Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A year in review, part 1

I figure it's a good idea to reflect upon the last year or so on the first day of the new year, especially since I have nothing better going on today. Haikou isn't the most happenin' place in Asia. I'll probably focus mostly on the good things since you can read my blog posts detailing the various states of culture shock I went through this past year for the more negative things. Which, now that I think about it, wasn't all that bad. Besides having more colds in one year than I've ever had in my entire life, I can't really think of too many negative things that happened during the past year. I'm a pretty fortunate human being, and I'm more and more grateful for that.

I think I'll start with December 17th, 2011. The day that turned my life upside down and inside out and a little more awesomer than it had been prior to December 17th, 2011.

I could turn the story of that weekend into a novel but I'll keep it short and sweet since there's a whole year to review, but I think that day is a good starting point, because without it, I wouldn't be sitting in this coffee shop in China thinking how completely bizarre and wonderful the year 2012 was.

On Saturday, December 17th, 2011 I was sitting on my living room floor wrapping the last of the Christmas gifts for friends and family. It was a beautiful, sunny wintery day in Denver, Colorado and the bright sun was flooding my living room making it especially cozy. I loved that apartment, with its hardwood floors and unique cutesy touches. I had gone out with a friend the night before to see a favorite local blues band perform at Lincoln's Roadhouse, a great bar for blues watchin' and whiskey drinkin'. It was a great night. I think we enjoyed some Knob Creek and good conversation with several other blues fans and harmonica players. And on Saturday my friend and I were planning to go to Colorado Springs to attend a holiday party. So I finished wrapping presents and hopped in the shower to get ready for the party. And I still can't fully describe what happened in any way that makes any sort of logical sense, but at some point during that shower (I think it was during the hair-washing portion) something clicked, or snapped, or what some of my friends and family would probably more accurately describe as short-circuited…and I thought to myself, "I'm done. And I'm going to leave."

I was happy. I was happy in that moment, the moments leading up to the shower, the night before, and the days, weeks and months before that. So when people have asked me, "What's wrong? Are you okay?" when they learned of what I did, it's a difficult thing to answer because the answer I give people is not the answer they expect which means it's not the answer they want which means it's not an answer they believe which means it's not an answer they react positively to. Such is the human condition I suppose. But I've long since stopped worrying about what others think of my actions, so long as I know my actions aren't hurting anyone. If nothing else, 2012 was the year for purging and shedding, and along with everything else that was purged and shed, so was any lingering self-consciousness, insecurities, or worrying about what anyone else thinks of lil 'ol me. T'was a good year.

Where was I? Oh yes, the happy parts. What is happy anyway? I had a good job, good friends, was living fabulously alone and independent, was taking poetry writing courses, harmonica lessons, mountain biking on the weekends, taking camping trips into the beautiful Rockies, the list of happy-inducing things goes on and on. I was even on the tippy-tippy-verge of buying my first house on my own, meaning I had the loan stuff lined up and was meeting with my real estate agent to go hunting. Closing in on the American Dream. So why would I leave all that? I still ask myself that question, even though I know it had to be that way, even if I can't describe why.

Oops, this is turning out to not be short and sweet as promised. Anyway, I stood in the shower, hands in my shampoo-filled hair, asking myself, "Am I really going to do this?" to which I answered, "Yes, I'm really going to do this." I knew I was going to up and leave the country.

So I got ready for the party, rode with my friend the hour+ drive to Colorado Springs, enjoyed the holiday party, and rode the hour+ drive back to Denver. And during those drives I half-assed tried to talk myself out of doing what I was about to do even though I damn-well knew I was going to do it. But it felt like I had to go through the motions of talking myself out of doing it since it was by far the most spontaneous and absurd, logic-defying thing I had ever done in my life. I got home from the party, got online and started looking for a place to land. Where was I going to go? I didn't really care…the factors that were most important to me at the time were the best combination of cost+location+convenience-of-where-to-go-from-there-should-I-feel-like-moving-on-shortly-thereafter. So I searched and searched and decided upon Barcelona. I had always wanted to visit Spain, and it seemed like a great jumping off point for wherever I decided to go next. I booked the flight at 1am on Sunday, December 18th, and my flight was set to leave at 8am…just seven hours later.

It's hard to describe what it felt like clicking the purchase button on the airline website. But immediately after clicking the button and letting out a huge breath, I said out loud to my quiet apartment, "Holy crap, I'm doing it."

