I had originally intended to join the hordes of tourists for the mass lantern release, but as I left my guesthouse and I wandered through the back lanes of the old town in Chiang Mai I felt the peace of the night wrap around me. In the darkness, in a district abandoned by the tourists for the evening the Thai people were setting out lamps and candles around their homes. In the distance down by the river firecrackers popped and fizzed while here little night lights encircled gates, steps and doorways; the pinpricks of warm amber light flickering silently. Nobody shouted; the locals moved with a calm purpose and I walked in the opposite direction to the celebrations down by the river and into the temple grounds. Initially believing the gardens to be empty I came across some monks gliding among the statues and the chedis, setting up hundreds of candles along the ledges of the dusty ancient brick structures and next to the sparkling gold of the Buddhas. A man beckoned me towards the temple door and as I drew closer I heard the soft hypnotic chanting of twenty monks who were sat in a line down either side of the hallway. Behind me there was the swishing of wheels and a very sick man in a wheel chair was propelled towards the bottom of the temple steps by his family. Attached to the front of his chair was a tray containing unlit candles which his family started to take from him and towards the temple. The old man, stick thin with sickness got agitated and I understood that he needed to be closer to the temple so I offered to help move him and his chair. Together we managed to get him to a position where he was happy. He could see the chanting monks and then with shaking hands he lit the candles on his tray. With watering eyes he quietly mumbled to himself, lost in his thoughts while we moved back respectfully out of his way. As I looked upwards towards the milky white full moon tens, then hundreds and then thousands of lanterns floated across the city.
Living the Dream
I am often told that I am ‘living the dream’, and it’s quite true; I AM living the dream. I chose this lifestyle and I made it happen. I always wanted to explore different cultures and find out what makes societies different and I’m now combining this with my other passion and I’m forging a career out of writing. I have the time to wander around in the dark in Chiang Mai and to experience the Loy Krathong festival and to immerse myself in the culture.
Why am I telling you this now? I am telling you this now because as well as living the dream I have been carrying an awful lot of guilt around with me for the past 6 years. I feel guilty that my actions have made other people unhappy. I sit on the top of mountains in complete awe of a spectacular sunset or I feel tiny and insignificant while watching a meteor shower and I hug myself and feel joyful…. and then the guilt sneaks in the back door. It whispers to me ‘how dare you be happy! Why should you feel pleasure?
’ and then the guilt leaps over my shoulder and stabs me in the heart. But I don’t even feel worthy of the guilt because I know that there are so many people who are a million times worse off than me. I have been privileged to have been entrusted with stories from other people that would make the hair on your toes curl so what right do I have to feel sorrowful? Gradually there has been a subtle shift in my feelings and it has been led, initially, by the younger people. Men and women from all nationalities but of a similar age to my own two children or younger offer me a road to peace. They remind me that I did what I had to do and I did it the only way that was open to me at the time, and they tell me their stories. They tell me that I can’t take responsibility for the thoughts and beliefs of others, least of all my children. They tell me that I must shrug off the guilt and get on with my own life. In some way, coming from the younger generation, this gives me permission to move on. In northern Thailand I finally stopped running and I began to put down the roots of some sort of a commitment. I had been working damn hard to establish a project which will empower people and which will build self confidence. On the night of the full moon I movingly experienced the lantern festivals of Loy Krathong and Yee Ping. I lit my candles and I floated my krathong on the River Ping and I joined with two friends to light and launch a sky lantern, each time sending my hopes and wishes off into the darkness.
A week after Loy Krathong and unable to sleep in the sticky dark of the small room in my guest house I took my laptop out onto the deck at the front of the hostel to work. I was joined by Robert an American guy who now lives in Thailand and we quietly chatted about politics and religion and then we moved onto Buddhism and meditation. Guided by Robert I practised meditating – concentrating on my breathing and emptying my mind. With gentle prompts from him I focused on the here and now, accepting the past which I was unable to change or influence and ignoring the future which was yet to come and therefore was unknown. With a snap my mind refocused and I knew that it was now time for me to try to forgive myself and to let go of the guilt from my past.
