Life after travelling

My year abroad taught me many things. About life and about the world and about people and about contentedness.  I’ve been back home 6 months now and thought it apt to reflect on the decisions, the journey and what I’ve learnt being back home.

Life before travelling

Before I started pursuing my travels, I was your average eight-to-five-and-sometimes-later’er who spent Friday nights celebrating the end of a brutal week with a double and a sharing session with friends. Sure, we enjoyed our jobs and we had good fun embarking on local adventures and participating in local activities.

But what I think served as a shield from enlightenment was our lack of that sense of awe of the world and of the universe. Life had become such a day-to-day thing that our tunnel vision left us, to some extent, in the dark.

I’ve written quite a bit about how travelling changed me and my mindset, but it seems that it had this profound impact because it was such a significant upgrade on the outlook I had on life before I broke free.

Why I went travelling

By no means was I unhappy.

I think I just needed to learn to appreciate everything around me more. To wake up in the morning with fresh eyes. Because we tend to stare out across foreign oceans with more awe than we do our own. Which is pretty stupid on our part. But it remains inevitable.

I imagine many of us young folk have this desire for adventure. We have a picture in our mind of an inconspicuously placed wooden swing under a palm tree on a flawless beach with turquoise water. Or a rooftop scene with a small table and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape with two glasses and a full moon. It’s what the internet people want you to imagine. It’s how they sell trips.

What I desired was to know more and see more and feel more and nothing quite makes this happen for me like looking out of a train window across a landscape I’ve never seen before. Or walking through a new street and absorbing that foreign feeling of hearing a new language all around me.

For me, it was less about a getaway and more about living the life. I wanted to, for at least a little while, be like them. Live like them. Talk like them. Be them.

I wanted to live a different life. If I lived a different life, maybe the quarter-life crisis and the doubts would fade and the questions would be answered and I would finally know my true self. Away from peer and cultural and religious influence. It would be me making decisions based on the self I really was and not the self I was expected to be. Just a pure me. The me I want to be.

It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt said:

It’s your life – but only if you make it so. The standards by which you live must be your own standards, your own values, your own convictions in regard to what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is important and what is trivial. When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else or a community or a pressure group, you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.

Life while travelling

Loved every minute ‘cause it made me feel so alive.

It was perfect. Most days. I built a new support system on my own terms. I chose friends who shared my outlook on life. I chose to carry myself with confidence. To venture to new places alone. To dive into adventure.

Travelling taught me that you can find friendship in the strangest and most unsuspecting of places. That you can connect with strangers on a level far deeper than lifelong friends. That you can find your place in this world through connecting with others like you. And that it is up to you to reach out and connect and grow with those around you in order to find that sense of belonging.

It also taught me that “having it all” isn’t something to try and achieve but something to try and develop within yourself. It’s not about things. It’s not about places. It’s about you and the self you build and the reasons you believe you can be proud of that person.

Life after travelling

So what, then, do you do when you come back home and you find yourself right back at the dawn of question number one and two – who am I and what am I in this world?

Inevitably, travelling cannot be a lifelong thing. Somewhere along the way you have to stabilise your life in order to fulfill other desires such as having your own little place where you can play your piano. Grow your vegetable garden. Cultivate your spices. Raise your dogs.

So you find yourself sitting on this fence in the midst of responsibility and adventure and your being is torn through its centre.

But what I’ve learnt, as time has gone by in my little hometown, is that this new me that has surfaced – the individual whom I have developed on my own terms and in my own pursuit of meaning –  has outgrown the old me.  I do not want the same things anymore.

And the toughest part of that realisation is admitting that the life you need to build for yourself from here on out will not compare to the one you lived before you left. And through this process, you might lose some friends and you might go through a whole new level of self-discovery. And it’s not easy and some days you will feel more lost at home than you did before your journey started.

But it’s your responsibility to cultivate this new appreciation for life and for yourself and to be strong in your conviction that you have everything you need to build the life you desire. A life built on your own principles and your own confidence and your own vision.

Your adventure never ended.

It has only just begun.

9 Countries | 19 Cities | 365 Days

There’s a song I listen to every time I’m about to leave a place. It gives me a feeling of coming home. Like all the Lego blocks fit just right to build up a little place for my soul to rest in.

For a long time I believed that home was something I would find looking out from atop mountains or sitting next to rivers or peering across endless farmland. I thought I’d find my home hopping across countries and oceans and continents. I thought that it would have a name and that it would have a little space for me to live in.

But once I found it wasn’t a place, I started thinking that maybe home was something you build inside yourself. Through discovering what you want from life and what kind of person you want to be from here on out. It takes a really long time and a lot of hurdles before you reach a point where you can go “Yes. This is who I want to be. This is someone I can be proud of.”

