In my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I did not make a study of living in foreign countries. I know it fails to do justice to the scope and difficulty of other Watson projects, but I did not make a study of renting an apartment in Paris, or buying a car in India, or falling in love with the cafe waitress in Buenos Aires who brought me my coffee each morning as I sat and watched the people passing in the street. No, in my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I made a study of only one thing: movement. I learned an infinite ocean of truths and half-truths and maybe-truths about people and light and bursts of feeling and rain, and anything else you can imagine, but I made a true study of only one thing: movement. At one point, maybe in southern Africa or South America, I sat on a bus and watched the world wash by like a river of living paint, and had a thought: ‘the only permanence in my life is a constant of state of impermanence’. And that thought, it seems, held true for almost the entire year of my project – a study of movement, a study of trains, of boats and buses, of dust clouds enveloping smooth-soled shoes. In my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I never saw the same cafe waitress twice, and in some places, that was fine by me.
In my year abroad, my year of following the birds, it was my study of movement that set me subtly and sometimes deeply apart from other travelers, often in a way that was on the surface totally non-apparent. At guesthouses, backpackers, auberges, hostels, alojadas, and budget hotels I met the bold and adventurous cohort of the world: Australian, German, British, Canadian, Irish, Israeli, Argentine, US-er [more commonly known as American, a term which rightfully angers some people from South America who see its use by people from the United States as a usurping and monopolizing of continent and identity], South African, Singaporean, Pakistani, Columbian, Japanese, Mexican; aged 18 to 60 years; homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, sexually ambiguous, sexually devious, sexually repressed, sexually indifferent; over weight and under weight and sometimes just cosmic drifting weight; black, white, brown, red, ochre, pallid, burnt to a crisp, cinnamon-brown, coffee-brown, nut-brown, freckled, pock-marked, pure-skinned, tanned-just-right.
While the eclectic motley crew of travelers, wanderers, vacationers, refugees, road warriors, amblers, ramblers, and drifters are not all bold and curious adventurers, but are in fact sometimes bored, boring, vacuous, terrified, disinterested, ignorant, and obnoxious, they all almost unanimously share one condition: they are entering a world - their travel destination - that is different, vastly or minutely, from their known comfortable world, the place from which they departed. Despite the myriad human and experiential differences that travelers possess, the fact that such people are capable of forming mystifyingly close and firm friendships over a period of hours or days is testament enough to the strength of such a commonality. These travelers have all left their houses and apartments; their boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses; their plants and children and cats; their driveways and walkways and set-ways; their morning commutes and cigarette breaks and overtimes; their white walls and white noise and white picket fences; and they have all traveled to somewhere different.
For many of the travelers I met, however, the life they had left behind was their ‘real’ life and was a constant, intact entity often carried in the back of the mind as a source of comfort and security. Every aspect of traveling for such individuals could be faced with the knowledge that an intact sphere of existence, identity and, for some, normality awaited their return. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this return was liberatingly available at any time after their departure, completely dependent on the traveler's health and state of enjoyment and general well-being as the adventures progressed. For some such travelers it even appears that the life left behind was simply and perfectly paused, to be resumed at the push of a button or the drop of a hat (or bag in this case), almost without a beat being missed.
Now, I have painted a picture of the world's sphere of traveling and travelers in which I existed, moved, and studied during my year abroad, my year of following the birds. Such an arena only exists in the context of its colorful community of characters, since traveling itself is actually something of a relative, abstract concept that can be defined by an infinite number of activities and experiences, and can occur at any given place or time. I have already mentioned that as a group, travelers represent an immense diversity of cultural and experiential backgrounds, and by individual comparison, each is vastly unique. I also mentioned, however, that despite this uniqueness a commonality essential to the very nature of traveling itself allows firm, fierce bonds of friendship to be instantly formed among even diametrically opposed individuals, as unlikely as it may initially seem. I have taken the time to elaborate in such detail on the traveler's sphere so as to more clearly describe my own passage among its rooms of faces and corridors of voices.
