Category Archives: Isabella Millington

In Search of Orion

I’m leaning out of the window of a bus which is hurtling much too fast down a very narrow, very bumpy mountain road. Directly below me, the land drops abruptly away, the bottom of the mountain swallowed by a darkness so heavy I can feel it. The wind whips at my hair, and the silhouetted mountains loom down at me. I feel that I have never seen anything so big in all my life as this landscape which stretches into the night in every direction. I tilt my head upwards. The stars have exploded across the sky. Have there always been this many? I cannot even see the moon. Nothing but stars and shadows and my hair leaping in the wind. I was not consciously searching for it, but my eyes latch onto a familiar constellation. Orion, upside down, blinks back at me.

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I would become accustomed to his presence. To combing the sky until I spotted him, touching base. Orion watched me zig zag my way through northern Chile, ricocheting from mountain-valley landscapes to the coast and back again. When I think of Chile, I think of beach days, mountain hikes, and impossibly vast starscapes.

I never planned to go to Chile, but the decision to take a quick detour on the way from Bolivia to Peru somehow turned into a month. A month soaked in red wine and pink sunsets; a month of cold beaches and scorching deserts; a month which drained my bank account and stole my heart. I cannot find the words to write about Chile. How can an entire country and four weeks of my life be adequately pinned into words on a page? So I’m not going to tell you about Chile. I’m going to tell you about Orion.

Watching the sunrise in the Atacama Desert, Chile
Watching the sunrise in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Orion was there the night we wrapped ourselves in blankets stolen from our hostel and felt our way up a mountain path in the dark to stargaze. The tiny town was called Pisco Elqui and it was nestled at the very bottom of the Elqui valley. The mountains which towered over it from every direction beckoned hikers and horse lovers. The main tourist attraction was a tour of a Pisco distillery. The nearest city a three hour drive away. The four of us had decided to forgo the expensive observatory tours in favour of star gazing the old fashioned way – by going outside and looking up. By midnight we had found our way to a plateau on a mountain high above the city. The only light which reached us came from our own headlamps and the stars. As we lay there, the cold seeping into our bones – “I’m not leaving until I’ve seen at least ten shooting stars!” – we could see the rotation of the earth by the visible shifting of the stars position in the sky. We talked about how even the night sky looked different here than at home. The only constellation we could identify, despite our stargazing apps (yes, really), was Orion. We watched as he slowly slipped into view from behind a distant mountain, surrounded by stars which swooped and dived on our peripheral vision.

Valle de la Luna, Atacama Desert, Chile
Valle de la Luna, Atacama Desert, Chile

Days or weeks later, I found myself cycling through the Atacama desert at five in the morning. I was with the same girls, having decided we would stick together until the border. Orion watched us, nestled in yet another unbelievably vibrant night sky hanging above a pitch black earth. Navigating our way through said blackness resulted in several wrong turns and we were soon racing against the clock to make it to the heart of Valle de la Luna before the sunrise.
This morning, which ended with the three of us cycling the entire length of the valley in the ever more oppressive heat, remains one of my favourite memories of my entire trip. I felt like I was flying as we sped down the winding roads, like we were the only humans in the world and Orion our only witness.

 

The night before I was due to leave Chile, I found myself on a balcony, overlooking the ocean. I had never felt more torn in two the entire trip. One part of me was yearning to keep moving, as ever, while the other part was desperate to stay and learn to paraglide with the friends I’d made there (after months of travelling, this did not strike me as the outlandish dilemma which it now seems, writing of it from a kitchen table in southern England). I stood there while the hostel continued to party below me, staring at the stars. And I realised that, while it was easy to be seduced by the idea of staying with new friends and learning an insane new skill, my own personal form of flight was different. I would not stay. I would cross the border into Peru and lean forward into the next adventure.

Paragliding for the first time - Iquique, Chile
Paragliding for the first time – Iquique, Chile

In the middle of such moments, soon to be relegated to the vaults of memory, I would find myself glancing up at the sky, touching base with my sole constant. And, no matter how many miles I launched myself away from my own peculiar normalcy, the consistency of the night sky reminded me that the world would keep turning, Orion would keep appearing, and my own untrodden path would continue to beckon me onwards.

 

Written by Isabella Millington

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The Redneck Riviera

I often forget I ever went to Alabama. I fell asleep in Chatanooga, Tennessee, and woke up to palm trees and high-rise apartment blocks half a day later. Themed bars with broken neon lights and cheap wire fences called out to Florida, ten minutes down the highway, and the whole placed seethed with a white-trash nostalgia that up until that point I had believed only existed on TV.

