Who Sells Chicken Eggs?: Adventures Learning Thai in Thailand

I‘ve always been fond of learning things that have little long-term application. 

So when I followed my English-teaching girlfriend to Thailand for five months earlier this year, I jumped at the opportunity to (try and) learn the Thai language. 

What follows is a case study I hope other language enthusiasts/pursuers of randomness can use when considering Thai as their next target language. In it, I detail my learning strategy (or lack thereof), quirks and challenges, and my “results” that I hope can all give a feel for what studying this tongue in its motherland is like.  

The Thai language has two reputations:

  1. it’s impossible for Westerners to learn;
  2. wanting to learn it means you’re interested in ‘negotiating’ with certain ‘individuals’ about ‘acts’ that may or may not involve ping-pong balls.

The stigma surrounding its difficulty is more or less backed up by the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of how many supposed classroom hours it takes for a native English speaker to reach proficiency in a foreign language. Thai ranks in tier four of the five-tier scale, with a denotation (*) indicating it’s “usually more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category”:

And the stigma surrounding its nighttime use is backed up by awesome Bill Hader bits:


I think many also regard learning the language as pointless, as enough people on the Thai tourist trail speak English to make getting what you need and where you need to go a cinch most of the time.

Being far from prodigal with languages (or with studying anything), I set my expectations low heading in. But after five months of regular instruction and minimal outside-the-classroom effort, overall I’m pleased with the amount I learned and believe it will surely impress the waitstaff at a Thai restaurant back home someday (or uncover that they are actually Vietnamese).  

Language Learning Background (For Context)

Age While Studying Thai: 28/29

Language Resume:

• English: Native
• Spanish B1 level (self-assessed): two disinterested years each in high school and college, studied at language schools for ~10 weeks total in Panama and Colombia in mid-twenties
• Have messed around with other languages on Duolingo, but never for long

Thai is the first language I’ve attempted to learn when starting from square absolute-zero. While I didn’t start taking Spanish until high school, growing up in America you pick up a fair amount of words and phrases through restaurant menus, movies, and Taco Bell commercials.

Even when studying Spanish a few years ago as a (de facto) adult, it was a labor of love. Sometimes I think I like reading about language learning and following polyglot exploits (like those of Benny Lewis and Laoshu) more than actually studying and practicing.

If I had any, my language learning strengths would be vocab memorization, reproducing the tone and inflection of native speakers, and reading. Weaknesses are nearly everything else involved, including listening and processing normally-paced conversations, remembering or at least implementing special grammar rules, and writing.

What I Knew About Thai Before My First Lesson

Since Duolingo’s Thai course is seemingly stuck in permanent beta mode, before going to Thailand I downloaded a free app called Thai by Nemo. Other than learning ‘hello’ (sawatdee) and ‘welcome’ (yindee), not much really stuck with me (probably because I never felt compelled to stick with it). Through reading the resources and posts on the r/languagelearning and r/learnthai boards on reddit, I also picked up that:

•  Words can be one of five possible tones (middle, low, high, rising, falling)
•  To be polite, guys say “krab/kap” at the end of sentences while girls say “ka”
•  The ‘alphabet’ is 40+ consonants and almost half as many vowels
•  There are no spaces in between written sentences
•  Mai pen rai (roughly, “don’t worry about it”)

And that’s basically it.

Expectations/Goals Through Five Months

Since I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and because I was still freelancing, I set the bar fairly low. At the end of five months, I  told myself I simply wanted to be able to:

•  Have ‘restaurant fluency’ (be able to order food, ask about menu items, etc.)
•  Ask basic questions in shops/bus stations (do you have this in a big size/color, when is the next bus)
•  Be able to go through the ‘hellomynameisIamfromdoyoulikeithere’-s’ comfortably with strangers
•  Explain that I am allergic to peanuts well enough to not die

Naturally, I also expected plenty of frustrating moments, days where I felt like I had learned nothing, and not really being able to read much after all was said and done. I also had the expectation that not many people in our town (~25,000) would speak English, forcing me to use Thai frequently in a variety of situations.

Method & Instruction

Although I prefer to learn most things just figuring it on my own, starting with a native speaker instructor seemed like the best option since I had zero foundation and none of the free materials I could find online presented the language in a progression that seemed logical to me (ironic foreshadowing).

During my five months of study I had two different kru, whose approaches were polar opposites of the other:

Teacher 1:

•  Co-owner of a language center, spoke English fluently
•  Taught with workbooks written solely in Thai
•  Gave regular tests and homework on which my classmate and I were strictly graded
•  Heavy focus on reading, perfect tonality, grammar, and spelling memorization
•  Spoke in English often, but never wrote in it
•  Classes were five days a week, 90 minutes a day for two and a half months. I had one classmate with me, who was also a complete beginner.

