Rekindling the Traveler
Excerpt from Living with the In-Laws. Click on the link to purchase the full book (ebook or paperback) on Amazon.
My acting career (or lack of one) put the traveller in me to sleep.
By the time I was three, I had already lived on three continents. My mother was practically born on a voyage from Belgium to Argentina. And my Belgian father identifies as Latino—well, not really. He’s not going to get a race change or make a fuss when people tell him he needs to write caucasian on his legal documents, but he will say, “¡Mis hijos! Finalmente, la familia está unida. Esto es lo que me he estado perdiendo!” My sons! Finally, the family is together. This is what I've been missing—This is not exactly what he says since we speak Flemish together, but the Spanish better expresses his emphatic tones when we all end up in the same place after months of not seeing each other.
As someone raised by eurolatinish parents in a town where bible thumpers think they’ll drink a cold Budweiser with white Jesus on the day they die, I didn’t realize what was wrong with me until I went to university.
Eurolatinish, it's a term I coined myself. No, that's not something the general public is allowed to do, but I'm an art major, and if I ever decide to get a Ph.D. in critical theory, I'll be coining words all the time. Why shouldn't I start using words that don't exist? It makes me feel special.
As it turns out, I’m a third culture child, and in a town like Vernon, that’s synonymous with freak, fag, Jew, pussy, communist, and other people that Hitler didn’t like. Fortunately, I’m a white, cisgender, straight male with the physical disposition of a Hollywood lead actor, and so I made it out alive, but not unscathed. By the time I was eight, I had had two earlobe infections from the ear piercings I had received at Clairs.
“Sup,” I said, thinking my bright-red ears and Kool-aid-died green hair would make me as cool as the rockers on MTV.
“Oh my gosh, what is that thing?” asked a blonde girl who had just dropped her doll in shock.
“I think it’s a Belgian,” said one of the boys.
“A what?” asked the girl.
“Belgium’s a country, dear,” said the teacher, whose hair resembled a half-blown dandelion.
“I think it’s in Eastern Europe or maybe Scandinavia. Something like that,” the teacher said. “They’re famous for chocolate.”
“Do you have chocolate?” The girl asked. “I love chocolate.”
“No,” I said, and the next day I came to class with half-washed-out green hair and a box of chocolates.
By the time high school came around, I no longer had to buy a female’s respect with Belgian chocolate. I had a six-pack and pecs larger than girls who filled their c-cup bras with toilet paper or when they were feeling creative, saran-wrapped jello. The town had also grown large enough by this point that the supermarkets no longer only carried salted margarine but real butter as well. Even though most men put their income into pick-up trucks, there was now a new breed of man in town—the type that made money by selling lattes or cutting hair.
My parents had moved to another end of Vernon. Instead of attending an all-white high school, I ended up going to a high school with Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, Koreans, and Native people. Most people were still very white, a group I didn’t fit in with because I was orange.
Acne had ruined my face, back, and self-esteem. When I took my shirt off at the beach, I made sure they would never see my back, so I would usually find a tree to stand against, lay on my back, or work on mastering the backstroke. However, my face was not so easily hidden, and I tried to hide the pimples with a tan—an artificial tan. Since my acne didn’t end up on my throat, I saw no reason to smear self-tanner past my chin line. Nobody ever bullied me about my orange face and white body (they probably thought I would die from jaundice) until the truth came out on a school trip to Nicaragua.
Tossing dead scorpions to chickens, slicing through a tangle of thorny scrub with a machete, and shitting in a dirt hole had become our daily routine. This was all part of our school’s Global Ed program. Our goal was to help an orphanage near Chinandega, Nicaragua become self-sustainable, and to do this, we were building a cattle pen for the orphanage. We were only halfway through the project when we started throwing shovels to the ground and waving machetes in thin air.
It was time for a circle. A circle was how our teacher laid out our classroom (whether in a real classroom or under a mango tree) to learn with us as equals—a facade we believed. Things were getting tense because 1. None of us were used to sleeping on spring beds that wrapped around you like a cocoon. 2. The girls' periods had synchronized, and the girls were all like, “This is like volleyball camp, but scarier,” and the guys were all like, “Wait, what happened?” 3. We realized we would never be as grateful for anything as these children were.
“I want people to feel that they can say whatever is weighing on them,” our teacher said to the twenty sixteen-year-old girls and four sixteen-year-old guys.
