“Mi madre hablaba como la aurora y como los dirigibles que van a caer.” – Vicente Huidobro
I’m exploring options for the next few week/months/years/decades/millennia of my life after flying to Lima next Tuesday. At first I thought I’d stay in Lima a week and then make my way into the mountains.
But now I realize I have…
Option 1: Play it safe
Stay in Lima a week or two, go to small town outside Lima, go to Huancayo, a city six hours east of Lima located at 3,400 meters above sea level in the mountains, stay a couple weeks in Huancayo since weather wouldn’t be hot and it has cheap Airbnb’s.
Make way into the jungle…
Option 2: José Mujica
Stay a week in Lima, make way to Cusco, make way to Puerto Maldonado, cross into Brazil, go to Rio Branco, see a bit of both Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon, make way into Paraguay, then Uruguay, drink mate with José Mujica, then make way down to Buenos Aires, down to Chiloé, then Ushuaia.
Fly to Svalbard.
Option 3: Paraguay
Make way to Bolivia, spend a couple weeks in Bolivia, make way to Paraguay.
Option 4: English, mate, Svalbard
Fly to Santiago, fly to Valdivia, make way to Chiloé, stay with Marcela and Pablo on their farm for a couple months, teaching English, writing, and drinking mate. Then make way to Ushuaia. Fly to Svalbard.
Option 5: The southernmost “community” in the world
Today I taught my English class in the upscale neighborhood of Providencia, three hours of intense one on one English instruction, nurturing the finest minds from Guadalajara, and then afterward went to the park. I went to the park to work out. Lately I’ve been going three times a week and doing bench, sit-ups, pull-ups, and usually one wildcard exercise like wrist curls. My workouts last approximately five minutes. Today was special though, because there was a guy there working out, and upon arriving I said to him, “Hey, do you know how to do these exercises? I don’t know if I’m doing them properly.”
“More or less,” he said.
It turned out he was basically a personal trainer. Or at least he became my personal trainer for the next 30 minutes. His name was Frank, and when he said his name with a distinct American/Non-Mexican accent, I asked him if he spoke English.
“More or less,” he said.
He taught me how to do various exercises, like deadlifts, with perfect form, and stressed that good form was much more important than how many reps you could do and with how much weight.
“I’m a perfectionist, Frank,” I said, “So I understand the desire for good form. Why do you think I asked you if you knew how to do these?”
Frank helped me add several new exercises to my repertoire, like hanging from a beam. I’ve never been one to just hang from a beam — I usually can’t resist the urge to try to pull myself upward — but it turns out it’s fairly agreeable. It stretches you out. It felt good on my wrist. And Frank claimed it was a good way to build grip strength and strength in general.
On the way to my English class I made another wonderful discovery: An upscale grocery store. I went in hoping they’d have mate, and they did have mate, two wonderful Argentinian brands — Cruz de Malta and Rosamonte — that are guaranteed to send my brain into the stratosphere over the next few weeks — but they also had something even better (roughly the same): Vichy Catalan. If you don’t know what Vichy Catalan is, I feel sorry for you, but I don’t blame you. Vichy Catalan is sparkling water. It comes from Catalunya. It tastes roughly like sulfur, and I’m obsessed with it. The only problem is in Spain it costs about a euro a liter and here it costs $3.50 cents for a half liter. Still, I bought one. I brought it to my English class and said to my student, “Prepare for massive life changes.” My student hated it, which I was hoping for, since it meant more for me. And so now, for as long as I stay in Guadalajara, I’ll reward myself on any occasion possible with the finest mineral Spain has to offer, since now I know exactly where to get it.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Guadalajara. How long I’m staying here. This morning I woke up in foul spirits and upon exiting my room immediately stepped on a paralyzed cockroach and the resulting sound sounded like a bubble on a sheet of bubble wrap popping. Why do I say “paralyzed?” Because when cockroaches come into contact with fumigation chemicals they become paralyzed, lying on their back, feet pointing to the sky, waiting to be disposed of. I’d seen them like this before and always thought they were dead. But today the owner of my house set me straight. When this happened I thought, “OK, no more. I’m getting the hell out of Guadalajara.” But then on the way to class I had a sort of epiphany. I could’ve left today, I could’ve just said to hell with everything, and been instantly “free,” but I would’ve felt bad and probably questioned the decision. Or I could do something I’m not used to. I could give the decision some more time, and not rush it. So that’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m pretty sure I’m going to leave GDL soon (which will be great for this blog), but I’m going to take Semana Santa (Easter), and getting out of the city for a few days, to think about it. If I come back and still want to leave, then peace out, GDL.
