One of my most profound traveling moments came when we went to visit Viñales in Cuba. I was sitting on the bus, staring out the window, when this amazing karstic valley opened up before me. The towering rocky mountains and lush, rugged scenery was perfect, breath taking and mesmerising. It reminded me of Thailand’s Koh Phi Phi and Indonesia’s Java. In that instant, I stood up on the bus, wishing my eyes were bigger so I could drink more of it in. My emotions caught in my chest as I thought about how much I had loved my Asian odyssey, and missed it, despite it being so tiring and arduous exploring six countries in five months.
I thought about how lucky I was to stay in a treehouse in the rainforest, to release baby turtle hatchlings, to celebrate Holi Festival, to paraglide in Nepal, to take a toytrain through Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, to climb active volcanoes, to visit the Dalai Lama temple, to stay in a Karen village and interact with the elephants. How I made these dreams a reality. The feeling of content, accomplishment and wonder might be what some get when they have a baby and feel that “missing piece” slot in. To me, the thing that was missing from my life was travel.
I thought back to the heartache, the conflict within that I wrestled for a year before deciding to make the leap; the stress, the fear of a u-turn, not wanting to upset my ex and ruin the life we’d made (comfortable yet unfulfilling), being so misunderstood, not wanting to disappoint or worry my parents. Feeling selfish, self involved, ashamed of myself for having these “first world problems” and privilege instead of gratitude. How I had to move back in with my parents, pack my life into boxes and felt like a failure. Having to move back in with my ex, and his surprise new wife, six months later to put pressure on him to sell our house and stop walking all over me, the soap opera that ensued having to go through all their passive-aggressive and aggressive-aggressive bullying, spite and money grabbing. The anger that I had gotten myself into this mess by putting others first and trying to protect them from heartache, trusting people and giving the benefit of the doubt, realising I short changed myself by not traveling years ago. Waiting on tenterhooks for my house sale to get my deposit (life savings) back for travel funds, but booking the tickets to go anyway with what I had, as I was not going to be denied my travel dream one second longer. All the solicitor’s letters. More and more demands. The panic attacks, the tears, the worry, the stress… It was all worth it to get here. Worth it for my freedom, at whatever cost. I realised that I only had four weeks left to travel and explore, and see all I could before returning to Ireland. I felt a grief that I was not ready to give this up, I had just hit my stride and gotten comfortable with travel.
In the seat behind me, one of my fellow travelers stood up, reveling in the same awe at this landscape. Afterwards, I spoke to him of my feelings and he understood. He told me “…and we got ourselves here. We can be proud that we did that.” I didn’t think much more of that comment only that it was nice to connect.
The next morning we went to see the sunrise over the valley. I sat with that guy from the bus, sharing the peace and beauty of our surrounds, both loving nature, both loving travel. We talked briefly about our lives, my teaching inner city children… In passing, he told me of his experience in the rehabilitation centre for teens who had attempted to take their own life, where he spent time some years earlier. That was the last exchange we had before I left.
It didn’t quite sink in until I got back to Havana, but I made a connection to his throw away comment about “we can be proud that we got ourselves here”. Whatever I went through, sure, but a suicide attempt? Wow. I could not wrap my head around this revelation as he was so happy and enthusiastic during the previous two weeks in Havana. A real ray of sunshine and everyone loved him. This was a person who was here to volunteer, a person studying medicine with a view to go into Cancer research. An inspiration to me. This was a a dreamer, an empath/ intuitive and a healer; someone the world desperately needs, but the world has beaten down and kicked around and caused heartache to through how unfair and shitty it can be. The injustice of it left me reeling.
I had become quite misanthropic and cynical in Asia; seeing so much exploitation, animal cruelty, pollution, sex work, poverty, materialism, corruption, waste…. To meet these beautifully idealistic, open minded, kind hearted travelers in Cuba really restored my faith in humanity, so this was a huge blow to me. I spent the night in bits, feeling very fragile and emotional; empathy for him, for everyone who has felt hardship. It sent me on a spiral that led to a lot of thinking about my late brother, David, who helped spark this journey of mine. He too, was so very soft hearted, sensitive and fair. Really not cut out for this harsh world. Why couldn’t he be here? Why was I still here? Was I doing enough with my life? Survivor guilt is always with me. Whenever I see a seashell spiral piece of jewelry, like his necklace, I feel his presence and know he is traveling with me and looking out for me. The tears came hard and fast. I spilled my guts out on paper.
Somehow I came out of it feeling as though a lot had slotted into place for me. The next day, I felt surprisingly light and optimistic, like a weight had been lifted, the knot in my stomach untied. I suppose it was cathartic. I felt gratitude for meeting all these amazing people. These kids who looked to me as some kind of mentor and after hearing my convoluted back story called me inspirational, brave, “Wonder Woman”. It sounds cheesy, but I learned so much about myself in Cuba, from these connections and interactions, from letting people in and talking about myself. David had so many adventures, so many friends, was so inspiring and loved. After his funeral, I thought if it had been a role reversal, who would have been there for me? What would they have said? What photographs would have been chosen? What had I done with this life of mine?
Back in Mexico later that day, I lay back and messaged a friend about what had happened. I told them that I felt like I was reaching the end of this marathon and I could see the finish line. Suddenly, I felt up to speed with my peers, who I had been a little intimidated by, I felt the misguided jealousy I had towards David’s short life was gone. I was stepping out of his shadow. I felt like now I was going on these crazy adventures, being the inspiring one, who “talks such funny shit”, other similarities, and that now he is living on in me and would be proud of me. I am proud of me. In a way, I would want to be me, which is great, because I am me. How much I have grown in the short, jam packed year. It’s hard to explain but I feel untouchable, invincible, a cosmic shift; confidence that the universe is going to provide. Rely on the kindness of strangers, trust that things will work out, stop worrying.
Only later did I remember my encounter with the Tibetan palm reader on the side of the road in Dharamsala, Northern India. He told me that 28 – 31 years was a bad time for me. My Saturn’s Return. I read about it after returning to Mexico, supposedly my rising is in Scorpio, I now know means this means “Death and Transformation”. Pretty spot on. He said aged 32 – 35 would be great, don’t worry anymore. I realised my 32nd birthday was three days before I went to Cuba.
Thanks to all who helped me through this transformation. I couldn’t have done it without you. Much love.
Featured image photo credit: Isy King. Gracias mi amor!