1. Me, Myself and I
I’ve always hated being left on my own, being alone. I attribute this to being an only child, and knowing too well what it’s like to have to go through life with nothing else other than your own headspace. Also since I never really knew my parents until they stopped working (and by then I was 16), I’ve also grown up with some abandonment issues I really need to abandon. It’s also hard to be by myself when I’m mostly struggling with ADHD and being an off-the-charts extrovert, meaning I need interaction with people in order to recharge my battery pack.
The first time I travelled alone, I thought to myself, Why on earth would anyone want to do this?! I was bored out of my mind, restless, fidgety, frustrated, on the edge of going mad. I was one person in a dorm full of 136 people and had never felt so alienated in my life. I started thinking too much, and becoming overwhelmed with this dam of thoughts like a hell threatening to break loose. It’s the same reason why I resist so much with diving. Being stuck underwater with only my mind, my breathing and no way to talk to anyone is probably Level 13 of Hell for me. (Still, I conquered this, yay me! But more on this later.)
And so it took a much, much longer time for me to even get comfortable with myself. But then you discover peace. You discover the tranquility of a book and a cup of tea in a garden. You start becoming more aware of how things make you think and feel, how things change you, your mindset, your person. You start discovering your true likes and dislikes, and you learn to accept them. You find out you have certain limits, and start challenging yourself to push the boundaries, to test yourself further, and you create new limits you never thought possible. You grow.
And growing is a tiring, time-consuming thing. No more being restless for me now.
2. Free & Easy
I’ve travelled extensively with my parents growing up, and my mother is an organised freak of nature. She whips up detailed itineraries before embarking on trips, so detailed you always know which road to be on, what time the next train will come, the next rest stop you can get pies at – and even how much it’ll cost. She never believed in doing tour packages (thank god!), but even her “Free & Easy” is never really free, or easy. There’s still a very set plan to follow, just that it’s her plan.
So when I started travelling as an adult, my itineraries were say, 33 pages long, with annexes of maps and routes and tables. And that’s just for a one-week trip. PDF of course, let’s not kill trees while we’re out killing people’s minds with information overload. I don’t know if you could call me an outright control freak, but I do freak out when I don’t have control sometimes. It’s not so much that I need to control others or the way things go in general, but I do need to feel at least that I’m the one in charge of my own destiny, and assured that I have options in any given situation. And when I have sufficiently Google Earth-ed enough to know exactly what all 57 shops are along George Street, only then I’ll feel safe and warm in my unfuzzy plans.
Of course at some point I started rebelling against myself and threw it all out. And I do mean ALL OF IT. I booked flights on a whim only because the airline was having a sale and I happened to have the $99 in the bank needed for a one-way. I simply refused to read up on destinations, leaving my mind to wonder about each place with nere a Google image to fall back on. I left Lonely Planets lonely on the shelves of the bookstore. I wandered streets not knowing even at 7pm where I was going to sleep that night. I sent Couchsurfing requests at the last minute and met up with who-knows-who as long as they had left a phone number in my inbox.
And the adventures I’ve been on. It’s taken me off-key drunk singing in dark, smoky karaoke bars, jumping off tree branches into blue lagoons, canoeing down jungle rivers past crocodiles at dawn, doing mass aerobics along the Mekong at sunset, dancing with the locals to Chinese propaganda songs in Lhasa’s Liberation Square, standing in a courtyard looking up as the Kumari Devi looked down at me with all the innocence of a child and the weight of a veiled soul.
You just never know, when you go with the flow.
3. People, People Who Need People
Travel is many things to many people. For me, I love exciting new places, adventures, thrills, activities, experiences… But really what touches me most, what changes me, and what ultimately stays with me, are the people, the relationships and friendships we make, the bonds, the ties, the experiences we create and share together, the things we learn from each other, the feelings that exist within me long after we’ve parted ways.
It hit me one night on the road that it’s easy to meet great company to hang out and have fun with, but much more rare to spend time with really genuine people who really care, and that I’ve been tremendously lucky to have been able to meet so many, many such wonderful people.
It’s the friend who holds an oxygen canister to your face when you can’t breathe. It’s the friend who bundles you in a blanket when you’re freezing to death. It’s the friend who listens to the stories of your sad relationships and tells you you’re an amazing person who deserves more. It’s the friend who stands by you in a dirty rural hospital with needles lying everywhere and who says, “Don’t worry, I’m not gonna let them stick anything into you.”
