I always thought quarter life crises were the most self indulgent first world problem of all time. And they are. But that sure as shit didn’t stop me from having one.
I'm a spontaneous person. I struggle to put off until tomorrow what can be done today. So it made perfect sense that I would fixate upon a rag-tag "I need to flee Melbourne and adventure around the world" pipedream from the moment it crossed my mind. What surprised me was my commitment to actually realising it: forsaking a fantastic job, deferring the decision-making process that comes with general "what will I be when I grow up" strategy, and becoming more than a little cavalier about my love life. Such a concentrated fixation upon an actual goal was surprising, even to me. I worked six or seven days a week when I could swing it, saved my little butt off, and peaced out of Australia in less than a year after making the decision to go.
With the arrival of my 24th birthday, I can't help but giggle at how, even factoring in the few months that I offset my predilection to act upon impulse to ensure I was comfortable enough to do this trip, I have jumped the gun. The notion of a midlife crisis is simple: we become existentially terrified we have not lived the manner in which we want and act immediately and aggressively to compensate. A quarter-life crisis is much the same: taking stock of the path upon which we are walking and orchestrating a massive pivot towards something radically different. And me, being me, started mine a year and a half earlier than the projected age. Classic Scarlett.
I'm not ashamed to admit it: quarter life crises are the bread and butter of the self-indulged, the excessively wealthy, the ones who have no greater problem than "finding themselves". I accept that judgement, with the addendum that choosing to utilise my resources in such a manner is not a negative reflection of my character. Success is different now from what it meant to our grandparents - it's not found in the staple of owning a home (in Melbourne, who the heck can afford to?), nuclear family structures are ever-modernising, and to carry a commitment to one job is not necessarily the strongest personal reflection on one's resume.
Now, employers want to know where you've gone, what you've seen. Your high-school sweetheart is the last person you'd ever want to marry. Our CVs boast the experiences we've had more so than the position descriptions we've filled. And I fucking love it.
There is an outdated assumption with protracted travel that people like me are "running away" from our problems. In my experience, those with this opinion are at least polite enough to generally not posit this suggestion to my face when I explain that home is wherever I want it to be and whenever I find it. And that's the best thing about a quarter-life crisis: you don't have to be running from anything, you just have to be openminded when it comes to doing something different. This not a defensive measure, but an active one. I love my home city, but not so much that I don't want to see all else that is out there before committing a degree of stability to it. There is nothing wrong with being comfortable, but it looked poorly on me. I was comfortable, and bored, and boring.
I didn't need a departure from home to save me, and that's exactly why it has.
I've walked through rebel-occupied towns in rural Shan state, been invited to eat lunch with Burmese people who speak not a lick of English in the shade of a golden pagoda in Bagan, been taxied across town by strangers too kind to take money for their generosity in Hpa-An, watched the sun rise on sandy beaches holding a friend's hand on Koh Phangan, nearly slipped to my death caving (Koh Lanta) and then genuinely slipped my way to a busted elbow and a cancelled diving course (Koh Tao).
I've dived off pontoons in Kampot and lived the moniker "whatever can Koh Rong will Koh Rong", slammed my latest poetry in Vancouver and started my next novel. I've partied til five in the morning in Hong Kong and left for the airport only four hours later. I've struck up friendships with American bartenders and eaten every kind of inappropriate cuisine for breakfast. I've done things Melbourne-me would be horrified by, and had no regrets at all. I've had lovers I would never have met if I had sat still and friends I'll never forget from any number of countries. I have made promises to travel companions that I would visit them when they returned to the worlds from whence they came, and followed through on it, nestling happily into couches that immediately felt like safe places and paid my way with kilos of bolognese pasta.
I've picked up language and quirks and mannerisms from those I've met on the way, rendering myself a beautifully haphazard collective of all the best parts of others. I've shifted plans, priorities, and preferences to wind up in places I never expected, and snubbed others that I'd always anticipated visiting. I've been sick and jetlagged and dehydrated and fevered and still loved every damn minute. I've reinforced ties with my amazing friends back home, and used Tinder as a proxy tour guide service because cute boys love to show off their towns to foreign girls. Every Skype call with my family is pure joy, concentrated to the force of a bullet from a gun and that sprouts flowers upon impact.
And it may seem unfair, but a life on the road has only made me happier. Every day is a personal mission to go out into the world with sharp eyes and sensitivity, and try contribute at least some small positive aspect at the culmination of the day. It's amazing to be deep in the throes of a so-called crisis, which has so much flak loaded upon it... and yet, I feel no pangs of distress whatsoever. In fact, I feel more like me than I have in years.
Today is my twenty-fourth birthday.
I am in Portland, Oregon, with a heart inflated with happiness and a body that no longer shivers in 25-celcuis sunshine from withdrawals from the humidity and pollution of Asia. My desires are more of a shifting concept; amazing opportunities emerge from the ether every day. And it's hard to reconcile the notion of a what I am doing with free-falling through the great unknown, with the wind rippling in protest around my form. My adventures are unstructured and unplanned and impulsive, but not reckless or self-destructive.
I may be deep in the throes of a quarter-life crisis, but to my mind, it feels more like self-actualisation.
Racism has become an immensely troublesome subject to tackle of late, with the Charleston shooting and Rachel Dolezal appropriating a black culture to which she doesn't belong and so many, many white commentators telling people of colour how they should feel about their ethnic origins.
There is nothing more obnoxious than a person who has not lived the experience of racial discrimination telling someone else what is and is not racist. When it comes to oppression and prejudice, two terms which have become repeated so often in mainstream media that some people have conflated them with "gratuitous martyrdom", I have but one belief: as a white-cast Italian-Maltese-Australian woman, it is not my goddamn place to tell people they don't qualify for "feeling oppressed." Instead, I have cast aside judgement, and made it my mission to listen and understand why, rather than scrabbling for justifications as to why not. And I have learned.
