The script usually begins with one leaving for indefinite travel because they are running away from something or searching for something. My experience has not proven to stray from these narratives. However, the person I was nine countries, 11 months, and 72 cities ago could not possibly fathom the range of heartache and delight I was to encounter.
One July noon after going for a gallop and staking my horse out in some good grass, I found myself leaning comfortably against a mud stoop of a winter dwelling abandoned for greener summer pastures and scribbling in my notebook. The stoop is the only square foot of shade in miles. Young Actus, a black Mongolian pup, plays at my side begging for attention. But my mind is not here. Home is far in the distance, and for once I am drawn to it.
For a long time, I dreaded returning. Upon leaving, I wanted to believe in my myth, the fantasy of staying abroad and hacking it as a brand new, better version of myself. One that was finally free from the pressures, insecurities, and habits I had grown accustomed to. I wanted to be convinced of it all, but I was certainly not. My life had looked scripted; I followed an urban, educated aesthetic with the privilege of being deemed sufficiently productive but not at all outdoing myself in ingenuity. Diploma practically in the mail, graduation would be the start of being somebody. The world would be my oyster, and I could take anything by storm. But, in reality, those truths resonated as empty promises designed to pacify when I thought myself to be sorely insufficient and breakthroughs from the humdrum inconceivable.
Profound arbitrariness was a symptom of not seeing the dots let alone connecting them. I had interests and even passions, but were those enough? Compelled to make some decisions, I was desperately looking to reconcile morality with existentialism and, at that time, it was overwhelming. I left the States with hopes, or rather prayers, that there was a satisfying path for me and that there was more. Ironically, what began as escapism ultimately brought me closer to myself and the state of things.
Since there is no mandated objective to the Bonderman Fellowship, there is nothing to hold steadfast to and much of the self-fulfilling habits that come with setting out with a goal in mind don’t apply. Where I was, what I was doing, and why I was doing it could be anyone’s guess. I was set to wander. But, more than a year ago, lit on syrupy Arizona Iced Tea and anticipation, I still had to write down something about the motivation behind the next year of self-directed travel. The crux of it all was that I wanted to see people making their own way and, from them, learn what the way is too. Often experiences abroad, in an academic perspective, are portrayed as opportunities for cultural exchange. But really, I was unable to formulate what I had to offer in this exchange. Selfishly, and probably appropriately, I made this an experiment not in changing the world but in growing from the world. I didn’t know what was out there, but I left it to present itself as it inevitably would. Long story short, I saw the Bonderman Fellowship as an opportunity to become better informed.
At the risk of being cliche, like a woman who embarks on an transformative adventure where nothing would ever be the same again via a ticket to fool-proof Bali written in painfully conventional orientalist gaze and western-normative interpretations in the name of self care and self discovery (doing an Eat, Pray, Love), I did fall in love with the world. And equally noteworthy, I fell in love with myself. I was granted the privilege of disappearance, and I disappeared into existence. It is all true.
I am certain that in the beginning I was almost never comfortable. The world was big and scary, operating on some impossible algorithm. But in having the stubborn narcissism to leave my home and everyone I knew behind for something “better,” I had unknowingly made the first move to release myself from the clutches of fear that had been a steadying if not orchestrating hand. With no one breathing down my neck and social norms constantly redefined, I could be bold. I learned to react and to act. I learned to be ever-changing. I learned to be me.
Not surprisingly, I encountered many problems. Some were as simple as lodging plans falling through or eating the wrong food. Some were more complex, requiring more time than a few months to solve, like the burgeoning effects of anthropogenic climate change or how I continue to evade my eyes whenever I see an individual stricken with poverty in an otherwise affluent community. But the more time I spent out reluctantly problem-solving, the more I had no choice but to realize that I am capable and enough no matter what happens. There was never a need to sweat about the small things, though admittedly I still sometimes do. And the big things, however impossible to overcome, provide an opportunity to try something new and help reveal what I am capable of. In my incompetence, I learned to advocate for myself and channel energy to being constructive rather than just critical. Time has shown that bad things often turn into good things that I would be remiss without. I imagine that I’ve become more relaxed; nothing has proven to be the end of the world.
