I love the questions that readers of this blog occasionally ask about travel, life and the big choices we make as we negotiate our paths through it. Not because I have any answers in the maths-exam sense of the word, but because it’s an opportunity to stop, look back and regain some perspective. A reader sent me an email the other day which echoes some themes that have been bouncing around unusually often in conversation with some fellow journalists-to-be and with my online travel friends, so to make the universe happy, I have published the replies here in the hope that it might be useful to others. There may be no answers, but ideas might be the next best thing.
How are you meant to know if writing is the road you should travel in life?
Though it may seem a little counterintuitive, given the title of this blog, I don’t subscribe to the idea of single roads in life. I used to – in school, and early university – I thought life was about specialising in something useful (where useful meant earning lots and lots of money). Somewhere along the line though, I started to think about it a little too much, started to turn a mind so trained to solve questions I was given in class towards solving questions in life. Earning money purely for the sake of owning more and better stuff seemed no real reason to decide to commit to one, and only one, specialised future path. Moreover, the idea of having to only decide to do one thing with your life, to the exclusion of so many other possible adventures seemed to me to be a little bankrupt as an overall philosophical outlook. The world is so big. There are so many things to see, activities to try and skills to master, that committing to any particular one when I knew there were so many others left untasted seemed an unconscionable waste of my life.
Which is a long way of getting to this point.
The things that we imagine ourselves most excited at doing are the things that, if not done, will come back as what ifs that you will never truly shake
If something inspires you, if it makes you really, truly excited to think of yourself doing it, then do it. Even if you are not fantastic at it, even if you look a little gawky, do it. The things that we imagine ourselves most excited at doing are the things that, if not done, will come back as what ifs that you will never truly shake. For no other reason than because they make life colourful, exciting, they should be pursued. If there are other things that inspire you similarly, then they should be pursued too – as far and as well as you can. It’s a sad world we live in when a lawyer can’t entertain a dream of running a restaurant. When a computer programmer can’t dream of writing. We are not single, specialised tools. If you believe in writing – if it makes you excited – then do it. It’s seldom a case of ‘either-or’ in life, more often a case of ‘as well’. You would be surprised how flexible the world actually is to letting you do many different, wholly unrelated things with your life.
Traveling – what made you go for it?
Sometime back in 2004, I found myself backpacking Malaysia after a world championships debating competition I had competed in. I hadn’t really even heard of the idea of backpacking at that point, much less realised how many people all over the world had created lives around the practice. As I traveled though, I started to confront the inescapable reality that mine was in fact one idiosyncratic little existence among literally billions of possible ways of seeing the world, seeing people, politics, every aspect of life.
It was no longer a case of not being able to forget all I was seeing and learning, but a case of no longer wanting to
Returning back home afterwards, the die was cast. Like a Pandora’s Box, once opened, travel left me changed. That fundamental realisation that how it is in my home, in my community, is not the only way it could be, or even the right way for it to be, would undermine every message I was told about how I ‘should’ grow up. There were some intervening years of studying, aimless teeth-gnashing about how I was meant to live, until 2007, when I would return to the East. This time, traveling through Laos and Cambodia in particularly, I fell in love with the idea of being off the map of the world I knew. Fell in love with the idea of discovering for myself other ways of how the world could be. How it could be seen, valued, lived in. It was no longer a case of not being able to forget all I was seeing and learning, but a case of no longer wanting to. No longer believing that ignoring the rest of the world and doing what my own community told me to was right anymore. Not even, fundamentally, believing in simplistic ideas of right. Of goodies and baddies, people like me and faceless ‘others’.
Subsequently I would find myself in Mozambique, meeting and traveling with people who believed as I do. It was the first time I realised that wanting to travel, to explore, to probe, was an understandable drive to other people too. It made this philosophy OK. Gave me courage.
Then, at the end of last year, I decided to push this experiment in going to new places, to challenging myself, one step further. So I backpacked from Cape Town to Cairo. I didn’t die. I came back stronger. I learned more about the world and myself than I had ever suspected I would. I realised that travel-as-learning could keep me enthralled my whole life long. I could never see myself tiring of the stories, unusual places and constant rolling back of my ideas of what was possible, normal and right. I wanted to learn to contribute somehow though – not to simply be a collector of stories for my own learning, but to find a way to share the places and experiences I found with others who might also see in them lessons that resonate with their own convictions. So on my return home, I enrolled in a year-long course in journalism. Where I go from here, I have no idea. But it will never be backwards.
Any advice for a loner female traveler?
Her experiences are not unique – there are many other female travelers in it for the long haul
I would be lying if I said that everywhere in the world is non-sexist, tolerant and understands the idea of lone females traveling out of a backpack. That said, more is possible than you realise. In Sudan, I met a girl who had been traveling solo for the last four or so years, with the last nine months in Africa alone. She too had covered the length of the continent by herself. Through a mix of couchsurfing with credible hosts and a bit of assistance from her Sudanese couchsurfing hosts, she had not only made it through places that conventional wisdom would suggest are impossible terrain for solo females, but she had also had a far more intimate experience of local life than I had ever had access to. Her experiences are not unique – there are many other female travelers in it for the long haul and there is even a newsletter for female travelers which deals with more than I ever could.
So while I would absolutely endorse being careful, respecting local customs and doing your research ahead of time, know that being a lone female traveler need not cut you off from places your male colleagues may be able to explore. The world is, by and large, a bigger and more accommodating place than hyperbolic news reports would have you believe.
Any other advice?
I could yap on forever, but if there was only one last thought that I could leave, it would be this. Live.
We have time and we have our dreams. The universe is watching to see what we make of that combination. Once you confront that inescapable reality, something in you will stir. Follow it wherever it leads and never let it go.