A year ago, I left my job to go fulfill a childhood dream so I packed a 45L backpack and boarded a plane to Kazakhstan.
I decided I’ll travel differently this time – to go to places less heard of, to do things that are less conventional. I wasn’t leaving to run away, in fact, I left to run towards something big. Something important. It was a hunger to grow, a hunger to learn.
Traveling as a minimalist taught me many things. Here are the 4 lessons that I will take with me as I continue down this journey of life.
Lesson 1 in the Himalayas: the beauty of anti-ownership
Ping! I get a message. I dove across my 200sq ft apartment and yanked my phone from the charger. It was Al. My heart quivered every so slightly but I waved it off. If I ever want to see him tonight, I better get a move on. I sprinted to the bathroom and started volumizing my messy curls. I looked in the mirror and a dissatisfied made-up version of me stared back. I need some lipstick. I opened the side cabinet only find asprin, tyneol, ibuprofen and other close family members. I opened the cabinet on the other side and only find rings, earrings and other knick-knacks. I grabbed 4 gold rings and strategically spread them across my fingers. Where is my new lipstick? I danced past 6 other tops I tried on earlier, strewn helplessly across the floor, and picked up a patent leather clutch. I looked in my desk. No lipstick. What the heck. Half an hour later, I panted out the front door, lips a shade of the latest deepest purple, left hand clutching my pair of 4-inch heels, right hand locking up my Wall Street apartment, right arm still struggling its way into the sleeve of my winter coat.
New York City in my early 20s. It was dates, drinks, and parties. It was a chase to be with the most desirable man, to be complimented in the newest outfit, to be seen in the hottest clubs. I wanted so much and I wanted more.
Fast-forward. In April, I spent 20 days trekking the Annapurna mountain range at the roof of the world. Moneyless and everything I owned on my back, I walked. Just me, my backpack and my thoughts.
I distinctly remember sitting in front of a remarkably handsome glacier. The air was a crispy silence and I breathed in deeply, without regret. The sun was rising beyond the peaks and the rays started illuminating the mountain tops with a warm orangey glow – like the kind you’d find lounged in a lazy daydream from a faraway memory. It was mesmerizing and I was mesmerized. I felt overwhelmed. I felt the power and arrogance of the mountains; I felt its secrets and the tenderness. I felt tears creep into the back of my eyes.
That moment, it hit me. I learned the beauty of simplicity and existence. How remarkable is it that we need so little to live such rich lives! Our society has ironically inscribed an idea upon us – that we need to chase goods, chase people, chase love. Our concept of happiness has been distorted so that we feel joy at our friend’s jealousy of how big our houses are, or how expensive our cars are, but in essence, all we need is connection.
In that split second of my unparalleled happiness, I had nothing but the richness of the moment. When you own less, you learn to live more.
Lesson 2 in Pakistan: expect non-expectations
I sat down on a curb in Seattle and started crying. My career and aspirations flashed before my eyes. I worked hard this year and expected a raving review. I shipped multiple features, I fixed countless of bugs, I built immense camaraderie at work. I expected a promotion. My review at work ended up being just average and suddenly, I felt like a complete failure. I saw my track to promotion, my path to leading a team, my chances at owning a large-scale product crumbling into sawdust. I was a failure. The tears kept coming.
Work. It consumes us when we love it, it kills us when we hate it. Like most driven, diligent workers, I thought things come when I wanted them to. I expected pats on the head.
Fast-forward to this past March. I decided to travel to Pakistan to learn more about the country’s rich culture and explore its northern region. Places like Skardu in Northern Pakistan are famed for its summer meadows and endless greenery. I excitedly called my two local friends, Zan and Mari, and told them about my plans. There was a moment’s pause before they questioned my timing. “Hedge your expectations” they advised “it’s still the tailend of winter and the roads are icy. There will be no flowers, nor no summer skies”.
I was torn but ultimately figured why not? Traveling should be the adventure itself. And surely enough, I ended up falling madly in love with Skardu. I loved the barren landscape – the jagged dead-grey mountains juxtaposed against pops of dirty pink from flowering cherry blossoms. I loved the cold rocky deserts next to icy pale blue rivers rushing with life.
Expectations lead to unrealistic outcomes that you project onto other things or beings. The problem with expectations is that your happiness is predestined by uncontrollable data points. We often forget life happens and things often go wrong. Without flexibility and optimism of a situation, you are bound to be unhappy or unsatisfied.
