On this day, three years ago, I sobbed as I boarded a plane to Dubrovnik, a one-way ticket in hand. I was convinced I was making the biggest mistake of my life. I took a taxi to my hostel because I was afraid of public transport, I slept with my backpack on my back because I thought that was what you were supposed to do and it took only 24 hours for me to get severe heatstroke. I thought I’d be home within a week.
When I left to travel, I was a timid, naive girl with no life experience and zero common sense. I had no sense of self-worth, didn’t have any confidence, had never been independent and didn’t know how to make friends. I suffered from debilitating anxiety and had panic attacks every few hours. I’d never been on a bus before. I didn’t know how to post a letter. I’d never eaten rice, or eggs, or anything with flavour. Everyone thought I was crazy for leaving; nobody expected me to last.
I got on that plane because I wanted to follow my dreams. I’d never travelled alone, or for more than two weeks at a time. I was terrified of everything. Yet, I had somehow managed to cultivate an obsession with travel. I’d spent my whole life desperate to see the world and I was convinced it would change my life. Like so many broken travellers before me, I was convinced that travel would heal me. I was a walking cliche.
It wasn’t much of a surprise that I hated my first month on the road. I had no idea what I was doing and watched in horror as I made mistake after mistake after mistake. But I persevered. I persevered through the mental breakdowns and the panic attacks, through the scary moment when I first came face to face with rice, and through the scams, the robberies and the near-death experiences.
Pre-travel Lauren was unable to eat more than an apple a day and once spent six months unable to step outside her house. She had panic attacks on a daily basis and couldn’t cross the street without almost getting killed.
Now, I’ve visited 50 countries across 5 continents. I haven’t had a panic attack in over a year. I’ve fallen in love with food. I seek out new experiences because I know that stepping out of my comfort zone will help me to be a better person.
Three years ago, I stepped on a plane in the hope that it would change my life.
Here’s how it has.
I Conquered My Anxiety
Before I started travelling, anxiety had control of my life. It sent me spiraling out of control, and left me unable to function. I had multiple panic attacks a day, caused by I don’t even know what, and I didn’t know how to stop them. I developed hypochondria, convinced that my mental breakdown was due to a terminal illness. I gave myself an eating disorder in a desperate attempt to remain in control of a small aspect of my life. For a period of six months I couldn’t step outside my front door because doing so would cause me to break down in fear. I was well and truly broken.
Travel helped me to gain control of my anxiety by giving me control over my life. In the beginning, I was running away from my fears, but later, I began to run towards them.
When travelling, I found myself having to face my fears on a daily basis — after all, I was terrified of everything. While I could have run away from them, it got to the point where I no longer wanted to. So I took a bus instead of spending 10 times as much on a plane ticket, and I survived. I realised that it wasn’t really all that hard. I sat next to a dead woman for six hours on a boat in Laos and, while traumatised, didn’t experience the crippling fear that I’d expected. I ate a cockroach and didn’t get food poisoning and die. My boat started to sink in Thailand and I put on my life jacket and survived.
After so many horrible experiences, I realised that my anxiety was nearly always caused by me worrying about the worst case scenario. As I travelled, it became clear that the worst case scenario often did come true for me. Yet, it was never as bad as I thought it would be. I’d take a deep breath, I’d deal with it and I’d move on. After doing that several hundred times I began to stop worrying so much.
I Stopped Being Frightened of Food
For most people, the best part of travel is getting to sample delicious food along the way. I used to listen to people gush about the joys of travelling for food and wonder what was wrong with me. I hated food. If there had been a way for humans to exist without having to eat, I would have been all for it.
Part of it was due to my eating disorder. When I was at my lowest point, I had existed on a single apple each day. As I’d gradually introduced food back into my diet, I’d avoided anything unfamiliar through fear it would send me back to square one. I had spent my whole life eating bland food and been perfectly happy with it. I didn’t know any different.
When I stepped on that plane, I had never eaten Chinese food, Indian food, Mexican food, Thai food, Vietnamese food, rice, noodles, chili peppers, eggs, coconut, peanut, seafood, cheesecake, coffee, wine, beer… It would be easier to list the things I did eat rather than the things I didn’t.
During my first week on the road, I tried calamari for the first time and freaked out because I thought the tentacles might stick to my throat and suffocate me. I also thought I was allergic to seafood despite having never eaten it before.
