Five reasons why life on the road can really suck

Whenever I tell people my latest travel plans, I usually get the same response: “Oh, you’re so lucky – I wish I could do that.” What they don’t realize is that they can do that — I’ve made travel a priority and set my life up around it. I could have made a nice down payment on a house in my late twenties, but I chose to spend the money on a round-the-world-trip, for example. But despite the perceived glamor (or luckiness) of someone who leads a nomadic life, there are times when never being in one place for long can really suck. Here are five reasons:

1. It can be difficult to make deeper connections with people. When you’re just passing through, you’re just passing through. The older I get, the more I feel this — sure, I make friends easily, but the odds of ever meeting up with people again are slim. It makes me sad.

2. People at home go on with their lives, and you become less and less a part of them. With Facebook, I’m privy to all the fun I’m missing at home. I always reconnect easily with my best friends, but seeing the the photos of celebrations and reading the status updates of those having cozy holidays can intensify the loneliness that my solo travel occasionally leads to.

3. Sometimes it feels like your life is standing still. Everyone else is doing age-appropriate things like having babies and advancing their careers. Suddenly, most of my friends have decent salaries and guest rooms – weird. I’m still sleeping in budget hotels and living out of the same backpack I bought six years ago.
4. You can’t commit to any one thing, and so never experience anything fully. This is kind of related to #1, but it has more to it than just connecting to people. I’m only in Kunming for three months, for example, so I’m not going to buy a bike and get to know the city and its surrounds as well as I could. Equally, I’m not going to learn as much Mandarin as I would if I’d committed to a longer stay. I’ll just get a little sample of everything, and then move on.

5. You continually have experiences that you simply can’t convey to folks who aren’t with you. Just as everyone back home is moving on, you too are living a life no one else can relate to. That’s one reason why Kraig suggested that those who travel without their significant others experience a high rate of breakups. I’m constantly overwhelmed with the scents, sounds, and sights that are impossible to communicate fully. Can anyone really understand what it’s like to see entire hillsides terraced by hand, smell piss and oil and spices all at once, or feel air so humid it feels like you’re wearing it? You just have to be there.

Of course, I have to qualify that for all the reasons life on the road can be hard, there are many more reasons why it’s wonderful. I’m paraphrasing from memory here when I recall Elizabeth Gilbert’s passage in one of her early chapters of Eat, Pray, Love, but it’s one that really spoke to me: “I feel about travel the way a new mother feels about her restless, colicky, newborn baby – I just don’t care what it puts me through. It can barf all over me and I will still love it.”

Hence, I’m still on the road.

To read more about my life in China, click here.

Far West in the Far East: Eating banana roti

You’ll find banana roti all across the banana pancake trail in Asia. A backpacker favorite, banana roti is a cheap, almost-Western treat – the Asian version of a sweet crepe. I don’t know much about the migration of the banana roti to Thailand, Laos, and Southwest China, but I’m assuming that because it’s a roti, it originated in the Indian subcontinent.

Now, however, you can find a banana roti stand in almost any town in Southeast Asia that you might find a backpacker.

Last week I traveled to Xishuangbanna (loosely pronounced “shee-shwan-bah-nah”) in southern Yunnan province. My first stop was Jinghong, a slow-paced tropical town along the Mekong river. I was thrilled to discover a banana roti stand; it felt in tune with the Southeast Asian vibe of the town.

To make the roti, the vendor takes a small lump of dough that he slaps onto the counter repeatedly, until the dough is paper thin and stretchy. Then he dumps a frightening amount of oil onto a large, flat wok, and sets the dough to sizzle on it. Some vendors add sliced banana at this point; the vendor in Jinghong (who was from Burma) tossed the sliced banana as well as chocolate and sweetened condensed milk into a cup and mashed it up before pouring it onto the dough.Once the filling is added, he folds the dough into a square and flips it, topping it with margarine or butter. When the pancake is lightly browned and crispy on the outside, he flips it onto the counter and slices it into bite-sized pieces. Then he scoops it into a to-go container, drizzles it with more sweetened condensed milk and chocolate and sticks it with toothpicks so you can share with your friends.

Far West in the Far East: Eating hand-pulled noodles

Italian pizza-dough tossers get all the glory. While there’s no doubt talent involved in spinning and tossing dough in the air, I’d like to introduce another form of dough-related art: the hand-pulled noodle.

Part skill, part magic (as far as I’m concerned, anyway), the hand-pulled noodle is a carbohydrate-filled thrill. There are numerous noodle stalls here in Kunming; when searching for the hand-pulled variety I look for the counter stocked with the tell-tale lumps of white dough. Most venues are small and — by Western standards — dirty. There’s usually a large pot of broth next to the counter.