Skardu has taught me to appreciate the now, and to quell expectations for people nor places. Without expectations, your baseline is zero and therefore, outcomes can only be positive and better.
Lesson 3 in Tajikistan: the art of letting go
I sat next to two girlfriends of mine, Terese and Aisha. We’re on our second glass of wine waiting for our third friend, Marina, to show up. We made reservations weeks ago at this cute restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. It was for Valentine’s day and we figured there’s no better way to celebrate our friendship and our singlehood than with oysters and LBDs. It was a busy month filled with papers and exams but we decided to prioritize our get-together as a much-needed escape from the library. We lounged carelessly across the velvet seats, giggling mischievously as we exchanged recent gossip. Every so often, one of us would check our phones. The WhatsApp group was filled with double blue ticks and no response.
Another half hour passed. A quick vibration followed by a sorry – can’t make it. Just got asked on a last minute date.
Marina and I used to be very close friends. When we met, she was kind, considerate and driven. Beautiful on the outside and inside, a smart lady you’d want to spend hours with because she’s simply so lovely. It’s a classic Mean Girl kind of story. She built up an ego, started prioritizing social clout. She would commit to plans then back out suddenly if someone ‘more impressive’ messaged her.
Losing a friend is hard to stomach, seeing a close friend change into someone you barely recognize or respect is impossible to forget. You feel foolish, betrayed, and duped. You’re angry at them and you’re angry at yourself. The opposite of love is indifference and you simply cannot let go of who they once were.
Fast-forward to last November, I travelled to Tajikistan with my boyfriend, Jack. We decided to do the ultimate road trip and drive from southern Kyrgyzstan into central Tajikistan. The trip was on a jarring road next to the cliffs of Tajikistan and the border of Afghanistan. Jack and I coordinated with an agency to help us source a good car, driver and to figure out the logistics. We were excited to spend a week living with local villagers and assimilate into their culture.
On day 2 of 7, we realized that our driver was dishonest. He was cutting our trip down to 4 days as he had to get to the capital earlier than expected and can no longer carry out our itinerary. Jack and I were furious. Not only did we pay too much amount for the trip, the shortened journey meant less exploration and more time sitting in the car. Had we known this ahead of time, we would not have gone ahead.
That day we learned a new ‘emotional minimalism’ – the art of detaching and of letting go. We removed ourselves from the aggravating scenario to focus on facts. We were in the middle of nowhere and our options were limited: to either stay annoyed and let the situation ruin the rest of our trip, or, to move on and make the most of our remaining time. Furthermore, the driver seemed dishonest to us but we do not know what’s going on in his life.
You can only see the sun when you step out of the shade. Once you let the negatives depart, you will start recognizing the positives of your situation and appreciating the Now.
(Sent from Bangthali, Nepal)
I dream, I dream when I travel
The journey, longer and longer
the higher I desire
Far, far away, above the cloudy storm
Far, far away, below the never ending downpour
A place wrenched out of my heart
Branches to heaven and stairways to hell
For seas are so blue, and the waves are so wild
Let me flitter among the playful, let me rest among the warm
Find me through a secret, find me loving the stars
(Sent from Pakistan)
Occasionally, your core is so violently shaken by some force that is so utterly powerful, you open your mouth and you do not know whether to scream, laugh or to weep. You open your eyes and you wonder why the floors are jagged like the rough currents on a stormy ocean, you wonder why the peripherals of your vision blur since you are concentrating, understanding, seeing everything but nothing all at once.
You are seeing everything. From the scathing hot outlines erected against the afternoon sun, to the cool, laissez-faire meanderings escorted by the evening moon. You see the universe’s violent vibration, illuminating the power and interdependence of everything and nothing. How beautifully poetic yet revoltingly plain.
Ideas left unspoken quickens the drumbeats of your pulse. Like droplets from a storm, they rain forcefully against your wrist and send chills twinkling down your spine. Your hands tremor, palms freeze-dried by a sudden arctic chill. Your jaw clenches with dark satisfaction, or is it hunger? A roaring hunger, a scorching thirst. You cry out for the cut of the sentences, the bullets of the words, sliced and skinned so smoothly like a new, luxurious mink scarf.
