March 7, 2010 I boarded a flight to London. It wasn’t a city I loved, but it was where I was going to start my career break. Five years later, it is the place I sit and write this post from. Trust me when I write this: A lot can change in five years.
In these past five years, I have seen more, experienced more, loved more, hurt more and lived more than I could have imagined possible.
Why did I take the leap?
Let me set the stage for you. It is Atlanta. 2010. I am sitting in my office in Buckhead, making meaningless phone calls to editors to pitch something I didn’t believe in. I had just come off of a trip for my 30th birthday to Croatia — the first time I had traveled internationally since I graduated college — and was miserable.
I was in a bad place. In Croatia, I was hit with the reality of my life and what I was living for, and I no longer liked it. I had everything — or nearly everything — I had ever wanted, and yet, there was something I couldn’t put my finger on.
I wasn’t happy. Sure, I was battling depression. It was a constant battle — and one I still battle today. But, there I was, with stuff. I had a gorgeous apartment in a beautiful city. I had just moved from Las Vegas to the south and was living it up. I was dating. I was working on myself. I had a car. Belongings. A life. And yet … I had nothing.
I remember going in constant circles.
I want something … I don’t know what. I want to live … but I am? Aren’t I? Isn’t this The Dream?
I thought I was living my dream. I thought a career, albeit one I wasn’t thrilled with, and an income, and a place to sleep in a gorgeous city, and friends, was enough for me.
But, it wasn’t.
The dream life I had always envisioned for myself was right there, in front of me. And yet, that dream was no longer my dream.
When dreams change
I started this blog, late one October evening in 2009. It was a whim. I was laying in bed, and as always, my mind was racing and I couldn’t sleep. This time, my mind was reliving the 10 days in Croatia.
The moments which made me feel alive.
The moments where I realized I wasn’t happy. So, instead of just letting my brain write things out in my head, I turned on the light and turned on the computer. And started d travels ’round.
Then, my world changed.
Suddenly, I was living a double life. I had my PR hat on during the day, and my writing hat on by night. But, I wasn’t there … yet.
I was frustrated. I was upset. I was stumped. How could I make the leap? What was holding me back?
I didn’t have much of it.
The truth was, in 2009, the economy sucked. If I left my career and took time to travel, what would happen when I returned? Was quitting my job to follow a dream of writing and seeing the world even feasible?
Everyone told me “no.” My parents pushed me to go back to school, to get a masters in teaching so I could teach english anywhere in the world.
It seemed like a decent idea, so I started making phone calls to schools in Georgia. However, that wasn’t what I really wanted.
There were many phone calls which took place in the parking lot of my house that winter. Phone calls where I would sit in my car, head pressed against the steering wheel, sobbing to my mom.
“This isn’t what I want,” I would cry. “I don’t know what to do. I’m stuck. I can’t do this anymore.”
I was desperate.
Then, a few weeks later, she visited me in Atlanta.
I will never forget the moment when she sat in my car at the airport.
“I come with news,” she announced from the passenger seat in the Prius I was still paying off. “Dad and I … we talked … ”
I looked at her, not sure what the outcome of her announcement would be.
“Do it. Go. Quit your job. Go to Europe. Follow your dream.”
The next steps
The next day, she and I sat on my butter yellow couch as I researched, planned, figured out how to exit my job I disliked so greatly — the catalyst in my decision.
I got on the phone with United and booked a ticket. I refinanced my car. I called a storage company to put my life in storage.
Two months later, I was out the door and taking my first steps into the gray London day.
Traveling with someone wasn’t an option for me. I learned many years previously that if I wanted to travel, it was entirely up to me … and only me. Other people aren’t on my schedule, don’t want to do the same things I did, and yes, while it would be nice to travel with someone, ultimately, it just wasn’t a reality.
Solo travel is not easy. Don’t think it is. It can be exhausting. Stressful. Lonely. But, it can also be an incredibly beautiful thing. It opens you up to experiences you never imagined. It lets you do exactly what it is you desire (well, with outside forces like language, transit schedules, etc. playing a part). It puts hair on your chest – so to speak – and makes you a stronger person.
There were plenty of times during those seven months where I found myself in my hostel dorm room, wanting to hit the other occupants because they had no idea how to co-exist in tiny quarters. There were plenty of times during those seven months where I found myself alone, lonely, wishing there was someone to share a remarkable sunset with, or to just hold me and tell me everything would be OK. My grandma passed away the last week of my trip, and those moments were the hardest for me. To grieve alone was something I had never experienced, and no amount of phone calls or messages from the other world could help console me. But, I survived those moments. I pushed through them because I had no choice.
Traveling solo taught me patience (something I still am working on today). It taught me the art of being graceful. To rolling with the punches. To being less introverted and more extroverted. It taught me humility. It taught me how to be more open-minded. It taught me to embrace the good and the bad.
Returning to the States
Nothing for me was worse than the re-entry process. I remember gripping my passport in the tram from international arrivals to immigration at Dulles and seeing everyone tethered to their phones and thinking to myself “When did people get like this?” I remember walking into Target the first time and craving a barrio chino versus the behemoth department store. I remember sitting at my parent’s kitchen table with my head in my hands and having this inner struggle of knowing what I wanted and no longer being able to do it.
Of course, there was no way once back in the States I could just freeload off of my parents, so I did what any traveler would do who needed a job. I booked a flight to my old stomping grounds of Las Vegas and started looking for gigs. I found one as the director of communications for a restaurant group from old connections, and took the position. It was part-time, so it worked perfectly with my growing freelance career and my travel needs.
