Dear Mum and Dad (and any other confused parents out there),
I’m writing this from a hostel in Manali, Himachal Pradesh in India. It’s less than a week before I fly back home and, to be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. The last four months have been a fantastic experience, and there is a lot I’m going to miss about my time here. But, of course, I’m looking forward to seeing you too!
You weren’t too keen on the idea of me spending so long away by myself and I know you felt confused as to why I’d stop work and leave the country. I guess it did seem strange that at 29 I’d suddenly decide to take half a year out. It’s not like I just finished school or university and could call it a ‘gap year’, and my career is just starting to take off. My siblings aren’t roaming about the planet either – they’re happily married, enjoying raising their young children like you were at my age.
I didn’t do the best job of explaining myself when I was still at home so I thought I’d try again…
I’m not sure if I told you that the idea of this trip started last year when I went to Costa Rica for a couple of weeks. I met so many people in their twenties who’d quit their jobs (or had yet to acquire one) in favour of seeing the world. I said to myself then: “A year from now, unless there is something really significant keeping me at home, I’m going to do the same.” I sealed the deal with a verbal promise to a group of backpackers over a pizza in San José, the night before I flew home. I couldn’t tell you who they were, but in-the-flesh witnesses made it real.
Before I knew it, nearly a year had flown by. Of course I questioned myself – was that commitment a momentary, holiday-fuelled madness? Or should I listen to the ‘me’ with the 35l backpack and do it? On the one hand, it seemed that I really should. I’m in the final year of my twenties, I don’t have a family, and I can’t imagine just working non-stop until retirement. Now or never, right?
On the other, I really wondered about the sanity of leaving a job I enjoy. Luckily for me, no such decision had to be made – my boss was wonderfully supportive and agreed to some time off. (Mum, I still remember your incredulity that evening as we had a drink outside on Charlotte Street!)
But what is it that so appeals about travel – and in particular extended travel, alone? Wouldn’t a nice holiday with friends in a far-flung destination do? I suppose if I really look at it, it comes down to freedom. Yes, I love seeing new places, learning about different cultures and meeting people from around the world; there is always a thrill to clearing passport control in a new country. I still remember our collective excitement as we crossed European borders on our family road-trip to Switzerland nearly 20 years ago!
My time in India has certainly offered an abundance of new places, culture shock and learning from others with new and different perspectives – both locals and other foreign travelers. But there is something else that comes with backpacking, especially if you have the gift of time.
I’d always dreamed of booking a one way ticket somewhere, with time enough to not know what I’d do and where I’d go…except for with the flow. And this time I could do it! It was as wonderfully liberating as I imagined. Sometimes you don’t even need to do everything you think of (I abandoned my earlier ideas of visiting China, Indonesia, and Nepal) just being able to dream in a realm of real possibility is enough.
Along with lots of time, the best thing is when you go alone. It can be scary – definitely for the first time. Get past this though, and the freedom that comes with being your own boss for four months is incredible.
But you know what…. the best thing about solo travel is that it is almost never truly ‘solo’. Being by yourself forces you to talk to other people, and the backpacker community is invariably welcoming. Truthfully, I’ve felt far lonelier at home in London-town, despite the many friends I have there, than I ever have when travelling. And the friendships I’ve made while here in India, and on other trips, have a special place in my heart – whether we meet again or not.
Of course it’s not always a walk in the park. Sometimes I found myself in stressful situations (which probably caused you even more stress from afar). I completely lost it when I found out my bus driver was drunk, and when someone tried to pilfer from my handbag. But being exposed to new things, dealing with inevitable challenges, combined with the time and freedom to explore, mean you discover new sides to yourself.
It’s a cliché, and a joke that lots of people have thrown my way before a trip. Still, there is some truth in it. One of my favourite moments over the last few months was when George, who I met on the road, remarked on how ‘easy going’ and ‘relaxed’ I am as a travel partner. I don’t think these are words that have ever been used to describe me at home (much less at work). I wouldn’t say ‘I found myself’ but I certainly hope that I can manage to bring some of this self home with me.
Perhaps you knew all this already – I don’t think there is anything particularly ground-breaking in what I’ve said – but at least it’s an insight into how I feel. Either way, thank you for being supportive, even when you were telling me I was mad. Thank you too for being there when I phoned home…but more importantly for giving me space and understanding when I didn’t.
See you next week!
P.s. Sorry about the nose-piercing Dad, I know it’s not really your thing but I think it looks nice. You can be glad I didn’t get a tattoo…this time at least ;)
Hannah is currently travelling in India, and is originally from Hertfordshire, England