Life on the road: the good, the bad, the less-sex-than-you-imagine


Life on the road: the good, the bad, the less-sex-than-you-imagine

A permanent traveller on what it's really like to leave your 9-to-5 life behind

By Vahishta Mistry  February 2nd, 2016

As I type this, I’m sitting in a cozy café called Babel, hidden in one of the bylanes that crisscross Istanbul’s Taxim Hill. A dog lies at my feet and a cat is curled up on the empty chair next to mine. Both are fast asleep and twitching softly in their dreams. There is a thunderstorm raging outside, not three feet from where I sit and I have a warm cup of coffee in front of me. This is pretty much what heaven must feel like. I flew in to Turkey yesterday, as a culmination to spending three months in Europe, where I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland and Greenland, attended two huge music festivals (Tomorrowland in Belgium and Sziget in Hungary) gawked at street art in Berlin, Paris, Prague and Vienna, ate some of the best food and drank some of the best beer I’ve ever had the privilege of imbibing. And to think that just a couple of years ago I was a wage slave. A suit, with a normal, safe, boring job and a house and car.

I had always wanted to travel and see the world but it remained, for the longest time, a ‘one day’ project. As in, “One day I’ll go off and travel.” The time never seemed to be right for it and I’d invariably end up spending all my money on drinking with friends or stupid stuff (it turns out, I really didn’t need all those collector’s edition videogames) The final straw came towards the end of 2012, when I had an epiphany after spending approximately three hours in traffic on my way to my digital marketing job at a major film studio in Mumbai's choking Andheri East suburb: I wasn’t happy, not in the least. Yes, on paper I was leading the perfect life. I could hear in my head the howls of incredulous derision from people I might share my unhappiness with: “But you have a great job!” or “but you have such a lovely house!” The fact was, the job was fun but incredibly demanding. And all this work that I was doing was (at best) keeping me exactly where I was. I owed a bank on my mortgage and on credit cards. I had a great salary, but I never ended up saving. For someone who had awesome assets on paper, my quality of life was incredibly low. It was time to make some serious changes and I realised that the answer started with doing what I had always wanted to do: set off to see the world. I pulled into the office parking lot, heaved a deep sigh of relief at having conquered my crisis and then walked in and quit. Within the next three months I had sold my house, disposing of my credit card debt and my mortgage commitments in one fell swoop and leaving myself with a fair amount of cash and a passport with lots of empty pages in it. The first stop, I knew, had to be the US: I already had a visa for the states, I wanted to go hiking and do lots of road trips, and it was an easy country to start backpacking in.

My initial trip in the summer of 2013 was meant to be the start of a two-year voyage across the Americas but the thing that noone tells you about travel is how it takes over your well-laid plans and utterly destroys them.

It’s a gradual, insidious process, this eroding of schedules. In the beginning of the trip, overcome with the happiness that I was actually on my epic journey, I failed to recognise the early warning signs of impending plan death. Events have a way of crowding into your schedule. You make a small change, influenced by a momentary whim and before you know it, you’re in a different city. Each change is small and insignificant, but they pile up until you’re sitting in Miami, a few weeks later, feeling a bit travel shocked – not the physical insult of jetlag, but the more cerebral fatigue of having seen too many things in too short a time. Your body automatically wants to slow down but your brain is on hyper-adrenal mode, because of the new things it’s experiencing.

Sometimes, you can use this to your advantage. I found myself far more productive in those early days, being able to write and blog and be more creative. Over time, though, this tails off a bit, as you settle into some semblance of a rhythm. The constantly changing scenery becomes almost mundane, as if it’s natural to wake up on a bus, 400 km from wherever it was that you went to sleep. As if it’s ok to blearily stumble out of whatever couch or room or hostel bed you slept in and spend a second or two trying to figure out what city you’re in at the moment. Somehow, even that begins to feel, well, normal. The challenges of finding food (or rather, cheap food) become well-known. You master the tricks of staying alive and thriving. In a very real sense, you have adapted to adapting.

The other thing that would have happened by this time is you would have figured out that the clichés of travel that you naively thought were true aren’t actually going to take place. There are no exotic beauties waiting to have erotic adventures with you in hostel rooms. There is no life-changing epiphany waiting to happen in a single ‘aha’ moment on your trip. It’s easy to get disillusioned and upset at this, but if you’re lucky, you’ll realise as I did - and only after a long, long time, that the slow iterative process of living on the road has indeed changed you beyond a threshold – one that you cannot now look back and even see, because it doesn’t really exist. There was a ‘you’ before the trip, there is a ‘you’ as of today and the two are different, but you can’t pinpoint where the split occurred. That’s not to say there aren’t moments where you can see some significant changes occurring. In my case, Burning Man was one such life-altering event.

