Being sick is no easy feat. Nobody likes it. Being sick away from home is even harder but being sick in Beijing where air pollution levels fly off the chart, poplar pollen fly around like endless snowfall in Spring and you don’t always know what delicious delicacies you’re eating in your spicy hotpot is something on a whole other level.
After recently fracturing my toe on vacation and then catching a throat infection that left me down for close to three full days, I have come to accept the inevitable truth that I am officially sick in China… again. With a toe stabilizer on my right foot and a full dose of antibiotics that has made me dream of dead puppies knifed to walls and a talking black dog, I suddenly find myself awake at 3:48 am, listening to the first spring rains as they hit the window of our eighth story apartment building. At this ungodly hour, I ask myself, why do we put ourselves at such unexpected and often unknown risks, miles and miles away from our families, just to see the world and travel? Is all this travel really worth it?
Five years ago when I first ventured out my front door, 11 000 km’s away from South Africa to a quaint little city called Nijmegen, my experience was very different. Maybe it was just because I was in beautiful Europe. Maybe it was because I was younger and more naïve or maybe I was just more easily swayed by chocolate, emotion and feelings rather than my swirling thoughts at ungodly hours. I found happiness in the littlest of things like drinking cappuccino’s at side cafes and wandering by my lonesome through beautiful parks thinking of an electric guitarist who sat behind me in my environmental economics class. Five years later, I find myself sitting in bed in Northern China with a fractured toe and a throat infection that has left me sleeping though many momentous occasions back home. How did I get here? At what point in my life was I standing at a crossroad that said, “this way: China”.
People say we travel to find ourselves, but what if, instead of finding what we’re looking for, we veer so far off our meticulously crafted life plan that we lose ourselves in the process? We lose ourselves in a country we never thought we’d visit and we lose our sense of direction.
Is that okay?
After travelling to over 15 countries, what have I really learnt? Is all this travel really worth it? The truth is, I don’t know. To help me work through these swirling thoughts, I have decided to make a list of all the life lessons learned from my traveling experiences.
Here we go.
- As much as you plan and prepare, anything can and will go wrong – be it while you travel or just living everyday life.
In 2004, my family and I visited Thailand. This was also the year that the dreaded tsunami hit and killed thousands of people across the east. Our hotel was destroyed merely 30 minutes after we boarded the plane en route to another Indonesian island. We were lucky. The truth is, you can’t always be prepared for what may come but what defines you from the rest is how you respond in a difficult situation. Just breathe, stay calm and think.
- As much as you make lists, you most likely won’t stick to them… and that’s okay.
My life plan never included a move to China but I somehow found myself staying here for close to two years now. I have realized that it is okay to be happy with very little in life. I see it every day as I walk past the locals on my way to work. They live a simple life and are happier than most people in the western world ever will be. Maybe they don’t know any better or maybe communist China has forced them to become content with what they have – either way, the glowing smiles on many of these grannies are the tell-tale signs of a life well lived. They are some of the most beautiful smiles I have ever seen. I have learnt patience and tolerance which is something I admittedly had very little of in the past. My new job here has taught me more about raising children than I ever though I needed to know. I have also learnt that my body is not as young as my kindred spirit may be and being sick in China absolutely sucks.
- Stop, relax and just breathe.
Celebrating my 21st birthday in Mauritius was one of the most relaxing vacations I have ever had – not because we stayed in some fancy five-star hotel, but because I spent an entire day by myself, sketching a beautiful skyline and photographing a soothing sunset. Sometimes, you need to just stop and breathe. The earth is a beautiful place. You just have to look.
- Pay attention to the surrounding signs.
The Seychelles has a vast expanse of underwater marine life and whilst you have the freedom to just dive into the ocean and swim at any time of day or night, it can be dangerous too. You need to pay attention to the surrounding signs and learn how to stay calm under pressure – even when you suddenly see sting rays approaching your snorkeling spot.
- Appreciate history and culture.
My ventures in Egypt have taught me one important thing: learn to appreciate history and culture. Ask questions and learn as much as you can about the past. It will help you understand the present and make decisions in the future. You never know when it will all be gone.
- Enjoy the simple things in life.
Road tripping from The Netherlands to Belgium without a map was an unplanned experience but through this, I have learnt to enjoy the simple things in life. It’s okay to not know which direction you’re going in and it’s okay to get wonderfully lost. Ask a stranger for directions and drive with some kind of hope towards something. I guess this can apply to life too.
- What you expect may not always be what you get and that’s okay.
With only two days in Paris (both of which were cold and gloomy), my sister and I ventured out in search of the Eiffel Tower – a world famous iron-clad structure. After hours of walking and eventually finding it, truthfully, our first thoughts were, “By golly, it really does look awful on a grey day”. But it still is the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes you need to look deeper to see the beauty hidden in a place.
- Being independent is not hard.
Living in The Netherlands for six months showed me that being independent is easier and more liberating than I thought it would be. It’s not as hard as people make it out to be and more importantly, it’s not as bad for a woman as society can sometimes make it appear. I have also learnt to appreciate art history and delicious Dutch cheese. I guess it’s not that I don’t like cheese; I just needed to look for the right kind of cheese for me.
- Appreciate where you come from.
Living away from home has truly made me appreciate my home more – not just my immediate home but my city, my country and my continent too. I have learnt more about my own country than I ever knew before just by being away from it. Africa and its people are beautiful – whether it’s being told to you by a stranger on the Dutch streets of Nijmegen or a taxi driver in down-town China. Home is home. Never forget your roots.
- Take care of yourself
After being sick countless times in China, it’s made me more aware of the fact that I need to be able to take care of myself – whether it is through a retirement fund, having proper health and travel insurance or just being more careful with the travel-related activities I choose. You never know when things can go wrong and having a back-up plan is always a safer option for when those rainy days hit and you find an unexpected hole in the roof.
So in the end, are all these risks worth the experience to travel? I think so. I have seen a lot but the truth is, I have also learnt a lot too. That has to count for something.