I was 22 years young. I had my youth, my health, my freedom. I made a choice to use them. There was a fire under my feet, a fever in my bones. I packed my University of Florida diploma and the accompanying student loan into a card board box and left it in my family’s garage. I sold my car and left everything that didn’t fit into my suitcase to my little sister. I said farewell to everything and everyone I knew. I booked a one-way ticket to Indonesia and threw my hands in the air …
Dec 10, 2010 Dropping out of the Rat Race
I graduated. My University of Florida diploma is in the mail. Four and a half years and 25 grand for a piece of cardboard and a slip of paper to say that I’ve achieved something in life: a bachelor degree in journalism and communications – whatever that means. The next logical step would be to put that degree to good use and start climbing the career ladder. Instead, I’m dropping out of the rat race altogether.
It’s been a long semester for me here in Gainesville. After six months studying abroad in Australia, my life in America just hasn’t been the same. A lot of people thought I was just coming down from a high – it would be unpleasant, but I’d get over it. They said things like, “Welcome back to reality” and “Playtime is over. Back to work.” They were clueless.
I wasn’t just bummed that my little vacation was over. I wasn’t looking through photos and wishing I could relive those study abroad days of wild toga parties and pub crawls. When I was in Australia, I rarely attended my classes, and I certainly didn’t hang out with my classmates. I spent my time with a few choice locals and did most of my exploring on my own. Some of my friends who knew me better than that chocked my mood up to the temporary upset of a summer fling coming to an end. Well, there was no “summer fling” and nothing “came to an end.” I think out of everyone, my mom is the only one who understood what was going on in my head – and she was very, very afraid.
I can hardly say she was surprised when I announced after a few days of being home that I didn’t want to finish my last semester. As far as I could tell, the last thing I needed in my life was a university diploma. There was no reason for me to take out another chunk of student loans, to invest another five months of my time, to prolong my happiness any longer.
You see, when I came home from Australia, I came home with wide eyes and a fire under my feet. Why would anyone choose to spend their days slaving away in an office at the tender age of 22 when there were whole continents to explore, whole countries to discover. That’s when I decided I didn’t want a degree. I didn’t want a diploma. I wanted to travel the world and enjoy my life. I wanted to learn, to live. Of course, I realized – as I still do – that you can’t just spend your whole life galavanting around the world. Some day, I do intend to settle down (maybe) and get a job, but when that happens, I want to be abso-fucking-lutely sure I’m where I want to be, doing something I love. I whole-heartedly want to earn a living, and I think journalism is the right field for me, but I don’t need a diploma to prove to someone I know how to read, write and take a picture. Well, that’s how I feel. Of course, my friends and family – especially my mother – begged to differ.
Now that I’ve actually walked across that stage and thrown my cap in the air, I am glad that I took the advice of – or succumbed the wrath of – my friends and family … I think. I’m not happy that I spent 5 months dilly dallying with essays and quizzes and final projects when I could have been saving money to travel, but I suppose after 4 years committed to the cause, it was worth the extra few months to see things through. Of course, in the beginning of the semester, I was ready to throw in the towel.
Within the first few weeks of classes starting, I was failing. Until the beginning of this semester, I don’t think I’ve ever even been in a potentially compromising position with my grades. I’ve worried about possibly getting a ‘C’ here or there, but I’ve never failed anything. And then, during my most important semester in the most important class of my degree – the capstone, end-all, be-all core class – I was failing outright.
After about one month, my professor called me in for a meeting. “Tiffani, I’ve looked at your transcript. Your grade point average over the past four years is a 3.84. I spoke to a couple of your old professors. They said you were an amazing student. What’s going on here?” She was referring to my big fat ‘F’ in her class. “You come to class late, and don’t bother to make up the quizzes you miss. You turn in assignments that aren’t finished, and you turn them in late on top of it.” It was true. I didn’t give a shit about Data Vis projects and designing hypothetical smart phone applications to report breaking news. I was too busy designing my new website to report my own ‘breaking news’ – my travel blog. “You don’t even bring your textbook to class.” I didn’t have a textbook. I didn’t want to waste my money on a stupid textbook. I was reading travel memoirs by Bill Bryson and taking advice from Hunter S Thompson. “You realize that if you don’t pass this class with a 3.0 you will not get your diploma.” I knew this. I just didn’t care.
