And just like that, my year-long journey is halfway done.
Six months down, and six left to go. I'm writing this from Hong Kong, my seventh city; but I'm only beginning to find my footing here — my head and heart are still full of the sounds and smells of Chengdu: hot pepper oil and jasmine heavy in the air, the clang of constant construction, the tinny whine of musicians playing the two-stringed erhu on street corners, and the slow silent movements of old ladies doing their daily morning stretches and tai chi moves. Hong Kong is technically part of China, but it's a vastly different world: an efficient maze of escalators and subways, the blunt singsong of Cantonese over bubble-tea counters in narrow alleys, glassy hundred-story buildings, and patchwork streets full of blinking neon signs. The people here all seem to move in fast-forward, weaving and blurring in overlapping paths through the city.
Crossing the halfway point has hit me with a mix of emotions. First there's a quiet, happy little thrill of recognition that I'm really, actually doing this(!). Many days, I'm still amazed. Six months of places and people and minutes and miles; new skies and old friends; seeking and finding a sense of home in places I'd never been. This wild "12 Places" idea has grown feet and wings, and I am following where it leads, and rolling with all the unknowns — and that feels fantastic. Somehow, I'm figuring out how to successfully navigate an entire year of massive transition, and am learning and experiencing so much, on so many levels. I'm no longer in the bumbling early stages (though, definitely still bumbling my way through a lot of things)...and I'm noticing that some of the emotional peaks and valleys have leveled out, and it's easier to actually enjoy being out of my element. I'm also aware of a thin current of fear that has crept in, at this halfway mark: if the second half of the year streams by as quickly as the first, I will soon be at the end of it. And what then? I don't feel quite ready to imagine or plan what my re-entry into "normal life" will look like after October — if there even is such a thing, after this sort of experience. We shall see.
In the meantime, this way of living continues to fascinate and challenge me at every turn. Here are a few of the things I've discovered or observed, in six months of pilgrimage and place-hopping:
It's really hard to tell a story when you're still in the middle of it. Before I began this project, I dubbed it "a yearlong journey in search of remarkable stories." While the year has certainly been remarkable already — and the biggest story I'm delving into is unquestionably my own — I have never been more keenly aware of the difficulty of putting words around an experience when you're still in the middle of it. A number of people have said to me, after hearing about the project, "Wow, are you going to write a book?" My response has been, "I have no idea — I'm not even sure what the story is, yet." I think maybe you can't really know what story you're in, until you give it enough time to rise and grow and unfurl. Which feels both beautiful and maddening.
There's no place like...my car. My car has (for better or worse) become the physical place that feels like home to me now, more than any other. It's been the only constant and familiar space I've inhabited over the last six months, so I suppose that's natural — but, it's still strange. More than once (especially on long, cross-country road trips) I have gotten into the driver's seat of my little blue Cavalier, closed the door, and then recognized the warm, relaxed "ah, I'm home!" feeling sweeping over me. That's definitely never happened in a car before. On a related note, I have developed a stronger-than-usual attraction to Starbucks, Target, and Trader Joe's stores. Because they're familiar and basically the same everywhere, they now also feel weirdly home-like to me.
Newness takes a lot of energy. Even though it can be really fun, a constant stream of new surroundings, people, information, and stimuli is exhausting — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I've often found myself more tired than I normally am, especially in the week or so after each transition from one place to another. And I definitely have needed more sleep (and taken more naps) than I’m used to. It's no joke: absorbing new information, and adjusting to change, takes an awful lot of energy.
A month goes by ridiculously fast. Have you noticed how quickly a month can slip by? I mean, I knew the months would go fast, but with this project, it feels like they're moving at warp speed. It seems to be around the 3-week point that I usually start to settle in and feel truly comfortable in the relationships, spaces and routines of a new place. And then, it’s time to start wrapping up and looking toward the next place.
I can't look too far ahead. With so many new things to figure out and decisions to make every day (combined with the brainpower needed to process all this incoming newness), I've found that just I don't have the capacity to look very far ahead. It's too much to think about. All I can really do is be here in the moment and, at most, forecast out a few days or weeks. Having always been an organized planner, I'm now finding myself having to figure things out on the fly — like the thousand-mile drive from Los Angeles to Portland, which I didn't give a moment's thought to (including route, stops, or accommodation plans) until I flew back from Cape Town to LAX, 36 hours before. Ah, yes — the lessons from Improv class are serving me well.
Staying healthy is a bigger challenge than I expected. My eating and exercise habits have been all over the map, partly because of my shifting routines in each city...but largely due to the fact that I've basically been eating like I’m on vacation (which, as you might imagine, doesn’t work very well for 12 straight months). I'm blaming that on the idea that to experience the culture of a place, I had to experience the food (cakes with cream every afternoon in London: of course! Fresh maple doughnuts at midnight in LA: sure! Sampling every amazing restaurant in Portland: yes please!). Um, yeah. It's definitely time to dial the dining back...and to start running again.
I'm not tired of living out of a suitcase (yet). This one has definitely surprised me, but it's true: after 195 days, I'm still not sick of living out of a suitcase. In fact (like those who celebrate the benefits of limited/capsule wardrobes), I’ve appreciated not having too many clothing items to choose from — it’s one less thing I have to figure out each morning, in a year when every day involves making a whole lot of decisions. And besides that, I'm quite enjoying the free, unencumbered feeling of knowing that everything I need fits into a suitcase and a backpack (or, for US cities, in the trunk of my car). Having only a small circle of possessions around me has been a relief, in a way. For most of us (including me, in my regular life), that circle is much larger — and the bigger it is, the more things there are to think about, worry about, maintain, clean, fix, straighten, mend, improve, replace, or obsess over. With fewer possessions my brain feels clearer, and free to think about more interesting and important things.
Risk feels less risky. I don't know if the thrill of globe-trotting has made me more willing to put myself out there, or if the fact that I'm not rooted in any particular place allows me to worry less about consequences and reputation — but in any case I feel braver, and have found myself more likely to to jump in and take some risks (at least, what I perceive as risks). Things I wouldn't normally do, like walking up to a well-dressed stranger in the airport in Paris and asking if he'd mind taking me in to the Air France lounge on his free companion pass. (He did. And the comfy chairs, free drinks, and unlimited macarons were well worth it.)
The world is big, and the world is small. Far and away the best thing about the last six months is the people I've gotten to spend them with. There aren't enough words to express how wonderful it has been to share dinners and coffees and hikes and long deep conversations with friends spread all over the globe, many whom I haven't seen in years. And then there have been an uncanny string of unplanned encounters and surprise connections, which makes the world feel very small indeed. I was thrilled to to cross paths in London with Morgan, a good friend from KC; and a few months later to find myself at the tip of South Africa at the very same time as my former housemate Amanda. In Chengdu, a Chinese city that most Americans have never heard of, I got to have breakfast with a Dallas-based change agent/mentor/entrepreneur/creative luminary I'd been hoping to connect with, who happened to be in town on business. And in a cozy mountain hostel in the remote city of Kangding on the Tibetan plateau in mid-April, I chatted with the owner, Kris, and discovered that he's from Portland...and — of course — it turns out he had gone to college with the friend I had just stayed with in Portland the month before. (Tim and Jessica: Kris Rubesh says hello!).
The world is big, and the world is small, indeed. I love this life.