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Claiming My Place in the World by Jennifer S. Alderson

Claiming My Place in the World by Jennifer S. Alderson

I thought I was so cool, handing over twenty-five Euros to a freshly washed junkie I’d met in a Red Light District coffeeshop, instead of one of the smellier ones lurking on the poorly-lit bridges crisscrossing the canals. As soon as he pocketed the cash, he scurried outside and charged down the street. I hurried after him, half-running to keep up. When he darted into a darkened alleyway, I froze and my guard went up. Was he robbing me, or worse? Before I could run, he’d already returned with a beat-up BMX mountain bike in one hand and a broken bike lock in the other. He passed me the handlebars and disappeared into the night.

Within minutes of my first cycling adventure on that crappy two-wheeler, I got knocked over by two huge Irish guys who’d unwittingly stepped into the bike lane. I’d only been in Amsterdam for a few days and was so fresh to the city I apologized to them.

When I later learned a true Dutchwoman would have responded with a string of expletives, I remember being furious with myself for not reacting ‘properly’.

It was the same when I lived in Darwin, Australia. Within a week, I was taking the piss out of the locals, loudly expressing my love of barbecue for lunch and dinner, and happily referring to the then Prime Minister by his derogatory nickname of ‘Johnny’. Locals often gave me funny looks; fellow expats simply nodded and asked for another charcoal-grilled sausage.

In Nepal, I scoffed at tourists using utensils instead of their right hand to eat, and laughed openly at those freaked out by the rather large insects and rodents scurrying about.

Whenever I move to a new country or city, I experience an almost primal urge to fit in. I can’t help but adopt local customs as my own, usually within days of arrival. I get edgy and irritated when people want to know what it’s like ‘back home’. I always have to bite my tongue, resisting the impulse to ask what they mean, this is home for now.

I’ve traveled through thirty countries and lived in three. For several years, I considered my backpack to be my best friend. I’ve obviously contracted a serious case of wanderlust. So why this desperate desire to assimilate?

If anything, my extensive travels have amplified this deep-seated need to belong, to feel as if I am a part of something – a stained glass class, volunteer organization, kayaking group, Frisbee team, or whatever tickled my fancy at the time. With hindsight I now realize my endeavors were a way of justifying my presence and claiming every new city as my own.

I did eventually buy a Dutch-style ‘grandma bike’ from a proper shop. After many months of searching, I found a decent place to live. I did most of my grocery shopping at the Albert Cuyp Market behind my apartment and spent my afternoons biking along the Amstel River or through the small fishing villages of Marken and Volendam. I did my best to befriend any and every Dutch person I came in regular contact with. And after a long year of intensive Dutch language classes, I was able to speak it fairly fluently. Despite the fierce competition, I was admitted into the (then Dutch language) Master’s degree program in Museum Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I was doing everything I could think of to root myself and set the foundation for my new life.

Yet even after living in Amsterdam for thirteen years – eight as a naturalized Dutch citizen complete with passport – I’m very aware that my Dutch is heavily accented, I don’t really get Amsterdammers’ cynical humor, and I don’t know most of the cultural icons of my husband’s childhood. My son will probably never live in – or really understand – the United States of America, the country I spent my formative years in, the land that shaped me.

Every time I think, now I’m one of them, a shop clerk or waitress will ask, “Where do you come from, South Africa? England? You have such a cute accent.” Or even more painful, “You’re Dutch is pretty good. My brother-in-law / co-worker / bus driver has lived here ten years longer than you and still can’t speak it.” Though it’s meant a compliment, remarks like these always deflate my ego and remind me that, no matter how perfect my accent or choice of words sounds to my ears, I’ll always be that foreigner who speaks Dutch with a funny accent.

The worst question by far, the one that really cuts deep and used to ruin my day, is: “When are you going back?” Back to where, I want to ask, but never do. Realistically, in a city full of expats working temporary contracts at a plethora of international corporations and foreign consulates, it is not a strange question to ask.

Yet when I do go back to the States to visit family, all I do is moan about having to drive everywhere, the fatty, salty foods on offer and the absurd selection of products available at any store you step into. Seriously people, does the world really need ten variations of chocolate chip mint ice cream?

I have to ask for directions wherever I go because my favorite cafes and shops closed or moved years ago, leaving me without any reference points. My open disapproval of typical American behavior and attitudes leaves my husband wondering why I lived in the good ‘ole US of A for so long. At the end of every trip, I leave feeling as if I’m the ultimate stranger in a strange land, yet this was once my home.

