words & images Julie Fader
I’m writing this from my comically tiny bedroom in a Tokyo sharehouse that manages to squeeze in ten Japanese women, an American girl, and me—a Canadian twenty-something. I figured I was done with this type of arrangement when I moved out of my unforgivably small bedroom in Brussels a couple of years ago. That time, I shared the space with an Italian woman, a Korean girl hoping to become a Belgian chocolatier, a girl from Luxembourg, two people hailing from Holland, a French girl and three Belgian guys.
These are two of the many places I’ve made my bedroom—for a night, for a week, a month, sometimes a year. I’ve laid my weary head to rest on beds, couches, floors, in tents, and outdoors in twenty-six countries and counting. My need to see more and more of the world continues to drag me away from the comforts of my queen-sized bed in Toronto to queue up in security lines at airports, fall asleep sitting up in planes, drag my bags around crowded and unknown subway systems before finding my destination and remembering what brought me there in the first place.
My origins as a globetrotter, however, aren’t rooted in a place like my Japanese bedroom or my Belgian auberge espagnole—traveling only became a priority after a spring break trip in high school to an all-inclusive resort on a Caribbean island. No cramped spaces, no interactions and exchanges with people of vastly different life journeys and backgrounds, no new languages tripping their ways off my tongue. No, the microcosmic isolation and many indulgences of a resort in St. Maarten made me realize, paradoxically enough, that I wanted to visit distant lands and delve into different cultures.
During spring break of my sophomore year, I spent a week lounging on a balmy beach nursing hangover after hangover with the hair of the dog: ice cold Coronas. After having finished my beer, I’d stroll up to the restaurant to fill my belly with platefuls of buffet food, topping it all off with vanilla cigarillos. I had been staying in a five-star hotel in St. Maarten with my dad, stepmom, sister, and my best friend Elise. It might as well have just been us three young girls, because over the course of the week, I only saw my dad and stepmom when I bumped into them at the pool bar or on certain nights for dinner.
In a sense, this was my debut as an independent traveler. The three of us decided to tell everyone we met that my older sister was nineteen and my best friend and I were eighteen. Comfortably cloaked in our new identities, we explored the island—within a certain radius of our fancy hotel, of course. On our first night, we met four American guys who all went to the University of Tampa together. The seven of us became a crew for the duration of the trip. They were staying at one of their dad's villas, but would come by the resort everyday in their black army-style Jeep to pick us up. The seven of us usually found ourselves squeezed into that Jeep, setting out to see what St. Maarten had to offer.
On our second night, we went to a massive regatta sponsored by Heineken and headlined by Shaggy. On our fourth night, we sat at a quiet bar by the ocean and listened to a guitarist cover "Beast of Burden" and "Wish You Were Here." On our sixth night, we somehow got into a fight. It was the kind of fight that was only possible to have with close friends, a sort of "I'm only saying this because I care about you!" fight. But it was ridiculous—we hadn't even known them for a week. It was my initiation into the lightning speed of friendship-building that seems to only occur when traveling.
That sixth night found us once again all huddled into that Jeep together. As usual, my sister had shotgun, and Elise and I were perched uncomfortably on the laps of two of the boys. We had just had The Fight, the origin of which is now a mystery to us, and the mood in the car was tense. The radio was playing on low and no one was talking. Almost inaudibly, Bonnie Tyler’s voice filtered from the speakers:
Turn around, every now and then I get a little bit lonely…
My sister recognized the tune, and her hand moved involuntarily to the volume dial, turning it up. The driver started drumming his hand on his knee and bobbing his head. Someone started to sing, faintly, unassumingly. Someone else casually joined them. Suddenly, we were all singing. The tension seemed to break as we realized we were singing in unison, casting sideways glances and smiling hesitantly.
The song's intensity began to build; so did ours. As the song's climax neared, everything came together in a comically absurd fashion, like a scene from a movie. The Jeep's cloth roof inexplicably blew off and, for some reason, we didn't care; we kept driving, maybe even sped up. It started pouring rain as Elise and I stood up and grabbed onto the skeletal frame of the Jeep's roof, shouting, "Together we can take it to the end of the night, and love is like a shadow on me all of the time…" We were all belting the song out as loud and as hard as we could.
Eventually, the song faded and the moment glided away with it, but it's something I've never forgotten and likely never will. It was the type of thing that could only occur outside of real life, removed from the banalities of the daily grind. It's been seven years since St. Maarten and we haven't seen our Tampa boys since, but we still talk about that week. When we first got back from that trip, Elise and I excitedly discussed returning to the island to work there for a year after high school. It was an optimistic and unrealistic proposal, but it was the first time I’d ever entertained the idea of leaving my Canadian life for something overseas.