Every single day during my travels around the world, I am finding myself humbled and awed by both the diversity and commonality of human experience. All people have basic similarities that transcend identity, race, geographic location, gender, or sexual orientation: we value happiness, and dignity, and community, in whatever form that may take.
But the chains that connect all people can carry the great weight of humanity's flaws, also. Opportunism is one example. Greed is another. Selfishness, to a degree, exists within us all. But the most disappointing baseline upon which all humans seem to function has, for me, been proven to be racism.
People have always been tribal in nature; it comes back to our deep need for interpersonal relationships in the form of community. To feel like we belong somewhere and with some people is to mandate places where we do not belong, and people with whom we do not relate. And so racism is an international constant.
In Myanmar, even the oppressed ethnic minorities have little compassion for the Rohingya people. In Hong Kong, a peculiar social hierarchy exists in which expats trump locals, who in turn are superior to the Filipino domestic servants, who in turn denigrate the Indonesian domestic servants... and somewhere beyond this microcosm of racial ranking, there is an overarching contempt for the "mainlanders" who hail from China proper. In Canada, the persecution of First Nations people is in the slow, tenuous process of atonement from government and general population alike, but the loathing of Chinese economic migrants remains scathing in the extreme. And always, regardless of minority, there is the same refrain: "They don't have it so bad. They're just playing the oppression card." As if anyone finds empowerment in being pitied, prostrating themselves before others to proclaim, "I am a victim."
And the examples that I have witnessed are just a few amongst dozens and hundreds and thousands of ethnic groups and nations and statehoods and personhoods of places I have been, have not, will, and will not. And it breaks my goddamn heart.
So instead of blindly following the casual tribalistic patterns that have become so ingrained in the human psyche, I am making a conscious decision to call out (politely) any such casual racism. Because it is confronting to hear someone slam Vancouver as "Hongcouver", just as it is to see the greater Australasia region effectively spit in the dirt at the mention of the Rohingya people, fleeing genocide. And I am finding it harder and harder to discern a context in which the word "assimilate" is not as loaded as a chambered bullet.
To those I meet along the way: forgive me if my "naive foreigner" gambit becomes prying. But as someone who comes not from the communities who are kindly allowing me entrance, I do not intuitively recognise who are the "haves" and who are the "have nots" until I am told - because that is the only way these groups are determined at all, is it not? So I will ask questions that may be uncomfortable to answer. Questions like: "Why would you say that about this race? Can you explain this stereotype to me?".
And if the answer fails to satisfy... well then, you will know what my face looks like when equal parts bemused and confused as I remark, "Wow. That's straight-up racist."
And I hope that this label, not so dissimilar to those that you have bandied about so wantonly in stereotyping others, inspires you to take pause and ruminate upon the venom you have burbled. I want to help bring compassion and acceptance to the fore.
And so I will comfortably trot out my ignorance... in the hopes of curtailing yours.
No, you didn’t read that wrong.
Sure, there are asterixes that must be factored into such a declarative statement. But when all is said and done, no asterix invalidates the convenience of hauling oneself across time zones and countries with only hand luggage. I have become the most enthusiastic advocate for travelling light. There’s something immeasurably satisfying in condensing an entire life down to the essentials. No stiff shoulders from hunching under the burden of an enormous pack, overencumbered like an Elder Scrolls character. No “what if they lose my baggage?” panic attacks at the airport baggage claim. No separation anxiety for a long and rickety bus ride across rural India as your bag is stowed out of sight, and unsecured. If the latter example sounds somewhat bitter, it’s probably because I am.
I’m a peculiar traveller: equal parts whimsically avoidant of anything resembling commitment, and utterly Type A. I like to be organised, schooled up on where I'm going, and have my affairs in order before I land. Departing Australia indefinitely comes with its own benefits, one of which is definitely the freedom that comes with no defined return date, and thus, no obligations. Spontaneity is what I'm all about.
I don't much like to have my hostels booked in advance, or exact lengths of time in one place mapped out day-by-day. Packaged tours are my idea of a perfect hell and I’d rather check out and back into one venue a dozen individual times than risk feeling locked into a commitment on the road. Travelling carry-on only frees up my energy to duck and weave as I please, both physically and psychologically. But I'll know how to say "please" and "thank you" in the local language before I land. I'll know a bit about the country's history. I'll have my vaccinations sorted and made sure my First Aid kit is bulging at the sides.
No surprise, then, that I researched the everloving heck out of every potential bit of gear to bring with me. The Travel Fashion Girl packing lists were sublimely motivational in my decision to commit – because let’s be frank, it is a commitment – to minimalistic packing. I packed and repacked too many times to count, assessing the value of each individual item before I would permit myself to hold onto it. The old travel mantra of “pack half as much stuff and bring twice as much money” has never been interpreted so literally.
I booked the cheapest possible flight through arguably the most stringent Australian airline when it comes to weighing bags meticulously, and penalising overpackers with a measured, indifferent brutality that makes the experience sting just that little bit more.
Jetstar, like Ryanair, does not suffer optimists lightly. The measurements of a bag must not exceed 56cm x 36cm x 23cm. The weight is seven kilograms. Seven.
So, in lieu of being irritated, I rolled with it. Admittedly, the final weigh-in of my bag did see the weight run slightly over, but I made peace with sacrificing dignity for the principle. I was fully prepared to histrionically latch all my bras over my clothing if the poor attendant at the check-in desk gave me a hard time. This would likely not have made much difference to the final weight, but that's not so much the point by that stage. Then, it's only about ensuring you don't balk.
