Meditation is often seen as one of those ridiculous, new age things that can’t possibly be rooted in science. Why should anyone take sitting in the floor with your eyes closed while humming “ommm” to yourself seriously? I don’t blame anyone for scoffing at the practice. I usually tend to smirk to myself when I hear people talking about homeopathic treatments that have no scientific legs to stand on. But meditation has been subjected to many studies over recent years, and the results have been really exciting.
Scientists have been looking at meditation since the 1950’s and basically a new subfield of neuroscience has resulted. They’ve hooked all kinds of people to all kinds of machines to study how the practice affects the brain and the body. When they look at the meditating brain in real time, they can see that it’s actually rewiring itself. The unhappy are actively making themselves happier, the stressed less stressed, and those in chronic pain have found relief, not by way of any placebo effect, but through the mind-altering effects of meditation.
As a naturally stressed person, I decided to try meditation about a year ago after looking at all the research. I started with simple breathing for 10 minutes everyday, and then I began focusing on positive energy, until finally I was mostly reflecting on my situation and the greater questions of life. I have since backslid and want to pick it back up as I go through all the rigors and uncertainties of moving to China. I’m bringing you guys along for the ride rather than go through a refresher course on my own.
How to Begin
Meditating is one of those things that when you see it, it looks pretty damn easy. Sure, I can sit in a quiet corner for a few. But when you do sit down with the intent to meditate, you might find yourself at a loss of how to begin. You may ask yourself, “Am I doing it? Am I meditating?” Probably not.
First, set aside an appropriate time to meditate. I used to do it before I went to bed as a way to free my mind, but have since been corrected. Apparently the best time to do it is in the morning because it gives you new energy, and you’re essentially wasting it by going to sleep afterward. Well, excussse me (thanks Kate). Try to find 10 - 20 minutes after you wake up in the morning.
Next, and predictably, find a quiet spot. Indoors or outdoors both work, but if you live in the mountains, there’s no where more quiet and free of distraction (albeit not very practical to stop at your local mountain on the way to work). Switch off the TV, dim the lights, and if you have roommates, tell them to leave you alone. Pop a squat.
Close your eyes, and don’t try to (mentally) do anything immediately. Just relax, breathe evenly, and slowly drift into a state of relaxation. Slowly focus on your breathing, the air coming in and the air leaving you. I’m going to get crunchy here; feel new energy enter you as you inhale and negative energy leaving you as you exhale.
You can also focus on a mental picture, or a single thought. The point is to calm the storm in your mind created by work, errands, emotions, and people by centering it on one simple thing. For a few minutes every day, you are not stressed, you are not worried, you are not angry or sad, you are simply calm.
Different Types of Meditation
Focused Meditation - The process I described above is a very simple and beneficial meditation practice geared toward decluttering your head. This is simply a state of being that we’re often too busy to discover within ourselves. Once you begin to find this state of calm and quiet during your meditation sessions, you will train your brain to slip into this state with more ease throughout everyday life. Eventually you will be able to accept the same things that usually frustrate you with more peace than inward rebellion.
Mindfulness Meditation - During mindfulness meditation, you let your mind simply be aware of what’s around you. You don’t necessarily have to find a quiet spot, because any noise can become part of the meditation. Just as in focused meditation, breath at a natural rhythm, but don’t focus on anything in particular. Just let sounds drift over you, whether they be planes, screaming children, or noisy traffic. Your environment is the tide, and you are simply absorbing it as it ebbs and flows over you.
Happiness Meditation - We are actually ruled by our genes to a certain extent regarding our personal happiness levels, but meditation is something we can all do to rewire our brains for more positive emotion. Again, follow the same steps above, except this time you will focus on your thoughts and emotions. Push the negative feelings you have about yourself and others out. Don’t try to address or solve them, simple breathe the negative energy out, and on the inhales feel the new energy entering your body. Slowly, you will begin to feel more acceptance of yourself and others.
Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is good for so many reasons…some that have come out of several studies, and others that we will experience on a more individualized level.
No matter what meditation technique you choose, it will surely neutralize stress and hone your ability to deal with it in real time, when you’re at the office and not in your quiet place. Eliminating stress from your life will naturally lead to better health.
Constant stress keeps your body in a prolonged state of fight-or-flight in which your body is savaged by elevated levels of natural hormones and steroids that are only meant to be used for a short time. When the body must rely on these chemicals constantly for you to accomplish your goals, long-term health effects such as a weakened immune system and cardiovascular problems arise. Meditate, and your body will thank you.
Other people will thank you, too. When we focus on positive emotion during meditation, we become happier. Confronting our personal flaws, acknowledging them, and virtually making peace with ourselves will make us happier. Consequently, we are more accepting and kind to others despite their flaws. Can meditation cure my road-rage? I’m excited to see.
Meditation seems to be a silver-bullet solution to our physical, mental and emotional well-being, and I will definitely be keeping up with the thinkers who seem to be discovering more good things on this practice constantly. For now, find a quiet place, say “ommm” if you must, and reap the benefits.