The following day after speaking with Robert I hired a scooter and I drove with a friend on pillion up the mountain to Doi Suthep. My friend had already visited the temple a few days previously so I parked the scooter and I went on alone. As I climbed up between the mosaic serpents which undulate down each side of the long stone staircase I felt a strange sense of purpose which continued after I had paid my entrance fee, removed my shoes and sat on the floor by a pillar over to one side of the main temple hall. A monk was sat on the other side of the hall and as groups of believers entered he murmured blessings over them, glancing occasionally in my direction. As another group entered and knelt before him, bowing low with lotus flowers and incense sticks between their palms he gestured to me to join them. I hesitatingly moved closer, then closer still as he obviously wasn’t going to start until I was included. He began to intone his blessing and with small flicks of his wrist he sent little sprinkles of water over the group from the little swatch of twigs that he was holding, but to the surprise of everybody present he then proceeded to douse me with a series of super strong splashes. Along with the others, I bowed and backed out of the hall, not entirely sure why I had been singled out for his special attention. Walking among the rest of the temple complex I hardly noticed the hundreds of other visitors, many of whom were busy clicking off pictures but many other people were walking slowly around the site in some ceremonial way. And then at another smaller temple there was a different monk again sat to the side of the hall. As I peered in through the doorway the monk looked at me. I laid my rucksack down, kicked off my shoes, approached him at a crouch, and then kneeled before him. As he blessed me I knew that I was being given permission to forgive myself. He smiled kindly as he handed me a white cord for my wrist. And then I got on with the day visiting the Royal Summer Palace and a couple of waterfalls. When I arrived back at my guesthouse I found Robert there and I asked him to tie the white cord around my wrist, closing the circle.
A week later I was in Laos. I had trekked to the top of a waterfall with some friends. We edged out along some bamboo logs which had been placed at the top, holding on to the rustic wooden handrails. Standing bang in the centre, we could see for miles, across the jungle clad mountains and over and down where the water crashed and tumbled while the misty damp spray rose and swirled around us. I was standing on the very edge of a waterfall in the jungle of northern Laos and as the tears flowed unstoppable down my face and my friends wondered, I raised both arms high. I had finally forgiven myself. I was feeling joy, unfettered from guilt. I am in the jungle of Laos and I am living the dream. Postscript: Forgiving myself does not mean forgetting. Christopher and Sian: – I will never stop loving you nor give up hope
She left pieces of her life behind her, everywhere she went
It’s easier to feel the sunlight without them, she said
– Brian Andreas
I have covered the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of travel in my last two articles but I often ask myself WHY?
I suspect that it may have something to do with our genes – a throwback to the days when we were hunter-gatherers, and it’s cultural too – like the generations of Romanies who feel cooped up if they stay in one place for too long.
And there are also our personal stories which affect our urge to keep moving
Click on these links to read the two previous articles in this series if you missed them
In my own case, I know that I am throwing challenges at myself, proving to myself that I can cope and that I can face up to my fears; to counteract years of believing that I was a scardy-cat and that I would be unable to manage by myself.
To that end I have designed an online course which will encourage others to boost their self-confidence and self-esteem; but I digress – let’s get back to why I travel.
When my maternal grandmother had to enter a nursing home after breaking her hip my uncle gave her a blank notebook and suggested that she write. Anything; her memoirs, shopping lists; anything to keep her from going mad when all about her was ever so slightly crazy.
The furthest that my gran had travelled during her lifetime was from her home in South Wales to Cornwall and she did that only infrequently but she lit up when she talked about her adventures. And then, after she had passed away I read her journal. It was all higgledy piggledy but what shone through was her acceptance and contentment about her life and her situation. She left school and went into service aged fourteen and later she married and raised a family. She worked hard to put food on the table and often fed most of the neighbours’ kids as well.
In her notebook my Gran wrote, ‘but then I was getting on to fourteen and to the prospect of leaving school and having to earn a crust, but having no chance of a further education, hoped for wider horizons, always wanted to be a nurse like all my girl cousins on my father’s side but knew there was little hope of it coming to pass’ and in her book she also wrote how she had once had the opportunity to visit India as a teenager (imagine that in those days!) but it was vetoed by her mother.
Who would have ever guessed! Gran never gave any indication that she wanted to see more of her little world, although she embraced others who were not from hers.
She was as pleased as punch when she was allocated a family doctor who was from India and my mum tells me how she would be mortified to arrive home from school as a child and find either a gypsy or a tramp sitting by the fire. My grandmother certainly never judged and was always open minded – you can read more about how beneficial an attitude such as this can be in my article – No judgements and mindful travel
The gypsies went from house to house when they were in town selling clothes pegs or little sprigs of lucky heather. The tramps were the gentlemen of the road with their numerous bags stuffed full of their belongings, often pushed on a bicycle (I guess the forerunners of us, the perpetual backpackers), but in those days there were no flights – they wandered on foot, following their seasonal pattern around the country and returning to places where they were welcomed. One of the places where the Romanies and the tramps knew that they could always be sure of a cup of tea and a plate of food was at my gran’s home, much to my mum’s dismay.