I plumped for Travel Fashion Girl’s enthusiastically endorsed backpack of choice: the Osprey Farpoint. However, rather than sticking to her modest 40L, I plumped for the 55L (sized for Small-Medium physiques, as the bag comes with two options). The additional 15L is comprised of a day pack that can be latched to the bag’s front, with a cushioned, in-built laptop sleeve. This alone renders the 55L pretty much the mecca of everything an author on the road needs for peace of mind.
But Scarlett, I hear you ask, Doesn’t the attached day pack throw your dimensions out, given all pieces of hand luggage are measured together?
You’re not wrong. But the inside of the 40L has nifty little straps that allow me to strap the daypack into place, provided it’s not bloated with anything bulky.
Thus far, I am absolutely besotted with the Farpoint. The usability is perfect for my needs. Its compartments at the inner front of the bag allow me to roll and squeeze essentially all of my clothing into the space, leaving the main bag perfect for stowing away electronics, toiletries, and my bulky but ultimately necessary hiking/running hybrid shoes.
So, with the logistics of the bag out of the way, what does one take when they only have seven(ish) kilograms of stuff?
My packing list is as follows:
I have broken the Travel Fashion Girl rule about “colour stories”, which dictates that clothes should be symbiotic in colour and texture so they can be mixed and matched. But even domestically, I'm a huge proponent of power clashing, so that was never going to be something I could pull off.
Whilst carrying only one of any garment is a risky decision, I have found that mixing and matching individual garments has saved me a world of hassle. The only item I refuse to skimp on is underwear, and justifiably so: whilst wearing a smelly or stained shirt when desperate is necessary, recycling underwear has its own health and hygiene risks. It's simply not worth the squeamishness, regardless of what judgemental "authentic travelling" statements tumble from the lips of that one bearded white fella everyone seems to know. You know the one. Who’s lost a couple of months in rural Laos and thus sees himself as not an expat, not a local, but definitely not a tourist. Gag.
Electronics have undoubtedly been where the bulk of my baggage weight has been attributed. For a solo traveller, a selfie stick is more than a marketing gimmick; it’s a necessity that I will justify until the end of time. It's foolish to entrust an expensive camera with a stranger who reluctantly agrees to snap an awkward photo in front of something picturesque. The exchange is rendered all the more uncomfortable given the omnipresent fear that perhaps the one person we have chosen will be morally dubious enough to run away with it. I purchased a GoPro specifically for this trip. This was done for two reasons:
My iPhone has been a godsend, particularly in Thailand where SIM cards with 4G access put my own Telstra reception back home to shame. Leaving my Macbook Air behind was never an option that I considered. I can’t write books on a phone or an eReader, and more to the point, it's my portable safe place for when I feel the need to create something. Without it, I’d likely become a bundle of anxiety in no time.
I couldn't justify the weight of an external hard drive, but perhaps that's because I’m still salty over my last one accidentally breaking in my suitcase during my last trip abroad. Instead, I have a modest 8 gigabyte USB. Then, of course, come the chargers for each individual appliance. One adaptor is sufficient for my needs. When the time comes to leave Asia, I'll pay it forward for another tourist to use.
Toiletries are less heavy than irritatingly bulky. On the upside, I find myself becoming increasingly diligent in taking my medications on schedule, because I want the bottomless sack to eventually thin out. For a trip of my length, sickness is inevitable, and so having the right medicines handy is a must. But that didn’t stop me from writing out a cheat sheet listing purposes and dosages for each item, so I could throw out the bulky boxes in which they came.
A small kitbag with a miniature hairbrush, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask and earplugs is kept separate from my toiletries bag for easy access, and portability into hostel bathrooms. Whilst I doubt a scheming fiend would have much interest in swiping my Travacalm, it never hurts to be too careful, and if this bag is stolen, what of it? The highest-value item they've scored is a toothbrush.
I haven't had to use my dry bag for its original purpose yet, but it's been handy for storing dirty laundry. I don’t love that it traps air if I don't seal it just so, but that really says more about my technique than anything else.
I have a little handbag, purchased at an Op Shop in the days immediately preceding my departure. I've used it daily when out and about, and I love that I can have access to a little bit of cash, my phone, sunglasses, and my GoPro easily. Whilst I love the Osprey daypack, it demands a permanent lock affixed to all zips, or that I constantly watch my back as I walk. Never a fun feeling.
There are a few things I opted not to bring that I don’t regret – sunscreen being one of them. My sensitive skin freaks out at conventional formulations but Asian skincare is generally geared for a market of faces as sensitive as my own. I picked up a Biore 50+++ PA bottle for a couple of dollars. I also purchased some citronella spray that has been decent for keeping mosquitos away.
There are things that would have been nice to bring, but I haven’t needed them thus far. I’d love to have a dress or two, my Converse high-tops, a few more shirts, and a pair of jeans… but those are things I can pick up from the road if I ever truly feel the need to get them. I do wish I had a second pair of shorts, because they're my most comfortable thing to wear and with all my pants and skirts being washed on laundry day, I'm obligated to swan around in a dress that, too, should probably be washed.
If you asked me in all honesty whether travelling carry-on only is worth it, I wouldn't hesitate to endorse it. I’d rather buy not one single item more than I already have if it means I can move with this ease forever.
Travel is not just a word.
Travel is a sensation. An expression. An admonition. And emotion. Travel is "can't get enough" and "it's all too much" and "where can I go next?" and "do I have to come back?".
Travel is walking on cobblestones at three in the morning and singing pirate shanties on a boat and hostel beds squeaking. Despite our attempts to outpace the urge by hopping a plane somewhere proximal for a short stint, travel is, like an empty stomach, not fooled by insubstantiality. It is not sated by the relentless chewing of gum, or a cup of black tea.
