We live and we learn: 5 lessons from 7 months travelling alone

When I began this trip, I had grand ideas of finding some lost part of myself that I wanted back so I could function better in the world. I wanted to become stronger, more independent, more autonomous, better at dealing with the judgements of others, both positive and negative. I wanted to be less of a pushover.

My dear friend Andrew (who joked that I was leaving to find myself in Asia), asked me upon my return if I had in fact found myself. Yeah, I actually kind of did. Not that I felt lost before I left, but I ended up discovering way more about myself than I had anticipated. I found pieces that I didn’t know were there before, maybe created some new pieces, and I ended up finding bits of myself that I had lost somewhere along the road of life, pieces that I didn’t even realize were missing until I got them back.

I ended many of my posts from this trip with, “we live and we learn”, usually when I had done something stupid and learned from it. So what exactly have I learned in the last 7 months I spent completely out of my comfort zone?

1. It’s probably not actually that scary

Before I left, I watched Pitch Perfect 2 (A Cappella nerd forever and always) and the final song (Flashlight) starts, “when tomorrow comes, I’ll be on my own feeling frightened of the things that I don’t know”. That really resonated with me in October.

It wasn’t until I listened to that song again in February (when I began abusing the first three months free with Apple Music) that I realized it no longer resonated with me. I was no longer (and am still no longer) afraid of what I don’t know. It doesn’t scare me to be heading into complete unknown by myself. The amount of times I rocked up to a town in Southeast Asia with no hostel booked, little idea of where I was in relation to the backpacker area and only tentative ideas of what to do in the town has made me (probably idiotically) brave. Not once did I feel in danger. There were a couple of moments when I wondered whether or not I should feel scared, notably when I was wandering the back alleys of Khao San Road in Bangkok looking for a hostel by myself at 4 a.m. and then tagging along with two German guys I met. But I never actually felt scared.

I’m not afraid of being alone either, of heading into the great unknown by myself. While I didn’t actually spend much time alone (probably under 10 meals, realistically), I did enough of those turn-up-at-4:30-from-a-nightbus things alone that it doesn’t scare me. On the farm in Bali, we were all quite independent, and we often spent the days doing things on our own. I actually kind of relish my solitude now. It’s good time for self-reflection, and it has really helped me figure out how I feel about a lot of things and how I process these things.

2. In the grand scheme of my life, does this really matter?

This has probably been the biggest difference I’ve noticed in myself now that I’m back home in Markham. Little annoyances that I know would have bothered, angered or frustrated me, roll off much easier now. I would have grumbled at someone cutting me off in traffic, someone taking my grocery cart, someone being slow when I’m in a rush. I would have replayed the moment in my head over and over (especially the driving scenarios), sassing out people in my head. I now make a conscious effort to ask myself this question:

In the grand scheme of my life, does this really matter?

Chances are, the answer is no. Some pushy man budding me in line at the grocery store, that doesn’t matter. A woman taking my reserved window seat on an airplane claiming she thought C was the window seat (this actually happened to me on my last flight on my way to Mexico), that doesn’t matter. Apple Music charing me without warning that my free three months has expired (sad face, I just got the bill), that doesn’t matter. The amount of anxiety I have caused myself in the past by stressing over vaguely irksome actions of others that don’t actually matter is astounding. I’ve wasted probably hours fuming over someone cutting me off in traffic, imagining the different things I could say to them to show that they messed up. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter, and I am better at seeing that now.

But if the answer is yes to that question, then I know I need to do something about it, to be proactive and fix it. Sitting and stressing about the actual situation itself, the turmoil I’m in, won’t help. Now, of course it’s easy to say this when it’s little annoyances where I can just take a deep breath and realize it’s not a big deal. But for the bigger stresses, of course it will be, and has been, harder to remain calm.

In Vietnam when Tyler and I had bedbugs in our bag, were trying to find a laundry place with a dryer that was open and I found fresh bedbugs bites underneath the line of my pants, I was stressing. That was because I had absolutely no idea how we were going to sort it out. All of our grand ideas were being smote by logistics, like my ingenious idea to borrow a pot from a restaurant and boil all of our belongings. The idea seemed like gold until I envisioned trying to explain that to a manager or restaurant cook. So in this brief moment of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I sat on the road and half laughed, half cried. But even in that moment, I was still asking what we were going to do, how we could get out of this and fix it. When I had more creepy, crawly friends in Bali, I shook my head and repeated “as if this is happening again”, but I did that while I unloaded my bag and dragged my stuff to the cleaners to cook out my little friends. Unlike the first time, I didn’t wallow; I just went straight away to fixing it. No stress and as little frustration as I could probably have managed with those little shits.

It’s just an alteration in my perspective. It’s the ability to take a step back from my immediate surroundings and see the bigger picture. It’s a struggle sometimes to not explode at someone for doing something irritating to me, so I often repeat this question to myself, and to others as well.

