My first couple weeks in India, I spent an inordinate amount of time in bed, door locked. Sometimes I had power, sometimes the fan would slowly revolve to a stop and the heat of the day would wrap itself around me like a thick, stifling blanket. I slept a lot. Went out only long enough to get food. Ignored well-meaning people knocking on my door.
When I got to Peru, a similar thing happened.
The same thing happened when I lived in Washington.
It wasn’t the travel that assaulted me, though being in a new place, with strange customs and a painful distance from friends and family, did contribute to my feelings. What is unchanged in all of these scenarios is me. Sometimes, the only viable option is to stay in bed, shades drawn, quietly pretending like I don’t exist. Not even to myself. Because the reality of existence weighs too much, and I’m not always strong.
It reminds me of physical exercise, in a way. Some days I work out hard, really pushing myself, for a few days stretch. By day four or five my arms are shaking, my legs feel like bruised rubber, and the thought of a push-up is enough to start the waterworks. Emotions are like that, too. Carry around that heavy stuff for too long, and fatigue sets in.
Except, it’s harder to put down emotions than a free weight, and, when travelling, taking that day (or three) to sit in the dark and recharge doesn’t seem like an option. There are places to go! Food to eat! Adventures to be had!
All of which can be loosely translated as: If I’m not out there DOING, I’m wasting my time, wasting my opportunities.
It’s a hard balance to strike. I knew I didn’t want to go home and say, yeah, I spent all my time looking at the ceiling. However, I knew that pushing myself too hard would just whip around and smack me in the face. So I figured out some things that helped, even a little, and started from there. Maybe they can help you, too. Whether you’re darting around SE Asia, or studying at university, or moving through daily life in your hometown, taking care of yourself is always a priority.
The single most important factor in feeling okay with the world has been music. When I was in Rishikesh, I could not stand walking through the bustling streets with all the people and the noise and the vendors shouting at me. I told myself I had to do it that way, or else I wasn’t really experiencing the city. Which, I had a point, but it was making it so I didn’t go out at all. Then, I plugged in my headphones. Instantly, the world became a whole lot easier to tackle. Find something that feeds your positive emotions. As tempting as a good Bright Eyes marathon might be, see if you can resonate with an artist who sings about beauty, truth, and love. Not just heartache.
Yoga has served as a major sustaining practice in my life. Through a divorce, being fired for the first time, losing one of my cats, and on and on, yoga has been a place I can turn to when the noise of the world gets too loud. It is a home that I can take everywhere with me. Developing some kind of mindful movement practice can help you settle more deeply into your body, and in this present moment. I’ve found that when I am truly focused on right now, the fact that I am alive and breathing and in no imminent danger, helps to make those clamouring sirens of oh-my-god-I-can’t-do-this fade away a bit.
Asking For Help
I’ve never been great at making friends, and keeping them has been challenging, too. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself. My first night in Delhi, I had a meltdown. When I took to Facebook and posted a plea for help, I was surprised at the response I got. Not my boyfriend, not my family, not the friends I thought I’d grown close to before I left. Almost immediately I received a message from a guy I’d met at a festival, weeks earlier. He became my lifeline that night, and many more times in the following months. Reach out. Keep reaching out, especially when it hurts. Love comes from directions you may never expect.
Take excellent care of yourselves. Be kind. Be soft. Be love.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
India opened its arms to me as if I were a lost child. I arrived an interesting mix of wide-eyed and broken, yearning for answers to questions I didn’t even know how to ask. The months leading up to my trip rocked my world, changing what I thought I knew about art and community and perception. I sought courage in my decision to flee to the complete opposite side of the planet as an emotional refugee, a blank canvas, and an eager explorer without a plan.
The weeks went on and I slowly recovered my sense of self with just enough missing pieces to be filled in with the love of others. I longed for the tribal support that fuels the first chakra and roots the soul, and that longing was what opened up my heart. By living with an open heart you attract the right people into your life and that couldn’t have been demonstrated more beautifully than it was by the people of No Name Free Hostel in Goa.