Teacher 2:

•  Instructor at a different language center, spoke English and French fluently
•  Occasionally had me translating basic sentences off an (English) worksheet, otherwise everything done on whiteboard
•  No homework, tests, or real formality
•  Focused strictly on phrases and words I would find immediately useful
•  Explained concepts in English and wrote most words and sayings karaoke-style (writing ‘sa-wat-dee’ instead of in Thai script)
•  Classes were three days a week, one hour a day, for one and a half months. Classes were one-on-one.

Outside Resources:

Outside of class (and homework given by Teacher 1), I’d occasionally establish a routine of studying on my own, but nothing that ever stuck for too long. When I did study, I used:

•  Memrise app (top 4000 most common words deck)
•  Actual flashcards on words and phrases from class
•  YouTube videos on whatever sticking point I was having
•  iTalki just once, but loved it and found it very helpful

I also bought a children’s comic book as a way to learn basic dialogue, but never got past page one.

At the highest, I estimate I put in 5-7 hours of outside study during a week. However there were also many weeks I put in 0, especially during my stint with Teacher 1.

Methodology

Teacher 1 (Months 1-3):

It was impossible to know what Teacher 1 would be like heading in (I had to book the classes long before arriving in Thailand), but looking at the bulleted list above screams all sorts of learning red flags I know most successful language learners preach against.

A character flaw of mine is that I feel personally offended when I’m being taught something in what I feel is an impractical way, and my buy-in was admittedly low after the first few weeks when I recognized I was being taught the same way I was Spanish in high school: an emphasis on perfect grammar and spelling, rote memorization, and little practice speaking conversationally.

Being asked to memorize vocab words about gardening before I could ask for a side of rice felt… juvenile, as did being given quizzes and tests whose results were regularly referenced like they actually meant something other than being a gauge for how many random sets of words we could memorize. Mistakes were far from encouraged and my classmate and I were regularly told that Thai people would not understand us unless we perfectly executed the correct tone for every word we said (which turned out to be barely even a half-truth).

That said, because of Teacher 1, I can read more Thai than I ever thought I would be able to. While ‘read’ usually means being able to sound out words correctly without having any idea what they actually mean, even this came in handy more than a few times when looking at a Thai-only menu or map. I can’t deny that Teacher 1 gave me a solid foundation of the language that probably in part made my time with Teacher 2 so enjoyable and productive (spoilers).

Teacher 2 (Months 4-5):

I was a fan of Teacher 2 as soon as he assessed where I was and took into account why I was there: to learn to speak Thai with others. That and when I asked at the end of the first class if I had any homework, his look was reminiscent of the one I often gave Teacher 1 when she’d assign us pages of trace-the-consonant work to do at home.

While his persistent use of karaoke writing threw me off and may have slowed progress toward fluency 1 (if I were to keep studying exponentially), the amount I absorbed and was able to use outside of class skyrocketed. At first I thought all the karaoke might hinder my reading ability, but I quickly found myself recognizing new words (written in Thai) on signage that I learned in class.

Teacher 2 was extremely high-energy and our classes never had much structure other than they began with me asking how to say something, him answering, and then class spinning off into more related phrases and more questions from me. Grammar and tone were rarely ever taught directly. While with Teacher 1 I would reach the ‘brain melt’ stage of learning more out of frustration than actual learning, Teacher 2’s pace was so quick my brain often felt completely saturated by minute 45.

Self-Study and Practice:

Again, I never established a disciplined routine with learning on my own. Even though I can rattle off what expert language learners consider to be best practices (learn the 100 most common words first, decode the grammar structure, use mnemonic devices to memorize vocab) and was reasonably compliant with them when learning Spanish, for some reason I completely entrusted Teacher 1 to get me where I wanted to go. But by Week 5 I was already burnt out and rarely motivated to do much self-study (except to do better on her tests in order to avoid further ridicule, which I still didn’t do very well).

Taking the karaoke phrases Teacher 2 would write on the board and making physical flashcards with them was the most helpful in terms of rapidly absorbing words and phrases I could apply in the real world (even if it was delaying me from actually thinking in the language). These physical flashcards combined with mnemonic devices also helped with learning the consonants and vowels reasonably quick. Despite all the science backing up spaced-repetition learning, I never stuck with using flashcard apps for long (largely because making my own with the Thai keyboard was a slow process).