“I’m like grateful for my family. Seeing these kids today was just so hard. It’s just so unfair. And they have to struggle so much more than we do. Like, one girl said that she had a sister. Had! As in the past tense of have. It’s so sad. And I’m just so grateful I still have my sister,” said a girl with tears running down her eyes that finally didn’t have fake eyelashes glued to them. Let’s call her Brittany.
“Yeah, it was just really hard to know what these kids have been through. They don’t get three meals a day, they don’t get to shower when they want, they don’t get to learn like we do, and I’m grateful I’m not them,” said another Brittany.
“And do you feel equal with them?” The teacher asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What about the rest of you? Do you believe we are created equal?”
“Yes,” murmured some of the Christians in the class.
“Are you equal to me?”
“No, because you mark our work,” said Logan, the one friend of mine that wears a trucker hat.
“Is there anyone else in the class you don’t feel equal with?”
“Well, Nolan was born in a private hospital,” said Logan, nudging me. He knew I was born in Chile, South America and that the public hospitals there would have been out of the question for any of our classmates, not just me.
“Yeah, and how come Nolan got to skip work today?” a Britany said.
“Because he helped translate some Spanish,” the teacher said.
“It’s just not fair. I mean, Nolan even works out after we spend the entire day working—like, is he really giving it his all? Because how do you do pushups after giving it your all with a shovel, you know?”
“Why do you feel the need to work out?” The teacher asked.
“To look good,” I said.
“Oh, that’s another thing. You told us to travel light, and Nolan brought self-tanner with him. Who brings self-tanner to Central America. You don’t need it here.”
“Wait, you used self-tanner, bro?” asked Logan.
The secret was out. It took a while for the teacher to get the conversation back on track, but by the end of that night, it became clear to me that I had an identity issue. I threw away the self-tanner and did what anybody with an identity crisis and ego issues would do—become an actor.
When I moved to Vancouver to pursue my dream of becoming an actor and writer, I told myself that I didn’t need to travel anymore. All my time and money would go into my acting career.
I lived in a tiny, rundown one-bedroom apartment with four people – two of whom were make-up artists, so you can picture how little I could use the washroom when I needed to.
Read Shared Washrooms to understand the immensity of this problem better.
Living like this allowed me to use the little cash I made into a web series where I played an over-the-top guido named Lean Meat. Lean Meat gave life lessons about how to make breakfast in the morning, how to talk to gay people, how to pick up a girl in the elevator, how to talk to black people and other subjects that would have got us banned from the internet if we filmed it eight years later in 2019. The irony of a loner guido giving life lessons was nothing compared to the irony of an actor that needed life lessons himself.
I am a talent manager in New York City, and I stumbled across your web series, Lean Meat. It is one of the most original and hilarious series I have seen in the past years. You have genuine talent, and there is no doubt in my mind that we can get this show on Comedy Central. I hope to hear from you soon.
I googled the manager's name, and surely enough, he had a real website with proper actors—the actors were all attractive males, but that didn’t seem like something to worry about. What mattered was that they all had IMDB pages with legitimate credentials. Three weeks later, I booked a ticket to New York. Since buying marijuana in the USA frightened me, I ingested my last BC bud brownie before going to the airport. And since it was my last, I ate enough to make it count.
“Where are you going?” The customs official asked.
“New York,” I said, staring at his hedgehog-like crewcut and a bulletproof vest.
“Work or holiday?”
“Holiday,” I said through my cotton dry mouth. Perspiration leaked from my skin at an ever-increasing rate, but my tongue had yet to find any saliva.
“Who are you staying with?”
My parents had given me the address of a family friend, so I didn’t need to name the talent manager, but I can’t even lie when I’m sober.
“This guy,” I said as I pointed at the email on my phone.
The customs official typed, looked up at me, typed, looked up at me, typed, until finally, he said, “You’re going to need to come with me.”
“Says here he’s a talent manager, and I can see here that you’re an actor.”
“I’m not really an actor.”
“Says here you are.”
“Well, not a paid one.”
“You need to come with me, sir.”
“But I’m just meeting him. I’m not working.”
“You’ll need to explain that to the other customs officer.”
I was the only white person in the detainment room. To my left, a middle-eastern woman lay on her husband's shoulder, who was fast asleep. In front of them lay a baby wrapped up in blankets. Half of the people in here were passed out or expressed miserable boredom and hopelessness. It didn’t seem that I was going to get out of here anytime soon, but then—
“Nolan Janssens, please come to the front.”
