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Celebrating holidays abroad can be one hell of a jolly time, and it can also be a solitary affair where you wrestle with the joy of travel and the ache for nostalgic tradition. This Christmas, for me, was just that.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]his year I celebrated Christmas in Melbourne Australia. Unlike the past few Christmas’s that have come and gone while traveling, this one was more or less forgettable. You can’t really call Christmas this year as “celebrated” — I did nothing related to the holiday; no opening presents or feasting with family or drinking egg nog. I didn’t decorate any halls, or sing any carols, or sip wine by a fire. I didn’t even watch a Christmas movie.
Instead, I was alone.
I spent the day wandering up and down streets of Melbourne. I wandered the entire day aimlessly, accompanied by the remnants of a hangover, for about 5 hours. Up and down alleyways and laneways. Thousands of ants scurried about looking for last minute gifts in a maze of streets. Couples holding hands and enjoying the festive decorations of the city. Starbucks packed out of the door with those desperate caffeine addicts. I went twice. Maybe for coffee, or maybe just to say something to someone that day. Someone that wouldn’t carry the conversation further. Someone that wouldn’t ask questions. Someone who wouldn’t talk about family.
All of Christmas day I walked. I had a long think. A much needed think. And I was alone on Christmas day by choice.
Why would I want to spend Christmas alone, especially while abroad?
It’s not like I didn’t have my options to choose from. Fellow co-workers from the restaurant had invited me to an orphans Christmas picnic on the beach, and there were also a few friends that I could have easily reached out to and joined in on the festivities. It’s just that I didn’t want to. Not like their company isn’t great, because it is, and it’s not like I wouldn’t have had a fun time. In the past, whether it be Christmas in New Zealand or Thailand or Haiti — I spent it with friends as well, old or new. Though it didn’t feel much like Christmas in those places, being with friends helped dilute the inevitable sorrows of nostalgic flashbacks. This year it all came back.
Christmas as it turns out has been a tainted holiday for a very long time. Just like that graffiti above that I found on Christmas Day in Melbourne.
And that is the reason why I had to spend it alone this year.
My ghost of Christmas Past
Growing up, Christmas in the Brown household was the only time when our family was just like everyone else’s. I could finally lose that year’s thrift store finds I wore to school, usually the same clothing a couple of days in a row that sported holes and grass-stains for the style. A fair chance at being a cool kid for a few weeks. A few weeks of not being made fun of for my shabbiness. My brother and I were getting shiny things and new things and fun things just like all of the other kids. Though my brother was arguably better at dealing with the other 364 days of the year because he wasn’t the runt that I was. No one picked on him.
And instead of a tension in the family that was either always threatening to snap or stretched until it did, it was a colorful time of momentary happiness heralded by the smiles of anticipation followed by satisfaction. The only red and blue lights that day and night would come from the heart-beat of the Christmas lights around our triumphant tree. My brother was there, not at some friends house as he usually was. My mother was there, not coming home late at night from some unknown place. My father was there, not belligerent on Milwaukee’s Best and foaming at the mouth. We were a family.
Stockings were retrieved from the attic — retired each year to the darkness until they can be brought back into an airier and lighter time in the house. Christmas time. The only time they could exist, because they held pure joy…and candy. On Christmas day there was no fear about drunken arguments or fights. The folding attic stairs would moan as they were pulled down, like a great old man stretching in a brief and youthful glory. Those stockings, their faded crimson and pine colored velvet surface sported patchwork islands of gold sparkles that would flash along the decade-old browned glue, once spelling out our glorious shimmering names in cursive.
They were from some past time when my brother and I were both much younger, maybe conceived at a school holiday event or made at youth group at our church. Either way, there was a life to them that had shared moments with us, and seeing them each year brought me back to a time when I wasn’t conscious of things beyond a naive baby’s beautiful mind. Just pure happiness. When I didn’t remember the nightly grip of anxiety wondering if my father to explode. The stockings smelled like the attic always, that dark place above the house that held happy memories and holidays. Like my mind.
The stockings were hung near the cardboard chimney that was set up in the split living room, just beyond the shelves adorned with tiny clay elves and cheap yellowed plastic candles. Santa, I was told, would come down that water-stained cardboard chimney, but only if I was a good boy. Sometimes I’d sit there and gaze at the makeshift chimney wondering if my parents got into a fight, would he skip our house? What if they weren’t good this year? Would I not get presents this year? Would I have to go to school and watch all of the other kids flaunt their new stuff?
I’d sit there, on that mangy blue carpet that smelled of damp cat, marveling at the prospects of presents. Hoping I’d see a reindeer or Santa himself. Even though I knew I wouldn’t. After the age of 5, I had the gist that Santa wasn’t real, but I’ve always been the imaginative type. It was my escape from the reality of our house since my earliest memory. I’d sit all day imagining magical moments outside that yellow asbestos-shingled shell. The shards of our family in that broken home were pieced together for one day.
Everything felt whole, and I felt whole.
Leading up to Christmas was the best part. Either my brother and I or just myself would accompany Pops up the road to Hawkins. That family-run produce stand housed in a half-collapsed wood shack which always smelled simultaneously of fresh fruit and rotting fruit. A nostalgic landmark of better times. If it was cold enough, I’d jump and slide across the frozen puddles created from the potholes in the gravel driveway. My father was always ahead of me, eager to join the other silhouettes around that same rusty barrel that was there every winter, glowing with orange embers and warming the swaying souls around it.
