The Halfway Point: 4 Remote Perspectives
Martine, Rose, Dylan, and Paul reflect (a little delayed) on the mid-point of their yearlong journeys.
The four written works below were produced as part of a writing exercise at Remote Year Magellan’s monthly Writers’ Retreat, held in Chosica, Peru on the weekend of February 17–19, 2017. The theme of the retreat was Writing as History. The task was to write about shared moment in history from our year traveling the world together. We chose to write about how we all experienced the halfway point of our yearlong adventure. Here’s what we produced:
We’re Halfway There — Martine Volmar
Hanoi. Month 6. Damn time flies. At that point we were well into our routines, found our grooves — or maybe not. We were ready to leave cold Belgrade and enjoy warm weather again, and of course eat everything, because Vietnam. Having never been to Asia, I was looking forward to exploring a side of the world that I’d only known through books and food. Driving in from the airport, the scene flashing by had a sense of familiarity, the dress shops, the restaurants with their hand painted signs, the tailors, the collection of small business from street merchants to store fronts, from middle of the road to the swank, it all felt familiar. Kind of like being dropped into a scene of a movie you’ve seen a million times but all the actors are different. Having never been to Vietnam, or Asia for that matter, it wasn’t the place itself that was recognizable nor the people but the energy of the place. The interactions, the no nonsense yet welcoming way that things were done, reminded me of home. Home as in Haiti, home as in New York.
The place was different, some of the amenities were different but folks going about their day with drive and hustle resonated. Yet, there was still so much to uncover about the Vietnam. The dynamics between the North and South, the way the War is portrayed. What’s the correct way to eat Pho (just walk away from that discussion). Having an on the ground view of historical happenings broadened my perspective. It shone a light on how narrow our viewpoints about a place can be, and not always in a negative way but that many places around the world are nothing more than vague impressions leftover from incomplete education. It isn’t until you’re on the ground that you see the gaps and the connections. Most of the Vietnamese food we have in the States comes from the South, because when they lost the war many fled to the United States. We just think of it as Vietnamese food but the regional difference are real. The relationship between parents and their adult children and the expectations that the parents have, is similar to the expectations that Haitian parents have of their kids. When you travel to someplace that is so very different, yet still so very familiar, it makes you realize how much closer we all are than we think. How their experiences are similar to or could easily be yours.
Phnom Penh on one hand had the same familiarity that Vietnam held but with the sense of, this too could be our story had we travelled this path. On the heels of a genocide that wiped out almost 2 million people in a population of 7.5 million, the country is very much in transition. Everyone is affected in one way or another, either they or members of their families were victims or they were the perpetrators as part of the Khmer Rouge. Most of the intellectuals, the artist, anyone who was seen as a threat to the regime were targeted and executed. The country is at a crossroads with a population that ‘was there’ so to speak, along with a younger population who have no memories of this as it is not their lived history. Being in Cambodia is very much walking into history, walking into a chapter of a story that has not yet concluded. Where do they go from there, how does the culture evolve. It also brings to mind how quickly things can turn for the worse, in any society, what seemed impossible yesterday can very quickly become a reality today. One of our regular Tuk Tuk drivers after taking us to the Killing Fields told of the story of his mother who survived the genocide but now was dealing with the consequences of that experience and what was needed for her daily care. Our stories are the same and our stories are different. It comes down to a matter of circumstance and choice and luck really.
While traveling we often end up in situations that are circumstance and the choices we make affect our path, and our story. From afar a place can seem exotic and foreign which can have both positive and negative connotations. Our relationship with places and people is often colored by our education, and our expectations. Getting to be in places that you maybe read a blurb about that one time, is an incredible opportunity. Coming halfway around the world makes you realize that the threads of commonality stretch much further than we think. So you can find home on the other side of the world.
Extraordinarily Ordinary — Rose Eppensteiner
Do you ever actually notice the exact moment in which you’re at the halfway point of some momentous experience? Thrilling beginnings and grand finales typically take precedence over the middle moments of routine and normalcy. I didn’t acknowledge the halfway point of my last job, my last lease, my last romance — because I didn’t know when, and how, each of those would end.
It’s different on Remote Year. As are most things that happen on Remote Year. The halfway point of any RY program is commemorated through Instagram collages and Timehop shares on Facebook and Medium blog posts.