But who knows. Maybe I’ll want to stay here and work out with Frank. And drink mate. And on very, very special occasions, buy a cool, refreshing, slightly sulfuric bottle of Vichy Catalan.
This morning I woke up in a my little shit-hole room I like more and more everyday, turned off the white noise for colicky babies that has changed my life completely and allows me to sleep perfectly — almost perfectly — at the very least it allows me to be excited about going to sleep, because I know I won’t hear the neighbors talking, and if a dog barks — and a dog will bark, at some point in the night a dog will flip the shit out and sound like it’s trying to murder someone — it barely penetrates the fortress of white noise I’ve engineered in the form of my phone sitting equidistant between my person and the window from which the noise comes.
I lay in bed for a moment, as a I usually do, disorientated. “Where am I? Why am I in Mexico?” I thought. Then I thought about how I should best go about seizing the day. I decided to do what I usually do: Turn on the hot water heater and lie in my bed rating Instagram Ads for Appen until the water gets hot.
Yesterday I got an email from Appen. It said, “This is to serve as a friendly reminder that you’re not allowed to work outside of your home market country.” My home market country is the United States. I am not in the United States. I am directly violating this rule, and yet I need the money and this avarice has led me to dishonesty. There is no other way to put it. I am a dishonest person. I’m a liar. I’m a conniver.
What impressed upon me as I got up to turn on the hot water heater this morning, however, was not my dishonesty with Appen, or my precarious financial state, or even that I’m finally recovering from a crippling weekend in Sayulita, or myriad issues from my personal life, but that the temperature was perfect this morning, a crisp 52 degrees Fahrenheit, but not cold because the house around me wasn’t cold, and the sun, even though it doesn’t get all the way into the patio, somehow warmed things up. It was perfect. It’s always perfect here in Guadalajara, and that’s because the climate in Guadalajara is magisterial.
Today, for example, the high is 76 degrees. Seventy-five if you’re lucky. It rained last night, which cooled everything down. When it started raining I was in La Teteria with my friend Sandi, drinking a matcha frappe and again remarking on the perfectness of the climate. It was probably in the mid 60’s. It’s rare in Guadalajara to not be able to wear a short-sleeved shirt, though from what I understand in the in the months of April and May it gets too hot. This is because summer is coming, but the rains have not yet come. In June the rains come and cool things down again.
I turned on the water heater, lighting the pilot light first and turn the knob to “heat” and holding it there a few seconds before letting it go and watching the flame flare up, fill the heater, and then die down into a compact inferno designed to heat 30 liters of water as quickly as possible. Then I traversed the patio again, the crisp air cooling my skin, and lay in bed and rated Instagram ads.
In the mornings in Guadalajara, in winter, it’s advisable to wear a sweater. I’m currently wearing a blue sweater with blue pants, violating one of the cardinal rules of fashion. Sometimes I wear a black fleece. Sometimes, when I’m teaching, I simply leave the house wearing a long-sleeve dress shirt. Either way it’s perfect. If I get too hot wearing the fleece, I simply take it off. And maybe leaving the house in just a dress shirt I’m too cold for a fraction of a second, but it’s literally a fraction of a second, as soon as I start walking it’s fine.
The best times in Guadalajara are without a doubt after a rain. The rain cleanses the city and cleanses your soul. After a rain the city smells not like an arid wasteland (though to be fair it never smells like an arid wasteland), but like a lush oasis somewhere in Southern Algeria, a place you’ve trekked many days to get to, and just when you were about to die of thirst and contemplating ripping your camel open to drink its blood, you came upon an oasis, first seeing it from afar, the date palms swaying in the breeze, and you thought, “Damn, another mirage,” but it wasn’t a mirage, because soon you heard voices, and the date palms disappeared, and then you were kneeling by a fresh fount, quenching your thirst, the cool water mixed with the blood from your dry lips. You stay in the oasis for a week, regaining your strength. You meet the leaders of the village. One day by the well you meet a beautiful girl and fall in love. You must continue with your journey, though; if you’re meant to you’ll be back.
