What I learned in the dirty laundromat bathroom

I don’t have the latest iPhone. When I order from Amazon, it takes two weeks to show up. Uber drivers routinely call me to ask for directions—directions I have to give in Spanish, no less. By the standard of some past version of myself, my life is full of annoyances.

But on top of this, I had to flee the country I call home five times last year. I was having visa troubles where I live, in Colombia. A string of bad luck, miscommunication from immigration officials, and incompetence on the part of everyone including myself meant I had to make several emergency trips and spend a total of two months out of the country.

Throughout this ordeal, there were moments when I genuinely wondered whether I would survive. For example, when I found myself changing my clothes in the dirty bathroom of a laundromat in Chicago. It felt as if God or the Universe or Randomness was trying to kill me. I asked myself, “how the hell did I end up here?”

The literal answer was: because, after having to flee the country, yet again, with twenty-four hours notice, I had checked into an AirBNB with a “high infestation,” of bedbugs.

When you’re exposed to bedbugs, you instantly become a leper. Your friends cancel your couch reservation, dry cleaners refuse to help you sterilize your clothes, and it’s not like you can walk into a hotel and tell them you’re looking for a place to rest your head after escaping a bedbug-infested AirBNB. Though maybe there should be some kind of industry-wide discount for that.

Instead, I had to torch my clothes on high heat in an industrial-strength dryer — the kind of dryer you only find at a filthy, Fuck My Life laundromat with unidentifiable liquids on the bathroom floor, which you have to prevent your pant legs from touching as you change while standing on your shoes. The kind of laundromat you choose because it only has two-and-a-half stars on Yelp, and because yelpers complain that the employees don’t give a shit.

That’s the kind of place you want when you’re trying to act like there’s nothing unusual about transferring your clothes directly from a garbage bag in your suitcase into a dryer. That’s the kind of place you want when you don’t want anyone to notice that you just changed your clothes in the bathroom and threw your previous outfit into that same dryer.

That was the practical answer to my question, “how the hell did I end up here?” But as I looked in the mirror and asked myself that question, while the muscles in my face twitched, as if my whole body would crumble under the weight of my existential dread, I came to a realization: I had chosen these problems.

No, I hadn’t chose to have my visa rejected, without grounds, after investing a significant portion of my life savings in a Colombian business. I hadn’t chosen to be the only investor of said company whose visa was rejected.

I hadn’t chosen to have an immigration officer mark the wrong number of days on my passport, so that after one emergency trip out of the country, I would return to find out that I had far fewer legal days left than I had originally thought, and so that I would then have to turn around and hide in Panama for nine days.

I hadn’t chosen to return from that trip only to have my visa rejected again, and to have to leave within twenty-four hours, and this time stay out of the country for the remaining seven weeks of the year.

I hadn’t chosen, after landing in Chicago, to walk into an AirBNB with lentil-sized bedbugs marching over the couch upholstery as if they owned the place. I didn’t choose to be in a situation so desperate that I would eventually find myself, at age thirty-nine, spending six weeks living with my seventy-year-old parents in a retirement community in Arizona.

I didn’t choose any of that, but I did make choices in my life that put me at a much higher risk of all of this. “Why, exactly,” I had to ask myself, “do I have a savings fund called Visa Snafus, and another one called Emergency Travel?”

Because I knew what I was getting into. I knew something like this could happen someday.

So in that dirty laundromat bathroom, I had two choices. I could let this fantastic collusion of mishaps drive me into a nervous breakdown, or I could admit to myself that it was all worth it.

I could be grateful that behind me was the exciting experience of living in a foreign country for two years. Two years that — no matter what — no immigration official nor whim of the Universe could take away from me now. I could look forward to the possibility that I would get through all of this and return to the life I had built. Or, I could get excited about what unexpected place I would land once this blender I was in stopped whirring.

This was the moment that I realized an important truth. It’s the reason I’m not bothered by my old iPhone, or my slow Amazon deliveries, or Uber drivers that don’t know how to use GPS: If you don’t actively choose problems that help you live an interesting life, you’ll invent problems that prevent you from living an interesting life.

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