I’d run up to them rubbing my hands close to the red-hot steel and my father would belch loud into night, head tilted back like a howling beast, his hot stale breath floating into the cold crisp air. He would have finished a beer and crushed the can and thrown it into the barrel before I reached him. As the sparks of his first victory leapt out of the barrel to dance with the stars, he’d growl at me to “Go pick a tree already” and I’d run off into the forest. The smell of pine is the best smell in the world. The deep green would flash by as I’d run and explore the labyrinth of Christmas trees perched on wood pallets in the muddy lot, inspecting each one for it’s worth and all the while playing hero in some wintery fairytale. The close roar of laughter would be the creatures in the night. After some time, I’d try to pull my father away from the warmth of the barrel and the call of beer, and he’d always say, “One more and we’ll go.”
One or two more would be guzzled and sent to the flames, and only then he’d toss a tree into the bed of our grey rust-spotted Ford. I would wince as the tree landed with a thud, like I could feel its pain. I’d haul myself into the truck onto the seats that reeked of sweat and gasoline, my feet shuffling around in old receipts or trash, and buckle up. The truck would roar to life, gears grinding in the old beast, and we’d thump over the small ice-patches and into the street. His beard, beaded with small orbs of beer, would reflect the street lights like a Christmas tree. He, like the truck, always smelled of gasoline and stale beer too. We only managed to go off the road one of those nights when the beer and the black ice proved to be a bad combination. Not a bad record.
“Can we decorate it tonight?” I’d beam, and he’d say, “Not with me. And I don’t know where your mom is right now.”
But I knew she’d be home sometime. I knew she wouldn’t miss decorating the tree with me. The decoration was our ritual.
I’ve decorated trees with a few families now, or watched them decorate it, but it wasn’t the same as our ritual. Mom would be home one night, and she’d shriek out to me, “Bear! It’s time to decorate the tree!” and dammit I was the most excited kid on the planet. Tinsel would be strewn everywhere as we tore into boxes that held the happiness from the past Christmas trapped within. I’d find the old scratched gold and red and green ornaments and watch my face warp in them.
Hanging the ornaments was meticulous, they must be distributed evenly. My brother would join in on occasion, but usually he’d get bored and either sit back and watch or head out to a friend’s house. My father would probably be at China Gourmet up the road, the local dive for most of Kensington’s famed drinkers. The tree would come to life with ornaments that we as children had made, with the warmth of the lights, with silver strands thrown about.
As Christmas approached, I would lay down every night on the beaten teal couch that faced the tree, and I’d watch the Christmas lights twinkle with their warm colors until they became kaleidoscopic blurs and I succumbed to sleep. Somehow in the mornings I’d wake up tucked into my bed, and I’d repeat it again the next night. It was magic. That warmth, the glow of the Christmas lights, that was my favorite sight. Somehow all of the worries in the world, even the daily worries that my childhood self had somehow acquired, would melt away. I could lay there all night every night as the house slept and the wind howled and the tree comforted me.
Christmas day we’d tear into presents like wild animals. My brother and I always got caught trying to sneak into the living room by trying to pick the lock on the door with our tooth brushes, but once Pops was awake we’d be released to maul the wrapping paper. The Santa and reindeer patterned tatters would fly into the air, and I’d gasp at the new shirts and pants and socks. I’d pull out a new Lego set and immediately began to pour them onto the ground, only to be halted by the, “We’re going to your aunt and uncles soon.” Though we’d always go to one of their houses for Thanksgiving, I wouldn’t be dressed in that year’s scuffed up clothes but new clothes. There was dinner and feasting and laughs. Usually, still feeling like I didn’t quite fit in, I’d be content to play outside running about waving stick swords or looking for their 3-legged cat. Everything was whole.
Then, of course, Christmas would pass. Life would return back to normal, if that was normal life. I thought it was for everyone. My brother most nights would be out somewhere in the neighborhood. I’d be at home building Legos. Pops would be either out with mom, or drinking in his chair that conformed to his body, with a few beers on standby in the holders. Either scenario, when one or both would return, the screaming and yelling would start. Then the slamming and pounding. Then the shrieks of pain and terror. And finally the cry of the sirens. I’d be standing there as the police once again showed up, not with the tree lights dancing in my eyes but the blurred police lights in my tears. The magic was gone, 364 days to go.
Christmas began to lose that magic after my mother took her life.
There had been plenty of Christmas’s during the frequent separations of my parents that I spent it in different places. I’d celebrate Christmas with my father and brother at home, and then go off to celebrate Christmas with my mom, usually with ridicule from my father and the absence of my brother. Be it at some random place she was staying, or with her side of the family, I’d still go with her. Pops would make me feel ashamed for going to see her that day, always blurting out something like, “You’d rather spend the whole day with your druggy mom huh?“. My brother not coming with me either would make me feel as though I was doing something wrong. Sometimes dad wouldn’t tell me that she called until I made a fuss about seeing her. I had to, she’s my mom, and we had our ritual. She’d be happy on some Christmas days, and weeping others. But we were together.
