Travel is not all frothy Instagrammable moments in front of castles and waterfalls. It sucks balls a lot of the time. But those shitty travel situations are actually the most valuable, because I’ve learnt the most from them. They also make the best stories that I relish re-telling to family and friends, new people I meet, over the internet to you guys, on my Tinder dates and to my imaginary cat. So here are my shittiest travel situations and what I’ve learnt from them.
Shitty Travel Situation 1: The fear before long-term travel
Before I left home to travel long-term I was frustrated with my life. I wanted to see the world but a part of me thought that it wouldn’t be possible. That I would just work, get married and keep existing without a choice. So one week, I followed my instincts and decided to use my teaching background and sent out about a million applications to teach English Abroad using Dave’s ESL Cafe.
But that was the easy part. The shitty travel part was the FEAR that came after. I had traveled solo before on short trips to Amsterdam and Iceland. But never in Asia alone and never to live there for an unknown amount of time (my contract was for a year). October 2016 was the scariest month of my life; it was my last month in London. Every morning I woke up with knots in my stomach wondering whether I had made the right choice. That fear built inside my chest and stomach lining and came with me to the airport weighing me down like a suitcase of lead. Saying goodbye to my family felt like a surreal nightmare and suddenly I was alone.
All I remember of the plane journey is trying to distract myself with funny movies like Rush Hour, because if I thought too much, I would feel sick. Things didn’t actually get better until I found a nice apartment, got on with my job and made friends.
Sure the fear was shitty, but it pushed me to find that new apartment, make my work meaningful and socialize with people. Through fear I’ve learnt that we will always feel displaced when moving to a new place (when I moved from Hanoi to Bali, I felt weird again), but that fear goes once we get used to stuff. I have learnt to embrace uncertainty and accept displacement a little more.
Shitty Travel Situation 2: Driving A Scooter In Asia
People sometimes ask me what I miss about London. Is it the food, the people, the Fish n Chips? Sure, it’s all of those, but most of all it’s the transport. I really crave pavements that are wide enough to walk on. I miss the London buses and the tubes like old boyfriends I fantasize about the good times with. Because guess what? Transport is godawful in a lot of Asia and if you stay somewhere long term you need to get your ass in that traffic and drive.
So I tried in October. And crashed into a wall 3 times before giving up in a flood of tears. I tried again in December – this time with a bicycle – it helped me get to know the roads. Then I tried in January with an electric bike and I could balance OK. Then in February, I rented a scooter for a trip to Phu Quoc Island and… I could drive it. I was so happy that I had overcome my shitty travel situation that I forgot to check the petrol and ran out halfway up the island and got stranded (but that’s a different story).
Now I can drive pretty much anything. When I went to Ha Giang, I drove a semi-automatic bike with gears and everything through crazy-ass mountain roads filled with jagged rocks and narrow slopes – Learn more about that HERE. In Nusa Penida I drove over abandoned cliffs laughing in the rain with a towel draped around my shoulders.
What have I learnt from shitty travel moments driving a scooter in Asia? That we can achieve our goals. But nothing happens overnight and we need to work towards these goals in small baby steps. Writing a blog is the same – I have a mountain of things to do as we speak, but as long as I make a small step of progress each day, I remind myself to appreciate that. If the girl with no balance can drive a bike like a badass then we can all achieve goals in small steps.
Shitty Travel Situation 3: Facing An Impenetrable Language Barrier
Everyone says you it’s good to learn the language before traveling to a new country. True, but when faced with learning Vietnamese – a language that has six tones and vowels that use parts of the throat I never knew I had – you literally have a lot to swallow. Don’t get me wrong, I did learn some pretty basic stuff (numbers to 10, animals on the menu, thank you and swear words) but it didn’t get much further than that.
Facing the seemingly-impenetrable language barrier taught me that there are universal languages. Smiling, for instance. Cheesy I know, but positive body language goes a long way when you’re an alien in a country. When I laughed as I spoke in pathetically broken Vietnamese and made a joke of it, people appreciated my two or three words more.
Language barriers also make you seriously creative with made-up sign language (sometimes Google Translate gets it wrong and sometimes there’s no wifi *shock horror*). Knowing what might make sense to people teaches you a kind of empathy. Knowing that ‘face wipes’ or ‘tinned beans’ won’t be understood straight away by weird hand gestures in the supermarket teaches you patience. So a shitty travel situation taught me positive emotions.
