Saturday, August 21, 2010

Some Books to Help You Start Your Journey

Ever dream of traveling the world?   College tells us plenty about how to get a job after graduation, but very little about alternative lifestyle choices.  

When I decided to pursue my dreams of traveling and working around the world, I got almost no help from the traditional sources of advice.  Parents, teachers, and career counselors could help me find a job in LA, but few had advice on how to travel.  I had to turn to books for inspiration and guidance.  Here are a few of my favorites that helped me get started.

First, discover your dream
This is perhaps the most difficult step of all.  We are fed so much of other peoples' opinions of what we are supposed to want that we often forget what it is we truly want to do with our lives.  The book that helped me realize my dreams was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  This book is popular for a reason - through the tale of Santiago, a young Spanish shepherd who dreams of traveling to the pyramids in Egypt, Coelho teaches us about how to follow our dreams and discover our personal destiny in life.  He shows us how to overcome what prevents most of us from realizing our dreams and inspires us to take off on our own journey.  Packed full of wisdom, The Alchemist is a must read.

Secondly, learn how to take the first steps, 
If you're reading this blog, I'm assuming you harbor dreams of travel.  So here's step two. 
Almost by chance, I stumbled upon the book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term Travel by Rolf Potts.  Its pages hold the secrets of how to make long-term travel a reality.  Travel, says Rolf Potts, is not about a mere 2-week escapist vacation, but about taking a sizable amount of time to travel slowly and experience the world on your own terms.  It's a philosophical introduction to an alternate lifestyle, complete with tips on how to get started, how to budget money, work abroad, interact with other cultures and return home.  I carried this book with me through Asia like a Bible, consulting it from time to time to ensure my wanderings were following the right course.  Aside from the practical and philosophical advice, I really loved the abundance of travel-related quotes from everyday people to famous authors such as Emerson, Whitman, Kurt Vonnetgut, just to name a few.  About a year and a half after picking up the book, my own travels took me to Paris, where I studied travel writing from the author himself.  Rolf Potts writes from experience and his website is a great place to find inspiration and advice.

Next, plan out your journey
Once you've realized your dreams of travel and learned how to turn them to reality, it's time to start getting practical.  For my trip through Asia, I used First Time Around the World by Rough Guides.  This book blew my mind when I learned of just how many options are open to the traveler who sets himself free.  What was so great about this book was it's larger scope - it talked briefly about the pros and cons of each continent, then showed me how to link them all together via the Trans-Siberian Railroad or hitch-hiking on yachts across the Atlantic.  It also contains very practical advice on how to find work abroad, how to buy round-the-world airplane tickets or shop for travel insurance and everything else involved in pulling off your dreams.  Above all, it inspires you by showing that even the wildest dreams are within your reach if you just do some planning beforehand.

Finally, remember the big picture
One of the most compelling reasons for traveling in our youth is the only real, unavoidable truth - one day, we are all going to die.  Sounds a bit morbid, but recognizing that we could die tomorrow and living your life accordingly is the key to freedom.  Here are my favorite books that inspire me to live my life to the fullest:

- On The Road by Jack Kerouac - I read this book before I read any of the others.  In his masterpiece, Kerouac reminds us that the important things in life are not the things we own but the experiences we have had.  This book chronicles his travels across the USA in the early 1950s, living life to the fullest, living in the moment, and trying to make sense as to what it is we are supposed to do with our lives.  Every one of us has a tiny spark of madness within our souls and each page of On The Road blows on that spark until it erupts into a flaming passion to Go! Go! Go! and 'burn, burn, burn, like a Roman candle.'

- The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham - This book spoke to me more than any other I have read.  It is about a middle class American boy who comes back from fighting in WWI a changed man.  He has seen death, and realizes that the comfortable borgeoise life offered to him is not what he wants.  He must seek truth and answer the larger questions of life.  We follow the protagonist as he travels first to 1920s Paris, then across Europe to India and eventually back to the USA.  A wonderful combination of philosophy, societal commentary, and travel, I could not recommend this book more highly.

- Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis - Amazing book.  The main character is a bookish Greek intellectual who moves to Crete in the 1920s on a quest for happiness and meaning in life.  There he meets Zorba, a larger-than life Zeus-like man of 65 years, who is younger, happier and wiser than the learned protagonist, despite never having been to school.  This book teaches us (ironically, perhaps) to stop looking for wisdom in books, to go outside and live life to the fullest for wisdom can only be found in experience, happiness in the pleasures of the flesh.  Read this book and you too will see the wisdom in living like Zorba.

 That being said... can only do so much reading before you simply must close the books and start your journey.  I read only On The Road before taking off on my adventures, but each of these books has guided me, inspired me, and kept that spark of madness burning strongly within my soul.

These were the books that worked for me.  What worked for you?  Share your favorite reads in the comment section below...

Happy reading!

