Monday, August 10, 2009

Who Am I? [Michael Barltrop]

About Me:
Where I'll Be:

Now, with that out of the way, on with the new:

My name is Michael Barltrop, and I am a traveller.

I wouldn't, quite so much, consider myself a tourist - although tourism is part of travel. But when I hear the word tourist thrown around, I tend to think more of the large groups of people (be them over-sized families all wearing the same orange t-shirt, or school grounds wondering why cars are running them over as they walk against the scramble crossing.) Tourists - you all know them: They're the people who, when the German waiter doesn't understand their request for french fries, just scream "Fuh! Rench! Fuh! Ries!" even louder, as if volume was the problem here, and not a language barrier.

And it's not that there's anything wrong with being a tourist. If you want to travel to Scotland, and dress up your whole family in full kilt suits, by all means go ahead. You'll stand out more than you'll blend in - but if you enjoy it, then by all means keep going.

But no, I am a traveller - not a tourist. For one, I have no money for different "costumes" in each country I visit (though I do try to find clothes - note the distinction.) And eating french fris in German restaurants? Please - I have enough money affording food at the markets.

But for the most part, I see the distinction as this: I try to conform to the culture, rather than trying to make the culture conform to me.

Yes, tourism is bad, and travel is destroying peoples sense of self, and culture, and wouldn't everything just be better if we left well enough alone? Clearly not - we'd been doing that for thousands of years, and how did that work out? In fact, for those who hold on to such thoughts, note that travel and tourism is what opened up the trade routes, and allowed for expansion. Sure we all think globalization is terrible, until we bite into a banana or a pineapple, or even a nice delicious raw potato (I'm sure some people eat them raw? Why not.) Then all of a sudden globalization - well it's not so bad. Now lets all go complain about McDonalds, or Starbucks (or we could just eat a delicious Big Mac with a side of some sort of "tall" beverage that actually appears to be the shortest - but never you mind.)

Who was I?
Up until about 2006 I was someone who didn't travel. I thought it was beyond me. I thought that travel was something that other people did, and that it was a strange mystical thing where people had hard cased round bags, with stickers and stamps from other countries on them.

How disappointed was I to learn such things no longer existed? What were those stickers anyway? Was that the visa of its day?

Yes, until 2006 I stayed in Ontario, happily travelling from Toronto, to Markham, to Hunstville, to Peterborough, to Kingston (Canada's old capital, don't you know), to Ottawa, and sometimes even to Sudbury when I had a hankering to see a big nickle. But that all changed one day when I was sitting in Teacher's Colleger. Travel and teaching have been linked since the earliest of days.

The So-do-ku's I was doing to pass the time while people rambled on about this, and that, and who knows what - trying to argue the smallest point, rather than just allowing the professor to move on to the next point, so break would come sooner, and I could run to the hall and grab a bottle of orange juice from the vending machine there, always having one dollar credit strangely provided if you were the first to use it - were losing their luster. I picked up a Frommer's guide to Canada at a book store, and started to flip through it, in class, instead.

Why, I wanted to see places like Moose Jaw, and Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump. I'd like to visit Halifax, and see the Blue Nose in beautiful Lunenburg (which had forever peered at me from the back of every dime.)

And why couldn't I? There was no good reason why not. And so, as I sat in class, I plotted destinations, and trip routes with my book and GPS. I would plot day trips, and different legs, and so it went. By the time school had ended, I was prepared with all the gear I thought I'd need, and the means to achieve my goal.

Clearing out my life savings, I packed a van and took off.

I - may have over packed. I had an entire van full of equipment. I had paint sets, and tents, and a kayak - A KAYAK! I think I used it two or three times, that was all for all that space taken up - It was giant, and bright orange, and ridiculous. Although, the one moment when I was alone, the only person on a crisp clear Northern Ontario lake - that did tend to make everything worthwhile. Until I fell into the water getting out. Then the anger came again. But luckily I must have had twelve different changes of clothing with me.

Those days - they're left behind.

Once I completed my trip, having only one minor snafu where I thought I was going to die alone, and unnoticed in a British Coloumbia mountain, on an old, unused, logging road, all was well. And I was a traveller. Having seen my own country, I was now ready to head out into the world.

The World Awaits
When I was setting goals for myself as a youth, I decided I wanted to see all the world's continents before I was 25. This was before I travelled, mind you - it was a goal, but one I knew I'd never acomplish, because I didn't travel.

But now, suddently, things were different. I headed out to the Caribean on a cruise ship (and as much as it's hard to say if this is authentic travel or not, I can make a good case either way. You just need to explore the excursions.) And then I headed to Cuba, and Tokyo, and London, and New York City, and Edinburgh.