For a long time these questions about my accent and plans for returning to the States really bothered me. Then all at once, the aggravation disappeared. Or I should say, one day I finally accepted that this is how it was going to be for the rest of my life. My newfound homeland will never really accept me as a local, even though I see myself as one.

This realization has allowed me to connect with other expats, people I avoided like the plague when I first moved here. I no longer feel the need to ‘prove’ myself by only befriending those born here.

Because I am an outsider, I recognize and appreciate many of the wonderful facets Dutch society has to offer and value them perhaps more than locals do, those who have grown up with socialized health care, short work weeks, dirt-cheap child care, and state-subsidized culture institutions. Those who don’t know what it’s like to live in another society with a different set of values and priorities may never be able to truly appreciate their own.

Perhaps it is impossible to assimilate completely, to lose that outsider’s perspective. Frankly, I no longer want to. Being aware of the beauty inherent to the Dutch way of living makes being here that much more special. Why would I want to let that go?

 

About the Author

Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There she earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.

Jennifer’s travels and experiences color and inform her internationally-oriented fiction. Her first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu: adventures in backpacking, is a travel fiction adventure through Nepal and Thailand. The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, her second book, is a suspenseful ‘whodunit?’ which transports readers to wartime and present day Amsterdam.

Both books are part of an on-going stand-alone series following the adventures of traveler and culture lover, Zelda Richardson. The third installment in the series will be released in the fall of 2017.

On May 13, Jennifer will release a travelogue recounting her experiences as a volunteer and solo traveler in Nepal and Thailand, Notes of a Naive Traveler.

 

“The ride back to Kathmandu was comfortable and relaxing. There were more overturned trucks (the gas-powered ones seem to tip the most, I’m surprised there weren’t more explosions), goats being herded across the highway by ancient women, children playing games in traffic, private cars and buses alike pulling over in the most inconvenient places for a picnic or public bath, and best of all the suicidal overtaking maneuvers (or what we would call ‘passing’) by our bus and others while going downhill at incredible speeds or around hairpin turns uphill with absolutely no power left to actually get around the other vehicle.”

Trek with me through the bamboo forests and terraced mountaintops of Eastern Nepal, take a wild river rafting ride in class IV waters, go on an elephant ride and encounter charging rhinoceros on jungle walks in Chitwan National Park, sea kayak the surreal waters of Krabi and snorkel in the Gulf of Thailand. Join me on some of the scariest bus rides you could imagine, explore beautiful and intriguing temples, experience religious rituals unknown to most Westerners, and visit mind-blowing places not mentioned in your typical travel guides.

This travelogue also provides insight into the experience of volunteering at a Nepali school and living with a traditional family during a long-term homestay, where religion and ritual still rule daily life.

A touch of self-discovery is inherent to this kind of journey, one spurred on by a young woman’s attempt to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

Notes of a Naive Traveler is a must-read for those interested in learning more about – or wishing to travel to – Nepal and Thailand. I hope it inspires you to see these amazing countries for yourself.

Front cover artwork: ‘Folly in Divinity’, acrylic on canvas by Don Farrell

Release date: May 13, 2017

Pre-order Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand now on iBooksKoboAmazon, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Smashwords.

How Traveling Abroad Turned Me into a Writer by Melissa Burovac

How Traveling Abroad Turned Me into a Writer by Melissa Burovac

I have the strong feeling Melissa Burovac and I could spend many enjoyable hours swapping travel stories. After reading her excellent memoir, Wandering, I was struck by the similarities between our experiences on the road, as well as how we – as women traveling solo – reacted to the people and places we visited.

One of the things I love about Wandering is how Melissa was able to stay ‘in the moment’. After reading her article, ‘How Traveling Abroad Turned Me into a Writer’, I now understand how she did it!

 

How Traveling Abroad Turned Me into a Writer

By Melissa Burovac

My first experience of living in another country was a somewhat spontaneous RTW (Round the World) trip, beginning with a one-way ticket to Mexico and a pocket full of margarita money from selling my truck. I had long been wanting to travel, but gifted at birth with an awful sense of direction and a giant helping of anxiety, I never imagined I could make it work. My soon-to-be best friend moved to Kauai, where I live, and brought with her tales of exotic countries and fascinating people, and a house full of beautiful artifacts purchased around the world from her years of travel. She persuaded me to face my terror and take the leap — life is short, she told me, get out there and see how much more there is. With her help, I found a place to live at a school in Mexico, a very safe first step until I could get used to being abroad and so far outside my shoe-box-sized comfort zone.

 

Around this time blogs began to gain massive popularity with ease of use for regular folks, and I thought a simple blog with pictures and short descriptions of my travels would not only serve as an electronic memory book, but would assure my mother that I was safe and did not die in drug cartel crossfire — which was the assumption of most people when I told them I was moving to Mexico.