Your body is reined in harshly by the tension of your soul. The classic lump forms in your throat and you are stuck – stuck falling into a gaping hole of timeless hell. Each interaction is an interruption. An interruption to this rapid and free lock down, without control. Frown – for this is the antithesis of a climax, as life is to death and indifference is to love.
The story unravels and your knees are teetering on the brink of collapse. They’re numb with exhaustion, indulging in ecstatic oblivion won after a fight. The world smirks at you, sympathetically, mockingly. They like to see you tired, defeated. They like to see you finished. Yet, you are a sadist and you yearn for more. You want it to burn.
The paper thin stories flow life into your shaking hands. Your mouth dry, voice hoarse. Your chest, tight, clenched, grasping for every first and last raspy breath, away from your nightmare, away from your sickly sweet and sticky dream.
There is a dance somewhere, swirling, twirling, racing ahead. Faster and faster, the spins are discharged. “Faster and faster” they’re yelled. You cannot catch them. Oh, the damned! You cannot have it all.
(Sent from Bangkok, Thailand; in tribute to The Fountainhead)
I spent a few days at Auroville, a universally renown community among dreamers as “the commune that worked”, in other words, some sort of “utopia”.
Definition: A commune is an intentional community of people living together, sharing common interests, often having common values and beliefs, as well as shared property, possessions, resources, and, in some communes, work, income or assets (Wikipedia)
I’ve been growing my interest in “communes” – the concept of mutual support and co-existence / co-growth of a group of individuals who are different “in practice” (i.e. profession, interests) yet similar “in ideals” (i.e. values, ethics) really appeals to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the road for 6 months, or maybe I believe in the promised benefits of growing together with a group that possess the same passion for the same higher orders to build something greater, together.
Auroville is north of the beautiful little Pondicherry, a previously French colony on the eastern shore of India. Auroville means “the city of dawn”. It is an experimental community built to further the unity of mankind. The founders, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, had a vision to build a safe space for anyone from any country, nationality and background to come to and live in peace and harmony.
I entered Auroville feeling cautious. I arrived with a strange mixture of excitement and doubt – I was eager to learn more but I was also skeptical of the rules and perceived cultiness.
I left Auroville with similar feelings but for very different reasons. I was optimistic regarding the community and ‘culture’ that was established – the Aurovillians I met were so warm, kind and loving. However, I was skeptical of how the city’s growing. It felt like through the decades of development, Auroville’s mission became increasingly less pronounced. It seems like Auroville is slowly transforming into another hippietown-of-yesteryear.
Over the weekend, I attended a local film festival and befriend a local Aurovillian, Tom*. Tom was born in Auroville and has lived there for all his life. We chatted about film noir, we chatted about world politics. We chatted about love and liberation. I couldn’t help being (ignorantly) surprised that Tom, someone who grew up in this small city with it’s limited cosmopolitanism, came off a lot more worldly and educated than many of my fellow acquaintances. I felt a silly and embarrassed after realizing my unconscious bias.
After some warm ginger tea, we started chatting about Auroville. Tom’s opinion of the city echos my own. He said that as a boy, the city was filled with liberating vivacity – they were building a future – the right future – a future that pushes the boundaries of mankind in a non-material level. It would be a city of communalism, mutual support and strong bonds. It would be a city of technology, dreams and passion. There will be no wars, no fights, no this versus that.
It would be the type of city that everyone else will adopt.
Every brick Tom moved, ever plant Tom planned, was believed to be one step towards the growth in awareness and spirituality of mankind.
“But you get older and you see things” Tom continued in a matter-of-fact tone, “we were once the ‘wild west’, it was a place of boundless experimentation, we were encouraged to explore our minds, to run free. The world was within my reach – I experimented with sounds, with sculptures; with colours, with the elements. I built the galaxy out of wind chimes and happiness out of the wind. But with growth, rules are put into place. Children argue, so we built schools. People fight, so we created precepts. Groups disagree, so we hired a government”
We ended our conversation. Tom has decided it’s time for him to move on.
* name has been changed for privacy reasons.
So what works?
My conversation with Tom left me restlessly thoughtful. As I continued my travels through India, Thailand and Myanmar, I can’t help but obsess over this idea of a “utopia”. Can we truly build man’s happiest place on earth?
