After being back in the U.S. for about three weeks, we find ourselves regularly fielding the same few questions by family, friends, and strangers alike: what was your favorite place? were you ready for it to end? would you do it again? Sometimes I spew out an answer in a seemingly contrived tone, having responded dozens of times to the same query. Other times I find myself stumbling through my answer, often looking over at Stephan like a little kid looks up at her coach, seeking the reassurance to continue. Our return has been more overwhelming and challenging than I imagined, and it’s almost as if I’m searching for the answers others want to hear. But knowing many of you readers probably have the same curiosities, I figured I’d put my thoughts into writing as honestly as I can. Unfortunately, my answers are probably more ambiguous than you hope. I mean, they are even more ambiguous than I had hoped. While I initially thought this trip would provide some clarity as to what to do with my life, I think I feel more confused than ever before, having discovered [and rediscovered] so many tremendous passions along the way.
To begin, under no circumstances do I think I’ll ever be able to answer the first question. Every country we visited had something truly wonderful to offer, and some special memory that I’ll carry with me forever. I loved all of the outdoor adventure, mind-blowing landscapes, and fantastic wildlife in New Zealand and Australia. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than I was during my time volunteering at Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. I was blown away by the alpine beauty of Slovenia and Switzerland, fell in love with the both the people and landscapes of Vietnam, and was captivated by the sweeping steppes of central Mongolia. Additionally, I don’t know how you can visit somewhere like Cambodia, Sarajevo, or Auschwitz, places that have seen such immeasurable hardship and heartache, and not be overcome with emotion – to feel such an incredible sadness deep in your bones, while at the same time being blown away by people’s ability to overcome, and to be steadfast in both faith and hope.
Am I ready for the trip to end? Honestly… no, no I’m not. A year ago, I would never have imagined that would be the case, but I have really fallen in love with life on the road. Last January, as excited as I was to begin this crazy adventure, I was also equally nervous. In the 36 hours following my doctoral graduation ceremony, we packed up our entire apartment in NC, waved goodbye to friends and colleagues, and headed up I-95 to New Hampshire to spend the holidays, and final week before our departure, with family and friends. Feeling completely overcome with emotions at that point, I insisted to Stephan that I drive the entire way north, fearing I would do nothing but sob uncontrollably from the passenger seat for the next 13 hours. As expected, driving proved both distracting and therapeutic until we hit Newark, when I totally lost it. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I steered bleary-eyed through the center lane. In an attempt to regain my composure, I cranked the volume on the stereo as a Backstreet Boys song cued up, screaming “Kelly!” (my BSB-loving bestie) as I choked back tears. Poor Stephan (those words sure do pop up a lot) suddenly found himself in the passenger seat of a cramped vehicle, hurtling up the NJ Turnpike at 75 mph with a driver who was simultaneously weeping and enthusiastically singing along with a late-90s boy band. He hesitantly peered over and offered up his driving services, but was left to nervously grasp his seatbelt when I declined the offer.
After a start filled with such trepidation, I never envisioned that I’d be so smitten with living out of a single backpack and jumping from city to city every 4–5 days. I genuinely adore the nomadic lifestyle to which I’ve become accustomed, and I just don’t feel ready to let it go. I find myself to be a textbook example of one of those people who tends to get bored really easily, and having something new and exciting to see every day was indescribably amazing. I also love learning, and I think that every day we were gone was a huge learning opportunity, be it absorbing new sights, new people, new information, or even new things about myself. Did I miss certain things from back home (e.g. family and friends)? Well, obviously… and that’s where I now feel torn between yearning to stay abroad, but also craving a life back home. I suppose the only practical solution is to do a bit of weight training, throw a handful of people into my pack, and resume my nomadic wanderings with all my loved ones onboard.
Would I do it all again? In a heartbeat. This has been one of the most incredible years of my life, and one of the best outlandish ideas I’ve had yet.
This year, a fairly large chunk of my time was spent on planes, trains and buses; and, when not frantically trying to compose narratives for the blog, I spent much of it reflecting on various moments from the trip as I watched the ever-changing scenery roll by. No matter how many months had passed, it continued to feel surreal that I had actually visited Australia – something that, given my fear of flying, I thought would always remain just a pipe dream. I retraced our time at Elephant Nature Park in my memory, fondly recalling how that week of volunteer work enriched my life in a way I never thought possible. And still today, when I remember laying eyes on Bou Meng, a rare survivor of the Khmer Rouge’s brutal Security Prison 21, my eyes instantly well up with tears.
And even more special than the places we visited, were the people. I know I’ll never remember the name of every temple, church, or street we explored, but I am absolutely certain that I will never forget the friends and the friendly strangers we met along the way. Each one taught us so much, and brought so much joy to our journey… I can’t imagine myself without any of them. To all of the incredible individuals who touched our lives beyond measure, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
I think one of the greatest gifts this trip has given me was the opportunity to fall in love with so many different things; this entire year has been rewarding beyond measure. That said, stay tuned for another announcement later this month. Sometimes you just can’t walk away from everything you fall in love with…