Shitty Travel Situation 4: Dealing with loneliness
Loneliness sucks. It makes you feel empty and a bit pointless. What I’ve learnt is that I need to stop myself and ask “Why do I feel like shit today?” Lightbulb moment: “Zainab, you’re lonely because you’ve been alone in the apartment for too long you dimwit.” So then I deal with this shitty travel situation by the following process I’m proud to have developed over time:
- I call my long-suffering best friend and have my panic attack on the phone while she’s listening. The fact that she’s listening makes it better. It also makes me speak out about any underlying frustrations I have, e.g. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing with my life and I’m having another existential crisis’, because the loneliness and general unease stems from these underlying problems as well.
- I call my mum just to say hi. It reassures me to know that I’m loved on the other side of the planet.
- I plan out how to solve my underlying issue – why am I having this crisis? Is it because I don’t like my job anymore? Am I dating a dickhead that I’m not comfortable with? How do I get through this – OK, I need to find something new and dump his sorry ass.
- I meet people. Apart from my imaginary cat. I’m not much of a crazy raver, but once in a while, a party with a group of people I like is nice. Having dinner and meaningful conversation with people I respect releases positive hormones in my brain. Meeting people at events, talking to strangers, going on dates is all part of positive human interaction.
This is just my process of getting over loneliness – Kate from Her Travel Therapy has some more great tips on overcoming social anxiety HERE.
So what does loneliness teach me? That it’s a feeling and not some scary monster that will eat me up. It will pass and I can repeat the steps above to make it go faster. It’s just another problem to solve. As Mark Manson points out in his epicly awesome book ‘The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck’ – happiness is not an end product. It comes from solving problems to turn them into better problems and is an ongoing process.
In fact, I’d much prefer to solve the problem of loneliness than the problem of the frustration and suffocation I felt before I left to travel long-term. So knowing that I chose this path and this problem and that I’m armed with the means to solve it gives me power.
Shitty Travel Situation 5: Drama with my phone
I rely way too much on my phone. I read all the articles on how we’re addicted to mobiles and think “Shit, that’s me”. So, when my phone has been in danger, I’ve had some pretty shitty travel moments which I’ll tell you about here:
- It smashed on the beach in Phu Quoc when I was walking with it in my hand through the water (I know, but the water was shallow). I stepped on a rock and BANG I slipped, grazed my knee and smashed the screen. The phone died a slow death. I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it back to my resort on my bike without Google maps, because of my woeful sense of direction. So after a lot initial shock, I gathered my wits, got a cab and later on a new phone.
- It fell on a mountain. Luckily not off the mountain. I was driving on a particularly shitty mountain road in Ha Giang that was narrow, full of rocks and sloping steeply upwards. It was pouring with rain. My bike shook so hard on the road that my phone fell out of my pocket and on to the road. A truck was coming from in front of me and another from behind me. I pictured them crushing my poor phone in slow-motion and me being stuck with no Google maps in the middle of nowhere. Panicking, I jumped off the bike without turning it off and ran like a crazy person. I waved for them to stop and rescued my phone just in time. I felt like Neo in the Matrix.
What did I learn from all this shitty travel drama? From the Phu Quoc drama, I learnt that I can be resourceful by controlling my panic. From the Ha Giang drama, I learnt that it’s important not to give up. Obviously if I sensed the truck was too close to rescue the phone I would have stopped myself from becoming roadkill, but I acted before it got to that point and it felt damn good. I also learnt that the bra can evolve into a super handy place to store a mobile when driving a scooter.
So Zainab, where are you going with all these shitty travel situations? Well, what I’m trying to say is that the worst times have the most potential to help you learn and grow. If I had never faced a language barrier, shitty transport, fear, phone drama or loneliness, I wouldn’t have learned a lot of valuable lessons. Shitty travel situations are only truly shitty if you ignore them and don’t try and learn from them and solve them as problems.
Embrace the shittiness of travel and life as a problem-solving process leading to bigger and better things.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this – I’m only one voice here, so please share your own shitty travel situations and what you learnt from them in the comments below 😊.