The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Ecuador

We interrupt this Olympic broadcast…with breaking news about a travel book that’s going for free on Amazon!

Now as some of you may know, Displaced Nation contributor Tony James Slater is also an author. What you don’t know (yet) is that for today and tomorrow — 17th & 18th July — his book will be available FREE to download from Amazon! Take it away, Tony! If anyone can sell us something, you can! Except in this case, we don’t even have to pay… 🙂

Hi there, folks! Yes, I’m here today to do a bit of shameless self-promotion. Can you ever forgive me? Listen, my book is called That Bear Ate My Pants. As the title suggests, it’s a ridiculous romp of a travel book, based in an animal refuge in Ecuador where I spent three months volunteering. (Some of you have already had a taste of these adventures from the first post I wrote for the Displaced Nation: “I traveled in search of adventure, and ended up embracing a simpler life.”)

To say that working for an Ecuadorian animal shelter was a struggle is an understatement. To say it was a struggle to stay alive — and avoid being eaten by bears and other exotic animals — well, that’s a little closer to the truth…hence the book’s rather provocative title!

Writing a book has often been likened to a Herculean task (usually by the author responsible, who inevitably believes himself to be unappreciated!)

Well, this one — my first — took me six years to complete. Not because the level of effort needed to write it was greater than for any other book; rather, because  — to continue the Olympic analogy — I’m an exceptionally lazy athlete. I’m pretty much guaranteed to come last, but then, nice guys usually do. 🙂

In fact, the only thing remotely Olympian about this book is the number of free downloads it’s had! In one sense, new authors and budding athletes are exactly alike: we all REALLY care about are our stats! My book has only been available for free on Amazon once before, in February, and there were a staggering (if I say so myself) 22,701 copies downloaded in just two days! Needless to say, this earned the book a place right at the top of the charts, which is exactly here I’m hoping to send it today.

So without further ado, here is a brief excerpt from my adventures, to tempt you, and all of your travel-(and animal-)loving friends, to want to read more.

Excerpt from That Bear Ate My Pants!

“MONKEY!” I shouted, as a brown blur swung out of the cage and onto the path.

The chase was on.

He skipped away with incredible speed, dodging around the corner and heading for freedom as though he’d thought of nothing but this moment for years. I bolted after him, grabbing the edge of a cage to swing me round in hot pursuit. The monkey was a good way ahead of me, and far more maneuverable. But I was faster on the straight. I accelerated down the narrow corridor between enclosures, and was closing the distance between us when he reached the steps down to the main road through the farm. This was my chance — if he paused, if he found the stairs confusing, I’d be on him. But no. Being a monkey, he didn’t have much use for stairs. He just jumped.

He made the ten-foot leap to the ground with ease, landed on all fours, and scurried off down the road. Pounding along behind him I had less than a second to make the choice. If I slowed to negotiate the stairs even part of the way down, it would all be over. Once he reached the trees by the first bend in the road he’d be gone for good.

Time was up. I reached the top of the steps at a dead run and launched myself over the edge.

In the seconds I was airborne my entire life flashed before my eyes. I seemed to have spent a disproportionate amount of it chasing monkeys.

Somehow I landed on my feet, with bone-jarring force. I was only a step behind the monkey — my leap had taken me considerably further than his — but my body was moving too fast for my legs. I managed to push off with my feet at the same moment as I started to fall headlong on the ground. The result: I bounced forwards another metre, sailing high above the form of the fleeing monkey, then crashed to earth and flattened the fella.

The impact knocked the stuffing out of me. It temporarily turned the monkey two-dimensional. Pain shot through me. I felt like I’d fallen ten feet onto a small primate. For the monkey it must have been like being beaten around the head with a banana tree. For a split second neither of us could move.

He recovered quicker than I did. Amazingly he wriggled out from under me and leapt towards freedom, just as I, still lying prone, reached out with both arms and caught him.

Unfortunately I could only catch him around the middle. Which meant that while he wasn’t going anywhere, he wasn’t particularly happy about it.

In far less time than it takes to tell the monkey writhed around in my grasp and sank his fangs into my hand.


The monkey switched his attention to my other hand and bit down hard.

“Arrr!” I shrieked. I let go with the recently bitten hand, but I had no other options — I had to grab him again or lose him. As I tried to grab his neck he bit me again, puncturing the thick leather glove easily and scoring my vulnerable flesh. Again and again he bit down, faster than I could even register the damage.

I lay on my belly, flat out on the floor, both arms outstretched in front of me and both hands wrapped around a frantically flailing ball of teeth and rage. There was sod all I could do — without my hands free I couldn’t get to my feet, and without standing up I had no way of controlling the beast. It was not the first time I had the thought; what the hell was I doing in Ecuador?

To Be Continued…

*  *  *

So if you’re a Kindle owner (or want to be), head straight on over to Amazon and grab a copy while it’s free.
If you’d like to read a copy but don’t have a Kindle, here’s a link to the free software that allows you to read Kindle books on any PC or Mac, tablet or smartphone.  (Otherwise, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for the paperback…)

And let me know what you think in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment in ML Awanohara’s new series, “Lessons from Two Small Islands.” NOTE: The post by Tony James Slater that was scheduled for today — a Displaced Q on the Olympics and nationalism — has been postponed to early August.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: Tony James Slater in Ecuador with his simian “friends”; book cover.

THE DISPLACED Q: On your travels, what’s the most memorable chance encounter that brought you closer to The Sweet Life?

Since the beginning of May, I’ve been posing weekly questions as a way of getting at how we travelers experience La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life.

Seeking truths by your own lights — that’s what’s known as the Socratic method!

But while my questions thus far have focused on the sensory delights that travel offers — heart-stopping sights, delightful sounds, intoxicating scents, delicate flavors — today’s question is a little different. I want to know about the people you’ve encountered by chance on your travels, who’ve opened your heart and mind to the possibility of living The Sweet Life.

I’ve been very lucky in my life. I’ve met quite a few individuals who have inspired me in one way or another. Perhaps it’s because I’m a big believer in fate; I’ve always thought that everything will play out according to plan, if I just let it.

Not that I sit around and do nothing. Rather, I try to do as much as I possibly can, in the hope that I’ll end up doing enough of the Right Things to shape my life to come. Some of those things will reveal their hidden meaning only years later, in hindsight…

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”

— American cartoonist Allen Saunders, 1957 (later featured in a John Lennon song)

A couple of early mentors

I owe this philosophy in part to something that happened to me when I was still living in the UK, thinking I was going to become an actor. In order to help my sister, Gillian, integrate into university life, I took her to a kung-fu class. The teacher (or sifu) became more than just a friend to her, he became a spiritual mentor.

