I guess they say, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” for a reason, because the last five years have flown by so quickly that sometimes I look back and it almost seems like a never-ending whirlwind. At the same time, however, when I think back to that moment when I arrived in Cape Town in November 2014 on my first big solo trip, it also feels like a lifetime ago. Perhaps, because I’ve almost packed an entire lifetime’s worth of adventures into the five years since.
I feel as though I am a completely different person to that girl who arrived in South Africa with 14 months of non-stop moving across three continents in front of her. I think differently, I act and react differently, I feel different and I certainly travel differently. But I guess after so many vast experiences in so many countries, it’s impossible not to be changed by them. Although, the one thing that I’m glad hasn’t changed is my untameable and deep desire to see and experience everything that the world has to offer. I honestly thought that that one long trip I left for in 2014 would satisfy my wanderlust, and yet, here we are, and I somehow think that no trip ever will.
It’s difficult to explain and put into words what I’ve actually learnt from the last five years and what all of this travelling has taught me (I’m sorry if you were looking for some wise words from a well-travelled soul). Perhaps because it’s taught me an immeasurable and unexplainable number of things about everything; myself, humanity, the world we live, society. I can’t possibly put it into words because it would fill pages and pages and still not fully explain everything that I’ve learnt. But the one thing I can say that it’s taught me, is that there is so much left to learn that I could keep searching and exploring for the rest of my life and never saturate everything that this planet has to offer.
I could list obvious and generic things like travelling has made me more self-aware, more confident, more patient… blah, blah, blah. That’s the boring kind of stuff you’d write in a cover letter for a job application. But if scientists were to say that they discovered travelling alters your body’s cells, your very DNA, then I wouldn’t be all that surprised. It’s a phenomenon that you can’t really explain unless you experience it.
Unfortunately, the lessons learnt, the transformational nature of travel aren’t the things most people want to know about anyway. Most people want to know what my favourite country is, my best experience or highlight of a certain trip; those very questions that I dislike the most.
They assume that it’s so simple for me to single out moments and places and untie them from the whole journey.
I find it difficult to look at certain things I’ve done or cities I’ve visited as a singular event because I don’t think that anything I do is done in solitude. I tend to make decisions, whether they be last minute or premeditated, based on an accumulation of experiences and feelings, whereby nothing necessarily makes absolute sense unless you understand all that I’ve done before and want to do going forward.
That’s why it’s also difficult for me to reflect on the last five years of solo travelling; to decipher exactly how I’ve grown and changed. I often catch myself sometimes thinking back to that first trip where I travelled to 28 countries in 14 months and think why did I travel so fast, why did I splurge on so many of those big travel bucket list experiences, when it’s so different to how I travel now. But I think that’s the key. I travel the way I do now because of how and where I travelled before. I’ve moved and transformed the way I travel because I’ve learnt by doing and by feeling. I now travel considerably slower, more consciously and much more on a whim, with very little, if any, plans at all.
Still, I travel a LOT. Do I think that it’s possible to travel too much? In some ways, yes. I’ve noticed that there is such a thing as ‘overtravelling’. I find myself comparing places; I’m constantly thinking to myself that this was kind of like what I saw in that place and that is kind of similar to this place. I compare everything from deserts to cultural practices to public transport systems, for no other reason than to notice similarities and to find comfort in things that I know or have seen before. If a metro system is the same as another place that I’ve been then that’s one less thing that I have to learn in a new country. It can be detrimental too, however.
For example, “Did you like the sand dunes in Iran?” “Um, yeah I guess, but it’s not quite as good as the Sahara in Morocco.” This is travel arrogance at its finest and I’ve definitely felt overwhelmed by it sometimes.
However, these very realities of ‘overtravelling’ have turned me away from the travel statistics and I’m starting to ignore the country counting and the bucket list ticking. I used to have the number of countries I’ve visited on my Instagram profile like many other travel bloggers, but I took it off months ago now, because it doesn’t really matter anymore.
I don’t travel to say I’ve been somewhere; I travel because I want to experience places, people and landscapes, irrespective of number.
You could spend your life travelling to every country in the world or you could spend your entire life travelling just within India, and both could be equally satisfying and life changing. It depends on how you go about it, the experiences you sought and what you take away from it.
At the same time, there is of course a million things in my head that I still want to see and do. From the Trans-Siberian Railway to travelling the full length of the Silk Road to trekking in Patagonia, I’ve got plenty of ‘bucket list’-worthy things left that I want to do in my lifetime. However, if there’s one thing that I have learnt from the last five years (so maybe I will share one lesson after all), it’s that it’s often the unexpected places, the random encounters with people, the last minute changes to plans, the failed attempts at using public transport, the scary moments during a storm in the Himalayas; these are what make travel what it is. They make travel the incredible, transformational and soul clenching thing that it is.
If you’d asked me when I was 12 what I would be doing when I was 26, it probably wasn’t going to be: sitting in a homestay in southern Armenia during winter, snuggled next to a fire and trying to write a reflection on my last five years of solo travelling. I’m pretty sure I would have said that I would have been done with travelling by now, ready to move on with normal life.
But whatever that ‘normal life’ is, I’m pretty certain that I don’t want it now. Because this, this is really living.
And it doesn’t have to come in the way of full-time adventures. I am certainly not trekking in the Himalayas every day or meeting remote tribes in Northeast India every week. I’m learning that it’s okay to just sit in a cafe in Tbilisi for a day or not get out of bed before 11am. I also still go home to some sense of normalcy occasionally. But it’s the decision to live based on my own terms, to follow my passions, to explore wholeheartedly and to stay curious, this is the nature of travel and of having a fulfilling life, no matter what it is that you do.
There are literally a million things I could have written here. But this is what I’ve managed to put down in the last two hours and so, it must be a pretty good reflection on where I am at right now. So that’s it. Here’s to the next five years of adventures, whatever that is going to look like.