It began the night of the cancelled jam session. I was walking the Arambol beach with my tap shoes in hand, searching for a place to feed my belly with food and my soul with music. Each spot was blasting trance, but I persisted, determined to find the right destination. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the beach at the last little bar that I could rest.
The music coming out of Seahorse was quirky, to say the least, but it was live. That was all that mattered to me. I sat there eating my chana masala and watched the crowd dance like whizzing electrons as the guitar/drummer duo sang about nonsensical things. They made me laugh, and they energised something deep in me, shouting, “DANCE, dance!”
I inhaled my food and stormed the dance floor equipped with my instrument of choice — my feet. It was love at first jam! The crew had never played with a tap dancer and I was beyond thrilled to fill another pocket of my soul with this tribal oneness.
At the end of the gig, the guitarist, a tall Danish guy with circular glasses, made the announcement about No Name Free Hostel. I learned that the whole crew that night were from this same tribe. They built this place together in Keri, a quiet piece of paradise on the sea, located just north of Arambol. I knew right then and there that I would be joining the circle in some capacity when the timing was right.
The following week brought the end of my stay in Mandrem. Heartfelt goodbyes and soft tears accompanied me as I packed my belongings and fueled my scooty. With the sun waking up in the Goan sky, I dropped my shades, turned the key, and drove north. I knew my destination but the dull scratching of nerves and anxiety persisted in my guts. Would this group remember me, embrace me, welcome me, love me? Would I feel the same oneness I felt at Seahorse? Am I fun, cool, worthy, happy? All of the things that had bothered me in my past had still been there. All of the questions and fears and shortcomings that had always tortured me have never gone away. But this time, for the first time, I didn’t let my fears influence my decision to live and to be loved. I kept my shaking hand on the gas.
My arrival was a flood of warmth and instant comfort. I was greeted by a tall, skinny Indian man who I’d met at the bar. He had wild, young dreadlocks and all the qualities of an old friend. The next two faces were that of a beautifully ethereal French woman who co-founded the hostel, and a spritely girl from Italy with a buzzing smile.
The little pixie gave me a tour of the grounds with heart-warming pride and enthusiasm. She walked me through what would soon be the cafe, a means of potential income for the hostel which would allow it to remain free for drifters like myself. We talked about the vision of the hostel, about how they want to create a space for people from every corner of the world to come together and express, share, create, learn, and build. The small, eclectic group of founders are pioneers of this new type of hostel and they are currently relying on crowd-funding and generous donations to stay afloat. As we walked through the rest of the land (and they have a large chunk of it) I was greeted by volunteers fixing bunk beds for the shared bedroom, an adorable gang of kittens who sleep in their garden, and artists decorating the walls with colourful depictions of their imagination. The whole place seemed to be alive and everyone could feel it. From that moment on, I knew I belonged.
The rest of my time at No Name is a blur of music, food, and art, complemented by its diverse crew. Some I would see again at the end of my trip only to be greeted as if I had never left, a privilege reserved for the best of friends. Faces come and go and love may blossom in this community by default, but the remarkable thing about them is their ability to embrace each person who walks through the door. When you step on this land you do not feel like a guest in someone else’s home, you feel like family. The knot in your stomach loosens its grip and you feel safe. You feel love.
Written by Allie Pizzo, and edited by Sarah Hirsch.
If you are interested in No-name Hostel, please watch this video to find out more about what they do. They also run a crowdfunding page, if you would like to donate. If Allie’s story about Arambol has inspired you, you can also check out one of Sarah Hirsch’s articles on the town, or about her Christmas spent there.
Anxiety is really hard to write about, as everyone has a different experience. It’s one of those things which can be so subtle that nobody notices until you’re completely overwhelmed, and is also something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their life. I’ve always been an anxious person. Some of my earliest memories I have are of a 3-5 year old me, worrying about something she said or did to upset someone, even if that person never noticed. When I look back at my life, my strongest memories are the fears, the worries, and existential crises which still keep me up at night if I let them. It’s strange then that now, I am capable of catching 9 hour flights and 16 hour bus journeys alone, with only my own mind for company, even if it’s still hard.