The man to the right of me, wearing a Taqiyah, rolled his eyes as I stood up to approach the customs officer.
“Why did you tell my co-worker you were coming here on holiday?” the man asked. He had large gym-worked arms, and I felt a connection right away. That sort of fitness people bond that screams, ‘Yeah, bro. I know you’re as disciplined as I am. We’re cool.’
“It just didn’t feel like it to me. You know, since I’m not getting paid and all. I’m just meeting the man.”
“And how do you know this man.”
When the word “Youtube” left my mouth, I realized I deserved to be in questioning.
“Have you called this man before?”
“And what did you do on this Skype call?”
“What did I do?”
“Yes, what did you do?”
Well, I didn’t take my fucking clothes off. “We talked about my web series. Something that I also don’t make money with.”
“I see. And do your family members have his address?”
“Yes, they do. All my friends and family back home know where I’ll be.”
“Well, your flight leaves in five minutes. You’ll probably miss it.”
“Wait, I can leave.”
“You better run fast.”
I ran out of the detainment room and never looked back. White privilege gave me an inch, and I took a mile as I sprinted through the Vancouver airport. When I arrived at the gate, the lady said everyone had already boarded the plane but that they would radio to let them know I had arrived. One of the workers guided me to the plane that was already on the take-off strip, but the propellers weren’t on yet—I was just in time.
When I arrived in New York, Wesley, the manager, welcomed me with a hug. I had to bend through my knees to reach his height, and I could feel his little moustache against my neck. A muscular man around my age stood next to him and asked, “Would you like me to carry that bag of yours?” His southern accent was too subtle to be fake, and there was a genuine hospitable warmth to the boy that northerners couldn’t replicate.
“Walden loves your web series. I can’t wait to get you guys working together,” Wesley said.
You can listen to my conversation with Walden eight years later here.
“Yeah, man, Lean Meat’s funny shit. I can’t wait to film an episode with you here.”
When we arrived at Wesley’s home, three other beefy guys came to greet me. One of them slept on a separate blow-up mattress next to Walden in the room next to Wesley’s. The other two with real jobs (mechanic and something to do with computers) slept upstairs. I also found a cat in the dryer—she was fine, but the little shit popped the mattress I was supposed to sleep on, so I slept on a towel.
Two days later, Wesley, Walden, Travis (the cameraman who also happened to be very muscular), and I were walking through Manhattan. The script I wrote didn’t require Walden to change from his everyday attire—a casual shirt and pants. I, on the other hand, was walking around Manhattan in my Lean Meat costume—jeans and a skin-tight shirt that was supposed to make it seem like I had snake or dragon tattoos (I could never figure it out).
While tourists took pictures of the unscathed Paul's Chapel and mourned the death of the heroes lost during 911, Lean Meat (me) had his arm around Waldo (Walden's character) while he explained that “911 was one big conspiracy, bro.” When we cut the scene, and Lean Meat’s ego left my mind, I felt a mystical presence—I just couldn’t wrap my head around Paul’s Chapel's immaculate condition. But there was no time for me to become religious. Thirty minutes later, I was dancing half-naked in the middle of Times Square. Wesley told me he was friends with the Naked Cowboy and that if I did a scene with him, it would be excellent promotion—he wasn’t lying. Within minutes, the Naked Cowboy and I had a few hundred tourists standing around us in a circle with their cellphones out.
“Hey, try this!” The Naked Cowboy said, offering me his guitar.
“Yo, bro! I can’t play this,” I said, almost breaking character. Yes, I was already standing in the middle of time square in tight briefs, but playing an instrument? Now that was too much.
Before I could say no, he forced the guitar into my hands. For some reason, he thought I knew a few chords—I guess actors are expected to have at least some musical training. But I didn’t know any chords, so after a few strums, the Naked Cowboy took back his guitar, and I faced the audience with saying Lean Meat’s episode opening quote, “What’s up get-it-ins and let-it-ins?” And then I said, “That’s it for me today,” cool guy shoulder-punched the Naked Cowboy and got the hell out of Time Square.
Since Wesley knew the Naked Cowboy, I had no problem believing he had contacts with Comedy Central. We even went to see some of the most prodigious acting agencies in New York. The agents were interested in me, but they all said the same thing—“he’ll need to get his alien with extraordinary ability Visa first.” The best way for me to do this was to get some gigs in America, but without that Visa, I couldn’t get gigs in America—a classic case of catch-22. Wesley, however, had found some ways for me to build my “resume.” He had some contacts at the Art Academy that needed another nude model. “The Art Academy has a legitimate reputation. If you’ve done work for them, it will help us make a case for the Visa.” Since I was desperate and doubtful about my extraordinary ability, nude modelling seemed like a viable choice.