Walking home from that meeting, I realized how foolish I was being. I had worked hard for four years, and I was already in debt up to my ears. If I really didn’t want my degree, I could have just dropped out. But I didn’t. So on the Gator Zone bus that day, I decided that if I was going to go through the motions, I was going to play like a champion. And so, I finished my last semester with the same dedication as all the others. Not only did I pass with flying colors, but my projects got some of the highest marks in my classes, and my professors have asked to use some of them as examples for the classes to come.
School itself was the easiest part of the semester. Writing essays and taking tests comes naturally. Sitting still in the small town of Gainesville was the hardest struggle. Before I studied abroad, Gainesville was a playground – frat parties, football games, tail-gating, camping trips, concerts – it was always beer o’clock. When I came back from Australia, it was still beer o’clock in Gainesville, but I was stuck in a different time zone. I didn’t want to go out and party anymore. I envisioned a barrel of money being hosed down with kerosene, and then I pictured myself launched a grenade at it. There was no way I was going to waste my precious pennies on a fleeting weekend full of fuzzy memories when I could save my money for something bigger, something better, something way more epic.
And so I spent a lot of my free time this fall reading books and exercising and getting acquainted with my DSLR camera. My friends intervened sometimes, and I’m glad that every now and then they actually convinced me to go to a Gator football game or to see the Rays play at Tropicana field. They helped me make the most of my last semester as a college kid, even if my own effort was half-hearted. I can tell you that there was not a day that went by when someone didn’t remind me that my college days were numbered, and someday I would look back and wish I had made the most of this time in my life. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what I am I trying to do. Unfortunately, my big plans require some big sacrifices.
So far, the hardest thing I’ve done hasn’t been giving up booze and tail gating for a few weekends. It was saying goodbye to my dragons, Zeusa & Zombie. You see, if I’m going to be going abroad some day soon without a return ticket, someone has to take care of my little angels while I’m gone. My mother has politely declined. Of course, I’m not gone yet and I could keep them for a little while longer, but it’s time to commit to the cause and start making some serious decisions. Anyway, I spent a lot of time hanging around the Hogtowne reptile shop over the past few years, and the owner agreed to adopt my little cutie pie Rankins, promising to care for them as if they were his very own. Dave said I can come to Gainesville to say goodbye to them when the time comes, but for now, while I’m making dreams come true and sacrificing all of the good things in life, my little angels will continue to live their luxurious little reptile lives with all of the love and attention they deserve. It’s still a pretty fresh wound that leaves me teary eyed without warning. Saying goodbye to them was like going to a funeral. My best friend Jenn drove me to the reptile shop and helped me unload all of Zombie & Zeusa’s stuff while I sobbed like a maniac and clutched their little bodies in my sloppy, tear drenched hands. It was actually quite an embarrassing scene.
But anyway, enough of that sappy shit. Now that I’ve gotten my diploma and graduation is finally over, I am free as a bird. For the next several months, I’ll be living with mom and dad and slaving away at some lousy job in a call center or waitressing or something equally horrible. I could get a real job with my big, fancy degree, but I can’t afford to earn minimum wage working for some newspaper. I need to be making at least 10 bucks an hour if I’m going to make this trip happen before the end of the year. I just want to save and save and save until I have enough money to book a one-way ticket out of America. This Gator Alumni is going globetrotting.
Jan 23, 2011 Hospitality Horror-Land: The Sequel
After spending a few weeks with my family in New York, I returned to Florida to set the wheels in motion for my big dreams. Sounds all inspirational and happy, but it’s actually a very ominous subject. You see, for three years I worked at Outback Steakhouse in Gainesville. As a whole, it is one of the worst experiences of my life. On the other hand, it helped me pay my way through school and it also helped me afford my exchange program. When I came back from semester abroad in Australia, I decided not to go back to my old job as an Outbacker. I boldly and perhaps dramatically decided that my general happiness was more important than a few extra tips in my pocket. I made a private vow not to subject myself to that hospitality horror-land ever again. I told myself I deserved better.
That is until just the other day when I threw that vow out the window and decided that maybe my big dream is worth the misery. I walked into an Outback Steakhouse thinking I would submit an application to use as a last resort. I was simply going to drop it off, and then go apply for some sort of call-center/secretary jobs. If I didn’t have one of those jobs within the next two weeks, I’d follow-up on my Outback application, which I was sure I could weasel my way into if I had to.