Welcome, my host chuckled, to the Redneck Riviera.

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Redneck, sure. I couldn’t even call the place a town; it felt like several highway rest stops had been folded in on one another, littered with a couple of souvenir mega-stores and dropped on the unsuspecting coastline tucked away at the very bottom of Alabama. But Riviera? It transpired that behind some of the biggest buildings I have ever seen – tall, wide, and adorned with thousands of identical balconies – was an enormous golden beach and an endless horizon. The buildings acted as a frontline, the only thing stopping fast-food chains and strip malls absorbing the tranquil beauty of the shoreline and the infinite ocean.

It was in this strange nowhere-place, so quintessentially American and yet bafflingly foreign to me, that I spent my first thanksgiving, on the 27th floor of one of the enormous, identical buildings. I was amazed to see how much food could be crammed into one apartment – and in one person’s mouth for that matter (mine). I learned that there are people in America who consider a bowl of candy corn an appropriate starter, that it is mandatory to make three times as much food as necessary and attempt to eat it all anyway, and that pumpkin pie is cold. This last realisation both disturbed and disappointed me and I chose to stick with chocolate chip cookies and the remains of my multi-coloured entrée.

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I stuffed myself on thanksgiving but ate very little the rest of the time. I felt too awkward to ask my hosts for food or to help myself to their snacks, so I subsided on copious amounts of coffee and avoided leaving my bed as much as possible. I was staying with the family of a friend, family which she herself barely knew and who expected very little of our company. So in our beds, we remained. They believed we were doing work, as we had stressed just how rapidly finals were approaching and just how many essays we had to complete for the following week. To no one’s surprise, least of all our own, our work remained untouched for the majority of the trip. We found the place unsettling and fidgeted restlessly in our yellow-wallpapered rooms wondering if we were going crazy. ‘It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper,’ we decided. ‘Something about this room is driving us nuts.’ It occurs to me now that any room would probably drive you nuts if you didn’t leave it for three days expect to walk the ten feet to the coffee machine, but when you are 27 floors from the nearest exit, leaving does not necessarily feel like an appealing option.

One night, overcome with cabin fever and probably overdosing on caffeine, I had finally had enough of the yellow room to motivate myself to leave it. I announced that I was taking my work to the balcony, and disappeared behind the huge living room curtains into the night. The essay lay forgotten, as ever, on the table behind me as I breathed in huge gulps of fresh air and leant forward into the empty sky.

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My mind had gone stagnant in the yellow room, but as I stared out to sea, my thoughts began to shake free, tumbling out one after the other after the other. I wanted to go home, home-home, England-home, Queen’s English and hot tea and rude strangers home. I wanted to float out across the horizon, to tread the invisible line between surging coal-dark sea and soaring coal-dark sky. I wanted to throw my laptop over the balcony and forget about such thing as finals and classes and the futility of writing an essay on a topic I didn’t believe in or even understand. I tried to imagine America. I tried to grasp the idea that I was in America, tried to picture the 4,000 miles which stretched between me and almost everyone I had ever known until four months ago. I pictured my mind drifting outside of me and floating up into the sky, watching me recede to a dot on the balcony, watching the building recede to a dot, watching the whole of Alabama, America, Earth, recede to nothing but a dot in the impossible vastness of the universe and time. With a sudden slip, I fell. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, back into myself. Standing on the Balcony. Staring out to sea. In America and unsure what that meant, if it meant anything at all.

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Written by Isabella Millington 

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Searching for Home

I am going home in nine days. There are nine days left before this five-month-long adventure comes to an end. Nine days left of hostel-hopping, mountain-climbing, and beach-bumming. Nine days left before I have to contend with that most terrifying of words: stillness.

I will arrive back in England to rain, Christmas time, and the ever-enthralling job market. For purely mundane, practical reasons (namely being dead-broke) it will be several months before I can jump on a plane, train, or automobile and go off exploring again. I’m trying to be positive. I have started a list of things to look forward to about my imminent homecoming, at the very top of which (naturally) is seeing my cat again, followed by seeing family and friends, rediscovering the joys of a hot bath, and inhaling a decent cup of coffee. Yet every time I add something to the list, a niggling little voice in the back of my mind matches it with ten things I will miss about travelling.