Even as my confidence and ability slowly improved, I fell into a rut with when and where I would use Thai. With so many more people speaking English than expected, I had quite a few of these interactions (substitute the Norwegian flags for Thai and pretend I’m the guy in the cool green hat):

Credit: reddit user Grandpa_Shorts

Generally, I stuck to using Thai in stores and restaurants, but very rarely did I ever try and make small talk. On the few occasions I did (usually at restaurants I frequented), the ‘conversation’ ended in an ‘aww that’s cute’ kind of bemusement or just a confused look on the other person’s face. I hit this exact same road bump with Spanish and can’t help but think taking a 90 Strangers-type approach with my next language (Japanese) would be a helpful workaround.

Results

Aaaand after five months here’s what I can do in Thai:

  • Order food and ask about menu items with no confusion or struggle 90% of the time
  • Read and understand a usually-helpful amount of words on signage and menus
  • Pick out occasional words in announcements and in others’ conversations
  • Say “Are there peanuts?”, “Please do not put peanuts on it,” and “I can’t eat peanuts.”

Due to being undisciplined with practicing them, my basic conversation question/answer skills don’t extend beyond what is your name, where are you from, and what is your job.

Overall, I speak enough that I feel like I pleasantly surprise many native speakers. I definitely do not speak enough where a Thai person who speaks English better than my Thai would not prefer to switch over. 

Sticky and Not-So Sticky Points:

Teacher 1 grievances aside, there were many other elements of learning the language that made me consider giving up completely or otherwise question why I was even bothering. Heading in, there were also some things I was fearful of that turned out to be no big deal.

Tones: Overall, I didn’t think tones were that tough to get down (again though, I’m not even a medium-level speaker and maybe this is part of the reason why). Also, they’re not a completely foreign (puntended) concept as many make them out to be; even English can be tonal at times:

Generally, consonants will carry a tone mark telling you to use a high, low, rising or falling tone (sort of like how a flat or sharp modifies a note in music). If there is no mark, then most words are middle tone.

The most challenging aspect of this was when I was asking a question or was unsure if what I was saying was correct (so, a lot of the time). In English one way to indicate a question is to use a rising inflection, which in Thai completely changes the meaning of what you are saying (as it results in a rising tone).

These tones and the short nature of Thai words can also lead to fun tongue twisters like: Krai kaai kai gai (Who sells chicken eggs?) and Maai mai mai mai mai (New wood doesn’t burn, does it?). They can also get you into some trouble:

The words for near and far (glâi and glai) also have the same pronunciation but with a different tone, which seems strikingly inconvenient and I imagine has screwed more than one person over when asking directions.

Classifiers: You know how in English you wouldn’t say “two breads”, but “two loaves of bread” instead? Those are called classifiers and in Thai there are over 300 of them. And just for fun, they are often shared by groups of things that have no clear connection (descriptions from Thai-Language.com):

  • ตัว / “tua” = animals, insects, fish, birds, tables, chairs, desks, shirts, pants, dresses, coats, digits and letters of different alphabets, parts such as nails
  • เล่ม / “lem” = books, carts, candles, knives, swords, axes, pins, needles
  • ชุด / “choht” = suits, sets of furniture, series of things, team of players

While intimidating and frustrating, I found that at least for purposes of ordering food in markets and restaurants, not that many needed to be memorized.

Google Translate: Even though Thai is generally spoken in short, simple sentences (comparatively), Google Translate blows. Unless you can explicitly identify which meaning of a word you want to use, it almost never structures or writes a sentence into something simple and comprehensible. Much more helpful was Googling phrases like “Thai phrases restaurant” and finding what I was looking to say on a Thai-teaching site.

Fonts: Even though I have a solid grasp with reading simple words and phrases, many consonants are simplified or stylized in a way that make them incredibly difficult to read/don’t look like anything I learned in class. While I learned to recognize some of these stylized versions, other times I was still at a loss even though I could read all the consonants in my textbook’s font.

Funky Sounds: Another reason Thai is thought of as so difficult for Westerners are its many unfamiliar sounds. In particular, the ng sound in words like ngaay (which ironically means ‘easy’) remains impossible for me, especially in the flow of speaking, where I tend to prepare my mouth for the awkward position by trying to make my chin one with my neck.

Telling Time: Both teachers tried to explain telling time to me, which in Thai is divided into six parts of the day instead of English’s two (AM and PM). I never even got close to grasping/remembering it, rationalizing by thinking about all the times I’ve never asked anyone for the time over the past decade.

Successes, Failures, and Favorites

Three Little Failures:

•  Early on, I looked up how to say goodbye in Google Translate and it told me lah gawn. So naturally, I started saying this to store clerks, taxi drivers, and basically everyone else, all the time. One night, a 7/11 employee seemed alarmed when I hit her with a confident lah gawn, telling me in English: “no no no don’t say that!” Apparently, law gahn is how you say goodbye to someone you know you won’t see again or in a long time, meaning I had told about half the town essentially to “Have a nice life!”