What Gill learned passed through to me, and eventually we both attended a personal development seminar that changed our whole worldview. I became more open and generous, rejecting the lessons I’d learned at acting school about clawing my way to the top over the bodies of those less fortunate. My epiphany led me to see that acting was an every-man-for-himself type industry — not exactly good for my soul.

So I gave it up. I went traveling instead. When volunteering in Ecuador, I met Toby, who also helped shape the course of my life. Toby was my boss at the Ecuadorian animal shelter; and, as I recount in my book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, he was confident and capable, at ease in his own skin — just the way I wanted to be.

Toby told me all about his adventures as a professional diver in Thailand, and I began to crave that life as though it was the answer to all my heart’s desires.

He also tricked me into getting my head shaved, the bugger.

A Sheila who suddenly showed up in my life

After three months in Ecuador, I suffered some pretty severe reverse culture shock when I got back to England. I got quite depressed, and wanted nothing more than to leave again. Well, it’s England — can you blame me? (No offense to those who are enjoying the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations while reading this…)

Around that same time, Gillian was traveling in the USA with a bunch of friends she’d met while working for Camp America. I decided to fly out and meet up with them, in the hope that a few more adventures would dispel my unhappiness.

By the time I got there, she only had two companions left, a young Kiwi-Aussie couple called Richie and Krista. We hung out together for a couple of weeks and had fun, and one by one they, and then the two of us, left for home.

Back in England again, I busied myself trying to recapture the combination of excitement and contentment I’d found in Ecuador, but to no avail. In the end I left for Thailand, following Toby’s advice, hoping that another stint of volunteering would sort my head out.

By pure chance, Gill had invited Krista to come and explore England with her; I flew out the same day she flew in, and we met briefly at the bus station. I said my good-byes and was gone. Though my original plan was to stay away for three months, I got kind of caught up in things and didn’t come back for over two years.

The two girls meanwhile, roamed around the UK until their money ran out, and Krista flew back to Australia. Gill promised to return the visit as soon as she could afford to.

In Thailand, I neither knew nor cared about such things! I was having a great time, diving for a living and partying every opportunity I got.

Toby would be proud, I thought.

Until one day I woke up broke. I’d lost a lot of money to fraud and then had what was left stolen from my bungalow. I realized I would never survive on my meager diving wages. My friends supported me for a while, but I knew I couldn’t ask this of them for long.

It was time to face facts; I was going to have to go home.

Hang on, there’s that Sheila again!

By this time, Gill was in Australia, exploring the country with Krista in a knackered van covered in multi-colored handprints. In a series of tearful emails to my sis, I poured my heart out — telling her how much I hated the idea of abandoning all my hopes and dreams and going home.

She wrote back with an offer from Krista: I could come over to Perth and stay with her family! Krista had even lined up an interview for me with a local job agency — I could hardly believe it! I still didn’t want to leave Thailand, but at least this way I could carry on traveling. (Krista and Gill also pointed out that there were plenty of spare seats in their van…)

I flew to Australia without the price of a cup of coffee. I didn’t even own enough clothing to fill a bag. The girls met me in the airport with their crumbling van (nicknamed Rusty!), and I immediately learned a few things about Krista:

  1. She was prettier than I remembered.
  2. She was now single.
  3. She was a whole lot of fun to be around!

Six years later, after many adventures together, Krista and I were married in the grounds of Taunton Castle, in Somerset in England. Her whole family flew out to join in the medieval-themed celebration, and not long after they flew back, we followed them, back to Perth, where we now live.

Of course, it was a LOT more complicated than that.

But as chance encounters go — and in terms of the ones that influence your life the most — well, that one, for me, takes the biscuit!

What about you? I want to know what chance encounters have affected you the most during your travels — leading to new experiences you wouldn’t have otherwise had. And did they ultimately take you closer to The Sweet Life, as in my case?

Spill the beans in the comments below. (You know you want to!)

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a tribute to Queen Elizabeth for lasting 60 years on the throne, despite a period of displacedness.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images from Tony James Slater’s personal collection: Touring the Grand Canyon with Krista (she is in the green tee shirt), her boyfriend and his sister, Gill; his reunion with Krista and Gill in Perth, Australia, some years later (Tony is driving Rusty); all of this leading to Tony and Krista’s medieval-themed wedding in the UK (this is their “hand fasting”).

THE DISPLACED Q: What’s the most intoxicating scent you’ve encountered on your travels?

It’s Friday here at the Displaced Nation — La Dolce Vita time!

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a series of posts in aid of living the sweet life — even if you’re feeling displaced! The key, of course, lies in cultivating an approach to travel involving the five senses.

We began with the eyes and the ears, and we’re now moving on to the nose. Have you ever had the experience of catching a whiff of something and instantly being transported back to a specific moment in time — to a memory so sharp and clear you can picture it exactly? And then it’s gone, almost as quickly, as the smell wafts away and your other senses take over again, feeding the real world back into the loop…

Smell is the oldest sense, it touches the most emotional part of the brain.

– Roja Dove, the world’s sole Professeur de Parfums

Smell, like taste, is tied very closely to memory. Actually smell and taste are almost the same sense, but we won’t get into that right now — largely because we’d be talking about how in order to smell something, you have to get tiny particles of it up your nose. And that particular conversation rarely ends well…

Because smells create such strong associations with individual memories, your ideas and my ideas of an intoxicating smell are probably rather different.

Ah, the smell of…Thai petrol?!

For example, everyone loves the smell of freshly mown grass; but how many of you like the smell of petrol (gasoline, for those of you across the pond)?

I love it. I associate it with long, busy days in Thailand, running errands for the animal clinic where I was volunteering, driving around looking for stray dogs in need of vaccinating — on my tiny little Yamaha motor scooter.

I could always smell the petrol when filling up the scooter tank — because most of the gas stations had only one barrel of the stuff, with a hand-pump and a rubber hose just long enough to reach your tank.

So that smell always brings back happy memories…even though it’s not widely considered a delicate fragrance!

The most noxious of odors — bread?!

Here’s another odd one. I’ll say it slow, in case anyone is likely to faint from pure, unadulterated, lust: Freshly. Baked. Bread.

Mmmmmm! Right?

Wrong. For me, anyway! To afford my trip to Thailand (and Fiji), I had a job working shifts in a bread factory in Australia, where that gorgeous smell permeated the whole building 24 hours a day. Perhaps because I was the only guy, and therefore resilient (or expendable?), I got to be in charge of the enormous, stainless-steel walk-in ovens. I put the bread trolleys in and, twenty minutes later, took them out again. It’s a process that has to be done quickly, or else the oven loses too much heat — but the trolleys themselves get rather warm in the process, and of the four of them, two had broken wheels.

