Traveling fosters creativity, but the challenges posed by constant movement can also hinder it. Art and other creative means can help understand and transform negative thoughts and feelings, resulting in a better knowledge of self and more efficient coping mechanism.
Marie explains how making space for creativity when traveling helps her deal with emotional challenges and tells the story behind those disturbing photographs!
About a month ago, we ended up in Aswan, Egypt, from where we were planning to cross to Sudan. Beforehand, we had booked a suspiciously cheap apartment on AirBnb (a whole private flat for 8USD/night) and were expecting a bit of touting from our host, but nothing close to what was awaiting us.
Jerry (that’s the name he used with us) insisted on picking us up at the train station and we had not yet closed the trunk that he already tried to sell us tours. I relaxed in the backseat, leaving to Sven the unrewarding task of turning him down politely. Jerry would not speak to me directly anyway. The moment before, he had asked Sven if I even spoke English while looking right at me.
It is always a bit awkward to be studied from head to toe by somehow who acts as if you were not there, but it’s not exactly new to me. It makes for exquisite scenes when I act as my friends’ translator: it’s quite an experience to be excluded from a conversation that can only happen with your help.
As Jerry parked the car in front of our apartment building, a woman walked through the door. “She is your neighbor tonight! They are two. From China.” He told Sven with a grin. People renting several apartments in the same building is not unheard of and we didn’t think much of it at that moment.
We followed the woman up the stairs and, to our surprise, Jerry led us to the same apartment door she had just walked through. Not two, but seven Chinese tourists awaited us inside, packed in the room next to ours. “Don’t worry, whispered Jerry, I told them to behave.” I have utterly no idea of what this was supposed to mean.
I felt sorry for the poor family and my gut feeling was telling me that something was odd, but the fourteen-hour train ride from Cairo had drained all of my energy and I decided to sleep on it. Jerry would not leave the apartment and had decided to do the cleaning he had visibly not done before our arrival. It was almost midnight and I went to bed.
The next day, the Chinese family had gone, but our troubles with our host were just beginning. He started dropping in at night, with boxes of stuff, entering without knocking. Sven asked kindly to let us know when he was coming. He smiled: “Yes, yes!” Yet couldn’t care less.
When I expressed my discomfort to him, his tone changed drastically. He stepped towards me, making me step back, he inflated his chest and told me with a pinch of aggressivity in his voice: “You’re teaching me?! Now you’re teaching me? Is that it!? I work here and you better get used to it!”
Then he slammed the door to my face before I could come up with a response. I went straight back to the room, shaken.
Aswan's House Of Horrors
After this event, I could not find any rest in the apartment. My sleep suffered and I could not focus on my work at all. We walked for hours around the city in search for an alternative, but with a holiday coming up, the only place that still had rooms also had a pile of human sh** by the entrance and probably a decent colony of bed bugs. Our hands were tied.
That night, when we came back to the apartment, I was feeling very low and my heartbeat was unsettled. I sat on the bed and tried a few things that usually work for me – reading a book, simple breathing exercises, etc. – but I felt nauseous. That’s when I saw my camera sitting in the corner of the room.
On top of having a shady landlord, the place was at best gloomy. It looked abandoned, lifeless in a disturbing way. Faded clothes in the closets, children’s toys in the drawers and broken ornaments on the shelves: it was as if the family who lived there before had to flee overnight, leaving half of their belongings behind.
It reminded me of those abandoned houses in Beirut dating from the civil war. What had happened to these people? I took my camera out and, instead of quieting the discomfort growing in my stomach, I chose to give it a voice, a way out.
I spent the following hour creating images inspired by this feeling. Here I felt scared, there I felt depressed, trapped, uncomfortable. I also felt quite ridiculous. I wished to create disturbing photos which, like this house, left unanswered questions and a gave the chills, but with a pinch of humor to echo my self-mockery. Whether the result was conclusive or not, it did not matter.
The Transformative Power of Art
Once I was done with those pictures, the headache that was bugging me had left me alone. I wasn’t my most bubbly self yet, but I felt more peaceful. The place seemed cozier, believe it or not. Although I could not change my situation (yet), I didn’t feel as powerless anymore.
I think that turning my feeling of unease into a creative project, even such a silly one, helped me identify the source of my discomfort. Acknowledging how we feel is indeed a good step towards healing, but it doesn’t mean we have to give way to those negative emotions.
Often times, we suffer from external perturbations, but our mind truly is the one keeping us enchained to our spiraling dark thoughts. It doesn’t make our feelings any less legitimate, but rather a little bit less dominant. We have the power to act on them rather than react. It’s hard work and I am still in training, but I feel pretty hopeful!
Nomadic Living and Creative Routines
I chose a nomadic lifestyle precisely because I need to be challenged by my environment and because I find peace in change. That does not mean that I am immune to the overwhelming movement of the world and my own.
Striking a balance between “the sail and the port” is at the heart of our search for happiness. Maintaining healthy creative routines is a tool that helps me navigate my way through all this: it helps stay in touch with my feeling and when I stumble across challenging times, it helps me make the best of it.
The occasional brick on the head – a Jerry of any sort, a flooded apartment, a bad stomach bug, etc. – is inevitable when traveling for a long time. Letting them invade our head space means hindering our capacity to be our most creative self. We can’t let that happen! Nor should we live in constant fear of what might come at us. Developing resilient coping mechanisms and a set of efficient mental tools can thus help reduce stress and anxiety; it’s good to feel prepared and to trust the strength of our own mind.
Downfall of the Slumlord
It turns out Jerry was not his name (who would have guessed?). After looking a bit more closely at Aswan’s AirBnb listing, we found out that our host ran three different accounts, using three different names. That explained the double booking on our first night, but not the random money requests he sent us afterwards. Sven had a great time taking down his little empire while travelling down the Nile in Sudan!