•  I once told a waitress that was concerned about my girlfriend and I going out in the rain, “I will have your umbrella” instead of “I have an umbrella.” Despite her confusion, she actually seemed willing.

•  The head of the English program at my girlfriend’s school goes by ‘Kru Eh’. The word for banana is ‘gluay‘. The word for dick is ‘kuay.’ And that’s how I once asked someone if they knew a ‘Teacher Penis’ at my girlfriend’s school. This is also why one of Thai people’s favorite pastimes is pointing to bananas and asking you how to pronounce them in Thai.

Three Little Successes:

•  On many occasions, I would go to a restaurant, order food, ask questions, and pay being understood 100% of the time. Again, this is what I practiced most but the look of relief from shopkeepers that I suspect weren’t confident in their English was very rewarding.

•  That first time I realized I had told the lady at the smoothie stall my name, where I was from, why we were in Thailand, for how long, what are jobs were, and where we were going next, all in Thai.

•  After ordering buns at a streetside stall, an old man behind the cashier-person said something like “That farang (Western foreigner) speaks Thai?” as I walked away.

Favorite Phrases:

• It’s said Thai people don’t really say any form of ‘how are you’ to one another, but instead “did you eat yet?” I don’t think I ever actually caught anyone saying this to each other, but it’s fun to say anyway: geen kao rue-yahng

• The Thai equivalent to “piece of cake” is “gluay gluay” (banana banana!)

• One thing I love about languages is that it’s often a clue to much more about the culture that uses it. Thai people are generally indirect communicators, so at the end of most requests it’s polite to stick in the wordnoi (a little bit), even if it doesn’t make much literal sense: puud fi noi krap (turn on the lights a little please), chuay keeyun hai du noi (‘can you write it for me a little’), kaw yuum deensaw noi dai mai krap (‘can I borrow a pencil a little please’).

Favorite Mnemonic Devices To Remember Words:

•  Paw-kaa (pen): I pictured a dramatic scene where my pen ran out of ink so I cried out in butchered Spanish, “PAW KAWWWW”
•  Sappan (bridge): P.K. Subban clumsily walking across a bridge wearing skates
•  Prunee (tomorrow): Staying in a hot tub until tomorrow will surely make you pruny

If I Had To Do It All Over Again…

Hindsight makes everyone a genius, but I think the optimal approach to have optimized my learning time in Thailand, with or without a teacher would have looked like:

  • Weeks 1-4: Focus on learning the consonants, vowels, and basic principles of tone first (visually and verbally)
  • Weeks 5-8: Learn and practice the ~50-100 most common words and phrases (verbally, karaoke, and Thai script). Focus on simply being understood, with perfection a secondary concern
  • Weeks 8-12: Take already-learned words and phrases as well as some new ones to learn the basics of sentence/request/question structure
  • Weeks 12-16: Ditch the karaoke writing in place of Thai script only, focus on cleaning up tone other nuances, and using different tenses
  • Weeks 16-20: Vocabulary/phrase expansion

Throughout, I would better force myself into more uncomfortable speaking situations with people I knew wouldn’t try and switch to English. I think weekly iTalki sessions rotating between two or three different instructors would have been a boon as well. And even though people swear by them, I think I would ditch the flashcard apps for paper ones much quicker.

Final Reflection/TL;DR

Again, fluency in Thai is not even on my radar (or the rader next to my radar), and most basic conversations at normal speed are still beyond my grasp to both listen to or participate in. Looking at the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, I am definitely not higher than ILR Level 1 (Elementary Proficiency):

This might not seem like a lot for five months (and it isn’t). But even with some huge knowledge gaps still in my basic survival Thai, that I had other things going on (e.g., freelancing and having a girlfriend), and one teacher pushing me to the point of wanting to quit out of (immature) spite, I can’t help but be pleased with what I did manage to learn and the reactions I received after just five months of just dabbling in the language.

It sounds obvious, but Thai was also a reminder of just how much hard work, patience, and persistence learning a language takes; I took for granted the foundation that the four years of Spanish gave me before I really started giving it a real effort. As I am already in the midst of my next language-learning foray (Japanese in Japan), I’m trying to keep this in mind and am sure and that one day I’ll look back on the time spent learning Thai simply as a re-education on how to learn, long after I fail to keep my sa-bai-dee mai’s (how are you?) straight from my sawatdeekap‘s.