You know how hard it is to steer a supermarket shopping trolley with a jammed wheel, right? Now imagine trying to do it fast — very fast — with a trolley approaching 200 degrees Celsius…and for 12 hours straight. Even my burns had burns.

I survived a whole two weeks in that job, and then as soon as my paycheck hit the bank, I fled straight to Bali to spend it!

To this day I can’t smell baking bread without thinking that pain — the kind that accompanies searing, scorching flesh — is about to follow…

Another smell to avoid: live jaguar!

Now I’ll tell you something you don’t ever want to smell: anywhere a jaguar is living! When a jaguar is confined in, say, a remote mountain-top rescue centre in Ecuador (such as the one I worked in and on which my book is based), you have to clean the enclosure out pretty regularly. Now what goes into a jaguar — especially when you’re doing this on behalf of a nonprofit that’s operating on a shoe-string budget — isn’t particularly wholesome.

To begin with, the jaguar’s body odor isn’t noted for its appeal, unless perhaps you’re another jaguar. And of course they scent-mark everything.

But what comes out of them? Bearing in mind they are pure carnivores, living exclusively (in captivity) on carrion. It’s not…I mean, it’s just…. Look. Just don’t ever go there. Trust me on this!

And now for some winners!

Okay, back to the good. Toward the top of my list of intoxicating smells is that of the traditional Australian Sausage Sizzle. Usually held as a fund-raiser for some charity or other, they never fail to rake in the dough because the smell — of frying meat and frying onions — is utterly delicious, utterly irresistible, and carries for miles.

Now that I’m living as an expat in Perth, I get to experience this smell on a regular basis, as there’s a Sausage Sizzle held directly opposite the entrance to my gym every Saturday morning.

The moment I finish my hard-core workout, I come outside and walk full-tilt into that heavenly smell…at just the point when my body is starting to crave sustenance.

It’s almost as though those cooks are waging a personal crusade against my willpower. And my waistline.

And you know what? They win every bloomin’ time.

But my absolute favorite? I’ve got to tell you mine, right? Then you can tell me yours… It’s food again (of course!): the aroma of fresh donuts!

This dense, cakey scent takes me right back to one small stand in Morecambe Bay, in the north of England, where I went on holiday as a child. Yes, to one of my very earliest trips with my parents. I loved that I could get three donuts for £1! And, if I ate them quickly enough, I could pretend as thought I’d never had them, and convince my parents to give me another pound to buy three more! Ah, happy days indeed.

So there you have it. Now it’s your turn to describe the most delicious smells you’ve encountered on your travels — meadows, Himalayan incense, sunlight on rainbows…? Tell us in the comments! And if you happen to have a photo to illustrate this intoxicating scent, send it to me at Yes, I may make that “la dolce vita” slideshow I’ve been promising before too long…

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when expat Anthony Windram recalls some chance encounters with “locals” that have enhanced his sense of the bittersweetness of life in his adopted home.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: photos of the gas pump and the jaguar are from Tony James Slater’s personal collection.

“We read to know we’re not alone”: 1st-ever litfest for expats & random nomads

The displaced writer Hazel Rochman once said that reading “makes immigrants of us all”:

Reading takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.

That must be why author interviews have played such an important role in the entertainment mix provided by The Displaced Nation since our founding one year ago.

A book that enables us to escape to a new world without buying a plane ticket? Bring it on!

A book that makes us feel at home in another part of the world? There’s nothing we crave more.

We’ve also taken authors into our confidence who, as St. Augustine once advised, treat the world as their book, rather than staying put and reading only one page. Because of their own peripatetic ways, these writers have much to say to the rest of us nomadic types about how to make sense of feelings of isolation, ennui and displacement.

As C.S. Lewis once said:

We read to know we’re not alone.

In honor of The Displaced Nation’s first anniversary, as well as in the spirit of World Party Month, I would like to propose the first-ever Displaced Nation literary festival featuring authors who have been interviewed or in some way featured on the site during the past year.

Note: The following is a tentative line-up. It includes previews of the kinds of insights we can expect to glean from such an extraordinary gathering of expat literati.

We anticipate the festival to extend from a Sunday night to a Thursday morning, with an opening night gala and a couple of closing events. Click on the headlines to go to the event descriptions for each segment:


It seems only fitting that we offer something totally mad on our opening night. We will screen Alice in Wonderland, the 1903 British silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, which was partially restored by the British Film Institute and released in 2010. (NOTE: You can see portions of the film in a video specially made by Anthony Windram during The Displaced Nation’s “Alice in Wonderland” theme month.)

The film is memorable for its use of special effects: Alice’s shrinking in the Hall of Many Doors, and then growing too large in the White Rabbit’s home, getting stuck and reaching for help through a window.

The film matches our theme of “We read to know we’re not alone” — could anyone ever feel lonelier than Alice did at such moments?

But here’s the new twist: the screening will feature a live accompaniment by Seremedy, the displaced Swedish visual kei band this is now making such a sensation in Japan, reacting musically and without any rehearsal beforehand, to the silent film in front of them. Unique, spontaneous — and perhaps even terrifying, given that the band’s (male) lead guitarist, Yohio, looks like an anime version of Alice.

DAY ONE: “We’re not alone” — We have each other

Iranian Childhoods, Inspiring Stories

TONY ROBERTS and ASHLEY DARTNELL each spent portions of their childhood in Iran. Roberts has produced a novel based on his memories of that time, Sons of the Great Satan, which we featured on this blog about a year ago. Dartnell, who has yet to be featured (we hope she will!), released her memoir, Farangi Girl, last year (it was recently issued in paperback).

Roberts and Dartnell have in common the status of being so-called third culture kids — growing up in a third culture not common to their parents (Roberts’ parents were American and Dartnell was the product of an American mother and British father). They also have in common that they were enjoying their lives in Tehran until something terrible happened — the memory of which affects them to this day.

In Dartnell’s case, it was the sudden collapse of her father’s business (her parents subsequently split up), whereas for Roberts, it was the experience of being evacuated because of the American hostage crisis — suddenly, he was back at the family’s small farm town in Kansas, having no idea of where his friends had gone.

TCKs experience such traumas in isolation (Roberts continued to feel isolated well into his adulthood). Roberts and Dartnell, who have never met before, welcome the opportunity to forge a new connection over their common displacement.

PERFORMANCE: “The White Ship,” by Ethan Kenning

Ex-folk singer Ethan Kenning — known as GEORGE EDWARDS when performing with the former psychedelic rock band H.P. Lovecraft — will give a special performance of “The White Ship,” a song based on a mystical tale by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (from whom the band took its name), about a vessel sailing on a sea of dreams. Critics have described it as “baroque, Middle Eastern-flavored psychedelia at its finest.”

