Wandering the streets of New Orleans—admiring the omnipresent susurration of jazz and zydeco, and appreciating the rich history told through still-lucent gas lamps affixed at nearly every doorstep—I learned a lot of valuable lessons; lessons which I would not have learned had I not built up the courage to go in the first place. Facing fears can teach your about your values, or your abilities. Facing fears can teach you what you do and don’t need. And facing fears can teach you how to face fears. What did I learn from travelling to New Orleans?
1. Nothing can stop me
My first day in New Olreans, I walked six miles in the drizzle to get to the French Quarter from my host’s house. I wandered all around the French Quarter once I was there. And once the sun came out—it never went away again for the remainder of my trip—I sat at the edge of the Mississippi River and soaked in its glowing rays.
On the penultimate day of my trip, I walked three miles to check out a restaurant in the Bywater, and three miles back. I thought I was going to explode from trying to eat the huge portions of food on offer.
All-in-all, I suspect my wandering put nearly 100 miles on my shoes in just six days. It sounds impressive, but really, I spent 100 or so waking hours in New Orleans. Yup. I averaged about a mile an hour. And that’s something we can all do.
That old parable about the tortoise and the hare proves true time and time again. Doing something impressive has nothing to do with taking impressive steps, and everything to do with taking small, steady steps, one after another, until we reach our destination. It may take more than 100 miles to soak up everything New Orleans has to offer, but that distance is measured in mere hours. How much time we take to stop and appreciate our surroundings over the course of those miles is another question altogether.
Give me six months and I’ll show you someone who can walk from coast to coast.
2. Home is not so grand
“I can tell you where you got your shoes.”
Oh yeah? Go for it.
“You’ve got one on your left foot and one on your right foot.”
He bends over to clean up my holey sneakers. Like they really need it.
I’m fine, thanks, I say, moving on.
I contemplated correcting his grammar. He told me where I have my shoes, after all, and NOT where I got my shoes. I figure the point would be lost on him.
Not two minutes later I hear “Did that guy get any money out of you?”
A young man, about my age, had pulled up beside me with his very British girlfriend. (Note: I’m a sucker for language, and accents especially.) We chat a bit, and they mention that they’re going to grab drinks before finding a place to hang out for the night; I mention that I’m looking for food. Before I know it, I’m invited to go with them to the Crescent City Brewhouse, where the food is “pretty good, or at least, it used to be.”
We talk about how I look like a Scorpio, about how he used to make $1,000 a week working in this very bar, about how she can’t believe that people will spend this much on food and then leave with half of it still on their plates, about where I can get an 18-inch po’ boy for $6 if I take the ferry across the river, about how he was originally from Illinois and came down to help rebuild after Katrina. He knew the bartender. I got 24 oz. of cold beer for a dollar.
This wasn’t the only time that I sat and chatted over food and beer with complete strangers. My host showed me around town the night that I got into New Orleans, and we stopped into a bar on Frenchmen Street for burritos. A young man, a fellow Oregonian it turned out, sat down at the bar and regaled us with his thoughts on Portland’s bridges, things I should check out in Eugene when I got home, and a myriad of other things before finally excusing himself.
A couple of nights later, passing through the alley beside the Balcony Music Club, I settled down on their back patio to enjoy a local brew in the quiet and wait for the music to start. It wasn’t long before I was invited to join a bachelor party of sorts because the attendees “hated seeing someone sitting alone,” (even though that had been my intention). That earned me a tarot reading from one of the groom-to-be’s friends, while the groom-to-be’s sister complained that she didn’t know said friend read tarot cards, and commenced to pout when he wouldn’t do a reading for her.
Add to these experiences that every woman in every restaurant called me “honey” or “baby”, and it became easy to refer to New Orleans as “overwhelmingly friendly in the most delightful way.”
I think it’s easy to romanticize the places where we live. Maybe not the specific town or the specific street, but certainly the county, state, or country. Of course, we think it would be nice to vacation in Paris, to tango in Buenos Aires, or to explore the ancient ruins of Cambodia—but none of these places are meant to replace our idyllic homes. Western Oregon has mild summers and mild winters, has no snakes or spiders with deadly bites, and is more or less untouched by natural disaster. It’s nice to visit other places, but Oregon really is the best place to live, or so I’d thought.
No matter how many places I visited, I always found myself contemplating how painfully un-Oregonian they were. In Oregon, we would have done this better, and in Oregon, we would have had that.