And then when I was about seven years old some gypsies set up an encampment on some waste ground in my city. They were there for several years before the space was redeveloped and as we drove past, I would peer fascinated out of the back window of the car, straining my neck to catch sight of the little raggle-taggle children or the puppies tumbling about in the yard. If one of the caravan doors had been left open it was as if I had won the bonus prize because I could peep in on the tiny compact world where everything gleamed mirrors, chrome and glass. I wondered why society deemed it to be wrong to live this way, and if I had been older or more daring I would have loved to have run away to join them.
It was about the same time in my life that my auntie, my dad’s sister, moved to Africa. Knowing that I loved to read and that I wanted to be a journalist, we frequently exchanged letters on flimsy airmail paper which would tear if you pressed too hard with the pen.
I would take those pale blue pages covered with her handwriting and tuck myself away in a corner and transport myself away to another land. To countries where the heat shimmered on dusty horizons, there were unimaginable fruits and flowers and market places were noisy alien places. I loved to read about the staff that took care of the house, the maid and the house-boy and wished that I could have been allowed to visit and see and experience these wonders for myself. I wanted to play with the African children and run barefoot down red earth roads with them and to wake to the sound of strange birds.
Soooo excited to see a toucan in the wild
And now, my cousin, my auntie’s daughter, Lucinda Paxton is forging her own way in the world as a documentary photographer, travel writer and presenter. I am totally in awe of her work and I greedily lap up every photograph and article that she posts on social media. Whether in the vibrant reds and ochres worn by the people of Ethiopia or the grainy black and white images of the gauchos in Patagonia, Lucinda captures the very essence of the people that she films and recently interviewed by The StepUp Club she gives her reasons for why she travels – and of course, her parents were a huge influence on her. Click here to read Lucinda’s interview
Only a few years ago I learnt that my own father, on finishing his stint in the army for his National Service, had applied to emigrate to New Zealand on a £10 passage. This would have included a job and accommodation – the only stipulation was that you worked in whatever job they allocated to you for at least 2 years. The forms were duly completed and posted off and the interview date arrived, but as so often, life got in the way and he never went.
I didn’t go abroad until I was 21 but I had been a voracious reader since childhood and the only classes that I didn’t skip in school were Geography and English. I lapped up everything about other cultures and countries both factual and fiction.
And then came the tipping point in my life and here I am.
You can read the first of the articles in the series here: Click here
You can read the second of the articles in the series here: Click here
Change, like laughter lines can creep up slowly when we aren’t looking. One day you look in the mirror and things are different.
My previous article which asked ‘Does Travel Change you?’ (you can read it here if you missed it) showed WHAT some of the external influences are which you can encounter when travelling and how they can change you; but here I want to focus on HOW they changed me.
I am often asked whether I believe that I have changed as a result of travel and if so, in what way am I different. What has travel done to me? As is the norm when change happens very slowly and you are close to it, I didn’t think that I had changed at all; or at least I didn’t until I took a recent visit back to the city where I grew up and I met some people that I hadn’t seen since I left school. And I realised that travel had changed me.
Or at least, how meeting all of the brilliant people that I had met since I set off, people who didn’t know me and who had no preconceived ideas about me had changed my perception about myself.
I can finally say that I like myself and I trust in myself. I am at peace with myself. Mostly. Oh of course I will never be happy with how I look, but I am getting to quite like ME.
Me – the girl who always felt second best – the girl who used to be nervous about dancing at the disco – the girl who got tied up in knots talking to the boys or having to speak out in the classroom.
There is a massive part of my life that is still sad but as somebody recently pointed out to me, at least I have done my grieving. The sadness will always be there but I refuse to allow it to shape me. Believe me, I have been as low as it is possible to go, but now I embrace life and I smile, smile, smile. And while my story is sad, I wouldn’t want to swap if for some of those other stories that are out there.
I can now shrug off the occasional poisonous and very personal comments that some troll or other attempts to post on my blog because a) their comments are so wide of the mark I realise that they have absolutely no idea of the bigger picture or the truth, and b) I am writing this from a hammock by the sea. One nil to me I think.
And I now know that I can cope if I drop my car keys down a filthy storm drain or if I miss my bus connection or if my hostel is fully booked. Standing up and making a speech is a piece of cake compared to walking into a party hostel when happy hour is in full swing. Yes, my stomach still sinks down into my boots but I actually almost enjoy the challenges now and I know that they are just more things to add to my lifetime curriculum vitae (I just think I found the title for a future article)
If I like a guy I tell him. What’s the point in pussy-footing about? Life’s too short and it can change in a heartbeat. And to those boys who used to tease me in school – well when you hook up – albeit for a brief two weeks with the hottest guy in town AND he just happens to be twenty one years your junior – two nil to me!