Ever since her death, Christmas has haunted me.
The first Christmas that she was truly gone, I slept by the Christmas tree like I did as a child. I was early teens by then, but I still had that pit of desire for Christmas to be like when I was younger. When we were a whole family. That night, while sleeping, I was startled awake by a sound and a presence in the room. I heard the distinct sound of my mother’s favorite tan heels that she’d wear to important places like church click-clack in the room, and when I jumped up, they trailed off down the dark hallway toward her old room. She was there, I could feel her and smell her and hear her. I wept, for it was this immense comfort that washed over me but also a deep sorrow so painful I could feel it in my chest. Hot tears blurred the Christmas lights that night, and I never told my father or brother about it.
My Father’s death was when Christmas lost all of its magic.
After my father passed in summer 2007, almost nothing had magic anymore. Or joy. Especially Christmas. I would celebrate Christmas with my brother at my uncle’s or aunts, but I would make excuses not to attend Christmas with his wife’s parents. I’d spend some Christmas’s with families that had been there for me as a child and had seen everything unfold. The ones that always took me in like I was their own boy, without question, or places I’d spend long breaks from school at just to escape. But by that point in my life, I despised Christmas. I hated Christmas. It made me feel angry and lonely and confused and jealous. These families were my own by everything except blood, but as they celebrated it together and had their own rituals and stockings and stories, I felt a void.
Being surrounded by Christmas, or holiday cheer, or people who were happy to be together — it hurt my whole being.
Every one of those families has taken me in and made me their own, and treated me as their own, and even got me presents and stockings with my name on it. As I would sit there on Christmas with my various families; be it my uncle’s or aunt’s or the others that have become my own, all I could do was concentrate on holding back the storm of emotions inside me. I’d sit there and want to scream and imagine taking every ornament and shattering them. I’d remember holidays with mom and dad and my brother, those damn nostalgic memories. The feelings that I hated experiencing forcing their way back into my mind. I would watch everyone from a distance on Christmas and I know they could feel my absence of emotion. But it was really myself trying to hold back all of the emotions. I always felt like I would vomit. I’d be trying to hold myself back from crying.
I haven’t had a proper cry in about 8 years.
Because last time I cried was the Christmas after my mother’s death, as well as at the funeral of my father. Since, I’ve felt like if I were to cry, the sky would shatter in a hail of screaming porcelain and the world would end. Because it had on both of those days. And Christmas since always ignited those memories.
My Christmas’s Abroad
Though Christmas and holidays abroad have been difficult times for me, they’ve also been a slow build to bringing back some semblance of joy during holidays. Gradually, I’ve been coming to grips with those issues, and each destination has proven a lesson. This year in Melbourne was the biggest lesson of them all. But first I have to go back to the other places that I’ve been in for Christmas over the past 4 years.
<< New Zealand >>
Christmas in New Zealand was the first Christmas I celebrated abroad. It was a crazy time for me, one where I was discovering the world and myself and life unhindered. It also allowed me to, for the first time, let go of most of the bad mojo I felt toward the holiday. I was in Raglan, and spending it with other backpackers that were on a bus tour across the north island. All day we relaxed on the black sand beach, swam in the crystal blue water, and took cliché group jumping pictures.
That night, we cracked Tui beers and made a pasta feast together while watching The Lord Of The Rings. Later, we explored the surrounding hillside and hunted for glow worms. I tried and failed to flirt with a girl that night, but other than that, I didn’t feel anything negative. Before sleep, I stared off toward the silvery ocean in the twilight and felt a pang of longing, but that was all.
<< Thailand >>
The next Christmas I celebrated abroad was Thailand, which was a bit more of an emotional experience. On Christmas Eve I was in a bungalow on the calm side of Koh Phi Phi where I had a conversation about my parents with a girl I met. She asked me about the topic randomly, and after swallowing the knot in my throat, I told her everything about my parents deaths. As I was finishing telling her about my father’s passing, the wind began to howl in an otherwise dead quiet night, and the lights in my bungalow suddenly shut off. the power was completely out. Moments later they came back on, but I could feel my father’s presence as the wind died again and all went calm. It could be just Thailand power grids, but I felt him. I nearly cried, but to avoid catastrophe I didn’t.
Christmas Day I met up with Hannah and Adam, some fellow travel bloggers, and we went down to the beach area and drank and watched the fire shows. It hit me a little harder there, as everyone was in full drunken Christmas mode and Hannah and Adam were calling their parents to talk on Christmas. I got way too wasted, and I slept on the street that night.
<< Haiti >>
My last Christmas abroad I was in Haiti for it with my good friend Viky and his girlfriend. We found ourselves in a random small town near Camp Perrin and stopped for the night in a hotel. That Christmas Eve night, we snacked on plantains and drank bottles of Haitian rum. He had her, and she had him, and I had the rum bottle, but I didn’t feel any sadness. Just a stillness in the heavy and hot air. A stillness in myself.
No hatred or remorse. Just nothing.
Christmas day we explored Voodoo caves, and upon finding out that our young guide’s brother was in the hospital and would not be able to save him because they couldn’t get blood, we decided to help. Only Viky and I had thick enough blood to donate after being dehydrated from hiking, so their brother was able to get the type he needed in exchange. As a thank you, their family had us stay with them the night and in the morning brought us in for a prayer. “A Christmas miracle” they said in Creole.
