How Backpacking Taught Me to Embrace the Unexpected
It was the night before the Thai new year festival of Songkran, and we were spending it in the luggage hold of a bus. We curled side by side, facing each other, hemmed in on every side by holdalls, suitcases, and backpacks. Even in the darkness, we could feel the sticky heat of the Thai evening. My boyfriend’s hand was sticky on my arm, his face a blur occasionally highlighted by a startling flash from passing headlights. We had been hurtling towards Chiang Mai for one hour and we had another five to go.
We hadn’t planned to illegally smuggle ourselves across the north of Thailand. Instead, we’d been intending to visit the charming town of Lampang, where we’d booked a guesthouse on the banks of the river, with gardens festooned in flowers and fairy lights.
Hours from Bangkok, the bus we thought was for Lampang had stopped at a station so quiet that we almost expected to see tumbleweed blowing past. We watched, hulking backpacks at our feet, as our fellow passengers dispersed into the surrounding darkness and the bus pulled away.
“Is this…right?” Dave asked.
My mumbled attempts at Thai had taken us to the tiny town of Kamphaeng Phet. Probably a lovely place to live, but a disastrous place to arrive at unplanned on the eve of a national holiday. Many people travel to visit family around the country for Songkran. Every bus leaving that night and the following day was fully booked. Kamphaeng Phet was not on the tourist trail and there was not a taxi to be seen.
We took turns racing up to each bus which drove into the station that night. In a combination of English, Thai and mime, we begged for seats until, sixth time lucky, the driver offered us space in the hold.
It should have been terrifying, crouched in the sweaty darkness as we crashed over potholes and swung around corners. But strangely, on that lurching journey to an unseen destination, I had a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in years.
Lately, while fixed in place in lockdown, I’ve been reflecting on the way travel has altered the landscape of my mind.
The year before I went backpacking, my life was dominated by anxiety and depression. I was in my final year at university and I felt crushed by the pressure. Every deadline triggered panic attacks, as I convinced myself that failure was inevitable.
The more I strove for perfection, the harder the struggle became. The idea of making a mistake, in academic work or in life, terrified me. Any grade below an A sent me into a self-hating spiral. Achieving an A made me feel like an imposter.
And then it was all over. Backpacking became the next project I had to perfect. I approached trip planning with all the zeal of a student with nothing to study. I read every Lonely Planet guide, stalked every blog, and haunted all the travel forums. I kept a mental list of travelling calamities which could befall us and how to avoid them: don’t get into an overcrowded boat in case it capsizes; don’t go near stagnant water in case you get dengue fever; don’t rent a motorbike in case you crash and die. Misfortunes consumed my travelling experience before we had even left.
Back in 2010, we had no smartphones to save us when the unexpected arose. It seems incredible now that we set off to travel around the world without any electronic devices whatsoever. Initially, we booked all our excursions and hostel stays in advance, racing the clock in crowded internet cafes. But inevitably, things changed as we journeyed on. Missed connections, broken-down trains, new friends — the realities of travelling forced us to improvise.
There’s no denying it was stressful at times; altitude sickness, food poisoning, and stolen passports all posed challenging. But some of our mishaps offered amazing opportunities.
I had the best curry of my life in Bangkok after we got lost looking for the authentic Thai restaurant we’d planned to visit. Ten years later, I’ve eaten a lot of great Thai food but never had anything to rival that dish.
In Luang Prabang, we wanted to cycle to a nearby waterfall, but the tourist information office was closed and we had no idea of the route. We ditched the plan and shared a taxi with some fellow backpackers. They’re still our friends today.
We arrived in Buenos Aires the week before Argentina’s 200th anniversary of independence. The city was filled with noise, laughter and people; we wandered for hours before we found a hostel with beds for the night. We were tired and footsore by bedtime, but we discovered districts we’d never have otherwise seen, covered in street art and lined with leafy trees taller than the buildings.
Travelling helped me let go of the need for perfection and find the unexpected joy in my mistakes. Now that our lives have been upended by COVID-19, I’m realising again how crucial it is to forget about what “should” be happening in life, and instead live with the uncertainties. Nothing in the last few months has worked out the way I intended, but I’ve still experienced great joy amidst the hardships.
Back in Thailand in 2010, we eventually reached Chiang Mai. We hadn’t planned to go there, but it turned out to be pretty great.
We arrived just in time for the Songkran festivities. The streets filled with thousands of people squirting water pistols and splashing buckets over heads. Tourists and locals laughed together as bands played beside the road. I screwed my eyes closed in the hot sun, hair wet against my neck, the cold water trickling down my back. It felt like a new beginning.
Cover by bady abbas