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After finishing my university degree, I worked my ass off in a call-centre to save up money to fulfill a lifelong dream, to travel the world.
In my teens I’d started off with small ambitions, to take a trip to Bali, which morphed into a package tour around Europe. As I got older I was bombarded with messages that I had to be a super-strong-independent woman, so I upgraded my trip to solo travel around the world. It seemed braver.
I declined all offers of a travel partner, I wanted to do this alone, to show I had guts and that I was one of those badass women who can do anything. I was going to take on South East Asia, head over to Nepal and traverse the Himalaya, slide over to India, swim in the Ganges and find enlightenment under a Bodhi tree, after that I was going to scoot over to Berlin where somehow I would fall in with the art crowd there and find my people, be arty, ironic, cool and free, spout poetic verse in cafés that had black painted walls and milk crates for chairs.
I imagined spending my days waxing lyrical about philosophy, art, the key to existence with quick-minded friends. I was heavily influenced by the beat subculture, William S. Burroughs shooting up heroin in the Interzone, Jack Kerouac running down the side of a mountain at one with nature. I wanted to be those guys, I wanted to meet interesting characters and have wonderful adventures and wake up at dawn under a strange sky with a pounding hangover, a new tattoo and one helluva story to tell whenever I got back home.
And I could do it! I could do anything, be anyone! Take on the world! Right?
But my time out in the big bad world reads more like “The Bell Jar” than the “Dharma Bums.” I got out there and I just froze. I was always shy and I had trouble being outgoing and making friends. I thought that if I went traveling that this would make me more outgoing, that the shy mouse girl I was would disappear. But instead, I became scared of the world, the whole world, literally.
Everyone became a threat. Friendly people were drug smugglers who wanted to use me a mule, I felt surrounded by murderers, rapists, gangsters and fraudsters. In Ho Chi Minh city a rickshaw cyclist tried to lure me into a market place, “Come see my cousin’s shop,” he said smiling. My heart pounded wildly, I didn’t see a guy trying to earn a living, trying to refer his customer onto his family, no, I saw a murderer.
“He’s going to hack me to pieces,” I suspiciously thought. I refused to get off the rickshaw “I’m sick,” I said feebly “I want to go back to my hotel.”
So he cycled me back to the hotel, but every day he asked me if I wanted to go to the shop. I became so frightened I asked the receptionist to pay the guy to go away. I don’t remember how much I ended up paying him and the receptionist (it wasn’t a fortune) but he left me alone, only sometimes smiling at me when I saw him as I made my daily dash from hotel to the internet café. I have a series of photos taken from the window of my hotel room, four stories up.
They make me feel sad when I look at them, they remind me of being imprisoned in a hotel room by nothing more than a terrible feeling of dread. In Munich, I got brave and had a few drinks with a fellow backpacker, when he asked if he could kiss me I ran to my room in terror, double checking if the door was locked.
Some days were worse than others. Some days I could only stay in the hotel and look at the world outside. Kind receptionists would offer me food and coffee while I devoured the library of left-behind books. On good days I’d go out and explore the neighborhoods, I’d take a tour, or visit a museum.
I remember so desperately wanting to be a part of the backpacker community. As a rule, backpackers are very open. You can have a conversation with just about anyone, and just about anyone will try and have a conversation with you. But the friendships are short lived when you’re traveling, and I was too anxious to make small talk over and over again, so I’d sit in utter silence as my new travel friend would sip their beer and ask me questions, which I answered in monosyllables at best. I think a lot of people thought I was really weird, I even had one travel friend officially “break up” with me because she thought I was a downer.
This anxiety lasted all the way from S.E Asia, through Nepal, into India and well into Germany and had its grand finale in Brighton.
One bright day, when every other backpacker was out enjoying the sun, I was sitting on my bed in tiny, musty dorm room reading “The House of Leaves” (because that’s a book that’s going to make me less anxious, right?) and sort of ignoring the girl who had been reading her book on the top bunk for the past three days.
Finally one of us spoke, maybe I said hi, or she did, but anyway, it turns out she was having the same problem as me.
“At home I’m so shy, so I thought I’d go traveling to become more outgoing and all I do is sit in hotel rooms and read books,” she lamented.
“Me too,” I sighed, and you’d think we would have bonded over that, but we didn’t. I just went to the library to read my book there instead.
The irony of all of this is that as later on I ended up falling in love with someone who lived 20,000 kms away from my homeland and I moved to a new country, learned a new language, and navigated a new cultural landscape. I’m also a travel writer.
So obviously I travel a lot. The anxiety doesn’t show up anymore. I don’t know why it haunted me for my first worldwide adventure. Insecurity? Too much pressure? Too many expectations?
Whatever the reason is, I don’t regret the trip, but I feel sad about it. I wish that I’d had the guts to be true to who I was back then and realized I didn’t have to prove myself by doing things that made me feel uncomfortable. I think there’s a lesson in that.
What I do know in retrospect is that I probably would have had a better time if I hadn’t pretended to be superwoman and just had just taken a package tour instead.