Interview with world traveler extraordinaire Karen Knauff, The Squeaky Robot

After a day of work, I often find myself relaxing by browsing the web.  I usually come across articles or pieces that are visually-based.  My eyes become hoarders of photographs of foreign lands, foods I’ve never eaten and paintings I never could have imagined myself.  But then there are these rare moments, when I come across a different kind of inspiration; the kind that comes from the written word.  Finding a good piece of writing is like finding gold; it’s valuable treasure.

When I came across the blog, The Squeaky Robot, I knew that I had found gold.  Karen Knauff has a passionate heart for travel and an honest heart for writing.  Her photography is great, too.  Her writing pieces are straight forward, smooth and witty.   They also include philosophical and honest hugs within each entry.  I learn something new about myself when I read her pieces because they are emotionally relatable.  Her passion for travel is unrelenting and desirable.  I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two from the world traveler extraordinaire.  I am thrilled to interview Karen Knauff, The Squeaky Robot, (who is currently residing in Hanoi, Vietnam, because, why not?)

Photograph from Karen Knauff

Connie: Is there a story behind your title “The Squeaky Robot” and if so, may you tell it to us?

Karen: There is no story. The phrase popped into my head one day and I liked the ring of it. I like how it insinuates both imperfection and functionality, because these things are never mutually exclusive. It’s also supposed to tell readers that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.

From reading a few of your entries, I’ve learned that you’re comfortable with letting go of your possessions or passing them along to someone who can make use of them.  Why do you think it’s difficult for some people to detach from their belongings and materials as a whole?

Yes, I can be pretty loud about my anti-materialism. At the same time, my family will laugh reading this, knowing how much stuff I have sitting in my mom’s house that I’ve yet to get rid of! But that’s kind of the point: living unattached to possessions is a life-long project, then following through on that is another. In high school, I would shop online, perusing not only the clothes but the dreams that the clothes and advertisements offered. The underlying message of ads is, “You are not okay the way you are. Buy our product and you’ll be better,” and this message kind of seeps into our psyche. It makes letting go all the more difficult, and furthers confuses “want” vs “need.” That, and it’s often a comfort/safety issue, a nostalgia issue, an image issue, a fear of change issue. Pick your favorite.

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Asking as a fellow twenty-something, how do you feel about the expectations of adulthood such as getting the “right” job, obtaining a higher academic degree or the dreaded question of “what are your plans for the future?”

Adulthood means something different in every culture. In my culture, I’m supposed to find a job with “upward mobility,” an apartment in an urban area that’s not too far from my family, and wear gray pantsuits everyday or something like that. The nice thing about my situation, though, is that no one has a gun to my head. This is what is expected of me? So what? It’s irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned, because I firmly believe that each of us must try to spend our time in a way that makes us happy and fulfilled. If someone is disappointed with my choices, and I’m not doing anything outright stupid and illegal, that’s their problem. Life is not “one size fits all”; for some, going to university might be a bad idea. And if someone asks me about my future plans, I feel “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. I’ve met 60-year olds who don’t know! But again, I feel very fortunate to be in this position, to be able to cast aside the pressure. I make sure not to take this for granted.

What are some new skills you’ve gained through traveling that you could not have gained through anything else?

I could write forever about travel as the best self-education that exists, but I’ll spare you. I learned how to catch a fish in Tobago, the ins-and-outs of Russian train etiquette, and how to herd sheep in Uruguay and ride a horse gaucho-style. These place-specific things and more generic things, like how to navigate a foreign metro or bus system, are things you learn only by doing them.

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Who or what inspires you?

There are a number of photojournalists who make me think I can fly. One look at the work of Andrea Bruce, Don McCullin,Véronique de Viguerie, Paula Bronstein, & Alvaro Ybarra Zavala (to name a few) and I am humbled and inspired. Photojournalism, in general, is a huge source of inspiration; it is art that changes the world. It shows me whats going in Kiev, in Mombasa, in places I’ve never heard of. It is the telling of real stories about real people, and this is so important.

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At what age did you first step onto foreign ground?  Was it then when you first fell in love with travel and adventure?

Growing up, I traveled a lot around Europe with my family. My parents are from Poland, so I would visit relatively frequently. From there, we would go on road trips to the south and west. My dad loved luxurious things, so we would always stay in a nice hotel, go to nice restaurants. This is probably why my love for travel didn’t sink in during these times; it was never life-altering, just more of the same.

