Traveling can feel lonely. My husband and I have been digital nomads for almost four years and it’s not enough to say that we belong to this community of people who travel or work remotely. One of the reasons why we’ve slowed down is to feel settled, centered and not have to start over with looking for friends. As much as I like my home in Santo Domingo and the few friends that we made here, just knowing that we’re going to be on the move again in a few days, makes me unsettled and ornery. There isn’t a huge digital nomad community here and belonging to some community is crucial to our happiness because we’re thousands of miles away from our families and friends in the US.
It’s also not enough to say that home is wherever the heart is i.e., home is wherever James is. James is my husband, my best friend, and business partner. But he can’t replace a girlfriend who understands my need for sunscreen and my losing battle with melasma. James will dance with me and he’ll take a salsa class but he won’t go out three times a week to dance with a bunch of strangers at a club till 2 in the morning. And I don’t expect him to. All this to say that it would be unfair for me to depend for all of my happiness on him alone.
When I look back at the times when I was the unhappiest, probably even depressed, the common denominator was that I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.
Currently, I’m counting down the days till we fly to Colombia; we plan to live there for a year or two. We still have another month left in the Dominican Republic because we haven’t seen other parts of the country and since Haiti is next door, we have to see it! How can you not? It’s part of the nomadic lifestyle. But if I could fly to Colombia tomorrow, I would. The thing is that we have friends who will visit in a few weeks and we made a commitment, last year, that we’ll stay in Santo Domingo till then. I guess I can hold on a bit longer… It’s easier to hold on when you’re with someone you trust. It’s times like these that make me grateful to belong to the institution of marriage. It’s no wonder that people who are married are generally happier and live longer lives. I’ve traveled by myself many, many times and I know a lot of people who travel by themselves and are happy. I also know people who travel with company and are unhappy. I’ve experienced both.
A year ago, when things… weren’t perfect, I hit rock bottom. I woke up in Vietnam one day, I was alone. It was a gloomy Monday-like morning, made gloomier by his absence. I felt rotten, terrible… The lack of light made the apartment, with its high ceilings, seem bigger and lonelier so I opened the pink framed double doors and walked to the balcony. To my left, there was Vietnam’s MTV studio. Below me, there were people walking, people driving mopeds and people getting into their cars. Ho Chi Minh was starting to stretch its arms and for once, I didn’t care. Was traveling losing its luster? Was I becoming depressed?
As soon as I became aware of this feeling, I grabbed my daypack, stuffed some cash inside my pockets and walked out of my apartment with my hands in my pockets. I walked west on Nguyen Thi street till I saw Starbucks on the roundabout plaza. I went inside, checked upstairs and scanned the picnic tables outside but he wasn’t there. Then I walked aimlessly around Ben Thanh. He can’t be far. I looked inside every coffee shop and when I started to lose hope, I called a friend via Skype.
Finding me quite despondent, she came up with her medical concerns and asked: “Have you had any suicidal thoughts?”
No. Sort of. Uh, even if I did, I would not entertain the idea for even a second because it’s simply not an option for me. In the past, when I was really, really sad or as they say, “hit rock bottom” (see the upcoming blog, The 26 Jobs That Hired and Fired Me) I jogged to the dog park, dragged myself to a salsa club or walked to a store, a CVS even. Buying a new tube of mascara served as a temporary band-aid.
It didn’t make sense to me that I was living the dream. I was traveling the world with the love of my life for three years. I had a steady flow of income through the freelance work I did online and business was growing.
Why was I sabotaging it? Why wasn’t I happy?
I lived in Ho Chi Minh for over a week and every night and every morning, I woke up to the cacophony of incessant honking from the moped drivers, the honking from cars too, which, when combined with the miasma of fried spring rolls and cups of fresh coffee brewing over pools of condensed milk, has not turned into the white noise that I hoped it to have had. And yet, I loved Ho Chi Minh for her chaos, a town that knew when to sleep. There was even a salsa scene that began early and ended at 1, sometimes 11 at night! You probably didn’t know this either, oh yeah, the Vietnamese love their bachata, salsa, and kizomba EVERY. NIGHT. OF THE. WEEK.
In the midst of all the noise, I tried to think about the worst times of my life. Like the time I worked for a credit card company in La Jolla; they let me go after a month. I was embarrassed because it wasn’t the first job that let me go, it was probably the sixth.
Or the time I interned at the mayor’s office in San Diego. I had an outburst, I talked back to a constituent, so they let me go.
“But I’m not even getting paid,” I said.
“That’s what makes it so hard,” said my advisor.
I laugh now, but back then, I felt like a degenerate. I graduated from college and I couldn’t hold down a nine to five job for a month? How could I function if I can’t belong to civilization?
I hated to admit that I actually enjoyed working at Starbucks or at Peet’s Coffee where I stood the entire time, ringing orders and chatting with people. But because it was difficult for me to focus and do too many things at once, the managers didn’t like me making the drinks during rush hour. That made me feel inept.
When I really wanted to work the bar, I would say, “I would like to work the bar today. I can manage it.”
