Thor's Travel Notes

Traveler on a Leash, or a Free Spirit ?
- notes from Thor May on some questions by Rolf Potts

[Rolf Potts has a net site on Vagabonding. Vagabonds used to be unlucky jobless men with four days growth of whiskers and a ragged bedroll on their backs. In these affluent times, the vagabonds, a.k.a. travelers, on the bus to Tibet or Caracas are just as likely to be marketing executives who've dropped out of the rat race for a year to live out their fantasies of being fancy free (um, that's just me being cynical again ...). Anyway, Rolf's site is worth a visit. Some publishing company has asked him to write a book on the footloose species, so he's probing the prejudices of no-hopers like me. Below is a kind of fake interview: bits of his questionnaire, and my scratchy answers.]

@5 September 2001

Rolf Potts: Where do you live? What is your hometown? (Also list expat stints, if applicable). What is your age?

I live inside my head. In gracious moments a scintilla of otherworldly oddments are invited in for tea and biscuits. About body stuff, my home is where my bed is, and always has been. My father, a carpenter, made a pitch at real estate as the dreamtime by buying old houses in Sydney, Australia, tearing their hearts out while we dwelled amidst the carnage, then passing them on to suburban bank clerks for a nice profit. He drank the profits and died at a young age. So I dig getting high on a clear head, floating in a rich brew of imagination. People are forever telling me that they'll defend the scrap of clay where they were born to their dying breath. Dumb way to die when any theme park manager can give you a castle, a jungle or an English country garden...

Sydney looks more like a theme park each time I make an annual visit. That's not a complaint. As theme parks go it's pretty cool. There are people who actually claim to be at home in the place, but I've never belonged to any of its tribes, so remain a visitor who happened to grow up there. In other Australian and New Zealand cities there are people I can remember who were, well, almost friends, but family apart, Sydney for me remains one of those destinations where you enjoy the beaches and forget the faces.

My paternal grandmother would live in a house for three months, go bananas and snap at poor old pop, her long suffering husband, "I've had it, I've had it, pop we've gotta' move"; (some other folk of course are faithful to their postcode, and fickle with friends instead..). The carpenter, my father, kept us sometimes a few short years at various addresses, but the moving ethic was essentially similar. Now, at fifty-six I've had well over fifty addresses (more than forty jobs too) in an expanding circle of Australian, Oceanic, and now Asian cities. Maybe it is not the ideal lifestyle (toting hundreds of books about the planet is a definite health hazard), but like child-beating and vendettas, it's one of those things which seem to pass down family trees.

Escaping across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand in 1966, the three day sea voyage on the SS Angelina was a great way to get out of Australia for the first time. We were morbidly fascinated to see the Italian waiters wipe the cutlery we had just used and return it to the dining cabin trolley draws. Figuring your change at 1760 lira to the Aussie dollar was also fun after you'd had a few beers. I liked New Zealand's capital, Wellington, in the springtime (still one of my favourite cities), and got a job washing shirts. Then, after some fast talking I made it up the social ladder and deep down the economic ladder by getting into the local university with a 90% bursary. Until 1975, New Zealand was home on and off for around seven years.

Lots has happened since 1975, though it seems no time at all. I taught twice at Papua New Guinea University of Technology, Lae, in the early 1980s, learning all about the colonial mentality. A mind bending country of 800 languages, extraordinary physical variety, normally gentle people, traditional annual tribal wars where everyone went home for lunch, and terrifying, unpredictable violence by gangs of unemployed, detribalized youths in the large towns. From there, in 1987, I got a job lecturing linguistics at the University of the South Pacific, Fiji. This is an international university to a dozen tiny Island states, and an object lesson in how different even the smallest human groupings can be from each other. A week before I arrived, Colonel Sitiveni Rambuka walked into the parliament, took out his service weapon and declared "democracy is finished". The value of my salary promptly dropped by 30%, but I hung in there for three years.