Multicultural Marriage Boot Camp

Two Wendys — WENDY WILLIAMS and WENDY TOKUNAGA — will answer questions about the benefits as well as challenges involved in marrying someone from another culture.

Wendy Williams is the author of The Globalisation of Love and has coined a term, “GloLo,” to refer to this phenomenon. She was last week’s Random Nomad and has also been a contributor to The Displaced Nation with the post: “Why expat is a misleading term for multicultural couples” — a topic big enough to be a festival theme in its own right!

Wendy Tokunaga, who was one of The Displaced Nation’s 12 Nomads of Christmas, recently published Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, consisting of interviews with 14 Western women involved in cross-cultural relationships.

GloTinis will be served — those in particularly challenging unions may wish to order theirs straight up.

Romance Across Borders: Fairytale or Myth?

JANE GREEN, a prolific writer and one of the founders of chick literature, will interview MEAGAN ADELE LOPEZ and MICHELLE GORMAN — both of whom have produced first novels exploring the idea of looking for romance in other cultures. Lopez is the author of Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers (self-published, October 2011), about a cross-cultural romance that blossoms through the asking of three questions; and Gorman, of Single in the City: One girl, one city, one disaster waiting to happen (Michael Joseph, 2010), about an American who goes to London in search of love and the perfect life.

The Displaced Nation recently featured Lopez on our site and will feature her tomorrow in a guest post. We have yet to interview Gorman but would like to — especially as she recently self-published Misfortune Cookie, about a young woman who moves to Hong Kong to be with her boyfriend.

Both women relied heavily on their own autobiographies to produce these first novels. As Lopez said in her interview with Tony James Slater:

Hey — they always say to write about what you know, so that’s what I did!

But is it the stuff of chick lit? No one is better placed to judge this than the displaced author Jane Green (she is now an expat living in Connecticut). As early readers of The Displaced Nation will recall, Green “came in” for a chat during our coverage of last year’s Royal Wedding — she had just produced a multimedia book celebrating the young royals as an example of a “modern fairytale.”

Though Kate and Will aren’t from different cultures, they might as well have been since Kate — unlike the Prince’s mother, Diana — does not come from a royal lineage. But from Green’s point of view, this is what is makes the couple modern — and why their marriage is likely to last:

I loved discovering just how unusual William and Kate are: grounded, humble, and thoroughly modern, eschewing much of the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the wedding of Charles and Diana.

One Person’s Home — Another Person’s Nightmare?

BARBARA CONELLI, who lives in Manhattan for half of the year and Milan for the other half, will interview SHIREEN JILLA, whose first novel was set in the Big Apple.

Thanks in large part to the influence of her Italian grandmother, Conelli qualifies as the ultimate Italophile. Last year she published Chique Secrets of Dolce Vita last year — her first book in a three-part series about the Italian grasp of the “good life.” When asked by Kate Allison to explain the differences between her two homes of Milan and New York City, Conelli said that New Yorkers need to learn the Italian art of taking the time to actually live:

We need to stop and smell the roses more often.

On this point, Jilla would certainly concur. After spending three years in New York as an expat when her husband was BBC’s North America correspondent, Jilla came away thinking that “New York is a city populated by control freaks.”

But, unlike Conelli, Jilla found this control freakery sinister — which was what inspired her to write a novel that depicts the city as, as one critic said, “a teeming pit of vipers, only just covered with a finely buffed veneer of sophistication.”

In the online discussion we hosted of Exiled, Jilla commented on how culturally different New York and London are — despite New York not being seen as a particularly adventurous posting among the expat crowd. She went on:

New York in fact reminds me a lot more of Rome than London. Passion is lived out on the street, for good and bad.

Hmmm… It will be interesting to see what Conelli, whose series includes a book on Rome’s joyful idleness, makes of that!

Are Expats Defined by Their Boundaries — or the Lack? James Joyce Unplugged

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, and the novelist JOANNA PENN will join forces to discuss the topic of whether being an expat necessarily entails producing “expat” literature. In a post published last year on The Displaced Nation, Windram noted that although James Joyce spent most of his adult life in continental Europe, he continued to write about his home, Ireland:

If we were to be glib, we might say that Finnegans Wake was conceived in Dublin, but Paris was its midwife.

Likewise, Joanna Penn, who has been a TCK and an expat, does not self-identify as an expat writer and sets her novels at least partly in Oxford, the city she calls home. She does feel, however, that wanderlust is a big part of what fuels her to write thrillers set in various countries, as she explained in a comment on a post deconstructing a post of hers on what “home” means to writers.

DAY TWO: “We’re not alone” — Global activism

Travel for a Purpose

For this event, we hope to engage the world-famous novelist BARBARA KINGSOLVER to interview ROBIN WISZOWATY, who is Kenya program director for the Canadian charity Free the Children and the author of a memoir targeted at young adults on her own experience of living in Kenya, My Maasai Life.

Kate Allison interviewed Wiszowaty during the month when The Displaced Nation explored the topic of global philanthropy.

Around the same time, Allison also wrote a post on Kingsolver, exploring the idea that her novel The Poisonwood Bible was intended an allegory for what happens when you barge into someone else’s culture thinking you know everything and they know nothing.

Notably, Wiszowaty could almost have been a Kingsolver character in the following incident that occurred during her initial two months in Nairobi, as reported to Allison:

One street man nearby…said in Swahili, “What are you doing in Kenya, if you can’t help us?”

Despite my halting comprehension of the language, I understood his question. What was I doing here? Was I here to help Kenyans? I couldn’t remember any sort of altruistic impulse as my reason for being me here. I only pictured myself three months earlier, curled up on my family room couch reading books on cultural sensitivity, or shopping in neighborhood department stores for appropriate clothing, thinking this was a chance for me to enlarge my experience and pick up others’ points of view. I’d been driven simply by a desire to escape, not to improve the lives of these poor people.

Wiszowaty, of course, came around and now thinks constantly about what she can do for Kenya. We expect that Kingsolver, who funds a prize for authors of unpublished works that support social change, will approve; but will she also offer a critique?

PERFORMANCE: “The Boy with a Thorn in His Side,” by Pete Wentz

Fall Out Boy’s PETE WENTZ will do a performance in which he puts passages from his 2004 book, The Boy with a Thorn in His Side, to music. The book chronicles the nightmares he had as a child.

Wentz is a supporter of Invisible Children, Inc., an organization dedicated to helping the cause of child refugees in Uganda. He once participated in an event called “Displace Me,” in which 67,000 activists throughout the United States slept in the streets in makeshift cardboard villages.