Holding hands in that shack as the women sang songs in Creole and cried for joy for their son, something awoke in me. I felt something. Holding the rough hands of that family beneath the tin roof, joined with my friends in that journey, I was suddenly okay with being a part of other people’s lives and other people’s Christmas. I nearly cried again, because that was one of the most intense experiences I had ever been a part of. But I didn’t.
<< Australia >>
This year, as I noted in the beginning, I’m in Melbourne for the holidays. Holidays in a city like Melbourne, where I’m working in hospitality while everyone dines with family and shops and celebrates together, was a bit tougher to handle. I worked long hours for office parties and family feasts. I waited tables for people on Christmas Eve, and the whole day I felt a well of anger inside. I didn’t like it. I’ve gotten past my anger over the holiday, and I didn’t hate it anymore. At least that’s what I thought. But here I was serving tables and refusing to wish people a Merry Christmas. I was a Grinch. All I wanted to do was drink, and couldn’t wait until I was off to go out with the work mates.
Wasted is putting it lightly.
A group of us went out Christmas Eve and I was drinking like I was in a contest and we were running out of time. Scotch after scotch after scotch. I danced the night away and laughed with friends and all of that felt falsely great, but I was doing it not because I was enjoying their company on a holiday when most of us were away from our family, but to cover up how I felt. It’s not that I’m been beating myself up over having a rager party night and let loose, but it was why I did it. Everyone on surface level was in the same situation, with all of us creating an orphan Christmas and being there for each other.
But In my mind, I was just looking to drink and get wasted and dance and find someone to hook up with, just because I felt immensely lonely and had to mask it. Something had brought forth those negative thoughts and feelings about Christmas once again, and I was trying to drown them any way possible. I didn’t want the night to end, so I kept drinking and trying to convince everyone to stay out later. But the night did end in a seedy dive bar dancing to electronica amongst ghosts of people flailing about in a drug induced zombification. At some point it hit me. I set my drink down and told the last of the group I was heading out.
I didn’t want Christmas to come the next day, but I was done with the artificial happiness of the night that wasn’t making it any better.
Facing My Fear Of Christmas
Melbourne was like Santa and his reindeer barfed up red and green and sparkles all over the city. Every corner you went around there was some sort of Christmas display. All month it made me sick. Maybe because those other places I celebrated the past few years wasn’t so in your face, but suddenly I despised Christmas again. And I hated feeling that way, I just couldn’t help it. And after Christmas Eve when I woke up the next morning stuck to my bed in the summer heat, seeping whiskey scented sweat, my head jackhammering with a headache, I felt a sinking feeling of depression. It seemed as though I hadn’t actually conquered my issues with Christmas, only ignored or masked them. As message after message popped up from co-workers asking if I was coming to their orphan picnics or others of people making plans, I didn’t want to be around that. Not around Christmas. I didn’t want to have to invent a story about my family if the topic was brought up, because I didn’t want to talk about the truth.
Instead, I spent most of Christmas Day in bed.
That was partially due to my hangover, but it was also me hiding from the inevitable emotions of the day. Around 3pm my stomach began to painfully ache with hunger. I thought about just ordering delivery so I didn’t have to leave, but I was sinking deeper into my bed every ticking minute and I’d soon be consumed by this quicksand-like depression. Laying there was making things worse. So I peeled myself off the bed and went down into Melbourne CBD in search for some food and distraction.
It was Chinatown where I found solace.
The lack of Christmas vibe could have been what attracted me, but maybe I was drawn to it by nostalgia. During holidays growing up when my father didn’t want to cook, we’d always end up ordering Chinese food. Always up at the China Gourmet restaurant mentioned before for their annual Christmas party. Something about being in Chinatown felt familiar. I spent about an hour walking the streets and alleys of Chinatown looking for a place to eat. Most places were open, but I just wandered even with the groans of my stomach.
Eventually I found a suitable hole in the wall place, one that had barely any English on anything and one with nobody that wasn’t Asian. Except me. I sat down and ordered a water, hot and sour soup, and fried noodles. I sat watching the other diners talking and slurping down their food and all the while reflected on that previous night, and the month.
What went wrong? Why was I suddenly filled with despair?
When the food came I ate like I was grazing, slowly taking methodical bite after the next, taking my time to enjoy it, and observing the world. In my head I was tracing through days and weeks and months of events, of past and present situations. Trying to decipher why I was being so bitter and why I was feeling the need to supplement my normal calm spirit with reckless abandon. I wasn’t too reckless and it was only one night out right? That’s not what was eating me alive, it was the reason for why I felt the need to drink it all away that troubled me. With the greasy Chinese meal finished and the hangover subsiding, I left Chinatown behind and went to the river. Water always has a way of calming me, and there I sat by myself watching the sun sink lower every passing hour. Two hours I sat there thinking, and as the sky turned to lavender and the sun fell below the horizon, I came to a realization.
I’ve been able to handle Christmas with distraction, but I haven’t dealt with it personally.
