Ever since I was five years old, I’ve been part of a system that’s dead set on dictating our happiness. Study, graduate, find a job, earn a shit ton of money, study even more, get a better job and a raise, retire and die a success story.
Up until I turned 22, I firmly believed this was the only way to live my life: I was juggling two degrees, extracurricular activities and looking into furthering my education because I believed it would make my parents proud. That’s when I started to question myself.
I began to wonder if there was more to life than simply falling into place and accepting it as it unraveled.
I knew I was unhappy with the turn it had taken, but I believed that cramming my schedule to forget how miserable I felt was going to fix the core issue. And that worked…for a while. Throughout this ordeal I was constantly sick and overly stressed. I remember spending weekends at the hospital because I was so anxious that I couldn’t sleep or eat. Apart from these physical ailments, I had also become a version of myself I’d started to hate. Then came my escapade to Thailand a year later.
At first, the trip was only supposed to last for one month. I’d volunteer at an elephant rescue center, travel around for a couple of weeks and then hurry back home to continue my career. Five months later, I found myself pouring drinks behind the bar at a hostel.
Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of articles that criticize people’s decisions to pack up and leave. Some call it irresponsible, others call it stupid and there’s even people who see it as a sign of living a mediocre existence. These writers have managed to get under my skin, but by doing this they’ve managed to prove how warped their vision is.
I don’t hop on planes to run away from my life, I do it because it’s the only way to really experience what this world has to offer. The farther away I am from home, the more I can absorb what’s out there for me to learn.
Travel taught me patience.
Being on planes for 30+ hours and then discovering that your backpack has gone missing somewhere along the way isn’t fun. Getting denied entry into a country when your flight is a day away from departing will never be good news. And being pick-pocketed out of your last few dollars before a 10 hour bus ride all sound like travel nightmares, but they’re also very real.
Nonetheless, after the fourth or tenth problem, because they do keep piling up, I learned the hard way that no amount of stressing, crying or arguing with airline employees will solve the issues at hand. I’ve always been the type of person who needs immediate solutions, but the vibe in South East Asia steers so far away from this that it’s hard not to get caught up in the “let it be” lifestyle. It’s always good to take a step back, breathe and understand that none of these issues are the end of the world.
Backpacks will reappear after four days of wearing elephant pants, visas will always be issued with a little persuasion (and some bribery), and there will always be kind travelers willing to share a dodgy plate of fried rice with you when they hear your story. Nothing is ever as terrible as it seems when you take a step back to really look at the situation. Being on the road takes its toll on everyone, but freaking out only puts a damper on an otherwise incredible experience.
Travel taught me there’s value in the little things.
We all have grandiose expectations of the places we visit, and wouldn’t be jumping on planes and trains for hours on end if we didn’t expect greatness at each destination. While the sunrise at Angkor Wat might be magical, and quad biking through the sand dunes in Mui Ne is terrifyingly electric, some of the best memories from this trip come from where I least expected it.
Once, on my way back into Phnom Penh, I was stuck in bumper to bumper traffic during rush hour right by the airport. The taxi driver, unimpressed by the situation, flagged down a random motorbike and paid the little man to drive into the city with two passengers on board.
Three adults, a backpack and a vietnamese nón lá on a worn-down bike was a sight to be seen, and the locals sure enjoyed it. As we buzzed through cars and trucks, I giggled uncontrollably at the fits of surprise and sheer terror that poured of the boy barely holding on to the seat behind me. I experienced more of the Cambodian capital squashed between two people on that bike than I had months prior when I first arrived there.
Looking back, I can confidently say that my stomach had never hurt as much and my heart had never felt as happy as it did that night while we dozed off as Hawaii 5-0 reruns played on TV. On a different occasion, I jumped on a local bus that would take me north of Cambodia to the province of Senmonorom. Expecting the worst, I put in my earphones and closed my eyes for the first hours of the trip.
Halfway there, a lady shrunken by age flagged down the van and jumped on board carrying nothing but a plastic bag filled with food and a tiny coin purse. Wedged between me and a pile of bags, she smiled a toothless grin. For the next three hours, she and I had a full-blown conversation, her in Khmer and me in English, about our travels. We ate together, she looked through the photos in my camera and we even fell asleep leaning on each other.
To this day, I have no clue what she was trying to tell me or if she knew how grateful I was after being offered half her meal, but the memory of her hunched back stepping off the bus and waving as we drove off still sticks with me. And travel is just that: a compilation of small strokes that paint a much bigger picture.
Travel taught me that saying goodbye is hard, but it’s necessary.
Recently, one of my friend’s wrote: “Life is always meeting someone before you leave for somewhere else.” The phrase stuck with me because I’d always thought life played sick games with me that involved a mixture the right people and horrible timing.
The thing is, I’m always forced to leave things behind before they’ve really had a chance to start. No matter what anyone says, I believe it’s impossible to become accustomed to endings. During my stint abroad, I visited places and met people that I fell in love with in ways I could have never imagined, and constantly leaving them behind never got easier: an optimistic girl from California who brightened my days when I felt like dorm life was proving too much, a tiny cafe overlooking the Kampot river, a Welshman who became a friend for life, a dingy street food stall in Luang Prabang where I was treated like family and an Australian co-worker who reminded me that life was meant to be lived and not tolerated.
Although these absences hurt, I learned that it’s better to look at them in a different light. Although being separated by thousands of miles intensifies the feeling of loss when you walk away, goodbyes remind us that connecting, disconnecting, and sometimes reconnecting, are all the bases of deep human relations and emotional growth.
It’s through this type of loss that we appreciate the wealth that surrounds us. Nothing is meant to last forever because if it did we wouldn’t truly appreciate its beauty.
Travel taught me that less is more.
Thinking back on everything that happened over the past months, no amount of material things have ever made me feel as inspired as this experience did. Every penny spent on a dorm, night bus and excursion has transformed me into someone I can finally feel proud of. It took months of saving up to take me there, and I don’t regret any time spent at home or any home-cooked meal chosen over a night out.
Travel taught me that there’s no need to own 10 different pairs of black shoes and that there’s magic in packing all of your belongings into a single backpack and moving on to the next adventure. People are always so preoccupied with how big their home is or when they’ll move on to the latest car model, and though I’m sure this isn’t the life I want to live, I respect my friends who do, because I know there’s beauty in those ideals as well.
They just aren’t for me. Investing in experiences and not things has helped me cleanse and start anew. It’s like a breath of fresh air after years of being underwater. Moving back home has been a bittersweet, decluttering experience; not just of material possessions, but also of old emotions I hadn’t been able to fully let go of because fear impeded it.
All in all, travel forced me to grow up and I wouldn’t trade this journey for anything. Actually, I don’t plan on doing it in the long-run. People are always quick to judge those who pack up and leave home for the unexpected. Since coming back, I’ve been called “crazy”, “brave”, “inspiring” and “reckless” by my friends and family and these are all adjectives I’ve come to embrace. Even the last one. There’s nothing wrong with being “reckless” if it means I’m still growing.