A friend of mine calls these “nomadic friendships”, friendships formed for a certain purpose, at a certain destination, or over a certain time. Sometimes we’ll never see or hear from each other ever again, but that’s okay. We had our time. We did our thing. We lived in that moment, and we’ll always have those memories.
4. Why, Hello, Stranger!
I never knew that standing in the middle of a hallway wondering whether or not to wash my dirty, unwashed 2-day old hair, could lead to a conversation with a random stranger, could lead to a 3-hour lunch, could lead to a full-fledged Hollywood romance styled 5-minute long kiss goodbye at airport gates as faceless extras swarm around the tightly embraced protagonists. (In a film, of course, my hair would have definitely been washed and styled properly and maybe even blowing in the wind thanks to a fan below.)
Romance is a big part of travel, especially if you’re travelling alone. The idea that I could meet my Prince Charming in some exotic land far, far away (not a Shrek reference) and we’ll ride off on a white steed together (more like ride on more planes alone trying to make a long-distance relationship work) piques more than my interest. Till then of course, sharing romantic moments with Prince Charming proxies will do fine too. I will most certainly not say No to flirty conversations and laughter over wine over Italian on a rooftop garden on a chilly autumn evening.
Every time I’ve started thinking, Great, I’ll never meet a nice guy with whom I can enjoy a real connection, Life, and Travel, kinda has thrown me one. Meeting such wonderful people reminds me that there will be more chances and more opportunities to meet even more wonderful people, and that, somewhere in the crowd, he’s there waiting for me. I just haven’t met him yet.
5. School of Hard Knocks
When you’re backpacking, you’re pretty much at Life’s mercy. You’ll miss trains. You’ll find yourself sleeping on staircase landings. You’ll struggle with trying to converse with locals who don’t understand a word of English. You’ll run out of money, breath, underwear, dignity, you name it. You’ll also be at the mercy of your 20kg backpack, which constantly threatens to crush you to a pulp, especially when you try to pick it up.
I’ve found myself in certain precarious situations; in one I actually prepared myself to face the probability that I wasn’t going to make it out of there or live to see another day. But I realised one thing – I never gave up or broke down or let it get to me. I always kept my spirits up. You kinda have to. Perhaps to Darwin, survival of the fittest was a purely physical thing, but in this day and age, mental fitness seems even more crucial.
Travelling, especially backpacking, or lower than that, what I call trashpacking, takes you totally out of your comfort zone and almost always ends up being a lesson in humility. You can’t avoid it – you will go through shit. But the shit will always make you tougher, stronger, and better able to cope and to handle whatever more shit will come your way. What doesn’t kill you and all that, right?
You sort of get to a point where, you’ve been through so much that nothing gets you down anymore. Problems become challenges, you’re alright accepting any difficult situation, you’ll push yourself to new limits, and you become so grateful for what you do have when you have it. And that kind of gratitude doesn’t come easily to most, especially if you’ve never been in want.
But like I’ve learnt (the hard way, of course), you become very grateful for two hands (and modern sanitation) when you have to eat with your right and… go with your left.
6. Facing Fears
I read somewhere that if your travels don’t make you scared, then you’re not travelling right. Oh, trust me, there were plenty of times I was scared, so I must have been doing it right!
Diving for the first time was scary. Being trapped under a glass ceiling (at least that’s what it felt like to me) felt suffocatingly claustrophobic, and I don’t usually have an issue with enclosed spaces (made even more ironic by the fact that there’s nothing but vast, immense space in the ocean). Having to consciously breathe made me extremely aware like never before of the consequences of not doing so. Having to be by myself, not being able to talk to anyone, made me feel like my head was going to explode, and that’s something no amount of equalizing could ever make me feel better!
Being suspended freely from a height and swung over a gushing waterfall sounds exciting probably only to those who do not suffer from acrophobia. Swimming with whale sharks sounds really cool until you actually descend into the water and suddenly find your tiny self surrounded by these 8-metre long giants. Gentle as they are, they’re still ginormous! That said, it was one of the most beautiful things I ever got to do, and that feeling of awe at their majesty will stay with me for a long while.
There’s always going to be something we’re scared of. It’s now or never, baby. Just say yes. I know it’s scary. Just do it anyways.