And then in my typical, procrastinatey, works-best-under-a-crazy-deadline self, I scurried around my apartment surveying all of my many belongings, deciding what to do with everything. Long story a little less long, I gathered everything I had ever borrowed from anyone (books mostly) and started making piles so the things could be picked up later by friends. I put a sticky note on each pile with the friend's name and phone number on it and stacked the piles neatly in my dining room. For everything else, I was either going to have it shipped back home to my family in Illinois or have it donated to the Salvation Army. Once I got settled in Barcelona, I would contact a moving company to come in and pack up the sentimental family keepsakes and ship them home. And then I would contact the Salvation Army to come pick up the rest. Which is why I wrote a check for an extra month's rent and slipped it under management's door before I headed to the airport. I knew I needed some buffer time to tie up loose ends.

Then I packed a backpack with the bare necessities. My favorite, trusty 'ol Camelback backpack that I have had for ten years or more. It's been everywhere with me and has never let me down. It's not even a back-packer's backpack…just a simple hiking pack. I packed some clothing that seemed okay for whatever type of weather I might encounter (short of blizzards), some toiletries, three harmonicas and two books of poetry I knew I couldn't live without.

I set my 2nd set of keys to my truck, as well as my only set of apartment keys, on the little table just inside my apartment entryway, locked the door from the inside and shut it behind me, but not before standing in the doorway and taking one last look around to say farewell to all my favorite stuff. I drove to the airport, parked, and said a fond farewell to my Toyota Tacoma. I loved that truck. I hadn't really planned out what I was going to do with the truck, but I figured parking it in the most expensive airport parking area was the wise thing to do. Or maybe not. Regardless, things worked out and I gave the truck back to Toyota after unsuccessfully trying to quickly get rid of it on Craigslist. And a huge thanks to a good friend insisting that she go pick it up from the airport to avoid racking up astronomical airport parking fees. That was really nice of her.

I landed in Barcelona, by way of New Jersey and Dublin, settled into a nice hotel, emailed my closest family and friends to let them know where I was and that I was okay (I didn't tell a single person I was leaving the states, not even my own mother (still sorry about that, mom!) and not even my employer (still sorry about that too, guys!)), got some rest, and then asked myself, "Okay, now what?"

I had no plans beyond landing in Barcelona. I had no idea how long I planned on being away from the states. I had no idea how long my cash would last me, or when it would be wise to try to find a job again. And just how difficult would it be to find a job in another country? I didn't consider any of these things when I made the decision to leave. And strangely enough, I wasn't worried about it.

I only spent a day (and two nights in that hotel) in Barcelona before getting the itch to move on. Barcelona's a great city and all, but I wasn't feeling it. Part of the answer to the "now what?" question was arrived at on that second night in the hotel. A few quick Google searches later and I found myself signing up for a 4-week intensive course in how to teach English as a second language. I figured an ESL teaching certification (TESOL/TEFL) was a good thing to have in your back pocket if you're out skipping around the world for an indefinite period of time. From the little online research I did that night, it seemed like the easiest job to get as a foreigner should I need one. There are TEFL courses all over the world. And like the weirdo that I am, I didn't choose any of the many courses held in Spain, in the country where I currently found myself. Instead, I chose a course in Kathmandu, Nepal, which was starting on January 2nd, 2012. And since it was December 20th, I had a week and a half or so to play in Spain before needing to be in Nepal for the start of the course.

Believe it or not, I had a somewhat logical reason for choosing the course in Nepal. From those few Google searches that night, it seemed like the most exciting/challenging teaching jobs were in Asia, and I had been wanting to visit China for several years. Side note, I had started learning conversational Chinese about six years ago while living in Los Angeles and having plenty of time to kill on the parking lots they call freeways on all my hours per day driving between home, the office and clients. And I also quickly realized that I was not a person who liked to hop, skip and jump through countries in rapid succession, but would like to try living somewhere and immersing myself in the culture for awhile. I didn't know at that time that I would end up in China, but thought I'd end up somewhere in Asia, and figured Nepal was the most interesting and convenient place to stay for awhile before settling in Asia for a year of teaching. I booked a flight from Madrid to Kathmandu, by way of London and Delhi, for December 25th. Yep, Christmas day. I figured I would arrive in Kathmandu a week before the course was to begin so I could settle in and sightsee a bit. The course schedule was to be very demanding and I thought I may not have time to sightsee once the course began. So that left me with about five more days to see Spain. The same good friend who picked up my truck also gave me the idea to rent a car and drive around Spain. I can't thank her enough for putting that idea into my head. I sure do love to drive (just ask the Colorado police…they probably all received a raise last year from my speeding tickets alone…not even joking…pretty sure my license is suspended, should I ever return to CO).

So I hopped online and reserved a rental car, and then hopped a taxi to the Barcelona airport to pick up the car. It was there in the airport that I was in touch with a few family members by phone for some very emotional conversations. I still feel bad for the worry I caused my family and friends. I didn't leave in the most graceful way, and definitely didn't take their feelings into consideration. It was a very selfish act. It would probably be the socially polite and correct thing to say "if I had to do it over again, I would do it differently" but I can't say that. I would do it exactly the same way. But I will say that I'm so grateful for everyone in my life who supported me after I caused so much worry.