Sometimes my anxiety disappears. It will hide itself under the surface for weeks or months at a time, and slowly I begin to feel like a real person again. Other times, my anxiety is so bad it makes me throw up, scream at someone I love, or quite literally hide myself so no one can find me. A single word will reduce me to tears, or a bad attitude will leave me aggressive and looking for a fight. I remember in an old house I used to share with a friend and my boyfriend, there was a huge cupboard, quite capable of hiding a fully grown woman inside covered in coats. It became my refuge when things were too hard. Nobody knew. Sometimes you need to hide from the world, and that’s okay.
Often my friends ask me why I’m shaking. I do it a lot, so much that I usually don’t even notice. During a bad phase I will spend hours of the day quivering like a leaf, whilst on a good day it will only last maybe half an hour and then I’ll be fine. When it first started, maybe at age 14, I had no idea that it could be a symptom of anxiety and instead assumed I was chronically ill. Added to this, certain foods would make me feel so sick to my stomach that I could not keep them down. Many blood tests later, there is nothing wrong with me, at least physically.
When I started to travel, the anxiety was extreme. Although I would always be having a good time on the surface, underneath guilt, fear, and trepidation were bubbling away quietly, threatening to boil over and destroy the facade I had made for myself. Over time, it got easier. On my first real travelling experience, six months of backpacking and volunteering around Europe, I had my boyfriend with me, and he made everything okay. Although there would still be days where I found it impossible to get out of bed and face a constantly changing life, and I would still be a shaking mess whilst waiting at the airport or train station to move on somewhere new, having that support with me, constantly at my side, holding my hand and telling me -“Fuck it, you’re strong enough, you can do this” – made every day that much easier. We’re no longer together, but his voice of wisdom still lives on every day in my head.
Next, I worked in Rome, alone. Although that time realistically can only be described as the best and most rewarding time of my life, within 2 months of being there I had lost more than 30 lbs. 22lbs in a single month, the first month. I was scared every day. Alone every evening. Lost. Guilty about rewarding a body which my anxiety told me did not deserve the love and care it needed to survive. I worried everyone hated me, I worried that my relationship would fail, and I worried about what the hell I was doing there anyway.
I gave up. I came home. Abandoning what was suppose to be a year of work after only four months, terrified that if I stayed, I might actually die.
So trust me when I tell you this. Anxiety is the evil monster under the bed. Anxiety is the bad man walking towards you on a darkened street. Anxiety is with me, every single day, every single minute of my life, even now, and even tomorrow. And still I continue.
So how can you cope, when you feel like everything is falling to pieces before your eyes, and you’re a world away from everyone you love? I want to try help, I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still travelling.
Build a support network
One of my problems originally, was that when I left the country alone, I felt like that meant I had to be truly alone. I would put off calling my family for weeks, thinking that if I called, that meant admitting weakness. How silly does that sound? Now when I travel, I have my list of helpers who I know will always be there for me if I’m in trouble. Even if it’s just skyping your grandma to find out what’s going on in her life, having regular contact with the people back home helps you to stay grounded. Calling your best friend just to have a chat about some silly thing you did reminds you that people do love you, people do care. I’ve even found that staying in hostels or couchsurfing rather than hotels or Airbnb makes it easy, as you have automatic friends there who just want you to have a good time with them.
Take a moment
When we travel, we rush around the place, trying to cram in as many perfect memories as we can into one day. This is great, but it can leave you exhausted and craving peace and quiet. Just taking five minutes alone every morning can make that much difference. Some people call it meditation, but I just see it as grounding myself in my place in the world, acknowledging my own fears and desires, and slowly letting them go. Another way to look at this could be the opposite, essentially. One of the best tips I got from a therapist was to set out a certain time every day where I was allowed to worry and fret as much as I desire. The hard bit, if anxiety were to surface at another time, you have to write it down, remember it for your later worry session, then cast it from your mind. Harder than it sounds.
Make a list
First I have to admit something. I’m a huge fan of lists. On any given day I have several lists I work from, things I want to do, things I need to think about, things I want to stop and appreciate, or even things I just love so damn much. On a bad day my lists can be pretty negative, but on a good day they give me hope and inspire me to be the person I want to be. Having a list will let you get that little bit of routine back into your life, which although I claim to hate, I secretly crave.
