Travelling Away From Labels

by Julie Cleaver

In life people are constantly seeking definition. Whether it be from a hobby, job, band, partner or friend circle, we all seem to want to be something definable, something recognizable, to call ourselves. Lawyer, teacher, artist, hipster, engineer, surfer, buff, musical; there are so many brands all with a multitude of connotations, and it is often these associations that inspire us to do certain things. Personally I had always been enamored with the image of surfing. I longed to be that chilled out, tan, rugged chick that rocked up to the beach in her old bashed up VW Kombi. Driven by this fantasy I convinced a friend to take me to the beach and teach me how to surf. After battling brutal waves on an icy winters day at Piha, my hazy golden conception of surfing was quickly destroyed. Instead of instantly becoming tan, hot and awesome my first time surfing only left me frustrated and freezing. However despite my initial disappointment I persevered, taking every opportunity I could to go out and wrestle the waves. I soon began to love the sport, not just for the label but purely for the enjoyment of it; for that feeling of riding a wave and being apart of nature.

As well as the surfer girl persona, the idea of becoming an intrepid traveller had always caressed my heart strings. I thought that no matter what happened, even if I had nothing to do, no friends or even no food, it wouldn’t matter if I was in a different country because I’d just be loving everything no matter what. After recently doing some travelling I quickly realised that this was another misconception I had. My experience overseas was a hard battle and only now-after being home for a little while and reflecting-has its beauty been able to reveal itself to me.

My most recent and most challenging journey took place in the summer holidays which have just past. I went backpacking around Asia for a total of two months, a fascinating and challenging experience. First I journeyed to Korea and spent a month there in the snow. Then I flew to the sunny Southeast Asia, spent a week in Vietnam and a month volunteering in an orphanage in Cambodia. I travelled solo and met up with various people at different stages of my adventure.

Firstly, I had now idea just how shocking culture shock could be. You know that feeling of meeting someone new who is totally different to you and they disagree with what you say and make you feel awkward for saying the wrong thing? It can be like that times one hundred. In Korea I was unaware of the large power distance which separates old and young people. Respecting your elders is of the utmost importance and me, being the outspoken Kiwi girl I am, totally disobeyed this custom and I even argued with some adult Korean’s I met. This caused some tension, to say the least.

Another thing which I struggled with was being away from my ordinary life. This is an obvious burden of travelling, however I didn’t realise just how much I would miss things that I wasn’t even aware of possessing. Like having someone to talk to who can speak your language, at times of my journey I missed that. I missed eating a carb other than rice and drinking good old english tea with milk and sugar. I missed being able to do little things with ease, like being able to take a bus which wasn’t as complicated to figure out as the Da Vinci Code. I missed having a bed a lot of the time and having warm showers. Most of all I missed being around people who loved me.

All of these issues and more made my trip depressing and lonely at times. I found myself continually doubting the concept of travelling and it’s usefulness. Why do people go on about how cool travelling is when it actually just sucks? Well now, looking through the clear vision of hindsight, I think I have a fair idea of why travelling is beneficial, or why it was at least for me. Firstly, trying anything new and exiting your comfort zone helps you grow. This is painfully obvious however hard to grasp when you are shivering and alone, sitting in that unknown place outside of your warm, cozy zone of comfort. However by taking a step out into the cold your understanding of what you can achieve and what you are capable of experiencing stretches. By increasing your awareness of your own abilities and shattering that fabricated box we all sometimes put ourselves in, we grow, and this growth enriched my existence. 

Also, when dwelling inside your comfort zone it becomes easy to stop noticing things and start acting simply on autopilot. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked up and down Queen Street without anything exciting happen to me, however when walking through a street in Korea or Cambodia, every road led me to a new adventure. Sure my adventures are largely accredited to my alien blonde hair and pale skin, which made me rake up a heap of attention, but they also occurred because I was curious and open to what was around me. Since travelling exposes you to a whole new environment far away from all of your own heavily treaded in understanding of the world, in a sense travellers become like new born babies. They are able to soak up everything around them with wide eyes and spongey brains. This fresh childlike purity allows travellers to see and experience everything around them, enhancing their growth and enriching the pure beauty of their experience.

Lastly, travelling allows for unexplainable moments of ecstasy to occur. These instances could stem from an unusual coincidence, stroke of luck, moment of appreciation, a large realisation or anything really, and would not be possible of occurring had you not been out there getting your hands dirty, experiencing the gritty reality of the world. Perhaps if we were able to adopt these clear eyes to our normal lives people would probably experience similar moments of ecstasy. However our understanding of our home is already so heavily ground into the fabric of our existence that it is hard to detach and let your surroundings truly effect you.

One moment which stands out to me was when I was totally sick driving across Cambodia in an old bus. I was lying at the back of the bus getting throwing up and getting thrown off my seat at every turn, yet during that seven hour journey I was totally content. It was like my brain and my physical body had become disconnected and I was able to be full of joy despite it all. I’ll never forget that bus ride and the pure joy I felt. 

Another memorable moment of interest was one of my last nights in Cambodia. I was driving home in a tuk tuk with some Australian travellers I had met when all of a sudden we saw a bunch of people surrounding a man who was lying in the middle of the road, bleeding and still. We stopped our tuk tuk and ran over to him. I saw the mans beaten up motor bike a few meters away from him, he had been hit head on my a car. With no one reacting I put my lifeguarding first aid skills to use and jumped into action. I commanded someone to ring for an ambulance and checked for his pulse. He wasn’t breathing, so I began performing CPR. I pounded on his chest and he spluttered back into life before I had to perform a rescue breath. After the ambulance came we went back to our hostel and then, when I was washing the mans blood off my hands, the seriousness of the situation dawned of me.

To sum it up, unprecedented growth and spontaneous moments of adventure were the real unadvertised joys of travelling which I experienced. In life our expectations and reality do not always stack up, that’s pretty standard analysis, but if you are able to understand the real beauty of things, your expectations can often be surpassed. Sometimes we are attracted to do things for the image we think we will attain by doing it. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing. We’re all social creatures and it’s not awful to want to do something that will give you good connotations to your peers. However the stereotypes we give activities are just as absurd as the ones we give other people. Things are far more complex than we perceive and just because someone surfs or travels that does not necessarily make them cool or hot or anything. We are who we are and yes what we do impacts this, but that’s it, it impacts us. Who we are is far deeper and more elaborate than an activity.