My mother always told me my wanderlust began August 13, 1962. I was born in Kimbrough Army Hospital, Fort Meade, Maryland on August 11, 1962. As a result of a jeep accident that left my father in a coma for weeks in January of that year, not even knowing he was going to be a father, he received a medical discharge on August 13th. My parents packed up their newborn, without a name, except “female Marvin” and took me on my first road trip of 350 miles to the place I would call home, Warren, Ohio.
Fast track to 2019…..I have now spent the better part of the last 5 years living abroad. First, in Paris from August 2014 until February 2015 and when I decided I needed to continue my travels/living abroad, I moved to China in August 2015. I haven’t looked back and I feel it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. That being said, most everyone, including myself, talks of all the great things about international travel and living….all the “highs”. I’ve taken mad scooter rides through the back streets of Saigon; attended the Royal Funeral of the Queen Mum; climbed the Great Wall of China and stood where it ends at the Bohai Sea; slept on the rooftop of the world, Mount Everest Base Camp; dined at the Captain’s table on massive cruise ships; found a person from my hometown in a tiny village in rural China; ridden a camel in the Gobi Desert; and visited Angor Wat. I’ve visited 34 countries of the world and if you count territories belonging to other countries, such as Puerto Rico, Aruba, and Tibet, that number jumps to 43. I’ve experienced Christmas through the eyes of a child in a communist country. I’ve prayed in Buddhist Temples and witnessed exhuming of a body for a Hindu cremation or Ngaben Ceremony in Bali.
The “highs”…. I could go on and on because that’s what everyone wants to hear about, right? Or, maybe, if I’m honest, because that’s the story I want to tell. But, what about the “lows”? I know I sometimes go on and on with all the happy, happy, everything is great bullshit, but for me, that is my coping mechanism, because yes, sometimes there are “lows”. In most instances, attitude really can improve a “low”. I’m not saying it can make it a “high”, far from it, but it can help you through that period.
So, what are the lows of solo travel? I was going to start with the biggest low of my journey, but I think I am going to start with the time I felt most alone. I arrived in Beijing, a day before the other recruits in August of 2015. The first thing I noticed was that I was given a private room. All the other rooms in the dorm had 2 names on the doors. I thought maybe many people came with friends or I was just the odd man out and luck of the draw I got the private room. At this point, I wasn’t too concerned, but the next day everyone else starting arriving. Jane told me they figured since most everyone else was on their gap year between high school and university they thought since I was older, I wouldn’t want to share a room with one of the “kids”. Ok, I felt old and alone and I had to spend the next 2 weeks with these “kids”. I kept to myself for a while, but that’s not really my style. I don’t remember the circumstances, but somehow, we (a group of 6 or 8) ended up on a search for alcohol and snacks. I’m sure you can imagine me on this quest. For the rest of the time we were together, I spent most evenings in someone’s dorm room, laughing, drinking, singing and dancing. It was another low when at the end of 2 weeks we all got our teaching assignments and had to say goodbye, most likely never seeing each other again. It was amazing the bond that was formed in 2 short weeks. I’m happy to say I do communicate with many of that original group. But, I have never felt that alone as I did when I first arrived. I learned that people will accept you for who you are no matter your age, looks, race, or religion. You discover that those who pack up and move abroad without knowing anyone usually have a similar mindset as yourself.
Other lows I have experienced traveling…. sometimes your heart hurts. After spending 5 months with 2 lovely roommates in the tiny village of Xiashan, China and with the entire staff of an all Chinese primary school, you have to say goodbye. You know all along this day would come, but your heart still hurts. Deep down you know you will most likely never see these people again.
What about Li Zi Han, aka “fish lips”, that little girl in grade one who made up to me on my first day in the classroom. She wanted to be a dancer. What has become of her and will she follow her dream? What about the little girl who didn’t have crayons and I gave her a box? When she finally got her own, she returned mine. Will she grow up to be a kind and caring young lady?
What about the naughty boys in grade two who always tried to see what they could get away with? Will they grow up to be doctors or lawyers? What about the charming Frenchman I spent much time with during my last few weeks in Paris. The one that showed me “his” Paris…..the Paris off the beaten path, the smoky cafes, the paper cups of wine while we walked the streets late at night as he walked me home. I had to say goodbye to friends who were like family in Changning, Hunan. All my friends, teachers and students at the kindergarten in Qingdao.