On my first day in Asia, I went for a meal with a girl from my hostel and had to ask her teach me how to use chopsticks. I attempted to eat my bowl of noodles with a chopstick in each hand.
On my first date with Dave, I aimed to impress him by eating a chili pepper. My throat closed up in shock with the spice and I began to hyperventilate. I rubbed my watering eyes with my chili soaked finger and temporarily blinded myself. Clearly, he knew then that I was The One.
While most people travelled for the food, it was my biggest barrier. I went to McDonald’s all the time. I ate from 7/11 far too frequently. I lived on sandwiches and candy and chocolate bars and french fries. I ate exactly how I would at home and if I couldn’t find something bland to eat, I wouldn’t eat at all.
But then I went to Vietnam.
Vietnamese food was perfect for me because everything that scared me came on the side. I could order a bowl of pho and know that it would be edible, but accompanied with a plate of chillies and limes and… other, leafy things. I could grow accustomed to the bland version of the food, and then add a single chili. I could then spend weeks burning up from the extreme heat until I was used to it and then add another chili. I was able to increase my spice tolerance while remaining in control. When I realised that this was the case for most Vietnamese dishes — especially soups — I went crazy. I started picking out random items on menus that didn’t have English translations. To my delight, I would adore every dish I ordered. Most of the time, I’d have no idea what it even was!
I finally got it. I finally understood the joy in trying new foods as you travel. And that excitement has stuck with me ever since. I’ve even fallen in love with Khao Soi — a dish that once made my throat feel like it was lined with thorns of sulphuric acid.
Food used to be my greatest barrier, but now it’s the reason why I travel. I base everything around finding good food and rarely eat my Western favourites any more.
I’ve now eaten brain tacos in Mexico, kangaroo in Australia, lizard in Vietnam, crickets in Thailand, cockroaches in Laos. Not bad for the girl who had never eaten rice before.
And as for wishing it was possible to exist without food — I now regularly find myself in the midst of an existential crisis when I realise I only have a limited amount of time to eat ALL THE FOOD.
I Improved My Confidence
From my description of how I was pre-travel, you can probably guess that I wasn’t the most confident of people. I used to walk with a hunchback and stare at my feet, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I spoke softly and people were always asking me to repeat myself. I avoided eye contact and mumbled. I stayed away from social situations that made me uncomfortable.
Staying in hostels changed all that. For the first few months of my trip, I didn’t stay in a single private room. Instead, I chose to stay in 6-10 bed dorms. Dorm rooms were incredible for helping me to improve my social skills and gain confidence. Every time I stepped inside, I’d have someone asking me where I was from, where I had been, where I was going. After a while, I became that person who was asking the questions. I used dorms as a way to practice talking to people and build my confidence.
I walk differently now. I hold myself up, and look straight ahead instead of down at my feet. I make eye contact with people. I tell jokes and ridiculous travel stories without fear of being judged. I no longer try and squash my personality down so that nobody really knows who the real me is. Travelling, and meeting dozens of new people every day, has turned me into the confident person I’d always dreamed of being.
I Became More Compassionate, Tolerant, Patient, and Less Judgmental
I realised how little compassion I had when I found out my sister was afraid to tell me her college degree results because she was convinced I’d laugh at her. She was shocked when I told her how proud I was, and how she’d done amazingly well. It showed me (and her) how much I’ve changed.
Pre-travel Lauren was judgmental, selfish, self-absorbed and ignorant. I wasn’t a very nice person. When I look back, I cringe. I can’t stand the person I used to be.
Travel showed me that I was a bitch, and I resolved to do all I could to change it.
The friendliness of strangers taught me to be compassionate. People who had never spoken to me, knew nothing about me and didn’t owe me a thing would repeatedly go out of their way to help me. There was the girl who approached me when I was lost on the streets of Taichung and took me to her apartment to give me a cup of tea and help me figure out where I was going. There was the girl in Taiwan I’d spoken to for five minutes when she offered to take the day off work to show me around her city. There was the man in Thailand who helped me push my luggage to safety while we were being evacuated after the tsunami — not knowing if he was endangering his life in doing so.