Now I’m in Starbucks, which has its own little musty microclimate. It’s still perfect. I could sit outside, but I want to be shielded from the noise of the cars by the din of the cafe and the melodic voice of some kind of singer/songwriter that I’m sure has long hair and is obnoxious but who all the girls love. After I’m done writing this post I’ll leave, back into the world, and again the weather will be ideal. It’s easy to understand why a city like San Miguel de Allende became so popular with expats, because the climate is similar to here. The snowbirds come down every winter. Some of them have stayed. But in Guadalajara there are no snowbirds. Guadalajara’s climate is not only perfect temperature-wise, but temperament-wise also. It is the city that forgives. That city that frees. The city that cleanses.
Tao Te Ching (pronounced, more or less, Dow Deh Jing) can be translated as The Book of the Immanence of the Way or The Book of the Way and How It Manifests Itself in the World or, simply, The Book of the Way.” — Stephen Mitchell
Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher (though it’s not clear if the term philosopher existed at the time he lived) born sometime in 6th or 5th century BC. He is known for his book the Tao Te Ching, a book I’ve recently gotten really into. Actually, I’ve been into this this book for a few years now, mostly because of the beauty of Stephen Mitchell’s translation. Stephen Mitchell does not speak Chinese. You’d think this would make the translation suffer, and maybe it has in terms of accuracy, but it certainly hasn’t in terms of beauty. He based his translation on many other translations, and also 14 years of studying Zen Bhuddism. My question is: How do you study Zen Buddhism for 14 years, have at least a vague interest in Chinese philosophers, and not learn Chinese? Was he studying in Iowa? Did he make a point of not learning the language? We’ll never know.
It is fairly clear what some of the ancient Roman philosophers thought about travel, or at least too much travel. As Lucius Annaeus Seneca said in his Letters from a Stoic, “All this hurrying from place to place won’t bring you any relief, for you’re traveling in the company of your own emotions, followed by your troubles all the way.”
Or, perhaps even more to the point, ““If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
Or even MORE to the point:
“To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
OK, we get it Lucius, you weren’t too stoked on travel. You didn’t like to just grab your rucksack, stick out your thumb, and see where the wind took you. I don’t blame you! You lived in ancient Rome! Things were probably super rad! Why explores the vast reaches of ancient Europe when you could sit around talking, drinking wine, wearing plain robes, eating plain food, and striving to be content with things as they are?
Because this is common thing, both with the Stoics and with Lao Tzu: If you want to be content, strive to be content with the way things are. Don’t covet something you don’t have, love the thing you already have. He is richest who wants least. All I want to do, ever, is play chess, etc. etc. (This last one is a Bobby Fischer quote and it’s not really relevant, I just like it).
But today I want to talk about what Lao Tzu thought, a man who existed centuries before Seneca and half a world away. What did Lao Tzu think about traveling, and more importantly, living a nomadic life?
It’s important to start with one of the main tenets of Lao Tzu wisdom. One of his main teachings was the so-called art of “non-being,” or “not doing.” Letting things unfold however they want. Being fluid. The soft conquers the hard. The light conquers the dark, etc. etc. “When you are content to be yourself, and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” – Tao Te Ching Chapter 8.
The first good clue as to what Lao Tzu thought about nomadism (I use it in the modern sense of basically being on the move all the time) comes in Chapter 15: “Do you have the patience to wait, till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving, till the right action arises by itself?”
This seems to be in keeping with that Seneca said about travel, that if you want to escape things that harass you the place isn’t the problem, you’re the problem. (Though I don’t think Lao Tzu, in his infinite wisdom, knew what “problems” were.) Lao Tzu’s advice would be to just sit still, and not run, and wait until the correct solution presents itself. Let the mud settle. Wait until the water is clear.
But THEN, in chapter 20, my favorite chapter of the book, he seems to say something a bit different:
Other people have what they need;
I alone possess nothing.
