5 unexpected lessons I’ve learnt by travelling alone by Steph Conroy
Photo by Sofia Sforza on Unsplash
This time last year I wrote a piece about mourning the death of celebrity chef and travel guru, Anthony Bourdain. I keenly felt the loss of this man, a man I didn’t know. His death highlighted to me how little I understood the myriad ways mental illness can touch us and take from us, and how much credence I had given to the belief that escaping the mundane through travel had the power to ‘fix’ us.
At the time of Bourdain’s death, I was fantasising about binning the life I knew; just hitting the road with a backpack and a Lonely Planet guide. And a medicine case the size of my head and A LOT of mosquito repellent. I was searching for a fix. My life looked great on paper: I have degrees, I don’t have a criminal record, I hit my yearly quota for dental check-ups. But it felt wrong. I was bored to the bone, baby. Unhappy at work, feeling isolated and at odds with my colleagues, I came home to a place I shared with my nice but introverted housemate who spent his nights unwinding in his room. I was dating, but my heart wasn’t in it.
I was acutely aware that I was approaching 30, and I hadn’t yet ‘achieved’ any of the markers that society tells women they should have by this stage of their lives. Like a house. And a baby. And a husband. I know, I know. This is an old-school mentality, but one which has been modelled to me from birth. It is implanted in my core, like the ‘knowledge’ that thin = beautiful. I don’t believe this bullshit. I hate it on principle, with all its misogynistic overtones.
But the programming runs deep.
In recent years, the damaging frequency I tuned into as a teenager that told me ‘You are fat, no one will ever love you’, began to pick up another broadcast: ‘You are a failure. Where is your husband? Your baby? Your house? You have nothing– and you’re a big fat loser, don’t forget!’
In a very deliberate effort to explore avenues outside of these traditional criteria and shush the evil step-mother of a voice in my head, I took a year off work to travel. It’s something I knew would rattle the cage of my bone-deep boredom, but more importantly, I thought it might help me combat the anxiety that has cast shadows of fear and doubt and unhappiness over my life.
I’m now six months into my trip, and I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learnt thus far.
- I’m no less anxious
I can honestly say, travelling hasn’t fixed my anxiety, at all. However, it has helped me see it as something I don’t need to solve. Anxiety for me primarily manifests in distressing ‘what-if’ scenarios that would likely never eventuate because I’ve always been careful to keep myself insulated. And yet; what if? So, there’s also an unhealthy amount of catastrophising and repetitive, obstructive thought patterns which cause me to fret. This can happen when I’m alone, or around other people. When it’s at its worst, I seem to forget what constitutes socially acceptable behaviour and inflict my panic on whoever is nearest. Often, this is my friends, or family, and I’m filled with shame once I’ve calmed down.
Travelling has forced me to face some of the what ifs. And I’ve done alright. Sure, I’ve had a few ‘stress-attacks’ and behaved in ways I am not proud of because I was panicking (say, at the airport), but being in the company of strangers who weren’t just going to accept and support me forced me to challenge my response to crises and learn to modify the impact of my anxiety on others. In situations where no one was available to talk me down, I had to step back and tell myself: ‘Hey you’re stressed, that’s fine, it’s a stressful situation, but it will be okay.’
This self-talk and acceptance helped me to navigate a motorbike accident where I ended up in hospital with no money to pay the bill, no friends to bail me out, no idea of my address because it was a house I was unofficially renting from a new Thai friend and she’d just drawn me a map, and four ‘tourist police’ escorting me back to said house telling me what big trouble this lady was in because our arrangement was illegal. Not even my wildest what ifs could prepare me for this. And yet, I survived. I paid the cops and they left. I waddled and hitchhiked to the hospital every day to get my bandages changed. And to my knowledge, they never followed up with the owner.
I discovered that living with anxiety and not seeing it as an enemy feels empowering. Accepting it removed my shame, which made it easier to take a breath, rationalise and apologise to people I had burdened with my panic. Travelling, and exposing myself to anxiety provoking situations, has helped me to understand that I am capable of navigating crises, despite my discomfort.
- Saying ‘no’ to life feels good
I have been a long-time sufferer of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
As someone who has never been comfortable entertaining herself, I have always craved the excitement of doing whatever other people are doing. Any social situation had to be better than whatever uninspiring activity I could conjure up.
I wanted to get out, to do things; to LIVE. I was ready to say YES to anything! I wanted to climb to the tops of mountains; traverse big, bustling cities choked with scooters; sleep in a hut on the beach and hang out at reggae bars watching gigs with the coolest people on earth. The kind of life that one imagines when they hear the adage: live life to the max!
Travel promised this, but did it deliver?
Yes; on all of the above, in fact. For the first few months, it was incredible. I felt a part of something. I was excited to go out every night and party with my new friends and talk to so many people and see the sights. I loved being part of the action.
But soon, I was exhausted. ‘You go without me!’ I’d find myself saying more and more. And instead of feeling I was missing something, I began to sense that I was exactly where I wanted to be; reading in my hammock with a kitten or having a dip in the ocean and lying in the sun to dry off. Or just wandering to a restaurant down the road to get some cheap food and turn in early.
For the first time in my life, I was saying NO to things; and it felt good.
If there was a party or drinking session I’d be invited to in the past, I’d be there, even if I’d slipped and fallen and split my chin open and had to stop and get stitches on the way, and yeah, that happened once; on my way to a barbeque.
I think my unhealthy FOMO was a reflection of the fact that I didn’t know what I liked doing. So, I just did whatever everyone else was doing. I never gave myself the space or time or credit to work out what I enjoyed, and instead tagged along with my friends to places I wouldn’t dream of going now, only to be surrounded by people I really didn’t like. But I desperately craved companionship and connection with others; it didn’t matter where we were, as long as I wasn’t alone.