Although travelling without a plan is great for some, I personally couldn’t do it. Finding accommodation for my trips is usually the first thing I do, because as well as giving you the best price at the cheapest hostels, it gives you a little sense of security that if all else fails, you’ll have a bed that night. I’ve met people before whilst travelling who never book a bed until they arrive in the town. I could never do that. I would be worrying constantly that I’d be spending yet another night sleeping in an airport. Before I travel I know where I’m staying, what the place is like, how I need to get there, what time the desk is open, and how much every step of the journey will cost me. If I don’t, I probably wouldn’t catch the flight.
Look after yourself
This is an easy one in theory, although a lot harder in practise. Healthy body, healthy mind, so the saying goes. I’ve found it to be true. Even if you can’t, eat well everyday. Even if you can’t, sleep well every night. Even if you can’t, wash everyday, even if it’s only with a wet wipe. If it makes you feel better, put on some make-up, dress up nice, or wear your impractical high heels for a historic town tour. Do what makes you feel most comfortable, nobody is judging you, and if they are, who needs them?
On the flip side, if you need a day in bed, take a day in bed. Don’t feel bad about it, you owe nothing to anyone. On my first day in New Orleans I didn’t get up until 5pm, and then parked myself on the sofa with an aspiring actor for five hours watching NCIS and drinking cheap champagne.
Suffering from anxiety makes everything in life harder. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the world at your own pace, seeking refuge when you need and excitement when you please.
If you’re struggling, there are a lot of resources you can make use of.
When you travel alone, you travel light. The only expectations you have to worry about are your own. The only plans and desires you must navigate are your own. The only arms wrapped around you when you lie down to sleep at night are your own. (For the most part, hey?)
When you travel as a couple, things get both more and less complicated. You have someone to split cab fare and hotel rooms with. You have someone to engage with in conversations about everything and nothing. If you’re lucky (like I am), you’re travelling with someone who has all the earmarks of a best friend.
Last year I undertook my first big, solo, overseas trip to India. I spent five months there, more or less on my own. I made friends during my travels, of course, and spent time on the road with them. But at the end of the day where I spent the night, where I went next, were my choices—and mine alone—to make.
I ended up in Arambol Beach, Goa, for Christmas. It was the perfect place to be, I think, for so many reasons. Being a Portuguese settlement, the catholic influence there is relatively strong. That fact didn’t quite sink in until I turned down an alley one day and found myself stumbling upon a huge, glittering nativity scene built by children out of found objects (what some people might call trash).
On Christmas Eve I was invited to a live show with a few bands I’d never heard of, at a sweet venue called Twice in Nature. If you’re ever in Arambol, search it out. Great food, perfect ambience. I wasn’t into the first act that night, so I took off for a while in search of food, letting the streets of Arambol guide me, as I had so many times before. I finally landed sat my favorite egg sandwich place and found myself having some of the most delicious (and spiciest!) fish, cooked up by the owner for a couple of his friends for the occasion.
After dinner, I went back to Twice just in time to see Anna RF start their set. When I decided to go to the show, I had no idea I would leave that night with a new favourite set of musicians. I went right up to the stage while they played, dancing my heart out. Several power outages and turns of events later, I found myself onstage, in the dark, surrounded by the band, going absolutely mad with my body. When the power finally came back on, I was breathless and elated and drunk on magic.
This Christmas was a radically different experience. First, I am in Peru, which is NOT India. Second, I am traveling with my partner, which shifts dynamics dramatically.
We spent Christmas Eve in the beautiful, white stone city of Arequipa. A forty foot tall Christmas tree graced the Plaza de Armas, off to one side of the enormous cathedral that dominated the square. Nearly every store—including pharmacies and gas stations—sold panettone, a sort of fruitcake like baked good oddly popular in Peru. Advertisements saying one thing or another about Navidad dotted the city.
After wandering through the city and indulging in a really good dinner at a Mexican restaurant, we headed back to the hotel in order to watch Nightmare Before Christmas. It has been my tradition, for well over a decade, to watch this movie every Christmas Eve. When we discovered our stolen copy was in German, we abandoned the idea. For a second, I wondered why I wasn’t struck with the loss of it. Then I remembered—2015 broke my tradition, and I hadn’t even noticed until a whole year later.
