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?

A Letter from the Future

Dear Seventeen-Year-Old-Me,

I would like to tell you that everything will be easy, that everything will fall into place and the next ten years will be a breeze – no worries, no challenges, no surprises. It would be nice if life could follow such simple processes; step one, step two, step three … For some people, it does. Finish high school, graduate University, get a job, get a promotion, find a partner, marry, get a mortgage, get a promotion, have children, get a second mortgage, watch those children grow up and find their way in the world, continue on your career path, splurge on a new car at least once, eventually retire.

Middle-class process.

But I remember you. And I remember what you think of the world, and you already know that this linear life of steps and stages, this middle-class process, is not for you. Not for us.

I would like to tell you that you celebrate this fact, but there are days when you will wish you had gone with the easier option, the career and the marriage and the mortgage.

But then there are days when you are in foreign countries that do not feel strange but feel like home.

I know you. I know you’re terrified of getting it all wrong but you present a facade of knowing what you’re doing to protect yourself. I know you have days when you smile and laugh but secretly hate yourself so much you wish you could simply disappear. I can’t wave a wand and make things easier for you, and I can’t tell you that they will get any easier, but I can tell you that everything you want right now, you have. And everything you hope for your future, you get.

There are days when you will envy the lives your friends have made for themselves – envy their wedding gowns, envy their laughing children, envy their lived-in homes with photographs on the walls and cats curled up on the backs of sofas, envy their supportive husbands.

There are days when you are told that your friends envy your life – envy your freedom, envy your lack of financial commitments, envy the lack of any commitment to anything other than your need to do something different.

There are days when you will regret every decision you have ever made.

There are days when you will recognise that everything you have ever done has brought you to this place – to the steps of the Taj Mahal, to the produce market in Chiang Mai, to the corner cafe in Lyon, to the gelato stand in Syracuse, to the ruins of a great city in Peru … And you have no regrets.

You get to do everything you wanted to do, some things you never thought you’d ever do, and a few things that seemed like a good idea at the time … You learn new languages and experience new cultures. You meet fascinating people and collect their stories. You fall in love. You fall out of love. Your heart will break into so many pieces that it will take years to pull it back together again – but you do.

The next ten years will not be easy. You will love, learn, travel, write, experience … and you will mourn, hurt, worry, fear, whimper.

You will never be homeless, though you’ll spend a few nights in interesting places. You will never be poor, though you’ll have some moments when you panic over your bank balance. You will never truly suffer, though you’ll feel the weight of the black dog in your lap pinning you down on more than one occasion.

What you will realise ten years from now is that happiness is not a permanent state of being. Happiness is in a constant state of flux. Happiness flows in and out of your life because it is not permanent. What I can promise you is that you will come to understand this, and you will come to recognise moments of joy and delight and happiness – some last seconds, some last days, some last weeks. And you will know that, ten years ago when you were seventeen and eager to hold the world in your hands, you could not have dreamed it would actually come true.

You are passionate, wild, and wonderful. Stay that way – for us.

– Future Stef

Happiness is …

This week my classes did an exercise in which they had to write about what makes them happy. A lot of the kids wrote about playing games on their iPads and, with some unbiased encouragement, eating ice cream and chocolate. Last night I sat in bed contemplating this activity, partly because I was interested in it and partly because I was so anxious about other factors in my life that I needed to focus on something that would distract me in a happy way, not in a brain-overload way.

So here is my take on happiness.

Happiness is settling into bed with a cup of tea and a book.
Happiness is my purring cat in my lap.
Happiness is the smell of freshly ground coffee.
Happiness is takeaway and movies with my sister.
Happiness is a hug from my Dad.
Happiness is a chat with my Mum.
Happiness is a long conversation with an old friend.
Happiness is a cupcake and belly-laughs.
Happiness is seeing my friends’ children grow, albeit from a distance.
Happiness is an out-of-the-blue text from a friend.
Happiness is a stamp in my passport.
Happiness is arriving in a new place and finding my way without getting (too) lost, and then intentionally getting lost the next day.
Happiness is having the confidence to do what I want.
Happiness is turning at the turnoff and finally arriving home after over 12 hours of driving.
Happiness is meeting my grandparents at the train station.
Happiness is rainbow porridge.
Happiness is belting out a song at the top of your lungs and laughing when you get the lyrics wrong.
Happiness is sitting on the edge of a floating city.
Happiness is dancing in the rain.
Happiness is spending the day in bed.
Happiness is writing.
Happiness is in memories.
Happiness is in possibilities.
Happiness is in me.

Image: donireewalker

What’s your happiness?