All of these years of traveling I’ve battled feelings from my past and worked on conquering the darkness to live in the light. I’ve faced the torment of my parents deaths and of the things I witnessed as a child instead of running from it. I was able to finally accept it all, and work on my own inner turmoil and destruction to live a happier life that I fill with tangible and enriching things. Instead of wallowing in a pit of sadness and destroying myself physically and mentally, I chose to start living. But as I traveled and spent those holidays with friends in exotic places, I was hid from that wound until the holidays passed. Until the next year when I’d distract myself again and put a band-aid over it. I had focused on being in my right mind 364 days of the year, but I’ve been skipping over one that clearly still had an adverse affect.
This year was the perfect storm.
I was faced with less distraction while waiting tables, and it allowed sadness to fester. And it lead me to an urgent and desperate temporary solution. To get drunk just to forget. The last time I had that happen I nearly ruined my life forever. I realized I needed to face this as well. All day as I thought, and all day my other families were on my mind. And my mother and father. When I was abroad for holidays previously, I didn’t think too much of them. I didn’t think much about anything really, I just went along with what everyone else was doing. To think about people back home might bring back painful memories. Instead, my mind had a subconscious block. Living in the moment! The past is past and the now is life! Unless you don’t deal with your past. That mental block failed this year.
I wrestled all month with sadness and loneliness and anger. But on Christmas day, spending it alone, I reflected and really missed their presence. I missed spending Christmas with those families. My families. All of them. I had traveled, and in my journeys I was able to remove the negative attachment to holidays by ignoring it. By overlapping it with experiences. It left a hole which my environment this year opened.
I could finally miss Christmas with family without feeling pain.
After watching the sunset, I went to the movies. Going to the movies on Christmas Day has been a tradition my brother and I have done over the years since our father passed. We haven’t been very close since, but we still had that. And going to the movies alone on Christmas Day comforted me. It made me miss that ritual.
While walking home at midnight I got to see Snapchats from another one of my families. Seeing their faces all together, with the newborn babe of one of the sisters, it made me wish I was there. It made me miss them. And messages from my aunt and brother made me miss those family dinners that we’d always have, even with my awkwardness. Even though I haven’t been great at being a part of anyone’s lives for years.
I had been so afraid of experiencing any kind of emotions on Christmas since losing my parents that I pushed out all of the joy from holidays. I disconnected. Just because holidays for years have been a painful thing, it doesn’t mean it has to be. It doesn’t mean I can’t be a part of another ritual or another family’s celebration. I can’t hold onto hate out of fear. And I shouldn’t hide or ignore the pain but deal with it. It ook years to stop living a life fully consumed by negativity, and spending Christmas alone this year made me take one more positive step. Allowed that hole to start to be filled. Allowed darker parts of my past to stop holding a place in my heart.
This year, spending Christmas alone made me truly cherish the ones that are in my life and do want me to be a part of their family traditions. Not to be afraid. To not just work on being happy 364 days of the year and dread another, but to lose the encumbering worries. Shed the weight of nostalgia, of the old wound that wouldn’t allow me to move on during Christmas time, or any holiday for that matter. To not think that showing emotions will bring about a catastrophe, but to be present. To be a part of new traditions and rituals, and to make new ones.
My ghosts of Christmas past will no longer haunt me.
<< Author’s Note >>
This is, by far, one of the longest entries on the blog. Though I wrote it as a memoir like the other’s I’ve shared in case you can relate or facing the same issues, I think I also needed to write this for myself. Even reflecting all day Christmas, I still had to put my thoughts out there and sort through it all. While writing the middle portion about Christmas as a child, most of it was done while going through a bottle of wine. I don’t drink often and Christmas Eve I did for the pain. The wine helped ease my nerves while writing, so I apologize for any mistakes. It was a raw all out writing fest to get this out of my system. Obviously, these topics are still hard to write about, and just one day of reflection won’t make ever issue I’ve had with the weight I associate with Christmas — but it did allow me to start facing it and actually realize that I already have a lot of happy moments attached to it. I just allowed painful memories to overshadow the good.
Have you ever experienced anything like this before?
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[dropcap]BAM![/dropcap] Dead. It happened that quick. Well, at least it can happen that quick. Today I was nearly run over by a car. Had I been riding my bike just a little faster and had I not braked last minute, I could have been roadkill. After my heart stopped racing and I regained my composure, I began to think about what that meant. And it seems like I’ve learned some life lessons by almost dying today.
I’m guilty of getting caught up in the everyday grind of things when not backpacking through some exotic countries outside of the United States. Though my goal is always the same thing — to save up money for traveling, the daily grind becomes a normal cycle. Working, commuting, dining out, morning coffees, nightly drinks. You get the point.
Even after I moved to Australia a few months back so I could work abroad and save up more money for my next big trip, it’s become somewhat of a stale affair. Don’t get me wrong, Melbourne is a phenomenal city to live in and there are always exciting things to do — but it’s still a major city that I am working in to save money. I’m having a fun time living in a new city and exploring the uniqueness that is Melbourne. But I’m still waiting tables instead of hiking mountains. I did ask for this though. After somehow surviving the Rickshaw Run madness, and after getting so ill in India that I lost 20lbs, I needed a place to recover my body and bank account.
That doesn’t mean living life to the fullest has to stop when you settle down for a few months from adventuring.
