What is your travel philosophy?


You are born as part of other people’s life journeys.

By the time you develop an awareness of what is going on, your own journey has already been going on for some time.

What’s the point? What is your goal? Why are you continuing the journey? What is your travel philosophy?

Make your journey as painless and happy as possible. If you can make one other person’s journey, or several other people’s journeys, less painful, more comfortable, and happier, then that’s a good thing too – and would probably make your own journey more worthwhile.

(By the way, happy 20-year anniversary of the first time I formulated this exact thought.)


Life and death – a series of thoughts


Two things that are both true:

One does not die so easily.

But just like that, and your life is over.

* * *

You live like you’re not going to die today. And yet you may just die today!

Or you should live as if you were indeed going to die today!

But if you do … you won’t have money to buy food tomorrow.

* * *

Life is nasty. Life is beautiful.

Life is cruel … and full of mercy.

Life is predictable. And the next day you’re gone.

* * *

We who are left behind must go on. Until it’s our turn.

* * *

The living discriminates against the dead.

The departed knows what the living does not.

* * *

Life is lent to us.

And what is loaned is eventually reclaimed.

(Dedicated to a friend)


Alternative life paths crossed for me in 1995

MONDAY, 18 JULY 2022

When I went to Europe in March 1995, I only had enough money for about two weeks of cheap accommodation.

I landed at Orly airport, about ten kilometres south of one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – Paris. It was at the beginning of March, so when I left Cape Town, it was still warm enough for shorts and a T-shirt. The moment I got off the plane and the 2º Celsius air hit my face, I thought I was going to freeze to death before I saw the Eiffel Tower.

Remains of a plane ticket

I took a bus to the city. From the window I saw caricatures of France: a man with a fat moustache with a baguette under his arm; a taxi driver with a fat moustache who explained with exaggerated hand gestures that the man in the other car was wrong; an attractive woman in a red dress and loose, wavy hair, who I was sure smelled of perfume.

I got out when I figured we were more or less in the centre of town. The bus stop was a few blocks from the Seine, and on the other side of a large park was the Les Invalides – where a few days later I would see a trench coat with mud stains from the First World War.

View from the apartment

I sat down on a bench next to the bus stop and smoked a Paul Revere, and considered myself very fortunate.

Then I started looking for my accommodation – a one bedroom apartment of an acquaintance from high school. The only clues I had were the cryptic notes of a mutual friend who had spent a few nights there a year before. It took me about seven hours to track it down. By late afternoon I had spent my first franc at a supermarket in the neighbourhood – on a piece of cheese, a pack of macaroni, and two cans of Czech beer.

Source of cheese and cheap beer

The first week I was alone in the apartment. I walked for miles every day – to the Eiffel Tower, to the Place de la Concorde, to the Père Lachaise cemetery, to the Moulin Rouge, and up and down the Champs-Elysées. One day I also took the train out of the city to the palace in Versailles – a definite highlight.

Apartment of high school acquaintance in Paris

At the end of the week, my acquaintance returned to his apartment. I stayed a few more days, and then bought a bus ticket to Amsterdam. Here I visited the Anne Frank House … and not the Van Gogh Museum because it was too expensive.

The plan from the beginning was to get some kind of job to keep myself alive and every now and then to travel to interesting places. In Paris it was not possible because of the language. In Amsterdam I went to a McDonald’s and asked about work. The application form indicated that if I was not a citizen, I had to be able to prove that I was a refugee. I also met the son of a friend of a university professor. He had vague ideas about knocking on doors to offer your services as a cleaner, or something like that.

Next stop, London: The capital of illegal work for anyone from anywhere in the world. I found a bed in a room with six or seven other men in a small hotel not far from Victoria Station. Quickly made friends and walked around for a few days – had a photo taken of myself with Tower Bridge in the background and visited the Imperial War Museum and the British Museum, but I didn’t really look for work. One night on the news there was an item about a man from Nigeria who had been working illegally. The police came looking for him where he lived. He was startled, jumped out of the window, and fell to his death. Another South African who also stayed in the hotel talked about construction work, and that it helped if you had a working holiday permit.