I can’t remember what movie we settled on, but I do remember falling asleep pretty fast. Then, at midnight, loud booms interrupted my sleep. I came awake with that feeling you get as a kid on Christmas morning: all of the sudden awake, and anticipatory. Steven moved next to me, and together we came up on our knees to peer out the window above our bed.
Fireworks. Everywhere. From the farthest edges of the city to the street behind our house, people were setting off fireworks. Not just bottle rockets and sparklers, though, These were full-on, probably illegal in the United States, light up the sky fireworks. While we could only see a small slice of thecity from our window, it was still magic.
I guess that’s what it comes down to, for me. My Christmas in India was about as different from my Christmas in Peru as it could have been. Solo versus coupled. (Largely) Hindu versus Catholic. Beach town versus desert city. Raucous versus chill. The thing they have in common, though, is magic. In India, I was free to make whatever choices I wanted, whenever I wanted. I was not free, however, to take the hand of someone I love and enjoy those choices together.
I’m not saying one is better, or worse. I tend not to believe in distinctions like that, especially when it comes to personal experiences. They both had beauty, in their ways, and pain, in their ways.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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’
I recently wrote a post about that sense of recognition and belonging that sometimes accompanies travel. In that post, I said that this sensation is one reason I love to travel so much. It’s one reason I love being alive, really. Discovering places and people and things that make me feel more wholly me, more wholly integrated into this world. It is one of the best gifts I feel the Universe can offer.
So what happens when the opposite is true?
I suppose I’m lucky in this respect. There haven’t been many times in my life, especially in recent years, when I’ve found myself tangling with someone or something that lies on the other side of the resonance spectrum. It’s not a lack of feeling that I’m talking about here. Neutral territory is something I can move through without much problem. However, when I get somewhere and feel like that place is actively telling me to leave, well, that’s when things get complicated. And I’m currently neck-deep in complications.
It started as soon as my plane landed in Lima. Now, I know Lima isn’t exactly an inviting city for most people. It’s big, noisy, and dirty. A major city in other words, and as such, not exactly a place that most of the chill, semi-hippy folks I enjoy spending time with like to hang out. The only time I even left the airport in Lima was for a quick smoke, and honestly, the parking lot wasn’t so bad. From an objective point of view. Yet this feeling of wrongness was busy taking root with every passing minute. Have you ever walked uphill, with the wind blowing in your face? Imagine that, on an energetic level.
After an overpriced but delicious meal at one of the airport restaurants, I made my way to my gate and set up shop for a few hours waiting for the plane. I was exhausted of course, so at the time I chalked up my mounting unease to sleep deprivation and stress. Then finally, I was on our way to Cusco and to my destination outside of Pisac, a small intentional community in the foothills of the Sacred Valley.
Sleep came next. A lot of it. A lot more than I needed to fight the jet lag, in fact. When I was awake, I wandered around the community, my eyes wide open and my heart yearning to feel some kind of connection. ANY connection. I felt none. Not with the land, not with the people living at the community. I knew a few of the ‘family members’ from some time they spent in the United States the previous year, but by and large, I felt utterly adrift.
I’ve been here a month, having almost left at least half a dozen times, and I feel only slightly more connected and integrated than before, purely by virtue of getting to know some individuals more.
Still, the land itself leaves me uncomfortable. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. For me, however, it’s a purely objective beauty. The more I experience this area—the culture, the music, the food—the more this sense of GTFO settles in. Maybe this is a remnant of a past life experience as well. When I went to Hampi, my soul sang. When I arrived in Peru, it began to cry. Is there healing to be done here? Or am I truly just not suited to be here in the first place?
I realised, as I was searching through my photos for this post, that I’ve been reluctant to even take pictures while I’ve been here. I have very few photos of the landscape and almost none of the people. That, in itself, tells me a lot.
By the time you read this, I will have left the community to explore other parts of Peru and South America. Away from the mountains, away from the rain, away from the expectations and obligations (real or imagined) of the family here, perhaps I will find something that speaks to me.
