I celebrated my 20th birthday in Myanmar.
I was in a small guest house near Inle Lake and I ate the world’s best shakshuka (or so it tasted that day), with a collection of random travelling buddies (Dutch, Belgian, Japanese, Israeli, English) who all gave me handmade cards.
The memories of that day are so strong. 20 years on and I can still feel the joy that swallowed me, sat out on the deck of the guest house, drinking a cold can of Coca Cola — my birthday treat to myself.
I was happy. Really happy.
I got no presents.
I was wearing awful travelling clothes that I had lived in for the previous month and my hair was scraped back off my unmade-up face.
I had no mobile phone. No access to email. No Facebook or Instagram to post photos to.
As far as my nearest and dearest were concerned, I was in the middle of nowhere and would reappear (hopefully) at some point mid August.
I was free. I was brave. I was luminous.
Current thinking is that I should be able to look back from my lofty midlife position and offer my younger self some sage life advice. And I’m pretty sure there are a million things I could do differently, with the benefit of hindsight.
As I’m walking towards 40, I can’t help feeling that that bright, young 20 year old knew what she was on about. Far more than the slightly lost 30-something year old ever did…
So… What does that brave, spirited, independent woman want to tell me?
The people I travelled around with saw the ‘real’ me every day: fresh faced (well, apart from a mild ‘glow’ due to the heat), no war paint to hide behind. And they didn’t judge me for the dark circles under my eyes, or the slightly uneven skin tone, or whatever. When I woke up in the morning and headed out to see who was around for breakfast, they just smiled at me, and asked how I was. When I look at the photos from that trip, all I see is a bunch of happy people, full of beauty and joy — myself included.
Having an adventure, not knowing what, or where, or who is coming next is good for your spirit. It makes you feel every moment — good and bad — and it feeds your soul in a way that ‘settling’ never quite seems to.
I did have a university email address. And I did own a mobile phone. But neither of them were of any use to me in Myanmar. I spent my time talking to the people I was physically with. Sharing stories. Playing backgammon. Watching thunderstorms approach from a distance. I spent maybe 4 weeks with these people — but I really spent it with them. And I will never forget them, or the impact they each had on me.
Before Myanmar, I spent a couple of weeks in Thailand, going slowly mad on Larium (NEVER take this drug, seriously). I was hallucinating. I was scared. I thought I was never going to make it home — and I decided that paying for an international phone call to tell my parents this was a good idea. (I can only imagine how it made them feel.) I was still feeling shaky as I headed to Myanmar, but I had got it into my head that ANYWHERE would be better than Thailand. When I checked into my flight to Yangon (in the days of paper tickets) the airline crew who checked me in handed me a blue airmail letter. Addressed to me, care of my flight number and date. And she wished me a pleasant trip. It was a letter from my father. It broke my heart and fixed it back up in one fell swoop. It made me feel safer, more secure, and loved. Knowing that he would do anything to get me out of there, if that was what I wanted, gave me the wings to soar — and it tripped a switch in my faulty circuits, changing my outlook, my emotions, and the reality of the rest of my trip.
A good soundtrack can transport you to another place. or it can anchor you very firmly where you are. I took a Sony Walkman with me, together with a huge stash of AA batteries. In the weeks before my trip I slowly and painstakingly created 2 double sided TDK C-90 mix tapes to entertain me on my 8 week trip. They saw me through my (cheap, multi-stop, Air Pakistan) flights. They saw me through my jetlagged nights. The long bus journeys from A halfway to B. I knew the exact order of songs. And I knew the lyrics. All the lyrics. (OK, I’m sure there were some cracking misheard lyrics passed forward by me from these tapes, but… I certainly thought I knew the lyrics!) This was the summer of The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony, and the lesser known, but no less epic (as far as I was concerned)Depeche Mode, Home. Hearing even a second or two of either of these songs takes me right back to my younger self, and makes my soul both soar and sigh.
There was a plan to ‘do’ Myanmar. To see all that could be seen. And then someone we bumped into said “Go to Hsipaw”. Hsipaw hadn’t been on our list of places to ‘do’. It was a fair old way away from anywhere else we had planned to ‘do’. But the person was pretty insistent. We asked why we should go. The response was fairly vague, and something along the lines of: ‘Just go. It’s nice. You’ll end up spending more time there than you think.” We did. We all did. And I still can’t tell you exactly why to go there. Only that it changed my outlook. I just stopped. I sat. I wandered around the very beautiful, very small town. I walked, a lot. But mostly I just sat, and took it slow. And loved it. I can’t remember what I didn’t get to see by just sitting in Hsipaw, but I know I don’t regret it. There was no FOMO. There was just peace. And nothing in the world to rush for.
You don’t always need a fully laid out plan. It’s OK to change direction, just because. Remember how Hsipaw turned out. Remember how you thought nothing of switching from Languages to Law to Marketing. You didn’t know how any of those changes would turn out. You just knew that ‘straight on as planned’ was no longer the most appealing option.
One of the birthday cards I was given that day at Inle Lake, had a wonderful Henry Ford quote handwritten in it.
You can do anything if you have enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is the yeast that makes your hopes rise to the stars. Enthusiasm is the spark in your eye, the swing in your gait, the grip of your hand, the irresistible surge of your will and your energy to execute your ideas. Enthusiasts are fighters, they have fortitude, they have strong qualities. Enthusiasm is at the bottom of all progress. With it there is accomplishment. Without it there are only alibis.
I have forgotten this, and returned to this, many times along the way from there to here. But whenever I hunt it out and read it, it fills my heart with hope and sets me sail on to the next thing — knowing that anything is possible.
Just because someone isn’t going to be a permanent fixture in your life, doesn’t make them any less valuable. It doesn’t mean that the time spent and the experiences shared are worthless. Life lessons can come from the most transient of interactions.
No matter which road you take. The overnight bus or the three day stopping tour. The rice or the pizza (OK,the pizza wasn’t such a great choice. But after a month long tour of Burmese food, the neon flashing ‘pizza’ sign was just too hard to ignore…) As long as you keep playing an active part in your own life, making decisions, accepting the consequences and then making the next decisions… My experience tells me that it will all work out just as it should.
So stop being scared.
Go be brave.
Live the life your 20 year old self started out on.
Originally published at medium.com