I was sitting cross-legged in the grass on top of a bald in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina, surrounded by blue, hazy vistas on all sides. Kate and I relished in the satisfaction of the 4-mile hike it took to get there, and in each other. We were together for the first time in 3 months. I bit into a crisp apple, and let the crunch, the sweetness, the wind envelop me in a profound snapshot of self-actualization. I was completely happy, burdened by nothing in the moment.
It seems like some people can access moments like these on the fly, while the rest of us struggle for that obscure and elusive notion that is happiness for our entire lives. Are some people just naturally more happy? Yes, actually. Happiness is in our genes. A staggering 50% of our happiness levels are determined by genetics. On top of that, outside circumstances that are mostly beyond our control determine another 10%. Well, shit, if you’re naturally not a very happy person, where does that leave you?
Fear not, we still have another 40% to play around with that comes from our intentional activities. We’re indeed the masters of our own destinies. Along my personal journey down the minimalist path over the years I’ve been trying to pin down some of these intentional activities so that I may be more mindful of life’s journey and, of course, happier along the way. These are a few things that I’ve been doing lately to maximize my happiness level.
Count your blessings.
Okay, cheesy advice, I know. But whenever I get stressed out about some complete first-world problem, after a little bit of reflection on what I have and just how easily my situation could be much worse…I feel better. A couple of images out of Syria are enough to make that annoying thing at work you have to do a task to be embraced. A lot of us really don’t know how well we’ve got it, and taking a step back and actually looking at all the positives relative to the rest of the world really make the not so great parts of life seem trivial and almost shameful to dwell on.
Don’t let happiness be determined by benchmarks.
Even up until very recently, I let my happiness be dependent on how much progress I was making at any given moment with my massive to-do list. While I love making lists, this is one of their drawbacks. They create a sense of urgency if there’s many items yet to be checked off, even if you have all the time in the world to complete them. Then you just feel guilty if you’re trying to catch up on Game of Thrones when you could be writing a blog post. Use the list as a tool and nothing more. There’s no point in rooting your happiness in achieving some huge benchmark far off into the future because our grand to-do lists will always be changing, and you will find more happiness living in the moment anyway.
Draw a firm line between work and leisure.
This is so important! As soon as I leave my job on Friday, I sign out of the school’s Gmail account on all of my devices. I do not bring work home with me. Even my writing, which I love to do, takes a backseat to cracking open a few cold ones on at least one day during the weekend. Establish one day of the week that’s full of things you love to do. Knock back some beers, go out with friends, hike up a mountain, or stay in and read a book. Just don’t work, and try to avoid errands if it can be helped. It’s your sanity day, and a leap forward to achieving an ideal work-life balance, something that’s sure to make us all a lot happier.
Go for a run.
I try to go running as much as possible. Apart from the obvious health benefits, it does actually get you high. Running, as well as sex, food, and pain, send a rush of endorphins to your brain. Endorphins are basically a natural drug in your body that trigger the brain’s opioid receptors to ease pain or reward you for things like eating ice cream and getting laid. Also for running. I feel much happier after an hour-long run. Endorphins aside, it gives me time to think. I’ve probably worked out some of life’s biggest problems on long runs while falling inadvertently into deep pits of meditation. The inner-peace and free Vicodin from my body both make me happier.
Sit and meditate for a spell.
Speaking of meditation, this is another action we can take to increase our happiness. In fact, it’s actually been proven to rewire our brains to experience more positive emotion. Now, there are several different types, from simple meditation of just focusing on your breathing or specific area of the body, to more complex states of analyzing your thoughts and emotions. Ironically, hardcore meditators get worked up over what is and isn’t meditation. Some say if you think too much, you’re doing it wrong, but I disagree. I could write a whole post on meditation, and you know what? I think I will next week. Right now, just know that it will make you happier.
Rationalize life’s problems.
Stress can definitely eat away at our happiness, and we should keep it in check before it snowballs into something that creates frequent tension headaches. Like most things, I prefer to use logic and reason to acknowledge the stuff I can control and the stuff I can’t. I put my problems in their appropriate boxes. Make a list. One side has negative things (relationships, projects at work, diet, anything) that you can change, the other has things you can’t change. Jot down ideas for how you will change the things you can, and how you can at least improve the situations that you can’t. Systematically snipe away your stress in this way and become happier.
You Are in Control
So maybe we’re somewhat at the mercy of our genes when it comes to happiness. But there are still so many things we can do to augment that 40% we have control over. Think about what you have, even if you don’t have much, odds are you have more than you think. Get out of your planning books for a while and worry only about the present day. Learn how to separate your work from your downtime. Chill hard when you can. Running gets you high and meditation gets you enlightened. Rationalize what stresses you out instead of letting it rule your world. Try working some of these things into your life slowly and perhaps the filter you perceive life through will begin to gradually brighten.
