“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bounds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”-Patanjali
I’m exhausted, exasperated and ready to snap. “How much is your cheapest room?”
“It’s thirty Euros per night.”
Sweat runs down my temples. I shake my head. Really?
“You’ll be in room 6B, it’s up the stairs and to the right. There’s a shared bathroom at the end of the hallway.”
As I reach for my wallet and pass my money over, a sense of failure swamps my mood. I knew this day would come, but I was hoping to delay it for as long as I could. Not so soon, surely? Not now?
I’ve gone 290 straight days without having to fork over any money for a place to stay, but right now it feels like a hollow achievement. All I feel is shame and anger. I thought that once I finally made it to Europe, everything would magically become easier, but – of course – day one on this continent is proving just as tough as everywhere else. Promised land? Not so much.
My first burst of enthusiasm for finally making it to Europe evaporated hours ago when I was unceremoniously kicked off the bus I was taking from Lavrio to Athens.
No Euros? No ticket. I should have known that the bus driver wasn’t going to accept the Israeli Shekels I had, but I boarded anyway because there was nowhere to exchange money. It felt like an acceptable risk – and then, suddenly, it didn’t. I begged and begged the bus driver to let me stay on the bus, but he pulled over anyway and yelled at me in Greek until I got off. It was five miles to the nearest town to find an ATM, and then another mile or so to find the closest bus stop.
That’s how my day started. Welcome to Europe, Eric.
The old wooden stairs creak as I ascend towards room 6B. Awful electronic dance music blasts from the hostel dorm rooms as I pass. My destination is a sparse room with a cracked ceiling and paint-chipped walls, and as I set my bags down in the doorway, I wonder what I’m doing here. I’m too old to be sharing a bathroom with teenager party animals that will be going to bed when I’m waking up. I feel pathetic.
So I panic.
What if I run out of money today? What if I can’t find a way to make enough money this month? What if I can’t find a way to ever make enough money doing this job I love, this personal quest for freedom that means so much to me? Then what?
I can’t go back to my “old life,” the one that Ellen Goodman sums up so perfectly:
““Normal” is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.”
The further I’ve gotten away from that cycle, the more insane it’s looked. If I’ve learned only one thing from these past nine months on the road, it’s that most human beings are not spending the time they’re given here on earth in the way that best suits them, and it’s become maddening to me.
But madness or not, I can’t solve the world’s problems because I haven’t fixed mine yet. I need to find a cheaper accommodation for the rest of my time in Athens. It’s not like I haven’t already tried my damnedest to do so. I emailed my standard offer (the same one that worked 290 days straight until today) to trade my film and photography work for a room to over 200 hotels here last week – and then today, under the sweltering summer sun, I traipsed across the city with all my things and tried to barter in person with about 30 more hotels. They all turned me down – and now I know why.
Greece is floundering in the depths of a catastrophic economic crisis.
All the banks are closed and tensions have been high all across the city today because the cash machines are running out of money. Queues are stretching down most blocks, and Greeks are only permitted to withdraw 60 Euros per day from the cash machines. I could not have picked a worse time to hustle for work.
Greece became the focal point of Europe’s debt crisis after Wall Street collapsed in 2008, and it currently owes 240 billion Euros to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission (EC).
The recent problems started back in 2009 when Greece announced that it had not been reporting accurate deficit figures, which raised serious questions about the reality of its economy. This resulted in Greece being shut out from borrowing in the financial markets, and by the spring of 2010, the country was heading for bankruptcy.
That’s when Greece received its first bailout – but it came with steep conditions. Lenders required that the Greeks make some harsh budget cuts and impose steep, unpopular tax increases. And while the bailout helped buy Greece time to balance its books, most of the money went to paying off Greece’s preexisting international loans which in turn did even more damage to their already floundering economy and caused unemployment rates to rise above 25 percent.
Greek debt woes have been a nonstop problem for the past six years – and of course I’ve arrived here the day before it’s all set come to a head. Tomorrow a referendum vote will take place in which Greece citizens will decide on the fate of their country. They are being asked to choose whether or not Greece should accept the bailout conditions proposed by the IMF, ECB and EC. Do they accept the proposals of Greece’s creditors, which the government has already rejected? Voting “yes” means Greece will remain a part of the Eurozone and suffer even further budget cuts while voting “no” means they will reject the demands of Greece’s international creditors and risk exit from the Eurozone.
My money problems pale in comparison, but they’re all I can think about as I see Greece in such turmoil. I sit down on filthy bed sheets that probably haven’t been changed all week. Actually, I’m sure they haven’t: most hostels I’ve stayed at in the past have a policy that they only change bed linen one day a week, which is usually Sundays – and today’s Saturday. I feel gross just thinking about it. But it’s nothing next to the financial hole I too could soon find myself in.