Hotel in London
Bridge and tourist on a sunny day in London

Friends of mine spent six months in Britain the previous year on working holiday permits. No surprise that it seemed like a more attractive option than running from the police.

Red light district in Amsterdam

I decided to go back to Amsterdam, from where my flight was booked back to South Africa – actually not until months later, but I had the option of changing it. Someone talked about cheap youth hostels in the red-light district where you could get free bed and breakfast if you helped clean and did laundry. I found a place in a hostel in a room that smelled of dirty socks and unwashed bodies. I inquired about work, and they said they would think about it (to check if you were trustworthy, I later learned). However, I only had enough money left for a few days, so on the third day I called the airline and booked a place on the earliest flight back to South Africa. A day before I was to fly, the manager informed me that they could use my services if I was still interested. However, by that time I had less than the equivalent of ten euros left.

Hands in the pocket, but broke

Of course, today I think back on opportunities I didn’t take. Why didn’t I apply for a work permit before I went, knowing full well what benefits it would bring? Fact is, I tried, but the travel agent said it would take something like two weeks, and I didn’t have two weeks. Only later did I find out it only took a day or two. The two weeks in Paris, though I didn’t pay for accommodation, also ate into my finances. Why didn’t I find out about the free bed and breakfast if you work at the place in the first week in Amsterdam? Don’t know. Why wasn’t I actively asking around London for opportunities? Lack of confidence? Lack of motivation? The man who jumped to his death would probably have made an impression on anyone, but after all there were thousands of other people who worked illegally in London or elsewhere on the islands. And why not take the job in the hostel and see if I survived for a few weeks until something else happened? Probably thought my plan to go back to South Africa, apply for a work permit, and then come back made more sense. And it was safer.

Making friends on a napkin

Would it have helped if I had a partner there who said: “Let’s do it! Let’s take a chance!”?

Yes, it would have made a difference.

A few weeks after I got back to South Africa, I applied for a work permit, and got it. Beautifully it graced my passport for six months, and then it expired. Never got together enough money for a second plane ticket to Europe.

Right around the time the work permit expired (end of 1995), I saw an advertisement for “Teaching in Korea” in the Cape Times. What happened next is the timeline of my real life over the past quarter century.

How many alternative timelines did not cross each other in those few months of 1995?

Can one say with certainty that everything would have worked out differently if you had changed one thing years ago, said yes to something, said no to something else, taken a later flight, walked in a different direction, took a bigger chance? Do you wish things had turned out differently?

I am happy with my current life, and with how my life has developed the last 27 years. But if I closed my eyes and the alternative lines were revealed to me, would I see a more interesting life than the one I’ve been living? Would it have been more dream than nightmare, or the other way around?


Personal Agenda, Book Two: Introduction

Part One: Options for young adults

Middle-class South Africans have embraced in the last half century or so with great enthusiasm a cornerstone of the industrialised world: the Permanent Position. The idea is to finish high school and then through tertiary study and/or practical experience qualify yourself for a career. After the successful completion of this training phase – usually when the young adult is in their early twenties – the rule book dictates that the young graduate or recently certified professional should embark on a frantic search for an opportunity to work and earn money – and the more permanent the position, the better.

The stable income that a permanent job provides will make the single man or woman financially independent from their families. If they so choose, it will also enable the young adult to get married. Status in the community, annual raises, professional advancement, and other benefits of a permanent job like medical aid will furthermore enable the young married couple to start a family, and to ensure a good, stable life for themselves and their immediate descendants.

Of course, a permanent position is not available to all who desire it. Economic realities and other factors make it sometimes impossible for everyone to graduate from high school let alone obtain a tertiary qualification. However, a permanent position remains the ideal.

