I never wanted to travel because ‘different’ terrified me: different food, different people, different customs. Somehow I said ‘yes’ to a trip to China with a friend of my sister. When I arrived in Beijing, I understood just how much I took the English language for granted. In seconds, a carefully planned trip to the Summer Palace fell to pieces, because I couldn’t clear the first hurdle – buying a train ticket. Everything was written in Chinese. There were no translations and no English speaking staff. If it weren’t for a friendly young Chinese woman who noticed the dismayed looks on our face and asked, in English, if we needed help, I’m not sure how our day would have ended.
There was more. Chinese cuisine bore no resemblance to my normal order sweet and sour pork with fried rice from the local restaurant back home. I saw beggars for the first time in my life, rolling themselves through the streets on homemade wheelie boards, useless limbs wrapped around their necks. In Shanghai, armed police strode into McDonald’s, stood silently, rifles in hand, then left just as silently.
I arrived in Xian several days later, to the sound of music playing from the town square’s speakers. The song was not some patriotic tune spurring on the nation, nor the music people practiced tai-chi to as the sun rose. This woeful tune was the theme song from the movie “The Bangkok Hilton”- set on repeat. My senses were on overload. I returned to the hotel and curled up on the floor of my room, tears streaming down my face, silently praying for someone to get me out of China.
The geographical and cultural enormity of the journey totally overwhelmed me, but once I returned home and had time to process where I had been, the sights I had visited and the things I had learnt, I realized just how much this experience had meant to me. Something inside had awakened. I knew I could love travel.
Over the following years I saw cherry blossom season in Japan, the sun rise over Angkor Wat and nightmare road crossings in Vietnam. I longed to see more, but there were not always friends who shared my desire to see them. At the end of my life I didn’t want to say ‘I never visited that country because no-one would go with me.’ I may have been shy, absolutely terrified and a born panicker, but I knew I had to learn to travel by myself or live with the consequences. And I was more scared of that.
I planned my first solo trip as a return to Japan because I figured it would be easier to start somewhere I’d been before. I started a blog (Escape from Me) to record my feelings, plans and eventually my experiences. The blog was a god-send. Simply because I was sharing my travel with others, I was no longer alone and the whole experience of travelling solo seemed less intimidating. I knew I was finally getting the hang of solo travel when I found myself walking into a small, non-English speaking Izakaya, ordering curry rice and a beer and eating it at the counter with the locals without panicking.
I stayed open to the challenge. A friend packed up her life to travel the world with her husband with their first stop being Grand Cayman Island. She invited me to visit – half way across the world and I accepted. The trip to a sun-soaked, hurricane-prone island in the Caribbean, full of iguanas and turtles, was going to challenge me in all sorts of ways (not least of all because I hated iguanas, turtles and the beach).
There would be plane connections to make in London and the United States so apart from new destinations to explore on my own, there were a host of imagined catastrophes to get through. But, with my trusty blog on my side, I made it. I swam with dolphins, screamed at iguanas, held a turtle (but couldn’t force myself to eat one) and learnt to snorkel. I had never felt so free.
And I haven’t stopped travelling since. With each new trip, I found that my blog pushed me even further. Last year found me in Poland for the first time, armed with a headful of researched history, eager to find my roots. I walked the streets of Warsaw and saw bullet holes still lining the walls of buildings. I met family I had only ever heard about and we had ‘half’ conversations – they in Polish, I in English. I drank vodka. Lots of vodka. And ‘different’ didn’t seem so bad after all.
And although I have only just begun to uncover my family history, I already know and understand so much more for having made the journey.