It is said that people either work to live or live to work. Having been around for a little while now, exposed to a wide array of places and cultures, I would suggest that there is rather a whole spectrum along which people’s respective work-life balances can be traced. Whether born of pure necessity, personal ambition or societal norms, the amount of effort and time that humans devote to working during their lives varies far more than one’s personal experience might suggest. Nevertheless, work is an elementary part of almost anyone’s adulthood, and one which can create a great sense of purpose and joyful achievement if properly pursued and sensibly balanced. I myself have been working in one form or another for about 17 years now, from babysitting as a high school student, to tutoring mathematics and working in a fast-food restaurant over the summer during university, volunteering as a violin teacher in Nepal for a non-profit organization, as well as my career as an electrical engineer at an internet infrastructure company and a hearing aid firm, not to mention the completion of an intense 3.5-year PhD degree. Perhaps a modest collection of jobs to some, but one that has given me at least some insight into the vastly different ways and intensities one can work with.
I believe myself to be a person that is generally dedicated to the demands and explorative of the opportunities inherent in any working position, which has led me to lead a life that has been, at least over the last decade, positioned fairly significantly toward the working end of the spectrum. I have generally enjoyed the work I’ve done, and yet I have also realized recently that in order to create the experientially rich and mindful life I’d like for myself and others in it, my balance might need to be shifted a bit. This has perhaps been brought to light most vividly during my stints as a hostel volunteer on long-term trips, the most recent one of which I just concluded.
During my one-month-long stay at the Circus Hostel in the mountain village of Pai, I had what was perhaps the chillest job of my life so far. To be fair, Pai was already one of the most laid-back places I’ve ever been to, fully living up to its reputation as a northern Thai haven for western post-modern hippy backpackers and others in search of peace, love and magic mushrooms. The place is raved about on many traveler blogs and stands out on the South-East Asian backpacker trail as a place people truly get stuck in, repeatedly extending their initially quick visits into weeks and even months of life in the “Paihole”. The puns don’t end there, either. Pairadise, Pairates, Paizy,… and my personal favorite: Café 3.14 (Incidentally also the name of my own bar in town should I ever open one). Scooter is the default mode of transportation to get around and visit the numerous natural sights – waterfalls, hot springs and even a full-blown canyon. I spent a very enjoyable few weeks in Pai, even though the adolescent pretense of the perfectly dressed and very seriously spiritual crowd of insecure Westerners did get on my nerves at times. (Do take into account that when saying this, I by no means want to minimize my own potential insecurities ;)).
In return for free accommodation in a private room, free breakfast and discounts on all drinks served at the hostel, I was asked simply to come up with some initiatives that I could contribute with to the daily entertainment of the guests. Beautifully located on a hill overlooking a valley with cloudy green hills and equipped with a luscious infinity pool, the Circus Hostel practically sells itself from a relaxation point of view, so my job consisted mainly of socializing and ensuring people had a good time. In addition, I taught a daily juggling class on the lawn using balls we’d constructed from grains of rice wrapped in party balloons. I took people out on scooter rides to the sights and took pictures and made drone videos of fire shows, pool parties and other special events at the hostel. When an occasion arose, I’d play violin by the campfire at night or simply jam with any guitar-playing person passing through. And even though I didn’t get paid, I spent almost no money, not in the least because people were often appreciative of my efforts and would buy me food or drinks in return. It might still sound like I was rather busy, but coming from a working environment where I was used to keeping track of dozens of tasks, trains of thought, scheduled activities and deadlines at all times, often not just during office hours, this was hardly work at all. It was so radically different, in fact, that at first I actually became stressed that I wasn’t doing enough, even though nobody on the hostel staff ever gave me the slightest indication that that was the case. Quite the opposite, they seemed to consider me a very productive volunteer.
And even though this was “just” volunteering, there are plenty paid jobs that amount to a similar if not lower amount of mental strain than the high-performance world of engineering. Granted, they won’t be paid even remotely as well, but that is just another parameter informing one’s place on the spectrum. I also need to admit that I definitely relish the intellectual intensity and rigor of the types of jobs I have been doing during my engineering career. There appears to be, at least for me, a necessity for any fulfilling work to incorporate sufficient elements of mental as well as bodily exercise, solitary focus as well as human interaction, complex problem-solving challenges as well as simple yet joyful tasks.
My life in Pai, brief as it was, simultaneously gave me some respite from the normal traveling routine and a working life where I found meaning in sharing my skills with people, realizing I have acquired quite some abilities over the years that are of value to others, beyond simply what I chose to do for a living. As for Pai itself, I will miss the quiet hills and distant views, the nights of live music performance I participated in with various artists at venues in town, and the routine of my life at Circus.
But now, it is onward again, to Laos for the next three weeks, searching for some peaceful, solitary places which I know I can find in this little cousin to bright and bustling Thailand. I’ll go on my longest motorcycle adventure yet – a five-day, 750km loop into the remote, staggeringly beautiful northern region of Laos, near the border with China.
Let’s see what happens along the way.
October 3rd, 2022