There are countless reasons to travel. Each person has their own set. From exploring other cultures to discovering new foods, exposure to new fashions and languages, a desire to not feel settled or tied down. Whatever your reason for travelling, it’s a good one.
I have plenty of my own, but there’s one I didn’t realise was important to me until after I started travelling: the feeling of coming home. It’s that strange sense, when you encounter a place or a person for the first time, of having known them before. Deja vu, we sometimes call it, though I think that’s not quite right. A glitch in the matrix, perhaps. The explanation that resonates most, for me, is that whoever this person is, wherever this landscape is, I have experienced it in a life lived sometime far back. Before I was born into this body, in Colorado, I lived countless lives with countless people in countless places. And every once in awhile I get lucky enough to brush up against them.
Of course, this sensation happened before I ever set foot on an aeroplane. Pieces of those past lives are, I believe, naturally drawn to us. I’ve met people who felt instantly like family, or who rubbed all my fur backwards for some reason I couldn’t elucidate. I felt the connection in Charleston, South Carolina, where I travelled on an ill-fated adventure to meet up with a boy. While the station I found myself in was ten shades of crazy, the city itself broke open my heart and stole a piece of it away forever.It’s a heady feeling, and hard to describe. There’s a comfort to it, like being wrapped in my mother’s arms. A familiarity, as if I’d seen this place a hundred thousand times before. A sense of belonging that defies all rational explanation. It’s a feeling I adore, and I want to experience in my life as much as possible.
I think one of the most striking episodes for me was visiting the elephant stables in Hampi, Karnataka, India. Hampi was built in the Vijayanagara empire when rulers of that area commanded a huge amount of money and power. There are thousands of ruins around the city of Hampi, giant temples and elaborate halls built for the king and queen. The stables are located near the Zenana Enclosure, a secluded area created specifically for royal women. Within the enclosure, you can visit the Lotus Mahal, see the remains of the Queen’s Palace, and the Treasury building where it’s said the queen’s eunuch guards lived. The stables themselves are one long line of stone enclosures, eleven in all, with vaulted ceilings and domed roofs. They are one of the few structures in the area that remained untouched by Deccan Muslim invaders in the 16th century.
As I walked over the large swath of emerald grass between the edge of the enclosure and the stables, I was struck with a feeling that I’d been there before, many times. I felt wholly and completely at home in my own skin, and in that place. I stood in the huge rooms, pressed my hands against ancient brick, and could almost smell the elephants there beside me. I could almost feel the hay beneath my feet. I closed my eyes and heard the soft rustles of the rope that wound about the elephant’s ankle, tied to the metal hook on the wall.
The barriers between our lives are thinner than we give them credit for, I think. We have these memories, distant and fuzzy and obscured by time and space that sift up through our hearts from time to time. I don’t know if they make much of a difference for this life, but I love the subtle reminder that there is more to my experience than this life’s experience alone.
So, I travel. I search. And every once in a while, I’m lucky enough to find.
“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.” – Samuel Johnson
There’s something about traveling that makes my eyes open wider. When I’m continually confronted with scenes, people, and approaches vastly different from my own, I can’t help but to see myself more clearly. I can’t help but to see the whole world more clearly. There’s no single factor where I’ve found this more true, than when I look at my concept and understanding of poverty.
It’s not a very popular subject, poverty. We don’t like thinking of children starving, men and women forced to beg for a few scraps of food, or people lying in the streets because it’s the only place they have to rest. I freely admit that when I first arrived in India I had to close my eyes. The pain I saw on the faces of old women and toddlers alike broke my heart.
But my eyes could not remain closed if I hoped to grow.
When I started looking, really looking, I saw far more than desperation. I saw hope. I saw love. And, most surprising of all, I saw unending generosity.
Growing up in the United States I learned to be very careful with my money. I know that not everyone receives and buys into these particular messages, but for me the idea that I had to keep what I earned, and only spend it on myself, was pretty strong. There was a brief time in my life when I wholly depended on the kindness of strangers, but other factors got in the way and instead of letting their generosity sink in and change me, I pulled back and hardened myself.