I’d like to reemphasize that I am by far a quick learner when it comes to this kind of stuff and I also have a pretty short attention span. I can’t help but think that someone similar who is staying in Thailand, starts with a decent teacher and has the gumption to study on their own even just an hour a day could approach a medium-to-high level of proficiency in the same amount of time, especially if it was one of their sole purposes for coming to the country.

This all might seem like a lot of words just to say: “You can learn Thai if you actually try!”, but given the language’s reputation (well, half of it), I hope it can convince someone on the fence that if they go about it in a way that makes sense to them, learning Thai can actually be gluay gluay and an extremely rewarding experience.

Why A Trip Is Like A Trip

During my recent travels, I had a random (and arguably unimportant) realization—that two of the main definitions for the word trip were extremely interrelated:

Trip (n):

1. an act of going to a place and returning; a journey or excursion, especially for pleasure
2. a hallucinatory experience/an exciting or stimulating experience/a self-indulgent attitude or activity

As I was breaking the plans to friends and family last summer about my recent adventure, I was fortunate to receive their near-unanimous support.

However, on the trip I met many people that weren’t so lucky, and where they expected or needed encouragement back in exchange for their news, they instead received accusations of selfishness, neglect, or even abandonment (of career, relationships, etc.).

Because long-term solo travel, like going on a trip of another sort, is seen by many as the ultimate form of self-indulgence.

Similarly, despite its proven benefits, tripping in a different organic fashion is seen as similarly hedonistic, and comes with its own batch of warnings (both warranted and unfounded), stereotypes, and judgement.  

But both, if done safely, can take you to places you’ve never been before, then return you with a cleansed lens of perspective, allowing you to see the familiar in a completely different light.

Once you get past both the external pressure (real or imaginary) and build up the courage to let yourself fall down the rabbit hole, travel and trips usually earn their reputation of being that stimulating, eye-open, and paradigm-changing experience.

(And after meeting many serial travelers on the road, some of which had ended up neglecting or abandoning another life back home, I’m not so sure travel couldn’t be classified as a drug, too).

I remember vividly being at the top of of La Piedra Del Penol near Guatape, Colombia when this thought forced me to scribble fervently in my notebook.

A 7,000-foot tall rock unlike anything else around it, climbing 740 steps rewards you at the top with a breathtaking view to take in as you try and catch your breath:

...to the Rock

Overlooking the series of lakes that once housed a lakeside getaway of Pablo Escobar (who probably enjoyed a few trips in his lifetime), I felt…light (beyond just my brain being 7,000 feet shorter on oxygen), reflective, and sentimental. Trying to take in every ounce of the view I could, I began to think about how different the first six weeks of my trip ‘felt’ so different compared to the current stage of my trip.

Although the beginning of my travels felt precarious and wobbly at the time, I realized at the top of The Rock that even though everything about my travel life that autumn was new and shiny—novel places, people, and experiences in every direction I stepped—the memories of the first six weeks especially felt this way because in a way, I was blind.

These early memories seemed ‘faded’ in my head due to of course both the passage of time and ignorance to my surroundings, as well as because the flash of the novel was everywhere, to the point where I often felt overwhelmed and many times, vulnerable. It was so much to take in, it was difficult to remember.

Travelling solo (or even with someone, really) you have two choices: remain in the dark and reject this blinding, new reality around you by doing the most familiar things you can find in an unfamiliar world. The upside to doing this of course is that you are less likely to get yourself into a compromising situation.

Or, you can be so open to the experience that you temporarily blind yourself as a whole new realm sinks its way into your skull. You can use your ego as a shield and remain unchanged, or ditch it entirely and willingly grope blindingly through the world as you regain your senses (or some illusion of them).

In my limited experience with trips, those options are options are mutually applicable.

Long-term expats and serial travelers would probably attest that truly adjusting to a place takes a lot longer than just a few weeks. Instead it takes months, years, or possibly, a never-ending process of both macro-adjustments (like figuring out how to order something in a restaurant), and less obvious micro-ones (like the adjustment of your tone and mindset when greeting someone).

Conversely, veteran psychonauts would probably affirm that their kind of journeys also take a certain amount of preparation, education, healthy fear, and of course open-mindedness to get the most out of them.

Both also take a combination of mental calibration with a heavy dose of concession and surrender to your new, and ever-changing environments. As you start to adjust and learn bit by bit about the new world you are in, you start to piece together clues about where you are, and then, who you are.

These stages in a trip of course can often coincide with our location as we move around, but the passage of time is often also marked in our memories with other things too such as mood, time of year, or learning something that brings us a small epiphany.

