time to see them, have sixteen windows open on my browser and spend the bulk of my day trying to get as much out of every second as I possibly can (that or watching stuff on Netflix). In Ghana, I got used to waiting for hours for people to show up for interviews in their villages because they were out farming or couldn’t catch a ride or just didn’t feel like showing up on time. Every night, I went home to a house with no TV, no internet and nothing much to do except talk to my dad, attempt to cook, or read. My first two weeks in Ecuador I was on a farm in the middle of nowhere—no Internet, no TV, no radio, no cell reception and nothing to do after work except read and talk to the other volunteers. Now, I’m in a similar situation. It looks like I’ll be getting home around 4pm everyday, and while there are ample TVs here and internet cafés close by, there’s still not really anything to do in the Western sense of the term (no movie theaters, bowling alleys, bars, cultural attractions, etc.) Mostly, it seems like people play volleyball, watch TV and sit around and talk to each other.
Spending time in places like this has made me think about the nature of my friendships. With casual friends, I do many of the same things people seem to do in rural Ecuador. We watch movies together, sit around chatting about what we did today, maybe go shopping or grab a meal. With my closest friends, though, I mostly share ideas with them. Sure, we hang out and waste time together, but my closest friendships are the ones where we stay up until all hours of the night discussing Occupy Wall Street, the border and the socioeconomic factors which create food deserts. Mostly, we talk about the world—what’s going on, what’s wrong with everything and how we might go about fixing it.
In my ideal world, communities would be a lot more local than they are now. People would spend a lot more time interacting with their neighbors, a lot more time doing things like taking care of community gardens and a lot less time online. In some versions of the future, there is no internet—post-gridcrash, we all go back to being people living in the rural Third World, with no power, little connection to the outside world and a radically local lifestyle. This is how humans have lived for thousands of years, for the majority of human history. And it’s occurred to me that in this world, I have no idea what a friendship looks like. If the world were such that there weren’t absurd problems to try and solve, or if I was living so locally and off-grid that I had no idea what was going on on other continents, I have no idea what I would do with my friends.
In many ways, the Ghanaian villages I visited this summer and the Ecuadorian cloud forest where I’m living now seem like a window into this world. Here, people seem to form relationships based more on proximity than anything else. You know the people you grow up near, because they’re close to you. Obviously, there are people you get along with better than others, and you gravitate towards them. People aren’t disconnected from the outside world by any means—Intag is a hotbed of environmental activism on issues ranging from deforestation to water pollution caused by mining. But most people here don’t seem to spend their free time discussing the philisophical implications of Occupy Wall Street imbracing an explicitly nonviolent strategy, for example. They mostly spend it being normal people.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what the end of civilization (or at least a transition to a radically localized economy) would look like in economic, political and environmental terms. I’ve thought a lot about big picture things, how we would get food and energy, how democracies would function. But it’s interesting to think about the more personal—not just that my friends might be very different people, but that the entire nature of friendship might change too. I always think of things like types of food or manners of greeting people when asked to describe cultural differences. It’s kind of an exciting notion that something as basic as friendship isn’t a constant either. 