Adventuring, trying new food, sitting in that uncomfortable vulnerability where you don’t speak the language that surrounds, but even so, manage to find ways to get by. I could praise the glories of travel all day long. But I don’t. Not because there's nothing to say, and not because other people aren't interested in the subject. I do not talk about travel because I have no tolerance for so-called "aficionados" who see any mention of elsewhere as an invitation to compete as to whom does personal displacement best.
I could think of many worse things to be than a travel writer, but I suspect there's a dearth of romance in the role when, regardless of the platform, your musings incite an explosion of opinion in the comments section. Travel capability is one of the few qualities that cannot be externally classified or ranked, and so everyone who has ever slept in a tent feels qualified to judge. Some people relish contradicting the opinion of the one person as close to an expert as one gets - the guy who's paid to know this stuff. You know the kind. The ones who turn their nose up at guidebooks and package tours.
If the people who comment on travel blogs were a song line, they'd be this one from Fergalicious: “I’m so 2008, you’re so two thousand and late”. Resist the urge to follow the tangent wherein we acknowledge that this lyric became obsolete almost as quickly as Fergie’s career, and instead consider the last time you talked about a holiday with a friend or acquaintance. Did they nod as you detailed your accommodation, but with a subtle curl of the lip that implied they would never stay there? Did they ask about the sights you saw and then ask which “less touristy” experiences you indulged in? Did they eventually forego all pretence of interest to lapse into a story of their similar, though subtly-alluded-to superior, experience in that same place, somewhere like it, or doing something the polar opposite of your trip?
I'm calling it. The prevalence of one-upsmanship is the biggest blight of travel.
I’ve poked fun on this blog before at a unit I studied, during undergrad, entitled “The Idea of Travel”. But jokes aside, that class was sensational. If only because I got to do battle with pretentious pseudo-vagabonds on a weekly basis. And that's not to toot my own horn as somehow "wiser" than anybody else. Honestly, it was mostly because I’m very, very good at arguing. I took great pleasure in smacking down the elitist attitudes of a collective of white kids in their early twenties who used cultural relativism as an excuse to riff on how "Indian people really know the simplicity of not needing lots of material possessions, they find happiness within", only to show you the proof via an iPhone photoreel. I have no patience for those who consider culture to be snapping selfies in Delhi slums by day, posing with locals as if a grin can negate any form of human suffering, only to flick over to a montage of them smashing cocktails in Colonialist resort bars by night in the next moment.
On one occasion, I (and the tutor, in that sly way they do when they’re trying not to look like they have a stance) tried to convince a 25-person tutorial group that there is no damn difference between being a “tourist” and a “traveller”, aside from those who ascribe to the latter title being certifiably more obnoxious. That conversation became the go-to battle every week thereafter, amongst a myriad of other arbitrary rules of what "travelling correctly” resembled. I left the course more sure than ever that I would not play geographical monopoly, or compete over how many countries I could see in the shortest amount of time, or reel off the dialect of the locals in some tiny slice of somewhere to verify my experience as somehow more authentic than the next person's.
I loathe "travellers", and all of their faux worldliness, but damn if I don’t love travel.
So I’ve decided to do it.
As I do with most things in life, I am leaping headfirst into open water and hoping I don’t break my neck on impact. After years of devouring short tasters in South-East Asian hubs or gentrified islands across the Pacific, I am taking the plunge in earnest.
All of the trips I have ever wanted to take. Back to back, and all at once. Around the world, baby. Alone. Indefinite length. Every inhabited continent. Eating my savings. Writing from the road. Embracing the commitment-phobic, experience-hungry wild child within.
It’s an expensive way to try one's hand at personal growth, so praise the skies that I’m going with no expectation of coming back a better person.
I’ve been fantasising about an Around the World trip for quite some time, but have largely kept mum about it. People are either encouraging but skeptical, quick to warn me of the dangers of being a solo female traveller, or urge me to justify why I'm so ungrateful for all I have going here that I want to leave. It’s hard to defend something that is both extremely vague and somewhat radical. I have no itinerary, no timings but for “get to the USA sometime near midyear in order to spend the American summer hanging out with my penpal”. I am biting off an enormous chunk of ambition with any chance that I may choke, but that’s the kind of trip I want. I don't need to stay away forever, meet the love of my life in some exotic country, or be so frugal I actually come back to Australia richer. I'm rough and tumble on the road generally, but I have no aversion to being kind to myself, so as to avoid all the macho bullshit about being a world-hardened "traveller". If I'm feeling burned out, I see no issue with checking myself into a resort or two along the way, or flying an hour instead of taking an 26-hour, overnight bus ride on a seat that hasn’t been adequately bolted to the floor (and if that sounds a little too specific and bitter to be a randomly-selected metaphor, that’s because I’ve already lived that experience. Do not recommend.)
The decision comes with waves of impostor syndrome. I keep asking myself: “Am I really allowed to just go and do this? Just book a ticket, choose a date, and not have someone talk me out of it?”. Freedom to do anything you want, especially with no job, tenancy or boyfriend to curtail that, is even more weighted with responsibility by virtue of its lack of limitation. If my plan goes tits-up, or I have some urgent need to come home after only a month, or somehow find myself in danger, the consequences are my own. There is no "other" to hide behind, and whatever happens is all on me for leaving somewhere intuitive to my soul, with streets I could walk blindfolded and still have them feel safe. But I can't accept the fear of something indeterminate as enough reason to stay. If I remain in my beautiful, funky, friend-filled city much longer, I’ll find an excuse not to go. And so that, in itself, has become my reason.
