To Go the Other Way
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life…” – Jack Kerouac
In a wild outpost town of eastern Baltistan, two days’ journey by road into the jagged, icy heart of Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, I shivered as my mother’s face glitched over Skype video chat, jumbled and distorted like some Picasso monstrosity. Even with the poor connection, I could tell she was frowning.
I already knew what was coming.
“Steven, you’re twenty-four years old,” her voice crackled over the speakers, with more than a hint of motherly condensation. “Your father and I talked. You need to come home soon. It’s time for you to settle down and get a real job and–”
“Ooh! Guess what!” I proudly blurted, happily disregarding her. “The people here keep mistaking me for an Afghan refugee!”
She stared, very not amused.
My smile faltered and my gaze fell to my mangy reflection in the video feed; it was the first time I’d seen myself in nearly a week, and I was barely recognizable. I sported a wooly pakol cap and a patchy, feral neck beard that looked as if some sickly woodland critter had latched onto my chin and died. I noticed my body, filthy and skinny, draped in a muddy salwar kameez with a tear on the shoulder, from where I got snagged jumping out of a truck in Islamabad. You could tell I smelled like a goat.
“Steven, this isn’t impressive anymore,” she finally said. “To be honest, I’m embarrassed to tell people what you’re still doing. I mean, look at all the things your friends are accomplishing. People expect something from you by the time you’re twenty-five…” She paused for a moment, before adding, “Your younger brother graduated college yesterday. I don’t think he’s meeting you in Thailand anymore. He says he wants to be the first McDonald to get a real job after graduating…”
I pulled my flimsy jacket tight around me and somberly nodded. “That’s good for him,” I offered.
This wasn’t the first time I’d received such thinly veiled disapproval for my vagrant lifestyle. In fact, one of my grandfather’s favorite hobbies is expressing how much he’d rather me spend my youth doing scholarly number things in an office, making proletariat grandkids, and playing golf.
Not coincidentally, this is exactly what he was doing at my age.
Not coincidentally, any time people tell you what you should be doing with your life, it’s usually exactly what they did with theirs.
A plumber won’t tell you to chase rock star dreams in Hollywood, and I don’t think Mother Theresa would tell you the money’s all in Real Estate.
For this week’s tidbit of Backpackology, before we start getting into the nitty-gritty of planning your trip, I want to subject you to one more vaguely philosophical (read: self-indulgent) musing. I’d like to address those of you, especially the recent college graduates (congratulations), who are currently teetering on the fence of whether or not to put your career on hold and travel, for fear of the repercussions it may cause and how others might perceive you.
When I graduated and was struggling with this same dilemma, a friend of mine (who was wise in her thirties), offered me an unusual piece of advice—something she wished that she had been told when she was only twenty-two. She told me:
While I’m not condoning this as a goal, and I don’t recommend you go and blow your bank balance on designer shoes and trash bags of coke, I think there’s something wonderful in her sentiment. And that is: you should live now and travel while there’s still the chance—your loans can easily be deferred with a phone call, and you have the rest of your life to pay them back when you’re fettered to a desk.
If you’re worried about the glaring gap it would leave in your resume, don’t dwell on it. Upon your return, you should let employers know about your travels; your experience will most likely make an interesting talking point, and in most cases, it will stand out as a plus to hiring managers. I could easily write an article on the matter, but instead, let me refer you to the real experts at: Career Break Secrets.
Even if you decide not to travel, if there’s one piece of advice I want you to take away from me, let it be this:
The paths of life are infinite—don’t feel obligated to trudge down the one that’s common, that’s most time-honored and well-lit. If you want, you can go the other way. If you want, you can quit your investment firm and start a potato farm. You can pierce your nipples and join the circus. Who cares? You can even throw two pairs of clothes in a backpack and travel across Asia for two years.
I know my parents give me grief because they love me and want me to thrive and have all the best. In their perfect world, I would be sitting in some cushy TV Development office right now. I would probably be stealthily procrastinating on Facebook and counting the hours till the weekend. The highlight of my day would be take-out sushi and laughing cynically at Dancing with The Stars.
But instead, I’m scrawling this down in a notebook, rumbling over some high mountain pass in a beat-up jeep, somewhere in the the Hindu Kush near the border of Afghanistan. The jeep is crammed with no less than fifteen haggard, Pashtun shepherds, and a few minutes ago, we passed a veiled woman in a burka beating a yak with a stick.
My life is awesome.
I’m living the dream, doing my three favorite things. Traveling, writing, and pretending to know what I’m talking about.
While many people might not understand why I feel this way, this is the path I’ve chosen and I wouldn’t trade places with anyone. Sure, my high-income friends might have anorexic flatscreens and phones that cook breakfast, but I’m more seduced by the thrill of uncertainty. In fact, I dread the day when a stream of nice paychecks swell in my bank account, and I’m forced to longingly fantasize all the things out there that I’m missing. (This coming from the eight-year old who practically jerked off to ‘It’s a Small World’).
But who knows. Maybe my parents are right to discourage my wayfaring. Maybe life will be difficult for me when I return. Maybe I’ll have to clean toilets at Taco Bell for a while as I regain my footing. But in the end, I’m sure it will all work out. It always does. Everything I’m doing now—these adventures, these experiences—are things I will have for the rest of my life.
While I’m sad to hear that I won’t be picking my brother up at Bangkok International Airport this fall, I respect the path he has chosen and I wish him all the best in the world. And as for you, if the thing you want most is success, and fortunes, and cellphones with free will, I say go for it. Just do what makes you happy and forget what your grandfather says.
Your opinion on what you do, and how you live your life, is the only one that matters.
For more information on giving Manifest Destiny the finger, click the “Backpackology 101” tab at the top of this page.
To learn what led me to my excessive, irresponsible adventure, check out the genesis of Backpackology in “Stepping Off The Edge”