(Notably, Wentz has also earned his chops as world traveler. Before Fall Out Boy went on hiatus in late 2009, it made an unsuccessful bid to the only band to play a concert on all seven continents in less than nine months — unfortunately, weather conditions prevented them from flying to Antarctica.)

Why Feisty Heroines Need Not Always Be Named Pollyanna, Calpurnia or Hermione

Melbourne-based author GABRIELLE WANG writes books under the Penguin label targeted at young adults in Australia. Her heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang, who fell into writing accidentally — she had planned to be a book illustrator — loves to use her imagination to create characters who are historically plausible yet never show up in history books. One such character is Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she has a magical, transformative experience that makes her proud of her cultural heritage.

Another such character is Poppy, a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century.

Wang told us she was able to draw on her own background to portray how Poppy might have felt:

I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street.

The Search for Paradise

The search for paradise has been underway for as long as human history. Understood as an idyllic realm located at an exact spot somewhere on the earth, and yet as a place separated from the world, the possibility of reaching paradise has aroused the curiosity of travelers over many centuries and continues to do so.

MARK DAMAROYD, who has lived in Thailand for the past several years, subscribes to the idea that paradise is indeed what many men have claimed it to be since time immemorial: life on an exotic island, with sandy beaches, coral reefs and coconut trees, and with an exotic, much younger girlfriend. That is why, as he told us in an interview last summer, he had Koh Samui in mind when creating the island setting for his first novel — the aptly named Pursuit to Paradise.

Coming from a somewhat different direction is JACK SCOTT, whose memoir — Perking the Pansies: Jack and Liam Move to Turkey — was reviewed at the end of last year by Kate Allison.

In it, Scott tells the story of how he and his civil partner, Liam, left the rat race in London behind to live in Bodrum, Turkey. A picturesque spot on the Mediterranean with a temperate climate, the city was their vision of paradise.

Naturally, though, things were not that simple. The couple soon encountered another rat race — the expat one. To quote directly from Scott’s book:

Sad people, bad people, expats-in-a-bubble people. They hate the country they came from; they hate the country they’ve come to. This was my social life. This is what I gave everything up for. This was Liam’s bloody Nirvana. We were the mad ones, not them.

PERFORMANCE: “Red Right Hand,” by Nick Cave

NICK CAVE is a distinguished musician and songwriter from Down Under. He took the title of this song from a line in John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, referring to the vengeful hand of God. According to the lyrics: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan.”

Cave has also occasionally dabbled in literature. As one reviewer put it, his first novel “reads like a logical extension of the dark world his music has already created.”

Ghosts of Nations Past and Future

In honor of Dickens’ bicentenary, Displaced Nation contributor ANTHONY WINDRAM will give a spirited reading of his favorite passages from A Christmas Carol (already explored in a post), followed by a discussion of whether Scrooge’s displacement could inspire the planet’s wealthiest people to behave more humanely. To quote from one of the comments made on Windram’s original post:

If such a man as Scrooge can displace his lust for money with a love of humankind — and an awareness of other people’s suffering — then does that mean there’s hope for the 1%?

Through the Looking Glass: Delhi & Bangkok

JANET BROWN, author of the travelogue Tone Deaf in Bangkok, and DAVE PRAGER, author of the travelogue Delirious Dehli, will discuss the need for travelers to do more than the usual amount of preparation when entering cultures that are very different from one’s own, on a par with Alice’s Wonderland.

As Brown explained in her interview with us, travelers to Thailand can be “tone deaf” because Thai is a tonal language and it’s easy to make mistakes. But they can also be “tone deaf” when it comes to figuring out the Thais’ communication style:

“You looked so beautiful yesterday” probably means today you resemble dog food and ought to go home and rectify that at once.

Whereas for Prager, one of the points about living in Dehli is that you may end up deaf as there are always people, animals and vehicles around.

In conversation with Anthony Windram, Prager admitted that getting used to America again — he and his wife now live in Denver — hasn’t been easy:

What’s struck me is that the US just seems so empty. It’s not that India is always intensely crowded; rather, it’s that India you’re never completely alone.

WRITING LAB: What (Not) to Write

Expat writing coach par excellence KRISTEN BAIR O’KEEFFE will explore techniques to develop your writing skills and help you find which world, of your many worlds, you want to write about, and how to get started.

Last summer’s post “6 celebrated women travel writers with the power to enchant you” was officially dedicated to O’Keeffe for delivering these pearls of writerly wisdom during her “Expat Writing Prompts” series:

Writing a multi-volume treatise is NOT the answer. Of this, I am sure.
Instead find a nugget. A moment. A single object. One exchange. One epiphany. One cultural revelation.
Find one story and tell it.
Just it.

DAY THREE: “We’re not alone” — Eat, drink, be merry & look good

Classy and Fabulous: French Style as Universal Norm

The French may be under fire for how they treat immigrants, but expats continue to thrive there. For this event, the classy and fabulous JENNIFER SCOTT, author of Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris — which has been a runaway success (it’s now under contract by a major publisher!) — will set out to prove, as she did last month in an interview with us, that no one can edit down their clothes and belongings as well as the French can.

The equally classy and fabulous ANASTASIA ASHMAN, co-editor of The Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey — and participant in our “Cleopatra for a Day” series last month — will serve as discussant. Two of the cultural influences for Ashman’s wardrobe are Southeast Asia (she once lived in Malaysia) and Turkey (she was an expat in Istanbul for several years). She does, however, adore French perfume!

Which Came First, Story or Recipe?

It’s food — so that means France again! ELIZABETH BARD, an American who lives in France with her French husband, and her opposite number, CORINE GANTZ, a Frenchwoman who lives near LA with her American husband, will explore why food is so central to the works each of them produces.

Bard is the author of the best-selling Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes. So did she ever think of writing it the other way around: recipes with a love story? Here’s what she told ML Awanohara in their conversation last autumn:

When I sat down to think about the moments that really helped me discover French life, I kept coming back to the dinner table, the markets, the recipes — so it seemed natural to structure Lunch in Paris around those experiences.

Gantz can no doubt relate. When we featured her novel, Hidden in Paris, last summer, here’s what she said when the topic of food came up:

For me, writing a novel is a barely disguised way for me to talk about food — the novel being a vehicle for food just as grilled toast is a vehicle for foie gras.

Fans of Hidden in Paris, please note: Gantz has just now released a playful cookbook featuring 20 delicious dishes that were described in mouth-watering details in the novel.

Moderating the discussion between Bard and Gantz will be the well-known novelist JOANNE HARRIS. Harris, who was born over a sweet shop in Yorkshire to a French mother and an English father, rarely misses an opportunity to bring food and drink into her novels — the most famous example being Chocolat.

