Expat Living, Learnings, Travel
Comments 144

on that life I always wanted

I dig into my change purse in the back of the taxi cab, and pull out a few coins. Setting them flat against my palm, I tilt my hand back and forth to catch the light through the window; it’s night and I can’t see clearly. I flip each coin back to front while the driver stares, turned sideways in his seat, watching me squint to identify the country of origin first, then the denomination. UAE. Tanzania. A couple Euro. A dime. Nope, no Kenyan shillings. Mpesa mobile money transfer? Sorry, I don’t live here, I don’t have an account. Would you accept currency from an unrecognized Republic?

SIM card mobile chip

Working in travel in Washington D.C. for several years, I touched hundreds upon hundreds of passports, spilling over their pages, envious and at times resentful of the jet set lifestyle, or what I imagined it to be. As a courier, I would sidle up to the counter at a foreign consulate and hand over visa applications for people I’d never met but with whom I’d become quite intimate only hours before, having received their paperwork by mail and reviewed their employment backgrounds, medical histories, learned their father’s and children’s names, and discovered that, despite a glamorous passport photo, a bohemian-chic residence in Istanbul, and all the trappings of a fabulous career in journalism, they were indeed born in a small town in South Dakota several decades ago, and I would be spilling their secrets that very day.

Nairobi Kenya Westlands apartment condo view

The consular official, typically a mid-level paper pusher with dull eyes and lethargic movements, would give the documents a once-over and then stamp or fold and staple or simply toss them onto a massive pile behind the bullet-proof glass. (Yes, bullet proof; I’ve seen my fair share of visa-inspired riots, people crowded around the speaker panel, lunging towards the glass and banging with their fists, arms outstretched, frantically waving white paper visa applications like so many seagulls flitting madly around a dumpster, shouting at the tops of their lungs about trips that should have started three days ago, and about the ineptitude of the staff and the obscene processing delays. The only reason consular staff can maintain anything resembling a pleasant demeanor, plus their ever-present smirk, is that bullet-proof glass). A few days later I would return to collect the passports with fresh stamps or stickers, approvals to rush off the airplane and inhale the sensory stimulation, consent for sunburns, train trips, traveler’s diarrhea, seedy hotels and seedier bars, authorizations to embrace long-separated family members, permission to indulge in dumplings or brown bread, ceviche or jollof rice or taboulleh. Approvals to expand the mind courtesy of a giant metal tube hurtling through the clouds.

Recent chapters of my life have seen travel that I hadn’t expected, but that I’ve embraced with the wide-eyed zeal of a child offered an unexpected dessert after dinner–that’s for me?!–probably undeserving but jumping at the opportunity, spoon poised for attack, in knowing haste. Via employer or credit card debt I’ve managed to see a few places, such that sitting in that giant metal tube has become rote. As a child I was fortunate to be introduced on good terms to places that kids, and adults, often find uncomfortable. I waltz into hospitals, relaxed and confident (unless, you know, I’m deathly ill), undisturbed by the white coats and the beeping machines, pleased with the sanitary sparkle of it all. My mother has worked in hospital my entire life, and it was always a place of ‘Nilla wafers, of afternoon soap operas watched from starched white, empty beds, and of healing.

The same goes for airports and airplanes. We traveled by air with some regularity when I was young, and I grew up rather in awe of crisp tickets on thick card stock, orderly boarding by letter and number, the efficiency of snack service, the impenetrable makeup of smiling flight attendants, and the bubble gum that emerged for those painful descents to the ground, tears welling as my mother insists I Swallow! Swallow harder to pop your ears! But now, I’m one of those economy passengers who has tasted business class via some one-off fluke, and I drool with clingy desperation as I pass through the elite cabin en route to my dusty sardine tin in the back, craving with middle-class fervor what could be and what, with every additional flight, I’ve come to believe I am most certainly owed by these scheming airlines and their dictatorial philosophy of steak-tartare-party-in-the-front, peanuts-for-sale-misery-in-the-back. Of course, the few times I’ve flown business class, I’ve glanced back at the peasants of economy, snickered, and tucked into my three course meal while reclining nearly all the way flat because, even if I choke to death in the sky, I’ll do it with self-aggrandizing panache!

seashell shell ocean sea souvenir

It used to be I’d cringe at processing second passport applications–not renewals, mind you, I mean the second of two concurrently valid passports–especially for the obnoxious travelers who couldn’t be bothered to sit at their shiny laptops for five minutes to bang out some basic information about themselves into the online State Department form, so I did it for them, because it was my job. I’m not referring to the lovely and bewildered elders whose wrinkled bodies, as evident in their passport photos, couldn’t restrain their nomadic zest; no, I was happy to dial them up and chat for a while, asking them routine questions with the phone wedged between ear and shoulder while I typed away into the computer in front of me, and then asking them non-routine questions, like what drew them to Tehran or Manaus or Dushanbe? Was it the all-inclusive tour, the ancient mystery, or the promise of landing the biggest Peacock Bass they’d ever seen, afloat on the Amazon River? Did their parents travel, did their children? How did they make the mental leap from Depression Era-thrift to finding value in the luxury of a plane ticket?