An alternative for a permanent job is to start your own business. Even though the parents of young adults who show entrepreneurial promise would prefer for their children to obtain some or other tertiary qualification – perhaps to fall back on, an entrepreneur once successful can buy his freedom from the conventional path with cold hard cash generated from his own business. This can be anything from professional gardening services to a range of pizza restaurants, or the making of lawn chairs and tables. As long as such a business provides the entrepreneur with a regular income, and he can therefore prove that he can not only take care of himself but also accept co-responsibility on the long-term for the well-being of a family, what he does will be rewarded with approval and even respect from his family.

Talent, personality, personal convictions – religious or political, or a combination of motivations drive some young adults, however, to fill their days with work that does not necessarily generate an income. One example is the musician who only earns enough money to pay for a room in a boarding house, and who regularly engages in arguments with his family because he never manages to explain to them how he’s going to take care of a family one day. Another example is the missionary who preaches the Gospel for meagre payment for months at a time in some country far from home. The latter can at least hope for a little sympathy when he drives around in an old pickup truck, and when he doesn’t have money to eat at expensive restaurants. He can justify his financial situation because what he does is seen as self-sacrifice for a Good Cause.

Part two: The writer, faith, and the permanent position

This brings us to the writer of this material. A musician he would love to be, but the few musical instruments he owns gather more dust by the day. Being an entrepreneur, on the other hand, is something he has always associated with a Saturday afternoon in 1985 outside of a local rugby stadium, with him trying to sell hot dogs for the coffers of the Christian Youth Association. His opinion of this alternative to a permanent position has, however, become more sophisticated in the last few years, and he has started the learning process that would eventually enable him to sell whatever makes money.

It should also be mentioned that the writer took certain religious beliefs very seriously in his youth. (For what other reason would he have sold hot dogs on an afternoon when everyone else in the area were on their way to a rugby match?) Certain personality traits and his earnestness with church teachings led his family to believe he may not be heading for the world of money and business. A clergyman perhaps, or a missionary, they speculated.

Unfortunately, money for the luxury of six years of theological studies to eventually accept a permanent position in the Church there was not. And so the writer exercised the second best option – training as a teacher.

His interest in theology and religious doctrines were never overshadowed by the realities of the adult world. When he had to choose subjects for his bachelor’s degree in the arts, he chose Biblical Studies (later Religious Studies) rather than a subject that would have given him a better chance at getting a teaching post. For the next few years, his focus was on theological studies – that he was actually studying education was only of academic value.

By the time he finally came to the Diploma of Higher Education, however, he had undergone a transformation regarding his religious beliefs. He started asking earnest questions that his parents and any high school principal would have preferred he not. About the existence of the god to whom he had wanted to devote his life he was now doubtful. Against the formal doctrine of the church where he was baptised and confirmed as member, he regularly carried on long arguments.

Sincere interest in the “true purpose and meaning” of his own life continued unabated, though. In the process of investigating the possibilities he lost all certainty that he had ever had about what it means to be human. He also began to make notes about his opinions, and the questions that bothered him.

The writer’s life had hit this disastrous stage precisely at the time when he was supposed to polish his shoes for his first attempt at getting a permanent position.

By now the serious student had acquired two degrees and a diploma, and it would have made sense for him to try to gain a teaching position somewhere. Anything temporary would have put him on the right track. If he were lucky, and he could turn himself into a dedicated high school teacher, he could have claimed within a decade the most prestigious prize any young teacher could wish for: a permanent position.

What did the young, recently qualified teacher-writer do? Did he scan the notice board in the Faculty of Education for a possible job? Did he make inquiries at local schools? Did he at least draft a resume to give any principal who looked at it an idea of what a loyal and competent teacher he could be? Nope. What he did was to grow his hair and pierce a hole in his earlobe where he inserted a stud of a silver sun. And that was the end of his immediate hopes of a permanent position.