My travels began with high hopes and expectations; I had instant friends at the school where I lived and this allowed me to explore without too much trouble. I detailed my adventures each evening on my blog, usually at a café or bar while sampling the locally made alcoholic beverages. Life carried on this way for a few months, and it was pretty darn pleasant.

Over time I became worn out being in other countries by myself and talking to other people I’d only see for a day or two; the newness and excitement of each place was not enough to mask my growing anxiety of being lost and alone. I tired of introducing myself over and over again to dozens of people every day — I am normally an introvert and a bit shy — and speaking to so many strangers just so I had someone to talk to was starting to take a toll on my mental energy. Don’t misunderstand, though; I love people, but the need to talk to friends who already knew me was growing, and my desire to make small talk was exhausted.

Instead of cutting my experience abroad short, I spent more time writing in near solitude. Everywhere I went I searched out an uncrowded, quiet spot where I could safely use my computer, and it gave me an excuse to observe and listen to people while not inviting conversation. I felt a part of the culture and scene while not directly being involved; my social anxiety eased and I learned a new way to exist while my mind was screaming to go back home.

Eventually, though, I did go home, and was unprepared for the feedback from my blog. My mom was happy I kept in constant contact through writing; my friends were delighted by the places I visited and the adventures I had; women expressed amazement at doing the entire year abroad solo and eagerly read how it was accomplished — many had never imagined braving the unknown without a man as a travel companion. Most of the time I spent writing was time spent drinking as well, and apparently I’m funny when I’m drunk — adding a bit of comedy to travel tales doesn’t hurt. The comment I heard most often was “You should write a book.” The material was already written, all I had to do was clean up the grammar and random intoxicated rants, and stitch the individual posts into one coherent story. I didn’t know if I could do this, never having written much of anything previously, but getting a job after a year of travel depressed me and I began to dream of a career as an author and traveling more, but in shorter bursts.

 

The project was not easy; I spent months working 80-hour weeks to create my first book. I worked 40 hours as a bookkeeper to provide myself food and shelter, and spent an additional 40 hours writing, usually sitting on the tailgate of my pickup truck while parked at the beach. I wrote on a $200 laptop with sticky keys, once writing several chapters without the letter ‘m’ until I figured out a small pebble had lodged itself in the keyboard.

My first travel book, Wandering, was published in June, 2014 after what seemed like an excruciatingly painful mental effort. Even though it did not become an instant best seller, or even provide me with enough income to quit my day job, I am proud of the book and what I learned by writing it. I developed a new kind of discipline — skipping social events with friends, or even watching TV, so I could make time to write. I developed a real love of writing and have since published another novel, Sylvie Writes a Romance, and several short stories and articles on a variety of topics. As a result of blogging, I also began a personal journal to help myself when life gets more complicated than normal.

My first adventure abroad created my habit of writing, and it has changed my life for the better. I hope I continue to create new work, and am able to use what I’ve learned about all aspects of writing, editing, and marketing to help other authors fulfill their dreams of publishing.

You can visit my blog at Wander With Melissa and Facebook page, or check out my books on Amazon. Thank you for reading.

 

About the Author

Melissa is a writer and photographer on Kauai, Hawaii. An avid outdoorswoman, Burovac enjoys outrigger paddling—both one-man and six-man—SUP, running, surfing, sailing, and scuba diving, as well as yoga.

She is always up for adventure and loves doing things that scare her a little. She is the author of Wandering (2014) and Sylvie Writes a Romance, “a feel-good romantic comedy with a resilient heroine” according to Kirkus Indie Review.

 

Wandering

Traveling solo as a woman certainly has its ups and downs, but Melissa Burovac will be the first to tell you to embrace the adventure as you encounter it.

Facing her fortieth birthday as a single woman in a job she was tired of, Burovac decided to “do something.” Always keen for adventure, she chose to buy a one-way ticket to Mexico-and quit her job, sell her beloved Jeep, and store all her belongings.

Though she’d gone on trips abroad before, Burovac didn’t feel like she’d ever earned the title of “traveler.” But that was about to change.

“Wandering” relates the adventures, and misadventures (she encounters so many major weather events that her friends start predicting where the next disaster will strike based on her next destination), of her nine months traveling through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, Australia, Cambodia, and Thailand. Her stories will crack you up-and they will inspire you. As someone with no sense of direction, no ability to plan, and plenty of social anxiety, her experiences prove that anyone who wants to travel “can”!

 

 

Enjoy this post? Check back Monday to read another travel-related article, this time by international educator and long-time expat Jille Dobbe.