I’ve quit my job. I’ve broken the news to my family. I’ve dodged commitment to both cute boys and cute rental properties. The difficulty of each and every one of those decisions could easily merit their own individual blog posts. It's an immense test to one's resolve to forego something exciting in the moment, in pursuit of something intangible that can be found in the future. But those hurdles have been cleared, allowing me to direct my gaze forward.
I’m departing in February of 2015, with nothing but a carry-on backpack and a crooked grin. I will weave my way around every inhabited continent, and stop in to see beloved friends who have been scattered to the winds on my way. I’ve even written a “to do” list to bolster my enthusiasm and inspire me to move on the days that I will inevitably feel sluggish or homesick.
My only purpose between now and when my first plane peels from the tarmac is to enjoy the company of my friends whilst I can, perform the first poem I've ever managed to memorise, and eat at all my favourite haunts before I go. After all, what's more "Melbourne" than surrounding oneself with loving companions, art & culture, and sensational food, before leaving all the above indefinitely?
Friends: Wish me luck.
World: Watch out. I'm coming for you.
The "Please Don't Die in Pursuit of Adventure" List
1. Locate the Burmese Punk Scene, and get amongst it.
2. Ride the Trans-Mongolian railway, and explore rural Mongolia on the way through by horseback.
3. Perform poetry at an open mic night in New Orleans or San Francisco.
4. Break into an abandoned Japanese theme park. After all, what’s the point of an Australian Embassy if they have no cheeky rascals to keep them on their toes?
5. Get my first (and likely, only) tattoo from my favourite tattoo artist in the world, based in Florida.
6. Determine the most ethical way in which to spend time in a Kareni refugee camp without becoming a voluntourist, and do that.
7. Live in Berlin for as long as it takes to write a novel.
8. Sleep in a gir in the Moroccan Sahara Desert.
9. Change travel plans at the last minute, and wind up in a country I haven't planned for.
10. Eat as much steak as an Argentinean dining companion in one sitting.
11. Learn the nuances of the newly-formed countries of the former Yugoslavia by visiting them all. (Added benefit: can thereafter clutch my pearls when people generalise about the region. /s. The /s is to indicate sarcasm.)
12. Become Open Water Scuba Certified. Country undetermined. Recommendations welcome.
13. Blast "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" as I meander through New England.
14. Don't get into too much trouble, but get into enough to keep things interesting.
The urge to travel is back again. It rears its head inside my stomach and rumbles its discontent at my contentedness with life. It goads me into the clutches of overexcited possibility, a tempestuous lover whom I have been trying to responsibly manage.
The hunger asks: "What if?"
What if, indeed.
I've made peace with the fact that my privileged passion for travel is, most likely, a chronic condition. Every few months for the rest of my life, I will want to grab my laptop for writing (and not much else), and hotfoot it to the airport. The hunger seeps into my spirit in stages, a trickling list of symptoms that amass slowly, ever slowly. As if it is approaching an unpredictable animal that may bark or bite in response to a gentle stroke. It proceeds with caution for fear of startling me half to death with the suggestion of another inter-border disappearing act. Travel is invigorating and terrifying. Perhaps that's why I never know whether to be excited or exasperated when the need to move sinks its claws into me again.
Treatment is straightforward, but difficult. I can push the hunger down with a promise to myself that I will take the trip that tempts me so, but only after I've seen out my current commitments. I grant myself an approximate date without really intending to see it through, and with a pat on the back, I get on with my day. The hunger doesn't like that. That's when the symptoms start. My alternative option, if I'm being mindful that all the ways I tell myself "no" are negotiable, is give in quickly and painlessly. To book something, anything.
I try to live my life by the responsible edicts of option one. But all the while, option two becomes more alluring.
The first symptom is, on its face, innocent. That's how the hunger starts. Not as a deep gnawing pain, but the mere flicker of curiosity. I start to wonder about the cost of flights. Not for one specific destination, but anywhere. I justify it to myself as a mere interest in the value of the Australian dollar. I never even realise at the time that I'm lying. That's how insidious the urge is.
I open up Skyscanner and click my two favourite words: "Destination Anywhere". Then I let my mind wander as I scroll through all the countries I could visit. I never jot down actual costs to fly to any destination. After all, if I did that, it would almost be like I was planning something. And I'm not. I'm just curious.
The next symptom is to casually bring up up past travels in conversations with people. I talk about the places I've seen as if I've "done" the travel thing, and also innocently want to chat to other people who have also "done" it. Like I'm sixty years old, twisting my moustache as I smoke a pipe in a Masonic Lodge with my peers and reflecting on a life I once lived. But the places that my friends have been are interesting. Intriguing. I have not been to those places before, but they sound wonderful. And then it happens. I foolishly ruminate aloud on how I should go to that location next. Next.
The third symptom is when I can start to feel myself sliding down a hill, gaining momentum. Travel blogs start to appear in my browser, almost as I hadn't keyed the domain addresses in myself. I convince myself that, after ample research, I will no longer have much interest in the destinations that I have discussed with my peers. But travel blogs do not eradicate the hunger, which has started to make me squirm to accommodate its presence. Instead, I start subbing out the original destinations I had contemplated for other locations. I am making improvements.
The fourth symptom is when I realise that it will be nigh on impossible to turn back. I weave a trail across a map of the many destinations I should like to see. I am plotting an itinerary, or two, or ten. After all, the world is a big place. The plans are always overambitious, time-poor and fiscally irresponsible. Then again, so am I.
I cobble together a plan so extensive that to undertake it comfortably, I would need a year or two of my time, and a willingness to eat an enormous chunk of my savings. Despite my overanalytical, logitcal mind, I disregard these hiccups. I am young. When I decide to go, there will be time and money. No adventure comes without risk.