Money had nevertheless to be earned; this he would have known even if his parents and his more responsible older sister had never broached the subject. “What are you going to do with your life?”, “What are your plans?” and “How do you plan to make money?” were questions no one really needed to ask him. Along with all the questions about the existence of God, the purpose and meaning of his life, and the question of what exactly human beings are, he also had to contemplate the question of where in the labour market he was going to make a start that could possibly, over time, lead to a stable, salaried position. For apart from the money aspect, he had to at least try to fit in, maybe find a partner, and – who knows? – perhaps buy a car which could take him further than the nearest town.

Over the next few years, the writer tried to find a middle ground in places like South Korea and Johannesburg, and finally, in southern Taiwan. How could he answer all the questions that were haunting him like possessed hounds, and at the same time earn money? How could he commit to something that gives him a regular income, while at the same time be convinced of the fact that he was not wasting his life in the seemingly endless struggle for survival and perhaps a modicum of material comfort?

The young boy who had prayed earnestly and who had diligently studied his Bible gave up his beliefs in the teachings of the Church as a young adult. But this boy had also become a man who was still convinced that he had to do “more” with his life than “just” make money.

If he had become a missionary for the Christian gospel, he could still have called on the support of a Higher Power. He could have quoted appropriate verses in his arguments about why he could not, or would not, accept a permanent position in an enterprise that is primarily focused on profit. He could have claimed that he was serving a good cause, and he could have prayed with his family for understanding – and financial support.

Reality for the writer was, however, that he had begun to serve an increasingly personal agenda. After a few years he did not really care anymore if people called him headstrong, arrogant or selfish. He wanted to do what he wanted to do.

Except that he missed his family very much and still would have liked the basic comfort of his own family someday, he knew that his life in self-imposed exile in the Far East offered opportunities he could not take for granted in his own country. He could contemplate for days and nights at a time the questions that still bothered him after all these years. He could also earn enough money by teaching a few English classes every day to show his family (and the bank) that he was taking the whole money-earning business seriously, as befitted a responsible adult.

However, he knew that self-imposed socio-economic exile from the land of his birth was not sustainable. He had to return sooner or later, no matter how many questions would remain unanswered, and regardless of the implications of such an action for his financial and social status.

As time went on, he also became increasingly convinced of certain things that reminded him to some extent of the teachings he had rejected years earlier.

It was certainly true that he enjoyed writing, that it was a good way to keep up with his own thoughts, and that he could explain his own fears and ambitions in such a manner to his family and anyone else who might be interested. In the years since he began thinking of himself as a “writer” he often tried to produce material of a commercial nature. Whether short stories or articles, he believed that he could in this way bridge the gap between his personal agenda and the economic realities of the modern world. But he could never concentrate for long enough on fictional characters or descriptions of night markets to get a career as an income-generating writer off the ground. Instead, he continued writing essays about his own life, about the questions that bothered him, the emotional wretchedness of his life in “exile”, and the potentially fatal implications of an untimely return to his homeland.

But there was more to his writings than a good argument, or an attempt to leave something behind when everything was said and done. He was not only writing for his own amusement, or for the entertainment of others. This former child of the Reformed Church, of Bible study and prayer circles, were trying to do more than just express his personal agenda – he was preaching. That he did it in his own words, dyed in the shadows of his own political convictions and motivated by his own insecurities and fears, took nothing away from the fact that what he was writing increasingly looked like a message.

He did not just talk about his own life (which was pretty boring at the best of times), and he did not only wish for his family to understand why he still did not want to consider the possibility of a permanent position in his own country. He wanted to declare what he considered to be wrong in his sometimes simplified view of the modern world. He wanted to share what he believed could be done to improve the situation. He wanted to preach to people who he believed did not always make the best choices among the available options. He wanted to make known to others who wonder – and doesn’t everyone wonder in the end? – that he had put some thought into these matters, and that this was the way he felt about things, even if people didn’t agree with him.