Which makes sense, as the end result of trips is seeing and experiencing the world in ways you could never imagine, and in ways you could never explain accurately to someone that wasn’t there.

Banner photo credit: Adrian Valentin

A 3-Month Solo Trip In One Second Clips

A little project I did during my recent trip around Central and South America was to take a one-second video, everyday, with the (appropriately-named) 1 Second Everyday app.

Spawned by one of my favorite TED Talks,  the app splices together your clips and sticks the date in the bottom corner, creating a sort of highlight reel for your life.

In the talk, speaker Cesar Kuriyama explains that he started doing this for a number of reasons. Among them were that he simply hated not remembering moments of his life, and also that simply by looking at a one second clip he was able to trigger memories of much more than just what was in that brief moment. In a way, it was also more than just a reminder to take a video, but to do so something out-of-the-ordinary and “worth remembering”, everyday.

Do this daily for a year and you’ll end up with about a six-minute video of your year to look back on (and a pretty priceless keepsake).

As a big journaler, I always loved this idea since it is basically the video (and less time-intensive) version of the same thing. I stuck with using 1SE reasonably well during the summers of 2013 and 2014, but always fizzled out with it for one reason or another. Unfortunately I am not sure if the clips are stored anywhere I can salvage them.

But ahead of my trip (and with a phone that could better handle the app), I decided to give it a go again.

Aside from the couple of weird/upside down shots and one of  me trying to be a little too sneaky in Spanish class, I consider it to be a success:

[embedyt] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HWlvLfnEFag[/embedyt]

I love taking pictures, however I find going through and sorting/editing/compiling them to be tedious and uninteresting. In terms of giving myself something to look back on from my trip, I love this 1SE idea much better than a photo album.

While it certainly ‘triggers’ my memory like Cesar says, I think it also gives back a much more honest feel to myself (and possibly to others, too) about what the trip was actually like. It also takes minimal effort since the app does just about everything for you (aside from pointing your phone at something cool and hitting record).

Since returning to the ‘real world’, I have been trying to keep the 1SE habit going. I’ve shown or told more people about Cesar’s TED Talk than any other, but the refrain I often hear back from many is that they don’t have anything worth capturing and that it’d just be them “sitting at a desk all day”.

But what I learned from doing this, both on the trip and before, is that a) there is something unique about everyday if you look for it and b) the mundane of routine becomes sentimental nostalgia tomorrow, and certain everyday details you take for granted now may be the ones you look back on with the most fondness in the future.

Sometimes I daydream about what my video might look like if I had started doing this years before, about what little details I took for granted then that I wouldn’t mind re-living now once more, even just in the form of a one-second clip: the empty pickle buckets we’d use as chairs and builds forts with at my fry cook job; the croon of the guy giving away A.M. NEW YOOOOOOORK inside Penn Station; the side streets I’d take home after high school so I could see the most autumn foliage possible.

Even travel isn’t without its fair share of tame moments. Take the clip of me eating gelato on October 22, for instance. Despite it (in my opinion) being one of the more ‘boring’ clips I shot, from that one innocuous second alone I can remember:

  • At the table seated next to me was what looked like a retired American marine (based on his build and hat) and his wife
  • A fluffy pooch was going from table to table asking for his own free samples
  • The owner of the place was setting up a keyboard in the corner of the shop, preparing to entertain his customers
  • That I was feeling kind of down and homesick that day
  • The teenage girl behind the counter was surprised that I ordered in Spanish

And so on. A picture could probably trigger all of that and more, but I feel that the “aliveness” of video adds an extra dimension to your memory that a picture never could.

You could argue that the mind already remembers whatever is worth remembering, but given how many perceived ‘brilliant’ ideas I’ve lost after neglecting to write them down, I personally have stopped trusting mine. I want to remember the minutiae, the trivial, and the easily-forgotten details that are both unique to my life, yet also help me relate with others in a way that makes them go, “that’s funny, I noticed or experienced that too!”

Life isn’t just the ends of the bell curve; it’s everything that lies in between as well. And any detail can become one worth reminiscing over if you put in the little amount of effort required, be it through journaling, 1SE, or something else.

Things People Say When You Quit Your Job To Travel

“Quitting, for me, means not giving up, but moving on; changing direction not because something doesn’t agree with you, but because you don’t agree with something. It’s not a complaint, in other words, but a positive choice, and not a stop in one’s journey, but a step in a better direction. Quitting—whether a job or a habit—means taking a turn so as to be sure you’re still moving in the direction of your dreams.”
—Pico Iyer

In August, I was able to finally pull the trigger on something I had been dreaming about for the past three years: quitting my office job in order to travel and write.