What I didn’t realize was that my hospitality skills would be in such high demand. A few minutes after filling out my application, the proprietor came out of his office and offered me a job. “Can you start training tomorrow? We want to get you on the floor by the end of the week.” I swallowed my pride and also the vomit in my throat and spit out a painful, “Yep.”
In my over-sized, awkwardly fitting uniform adorned with a few rows of flare, I will yet again be An Outbacker. In my bones I know that this is what I need to do. It’s the fastest, most efficient way to earn money, and I don’t have to waste anymore time being unemployed. I can start saving right now. On the other hand, I can feel my soul starting to rot already.
May 10, 2011 The wheels are in motion
On the count of three … SUBMIT. “Your Australian Work and Holiday visa has successfully been submitted. This does NOT mean your visa has been approved.” Uhm, yes, I think it does.
KC and I are putting all of our eggs in one basket and counting our chickens before they’ve hatched. We’re going to Australia! Today marks the first official step toward life in a land down under. There is no guarantee that our visas will be approved, and technically we can’t even buy plane tickets, but those are minor details. We’re moving forward with getting carried away.
For me, this will be round two of the ultimate dream. For my dear friend and vivacious travel companion, Ms. KC, this will be the first time leaving home to live somewhere new. She has lived in the same house for her entire life. Between the two of us, it should be just the right mix of arrogance and naivete to lead us blindly down a path of reckless abandon.
But before we settle into a life of vagabonding and sleeping in the gutters of Ozland, we’re treating ourselves to one month of Bali blackouts, Kuta comas and an all-in, knock-down, drag-out celebration of living life outside of America. In case you didn’t read about my first trip, I’m talking $5 all you can drink beer gardens and 40-ounce Bintangs for breakfast. Monkeys and elephants and rice fields and volcanoes and Bahasa Indonesia. Possible side effects include bed bugs, pinkeye and malaria, but these things can all be cured with a miniature bottle of brown, liquid Chinese Medicine. From bruises and bug bites to malaria and gaping wounds. You can drink it, eye-drop it, snort it, inject it or apply it topically. It says so on the bottle.
If this Indonesian detour sounds irresponsible, let me clarify. While Australia is the big dream, it’s a very big reality. I’m talking food, shelter and money to pay for it. All of the technical jargon that comes along with the turquoise waves, starry skies and weird marsupials.
Anyway, we’ve applied for our visas and soon we’ll book our tickets.
June 16, 2011 A One-Way ticket to infinity and beyond!
Our tickets are officially booked. For six months I’ve missed out on music festivals, after-work beers, Margarita Monday’s, Taco Tuesdays, Wednesday Ladies Nights, Thirsty Thursdays at Durty Nelly’s and my most exciting Friday to Sunday weekends have been spent waiting tables at Outback Steakhouse. For six months, I have lived a bare bones life while my friends have all watched me in complete wonder. Finally, my hard work is paying off. For approximately 1,000 dollars, I will be leaving the United States of America on September 10, 2011 with a one-way ticket to Indonesia. Now that my ticket is purchased, I can watch my bank account is growing every week knowing that every nickels, dime and penny is going directly into my travel fun fund. Today is a beautiful day.
Aug 10, 2011 Get the hell out of Dodge
I’m selling everything. If it doesn’t fit into my suitcase, it should at least put some money in my pockets. Clothes, shoes, furniture and car included. Everything must go! Except for my books. Those are being handed off to my friends and family to be looked after. You don’t get rid of books. Didn’t take too much convincing for KC to do the same. We set up a joint-garage sale at my house to do a little bit of fund-raising.
We’re actually a little nervous because KC’s bank account isn’t quite growing as quickly as we’d hoped. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the BP Oil Spill forks over some money. Otherwise, it might be a short trip for KC. If you’d like to donate to the cause, we’ll be here with open palms!
Sept 06, 2011 Bon Voyage: Saying Goodbye to New York
And so the time has finally come to say goodbye. My first stop was New York. When I say New York, I don’t mean the city. I’m talking Amish country, knowing your neighbors, backwoods backyards, and the Village of Heuvelton. I’m talking about St. Lawrence County. Dirt roads, corn fields and the smell of fresh cow shit hitting you in the face while you’re cruising with the windows down. Wild flowers across the road, a woodshed in the backyard and Dad’s deer heads hanging on the living room wall. Wednesday Wing Night at Doug’s Tavern and open container tickets in the Burg. Swimming in the St. Lawrence River. Saying goodbye to aunts and uncles and cousins and best friends and Grandma Ginger and my little sisters. Saying, “See ya later Dad” because we don’t ever say goodbye. A bittersweet 14 day blur of home sweet home.