Saying no has allowed me to discover the joy of my own company. Instead of feeling ‘stuck’ with myself, I now rejoice at the prospect of being alone. It’s difficult to find space and time to yourself on the road, even when you’re travelling solo. There are always other people, and a lot of those people are annoying as fuck. I can now appreciate that a ‘night in’ with a good book and a comfy bed and some rando cat and nothing but the sound of the ocean and the crunching of the snacks you’re eating has the power to be intensely enjoyable.
Travelling has taught me to ask myself: Do you really want to do that? And to listen and abide when the answer is: Nup.
- Quitting stuff is easy when you give yourself permission to have it
At the start of the trip I was drinking and smoking with abandon, because that’s what I’d done to relax and socialise since I was legally able to walk into a bottle shop and buy Black Douglas and a pack of Styvvos; and I was on holiday. But when one month turned into three, the novelty started to wear thin. Yes, alcohol here in South East Asia is cheap, and yes, ciggies are ubiquitous, but I noticed myself falling out of love with them.
Saturation and absolute permission are the two factors I blame (and thank) for making me realise I had a choice. The easy choice, under the circumstances, was to smoke and drink because everyone else was doing it and that made it seem incredibly valid; sort of like riding a motorbike without any safety gear. Only, once I saw and felt the effects of these choices on my body and mind, they had lost their sheen. So, I made the choice to quit smoking and reduce my alcohol intake to a 4-drink maximum whenever, if ever, I get the urge to drink.
Interestingly, having permission to smoke and drink all I wanted took the allure out of it. Once the cravings had passed, it actually wasn’t difficult at all*. I’ve done the same with food. No longer framing eating as some impossible mathematical equation of macros and calories, I’ve given myself permission to eat what I want, when and if I want it. And what do you know? Listening to my body has told me I can stuff myself full of noodles anytime I want, but it’ll probably make me feel yuck in the guts. I’ll grab a vegetable soup instead, because it’s tasty and satiating and I won’t feel bloated and lethargic after eating it.
Listening to what your body wants is easier when you give yourself permission to completely fucking destroy it.
- Travel is not as romantic as it looks on Instagram
Last week, I went to see the Borobudur temple complex in Yogyakarta, Java. Since it appeared on the Lonely Planet calendar my parents had in their toilet last year, I resolved to see it. I booked a room at a homestay nearby, which was…terrible. A tiny bedroom located off the bedroom of an older man who was also apparently a hoarder, with an external bathroom that comprised a filthy toilet, a bucket of water and a hose, oh, and a giant fucking huntsman-looking spider on the wall, centimetres away from the only tap. I’m no stranger to grim bathrooms these days, but this one took the cake; especially since I had to skulk back through the guy’s bedroom in my towel, under his intensely watchful gaze, because I forgot my shorts.
The temple, which I paid a hefty amount to see, was jammed packed with tourists by 7am. Tourists blocking the stairs, tourists ignoring the many, highly visible signs telling them not to sit on the bells, sitting on the bells, tourists lining up to buy the mountains of cheap crap for sale outside the sacred Buddhist temple.
Looking at my photos later that night I saw I’d managed to get one of myself with no one else in it. My first reaction was: Cool, this is the one I’ll put on Facebook. Why? Because it was the one that made me look the most intrepid, like I’d discovered a place no one else had. But it did not depict the reality of Borobudur. Like many of the photos we are exposed to on social media, it captured a perfect illusion. I wonder if people visiting these places ever admit to feeling disappointed it wasn’t like what they’d seen online?
- I want some of the things I bagged out in my intro
This one is the weirdest.
I have never really wanted a kid, but suddenly I’m overwhelmed with dreams of my (imaginary) daughter. In these dreams, I take her impossibly smooth, pale legs to my mouth, kissing the toes and folding the small body into mine. I imagine balmy afternoons lying in a hammock together, her asleep on my chest while I read in tee shirt and underpants. I think of pressing my nose to her chubby face and breathing her in and feeling her smile as she grabs handfuls of my hair. I feel her plant poorly aimed, wet kisses all over my weatherbeaten cheeks. In the distance, people surf while the sun sinks. It feels blissful.
By the time this piece is published, I will have turned 30. So, it may be my biology talking when I say that I’m increasingly drawn to the idea of having a child…and cat and a house where we all can live, and some land where we can run around. And maybe some chickens. And a goat.
The husband belonging to more traditional versions of this joyful future is notably absent from my vision. This is a relief, because it means I have stopped pining for something I have no control over. I haven’t ruled out ‘soul mate’ though. If they exist, they are welcome to join us on the farm.
And to all the people who keep telling me: ‘Don’t worry, you still look young’– I’m not worried. I actually couldn’t give a fuck. I don’t necessarily want to look young, nor am I afraid to turn 30. Every year I’ve aged this past decade, I’ve grown closer to knowing and liking myself and understanding what I want.
I have never been more excited about a birthday.
No, escaping the mundane through travel doesn’t ‘fix’ anything. But it does give us space to step back from our lives and take stock of what we have. What we like and what we don’t. What is important to us, the things we need to live, and the stuff we could probably turf. Travel, space, and aloneness give us this perspective, allowing us to entertain infinite possibilities. Even those we never dreamed of considering before.
*I also read the classic self-help book The Easy Way to Quit Smoking by Allen Carr, and this helped me to reframe my perception of smoking. I haven’t had a cigarette in 8 weeks.