Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The End: Backpacking Around-The-World Wrap Up

IT'S THE END.  It's been the end for a bit, but it's not official until it's blog-official.

The backpack bestie, who I love but never want to see again.

I've been back home for a bit now (eep!), and it's still been super hard for me to accept and wrap my head around the fact that my trip is over.  I guess I have to throw something in here like, "But the adventure is never really over!"  It isn't, and I know that. But for all intents & purposes - this specific trip I dreamed about and talked about and stressed about and quit my job for and had anxiety attacks about afterwards - the one I truly never ever thought would ever happen - happened. And that is now over.

My overall world backpacking trip lasted 15 months, spanned 47 countries and 6 continents, and was single-handedly the most life-changing thing I've ever done in my entire life.

It sounds incredibly cliché, writing something like "Hey I quit my job and my life and set out for adventure by taking a big around-the-world backpacking trip and it changed my life and I learned so many things; HERE THEY ARE."  But to be honest, that's the exact way I feel.  I did learn so much. This trip did change my life. And not just in the way that seeing amazing places and experiencing different cultures and meeting different people and having a million bucket-list adventures 24/7 changes your life because it was cool and now you have great memories, but also in a way that I feel like it fundamentally changed me as a person. It brought this ridiculous sense of not just world-awareness, but also self-awareness: it made me dig into and question the way I think and why, reflect on the crazy differences and similarities of the human experience, and also inspired me to examine the things in life that truly matter to me - all things that happened whether I wanted to think about them or not.

High-level, it was the most amazing experience of my life, in a way that even the word "amazing" sounds trite and fails to describe even 1/100th of what I want to say.  Despite all the tiny hiccups along the way (you know, getting my phone stolen in China by a terrible human being that I hope someday breaks both his legs, the accident in the Philippines, and maybe generally just bleeding money constantly), I would never take a single part of this trip back; ever. I don't regret a single second of the past 15 months.

Reflecting on my trip, the things that come to me are all the wonderful, awe-inspiring, stunning, unexpected singular moments that happened.

Places so unimaginable and inspiring that you literally can't even breathe, and you feel a combo of such complete joy and freedom and disbelief and you think to yourself "holy shit, this world is SO EFFING BEAUTIFUL." The unbelievable vastness of the salt flats in Bolivia, where you feel like you're the only ones left in the world and can literally see forever in the flat, blinding white vastness around you.  Sitting atop an old bus in Nepal for six hours because a gas crisis has made the buses so scarce that you are forced to climb onto the roofs of the ones you do find, with a death grip on the handlebars below you as wind whips your face and the bus careens around hairpin turns on winding mountain roads. Strolling on a dirt path near a village in Uganda that is so small and remote that it doesn't even exist on a map, surrounded by lush palm trees and rolling green hills and free-roaming cows and villagers who are so excited to see you that they tear a mango off one of their trees to gift you, even though they themselves have almost nothing.  More than a handful of times, the beauty and joy and richness of the experience was so overwhelming that I actually shed a tear or two (up until now, I'd thought "crying with joy" was a Hollywood farce. It's not, people).

Salt flats of Bolivia, where you can literally see forever. And clearly I used the word 'literally' correctly.

On top of a sketchy bus in Nepal, five hours in.  Do our butts still exist, because we lost feeling in them two hours ago? Nobody knows.

Befriending a goat in rural Uganda

I think of the people I've met - both locals and other backpackers from all around the world: people who've had completely different upbringings and life experiences and ways of thinking, yet you somehow, inexplicably just get each other. You bond over things and in ways you can't put into words. You meet a complete stranger from Germany in your hostel lobby, and an hour later, the two of you have hiked a mountain together and are sitting at the top of it gazing out at an unbelievable 360 degree view of the greenest valleys you've ever seen, discussing life and love and your hopes and dreams, and at that moment you feel closer to them than anyone else in your life.

I think about the three random girls from China I got thrown into a room with in a hostel near Shanghai, who shared literally no similar life experiences with me (or even a common language, really), but insisted we all spend the day together and I got a small slice of insight into local Chinese life - or how my parallel life would have been as a local growing up in China vs. America.  We had completely different things to talk about and relate on and bond over (they don't even have access to the same internet we do, for gawd's sake), but the connection of being similarly-aged women who were traveling alone was all we needed.

My new Chinese friends, which you can tell bc their skin shades are ~20x lighter than mine. #TerribleAsian

Sitting on a tiny boat in the Nile River in Egypt with a local guide, Star, who had basically been assigned to be my keeper while I was in Luxor. We had to spend so much time together (see: lack of tourists in Egypt) that we became buddies. He would take me with him to the cafes in between his stops and buy me tea. He taught me Arabic words to pick up girls (heyyyy ladies). He'd noticed that I used the word "fancy" a lot, asked me what it meant, and started to try using it just as frequently as I did (I was marveling over the seat cushions in one of our taxis, and he was like, "it's fancy.....right??"). He consistently tried to convince me to marry him and move to Luxor and when I gently told him it was never going to happen, he jokingly negotiated with me that he'd be allowed to ask only once a day (which he completely abided by). And when I left Luxor, he gifted me a bracelet his mom had made because he'd noticed I was collecting them and didn't have an Egypt one. I loved that. Different worlds and lives, but we were buddies for the couple days I was in Luxor and he was assigned to me.

My black Egypt bracelet, courtesy of Star.

The human experience is truly so universal, regardless of where people are from and what they think and how they've been brought up and their individual life experiences. And for me, finding that out and experiencing it for myself was one of the most beautiful, inspiring things ever. That you can bond and relate and interact and connect so closely with such wildly different people that, on the surface, seem like they have not a thing in common with you.

This post is already a ton more long-winded than I'd intended (and trust me, I could make it 10x more long-winded if you'd let me).  But I guess my biggest takeaway is that the world is so much more beautiful and lovely and incredible than you expect, and far, far more than all the news and headlines you hear all the time.  It is truly a testament that there was not a single moment in the entire 15 months that I felt unsafe. For the most part, people were beyond amazing and caring and not only helpful when I'd ask, but proactively wanting to be helpful in any way they could, constantly. The stories of the kindness I received from strangers - the crazy coincidences - the amazing people I met - the number of times I worried about something just to have it work out unexpectedly and more beautifully than I could have ever imagined - those are 99.9% of the stories and memories I have from this trip.  There are absolutely a lot of things/news/headlines in the world today that are scary and depressing and sad and worrisome - but my personal experiences traveling around the world this year are ones that make me inherently believe in the goodness and beauty of people and humanity and life as a whole. I truly, truly do.

This trip brought out parts of me that I didn't know existed - it sounds so daunting, the thought of showing up in a country without knowing anybody and without any idea of how it's going to feel. But it worked out, every single time. I can't tell you how many times I worried about something - being alone, finding my way, transport options, getting money, being safe, etc. - but it always worked out. If anything, traveling alone taught me to believe in my own capabilities and judgment more than any other experience I could have had.  Things went a million times smoother than I could have ever imagined, and I also ended up meeting all these incredibly delightful people that I never would have met otherwise. It made me believe in myself more than ever.  And because of that, I will absolutely hold every second of every moment of this trip in my heart forever.

Repost from my Facebook, as an appropriate last sentence (oh god, am I quoting...myself?):

The only last thing I need to say is that the world is crammed with more beautiful, unbelievable, unexpected, wondrous, awe-inspiring places, things, experiences, people, & sights than you or I could ever imagine. Get out there. <3