Bananas, cereal, and soy milk for breakfast; black beans, avocados, and canned tuna for lunch and dinner: the days of eating great food and cheaply are over and have been for the past several weeks, the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes from being on the road and giving in to wanderlust again have ended. Or rather, the glorified idea of vagabond life and travel through exotic locals, away from the comforts of home. Home to me is far more mythic than exotic locals in the land of “over there”; the mundane and monotonous routines don’t reflect a physical place to get away from, but an emotional, social, and economical, metaphysical space I am in again.
The vultures and suckerfish known as the student loan collectors have been on my tail. The glory of living well on very little is a lie, for in simple economics, what you can get for $500 USD a month in the Third World is what you can get on $4000 USD in Los angeles. However, people assume they will earn American, Australian, British, or Canadian wages by virtue of being foreign-born and educated, which is not true in all situations. I earn $500 in $USD each month paid in Indonesian Rupiah, and the frugality I lived with in college and life after my father died continues over here. The problem of living this way is, I end up not even breaking even with the reality of having to pay back my loans, cutting into my food budget, putting me to two meals a day again.
Go to another place? That’s always the plan. Save up and move on? That’s the challenge. When you factor in the costs of visas, transportation, rent, food, and utilities, the glory of looking for work and earning easy money by teaching English or other work is far from the reality. This is the price of vagabond life, and I am trying to make my way out of the debt trap. The debt trap is continuing an existence trying to pay back debts in menial work; the “good life” promised by higher education and the ability to finance it through generous student loans is what created the economical disaster in America. Add the credit card debt people get themselves further into in attempts to improve their lot with entrepreneurial pursuits or technical training and certification, and you find that the generation of the disillusioned looking for something better “out there” is better than this.
Well, I’m “out there” now, and I’m happier here, and it’s easier to move between cultures and places due to proximity than it is to hop on a plane for an exorbitant and criminal sum, but it’s not easier. Every place has its challenge, but they also have their own rewards. The reward that I get for being here is that I have a more fulfilling life knowing that this struggle is what I asked for, to learn, to experience, to grow, which I will then use to give back in humanitarian service and in making art. It is this opportunity I have for the next few weeks that I use my circumstances to make art, and why off-duty, I am writing three novels, one inspired by Phillip K. Dick’s imaginative worlds and the debt I speak of. I’ve made it a point to realize that there is so much beauty in the world it’s so hard to take in, and my response is to add more beauty through my art before I check out of the inn we call life.
This is the adventure I wanted, and it is all on me now. $1000 will go a long way in this part of the world, but the truth is, “a long way” does not necessarily translate to “enough to get started taking you where you need to go”.
This is a struggle, yes, but I am committed to these goals in life: to travel, to do humanitarian work wherever I go, to make art in the form of my novels, my pictures, and videos, and to become a scuba dive master.
The current way I see things playing out is this: finishing this time in Indonesia, then going to Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Taiwan, Nepal, India, or Korea, depending on where I am taken for work. Save up to get some certification in teaching English now, teach and use that money to become a dive master, then use whatever savings I make to pay back debts and to get to volunteering or doing humanitarian work. But through each step, I’ll always, always be taking pictures and writing, and filming when I can.
Can it be done? My goal for the next six weeks is to raise $2000 USD. I can rely on nobody but myself. A friend of mine told me this before leaving America: “When you are sad, don’t be sad, be Mexican. Ask for work, don’t ask for money. This is why we Mexicans are strong and proud people, for we work with what we have. We don’t see flipping burgers and folding clothes as degrading and below us because we have college degrees, we see them as opportunities. Be strong, my friend, I believe in you, Johnny C.” I will add that yes, I agree they are opportunities, but for what I put my time, money, and effort into, I did so with the understanding that I would not need to resort to that kind of life beyond the short term, and as the state of the present in America is, it’s either you go into that work because you can’t get the work you are looking for after college’s broken promises while in debt, or you skip college and resign yourself to doing menial work, but at least avoid debt.
I refuse to be less than what I’ve been toughened up to be. The international experience tells me that I can handle this and go through more of the world, because being tied to one place is silly, for opportunities exist if you expand your world. Instead of limiting yourself to your hometown and the janitorial work available, open yourself up to starting a motorcycle delivery service for foreigners in Uganda, or open up a bar in the Mediterranean.
The price of freedom is high, and it’s a price I pay every day. The struggles test my mettle but build my resilience every moment. As I live a life of service and art, the goal is always to make good art. Art is a way of making life more bearable, says Kurt Vonnegut. Whether life is good or bad, always make good art, says Neil Gaiman. And Andy Warhol says just to make art, let people determine if it’s good or bad, and while they are determining, make more art.
Here’s what I add: everything I do is art. Not just what I write or photograph, but every moment is art. Every breath I take and step I make; how I eat my food and treat my friends; how I act alone and in front of a crowd, that is all art. And the struggles of life itself, that is art, for those who follow a hero in a story’s struggle are the ones who arguably feel more joy than the hero himself, watching him helplessly as the fates and his decisions torment him until he finally reaches his destiny. The struggle to get out of it is an art far more beautiful than a comfortable life free of struggles. This is why I’m here.
Even when in the cosmos, the galaxy, the universe, this is all only one corner of existence, I am part of something greater, and we are all made of stardust. But while I am here, I live in this world, and this here is my story. It is a story that has many characters, from antagonists who create obstacles to friends who help me along my path. And along the way, we realize, it’s not my story, it’s our story. Our story, not just for the players involved in the great play, but the audience, for what is a story or performance with nobody to tell it to? This is our story.