Discovering Ourselves

Jenn:

Now that our trip has drawn to a close, some of you are probably wondering what we learned about ourselves along the way, since packing up and abandoning everyday life is considered a little bit outside the box. What’s more, I’m not sure you can embark on a trip like this without a smidge of introspection along the way. And now that we’ve made it back, I suppose it’s time for some of that self-reflection crap.

For those who don’t know, my astrological sign is Cancer and, frankly, I find myself to be a crab through and through. Like the crab, I think I’ve got a pretty thick shell, and I don’t consider myself to be a particularly communicative person in regards to how I am feeling. But since I’ve opened myself up to sharing my writing with everyone – something I am super self-conscious about – I’m going to now hesitantly offer some of my feelings about the experience, how it’s affected me, and what I’ve discovered (or perhaps, rediscovered) about myself:

  • Type A is innate. You can’t unlearn neuroticism completely (at least I can’t).
  • Conversely, I can function perfectly well without having a plan… and even enjoy myself in doing so.
  • I now feel emboldened to book a trip on a whim. I’ve always admired those individuals you stumble across who casually announce, ‘oh, I have five days off next week, and found a great deal on flights to Stockholm, so I’m just going.’ I always wondered how in the heck you could piece together an itinerary in a matter of days. This taught me just how easy it is. While things may not be exactly what you are looking for, you can always find something and, really, you can make just about anything happen. Moreover, everything will turn out to be amazing if you remember to keep an open mind.
  • I’ve always been a little self-conscious of the fact that I feel kind of like a kindergartener trapped in an adult’s body. I mean, my 30th birthday cake came in the form of Perry the Platypus (an animated monotreme who’s part pet, part secret agent), and all of my favorite movies still feature Kermit the Frog as a main character (although I do enjoy Hitchcock’s work and anything starring Audrey Hepburn… there, more adult-ish stuff right there). After less than two weeks in New Zealand, I found myself returning to our campervan one evening after a hike, and informing Stephan that I would be enjoying a large, chocolate ice cream for dinner. Less than thirty minutes later, there I sat, on my bench seat/bed stuffing my face with a decadent treat from Black Peak Gelato, and thinking to myself, ‘holy cow… I am homeless, jobless, living out of a van in New Zealand, and eating ice cream for dinner! I am either a wicked shitty adult, or I’m doing something totally right here.’ In the moment, I was tempted to go with ‘wicked shitty adult.’ I mean, I had shunned all responsibility back home, and fled the second my doctoral diploma was placed in my semi-qualified hand. Fifteen years ago at UNH, I had direction – medical/graduate school, research, save humanity. Now, the only direction I gave a flying fig about was Google Map’s route to the local ice cream parlor. What had happened to me?! I’m still not entirely sure, but after a year on the road, I’d like to change my previous answer from ‘shitty adult behaving like a child’ to ‘doing something right after all.’ The ability to enjoy a second childhood as an adult is a quality to feel proud of, rather than ashamed. Life’s way more fun when we’re not all serious and refined all the time. So walk around with your damn bubble wand and blow some bad ass bubbles… feed the birds in the park like Cinderella… sing your favorite Muppet tunes at the top of your lungs, dance and twirl on the Matterhorn, and always… always keep your internal dinnertime compass pointed towards the ice cream shop.
  • I need to be better about living in the moment. I am one who is constantly reflecting on the past – Did I do well enough? What could I have done better? Did I hurt [someone’s] feelings? What was I thinking? Does that make me a bad person? I know, it’s not good; because in all reality, I can change absolutely nothing. Similarly, I am always looking to the future… planning, questioning, and overanalyzing in similar fashion. There were numerous times on this trip, though, (probably more this year than in my life to date) where I was living only in the present – and those were by far the best moments and my happiest memories… when I was completely immersed in the ‘right now.’ Conversely, there were also times when I found myself repeatedly falling back to the past, and dreading future events (such as a long flight), and those were the times I was most anxious. I guess I don’t exactly know how to remedy this problem in everyday life, but I at least know it’s something I need to work on.
  • Happiness is what you make of your situation. Throughout our travels, it frequently seemed that those with the least were able to find the most happiness, while those with the most were always looking for more and, consequently, the least happy. As we floated down the Mekong in our rickety slow boat, we watched kids from remote villages splashing blissfully along the shoreline, their homes nothing but tattered huts in the isolated jungle. They’d wave and holler exuberantly as the boat would pass, and a simple wave would make them cheer as if they’d just won some enormous prize.
  • Less is more. Frankly, the thought of returning to our small storage unit in North Carolina makes me cringe with anxiety. It’s really easy to get used to living with a week’s worth of clothes, a few toiletries, and a camera… all shoved into a single backpack. The thought of all that extra “stuff” I now have to go back and sort through overwhelms me with nausea.
  • I loved learning so many new things about so many different subjects this year. After six years of being hyper-focused on a very specific dissertation topic (gene regulation during immune cell development… ‘cause I know someone out there was curious), it was so refreshing to spend time reading about wildly different subject matter – birds and wildlife, the environment, historical events, and various cultural traditions.
  • One of my happiest months was when we were campervanning in New Zealand. It wasn’t because of the scenery, the hiking, or even the idea of having a mobile home, though… rather, it was because I had no mirror. Like a lot of women out there, I’m really not a big fan of the way I look (this isn’t a fishing expedition here, this is sharing a personal reality). Whether my insecurities are largely internal, or from external pressures from peers or society to feel pretty, I typically don’t. Without a mirror, though, appearance didn’t matter. Each day, I’d wake up and not be able to feel bad about myself, or self-conscious because I had bags under my eyes, a new blemish on my forehead, or limp, disheveled hair. Each day I felt confident and pretty, because I had no reason not to… I had no reflection to show me otherwise. It made me realize that the vanity of our society is really draining, and really unhealthy. When you live without worrying about what you look like, you just stop caring about it altogether, and it’s wonderfully liberating.
     