Initial thoughts / insights / observations:
- Communes or somewhat-exclusive living/lifestyle communities need a common goal/objective to exist. They need a specific and strong foundation that participants can feel attached and devoted towards. This has historically been a ‘spiritual’ element, but we should not rule out secular concepts or ideas that either i) focus on furthering something that is beyond the current reach of mankind, or ii) exist as something believed to be true, but just has not been fully proven true yet
- The promise of an idea is enough to sustain the immediate community, the ‘First People’ who built the community. It is, however, the future (second+) generations who will grow tired as this ‘ideal’ community it is not one they have built and manifested themselves, nor is it one they subscribe to holistically. Where there is no history, there is no commitment, for the new generation’s understanding of the community is shallow – ideals are taught verbally versus through an existing passion of the heart, beliefs are paraphrased versus innate. Future generations will look for more, and/or look for ‘what else’. If their journey for the Different is not successful, or they feel they are not given the sufficient/true freedom for their exploration, we will be left with deep-rooted resentment that will distant existing bonds and relationships
- Existing communes focus on ‘bringing up the next generation’ to exist. Perhaps we should think about the continuity of the commune less about lineage (inward), but more about the acceptance of others (outward). In other words, birth versus conversion
- Unless the goal is to exist severed from current society (i.e. complete detachment of the outside world), it is essential to scrutinize existing social norms and only subscribe to ones that are compulsory. It is also essential to build regulations and precepts proactively versus reactively. Human nature encourages disputes and complacency. It is essential to set up a society with the right institutions to keep us inspired, effective and innovative.
- Communes that ‘work better’ tend to adopt existing societal norms, but ‘improve’ on others. Perhaps this is moot point to discuss further – which existing societal conditions are A) ‘Right’ (keep), B) which ones ‘make sense but are not executed well in society’ (change) and C) which ones are ‘Wrong’ (abandon). And, if we adopt a series of AB prudently, can we fully eliminate C?
- Basic needs must be met for people to do what they love / are best at. Though some can be met through the sharing of resources (i.e. food / gardening), certain ‘work’ may need to be outsourced to third parties (outside of the commune) to maintain objectiveness, efficiency and enable commune members to focus on activities that require their unique skills
- Consider our traditional definition of a ‘democracy’. Perhaps a constant and thorough democracy is not the right model to run this commune as 1 vote pp on each matter (despite an individual’s [lack of] familiarity on a particular subject is not effective and the ‘fairest’ — this concern (of overfocusing on ‘micro problems’ by the ‘wrong’ group) is triggered by a story told me to about an Italian commune that spent hours of their “town hall meetings” arguing about dog poop
- There must be a thorough and well-perused selection criteria for accepting new members into the commune. Race, religion, culture, sexuality, identity (etc) are NOT relevant factors, but, an individuals’ thesis on the universal truths of life and happiness must align with the core of the commune. The individual’s view of the future, and more importantly, how they see themselves fit into the metaphysical picture, must mirror that of the commune
- Unfortunately for mankind, it is impossible to live happily without soughting after acceptance from your loved ones. Because we all strive to be content, it is important that the outsider world is curious about the commune (through either intellectual or physical ‘visits’)
- Most communes look for perfect in happiness. This is inachieveable. Consider other objectives like city planning / efficiency, the allowance of an individual to express themselves, the ability of an individual to learn and explore newness, the percentage of current situations (as a whole) that are planned and executed accordingly (etc) as better metrics
Utopia – redefined
The word “utopia” is wrong.
Self-identified “utopias”, based on the historical definition of the word, aren’t utopias because they’re trying to subscribe to an idea that’s impractical, and by that virtue, makes it no longer ‘perfect’. Our current understanding of ‘utopia’ is a predefined image fed to us as ‘perfect’ when it merely is an image constructed out of lies and a lack of thought.
“Utopia”, as we are taught to understand it, is built upon escapism – for this world is so terrible that there must be another place, somewhere else, sometime else, where everything works and everyone is happy. This place will be filled with trees with rosy red apples, there will be rainbow fish dancing along the stream, the sky is blue, the temperature is warm, and no one cares about things as trivial as clothes. (Ironically), kind of like that biblical painting of Adam and Eve, which, will never work out in practice.
We need to redefine the term so we can build something that’s actually worthwhile.
(Sent from Auroville, India)
I’m obsessed with brutalist architecture. The clean lines and efficient build gives the structure a simple yet daring vibe. I love that it leaves so much room to grow life.
Below is a collage of a building I shot in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The images I used create the layers belong to their respective owners.
(Sent form Phuket, Thailand)