After you order your bowl of noodles, the artist gets to work. With the forearms of a manual laborer, he roughly massages and beats it, then begins stretching it out. Dividing the dough between his fingers, he’ll get into a rhythm of pulling it out and them slamming the ropey mess on the counter – pull, SLAM, pull, SLAM. After about five minutes of this, the noodle-maker has produced a bowlful of unbelievable perfect noodles – so small and identical to each other that it seems inconceivable that they weren’t made by a machine (see gallery).

When the noodles are done they are quickly cooked in the broth, and herbs and meat are added. The result is a spicy, savory, carb-lovers delight, and half the pleasure is in eating the freshest noodles you’ll ever find.

Five ways Wal-mart in China is way different (and way more intense) than at home

Faced with errands for unrelated items – body lotion, slippers, yogurt – I decided that today I needed some one-stop shopping. Visiting individual shops and bargaining down the price of each item would take me an afternoon.

So where do you head for one-stop shopping in Kunming, China? Wal-mart, of course.

The “supercenter” was pointed out to me earlier in the week by a local who, when I asked him about a sign reading “Kundu Night Market,” told me that the Wal-mart was the new market, and that Kundu was now just bars and discos. “But watch out for pickpockets at Wal-mart,” he added.

I didn’t feel good about it (though I joked to myself about “shopping locally” — hey, everything was made in China, right?), but I knew I couldn’t handle running around town in the cold, bargaining for a bottle of inexpensive lotion and pair of $1.25 slippers.

What ensued was an overstimulating experience that was probably far worse than bargaining away a chilly afternoon. Following are five observations I made on the differences between Wal-mart in China and the U.S., though I’m sure there are many more.1. Food products. Of course the food is different; that’s a given. But it’s the piles of small fish (sardines? krill? I wish I knew) with blank eyes staring up at the ceiling, and sausages hanging in the open air next to what appears to be the leg of some four-legged animal that make me do a double-take. Nothing is packaged and there is a thick smell of raw meat and fish. It’s not at all like the sanitary, scent-free shopping experience of home.

2. Salespeople. It seemed as though there were nearly as many staff as there were shoppers. Employees reorganized clothing bins and swept the floor. But most present were the staff who hovered at every stack of shampoo or home appliance display, handing out samples, yelling out prices, and demonstrating the fabulous capabilities of vacuum cleaners. These folks almost gave the store a market feel: individuals hawking different goods. I wondered if they worked on commission.

3. The crowds. I’m a person who craves stimulation, and even I was over-stimulated to the point of biting my lip to keep from screaming. The crowds on a Wednesday afternoon at Wal-mart were worse than any day-after-Thanksgiving-Christmas-shopping rush imaginable. I felt like a football player dodging other players on the field as I shopped, occasionally getting rammed into. Standing in “line” at the registers took more patience than surely even Buddha had cultivated. Shoppers banged me in the back of my knees with their baskets, pressed against me, shoved in front of me, and made me sweat.

4. Personal body space. In China the concept of a “personal bubble” is considerably smaller than mine, and this lack of space seems to be translated into shopping areas. The aisles are narrow, and shelves are crammed with products. Even the ceilings in the three-story building were low, pushing the illusion of air to breathe into the minuses.

5. No shopping bags. I doubt it’s because Wal-mart is super eco-conscious, but I noticed right before it was finally my turn at the register that the tidy plastic-bagging system usually in place was absent; customers brought their own bags. I quickly snatched a bright red reusable bag for around $.50, which had Wal-mart’s name in bold letters printed across it.

Lost? Phone a friend (or get an iPhone)

I’m new in town. There are no mountains to establish my location. Roads don’t follow a tidy grid. Pedestrian and motorbike thoroughfares duck under highway overpasses, with nearly a dozen outlets – or so it seems.

So, walking back to my hostel one night I got lost.

Since it was late I jumped into a cab, thinking I could let the driver know when and where to turn. That was a good idea, until it became very clear that I was clueless. Not only could I not pronounce the street my hostel was on, I had no idea how to get to it. After backtracking until we were back where we started, I paid the apologetic cabbie and started walking again, testing each pedestrian outlet in the underpass until they all began to look the same.

While we’ve probably all experienced being lost in a foreign city, I had walked this particular route a half dozen times already and gotten lost in the underpass just as many times.

After my tenth surfacing and multiple attempts to “ask the audience,” I decided to use my “phone a friend” option. I called mostly because I was frustrated and a little freaked out at this point, map-less and language-less, and wandering around in the dark of an unfamiliar city.

Phoning my friend advanced me to the next level, however. I knew the name of the street I came from as well as my hostel. My friend looked it all up, and with a little Google map action, was able to talk me home.

“Turn west at Xichang,” he would say.

“If I’m walking ‘down’ on the map, is that left or right on Xichang?” I would respond.

If I ever had doubt that there is an iPhone-shaped hole in my life, this experience overpowered it. Until I can afford one, however, at least I know that friends are standing by with laptops and Google maps — and it doesn’t matter where in the world they are.

Read more about my life in China here.