    I had a similarly freeing experience throughout southeast Asia. Back in the U.S., I feel like my physical appearance is constantly under scrutiny – either I “look tired…” or I “should try putting on a little makeup once in a while…” or there is something to say about my weight (either I look “thin,” “healthy,” seem to have “put on a couple pounds,” or even “look better than the last time someone saw me”). Whether complimentary or constructive in intent, I constantly feel like I am being judged in some way, and it makes me incredibly self-conscious. In Asia, though, no one seemed to put such superficial bullshit first. It was like people were assessing my character, rather than my outward appearance… the way it should be. My daily “makeup” was a generous glob of oily SPF50, which oozed with streaks of white as the sweat poured off my face. My clothes were soaked with sweat and pit stains, often dirty, and typically re-worn from the previous day. No one cared. And more importantly, perhaps, I didn’t care. Neither my body shape, nor my most recent breakout, nor my lifeless, sweat-soaked hair was ever a topic of discussion. So, what did people possibly see in me? They noticed generosity, as I’d drop a coin into someone’s crinkled cup on the sidewalk. They noticed warmth and affability, as I smiled and waved excitedly from the back of a moving motorbike, screaming ‘Sabaidee!’ They noticed a desire to learn about their culture, as I imperfectly stumbled my way through a few basic phrases of their native tongue. They noticed gratitude, as I bowed my head and thanked them for a beautiful stay in their hometown. They noticed a caring heart and hardworking hands, as I shoveled elephant poop and ran with dogs as part of a volunteer project. They saw me, right then and there. Not what I was, what I could be, or what I should look like in their eyes… just me. And in those precious moments, I found that I actually liked who I was.
  • One of the things that always made me chuckle, and that was really refreshing, was how similar we all really are. Our religions and beliefs may differ, our social norms may be vastly dissimilar, and one society’s laws and conventions may be far stricter than another… but really, we’re all inherently the same. For me, it was both amusing and comforting to watch behaviors that transcended cultural differences. We watched with amusement in Thailand as a young suiter came to pick up his date on a scooter. The girl’s father gave him a brief lecture and a stern, authoritative look as he finally waved them on their way. When we posed for a photo with our nomadic host family in Mongolia, the wife glanced down at her husband’s jacket, grabbed the cuff, and demanded the gentleman’s attention. Although I couldn’t understand a word she was speaking, it was very clear she was scolding him for having a such a noticeable tear in his jacket, suggesting he was going to look untidy for the photo. He seemed to respond similarly to the typical, unconcerned man – ‘it’s no big deal’ – and she was left to surrender and laugh at his indifference (though she still did attempt to conceal the rip). And no matter where you travel to, in the end everyone is really searching for the same basic things out of life: happiness, health, a roof over their heads, the chance for their children to learn and thrive, and the opportunity to better themselves.
  • Something that I’ve learned from past trips that was reinforced on this adventure – disconnecting is so good for the soul. Days with no phone, television, internet… they are just so satisfying and stress-free. Until the beginning of August, we’d never once turned on a television. One night in Poland, we thought we’d catch a bit of the Olympics, and flipped on the tube. We both kind of looked at each other, cringed at how weird it was, and flipped it back off to enjoy the silence.
  • I’m not sure I recognize myself anymore. I finally resigned myself to putting on some “regular” clothes (jeans and a fitted sweater) about a week after returning home. I looked in the mirror at an outfit I’d seen myself in dozens of times in the past, but I no longer saw me. I don’t know, I guess it’s just seeing yourself in the same pair of hiking pants and same synthetic shirt day after day for a year, but I no longer feel comfortable in my own clothes.
  • I think one of the biggest challenges for me towards the end of our trip was that I didn’t feel like a changed person. Everyone seems to refer to a trip like this as “life-changing,” with everyone insisting from day one that I would return a different person. I guess maybe I was expecting something completely unreasonable, but I thought for sure there’d be a tangible change. I thought I’d recognize the moment something shifted, and I guess I interpreted ‘different’ person to mean ‘better’ person. The entire time we traveled, I kept looking for it… but at no time did I see myself as a better person on this trip, and that really frustrated me. I don’t know… maybe change is something you can’t always see. Perhaps I’ve changed in ways I’ll never notice. All I do know is that, for now, I’ve decided to stop searching.
  • I did manage to discover some new dislikes along the way:
     