What happens if I can’t balance my own books?
I quickly do the math in my head. 30 Euros a night times seven nights, that’s 210 Euros a week and 840 Euros a month…and that’s just for the cheapest room. There’s food and transportation, both of which are way more expensive than in Africa. Just to do the basics like eat, sleep and travel in Europe I am looking at a minimum of $1,500 a month and that’s on the low end. On top of those challenges, I need new parts for my camera and new clothes, probably including a jacket because it will be winter soon enough and I don’t own anything more than t-shirts and tank tops….
Just last week, I had to close down the business account that I opened for myself because I couldn’t maintain the minimum balance required for a business. Half of my earnings for the last year were made on a single day when I was hired to do the photography for a wedding in Tanzania.
That isn’t how I want to make it as a writer-photographer. I don’t want to be what Julie Cameron calls a “shadow artist” and settle for a “shadow career,” when an artist compromises their craft and chooses a path that’s close to their desired art, even parallel to it, but isn’t the art itself. Say, a fiction writer settling for a straight journalism job for a newspaper. Or a wannabe feature-filmmaker opting for a life of thirty-second commercial spots because it pays the bills. Or me, doing anything except what feels right.
Some of my income is from small donations from family and friends. And even though I’m grateful, I can’t live on that either. I haven’t had to cover hotels rooms, but I’ve had plenty of other things to pay for – including the long bus rides across Africa and the cargo ship I took across the Mediterranean this week. Then there’s most of the meals I’ve eaten, and all the absurdly expensive visa fees as well, all of which are quickly adding up.
On top of all of that, I’ve been financially supporting the love I let slip away, so she can scrape by in Thailand until she can get back on her feet.
My frustrated thoughts flip back to the text message my friend sent me this morning and my blood starts to boil. I can’t help but torture myself and scroll through my phone to the message…
It must be nice that your parents are paying for you to travel around the world.
This couldn’t be further from the truth, but some people assume that just because my father ran his own successful business, I have some golden ticket through life. In fact, it’s the complete opposite; I don’t want so much as a single dollar from my family. I want to make it on my own.
In Miami, I worked two jobs I despised for three long years, while living in the smallest cheapest apartment. I gave up going out on the weekends, buying name brands and slashed all my living expenses in half and then in half again. I managed to save a mid-range five figure sum over that time, and then, when I quit both my jobs and left for Africa, I pushed all my chips to the center of the table and bet it all on myself.
I am risking every dollar of my life savings in order to do this – so for someone to think that anything has been handed to me….is infuriating. I’d rather end up broke in Bangkok than have money in Miami, and that’s the truth. All I have in this world is the suitcase next to me and the dream that keeps me going – and suddenly, in a flash, I realize I already have everything I need.
“Yes, that’s it!”
I feel a spark of defiance flare up. In Zen Buddhism, this feeling is referred to as Satori, a burst of sudden awareness – and it sets my chest ablaze, burning away my insecurities. It seems to show up in the midst of my highest highs and lowest lows – but only when I take control of my own thoughts and realize that everything I’ve created for myself, even the bad stuff, has been my choice. I stand up and close the door to my room. Satori is here to remind me of something and to move me to higher ground, and I need the peace to listen.
I wouldn’t have been given this dream if I didn’t have the power to accomplish it. I need to stop focusing on what I don’t have, and focus on what I have.
What I have is the plan I had all along – and I’d allowed myself to forget the details.
In reality, I’m right on track, exactly where I projected I would be. I always told myself that during my first year of traveling, I wasn’t going to worry about money. My sole focus was to just to go out into the world and to create a body of quality work. To focus only on the filming, the photography and the writing, and to put exceptional content up on my website, no matter how slowly it came from me. The only measuring stick I gave myself for year one was to not give up – and Greece had momentarily driven it right out of my thoughts.
This has always been my plan for the first year. In fact, I’m ahead of schedule – I thought I was going to have to couchsurf and stay in cheap hostels like this all along the way, and if you would have told me a year ago that I would have received a total of ten free nights in exchange for my work exchange offer, I would have signed my name to that in a second. How many people that set out to drastically change their life and travel around the world get to sleep in really nice hotels for ‘free’ for the first 290 nights? That has to be some sort of record.
Since I always told myself that I wasn’t going to worry about making money my first year doing this, the income I’ve banked is actually starting to feel more like a success than a failure. I’m on track. I’ve got this.
My breathing slows, and I can even crack a wry grin. I believe in you. I still believe in you. And you’re right – I have more than enough money for right now.
Are things perfect? Of course not. But can I muddle through until I’m where I need to be? Oh, you bet.