Vagabond problems: geographical dyslexia, life without possessions, and the ever-elusive orgasm
I’ve just returned home from the supermercado in Lagoa de Conçeicão with a few loads of Brazilian groceries stuffed into Albert Heijn and Sainsbury’s bags from the Netherlands and the UK. I showered with my bar shampoo from NYC, my new Brazilian condicionador, my German soap, my Texan shaving cream, and my Seychellois razor. One shower is a toiletry trip around the globe, and I’ve been acquiring everyday personal paraphernalia like these things from nine different countries over the last twelve months.
I’ve actually been traveling continuously for the last six years and officially an itinerant (read: homeless by choice) for the last four of those. Can we take just a moment to get completely clear on that? In a live conversation with a person who has just asked where I live, it tends to take a few rounds of Q&A.
“I don’t actually live anywhere.”
“I’ve been traveling full time for many years.”
“Cool! What a life! … So where’s your home base?”
“I don’t have a home base. I travel all the time.”
“….. But where do you keep your stuff?”
“I don’t have stuff. I mean, I have a couple of boxes in my best friend Jordan’s garage in Seattle.”
“A Seattleite! Cool, I love Pike Place Market.”
“But I only spend a couple of weeks a year there. I probably net the most time in London.”
“So you’re from London!”
“Well, I don’t have a place there.”
“But where do you LIVE?”
And so forth.
I really don’t live anywhere, folks. And I’ve never been happier or healthier. I’ve had literally one head cold in the last six years, and as a sedentary person I might have had thrice that in a single winter. It actually, physically isn’t good for me to be still. But there are, of course, consequences. For instance, I sometimes experience a sort of geographical dyslexia. So, when a colleague recently asked me if I ever “get dislocation,” my interest was piqued. There is a name for this phenomenon?
The colleague, who is a harder core theatre person than me, and a crazier cat lady, and even more unafraid to say nearly anything she thinks of (I could pen an entire blog post about Nettle and how cool she is, but that isn’t this one) described it as having been so many places in the U.S. that she will sometimes say things to her husband like, “let’s go to that cupcake place” and he will say, “fine, if we get in the car now we should be there in about three days.” And then she’ll realize “that cupcake place” is in another time zone entirely.
I recognized her description of the feeling (a big one on a spectrum of similar but distinct feelings I’ve encountered) instantly. I have woken up from an epic dream about getting lost (again) in the medina of Marrakech that was so real I could smell the jasmine oil and the cooking smoke drifting down the alleys from Jemaa el-Fnaa. And as I've lain there half-asleep and half-waking, realising slowly that I am not really in Morocco, my mind has formed a solid plan to go and work from a coffee shop in Granary Square before having dinner at Dishoom (both of which are in London) only to discover upon getting out of bed that I am unfortunately in San Francisco.
I’ve returned to the United States after nine months abroad and been stumped to find that I can’t locate the appropriate electrical adapter among my comprehensive collection, before discovering several minutes into the search that this is because my chargers are American. No adapters necessary for once. Right.
I’d guess that between once and thrice each month, I’ll be walking down a street and some smell or sight or feeling will trigger a memory of “that place” that actually occurred on another continent. I might find myself looking, for just a moment, for a street stall in Flushing (Queens) that is actually in Kerala (India) or deciding whilst having a walk in Hackney (Northeast London) to return to a boutique “nearby” that is actually in Istanbul. Sometimes, when I get through a border control queue after a long flight, the immigrations officer asks where I’ve come from and for a few uncomfortable moments, I have no idea. It is disorienting but always far more fascinating than distressing.
“For the person courageous enough to see it out, disorientation always leads to love.” —Tom Robbins
So, when I call it a “consequence" of wandering, I use the word neutrally. A consequence as in an effect. A result. An appreciated oddity. There are others, some just as neutral and others less so. Always living on other people’s turf means that if they only have feather pillows, I get feather pillows even though I like firm ones. I can replace their mouldy shower curtain but I can’t hang a shower curtain if there isn’t a rod. (I’m looking at you, Doha! You and your daily rounds of wielding the floor squeegee after every shower.) These things range from amusing to mildly frustrating to I-cannot-cook-in-your-filthy-kitchen-so-I’ll-just-eat-out-every-single-night surrender.
Ultimately, I really enjoy and value my environmental adaptability. I can sleep on pretty much anything these days. I can rock a squat toilet like nobody’s business. I can improvise a cooking session with nearly any repertoire of whatever staples I might find in the cabinets. (Oh, you only have mongongo nut oil? No problem.)
I am unable to own things, and this one does make my heart ache fairly often because if I could own things, I would keep all of these places I have been much closer to my heart simply by virtue of acquiring objects from them. If I had a place, my god, would it be full of Turkish lanterns and Moroccan tagines and Bornean blow darts and Maldivean seashells and Peruvian embroidery and Nepali basketry. But alas. I tend to compensate for this deprivation by acquiring objects for other people, but that means they’re scattered across the world from Texas to Seattle to London. I'm proud to say my dear friend Joshua Nova really does own a Bornean blow dart, thankyouverymuch.
I’m saving the one thing that is closest to a consequence in every sense of the word for last, aren’t I? I’m sure you can guess that being a full time vagabond taxes or outright precludes relationships. I’m talking about friendships as well as relationships that are more intimate. As much as I love my solitude (I can’t even adequately explain how much I love it—it’s less of a love than a need that comes right after air, water, food, travel, and exercise—and yes, those were ranked). I do miss having a group of good friends physically around me that can function as a steady interconnected moral support system.
My Texas tribe is there for me, don’t get me wrong, but not all at once. Because they can’t be. I can’t sit at the bar surrounded by my boys every weekend and talk the kind of smack that feeds the soul with all of them at once. I can’t go dancing with my girls, even if I can talk to them on the phone. I can’t hold my nephew. (Yes, I’m still an only child, genetically—I’m talking about Jordan & Joshua’s son Liam.) And he’ll be too big to hold before long! That one really hurts.
I sort of gave up on having a sex life after I went to the Amazon on a fairly opulent press trip with Inkaterra and ended up shagging the guide. Not because anything unfortunate came of it other than the realisation that you can be a ripped Quechua demigod, a bonafide Amazonian adonis who is palpably smitten with my every unsparing curve and capable of carrying them to the bedroom without breaking a sweat … but you still can’t get me off if I don’t care about you. Bummer but it’s true—I don’t come if I don’t care.
Those are pretty big sacrifices—realtime friendship and orgasms of the non-self-induced variety. But if acorn theory has any merit (and I think it has a lot—check out James Hillman’s book The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling if you’re curious) I don’t have much choice in the matter. My soul chose travel before the beginning of time. It’s in my blueprint.
“Traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless, newborn baby--I just don't care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it's mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to--I just don't care.” —Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love
Blueprints aside, is it worth it to my logical mind, always living on other people’s turf, and being unable to own things, and experiencing geographical dislocation, and not having stable relationships? Yes. I don’t believe that turf or possessions matter very much in the end, and I’m little but tickled by the dislocation, and I think that if the right person/s is/are out there, we’ll come together (no pun intended), and we’ll make it work. Because it’s already in our blueprints.
Maybe the next time someone asks me where I live, I won’t say that I don’t live anywhere. Maybe I’ll say that I live everywhere, and it’s worth it.