For more on the science and different factors behind happiness, check out the super interesting documentary Happy on Netflix.
I’ve been enjoying getting people to do my work for me lately, and in keeping with that trend, I made my girlfriend (Kate Anderson) write a post about her recent visit to America similar to my reviews of Iceland and Sweden. A long time self-loathing American, I really needed someone more objective for this post. Amidst all of the hiking, Mexican food, and creationism, this is what she found.
I hear a loud ‘HEY HOW ARE YOU?’ and answer the parking attendant with a genuine ‘I’m not too bad thank you, I’ve just arrived’. Seth looks at me with a face that reads oh Kate and I realise that when people ask ‘how are you?’ in the South, they basically mean ‘hello’ and don’t want a heartfelt life-story in return.
As we leave the airport car park, I get that familiar rush of excitement at arriving in a new country and not knowing what’s what. Although I was following my heart to North Carolina, the most surprising thing about this trip is that it felt like good ol’ character-building, life-changing travel.
I’ve been to America before on a family trip where I found myself in a casino on the Gulf Coast with a Mexican uncle I never knew I had (a story for another time). Still, I’ve always had this attitude that I know about America and it doesn’t have much to offer me as just another western country. I guess my previous travels have been based on trying to find some place that is the most different to, or least alike, where I am from.
When I was 18 and ready to quench my thirst for travel for the first time, my aim was simply: get the fuck away from the city (London) and all those God Dam McDonalds. Of course since actually spending time abroad in India, Iceland and parts of Europe, I know that travel is much less about escaping your own reality than it is about embracing someone else’s. In this case Seth’s. So like any other country you visit, there’s some good, some bad, and some downright ugly.
The Appalachian Mountains mark 2,400 km along the East Coast of America; a great smudge of tectonic beauty with a trail crafted specifically for the purposes of recreational walking, completed in 1937, and aptly named the Appalachian Trail. Seth and I were at the North Carolina section, staying in Boone (a breath-of-liberal-fresh-air town next to the Blue Ridge Parkway).
These were the mountains I’d heard about in Fleet Foxes songs or in Band of Horses lyrics. Yet there I was looking out over vast vistas of mystical mountains, rounded by 270 million years of elements and covered in a misty, blue haze that made them seem both peaceful and ghostly. It was a couple of weeks before the spring bloom so there was still thousands of bare tree trunks pricking up all around. From a distance, they reminded me of sporadic hairs on a pubescent male’s chin. Compared to the daunting volcanic scree mountains of Iceland, these were gentle, commanding and wise trails that guided you slowly up and up and up.
Seth knew where to take me - from a 20-minute stroll to the perfect star gazing spot Beacon Heights, to a 12-mile hike that wove between the borders of North Carolina and Tennesee up to a 360-degree view of blue balds. You can never underestimate how good you feel after a hike - trust me there really is no better place for conversation (or for being silent, now that I come to think about it).
It was great going with someone who knows the ins and outs of the AT, as it’s colloquially known, and I would recommend finding out as much as you can from the locals wherever you travel. Some of the wisdom I learnt was:
The white blaze rectangle is symbolic of the Appalachian Trail (two white blazes means there is an incoming side-trail or an obscure turn); a blue blaze marks water sources, alternate routes, and shortcuts. Trail magic is food that locals leave out for long-distance hikers who are glad for a fizzy drink and a crisp apple. I found out that you have to purify the water from streams as it contains the parasite Giardia - a good light-weight solution is LifeStraw.
Then there is the famous what to do if you see a bear question. The answer is to puff yourself up to look as massive as possible and shout as loud as you can. It makes you wonder what noise would actually come out of your mouth in that situation. Roarrr?! Some more sinister but useful knowledge is that ‘pink blazers’ is a term for sleaze bags who walk the AT to scout for girls, and that it’s best not to camp near a road – local opposition to hikers and vandalism can be a problem.
Whenever I met someone in North Carolina, I was thinking in the back of my mind ‘how religious are you’ and ‘do you know that the earth IS actually more than 6,000 years old?’ Whilst the overt friendliness of most locals was a breath of fresh air, I always felt I had to steer clear of any religious chatter to avoid having someone look at me with eyes that said ‘you’re going straight to hell’ when you tell them that you’re agnostic. For me, all religion can be alarmingly pervasive, not just Islam as the media would like us to believe.
I attended a Sunday service while I was in Greensboro and as a person who is not usually exposed to religious preaching, I was shocked by the pastor’s rhetoric and the sense of indoctrination that goes along with it. When he told a story of how 30,000 people died in an earthquake in Armenia and that one child was “found by Jesus” in the rubble 4 days later, I couldn’t help but laugh as Seth whispered in my ear ‘what about the other 29,999 people that god didn’t give a shit about?’
I appreciate that people find hope, community and a sense of purpose through religion. That to me is a positive. However, having studied Karl Marx’s view of religion as a subset of capitalist alienation and Hume’s refutation of the Design argument, I find it all too hard to accept any religion as the overriding truth. It is more that we perceive there to be a god in human experience, rather than any ontological man with a white beard in need of a good trim!