Displaced Storytelling Circle

Verbal antics, stories, music and more. Highlights include readings by

  1. Displaced Nation contributor TONY JAMES SLATER, from his highly entertaining travelogue, That Bear Ate My Pants! Adventures of a Real Idiot Abroad.
  2. Displaced Nation interviewee ALLIE SOMMERVILLE, from her wry memoir Uneasy Rider: Confessions of a Reluctant Traveller. (Allie, please read the passage about the campervan being too wide for one of the Spanish streets!)
  3. Displaced Nation nomad KAREN VAN DER ZEE, from her collection of expat stories. (Miss Footloose, please tell us the ones about the crocodile and the couple in the Roman restaurant!)
  4. Founder KATE ALLISON, from The Displaced Nation’s weekly fiction series, Libby’s Life, which as you may have noticed, is now up to 46 episodes. (Kate, be sure to read the one where you introduce Sandra, Libby’s MIL from hell!)

The Art of Drink: Ian Fleming

One of The Displaced Nation’s founders, ANTHONY WINDRAM, will talk about the role of food (and especially drink) in Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, on which he did a post last year:

The Bond of the novels isn’t solely a martini drinker. He’s always one to try anything local that’s on offer. In Jamaica he’ll drink a glass of Red Stripe, in the US he’ll have a Millers Highlife beer. Throughout the novels Fleming uses food and drink to convey an alien culture, demonstrate social status, show Bond’s mood and his sophistication and ease with the world.

An array of drinks — not only shaken martinis but also bottles of Heineken!– will be served. Green figs and yogurt, along with coffee (very black), will be made available to anyone who is still suffering from jetlag.

Enchanted by Wisteria: Elizabeth Von Arnim Unveiled

Displaced Nation founder (and the author of this post!) ML AWANOHARA will read her favorite passages from the collected works of travel writer Elizabeth von Arnim, on whom she wrote a post last year. As she pointed out then, Von Arnim was fond of the idea of a woman escaping her marital, motherly and household duties in the pursuit of simple pleasures such as gardens and wisteria. A magical Italian castle — such as the one featured in her best-known novel, The Enchanted April — can also be a tonic.


To close the festival, we will screen both the Swedish and Hollywood versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, followed by a critique from CHRIS PAVONE, author of the new novel The Expats. Pavone will discuss whether:

  1. it was really necessary for Hollywood to produce its own (non-subtitled) version; and
  2. all the female-perpetrated violence cropping up in film and on TV of late presages a “fourth wave” of feminism.

Pavone is well qualified to judge the latter as his novel (not yet featured on TDN!) is an offbeat spy story with a female protagonist — a burned-out CIA operative who moves to Luxembourg. Apparently, this was the kind of thing Pavone thought about when he was trailing his spouse in that cobblestoney old town.

And, just when you thought it was all over, we bring you a final treat: a chance to hear from the historian SUSAN MATT, who recently published Homesickness: An American History to much fanfare in the thinking media. Matt disputes the stereotype of Americans as westward wanderers by showing that Americans are returning to their homeland in greater numbers — that’s if they ever leave at all. (Our ancestors must be turning over in their graves!)

* * *

So, shall I sign you up? And can you think of any additional topics/authors/performers who ought to be featured? I look forward to reading your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s guest post from Meagan Adele Lopez, on the differences between American and British wedding celebrations.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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THE DISPLACED Q: Does love conquer all — even language barriers?

Last week Tony James Slater, the newest addition to the TDN team, reported on his success with finding love abroad. But it wasn’t always that easy for him. He may be an incurable adventureholic, but when Cupid’s arrow led to a romance with a woman who didn’t speak English, even he had to wonder if there were limits…

Here’s the scenario:

You’re minding your own business in a friendly sort of bar, enjoying the heady mix of cultures as foreigners — a mix of holiday-makers, transients and expats — rub shoulders with the locals.

Suddenly you see him — or her — across the crowded room. This gorgeous individual is staring right at you, smiling seductively. You make contact with those smoldering eyes…and that’s where it ends.

Because she doesn’t speak your language, and you speak none of hers.

So really, what are you going to say to her?

Can romance transcend the language barrier?

It’s a tricky one.

No lo entiendo, mi amor

I have a little experience in this area; once upon a time, when I doing a three-month stint of volunteering at an animal shelter in Ecuador, I fell madly in lust with a gorgeous Latino woman.

Of course she didn’t speak English — there was no one who could for miles in any direction. I spoke no Spanish, because until that moment there had never seemed enough reasons to learn it.

I was captivated by her — she was the kind of exotic beauty you read about in well, the kind of books that I don’t read. Ahem.

So what do you do?

Two obvious tactics spring to mind.

The first is what I did: get horribly drunk and throw yourself at the poor woman, in the hope that you’ll never remember the embarrassment in the morning, if she laughs in your face.

As it happens, this tactic worked — but it should be noted that this is the first time ever, in the history of mankind, that this has been the case. As a rule, I cannot endorse extreme inebriation as a successful method of flirtation; truly, this must have been Cupid himself in action.

The second tactic is to get a friend who does speak both languages to make some kind of introduction. This can help you get over that incredibly awkward initial stage when neither of you is really sure if the other is genuinely interested.

This is the tactic I should have used, as I had a perfectly good friend with the requisite language skills. Of course by the time I’d thought of that, I was already too drunk to pronounce even English words. It was quite a way down the road when I finally got to communicate in words with my new lover, through an interpreter.

At that point, it was great to have it confirmed that she felt the same way about me as I felt about her!

It was slightly less great to discover that she was already married and had two children. But then, that’s the chance you take when you practice tactic no.1.

Thankfully, she was separated from her husband — although as our relationship progressed, I did hear some disturbing rumors that her husband was looking for me…with a machete. I fervently hoped that was just my boss trying to wind me up. (If it was, he succeeded!)

Pidgin Spanish and pantomime…are there limits?

Although she was beautiful, the thought of meeting her again terrified me anew each time. I felt like such an idiot, struggling to express myself in pidgin Spanish and pantomime. I lived in fear of those awkward moments, when neither of us could make the other understand some fundamental issue.

That said, it definitely motivated me to learn Spanish! After every date I’d come back fired up with the desire to study. I never did any studying, of course — my day job (mucking out animal cages) kept me way too busy for that — but the desire was there. The desire, in fact, had never been a problem!

But how far can a relationship really go, when you don’t even have a language in common? Think how close you can get to someone in a long-term relationship; a connection bordering on the psychic, where you’re almost reading each other’s minds — it just doesn’t work when you’re constantly guessing at what the other person is saying.

The Austrian-British language philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked:

The limits of my language are the limits of my world.

