And then my suitcase began to sing

On the last night in my apartment in Singapore I finally squeezed the last book into my suitcase and burst into tears.

Of all the cliches, there are two that I cannot deny:

  1. it’s a small world
  2. time flies

Where have the two years gone? Between chasing children around a tiny classroom, organising the next travel adventure, and staring at a pile of books to read and scribbled story ideas to develop, I think it’s fair to say that two years passed in a suitable whirl. I travelled to places I never knew existed, met people who reminded me of the incredible power of the human spirit, and filled my soul with stories.

All of this culminated with one over-sized bubblegum-pink suitcase (purchased especially for The Return), a carry-on suitcase that I would avoid weighing, and one teary individual perched precariously on the brink of – yet another – breakdown.

And then my suitcase began to sing, lilting notes so faint and delicate that I thought I had imagined it. Startled, I opened my suitcase (too upset to be cautious – the books spilled forth) and discovered a little music box that had been bumped into song.

I dried my tears with laughter and set about readjusting the contents. It all seemed to fit much better after that, so I dragged my bags to the door and fell into bed. The next day I flew to Cambodia (with a backpack I eventually gave away and clothes I discarded to donation bins), then returned after a week to collect my bags and fly back to Australia.

And that is where I am now, sitting with a view of trees in a suburban bushland and feeling far more positive today than I have felt in some time. The Return has been emotional – the happiness of being with my family and seeing my friends has been marred with the anxiety that comes with being unemployed (I’m still looking) and suddenly aware that a quick trip to Vietnam is not possible from this location.

I fell into a slump long before I came back to Australia. Things are still working themselves out, but such is life. It feels like I spend a lot of time waiting for the perfect conditions, waiting for one thing to fall into place so everything else becomes worthy of my time and attention. I realise, now, that it will always be like that – there will always be something imperfect, something not quite right. There will always be a suitcase overflowing with stuff and a feeling of not being in full control.

Today, I am taking stock of everything that gives me joy, and working out how to keep the joy in my life. This blog has made it to the list, and while it will change because I have changed, it is something to which I Return after more than a year of intermittent posts and updates.

Joy also comes from my research. I spent yesterday at a conference and came home feeling a faint buzz beneath the exhaustion. Today, that buzz is a warm vibration as I consider where I am going with my research and how excited I am to have the time to spend focusing on my books and ideas.

Late last night on the long drive home, I belted out a song (out-of-tune, of course) and could not help but feel incredibly excited about getting back to it – the blog, the research, the writing, the reading, the coming to terms with things not always going “my way” but ending up being “a way that I can make work”.

No matter how out of control things become, how overstuffed and falling out and not quite working, there will be something singing from the depths – if you listen carefully – and maybe, just maybe, that song will help things fall into place.


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Travelling and Writing

I always knew I wanted to travel.

I boarded my first International flight alone at the age of fifteen to go to Italy on a two month student exchange program. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, though I was so nervous that I imagined leaving the gate and sprinting to find my mother, then apologising profusely but I just can’t go. Instead, I held back the tears – except for the first two which had fallen rebelliously – and boarded the plane.

This was the start of my father’s grey hair. It was also the start of my life as a Solo Traveller. I join the odd group, tag along on day trips, and occasionally find a friend who helps balance out the cost of travel (which tends to have extra charges when you’re Alone).

Forbidden City, China

Forbidden City, China – Photo by Stef Thompson

I always knew I wanted to travel. It’s one of my “forgotten loves” because I do it so often that it has simply become a part of my life. Some people move countries for their careers. Some people move countries because they have no choice. Some people move countries for love. In a way, that’s what I did. I moved to another country purely for the purpose of travel. I have travelled with a backpack on a budget and I have travelled with a suitcase and private car. I spend time and money travelling because it’s one of the things I love.

