A Sucker Punch in the Gut

It seemed like a good idea to quad-bike around parts of Turkey, 2009. It seemed like a good idea to quad-bike around parts of Turkey, 2009.

The difference between travelling alone, which I’ve done plenty of, and exploring possibilities alone, which I’ve done less of (but gotten more from), lies in how much of a sucker punch those decisions give me, specifically in my gut. I don’t follow my gut as much as let my gut punch out a path for me in the metaphorical jungle of life’s decision trees.

Sometimes, they are very bad ideas. Most times they are good ideas — after a while. With these things, you really never know until you are knee-deep in the slush.

I was 19 when I set off to explore the world for the first time on my own. I had a one way ticket and 60 days in India. I had nothing other than the promise of 3 large freelance (and then lucrative) writing gigs from Northeast India to Bangladesh. I knew exactly what the next 60 days would be: take a 36 hour train to Calcutta. Locate my contact. Procure a ticket to Dhaka. Follow certain contacts into the far north. Live in a leprosy hospital. Be denied entry into India at its border with Bangladesh; circle back to Calcutta, take a 18 hour train to Guwahati, find a jeep, go to Shillong, find another jeep to take me to Cherrapunjee.

I remember what it was like to be sitting in the waiting room just before getting on the plane. I looked at my shoes a lot and thought about failure. I got on the plane.

Those lessons lasted me all through college (which I somehow completed).

On the eve of my 23rd birthday, I moved alone to the Middle East. No plan, no money, just a crazy idea that I had to be in this part of the world for a year. I wanted to have it all, you see: I wanted to be closer to my then girlfriend, who had just moved to London. Dubai was closer to London than Singapore, and we could meet in Istanbul. All I needed was my backpack, camera and passport.

What I did not know was how the whirlwind journey through Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey would touch me in ways I haven’t even begun to be able to fully articulate, 6 years on.

On the eve of my 29th birthday, I found myself wandering along a street in Jakarta as the sky set. The visual of a sunset in Jakarta made me feel terribly alone in a vast universe, on the cusp of the rest of my life. I had come to Indonesia to seek success and wealth, that was the first 10 hours of that journey and I forgot to pack a bath towel.

None of those stories are winning stories. They should not elicit any feelings of warmth or happiness. They are not tales of conquest meant to provide an origin story for any autobiographical data points. For me, as I lived it, all of those stories were stories of immense loneliness and fear.

You see, despite the happy reassurances of ‘it turned out okay’, I remember all of those three moments specifically as defining moments in which the dominant emotion was melancholy. Yes, I was happy to have had certain career and life opportunities. Yes, those were the things I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. Yes, I love adventure and wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world. But I had never felt more alone in the universe than when I literally stood crying in a phone booth in the world’s wettest place, learning that maybe I cannot have it all, after all.

Or that I rocked up in Dubai knowing no one, with the love of my life five thousand miles away, spending my birthday nearly alone in a stupid tiki bar thinking maybe I should have thought about this a little bit more. (I celebrated my 23rd birthday with a beautiful Palestinian couple I’d known for two hours. Great people, but I missed home.)

That I have spent most of my adult life feeling very far away from the people I love, suspended between here and there, utterly incapable of keeping any real connections alive because I always had to be somewhere else at the wrong times.

I still let my gut punch me about: it rules me. I no longer have to listen to it or follow it — it is me. It has been automated. It keeps me alive! I am quite literally alive today because I did not board a bus or a train for certain locations, because my gut told me so. Suicide bombs (multiple) and the worst floods in history ensued. I was not in them, unlike some of my travel companions.

My gut is automated to tune in to natural disasters, terrorism and business decisions all at once. My heart structurally resembles cotton candy.

My gut is never wrong. My heart almost always is.

My gut keeps me alive. My heart appears to want the opposite.

On the eve of the third decade of life I will be surrounded by loved ones, friends and family. I am not on a plane this week, which is a welcome change. I am no longer the person who wanders around Gaziantep in the wee hours of the morning. But I am still the same person who could wing it to the moon and back with nothing more than the shirt on my back.

I was always shit scared. You just get better at turning fear into currency for a life well-lived.

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