I could easily rant about the usual catastrophic problems in the U.S - obesity, crime levels, and consumerism (all of which are issues in the UK). I do agree that there are way too many fast food restaurants and I have some serious doubts on how socially desegregated America really is.
For me, the most annoying thing was how clearly these problems manifest themselves on a day to day basis and the level of political disconnect this has with some people and politicians. This is, again, similar to the UK. A homeless guy asked us for money after a long story about how his brother died going over a dam and that he wants to change the rap game in his brother’s memory. The equivalent of this in London is someone asking ‘can I have 20p?’ The point is there is little attempt to address the poverty cycle and provide the support needed to get them back on their feet in Republican-run North Carolina.
We know there’s increasingly shocking levels of gun crime in America. Yet if you want too, you can pop in to Walmart to buy a gun, come home and watch FOX News that teaches you how to use a gun, and then you can be sure that if you develop mental health problems there won’t be any state help to stop you from walking into a school and using that gun.
These contradictions go on. Organic and fresh food is twice the price of a buy-one-get-five-free Poptart deal, even though diabetes and heart disease are the number one killer in the US. All this is wrapped up in sinister reality TV shows like To Catch a Predator and pharmaceutical adverts that spend more time listing lengthy side effects than saying what the product actually does. It’s a hard conundrum, as I enjoyed watching The First 48 (a programme that follows the first two days of a homicide investigation) because it plays on an in-built human fascination with death and violence. For me, it all creates a disconcerting picture that we should look at with a critical eye, even if we do all enjoy eating Reese’s Pieces from time to time.
Overall, I was seriously impressed by how friendly and carefree people were in North Carolina. Boone is a lively university town where everyone just seems…well…happy. The shops were my idea of outdoor gear paradise, brimming with SmartWool gems and Seth’s favourite (and slightly odd) running shoes. Of a day, you could pop over to the Appalachian State University study area that has strategically placed water features to sooth you through the stress of pretty much anything, or you could just relax in any one of the hipster coffee joints where the staff are way too cool to be friendly and leave you to your own devices. I would highly recommend Boone for anyone who loves beautiful scenery, good beer, and some insightful conversation about whatever takes your fancy.
I’ve been falling down the Apple hole lately. I bought my MacBook five years ago as a college freshman, and it was a whole new world compared to years of Windows XP. It was love at first sight, probably at the edgy video intro where it says “welcome” in a bunch of different languages. My palms were sweaty before I even made it to the incredibly utilitarian OS X.
Apple has since brought this same functionality to the iPhone first, and now the iPad, in the form of iOS. After my HTC Droid Incredible crapped out on me, I decided to give the iPhone 4S a try - the iPhone 5 had just debuted, so of course it was much cheaper - and I love it. Now that my aging, faithful MacBook is starting to come down with computer dementia, coupled with the fact that someone recently broke my Kindle, I decided to try to recoup these losses in the form of the new iPad Mini.
As with all things, I was initially skeptical about the iPad Mini. True, I was amongst those ridiculing the original iPad when it came out, calling it an oversized iPod Touch, which at the time was basically true. But things have changed; processing power has been contained into much smaller chips, there are several thousand more apps, and now the iPad is a genuine productivity tool that’s on it’s way to rivaling many laptop models in what it can do.
But this was the iPad Mini, and essentially just the iPad 2 in a smaller package with an improved camera. Surely Apple is just making it smaller in hopes that the drooling masses will pounce on it for that novelty alone, quickly increasing their profit margins. But no, this is Apple finally targeting the market that Amazon and Google have been breaking into with their 7” tablets. Keeping that in mind, the Mini is pretty awesome.
This is the main reason I picked up the Mini. My MacBook has one foot in the grave, and running Adobe Creative Suite on it for various design projects is all the strain it needs right now. I now limit my Netflix binges and unintentionally long YouTube sessions to the Mini. In fact, I actually spend more time on YouTube now than I did before, so clever and intuitive is the app’s layout. The video quality is good. If you want superb, you’ll have to drop $500 for the new iPad with Retina Display. The take-away message is that instead of having my laptop nuke my bits while I’m laying in bed hungover and watching Spartacus reruns on Sunday mornings, I can now hold the very light and non-invasive Mini.
Watching/reading the news and digesting current events is a big hobby of mine; yes this is life as a dork. In particular, the NPR News and Slate apps flow very easily. I was glued to them during the crazy events over the last two weeks in Boston. Part of my consumption includes YouTube-based shows such as The Young Turks and Secular Talk Radio, both of which are informative and hilarious.
Although my Kindle is done for, all of my books that I bought on Amazon remain in the cloud, and I can access them through the Kindle app for iPad. While you’ll never beat the Kindle’s electronic ink, I don’t have a problem reading on the Mini, and at 8” you can take in an inch more of Westeros at a time than you can on the Kindle Fire or the Google Nexus. I’m talking about words, not penises by the way.