Challenges to predispositions, though I certainly had the time to entertain them, were often inconvenient, because I found myself unthorough, careless, or flat-out wrong in what and how I thought. A testament to early efforts to hold on to old ways, my early observations abroad were almost entirely based on difference. It’s a way of thinking about the state of things that is oversimplified and very American. Difference, rather than shared experience and even aspirations, are much easier ways to define (and elevate, think exceptionalism) oneself or label systemic issues inherent thereby passing as sufficient justification for apathy. The caveat is that interpretations based in difference alone can give rise to individuals who are fearful, threatening, and/or alienated.
Freedom requires a surprising amount of self management. Long term travel is a lot of mistaking the unknown for chaos, that agitation that reveals itself when things don’t go as expected. Then re-evaluating, developing opinions and opting for another plan to find the ground solid again. The consequences of impermanence--both in the liberating lack of expectations and the nostalgia of stunning once-in-a-lifetime encounters--were initially met with burrowing behavior. Slowly I came to realize that impermanence was a way of finding out what really matters.
In having the privilege of casting a wide net, I found countless remarkable individuals with near make-believe stories. But no matter how wild approaches or achievements were, it was often just an ordinary, humble individual living life. When what might be painfully conventional for one may be life-altering for another, what was striking to me are the ways people don’t let circumstance define them. Some examples that come to mind: A young Mongolian nomad who agreed to assist a foreigner on a trip made on horseback through Kazakhstan to help ease the brutality of a pastoral life, a young woman with a weekend overseas to hitchhike through a country to spread her grandfather's ashes in the place his heart had been, the many professional boxers who crack jokes even though their chance at having a primary school education had been traded for earnings from beatings in a ring, and a 93 year old woman who just started solo traveling the world because one is never too old when every day counts. Events don’t go as expected, and it often takes a lot of courage to face the times.
I won’t forget to treasure what I have come to witness. For all the words swallowed and left unsaid out of finding imperfect adjectives, poor timing, or negligence, ‘thank you’ cannot be that. Everyone I had the pleasure of crossing paths with has offered a glimpse of the impossible life, and for that opportunity I am forever grateful.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, for showing me the distinct bravery, self sacrifice, and benevolence that I have only begun to understand. Thank you for being the source of my grinning for months on end.
The giddying speed of anticipation, the euphoria of the first leap, the deep satisfaction of finding oneself more than capable—all of it was only made possible with the character loss that comes with staring into and trying to wrap my head around a world of infinite possibility. And it is individuals that I must credit for showing me the breadth of what is possible. Not attributing the least to the mundane or the most to the weird, all are my influences. Each offered valuable perspectives that stuck with me through the technicolor, the revelations, the possibilities of existence that I chased after.
Months and months of seeing every which kind of jaw-dropper and being in a constant state of amazement means that I am now incredibly optimistic. I don’t claim to know the world. But in getting to know parts of the heart, the ache, and the soul of some of the individuals who inhabit it, I began to replace fear by embracing trust. The inner workings of the world don’t seem so mysterious when it is these same individuals who breath life into it. Instances of understanding, contextualizing ourselves, have all shown me that we are part of an ecosystem where aspirations are shared. Hardship is often where one encounters vitality, and one does not walk alone.
From here on out, I don’t want my life to be just fine. Or okay. Or even good. I want it to be brilliant, and spectacular, and extraordinary—a reflection worthy of the great, big world itself and the magnitude of all that people do. In a lifetime, so many different things can and will happen. The last year has convinced me anything is possible.
With a deep appreciation for the inherent value of individuals and our fundamental connectedness, I am compelled to enable others to take advantage of opportunity and realize all their dreams as so many have and continue to do for me. I hope to further cultivate empathy while also being more constructive. I return with a kind of empowerment I did not expect to find. It brings me incredible amounts of joy to know that this trip, all of it, was only a teaser. The takeaway was an excess of inspiration. I am on my way to so many stories, adventures, still untold.