I alone drift about,
like someone without a home.
I am like an idiot, my mind is so empty.
Other people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.
This seems to contradict what he said earlier about staying still and quiet until your mud settles. This seems to promote going wherever the wind takes you (in fact it says exactly that). so whenever I need to justify my aimless wanderings, I turn to this quote. This quote gives me comfort, though not really because I know deep down Lao Tzu it’s not really what Lao Tzu meant. In other words, I don’t think these passages refer to travel so much. They refer to something else, something of the mind…
In Chapter 26, his thoughts on excessive travel become clear:
Why should the lord of the country
flit about like a fool?
If you let yourself be blown to and fro,
you lose touch with your root.
If you let restlessness move you,
you lose touch with who you are.
And it doesn’t really matter that the next line is, “A good travel has no fixed plans, and is not intent upon arriving,” because Lao Tzu believed that there was a time for everything, and that we should be like nature. “When it blows, there is only wind. When it rains, there is only rain” (Chapter 23). Which means that yes, there is a time for travel. And when you do it, do it with all your heart, embrace it fully, and don’t doubt yourself. But when the time for travel is over, let yourself be content to stay still. Don’t flit about “like a fool,” because you’ll lose touch with your root, and ultimately, with who you are.
That said, I’ve been in Guadalajara almost a month now.
I’m not sure how to start this. Maybe I should start this with my first memories of my dad reading to me, when I was four or five, living in Colorado. I remember the room he would read to me in, but not anything about the rest of the house. And for some reason it doesn’t seem like our house.
Then I remember reading on my own, things like Goosebumps and Calvin and Hobbes. I used to devour Goosebumps. Oh, they were such horrible books. Each chapter would have a twist at the end of it. “Max crept along the hallway, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Suddenly, he heard a growl and a dark shape rounded the corner. Max screamed.” (Next Chapter) “…But, it was just his dog Terry, who knocked him to the ground and effusively licked his face.”
Calvin and Hobbes, of course, was not bad. Calvin and Hobbes might’ve been what made me a reader. Bill Watterson’s ability to make complex vocabulary not only accessible to children, but entertaining, still knows no equal. If I ever have kids I pray that Calvin and Hobbes will be strewn upon their bedroom floors.
Fast forward to high school, where I had one of only two teachers to date who’ve ever made me want to write. Which is significant, if you think about it. I’ve had a lot of teachers when you include elementary school, middle school, high school, Arizona State University, undergrad at the University of Washington, postgrad at the University of Washington, and only two in the history of my life have ever made me want to write. All the other teachers unknowingly beat it out of me. They made writing a chore. They made writing something to be feared, to be avoided. But not this man at Bainbridge High School. His name was Bob McAllister. I could try to sum up his meaning to the school and the community (and to me) with a pithy sentence, but his obituary in the Bainbridge Island Review says it best:
“Bob McAllister, Island Treasure, poet and teaching icon, dies at 73” (full article).
I remember one day in particular we came to class and he was sitting behind his desk with his arms raised straight above his head. He looked like a praying mantis. We snickered in the manner high school kids might snicker upon seeing a teacher like this, and expected him to put his arms down at any moment. But he greeted us as he did every other morning, arms still above his head. He started teaching the class. He must have had his arms up for 45 minutes. Then, with no fanfare, almost as if he hadn’t realized they were up, he put them down.
Bob McAllister was one of two (maybe 2.5) teachers I’ve ever had who encouraged creativity, who encouraged not only a close examination of the greats, the classics, of other literature (even bad literature), but of creating something yourself.
Other than in Mr. McAllister’s class, I didn’t write much in high school.
Then I got to college at the University of Washington. I can still smell the air outside Thomson Hall that rainy June. It was a French class with a teacher named Lisa. She was tremendous. She would show us pictures of apples and bananas and chairs and windows and yell the name at us in French and we would scream it back at her just as loud. This was the summer of 2005. I had just gotten back from studying abroad in Spain. I desperately needed structure and to be surrounded by people more mature than me.This was the big leagues. Arizona State was OK, but this was the big leagues.