This child of a sort of middle-class Afrikaans family wanted, after many years, to proclaim his own vision of a better life for all who desired it.

Did the writer thus, eventually, become a missionary for a Good Cause? Even though he sometimes coughs and splutters in a language that is not quite church-like. Even though he doesn’t quite know who the Boss of the Good Cause is. Even though his writing causes people to drift into slumber half of the time. Even though he has still not worked out how he will make up for the fact that he does not want to look for a permanent position. And even though it may take him twenty years before he can enjoy the basic joy and comfort of his own family.

Part three: Administration

This is, as you may have surmised, the start of BOOK TWO. The main protagonist of the first book is again at the podium – with enough prepared words, as it turned out, to warrant a second book.

The “story” picks up from the first part of May 2003, soon after I completed BOOK ONE. As with the first book, the material is mostly in chronological order.

It should also be noted that this second book involved a different kind of writing process than the first volume. By May 2003 I was well aware of the fact that when I wrote something, I might not be able to resist the temptation to include it in my “project”. It has not affected the integrity of what I have written, though. Since I was (and still am) not sure whether the project will ever be sponsored by a commercial publisher, I knew I could write what I liked, and in ways that I believed was most appropriate for the specific content. This approach was strongly boosted by my belief that the honesty and integrity of the material was much more important than any monetary reward I might ever receive. If this project is ever published (especially by a commercial publisher), I can confirm that this text was never written in a way that would have made it more publishable. And if it is never published, then I can just shrug and declare that at least I said what I wanted to say.

Just a few last comments on the content, and the potential value to you as a reader. The material is self-centred, that I readily admit. This book is mainly about one person, about his experience of reality, and how he views life. The potential value to you as a reader is that it may make you wonder about the choices you have made in your life, or about choices you are contemplating at the moment. It is also my sincere wish that if you do not agree with the opinions in this book, you will attempt to articulate the reasons for it. And if you do agree, fair enough (again, it would be ideal if you know why). This project is clearly no Stephen King thriller or Tolkien epic. So comfort yourself when you yawn through the umpteenth piece: if the dice had landed differently, it would have been you that had to write this book.

Brand Smit

Tuesday, 6 January 2004


The last exile

It is Monday, 22 December 2003, seven minutes past twelve in the afternoon. I got up about an hour ago, had breakfast, and then read about the relationship between Russia and Europe up to 1856. Then I took care of my laundry, washed my dishes, brushed my teeth, and turned on the computer. First, I counted the words of two pieces I wrote last week, and then I started playing a game of FreeCell. The latter became too complicated, so I thought it might be better to write this document about the changes that have to be made in my life in the new year.

Actually, I just wanted to put a few things on paper, and I wanted to type rather than write. My intention was specifically not to write a piece – I just wanted to gather my thoughts.

The moment I typed the first sentence, however, I knew what was coming. This type of text is how I express myself these days. I can’t help myself anymore. I sit down at the computer to write a harmless note to myself, and when I open my eyes, THE WRITER has rudely pushed me of the chair and has manically started throwing his two fat fingers across the keyboard.

My plans vary between two extremes. On the one hand, I am desperate to go back to South Africa at the end of February next year; on the other hand, I would like to stay in Asia for another seven years. Between these two extremes lie all my desires, my fears, my interests, and my hope for a life that is better than the one I now call my own.

I have to force myself to stare some facts in the face, though: a) I am not 25 years old anymore. b) My problem with a permanent position at an institution or corporation in my homeland has been well documented by now. The fact remains that I need money to survive and carry out plans, and I need to take steps to ensure that I can continue to buy food for – who knows? – the next forty years. c) My big dream is a three-bedroom house with a garden and a patch of grass, in a quiet suburban area in a town in South Africa (the country where I was born and where I grew up, otherwise this book would have been written in French or German, and my name would have been Dieter or Pascal).