You never should stop living each day to the fullest. As I will tell you, something bad can happen in a flash.
I was biking to one of the 5 days of work per week. It was just a normal day like any other has been while living in Melbourne. I woke up and ate breakfast. I took the familiar bike path along the Yarra, admiring a single beautiful black swan that was coasting along with the current. Maybe that was some sort of omen. Everything was as it had been lately. Normal. I came to the freeway crossing and had the green bicycle telling me it was safe to cross, and I biked across to the island in the middle. As I was crossing the median, the bike crossing light began to blink red. But I was midway across already, biking off the median when the light began to blink.
And that is when I was nearly run over.
Just as I was about to hit the 4th lane of the freeway and onto the other side, I noticed all the other cars coming to a slow stop since they obviously had a red light, but not one car. Since I make it a point to be aware of my surroundings, I noticed that one car not slowing down. I thought he would, but he was still going fast, and just as I was hitting the fourth lane I braked and slid. He zipped past me, not even slowing down, straight through a red light which would have been a wreck had there been cars crossing as well. When he sped past me and I braked last minute, the car was less than a foot away from my front bike tire. I could feel the wind on my face.
Once on the sidewalk, I paused and took a deep breath. So much was racing through my head, but I couldn’t be late to work. So I kept on cycling. For the entire day I was frazzled, and I couldn’t stop thinking about that close call. I finished the day, went back home, slept, and went back to work the next day.
But I haven’t been able to kick that feeling. I had a near death experience in a major city that is known to be quite safe, and caters to bicyclist. And though I’ve always been one to express how anything can happen to you at any moment in whatever city in the world, sometimes a close call like this brings it back up.
It makes you realize that you haven’t been taking advantage of life.
That’s why I’m sharing this today, because everyone should know that it isn’t out there in the big and bad and mysterious world that something bad can happen to you — it can be in a city at home while inside your “comfort zone“.
Yes, I have gotten sick a few times while traveling, like in India recently, or when I got a stomach infection during Songkran in Thailand. There has been occasions where I felt as though I would die on some of the sketchier modes of transport in countries like riding in the insane charter buses in India. Usually though, I feel a sense of safety and calm while traveling, because I am more aware and alert and on my feet. But also, I’m actually doing things — not just lulled into a repetition like a “safe” and “normal” life does to you.
Everybody told me not to go to Haiti, that Haiti was a dangerous place and I would be killed or kidnapped. After that first trip to Haiti, and shattering all preconceived notions of Haiti while there, I am adamant to tell everyone how much I loved it. And, to make a point, I felt more safe in Haiti then I do walking around at night in Washington DC. That was just the first real realization I’ve had of many that living what some think to be a safe life, thinking that traveling through the world might be inherently more dangerous than working in a cubicle, is completely wrong. Once I thought I would be robbed in Thailand only to come to find out they just wanted to help me.
Traveling is no more dangerous than living that idea of a normal life.
This is why, no matter what situation you are in or whatever it is you may be doing; be it working in a cubicle at home or scuba diving in Italy, walking the dog or driving a rickshaw across India — make sure you are doing what you want to do at that very moment. Make sure you aren’t thinking about tomorrow or a week from now or 5 years from now or that retirement in 20 years. Because we never know what tomorrow will bring or if there will even be a tomorrow. We have to stop living in tomorrowland and start living in the now, and even if you have to work that “normal” job for the moment, make sure there is a purpose behind it driven by your dreams and what makes you happy.
I’ve realized that I was getting too invested in this routine again, and I was lulled into not embracing every second of everyday, so I am going to try daily again to be focusing on my passions and the now. Though I need the waiter job at the moment to save up for future travel plans, that doesn’t mean I can’t be doing something amazing everyday. And more importantly, I can be living everyday instead of existing.
Need some inspiration? Check these posts out!
10 Most Inspirational Life Quotes over my Travel Photos
Everybody needs a little kick in the mojo sometimes. A jolt of energy to get life shocked back into. A dose of pure inspiration from the voices and the pens of travelers, philosophers, dreamers, and doers. Hell, sometimes you just need someone to slap you and shout, “Get off your ass and chase your dreams fool!”Get Inspired Here!
Death: My Travel Inspiration
Your life can change in an instant.
Sometimes that phrase is difficult to grasp since we get caught up in our daily lives and don’t realize when things pass us by — for example: life. But just like a lightbulb, it can burn out without a hint of notice, leaving the faintest remnant of that light clinging on to the last minutes of what once was before fizzing out forever.Get Inspired Here!
Traveling isn’t always frolicking through fields in the Italian countryside, or living out childhood fantasies exploring ancient ruins like Indian Jones or Lara Croft. And though it would be nice if life always involved fried cheese and beer in Prague — life on the road isn’t always fine and dandy. Actually, I will rephrase that — life on the road can be much more challenging than sedentary life in your comfort zone. Which makes sense, because of course you chose to break out of your cushy comfort zone to explore the world, taste exotic flavors, and conquer your fears.
Stress like running late to work because you had to wait in line longer at Starbucks for that “half-soy-mocha-cino-latte-extra-hot-light-froth-2.75-caramel-squirts-dusted-lightly-with-pumpkin-spice” becomes waddle-running to catch an overflowing Indian train with 50 kilos strapped onto your stomach and back like a pregnant tyrannosaurs rex. Yeah, it’s exactly what you just pictured, and if you’re a traveler, you know that run well.