As a staff member tagging along with the Magellan crew on their year long journey, I too experienced this quintessential halfway point alongside the community of Remotes I’d come to know, appreciate and fine, I’ll admit it, really fucking enjoy over the course of six months together. But, to me, this remarkably unremarkable mid-year moment was marked by the realization that the bizarre social experiment that is Remote Year had now become my new normal. Instances or situations I once considered exceptional were now ordinary.
I ate my daily lunch of noodles and mystery meat on toddler-sized plastic stools in Hanoi’s back alleyways. Of course. My midday sprints to Whole Foods to grab a veggie wrap and plastic encased pasta salad were now foreign to me.
My preferred method of commuting was an Uber motorbike driver whizzing me through streets without traffic laws. Obviously. Hurriedly scraping ice off of my Honda Civic during Colorado winters only to sit at the same stoplights every morning now struck me as bizarre.
An alarm clock meant rooster crows, dog barks and loud speakers on telephone poles blaring Vietnamese news at 7am. Naturally. Waking up to the manufactured sound of my iPhone ringtone was weird, and eventually just stopped happening.
Thanksgiving was a sunburnt celebration, eating Thai food on a Vietnamese island with a British couple, a Canadian dude and two American friends. Clearly. My tastebuds forgot the flavor of carved turkey and canned cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.
This is the halfway point of Remote Year. Your daily life is anything but conventional and at the same time it’s the daily grind. Extraordinary moments and noteworthy occasions have replaced what was once business as usual. But it’s just another day in this strange fucking world we call Remote Year.
The Middle of Things — Dylan Hoffman
Enough credit isn’t given to the middle of things. The beginning of something is always exciting, full of anticipation and expectation. The end of something is always dramatic and sentimental, even if that sentiment is “well, that was anti-climactic.” But the middle of things is often the most important — it’s the genesis of transformation, where the real work is done that leads to the grand finale. So, with that, here is my (3 month late) Remote Year halfway point reflection.
When we landed in Cambodia in December, I remember looking back at my girlfriend and travel partner, Minji, and telling her “I’m tired.” Two words which, despite their simplicity, summed up quite nicely the prior 6 months of traveling with Remote Year. It wasn’t the “I-didn’t-get-enough-sleep” tired (though I’d had plenty of those nights). It was more like the tired you get when you eat too much. You know the feeling — you just ate a great meal and now realize you might’ve overindulged. The food was delicious, the flavors still lingering on the back of your tongue, but you’re uncomfortable. You’re more than full; you’re stuffed, and you feel it. That was the thought I had coming into my halfway point on Remote Year. Six months of overstimulation, large group settings, a social button that’s always on, dozens of late night parties and early morning flights, and an iPhone reminding me it’s storage was full from the hundreds of photos I’d crammed into its hard drive. Motion is life, no doubt about it. But in my accelerated revolutions, I had become a roaming spirit, stuck in a purgatory-like state where I existed more between places than in the places themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I was still enjoying myself, and I had a passport full of memories I’d relive in a heartbeat. But something felt off. Like I wasn’t quite doing it right. What had happened? As we grabbed our bags off the belt and hopped in our cab for the millionth time, I had a bit of a revelation. Back in Seattle (my home before Remote Year), I had a reputation of ‘living large.’ I loved doing everything to the max — trying to make every weekend worthy of story-telling at the dinner table. A night out wasn’t just a night out — it was a 3 hour drive to Vancouver, no plan, no place to stay, just a determined mindset to drink a lot and weasel our way onto that night’s VIP list. A night in wasn’t just a night in — it was an epic 6 hour Halo marathon, pounding Red bull and Chipotle and trying to go 20–0. I took that mentality with me everywhere I went, and Remote Year was no different. Before the wheels had gone up in June, I had crafted the mantra “12 months, 30 countries” for my year abroad. Remote Year was scheduled to only visit twelve, so I had a lot of extra planning to do. And plan I did. Within the first four months, I had been to Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Italy, Morocco, Iceland, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Right on target.
But then something began to change. Exhilaration started to slip into exhaustion; enthusiasm into frustration. My pace was untenable — I’d have epic weekend trips planned out & plane tickets booked before even finding the local grocery store. The moment I landed somewhere new, I was already planning my departure to somewhere else. In short, I was putting my experiences before myself, and starting to feel the effects. Sure I had been to a ton of acclaimed destinations, but I lacked any real connection with the places I’d been. I had nailed the well-rated restaurants and “must see” beaches, but couldn’t remember any of the language or cultural nuances. Moreover, here I was traveling with a group of forty-something remotes, and the phrase I was most used to hearing was “hey, you’re back!”
