When I landed in Rio almost two months ago, staring into the void of an ‘indefinite trip’, I began to listen to Lynard Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird’ obsessively. I had not been ready to leave England, either emotionally or practically. Due to a combination of unfortunate, unexpected circumstances and my natural talent for disorganisation, my ‘preparation’ for my trip amounted to nothing more than stuffing the first clothes and toiletries I could find into a backpack half an hour before leaving the house and resolving to buy my hand luggage bag en-route to the airport. I got in the car unsure whether I’d even remembered to pack underwear, hastily texting goodbyes to everyone I hadn’t had time to meet up with and, most traumatically, neglected to notice I had forgotten my iPod charger until I landed. I arrived in Rio disorientated and feeling like I was in a state of free-fall. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, I felt like I’d jumped out of one world without giving any thought as to where I was going to land. Listening to ‘Free Bird’ didn’t make these feelings go away, but it did remind me why I was there, and why I was not going to return home anytime soon.
My favourite lines in the song are: ‘I must be travelling on now/ Cause there’s too many places I got to see/If I stay here with you girl/Things just couldn’t be the same.’ They reminded me that, as terrible as the timing was, leaving was still the right choice. They reminded me that, even though I knew I was leaving behind both people and circumstances that I wouldn’t be waiting for me when I returned, to stay would have been harder. To stay in one place for an extended period of time has always made me feel trapped. Stir-crazy. Restless with wanderlust. No matter how great a job, city, or even social life is at first, I inevitably begin to resent it when I’ve been there too long. ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’ is a cliché, but it has always held true for me. For all the many reasons I had for wanting to stay, none of them could ever have been powerful enough to stave off the inevitability of my desire to escape.
Travelling is a way to perennially chase the unfamiliar. Everyday that you are away from home, you encounter new scenery, new experiences and new friendships. And I love it – of course I love it. If you didn’t love discovering and exploring the new and the unfamiliar, you probably wouldn’t jump on a plane to South America with nothing but a backpack and a vague idea of the places you might want to see. *Living* the unfamiliar, however, is never going to be easy.
My first three weeks in Rio were spent working at the olympics. When I left, I suddenly found myself without the solid group of friends and acquaintances I had been surrounded by 24/7 since my arrival. I was uprepared for the shock of being entirely alone and plunged into self-doubt. While I have always been happy in my own company and loved to travel, this was different. 6,000 miles away from nearly everyone I have ever known, I suddenly saw the months of unplanned adventure stretching out before me as a test I was sure I would fail. This felt like more than being in a new, unfamiliar environment. It felt like I’d finally found the end of the rabbit hole, and was struggling to make sense of this wonderland that was the world of the solo traveller. I looked around me at the seasoned travellers in my hostel and felt distinctly like I didnt belong there.
Ridding myself of this instinctive desire to ‘belong’ is my final frontier. It is totally at odds with my fantasies of freedom, of perpetual motion, of ephemeral hostel life. How can I ever fully embrace the the free-bird, hippy-kid, wandering-backpacker lifestyle that I have spent most of my life dreaming of, if a part of me is secretly yearning for acceptance in every place I stumble upon? To belong somewhere requires a stillness, a certain degree of permanence. And I am not looking for permanence. I am not looking to settle inside the familiar because, as in the song, there are just too many places I gotta see.
If I want to be truly free I have to make peace with the feeling of being out of place, of not belonging. Of being the new kid at the hostel or the only person who can’t speak portuguese/ spanish/ [insert native language you really should have learnt by now here]. While belonging and loneliness are not always necessarily related, to enjoy schlepping across strange continents on your own I feel like you need to be able to conquer both.
Solo travelling is a ride-or-die test of your relationship with yourself. When my iPod eventually died and I was unable to borrow a charger, I mourned it like the loss of a relative. I was suddenly forced to listen to my own un-soundtracked consciousness. Am I as interesting as a Rolling Stones song? Can my imagination compete with the poetic power of The Doors’s lyrics? Can thought alone fill the Bob Dylan-shaped hole in my heart? After successfully making it through not just one, but seven (and counting) bus journeys and one international flight without any Smeagol-Gollum like incidents, I’m more secure with my place in this strange new Wonderland. I am less concerned with looking outside of myself for that sense of belonging.
I could chase horizons all over the world and back, but the only thing I can know for sure is that I will always run into myself. If I expect happiness to come from the outside, from finding a sense of belonging in a place I will only have to leave, or with people I will only have to say goodbye to, then I am going to live in a state of perpetual disappointment. With my external environment ever-changing, I am learning that my only constant is me. I no longer need to listen to ‘Free Bird’ obsessively to remind myself why I recoil from the permanence of place. I am learning to live in the infinite space which exists beyond the borders of my comfort zone.
Written by Isabella Millington, edited by Bethany Naylor