Hove beach, my favourite place in England
Hove beach, my favourite place in England

Way back at the end of August, I remember talking to two backpackers about when, if ever, they were planning to return to their respective European countries and families they hadn’t seen in several months. Both had been travelling for a year or more and both baulked at the question. I couldn’t understand, then, their apprehensive expressions at the use of the word ‘home’ and the restlessness suddenly visible in their body language. Sure, I didn’t particularly want to go home either, but back then I was more secure in my understanding of what that word meant.

My sense of home has warped and changed over the last few years. Not only was I moving from place to place with each year of university, but everyone from my best friends to my parents were moving to new houses, cities, and even countries. I learnt to feel at home in a handful of places in addition to the house I grew up in. Yet over the last five months, even my more flexible definition of ‘home’ has begun to crumble. I now understand that confused apprehension that comes with the idea of leaving all this behind. When your new ‘normal’ consists of a backpack, and an ever-shifting cast of friends against an ever-changing backdrop of vibrant cities and stunning landscapes, the idea of ‘going home’ becomes weighted down with the knowledge of all that you are leaving behind.

 one of my many temporary homes this year
One of my many temporary homes this year

‘Going home’ has taken shape as a shadow hovering on the horizon, creeping closer each day, pressuring me to squeeze as much as I can into my final days. Every decision I make is clouded with doubt. I feel I need to ‘make the most’ of every minute – a completely arbitrary idea which never bothered me before and only makes me feel vaguely disappointed in myself every second I am not taking in a beautiful view or visiting a famous tourist site. My problem is that I have ceased to conceive of ‘home’ as a place, filled with people and things that I love and miss, and think of it as merely a date. A departure time on my flight schedule; a ticking time bomb marking the end of the best few months of my life.

Finding a piece of home on the Bolivian Salt Flats
Finding a piece of home on the Bolivian Salt Flats

Halfway through writing this very article, I was sifting through some old journal entries when I stumbled upon one I had forgotten about, from almost exactly a year ago.

“When I’m lonely or homesick I’m not missing a place but a moment in time. I hope that as I grow up I will learn to leave parts of myself in places in time and space and be at peace with that, but I also hope I find people who make me feel at home even when I’m someplace unfamiliar […] I hope for happiness that doesn’t come from a screen and isn’t borrowed from a song and I hope that one day I’ll be able to look around me and say this, this is home.”

Reading that was like having a bucket of ice water thrown over me. I realised how far I had come, from that miserable girl dreaming of the end of university and barely even able to imagine how it would feel to travel the world. I realised, reading those final lines, that I have had that feeling, countless times while travelling. Of looking around me and feeling so grateful that I get to call this my life. It is not feeling at home in the way it felt to push open your front door as a kid after an exhausting day at school, but it’s still a feeling of joy and peace that comes from the knowledge that whatever you are doing is right for right now.

I have been spending my final days in paradise
I have been spending my final days in paradise

The negativity I have been feeling about going home stems from the assumption that it is akin to going backwards. I have constructed a dichotomy in which I think happiness and freedom exist purely within the ‘travelling’ chapters of my life, and going ‘home’ necessarily means a return to the mundane and the dull. But going home is not going backwards. I may not feel that returning to England and pushing open that familiar front door is going ‘home’ in the way it used to be, because I have left parts of myself scattered all over the world. It doesn’t have to be an end. It can become a part of this ongoing sense that whatever I am doing, for whatever reason, is right for right now. The ways in which I continue to change, to learn, and to grow do not come to a screeching halt as soon as I step off that plane.

Written by Isabella Millington

If the idea of going back home at the end of your great adventure is still causing you stress, check out a similar article ‘Exhausted Thoughts’ 

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Stop telling me to be afraid

“Oh but of course, dont go there alone.” I stare at the woman in disbelief. She has just spent the last half hour regaling me with tales of her own adventures in South America several decades ago. She goes straight for the most dramatic details, the stories that are so fun to tell you forget how terrible they were to live through. Her eyes have lit up in the endearing way most people’s do when they recall their travelling adventures. I listen with interest and amusement, until her happy expression falls.She fixes me with a stern look. “No. I definitely wouldnt do it alone.” She nods her head, as though we are in agreement. I stare down at my empty coffee cup and wonder vaguely if there is a polite way to tell someone you are definitely going to disregard their unsolicited advice.