The way I travel now is more in tune with the way my intrepid mother went around South America in the 80s. She has a very down-to-earth sensibility, always pushing me to try new foods and go to new places since I was little. My mom would prefer some dirty hole-in-the-wall with home-cooked meals than a place with salad forks and tablecloths, and I’m exactly the same way.

I fell in love with travel when I realized it can be a powerful tool for self-education and self-discovery. I came back from a trip in Peru, for example, and I found I wasn’t the same person. I was better than I was before.

Who are your heroes?

I don’t really have heroes, but the person who comes to mind when heroism is discussed is Yuri Gagarin, the first man to go to outer space. He was a largely imperfect figure, which I like, but I can’t get this one image out of my head, the one of him in his Soviet metal ball, floating high up the earth in the expanding darkness. Imagine the courage that must have took, the uncertainty, the painful years of dedication on the ground, all leading up to that one moment. His first flight was his final flight, though. He became a national treasure and was too valuable for the Soviet Union to risk his life again. In a way, he was too good for this earth. I like to think he would have wanted to float up there forever.

You seem like a complete free spirit when it comes to being an explorer.  I understand that this may vary depending on the location, but how and when do you decide to leave a country for another? 

All places are fair game! It’s simply an issue of seizing opportunities, like cheap tickets and accessibility. This is partly why I’m so fucking excited for Southeast Asia. So much color is packed into this relatively small peninsula; I’ll be border-hopping a lot for sure. I can’t wait for Burma in particular.

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You wrote a post about what you thought about fear and being fearless.  I think you are very fearless.  You go to unfamiliar lands and share your stories so openly.  I admire your ability to write the good and the bad.  Do you think it’s important for one to share their experiences honestly?  Why or why not?

Ha! Thank you. But I assure you, I’m terrified, there is no doubt. Regarding my move to Asia, it’s not a fear of the unknown place, it’s a personal fear that I won’t make it everything I dreamed it to be. It’s the fear that we actually have no control of our lives whatsoever. And in my specific situation, it’s the fear that I won’t rise to the occasion, make Hanoi and afterwards everything I want it to be. But these are moot, as you know. Only time will tell.

There is nothing more important than honesty in any creative endeavor. It allows a kind of authenticity that couldn’t be achieved otherwise. It lets people relate to your experiences, and you to theirs. We live in a complicated world, we have complicated lives. We must acknowledge pain and ugly feelings because they exist for everyone. Not writing about this honestly would be a disservice to everyone.

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Do you travel alone, with a companion or with a group?  Does it make a difference for you?

Never with groups larger than three. It’d be impossible to coordinate and I’d hate the slow pace. Traveling alone and with companions are two totally different experiences. Right now, I prefer to go solo because it’s easier, more convenient; I don’t want to wait for friends to take time off from work or school to travel, so I just go alone. And I like being with myself. Traveling with others can be fun, too; you get to have inside-jokes, shared experiences and such, but it can be much more emotionally exhausting than it has to be. It’s actually the one certainty: when you travel with someone, no matter who they are, you’re likely going to be frustrated with them at one point or another. You really get to know them, and that’s not always a good thing. My mom gave me the best advice: if you’re going to marry someone, travel with them first.

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I plan on embarking on my first ever road trip this year.  How should I mentally or emotionally prepare?  Do you have any general advice for me?

I don’t think there is any way to mentally or emotionally prepare. Like I said above, part of the reason why travel is so powerful is because we have to dive right in, figuring out how to swim after. When things get rough, when you get tired and anxious and all you want is a hot shower in your own shower, know that this is completely valid. And when it does happen, I like to focus on everything that I’m grateful for: this rickety train, that lady who is smiling, the breeze, the sunset, the pattering of rain.

Karen, thank you so much for doing this interview.  I am so appreciative of your time and thoughts.  I will keep your words in mind (and soul) when I travel in a few months.  You are a rare and thoughtful writer.  Traveling is a teacher of many things and I think you are able to embrace and accept all that is taught to you.   I will continue following you on your blog as you discover Vietnam and beyond.  Very many thanks and much luck to you.  Connie

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To read more about The Squeaky Robot, please visit her official website here.


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