I don’t know if it was the circumstances under which I was vacationing this time, or if it was the amount of time I stayed, the fact that I was travelling alone, or possibly that I was getting around on foot, but much more often I found myself thinking that Oregon was missing some quintessential feature that New Orleans had.
In Oregon, people are much more likely to keep to themselves. Occasionally someone will talk to you on the bus or train, but that behavior is frowned upon. Why can’t they just shut up and let everyone get to where they’re going in peace and quiet? It’s kind of a strange, societally enforced introversion.
And then there’s the racism.
In Portland, though no laws enforce it, there is segregation. There are no signs, nor any fences, but there is still a pretty clear demarcation between the white and black parts of town. A lot of it is just about how the politics of poverty push certain people into certain areas. Our tight-lipped demeanors keep our interactions contained to groups of friends, and friends of friends. We are unlikely to ever speak to someone who is significantly different from ourselves.
Whatever the specific causes, our celebration of how progressive we are, in many respects, is bullshit.
I’m not saying that New Orleans is perfect. There were definitely plenty of areas where I could feel the poverty in the air, and many of those areas were predominately black. But I was also much more likely to see blacks and whites together, smiling and carrying on friendly conversations, without all of the throttled animosity and territoriality.
My home isn’t as great as it once was, even though it hasn’t changed at all. It is I who have changed.
Going to New Olreans taught me that there are things that I value which my home doesn’t provide. I suppose that it is my goal, then, to import those parts of New Orleans that I enjoyed. It won’t be easy. It feels uncomfortable to go against the unwritten sanctions against enjoyable interactions with strangers, but I discovered that it’s something which is important to me. The world is better with random friendly encounters.
3. Money is not as important as creativity
I was inspired to travel by J.D. Roth over at Get Rich Slowly. But likewise, I adopted his financial responsibility. I knew I hadn’t budgeted for travel, and I knew my monies were already stretched thin (I was losing my job after all.) So instead, I got creative.
I sat and thought about what the major expenses were going to be on my trip—flight, lodging, food, and transportation—and set to figuring out what the cheapest price I could get was. All in all, I was able to get the price down to about $700 for a week long trip by staying in hostels, taking the cheapest flight I could find, eating at cheap restaurants or getting snacks from the grocery store, and taking public transit or walking. That wasn’t bad. I knew I could afford it by taking money out of my emergency fund, but if I did that, then I would severely restrict my ability to handle an actual emergency (like losing my job.)
Going back to the drawing board, I was determined to find a way to bring that $700 down as close to zero as possible. Chris Guillebeau of The Art of Non-Conformity is travelling to every country in the world and has to think creatively to keep his expenses down; I’m sure I can get to the other side of my own country for nothing.
One by one I brought my expenses down to zero. Flight? Frequent flier miles. Lodging? Couchsurfing. Food? Gift cards. Transportation? Walking. (I have a guest post about the specific details of how I did it going up soonish. Don’t think I’d just leave you hanging!)
Now I could go and enjoy myself without worrying that I was irresponsibly digging into my emergency fund.
And, I went from being someone who worried about not having enough money for the things I wanted to do, to being someone who figured out how to do it anyway. If you think hard enough, and smart enough, money should be a very minimal issue for the things you want to do. Connect with people who can help you out, take advantage of special offers to get things for free, figure out how you can put in more work in order to expend less financially. One of my plans was to volunteer with a non-profit organization to get room and board. Get creative!
It doesn’t take money to travel. Just start walking. It doesn’t take money to learn a language. Just start speaking it. It doesn’t take money to learn to dance. Just start dancing. Especially in the age of the internet, it’s easier to learn and gather information than ever before. Use that to your advantage.
Can money augment the effort we put in? In some instances, perhaps. And it is certainly a nice backup plan. But it is not a necessary component. And because I worked out how to get my New Orleans trip for free, not only did I have an amazing trip, but I also feel like I made a major accomplishment.
Learning from our fears
When we face our fears, it is an opportunity for learning. Learning about those fears themselves, learning about our values, and learning about our abilities. When we face our fears, we develop the confidence to face even more fears. When we face our fears, we often have the chance to expand our social circles to include those people we meet while facing our fears, those who have also faced those fears, those who want to face those fears, and those who are inspired by us facing our fears. Facing fear is about so much more than facing a particular fear. It’s about the things which are opened up to us as a result of facing that fear.
Go pick a fear. A small one. Set out to face it. Find out what you can learn.
Already faced your fear? Did you learn something valuable from the experience? Share it in the comments.
Leave a comment, or leave a trackback.