I am now drafting this post on a bus ride through the Panamanian countryside, the first week of about 12 I will spend outside “the States” (as I am learning to say); also my first time outside of my mother country, period.

So far, it’s been everything I hoped, and I have zero regrets about the decision. As of now I don’t really have any sort of concrete plan on what I will do upon my return to the U.S. in January. While I hope freelancing can continue to support me full time, it’s entirely possible I could be a 27-year old living back in my parents’ basement, but already I have made some memories and friends that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The Hardest Part

Yet despite of what many in the “blindly follow your passion crowd” will tell you, this wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do. Worth it? Definitely. Easy? Not the word I would use.

For every blog post (hell, book) written about how to “just quit and follow your dreams already”, an equal amount of words could be written for the burdens that come along with such an act. The planning (admittedly exciting, but also a pain at times), the logistics, the shopping, the packing and re-packing, the saying bye…and trying to explain to people “why”.

Even though I consider myself to be an extremely independent (some might even say bullheaded) person, the hardest part of this process was not quitting my great job, saying bye to my girlfriend, friends, and family, getting rid of a large chunk of my possessions, or moving to a country where I barely spoke the language (though all tough in their own right).

Instead, it was simply a fear of how others would respond.

Thick Skin Is Still Permeable

And I don’t mean this necessarily in an approval-, permission-seeking kind of way; great books like The Art of Non-Conformity and The Happiness of Pursuit have conditioned me enough to know that usually (definitely not always), if you are getting shallow opposition to a big idea or life change, then it’s usually a sign that you are on the right course.

But with everything that must be done for an endeavor like this, receiving opposition (rational or not) from friends and family that you feel like should be supporting you unconditionally can make for an exhausting experience.

In the months leading up to buying my ticket or even deciding what country I wanted to go to first, I was an almost daily visitor to reddit’s r/solotravel board. There I was finding answers to any question I could possibly have about backpacking abroad and alone, what gear I needed, what to look for in a hostel, how to go to Thailand as a single male and not be accused of sex tourism, and most importantly, affirmation and inspiration that I too could go on a trip like this.

Despite building up (what I thought) was pretty thick skin, I kept my plans close to my chest for a long time. I simulated scenarios in my head about what I would say in response to reactions I anticipated hearing such as:

“You’re throwing your career away.”

“You’re going to be so lonely, there’s no way you’ll make it three months.”

“You really don’t like living here that much?”

“What are you going to do about the gap on your resume?”

“You’re going to say the wrong thing and get locked up abroad.”

Eventually though, it came time to do the uncomfortable in revealing my plans (awkward is turning down an invite to go to an event in three months because you are going to be busy with something you can’t talk about) and facing the peer jury.

What People Actually Said

I will say I am extremely fortunate in that I have a very strong support group of friends and family (aside from anything to do with this trip), many of whom are well-traveled themselves. However, drastic life changes can be a hard thing for those close to you to understand. And as irrational as it sounds, there were times it felt like I was abandoning people and things that had been great for me—there was absolutely nothing “wrong” with my life in Colorado.

But by writing down the reactions that stuck out the most, it allowed me to distance myself from the less-supportive comments, look at them more objectively, and identify what kind paradigm they were coming from. Additionally, I hoped that I’d have a list of responses I could someday share with anyone that might have the same fears I did about doing a long solo trip like this.

What I hope you’ll see is that the “worst” of the bunch usually had rational concern behind their comments (or just were innocently naive):

1. The Logistical

Why Panama?

But you don’t speak Spanish.

Did you just spend a million dollars?

But you have a job.

Where are you going to live?

To do what?

Is Panama safe?

What are you going to do about money?

You’re going alone?

Why?

Far and away, these responses were the overwhelming majority. And why wouldn’t they be? Even though I had gained intimate familiarity with the plan in my own head, it’s still quite the bomb to drop on someone in casual conversation. And some of these undoubtedly have been the first things out my mouth when I have (enviously) discussed with others their own travel plans.

For the career-concerned ones, it’s important to know that many of my friends are young-twenty somethings, either fresh into the “real” career pool or obsessed with getting into it. Their concern about what was going to happen to my job makes complete sense, as it goes against the grain of what their brain has been conditioned to focus on for years and years.

And for the safety-concerned, the only thing many (myself included before planning this trip) know about Panama (besides that whole Canal thing) is the reign of dictator/FBI informant Manuel Noriega in the 1980s. Once I realized these types of questions were coming from a place of naivete and not an assumption that I just threw a dart on a map when deciding where to go, they were zero skin off my back and also took zero effort to field graciously.

And to be fair, many of the “Why” questions weren’t so much in the existential sense, but more just asking if I had fallen into some sort of volunteer, Workaway, or other job opportunity.