Enter teacher who encouraged creativity number two. His name was Edgar O’Hara, and he was from Peru. A lot of the students hated him. A lot feared him. But Edgar, like Mr. McAllister, was a poet, and so had a soft spot for creation. Which meant we got along just fine. He would tell us to write an essay on “Travel,” and I would write an essay about a wild boar bleeding to death in the jungle, and he’d give me an A. He’d tell us to write an essay criticizing something, and I’d write two pages on how much I hated hippies, and he’d give me an A. Here was a teacher who didn’t penalize creativity. He rewarded it. He made me want to write. He made me see the possibilities of writing, that you, alone with just your brain and a pen or a pencil or a computer, could create worlds. You could create anything you wanted. And not only was this possible, it was necessary.
By that time I had already started writing for myself a bit. While I was studying in Spain in 2004 I kept a journal in the style of Bill Bryson, but that was lost when my laptop was stolen a few years later. Then, in 2007, six months before graduating from the University of Washington, I started my first blog. It was called Boosh Clown, named after the nickname of a famous (see: obscure) skateboarder. I wrote about various themes on that blog. I wrote about UW basketball. I wrote about music. I wrote about how much I despised Limp Bizkit. I posted a video of myself drinking hot dog flavored water.
Within a year or so I started Where’s Wetzler, and by this time I knew I was going to be writing until I was 85 years old and shaking and barely able to see the page. I still know that. It’s one of the few things I know about myself. I’ve been asked this question a lot over the years: Mark, what are you running from? Why don’t you just settle down? Why do you keep moving from spot to spot as if it will fix something? And I have no answer for this. I’ve stopped thinking about it, to an extent. But one thing I do know, no matter where I go, even if it’s to a deserted island or a settled life in city, writing will always follow me. It’s like a street dog you give one scrap of food to, and next thing you know it follows you all the way home. Except I take this street dog inside. I give it a good meal. I give it a bath. And suddenly it’s no longer a street dog, it’s my dog.
And now it’s 2018, more than 11 years after I started my first blog, and 14 years since I started taking writing seriously. And my question is: When are my 10,000 hours going to be done? Because anyone who knows anything about creative work and who’s read Malcom Gladwell or listened to the Macklemore song knows before you can make it as a writer or a painter or a singer or a synchronized swimmer, you have to put 10,000 hours in. Maybe I’m on 8,543. Maybe I’m only on something like 6,000. Oh God, that would be terrible. What if I’m only on 3,000 or 4,000? No, that’s impossible at this point. After 14 years of writing off and on, but usually at least somewhat on, I have to be coming up at 10,000.
Maybe I’m at 9,999 right now. It’s 9:04am here in Guadalajara, and I’m sitting in the Starbucks on Chapultepec, and maybe, unbeknownst to me, the 10,000th hour is just minutes away. I’ll type a few more words. I’ll take a sip of my Youthberry tea. I’ll look around at the people in line, remark on how it always smells a little musty in here, stare a little too long a the cute girl in line, type a few more words, and then a few more, and then look down at my apple wrapper, which was my breakfast, lament the screaming toddler a few feet from me, type a few more words, and that’s it. Ten thousand. A wave of euphoria comes over me. I start somehow replicating one of the first drafts of The Sun Also Rises. A cigarette magically appears in my hand. So does a cup of coffee. An old Royal Quite de Luxe typewriter appears in front of me, and suddenly I’m at the hacienda in Havana, standing by my bed and writing the first pages of a book about a man who goes marlin fishing.
Or maybe none of this will happen, because that’s not how it works. I have no idea how it works. But I intend to find out.
“And that was how I left Bergen” – Karl Ove Knausgaard
I kind of despise the word “nomad,” because I feel like people don’t really know what it means. They misuse it. I misuse it.The dictionary definition is: “a member of a people having no permanent abode, and who travel from place to place to find fresh pasture for their livestock.”
However, the second definition is: “a person who does not stay long in the same place; a wanderer.”
And it’s this second definition that’s come into prevalence today. I don’t know many people today who call themselves nomads who actually keep goats.
The thing about being a so-called nomad, if you don’t have livestock (though that’s obviously the dream), is that you must have a job. I had my first nomad job back in 2014, when I started working for a company called ZeroChaos as an Ads Quality Rater in Spanish. What does this mean? We’ll get to that. First I’d like to mention a few other traveling jobs I had before my first “real” nomad job.
