The Drift

Chapter 21

It’s disarming to get where you’re going much sooner that expected. When you place so much emphasis upon reaching a single point, the come down can be severe. The Kalahari bushman, humanity's most famous persistence hunter, is exhausted at the end of a chase, whether or not he brings home a kill. In the aftermath of Madagascar and my much awaited second trip to Africa, I found myself back in frigid British Columbia, staring down the darkest weeks of November.

The moon-shaped Nepali blade mounted above my desk was soft silver in reflection of my computer screen. Beneath it sat a finger-smoothed brass compass from an antique shop in Bangladesh and a handful of unmounted wooden masks. Despite all these tangible my memories; however, the word processor on my screen remain an oppressive, empty white. It had been nearly two years since I began this journey, with little incentive other than to write. Now, here I was, at the end of another chapter and I couldn’t do the one thing I’d set out to.

I clicked open a browser window and drew up a map of the world. I let my finger hover above New South Wales, Australia—the southern-most point of my journey to date—and traced up: Indonesia then Thailand, threaded over and over as I tumbled around the ASEAN countries, before crashing through to the India subcontinent through the Himalayan gateway of Nepal.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the spontaneity of it all—how few of these countries I’d spent time in had I actually set out to see? Even fewer, were the number of countries I had intended to see but actually visited in the end. Sure some of my favourites destinations were those that hadn’t been on my radar—the idea of Myanmar was thrust upon me in conversation with an aid worker in Phnom Penh and had Marguerite not been on a placement in Dhaka, I never would have considered the soggy peninsula of Bangladesh. But fortuitous as that was, it also exposed a nagging reality. Very little of the highs I’d hit over the past 20 months were my own direct doing. I began to question my role as a protagonist in my own adventure. I felt like I had not been chasing much at all, but had simply allowed myself to be seduced by the comfort of a lateral drift.

Taken by my friend Mimi on one of my many visits to Bangkok. Bangkok, Thailand. 2015.

Taken by my friend Mimi on one of my many visits to Bangkok. Bangkok, Thailand. 2015.

Drifting is a bizarre word to ascribe to an action as active as living. Logs drift on an ocean; plastic bags along a warm column of wind. The term drifter, when applied to humanity, only surfaced in 1908 as a more benign term for the much maligned ‘vagrant’ —a word which is derived from the Latin ‘vagary,’ to wander.

The term appears around the same time in both the United Kingdom and the United States. There are two primary attributes ascribed to the drifter: he has been dislodged from any traditional sense of home and he has no guiding beacon, or end, to his trail.

The first qualification I wore with pride. Even after returning to Canada between trips I’d consciously done very little to sink my roots. I worked the occasional contract—planted sea-grass and wrote patient references—between managing a small studio for a seasonal menswear boutique. But I always had a packed bag near my door and this token liquidity brought me peace. It was the latter part of the definition that innerved me. For when I first threw on my backpack, in December 2012 I was so confident in my mission—to absorb culture, digest it , and then spit it out at some university some where as part of a master’s thesis—that I could recite it verbatim to anyone who would cock his head. But that was nearly two years ago. I’d grown older, wiser, poorer, better read, sunburned, less fit, etc… Shouldn’t it make sense that somewhere along the path my sights may have shifted as well?

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I returned to my map. This time, traced back my route in terms of articles I’d written. The first post on this blog congealed out of my attempts to make sense of a rapidly globalizing Yangon. I wrote about conservation efforts in South Eastern Nepal and the war-ruined streets Jaffna. I took stabs my own identity. There was the occasional ode to exoticism for the sake of exoticism—my twelve-day walk along the Annapurna range and witnessing a ceremonial pig slaughter in Kalaw. But even those stories tapered into questions on the fate of these cultural pockets in a globalizing world.

I’d placed so much emphasis on my own need for perpetual motion that I hadn’t picked out the patterns in my trail. Some of my most inspired moments in Asia had come not from other locals or travellers but expats who has come to these countries with the mission of aiding change. On muggy nights on Colombo beach I sipped lassies through a wide smile as Mike, an American public health professional living in Maesot, spun yarns of running medical supplies into the jungles of Myanmar with the Free Burma Rangers. In Dhaka, I purchased far too many pricey imported beers in exchange for stories from a UNHR worker who was monitoring the Rohinga issue in the far east.

And then came the colourful ghosts, the landless women of Noakhali

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One of the landless women poses for a portrait. Noakhali, Bangladesh. 2013.

One of the landless women poses for a portrait. Noakhali, Bangladesh. 2013.

My incredible translator, Shekar. Noakhali, Bangladesh. 2013.

My incredible translator, Shekar. Noakhali, Bangladesh. 2013.

