How traveling changed my life and shaped me into the woman that I am
I took my first international trip two months from turning 28. I chose to spend a week in SriLanka and while it was an absolute blast of an adventure, It had no permanent impact on me. How could it? When you’re so consumed by seeing the next place on your list, having a curated experience we figured was the best, we set ourselves up for a limiting experience overall.
For the conditioning of nearly 29 years to change, it took me a year of full-time travel in a completely foreign land with no significant cultural overlaps. Coincidentally this trip began two months from turning 29, a year after my international trip to Sri Lanka.
When I returned after this personal journey and at times while I was still at it, a lot of people were too keen to know what is it that I learned. Almost always getting disappointed by my answer that there was no big revelation. No secret sauce to life I had discovered. It was all small everyday experiences that cumulatively had an impact on me like nothing else. Now, that’s an experience that can permanently change you. When you have to make decisions day after day to stretch your limited savings as long as possible, and when you’re in a truck with a driver who doesn’t speak a word of English, when you’re not pulled down by your supposed friends every day, when nobody tells you how you look in a certain dress or with a new hairstyle, you consciously shut the noises and allow your voice to dominate your life.
Now, that my friends, is what I call life-changing.
Outlining below how some of these experiences have shaped me especially as an Indian woman.
Minimalism comes naturally to full-time or long-term travelers for the simple fact that it’s practical. The only two ways one can travel without being a minimalist is
- Have a porter to travel with you
- Buy things for a short period, discard them and get a new set of clothes/shoes/bags
As you can guess unless you’re incredibly wealthy, none makes any financial sense, and no matter what your background is none makes any moral sense.
This however is only the tip of the iceberg. Minimalism ties into the very DNA of my existence. If someone expects me to dress or look a certain way, I cannot have a fulfilling relationship with them. If a guy ever proposes to me with a diamond (a thing I don’t need), that would be a NO.
Going back to the corporate world after a three-year break was essential to test if I could continue being a minimalist among other non-travelers. Fortunately, I could. In the one year that I worked in corporate, I never bought a new piece of clothing because there was a certain color or pattern theme in office or because I felt I needed new shoes to match with belts or vice versa. I own no handbags and I bought none for work. I continued using my osprey 35 lt day bag into work.
I was vocal about not buying things and continued getting rid of things I didn’t need anymore.
This level of self-assurance was achieved through travel. I don’t need to compete in ‘how long I can go without repeating my clothes’ to be taken seriously or get a place in society. I already have enough friends around the world who have only ever seen me in two pairs of t-shirts. I’m trying to reduce the wardrobe to a size that permanently fits in two packing cubes.
Because, everything that we own, owns us too.
Mental Health is the priority
When you’re constantly stressed or you have never known working in a healthy environment, two-three jobs later, we tend to start believing that’s how regular life is supposed to be. The holidays are to enjoy and work is to be stressed.
Well, it turns out there are people out there who don’t have Monday morning blues or have never known longterm exhaustion.
My exposure to mental health increased when I met people from around the world who prioritized their mental health over everything else
- I met a guy who spoke about how counseling in his late teens and early twenties saved his life
- I met people who respectfully sought their ‘me time’ every day.
Mental health is not a conversation or a one-time activity, mental health is choosing yourself day after day. It is cutting the noise and listening to your mind and your body.
I saw counseling being limited to venting out my anger or sorrow but through multiple therapist conversations, I discovered the magic that is therapy. How it helps achieve greater self-awareness.
I’m beautiful just like everyone else
I cannot stop talking about this because I feel really bad about having spent nearly 29 years of my life feeling like the ‘ugly duckling’ among family, among friends.
I was dark-skinned, skinny, with hair nobody knew how to manage. I fit no definition of beautiful. I was the girl in the advertisement nobody gave the job to or nobody wanted to marry until she used the magical ‘Fair & Lovely’ skin-whitening cream.
So when strangers in a boutique, or salon, or my host’s friends’ would go gaga over my appearance, I didn’t know how to even respond. It started with assuming it was out of kindness, or they didn’t know what else to say, or maybe even fascination for Indian women. It took me meeting dozens and dozens of people to realize they were not lying.
While advertising has such a huge role to play in setting standards for beauty and engraving how an ideal ‘beautiful women’ looks like, bullying is not on them. Bullying is a person problem. How we have normalized it starting from home.
On toxic relationships
There’s a lot of bullshit I was fed growing up which made me believe that family and friends could be mean to us because ‘they don’t mean harm’. Ummm, if you’re saying something that is upsetting or scarring that is harmful.
I also believed it was okay for friends to make fun of you because you called it upon yourself right? And for some reason, I had believed that hanging on to friends in spite of them being disrespectful occasionally was a great act of kindness. Forgiveness is kind right?
I had never known what difference could it make when you’re surrounded by people who only have the nicest most encouraging things to say to you. Oh, you are so beautiful, I love your skin, you should never paint for free, you’re an artist, these were my everyday reaffirmations that I got in plenty from strangers.
