I’ve Learned from Dozens of Cultures on this Trip, but I Still Can't Work the Remote
You can see the quiet insanity in his eyes. Later they'll say "toward the end, he couldn't even find the light switch."
Imagine that about once or twice a week, little sadistic elves secretly scurry into your home while you sleep and magically move the light switches to different locations on the wall. They also move the electrical outlets to different spots, and occasionally replace the outlets with a different type of socket. These evil little buggers also have the ability to magically move the bathroom door to a different wall, so that you will definitely not find it in the middle of the night. They replace the television remote with a completely different remote and cable system, and they generally switch all the buttons on the air conditioner so that there’s no chance you’ll figure it out the next day. That’s what life on the road sometimes feels like to me.
Because everything gets moved for each stop of our journey around the world, I seem to have developed a sort of traveler's dementia. Those mundane tasks I took for granted at home, like turning up the air conditioning or flipping the channel take more time now. Every time. They are never just the flip of a switch. When they happened a few times, I thought it was cute. Now I want to find those elves and string them up by their pointy little shoes.
When nothing is the same wherever you go, you work to ensure that the only things you can control are consistent. I was a generally organized person before, but now I am damn-near militant about the most mundane aspects of my life:
On My Person: I call it the “Where’s-my?” Dance. It’s the six-second panic attack I go through as I search for something I think I’ve lost. My hands go through a self-pat down on every pocket I have while I inadvertently spin around like a dervish. To avoid more of these embarrassing displays that have already occurred in airports and sidewalks all over the world, I’ve tried to treat my pockets like filing cabinets. My cell phone is always in my left front pocket, my money clip always the front right. My passport has been in the same backpack pocket as I reach for it before stepping up to dozens of passport control officers and hotel clerks. And when I walk into a hotel room I designate the “key spot” — the open countertop nearest to the door — and to ensure I remember it I slap the hotel key card on that counter like I’m driving home a stake in the Oklahoma land run.
Packing: I pack my bag the same way each time so that it’s more like a dresser than my luggage. Yet every time I pack I hope I’ll magically unlock a secret compartment, allowing me to add more items while somehow making the bag weigh less. This never works.
Banking: I used to get frustrated when my credit card website made me change my password (which was probably once a year). But on the road I’m constantly barraged by confirmation emails and additional security questions because my bank is pretty sure, based on my constantly roving IP address, that I’ve become an international money launderer, jumping from country to country to avoid the long arm of Interpol.
Budgeting: Back in D.C., I checked every week on our Mint account — an online personal finance application that tracks and monitors all our finances. Now I check the Mint account each morning to monitor our spending, and see that it’s in line with our very detailed budget. While she’s getting ready for the day, my wife frequently hears me ask her from another room, “What’s this $17.46 charge from something called ‘GriggleBibble’?” or some other such indecipherable credit card purchase listing. With continued, unending patience she responds, “That was our lunch yesterday.” (It’s always our lunch yesterday.) But I’m pretty sure one of these times I’m going to uncover a conspiratorial group of eastern European hackers who have infiltrated our defenses and stolen my identity. If you’re reading this, Sergey, I suggest you move on to another victim, cause I’m on point here.
At Home: Last week, out of frustration from grabbing an already used bath towel, I declared to my wife that from this moment forward, so that we’d avoid confusion, I would always have everything on the left-hand side — I’d use the left-hand bath towel, I’d put my the suitcase on the left-hand side of the room (our suitcases look the same) — and she would have the right-hand side. This would be easy to remember because I’m left-handed. She looked at me like I had just donned a homemade aluminum hat and declared myself emperor of Kitty-Land, but she could see the insanity in my eyes, so just responded, “Oooh-kay.”
The day is coming when I’ll wake up and not have a new city to discover outside my door. I’ll be a little sad about that, but I’ll also be a little relieved that I won’t have to give a second thought to where the light switch is located, how to work the remote and what language the waiter will be speaking. Life will be a little less exciting, but a lot more comfortable. And comfortable people almost never go crazy chasing after imaginary elves.