Burning Man is a week-long, extreme-survivalist art, music and learning experience that takes place annually in a dried up lake bed in Nevada. You have to bring everything from drinking water and food to toilet paper, bicycles  and LED lights (to illuminate yourself at night, lest you be run over by an oblivious bike rider.) Getting there is tough, surviving is tough and getting out is tough. But it's still a hugely transformative experience, showing you what the limits of your endurance and ingenuity are. The community at Burning Man is also very special. Gifting is the norm and all manner of commerce and trade are banned. You cannot buy anything at Burning Man – you can only give and receive gifts – and these are not conditional upon each other, which means even if you gift someone something, you may not get anything in return. And that shouldn’t be why you do it, in the first place.

Burning Man was another of those experiences that made all the expense and the trouble of getting there worthwhile. I met crazy, cool and interesting people. I had conversations until 3 am with total strangers. I found myself hiking off into the desert, then looking back over a vista of glittering lights that represented the thousands of tents, parties and people. I saw much nudity (even once inadvertently stumbling upon a large gay orgy), until it ceased to shock me. I witnessed people fall in love, break up and even get married. And it all happened while surrounded by the vast, implacable, dusty desert. And ultimately, it all changed me pretty permanently, leading to my decision to abandon my two-year timeframe and just do this all my life, as long as I’m able to.

A lot of people might wonder what the end game is in all of this traveling: it isn’t a vacation, it’s what I do full-time, pretty much. I make a bit of money by writing stories and taking pictures but it’s not enough to call a living wage, especially when one lives in other countries. So why do this? The answer is in the experiences such a life provides. What’s the point of making a living wage if you don’t have a life left to live? I’ve seen sunsets, sunrises, eclipses and the northern lights. I’ve visited more scenic vistas and seen more striking landscapes than you can imagine. I’ve met people and interacted with cultures that some folks haven’t even read about. There is always a tradeoff in all of life’s choices – but I like to think I made the right one, for me.

As I type this, I’m sitting in a cozy café called Babel, hidden in one of the bylanes that crisscross Istanbul’s Taxim Hill. A dog lies at my feet and a cat is curled up on the empty chair next to mine. Both are fast asleep and twitching softly in their dreams. There is a thunderstorm raging outside, not three feet from where I sit and I have a warm cup of coffee in front of me. This is pretty much what heaven must feel like. I flew in to Turkey yesterday, as a culmination to spending three months in Europe, where I saw the Northern Lights in Iceland and Greenland, attended two huge music festivals (Tomorrowland in Belgium and Sziget in Hungary) gawked at street art in Berlin, Paris, Prague and Vienna, ate some of the best food and drank some of the best beer I’ve ever had the privilege of imbibing. And to think that just a couple of years ago I was a wage slave. A suit, with a normal, safe, boring job and a house and car.

I had always wanted to travel and see the world but it remained, for the longest time, a ‘one day’ project. As in, “One day I’ll go off and travel.” The time never seemed to be right for it and I’d invariably end up spending all my money on drinking with friends or stupid stuff (it turns out, I really didn’t need all those collector’s edition videogames) The final straw came towards the end of 2012, when I had an epiphany after spending approximately three hours in traffic on my way to my digital marketing job at a major film studio in Mumbai's choking Andheri East suburb: I wasn’t happy, not in the least. Yes, on paper I was leading the perfect life. I could hear in my head the howls of incredulous derision from people I might share my unhappiness with: “But you have a great job!” or “but you have such a lovely house!” The fact was, the job was fun but incredibly demanding. And all this work that I was doing was (at best) keeping me exactly where I was. I owed a bank on my mortgage and on credit cards. I had a great salary, but I never ended up saving. For someone who had awesome assets on paper, my quality of life was incredibly low. It was time to make some serious changes and I realised that the answer started with doing what I had always wanted to do: set off to see the world. I pulled into the office parking lot, heaved a deep sigh of relief at having conquered my crisis and then walked in and quit. Within the next three months I had sold my house, disposing of my credit card debt and my mortgage commitments in one fell swoop and leaving myself with a fair amount of cash and a passport with lots of empty pages in it. The first stop, I knew, had to be the US: I already had a visa for the states, I wanted to go hiking and do lots of road trips, and it was an easy country to start backpacking in.

