Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Travelling: Learning About Myself

Having been away from home for seven months now (today!), and with only a couple of handfuls of weeks left, I’m starting to reflect. It’s hard not to when you’re beginning to flag: when the travel fatigue is setting in and you’re struggling to appreciate the new experiences coming your way. Naturally you begin to have conversations about your favourite moment or the funniest memory you’ll take home with you. Or if you are someone who enjoys reflection and retrospection, like myself, you will begin to think about how you’ve changed, what you’ve achieved, what’s surprised you or what you’ve learnt about yourself and your life.

So this is my first list, I guess, of my ‘take-aways’ from this trip. I know it isn’t over yet, but I think recognising some of these elements of myself now will help me to get the most out of the remaining weeks, and prepare for me for coming back to ‘real life’.

I like spending time on my own

To be honest, I knew this about myself already. I suppose the thing I’ve learnt is that I value time and space to myself and I need to make sure I give myself that time and space when I return home. Taking this trip with Dan has meant we’ve spent almost every minute together, which has, unsurprisingly, been difficult at times. We’ve had to consciously take time away from each other and this has felt pretty forced at times. When you’re both in an alien place, neither of you know anyone else there and you both want to see the same sights/have the same experiences, what’s the point of forcing yourselves to be separate? Well, that was our reasoning anyway. It turns out there are lots of benefits to ‘forcing’ yourselves to do things independently, even if they are the same things, as you'd go crazy otherwise. This is a lesson we will need to take back home with us as a couple who naturally spend a lot of time together at home.

I am capable of spending time with people without Dan

Now this probably sounds a bit weird, and perhaps an unnecessary statement to some people. However if you have anxiety, or I guess any number of mental health issues, you may understand at least a little bit of what I mean. At some point around the end of 2014/beginning of 2015 my anxiety was hitting the roof, and I felt like I wasn’t really worth spending any time with. I realise now, with hindsight, that I became dependent on Dan to be my social crutch. I felt like I couldn’t spend time with people alone - even good friends I’d known for a long time. I felt like I wasn’t ‘enough’. It wasn’t even conscious, and I didn’t realise I was doing it until we came away and I had the space to stop and look back at the two years prior to the trip. It suddenly felt like I’d let myself start to lose my own identity. I don’t want to keep shrinking away until I disappear. I look forward to returning and seeing friends and family without Dan, but also with Dan as my husband, not as my social crutch.

Ultimately, I am a city girl…

I have seen some stunning natural beauty out here. I’ve trekked through jungle, I’ve swum with tropical fishes in clear still water, I’ve stayed in small rural villages warming myself around a burning fire and I’ve watched the sunrise over snow-capped mountains. This has all been incredible and I’ve loved it all. I love being outdoors. I love camping, I love trekking, I love swimming (now that I can finally do it relatively well) and I love seeing the stars in a dark night’s sky surrounded by the sound of insects to lull me to sleep. But while I love this all, it would seem that this love has a best before date - more than anything, I love watching the landscape change out the window as the train or bus approaches the edge of a sprawling, noisy, chaotic, smelly, colourful, dirty city. I love watching as the buildings rise and expand, claiming more and more of the space. I love exploring winding streets. I love finding secret coffee shops or bars tucked behind clothes shops at the back of alleys. I love being surrounded by a million people going about their daily life (yeah, someone with anxiety enjoying this doesn’t make sense to me either). I love the culture clashes and the honking horns (ok, that’s pretty SE Asia specific), the impromptu street art and the pavement yoga classes. But you’d be surprised - or maybe you wouldn’t - by how few travellers we’ve met that share this with us. So many people can’t wait to get out of the cities, whereas we can’t wait to get in. I guess everyone is different, but I can count the city lovers on one hand.

…but I love a bit of adventure

I remember that as a child I always felt like I had quite an adventurous spirit, but as I got older and realised how many things I was, and am, scared of I started to feel a bit foolish for thinking of myself in that way. Yes, I could run up a climbing wall, I could zoom down an abseiling tower, I was completely happy tied to a zip-line and I loved theme park rides, but I still couldn’t swim, I couldn’t ride a bike, I couldn’t roller-skate or ice skate or anything other sort of skate and I certainly wasn’t climbing to the top of any climbing frames in the playground. 
However, being here has helped me to reconnect with my adventurous side and realise that not only do I have the strength to overcome my fears but I do ‘qualify’ for the adventurous name tag. And I haven’t even forced myself to do them - I’ve done them for my own enjoyment. Out here I’ve kayaked through busy backwaters, I’ve paraglided off a mountain, I’ve swum in the ocean, I’ve snorkelled, I’ve jumped off a zip-line into a river and I’ve climbed up the side of a mighty Ha Long Bay karst. But not only that - being here has helped me to remember that even at home I was trying to connect with my adventurous side but I never really let it become part of my identity. When I first moved to London I took up bouldering (climbing without ropes), I learnt to swim properly and I learnt to ride a bike. I want to be more adventurous and I want that to be part of how I think about myself. So this trip hasn’t only reconnected me to my adventurous side, it’s given me the confidence to engage a part of me that was already there, and allowed her to come out and shine.