I may have been able to keep that barrier between me and the people I met in India, but it was already crumbling by the time I boarded my outgoing flight. After my initial culture shock wore off and I was able to walk around Rishikesh without my sunglasses on and headphones plugged in, I started watching. My shell kept on cracking.
Blogs and news articles warn people of the dangers of Indian hucksters. The games they play are notorious, and I’m not about to tell you any of that is wrong. However, it’s not the whole picture. What they don’t tell you is that the same man who tries to sell you a necklace for five times what it’s worth is the same man who will give you a ride on his scooty if you’re stuck on the side of the road. The woman who asks 100 rupees for a single banana will ask you back to her family’s home for dinner if you have no money of your own.
We made our way up a track going straight through someone’s olive grove, passing by picnicking families and some very angry dogs. We were slightly confused. Map with instructions in one hand, compass in the other, my travelling companion Mike and I were definitely on the right path of the Jordan Trail. So, through someone’s property it was. After a tense 5 minutes fearing someone might shoot us, we got back to the road just before sunset. We found the forest, and there suitable-looking ground for camping. All was well—until we started hearing the approaching barks of some very angry dogs, then the cries of wolves, human shouting, and gunshots.
This was our first attempt at walking and camping in Jordan: the next few weeks would not be nearly as frightening! Mike and I walked from Ajloun castle, a 12th century fortress built by Salah al-Din’s nephew on the remains of a monastery on a forested hill in northern Jordan, to Orjun, a traditional village situated in a lush valley full of fresh figs and pomegranates. On our way, we casually passed by the 6th century church and pilgrimage site of Mar Elias, as well as an unusual rectangular roofless mudbrick mosque.
‘Hello! what’s your name?’ excited children ran after us; adults asked us the more sensible question: ‘What are you doing here?’. The Jordan Trail, though far from complete and in need of correcting the logistical issues of going through people’s olive groves, allows travellers to see both the nature and culture of Jordan, beyond Amman, Petra and Wadi Rum, Jordan’s top destinations.
After making our way south, Mike and I reached Wadi Dana, a valley renowned for its numerous birds and ibex. Another opportunity for enjoying nature and culture: our budget hotel (to be far from the wolves this time!) was on the roof of one of the 19th century houses of Dana village. Another sleepless night; although this time because I couldn’t take my eyes off the Milky Way. Though traditional villages of Jordan have mostly been abandoned in the past 50 years, with their inhabitants moving to cement apartments, the locals of Dana keep a strong relationship with their past by allowing travellers to sleep in the village. These hotels are all locally run, and are even at competition with the big ecotourist companies. The villagers let us into the Nature Reserve for free, and were critical of the government-backed organization that charged entry fees to the land in which they grew up.
Our footsteps sank into purple and red sand from Dana to Feynan, the landscape was a striking combination of the awesome rock formations of south and the green hills of the north. Gradually, the green disappeared and we were in a fully fledged desert –one that had been used for copper mining in the Byzantine period. A Bedouin on the way thought we looked funny, and told Mike to try riding his donkey. Shortly after politely refusing tea from the Bedouin over and over again, we arrived in Feynan and finally wondered: how are we getting anywhere now? Luckily, a lorry driver was passing by, so we hopped in and told the lie that we were engaged when he asked Mike ‘What are you doing with her?’ — a young man and woman who are travelling together and not in a relationship are still not quite understood in Jordan. The lorry went down to Aqaba at the incredible pace of 45km/hour— with nothing to look at on either side except for endless desert, and the winding music of Mohammed Abdu. I was in a stupor.
Then we were in Aqaba, and soon after in Wadi Rum. The third sleepless night: not due to wolves, stars, but the punctuated echoes within the still silence. One dog barked; one thousand barks came back in a wave. The endlessness was almost nauseating. And when I heard the echoes of the braying of a donkey –that, my friend, is the demonic sound of hellfire. Once morning came, off we went walking into the true silence of the desert. I was overcome by desire to lie down and live in that silence. But too soon, it was time to return to the city—if for anything, due to lack of water.
Written by Maïra Al-Manzali, edited by Bethany Naylor
To read another article about a hitchhiking experience, read Beth’s post about hitching in France and Spain
On the highest of mountains and the lowest of places