I’m excited to announce that after several weeks, The Intentional Expat Interview Series is finally up and running! Each and every Monday I’ll be bringing you an interview with an expat, world traveler or an interesting individual who is living their best life possible at home. I already have several interviews lined up that I’m looking forward to sharing with you in the upcoming weeks. If you’re living abroad, have an interesting travel story to tell or want to share how you live life to the fullest wherever in the world you are, send me a message to be part of the interview series.
Today’s interview is with fellow blogger, world nomad and global citizen, J Russell Mikkelsen.I had the great fortune of meeting him several years ago when I spent four weeks studying Spanish in Spain’s coastal town of Alicante and he certainly had plenty of blogworthy stories to share back then (we also bonded over both having worked at psychiatric hospitals). Since that time he’s seen even more of the world and launched his own blog “Let’s Go There,” as well as a podcast, where he shares stories from his own life and travels, as well as from people he’s met along the way. Today he’s offered to share with us some of his wisdom on traveling and living abroad, how to keep a positive attitude on the road (spoiler—it’s not so different than keeping one while at home!) and even an exclusive sneak peek at a book he’s currently writing.
Can you tell readers a little about yourself? Where do you live? Where are you from? What do you do? And most importantly, what are you passionate about?
I’ve just moved back to Oakland, CA this week, and I’m from the neighboring town of Berkeley. I’m a writer and a podcaster. Those are my hobbies. Those are my passions. And that’s what I do to survive. Okay, and soccer too, which I both play and coach.
Where all have you lived abroad?
I’ve lived in Bergen and Oslo, Norway. Alicante, Spain. And Kuta, Lombok in Indonesia.
And of all those places, which was your favorite?
They’re all my favorite! Though, I suppose there was something special about Lombok. I created the first season of my podcast “Yeah, Let’s Go There” while on the island and learned to surf from a local surfer. I’d surf in the mornings, edit the show in the afternoons, and eat at the local restaurant with other travelers and the owner’s family at night. All the furniture was made of bamboo. The 10 year old son would fall asleep on my lap. Occasionally, I’d give him rides home from school on my moped, or he and his best friend would come by my house to look at the pictures in the surfer magazines. That was a special kind of paradise.
What’s the most difficult part about traveling or living abroad? And what’s the best part?
It can be lonely. It can be expensive. It can be difficult. You can get stuck on tiny buses with no legroom. Things break, fall apart, get stolen, including yourself. But that’s nothing compared to the best parts. Because, every other part is the best part. Every new sight you see. Every new culture you experience. Every traveler you meet. Okay, not every traveler is the best, but that’s the beauty of travel. Don’t like someone? Don’t spend time with them! It’s so easy! You get to do an ongoing edit of your social circle. And with so many other travelers eager to meet and make new friends, it’s easy to find people who are fun for you to be around.
What have you learned from traveling or living abroad?
- Solo traveling teaches you how to be selfish. You learn how to do exactly what you want, when you want. You learn how to say no to things that bother you and yes to things that don’t. You learn how to say yes to new experiences and how to be brave and how to expand your comfort zone.
- Group traveling teaches you how to be selfless. You learn how to make others happy. How to enjoy the moment. How to be grateful for what you have.
- Living abroad teaches you how to think different. You learn how to listen. How to see from new angles. How to consider all sides to an issue.
- They’re all valuable lessons.
What is your secret to keeping a positive attitude while traveling or living abroad?
Is there a secret? If there is, it’s no different from the one that keeps you happy at home. You’re problems don’t disappear just because you’re traveling or living somewhere new. Better face that crap now before you forget how to face yourself at all.
What´s the best place you´ve ever traveled to?
Vietnam. I get this question a lot. The answer is easy. In my twenties, it was Greece. When I first went to Asia, my answer was China. The more places I go, the more favorites I make. But Vietnam is now at the top of the list. No place is free-er, easier to travel, more welcoming (Yes, even of Americans. I don’t know how is perpetuating that ridiculous rumor.) with more ideal landscapes and climates. Green mountains. Thick jungle. Stunning beaches. Rock climbing. Kite surfing. High speed internet. Inexplicably inexpensive. I also found that no language was more difficult to learn. So, it’s not perfect. But close.
Do you have a bucket list?
I don’t. I know most travelers do, but I like to live in the moment. I want to go to places haven’t gone before, see things I haven’t seen before, meet people I haven’t met before. Everything I haven’t already done is on my list, but I don’t know what it is until I do it.
