Prior to 2011 my travels had only extended as far as skiing in Austria and Bulgaria, and countless visits home to Ireland. Five years, seventeen countries, thirty-seven cities, and one language later: I’m about to head off on my biggest trip to date, but my feet are feeling rather chilly…
Flashback to February 2011 I was on my first school trip since year 7, on the other side of the world. The Havant College trip to Beijing was a pivotal moment in my life – out of an abusive relationship and poisonous cycle of self-loathing, I was in the midst of my own renaissance. Prior to landing I knew little about China, its history, or its culture. My head was brimming with questions about things such as Where are the health and safety measures on this Wall? and HOW CAN PEARLS BE THAT CHEAP!? I was bitten by the bug and was sick with curiosity. As soon as I landed home I booked my first weekend away without parents or school to shelter me – that April my friend and I were off to Greece.
Ahh Athens, my dream! The year before I’d become infatuated by the ancient Greeks and was on my way to commit three years of study to them. I remember spotting the Acropolis for the first time on an evening walk around the city: I yelped an “Oh my God” and needed a moment to take it in… No amount of reading or documentary binge watching could match the sensation of pure awe I felt that day. It beat the books, and that feeling set the tone for the next five years.
As you can probably tell, in 2011 I was on a roll and once A-level exams were over I was on a plane again, this time to Austria. The year before I had slaved away changing beds for £5.25 an hour in a boutique hotel by the sea, and in the flurry of white sheets and toilet bleach met two Austrian ladies – both named Julia – and made my first international friends. I stayed with one of the girls in her home in Villach, and she kindly drove me over across the boarder to Italy. I drank absinthe in a villa, beer at a Hay festival, and made everyone around me feel awkward as they weren’t confident speaking in English. The trip ended in Vienna, and with it my first year of travelling drew to a close.
In 2012 I ditched my suitcase for a backpack and embarked on what was possibly the most meticulously planned interrail trip around western Europe – ever. My first year at uni had its ups and downs and I found trip planning to be the ultimate way to distract myself from Latin verb declensions and Roman literature. Every hostel was booked six months in advance, and I left with a printed itinerary that detailed the departure and arrival times of every train; the utilities included, address, directions to every hostel AND what was left to pay; a print screen of our couples insurance policy; and to top it all off the numbers of both Irish AND British embassies in ever country. Boy was I naive! Unfortunately even the best laid plans can crumble: right across from the Roman Colosseum I felt my heart break for the first time, and I never left the UK with such an exhaustive itinerary again…
At home I chopped half my hair off and decided it was time to get back in touch with my roots, and went to spend a very lonely weekend in Dublin. I was that awkward turtle in a room full of Spaniards who couldn’t pluck up the courage to say more than hello, and at that time there wasn’t a speck of me that had any interest in ever being able to say more in their language.
Interrailing felt like an empty gesture: I was so desperate to get away and see as much as I could I passed through cities just to cross them off a list, all the while feeling all too melancholy as I realised I had to end it with a man I was deeply in love with. My rebound went like so: a few weeks volunteering at a Roman Villa and some google searching left me to think “feck it” and sign up to one month volunteering in Peru. The 9 months at university that followed were clouded with what I now recognise was depression, and when the time came to leave for the airport I cried. I was petrified, and the “oh dear god is this really happening?” realisation came at me just like that traffic pole the first time I tried vodka… I wasn’t ready, and then all of a sudden I was in Lima.
Peru was an emotional roller coaster. I felt horribly alone but fantastically independent at the same time. I was stretched and tugged and pushed and prodded out of my comfort zone, testing my limits and surprising myself a number of occasions… I’d never dreamt or wanted to ever hike up a 4,700m peak, but I did it…When I envisioned visiting Machu Picchu, projectile vomiting and a hospital bed was never in the picture, and yet that’s exactly how it went… And after failing Beginner’s Latin and believing I didn’t have the right brain for language learning, I found myself getting to grips with and speaking Spanish. I came back feeling like the girl that flew back from china two years prior, except this time with a full swing in her step. With just one year left at uni I was more determined than ever, and set out on a one woman mission to graduate with a first, then move my pale boo-tay the out of the UK and into Spain.