Back in the work force
However, I wasn’t happy. It wasn’t what I wanted. I knew Las Vegas, the job, were temporary. I knew America was no longer the place I wanted to call home. I continued working, I continued writing, I continued my blog, but I sunk into a deep depression. I began to want to run. To run far. Fast. And never look back. But, I also knew if I was running, I would always be running, because I could not escape myself. So, I found an excellent therapist in the Valley to talk to.
“If I am going to leave this country again, I am going to do it right,” I announced to my parents. “I am getting help. I am working on me, and when I leave, it will be for the right reasons.”
Only, I was a bit more full-on than I imagined, and even with therapy, there were many times I would go to sleep crying and wake up feeling like my life was hopeless. It took a shamanic healing in Utah to really help me move past deep-seeded issues in my life.
And then, the world opened back up to me.
A few days after my healing, I quit my job.
“I’m not happy,” I had told my employer on the other end of the phone.
“Happy? You’re in your 30s. Who cares if you are happy?” He had scoffed. “This is a good job for you. You don’t need to be happy.”
Two weeks later, just as I had taken on more freelance accounts and began to feel that working for myself was a viable — and bountiful — option, I received an email from my hero, Lek Chailert, who runs Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand. I had volunteered there a few months earlier and fell in love with the elephants. In a moment one cold winter night, I had emailed her and told her I would do whatever it took to come back to Chiang Mai and work for her. She accepted and offered me a position doing PR and social media.
Two days later, I was in LA applying for my Thai visa.
Things happened at race car speed, and I was ok with that. There was never a moment to get caught up in being fearful. For having those holy-shit-what-am-I-doing moments. It was simply: I am moving to Thailand to help elephants. And that was all I needed to power me through.
In July 2012, I boarded my flight to Southeast Asia, filled with excitement and hope for the future. When I first arrived, I was alone, but not really, since I started my job the minute my plane touched down. There was a community of expats there who took me in, too. It might not have been an ideal situation — those expats tended to bring out the more debaucherous side of me — but it was home and it was family.
While in Thailand, I was exposed to many realities. The realities of gender roles in the country. The realities of the culture. But, most importantly, I was exposed to the realities of elephant tourism. Trips to Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Cambodia really opened my eyes to what was going on, and it was heartbreaking. Each time I visited Elephant Nature Park, home to 40 rescued elephants, I would see people as we drove up the steep jungle road, riding elephants. It broke my heart regularly. Nothing could ever erase the images I saw of them being trained for rides in that part of the world, and the ignorance/lack of knowledge I saw exhibited daily, tore me up.
I stayed in Thailand for 2 1/2 years. For the most part, my time there was beautiful. I made lifelong friends, I established myself as a responsible elephant tourism activist, I learned how to handle life under the guidance of Lek. I was — an am — a better person for my time there.
But all things must come to an end.
After visiting London for the second time in a year, I realized it was time to leave Asia and head back west. Being in Thailand, I essentially gave up a life that involved the opposite sex. I had grown lonely. I wanted someone to hold me. To kiss me. And, there was really none of that in Chiang Mai. And, I wanted writing opportunities. Being in Thailand had rendered me pretty mute in regards to what I could and could not talk about, and I was tired of feeling the pressure to educate and the pressure to keep quiet fight each other out in my head.
Chiang Mai was where I grew up. Where I became an adult. Where I learned so, so much. And, it was time to move on.
So, on Christmas Day, I stamped out of the country, voided my visa and embarked on a new journey. This time, to London. The Big Smoke was never on my desirable list. In fact, when I had arrived in 2010, I didn’t like the city at all. I found it far too much like an older Washington, DC. I didn’t like the crowds in the tube. I didn’t like that I could understand the language. I didn’t like anything about it really …
But this time? I was head-over-heels in love with it. Funny what some time away in Asia can do to what I deem lovable.
Suddenly, I loved that everyone was speaking English. I valued the history of the city. I cherished walking everywhere without the fear of breaking an ankle on uneven sidewalks. Of getting hit by motorbikers. I was dating. I was fully engrained in British life.
The thing about London though is as an American, I only get six months in the country. That’s it. Then, out I go. For awhile, I tried to fight it. I tried to convince immigration lawyers I could stand on my own for a year. I could write a book. I could live here. But, it just wasn’t in the cards.
Plenty of nights were spent marveling at the dynamic city, the opulent buildings, the neighborhoods. I was so in love, and like most loves, it was unrequited. London wouldn’t keep me, so I had to pick another destination.
For months, actually years, I had talked about the possibility of moving to Berlin and applying for the artist visa. It is a way to stay in the European Union without being under the Schengen rules (90 days in the region, 90 out). I had visited Berlin on my solo trip and loved it … but was it what I really wanted?
It took a late January visit to Madrid to be reminded how much I loved Spain. Five years ago, when I had first arrived to the capital, I had fallen in love with it. The city felt like home to me then, and arriving this time, I felt those similar feelings take hold.
So, I found a way to stay in Madrid.
As I write this, I am in London but am moving to my new home March 10. Three days from now.
Five years ago, if you would have asked me about living in Thailand, living in London, moving to Spain, I would have just shrugged. My world was an oyster, and anything was possible, but I wasn’t ready to turn those possibilities into realities. Today? The world is most definitely still my oyster, but I am older, wiser, and this time, I take what opportunities await instead of seeing if something else may come along. If it is meant to be, it will. If not, the rule is to keep trucking.
I’ve also grown as a writer since I first started traveling. I’ve written for print and online publications, and for a brief moment, actually had a big New York City agent who wanted me to write a book. I am a co-founder of the Responsible Travel & Tourism Collective and have made it a life goal to help raise awareness about responsible elephant tourism.
I’ve come a long way from that solo traveler who quit her job in PR to take a career break.
It just goes to show you something: you never know what five years can hold. Had I had one of those “Five Year Plans” perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am today.
So, remember: follow your dreams. Follow your heart. You never know where you will end up.