Fútbol in Ecuador

Mostly, I write about ideas and politics on here, but I thought I’d take a break and describe some of the things I’ve actually been doing in Ecuador. Last Friday afternoon, the Ecuadorian national soccer team played the Venezuelan team in the first round of eliminator games for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Naturally, our whole group decided to go. Fútbol is almost more of a religion here than Catholicism is. The stadium was surrounded by people selling team jerseys (which we all bought), people doing face painting, and perhaps most comically, people filling giant bottles (we’re talking gallons) of beer to take into the stadium. Apparently Ecuador hasn’t caught up with the US in terms of concessions monopolies, so you’re absolutely allowed to bring beverages into the stadium. My group elected to buy a bunch of rum, three liters of Coke and some limes before we went in, so we had a great time mixing Cuba Libres on the sidewalk outside of the stadium while trying to look nonchalant when the police walked by. In the end, we were able to walk into the stadium with three liters of rum and Coke without incident.
Seats are not assigned at the stadium, and by the time we got there (an hour before the game started), every single seat was full. I use the term “seat” loosely, since they’re really concrete benches, and everyone’s goal is to squeeze as many people as possible onto them. Somehow, I talked a nice guy into giving me and a friend seats that he’d been saving, so we were able to actually sit down for most of the game.
One of the things about going to a national sporting event (as opposed to say, a baseball game in the US), is that supporting the team boils down to a thinly-disguised fanatic sort of nationalism. It’s like how everyone in the US gets during the Olympics, except when you’re actually watching the game, it’s right next to you and much, much louder. Ecuadorians have a fútbol song, which I’m convinced every single person in the country knows the words to, and people just started singing it all the time before and during the game. The words are, “Vamos, Ecuatorianos, esta noche, tenemos que ganar,”
 which translates to, “Let’s go, Ecuadorians, tonight, we have to win.” (It sounds a lot better when it’s being sung in Spanish). My favorite part of the game was when they announced the Venezuelan team. I didn’t even realize they were announcing anything—the sound system wasn’t much of a match for the noise made by a full stadium of fútbol fans—but as soon as they called the first player’s name, the entire stadium raised their fists in the air and chanted, “¡Hijo de puta!” (son of a whore). All of this, perfectly coordinated, for every single player on the team. I was impressed.
Ecuador won the game (thank god), 2-0. The whole experience made me wish soccer was more of a thing in the US. I’ve always been a baseball girl, though I stopped watching pros when the Mariners started sucking so much. But soccer is so energetic and fast-paced, and it’s so easy to appreciate the athleticism of someone who can head a ball into the goal. Plus, I love the rowdiness of soccer fans, though I think a lot of that has to do with the extremely lax rules about alcohol consumption in the stadium. (The section next to ours had a guy who was repeatedly chugging beers, which prompted the entire crowd to form a circle around him and cheer him on, breaking into applause when he finished.) There were a few minor fights, but nothing serious, probably because almost everyone in attendance was supporting the same team.
I’m always amazed by the unity of sports fans, and sometimes I find myself wondering what would happen if we could get so many people to come together so clearly for something that actually mattered, or if even a fraction of the money and time and energy spent on professional sports franchises were spent on health care or improving education or something socially beneficial. And yet, sports seem to be the great unifier in the world—regardless of country, race, class and increasingly gender, most people can appreciate watching a team, feeling part of something bigger, having common ground with strangers. Marx may have thought religion is the opiate of the masses, but I’m starting to think that it’s soccer. And maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Best of the Oriente

I just got back from a week in the Oriente, which is what Ecuadorians call the Amazonian region of the country (basically, everything east of the Andes). I’ll update later with some thoughts on ecology, oil and all the rest, but for now, I’m just going to list the coolest things I did.
1) Saw an anaconda eating a caiman. We were out on a night boat ride to see wildlife, and we’re apparently one of only two SIT groups to have ever seen an anaconda, much less one strangling its prey. This was, naturally, the same river we were all swimming in every day. It also has piranhas and little fish that can swim up your urethra or vagina and stick there (they’re fish parasites that live in fish gills, but sometimes they get confused).
2) Got up at 4:45 to hike up to the canopy tower in the rainforest and watch dawn break over the tops of the trees, with a soundtrack of scarlet macaws, thousands of insects, and howler monkeys.
3) In response to a severe rainstorm, we all put on our bathing suits, covered ourselves in mud and formed a tribe called the Goops. It was kind of a lot like Avatar, and involved running around mostly naked, making up a nature song, finding our plant souls and sliding down a muddy hill into the anaconda-infested river to rinse off.
4) Spending a few hours in the canopy tower in the dark, on a half-moon night with stars, getting completely naked 120 feet above the forest and watching the heat lightning in the distance before hiking back to camp wearing nothing but my rain boots.
5) Teaching several of my fellow program participants how to navigate using a compass, take bearings on a map and triangulate. And then, for the first time in my life, getting lost in a forest and actually using a compass successfully to get unlost! I knew all that high school outdoor program stuff would come in handy sometime.
6) Explaining to a group of woolly monkeys in a tree that if the land across the river opens for oil exploration, they should try to sabotage company operations by throwing feces at oil company workers and destroying their machinery. Not sure they understood me; they kept eating and throwing leaves at me instead. Maybe they don’t speak English.
7) The moment when Taylor accidentally let a snake loose in the classroom and I had to go outside (other than flying/takeoff, snakes are the only thing I’m really afraid of, though in a pretty rational fashion). And then I got to watch through the window while four people attempted to find and recapture the snake (which they eventually succeeded in doing).
8) Leaving the hotel where we were waiting for our bus to take us to the Coca airport and wandering around town by myself for ten minutes. Probably the most interesting ten minutes of my week that didn’t include wildlife. I was the only gringa on the street and got a lot of whistles, catcalls and greetings from men. The stores and general smell reminded me of Ghana—a hot, humid place where most of life takes place outside and there are giant cuts of raw meat dangling from awnings on the street. It also underscored how coddled we are on this program—I wasn’t supposed to leave the hotel, supposedly because of “safety”, which I understand is important to an institution, but still struck me as a bit odd. After all, it was broad daylight, anyone trying to hurt me would have had to do so in plain view of about three dozen other people, and the only thing I had on me other than my clothes was fifteen dollars tucked in my bra.

