Lessons from the road
“I spent much of my time pouring through trip advisor posts. Bookmarking. Copying and pasting in different formats. I wasn’t that nervous yet I know I would hate to be caught unprepared in a foreign environment not knowing a word of the language, other than sparse syllables which strung together says nothing beyond hello and thank you. These don’t get me anywhere, and certainly not out of trouble. I have read stories of scams and was determined to avoid those. It was my first solo trip and I wanted to be in control as much as I possibly could.”
That was an honest record about how I felt as I embarked on my trip to Vietnam some 4 years back – a documentation that was reeking of uncertainty. I had this down in writing as I reflected about my first time to Vietnam, which happened to also be my first solo trip. I have since done a few places solo after that and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, though each time not without feelings of mild trepidation. But that hasn’t kept me away from travel, solo or otherwise.
2 days of exploring the Ninh Binh countryside on bike with my guide Toan, also where I stayed the night with a local family
Over the past year as I look forward to more adventures, I had set my mind on India. There were some who thought I was a little crazy. I had a seed planted in my head about visiting the country, dealing with its organized and disorganized chaos, its vibrancy from being at the intersection of religions, cultural and political unraveling; I was rather persistent on going. I knew I would be overwhelmed, and I wanted to be. The visit has been stewing for some time, in my head and heart, with my full permission. My mum, on the other hand, looked on with apprehension as momentum and enthusiasm for the trip reached its peak – she wasn’t so pleased; like many, she saw India as a place synonymous with chaos, unknowns. Certainly, I know by heart the headlines people pick up on when they talk about India. My curiosity was an itch that I had to scratch and I was finding a good time because I wanted to give India the attention I thought it was worth – to me, that meant a longer trip than the usual. When I finally had the opportunity to take some time off work, I knew this was my opportunity. Even then, it wasn’t easy having to deal with the constant tension between wanting to set off and recognizing that the stakes are high.
Though really, this isn't a piece about India.
It’s about how travelling creates room in our lives and an optimal backdrop for us to be mindful about the lessons we may draw, about ourselves and the places we pass through.
Here’s what I took away:
1. Learning to recognize limitations, and being comfortable with it
There are things you cannot prepare for. There are things you don't know about. Hand to heart, there are things you are really not so good at. Though often, without getting to point A, there’s no seeing point B. But don't let that temporary obscuration keep you from taking the first step. If you are nervous, feeling jittery but want to go ahead anyway, take the extra mile to keep plans firmed up until you are ready to give it some slack. Like flying a kite. There is no shame in being a little uptight. Know that there isn’t one right way of travelling (and living) – let your way be the way. For me, kicking off my time in India by going on the Ladakh Road Trip (read article written by fellow traveler, Yizhen) in June with Adventures Unlimited, with a group of familiar (because Singaporean) faces and accents, plus knowing the itinerary was all planned and arrangements thought through – that was my gentle initiation into a new place. It was also what put the people who cared for my safety a little more at ease. Sometimes, we do have to be a little considerate.
Pangong Lake, Ladakh. Can’t seem to get enough of the intense blues
2. Learning to recognize instances when I don’t care enough about something
Some journeys take a little more effort than others: visa applications, training for a trek if you’re gunning for a peak, obtaining the necessary jabs and medications, making land transfer arrangements and the like.
When you feel like you can't be bothered to go through a little hassle and discomfort, and you feel overwhelming resistance in making sure essential things are in place even when high stakes (eg. your safety) are involved, don’t let these feelings slip you by.
When put in a situation where you are almost certainly doing something for yourself, and you find it such an ordeal…chances are, you probably don't care about it enough. Learn to walk away. I spent close to 18 hours on the road just trying to get from Ladakh to Manali. Fast forward 4 days, I think I was done with the place, its crowd and the persistent downpours. It was tempting to stay all holed up in my cosy guesthouse, but that’s not what I was there for – I remembered the resolve I had while making my way down in the rain to book a bus ticket to my next destination. When something that used to serve you no longer does, walk away.
It’s easy to think about these when we travel because time and money comes to us as natural considerations, but it isn’t always so obvious as we attempt to draw parallels to other facets of our lives. But I believe we all get better at it if we give ourselves enough time to tune in, and pay enough attention to these emotional inflexions we sometimes ignore. We ought to. See it as learning how to make a decision, before you even take the next step. Get better at understanding what you want to commit yourself to. Like how you don't travel half hearted, don't live half a life, and don't love half a lover.
3. Travel as prototyping
If you cared for something enough and had taken the first step out the door, keep those eyes wide open – you will realize you are going to be learning from your successes and failures fast, because travel allows for rapid prototyping. Your ability to make better decisions for safety, company, food, comfort, purchases are put to the test. You learn to think on your feet, sharpen your intuition, and selectively go with the flow. Should you take that ride from a stranger? Should you buy the bag from this stall or walk further? Should you switch your itinerary around? Should you trust this person you just met?
Dealing with the consequences of lousy decisions can make you feel like the star of self-orchestrated fail fest. But on the bright side, this too shall pass – you learn to come to terms with it. Or maybe even come to realize that these seemingly bad decisions don’t seem to have much magnitude. We have the ability to choose what we let into our lives: hang on to the lessons, but let those negative vibes go!
4. Allowing travel to widen my capacity for imagination and care
As with many things, there are non-believers who might have trampled on your case for travel (“Why live a life you need to keep running away from?”). Maybe it irks you even more that you don’t have a convincing answer to that. But really, travel doesn’t have to be whimsical or frivolous.
I recall vividly that moment in Ladakh as we gathered for the first time with our local trekking guide to hear more about our itinerary for the next few days. Our team lead Simon surprised me with something he said.
“So, what is your intention for this trip? Take some time to think about it and keep it in mind during this journey”. With that, the briefing ended, but it opened up a new conversation in my mind: how may I reimagine this journey in ways that are meaningful for me?
There are parts in our lives that we have been taking for granted or glossing mindlessly over. I believe travel allows us to come back to a familiar place with new eyes; we open ourselves up to different ways of seeing a place and renewed ways of relating to people that seem to have gotten too used to us as well.
There are many occasions where conversations with locals and fellow travellers have moved me. I stand in awe and curiosity at the crazy number of ways the world shows up. Maybe things are not all that linear, and maybe we are also not all that different. With each personal encounter along my journey, communities and lives that used to seem very distant and alien, takes on a flavor of familiarity and sameness. I began to see and experience how a widening circle of care and compassion can be made possible through travel.
Travel is fertile ground for such lessons. Perhaps you travel because you need to get away from the humdrum of everyday life. Perhaps you travel because you have questions you need answers to. Perhaps you simply don’t like the feeling of staying put. Though, there are no promises in travel. You learn to sit with whatever comes, like how you sit with life.
Written by Lim Sixian
Sixian is currently on a sabbatical to explore her gifts, while experimenting with different ways to live her life out. She has a crazy affection for water and feels most at home barefooted. She believes in stories, and in kindness, amongst many other things. Almost never says no to coffee and long walks.
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