Take a deep breath; it’s probably not that big a deal.

3. Going with the flow doesn’t necessarily make me a pushover

The big question, given this post where I outlined what I am looking to accomplish in myself on this trip: am I less of a pushover now than I was before? I don’t really know, to be honest, but I do have a better understanding of what makes me a pushover. Sometimes I have a clear idea of what I want, and I think I’m better at it, but sometimes I still have no idea and have to wrestle with myself for days. I am less afraid to voice what I want, but sometimes I choose not to voice it. I am still very go-with-the-flow and very empathetic (sometimes hitting doormat status, unfortunately).

I am okay with all of this, actually. I am still working on not letting people walk all over me, but 7 months isn’t really long enough to win a battle against what I would probably call my nature (if you’ll bear with my melodrama here). So I am actively striving to balance myself on the thin line between going with the flow and being a pushover. Sometimes I fall off into pushovery, but I pull myself back up. I’m less timid to disagree, less timid to say that I want something else instead. Baby steps.

4. Find adventure and wonder in the ordinary

Somewhere along the road of life, I lost a part of myself that I really value. I didn’t even realize it was missing until I found it again. When I was younger (circa 2009), I smiled at and chatted with strangers all the time. I always had such crazy, interesting and amazing stories because people came up to me and I engaged with them. I’m not sure at what point I stopped doing that, stopped interacting with strangers. But in Asia, I started again and remembered how happy it makes me to make a complete stranger smile, or how wonderful it is to say hello to someone on the street and spend the next hour, day, however long with them, and how much fun it is to have a strange and ludicrous and wonderful conversation with someone I didn’t know existed 5 minutes before.

When I was leaving Thailand for the last time, on my way to Mexico, the guard who stamped my passport was in a really good mood, so was I, and he looked at my passport photo, puffed out his cheeks and started laughing (I guess he thought I looked fat in my picture – Thai people are very honest like that). I laughed, and he wouldn’t stamp my passport, he just kept looking at me and then my passport and laughing. This whole ordeal got the people in the line behind me laughing as well, and we all shared this happy little 2 a.m. moment together.

I love stories like this, and they happen to me quite often because the repercussion of having a kind face is that people come up and speak to me all the time, whether or not I engage. So when I engage, interesting and amazing interactions will definitely happen more often. So as A Modern-Day Odyssey (my travel section) comes to a temporary close, I am beginning a new section: Adventure in the Ordinary, wherein I will share these little anecdotes of random things that happen to me. Sometimes I will tell the stories of others, sometimes I will tell stories of my interactions with others. The point of this section, as the title suggests, is that I don’t need to be gallivanting around the world to have adventures. I can and I will find adventure in the ordinary.

5. This is the most beautiful moment

This simple mantra is probably the most valuable thing I have come away with from this trip. It has helped me get through moments of worry and and sadness and frustration and other foul but inevitable emotions. Worry especially. Worry can be toxic, especially for someone like me who is overly concerned about offending or upsetting others and being judged by others, and by simply repeating this mantra to myself, I can curb my worry. It quietly tells me to let go of that which I cannot control. The past, the future, other people, these are all things that I cannot control, and so it is only detrimental to worry about what might happen, what has happened, what others are doing. This mantra pulls me out of what I find can be a spiral of worry and frustration. It guides me back to the moment I am in right now. It makes me look around at my own surroundings, really look and appreciate what’s around me. I don’t want to sink back into complacency and worry, where I float from day to day hoping tomorrow will come sooner, or going back over yesterdays wishing I could change them. I want to be present. I want to be in this moment right here, none other, to be aware of the things going on around me, and appreciate them. I never want to forget this mantra, so I will keep it with me forever, on my foot to ground myself in this beautiful moment in time.

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By no means am I saying that I will never stress again, that I will never worry again, or never allow someone to take advantage of my kindness again. I’m sure it will happen. I’m sure I will stray from these lessons from time to time. That’s partially why I’m writing them out, putting them out in the universe so I can consult them if I stumble. But I am going to strive to keep to these, to continue being the happiest and best version of myself that I have discovered thus far in life.

Some bits of myself I’m sure have been lost or misplaced along this journey. I’m not worried about these pieces I’ve lost along the way. I’m not worried that I might lose these pieces that I’ve found again. As my beautiful and eloquent friend Natasha wrote to me once,

“I hope you lose yourself and find yourself and lose yourself again, and each time you get lost, you discover all the beauty this world has to offer”.

So maybe there’s more to be said about finding yourself than cliches and Julia Roberts movies.

Until Next Time,

Rachel Coulter

 


5 thoughts on “We live and we learn: 5 lessons from 7 months travelling alone

  1. An oldie but a goodie
    Robert Frost (1874–1963). Mountain Interval. 1920.

    1. The Road Not Taken

    TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same, 10

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

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