We tend to conflate travel with luxury and comfort, but it can also be a journey of personal growth. Our contributor, Zelia Leong, shares the 3 most important discomforts she’s faced during her travels.
THE DISCOMFORT OF ASKING
Let’s face it – some of our 21st century egos are greater than The Great Wall Of China. Putting yourself in a vulnerable position and asking others for help is rarely at the top of our lists when travelling. In fact, many great opportunities are lost simply because we are too afraid to say that we cannot do it alone.
Which is why I would like to think that ‘Asking for Help’ is a modern day invention.
Ask a stranger to help you with that heavy bag; ask people you see for directions to the nearest hostel; ask that French girl you met two weeks ago to marry you. Okay, I might have gone too far with that last one.
Of course, we’re all afraid of putting ourselves out there, but as Tyler Durden from Fight Club put it, ‘it’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything’. On a less nihilistic note, you have nothing to lose if you would just take the leap, reach out, and ask for help.
I owe my great travel experiences to all the strangers I’ve asked, many of whom have become livelong friends. You could say that I asked my way through Europe; I didn’t have a fat bank account, nor did I take money from anyone to travel.
I impulsively booked a one-week stay in Stockholm, one of the most expensive cities to live in, and my travel plans started from reaching out to hosts on Couchsurfing (CS). Being afraid to impose, I had initially asked my Swedish CS host, Max, to put me up for three days. I would then look for a hostel to spend the remaining nights.
However when Max found out about my plans, he did not hesitate to open his home to me for the entire week. He also picked me up from the airport and took me sightseeing on his boat; his parents invited us for dinner and gave me a tour of some of the local holiday spots.
For a first-time solo-traveller venturing so far from home, it was the best welcome one could ask for, and it was made possible simply by asking.
THE DISCOMFORT OF SOLITUDE
I remember a classmate who would despise others for dining alone, labelling them as losers. She’d often exclaim that she would ‘rather die’ than eat alone. This mindset also applied to various other aspects of her life, such as watching movies and participating in events.
The social stigma of being alone may cause a person to miss out on amazing moments. It’s always nice to be around friends, but you should never let anyone define you, or your experiences.
Polytechnic was a rough three years for me: The pains of growing up, fighting for ‘freedom’ from my family… you get the drill. When discussions about a potential graduation trip got complicated and frustrating, I decided to drop it all and just go to India by myself.
I have no idea what got into me, but that was when I first discovered the magic of unplanned meetings: the kindness of strangers, and how people you’ve barely met could make you feel at home.
Being alone exposes you to many situations and meetings you’d never be able to experience if you were to limit yourself to only travelling with friends. Solo travel will give you the opportunity to learn so much more about a world you might not have known existed.
Travelling alone on a third-class overnight train from Delhi to Darjeeling not only got me many curious stares, but also conversations with the people I shared a cabin with. If I hadn’t sat alone on the bottom bunk, I would not have known the girl who was travelling home to her village after studying in the city. I wouldn’t have talked to the lady with a young child, who was going to visit the rest of her family, and who told me about how the favourite handbag she was carrying was bought in Singapore. I would also not have known the drunk old man in our bunk, who had been telling everyone that I was from China.
Being alone made me learn so much about myself: My deepest thoughts; how I react to situations; what I really like and dislike. There’s no need for compromise when you are by yourself, and it’s when you feel truly free.
In fact, I enjoyed solo travel so much that when a friend came to join me a few weeks later, I got frustrated with discussing plans, accommodating each other’s preferences, and losing opportunity to just sit by the Pearl of Mumbai alone for a couple of hours, which had become my new found form of meditation.
Ever since I came to the revelation that you won’t have the word ‘loser’ written over your forehead the moment you say ‘Table for One’ at a restaurant, I’ve been on a roll with being by myself. There’s a difference between being alone and being lonely.
THE DISCOMFORT OF UNCERTAINTY
We all know the cliche “fail to plan, plan to fail”. That mindset may have helped me through my major exams, but that’s about it in terms of real life relevance.
Our choices and preferences change all the time. Don’t ever let the choice you made weeks ago dictate and lessen your happiness in the present. It’s always your choice. Don’t be afraid of change if you are unhappy with the situation your plans lead you to. Follow your heart, it’s right most of the time (editor’s note: Cue soundtrack – Roxette’s Listen to Your Heart).
I’ll have to admit that my trip to Northern Europe was borne out of impulsivity. It all started when I was sitting at home in Singapore surfing the net. I saw a nice Workaway listing in Finland, and signed myself up right away. It looked great, had good reviews, and the only thing I knew about Finland was my high school favourite album Love Metal.
What this island city girl didn’t realise was that although Finland has the same population as her homeland, comparing Finland’s landmass to Singapore’s 719 square kilometres is a cruel joke (Ed’s note: Finland’s geographic landmass: 338,424 square kilometres). She also didn’t realise that having to live and travel in places that were once mere names on maps wasn’t that simple and straightforward.
My initial plan was was to do four Workaways. This included a two-month stint on a farm in the UK in order to stall my Schengen visa expiry until November, so that I could see the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway.
However things took a turn when my second host – waayyy up north on a husky farm in Sweden – told me about some transportation complications, which meant I had to wait many hours out in the cold for them to pick me. I also realised they had neither heated water nor proper electricity, and it was less than 5 degrees there. I then made my first call to forgo the $100 train ticket and made a radical change to my plans.
Some small talk over breakfast with a Swedish couple led to my decision to go next door to Norway, and take on the Most Beautiful Train Ride in the World.
I was completely lost when I first reached Oslo. However there was nothing that the little discomfort of being social and reaching out to fellow backpackers wouldn’t solve. Soon, I was going on canoe trips on Norwegian Fjords, and hiking the Otterness trial with new friends.
Most of the places – and certainly all of the people and experiences I had on that trip were unplanned – but definitely not unwelcome.