It is often said that it takes courage to do what you love. Travel is one of my loves, and some days I am surprised to realise that it took great courage not to run back to my mother when I was fifteen, just as it still takes courage to arrive in a new country Alone and not spend the entire time hiding in the hotel for fear of getting lost. I have been told that I have a life others want. I am often asked how I do it, but sometimes this is a question that isn’t about money or time but strength and confidence. My mother once told me I am brave. I didn’t feel brave when I stepped off a cliff in Turkey and spent the entire time I was paragliding screaming “Put me down!”

waiting for the wind - paragliding in Kas, Turkey

Waiting for the wind in Kas, Turkey –
Photo by Stef Thompson

I’ve never had a job I’ve really loved. When I get caught up in the boring details of the job I have but do not enjoy, I am told – usually by my mother, because she is my mother and she tells me a lot of things in a way that only mothers can – to do what I love. She means I should write. And I should. But not yet. Why? I’m still travelling. I write, certainly, but not as often or as consistently as I should. And I’ve been hard on myself for that, but now I realise that I’ve been working to fund my travels, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. One day I’ll give Writing the time and money I have given Travel. First, I have to collect stories. Soon, I’ll write them. Really write them.

Sometimes I forget that I am already doing what I love. I always knew I wanted to travel. I always knew I wanted to write. I’m already doing what I love, I just forget that sometimes. Travel has become such a significant part of my life that it simply is. One day, writing will be like that, too.

Are you doing what you love?


Hello. My name is Stef and I am an addict.

I have never taken drugs. Aside from the odd prescription when I’m sick, or aspirin when my head starts to pound, I’m drug-free. Of course, there’s coffee – apparently that’s a drug. And there’s alcohol – I can’t resist a good glass bottle of red (my monthly budget has a separate allowance for wine). That’s it. Drug-free.

So why do I get cravings? Why do I get withdrawals? Why, when I have not read a book for a week, do I start to twitch? Why, when I am out and do not have a book with me, do I feel anxious? Why, when I am at work or a social event, do I think about the next chance I’ll have to read?

During my university studies I barely read a book I didn’t need to read. Fortunately, being an English major, that still meant I was reading plenty of books. Then I stopped. I didn’t stop completely, but I probably averaged 3-5 books in a year. Yes. A year.

Since I started keeping records of books I have read, my reading habits have changed. I set the goal of “a book a week” with the aim of reading 52 books each year. Last year was a bit of a struggle. Funnily enough, I was spending so much time writing that reading was being sidelined. I was addicted to writing last year, this year it’s reading. I have an addictive personality. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve never bothered to try smoking – I know I’d be hooked fairly quickly. It’s also one of the reasons why I need to delete Candy Crush Saga from my iPhone, but haven’t yet. I will. Soon. Promise.

When I think of all the things I could be addicted to, literature isn’t the most self-destructive addiction out there. Some would argue that it isn’t self-destructive at all, but they have probably never spent a week eating boiled rice and foraging for anything in the depths of the freezer hoping Forward-Thinking-Past-Me had left some kind of sustenance in preparation for when the bank account hits $3.92 with another week until pay-day. All because buying 20 books in a week seemed like a perfectly good idea. (And it was. I don’t regret my one week of rice.)

I blame my mother. I know it’s a common scapegoat, the mother thing, but it’s true. Even in our most rice-filled weeks, we seemed to have money for books and CDs (back when CDs were cool). “There’s always money for books and music!” she would declare, whipping out a credit card.

In fairness, I also blame my father. He’s the quiet one, the one you really need to watch. He’s the one who spends afternoons with his feet up and a book in his hands. (The book usually ends up resting on his chest when he starts snoring.) He’s the one who gave me free-reign on the triple-layered bookshelves in the living room – action and adventure books designed to entertain. And entertain they did.

It’s books. Books, books, books. Even my landlord commented on the over-burdened shelves and queried what I was going to do with them all when I return to Australia. To me, the answer was obvious. I’ll throw out old clothes that aren’t worth keeping. I’ll give away kitchen appliances and sell off furniture. The books? They’re coming with me.

So, I’m an addict. I hope this doesn’t change your opinion of me.