Picture: Denmark to Germany – ferry from Rødby to Puttgarden.
When I first left for this voluntary nomad life at the beginning of 2013, I was scared. Throw-up-on-my-pants-at-boarding-gate scared.
I was secretly hoping that a whole other me would emerge after some time intrepidly living in strange places. You know the one – the smart, courageous, bull-horn-grabbing adventurer.
Right after I started this journey, I fell sick. I was sick for 3 months out the first 12. My body, subject to the effects of the preceding 10 tense years, immediately realized that it could relax and fall to pieces without repercussion. My memory decided to do the same. Waking up and not knowing what the date was, was normal, but not recognizing my own name when it was called, wasn’t.
When my father died at the end of 2013, I had to go back to Singapore for a long span of time. I think I lost my mind for a while. I don’t remember much of it. Most of 2014 remains a blur. But I believe the people who were around me during that time, when they assure me it is so.
I’ve been putting myself together again since then. A lot of anger, confusion and sadness is involved in this process. Some relationships were rejuventated, others severed, most renegotiated. I found myself viewing people very differently, very suddenly, for no apparent reason. It was disorienting. It still is disorienting.
I’ve realized, close to three years of moving around, that I’m never going to turn into the valiant explorer I so badly want to be. Travel has certainly been about following the paths less taken, but only in the context of what I’d done so far, so that isn’t saying much, since I’d never been anywhere unfamiliar on my own, before 2013.
I was never going to be anyone I wasn’t already: a nerdy city slicker with hermit-like tendencies. I once spent a week four wheel driving a track from outside Esperance in Western Australia, to a little gas station at Madura, close to the South Australian border, bush camping along the way. When I saw a proper shower after hitting a paved road again, I just about cried from joy. It seems unlikely I’d ever find myself signing up to discover unknown worlds at unimaginable depths like Sylvia Earle, or retracing Shackleton’s Arctic route on my own, like Ben Saunders.
But that doesn’t mean I haven’t changed. Mostly for the better (for me). I’ve learned things in the last couple of years that I would never have in my old life. A little more understanding of the wider world through contact: how different the spectacle of trauma I’m so used to seeing on the other side of the screen in media flashes, looks and feels on my side of the screen; that screen displays have little enough to do with how real life plays out, but affects them profoundly just the same; that what someone really believes is revealed not by what they say (or don’t say), as much as what they eventually do (or don’t do) – and that this applies to me too. I’m learning how to tell the difference between when I should just shut up and listen, and when I really, really need to speak up.
I have learned how to respect my body when it’s had enough. How to respect my mind when it tells me the same. And I’m learning how to make peace with who I am. I’ve learned that I am so lucky, to be born at this time, to be a citizen of one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and consequently to travel on one of the best passports around (gypsy living would be harder, and much different, otherwise), to be educated, to have the opportunities all of this brings, to forge my own path.
I’m learning that I’ll never know who I am, if I don’t prise myself out of my cave and go and do things. Caves are cosy and hard to come by. I hate leaving my cave when I’ve found a nice one to curl up in (especially when it has fast internet). I’m learning that I’ll never learn anything of consequence without making mistakes, sometimes unimaginably stupid ones.
I could have learned these lessons without travel. I don’t think you need to travel to learn to be compassionate, informed, or resourceful. It wasn’t travel that made the difference – travel was an inevitable consequence of deciding I didn’t want to be tied to one place.
That decision did mean that the defining aspects of my life had to change though:
- Work: I went from being a 9-5er, to a freelancer, so I could say yes to interesting projects wherever they happened to be. More than that, it meant I actually needed to use my brain in ways I never did in the office. For the first time I was accountable only to myself when it came to what work I chose to do, and how I did it. It’s been a major shift in motivation.
- Social: I had to meet people. Lots of them (eek!). Most have been people who live, think and speak differently from me, in unfamiliar settings and situations.
- Daily Living: Living on the cheap made me resourceful, and meant I had to swallow pride & paranoia to ask for assistance when I needed it
And even then, it wasn’t that I couldn’t have done these things when living in one place. I just didn’t. It was easier not to disrupt the established flow, to have to think about what I did, and what it meant.
Disturbing the pattern was a good thing to do. 2 years ago it meant going travelling. It might mean something completely different in the future. But long may it continue.