I start to research ways to move efficiently. I rule out taking anything larger than a carry-on backpack. I learn of pocketed underwear in which one can store funds, and can also be conveniently condensed into its own pocket to save space. I map out generalised timelines, trying to determine which routes would grant me a year of springtime and summer. But I commit to nothing. These are just ideas. Fantasies. I'm not capable of exploring every continent that isn't Antarctica before even hitting my mid-twenties. It's insane. I'd be biting off more than I could chew.
... Wouldn't I?
The fifth symptom is to casually mention these logistics to friends and peers. It's a last-ditch effort to have someone talk me out of an insane whim, to chide me for not appreciating the stability and happiness I currently experience daily in my wonderful life. I want to be guilted and have my privilege checked. I want to be reprimanded for wanting to sacrifice a comfortable bed, a loving home, and professional satisfaction, in order to go rogue. But this is Australia, where adventure runs through the veins of its people. So instead, I am told, "That sounds like a trip only you would do. Go for it. And don't die."
These are the magic words. It's all over.
Final symptom: Reckless commitment. I set a date by virtue of booking a plane ticket. Sometimes I'm cautious, and book it for several months away in case I change my mind. I have never cancelled a flight due to a changed mind yet. Maybe the trip is just a weekend interstate, a mere dipping-in of the toes to assuage the hunger without even needing to touch my annual leave. Maybe it's a seven-month trip slated for the day after I turn twenty years old and think I know more of the world than I do. Either way, I am all in.
I ask myself inwardly whether I'm making a huge mistake. My subconscious shrugs, completely wearied of my antics. The hunger, finally satiated, purrs.
It sounds so pretty when it purrs.
Being an ethical consumer is just about impossible in this day and age. It doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course, but there is an undeniable drive for international powerhouses to lock into an economical "race to the bottom", a term I have come to loathe after an exceedingly dry International Studies class in first year. As such, it's hard to determine which brands, of the hundreds we passively consume weekly, are doing right in a globalised world.
Google's modus operandi has always been "do no evil". Whilst it seems a peculiar tagline for a business that exists predominantly for people to remember for the title of a movie they watched a few months ago by keying in the premise, it's an admirable one. Because there are hordes of big businesses out in the world that, despite their fluffy, feel-good branding, are actively doing harm.
Before I put anyone offside by this statement, I would like to iterate that I am not averse to capitalism, big business, or aggressive economical management. I work, I pay taxes, and I'm proud that as a consumer my needs are met by a system that works very bloody hard to sell me products I might actually like. Whilst it occasionally freaks me out that Facebook advertisements are basically sentient to my needs now (seriously, keep suggesting EVERY kind of beef jerky to me), I'll be honest, I'm a fan of technology trying to personalise its pitch to me. Now if Pirate Bay could just stop trying to convince me to meet hot singles in my area, I'd be in technological heaven.
(Oh, and if my ISP is reading this, I don't know how to computer. I thought Pirate Bay was just a wacky new extension of the Neopets world. I read detailed plot synopses about the new episodes of Game of Thrones so I can save up my money to purchase all the episodes at the end of the seasonal run from Foxtel. Now that's a company that clearly knows that its market will wait for a premium product. Chortle.)
But insofar as "do no evil" goes, Google is basically a lone beacon of virtue standing in a cesspool. Because most of the "best" brands do a metric fuckton of evil. And this is where the dissonance of the ethical boycott comes in.
I have never owned a pair of Nike shoes. They epitomise to me everything that is wrong with cheaply-made, tacky, overpriced products borne of human suffering. When I was eight or nine years old, I saw Craig Kielburger, the founder of Free the Children, speak about the horrors that went on in Nike's sweatshops. I couldn't fathom how someone needed to fight so hard to bring basic human rights to others. After that speech, I settled privately into my own personal boycott. But the reason I do so is not, admittedly, 100% pure organic, free-range, grass-fed altruism.
I'm going to lay down a harsh truth right now: The main reason people boycott a product or service is because there is such a litany of alternative products, they don't really have to sacrifice anything.
It's not hard for me to maintain my Nike boycott, nor any of the many others I maintain. Diamonds, BP petrol, the Pancake Parlour, canned tuna, and flake at the fish and chip store. These are all causes that I have, for years on end, happily boycotted without a second thought, for a litany of the reasons. In the case of Nike, I can readily snub its wares because Nike products are shit.
But if I'm being frank, it would be far harder to boycott Nike if their products were even remotely appealing to me. Such is the case with all products I veto. It's hard to say "no", over and over again, to something we really, really want.
This is a discomfort I sit with regularly, because arguably the worst of all companies when it comes to human rights abuse and sneaky exploitation of developing nations is not the one we expect. Imagine the following products as the financial backbone of a malignant, evil empire: Milo. Nespresso coffee, with George Clooney's smug face slapped all over it. Perrier water. Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Oreo cookies. Musashi protein powder. Maggi two-minute noodles. Milky bars. Kit Kats. Friskies cat food. Violet Crumble.
Yep. The most evil company in the world is Nestle.
Noxious, wicked Nestle boasts twelve separate scandals under the "Controversy" subheading on its Wikipedia page, including (but not limited to) child slavery, melamine poisoning in China, fiscal trading with Mugabe, misinformation about milk formula's nutritional benefits over breastmilk that saw babies die of malnutrition in Africa, and statements from its CEO saying, and I quote, "free water is a privilege, not a right."
If Nike is a nasty, exploitative company that deserves my boycott, Nestle deserves it just as much, and more.
So why aren't I boycotting Nestle with the same impetuousness?
Short answer: because it's just too damn hard. As an owning company, it's just too pervasive in the foods I eat and products I buy for me to consciously abstain effectively. Hell, they even own the controlling shares of L'oreal, Maybelleine and other beauty brands. And that's just one company or thousands that deserve my principled outrage.