Can you share one experience abroad that´s been truly ¨blogworthy?¨
Well, I sort of have an entire blog of “blogworthy” moments, so… I wrote a piece called Six Months Of Road: Travel Advice for the Long-Term Traveler that opens with a short story exactly like what you’re asking for. But I can give you something unique:
I hit it off with a fellow traveler in Thailand, so we took a boat to Laos together. In Luang Prabang we went out to dinner with a few travelers from the boat. At the restaurant, a solo-traveler named Karen was alone at the table next to ours so we invited her to join us. And three girls from our hostel, one of whom I’d befriended because I was attracted to her, walked by and decided to sit down as well.
Our mish mash group enjoyed its meal while my friend mentioned a website called Sugar Daddy where young women can meet wealthier older men to date. We all made a few jokes about how ridiculous that concept was—I made several myself, living up to the loud obnoxious American stereotype—when Karen mentioned that she used to use sites like it regularly as a means to make money during college. She explained how it worked.
“I met up with men through the site lots of times,” she said.
“What, and they would pay for your meal and you’d go home?” I asked.
“Well, if I liked them we might go to a hotel room.”
“You mean, like a prostitute?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
“Were you seeing the same guy over and over? Was he your boyfriend?”
“Sometimes I saw the same men, but they weren’t boyfriends, no. We would just talk and if we got a long, we’d agree upon an amount and that’s it.”
“You’d have sex?”
“Yeah,” she said casually, shrugging her shoulders. “Sometimes.”
“What you’re describing is prostitution.”
“No, it’s not prostitution. I could always choose to go home. I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to.”
“But you met with strangers for a date, that they paid for?”
“And then you’d exchange more money and have sex?”
“If I felt like it.”
“No, it’s not. They were just nice, old men. And I liked them. It’s not like they picked me up off the street.”
“Whether they were nice or not, streets or fine dining, you still got paid for sex!”
I was getting incredulous at this point. I’d never had a conversation like this before. It was so confusing to hear her thought process, as if that defines her actions more than her actual actions do. We had a long table and I had previously moved to the end so I could talk to the girl I was attracted to. This put Karen on opposite end from me. I had to shout to be heard. And I did shout.
I wanted to believe that the whole thing was a joke. It seemed like a joke. I kept waiting for her to point out the misunderstanding. But there was no misunderstanding. And eventually, the mostly female table of travelers grew tired of the lone male stubbornly refusing to leave Karen be. It was a friend of the attractive girl who called me out.
“We heard you! Nobody cares! She’s allowed to go on dates with older men if she wants. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“No! It doesn’t matter.” She would’ve continued but her friend beside interrupted with something I couldn’t make out. She responded in a quieter tone, speaking directly to her friend, “He’s misogynistic. I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
I shut up. There was a silence at the table. My friend made a joke to ease the tension. It didn’t work. People rose from their seats. A couple women went over to Karen to offer their thoughts and ask their own questions. I waited until they finished.
“Karen?” She gave me her attention and I made sure to look in her eyes instead of the floor. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pass judgment or make you uncomfortable. I disagree with some of your lifestyle choices, but that doesn’t make my opinion right and yours wrong. I know I came across that way just now but I want you to know that I don’t actually feel that way. I’m sorry.”
Graciously, Karen accepted my apology and spent the rest of the evening with our group and all of the next day too. The attractive girl and her friends left as soon as the bill was paid.
That story will be included in a book I’ve only just begun writing: a three month snippet of my life while traveling. The story above will be just an anecdote to the greater storyline. I hope to have it completed early next year. To be clear, this is not an excerpt. I wrote that special just for you and your readers, Melissa 🙂
Last question: what advice do you have for people who are thinking about traveling or moving abroad, but are having their doubts?
The absolute hardest, most difficult, biggest challenge—100 times harder than anything else you’ll do while traveling—is leaving. Once you take that first step out the door, everything else will be easier.
Thank you J Russell Mikkelsen for sharing with us your great advice, writing and sense of humor this Monday morning. I’ve personally been inspired by your description of Vietnam and am actually nodding my head and saying “Yeah! Let’s Go There!” at this very moment. Any recommendations on SE Asia at Christmas time??
If you want even more inspiration and laughs, or would like to enjoy some really quality writing, check out J Russell Mikkelsen’s blog, “Let’s Go There,” or his podcast with the same name (I’ve enjoyed listening to the episode entitled “Engaged to Marry” while putting this blog together this morning.). You can also take a look at his Medium collection of Travel writings from other travel writers called “Estimated Time of Arrival.”