“I’ll just need to take some pictures of you first?”
“I have tons of physique shots.”
“Yes, but no naked ones.”
“They need naked ones?”
“Are you sure? Maybe you could double-check.”
And so, we walked into his garage, I took off all my clothes, he took pictures, and when I returned to Canada, I never heard from him again.
If you check out my conversation with Walden, maybe I wasn't as naive as I thought when I first wrote this. Wesley really did try to get me the visa.
“Babe, we need to go travelling,” Siena said when we were nearing finals. Aside from a summer visiting family in Europe and getting naked in New York, I hadn’t travelled to an unfamiliar country in four years, which by my family’s standards, was considered stuck in one place.
“Meh, why don’t we just stay here for the summer to work and make money.”
“You’re supposed to be Mr. Adventure, Nol. I want to see the world with you.”
“I’ve already travelled a lot.”
“When you were a kid with your parents. That’s lame. Now is when travelling really counts.”
“Why? Because we have social media?”
“Because we can do it together. You and me, making our own memories. You need to get out of the country without your parents at some point.”
“I have. Nicaragua.”
“That was with school.”
“Okay, New York, and look what happened.”
“Yeah, well, I won’t let you be so stupid.”
She had a point. With Siena by my side, I definitely wouldn’t get naked in front of strangers. The thought of spending money on anything aside from my acting career or beer seemed crazy to me. Still, Siena’s eyes, large as a Labrador puppy, sparkled whenever she brought up a different country. Since she knew I was a cheap bastard, South East Asia seemed like a logical solution. Pretty soon, my phone blew up with photos and videos about Indonesia. Surfing, waterfalls, scuba-diving, volcano hikes, spicy food, fresh fish—she knew her man, and after a week, we bought plane tickets to Bali.
If the security guards had let them, Stuart and Susan would have walked through the airport and pressed their noses against the glass window until the plane took off. It took Siena a week to pack her suitcase—a week that I had to hear Susan knocking on the bedroom door every day with another suggestion for what Siena should pack and buy. Even though Siena had more clothes and shoes than I ever hoped to own, Susan couldn’t help but repeat the phrase, “Tonk, you should probably go out and buy…” Tonk was Siena’s least-favourite nickname. It reminded me of a truck. Like Tonka, but without an ‘a,’ which masculinized the one-syllable name even more. But there was nothing masculine about the way she packed, or rather unpacked and repacked. The house would have flown away with fluttering moths of nervousness and anxiety if Stuart wasn’t there to ground the two women. Every purchase Susan mentioned with a fit of anxiety, Stuart actually went out and bought. Seeing her words materialize eventually calmed Susan down, and Siena grew tired of receiving new money belts every day.
When we arrived in Bali, I could carry Siena’s deceiving suitcase. The suitcase wasn’t much bigger than my own, but it packed like a Beijing train; a density achieved only by the most experienced suitcase packer—Susan. We only had five weeks to complete Siena’s itinerary, which included leaving Denpasar as quickly as possible to go to Nusa Lembongan—this is where Siena and I first shared a moped. Even the first-degree sunburns on our hamstrings (thanks to snorkelling all day without sunscreen) didn’t stop us from using that moped every chance we got. Nothing could stop us from getting on that two-wheeled sense of freedom—Not even the cops, which we’d find out later.
After we had our share of questionably organic food in Ubud (a town for granola-eating spiritual wannabes who consider Eat Pray Love a bible), we went to Kuta, Lombok. Once we arrived in Kuta, the Hindu offerings to the gods (leftover Nasi Goreng, Pempek, Nasi Rawon, crackers, coca-cola, cigarettes, condoms, etc.) and the smell of incense sticks were nowhere to be found. We were now in Muslim territory, which in our experience, meant that the men ignored Siena’s every word and directed all logistics-related questions to me. Usually, I didn’t know where we were going until we got there, and so, I had to act like the middle man and translate English to English, so the drivers knew where to go. The taxi drivers refused to take directions from my woman, whereas I was directionless without her.