Where the line is drawn is so subjective. Everyone has their own opinions on how other people "should" ethically consume. One person might advise me to change banks because mine is owned by the Rockefeller family. Another will caution others away from pet stores, because it's better to rescue a pet than perpetuate the puppy farming industry. Another might think bigger, and urge for vegetarianism, or veganism. And they'd all be right, in their own way. But it's not feasible to do them all, all the time.
I admit my own dissonance freely when it comes to a boycotting a product. I make the decision to abstain from contributing financially to a company by considering two separate factors. The first is always because I ethically believe that the company should not be supported with my money. The second depends upon whether to veto this product is, personally, convenient for my lifestyle. Sad, but true.
To elaborate on the above examples of my current boycotts:
I don't buy diamonds because it's virtually impossible to be certain that any stone is truly conflict-free, and it has been proven time and time again that these products are duplicitously inflated in pricing. But on a personal level, I have a much grander preference for coloured stones. Added perk: if some fool ever decides he likes me enough to put a ring on it, he can fish said ring from a bargain bin.
BP Petrol has leaked thousands of litres of oil into the ocean and refused to take responsibility for the clean-up efforts. Legitimate reason to snub them. Even easier to do when I have five different brands of petrol station within a five-kilometre radius of my front door.
The Pancake Parlour is owned by Scientologists, and they own a homophobic, discriminatory "fun park" out Ballarat way that has turned away marriage equality groups because they're bigoted. Also, food at the Pancake Parlour is terrible and overpriced.
Tuna and gummy shark are both overfished, and are teetering a little too close for comfort to the brink of extinction. Easy enough to substitute for some other, more plentiful, fish. Even easier in the case of tuna... because I can't bring myself to like the taste, even a little.
But as much as I love a cheeky boycott that requires me to only ever moderately make an effort, it does leave me in a conflicted space.
My dream is to next year go to Thailand and work in a particular camp that houses refugees from Burma/Myanmar. I want to go not as a voluntourist, which is a fascinating and brutal debate in and of itself, but as someone living in the same conditions, doing the same work as everyone else, and perhaps one day gaining enough experience to see me do the same with displaced people in the Middle East.
I care about the plight of refugees to an almost obnoxious degree, but I don't pretend to know much about the plights of different diasporic spreads in different regions. Kareni people are not the same people as those displaced by the Balkans conflicts, and they are, in turn, not Palestinian people. But to learn about the differences and similarities in person... wow!
However (ah, the dreaded however!) it is proving really, really bloody hard to establish whether it is a net good or net evil to travel to Burma/Myanmar, which is something I've always wanted to do. Anonymous strangers on travel forums wholeheartedly endorse tourism to the country, provided one spends their money with vendors that aren't government-controlled. Others say nay, because ultimately a tourist's presence endangers the people they meet, and money eventually trickles back to enabling an economy controlled by a military junta that forces its people into work camps.
I wouldn't travel to North Korea just for thrills, when it is becoming increasingly common knowledge that crimes against humanity are happening deep within its borders that resoundingly echo the Holocaust.
So would my going to Burma/Myanmar be like taking a holiday in Cambodia, in a "boost the economy" sense, or would it be like taking a Holiday in Cambodia, in the Dead Kennedys sense?
I wish I had the faintest idea, because Burma ranks high on my fantasy travel itinerary... along with a myriad of other dangerous countries that make my loved ones figuratively clutch their pearls.
If you have the faintest idea where, on this grey-scale of "OK" and "NOT OK" a cheeky sojourn through Burma/Myanmar falls, let me know. I can pack a suitcase mighty fast these days. Just don't ask me whether the company that stitched the damn thing is ethical or not.
A peer from University turned to me at the tail end of my degree and asked me why she never saw me in any of the core Biomedical Science units. When I snorted with laughter, and explained that my degree was Global Arts, and am profoundly unskilled in the ways of extrapolating data from the prodding of poor little lab mice, she was shocked.
"There's no way you studied Arts," she gaped. I doubt she even knew she did it, but she uttered the title of my degree with an inadvertent curl of the lip, and a curious gaze, as if I had a second head that she had not, until that moment, ever properly noticed before. The emphasis said it all; indicating the clicking-over of every nub in the cogs if her mind.
I can't say I blame her for being surprised. I'm not offended by the implied elitism of a peer who has structured three years around hardcore microbiological science, particularly in contrast to some of my more creative, but less analytical units. I could pass for a left-brain learner, if you didn't spend too much time with me. All of my closest friends in undergrad studied Biomed, or Science, or Psychology. I had a key to the Biomed Society Office, and ran the Activities portfolio for two years in a row. Once someone gets me to talking about the so-called "legitimacy" of the autism-vaccines link hoax, I can argue about due scientific process until my opposition has been backed into a corner, cowering against the onslaught of my rage. I could pass for a Science student, until someone hands me a test tube and expects me to do... whatever people do with test tubes.
As a recent graduate, I didn't have much time to plot out the definitive arc of my future. Given I am prone to overexcitement about things in the distant future, and race through the days of anticipation like an overclocked wind-up toy, perhaps the lack of forethought was a good thing. I had decided on a career path, and a Masters by coursework was going to get me there, and I was going to use that leverage to ease myself into a swanky government job. With all of the responsible stuff out of the way, I'd be a hobbyist author who never needed to starve in order to create.
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men. (Warning: if you're not familiar with the term, maybe don't try reading Steinbeck as an introduction. You will feel feelings you have never felt before, and most of them will overlap with soul-crushing anguish.) But a bit of feedback on my penultimate undergrad assignment threw a spanner in the works: "I seriously hope you're considering Honours." My best-laid plans went awry. They went awry hard.