My study of movement set me apart from other travelers not because it made me more unique as an individual than any other wanderer, a claim that would be preposterous and ridiculous at the very least, but because it created conditions in which I could not claim to share some aspects of the fundamental commonality that unites travelers independent of individual identity. For me, traveling was never a 3 day, or 3 week, or even 3 month affair – a reprieve perhaps – capable of being continually juxtaposed with a separate, comfortable, distant, and permanent sphere of existence, an alternate life. My movement was everything I had: traveling my job, traveling my study, traveling my vacation, traveling my normality, traveling my waking, eating and sleeping, traveling my life, traveling everything I knew for a year. If I got tired of bus rides and hostel beds after a month, I could not sigh with a resigned smile and say, "Oh, well, I'll be back in New York in a couple of days!". Within the sphere of constant movement, of continual shifting and changing and flux, of traveling and travelers taking a reprieve from whatever they had left behind, I had to develop a sense of normality. Within a sphere of people fleeing their working life with its usual routines, its day-to-day habits and systems of existence, its stresses and victories, I actually had to create exactly such a working life with all the qualities just mentioned, because I had nothing else and no other choice. And within that sphere of travelers, this difference is what set me apart.
The truth is that several days or weeks can be wrestled with in the mind and subdued with ease, but a year for all intensive purposes can seem, feel, and be an eternity. When I left for a year, with no opportunity to return to the US for the duration of that time, I left with nothing for my mind to fall back on: no apartment, no lover or spouse, no dog or cat or rhododendron bush, no job or finger-wagging boss. I left only my parents and brother - that family living in a strange new house that my father's employer had provided for us. So now you are uncontrollably curious: in a sphere where traveling is not an escape from a 9-to-5, but is in fact the 9-to-5 itself, and one with no apparent escape from its stresses and hazards, how then does one possibly survive? Listen now, and I will tell you.
At first, when the traveling really began, I didn't know if I would survive. The first month when my project was focused on the birds' breeding grounds, I experienced a semi-permanence that would not be repeated for the remainder of the year. Following this easing into things, there was the whirlwind, sleepless bus hopping down the coast of England; and the train to and through France and Spain; and the ferry to Africa, to Morocco, to the coastal city of Tangiers; and then the train to Marrakech and the bus to Agadir; and I had started to take the malaria pills and exhaustion and stress and doubt and horrible dreams and shock were really settling in; and dear god there were 8 months more of this nightmare of back aches and insomnia and sweaty, mind-numbing bus stations and solitude and dirty looks; and I felt my strength leave me.
If there was no project binding me to a path, I think in southern Morocco, in the coastal city of Agadir – in the cockroach-infested dank hotel where I confronted the darkest – I might have given up entirely. Maybe adopted the aforementioned traditional mantle of Vacationer and spent two weeks seeing the sights – camera always in hand, white line of sunscreen always drawn proudly and perfectly like a badge on the nose's pale bridge – before hopping back on the plane with a sigh, ordering a glass of Scotch, and planning Monday's return to the office. Part of me hated the project in Agadir, but in the end it was probably the project itself that saved me, forcing me to stay focused and dedicated and, above all, to keep moving. It was in Morocco that on some below-conscious level for which I had no words at the time, my mind and body were facing a necessary decision: adapt or break down. Just as the environment brutally enforces the laws of natural selection on all its various inhabitants, so did my project in providing a path and forcing me to keep moving leave me no choice but to evolve.
In northern Africa, I began to develop a mindset and certain practices that now appear to be startling related to some aspects of Zen Buddhism, of which I must confess to know very little. I focused at times on the present, the moment, the 'now'; and on the surety of the fact that everything comes to pass, everything is transitory, everything that is as we know it ends in time. This was a battle against the aching yearnings for permanence – for being in a place for longer than a few days or a week – that were already beginning to ebb and flow in my mind's ocean. This was Africa: a struggle, frustration, a rebirth, pain, beginnings, growth, change, reflection, confusion; learning in the ravages of a scorched, torn mind to make a home in the foreign and the different and in a state of transience, of pure and unadulterated impermanence.