    • Shelled peanuts. When I was a kid, my great-grandmother kept shelled peanuts in a giant, tin, garbage can on her back porch for the blue jays (seriously, probably the only person on the planet who actually feeds those mean bullies). I used to love digging into the seemingly bottomless pit of nuts, and cracking away until the little peanut prize came squirting out. How much more fun could eating a nut get?! As much as I like to think I’ve kept a lot of my 6-year-old passions alive, this is not one of them. We were surprised to find that, across continents, peanuts were more commonly sold inside the shell. If pre-shelled nuts were available, they were typically exorbitantly expensive. Thus, it was nuts in a shell for us. Not a big deal, I first declared. I’ll tell you what, though… when I’m hungry, I just want to eat the damn peanuts. If you eat one at a time, you get only one or two nuts before you have to undertake the additional work of shelling another – not to mention the ultimate frustration when you get an empty If you choose to shell a whole bunch of peanuts first, you have to wait while you prepare the entire batch, begrudgingly placing each delicious nut in a bowl when you could be stuffing them right in your face. Shelled peanuts… really not a problem to whine about, but a stupid little frustration that this trip unveiled.
    • The four-seat groups on trains. Many trains are organized with this configuration: the majority of seats are all facing the same direction (in pairs on either side of the carriage), but there are always a couple groups on each side offering a set of four, with two pairs facing one another. Personally, I think these seats should be offered at a discount if you aren’t part of a foursome. The potential for having some stranger stare at you for an entire trip is high, and there’s the equivalent likelihood of sitting across from what I call a ‘spreader.’ A spreader is that person who stretches his legs across all four friggin’ seats like he purchased the whole damn section, and has his lunch and gadgets strewn across the entire table. Really, it’s enough to send me and my cortisol levels into orbit (I may or may not be sitting across from one as I type this, anxiously peeking up over my screen in paranoia every twelve to fourteen seconds).
    • Selfie sticks. This newfound dislike is really a strong one. In fact, the selfie stick may have quickly climbed the ladder of all-time dislikes to the #2 slot, right behind cigarettes/smoking. At some of the more bustling attractions, a passel of oblivious tourists is already bad enough. But with each one wielding a selfie stick, flailing the outstretched rod wildly at the nearest photo target… that’s a whole new hell right there. I swear, if one more plastic-encased cell phone had made its way into the frame of my carefully composed shot, I was ready to seize the dreadful implement and hurl it off the nearest cliff (or under the wheel of the nearest moving truck). All I can do is hope that these maddening gadgets fall out of fashion faster than a feathered mullet.
    • Wet room-style bathrooms. I do see the ease, practicality, and cost-effectiveness of building a ‘wet room,’ but I’m sorry… I just can’t get onboard with having a wet ass upon sitting on the toilet seat two hours after I’ve showered and dried off. Seriously, a wet bum has got to be one of the least pleasant sensations ever.
    • Detachable shower heads. They’re all the rage across Europe, but I have to say, I am neither a fan of the telephone-style shower head that rests in a little cradle, nor the removable shower head that is seated precariously in a wobbly wall mount. With the phone-style shower heads, you don’t stay wet during said “shower.” At least I don’t, because I can’t open the damn shampoo bottles and lather my hair one-handed, all while holding the nozzle over myself. This means that in between rinses, you are left standing there naked in the cold bathroom when you set the nozzle down. I know it probably saves water, but holy cow… it’s fairly unpleasant to stand there shaking and shivering when you could otherwise enjoy a nice, warm cascade. And as for the wall-mounted detachable heads, I have two words: concussion hazard. With several of the shower heads we experienced, the hulking metal nozzle would come tumbling from its support with a sudden change in water pressure (e.g. when the shower was turned off). I mean, I was almost knocked out cold in Rome… I think I was seeing stars for the next three hours or so. Between the wet rooms and the shower heads, I have to think that Asia and Europe see a significantly higher number of bathroom-related injuries – relentlessly slippery floors, falling stainless steel objects, impossibly high tub walls… I feel like going to the bathroom was one of the most dangerous activities of the trip.
  • I also discovered a couple of surprising affections during our journey:
     