Family, Western and non

Every time I travel to a non-Western country, I’m always warned (by the guidebook, program orientation, etc.) that notions of family will be very different in the place where I’m going. Typical notes for Latin America include the following: your family will eat meals all together. People will spend a few hours after dinner sitting around at the table, talking, playing games, or just watching TV together (this is called sobremesa). Children live at home until they’re married. Families are much bigger. There may be relatives stopping by constantly. Family members are more connected and aware of what’s going on in each other’s lives.

Of course, these notions vary family-to-family. Some of them have been very accurate for my Quito family, while others haven’t really been applicable. My family often doesn’t eat together, and my brother seems to spend most of his time in his room watching TV or practicing guitar. Not that he’s antisocial or anything—he just seems like a typical global teenager, not quite American, but not “traditionally” Ecuadorian either.
This past weekend, I got a little taste of my family’s size. My host mom has two older daughters who don’t live at home, but stop buy all the time. She’s also from a very large family (one of eleven, if I remember correctly), and almost all of her siblings live in Quito. We went out for ice cream with an uncle and his wife and two kids. Then we stopped at grandma’s house, where another uncle and aunt also live (the uncle is a little off, mentally, and the aunt just never married, so she still lives with her mom). We had coffee and the relatives asked me a bunch of questions so I could practice my Spanish—what I want to do with my life, what the hell my dad is doing trying to start a business in Ghana, etc. Mom, grandma and aunt all talked about my mom’s daughter, the problems she’s having with her husband, how they’re fighting a lot at home.
This is probably one of those situations that cultural briefings are designed to prepare you for. The extended-family gatherings and gossip aren’t typical in a lot of American families. But for me, it felt like I was right back at home. The only real difference was that everyone was speaking Spanish and no one was actually related to me.
My family back in the US is really close. Mom has three sisters who all live in the greater Seattle area, and between the four of them, there are seven cousins, of which I’m the oldest (my brother is 19, I have four female cousins who are 18, 14, 12 and 11, and Lucas, the youngest, is 7). My grandparents are an easy two hour drive away, so they come into town a lot for family gatherings. And I have another grandpa in Eugene, Oregon, which isn’t too far away. Due to a lot of divorce in my grandparents’ generation, I have tons of relatives who aren’t even technically related to me, but all of them are family. Our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners are often 25 people, and we have smaller gatherings for things like high school graduations and birthdays. All in all, it seems like at least ten of us get together once or twice a month, and I’ve hardly ever gone a week without seeing someone from my extended family while I’m home.
When I describe this arrangement to my friends, it sounds weird to most of them. Not bad weird—a lot of people have told me that it sounds nice to have relatives around all the time, exhausting as it can sometimes be. So it’s refreshing to travel to places where extended family is normal, where you’re weird if you don’t go visit your sisters and aunts and uncles and parents over the weekend. I’ve learned so much more about Ecuador from talking to my extended host family, especially the grandma. And I’m grateful that globalization and modernity haven’t managed to completely eradicate this aspect of non-American culture.

Two-tiered pricing

If you’d asked me at the beginning of this summer whether things would be more expensive in Ghana or Ecuador, I would have said Ghana without much hesitation. It seems natural to assume that in countries which are poorer (smaller GDPs, smaller average income, worse indicators on the human development index, etc.), prices would also be lower. As it turns out, though, it’s not quite that simple.

There are some things in Ghana that are absurdly cheap. You can get more than enough street food to fill you up for next to nothing. A bowl of rice, spaghetti noodles and beef in sauce set me back 60 pesewa—about 40 cents. Fruit in the market is so cheap compared to home that it seems free. One cedi (66 cents) will get you a pile of four or five delicious oranges or two ripe mangoes. My dad’s house is a concrete walled compound which could easily be a B-movie drug lord’s hideout. It has three bathrooms, a kitchen, dining and living rooms and five bedrooms, plus a garage. His rent for this is something like $100 a month (though, to be fair, the city water supply randomly turns off for weeks at a time, and often comes out in interesting shades of grey, white and brown when it is on). Transportation also seems practically free—a 30 minute ride in a shared taxi from a rural village back into town cost me something like 30 cents.

