How to travel
Written by Nirmitee Mehta
The last trip I took before everything changed was in November 2019. It was a weekend trip to Krabi with a girl I worked with and all we did was sit at the beach, go in the water, take pictures of the sea and eat. In all honesty, we could have had a similar experience (at a higher price point) if we’d done a day trip to Sentosa. The way memory works, you often take your last experience of something as the screen upon which you project all.
Ever since then I’ve been stuck in this island country I now live in, sporadically seeing travel stories of friends, family and influencers as they start to travel again, as parts of the world start to open up in phases.
Initially I’d feel envious and ache to go away somewhere like they were able to. Now I just feel empty inside. It has occurred to me recently that the thing upon which I have based a lot of my identity might be a lie.
To the outside world, I’m the girl who, after having had her first foray with solo travel adventure at the age of 16 with a year spent as an exchange student, has stayed for extended periods of time in 5 other foreign countries and travelled solo to more places than she can keep track of. I’m seen as the girl who finds it easy to pack up,leave, and build a new narrative comfortably in a new place.
Here’s a secret. That girl doesn’t exist
To be entirely fair, I’ve played into the myth of myself all this while. I like being seen as a bright confident go-getter who surpasses expectations. I like the fantasy of myself of having gone from being the girl who didn’t step outside the drawn lines to the kind that you’d remember because she’s doing cool shit, the kind that you’d live vicariously through.
For the past two years I haven’t been able to be that. Unable to go back home or go anywhere else but nothing much has changed from day to day. I have a routine in place and I go through it with almost a robotic efficiency week in and week out, balancing between working, working out, eating, running errands and zoning out into the worlds that exist only in my mind. I’ve stayed in my bubble for the vast majority of my time here. It took me a while to make friends because I spent too long texting the ones I had already. Even when I made some, they were largely people similar to myself. I barely engaged with the local community. I haven’t celebrated Chinese new year or the Autumn festival a single time in the years I’ve lived here. Though I took pictures of the beautiful old-school architecture, I didn’t google the history of the area until much later.
Too much time spent alone has forced me to now come to terms with the way I exist and the space I occupy in the world. Now I can’t help but see that I’m not good at travel or building a life in a new place at all. I’m good at re-assembling my own life wherever I go and living within that bubble. When I travel I’m good at picking up the bright and beautiful bits for display. I can make it look idyllic and blissful very easily. But I very often don’t know what to do after the pictures for Instagram have been taken. Though I talk about learning and growing through experiencing discomfort, in practice I seek out the familiar and the comfortable. I go to the air-conditioned cafes. I walk around malls to get into the rhythm of the new place. I think about the stories I’ll tell to the people I already know.
These months of being cut off from real life have refreshed my memories of the parts of travel that weren’t in those filtered shots. I showed the bright colours and country tunes in the Nashville bar, not the wretched despair I felt while going back to that Airbnb in a bad part of town. I put up pictures of the sunset in the park in Sao Paulo, but what I remember is the panic I felt as I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn’t being followed and would get back to my hostel safe before dark. I shared the pictures of the blue waters in Phuket on a solo trip, but equally fresh in my memory are the hours I spent swiping on bumble and tinder because I was miserable being there alone surrounded by only couples. Maybe that’s how travel is supposed to be. The uncomfortable bits that slip through when you put yourself in an environment you can’t control. The ways in which you’re forced to confront your shortcomings. The moments in which you’re forced to stop and evaluate what part of your life you need to change to have the experiences you want.
Maybe after months of shutting myself away under the pretext of keeping myself safe, what I’m scared of now is opening myself back up to real life and new ways I’ll be taught all these things.
I don’t know how it’ll go – but now I want to find out.
About the author
Nirmitee Mehta is a business consultant, idea machine and writer from India and is currently based in Singapore. She enjoys reading, food and discussions about modern pop culture. She largely writes about intricacies of everyday life and emotions in what she calls ‘depressive essays about my feelings’