But now, I have two passports. Not for vanity’s sake, although I do mention it in conversation with the smug self-pleasure of a useless spy. Not because I’m a stamp collector, like the “post-colonial” colonialists whose itineraries I used to review before prepping their visa applications, who would spend three days on a chicken bus winding through mountain ranges in the middle of Absolutely Nowhere, Eurasia, bedecked in totally unnecessary flack jacket and steel-toed boots, just to get to an entry point on the border of a remote state, pass through whatever dusty tin shed pronounced itself The Bureau of Immigration, stride 10 metres into new territory, take a piss, eat a Clif bar in lieu of succumbing to inevitably poisonous, or at least low-brow food that only locals can tolerate, and then stride right back out two hours later, having claimed those 10 metres for themselves, and for Intrepid & Aging White Males everywhere, and with the entry/exit stamps to prove it. No, I’m not like that. I applied for a second passport, admittedly with pride, because I moved to a place with de facto borders, but with no diplomatic representation by my home country, so if I manage to lose my only passport, I’m in bad shape. But now, I have a back-up.

Over the last five or six years, my constellation has expanded, the points of light farther flung, moving ever outward. But the weight, the gravity of the galaxy remains; there is no escaping yourself. I mull this over while I pack for a week away in the space of an hour, no longer concerned with geometric calculations about whether to fold or roll clothes for maximum luggage capacity, no longer triple-checking my passport, itinerary (printed and emailed to all living relatives!), vaccination card, bubble gum. I consider that my psychological baggage is more enduring than the suitcases I’ve lugged overseas that have cracked, ripped, and disintegrated under the strain of tchochkes and totally necessary 7-step facial cleansing routines, four one too many pairs of shoes, and the crappy souvenirs that used to get me every time. Instead, I now throw whatever occurs to me into a jumbled bag, and remember my passport as I waltz out the door. Speeding through a foreign city in an airport taxi, I acknowledge an offensively cliché cliché: time passes, whereabouts change, yet we remain essentially the same. Despite the accumulation of in-flight miles, despite the mélange of currencies in my wallet, despite the SIM card switches and the unfamiliar greetings, I continue on as myself, frightened of some things and emboldened by others, curious and clever and occasionally paralyzed by anxiety.

I may never be those people, or maybe I already am them. Maybe their jet set ways were always fraught with debt, deadlines, difficult relationships, jet lag, indigestion, aching distance from loved ones. Maybe their worldliness clouded my clarity, the decorative beauty of visa stickers obscuring the hours upon hours of queuing, waiting, sitting, carb-induced bloat, frustration, fatigue, failures. There was no glittering transformation to becoming more like them, no cosmopolitan panacea to uplift the quotidien. Every few months, like clockwork, I go elsewhere from where I live, which is already far away from where I began. But I’m still sweating bank balances and professional obligations, negotiating friendships, striving towards vegetarianism, taking my supplements, thinking about new wrinkles, trying to stay hydrated, and loving my loved ones. In the end, the basic ingredients of existence never falter, whether you’re flying business or red-eye economy, or staying home.

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144 Comments

  1. You know what, I think that those jet set folks really had to worry about debt, loneliness, food poisoning and jolting awake on the flight to somewhere thinking “Have I closed the gas main?” (I certainly spend a good time thinking whether I’d turned off the kitchen counter lights).

    I loved the “post-colonial” paragraph, it really reminded me of myself and my quest to get as many stamps as possible that I used to do not so long ago, before realising that, perhaps, it’s better to actually dig under the skin of a place rather than ticking the boxes of other three in the meantime.

    By the way, I’m intrigued by the opening photo from that Ethiopian airplane, whereabouts is that? I can’t seem to understand whether those houses on the lower right have been abandoned, are in construction or have been destroyed…Thanks!

    Once again, glad I found your blog!