However, some things in Ghana are fairly expensive given the income of average Ghanaians, and occasionally even for visiting Americans. Going to a movie in the Accra Mall cost me 15 cedis ($10)—comparable to a ticket back home. Meals in sit-down restaurants are cheaper than their American counterparts, but still a fortune compared to street food. A decent-sized entrée will set you back $5-10, sometimes a bit more if the restaurant is really nice. Groceries in the supermarket (Shoprite, a South African chain which seems to only exist in the Accra Mall) are often more expensive than they would be in the US. Boxes of cereal can run up to $6 for a normal sized package of cornflakes. Butter is at least $4, and that’s only if you buy the cheap stuff that smells weird. The lentils I insisted on buying cost about $7 for a package that was maybe twice as big as the ones I see back in the States. Services are also on the expensive side—a manicure is $10, and a haircut can be twice that in the city, especially if you’re a white person.

Ecuadorian prices seem more uniform. Grocery store items are fairly cheap across the board—good chocolate bars with fruit added can be purchased for 90 cents, bananas are usually less than 50 cents for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) and basic staples are usually at or below the cost of similar items in the US (though as with Ghana, cereal is a notable exception—I tried to buy Honey Bunches of Oats today, but was dissuaded by the $6.35 price tag). A movie ticket is a little less than $5. Public transportation over long distances is hardly more than in Ghana—usually about $1 per hour of travel, made possible by the state-owned petroleum companies, and government policies which heavily subsidize gasoline (it’s been $1.03 per gallon for diesel and $1.72 for premium gas since I got here a month ago). Quito is covered in restaurants serving a fixed almuerzo (lunch)—usually juice, soup, a plate of rice and meat and occasionally dessert for $1.50-$2. Dinner will set you back a bit more, but it’s easy to find good meals for under $5. I’ve seen salons advertising $2 haircuts and manicures for even less.

I have a theory to explain the pricing differences I’ve encountered. In Ghana, people do not have money. There are definitely rich people living in cities (mostly Accra, the capital), and there’s some kind of emerging middle class, but by and large, people struggle to pay for necessities. I think this has created a two-tier pricing system. The poor masses need to buy basic staples of life. They buy their food in markets and from street vendors. They need to travel sometimes, and they can mostly afford to do so because shared taxis and trotros abound. The things that you need to survive are all widely available, mostly for next to nothing (at least by my American standards). However, because of the overall poverty, things like movies and manicures are well out of reach of most people. The city I was living in, a regional capital city with a population of about 50,000, doesn’t even have a movie theater. There’s no supermarket either—everyone goes to the outdoor public market which is filled with produce and pungent-smelling fish. I had to make weekend trips into Accra (2.5 hours, give or take) to buy things like cheese, yogurt, lentils and cereal. These items are really only available to the elites, and because of that, they’re much more expensive. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons on the supply side as well, but from a demand perspective, the pricing gap makes sense, because it’s reflective of a wealth gap.

Ecuador seems to be better off. The overall standard of living is much higher than in Ghana (and almost all other sub-Saharan African countries, I would imagine). There are absolutely poor people here, in Quito and especially in more rural areas. But even the poor seem to have a little more money for luxury and non-essential items. My host mom in Plaza Gutierrez had never traveled further than Otavalo (a city 2 hours away)—she hadn’t even been to Quito, much less outside of the Andean region of Ecuador. But while I was staying with her, she took the whole family to a pool that was about half an hour away, with an entry fee of $2 per person. Not a fortune by my standards, but not exactly small change for a family of five. There also seems to be a much more well-defined urban middle class. My host family in Quito, for example, survives on the income of my dad, who’s a petroleum engineer in the Amazon. This is enough to allow them occasional trips to the US and private school for their three children, but not so much that my host mom doesn’t remark about how expensive textbooks for high school are. I’m not sure what the typical income and lifestyle in Quito looks like, but my family doesn’t seem at all like an anomaly. Quito seems to have more middle ground in its income demographics than Accra, which has shacks and slums with no water or electricity, giant walled compounds where the super-rich live, and not much in between.

So in Ecuador, people buy produce at indoor markets, but the average Quito family also shops at the supermarket. Smaller cities have supermarkets too, and they’re common in Quito (contrasting with Ghana, which seems to literally have two supermarkets in the entire country, both of which are located in the Accra Mall). This means that prices need to be affordable for the masses, not just the super-elites and gringos. Government policies and subsidies help keep prices down in stores (a really interesting system that I’ll write more about later). The average urban family can afford at least occasional luxuries like movies, and their prices reflect that fact.