Throughout my undergraduate degree I was a firm believer in diversity of experience. The best writers were always something more than writers: they’d fought wars, delivered post, practiced medicine, even drank and womanized full time. They interacted with a part of the world that would eventually inform their prose. I’d used this excuse countless times to justify ducking out of workshops and into the chemistry lab, or handing in an unedited draft, blotted with buffer solution and reeking of iodine. I believed form should and could be perfected only once there was content to adhere it to. The best writers I met during my time at UVic also had something going on externally—they were mothers or women studies majors or enthralled by geology. Spread thin along the edges of a writing degree, my bachelors of chemistry had taken five years.

Why had I done it? I’d first been drawn to the sciences because I wanted to understand the trappings of the physical world. The dance of our molecules and the forces that govern them—the grand narrative at the centre of everything. I thought a five-year dive would give me the tools I needed to make sense of things, but how much did I really understand now?

I’ve written countless times about the perils of publishing essays. This struggle isn’t unique to me nor to my generation. Nonfiction is a labour intensive craft that rewards a tiny readership. The costs are high for both creating it and printing which makes it difficult to sell. The state of longform media has been tumultuous for over a decade and my own response of jumping out of a loose writing degree and into the DIY version of foreign reporting probably wasn’t the most fool-proof way to navigate that stormy sea.  But that route also seemed like the only way I could stay invigorated with story telling. No restaurant reviews, musician interviews, or puff-pieces on how a quiver of curated apps will change the way you work. Even background research in the bowels of some crusty community newsroom seemed more exciting, if only those positions still paid.

But more than I wanted to write, I realized now, I wanted to do work with impact. I thought this would take the form of clever reporting, thorough research, and training a spotlight on stories that otherwise go untold. But after having one story rejected, then another dissipate into a swollen sea of headlines (rinse and repeat!) I began to realize the above simply wasn’t enough. Even after navigating the publication process, there was still the likelihood your story would reach the wrong audience at the wrong time.

Journalism can still move masses. But there had to be other ways of creating change as well.

I opened another tab on my browser, and this time began searching for graduate programs - not in writing but in the sciences. Pharmaceuticals, information technology, water purification…there were so many other ways to promote change in the world.

And no doubt I could write about them as well.

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The impacts of this search are now telling. A year-long scar runs across the timeline of this blog, Just the other day, Squarespace wrote to tell me my three-year lease on this domain had expired. The e-mail asked if I wanted to renew my subscription and I considered the options. My previous Keyboard and Compass post was in February of 2015, which means I must now either write about the events preceding with over a year of retrospect or chose not to mention them at all.

Over the next few months I’m going to attempt the former. There are advantages to this. Having journalled and thus relieved these experiences countless times, I’ve grown intimate with many of them. This will undoubtedly strengthen the purpose of the narratives I chose to share (this is also why I refuse to write a memoir before I’m 40.) But this distance will also likely compromise their veracity. I’ve traded emotional immediacy for a degree of omnipotence. And for the sake of honest story-telling I’ll share some of that with you as well.

In the months proceeding Madagascar I applied for and was accepted into graduate position at the University of Melbourne. I replaced my road warn passport. I got a three year visa. I now live in Australia where I study chemical engineering. 

I still write, although primarily in-house for Engineers Without Borders Australia. I’ve revisited Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar—whether through the passage of time or through my own experience (a combination of both a suspect) those countries seemed irreversibly changed.

But perhaps, most telling, is that I still feel confused and curious. My return to academia has not sedated that aching need to explore. I doubt wherever I go next —whether that’s industry or back on the road—will prove an effective ailment either. But I’ve also become grateful for the insatiable hunger. It’s unknowingness that drives us forward, fumbling in the dark. It gives us the motivation we need to place one foot in front of the other, whether we chose to drift or sprint toward a goal.

Men play Sepaw Takraw outside of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar. 2013.

Men play Sepaw Takraw outside of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar. 2013.

Men play Sepaw Takraw outside of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar. 2015.

Men play Sepaw Takraw outside of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar. 2015.


RELATED LINKS

If you're interested in some of the work I've been doing since settling in Melbourne, here's Engineers Without Boarders Australia's most recent publications. I suggest the '2015 Impact Report.'

If you live in town you can also run with me. I pace for Nike+ Run Club. Here's our weekly run schedule.

It would be hard to summarize my entire journey in a single blog post, but another crucial chapter occurred in April 2014 when I received Passion Passport's 'The Bucklet List Initiative' grant to shoot portraits in Peru. They just opened applications for their 7th iteration. You're here because you like travel, writing and photography, which means you should probably apply here.


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