    Fabrizio

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good point – talk about the quotidien! Did I unplug the toaster? Did I leave water for the dog? Surely those thoughts preoccupy the globe trotters… or at least their personal assistants, hehe! And agreed on digging beneath the surface; I think it’s the only way to give context to anything seen/learnt. The airplane shot was mid-descent into Bole International in Addis. I’m thinking those houses are under construction! Thanks as always for your comments!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I LOVE the portraits you’ve painted here. I feel like I’m all of these people and none of them at once; that they’re who I want to be, but maybe not also. Thanks for giving coherence to my own scattered and almost constantly confused thoughts!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much, Julia, I really appreciate your comment! I’m with you on the scattered/confused…that’s my m.o. hehe. I read a bit about your journey – good luck to you, so brave! Hustling and makin’ memories like a boss!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Wonderful photography! And as someone with three packed suitcases in my living room, I’m in awe of your ability to bring a sense of peacefulness to the subject of travel because right now… not so much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Helena – thanks for your comment! I won’t claim peacefulness so much as diminished concern, hehe! Maybe they’re related? Safe travels to you, wherever you’re headed!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: 8/14/2017 – Making a Difference – 1AthleticYogi

    • Hi there, thanks for commenting. I think every relationship, friendships included, involve some emotional negotiations… and in my experience, the further you are from your friends, the more negotiation required, hehe! Best wishes to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I tilt my hand back and forth to catch the light through the window; it’s night and I can’t see clearly.
    I loved the formation of your sentences. Each of it paints a picture of me travelling with you. And also there is an underlining opulence in your writing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks a lot, Tyler, for your comment! I like the fitness – travel combo on your blog, it’s a unique approach! Have you written on how you keep up with your wellness routines while traveling?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: on that life I always wanted – kwajaliblog

  7. A wonderful story with beautiful pictures (especially the very first one!). I like the honesty behind your words, particularly what you wrote in your last paragraph. I guess there’s more to happiness than living the life you imagined in the past.
    This story also reminds me of feelings of FOMO (fear of missing out). Am I wrong or is FOMO a part of why you wanted to travel in the first place?
    Don’t want to spam you, but I am currently writing my master thesis about social media and FOMO and I am really interested in hearing original stories. If you’re interested in what I have found out so far, I have tweo blog posts about it online (5 or so posts back). Only if you’re interested of course 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks very much, Ben! Gah – a lot to respond to here! I’m not of the FOMO generation, but I get the gist. I’m hesitant to reduce wanderlust, curiosity, and interests in foreign language, culture, art, cuisine, etc. to FOMO. I wouldn’t say that’s why I initially wanted to travel (long before the time indicated in this post), but definitely what I describe here approaches FOMO. What’s the difference between envy and FOMO? I take your point, though… I have to think about this some more, and read your posts! Great topic for a thesis. Good luck, and keep me updated!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hey! Very interesting point of view! I can relate so much as I don’t really feel like I’m missing out but sometimes I do feel as if I put a lot of stress on me on seeing a lot of the world, experiencing stuff etc.
        The difference between envy and FOMO… That’s a very tough question! Before I analysed my data I thought that FOMO meant that someone actually wants to see the world, live adventures etc. However my calculations showed that this assumotion wasn’t true. FOMO had nothing to do with people wanting adventures. In contrast, people high in FOMO seem less adventurous because of a fear of possible negative consequences. I assume that people with FOMO don’t fear missing out on something particular in life, but they don’t want less rewarding experiences than friends/acquaintances present online. So, envy is a big part in FOMO. But I believe that FOMO exist primarily because of social media; envy and social comparison are simply fuelling FOMO. I hope that makes some kind of sense lol

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  8. Pingback: on that life I always wanted — outerNotes – DIGITAL KISSES

  9. I just got back from France and the UK; while it is an utter privilege, reserved for so few on this planet, I still just love being Home again, walking to my local shop, not needing to stare at foreign coins (which is getting trickier every year without my glasses), and taking such pleasure from stroking my cat, or watering the garden. I have 2 passports, and just found out I could get a 3rd… but really, all I want is to feel loved, and belonging. Great read, thanks, from gabrielle in Australia : )

    Liked by 3 people

    • A 3rd passport! Sounds like a record! Hope you enjoyed France and the UK, both places I’d like to get to know more. Agreed with you about returning home, though… you can find moments just as sweet, and curiosities just as fun, and if you’re an adventurous cook, why leave at all?! What a great name for your blog – and maybe a book, or a jazz record, or a pair of cats! 🙂 Best wishes and thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Nicely written – kept me interested. Never traveled much, or really had a desire – too much to see in the US for me to think about. Looking forward to following along.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jai! Good to hear from a fellow mid-westerner! If nothing else, I owe it to myself to see more of the US, especially the south and southwest, where I Haven’t spent much time. And, of course, Alaska and Hawaii! Thanks for your comment. I appreciate a paramedic’s perspective on stress, interesting series and unique take on an important topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Wonderfully painted image of a life in motion; of a life of rewards and sacrifices in equal measure, of loss and wonder and wander; a life spent in and moving between and daydreaming of places, a life many of us share! Glad there are writer like you out there Erin.
    Do feel free to sample a few pieces on my blog. WOuld be a pleasure to share my words and thoughts with someone like you.
    https://searchingforelsewhere.com/

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Nav! Beautiful writing on your blog as well! Great to see you in Peru – one of my favorite places, although I never made it to Machu Picchu. Will continue to check out your writing! Best of luck, travel safe, and thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alessandro! I’m thinking about “If you can control your emotions you control your future” – probably very true, but I wonder if that’s possible, and if we would benefit from controlling it? Important questions! Happy blogging!