The notion of Honours had almost always made me want to gag. Intensive research, heavy self-directed learning, no exciting coursework options where a diverse spread of great minds explain the nuances in their logic... I have tried to create a witty denigration of the concept, like "Chlorophyll, more like bore-ophyll!" but the best I could craft with was "Honours; more like Horrors." Insert bah-dum-tish at your leisure.
There was a different factor, however. Something I had been bullishly trying to ignore: the prestige. Not many people can so easily stroll into Honours. Before I knew it, I had two offers sitting in my email inbox, smiling malevolently: the invitation to undeetake my Masters, staring at me with puppydog eyes in the hopes I would not abandon it, and the offer for Honours, wearing a shit-eating grin that said, without saying "It was always going to be me, baby." So I abandoned the former in favour of the latter, and lost my meagre 3 weeks of holidays chasing up supervisors, course advisors, and spitballing thesis ideas. "After all," I told friends and family, "A thesis is only 18,000 words. Even multiplied four times, that's still less than my first novel." (Don't worry, I used a calculator.)
About a week from commencement, I became overwhelmed and realised that, given my severe weakness for not being able to put off until tomorrow what responsibility suggests I should do today, I was saddling myself up for an arduous, painful tilt. There would be backbreaking loads of research, a forfeiture of all my spare time to write, an inability to make time for fiction writing, and all for a career path that was okay, but not necessarily my true passion.
Some people have a natural gift to do one thing, with perfection. I am not one of those people. I'm impulsive and showy and everything is my all-time-favourite-thing, if only for twenty minutes. And a year of research for something I felt lukewarm about, at best? Well, you can see what inspired me to run from that commitment with nary a backwards glance before I fell in too deep.
I deferred the Honours program with the expectation that I may come back in a year, but my indecision about my future tainted my ability every look forward to it. I began a full-time job. I started at entry level, and was promoted twice in the span of a year. I was immediately besotted with the variety, the challenge that comes with my work never being the same two days in a row, the solidarity of my colleagues, the support, the room for growth, and that's before even considering the cashola.
But I'm a lifelong learner. I'm always hunting for some adventure. And just because I'm comfortable, it doesn't mean I'm done. I've merely delayed the question of what I want to do when I grow up for another day.
Career and academic options have crossed my mind, and I have dutifully disregarded them soon after. I've contemplated investigative journalism... but have, alas, become more and more jaded about committing to graduate studies in a bloated industry as the media monopoly throttles the most interesting parts of journalistic debate in Australia. I researched a journalism internship in Ghana, and it continues to cheep in the back of my mind, imploring me to do something risky. But I fear that this is merely the new branch of volountourism, where rich white kids go to somewhere "poor" and pose with turtles, poor kids, and other colonial clichés. I am wary of any program that will admit somebody with no prerequisite but for the few thousand dollars it would cost to go. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that, but it does beg the question as to what prerequisites these "global experience too-good-to-be-true" organisations do have.
There's always the option to undertake a degree in some realm of creative writing. But even I am enough of a realist to know a bad investment in my future when I see one. This is not to disparage on anyone whose career path has been moulded in this manner, bur rather to acknowledge my own shortcomings. The fact of the matter is that the book industry is discouraging at best, impenetrable at most brutally honest. There's nothing there for me. Editing and publishing are nice ideas, but in practice, I would tire quickly of reading the work of others in perpetual pursuit of grammatical errors and failure/ My sympathy threshold is too low to read a crappy manuscript without writhing in discomfort for its author. I can't study the hard and fast rules of writing without losing my lust for it. I'm not a formulaic person, for better or worse, and to have to nitpick every beautiful, perfect Oxford comma out of existence in somebody else's manuscript would be more than I could bear.
So what is an Arts graduate to do, after the dust has settled? I used to sneer at the lazy jokes about the uselessness of Arts degrees because I had a clearly-defined path in my mind. Now, they actually start to scrape at the sides. And I rage.
I rage against the baby boomers who refuse to retire to give Arts graduates graduate-level employment, and the digitisation of everything that makes genuine, honest freelancing accessible to so many people that one can't even give away their work for free. I rage against the university that gave me no vocational training, and the niggly little traits of my personality that exclude me, as if I have no choice, from chasing honourable pursuits like so many of my friends: ethics, squeamishness, an aversion to the corporate emphasis will likely always keep me at arms' length from conventional success. Because of these factors, and half a million others, a litany of exciting career paths beckon no more to me than the notion of sitting at home all day in beige-coloured underwear, eating cheese that's just that little bit too runny.
I can appreciate how privileged I am to have the freedom to abandon any one career path so easily, or two, if considering the academic one I discarded with all the fickleness of a sub-par student. Ever-present is the temptation to circumvent being a grown-up altogether, and merely stroll into the sunset with a bindle at my back. This is the fantasy that tickles me the most, right now. I have mapped a 24-month Around the World itinerary that encompasses all the irresponsible wayfaring a lass could ever want. I have set a financial target to activate the dream, which was only recently met in the wake of my most recent promotion. It is invigorating to know I could go at any moment, if I really wanted. But still I stay - working hard at my job, spending time with friends, grinding away at a trilogy. I like the space I am currently occupying. And the hardest part of being as spontaneous and ambitious as I am is accepting that there is nothing wrong with living in the present.
Truth be told, I'm happy. I'm flaky and uncertain, but I am only young. I have a whole realm ahead of me to explore. As soon as I crawl out of my own head and the hunger for adventure takes over, my degree is only going to be a stepping stone, bunched with dozens of other stepping stones, that leads me down the garden path to the grown-up I one day want to be.
And when I think about it like that, there's no science in the world that can configure away my optimism.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.