Pizza maker in Puerto Varas, Chile (I was the assistant)
Bed and Breakfast morning attendant in Puerto Montt, Chile (I washed dishes and talked to people from Argentina)
WWOOFing (if you haven’t heard about WWOOFing it’s where you work five hours a day for room and board. I did it in Finland).
Hostel jobs (mostly reception)
But then, in 2014, I got a job evaluating Google Ads based on search terms for a company called ZeroChaos. My friend Sonia had told me about the job. Sonia grew up in Rome and speaks (natively) English, Italian and Finnish, and also has a Masters in French. “It only pays $15 an hour,” she said. “But it’s easy.”
Look at this emo nomad.
The problem with the job was that you weren’t supposed to leave the US while working it. I observed this for the first summer. I went to places like La Push, Washington (pictured above), making small trips and working a little while on the road. But I yearned to know: Could I somehow do it abroad? Could I be in a leafy plaza in Madrid in fall rating Google Ads and murmuring to myself, drunk on the sweetness that was nomadic life?
So I tried it.
First I went to Mexico. Los Cabos. And they didn’t catch me. I was devious. I used a VPN to make it look like I was in the US. Much later, however, I would realize that “catching” me probably had nothing to do with it. They just didn’t care.
By this time, a few months into the job, I was a seasoned ads rater. Here’s what the basic task consisted of: You get a search term, like, “Restaurants near Minneapolis,” and you’re shown an ad that may or may not be useful for someone who’s entered that search term. You evaluate it. You explore the landing page the ad links to. You evaluate it. You look around and realize you’re in Mexico City making what, for Mexico, is an insane hourly wage. You smile. And then you do it for six hours and kind of want to cut yourself.
Rollin’ with the homies.
Not only was this job good for nomadic life, it actually encouraged it. Due to the relatively low pay and repetitiveness, changing up the outside surroundings was critical. I went to Cabo. I flew to Mexico City. I flew to Paris. I lived in Southwest France for three months, renting a room for $400 euros from a wonderful woman named Frederique. Every morning I’d get up, check the waves, if they were good I’d surf, and if they were bad I’d work, then go to the grocery store/skate park, work some more, and in the evening, chill. Then I walked the Camino de Santiago. Five hundred miles of walking, working the ad rating job every single day to pay for it. Then Morocco. Then home. Then back to Spain, this time San Sebastian, an hour away from where I’d lived in France. Again, a similar routine. Wake up, surf. Work. Take a break. Work. Have lunch. Work. Go to the skatepark. Chill.
I look back on those two months in San Sebastian with tremendous fondness. I lived in a four-bedroom apartment with two people from Spain and one girl from Ethiopia/Italy. None of us knew what we were doing in life. We were all in the same boat. We had a wonderful view of the ocean, and every morning I’d put on my wetsuit (in my room!), dash downstairs, run across the street, and within 10 minutes be in the water. At night we’d sit in the living room and roll cigarettes and laugh.
Anyway, the great thing about this job was the flexibility. I could work up to 29 hours a week but I only had to work 10, which meant if I found something better for a short time I could do that, like when I worked as a tour guide for El Camino Travel in Colombia and Nicaragua.
I also wrote my first book while doing this job. I flew to Belgrade and traveled overland through Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and finally into Germany. I wrote 1,000 words a day five days a week. After two months, I (sort of) had a book. You can buy it here. But don’t. It’s terrible.
Finally, after a year and a half of ad rating I decided to call it quits. No more ZeroChaos. Now that I’m back in Mexico and struggling to get rolling I wish I could have this job back. Fifteen dollars an hour in Mexico means you’re a veritable Czar. But I’ve emailed ZeroChaos. I’m not even sure they exist anymore. Either way, they’re not doing re-hires.
What did I learn from this job? You either find a job that you love and that pays you and that’s your life. Or, you find a job you can tolerate that allows you to do the things you love and that’s your life. The first one is better. But the first one takes time and dedication. Which is what I’m working on now, one blog post at a time. One instant coffee at a time. One (proverbial) day at a time.