7. Back to Basics
Backpacking has been extremely refreshing for me because I’ve never subscribed to the materialistic lifestyle that seems prevalent everywhere today. Going to places where shopping malls are not the main attraction has largely brought me much relief.
But there have been many other ways in which I have had to adjust to “the simpler life”. Surviving 3 months with 3 underwear, for example. Learning the fine art of being able to turn on a cold shower and walking into it at the exact same time so that you can avoid that initial shock to your body because your brain is so unfocused it doesn’t realise just what you’re doing. Going a week without bathing because it’s either smelling like a hobo or risking hypothermia. Using bar soap (‘Nuff said.).
The first time I met other female travellers who didn’t pluck their eyebrows, shave their pits or legs, or use falsies, I felt the heavens open and a chorus of angels start to sing. Okay, fine, some grooming is important. But society is overtly obsessed with beauty and too many girls and women subject themselves to trials and tribulations just to look beautiful the way society will have it. [insert ‘wrong answer’ gameshow buzzer here – “TNEH!”] Being able to step away from that and love ourselves and have fun and enjoy experiences apart from worrying about how we looked – girls should be sent for such camps, I swear.
That said, I’m not anti-girly. I will paint my nails and wear makeup on while travelling (because it’s nice to meet people with your best face forward). You just learn to live with half scrapped off varnish and using maybe 5 products instead of your usual 50. (This was my attempt at sarcasm since that’s a lot of products, but as memory has it, some makeup tutorials on YouTube tell me this might not be the stretch I thought it would be!)
8. Living With Less
Sometimes I really wonder why there’s so much junk in my house when really, I’m completely capable of living out of a suitcase (make that backpack). When I started travelling, I also issued myself the challenge of living as simply as I could. Having to wear the same clothes over and over again (something new to me, I usually have at least 3-4 months’ worth of clothes so I don’t have to re-wear something often) really put the spotlight on the importance of getting good, functional, practical but still stylish clothes. Often a few good pieces are more important than having loads of cheaper clothes.
So I think I’m really going to pack up my life down to a few suitcases and just live that way. Being surrounded by too much junk is bad for my health. Also, it makes it much easier to suddenly pack up and travel or move to another country or skip town with the next A&F model you meet.
When I first decided to start travelling at the beginning of this year, I quickly realised I also had to start saving up money to do it. That meant really cutting down on expenses and putting away most of my salary. That meant not buying anything. And I mean anything. Nothing. Zilch. It also meant meeting up with friends less and trying not to go out as much as possible because outside, money flowing out seems to be an irreversible osmosis process. It took a lot of sacrifice, determination, and TV watching, but it sure helped me save $12,000 in 6 months.
That may sound like a lot, but really when you start travelling, money shrinks. A flight here, an adventure tour there, a couple of nights you feel you need an ensuite, and that’s it. You pretty much can’t shop at all, which is fine because I’d much rather spend my money on experiences than on items, but it means you really have to live with what you’ve got. The good thing about backpacking is basically you’re kinda forced to adopt a strict NO BUYING policy since you can’t buy anything along the way at all because you don’t have space for it.
9. What Matters Most
Yep, you start to realise what matters most to you. For some people it means missing home and family and they can’t wait to get back to them. For me it made me realise that I miss home and family only when I’m away and that I should stay away longer.
I discovered how much I longed for peace, how much I longed for a slower pace of life with time to sit on the grass and have a picnic of cheese and crackers, or sit in a large armchair with a good book and some ginger beer (or Dr Pepper). It also made me acutely aware that the reason why I’ve always felt so out of place is because culturally, I’m just very different than most people here. It’s spurred me to find a little nook in this crazy world that I can truly call home.
10. To Everything, Turn Turn Turn
There is a season for everything. When Solomon penned these words, he was offering personal spirituality as the real meaning to life even when all other things had failed to provide meaning. But without getting religion involved, the meaning is simple: Everything changes. Life is full of ups and down and goods and bads. Change is a constant.
So enjoy the moment. Milk every experience for what it’s worth. Suck the gravy out of the buah keluak of life.
And since life is so short, start saying less No and more Yes. To everything. Say Yes to riding elephants bareback into waterfalls and to climbing caves while drunk on Chardonnay. Say Yes to crossing rivers on horseback and to surfing sand dunes. Say Yes to jumping onto the next bus not knowing where it goes and feeling excited about where it might take you. Just say Yes. I have. Now you.