    • Toilet paper dispensers. Not always a common find, but a real luxury, I’ve discovered. There’s not much to say here – sometimes you just want to wipe your ass without having to contort yourself to reach the paper.
    • A hot electric fan in a cold bathroom. At one of our apartments in Wales, our host had a small space heater mounted to the wall above the toilet. The basement bathroom was a tad on the chilly side, so every time you entered, you could pull a cord and feel the immediate rush of hot air. Our host suggested it was way nicer to get naked for a shower with burst of warmth, and gosh was she ever correct. I would go as far as to say the wall-mounted space heater in the bathroom was perhaps one of the most ingenious ideas ever.
  • I learned that if I found myself alone in the wilderness and was forced to survive for an extended period, it would have to be a wilderness of mango and coconut trees… because I cannot do spiders and bugs.
  • And finally, perhaps the most important thing I learned the entire trip: she who rides a horse in a thong, ends up with a severely chafed ass.

 

Stephan:

  • I’m pretty laid back, and while I’m certainly capable of planning, I’m rarely worried if there’s no plan or if things go awry. On this trip, I did discover that there are some limits on that relaxed attitude. It was mostly around lodging, but while many backpackers are happy to find whatever accommodations are available when they arrive in a city, I discovered it to be far less stressful to arrange where we’d stay in advance. This ensured most of our stays were good ones, and also let me figure out the best way to get from our transportation to the accommodations without getting screwed by unscrupulous cab drivers, or unnecessarily wandering around lost. Regardless, I certainly found myself far more at-ease when I knew where we would be spending the night.
  • I’ve always looked at the last-minute flight deals and wondered who ever used them. After all, how can you decide to go to Berlin or whatever with only a few days’ notice? Don’t you need to figure out what you want to see, book a hotel, etc.? And why would you even do it if it wasn’t a place on your “list” of places to see?As it turns out, I’d happily do that. There are tons of things to see at the last minute, there are always places to stay if you’re not looking for 5-star accommodations. Moreover, a deal to see a new place – any place, even one I hadn’t thought of seeing before – sounds a lot more appealing now than it did before we started.
  • I’ve never been a fussy eater, but I’ve always had a list of items that I didn’t like and would avoid. Well, when I found myself ordering meals that I couldn’t pronounce, from a server who spoke no English, in a country whose eating habits were not exactly similar to my own… let’s just say that my preferences weren’t going to be easily communicated. As it turns out, those preferences were not actually all that strong – I just started eating a number of things I previously I thought I didn’t enjoy. For example, I never liked raw tomatoes, so I just started leaving them on everything while we traveled. Now I like them. It makes me wonder how many other things I profess to dislike are just minor preferences which could be overcome.
     