My sweet Marlon, yes, I still have contact, but it’s not the same. My bestie in Qingdao, Erwin, oh how I miss him and our antics. Will I see him again now that he has moved to Norway? Goodbyes, when you travel, are most often lows. Yes, sometimes your heart hurts. Having spent 2 years now in Dong’e, I am not looking forward to the goodbyes that await me at the end of this school year.
Sometimes your heart hurts, but not because you are saying goodbye. Those nights you are trying to fall asleep, but you know your best friend back home, home as in hometown, is struggling and you can’t be there to share a glass of wine, a good cry, a laugh, and a hug. That night you are all alone in your apartment and have a little cry because you know your brother is receiving an award and you won’t be there. You know he understands but he’s the closest family you have left and it gets you down.
Then there are the lows that you will look back on laugh. That time in Changning I drank a little too much, imagine that. That wasn’t the low, because it wasn’t the first time and certainly not the last. The low is when you are sick for 3 days and only have a squatty potty. I think I remember saying “I hate you China, why can’t you have normal toilets”?
Then there are the times you feel sorry for yourself lows. The time I returned to Xiashan, my roommates were gone, most all my Chinese friends were home with their families for Chinese New Year and I got the flu. The sneezing, sniffling, achy head, fever, I can’t breath kind of flu and there is no one to take care of you. You can start to feel sorry for yourself. Those times you are traveling with too much luggage because you are coming or going from the USA and you get to the train station and no elevator, no escalator or the escalator isn’t working so you must lug your suitcases up and down stairs. China, why? That time I agreed to go home with one of my Chinese co-workers to visit her family for several days in a February. When we arrived in a very rural village, I learned I was staying in a home with no running water. Her mother heated water from a pump outside over a gas fire and filled a washbasin each morning for us to bathe. Her bedroom had no heat and the toilet was a hole in the ground outside. Really, I’m 50 something years old, I’m sleeping with no heat, now I’m going to have to find my way in the dark and go outside to pee in the middle of the night. What did I get myself in to? I will admit, after first feeling sorry for myself, it ended up being one of the most memorable experiences in China.
Since I see I am getting a bit long winded here, I will wrap it up with the biggest low of my journey…..my broken back. You never think you will end up in a hospital, halfway around the world, 24+ hours travel time from your family and friends. You can read about it here. I had wonderful care. I survived and am on the road to normality. If I am honest with you and myself, this was tough for me. When I was finally able to reach my brother, between MRI’s, x-rays, doctors, etc., it was the middle of the night his time. I put on a brave front as I told him I was in the hospital, injured bad and would probably need surgery. Trust me, it took everything I had not to bust out into tears. Then he spoke with the doctor and other than my tests being sent to doctors in the USA for review and confirmation, it was agreed I would have back surgery the next day. The doctor put Mark back on the phone, he asked me if I needed him and Lori to come to China. Although it would have been nice, it would serve no purpose other than being there for emotional support for me. It would also more than likely be 2 days before he would even arrive in Dong’e. Holding back the tears I told him no. The next hardest part for me was when I was wheeled into surgery and about to be put under and I realized I hadn’t talked to him to say I love you. I wasn’t scared or worried, but somewhere in the back of your mind is always that “what if I don’t make it”. Obviously I “made it”, but those few seconds before I went out, I was very sad. I spent the next two weeks post-surgery confined to a hospital bed. Then for about 6 weeks after I was home, it was a struggle. I had plenty of help and caregivers, but it was easy to fall into “why me?”. This is where attitude played an important role. Every day I looked for something good, some improvement anything to make me happy and to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This period was the toughest for me emotionally since I have been abroad.
As I stated in the beginning, choosing to travel and live abroad has been one of the best most rewarding decisions I have made. A life of travel isn’t always a bed of roses. I think it is even more difficult as a solo traveler and a female. Yes, I have felt alone. Yes, I have had my heart hurt. Yes, I have felt sorry for myself. Yes, I have missed my friends and family in the states. No, I wouldn’t change a thing.
“My confession is I fall in love with so many places I’m always half broken-hearted by goodbyes. And I don’t believe in non-attachment. There’s no passion inside of that. I believe in burning and longing. And I believe we leave tiny pieces of ourselves in every placed we’ve loved.” ~ Victoria Erickson