We travel the world and spend most of our days in the quiet comforts of our own company, exploring the unknown. We wander around cities and learn more about the local people and their problems than any news broadcast could ever show. For some of us, travelling solo and not knowing what the future holds feels more comforting to our soul than any form of stability – not because we’re sad or empty inside but because the silence and solitude has become more than just our companion. It has become our sense of reasoning and our way to understand the world.
They say old habits die hard – well, so do old scars and old memories. One of the hardest lessons I’ve learnt in this life is to just let go. Let go of friends who chose to leave, old lovers who walked away and new lovers who don’t understand the inner workings of my wandering soul. As a scientist, I’ve also had to let go of the idea that every other scientist out there is just as passionate about saving the world as I am.
I left home in 2014 to spend a year in a little city south of China not because it was my first choice but because deep down, at that time, I felt that I had no choice. I’ve always believed in the magic of the universe – that she contently listens, giving us what we need despite what we want. This trip was something unexpected but it was what I needed, not just to save my soul but to save my sanity. To save me from the confinements of one country and from living a mundane ordinary life that society had so lovingly dictated for me years before. So I left. I saw great things, met amazing people and learnt more about a culture than any dusty book on my shelf could ever teach me.
After a year abroad, I mustered up the courage and came back home. I had missed my family and I had missed the luxuries of my life before – luxuries that in the past were necessities. I reorganized my room and threw out things I no longer had use for in the hope that I could preserve the changes of my well-traveled soul. I reconnected with old friends. I swallowed the lump in my throat and accepted an interview for a job that promised a decent salary in a small office where I could utilize my master’s degree to almost full capacity. I was confident. I got the job. My life was going to change.
But after a few peaceful nights in my cozy South African bed, there I was, lying awake in a cold sweat, wondering where I had gone wrong and why I couldn’t breathe. I was feeling constrained and shackled, which was absurd because I had just returned home. I needed to be on the road again. I needed to leave. I knew I couldn’t take that job.
Confidence was something I’d learnt to fake as a scientist, telling people how this study and that funding would make the world a better place. Years of research that had been done before, endless grants, bursaries and published papers; all whilst innocent families still lacked access to clean drinking water, while Syrian refugees continued to walk across Europe and while children continued to starve in Somalia.
“You can’t save them all,” they would say. “You’ve just got to get on with it.”
If that’s true, then we shouldn’t be doing this. As researchers, our hearts have always been in the right place and I have the utmost respect for my fellow scientists who tirelessly fight the good fight. But unless we experience the world, see the struggle and understand why it is we need to do what we do inside a lab, change cannot happen. Research cannot progress.
My year in China saw me teach chemistry, English and art to over 80 high school students. Teaching came naturally but what I didn’t realise was the life lessons that would unexpectedly filter out. I taught them about the world outside a country constrained by government censorship and showed them what it meant to have a voice independent of an unchanging society. I taught them to formulate their own thoughts and develop their personal opinions. I taught them about passion that comes with creating art and how it feels to express yourself even when the world around you is telling you no. I taught them about books and travel and why science is important.
More importantly, they taught me. They taught that we need to keep searching for our purpose whatever it may be. They taught me that despite years of research sitting on a shelf, I could still make a difference and I could start with thoughts, words and actions. They taught me about a different kind of love.
There comes a time in your life, when you become tired of all the red tape life has to offer. When you realise you can’t save the entire world but, in the words of Mother Teresa, “you can cast a stone across the waters and create many ripples” that will influence some kind of change.
Travel has become a way for me to do that whilst refuelling my soul and reorganising my mind. It’s been a way for me to take stock of my life, make peace with where I’ve come from and figure out where I’m headed. It’s shown me a few existential truths too – that pain is a universal feeling no matter what language we speak, that it’s possible to like my own company and more importantly, that it’s okay to stop fighting so hard to hold on to some sense of normality and just exist on my own terms. It’s shown me that it’s okay to live the creative life I imagined, even if goes against the norms of society and it’s given me hope that I can still save the world.