A sojourn into the soul: what no one tells you about long-term travel

Last autumn, before I left for my trip, my heart felt so full of joy that I thought it might burst. Like a stuffed piñata, it was swelling and spinning, and I wanted to spread handfuls of its neon, glittering confetti-filling around. Because everyone should get to feel like that.

I hadn't even boarded the plane, yet I already felt like a success. That's the thing about following your heart: once you give yourself permission to stop getting in your own way, each tiny step that you take in the direction of your dreams feels like a monumental achievement.

Morning hikes and mountain dogs in Ella, Sri Lanka

Invigorated, energised, and lit up from within, you become an unstoppable force. New ideas, new perspectives, and new connections stick to you like glue. You’re a snowball of energy, gaining size and momentum with each fresh stride forwards.

Everything in your life takes on a new, richer, silkier quality. Colours look brighter. Sounds feel fuller. Smells seem sweeter.

And as I prepared to set off on my journey into the unknown, I couldn't help but feel that it was the start of an epic love story. But instead of a tale about a boy and a girl, it was about a girl and the world. And this was one romance that I was sure wasn't about to fizzle out anytime soon.

But to say it wasn't a rocky relationship would be a lie. The truth is, my five months in Asia were nothing like I thought they'd be.

I thought I was taking a trip into the world. But the real journey was a sojourn into the soul. Navigating by the compass of my heart, I was exploring new territories of both matter and mind, of earth and spirit.

Because, far from where I’d come from but not yet where I’d go, and far from who I was but not yet who I’d become, I was living in a suspended reality. One where risks could be taken and rules could be broken. One where I could go anywhere. Do anything. Be anyone.

And from the moment my foot crossed the aluminium threshold, everything that had happened before felt like it had occurred in another lifetime, in another place, to another person. Any previous concept of who I was and what I liked, believed, or desired was suddenly called into question, and the pieces that once slotted neatly together to form my identity were shaken violently apart, never to fit in the same way again.

At first, memories of home came to me in fragments, their shape and weight transporting me through time and space and across whole oceans and continents, flooding me with sudden and stomach-flipping surges of adrenaline and anxiety. And it wasn't long before the skeletons of my past began to rear their bony, frightening heads, stranding me slap-bang in the middle of a graveyard of unresolved issues with nowhere left to hide.

Then there were the times when reality got just too real, too much of a sickening slap in the face, too much of a raw reminder of my own small-minded and sheltered existence. A ball in my belly, a fist in my chest, and a lump in my throat conspired to have me longing for something - anything - that was safe and familiar, and I wanted nothing more than to look away, to un-see what I'd seen, to crawl back into my Western, white-privileged hole.

These are the things no one tells you about long-term travel. How unsettling it is to be dismantled and reconstructed a hundred times over. How uncomfortable it is to bear witness to the stark and filthy and brutal realities of others. How disorientating it is to lose sight of who you thought you were. How bewildering it is to have your questions answered with only more questions. How painful it is to feel as if you're no closer to figuring anything out. How terrifying it is to realise you've changed beyond recognition.

If there's one thing I know for sure now, it's that I don't really know anything at all. Only that the world is messier and scarier and uglier than I ever thought. 

The world can be breathtakingly beautiful, and it can be tear-jerkingly tragic. But it's ours. To explore, to understand, to cherish, and to make better. 

And now my trip is over, I’m reminded once again that every experience is temporary. It’s there and then it’s gone. It’s mine and then it’s not. I'm ashamed to say, I took a lot of things for granted while I was away.

Like how every day the sun would rise and set, and I would be there watching as the hazy horizon turned from blue to amber to pink, as the ochre orb followed its arc across the sky, as its reflection danced and shimmered and shone back at me from the silky surface of the waves. Its beauty seemed untouchable, its magnitude incomprehensible. A reminder of what’s always there for us, if we choose to be there to see it. If we choose to put ourselves in its way. If we choose not to forget.

Palm trees and wavy seas at Hikkaduwa Beach, Sri Lanka

Like how I was almost always surrounded by people. People with hungry hearts and free spirits and a taste for adventure. People with who stories were shared and secrets were swapped and dreams were discussed. People whose openness and generosity shone a light on all the ways in which I am flawed, stuck, wrong, and far more broken than I ever realised. People who I’ll probably never see again, but who blasted down my walls, crawled inside the rubble, and graffitied a permanent mark on the bedrock of my soul.

Making lifelong memories and friends in Vang Vieng, Laos

Like how my experiences on the road peeled away the dusty, monochrome, warped filter from the lens I’d been looking through my entire life, and things that once appeared black and white were suddenly a whole glorious, dazzling, rainbow spectrum. New ways of being, of thinking, and of perceiving were revealed, and lives that I hadn't known existed were there and mine for the taking. All I had to do was to open my hands. To reach out and grab them.

Coral-skied Mekong sunsets on the 4,000 islands, Laos

Like how the world was my playground, alive with adventure, pregnant with possibility, and bestrewn with endless pockets of life waiting for me to find them so I could lose myself. And as I wandered through sky-scrapered and misty-mountained lands and wondered at jungle symphonies and star-blanketed skies and flickering fireflies, I felt that I was at the centre of the Universe. That I was exactly where I should have been.

That I could have shut my eyes and held my breath and let myself fall and the world would have been there, arms open wide, waiting to catch me.

Love and hugs x

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