Back in Australia, in a second shot at a Ph.D. I proved that experience teaches nothing. Instead of being boring, narrow and brilliant, I went through the motions of reinventing all the principles of cognitive linguistics with an unprovable theory (which I still think is right), before chucking it like the first thesis. The only surviving relics of the period are some long technical articles in professional linguistics journals, which three people and an unlucky editor might have read. This folly used up several years of the miserable few years we are allotted to stalk the planet. It was solemn looking recklessness, financed at the usual hand to mouth level by teaching English to immigrants and refugees from every corner of the planet. Now and again I'd flog a couple of second hand motor cars to finance a bit of international backpacking.

When the Ph.D. went away with a whimper, I morphed into a TAFE (polytech) teacher for a few seasons, mostly showing wannabe mechanics from Saddam Hussein's tank corps how to talk in English as if they understood the EFI (electronic fuel injection) systems in Melbourne taxis. Eventually even I could talk as if I understood EFI, CV joints (you don't smoke them), and car computers. On the strength of this illusion, I was sent to a mining camp in Indonesia for a while to teach Indonesian mechanics how to read bulldozer repair manuals in English. All good things come to an end. The TAFE was merged, my mechanics were declared a non-profit centre, and I was downloaded to the unemployment office.

Anyone over fifty in a Western Democracy seems to be more or less unemployable, once they are off the Christmas party list of their old institution. Australian offered a future of selling roller-ball pens from a telephone call center, or sticking my foot under a city tram to claim a disability pension. It was therefore serendipitous when a Chinese university offered, via an internet advert', to pay my airfare, provide an apartment, and throw in a funny-money income (around seven times less than an Australian teacher earns). I had to send a certificate proving I didn't have AIDS (they checked for syphilis on arrival), and was then free for a year to poison young Chinese minds with the idea that THEY could ask questions. Some whisper of this heresy must have reached the administration, so no second contract was offered. However a bigger, better university across the road needed an English lecturer more than they feared foreign contamination.

Two years in China is a mere aperitif, scarcely time to peek into the murky depths of the People's Paradise. At twenty-five, I would have hung in there, but at fifty-four with bugger all in the bank, it was time to go somewhere for a while that paid in real money. Hence South Korea. Here you can make a tad more than subway busking, but not much more, after buying supper and a new pair of shoes. The world knows next to nothing about Korea, save a handful of caricatures, but it has a population the size of England or France, 4000 years or recorded history, and the world's highest level of internet usage. In other words, Korea is a pretty interesting place in its own right, and there's much to be learned by an old lag like me. It may be a short while before, like grandma, I wail again, "I've had it, I've had it. Got to move." Or, given Sod's Law, the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il and his ramshackle northern army may decide at any time to pillage and plunder south of the border...

Rolf Potts:What was your original inspiration as a traveler?

The activity of moving from Point A to Point B seems to me to be only incidentally interesting. Sometimes that transition involves new experience, new challenge, new people. Just as often it is a period of forced inertia, frequently uncomfortable, isolated (passengers are frequently afraid or unwilling to talk to strangers), and damned exasperating if the physical situation precludes reading a good book or doodling with fresh ideas.

So why travel? It challenges your comfort zones. At each destination, however temporary, you have to find a new corner shop, a substitute for the snacks you've grown to like too much, some place to hang out beside that art cinema or pub you'd taken a lease on. You have to fear where your next meal is coming from, know that the cops are totally bent, and wonder what side of the next revolution your new friends will find themselves on.... In other words, the growing that you got over with relief when you slotted into a career ladder with a mortgage, a wife and 2.4 kids has to be junked. You can no longer afford to slide gracefully into early dementia at 35 from following the same mindless routine day in and day out, and a coronary at 45 from rich food and missed resolutions to get some exercise soon.