I’m strong

Travelling is hard. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either Super-Person or lying. Or looking back at it with rose-tinted spectacles I suppose. I thought that having travelled for two months in Eastern Europe and having lived in India for four months would mean it was a walk in the park, but nothing can quite prepare you for the constant-ness of it all when you don’t have ‘home’ to come back to and relieve some of the burden. Whether it’s the constant moving around, or, contrastingly, trying to put roots down somewhere for a while without having a purpose for being there. Or if it’s the guilt of not ‘being productive’ (aka ‘working’) or the struggles of everything just being very different. Whatever it is, it’s draining, and fatigue soon sets in. India is also doubly hard and a challenge that not many people survive with all of their sanity still in tact!
But I’ve survived, and I’m still surviving. In terms of India: I am regaining my love for the country now that I’ve been away for a bit. Nowhere is as interesting or frustrating, and nowhere else quite matches up. I’m strong, and I’m still here, despite my gritted teeth, homesickness and reluctance to relax. I am strong enough to admit that it’s hard, and that I’m struggling, but also strong enough to work out a way through it to the other side. 

But what has travelling given me?

While travelling has helped me to discover new things about myself and reconnect with what was already there, it’s also helped me to grow. Many people say that travelling leaves them with a spark, a travelling ‘bug’ that they can’t get rid of. And while I am very excited by this world and everything it has to offer, I would say that rather than being left with a spark for future travel I’ve been left with a fire burning inside me for my ‘real life’ back home. (Perhaps this is because I travelled a lot with work so was quite well connected with the world already. I already had the 'travel bug' in a different way.) Nevertheless, I have regained a lust for life and I can’t wait to return and start living again. 

Finding a work/life balance is a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. Before I went away I’d worked myself to exhaustion, and I was telling myself that it was ok because it was more like a vocation - I cared so much about what I was doing and it seemed ‘fair’ for me to suffer when I was fighting for the rights of girls much less fortunate than myself, who were suffering much more than me. But that’s not sustainable, and being away has helped me to see that - and helped me to see that I’m no use to anyone if I don’t allow myself to enjoy what I am privileged enough to have. This trip has helped to change my direction: I am excited to give myself time to be creative again, to look after my health and fitness better and to prioritise exploring the city I love as much as I did when I first moved to London. In fact, I now have a long list of things to do before I’m 30! 

However, it turns out that there are some things that even travelling just cannot change… Despite the ‘evidence’ to the contrary, the large number of angry, scary stray dogs we’ve encountered in every country means I still hate dogs. Yes, all of them. (Except maybe this one).

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Travelling: Expectations & Achievements

Before I quit my job, gave up my flat and left the country I had so many expectations of what this time away would entail. Choosing to essentially walk away from your life, particularly when you're settled with community and 'a place in the world' can be scary, however I was consoled by the fact that I had great big plans for this year 'out' of my life; that this time wouldn't be a waste or a lazy thing to do. I found comfort in the fact that I would have space to achieve things unrelated to a job - I would grow and expand myself and my skills. I would have time to get creative. I would have time to reflect and think about my future. I would have time to achieve things for me, rather than for my career. I imagined myself writing every day, spilling my heart and soul onto paper as I discovered new things about myself and was captivated by the world around me. Ha.

Four months in and my blog is empty, still stuck on my wedding speech from August 2015 (except for this now, obviously. I do see the irony). I am about a quarter of a way into one Masters application, stuck on what to say to convince academics that I deserve to come to their University and study. While I am reflecting every day none of it is quite making it into coherent words like I hoped it would. I feel tired, rather than inspired. I'm severely lacking sleep, rather than having paid off my sleep debt with tons to spare. I miss the adrenaline of work, despite the fact that bouncing between full-on work trips and taking days off in lieu to sleep it off was killing me. I am angry, and disappointed, and wondering where I went wrong.