If he is right, then isn’t the lack of a shared language the very essence of incompatibility?

Relationship experts the world over agree that couples must work hard to bridge communication gaps. Well, when the gaps of linguistic understanding are wide enough to fly a 747 through — and it can feel like a long-distance relationship even when you’re standing next to each other — bridge-building can be something of a challenge.

My Ecuadorian love and I were together three months, after which I left to fly back home. Ironically, we’d each learned just enough of each other’s languages to really get to know each other’s thoughts, hopes, fears and frustrations — the day before my flight to England.

I’d like to open it up to the floor at this point!

Has anyone got any experience of this that they wouldn’t mind sharing? Or an opinion, on whether or not it’s possible?

Can love really conquer all — including that ultimate bad guy of cross-cultural barriers, linguistics?

What do you think?

I’d love to know!

TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, a review of Matt Krause’s memoir recounting how he met a woman on a plane — and followed her all the way to Turkey! NOTE: Subscribers to our weekly DISPLACED DISPATCH are eligible to win a free, autographed copy!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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THE DISPLACED Q: Where did you meet your honey abroad?

It can be hard to make new friends abroad — let alone find a significant other. Thus it’s always inspiring to hear from nomads who’ve found that special someone hiding under a shamrock drinking green beer, or in other such fanciful locales. One such lucky fellow is Tony James Slater, the newest addition to the TDN team. Here is his story — can’t wait to hear yours!

There’s always a great story behind a travel romance, I find, often running the full gamut of emotions, from anguish to bliss. From experiencing a breathless holiday whirlwind romance to finding a soul mate in a distant land, nothing beats a tale of love — true and requited, tragically unrequited or trapped agonizingly somewhere in between.

And today I would very much like to hear yours!

Because our February theme is LOVE — and because it’s rapidly approaching That Day, when you should have bought something a bit special for your other half — I would like to invite EVERYONE to share their tale of passion and/or romance abroad!

Now, I can’t ask you folks to do something I wouldn’t do myself — so here’s an interesting tale of my own…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land…

I first met my wife in America. I know, right? Fascinating! But wait, I’m English — and the young lady in question, Krista, is from Australia, as evidenced by her nickname: Roo.

Roo had been working for Camp America, which supports summer work adventures in the United States. She was teaching kids how to ride horses at a summer school in Maine. And, as fate would have it, that was where she met…my sister!

My sis, whose name is Gillian, was doing Camp America at the same time, and was the only other staff member who wasn’t scared of horses!

Roo and Gill got to know each other quite well — so much so that the pair of them went traveling around the US after the job finished, which is where they met…Richie! An awesome, Kung-Fu kicking dude, muscle-bound and handsome, Roo fell for him immediately and the two became an item.

Which could have turned out rather differently for me, except this unexpected romance kept the couple in America for much longer than expected. You see, at the time some of this was happening, I was in Ecuador volunteering at an animal shelter. On my way home to the UK, I called in to the States to visit my sister, when I also met Roo and Richie. We traveled together for a couple of weeks and had a lot of fun.

Then Richie left, Roo left, and I followed my sister back to the UK, where, as explained in a previous post, I grew bored and dissatisfied with my hollow, consumer-led lifestyle.

(In other words, I was broke.)

Twists and turns worthy of Shakespearean comedy

So Gill remained close friends with Roo, inviting her over to England the following summer. She arrived just in time to be part of my farewell party — I’d finally scraped together enough cash to go to Thailand, where I planned to volunteer at an animal clinic and learn to dive. I would be gone for three months — exactly the same length of time that Roo would be in England.

Which was a pity, as she’s recently broken up with Richie and I rather liked her.

Gill and Roo explored every corner of my native country together, and Roo went back to Australia having elicited a promise from my sister that she would travel to Oz as soon as she could afford it.

I, meanwhile, had missed my flight home. It was accidentally on purpose — my subconscious clearly didn’t want me to leave Thailand just then. My regular conscious didn’t want me to leave either, being rather more aware of my income — or at least, the lack.

Volunteering for a living is notoriously unprofitable, and I couldn’t earn money from diving until I could afford to get qualified. A bit of a Catch 22!

But then — we came into some money. Both my sister and I profited from the sale of a house we’d helped renovate since getting back from America. I used the money to become a Divemaster (and for just a little bit of partying!), while Gillian, rather more sensibly, used hers to buy a ticket to Australia. She stopped off in Thailand on her way through, found me drunk in a bar and gave me such a talking to that I promised to come to Australia just to get her off my back. She was determined to save me from myself, which was probably for the best (I had very little intention of saving myself!).

I dallied for another three months while Gill met up with Roo in Oz and started to explore. They bought a beat-up old van between them and called it Rusty because, well, it was. Seriously — you could see daylight through bits of it.

To the ends of the earth — well, the Great Southern Land

That’s when I showed up. Penniless again, I arrived in Perth airport without the price of a cup of coffee to my name. I’d been living in Thailand for a year by this point, and all I owned was a bulging bag full of dive gear. It was winter in Australia and I didn’t even own a pair of shoes, or anything at all with sleeves.

Not in the least bit phased by me looking like a homeless person, Roo found me work with a local temp agency and within a few weeks I had enough money to travel.

The three of us piled into that crumbling van and set off for horizons unknown…and somewhere along the line, Roo and I fell in love.

Which thrilled my sister of course, as we were all sharing a tent. (But don’t worry — we got our own tent before long!)

Poor Gill left us, in disgust, in Sydney. She’d always hated being around couples in love — romance just wasn’t her thing. I still feel a little guilty for this…well, almost. But not quite!


Since then, Roo and I have visited more than a dozen countries together. We married last July — in England because only Roo’s immediate family is in Oz. (She’s of Dutch descent, so all her rellies from Holland came over — including some she’s never met before! Her Aussie family — all four of them — flew over to the UK for the ceremony. ) And we now live in Perth — for a while in Roo’s family home but we now have a flat of our own. People always ask where we met — out of politeness more than interest, I feel — but it usually surprises them when we both say “America!”.

And as for Gill…well, she lingered in Sydney long after Roo and I left. Then she grew bored and flew to New Zealand, to a job in the ski fields, where she met a short blonde ski technician from Hampshire, UK, called Chris. They hit it off rather well as it happens — Gill had always liked short men — and four years later, the pair of them were married, a month before us and less than fifty miles away.

Roo got to be my sister’s Maid of Honor!

And because I’d been out of the country for so long that I’d lost touch with all my male friends, Gill — poor, suffering Gill — had to be my Best Man!

* * *

Your turn!