A few months later, I jump-started my life as a world traveler by signing up for a volunteer trip to Cuba. The whole thing turned out to be a bit of a volunteerism sham, but at the time I thought I was finally experiencing “real travel.” I walked around Havana alone, blonde and blue-eyed, and tried to convince myself I didn’t look like a lost tourist. I knew I couldn’t pass as local, but I figured I could pass for a comfortable, knowledgeable, and experienced traveler—an independent traveling expert who walks around Havana alone, knows how to properly ignore those “Hey lady!” calls, and can tell the difference between moneda national and the convertible peso.
On one of my walks, I watched several luxurious, climate-controlled coach buses pull up. Out spilled the hoards of resort tourists, sun hats flapping and flying away as they stepped onto the windy boardwalk, freshly-applied sunscreen streaked across their skin, money strapped to their bellies beneath their sweat-stained shirts in an expensive-looking apparatus. They've left their isolated haven for the day to really see how the locals live in the big city: "We can't go to Cuba without really seeing Cuba now can we, honey?" "Well, okay, I'll sign us up for the resort's day trip to the city then, sweet pea!"
I looked at them and looked at myself. I'm not one of them, am I? I was staying at a mediocre 3-star hotel on the outskirts of Havana. I wasn't confining myself to the pool bar and the hotel lobby. I was interacting with Cubans on a daily basis! Once, I even taught a kid named Jimmy (pronounced Hee-mee) that the device on which we were swinging was called a teeter-totter in English. Ha! I thought, They look like a bunch of idiots! The tourists were walking into the market in little groups, looking nervous, probably wondering whether it was safe.
I tried to get a comfortable seat on my high horse, nose up, looking down disdainfully at those resort tourists. The memory of St. Maarten flickered at the edges of my vision; I excused myself for that trip, blaming it on my ignorance at the time. I’d been so young and naive back when I was fifteen! I was sixteen now—and a real traveler! Watching the tourists amble before me, I vowed to avoid all further resort travel, deeming it unacceptable for a globetrotting young woman such as myself.
In the years following that trip to Cuba, I passed long, judgmental hours stacking my own adventures against my friends’ with the help of Facebook, dividing them into the binary categories of “real travel” and “fake travel,” usually deciding that theirs paled in comparison. An all-inclusive trip to Cabo, or finding my way home alone at night from the Cliffs of Moher? Spring break on a crowded beach in Mexico sipping on piña coladas, or listening to an old Greek man’s life story in a gyro shop over glasses of his homemade ouzo? Hedonists, I’d think to myself. How awful. The horror.
In my attempt to distinguish myself as an authentic world citizen—in an era when anyone and everyone claims to have been blessed by the wanderlust fairy and turned into a nomadic free spirit, an era where travel has become cheaper, more common, more democratized—I became the worst kind of traveler snob. Like many other seasoned travelers, I developed a sort of reverse snobbism. It became a one-upmanship of who could rough it harder, who could function on the least amount of sleep in order to fit in the most sites and activities. I prided myself on feeling discomfort because that's part of what I thought made me a "real" traveler.
Ironically, my "humble" beginnings as an independent traveler were the ones most coated in extravagance and leisure. I used to think of that St. Maarten trip as my amateur hour, but have now resolved to see it as a the easy and gentle loss of my traveler virginity. Some people never get over that first time, and return to it again and again. They enjoyed the ease of the resort and have decided to make that their staple form of vacationing—and that’s okay.
Every kind of travel has its place. We travel because we want to create moments that couldn’t possibly occur at home. We want to have experiences that are removed from our daily lives. For some people that’s waking up at the crack of dawn to visit Tokyo’s renowned Tsukiji Fish Market. For others, that’s waking up leisurely and meandering over to the pool bar. Regardless, we’re away from home, we’ve diverted from our schedules, and we’re doing something that we don’t usually do. And, isn’t it a good thing that world travel has become the norm rather than the exception?
While I nurse my hangover with a bowl of instant ramen in my tiny Tokyo kitchen, I think of those nursing theirs with a nap on a chaise lounge, followed by a drink dressed out with a mini umbrella. I don’t judge them; I can’t—I’m unabashedly a little jealous. Coach buses full of resort tourists will continue those day trips to Havana, and the tourists will continue to buy useless souvenirs from vendors and get mojito hangovers. They’ve spent the whole year working hard and have finally taken a vacation. They don’t need a haughty fifteen year-old, or anyone for that matter, mocking them and their sun hats.