I entered the palatial lobby toting my fifty-pound mildewed backpack. I did my best to compose my tangled mane and wipe the pollution residue mixed with excessive sweat from my face. My outfit, like everything else I owned, had stains and holes.
After months sleeping in rustic wooden huts on the beach, cabins in the jungle, and bunk beds in hostel dorms in Southeast Asia, at the tail end of my trip I was staying in an executive suite in a five star hotel in Bangkok.
And I wasn’t paying a cent.
A friend and fellow travel blogger had invited me to attend the Digital Innovation Asia conference in Bangkok and considering the opportunity to meet other digital nomads, I signed up. Considering my blogger status, the conference organizer set me up with a sponsored three-night stay at the Dusit Thani hotel in Silom.
Traveling in Cambodia the week prior, barefoot on beaches most of the time and befriending shockingly impoverished locals, I had mixed feelings about this arrangement. I questioned why I deserved it and what would be expected of me in return. In fact if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of my friends, I likely would have declined the hotel offer altogether and stayed in my favorite hostel on Soi 38 Sukhumvit close to the street food stalls.
Attending the conference also gave me anxiety.
Prior to living nomadically I worked in corporate offices and drank and dined in fancy bars and restaurants. I wore stilettos every day and all of my outfits were dry clean only. Despite residing in Seattle, a decidedly casual US city, being the best dressed was always important to me.
So even after two and half years of living as a beach bum yogi backpacker who thought she no longer cared about materialism or snobbery or ego, meeting with tourism boards and luxury brands in a five star hotel wearing my travelers clothes seemed entirely out of the question.
I spent the last of my cash on a pair of stilettos in Bangkok.
And when I walked into my luxury suite, graciously led by a Dusit Thani attendant who showed me warmth and kindness and not one ounce of disgust for my appearance, I was glad I accepted the hotel offer.
I flung myself onto the huge white bed and basked in the silence of my climate controlled room. I walked in circles through the entry, the closet, the bathroom, the bedroom, the sitting area, while eating handfuls of complementary tropical fruit. I showered for ages and blow-dried my hair. For the first time since I flew out of Seattle in early October, I felt really clean.
However the next day, arriving at the conference, my anxieties resurfaced.
Standing three inches taller in my new kicks with a painted face and polished hair, struggling to make small talk or business talk, I felt like a fraud. I felt like my past life had managed to infiltrate my new one and it did not taste good.
Listening to well informed presentations and enlightening blogger panels I was bored out of my mind. I couldn’t sit still and listen in this environment any better than I could in my first grade classroom or my college lecture hall or my corporate Monday morning meetings.
Despite the years I spent fighting it, I am not someone who is designed for that world.
In the afternoon I met individually with representatives from luxury hotels throughout Southeast Asia. Each politely offered me a free stay and asked questions about my blog. Strangely I found myself feeling inclined to please them. Embarrassed to tell them that I had never worked with a brand because I never intended to advertise. Giving them the answers I knew they wanted to hear. Wanting them to want me whether I wanted to work with them or not.
And inside of this meticulously constructed marble palace in the center of a dirty, raw, real city, everything felt so fake.
Eating dinner on the street afterwards, with the fumes and the honks and the filth, I felt like I could breathe again.
The next day, compliments of the Dusit Thani’s spa, I received an Ayurvedic deep tissue massage. But even under the supremely skilled touch of the therapist, I struggled to let myself enjoy. Laying perfectly still in an unparalleled state of physical relaxation my mind processed my own feelings of inadequacy.
Did I struggle with receiving the princess treatment, from the elaborate buffets to the fluffy white robe to the aromatherapy spa massage, because I didn’t feel like I deserved to accept it? Did I think that I had to buy those clothes or wear my hair a certain way or conceal who I am because the real me wouldn’t be good enough?
Have I denied myself so many opportunities at monetizing my blog for the same reasons? Do I somehow believe that if I earn a respectable first world living then I’m decidedly selling out?
Is it my fear towards leading a materialistic corporate lifestyle precisely what prevents me from allowing myself to earn a living through my passion?
I left Bangkok feeling heartbroken that I had wasted my last days in Southeast Asia in a world that felt so far away from Southeast Asia.
However in retrospect I realized that it wasn’t the conference or the dinners or the hotels. It was my struggle to fit into a certain framework that I thought I was supposed to.
The fakeness I felt was of my own making.
Perhaps I had not let go of my former life. Clearly I still cared about what people thought of me.
I can say without one ounce of shame that I love sleeping in hammocks wrapped in mosquito nets under the stars, walking barefoot down jungle paths, eating unrecognizable street food in dirty alleys, cutting down a coconut with a machete on the beach, bullshitting with tuk tuk drivers, and taking 14 hour chicken buses.
But occasionally I also like having a hot shower, or sleeping in a comfortable bed, or wearing new clothes, or shelling out for an organic healthy meal, or doing something that might not be totally local but that is totally convenient.
I know that I do not need luxury to be happy, but maybe it’s ok if once in a while I accept my privilege to be able to have it.
I realized that my business isn’t about selling myself. It is about owning myself.
Sometimes that will mean humbling my ego enough to receive money and sometimes that will mean humbling my ego enough to turn it down.
And none of it will have anything to do with selling out.