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Year in Spain in Retrospect

I learned a lot this year, almost all of it the hard way.  Stripped of most of the things that make me happy, I learned the value of what we take for granted.
I was alone with very few friends in a stagnating village, unable to change my scholarship, unable to move to another city and unwilling to give up and come home.  The conclusions I have drawn in the last year may seem obvious to most, but I assure you they are all borne from deep experience.  So here they are, in no particular order - except for the first ; )

Mark's Seemingly Obvious, Painfully Realized Conclusions from One Year in Spain

1) Friends and family are vital - When someone moves abroad, he temporarily gives up his friendships back home because he assumes he will make new friends in his new home.  But I miscalculated this one.  As I've previously described, there were only a handful of people my age in the town, all genuinely good people but none able to replace my friends I'd left in California.  Arevalo was a small town with no university, very little economy, and few prospects for ambitious young people so most people between 18-30 years of age left the town.  My four roommates dwindled to one, then none and I suddenly found myself all alone in the middle of rural Spain, praying to be reunited with my friends as soon as possible.

I constantly thought back to my time at UCLA, when I was constantly surrounded by friends and even made Social Chairman of my fraternity.  But because I had 30,000 students around me, each individual person's significance can be diluted by the sheer number of other people.  You meet a great girl at a party, but lose her in the crowd five minutes later but it doesn't matter because there are many fish in the sea.  Arevalo was a small pond with few fish.  Living in a 6,000 person town with a half dozen friends showed me how valuable every person is, that we should never treat people like they are disposable or replaceable.  We must bring small-town-style friendships to the crowds of our biggest cities. 

2) Your Environment is Everything - I didn't realize this until I'd moved into a negative environment.  All my life I have lived amongst successful people, from my family to my high school friends to my classmates at UCLA.  Being around successful, motivated and intelligent people encourages you to reach your best and provides you with stimulation.  In Arevalo, my sole roommate was so lazy he could hardly get off the couch to defrost his frozen dinner, the nearest intellectual conversations I could find were at my friends' apartment an hour away, and, for lack of options I was forced to - eh-hem - stimulate myself.  Intellectually, that is.  I read a lot, studied Spanish a lot, but quickly realized the limitations of self-study in hermit-like reclusion.  That brings me to my next conclusion...

3) Living Alone Strengthens You, Maddens You, and Shows You What a Lazy Slob You Really Are  - At least in my case... In the absence of friends, I grew stronger by reducing my dependency on others for happiness.  A walk through town, smiling and chatting with the local villagers can overcome loneliness better than 2,000 peripheral Facebook friends and a dozen missed calls on your cellphone.  But solitude also maddens you - I talked to myself more than I'd like to admit and often longed for company and conversation, which goes back to conclusion #1.

[On a quick aside, I actually lived next to an insane asylum last year so most of the people walking past my apartment had serious mental issues.  This negatively affected me and a few times I thought I was going to lose it as well, so I conclude that living with crazy people makes you a little crazy as well.]

But above all, living alone forces you to come to terms with your most negative habits.  If the kitchen is dirty, it's not because your roommate is a slob - it's because you are lazy.  I have always relied on workout partners for fitness, roommates for cleaning the apartment, a buddy for cooking dinner et cetera.  This year I was forced to do this all on my own. 

4) Live in the Moment, Not the Future and Especially Not the Past
For the first time in my life, I disliked the present moment.  All I wanted was to ride out the experience and move onto something else.  I reminisced about my travels in Asia, I dreamt about my future travels, and I lost myself by surfing the internet.  In this way, months slipped by as I distracted myself from my situation - that is, from my life.  The future, the past, the internet - none of these are realities.  The only thing that is real is this very moment, the room you are in the people you are talking to.  Focusing on anything else is mere distraction.

5) Travel Towards Something, Never Away From Anything
Every long-term traveler will eventually have to confront this dilemma.  I left home in search of certain truths, experiences and knowledge I could only find overseas.  I was running towards something.  I came to Spain to learn Spanish, to explore Western Europe, to spend time reading and writing.  But I so disliked my present reality that I began traveling every weekend merely to escape my village.  By mid-February I was burnt out from incessant travel, wondering why I found so little pleasure in something that had previously defined my life.  I took a break from traveling, reassessed my priorities and by the end of the year I resumed running towards my travel goals.

6) Busyness Beats Leisure After One Week
Ferris BuellerBueller's Day Off, not his Decade Off.  Too much play and not enough work makes Jack a dull boy.  Without the toil of work, leisure becomes boring and after a year of working 12 hours a week, I have had more free time than I knew what to do with.  Next year I will fill my schedule up to the brim.  I'll join sports teams, organize social events, learn how to sail, surf more, sign up for French lessons and continue practicing my Spanish.  I'll have less time to write, but it will be more compressed and therefore more efficiently utilized time.   

7) You Gotta Run Your Own Race
I was one of the only foreigners in Arevalo and my values and lifestyle differed substantially from my neighbors - especially my love of travel.  My town was not far from the Portuguese border, yet many people had never left Spain and some thought I was crazy for traveling so much.  I saw the proximity of such contrasting cultures made it impossible not to explore Europe, but I began playing down my travel experiences in order not to provoke misunderstanding or jealousy.  I ultimately realized that I could not hide my great adventures, denying their existence was denying a part of my own identity.  I was a nomad amongst sedentary villagers, but I can't be ashamed of who I am or what I've done. 