Sometimes I’ll just leave the laptop at home and whip out (there we go again) the iPad Mini and my old Bluetooth keyboard at the coffee shop. Although I have no issues with the fluidity of switching between, say Google Drive and WorkFlowy, the fact that I actually have to touch the screen makes me less likely to leave my keyboard, and therefore less likely to watch crazy Russian dash-cam videos in the middle of writing something. If you’re a writer on the go, the Mini and Google Drive are going to make you very happy.
The Bottom Line
Okay, I’m not even close to attempting to write up a massive review to rival something on cNet that will satisfy you technophiles out there. Simply put, if you want an e-reader/personal entertainment center/productivity tool that fits in a small and light enough package to be perfect for travel, then this is for you.
Check out the product website for more details and tech specs.NOTE: Currently, I am not affiliated with any of the companies who’s products I review and do not receive incentives for reviews. Whenever I find a product that makes travel easier and lighter, or if it’s terrible and I don’t wish it on anyone else, I review it.
My travels have not yet taken me far from the frozen north. That’s about to change. Instead of yet another Nordic country, my next destination will be the middle kingdom in the East: China. It’s a pretty huge cultural leap from anything I’ve experienced so far, and that excites me. I feel that I’ve been pretty safe so far in regards to culture shock. This time I’ll be going somewhere that is allegedly as different from America as it gets. We’ll see. Anyway, I talked about preparation earlier this month, so it seems prudent to show you how I’ve applied that formula to this opportunity so far.
I won’t be tackling such a transition alone. Kate and I are going together, and I’m sure this will offset some of the shock for both of us. A couple of months ago we were trying to figure out how to bridge the 4,000-mile gap between us. If Kate wants to work and live in the US, then an employer with a proper license would have to prove that no American is qualified for the job before she has a chance. It would essentially be the same for me if I wanted to move to the UK. So what’s left? Marriage. That’s not happening quite yet. So much for the land of opportunity.
The other option was to move somewhere else together. Already a teacher assistant in America, I had flirted with the idea of teaching English abroad after hearing many stories from a friend who taught all over Southeast Asia. I did a little research, and bingo, this was it. We could teach for 6-12 months, live in an apartment provided by the school, and save tons of money in the process.
My Primary Source
My best friend, Dylan, has already taught English in Vietnam, Thailand, China, and could be going back for more with the Peace Corps later this year. I knew he would be a wealth of firsthand knowledge based on both his own and his network of other teachers’ experiences. He just got back in the states about a month ago, and we immediately had a long coffee together to catch up. Just as I suspected, he was able to point me to echinacities, where he found his China job after sending out a mere two emails. In addition, Dylan gave me some pretty useful info on visas and what to look for in a school.
Research, research, research.
1. The Country - China is a bit different from America (really?). It’s not every day you read about 16,000 dead pigs turning up in the Mississippi River. Nor do I have to wear a mask to filter out ridiculous amounts of pollution on my daily commute. But when you get past the weekly health and safety scares, you have the amazing food, and a country rich in interesting history. Although China is definitely not doing the best it can to preserve it, it’s full of natural beauty as well. I can’t wait to experience it all, both the good and the bad.
2. The Work - The quality of the experience is really going to depend on the school. Some will handle a great deal of your visa stuff for you, while others will lie about getting you a work visa. The maximum weekly hours range from 20 - 30 (the norm is usually closer to 20), and includes both lesson planning and teaching. The age groups are pretty varied, and range from kindergarten to university students. A Chinese teacher assistant is usually in the room to help out with any sticky situations. I’ve seen some schools advertising more than $2,000/month for 20-hour work weeks. Even China has more respect for its teachers.
Following Dylan’s advice, I browsed echinacities. There were plenty of opportunities, as there’s crazy demand for native speakers of English to teach. It was kind of hard to know where to start. I began asking questions in the “Answers” section of the website. Eventually someone sent me a private message saying they were going to have a lot of openings for the next term, and that both my girlfriend and I were welcome to apply. 2-bedroom apartment included, the proper work visa, and expert’s certificate, health insurance, only 20-hours/week, and $1,200/month (living expenses would be $150). Okay!
Getting my papers ready.
1. On the employer’s end - As it stands, we have both sent in our application packages, which include a CV, copy of our degrees, copy of our passports, photos of ourselves, and reference letters. The photo thing. Yeah, that’s a little weird, but of course they do things differently in China. Dylan tells me they are making sure I don’t look weird, and more importantly, that I look like a white foreigner. It’s a different country. Moving right along, after all that’s in order, we’ll have an interview. Assuming that’s successful, we’ll submit a medical form and criminal background check in exchange for an official invitation letter, which brings us to the government…
2. On the government’s end - Invitation letter from the school in hand, we would now be ready to take that to the Chinese embassy - Washington, DC for me and London for lucky Kate (she lives there) - along with a Z-visa application form, passport, photo, and a $130 fee. The Chinese embassy’s website claims that the visa is processed on average in just 4 days. My Swedish residence permit took 3 months, so I’ll believe it when I see it.
