A little background: Sometimes you fall in love with the wrong people and you learn to forgive yourself for that, too. I wrote that in my notebook about a month and a half ago, either on a plane or a train somewhere in Europe. I was going to use that to title this piece and in it, discuss the mistakes I've made in my past relationships and everything I've learned from love. Alas, what I ended up writing turned out to be far less romantic, yet I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of wisdom I was actually able to share. So for what its worth, yes, that happens. Sometimes you fall in love with the wrong people but you learn to forgive yourself for that, too. Not because every relationship brings a chapter of sunshine, rainbows, and mind-blowing orgasms to the story of your life, because it won't. Not every story of yours will have a grand, articulate ending to it. I'm grateful that I already have this much to share with you all, but I'm even more excited for what a similar piece will sound like in the next 5 years, and in the 5 after that. Like I say: take what you need, leave the rest. And I hope you enjoy this one, because it's a true piece of my heart: all of the personal that I know you're all digging for but without any of the useless apologies. Hugs from Japan xx
It's a rainy afternoon in Nishinomiya. I've planted myself on my Japanese brother's couch, the kettle on the stove heating more water for tea, and the window is open. I woke up late today after a long, hot night's sleep to recover from the exhausting day before. Upon reflecting on the misadventures I've had in my travels, I started to compile a list of the things I've learned. They were practical things: check the fridge as you're leaving a hotel room, look up, know how to read a paper map. But while I'm capable of giving brief, practical advice to others, the lessons that have enabled me to do so have rarely demonstrated themselves in practical ways. I'm a clumsy experiential learner. This hasn't changed since I was in kindergarten twenty years ago, tripping over blocks and spilling paint. Now, travel is merely the course, and the world unknown my classroom, in which I've chosen to learn important life skills. These skills include, but are not limited to: how to sleep, how to play, how to take time out, how to enjoy snacks, and how to interact with other people who aren't like you. It isn't all that different from kindergarten. Only you don't go home at 3pm; sometimes, you never come home at all.
Navigating foreign places where you don't know anyone is a challenge for anyone. But when you go at it alone, without other people by your side to offer a shoulder on long bus rides, travel will change you. Follow any paid Instagram travel blogger or watch one episode of Departures and you may get sucked into destination marketing that hands out vials of wanderlust to the masses, to be taken immediately. Don't get me wrong, the views I've caught from the top of the Euromast in Rotterdam to ziplining over the Legazpi Port in the Philippines have all been absolutely breathtaking. When you climb up 4000 stairs in the heat, or hike through the night up a mountain to wake up with the sunrise, you're not only graced with a peaceful view at the top. In addition to that perfect moment and that delicious deep breath you get to take, you're rightfully awarded the pride of knowing you got up there by yourself. Without help, without a lift ticket in your pocket. That moment is yours. And yes, absolutely, those moments in travel have changed me.
But the moments and struggles that don't make it on social media have changed me, too. Every traveler will have these stories whether or not they are shared. When you miss a flight, lose your phone, or have something stolen from you (which has never happened to me while abroad, but many times at home), that trepidation and stress intensifies unlike anything else when you're alone, in a place where you know no one. Even worse when you can't speak the language of the country you're in. Even worse when you're out of money or your phone is dead. Situations like these have changed me, grown me, and challenged me more than the classroom ever has. You learn to depend on yourself. But even more than that, you learn to depend on the kindness of strangers, of people you may never meet again.