But as soon as you’ve reached that point where you can look at yourself in the mirror and smile without cringing, you somehow find that, still, that is not enough. Being content with yourself is only one little Lego piece needed to build the home you’re so eager for.

Because after a year of pondering its meaning, what I found home to truly be, is the people you surround yourself with.

It’s all those souls you meet along the way who make you feel less alone in this world.

So this is my goodbye to the home I built here in Neverland. To my replacement family who gave me more than I could’ve hoped for. To the folk I met on my travels who gave me all the memories. And most importantly, to the friends who helped me live through this year with no single ounce of regret.

Doei, Nederland! Het was echt een leuke feest!! I love you and I’ll miss you xxx

On being The Foreigner

Travelling is amazing and uplifting and inspiring and life-changing. It has taught me a whole lot about the world and about myself, but I’ve been failing to put the whole experience into words lately.

This is mostly because I tend to be quite sceptical about things and my past year has been a real positive one, so I haven’t really decided yet where I need to shove my cynicism.

However, I had a discussion with a good, new friend over a beer the other night and have finally found a way to express a little something about this experience. So right now, I’d like to place emphasis on one very real reality… which is the phenomenon of being the foreigner.

People generally tend to like the foreigner.

You’re interesting because you come from a different world and you speak a different language and you were raised with strange traditions and customs that are fascinating and sometimes even exciting. When you speak English you have a weird accent that few people are able to pinpoint and sometimes the way you do things is simply laughable to these new-country people.

It’s fun for locals to chat to you, find out about your life and stalk your Facebook profile to try and gauge what your country looks like and what kind of people your friends and family are. It’s just as fun to talk about you because having a foreigner in town somehow seems to be fundamentally noteworthy.

Being the new, foreign girl is similarly thrilling for you yourself. Not only because you’re immersing yourself in this new world but also because you know that, to them, you’re interesting. Your visit here somehow gains more purpose when you discover that the people you converse with are also learning new things about the world with you being here. They find your language and your background entertaining, and somehow their interest makes you appreciate where you come from and who you are.

Though at some point, you’ll start wondering whether these locals actually consider you a friend, or whether you’re simply a temporary form of entertainment to them with your weirdness and your awe of their country.

Being the foreigner, realistically, gives you little chance at blending in.

Even after 11 months of trying to perfect my Dutch accent, people will probably always notice that I sound a little bit like a goat (apparently) when I speak it. Being super short, not having blonde hair and lacking the ability to cycle 5 km’s and still look like a total babe undoubtedly makes me very not Dutch. No amount of time in this country will ever change that and I will always be the tiny alien from Africa.

And somehow, living in the shadow of your foreigner status, the place you’ve travelled to hardly becomes home. It gets pretty close to it. Some days I feel so normal it’s like I never travelled far to get here at all. After some time, people warm up towards you. The lady at the supermarket learns your name and the bakery dude gives you a special yet creepy “I already know what you’re gonna buy” nod when you enter his shop lately. The barman does this too.

But this still somehow is not home. You’re from a different world. Your past is there and your people are there and that is where your heart is embedded.

And some days, missing a place that is so very far away can cause for the hurt to travel straight to the fibers in your bones.

But there is a way to overcome your foreigner feeling.

When I left home the first time to go to Italy, I wrote about how Paulo Coelho made me feel less foreign through the words in his book, O Aleph. On a journey through Russia to promote his new novel, the main character has a couple of revelations about moving through spaces where everyone and everything is unlike anything you’ve come to know. Somehow he managed to discover that we, as foreigners, are not that much different from the locals…

Because we are all travelling. We are all full of the same questions, the same tiredness, the same fears, the same selfishness and the same generosity.

We are human. And so we innately have something in common with everyone who crosses our path. We may be from different worlds. We may eat different foods. We may drive on different sides of the road. But we all live in this world and the world is small and our fears are frighteningly similar.

And as such, you reach a point where, even when you order a beer in Dutch and they look at you with a smirk on their face, you enjoy that beer like a local. And even when you still struggle to pull away up a hill with your bicycle, you build your confidence right back up again with your ability to cycle with only one hand.

Because no matter how foreign you are and how much you simply do not fit in, this experience has shaped you in ways that make you more aware of the world than you would’ve become simply sitting there at the southern tip of Africa.

So be foreign. Be weird. Be different. Annoy the shit out of the locals with your foreignness. Just make sure you leave something positive behind for them to remember your people by. They may forget you. But you represent a nation when you enter the world. You represent a language and a culture and, essentially, a country.

So make their memory a good one.