Maybe So Maybe No
So usually I don’t mention any of my potential journeys until I’ve applied to whoever and been accepted. I wait until it’s a certainty that I’m going there to write about it. It’s completely possible that we don’t get hired by this particular school, but I feel comfortable about posting on the process because if we fail, we will just do it all again.
Failure is something you have to take into account when you try anything. If you apply somewhere and it doesn’t work out, don’t let the blowback of failure waste your time. Immediately start searching for another opportunity with the same determination, hope, and anticipation. Anything less will snap you right back like a bungee cord to where you’re trying to get away from.
This week I’ve decided to do something a bit different and interview one of my longtime friends who is far more well-traveled than I, Dylan Waller. He’s spent a good chunk of the last few years in Southeast Asia, and I’ve asked him about his adventures there, as well as a few things to do with traveling in general.
Spartan Wanderer: Why did you start traveling?
Dylan Waller: Traveling was something that my parents valued, and they wanted to make sure that we were exposed to as many things as possible since we came from a really small town. They took us on vacations to Puerto Rico and Costa Rica when I was in middle school. They wanted to make sure we didn’t get stuck in a small town, and didn’t realize the full magnitude of the effect that these trips had on us. As a result of this, I am planning to live and work abroad for at least three more years, and most likely for the indefinite future.
SW: You’re very lucky to have cool parents that aren’t afraid to venture outside of Rockingham County, NC. What made you choose Southeast Asia when you began traveling on your own?
DW: Everything started with India, which led me to continue exploring southeast Asia. When I was a sophomore in college I received an email about a new study abroad program in India, and discovered that they were giving out grants. I had this strong gut feeling about it and went through with it, which led to an amazing semester in Bangalore, India. I was determined to go back to visit after I graduated, and also wanted to continue travelling and working abroad. After I graduated from Appalachian, I returned to India to do an internship for an NGO, volunteer teach, and travel across the country to visit some friends. I knew that I would have to leave India and stay out of the country for 2 months because of my visa, so I went on a summer study program with my college to Vietnam and Thailand. I loved those areas just as much, and decided to stay, teach, and continue travelling.
SW: It sounds like you came down with the bug pretty hard. Did you have any preconceptions that were proven wrong?
DW: I did not expect to get sucked in as much as I did. I thought I would go there, study for a semester, have an amazing time, and then return home, business as usual. Everyone tries to prepare you for all the shocks you will experience when travelling someplace new, but no one focuses on the challenge of reverse culture shock experienced when returning home. I never thought I would be more successful thriving in another country than in my home country. I may or may not continue to travel and live in other countries the rest of my life, but the fact I am strongly considering and pursuing it now proves that travelling has been “life changing.”
SW: What is the craziest thing you’ve seen or heard of in your travels?
DW: I was in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam talking to some backpackers about their visit to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where they saw the Killing Fields. I had heard beforehand that it was possible to arrange to shoot cows if you had enough money. One of the backpackers told me he was approached and asked if he would like to shoot a cow, with an added shocking twist. After he refused to shoot the cow, the man whispered “how about a person?”. Apparently, families can sell off their sick or disabled members to be shot by tourists in the Killing Fields. Pretty much anything is possible in Asia if you have money, and unfortunately things like this result.
SW: That is pretty shocking. I think that’s what Hostel was based on actually. In an effort to save the mood, what was the best, most fulfilling moment you’ve had abroad?
DW: I have always loved living and thriving in rural areas of Southeast Asia, as they are the most challenging and rewarding, and provide the deepest form of cultural immersion. I’d have to say my most fulfilling moment was staying in Manipur, India, where I volunteered at Northeastern Children’s Home, spending time teaching English and music to kids from the school and orphanage. The strong concept of community there was extraordinary, and I was blessed to be able to experience it and take part in it through feasts, weddings, and ceremonies for people who passed away in the village.
SW: Obvious follow-up question: what was your most miserable experience?
DW: Teaching English in Hohhot, China. This was one of the first times, after having spent over a year travelling in Asia, that I moved somewhere new and did not thrive. I decided to teach kindergarten, and soon realized that this job was not for me, and also that I was locked into a contract for the semester. I taught at six different schools, which meant that some days I could spend 4-6 hours commuting (some days I spent more time commuting than teaching). I was in a large city, and sometimes I would go for a walk in the park to try to discover the peace I felt in the rural parts of Southeast Asia, only to have my thoughts interrupted with “Gangnam Style” blaring from a local shop’s speakers. I stuck it out for four months, started to enjoy things more towards the end, and got to take an amazing trip to Mongolia after my contract was done. China wasn’t my cup of tea, but I am still very open to giving it a second shot.
SW: So of all things, “Gangnam Style” still isn’t banned in China. What made you decide to start teaching English abroad?