And so began my two week bon voyage party. Nothing but good vibes, card games, ladder ball tournaments and excessive consumption. I was cracking beers and doing shots before noon and eating hotdogs, donuts and whole bags of chips in a single sitting. Not to mention that my dad is the kind of guy who doesn’t just cook a meal. He prepares a buffet. Smorgasbords of cheese dogs, BBQ chicken, porterhouse steaks, red salt potatoes, homemade hot sauces, squishy garlic bread, piles of deviled eggs, salt ‘n vinegar chips by the pound, bundles of slim jims, platters of sliced pepperoni and cheese, and bacon, eggs and peanut butter toast with a side of chocolate donuts for breakfast on the regular.
My dad is also the kind of guy who doesn’t just give you a beer. He gives you a bar. An assortment of coolers and refrigerators spanning the entire property, like little treasure chests, with buried bottles of Bud light and Heineken, cans of Coors and Bud by the case and the occasional Miller Lite. A fridge and three coolers in the garage, a fridge and a cooler in the kitchen, a cooler by the pool, a cooler in the driveway, a mini cooler in the back of the truck, and at any given time you’re bound to find something in every single one, along with a wide selection of accessories: can coozies, zip-up bottle coozies, extra-insulated tin coozies, decks of cards, a rainbow of lighters, and rusty but functioning bottle openers. Oh, but don’t forget the liquor assortment of half empty rum, vodka and whiskey bottles stacked in a line on the kitchen counter. While preparing a watermelon, pineapple vodka fruit soak, Dad decided he wasn’t satisfied with his liquor collection or just the vodka, so he sent me next door to ask Pat and Billie Jo for a bottle of Bacardi, which they happily gave us. Dad’s fruit soak turned out to be inedible, but he forced us all to choke it down piece by piece with a spoon.
But don’t forget about the Raspberry Smirnoff Ice in the beverage line up. If you see one of these piss ass things floating around, you’ll be forced to choke it down in one gulp. Yep, you got iced.
In case you don’t know what it means to get “iced,” I’ll explain. Everyone knows that Smirnoff Ice, especially the flavored stuff, is one of the most disgusting alcoholic beverages on the planet. Not only do they cause most normal people (beer drinkers) to overdose on sugar and throw up, they also taste like asshole. So basically the last thing you want to do in the middle of a beer binge is drop down on one knee and chug one of these puke grenades. The object of this friendly game is to force your friends to do exactly that.
In order to ice someone, you have to present them with a Smirnoff Ice in a way that catches them completely off guard. For example, I notice that your beer is empty. I know you need another one. While you’re reapplying your sunscreen, I slip away to put a Smirnoff Ice in the cooler. And I don’t just shove it in there. I rest it right on top of the ice, like I’m laying a baby down on a pillow. A few minutes later, you open the cooler to grab your beer and there it is. A sweet little puke grenade resting on a gleaming bed of ice, all yours. You just got iced. Now you have to kneel before me and choke down the whole thing while I taunt you and take pictures of the whole charade. This can happen anywhere at anytime. I drove a friend to the gas station to stock up on donuts and salt ‘n vinegar chips. “Shit. I forgot to get cigarettes. I’ll be right back.” A few minutes later we’re on our way home. My Gator sweatshirt is sitting on the center center console in between us. “Hey, did someone puke on your sweatshirt last night?” WHAT? I look down to check out the situation and bam, ICED. A single Smirnoff resting like a baby on my Gator sweatshirt.
I returned the favor later when we were swimming in the pool. “Hey what’s that thing floating next to you?” “WHAT? What the hell is ….” ICED. While my dear friend was grabbing a beer from the garage cooler, I was stashing a Smirnoff in the pool filter. We jumped in together and while she was fixing her bathing suit, I launched the grenade.
But the thing is, you can’t just set a Smirnoff in the kitchen cupboard or outside the front door and leave it there for “someone” to find. It’s like playing pool. You have to call the pocket. Choose your target and take a shot. In the case of the kitchen cupboard, dear old dad was cooking dinner, and the last thing he thought he would find was a Smirnoff Ice when he reached for a plate. ICED.