There was the woman in Mexico who took an hour out of her day to help Dave and I book bus tickets because we didn’t speak enough Spanish to do so. There was the girl who offered me her couch to sleep on for a week in Hong Kong when I couldn’t find somewhere to stay. There was the man who let me jump on the back of his shuttle car at Beijing’s airport so that he could get me to my gate in time, and didn’t charge me a penny. Time and time again, I’ve been astounded by the friendliness and compassion that has been shown to me by people who had no idea who I was and had no reason to ever help me. It’s changed me. Now, I try not to judge anyone I meet, instead thinking only about ways in which I can help other people, and repay the kindness that has been shown towards me.
In addition, I used to be horribly impatient and hate waiting around for anything. When you travel, this is a terrible quality to have. Buses are late and break down, people forget your orders in restaurants, tour companies forget to show up, locals won’t understand your mangled attempt at their language, emails aren’t replied to for months. Instead of losing my temper and working myself up into a stress, I take a deep breath, I accept my situation and I do what I can to resolve it. I’m much calmer now.
Finally, I developed a love of animals after feeling ambivalent towards them for much of my life. Cats made me sneeze, dogs terrified me. Now I find myself scooping up every animal I pass into my arms and trying to persuade Dave to settle down so that we can have pets.
I Learnt That Getting Out of My Comfort Zone is Important
My comfort zone used to be the size of a pea. It’s still pretty small. The difference is now I recognise the benefits of forcing myself outside of it on a regular basis.
When you’ve never been on a bus before, when you’ve never eaten rice, when you’ve had panic attacks just from stepping outside your door, your comfort zone becomes narrower and narrower and it can be hard to escape it. For a long time I didn’t even try. If I had to give a presentation at school, I’d pretend to be sick. If there was a party I didn’t want to go to, I’d stay at home. If I was too nervous to go into work I’d find an excuse not to go. In short, if something scared me, I’d run away.
I was worried I was doing the same with travel. Wasn’t I just running away? If something frightened me then all I had to do was book a plane ticket to a new city and I’d be able to breathe again.
In fact, I was doing the opposite. I had lived such a sheltered life that it was impossible for me not to be forced out of my comfort zone on a daily basis while travelling. When you have as little life experience as I did, everything was a new experience. Exploring a city on my own, eating a dish that didn’t consist of bread and cheese, using public transport, talking to strangers. While I was terrified of leaving my comfort zone at the time — and for the first few months did my very best to avoid it — the feeling I had whenever I successfully managed to put myself out there and not make a fool of myself became addictive.
Now, I seek out new opportunities and experiences. I want to push myself. I want to experience more. I want to grow as a person. I now know that’s only possible when I’m flailing like a fish out of water.
I Don’t Think of Bad Luck as Being Bad Anymore
I’ve been scammed, attacked and robbed. I’ve fallen into rice paddies, I’ve sat next to dead people, I’ve eaten cockroaches, I thought a tsunami was going to kill me, my boat started to sink with me on board, brakes failed on my scooter. Compared to most people I know, I’ve had horrible luck. In fact, it was always after one of these incidents that I found myself searching for flights back to the UK.
I would get fed up. I would be frustrated. I didn’t understand why nothing would ever go right for me. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong. I felt cursed. I felt like a failure.
It wasn’t until I’d been travelling for a couple of years that I began to see my bad luck in a different light. It was then that I realised I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if it wasn’t for the terrible things that have happened to me. It was the struggles that helped shape me into the person I am. Without them, I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as brave or confident.
When something horrific happens to me now, I search for a lesson that I can learn from it. I remind myself that I’ll be a stronger person because of it. And I try to find the humour in the situation. It turns out my bad luck wasn’t so bad after all.
I Don’t Know How to be Bored Anymore
Travel has showed me that there’s so much to discover in this world — I can’t even comprehend how anyone could ever be bored. Read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk, talk to someone, learn a language, go for a meal, go to the gym, meditate, practice yoga, listen to music, listen to a podcast, learn a new skill. There’s no end of things to do and see and learn. Find something you’re passionate about.
I hope to never utter the phrase “I’m bored” ever again.
I Care About How I Treat My Body
I used to treat my body like a garbage can. My diet was atrocious and I never exercised. I was skinny so surely I couldn’t be unhealthy? I didn’t need to change a thing! I continued to subsist on a diet of microwave ready meals and chocolate bars.
When I left the UK, not much changed. I was so frightened of food that I continued to exist on my terrible diet. I’d go to a grocery store, pick up five chocolate bars and a bottle of Coke and that would be my dinner. I’d eat fast food all the time. When I did venture out to eat at a restaurant, I’d often order a plate of french fries. I’d leave the vegetables on my plate. I never ate fruit.