My initial trip in the summer of 2013 was meant to be the start of a two-year voyage across the Americas but the thing that noone tells you about travel is how it takes over your well-laid plans and utterly destroys them.

It’s a gradual, insidious process, this eroding of schedules. In the beginning of the trip, overcome with the happiness that I was actually on my epic journey, I failed to recognise the early warning signs of impending plan death. Events have a way of crowding into your schedule. You make a small change, influenced by a momentary whim and before you know it, you’re in a different city. Each change is small and insignificant, but they pile up until you’re sitting in Miami, a few weeks later, feeling a bit travel shocked – not the physical insult of jetlag, but the more cerebral fatigue of having seen too many things in too short a time. Your body automatically wants to slow down but your brain is on hyper-adrenal mode, because of the new things it’s experiencing.

Sometimes, you can use this to your advantage. I found myself far more productive in those early days, being able to write and blog and be more creative. Over time, though, this tails off a bit, as you settle into some semblance of a rhythm. The constantly changing scenery becomes almost mundane, as if it’s natural to wake up on a bus, 400 km from wherever it was that you went to sleep. As if it’s ok to blearily stumble out of whatever couch or room or hostel bed you slept in and spend a second or two trying to figure out what city you’re in at the moment. Somehow, even that begins to feel, well, normal. The challenges of finding food (or rather, cheap food) become well-known. You master the tricks of staying alive and thriving. In a very real sense, you have adapted to adapting.

The other thing that would have happened by this time is you would have figured out that the clichés of travel that you naively thought were true aren’t actually going to take place. There are no exotic beauties waiting to have erotic adventures with you in hostel rooms. There is no life-changing epiphany waiting to happen in a single ‘aha’ moment on your trip. It’s easy to get disillusioned and upset at this, but if you’re lucky, you’ll realise as I did - and only after a long, long time, that the slow iterative process of living on the road has indeed changed you beyond a threshold – one that you cannot now look back and even see, because it doesn’t really exist. There was a ‘you’ before the trip, there is a ‘you’ as of today and the two are different, but you can’t pinpoint where the split occurred. That’s not to say there aren’t moments where you can see some significant changes occurring. In my case, Burning Man was one such life-altering event.

Burning Man is a week-long, extreme-survivalist art, music and learning experience that takes place annually in a dried up lake bed in Nevada. You have to bring everything from drinking water and food to toilet paper, bicycles  and LED lights (to illuminate yourself at night, lest you be run over by an oblivious bike rider.) Getting there is tough, surviving is tough and getting out is tough. But it's still a hugely transformative experience, showing you what the limits of your endurance and ingenuity are. The community at Burning Man is also very special. Gifting is the norm and all manner of commerce and trade are banned. You cannot buy anything at Burning Man – you can only give and receive gifts – and these are not conditional upon each other, which means even if you gift someone something, you may not get anything in return. And that shouldn’t be why you do it, in the first place.

Burning Man was another of those experiences that made all the expense and the trouble of getting there worthwhile. I met crazy, cool and interesting people. I had conversations until 3 am with total strangers. I found myself hiking off into the desert, then looking back over a vista of glittering lights that represented the thousands of tents, parties and people. I saw much nudity (even once inadvertently stumbling upon a large gay orgy), until it ceased to shock me. I witnessed people fall in love, break up and even get married. And it all happened while surrounded by the vast, implacable, dusty desert. And ultimately, it all changed me pretty permanently, leading to my decision to abandon my two-year timeframe and just do this all my life, as long as I’m able to.

A lot of people might wonder what the end game is in all of this traveling: it isn’t a vacation, it’s what I do full-time, pretty much. I make a bit of money by writing stories and taking pictures but it’s not enough to call a living wage, especially when one lives in other countries. So why do this? The answer is in the experiences such a life provides. What’s the point of making a living wage if you don’t have a life left to live? I’ve seen sunsets, sunrises, eclipses and the northern lights. I’ve visited more scenic vistas and seen more striking landscapes than you can imagine. I’ve met people and interacted with cultures that some folks haven’t even read about. There is always a tradeoff in all of life’s choices – but I like to think I made the right one, for me.