In South America, I found with a searing sense of elation and pride during occasional self-reflective moments – moments which had grown rarer and rarer as I moved south through Africa and eventually left that continent behind – that I had made something of a beautiful, refined art – or science, perhaps – of planning for no more than the current day and the next. It had become instinctual to stop thinking and simply react and run with the currents of the world as they suddenly welled up across my path to pull me in an unseen direction. I had stopped questioning and fighting and trying to wrestle the world into fitting a certain conception of it that I might have held. I embraced the embrace of the universe and even began to love the uncertainty and the state of being an electric elastic particle spinning and flying from one moment and experience to the next. I was almost permanently exhausted and sore but I mostly stopped noticing or feeling it. In any case, weakness stopped mattering, since there was no time for it. Some days, seizing a moment did come to mean staying in the hostel and sleeping all day, even if that resulted in permanently foregoing certain 'not-to-be-missed' sites of a country, and perhaps simultaneously choosing self-afflicted isolation from fellow travelers that had all joined together for a day of adventures. I conditioned myself to the dangerous point of finding – almost seeking – normality and comfort in twenty hour bus rides and hard, stained bus-station benches. I had become impervious and I was having fun, and I loved it all, the beautiful, depraved, and gritty. The project suffered in South America but I had found a new strength. I was intoxicated with a new power of becoming the human embodiment of a verb: movement, action, the 'just do'.
By the time I reached northern South America, however, I began to find a sobering and a mastery of my transformation, and a return to the project with fresh mind and eyes. In my new form of being, and of being movement, I could manage and perform the project with infinite more depth and proficiency and make it just another part of the drifting. Like a modern Renaissance man, I could banish fear, and learn to do anything – nothing could stop me or stand in my way. This is how I ended the year: strong in mind, strong in body, and strong in project. I had come full circle.
Despite yearning for something constant and static and unmoving during my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I felt distinctly uncomfortable when I returned to the United States and arrived at my parent's house in Connecticut, letting the bag thud dully to the ground for the last time. I felt out of place there, anxious and restless. Like a train derailed, my constant movement of a year was suddenly and abruptly halted, thrown off course into a purposeless directionless void of fixedness. There were other strangenesses as well, those little things that always stand out in the mind more than anything else. I had left with a conscious philosophy of simplicity in mind, carrying only 1 pack, with only 1 T-shirt and 1 pair of shoes for the year, and when I took a box of my clothes from the basement and pulled on a shirt I'd left behind, I felt like I was wearing someone else's cloths. I realized after a few days in the same bed, the same house, and the same town that I was still brushing my teeth with one of those two-part, collapsible, convenient, disposable travel-toothbrushes. I realized that this specific travel-toothbrush was one I had received for free, along with a bar of soap and a pair of earplugs, from an overnight train through France nine months back. Perhaps I should scratch disposable from the prior list of adjectives and commend the French on the durability of their travel-toothbrushes, even though I'd bet an entire case of them that they are made in a factory somewhere in China or Japan. But that is neither here nor there. Anyway, the soap: a veritable menagerie of compact, miniature bars – single-serving soap, as Tyler Durden might call it – that I horded from every hotel that gave them out, and now find I can’t throw away, even though I know I won’t ever use them. There’s the circular one from the same French train where I received my toothbrush, bearing in the same red letters the name of the line: ‘renfe’; the rectangular pink ones from that quiet guesthouse in northern Argentina where my brother I stayed when he visited for New Years; the one with the blue wrapper – ‘Danubia: Contra Bacterias’ – from the towering decrepit Salinas hotel on the southern coast of Ecuador; the other ones in white paper emblazoned with the words ‘Gold Coast’ and a picture of a beach and a sailboat, given out by a hotel somewhere in the Virgin Islands, maybe St Croix. Soap with hygienic properties now lost, sacrificed to serve a more noble cause as memories trapped in crumbling bar form, the jigsaw pieces littering my bag of toiletries like jumbled road signs marking different stages of a long journey. I guess after all it is in fact exactly those little things – the toothbrushes and shirts and bars of soap, those things that for some reason always stand out in the mind more than anything else – that can speak with the simplest lucidity if given a chance. It’s clear now that after a year of drifting and plunging and transforming, my life as an act of movement and traveling will not fall back so easily into a relaxed state of stasis, of bulging stuffed wardrobes and pack-free shoulders and big fat lasting bars of green Irish Spring soap. Besides, I have a hunch that before it does, I’ll find myself picking up the bag and hitting the road again.