So. Let me hear it! Tales of love in far-flung and exotic locations: the triumphs, the failures and the ones that got away! We want to hear them all — post them in the comments section please, so everyone can read ’em and weep! (They don’t have to be as long and waffley as mine — I’ve been told I can be verbose.)

Oh, and keep it clean — some of these expat love stories lasted long enough to have children, and even grandchildren.

Tony xo

TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.

STAY TUNED for Tuesday’s post, on 7 of the world’s most seductive foods — for seducing that valentine of yours.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Image: Tony Slater and Krista (Roo) participating in the traditional European ceremony of handfasting where the couple’s hands are tied together (in their case, with a garland of flowers), at their medieval-themed wedding last summer.

I traveled in search of adventure — and ended up embracing a simpler life

Today we welcome Tony James Slater to The Displaced Nation as the newest addition to our team. He makes his debut with a post about his trip to Ecuador for the purposes of volunteering at an animal sanctuary in the Andean Mountains — an experience that led to some deep (as well as humorous) reflections.

My first real trip abroad was to Ecuador. (I made a trip to France once, but since I’m from England, that doesn’t really count.)

I went there in search of adventure. I sure wasn’t going to “find myself.” If I had any deeper motive, it was to reinvent myself — ideally as Indiana Jones.

(NB. If you’re going to Ecuador — take cheese. The stuff they have there has the same taste and consistency as soggy toilet-roll.)

I’d planned to volunteer in an animal refuge; it was my way of doing something more meaningful with my life, of giving a little bit back to nature.

And I was absolutely terrified.

There were reasons for this:

  1. I’d never really traveled. (As mentioned, France doesn’t really count.)
  2. I spoke no Spanish.
  3. I had no experience with animals, other than owning a pet rabbit when I was nine.
  4. I was, it has to be said, a pretty weedy human being.

But nobody in Ecuador knew me. I could cast off the bits I didn’t like — and that would start with the fear.

It helped that the setting was gorgeous. The refuge, called Santa Martha Animal Rescue Center, was surrounded by cloud-forest, halfway up a mountain in the Avenue of Volcanoes.

Talk with the animals…

I felt an immediate connection with the animals, who were in the sanctuary because they’d been victims of animal trafficking. I even connected with the monkeys, who escaped so often I spent more time chasing them than feeding them.

But you can’t have an adventure inside your comfort zone. That’s like nipping next-door for a cup of tea and calling it a night out.

First I had to strip everything back. My computer couldn’t make the trip as it was the size of a small building. My phone survived for less than a day before committing suicide from the top bunk-bed, but it was only good as an alarm clock anyway.

(I didn’t even need an alarm clock; I had a rooster for that. Which was great, except it went off an hour early every morning.)

Before I knew it I’d slipped into a much simpler pattern. Get up. Feed the animals. Clean the animals. Tend the wounds I’d received whilst feeding and cleaning the animals. Then chop, dig, carry, nail…

The boss would show me a task that needed doing, give me the tools and then leave me to it. Build a cage. Fix a cage. Build a parrot perch…

Generally the tasks were simple, manual, and I got better each day at handling them. (Except one Saturday morning when he tried to teach me welding; I made the mistake of looking at the torch at the exact moment it flared up, like a miniature sun. In fact I did this every time it flared up. As a result, not a lot of welding got done, and I was blind for the rest of the weekend!)

At the end of a long day I could feel how hard I’d worked; tired in body and nothing in mind to concern me beyond wondering what crazy job they’d get me doing tomorrow. I could just kick back in the hammock and day-dream…

As Albert Camus once philosophized:

But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

Swingin’ in a hammock

Ever notice how when people think of “paradise,” there’s almost always hammocks? No corner offices or Mercedes Benzes. Even shoe shops rarely make an appearance.

It’s that idea of “getting away from it all” that holds the allure, I think; relaxing on a beach wouldn’t be the same if you were doing your tax return while you were at it.

Hence the hammocks. Symbolic of the chance to do — and think of — absolutely nothing; at least for as long as your sojourn lasts.

Perhaps I was in fact searching for a simpler life? Perhaps we all are?

In any event, I loved it.

I was getting stronger, more confident, with every week that passed.

(I was also getting bitten, clawed and mauled by everything that could bite, claw and maul, from monkeys to crocodiles — but that’s another story.)

I was learning to focus, to take my time looking for a solution to a problem and to work at it until it was right. I owned less and less each day as my clothes got shredded through work, but it didn’t matter. I wasn’t out to impress anyone, at least not with my fashion sense.

Best of all I had an identity. It didn’t need explaining — I was “that guy from the animal place.” It was a good job to be defined by. It felt positive and honest.

Reality bites as well

Returning to the “real” world back in the UK was like a wet fish in the face — all of a sudden people had places to be and a time-limit for getting there; everyone seemed so busy, so stressed out about it and so worried that something, somewhere was going wrong.

I don’t think a single one of them was about to be eaten alive, but a lot of them acted like it.

I hadn’t even realized what I’d been a part of until I saw it from the outside — and frankly it scared me more than removing the remnants of a jaguar’s breakfast.

I had two choices at that point. I’d gone “back to basics” and knew how rewarding that kind of lifestyle could be. Or I could rejoin my native society, get a real job, get a career even — go corporate.

It wasn’t too hard a choice to make.

Another Albert — Einstein — famously had

Three Rules of Work: Out of clutter find simplicity; From discord find harmony; In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.

In Ecuador I’d found simplicity and harmony, wrapped up in the most difficulty I’d ever faced, and it had indeed led to opportunity.

I sold my body to medical science (and that’s not even a joke!), bought a one-way ticket to Thailand and spent the next nine months working in an animal clinic that really was in paradise. I didn’t wear shoes for the better part of a year.

I had found myself after all. I’d made my decision not to rejoin the rat race and I’ve been traveling ever since.

Which is probably why I’m broke.

But I couldn’t be happier!

TONY JAMES SLATER is a self-confessed adventureholic. For the last six years he’s been traveling nonstop around the world, working at a variety of jobs including yacht deliverer in the Mediterranean, professional diver in Thailand and snow boarder in New Zealand. He even deprived the world of sandalwood one tree at a time in Australia (though he still maintains it was an accident). Last year, Slater published his first book, That Bear Ate My Pants!, an account of his misadventures while volunteering at the animal refuge in Ecuador. (The book was featured in The Displaced Nation’s list of 2011 expat books.) He is currently working on a second book set in Thailand, while exploring his new home in Perth, Australia.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode from Libby’s Life. Did the absence of her mother-in-law at Christmas compensate for the absence of Libby’s own mother — and, come to that, the Mother Country? (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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Image: “Hammocks are not just for humans” — Slater took this photo of Machita, the dog he befriended at Santa Martha, the Ecuadorian animal sanctuary.

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