As I sat in our Cambodian apartment later that night, I made a resolution to myself. It was time to slow down and settle in; to learn to find enough in my immediate surroundings, and peel back more than the Trip Advisor layer of the local culture. To take control by letting go, and give each place, and person, their fair due. No more three day flings with Mykonos. No more “I HAVE to make it to that mountaintop, even if it means getting two hours of sleep and sacrificing my happiness for another checked box.” Why? It’ll still be there. Mountains form over millions of years. I can always come back. That’s a great lesson I’ve taken from Remote Year — the world is remarkably accessible, and contrary to the belief of most tourists, isn’t going anywhere. Believe it or not, you can come back to the same place and do the things you didn’t get to do last time. But only if you want to.
The Road — Paul Perry
Turbulent but remarkably fruitful. That’s how I remember our mid-way point in Hanoi.
I’d awaken at 6am or 7am each weekday on a rock-hard bed, having slept 3 or 4 hours. Jet-lag was real. 1am and 2am work calls were real. I’d lay awake until 8am and then wander over to my favorite cafe (the one I sneakily didn’t share with my fellow remotes — sorry!), grabbing the same sun-drenched seat by the window. Slow, reflective (and groggy) starts to each day was the pattern I had slipped into.
At halfway, I stretched a deadline a little further than I should’ve — opting for a weekend cruise in Ha Long Bay instead — and lost a big contract. I felt secure in having plenty of other work and life actually turned out to be way less stressful in the absence of that gig. I even brought on extra support in the form of fellow Remotes in other groups working with me on various projects. I had more work than I could handle, frankly.
I even had to let someone go at another organization I was working with which didn’t feel good at all, but was, at the same time, the right thing to do.
Election Day was a disaster, and apologist commentary (“But, my Uncle Doug isn’t racist, I promise!”) from remotes about their family members’ voting for Trump (disclosure: some of my kin did too, sadly) left me feeling disappointed in and disconnected from the group. I walked away from our Election Day viewing “party” alone to wander the city, only to eventually sit down and write out my feelings about the whole thing.
I asked myself, “What am I doing traveling the world with what feels like a bunch of white moderates?” Real talk. Probably my most challenging moment as the only Black man in this crew. The consequences of the day were just different for me and those like me. And I was bored and dismayed seeing others be so surprised to finally realize a reality I lived daily back in the States.
Vietnam was where the book I’ve been working on all year sharpened its focused by broadening its scope. My friends helped me take a bolder stance in my writing, gave me the nudge I needed. I’m safely on the road to publishing thanks to all of their support and encouragement this year.
Hanoi was where the TinderMoto game was on point and I connected with more fellow expats outside the group than ever before. I’ll leave it there. I could see myself having a life outside of the group for the first time in Hanoi. It was liberating.
As I boarded the plane at the end of the month to Siem Reap, Cambodia, I realized that I was being pulled along in typical fashion. Someone else had organized our accommodations and Remote Year rescheduled my flights. It was first time deviating from a group travel day. (This means you choose not to travel with the group and find an alternate route.) It’s one of the nice things about this journey with friends that people make plans for you in some cases and you get pulled into awesome adventures. Other times it feels like you’re traveling on auto-pilot in the most inauthentic of ways.
At the halfway point: I thought to myself: I finally got this thing. I can ride out the highs and the lows. When we shared a month with another RY group (shoutout to Battuta!) that was much further along than us, I was confident in myself as a global traveler. I had the cadence of it all down for the most part.
In Cambodia, I could brunch everyday (my favorite), put in a couple hours of work each day (if that), and find time to explore at my own leisure. It was at this halfway point that one of the greatest flips in my life became glaringly apparent: I was in control of the balance of my life. The tug between affording it and enjoying it was more within my sphere of influence than ever before.
Part of me felt ashamed to be so empowered. A typical “impostor’s remorse” for upwardly mobile people of color. It was especially challenging when so many others, even among my fellow travelers, seemed not to be.
Another part of me wondered what I would now do with my one, wild life upon grasping this newfound freedom. Part of me thought: is this what my ancestors had dreamed of as they struggled (victoriously) through all of the trials of their lives that would break me if I had to face them?
At halfway, I was confident I would make it down the road. Yet uncertain about where it would ultimately lead me.