I was going to get up early, “transform my body ten minutes a day” as promised on YouTube, work, take a proper lunch break, work some more and sleep at least ten hours a night.
I was going to watch the latest movies, enjoy coffee shops in picturesque locations, and relax with a book on the beach and in public parks.
I was going to write another manuscript and relentlessly pitch my Filial Piety to publishers and literary agents.
I was going to check out a bar and a nightclub, just once, for the experience—it’s been years….
I was going to stick to a couple of cities, at most.
I was going to send Feng and Mark postcards—we don’t usually text or call each other, we’re not phone people.
Absolutely none of that happen.
If ten years ago, someone had told me that one day, I would be in Santiago doing Grade 1 French homework over Skype with my six-year-old son, I would have laughed. And yet, this is exactly what happened. I called Feng and Mark every evening. With the video, they could see where I was and I was able to help with homework, praise a completed puzzle or check out a new toy. Mark learned how to use the chat tool on Skype and I wrote him stories (he had to read them aloud as I typed) or we just goofed around with smileys and GIFs. Some nights, we chatted a lot, some nights, Mark was playing while I was working as if we were in the same room. There was no awkwardness when I came back because we had seen each other every day—in a way, I had been there all along and we knew what we had been up to.
I did lie on the grass for half an hour in Santiago’s Metropolitan Park but only after a two-hour hike to the Virgin and before taking the one-hour trail downhill, so I’m not sure it counts as a “relaxing moment.”
The only movie I saw sucked (Glass) and 90% of my caffeine consumption came from minimarket Nespresso machines.
I mostly worked in the evening and late at night, I didn’t try to find a YouTube workout, and no one in the publishing world seems to find my story interesting.
I wrote most of the blog articles between midnight and 3 a.m.—I’m not programmed to go to bed at a decent hour.
I have an excuse, though. It turned out that travelling alone is very time consuming. “Oh, really?” I can hear you snigger. “Try being at the office from 9 to 5! Add commuting during rush hour, occasional mandatory overtime, family life and chores and you’re left with just barely enough hours to sleep.”
You’re absolutely right. I’m familiar with this life as well. I just thought that alone, with a flexible schedule, I’d have tons of free time. But backpacking isn’t a vacation, it’s a lifestyle. Travelling from one place to another often takes half a day or a day and planning the next step—booking accommodation, doing research, etc. also takes hours. Keep in mind that you’re also less efficient in unfamiliar places—to go grocery shopping, you have to find the supermarket first. Finally, I’m working when I’m travelling so even though I’m spared meetings and the typical regular 9-5 schedule, I have deadlines and assignments to complete.
I didn’t complete my to-do list but I reached other goals, almost accidentally.
This trip wasn’t a waste of time.
My Spanish actually got really good. I reached a pleasant stage where I could chat easily with people and use words and slang I didn’t suspect I knew. I was learning new vocabulary without even trying and I could actually—gasp!—use proper conjugations. I’m not going to embark on a Spanish translator career but still, it’s a useful language to master.
I did read a lot, mostly fiction—I wasn’t in the mood for dark thrillers. Among my favourites were The Break, This Charming Man, The Other Side of the Story and The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes, Three Wishes, What Alice Forgot, The Husband Secret, Big Little Lies, Truly Madly Guilty and Nice Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty, The Guy Who Died Twice (novella) by Lisa Gardner), The Perfect Neighbors by Sarah Pekkanen, I Owe You by Sophie Kinsella, Le discours by Fabrice Caro, La terre des morts (a huge disappointment!) by Jean-Christophe Grangé… and I probably forgot a few.
I took many, many pictures and I wrote a new article every day. I mean, no one cares but me, yet it was a fulfilling exercise.
And overall, I felt pretty good—inspired enough, fairly relaxed, not too anxious. Not Wonder Woman or Little Miss Trouble, like two of my tank tops proclaim, but an average 35-year-old woman learning new skills and feeding her curiosity, which is good enough for me and certainly better than how I feel in Canada.
I always feel stupid in Canada. I feel like a terrible mother—the “backpacking without Mark” part probably doesn’t help my case, but I’ve been feeling guilty and inadequate since pregnancy, anyway. I feel less Canadian than anyone else and I feel less knowledgeable than Feng who has been in Canada longer than me. Mind you, I also feel stupid in France, where I more or less master the education system, language and customs but not the life skills since I left the country at 18 years old.
When I travel, I feel capable. The bar is lower, just staying alive is enough, the rest is a perk. It’s a back-to-basics experience—observe people, find food and shelter, move on. I find it relaxing that everything I need fits in my backpack, I use everything I own, and I can pack and leave in a matter of minutes. I don’t feel the social pressure, the competition, the negative effects of media and marketing.
I’m lying when I say I’m not running away. I am. I’m not running away from Feng and Mark—I travelled longer because I could and Feng didn’t want to, not because I wanted to be alone. I’m not running away from my responsibilities either, I’m still working and parenting when I’m away. But I’m running away from North American media, from consumerism, from a lifestyle I’m told I should be craving but I have zero interest in.
Sometimes, I think I’m not cut out for North America. I’m not competitive enough, I’m too subversive and I don’t care that much about money—these are unforgivable flaws. Plus, I smoke but don’t drink, love food but not the fast kind.
Everybody likes a holiday but few people actually like to travel. I happen to enjoy borrowing a country for a few days, weeks or months. Maybe it sounds weird or pointless to you, but it’s my “thing.” And after all, many of life activities can seem strange or futile from a different perspective, from athletes who train since childhood for a career that only lasts for a few years to employees making sacrifices to climb the corporate ladder when they can be fired anytime for any reason.
“How are you doing, amiga?” the laundry guy asked when I dropped off my last load the day before leaving.
I wasn’t sure whether it was a genuine question or the Spanish version of the Canadian greeting. In doubt, I opted for honesty. “Sad,” I said. “Going back to Canada tomorrow.”
“Aaaaw… but it was one hell of a trip, wasn’t it?”
There I was being cheered up by a Venezuelan immigrant who works 18 hours a day.
Wise people, Venezuelans (except, apparently, when it comes to domestic politics).
But he was right. This trip taught me something about the world and about myself. It inspired me and it made me happy.
Definitely not a waste of time.