DW: Money! I knew that I wanted to stay in Southeast Asia for as long as possible, and this seemed like the easiest way to do it. I completed a 80-hour online TESOL course before leaving the United States and then spent 6 weeks volunteering as an English teacher in India to make sure it was something I would actually enjoy doing. There’s something very empowering about knowing you can pick a random country in the world, show up, and have a job.
SW: That is empowering, and I wish more people knew that it is possible, no matter how rooted they are in their current life in the US. So, how do the kids in Asia compare to the kids in America?
DW: The kids that I have taught in Asia have more respect for teachers. That’s not to say that they are always perfectly disciplined, but the respect is there. When the teacher enters a classroom in India, all of the students stand up and say “ Good Morning Sir”. There is a similar routine that takes place in Thailand and can not be avoided. Most of my jobs threw me around between different schools and I never stayed with a single class long enough to really start to understand the students.
SW: Big surprise. It seems like kids anywhere else in the world value education more than our little ingrates. Any embarrassing moments in front of all those kids?
DW: I was on my way to teach kindergarten at the worst of the six schools I taught at, when I recieved a text from my teacher assistant that she was going to be very late because the buses were running late. So, I showed up to teach a class of 30 students on my own, and they all just went crazy on me. They were running around the room, grabbing and hitting my guitar, knocking over chairs, etc. I chased them around the room, yelled, and finally got class started, although it was still a little bit chaotic. I was faced with the same situation a month later, and the class was absolutely perfect, in fact it was one of my favorite classes of the semester. That’s the consistency you get with kindergarten.
SW: Yeah, kindergarten is fun. I think any type of biological clock I have has been set back a few years since becoming a TA. Completely unrelated; what is one piece of gear you’d never travel anywhere without?
DW: Quick-drying boxers and shirts. I spent a week hiking on the AT (Appalachian Trail) with Seth, and discovered that my biggest mistake was bringing cotten. Since then, whenever I hike, camp, or travel I always wear quick dry boxers and shirts. In addition to being an obvious better choice of attire for Southeast Asia, they also allow you to minimize your possessions.
SW: You’ve mentioned a few of your interesting methods regarding personal health and well-being in the past. Is Southeast Asia as scary and disease-ridden as we think it is?
DW: I don’t think so. I have always drank the water, ate street food, and not taken malaria medication when travelling in Southeast Asia. I have never had anything serious happen to me. I usually get extremely sick when initially arriving, and then after that I am free to eat or drink anything I want without suffering any consequences. People in India always joked with me and told me that if I got sick in India and ate all of the crazy street food like they do, then I will not get sick anywhere else in the world. A year after leaving India, the worst illness I have encountered has been in the United States. I’m planning to go to Africa next, and that will be something that I can not approach with the same carefree attitude as I do in Asia, lest I actually get malaria or some crazy disease. I’ve always felt safe and have never been in a dangerous or threatening situation in Southeast Asia. I remember China and Thailand being extremely safe, and I always felt free to roam around the city at night. I’ve never had anything happen in India after spending a year there, but I have always been surrounded by local friends.
SW: You’re insane. But I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as we’re meant to believe it is, as with most things from abroad that are relayed to us collectively xenophobic Americans. What’s your favorite place you’ve been to? Why?
DW: I would have to say Muang Ngam, Thailand, although Rengkai, India is a close second. It’s one of the most peaceful places I’ve lived in, and one of the few places where I have been extremely content and had little or no desire to travel. I lived in a secluded, peaceful environment that was an hour away from two main cities, and I was right beside one of the local beaches. I thought I was the only foreigner in the area until one day I saw another foreigner riding his bike and yelling “farrang” (Thai for foreigner) at me. I am planning to live there again in a couple of months, and will hopefully be able to get a bike and explore the countryside.
SW: What’s the biggest DO you’d recommend to people traveling in that area? The biggest DON’T?
DW: My best advice is to find ways to stay in rural communities, and not to limit one’s Southeast Asia experience solely to backpacking. I think that the two go hand in a hand for gaining a holistic cultural experience, but I have personally found my time spent in rural areas to be more valuable. Simply moving from country to country in short spans of time, only visiting the major cities doesn’t fully cut it. I have just finished reading Gregory David Roberts’ novel, Shantaram, and I think this quote sums it up:
“Every city in the world has a village in it’s heart. You will never understand the city, unless you first understand the village.”
If possible, try to study in the country, work there, and then use this as leverage for other travelling opportunities. I started out in India studying for a semester, and this provided me with a volunteer teaching position in a village and an internship with an NGO. If this isn’t possible, then check out volunteer programs that provide cheaper alternatives than backpacking and allow. Unfortunately, many volunteer programs charge ridiculous fees, although there are a few volunteer programs that charge little to no fees, and may even provide you with food and/or housing. Two of the best volunteer programs that I know of are WWOOF for organic farming and Goodwill Globetrotting which contains a network of NGO’s looking for volunteers.