In truth, the mere idea of a career and 2.4 kids had scared the shit out of me by the time I was about 14. Simple observation of domesticated zones, the flickering TV sets, the desultory chatter, suggested a purgatory of wasted years to come. The trivial routine cycles of most jobs seemed to me a kind of sacrilege when life is so brief, so bright, and so final. As for the family cycle, I actually get on well with kids, but the biological meaning of life, as sold to dogs, cats, goldfish and Sapiens : reproduce or fail as an animal, never grabbed me by the balls. There are after all, a bountiful supply of kids on the planet, and the usual production model: the loveless marriage, tied together with sticky-tape, inertia and guilt .... is a poor incentive when there are far more exciting options. Learning, travel and writing beat the nine-to-five routine hands down. Some heaven-touched ones claim to have it all of course: the perfect family, the fascinating lifestyle... but I'm merely human with an average quota of luck.

The open value set which goes with the pursuit of new learning, travel, writing, self-growth, has found greater currency amongst well educated folk since I left school at 17 and drifted into the first mind-numbing job; ("it's time you fed yourself", said the father, "out!"). Still, this liberated attitude is not always wise, or even decent, to wear on your sleeve in other cultures. The biological breeding model of a life well-lived not only remains popular at home, it is the only conceivable one to the vast majority of people in so-called exotic locales (which are definitely not exotic to the locals). Alternative lifestyles are widely seen as "selfish". That's hardly a rational argument, but cruelly cutting up the values held most dear by your host culture is a cheap trick for a traveler. So I tread softly abroad (except in print), and even clean my shoes occasionally.

Rolf Potts: What is the biggest lifestyle sacrifice of long-term travel in general?

Some people can happily travel through life with a toothbrush and one clean change of T-shirts, but can't bear to be without a crowd of friends around them. On the road, they may become desperate if there's no guest house, hostel or hotel catering to a collection of foreign hip characters just like themselves. Nowadays there is little need to worry on that score. There seem to be more traveler's hostels than churches, mosques or temples, each hosting a shifting population of English, French, German or Japanese language speakers with tales to tell each other. The local scene, in each instance, forms an exotic backdrop and photo opportunity. Maybe this game is not so new. Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales more than half a millennium ago, and you get a strong sense that for his rollicking characters, the journey, the good company, was more important to them than any destination.

For me, the costs and rewards of travel are mostly not about missed friends at home, and new friends abroad. By instinct, conditioning, and eventually by choice I am an outsider. I can enjoy observing the urban wildlife, and even occasionally become immersed with a lively collection of people. But perhaps because I do observe too acutely, or too wryly, or ask how and why too much, your general run of guys and girls only enjoy my company in small doses. Maybe I'm just boring. Anyway, close, entirely candid friendships are rare. That hurt long ago, but now it is a kind of liberation: in the end you have to be true to your own character. The upside is that I can move from world to world with little damage to the soul.

The material damage of travel is greater for me than any social loss, for my kind of travel is not usually an expedition of six weeks or six months. It is a matter of jumping worlds for years at a time. A shed in Sydney is piled high with books, tools, bits of cars, stone carvings from New Guinea, tapa cloth from Fiji, mementos from China, old notes waiting to be turned into stories. There are books that I reach for, then remember with exasperation that they are mouldering in that damned shed. The worst of it is that, perhaps having been born poor, I am always loath to throw anything away. It seems a sacrilege to waste perfectly good objects that are sure to be useful in the future. Any temporary apartment in this city or that quickly becomes a storehouse for second hand jars, plastic bags, bits of wire found on the road, a toaster or electric jug that someone has thrown out and can probably be fixed .... OK, I'm wacky, but this stuff does come in handy. When, inevitably, the time comes to pull up the tent pegs again, it burns me to leave the latest accumulation of might-come-in-handies to the junkman.

Rolf Potts: Do you interact much with the locals of the countries you visit – and if so, in what context? Do you ever try to learn local languages? How do you deal with slippery intercultural phenomenon like bargaining, beggars, and local manner codes?