I worked like a MACHINE and successfully achieved my aims, and there was no going out without a bang. In June I was left in charge of taking 24 classics-enthusiasts on a week-long adventure in Budapest. It was a real test of my trip planning expertise and (apart from taking them on the right bus is the wrong direction) I think I pulled it off… As ever with those crazy bunch of ‘Clads’ drama followed us across the continent: there was blood, there were tears, and rumpy pumpy in unconventional locations… It was Roman comedy material, but what do you expect from a group of a half-adults who had just spent a few years studying those naughty ancient Greeks!?
AND I WAS OFF. Outta there, out of the UK to run free in a warmer climate and pick up a second language on my way. I’ve written a book’s worth of posts about my Life in Madrid, so I needn’t give a full two year description… Living with a foreign family and making friends with people from every country but my own was like living a life with a mirror at my side, and me judging every glimpse caught of my reflection. I questioned the normality of all that I knew, and ironically grew to love my Britishness as result. We may be too polite for our own good, but my God do we know how to form the perfect queue, and skills like that are what make us brilliant.
And right in the middle of my Iberian escapades I gave interrailing a second chance, this time with a platonic companion who herself was in need of the antidote that always worked for me. For the first time, I got to observe travel healing powers work their magic on someone else, which was a really rewarding experience to be a part of. For me though, the trip was just a fantastic holiday, as I was no longer in need of that remedy. I flew back to spend one more year in Madrid, struggled to settle back in, and decided it was no longer the place for me.
And now here I am, sat on the sofa I have claimed as my work space whilst I twiddle my thumbs waiting for the 26th of September to come. Admittedly my summer at home has led me to question whether or not now is really the right time to go. Having been away from the UK for two years now, I’ve started to crave a more stable existence. Friends have moved on with their lives, and all currently seem to be having a fab time living in London… Its hard to imagine giving up something that was so pivotal in shaping the person I am today, but as they say absence makes the heart grow fonder ad I’m missing being surrounded by my nearest and dearest…
My trip to South America has been on the cards since the day I flew out of Peru; its the whole reason I dedicated two years to learning Spanish, and everything since leaving uni has been leading up to this venture. But I am nervous, really nervous, and have been for the past three months. At first I wasn’t sure why; apart from the usual pre-flight jitters (I get them months in advance), I was also experiencing regret – and that worried me because it didn’t make sense. Through writing this post, however, I have been able to put my finger on the root cause of my cold feet.
Back in 2011, there were no travel bloggers that inspired me (I only started to read them this year…) and I’d never heard of Eat, Pray, Love. Travel was my way to escape and to reflect, and in doing so heal the wounds that had scarred me during my mid to late teens. During university it became the ultimate way to procrastinate and distract myself from the fact that I possibly chose the wrong degree. Now though, I am no longer on a quest to find myself, and the self I have uncovered on this journey I am proud of. This time I’m going simply because 8 months ago I lost my job and booked a flight to Brazil to make myself feel better, and I’m far too stubborn to change my plans now.
I am certain I don’t have enough money, but I am determined to make it work. I have decided that even though I’m happy with who I am and have achieved more than my 17 year old self would ever have expected of me, now is not the time to settle and I still have unfinished business to attend to. As my career heads in the direction of international education and/or youth work, I hope to teach and volunteer as much as possible en camino and my route is constantly being adjusted according to when and where these opportunities arise. Finally, I am STILL yet to reach full bilingüismo en español (this is the last year I am dedicating to this), and I quite fancy learning how to dance…
So, al final I reckon backpacking around South America for 3 months + teaching English in Colombia for 6 months isn’t going to be the worst thing in the world…