I’m curious about the supply-side factors that have made this all come into being, but from a demand perspective, the pricing differences I’ve seen between here and Ghana make a fair amount of sense. Interestingly, the net result of these differences is that it’s cheaper for me to maintain my lifestyle in Ecuador than in Ghana. If you just need a place to stay and not starve to death, Ghana wins hands down. But if you want supermarket cereals, the occasional movie, books, manicures and recreation on the weekend, Ecuador would probably end up coming out on top. Who would have thought?

On nomadism

The other day, I spent an hour and a half talking to my friend Henry, who’s doing a direct-enroll study abroad program in Mendoza, Argentina. Unlike me, he’ll be staying in the same city for five or six months. He’s gotten to know other Argentinian university students, made friends, and feels at home where he is.
As we were discussing our respective programs, we started talking about travel. Henry told me that his desire to travel is mostly gone—he’s happy to stay in place, interacting with the same people, getting to know them well. He’s getting more out of meaningful relationships built over time than he would have being a tourist all over the world.
I’ve often said that I love travel, but I realized this summer in Greece that that’s not really true. I love seeing new places, but I hate feeling like an American, stupid for not knowing the language, guilty because so many economies around the world depend on being able to put up with obnoxious Westerners. Really, I want to know places well, meet people, have interesting conversations. Yet every time I’m given the opportunity to travel, I go for it.
I was thinking about this after we got off the phone. I’ve been all over the world—Ghana, Greece, England, France, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Mexico, and now Ecuador. I’ve driven all over the United States. And yet I still have such a hard time deciding where my heart is. There’s a powerfully nomadic streak inside of me, half restlessness and half the simple fact that I just haven’t found anywhere in the world where I’d want to settle down.
When I was younger, I often thought that Seattle was it. It’s my favorite city, to be sure, but even living there, I don’t feel whole. When I’m surrounded by mountains shrouded in clouds, I long for the desert west, for sagebrush and cactus, for mile after mile of flat, dusty ground. Camping out in the canyonlands of Utah, half of me feels deeply at peace, and the other half cries out for evergreens, for spruce and hemlock. In my city, I miss Walla Walla, miss the knowledge that I can walk or bike anywhere I might need to go, miss knowing that if I need a release, I can sprint across the highway in the dark, run to the wheat fields and stand alone with nothing between me and the stars, staring the universe in the face. In Walla Walla, I long for pan-Asian food, for better grocery stores, for like-minded radicals. Coming home from Ghana, I miss the vibrancy of the street, the smell of dried fish mixed with diesel and warm rain that permeates the air in the morning. While I’m there, I want good yogurt, more than one kind of cheese, water that’s reliable and faster Internet.
Imagining my future, I picture myself simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. I envision myself as an expatriate living in Latin America, finally speaking Spanish with the authority I’ve always wanted, befriending revolutionaries and activists and laughing with them about the arrogance of American politics. I see myself in Utah, disappearing for weeks at a time on sojourns through slickrock and sandstone, writing to my heart’s content. In Seattle, I work for grocery co-ops, have my urban farm and actually finish my book that I’ve been talking about writing for years. And I move to the middle of nowhere, practically wilderness, and have a homestead with a wood-burning oven and a kitchen littered with fermentation projects. Or perhaps I end up drawn permanently to the border, in that space that is at once American, Mexican and nationless, documenting what I see, writing because I feel compelled, fighting for change, talking with communities and learning how to make real posole, pork leg included.
All of these are my future, and I’m so far from being able to choose. Almost every time I move, I envision a new life for myself. I construct a story, a career, a family for my future self. I am happy nowhere and everywhere. I long for the open road if I find myself settled in place for too long, and after so much traveling over the past year and a half, I almost feel as if I’ve forgotten how to settle down. Yet give me a house and a stable life, and after a week, I’m daydreaming of overflowing backpacks and cursing Ted Bundy for ruining hitchhiking for everyone else. Maybe it’s the serial monogamist in me. Maybe I just haven’t found The One, that place where the restlessness inside me can finally settle down. But I suspect it’s really my natural inclination towards polyamory coming out. I want a little bit of everything. I’m completely in love with desert and forest, with canyons and mountains, with cities and towns, with the US and Latin America and Ghana. Maybe one day I’ll settle down. Or maybe I’ll keep changing places, slow enough that I won’t have to call it “traveling”. Five years here, a decade there. There are, I suppose, worse ways to live.