While a lot of people naturally got filtered out of my life because I was in a different timezone for a year and was only focussing on myself. But there were still some people I had to consciously weed out of my life. Some were difficult and some not so much but all of them out has made me a happier person.
I don’t know why we hang on to relationships that add constantly pull us down, maybe it’s the comfort of being around known people (known demons), or not wanting a confrontation (innate desire for validation), but whatever it is, identifying and weeding out toxic relationships is paramount to one’s happiness and peace in life.
The various forms of companionship
Growing up I only saw companionship in the form of marriages where the woman generally led the household (irrespective of her work arrangement) and the man managed the financial aspect of running the household. For the longest time, I had no friends or knew anyone who was raised by a single parent, was a single parent, raised by parents who weren’t married, or was living with a partner unmarried.
Traveling to different parts of the world allowed me to closely see various kinds of partnerships that I didn’t have access to for nearly 29 years of my life.
- I met a couple in their sixties who were together since their twenties, raised five kids, grandparent to three kids, never married.
- I met a couple who lived together for over twenty years, raised two kids, and were separating, never married.
- I met a couple in their sixties who got married in their forties (to help their move to a different country easier), never wanted to have kids, taking care of 18 dogs at the moment (they run a dog shelter).
It’s not like I want a replica of any of it but living in these households made me question, did I even consider any other possibility?
Wanting to get married is okay, wanting to not get married is also okay. But what is not okay is wanting to get married so you can have a healthy relationship with your parents (guilty), wanting to get married because you grew up being told that all the good men would be taken if you delay things and other similar reasons that are completely and utterly nonsensical.
Hear it from this 32-year-old, I have never known myself better than I know myself today and I have never felt as desired as I feel today. How does that relate to marriage? It’s only when you know yourself would you know what kind of companionship (if it all there should be a companion) would allow you to flourish in life.
There are people who flourish in the company of others and there are people who flourish in their own company. People who are their best versions when they are by themselves.
There are also people who can take your productivity/creativity down by a few notches (often unknowing, unintended), and then there are people who would make way for you to open your wings and fly higher than you ever imagined.
The ethicality in having children
I have gone through many phases when it comes to becoming a mother. I was 23 when I first felt an intense desire to be a mother so I contemplated adopting a child. For many reasons it eventually didn’t happen (read higher education).
Around my mid-twenties, I was certain I’ll birth a child (before I turned 30) and adopt another child with the person I loved back then. So, when we both parted ways when I was 27, I knew that was not going to happen anymore. Maybe it was the image of our family picture I had imagined hanging on the wall fading into the nothingness that hurt so much. I hadn’t just lost the person I loved so much but also the very idea of a family I wanted to have back then. But did I know any other way of building a family? It was and still is the quintessential happy family picture.
When I met the women who had built a family with all the rules I had known, out the window, I was first shocked, then amused, and then interested.
- I met a 30-year-old independent woman with a 12-year-old daughter, she was raising by herself.
- I met a 34-year-old grandmom who was backpacking across Mexico while her daughter took care of her newborn baby (this woman’s grandchild) and her father took care of her 15-year-old son.
- I met a woman who had three kids from three different partners
The fact that in this part of the world, marriage was not an obligatory step to having a child made me question would I have considered it. It is only then that I actually got to question myself in true honestly if ‘I’ (and not for my husband or for my family) really wanted to have a child, to bring another human being into the planet, to be the caretaker of another human being that I brought into the world with no consent of theirs.
The answer was a resounding NO.
And, no it is not a phase. By not bringing another human being into this world I’m not risking anything, if you intend to be a parent or already are, isn’t there a slight possibility that you are? That you could possibly pass your baggage to them in the form of your religion, caste, beliefs. While they live with it, trying to tread through the polluting oceans, exploited animals, diminishing water sources, the constant noise of this incredibly loud world.
Am I Free?
As I lay in a park under a tree while the sun was shining in its full glory, I realized I have never done this before and I could never replicate this in India. This very simple act of being able to lie under a tree, in full daylight, alone, wearing shorts that were way over my knees, my breasts in full public view with no scarf to cover the curves over my t-shirt. This was in the capital city of Argentina – Buenos Aires. It was in that moment that I realized I have never been free.
I dress not as per the weather but what city I’m going to travel in, I would rather take a rickety bus with reserved women’s seat over a luxury bus with the possibility of a man next to me (It’s always a man because how many women are still budget traveling alone), busy places are never attractive enough because the fear of getting groped or pinched has never left.
It’s when I could do all this, it hit me that there is no safe place but there definitely are safer places out there for women.
Of everything I discovered while traveling my most precious learning has been that I was never free. Even in my rebellious ways, my decision to get off the highway of an ideal life, my dressing, my choice in men, and everything else. No matter how much I hate it, it’s true that all our decisions are colored by the expectation of the people around us.
But with this realization, am I free now? No, none of us would ever be. There would always be the the fear of losing to nature or people, but we can try to be as free as we can. Seek the freedom on things that is non-negotiable.
Traveling is an undiluted form of learning, if you’ve not yet recognized it or experienced it yet, I hope someday you do.