The Fajr morning prayers from mosques woke us in time for our surf lesson with a guy whose English was limited to the phrase, “Long hair, don’t care.” The ocean waves washed away any religious fundamentalism that man may have had, and Siena received full attention as we spent the morning surfing the point break. The next stop on the itinerary was Gili Air (a place to scuba dive, eat fish, and do magic mushrooms). Even though you can get your hands chopped off for theft and imprisoned for doing drugs, the island was full of stands selling magic mushrooms, so I thought, ‘why the hell not?’ Turns out magic mushrooms have a different effect on me in the tropics than they do in Vancouver. After spending an hour crying about the bacteria I felt crawling on my skin, the stars began to fall from the night sky and drip into the ocean filled with fluorescent lights—real fluorescent lights, not the ones I imagined. For the next two hours or ten minutes (who the hell knows), I watched Siena play with bioluminescent algae.
“You should have stayed sober, Nol. I mean, why do you need to do drugs? This place is amazing without them,” she said, picking up another bright piece of algae.
“It was in fruit shake, Siena. I mean, how many times in life can you drink a fruit shake filled with magic mushrooms on an island away from cops? I just couldn’t say no,” I said, holding onto the metal water bottle she gave me as though it were a baby.
Our trip was almost over, and it was time to go back to Bali and climb Mount Batur. After we finished climbing the volcano with a few hundred other tourists and some monkeys that’ll jack your wallet if you don’t watch out, we made it back to Denpasar—a city that we at first thought would be a perfect place to drive if you wanted to commit suicide. But now we couldn’t live without our moped.
Do we need an international license here since it’s a big city? Siena texted the Airbnb host.
Airbnb host: Not on Saturdays and Sundays.
Siena: Sorry, what?
Airbnb host: Cops no work then.
Siena: Okay, thanks! How much?
Airbnb host: Leave ten dollar, please. USA dollar.
Siena: Will do!
Turns out, cops do work on Saturdays. I had a towel wrapped around my shoulders because I didn’t want to get burned. Siena’s backpack looked brand new, and she wore Birkenstocks—obviously, we were tourists. Even though several dozen people sped past the cop (some of whom were driving in the opposite direction), we got pulled over.
“You give international license,” said the cop, who was much too fat to be wearing a uniform in this heat said.
“We don’t have one,” Siena said before I could reply.
“Then you come now,” he said and led us into what only some would consider a police station. It was more of a shack on the side of the road, but with air conditioning.
“You give me passport,” he said.
“No,” Siena said, cutting me off.
“You give me one hundred and fifty cash,” he said.
“That sounds fair—”
“—No way,” Siena said with an authority that made my balls shrivel.
“Hundred and fifty cash,” the cop said, but his balls seemed to have shrivelled the second Siena picked up her phone.
“Hi…Yes, so, there are cops… Yes, and he’s trying to get us to pay… No, we’re not paying… You talk to him… Okay, I will.”
“What did the host say?” I asked.
Siena ignored my question and looked at the cop and said, “We’re leaving now.”
“I take you to town.”
“No, you won’t. If you want, you can take us to the embassy,” Siena said.
“Okay, fine. Fifty dollar.”
“Nope, sorry, bye.”
“Okay, okay. You go. Next time. Jail or many money!”
“Thank you, sir! Thank you. We really appreciate—”
“Let’s get out of here,” Siena said.
“Jail next time!”
The next day, we called the Airbnb host, who assured us that even though there was a cop on Saturday, there most definitely won’t be a cop on Sunday. And so, instead of paying for a ten-dollar taxi to the beach, we hopped on the moped. Sure enough, the same cop was standing at the same spot. This time, he waved not only his hands but stepped out into the middle of the road.
“We’re fucked, Siena,” I said.
“Step on it!”
“Step on it!”
The vigour that spat from her mouth gave me very little choice. I pulled the throttle as far back as it could go, took the first turn I saw, and then another, and then another until I knew there was no way the cop could find us. Once we arrived at the beach, I stepped off the motorcycle and kissed her like I was going to die the next day. She scared the fuck out of me, and I loved it.
“I can’t believe you, the person who doesn’t even cross the road if the walking sign isn’t on, just disobeyed an Indonesian cop.”
“I wasn’t going to let a man like that take my money. I hate people like that.”
“Siena, we could have ended up in jail.”
“But we didn’t.”
“You’re the one whose hands start sweating when you forget to signal.”
“I don’t like to break fair rules. I shouldn’t get in trouble just because I’m a tourist. That’s so fucking stupid.”
“Alright, alright,” I said with a grin. I had found my travel partner.