    Except mushrooms. Mushrooms suck.
  • Even with our minimalist lifestyle back home, it seems like we’ve accumulated an astonishing amount of “stuff.” After happily living out of a backpack for a year, I think about what we’ve stashed away in our storage unit and wonder how much of it is necessary. Do I really care that much about most of those boxes? If I threw away half of it, would that really impact my life in any meaningful way? I’m now planning ways to reduce the (already small) amount of stuff we have to move into our next place.
  • Being outside is really important to me. Of course, I already knew that, but it’s even more important than I think I realized. I think I thought that being outdoors was something I enjoyed, rather than something I need. We’re certainly no couch potatoes, but sometimes I think I’m always looking for a purpose to be outdoors (i.e. go for a run, take photos, etc.), rather than simply existing outside and enjoying the day.
  • When we started this crazy journey, I had very few worries. After our previous trips, I was fairly confident in our ability to remain safe, I didn’t worry very much about our budgeting, and I assumed that we could find food and accommodations wherever we went. Of anything we would encounter, my biggest concern was communicating in languages that neither of us spoke. On most previous trips, we either had guides or were in countries where Jenn’s excellent Spanish enabled us to talk to virtually anyone. I wondered how often we’d be stuck in uncomfortable situations, or be unable to communicate our needs, or get lost because we didn’t speak the local language.As it turns out, this was almost the easiest part of the trip. An almost embarrassingly large number of people speak English, and most of the ones that don’t are friendly and happy to try and gesture their way through a conversation. I think a lot of my initial nervousness over language was the fear of looking stupid rather than any practical concern, and I was compelled to deal with that fear rather quickly. Within 24 hours of landing in Bangkok I was standing in front of a smoothie vendor who didn’t speak a word of English, forcing me to get over my worries, and by the time our pointing, waving and head-shaking was done, we were both smiling. That street vendor won’t ever know how much she helped ease my worries about the rest of our adventure through Asia and Europe.
  • There are more selfish, oblivious, and ignorant people in the world than I ever suspected.
  • There are more incredible, kind, generous, and wonderful people in the world than I ever thought possible.

 

As a couple:

  • Stephan and I have a little bit of each other lurking deep down inside us. Whereas I am typically the neurotic, compulsive one, there were times when Stephan (surprisingly) became more than a bit flustered when all his ducks weren’t in a row. Similarly, while Stephan is normally much more easy going than I am, there were a few moments on the trip when I instead possessed that cool, ‘don’t worry’ attitude.
  • We have different opinions when it comes to photo processing. I like pictures warm, whereas Stephan likes them cool. I think my pictures are all happy and sunny, and I hear, ‘What? It’s yellow!’ Likewise, near the start of the trip, Stephan was aptly nicknamed ‘Merryweather.’ You know… that sassy blue fairy from Sleeping Beauty who gets into an epic pink-versus-blue battle with Flora in the kitchen of their woodland home? Pretty much every time Stephan would touch the ‘temperature’ slider on our Photoshop program, I’d wave my imaginary wand and quip, ‘make it blue!’ It never got tiresome (for one of us).
  • Overall, I [Jenn] think we coped pretty well with the whole ‘being trapped like a rat indefinitely with your significant other.’ I suppose we had an advantage going in, having already been together for 12 years. I mean, Stephan has already seen pretty much every side of crazy I have to throw out there. That said, there were definitely stressful moments. I can recall at least two or three times when I considered reacting like Miss Piggy in The Muppets Take Manhattan – when an amnesia-stricken Kermit laughingly suggests that, if they marry, she can “bring home the bacon,” Piggy sends his skinny frog ass flying across the room with one karate chop and a ‘Hi-Yah!’ And really, I have no doubt this feeling was often mutual. In fact, I’m somewhat surprised he didn’t find a way to conveniently “lose” me at some point along the way.
     
    Altogether, considering that (1) we were largely confined to tiny spaces together for 11+ months, be it campervan, guesthouse, tent, ger, or train cabin, and that (2) Stephan didn’t run screaming or smother me with a pillow in the middle of the night (I think they were often too thin), I’d have to chalk the trip up to a success as a couple. Stephan did, however, come home with quite the collection of gray hairs atop his normally brown-haired head. I’ll go out on a limb and propose that I was a contributing factor to many of those shimmering, silver threads.  

 

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