The world was opening its doors, and revealing its secrets to me. And though I was unable to see the world by the age of 25, I will have completed this task by 27 - and honestly, what more can one ask for from a task they never even considered possible?

As a Teacher
As a Teacher I had to give a lot up for this journey. Namely, my job. There will be no job waiting for me back at home, when I return. There will be no easy way back into the profession either - teaching jobs are shrinking, and the number of new hires decreases - almost to zero this year - every year. A number of people have said this was a crazy thing to do - to empty ones savings (once more) and leave in a time of financial turmoil. They suggested I work for four years, then take a year off (which you can do as a teacher in Ontario) but that would mean, what? Wait until I was thirty to do something big? No - it's that advice that leaves you married, with kids (either unable to commit to the journey, or have your priorities changed - for the relative better for your future self - so that you don't want to take the plunge.)

My few travels in the past have been invaluable as a teaching tool, either to educate students on aspects of a text, give further insight into a concept, or idea, to understand their own personal cultures, or just to entertain them when the bell is five minutes from ringing and the lesson has reached its natural conclusion.

Travel is important for everyone, but as a teacher - I think there can be few experiences that equal it. For one thing, if you talk about the world "out there" you can inspire your students to see it as well. When I headed to Japan, the words of my former computer teacher rang in my head, "you just commit to it [going to Japan] - and next thing I knew I was living out there." It's not impossible. You just commit, and everything else comes along.

Haven't I seen you before?
If you live in Toronto - it's possible. I tend to stand out in a crowd. Imagine that? Something about the hair, and the beard (yes it's real - and the short answer is nine - the long answer is three. The question? How long did it take to grow? I've had it nine years - but it's three years of growth. Like all hair, at a certain length, it just stops growing.)

If you've been to a baseball game this season, odds are you've seen me up on the Jumbotron. The ushers and camera men all know me, and apparently discuss me - the various hats I wear - and the "realness" of my beard amongst themselves (every one and a while one of them will leak this to me.)

Honestly, I'm not sure if standing out in a crowd is the best idea or not for travel. On one hand, it can make me a target, on another I certainly don't look like someone who has money to steal (because, honestly, I really don't. I'm a teacher - an unemployed teacher - remember.)

And that poncho? Sure it may not be the height of fashion, but it is practical. In the summer it keeps the sun off of you, allowing you to sweat, and naturally cool down. In the winter it keeps you warm, at night it's a blanket, and on a bus it's a pillow. So I may look the fool, but when a need arises, I will be ready for it.

Final Words
So that's me in a nutshell. I taught for three years:

My first year was spent between English, and drama learning a lot about myself along the way, hopefully inspiring, while being inspired. I was instructed by a student to learn to play the guitar - so I did. And I'm glad for it.

My second year I worked with special needs students, where a great success was teaching them how to use the computer mouse. It could be challenging at times, but the rewards were well worth it. Helping a student step outside their comfort zone, and make big steps for themselves is amazing, and my hat is off to all other special needs teachers out there.

My third year took me to a part of Toronto I had not visited before. On my first day, there was a lock down because someone was murdered outside our school. This was the best school I have taught at (though the students everywhere were all as fantastic.) Here the teachers banded together in a strong community unlike I had seen in many places before. I taught English here, and it was here that I truly understood the importance of world travel from a personal, and cultural, level - and how clouded our views can be. It's interesting hearing good things about a country the government of Canada forbids travel to.

So that's that. I've put myself out there, and we'll see where it snowballs from here. Honestly, I wonder how many students - past and future - will come across this blog now, that my name is associated with it. They're quite the expert cyber stalkers, you understand. One student last year wrote a play about my life - including when I worked as a painter, bringing in some aspects of my university life, and then coupling it with my tales through tokyo - which he could only glean in passing.


  1. Don't worry about a job when you come back. If you have the time and the cash to travel, do it now. You may never get another chance, which is why I did my round the world trip when I did.

  2. You were right on the part that travelling destroys peoples sense of self. I have traveled, and what happens is I never actually had a core solid dream that is stable when moving from place to just changes as I get influenced.....from place to place. Stabilize your dream...stabilize your life.

  3. for what i dream of is travelling around the world, and experience different people with different cultures, i love to meet people, but i never had a chance,.however, as in order to fulfill my dream, i managed to complete a Bachelor Degree in Tourism and this is for my only chance to have time to travel. ..

  4. You, are a legend and an inspiration. And I, am an avid reader from Singapore.


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