2. The Extremely Positive

You are an incredible person, Andrew! You are intelligent and focused, with a seemingly unflappable outlook on life and it’s joys and challenges! You are loved, and supported! We are all cheering for you! (via text, my friends aren’t that quite that hokey)

Sounds like an adventure!

Travel while you’re young, man. Good for you.

You should teach yoga!

You’ll become a more aware and deep person by an order of magnitude. Rip away all of your circumstantial habits and rituals and find out exactly who you are really are. Fucking metal.

Ah yes, the people that “get it”, with no explanation needed. Most of these people have traveled a fair amount themselves, understand the benefit in doing so, and why it was important for me to go (even if we would miss each other immensely).

Not acting like they were a dime a dozen, but these people were definitely a breath of fresh air and a nice, affirming change of pace from the same eight or so responses above.

And I could teach yoga, I suppose. I’ve done more random things.

3. The Envious

Aw man, I would totally take a trip like that if I wasn’t married with kids/didn’t have a mortgage/both.

…can I come.

I’m extremely jealous.

Every time I received an envious reaction, it was just more positive affirmation that yes, while scary, I was doing the right thing in taking advantage/control of my life situation in a way that many others wish they had or never could. I was also quick to extend an invite for these people to come visit if they so desired.

4. The “Negative”/Innocently Ignorant

That’s awesome—but you should go someplace different.

Don’t get kidnapped.

Where is that?

That’s awesome! But why Florida?

Here they are—the “worst” of the bunch, none of which were remotely related to responses I feared receiving the most. While the first one admittedly got under my skin for a day or two, I faced no personal attacks or point-blank interrogations about my motives like I was sure I would. Like I said before, the country I chose (for many well thought-out reasons) isn’t the most well known other than the Canal, and the list of things I knew about Panama was probably just as short before I began researching it.

And the fourth one I’m a little surprised that it didn’t happen more often.

I could write all sorts of cliches here about not caring what others think, but in reality, when you are trying to create a major life change for yourself, what others think can matter. A whole lot, in fact.

It can take months if not years of confidence building and positive self-talk just to convince yourself that you are capable of throwing yourself into a drastically new and unknown situation—and for every doubter you encounter during this volatile stage, this fortress of self-confidence you are trying to construct gets another chunk of bricks taken out of it.cs_studyabroad734[1]

However, there’s also an important distinction to be made between not caring what others think and recklessly not heeding their advice. And in the beginning, at least for me, it was very hard to differentiate between the two.

Advice that could possibly make your trip more enjoyable by adjusting your itinerary to avoid a rainy season or a hectic (and perhaps unsafe) time in the city, for instance, is probably worth listening to. Some of the sillier responses above, while ridiculous now, probably aren’t, though in the early stages they can all unfortunately carry equal weight.

Parents for the most part want their children to have secure lives and be “fat and happy”. Friends like your Friday bar nights just the way they are. And employers don’t want to go through the grind of hiring someone to replace you.

Ultimately, It’s important to remember that in the end, 99% of people have your best interest in mind.

But it’s also important to remember that 99% of people don’t necessarily know what that is.

Airports and Planes: Emotional Zoos

Airports and planes.

No place a better exhibit of human emotion:

Joy arises out of greeting long-lost Love
As does Despair, leaving newly-found Love

Fear arrives out of leaving it all behind
and departs when thinking of everything that’s ahead

Greed lives in the chatter of businessmen making the next big deal
While Modest asks if you’d like a drink with that

Honorable and Prideful are welcomed home with standing applause
Disparaged and Distraught take off to hopefully heal

The sounds of Gleeful, Cheerful, and Merry turn festive the neutral walls
Just as Longing, Delayed, and Stranded make them a cold purgatory

Energetic skips past Sleepy curled up in a corner
While Enlightened rises from a tome two chairs down

And Wanderlust, one of the rarest and most sought emotions of all
Begins to be released—or succumbed to?—here

In flight,
Calm sits next to Anxious
While Bored and Caring attend to us
Behind, Curious gazes out with Admiration
And Faithful hopes something beyond can turn him into Tranquil

Nostalgia’s weight could ground many flights of homecomers
And Ecstasy’s fuel seemingly gets us there quicker

Behind all that, Lust has its release in sneaky fashion.

I decided to get out of my writing comfort-zone for National Poetry Month (which was actually in April), and lately I’ve also been enjoying the “anti-poetry” of Robert M. Drake, Marisa Crane, and Joe Straynge on Instagram. 

Photo is mine, taken while being stranded overnight in Denver International Airport in August 2014.