Snippets from 21st Century Vagabonds, No. 1

Intermittently, I will post snippets from my observations and interactions with travelers that I have met on trips to southern Africa in the past year. I have decided to affectionately refer to them as “21 Century Vagabonds,” which I hope is not offensive to any party.

The first traveler that I met on my journey was an American in his 60s who has been sailing solo around the world for the past ten years. We met in the lovely city of Johannesburg. Johannesburg has quite the reputation for crime, but for me it was the place that energized me and motivated me to travel on, keep seeing, and keep learning from travelers. Like in life, one’s impressions of a place is ultimately down to the people one meets. I was a lucky one. The white bearded and leather-skinned traveler had an easy and approachable attitude towards life that enticed me to find that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that he had seemingly found.

So, this is the story that he told me.

As a young man, he had spent a few years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya. Following the international stint, he returned to America and worked as an engineer for Nissan all his life. Finally, he was offered early retirement at the age of 50. When he realized that living on his small sailboat was cheaper than living in his house in California combined with his lifelong goal of traversing the world, he sold his house and began his journey. First, he sailed south, hugging the coast, making it down to Latin America. He would dock at a place and live there for several months or years before moving on. For the last couple of years, he has been docked in Southeast Asia. He enjoys the tropical climate of Indonesia. Every year, he returns home to celebrate Christmas with his elderly parents.

“Wonderful” is the only way that I could describe my response. I was awestruck when he relayed his story. Without much prior sailing experience, he simply just up and went.

I want to keep these stories of carefree bravery, always.


Is love another form of addiction?

Scrolling through my newsfeed, I caught a glimpse of a video of a commentator commenting on what it means to be a millennial. It seems there is an obsession with defining this generation. That’s probably a topic for another post.

What caught my attention is when the commentator explained that when we receive notifications of text messages and ‘likes’ etc. accorded by the age of social media, these notifications trigger the production of dopamine in our brains, which is a highly addictive pleasure-inducing chemical.  He claims that that is the same chemical that is produced in one’s brain when one takes drugs and alcohol. So, his logic is that just as humans are conditioned to become addicted to alcohol and drugs because of the pleasure-inducing chemicals that are produced during the intake of which, millennials are addicted to instant gratification because of the dopamine that is produced when one is instantly notified of a ‘like’ on a posting on social media.

Taking these claims at face value, I wonder if by his logic, love is also another form of addiction. Certainly, it is pleasurable when we receive notes of endearment and appreciation from a significant other. After starting such a relationship, one begins to expect such romantic gestures from their loved one and wants more and more of such gestures from their loved one, until one decides to drown oneself in such a love by committing oneself to a lifelong bond. Perhaps true love is mutual addiction?

Is addiction always bad? Addiction seems to suggest that one is doing something outside of one’s control. An addicted person is one who has lost his/her agency as he/she cannot express his/her free will. As humans, we seem to value agency as a characteristic that puts us above other living things. Therefore, addiction is naturally regarded as ‘bad’ by robbing a person of his/her agency. If we accept this premise, and accept that love is a form of addiction, does that mean that love is also ‘bad’? Or, accepting that love is a form of addiction, are there forms of addiction that are not inherently ‘bad’? If so, what is that makes some forms of addiction not inherently ‘bad’ and others intuitively appalling?

buddhism and life

It seems that Buddhism is the antithesis to human life.  If there is no desire, then there is no suffering.  Perhaps in theory it would be nice to live life at peace and without suffering, but if one has no desire whatsoever in life, how can one continue living?  If there is no desire in the strict sense, how is there motivation to even continue living?  At least one has to desire to continue living on some level in order to live, right?  And there goes the suffering and struggles that come along with desiring to live.  I guess Buddhism is about not being concerned with material gratification and that everything in this material life is pointless. So, true Buddhists should relinquish their desire to live and end their lives?  But then, is there still some sort of desire for some sort of ultimate enlightenment that will be achieved in a world beyond this material life? 

Up before the sun

Many people start their commute in the dark.  In the summer months, the routine involves seeing sunrise during each morning commute.  However, in the winter months, the entire drive is one of darkness.  Sunrise is not witnessed until about an hour or so into the workday.  Is this depressing?  

Perhaps most things in life are not hard or not hard to bear.  The key lies in what we are used to.  Aware or not aware, we have habits.  Some are bad and some are fine.  One we are comfortable with holding pencil in certain way for twenty years, we find other people’s methods as difficult.  However, in reality, one is not more difficult than another.  It is a matter of being accustomed or not.  Our minds and bodies are the same way.  However, our malleability declines with age, at a rate that is not equal for any two persons. 

Often, life is a process of training oneself.  We are training ourselves to become more adept for this society.  In life, we are our own coaches.  We battle our bodily desires and extrinsic temptations daily.  Why does America run on coffee?  Daily, we are combatting our desire and, often, need to sleep by engaging in socially-endorsed substance abuse.  Really, it is no different from a monastic lifestyle.  We are constantly training ourselves.  We are all trying to achieve something, whether the attainment is material or spiritual.  We continue to live because somewhere in the depths of darkness, we each seek something.  That something can be as basic as the evolutionary desire to perpetuate life.    

The Race

Perhaps it is time to take an adventure.  An adventure, far, far away.  The Mongolian grasslands are calling my name.  I’d like to visit Inner Mongolia and experience the hybrid Mongolia-Han Chinese culture there.  In addition to the grasslands, desert, and cities, I want to see the rural farming villages there.   Perhaps, I sound too first world, but I’d like to study the poverty and simple life there.  I hope to meet farmers who were previously nomads.  I wonder what kind of transition that must be!

It is interesting to me, how our species used to lead nomadic and hunter-gatherer lives and yet today, it seems like much of our values centers around settling down with a family and a source of income.  The agricultural revolution happened and we decided that settling down on farms and domesticating livestock was more efficient and productive.  Then, the industrial revolutions happened and we decided that settling down in cities and working in factories and service sectors was more efficient and productive.  Then, the information or internet revolution happened and we decided that settling down in our houses and working virtually was more efficient and productive.  Today, we have virtual video conferences, online shopping, and everything else that was unimaginable just a few decades ago.

The pace of life only continues to grow even as we live longer lives.  Every day is a race of being more productive and efficient.  Everyone tries to find that niche that they have THE comparative advantage in and specialize to become the THE most competitive in the race.

What kind of quality of life is this?

Every year, we are increasingly sedentary.  Humans, we are too full of ourselves as a species.  We think we can create everything, manipulate everything around us and make it better.  We think that with our science, we can just alter or make food, more efficiently than natural foods.  Why is obesity and clogged blood vessels such a big problem in the United States?  It is because we are too full of ourselves.  We think manufactured plastic foods are as good as natural food and is even cheaper.  We think our medical science can cure almost anything.  We are snobs and think that our way is the only way.

Anyway, I think there is beauty to be found in a nomadic lifestyle that can help us all get away from the meaningless life-long race.  At each milestone of human advancement, we think of our qualities of life improving, we dream of more time for leisure and to spend with family.  Instead, what we find is that everyone is only running faster and training harder in the race.  Leisure gets more expensive when returns to productivity are higher.