Of course, it’s not good enough just to say you want a three-bedroom house. Of course I need to take certain steps to obtain such a house. But sometimes I feel like these things are all preordained, and if it’s not in your cards, you can try until you’re blue in the face. So, if it says in your tea leaves, “Apartment in Kowloon until you die of loneliness,” it won’t help if you scream back in desperation, “Three-bedroom house in a quiet suburb!”

It usually helps if my mind rushes in such a direction late at night when I’m considering lying down for a few hours anyways.

This morning I got up, and after my usual piece of history (the uneasy relationship between Russia and Europe until 1905), I decided that just because I apparently can’t be a socialist any longer doesn’t mean I can’t establish my own social system and associated relations through the use of rational thought and action. Which is a cumbersome way of saying that I don’t think I’m necessarily doomed to a lonely existence on a subtropical island in Northeast Asia.

But does this mean I can go back to South Africa next February – in a little more than two months? Can I go stand in line for a three-bedroom house in a quiet town or suburb? Clearly not.

The other day I was reminded again that one must be patient. It’s all fine to sort things out and to seek answers, but answers don’t drop from the blue sky just because you asked an intelligent question. Same with our ambitions. Just because I’ve been able to mutter the words “three-bedroom house in a quiet area” after all these years without thinking I’m betraying myself is not to say that I already have title deeds for a toilet and half a bedroom.

Anyways, I can carry on dancing in circles, talking about how I smoked a cigarette, about thoughts I had on the train about the beautiful mountains, how I eventually went to pay my phone bill, and how I came home to continue writing this piece. The intelligent reader can surely guess what’s coming next: I need a plan.

* * *

I’ve been thinking for years that this profession of teaching Asian children the lingua franca of the world is better than sweeping the streets or moving papers around on an office desk. I also know all too well that the tedium of it can dry out your soul.

It has also not escaped my attention that the times I have been the happiest in the last few years were the times when I only had to spend two or three hours a day making money, with the rest of the time spent behind my computer working on my own projects.

When I do spend an hour or two in a classroom and cash exchanges hands shortly afterwards, I cannot ignore the implication: To be an expatriate English Teacher in Taiwan is ideal for people with unresolved issues that cause them to be unable to find peace in a nice middle-class suburb (or unable at the current time, anyways). There are other advantages to this way of making money – you can master a foreign language, first-hand contact with other cultures, and sometimes you meet people you never would have met otherwise.

In short, where else could I teach English for twelve hours per week and earn enough money to cover my basic living expenses? Where else could I, without having to draw a single line on a contract, move into an old apartment and nail my pictures to the wall? Where else could I eat even my oatmeal in the mornings with chopsticks – which doesn’t work, by the way, and have a conversation in Chinese with a beautiful woman outside the supermarket in the evening when she throws a fresh chicken thigh on her grill for me?

Where could I do all these things … while writing the one exile essay after another full of melancholy and longing for my people?

I have to finish up. I see short stories in my tea leaves, and Chinese dictionaries in my coffee beans, and if I cast my eyes to the stars, at least another seven years of teaching in Northeast Asia. The benefits have already been mentioned; the disadvantages are spread over this entire literary project.

One thing, however, has to go in the struggle that lies ahead: Exile!

For years I’ve been suffering from this feverish hope that the life I now call my own will not be the best I can ever bring about. This hope fuses to my fears and my desires through the burning fires of frustration and longing. That is what has driven me to write exile essays since June 1999. That is what has kept me from looking beyond the next six months. What else if you’re constantly looking, with narrowed eyes, for ways to get away from an unsustainable situation?

I am tired of exile.

* * *

Are you as reader as confused as I am? It should speak of talent to say so much, and at the end get away with so little that is new. Am I going back to South Africa on flight CX1749 departing from Hong Kong on Thursday, 4 March 2004 at 11:50 at night? That is certainly what my travel agent believes.