It’s the stress of trip planning and trying to make your planes and trains and buses on time. It’s arriving a your destination after 14hrs under the sweaty armpit of your seat mate in a cramped van to find out there is no more accommodation available. It’s trying to do everything you can to have the energy and confidence to make new friends in a strange new place when you’re completely exhausted. It’s not letting tempers fly when you don’t have it in you to deal with the throngs of people demanding to take a photo with you and their whole extended family. One by one. It’s a lot more than that, and it adds up. But that is why nomadic-hearted people like us do it. Not because we like smelling of that seat mate’s armpit or wearing the same clothing for a week. It’s because there is freedom of exploration of ourselves and the world that takes effort to do, and easy doesn’t pay out life experiences. Challenges do.
Yet, there is a whole different side to travel challenges and life on the road that most don’t talk about.
What about your body staying healthy on the road?
What about our bodies combating fluctuating types of new foods in varying states of cleanliness? Or our erratic diets of beer drinking and fried street foods? What about when we fall seriously ill in a foreign country?
This is something that isn’t brought up much because of course it’s not Buzzfeed worthy or inclusive of “The 10 Best Beaches“. Unless of course it’s some new strain of plague threatening our existence. But failing health is the reason I have been absent on social media and the blog ever since leaving India 3 months earlier.
I got severely ill, and my health was fast deteriorating.
After our team completed the Rickshaw Run and survived the mayhem that it involved, my health was already at a very low. At that point, I had dropped 4 pant sized and was poking crude holes in my belt to hold up my pants. None of my clothes fit, and my normal small but broad build was wiry and weak. There had been many bouts of extreme dehydration while on the race (which I will be going into in a post soon) and stomach illnesses that added to it, but I had also not been getting the proper amount of nutrition that my body was used to or needed.
It wasn’t just Delhi Belly as everyone claims. It was the severe dehydration making me not keep anything down and wreaking havoc on my digestive system. And eating street stall Indian food, as tasty as it was, usually lacked anything more than a couple of pieces of potato and carrots. Added to that, my immune system was weakened and for most of the trip I had cold like symptoms.
Lots of bread and soup, roti and curry, but little veggies. And “green salads” were oddly enough just a few slices of onion and tomato.
By the time I got to Australia, I had gone from a 32/34 waist size to a 26 waist, and from 155lbs (70 kilos) to 135lbs (61 kilos).
You’d think that eating so much fried food and bread would fatten me up! But I could barely stomach meals halfway through the race.
Once the finish line was crossed and we went our separate ways, I kept traveling around India for a bit going from Darjeeling to Kolkata to Goa. During this time I attempted to recover with a normal eating habit, but no matter what I did, it didn’t seem to help. I was still having stomach issues, even when I cut out all meats and mainly ate rice. I was feverish with hot and cold sweats, and a constant dizziness. When I made it to Goa, I even stayed at an ayurvedic resort paying more than I have for a room in a long time thinking the diet and environment may help. I tried to do some running, meditation, and yoga to get the blood pumping and give me some energy. Didn’t work. Then I sat in a beach chair for weeks relaxing and eating and trying to regain my energy. It helped slightly, but I was still feeling zombie-like mentally and physically from the race.
Western food is what I needed surely. Big meals with lots of extra grub. My stomach was this empty pit and I needed to fill it. I needed to regain that weight fast.
The moment I got to Australia, I went on a binge. I over-ate daily with massive meals of burgers and fries and pizzas. I thought that by consuming a lot, and consuming a lot of foods I ate stateside, it would balance out my falling weight and finally give me some energy back. I was eating my greens as well, but I was also inhaling McDonald’s at an alarming rate. I couldn’t quell the cravings.
That had the reverse effect. Obviously.
Migraines lasted 24 hours and were debilitating. If I wasn’t passing out resumés for work, I was laying in bed not able to muster the strength to get up and do anything. I slept majority of my time the first month in Melbourne. And my immune system was rock bottom, leaving me with flu-like symptoms and weak and achy muscles. I couldn’t think straight and my coordination was off. I couldn’t ever eat much, but I was always painfully hungry.
Something was very wrong, and my body was shutting down.
I consider myself a healthy traveler overall. I’m always active and exploring, and though I love to chow down on the street foods around the world, I also make sure to eat plenty of fruit and drink plenty of water as well. Ya’ know, the good stuff. And when I can, I eat tons of vegetables, which I normally do in “every day” life as well. But sometimes, you just can’t get that good stuff. And more than any trip I have taken I found it harder to eat healthy while on the Rickshaw Run across India. In a photo post of the Rickshaw Run I showed the mayhem and madness that took place and how driving across India was no easy feat, most of the time not even a difficult feat, but more like an impossible feat that we got through by a lot of luck we chased out on that journey.
And through all the harrowing moments, the thing that defeated me was food. While driving 2,000km across rugged northern India, there aren’t many places to stop along the road for a big ole’ green salad. Manly, the street stalls served up fried samosas and various curries with rice. Though incredibly tasty, not nutritious.
