I’ve written an introduction to my book. It’s a first draft. That means it will probably change a lot. It will get shorter and less all-over-the-place. But here it is, open to comments. Does this ring true, or does it sound like Guinea-Fowl-for-the-Traveler’s-Soul? I mean it. I just don’t want it to sound like it’s written for the back of a greeting card.
(I’ve also written several chapters of the book, but they are still far, far too messy for public consumption. I’m starting to run them past the people who appear in them to check my memory for details—which could be a mistake.)
In January of 2001, I believed that intimacy and co-dependence were the devil. They’d sneak up, perhaps through a few clever jokes. The jokes would turn into dates, and dates into weekends, time spent getting to know the other’s family and friends. I’d seen it happen to many of my friends, one by one. They’d think someone was cute and next thing you know, they’d be moving to the suburbs with a spouse, two children, a dog, and an SUV. They’d once had other plans, but couldn’t recall them anymore. They hated their jobs—who didn’t—but they’d be chained to the career-ladder for life, for the kids, for the mortgage, for lack of options.
I’d been on a lot of first-dates over the last several years, but not on a lot of second-dates. I was adamantly independent, had other things on my mind, and to me dates were just the tempting bait in life’s cleverest trap. I had a little travel problem, almost an addiction, that didn’t leave room for close relationships. It wasn’t about the destinations—it was about my reaction to new situations. Traveling made me improvise, think on my feet, and kept my mind wide open. Thanks to a tolerant boss and a freelance contract, I was able to work extra hard for ten months a year, getting ahead on my contract and taking two months off to visit exotic locales.
Problem was, I was slaving away miserably—mindlessly coloring comic books as I had for over a decade—for those ten months in order to enjoy the two month’s abroad. Something was obviously wrong with this.
I’d started to e-mail travel diaries in ’96 when I’d been in Central America, and expanded to an ambitious website in ’98 with an 8-week trip across the Asian Subcontinent and Middle East. This was pre-blogging software, before the term even existed. I’d code the HTML in Notepad or SimpleText, upload it however I could, and add a few jpegs from photos hastily scanned in an Internet café. Digital cameras were not yet common.
Keeping an online diary meant I didn’t have to bore friends who were not interested with the stories of my travels. Only those who genuinely wanted to see my holiday photos would look. Many people only listen and look to be polite, as they are more interested in their own lives than in mine (funny how that works). But there are others—total strangers—who relish tales of faraway lands. People I knew started forwarding my e-mails to people I didn’t know. I started getting responses from strangers. The readers who enjoyed the stories the most were ones with no hope of ever leaving home, ones without passports or money, or people who used to travel but were now disabled.
I’d just returned home from Southeast Asia in March of 2000. I sat with my mother, uncle, and aunt at a picnic table outside a restaurant. We talked of the trip I’d just had, my dissatisfaction with my current lifestyle, and of my future plans. What, we wondered, could I do on a grander scale, to get me out of the repetitive job I was in once and for all?
Perhaps, I mused, I could go as far away on earth as I could. The opposite side from New York City, which was Australia. Then I’d have to get home by any means possible but would be forbidden to get on an airplane. That could be a good story to have up on the website. Surely that would be good enough for some articles and maybe a book as well.
I started to research ships, to see if it was possible to get out of Australia or if my plan would be a bust from the beginning.
What this research told me was that it was tough to leave Australia heading west, but easy to get there from the east. So easy, in fact, that half the world could be covered in one Amtrak journey from New York to Los Angeles, followed by a ship voyage from Long Beach to Melbourne. Why do half the world when I could go around the whole thing simply by adding an extra month of easy travel?
And so MariesWorldTour.com was born. I’d go around the world in a calendar year, live on the Internet. I’d go without airplanes, but wouldn’t stubbornly stick to that in emergencies. I’d send souvenirs to readers from their virtual tour, and readers could vote on my route and activities.
Richard Starkings of Comicraft liked the idea and offered to host my site. His designer, John “JG” Roshell of Active Images, was game. Friends contributed artwork and some travel outfitters offered discounts (and a few freebies). I sold my East Village condo, bought when the neighborhood was considered dicey and sold at what seemed then to be its trendy height. I’d have to live out of a backpack—and by my wits—for a year, across Australia, Asia, Russia, Europe, Africa, and North America.
The plan was to get across Australia, Europe, and North America as quickly as possible. Good travel stories are not the stuff of things running smoothly and easily. No one wants to read about taking a walking tour of Rome’s Coliseum or viewing the Rockies from a train window. No, the good stories happen when things go wrong. The more horribly wrong, the better the story.
I sleepwalked through most of Asia, having been there just one year before. Russia went smoothly, but Central Asia was a challenge. Uzbekistan was particularly difficult. But Africa—I loved Africa. So much that I went back to live there for half of 2005. Parts of Africa look like what they call “aid porn,” those starving-children-in-huts images we’ve seen on TV that tug at our heartstrings. But what these commercials don’t show you is the dignity of the people living in the huts, how they live their lives with the same hopes and dreams for their families as those in the “developed” countries of the North. The images don’t show the vibrant cities of Cape Town, Kampala, or Nairobi. They don’t imply that much of Africa also features flushing toilets, shopping malls, and gas stations just like in Ohio, or that genuine human concern for life is found in villages made of mud and sticks, the kind of concern that is lacking in the hyper-societies I’d lived in.
Parts of Africa are a hassle to navigate on public transport. Touts can be relentless in tourist areas, and tribalism often ruins otherwise healthy political systems. Crime rates are infamous in South Africa, people are starving from politically induced famine in Zimbabwe, and populations across the continent have been devastated by HIV. But life can also be a grand adventure in Africa, and while challenging, it can also be a rewarding place to live or travel in.
Crossing Africa taught me a lot about myself, and somewhere between Cape Town and Cairo—when I’d eaten my 250th meal of the year alone—I started to grasp something. I had met some fantastic people over the year. Some of them had enhanced my adventures and broken through my invisible solitude barrier. Maybe—just maybe—it was possible to let my guard down. Maybe dates didn’t have to turn into the ball-and-chain of traditional life. Maybe I’d had it all wrong, and opening up to other people didn’t automatically equal a miserable life of routine and a desk job.
But it would take me several more years of alienation and hard lessons—followed by months of living in Uganda, Namibia, and South Africa—before I fully understood this.
-Marie Oct. 2005