As a person pretty good at introspection I need no help in answering that question. I know exactly where I went wrong. It's the same reason I spend 90% of my time in my 'real life', (as I've started to refer to before-travelling) being disappointed in myself rather than enjoying the moment. It's being on the wrong side of the line that divides ambition from obsession. It's having unrealistic expectations of yourself, and ultimately those around you; expectations that constantly buy into the lie that you are not doing enough. And no matter how much you can recognise this about yourself, intellectually, or comfort others who feel the same with mantras about 'being enough', it doesn't stop your every waking moment being driven by a clawing feeling in the bottom of your stomach that tells you you are not 'doing enough', that you are not meeting expectations.
So I knew this about myself, and naively thought that changing the rhythm of my life, changing the activities within my life and disappearing to the other side of the world would help to solve this. I would have time and would be able to re-prioritise.
Except it doesn't work like that.
Changing your surroundings doesn't change you. Changing how you spend your time doesn't change you. It's all just a well-meaning distraction. All that has happened is I've just set myself a new list of unrealistic expectations that have simply been leading to more and more disappointment the further I've got into the trip, stealing from me the joy of the moment. Blinding me from all the seemingly small things I am achieving on a day to day basis.

Travelling with anxiety, Dan says that I'm the strongest person he knows, but I don't feel strong, I feel weak and angry. I feel angry that travelling around India is so much more exhausting than when I lived here, and I just didn't see it coming. For example, living in the safety of Sangam I was shielded from how noisy people are at night. I don't mean road noise - I live in London after all. I mean playing the TV full blast at 2am or letting your kids run up and down corridors at midnight banging on the doors. While in the past I'd liked the Indian attitude of not worrying over the small things, when you can't sleep because someone's got their TV blasting at 2am you just start to see it as rudeness and you get exasperated that Indians can't seem to think about their impact on others (this is not true, it's just part of viewing the world and your place in it in a different way - I just can't be that reasonable at 2am). Another example: it's so hard to find what I need for self care here. I knew I would lose routine but I didn't predict how negatively not having my church or my weekly yoga class would affect my mental state.
I'm angry that this trip is not what I expected. I'm angry that my expectations have not been met, of myself, of the time I'd have, of the drive and creativity I'd feel, of my surroundings. I'm angry because I wasn't kind enough to myself to make allowances for days I would need to just sleep, because I didn't think that overnight buses would wipe me out as much as they are. I'm angry because I didn't anticipate how much time is taken up by figuring out how to get to the next place, and how to spend our time, despite prior research. I'm angry that I wasn't kind enough to think that maybe my anxiety would mean I couldn't stay in party hostels because talking to people I don't know, without common ground or values, is too difficult for me. I'm angry with myself for not taking any lessons I've learnt about myself in the past (in my 'real life') and applying them to this trip, and now I still don't have the kindness within me to forgive myself for making these mistakes in the first place.

Expectations and goals can be great to drive us forward, foster our ambitions and give us something to aim for. However, when we set expectations and goals we need to understand the environment we're setting these goals and expectations in. Just surviving out here is something that I should be proud of myself for, but I'm not because I thought I'd be able to achieve so much more. (There are separate reasons for why I think I feel the need to have these expectations - something around feeling I have to 'earn' this time off, probably.)
It's also hard when people you love and admire seem so able to achieve so many things on a daily basis, and are setting exciting goals left, right and centre. I feel adrift because some days it's an achievement to even get out of bed and I can barely think about what I'm going to have for dinner let alone set a New Year's resolution. I think knowing our limitations can help but I don't think that relieves the pressure of what we feel we could achieve if we were just as 'good' as someone else. If we could just push ourselves to be 'more motivated' or 'more creative'. If if if we could just be more more more... And when you're only ever thinking about how to be 'more' you stop noticing what's around you. You stop being kind to yourself. You stop finding the joy.
These were all issues and realisations that I'd explored within myself before, and thought I'd made good headway in getting past, however I guess that when you're vulnerable everything comes back up to the surface and you can't quite let go of the feeling that you're failing.

So right now, I'm trying to redo my expectations of this trip, now that I have more information about what it's like to be here, and I'm trying to look back at what I've achieved since we left home. The problem is that nothing feels like an achievement because the frames of reference have changed. I can no longer measure success by the number of emails I sent, or the number of hours I volunteered for, or how often I practised my guitar.
I can't help thinking that I'm setting myself up to fail because I'm trying to measure the wrong things. I'm trying to measure success by the things I did at home that felt like achievements, rather than recognising what an achievement looks like out here. Maybe an achievement is surviving an overnight bus, lugging your bags across a country border on no sleep, finding the next bus and then navigating your way to your hotel successfully - all with no food in your belly - rather than whether or not I wrote a blog post about where we visited or completed another day on Duolingo.
Maybe the 'learning' looks different out here too, and I won't be able to reflect and see what I've gained, how I've changed and what I've achieved until afterwards. Until I can look back and, literally and figuratively, see how far we've come.
I don't think I will ever be at the point of accepting that maybe I don't need to 'achieve' anything while I'm away - I'm just not ready for that radicalness! But I can at least start by accepting and recognising that my old expectations were unrealistic and stop beating myself up for not having achieved them. Maybe then I can stop being so angry and disappointed, I can move the goalposts and start enjoying the moment.