Meaning, I took my Ritalin: please put me on… When I took Ritalin, Adderall or those 60 milligrams of Vyvanse, I got dry mouth. Even though I was better at censoring what came out of my mouth while on the medication, there was no emotional connection at the moment to what was happening: I was mirthless. I was simply going through the motions of a conversation or a task. It was like I lost my edge and my wits.
Starbucks didn’t pay well, my manager was nasty and I didn’t have dreams to climb up that corporate ladder so I eventually found a different job and quit.
Still on the phone with my friend on Skype, somewhere in the noisy part of District 1 in Ho Chi Minh, I turned left onto a dreary street so that I could hear her. She told me to fly back to the States. I could crash on her couch in New York. She could buy my ticket! Although I didn’t take her up on the offer, as tempting as it was to live in Brooklyn and get that experience out of my system, hearing that she cared about me meant a lot.
I have to eat something, I told her. I had no appetite but it was lunch time and I don’t skip meals in Asia. She made me promise to check in later. I hung up and then it began to rain.
I ran up to the corner where a bunch of guys where chowing down on bowls of soup. I grabbed a red plastic stool. I checked my email, my WhatsApp messages and I even went on Facebook messenger.
As I sipped my soup, my heart felt heavy as if it were smothered in heavy sludge. I sat there feeling my heart becoming heavier and heavier. I wondered if this is what happens when your heart breaks – it decomposes. Then, an orange and black kitten appeared at my feet and I heard the cutest meow. I held the kitten up to my nose and felt this instant love for the little stranger.
“You are so beautiful,” I said.
Her small round eyes, her perfect triangle nose, and symmetrical triangle perky little ears. Basically, the characteristics of a cat.
Then a second kitten appeared – a black and white one. I put my bowl aside and picked him up. My chest began to feel light.
I sat with my back against the wall, curled up with my knees against my chest, trying to look inconspicuous by blending in with the locals – even though most of them held their bowls near their faces and were talking a mile a minute. With the traffic’s noise and the extra noise coming from the heavy rain, I hoped that nobody would notice me – me, a speck of dust in the city – crying! But the lady who poured the soup into my bowl had been observing me and she smiled with approval when I caught her gaze. I hugged the kittens close to my chest and shed a new cascade of tears feeling the tiniest bit of relief. I thought it’s going to be alright. I knew it was going to be alright.
Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s a part of it.
I checked in with myself. Okay, so I’m less distraught than I was an hour ago. I know nobody in this city and I am 100% on my own, wow. I wiped my face with the cat’s fur (no I didn’t) and forced myself to be present. I observed the drivers with their mopeds. I watched the Uber drivers in their long blue raincoats, the Grab drivers in their long green raincoats, each leaned on their left or right foot as they waited for the light to turn green. Torrential rain fell on them but the streets were as boisterous as ever.
I reminisced: Just a few weeks ago, I was hiking through the narrow Cu Chi tunnels left behind from the Vietnam War. After that, I had spent a night on a boat cruising through Halong Bay, and after that, a couple of girls and I were eating Bún chả at the same place where Anthony Bourdain and Obama sat. In his honor, the restaurant offered an Obama special.
Before Vietnam, we were cruising around the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane in Laos. And before that, I was learning Thai Massage in Chiang Mai… We are living the dream and frankly, I’m not going to get a lot of sympathy from people. What is wrong with me?!
At the moment, I was ecstatic. I was happy to feel Obama’s spirit in that restaurant in Hanoi, (even though I had better and cheaper Bún chả in the French quarter). At the moment, I was happy to meet these two amazing women from France and Brazil who loved Obama just as much! Moment to moment, I was happy. But overall, was all the moving making me unhappy? Was I moving too fast? I thought so. It was making me unsettled to the point that it was becoming hard to appreciate those moments anymore. While traveling, I worked for two to four hours a day on my laptop so I barely had any time to take a pause. Poor me!
That month, I experienced, “Oh, it’s another temple” syndrome for the first time. A few months later, in Japan, I couldn’t fathom making a 45 minute detour in Fukuoka to see a reclining Buddha the size of the Statue of Liberty. Who knows if I’ll ever be back!
I massaged the kittens’ heads with my thumbs, treating them like meditating balls. I could be in Los Angeles, cuddled up on my parents’ couch. My mom would spoil me with ceviche or aguadito de pollo (Peruvian chicken soup) while I watched the last season of White Girls on HBO. But as luck would have it, shit doesn’t hit the fan when it’s the most convenient for you. It’s happening when I’m all alone in Vietnam! If I can make it through this, I can conquer any situation, just as I did the time before, and the time before that. But first, I needed to own up to my truths. I needed to find out why I was sabotaging my perfect nomadic life and I needed to stop.
I need to take a long pause and I need to stop!
To do that, I would need to surround myself with people I can trust because I needed their help.
I kissed the kittens’ heads. I put them down and emailed the Sivananda ashram in Dalat. I had just spent a week there and it wasn’t easy; James said that my voicemails sounded like I was in rehab. I gulped down my soup and hobbled back to my apartment in the rain. I had to pack my backpack. I had a bus to catch.
I dedicate this piece to Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace. I also dedicate this to all the world travelers and especially to the travelers who are searching for happiness. Very few people are as gutsy and can do what we do, to get up and leave the status quo. You are fearless! And you are an amazing soul with many stories to tell. Safe travels!