Before you start icing people though, you should know this: It will change the way you party. Suddenly everyone is afraid to get a beer out of the cooler. Nobody wants to go to the bathroom or leave the room. Someone asks you to hand them that towel wadded up on the couch and you tell them ‘no’ because you think there’s a Smirnoff hidden under it. And then the pack mentality sets in and people start ganging up on each other, plotting and scheming to ice the shit out of one person in particular. But of course it’s all just for fun and in the end everyone is drunk.
By the time I left New York, I was a professional Icer. We all got so good at it that we had to make new rules to make the game harder. No repeats, no hand-offs, and if you suspected foul play and accused correctly, the Ice in question was null and void. I can’t tell you how much money we spent on 6-packs of Smirnoff Ice, but I can tell you it was well worth it.
But let’s not jump to any over-consumption conclusions. Overeating and excessive boozing was always accompanied by quality time with friends and family. Backyard cookouts, swimming, boating and tubing on the St. Lawrence River, long walks down the road and into the corn fields, and of course a few nights out at the local village tavern and the bars in town.
The cherry on top was my cousin’s wedding in Lake Placid. The whole family drove up into the mountains for this event. This is where I managed to lose all three of my cameras. Yes, I lost them. How? It’s called an open bar. My Canon T1i that I could barely afford to own, my brand new Canon point and shoot also cost a pretty penny, and even my back-up P.O.S Coolpix. Losing the Coolpix was just a blow the heart rather than the bank. That little pink soldier was five years old and still juicing even with a smashed screen so mangled that it could cut your face open if you weren’t careful, a sandy shutter that made a chalkboard screech every time it opened, a dented body that looked like someone folded it in half, and episodes of turning itself on and off as part of the aftershock from a few saltwater dips. It had finally been put out of its misery. All three of my prized possessions gone in a span of six drunken hours. This would put a cloud over anyones day, but it was a little more inconvenient for me being that I’m supposed to be a photographer, and my mega-trip to Indo-Australia was one week away.
I put up a fight to find them. The first thing I did when I woke up at 8 a.m. was eat a donut. But then I called every family member who could have possibly picked them up for me. Throughout the night in my drunken rampage, I’d remembered passing all of my stuff around to different family members to take care of while I took shots at the bar with other family members. Someone must have taken it home. Except not. All any of them could tell me was the last place they saw it: under the table by the desserts, on the table near the DJ, sitting at the end of the bar, laying on the bathroom counter, dangling from a chair in the middle of the dance floor.
I called the hotel that hosted the wedding spoke to someone from every department. From the cleaning staff to the catering staff to the bartenders to the manager to the receptionist. No one had seen anything. I called the hotel again a few more times during the day, filing a missing camera report, checking in and generally panicking, but nothing turned up. And then I had a flash of one of my cousins with my Canon point and shoot. He had already told me that he didn’t have it, and that the last thing he remembered was handing it back to me, but suddenly I felt like I knew where it had to be. I went to his room, checked his dress pants and voila! Canon point and shoot recovered. Except that it was busted. I turned it on and a black screen popped up: “Lens error. Camera will power down automatically.” And then my lens opened and wouldn’t close. At that point I didn’t even care. I was going over prices and camera models for a new DSLR and sulking over the nice big dent it was going to put in my travel fund.
I spent the day wandering around the town and taking “mental pictures” of all the beautiful Adirondack Mountain scenery around me. The lush green mountains and the golden setting sun. The still lakes and blue skies. I cheered up a little when we came across the most picturesque lake, and being that I didn’t have a camera to weigh me down, I just jumped into the water fully clothed instead. Can’t take pictures of it, might as well swim in it.
And then after all that sulking and sarcastic mental picture-taking, the hotel called. “Hi, is this Tiffani? We found a big camera in a lo-pro case, and a little, pink broken thing. This is what you were looking for right?”
So I left New York the next day with all of my shit together, lesson learned. Except that I left my debit card at my aunts house in Syracuse. Who needs a debit card?
Sept 09, 2011 Farewell Florida, Adios America!
The time has come to say goodbye to Sweet St. Petersburg. Tomorrow morning I leave America, and I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’m as calm as I could ever be. I packed my bags with a few hours to spare. I’ve seen all of the friends who had time to see me. No more sunsets or Rays games at the Trop or rum runners on the beach. Goodbye family, friends & the lot. I’ll see you again, but I don’t know when.