Try to get the most out of every country, and stay as long as possible. I pride myself off of recently maxing out my passport, but take even more pride in the opportunities I had to stay in rural areas for extended amounts of time. The two days I spent in Siem, Cambodia were pretty amazing, but the year I spent in Southern and Northeastern India was bar none.
A couple of posts ago, I listed a few ways that the average person could travel sustainably long-term. Everyone should be aware of these escape routes that can lead out of the office and into a different culture. Once you decide to pursue any of these or other opportunities, there’s loads to be done. Research, visas, communication, packing, etc… How much thought and work you put into these things could define your entire experience.
I know that it’s a common romanticization of travel to roam as free as the wind with no planning, and then a lot of awesome stuff happens. Fair enough. Go overstay your visa on this notion; being trapped indefinitely in a Thai prison would make for a good story, to be sure.
The thing is, there’s governments, borders, laws, bureaucratic red tape, and all sorts of stuff that must be researched and honored when we want to go somewhere. It’s a part of travel. If you want to live out of a tiny backpack, that’s awesome and I applaud your minimalist choice. But please, for the love of god, don’t be willfully ignorant of things that really matter for the sake of your “we live in a world of imagined borders” philosophy. You WILL pay for it in the end.
Now, with that lovely, albeit very heartfelt preface, let’s talk about preparation.
Determine your goals.
What do you enjoy doing? Where do you want to do it? If you’re simply looking for a drastic change, then you might not need to be so specific. Think of a place you’d like to go to and start checking out the job scene there. Where you’d like to go…hmm. Now that’s a conundrum in itself. There’s a huge world out there and a lot to choose from. It really depends on your personality, and what you’re looking for.
Find a primary source of information.
Not the ones you will find in the library for your research paper, but a person who has done what you want to do, preferably in the country you want to live in. Most everyone usually has that one friend who’s been doing crazy stuff abroad. Talk to them. If not, go through your roster of friends and see if you can find a friend of a friend who is “that guy.” They will be able to tell you just how the process works and how intensive it is. You never know, you may find an invaluable inside track or even a wealth of contacts abroad that could fast track you right into the position and country you’ve been hoping for.
Research, research, research.
1. The Country - The first thing you should look at is the place you’re considering living and working in. You may think you’ve found an awesome opportunity, but is the political/social climate worth the risk? If you’re a woman, would you be willing to endure being treated as a second-class citizen in the Middle East? What about the food? WHAT?! You can’t get booze here?! These are important things to find out BEFORE you get there.
2. The Work - Yeah, you should probably look into a few things relating to the thing you’ll be spending 20-40 hours a week doing. Definitely look for stories, both of success and horror. There are many resources online for this. For instance, if you plan on teaching English, there’s an actual blacklist of schools that have treated foreign teachers terribly after selling that cushy job so hard to them. Resources like this could potentially save you a lot of headaches.
Find an opportunity.
If you don’t already have something in mind, start searching online. It’s the solution to everything! We may have traded out a paper substrate for an electronic one, but the good old-fashioned classifieds still exist out there. Start with echinacities and ajarn for teaching English in Asia, and helpx for work stay projects all over the world. EasyExpat also carries global classifieds, job listings, and expat guides. Search these sites, but don’t limit yourself to the classifieds. It’s possible that you could find that golden opportunity simply by asking a question in the forums.
Get your papers ready.
1. On the employer’s end - At the very least, you’ll have to do an application of some sort for almost any opportunity abroad. Be quick about it, because it’s probably the first of many hurdles to come. There’s typically different stages when dealing with your potential employer or organization. First you apply, maybe sending in your CV, copy of your passport, etc. If all of that checks out, you could be interviewed. And on it goes. You will probably need to get documents from them in turn, to show to the government. Then the fun begins.
2. On the government’s end - This will depend entirely on where you’re going, what you’re doing there, and for how long. Visa applications to some countries are quick and painless. Others require a plethora of documentation - visa application, passport, invitation letter from an employer, criminal background check, fingerprints, photos, proof of funds, etc - before a long wait as all of this is processed. Read the directions carefully on the embassy website of the destination country, as well as the accounts of others who have been through the process. Double-check everything!
Once you get to a point where nothing has to be mailed or emailed, all the essentials for the journey are waiting to be packed, and you’ve been poked innumerable times to ward off scary jungle diseases, the waiting begins. You may even still be at your old job. Don’t let it get you down and keep your gaze forward. Keep researching your destination. Find a news site for it and get a feel for it’s sociopolitical pulse. Read some good travel writing to get you in the adventurous spirit. Live vicariously through others until you can do it yourself.
Throw out your expectations.
You’re going to be working in a different country, so you can’t really go there expecting the same workplace culture as in your country. You will be disappointed fairly quickly. Go there with no expectations to weigh you down and you can take the experiences as they come. Embrace some new ways of thinking and doing things, while rejecting the ones that just simply do not fit with you, for moral reasons or otherwise. It’s okay to filter; just don’t go in with a forcefield up. Culture shock is fun.