My poor body.
I convinced myself that travel makes it tough to be healthy. When you’re constantly moving from city to city, it’s hard to find time to go for a run, and there’s not much point in joining a gym for just two days. Sure, I do walk a lot when I’m out exploring but that’s about all the exercise I ever got. My diet was terrible because I was trying to eat cheaply — but couldn’t work up the courage to eat street food. That left me with crappy fast food. When you’ve got a 12 hour bus journey ahead of you, it’s far easier to pick up a pack of Oreos and a bag of chips than rush around trying to find a salad that won’t give you food poisoning.
I was making excuses. It’s far easier to stay healthy on the road than I imagined. You just have to make an effort. Replace every liquid you drink with water — you’ll save money, stay hydrated and feel fantastic. Stop moving so fast and stay in a place for a month so that you can get a gym membership, or force yourself outside for a morning run before you can come up with a reason not to. Search online for healthy restaurants with great reviews so that you can have an enormous bowl of salad and know you won’t get cholera from it. Cut out the chips and the candy and the chocolate.
Last year, I attempted to cut sugar from my diet to see if it could change the way I felt. It changed my life. When you’ve felt like crap your entire life that’s your baseline. That’s normal to you. Now, I can’t believe how great I feel. I had no idea it was possible to feel this good.
I Found Independence
From the age of 16 there hasn’t been a period of more than about two weeks where I haven’t been a relationship. I was a serial relationshipist and I didn’t know how to be on my own. I was dependent on my boyfriends. I relied on them to do things for me that I didn’t want to do, and I defined myself by who I was in a relationship with.
One of things that scared me about travelling alone was the thought of suddenly having to function on my own. I didn’t know how to do it.
But, like most things, I figured it out. It took a few months, but I finally grew to love my newfound independence. I made my own decisions, and I based them solely on what I wanted. I could be selfish. If I wanted to sleep all day I could do so without having to worry about anyone else. If I wanted to spend all day hiking, I could do that too.
I finally began to recognise the benefits of depending on only myself. I gained life experience and stopped living my sheltered life. I figured out how public transport works, I tried new foods, I figured out how to do laundry, I learned how to make friends. I finally felt like I could function in the world — far better than I could have if I’d have stayed at home.
When I met Dave, I was concerned that my independence would fade away but the opposite happened. Unlike my previous boyfriends, Dave encouraged me to remain independent and wouldn’t allow me to take the easy way out. He’d urge me to leave my comfort zone and do something for the first time — and he’d be there to celebrate with me when I proved I could do it. We even aim to spend two months out of every year travelling solo so that we don’t get too wrapped up in our couple bubble.
I Realised That Freedom is Most Important to Me
Travel has taught me that travel isn’t the reason I travel. What? I mean, I love travel and you’ll know from all of my planning posts that I’m always trying to visit far more places than I have the energy for. I spend so much time staring at maps and plotting routes that I know travel makes me happy.
But it’s not the thing that’s most important to me. I probably won’t want to travel full-time for the rest of my life. Maybe I will. I’m assuming I won’t, though. In fact, Dave and I are currently discussing moving to New Zealand in 2016 to build a tiny home on wheels. I don’t think we’ll ever stop travelling forever, have kids and hang ourselves from the corporate ladder, but our lifestyle will evolve. It’s having the freedom to pursue what appeals that’s important.
I love being self-employed. I love that if I’m feeling exhausted and drained I can take three months off from work and go skip around Southeast Asia. I love that I can work from anywhere that has an Internet connection. I love that I can open up Skyscanner and book a one-way ticket to pretty much anywhere in the world — and arrive there tomorrow morning. I love that if I decide I suddenly hate travel, I can choose to buy a house and settle down. Freedom is what makes me happy and it’s so precious to me.
I Know Who I am, I Like Myself, I’m Happy
It’s a cliche but when I left to travel, I hoped that it would help me find out who I am. I wanted to heal myself and become the person I knew I could be. I hoped to rid myself of anxiety, overcome my eating issues, find independence and stop being frightened of everything.
I still have lots of work to do but I feel like I’m getting there. I know I’ll never be perfect but I’m determined to be the best possible version of myself. As soon as I conquer one hurdle, I’m setting the next one down.
Against the odds, I did find myself through travel. I have become the person I’ve always wanted to be. I actually like myself now.
Most of all, I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.
Here to the next three years!