The cute Brazilian girl in the cell phone store looks up at me and sputters a series of syllables in my general direction. She’s been fiddling with my phone for 15 minutes now, the phone I just bought for twice as much as I would have paid in any other country. Now she can’t get it to work. Explanation is pending, at least until I decipher the Portuguese syllable soup she continues to vomit at me.
I’m frustrated, if you didn’t notice.
“Não entendo,” I reply, for probably the twelfth time. It means “I don’t understand.” One of the only Portuguese phrases I know.
The coy smile she had given me the first few times I said it are now replaced with an aching impatience. She frowns at me, then at the phone, and then sighs. She pulls out a Post-It note, scrawls some Portuguese on it, hands it to me along with my dysfunctional new phone and slowly instructs me to go to another store in the mall and have them deal with it. She has to repeat these instructions three times before I understand them. This is the fourth cell phone store I am being sent to. Apparently there are a lot of bureaucratic procedures involved with buying a cell phone in Brazil, the details of which are obviously sailing clear over my head. And since none of the store clerks speak English, they’ve all eventually reached a breaking point, lost patience and sent me down to the next store to be somebody else’s headache.
The entire process has taken close to three hours… and it’s still not over. The mall cell phone nightmare continues.
(Although to be honest, it should have only been about an hour-and-a-half, I fell asleep in the Claro store waiting for a customer service rep to call my number. I awoke 45 minutes later to find they had proceeded to half a dozen customers beyond me. I strained to convince the rep to take me next since I had been there an hour. But my Portuguese persuasion skills weren’t very effective… OK, since we’re being honest right now, they were non-existent. I couldn’t say a thing, and therefore I hardly raised a fuss. Thus I took a new number and sat my ass back down, this time forcing myself to remain awake for the ensuing 30 minutes I would wait… again.)
I never resolved my cell phone issue that day. I finally found an old man in the mall who spoke English and was kind enough to come translate for me — yes, I walked around a Brazilian mall randomly approaching people to find someone to translate for me. It turns out that Brazil requires an identification number to activate any cell phone bought within the country, the equivalent of having a Social Security Number in the US to buy a cell phone. There’s a formal process that’s required and if you’re a foreigner and don’t work for a Brazilian company, then you’re screwed (unless you can get a friend to come in and register your phone under their name). As is probably obvious, I did not have any Brazilian friends with me. So almost four hours after arriving, I left the mall, having paid too much for a phone I still couldn’t use.
…And then got lost going home.
This was my first day in São Paulo. And I would be lying if I said days like this were rare. They don’t happen that often, but with enough regularity that the seething frustration, the awkward self-consciousness, the mental exhaustion, and the unavoidable sense of isolation, they’ve all become familiar to me now.
Most people who learn about my lifestyle — the fact that I spend 10 months a year traveling and living in foreign countries — see it as something glamorous. But as with any lifestyle, there are strengths and weaknesses to it. It’s not all a bed of roses. You sacrifice some things to gain others. And don’t worry, I’m not here to complain about every trying moment I’ve come across in two-and-a-half years of traveling. There have been far, far, far more good days than bad. And I would not take back a single life decision I’ve made.
But I do want to paint a realistic picture of what this lifestyle entails, the highs with the lows. And posit that perhaps the biggest difference between this lifestyle and a conventional one, is simply that the highs are higher and the lows lower, thus reorienting what one values spending their time on.
Because this is what you don’t hear: that day after the Brazilian cell phone debacle, after finally finding my way back to my hotel at dusk, I went and sat in my room by myself. Without TV. Without Wifi. No movies. No friends (not like I’d be able to call them anyway). Nothing to do. I went home and laid in bed for most of the evening. Physically and mentally drained and miserable.
There’s nothing new about a bad day. We all have them. And we all have our own strategies to unravel our negative emotions. Sometimes we call up a friend and unload on them, perhaps over beers. Or we call up mom or dad and look for a little reassurance. Maybe we put on a movie with our significant other and just forget about everything for a few hours. Or maybe we hit the gym or take it out on a basketball court.
But life on the road, it’s quite often that you don’t have any friends to have beers with, you can’t call a parent and lean on them for some support, you don’t have a movie to watch or someone to curl up with, no gym membership, no basketball court. Often you have to take the brunt of your emotions alone, with nothing to distract you from them.
And it’s hard. But it makes you stronger, more mentally resilient, more centered. When you do eventually bounce back, life feels much lighter. And those joyous experiences you feel in contrast to the dark and lonely ones become that much better. In fact, I’ve found that the stark contrast between highs and lows has actually begun to redefine what those joyous moments are.
Some of my happiest memories from last year were going out and just having beers with some friends. Nothing more, nothing less. Something which I did weekly for years and years prior to this new lifestyle and that was always available to me.
It’s a bizarrely paradoxical effect on one’s emotional life: the extreme highs and novelty of experience render certain “exciting” activities to feel meaningless, and the extreme lows of isolation and frustration make many “normal” activities feel exciting and fulfilling. A Fourth of July parade looks a lot different after you’ve been to Carnaval in Brazil (twice) and stayed up three days straight partying in Ibiza. And I’ll give you a hint: it becomes really boring.
A road trip to the beach back home seems silly in comparison to living on the beach in Thailand, or taking surfing lessons in the swells of Bali. In many ways, you become jaded to your former life.
But on the other hand, the dark times of loneliness, depression, frustration, and isolation make other routine daily events of life — events which you and everyone else take for granted — that much better and more significant.
Last year, I got terribly sick in a rural town in India — possibly the last place on earth you would want to be sick. I had a scorching fever, cold chills and a headache that jackhammered the inside of my skull. I ran out of potable water at about 10PM, and the only stores in town had closed down for the night. I laid in bed through the entire night, unable to sleep due to fever and sweats. No medicine. Dehydrated and incredibly thirsty. And just to make things more interesting, a few hundred bugs swarmed into the room and were now crawling and buzzing around the walls, and occasionally on me.
Mom’s Christmas dinner tastes a lot better after an experience like that.
Which I guess is what the paradox resolves into: a devaluing of superficial pleasures and a greater appreciation for simple, authentic ones. I don’t really enjoy the presents at Christmas anymore, the fireworks at Fourth of July, or even the parties on New Year’s Eve. I’ve seen bigger parties, been to more beautiful places, and already own everything I’ll ever want in this life. But unlike before, I appreciate every day spent with those who mean a lot to me. A quiet beer on a patio. Watching a basketball game together. Going to a birthday party or a barbecue. These are the events I look forward to now and get excited about, days and weeks ahead of time… And that’s probably the way it should be.