Personally, I prefer to travel relatively slowly and to get to know a place and some of its inhabitants and to learn what makes it tick. I like to spend long lunches chatting over a cold beer, or evenings enjoying a fiesta or sharing a big pot of food in a hostel with other travellers. I like to volunteer and to give something back – often exchanging my work and my time for accommodation and food.
I like to learn new skills and have new experiences. I like to stretch my mind and my abilities, push my boundaries and bury my fears. And now after two years of living like a nomad, a hippy, a traveller, a backpacker, a gypsy – call it what you will – I think that I can count on one hand the mornings when I have opened my eyes and had a day of boredom, routine or apathy to look forward to.
Contrary to popular belief, most of my days, like those of most of the long term travellers that I know, are very busy – in fact I am often more occupied than I ever was during my old life and when I had a standard working week; but I love my chosen lifestyle and I don’t consider my work now a hardship or a chore.
- Collecting cow poo – smelly but it was only going to be for a couple of weeks at most. And I was surrounded by the most stunning mountain scenery and working alongside some fantastic people.
- Lesson planning – probably the one thing that I enjoy the least, but the pay back when somebody ‘gets it’ is uplifting.
- Hours spent writing articles – more often than not, sheer pleasure, unless up against a deadline – but at least I can find great surroundings and choose to write from a hammock, an historic town square or a little independent coffee shop whilst I slog away.
People often ask me when I am ready to stop travelling and when I will settle down. Well for now, this is my life. It suits me.
I am working, I am giving something back. I believe that I am making a difference. I take each day as it comes, but I am not afraid to stop and change direction if it begins to become difficult or more importantly, I want to try something else.
In the third part of this series asking ‘Does travel change you’ I will focus on Why.
If you have enjoyed this article do let me know in the comments and feel free to share it with your friends Thank you for reading
You can read the first article in the series here: Article 1
The third article in the series is here; Article 3
A rolling stone gathers no moss
There is a saying – ‘Travel changes you’.
Any search for a one-liner relating to travel will turn up hundreds of quotes. Since people began writing down their feelings and thoughts it seems that anybody worth their salt has had an opinion on travel. A gap year is deemed a rite of passage for many young adults, but it’s no longer an adventure solely for the younger generation.
More and more people are now choosing to travel, setting off on a dream adventure, ticking off destinations from a bucket list, but it’s not always plain sailing. ‘There are no problems, only challenges’ and ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ are especially true when you are far away from home – but there is always the danger that travel might also make you harder – and in some not so desirable ways.
Travelling, and especially travelling solo can be empowering but you do need to keep your wits about you for the majority of the time. You learn to cope. You have to. It has to be ‘sink or swim’ – you deal with the problems and enjoy the thrill of achievement, or you pack up and go home. Even the most hardened extrovert will occasionally find it difficult to break into an established clique in a new hostel but that is nothing to the feeling that you get when you or your new found friends go their own way and move on.
Travellers tend to form intense emotional bonds and friendships. You are a part of a little sub-universe. You know that the real world is out there and you must interact with it, but here in the parallel world of the traveller there are no expectations of you beyond your time here and now, in the present time. Opinions are quickly formed; travellers fast develop a keen sense of instinct, on guard for trouble but looking out for and caring for each other. In this sub-universe we are all fully aware that we have cast ourselves adrift from our usual support network of family and friends and human nature being what it is, we tend to gravitate towards a social group – we want to fit in and to be accepted.
We recognise in others the difficulty of being alone when they arrive at a new place and more often than not, travellers will go out of their way to be inclusive and supportive. Very often it goes even deeper than that and you meet people with whom you feel a deep unexplained connection. It’s as if you have been friends for ever and they have been lurking just around the corner on your life plan, waiting to make an appearance and to make a difference.
The magic woven by Cartagena
On the contrary, just occasionally you might encounter somebody that you believe you can trust and who you like, only for them to turn around and show a different side to themselves; and while those situations are extremely rare, you do begin to mistrust your own instincts and your judgement.
- I did a favour for somebody and I lent some money only to find that person turned their back on me and our friendship.
- I changed my planned route so that I could visit a friend, but I found that she’s gone ahead and moved on with her life; and somewhere along the way has totally excluded me.
- You may fancy the pants off that other person but you KNOW that it can never be forever so you have to balance the pleasure with the pain of the inevitable parting
- And there was that one odd woman in the hostel who had obvious difficulties yet tried to get me into trouble as an attention seeking stunt.