Isabella on the prettiest steps in the world
Isabella on the prettiest steps in the world

I’ve grown used to this kind of response. To telling people my plans to travel South America solo and patiently listening while they rattle off a list of all the things that could go wrong, or regurgitate the latest horror story they read about tourists getting mugged or contracting Zika. At first I would listen, allowing their doubts and fears to become my own. After several weeks of this, with my desire to escape only increasing, I was getting pretty sick of the negativity. “You have to do things that frighten you,” I would say to the latest family friend who was expressing their concern for my safety. “You cant live in fear.” More often than not I was met with that expression adults love to roll out when they disagree with someone younger than them; the half-pitying, half-amused raise of the eyebrow which suggests you are Just Too Young And Naïve To Understand The World.

My main issue with this is that I do not think I would get the same response if I were male. People do not question why a man would want to travel solo, because (mostly cis, straight, white) men are not taught to be afraid of public spaces in the way that women are. Women learn early on that to go out alone is to put their safety at risk. When we are told to be careful walking at night, to carry keys between our fingers and have male friends walk us home, what we are effectively being taught is that public spaces have not been built to accomodate us. That the outside world does not belong to us and we’d better scurry home quick before our reckless behaviour gets us attacked.

Anya travelling solo in Iceland
Anya travelling solo in Iceland

When I was 15 I sat and listened with burning jealousy as my older, male cousin told me stories of his travels. He made getting lost at night in dark alleyways in strange European towns sound glamorous. He told me about the time a friend of his ended up severely hurt after they were motorcycling down mountains in Vietnam and it still sounded like more fun than I could ever imagine. I was amazed that he’d actually been hitchiking like the characters in my favourite novel, On The Road. While I dreamed of travel in a vague way, he made it seem like a tangible reality. “I can’t wait to do all that,” I said, enviously. “Yeah… but you’d have to be more careful,” he began tentatively. I already knew what was coming. “Because you’re a girl.”

I know I’m a girl. I know girls are not expected to travel alone because the world is a fucked up place and most cultures have found a way to benefit from our continued oppression. But nothing is going to change if we meekly sit at home and wait to be given a pass of Guaranteed Safety TM before we venture out into the world. Just as I’m not going to stay at home on a Friday night fearful of having to make my way back from a bar alone, I’m not going to stay chained to my hometown simply because travelling alone carries more complications and insecurity than travelling with friends or a partner. The reality of life is that I could be attacked in my own town, hit by a car crossing the street I live on, or robbed in my own house. I could put my dreams of travelling on a shelf in my mind and resign myself to staying at home, yet not be any safer than wandering around South America on my lonesome. I refuse to let my life be governed by fear, and I refuse to ever let “because I’m a girl” stand in the way of anything I want to do.

Beth leading a river Trek in Nerja, Spain
Beth leading a river Trek in Nerja, Spain

The long and short of it is this: I’m going to do whatever  I want. When I tell you what I’m doing, I don’t really care if you think it’s the worst idea since brexit (I went there, not sorry), keep it to yourself. Besides, it is generally considered impolite to tell someone their plans are terrible and their dreams impossible. I’m going to make my own decisions and, yes, probably my own mistakes, and I’m going to figure it out as I go along. Just like everyone else my age, whether they’re travelling, working, or standing in line at the job centre. I’m going to travel to every corner of the world I can find and I’m going to do it whether you pat me on the back and wish me well, or offload your own fears onto me. Your advice is not going to make me change my mind or turn me around. The most it’s going to do for me is give me a heightened sense of fear looming over me like a shadow as I go. Where will that fear get me? How will being suspicious of every new place and all the people in it broaden my mind? What will you achieve by making me anxious?

Stop teaching girls that they cannot have the same experiences as men. Stop reminding us to live within the limits laid out for us by society. Start teaching us to go out there and claim the space we deserve.

Stop telling us to be afraid.

Comquering two fears: mountain biking down the World's Most Dangerous Road and braving organised tours on her own!
Comquering two fears: mountain biking down the World’s Most Dangerous Road and braving organised tours on her own!

 

Written by Isabella Millington edited by Bethany Naylor

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A Free Bird in Brazil

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.

The sunrise I saw my first morning in Rio, while listening to freebird
The sunrise I saw my first morning in Rio, while listening to freebird

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.

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I hiked to the top of Pico do Papagaio in Ilha Grande, Brazil with a girl I met the day before and was greeted by this view.

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.

On a beach in Arrraial do Cabo on the first of many boat trips
On a beach in Arrraial do Cabo on the first of many boat trips

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

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