We had planned to meet at 1:15 at the bottom of the stairs outside the station. It was nearing 2:00, and I was starting to worry. Having already listened to what I had left of my podcasts, I started thinking about moving. Did he go to the wrong exit? Did he have an issue with his ticket? To those who came of age before the prominence of cell phones and instant messaging, there is probably nothing unusual about this situation, but to someone who is accustomed to having constant contact with everyone, arranging a meeting without an internet connection is immensely unsettling.
Despite my urge to search for my incoming guest, I resolved to stay put. I knew that the best chance of finding him was to stay where I said I would be. Looking up from mindlessly swiping screens back and forth on my phone while pacing along the wall of a discount shop, I saw a young, scraggly backpacker looking at me uncertainly. I immediately gave a smile and jested, “Hey! You made it!” With a look of relief, Joel started to shrug off his pack, recognizing that his long day of uncertain travel had reached its climax.
The lanky young German wore a backward LA Clippers baseball cap, the snaps holding down the curly blond hair reaching down his forehead. He had started growing a fair beard to cover his narrow cheeks, pink with exertion below his small eyes. Around his neck, the high collar of his sweater hung weakly, draw strings dangling along the zippers of his open black faux-wool coat. In classic traveler style, sweatpants covered his spindly legs, and his untied shoes betrayed the thousands of miles they had traversed.
“You hungry?” I asked.
“Starving,” he responded eagerly with an exhausted laugh.
Joel grew up in a small town outside Hamburg, Germany. Life was quiet, and having a youthful adventure required taking the sporadic train line into the city. He studied English in school, but it was not until he took a strong interest in the writings and speeches of such secular thinkers as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris that he truly began to use the language. Adopting the accent of the late Anglo-American Hitchens, Joel often sounds like he had been raised closer to London than Hamburg. With a disdain for soccer (the name by which he knows the game) and a love of basketball (a sport that is practically unknown in his hometown), he longed for a way to get out of Germany. Despite the urge to travel, he never took advantage of the proximity of the other European nations. Instead, after completing his secondary education, he cast off for Asia.
Because of issues with taking the Trans Siberian Railway from Europe to Asia, Joel has changed his plans to travel south through the continent. After a week exploring Tokyo, Joel arrived in Seoul with a grand vision for a future and an open itinerary for the Korean capital. He requested only that we see the things outside the usual tourist spots. That, we did. After his long flight, we took the afternoon easy until I had to return to work to teach my evening classes. Afterward, we wandered the well-lit streets of my collegiate neighborhood in search for food that would fit his vegan diet. [A quick aside: During our first lunch, I asked why he maintained the vegan diet. With a mouthful of onion ring, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his phone. He showed me his wallpaper, a picture of the dog he left back in Germany. This animal, he told me, is his best friend. If anyone were to kill him and use his flesh for food, Joel would murder that person in cold blood. Knowing that the animals we eat are equally sentient and loving creatures, he cannot justify promoting the slaughter of any animal for food. I have yet to develop a cogent argument to refute this point.] We finally found a place that at least provided menu options in English. Over a couple of beers and a platter of tofu, I got to know some of the incredible plans this young man has for his life.
Seoul is just the beginning of the Asian tour for Joel. As I write this, he is in Beijing (apparently without an internet connection) as he begins his trek down the continent. With stops in Shanghai, Macao, and Hong Kong planned, he expects to be on the road for several weeks before he reaches Indochina. He hopes to buy a scooter to traverse Vietnam, see the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and most importantly, meditate in Thailand. A common thread of our conversations was the disentanglement of atheism and spirituality. Based on the accounts of Eastern religion and medicine practitioners along with the rational approach of secular writers like Sam Harris, Joel has arrived at the conclusion that spirituality need not be religious. In fact, he believes that there are natural methods for unlocking the extreme potential of the human mind, and he believes that the Buddhist monks are on to something. However, he recognizes that many Buddhist beliefs have become corrupted with metaphysical teachings and pseudoscience. He had been looking for a way to get involved in the pure secular practices at the source, and the trip to Seoul proved incredibly fateful for setting a course toward this goal.
At the same time that I was hosting Joel, another German (equally dismissive of most other Germans) had requested to stay. Because of the scheduling conflict, I offered that we meet up, and I correctly surmised that these two would enjoy meeting each other. Caroline is lifetime fashion guru, making her name in New York, who has had many of the experiences for which Joel has been searching. We all met at a McDonald’s in Hongdae, and my anxiety about the appropriateness of their meeting quickly abated as they began discussing Caroline’s 21-day silent retreat in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. Joel immediately took interest and pestered Caroline with constant questions about her travels through Indochina. Now with a name, location, and time frame for this retreat for which he has been searching, Joel has much clearer direction when he reaches the southern limits of the continent.
Over the course of the next few months, Joel will trek and explore through Asia on his way to the continent-nation of Australia where he will work and travel his way through the major cities. As a German citizen between the ages of 18 and 31, he had the opportunity to apply for a work-travel visa that will allow him to work odd jobs across the country for up to a year. While in Australia, he will meet up with a few friends from high school with whom he plans to buy a car and road trip up the eastern coast through Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. He plans to apply for an extension to double his time, leaving him 24 months to save as he prepares for his continued world travels.
When he has had enough of this hemisphere, Joel will cast off for America. After a stop with family in Vancouver, he has plans to bus, drive, and hike down the coast to Southern California. Coming to love the Los Angeles Clippers through a rather subconscious series of events, he dreams of living in L.A. Though he idolizes the city, he is sure to become restless once again before long, and he will set off for the East Coast, stopping through the Breaking-Bad-esque deserts of New Mexico, the lights of Las Vegas, and my hometown in Colorado before finding his way to D.C. and the Big Apple. When his visa runs out, he will return home to Germany perhaps for college and certainly to decide where his life will lead from there.
Joel is a young man on a mission. With his open mind and craving for adventure, he embodies the spirit of the Cast Off, Set Sail project. At only eighteen, he has already taken all the steps to truly cast off across this amazing world. He may only be a few weeks in to this journey, but I believe that he has all the ambition and perseverance to finish what he has started. During our time together, we shared hours of deep intellectual conversation on everything from geopolitics to religion to animal rights. He has some very enlightened views on the world, and he is an extremely well-read young man. I look forward to hearing the stories of his future travels as he circumnavigates the globe.
Keep exploring, Joel. The world is yours.