8) Life is Short - You Must Take Control of Your Own Destiny
This one is huge. When I first arrived in Arevalo, I had tried to move to a bigger city but I was unable to commute to work so I abandoned all attempts to improve my situation and resigned myself to a having a somewhat shitty year.  Life is too short to spend even a day living in an unpleasant way.  I realized this only months later, when springtime came and I found that we cannot change the hand we're dealt, only the way we react to it.  Eventually I simply decided to be happy.  I came up with a list of small things that brought joy to my unpleasant living situation.  Running in the morning, walking in the wheat fields outside of town, dressing up smartly even if no one would see me, making my bed and tidying an apartment that no one would ever see et cetera.  I learned the daily habits that made me feel happy, productive, and worthwhile and I've repeated them every day since. 

9) Make Peace with What You Can't Change 
But there were some things I could not change.  I couldn't switch towns, I couldn't become fluent in Spanish overnight, I couldn't write the Great American Novel at age 23 - but that's okay.  As the year came to a close, I learned to appreciate the town's beauty, serenity, and lovely people.  I made peace with my gradual progression towards my goals, finding joy in the process of improving rather than the anxiously demanding the fruits of my labor.  In short, I made the best of my situation and stopped trying to change what's beyond my control. 

10) Experience is the Best Teacher of All
I thought I already knew this, but it wasn't until I spent a year in Arevalo and read Zorba the Greek that it really hit home.  Zorba, the hero of this excellent 20th century classic, teaches the protagonist how to live life to the fullest.  The protagonist is obsessed with books, studying the Buddhist scriptures for happiness and wisdom, but Zorba shows him that by spending one's life cocooned in books prevents you from having the experiences (and mistakes) that ultimately teach you the most.  In my desire to improve my situation, I read many philosophy books, in my desire to learn Spanish I studied many grammatical books.  But nothing taught me more than simply closing my books and getting out there in the world.  (PS - read Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis!!! Highly recommended!)

11) Everyone Gets Lost Occasionally
 At the end of the year, I didn't really know what I was doing anymore or why I was doing it.  My original intentions of continuing my free-spirited travels, learning from the open book of the world and practicing writing had led me to a year of stagnation in Arevalo.  I was lost, as happens to us all at one point or another.  I had to find my way again, and so I chose to follow The Way of St. James - that is, El Camino de Santiago.

Next Post: My travels on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - One month walk across 500+ miles of France and Spain.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's been too long...

Hello everyone!

I am ashamed to admit it, but almost a half year has passed since my last post.  I'm back in California right now for a brief one-month visit to my hometown before returning back to Europe and a lot of things have happened in the previous few months since I have written.  So what explains the long gap since my last post?

In some ways it's because someone can either live his life or write stories, and if you live life to the fullest you have little time left over for writing - and I've certainly been doing that.  Since my last post I've traveled quite a bit.  In early April I spent two weeks traveling across the Basque Country with my UCLA friend Andrew Fleming, going from Bilbao to San Sebastian, to Bayone, to Biarritz, to Getara, Guernika, Mundaka, Bermeo and finally to Zumaya and back home to Arevalo.

In late May I wrapped up my job in Spain and spent one month walking a 500 mile section of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a Catholic pilgrimage that meanders west across all of Europe to the north-western corner of Spain, where St. James (Santiago) is said to be interred.  But I'm not Catholic nor did I do it for religious purporses, but I'll explain all that in a bit...

After the month-long pilgrimage I took a train to Madrid and then a plane to Paris and I spent the month of July taking creative writing courses, learning some French and enjoying my favorite city in the world.  I studied at the Paris American Academy, where I learned non-fiction from travel writer Rolf Potts and fiction from John Biguenet and Lauren Grodstein.  It was the first time I'd ever studied writing in my life and it gave me some invaluable lessons and direction for pursuing my passion of writing.

And now I'm back in California, soaking up the summer sun, touching my SoCal roots, and renewing my visa for Spain.  I should be here until the middle of September, when I move to San Sebastian, Spain to continue teaching English, learning Spanish, and following my quest for world knowledge. 

So that, in a few brief paragraphs, is what I have been up to.  But there's a lot more to write about, to talk about, to share.  But I must make a few confessions apropos my blog...

Firstly, I've been distracted.  Yes, I traveled a lot, but I also wrote for a travel magazine, tried writing short stories, slam poetry, and even a few stabs a novels. By diverting my time to these pursuits, I neglected my blog for five months.

Secondly, I've become too obsessed with perfection.  I have written many blogs in the last few months only to scrap them for their perceived flaws instead of sharing my stories with the world.  This must end. This (imperfect) blog entry is the first step to overcoming my perfectionism.

Lastly, I wasn't in the mood to blog.  Last year, alone in my little village, I was more depressed than I have ever been in my life and I frankly didn't want to write negative woe-is-me blog posts about how depressing my situation was.  Now I can look back and laugh at the absurdity of my situation but at the time I just wanted to escape.

These are my excuses for for not blogging, and I promise not to make any more excuses in the future - it's time to get back to writing.  Let's get down to the stories.