And this is where the danger lies – that unexpected side effect of travelling that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. It would be so easy to bury your emotions and become hard and cynical. If you don’t open yourself up and allow anybody in through that protective shell then you can’t be hurt, right?
Well, that’s one way of dealing with things – throw up a self protective wall – but personally I refuse to allow myself to become hard and cynical. A huge gaping hole was ripped through my heart and my soul six years ago. It’s always there, it can never be forgotten but I refused then to let it change the essence of my being and I refuse now to allow lesser things to do so.
Kahlil Gibran talks about pain in his book ‘The Prophet’ and says, ‘your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding,’ and on joy and sorrow, ‘the deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain’ – basically, you can’t protect yourself from hurt if you want to experience the highs and euphoria of life – although you have to admit that whilst you are hurting it sure as hell isn’t easy to accept his views!
Trust your instincts, say yes, and you could find yourself somewhere like this
And whilst not repaired, the hole in my soul has been bandaged and patched by the Daniels and the Marcels that I have met along the way. The Courtneys and the Gorzas; the Emmas and the Marias; the Danis and the Lios, the Bens and the Claras. From Israel and from France; from Poland and from Finland; from Colombia and Argentina; too many to name individually here but they have all made a massive contribution to me, my life and I.
I don’t want to be cynical or bitter. I want to live life on the edge; on a high. I want to wonder at something as simple as the sunrise and the beauty that is found in nature. I want to connect with people and I want to feel them connecting back. I have found freedom and I never want to return to a life where I walk on eggshells and where I am filled with dread because my presence unintentionally makes somebody else feel inferior.
And so for now, I will continue to travel. Perhaps my constant need to keep moving is running away, or maybe it’s a reaction to years of holding my emotions in as tightly as a coiled spring, and now having my freedom I simply feel joy and pleasure when I can run and stretch myself. Like a pit-pony released for its break in sunny fields after the dark of the coal mines.
Maybe if I keep on moving I’ll keep one step ahead of the bitter cynical feelings which could engulf me. I’ll keep one step ahead of relationships which could turn sour and friendships which could rift and pale. And while I’m at it, I’ll watch shooting stars from a mountain top, I’ll dance barefoot on the beach and I’ll see the sun creep up at dawn.
I shall continue to clamber into my top bunk at 4am, eat unidentifiable street food and help whenever and whoever I can.
I encourage you to embrace life. Remember: this is not a dress rehearsal. Make sure it’s a first class performance.
You can read the second article in this series at this link: Part 2
And the third article in the series is here: Part 3
Jump for joy
I remember my grandmother offering me sweets from a jar every time she returned from her holidays in Bournemouth. The pebble sweets always fascinated me, partly because of the real and present danger that I could crack a tooth. I always worried that somehow a real pebble may have got inside the jar and for that reason I always picked the most brightly coloured, unrealistic looking pebble that I could reach.
But primarily I was fascinated because of the multitude of colours that shone glossily through the jar in all their synthetic and artificial glory – and I wondered, where in the world would you find pebbles with those range of colours.
I don’t know much about geology but I always assumed that rocks and pebbles were found with their own kind, like the drab grey stones that you find on countless beaches in the UK, but here, on my stretch of beach in Ecuador, I have found the template for those sweets. Glistening and shining across the whole spectrum of colours, a thin line of pebbles line up on the sand at the mid-water line. If my grandmother were around today I would pack up a box and post then home for her, but I will have to be content with collecting them into a pile and taking a photograph and banking the image of them into my memory bank.
Like people, these pebbles are fascinating because of their differences. Like the grey pebbles clumped together on so many beaches, people seek out their own, whether by class, nationality or age, but isn’t life more interesting if you mix it up a bit?
I suppose that by the very nature of my current way of life you might think that I am mixing with like-minded people – travellers and backpackers – but everybody has a different reason for travelling and the histories and background of people that I meet differ massively.
I am not scared by difference. I embrace it and try to live by that old adage that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. People generally have a knack of getting on together no matter what atrocities are reported in the media, but unfortunately some like to stir things up, setting neighbours against neighbours or sister against brother for their own ends – which sadly are usually to do with power or control rather than what is right or reasonable.
I have friends with tattoos and piercings, shaved heads or brightly coloured hair or dreadlocks. I have friends who come from many different countries and very different cultures to my own. I have friends who are still at university and friends in their seventies but when we are together age isn’t an issue. Gay, straight or transgender, they are all amazing and like the pebbles on the beach, they all shine out in their own way.
For me, the best bit of travel is the people who I am meeting along the way. Those pebbles remind me that diversity is good.