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      • I do believe that if I control my emotions I control my life cause I experienced it many time,amazing things happened out of blue when I would keep my emotions in balance,I can’t say if it works for everyone but I meany people that experienced the same things as me
        If people could control their emotions they would b

        Liked by 1 person

      • I believe that if we would be able to control our emotions it would benefit everyone
        People would control their aggressiveness,greediness and they would be able to make Better choices,we would live in a better world where we could trust each other more,as a consequence would benift ourself too
        Like I said in the previous msg,I know works for me and for other people but I can’t tell if it is for everyone,I like to believe that it is for everyone but we got different level of consciousness,some people are conscious about it,a lot of people aren’t.

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  12. Great text 😊 I love your personal style and you write very interesting. I personally always feel a bit strange when I’m waiting at airports, feels like time has it’s own pace there or something 🙂 Keep up the good work 👍

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great story. Sometimes I want to brag about the glory of being a jet setter, but other times it does feel empty and lonely. It boils down to just a few things in life eh

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there Bonsalles, thanks for your comment! Maybe not a jet setter but officially an expat, so you might be better off! I’m from Cleveland originally, but haven’t been to Columbus – where were you in school? I have to say I’m envious of your California lifestyle, it’s one of my favorite places. Good luck to you in your art, and would love to see more Swahili sayings !

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      • Hi Erin, OSU I am a proud buckeye. I do love California but mostly because of the sun and the beach. I still like travel as much as I can. Keep the wonderful writing coming and thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow! This is well written! If you wrote a book, I’d totally read it! It expresses so well what I cannot express as well: the blessings and hardships of life and travel!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Deepak! What an apt quote by one of my favorite writers. Your blog is a great resource; you’ve got a great selection. Best wishes to you!

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  15. What a beautifully written and thought provoking piece Erin.

    I’ve often thought about how much I ‘stay the same’ before, after and during my travels and am yet to reach a full conclusion! I agree in part with your final sentence although personally, I find myself liking ‘travel Rachel’ far more than ‘9-5 office Rachel’. Of course, my priorities across both remain friends and family, but others do change. (Despite the main premise of my blog being that we can feel at home anywhere because, of course, we take ourselves and all our memories to anywhere we go!)

    When in my corporate routine, I probably place far too much importance on work deadlines or idiotic expectations from directors etc. where as when travelling, my priorities seem to realign to what I really consider the good stuff – loving people, taking in experiences and constantly learning about all those other cultures.

    It’s a tough one! Maybe there just isn’t a definitive answer…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rachel! I hear you on that dichotomy, and living a sort of double-life. Hopefully as we age we find ways to bring the two together…retirement at least? Hehe. Sometimes I try to get in holiday mode in my day-to-day, but it’s a difficult practice. Although, I’m a fan of a good staycation. Beautiful blog – loving the lemons of Sorrento! Best wishes and happy blogging!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I LOVE your writing! This was truly an inspirational post. I look forward to reading more from you soon! 🙂

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  17. This was absolutely beautiful. It has been quite some time since I stumbled upon something that I enjoyed reading this much. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Erin! You’ve just gained a new follower, I really enjoyed the entire blog, but my favorite part was when you talked about your time working in the travel industry! It was very insightful to see the other side of things and how it works! I also enjoyed the small bit about how you grew up with a mom who worked in the hospital. Personally, hospitals scare me lol. But it’s cool to know how someone else perceives familiar environments in a 1st world setting. Your writing style is also very addicting, I read through the whole thing in less than 10 minutes; you certainly do have a gift with writing persuasive memoir-type blogs! Great work 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mr. R.S. Noel! Good of you to say as much! What a cool layout for your blog – I haven’t seen anything like it before. Really sleek and elegant. Interesting and empathetic take on North Korea – good on your for analyzing outside the box. Best wishes, and thank you for the kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Awesome! I’m glad you liked my piece on North Korea. And thank you for the compliment on my website. I was really looking for a design and outline that was interface friendly for my reader’s to enjoy navigating through :). Definitely enjoy reading your pieces Erin, keep up the good work!

        Liked by 1 person

  19. Wow. I loved this so much and it reminded me immediately of my very best friend who loves to travel and does so quite often. Thank you for writing this. I’ll be sure to forward it to her and I’m sure she will follow.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. I love this post – so well written and inspirational! You have gained a new follower in me, and I cannot wait to read more Erin! x

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  21. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and your photography is amazing, I am very new to blogging but have read ALOT of different ones and never enjoyed a read as much as i did this. Thank you! xx

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