The best personal answers I can give to these questions are buried in the 70,000 + words of Thor's China Diary (, and Thor's Korea Diary ( Here instead, I will offer a cranky view of what travelers, and near-relatives like expatriates, are up to.

Professional expatriates, such as myself, are surely different in many respects from the package tourist, and the self-regarded independent traveler. The species blur at the edges however. Perhaps language teaching, my field, also forms a special category. Of all the predatory English language teachers posing as professionals in the cram schools and dreary classrooms of the non-English speaking world, few are dedicated to a genuine career in language teaching. They might be in the game for six weeks, or six months, or hang in there for years, but in the end it's just a way to support a drop out lifestyle in an exotic culture. Regardless of motivation, some do actually become fine teachers. There is no doubt also that teaching can be an extremely rewarding entrée into interacting with the local culture.

My observation of expatriates over thirty years (on and off) is that most do not in fact interact with the local cultures in any deep way. The more expatriates you group in one place, the less local interaction takes place. Everyone has to develop a daily routine for shopping, housekeeping, entertainment and employment. With an open attitude and a little adventure these routines can come to involve a circle of indigenous people quite closely, whether that be in Australia, central China or a tiny Pacific atoll.

For the first few weeks in a posting, these prospects of foreign contact revolve in front of the bewildered expatriate. He buys a book which promises that anyone can learn Chinese, Hindustani or Bantu in thirty days. But then very soon he meets the "old hands" and becomes inducted into their self-preserving networks. He learns not only about survival routines which will minimize any need to interact with "foreigners" (his conception, although of course he is the real foreigner), but also an expatriate mythology of what "they", the locals, are "really" like. Along with this goes a set of often quite restrictive group social rules for handling the indigenes. The language learning peters out into a few insulting pidginized phrases which the local shopkeepers and the housegirl are supposed to understand and respect.

The expatriate subculture which I have described is essentially not unique to expatriates. It is also the story of colonialism. It is sometimes the story of immigrant or refugee groups who cluster together in foreign lands. It is the story too of communalism in countless traditional societies throughout the world : groups divided by religion, habit, superstition, historical memories (often mythical fabrications), food, or a thousand other incidental criteria. Such groups live side by side, sometimes for centuries, largely in mutual ignorance. When war or catastrophe strikes, the "others" are natural objects of suspicion and violence ....

Well, your liberated independent travelers, vagabonds, carefree fellows of the road, are of course immune to the pitfalls of insular intolerance, aren't they? Not for them the no-go zones of communities living in mutual suspicion or the silly clusters of expatriates swapping beer stories in a safe club. Well, I am not so sure. On the road, traveling constantly, it is more difficult to develop fossilized routines. Kept constantly off balance, the traveler is forced to make temporary accommodations with all kind of odd people who usually have only a fractional grasp of his language, and little insight into his culture. Whether this broadens his own tolerance is a moot point.

Some individuals do move easily in unfamiliar surroundings, and actively challenge their own cultural comfort zones. My own guess though is that many travelers essentially preserve a National Geographic view of those cultures which are not their own : "aren't they exotic/fascinating/colourful/weird ?" Lot's of slides to show the folks back in Arizona, "but these foreigners are not like us, are they? Would you want your daughter to marry one?" Well, is this so different from the average expatriate worldview?

Perhaps the deep message is that the number of truly independent travelers has always been small, and always will be. Extreme independence of mind or of spirit is not an especially common human characteristic, (which is probably fortunate for the preservation of cultures at all). Marketing daydreams is a different story. The busiest section of many large bookstores is the travel guide section, dozens of Lonely Planet and Rough Guide volumes with ready-made "independent" travel advice for every destination from London to Urumchi. Here surely is clear evidence that boutique vagabonding has become a fashion item for the middle-class masses.

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* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Traveler on a leash, or a free spirit?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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