I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I bundled myself out the door of my home country, pale and ill from the weeks of stress leading up to departure. My lack of enthusiasm was a paradox that had puzzled people as D-Day approached, assuming as they did that I would to be more excited about the trip of a lifetime. Instead, a mixture of fear and sombre determination kneaded my stomach as I dragged my absurdly heavy suitcase through Heathrow airport, considering the likelihood that this was all a huge mistake.
An instinct told me I had to change something in a big way in order to figure out how to feel… well… happy. It was a captivating feeling that I couldn’t explain to people. It was vague and ethereal yet tapped me on the shoulder with coercive urgency that the time was now or never. It was easier to allow everyone to assume that I was travelling in the traditional sense – doing a gap year or something, if a little late in life.
That was more than three years ago. I’ve been travelling continuously ever since, though I use the word ‘travelling’ very loosely. Even after all this time I don’t consider myself a traveller. I don’t do ‘travelling’ like the other people I meet or like people on the travel blogs and definitely not like people on Instagram. I stay in the same place for a long time; in three years I’ve made it to just three countries. I set up bank accounts and register with tax authorities and buy a local SIM card, changing my phone number every time I get to a new land. The practical reason for this is that I have to earn money wherever I am in order to survive and finding a job is easier when you stay in the same place for a while. The philosophical reason is that visiting somewhere to merely sightsee, take some pictures and sample the regional cuisine is not enough for me. A few days or weeks in a place only provide a skin-deep understanding and I’m not satisfied with that superficiality.
I think deeply about life, continuously gathering notes for my own private, never-ending sociological study. I want to know about culture and history and the nitty-gritty that makes people who they are. I’m less of a traveller and more of a wandering philosopher, bespectacled and sandled perched on a rock with a hand on my chin and a head full of thoughts. The universe gave me a lifelong supply of curiosity and that is the zephyr that guides me through this strange and disorderly existence.
Exploring different countries in this way has enabled me to reflect deeply on my own experiences. I have drastically changed my opinion on various issues since leaving my home country, most acutely my opinion of my home country. I’ve learned a great deal about myself, being forced as I have to untangle the decades of buried psychological detritus we all accumulate. As the layers of identity were peeled away – things we all cling to; the job, the car, the relationship, the routines, the academic achievements – I had nothing to hide behind any more. It was just me and the jarring expanse of empty nothingness that comes from being on the other side of the world on your own. This has launched me onto a trajectory of rapid personal growth, and as difficult and painful as that process has been I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Roaming for such a long time has forced me to let go. I slowly emancipated myself of both physical items and emotional weights; stuff I’d held on to for reasons that seem silly now but were important at the time. The meagre suitcase-sized space I have to store all of my belongings has turned me into a ruthless clutter hater, embracing a minimal lifestyle where only essential items get to come with me, which is a liberating experience in itself.
My travel experiment has meant becoming accustomed to living in a kind of mundane, chaotic uncertainty. In a previous life I would try to control outcomes and become frustrated when things didn’t pan out the way I wanted them to, which of course they rarely do. But I discovered a tranquillity that comes from allowing life to unfold; slipping the reins through your fingers and accepting that you will end up somewhere you were not expecting. That place, in my experience, is usually better and always more interesting than whatever you were wishing for. I began to see that there is opportunity in adversity, and once the initial shock of a ‘disaster’ wore off it became fertile soil of possibility. Such flexibility in the twists and turns of life is what therapists call ‘resilience,’ an essential skill required to quickly bounce back from the normal (or abnormal!) stresses of life.
These are all things I’ve learned from hurling myself into this wandering lifestyle. And while I haven’t quite figured out how to be happy, I reckon I’m closer than ever to the answer.
I know that comparison makes me miserable, yet I regularly compare myself to other ‘travellers’ when putting together these articles. I scroll through the dreaded travel bit of Instagram and am slapped with the painful realisation that I’m not part of the cool digital nomad crew. I’m not hustling to achieve my dreams, swaying in a hammock in Thailand and changing the world from my laptop one post at a time. I’m trying to make sense of life, not influence other people’s opinion of it, and I’ll save my feelings about hustle culture for another day. I’m not very cool, either. I’m just Bella; goofy and introverted and self-conscious, thinking too much and having no idea what I’m doing.
Being riddled with doubt, instead of valuing the thing that I’m doing, I disqualify myself because it’s different to what others are up to. My way of ‘doing travel’ seems so weird and nothing like travel in the traditional sense. Alas, I’ve often berated myself for not fitting into the moulds laid out by the expectations of others. Here comes my biggest lesson in all of this: just because it’s different, doesn’t mean it’s wrong or unimportant.
To be honest, I didn’t know that ‘slow travel’ was a thing. Nothing about what I’m doing out here on the road was conscious or pre-meditated. I’m just doing travel the way I do everything in life; thoughtfully and inward-looking. Interestingly, the whole concept of slow travel centres around something similar; a focus on connecting with people and the places you travel to, and the personal impact or learning gained from the experience, as well as an emphasis on sustainability and making sure your tourism money gets into the hands of the locals rather than some international travel company. That’s great. It pleases me that there are other people inquisitively ambling around the globe at a leisurely pace, and it’s a shame they’re not as visible in the travel literature or the socials. There is so much more to be gained from travelling in this way. Surely it’s time to curb the wanderlust away from the fast, consumerist, cheap airfare, Insta-driven vacations?
Alas, here I find myself, in country number three, pondering the meaning of it all. I didn’t have a plan when I left the grey shores of England. I didn’t have a plan when I left Australia, I didn’t have a plan when I left New Zealand and I don’t have a plan now. I still have no idea what I’m doing and the future is more uncertain now than ever, both for myself and for travel more generally. Nonetheless, since I’ve been doing this for three and a bit years on my own with no previous travel experience, I’m can boldly declare that I’m Bella, master of slow travel; making it up as I go along since 2017.