It was when I arrived in Australia that the real problems began.
For the first month or so I ate terrible here in Melbourne. And with those migraines and stomach issues and weakness worsening, I sought out some help. Since I don’t have travel healthcare (I know, I should) I rarely visit a clinic unless it’s dire. Last time I was in a hospital was, coincidentally, for a stomach virus I got in Thailand after Songkran over a year ago. And in Australia, it isn’t just a handful of change to visit a doctor or a stroll into the chemist for them to give you antibiotics. It costs a few hundred dollars. I couldn’t wait any longer, and I couldn’t deal with the state I was in. The nutritionist found that my body was extremely low on most important vitamins and nutrients and the doctor gave me an antibiotic for my stomach. But the nutritionist told me I seriously needed to completely change my diet to get everything back to normal.
How do I repair the damage? Start from scratch.
Since it was painful to eat anything, I had to start from the bottom and work my way back up. For the first week, I drank only blended smoothies of kale, beetroot, carrot, ginger, bananas, spinach, and various other vegetables high in vitamins and iron or easy on the stomach. Even just a week of that I noticed the headaches were going away and I had a bit more energy.
After that first week, I did only smoothies 3 times a day, and raw vegetables 3 times a day for another week. It was hard at first trying to find time to keep this strict regiment given that I had just started working at the hostel reception and found a restaurant gig, but I had to do it.
After two weeks of this raw diet, I noticed a drastic difference.
I wasn’t experiencing pain in my stomach and I wasn’t having headaches. But I still had to keep at it. After the first week of smoothies and the second with raw vegetables, I would only eat vegan and strayed away from gluten, dairy, rice, and pasta for the next month. Those foods were just too hard for me to digest, and I always noticed a tinge of pain or discomfort when trying to eat it, so I cut it out.
It wasn’t at all as strict and torturous as that might seem.
The best thing about this super strict diet, besides feeling healthier of course, was that I was getting super creative with cooking. I began learning how to make things other than instant noodles and hostel spaghetti! I was making zucchini “pasta” and vegan gluten-free tacos. I made of recipes for veggie nori (seaweed) rolls. And all the while I was feeling amazing.
A month and a half later I had gained back weight, energy, and focus.
I started doing ghetto backpacker workouts in my room using my bag and whatever I could find. I had energy again to get out of bed early. I had created a routine and habit of eating clean and healthy and I really wasn’t missing much of the baked goods or meats. But I will say, I always miss cheese. Throughout the second month, I began trickling in breads and dairy one day a week, which I deemed a “cheat day” to start getting my body used to processing them again. But even on cheat days I found myself craving the good stuff. This diet that I was forced into had completely changed my tastebuds and cravings. I have never liked avocado or coconut or mushrooms and other foods like them, but I began to love them. I was exploring cooking with what would have previously been crazy combinations, but now it was normal and delicious.
Three months into my year visa in Australia and I am back on my feet. It took a little over two months of strict eating to get back to 100% but I am happy to say that I am healthy again.
It was also spiritually taxing in it all as well, given that I am a creative person and I just didn’t have the energy to write on the blog and post stories from the Rickshaw Run or how life in Melbourne was. But now I do. It’s great to be back on the keyboard typing away, and reviewing the insane footage we got from the race that I have yet to post. But with my spirit and energy back to normal, and my strength, it’ll be fun editing these into videos.
I’m a bit of a green fiend now. Due to the recovery being from eating clean and green, I will most likely be sticking to this vegetarian diet for a while. Who knows, I may just go vegan, because I never feel unhealthy eating this way. And though I can’t help salivate over a juicy burger or pulled pork sandwich or giant rolls of cheese, when it comes to actually wanting it over what I’m eating now — I’m don’t have an urge to.
This health scare taught me a vital lesson as well about traveling. In every country I go to, there are always mouth-watering local cuisines and it’s easy to get swept up in devouring street foods and drinking booze nightly with new friends. But you have to remember at the same time that you have to still give your body what it needs to be healthy as well — especially when on the road.
Hydrate all day. Get bright-colored fruits and veggies in you when possible. And if you have something physically taxing like a trek the next day or even exploring under the hot sun, hold back on the booze. Because eventually it adds up, and your body will take you for a tumble with it like it did to me.
It took me two months to recover fully, and during that time I had to focus on myself solely, which is why I haven’t been present on social media or the blog and sharing all I have been up to. I apologize for the disappearing act, and not holding to the promise of releasing Rickshaw Run videos. But now you will be seeing plenty more content coming the next few weeks as I play catch-up with the post-Rickshaw Run stories and videos, as well as delving in what it’s been like settling into Australia for a year.
Also, along with that, I will be starting a new series of blog posts and videos called “Road Warrior” which will be focusing on easy ways to stay healthy and fit while traveling!
I’ve got to say, I have some exciting news coming soon, so make sure to check back Lost Ones, and thank you as always for coming along the journey.
Have you ever fallen ill on the road? How do you stay healthy while traveling?
There is a reoccurring theme with my travels. I work my ass off for months to save and go away for months. But I always come back. No more. Here are my travel plans for 2015, and how I will reach them. After another 6 months of saving up waiting tables to travel again, I’m done with that routine. This year is the year I go all in as a traveler.Read More