I have learned, by their example, to be more empathic and kind to others. Though this never came from a genuine place until I first learned to be empathic and kind to myself. In moments of being lost, the rising feelings of fear and hopelessness could only be tolerated and transcended when I was gentle with myself. Self-blame only creates more pain. I found this to be true at the end of relationships as well as at the end of barren roads. I am unbelievably privileged to be able to take this journey into myself via passport and plane. Every day of my life is an opportunity that many in the world do not have. Travel has made me keenly aware of this, which is a realization that is both humbling and refreshing. For with every one of my moments of gratitude where I'm thankful for what I have, I am equally mindful of how much I've lost, and what it's taken for me to be here. I am a 25 year-old three-time college dropout. I lost my father and best friend to cancer before I graduated high school. I've struggled with alcohol abuse, self-harm, and mental health problems that people around me have failed to understand or have been quick to discredit. Yet I am not completely innocent. There is a stamp in my passport for every important friendship of mine that has dissolved or partner I've lost or left behind. I met these ends out of my own fear, or their fear for their sanity. The road behind me has not been lined with cherry trees and sunshine. The road ahead of me is, because that is what I've chosen. Flying is freedom. Travel - no matter how close or far, the days long and gruelling or calm and relaxing - is my liberation. I was unable to heal until I forgave myself for problems that were not mine. Sometimes I forgave other people. But I had to forgive myself first. I was unable to comprehend the idea of traveling until I realized that a beautiful world existed beyond the pain I knew. I was unable to believe that beautiful world wanted me to explore it until I believed I was worthy of a happy life. I was unable to book a ticket, get to the airport, and fly until I decided to silence my own fear.
I was taught within submissive societal confines that forgiveness is the quiet mutter of "it's okay" when someone says they're sorry, even when it is not, in fact, okay. Before that, I was taught within the closed-minded catholic scope of my upbringing that forgiveness is something you ask of God for the things you do wrong. I've learned a lot of things through travel. Also through loss, through depression, and through the process of rebuilding myself from rock bottom that I can never follow a teaching that glorifies self-deprecation and disempowerment. Because it is the strength you have that builds character. It is the strength you build that will save you. Some of the things I've learned are not new things, but instead, reaffirmation of my ever-present truth. Life is a felt experience for me. I need to touch things and let joy, sadness, anger, and fear reach inside me and grab my heart. That is how I know how to live. That is how I will continue to live, as long as I'm still walking, running, and flying across this earth. I will never stifle or squash that ever again in order to keep other people comfortable. And, I will never again stifle or squash what other people feel, provided they are being honest from a place deeper than words. I can tell when they're lying. I have learned how to feel deeper without sinking. That intuition is a compass. That everyone is hurting. Through all of this, I have learned how to be kind.
I learned forgiveness through survival. Through loneliness, through sadness. Through guilt. I learned that not every "sorry" deserves absolution, that some of the things people do are horrible. Even with the best of intentions, people do unforgivable things. I learned forgiveness when I had no one else around me to idolize or tear down. When I was left in dark rooms of my own doing, with only fragmented memories left of the mistakes that I made. Instead of justifying my behaviour by what was previously done to me, I learned to forgive myself. Quickly. Unconditionally. I learned how to accept every new day as a blank page. I learned to validate my own pain, loss, and struggle when no one else around me would. And slowly, all of my misgivings became okay, even when they were not to others: the impatience I inherited from my father, the selfishness I inherited from my mother, the pushover quality that became part of my identity, the poor judgement, the worse memory, the indecision, and the entitlement. It was then that I understood that my flaws didn't make or break me, for sometimes, people do horrible things. It doesn't necessarily make them horrible people. Sometimes I foolishly allowed for others to hurt me, over and over again. I learned to forgive myself for that. Sometimes I fell in love with the wrong people, and I learned to forgive myself for that, too. It isn't because these flaws and mistakes don't have consequences, because believe me, they do. It isn't because I am inherently perfect, because I am not. No one is. But only when there is true forgiveness can you move forward and start again. Only when you learn to hold your heart as gently as the fragile limbs of a child, will it heal, trusting and growing from the light of the world that surrounds you and keeps you warm.
So this is what I've learned: that the world is good. People are mostly good, but some are not. People's actions don't define them, but their choices do. You always have a choice. You are not always right, but beliefs and opinions are not right or wrong. Use your voice. It's everyone's responsibility to live their truth. Leave your house every day. Be kind. And what I've learned from travel? Pack light. Get a good night's sleep. Be kind to others. Learn how to say hello, thank you, and "do you have a wifi password?" in the local language where you're visiting. Read a map without GPS. Check the fridge before you leave. Charge your power bank at night with your phone. Forgive yourself first. And don't be afraid of what you don't already know. Travel is merely the course, and the world unknown my classroom, in which I've chosen to learn these skills. The tests came, and failed me early on in life. But that's the best thing about failure. It always gives you the choice to try again.