I rented the car and drove straight to Madrid, arriving pretty late and without having made hotel accommodations, so I got tired of driving and pulled over and google-mapped the nearest hotel on my phone. I should probably start picking up the speed here or this post will turn into the novel I promised it wouldn't. Anyway, I wasn't feeling Madrid either. It just seemed like yet another big city, and at that time I was feeling like being in a smaller town, maybe more rural. I would love to return to Madrid and Barcelona someday and experience them in a different way, when I'm feeling more big-city-sightsee-y. I booked a hotel in Cordoba and hit the road.

I just want to pause here and say holy cow, how I loved those four or five days of driving around Spain. And I was driving a stick! I never knew I had it in me. I learned how to drive a stick as a teenager, but never actually had a manual transmission car, so never really drove one since. Well, there was this one time I had to drive my friend's stick because she was drunk, and it was a VW and I got "stuck" in a driveway unable to back out because I couldn't figure out how to put it in reverse because the reverse wasn't working the way I remembered it working from all those years ago when I learned how to drive a stick and finally I gave up and was stranded at a friend's house until my drunk friend was less drunk and able to tell me how to put it in reverse by pushing down on the stick shift and then moving it into the reverse position. Don't even laugh and tell me that all sticks are like that these days. I don't want to hear it. I was trapped, stranded and anxious and having mini-heart-attacks because I couldn't figure it out and needed to get my butt home. It was not a good time.

Anyway, that week in Spain was one of the best in my life. The weather was awesome. The skies were bright and there was a hint of a chill in the fresh air. I drove at top speeds with the windows down. I wanted to drive forever. I drove to Cordoba and I think it was love at first sight. This is where I wanted to be. So I settled into a hotel for the next four nights or so until I knew I needed to head back up to Madrid for the flight out. I loved zipping around Cordoba in my little stick-shifty car through all those narrow, cobblestone roads. And then I walked forever around the city trying to get lost and trying to get found again. I left a piece of my heart in Cordoba and hope to visit it again someday.

I took a day and drove down to Seville (Sevilla?) but it didn't grab me like Cordoba had, so I moved on and drove around and then drove back up to Cordoba. The next day (hmm, I may be getting these days out of order, oh well) I drove down to Malaga. It's a town way down on the southern coast of Spain. I fell a teensie bit in love with Malaga, nowhere near the amount of love I had for Cordoba, but enough that I was ear to ear smiles the entire day. I drove up and down the coast (or east and west, rather) looking for a quiet little spot to enjoy some tapas. I found the perfect little place (because it was named after me. No really, my name was on the sign. I have a picture around here somewhere) and I settled in for some delicious olives and beer and other yummy treats, all while overlooking the ocean as the sun sank lower and lower in the sky turning everything a beautiful orange. I loved the food in Spain. And I love the way people live…full of siestas and wine.

I drove back up to Cordoba while the sun was setting, and that is one of the best drives of my life. The skies, the air, the music, the freedom. The only other one that compares is one of the drives deep into the Rocky mountains back in the Autumn of 2011, just a few months prior to the Spain drive. Or maybe that drive up the 1 (California coast) to San Francisco a couple years ago. Or maybe that drive through the desert around Ensenada Mexico when we got lost trying to find the wineries (I love the dry, desert air). Or maybe… nevermind, too many to count. I do love to drive.

Okay, this is ridiculous. I had planned to recap all of 2012 by now, and I'm still in 2011. Jumping ahead a bit, I drove to Madrid and arrived at the airport late on Christmas Eve. I made the decision to sleep in the airport until my flight the next day instead of staying in a hotel for just a few hours. In hindsight, that was dumb. And wonderful. All at once. There's nothing like testing the limits of your ability to find comfort for over 18 hours in an airport that has nowhere to lie down because all of the bench seating has metal arm rests between each and every dang seat. And the airport was deserted. It was completely deserted (except for the floor-sweepers and garbage-can-changers) all the way up to my 5pm flight on Christmas day. Do you know how boring and uncomfortable it is in a brightly lit airport on Christmas day with no one around for people-watching? I was lit-ruh-lly the only traveler there. Longest day of my life. No, scratch that. The train ride from H-E-doublehockeysticks was the longest day (two days) of my life.

I need to stop here and have dinner and rest my fingers. And someone just lit up a cigarette in this little coffee shop room (so much for what I said in the last post about being a smoke-free coffee shop...this is China after all), so it's time to be moving on. More later...

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