Enjoying a shave ice in Oahu, Hawaii © Emma Sparks
Before I embarked on my four month adventure across three continents, my friends and family liked to muse on what the enlightened, future well‐travelled Emma would be like. My best friends envisaged me returning with a few tattoos, a new hemp wardrobe and a dread-locked hippy boyfriend named Sunshine. Others presumed I would keep travelling forever. My Mum, bless her, was petrified I’d meet the man of my dreams and emigrate to Australia. (It seems my mother’s anxieties are to be a running motif in this blog – luckily she also supports me 100% and only had the most minor of freak-outs when I revealed I’d thrown myself out of an aeroplane).
The closest I’ve come to the the first impression is gaining an impressive collection of woven bracelets and a hair braid. Oh, and the compulsory Thai fisherman pants. The second has always been spot on. I will travel forever, just not without intermittent rest periods in good ole Blighty. My Mum’s elopement fears are yet to be realised, although I have to admit, my heart may now reside somewhere other than my chest…
Not to disappoint my expectant fortune tellers, I have managed to indulge in a spot of cliched traveller behaviour. So, at risk of causing you pain with all the eye-rolling this next paragraph may inspire, I’d like to talk a little about one of my favourite books…
Eat, Pray, Love. Like One Day, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Da Vinci Code, this book has exploded in recent years, finding refuge in the hands of hundreds of thousands of commuters and holiday makers alike. Unfortunately, such mainstream popularity leads many literary people to turn their noses up. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, the spiritual themes are often met with scepticism. Many dismiss it as the insignificant ramblings of a neurotic female trying to find herself. I would disagree. But I digress. I’m not going to defend it. If it’s not your thing, then maybe stop reading now. I’m here to say that it is a thoroughly entertaining book, I LOVE IT and it has brought me much comfort and inspiration. But then again maybe I’m just a neurotic female trying to find myself…
Sweaty but smiley after a sunrise hike in Fiji © Emma Sparks
Love it or hate it, the categories ‘Eat’, ‘Pray’ and ‘Love’ work well for me when looking back on my travels. When I’m not stuffing my face with a plate of pad thai cooked on a street stall/back end of a motorbike or feasting at the all-you-can-eat buffets so prolific in the US, I’m attempting to meditate in a crazy Thai lady’s yoga studio or pondering life in an existentialist manner on a mountain overlooking the ocean. At dawn. And when I’m doing neither of these things, well. Over the last four months I’ve fallen in love countless times. With Fiji, with the chilled-out Hawaiian spirit, with the ocean. I even met my own beautiful Brazilian, but I won‘t bore you with those tedious details…
I never set out to recreate Elizabeth Gilbert‘s experiences. Although I do have a trip to Rome in the pipeline. And Bali and India are high on my list of travel priorities. The fact is, food, the self and extreme bouts of affection have a place for all travellers.
Food is your means of exploring a culture and a quick way of deciding how long you are willing to stay in one place. The ‘pray’ part comes in many forms. The most divine plane that some backpackers reach is downing a magic (mushroom) milkshake and conversing with a purple Jesus made of jelly. For others, the simple act of being alone forces them to, as a fellow traveller from Sweden put it, ‘meet themselves’. I like that wording. I’ve met myself for the first time, and I like to think we’ll be good friends from now on. Confronting personal issues whilst on the road is basically an inevitability. It’s as if those bumpy, nausea-inducing there‘s-no-way-I‘m-letting-you-sleep 14-hour bus journeys were intended for that very purpose. And then there’s that four-letter word spilling constantly from everyone’s lips, wherever I go:
‘Oh my God I love Koh Phi Phi!’
‘I absolutely fell in love with that city’
‘Hey, that’s Swiss Mathias over there, I met him five minutes ago and you’ll love him. I LOVE HIM! I LOVE LIFE!!’
Lines in the sand… © Emma Sparks
When you’re experiencing new sights and challenges on a daily basis, all whilst being thousands of miles from your loved ones, bonds with the people and places you discover develop rapidly. Although most connections you make are (or certainly feel) genuine, they are also a means of coping with the fact that you are, let’s face it, alone, with nothing but a few unrecognisable banknotes in your pockets and a dodgy digestive complaint. Relationships form instantly over a few Fiji Bitters/Changs/boxes of goon, and these threads of affection weave themselves irreversibly into the intricate tapestry of your emotional memory.
And BANG! There you are walking around with a rainbow-coloured day bag you bought from a hill tribe stall that you wouldn‘t be caught dead wearing at home, munching on some questionable sticky rice based dessert after your three-hour yoga and meditation class, off to hang out with your new-found family back at the hostel.
It may be cliched backpacker behaviour, but I‘m a firm believer in cliches. I embraced a ‘when in Rome’ attitude, and tried the traditional Fijian drink, ‘kava’ (essentially muddy water… my stomach didn’t thank me for it). I ‘found myself’, not through epiphany or spiritual guidance, but rather just by a gradual acceptance of myself and my place in this world.
And finally, for once, I followed my heart. Screw you brain, you take up far too much of my time already. By letting my heart lead the way I have forged lifelong friendships, allowed myself to believe that I’m beautiful (in multiple languages, at that) and yes, I say this with only the most miniscule cringe:
I learnt to love myself.