On long-term travel, career and lifestyle changing, and what comes with it.
It's been one full year since I did my last day as a "DIT", a.k.a. on-set digital image management for film and television production. I worked extremely hard over the better part of a decade to build this career, spending much of 2006-2014 sitting behind a DIT cart. I loved my job in many ways and was lucky to spend those years with great people but I could never shake the incessant need to reconnect creatively. It became clear it was never going to happen spending 50-70 hours a week on a TV set.
Last September after wrapping season four of HBO's Girls, I obeyed the long gestating feeling in my gut and walked away from everything I worked so hard to build. Surely this was lunacy but I needed to get out of my comfort zone and to immerse in the unknown. If I just stayed in New York, it would have no doubt been more of the same. It was time for a radical change of scenery.
A few weeks later I was in Hong Kong. On my first night there, I watched the sun set from Victoria Peak. I vividly remember the warm drizzle, the smell of ozone, and the city lying vast below. I took out my camera and framed up the first shot of the trip thinking, Here we go. This is what I’ll be doing for awhile.
Victoria Peak, Hong Kong. My first night back in Asia after 15 years.
It felt good to be so far from New York and more importantly, to be shooting again. I gave myself the next six months to explore a list of places scattered across Asia with only a vague trajectory traced between them. I had no real plan, only the thrill of being a stranger in a strange land and no purpose other than to simply explore and learn. Such open-ended travel came with its own set of unforeseen challenges but it was exactly what I needed to reignite my creativity.
Those six months whizzed by in a blur. Fast forward to late February 2015 - Colombo to Chennai to Bangkok to Taipei to JFK and before I knew it I was back in Queens, looking out the window of my sixth floor apartment at the snow covered roofs below, thinking I could still be on the beach in Sri Lanka instead of this cold, miserable city, finally confronted with the inevitable question of, now what?
Six months later, I’m still asking it.
For awhile I was assuming something palpable would come along like a concrete opportunity; something that would open up a new, perhaps unforeseen professional path. That didn't happen. Instead my new life is really just my old life before I joined a labor union and had some job security—the freelance game of going paycheck to paycheck, chasing work, chasing invoices. Only now it's a little writing here, a little photo there, some video, some consulting. Whatever comes along that seems interesting or rewarding. The days of identifying as a singular profession are clearly over. It's not exactly what I was expecting but it never is and that's just fine.
Not everyone is able to do something like this. Not everyone who's able to would even choose to. What I've found though is that long-term travel and living abroad provide a unique lens through which to observe the staggering diversity of the human race. We're all people after all—but do we have more in common or in opposition? Only through immersion in cultures outside our own can we arrive at an informed conclusion.
The rewards of these exchanges, though immaterial, are vast in their own way but can also present a new dilemma and that is what is one to do with this drastically altered worldview? This new perspective can disrupt everything, including our most closely held values.
It's not always pleasant but disruption is the antidote for stagnation.
Meeting some nice kids in a remote village in Northern Laos.
New friends in Saigon show me how to fix an iced coffee, Vietnamese Style.
There's no better place to get to know India than riding the rails. Prepare for many long hours of conversation with strangers.
Close encounter with cobras in Rajasthan. Note the snakeman's sheer delight at my terror.
My fixer in Sri Lanka, Priyantha, at home with his kids.
The biggest takeaway from my year of literal and figurative wandering is that what's most important is to just feel good about what you're doing, whatever it may be. It should be accompanied with the feeling of growth and progress and if not, perhaps it's time to try something different.
At this stage in my life, I'd rather have a head full of incredible memories and experiences, like the photos at the top of this blog, than a house filled with stuff I don't need. I drive a Honda Fit instead of a European car and live in a rent stabilized apartment in Queens instead of a condo in Brooklyn. It's a choice and I choose to live cheap so I can keep exploring all this planet has to offer. It's what brings me joy but it certainly isn't for everyone.
As of September 2015, I've visited 34 countries, 271 cities, and there's still so much more. Though it would be virtually impossible, the thought of there being no place left to see with fresh eyes is a sad one. Fortunately I've barely scratched the surface and cannot wait to get back out into the unknown.