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: Eighteen hours on a Chinese sleeper bus

With huge distances to cover, long-haul bus travel is a norm in China. The good news is that overnight buses here are set up for long distance travel; rather than seats that recline, these buses have actual beds in them. The bad news is that there tends to be no lines drawn between what I consider “indoor” behavior (sitting quietly, reading, or staring out the window) and “outdoor” behavior (spitting, screaming on your mobile phone, and smoking). However, the journeys aren’t anything a seasoned traveler can’t handle, especially one used to being in China.

It’s hard to photograph the inside of the bus, since three rows of bunk beds run the length of the vehicle. Not surprisingly, the beds are narrow and short, making it difficult for a Westerner to get comfortable but certainly better than sitting upright. Luggage, sacks of rice, and shoes are all tucked under the bottom bunk.

My ride from Menglian to Kunming wasn’t my first trip on a Chinese sleeper bus but it was my longest. Eighteen hours is a long time to do any one thing, and riding a Chinese bus is no exception. Before we left, we found out that our rickety vehicle was twenty years old and making its final run. Despite maneuvering massive vehicles, drivers routinely pass slower cars on blind corners, careening around turns with no guardrail. I find it best to just not look out the window, and hope for the best. My traveling companion required pharmaceutical help to deal with her nerves.

%Gallery-80323%We made only two lengthy stops and the bathroom on the second one was a wooden outhouse with a hole in the floor, and no light. In a way, I’m glad I couldn’t see what I was stepping on (or in). There were other quick stops for gas and water, and during these men would sprint off to pee in the bushes. Once back on the bus, they lit up cigarettes, filling the vehicle with their smoke. My friend even woke up to cigarette ash on her pants. When finished smoking, most would hock up a giant loogie, which they spit on the floor. This behavior is common in China and for the most part I’ve gotten used to it, but being trapped in that bus for so long about did me in. I spent a portion of my trip with my face in front of my open window, while my friend used my bandanna to filter the air entering her lungs. For two days afterward I was blowing black grit out of my nose.

Still, for a trip that long when train travel isn’t an option, the overnight sleeper bus is a good choice. Cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than flying (though it’s debatable based on the cloud of black smoke we left in our wake), the buses are perfectly adequate for any traveler who is mentally prepared for the smoke and death-defying driving.

Read more about my life in China here.

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.

Forty-two hours on a train in China

Amtrak it ain’t.

On a budget, with time to spare and feeling guilty about my carbon footprint, I decided to brave the train from Shanghai to Kunming. A soft-sleeper (equivalent to first class) wasn’t any less expensive than the plane, so I opted for the hard sleeper class – three bunks to a wall, two walls to a “nook.” It was definitely an adventure: following is a rundown of the 42 hours it took to get to Kunming….

4 p.m
. Almost as soon as I take my pack off in Shanghai’s southern train station’s “waiting lounge,” people start rushing out the door; I follow. I find my bunk and set about securing a spot on a shelf for my pack. I nod hello to the five other passengers sharing my area. Across from the beds are two seats that fold down from the wall; the only real place to sit are on these and the bottom bunks, since the middle and upper berths don’t have enough headroom. There are no other Westerners and no one around me speaks English.

6 p.m. I watch the Shanghai outer limits roll by. At first I thought the window was tinted gray, so dark was the sky. It was lightly raining and the pollution left the air hazy. Along the tracks stretched rows and rows of vegetable patches with all kinds of greens. At first I couldn’t understand why the patches were rectangles instead of squares, like on American farms, until I realized that these were developed on a scale designed for human labor, not machinery.

7 p.m. There doesn’t seem to be any bottled water for sale on board. Boiling water is readily available, and passengers all have plastic containers that they fill and let chill. I only have one small disposable bottle, and am getting thirsty. I eat a protein bar left over from my flights and a cup of instant noodles. People are smoking, but in between cars so it’s not too bad. Also, the cell phone noise and pop music seem mild compared to what I’ve expected.

8 p.m. I brave the squat toilet, and climb into bed. The bunks are narrow, with guard rails, so it’s impossible to curl up. There’s a tiny hook where I hang my glasses, headlamp, and, much later, ear plugs. The fluorescent lighting is garish and I throw my sweatshirt over my eyes. The youth in the next nook over are having a party, or so it sounds. I fall asleep to my iPod playing Elvis Perkins.

6 a.m. The stewards come through and open curtains. I crack all my joints and crawl out of bed. I eat another protein bar and take my last sip of water. I go to the bathroom, and soon as I’m in someone pounds on the door. I hear someone say something about the foreigner (“laowai”) and a few seconds later the pounding is louder. I give up on emptying my bladder and step out. A steward dumps a bucket of boiling water in the hole and all over the floor. Seeing the steam come off, I decide to hold it a bit longer – do I really need a poop steam bath?

9 a.m. I lay down to read and fall asleep. So do most of the people around me.

11 a.m. Everyone is eating lunch. A woman in a white head scarf rolls a cart filled with unidentifiable stuff on it. I eat my last protein bar.

Noon: I try to fill my disposable water bottle with boiling water, and it melts. Whoops. I return to my bunk and practice saying, in Mandarin, “I would like cold water,” even though I know it’s useless. I try walking to the dining car, but the doors are locked.

2 p.m. I begin knitting a hat, which gets a lot of attention; people stop to fondle the yarn. I sit on the bottom bunk with one of the friendly couples. I also start sending out text messages that read “I’m stillll on the train!” just for some contact.

4 p.m.
After I about lose it over how thirsty I am, the train makes a big stop. I see food carts as we pull in the station, and when we’ve come to a complete stop I sprint along with all the other passengers. I grab two liters of water and a super-sized instant noodle. The train is in the station less than five minutes; I’m glad I did like the locals and ran.

6 p.m. I’ve been on the train for 26 hours. My friendly couples have been traded for a family with a charming but boisterous young child. I eat my noodles, and wait to brush my teeth at the sink next to the hot water dispenser. The young man inside sticks his feet in the sink one at a time and washes them.

8 p.m.
I take an over-the-counter sleeping pill and fall asleep to David Sedaris.

6 a.m. I wake up to an impossibly fluorescent sunrise over rolling peaks. The land looks arid and dry, with a few trees. A nuclear reactor rolls by. A brand new highway, empty. People working in fields. A brand new city rising from the farmland. I send out more text messages and knit.

7 a.m.
Ladies, I know you’re with me here. Thirty-nine hours on a train and my body can’t wait three more to start my period. Sometimes, it truly is the curse. I deal with it, and am grateful it didn’t start three hours in.

10 a.m.
Arrival! I haven’t eaten anything since my last instant noodles at 6 p.m., my hair is oily enough to lube an engine, and I’m doubled over with cramps. I get in a cab, find my hostel, use the bathroom, shower, and then order a Western breakfast.

That about sums up the ride. In general, it wasn’t awful, but I’m not signing up to do it again next week, either.The train was surprisingly quiet and passably clean. A companion would have helped the tedium and some foreknowledge about eating and drinking supplies would have been nice as well, but all in all I’m glad I saved money and carbon by riding rather than flying.