The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Grayson Buchanan.
I haven’t written a blog in a long time. To be honest I lost track of it in all of the travels and didn’t think my life back home was interesting enough to talk about (which is sort of isn’t either but that’s neither here nor there). I don’t know why, but months after my last blog, months after having to come back home, I feel like I need to send another one in, probably the last one.
I wouldn’t say that anyone handled the abrupt return well, and who can really blame them? With that being said I think I took it quite decent, relatively speaking. I don’t remember crying, all I remember is coming home, and adapting back to life here. I was very bitter, but emotionally I wasn’t sad I don’t think. However, now that I’ve recently moved into an apartment with two friends of mine, and I’ve had more time to contemplate and to talk about my experiences, I think it’s really beginning to hit, and hit hard. I didn’t use to stay up until 3 in the morning thinking of all the experiences I missed, experiences I had, people, and places I loved and will never see again. It’s healthier this way but it hurts, it really does hurt.
I could talk about all the things that happened at the end of the gap year that I never got to mention, like modeling for GQ Style Germany in Bangkok or being stateless for 10 hours because of a visa issue crossing the Thai-Burmese border, but right now what I’m feeling and what the gap year is to me is more than just the events and stories I get to tell people about to impress them. In my mind, the gap year is really mostly about the feelings it incites in you.
I don’t even know how to describe the feeling of being in each of the places I was, with the people I was surrounded with, because to me it feels and felt like I was the only one in the world to have that – and right now it doesn’t feel like I’ll have those feelings again.
I think the closest I can get to describing everything is the smells because for some reason that’s what I can remember the best. For example, I can remember the exact smell of Vietnam: when I got off the plane for the first time and got stolen away in a cab, the smell in the lobby of my building and in the schools and classrooms, and walking down the streets of Thái Bình City holding hands with my girlfriend, about to get tea at our favorite tea shop. I can perfectly remember the smell right outside the door of the dorms I slept in at the monastery, and what the Cúc Phương National Park smelled like when I rode through it on the back of a motorbike, looking up at all the impossibly large trees and leaves. The Doi Suthep Temple in the mountains of Northern Thailand I got to see when my friends from Vietnam came to visit me, and the cool air I used to breathe biking late at night after classes in Chiang Mai – smells I’ll probably never smell again, experiences I’ll probably never have again.
These memories scare me the most because I can’t write down what they are or what they were like, so when they fade, and when I eventually forget, they’ll most likely be gone forever – like the freedom and independence that I sort of sacrificed when I came back home.
This might be why I’m writing this now, of all times. I just completed the first day of orientation today, and it’s all starting to feel real now, coming home and the future being certain. Everyone has doubts about the future, it’s normal, but I don’t know how I’m supposed to move past becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be and coming home to sacrifice that person for a more stable future.
It’s hard not to idealize the people you meet when you travel because it truly does feel like they’ve got it all figured out. Most of these backpackers just ‘go,’ they just ‘move,’ and when you meet them, and when you talk to them, it feels like if they ever stop they’re just going to jump out of their skin. For instance, at the monastery I met two girls from France, both in their early 20’s, who had hitchhiked all the way across Russia together, then were homeless in Japan for 3 months, pitching a tent every night and hanging their food up so bears wouldn’t eat it. Everyone has stories like that, reasons why they’re running, why they don’t want to go home, and it defines them. Any time you ask someone “Why?,” why they’re doing these sorts of things, why out of all the options for their lives they chose this, the answer you almost overwhelmingly get is along the lines of “because I can,” or “because it’s there.” When you’re surrounded by people living in the singular moment they’re in right now, it’s hard not to appreciate their dedication to the path of self-actualization. I think I learned so much from all of these people and all of their worldviews because you simply cannot find anyone to learn those lessons from unless you catch them in the middle of their own travels, which of course has to be in the middle of yours as well. What is it about human nature that makes us want to wake up somewhere new every day?
My birthday is in 2 days, technically one now, and I’m turning 20. Older than most to be starting university, but still young by other standards. It’s probably normal to be scared of a certain future, especially one where schooling continues until you’re 32, but what kept me going for a long time was the fact that I had no plans unless I absolutely had to, which were still flexible on principle. Maybe locking things in is just a newer experience for me I’ll get used to also. Everything has become so complex here, which I know is to be expected, and that’s not to say things weren’t complex when I was on my own, but it was complex in ways I could understand and handle. I don’t believe I’d be speaking alone in saying that at times it’s seemed so much easier to just buy a plane ticket and find my own way out of all of this, getting a job as an English teacher in Vietnam again and just hopping from place to place for the rest of my life, like all those backpackers I learned to fall in love with. That will be my ‘Plan C’ for now, a fallback for if/when everything else collapses (a concept taught to me by a friend of mine from Copenhagen I used to meditate with outside of supermarkets in Taiwan). For this reason, I believe that freedom is a nearly impossible to attain concept. No matter where we go, or what decisions we make for ourselves, we’re all going to be held back by something at some point. Right now I’m held back by my own future, and the logic behind it which I can’t deny or even attempt to argue with, but it’s hard to resist the romanticism behind doing the illogical thing and simply casting yourself into the abyss because it’s more interesting.
But moving on from rambling about university; what I mean to say is that there is no true way to define the gap year because it has affected too much of my life at this point to just be another thing that I’ve done. It can be found in almost any decision I make, mistake I rectify, feeling I have, relationship I form, and dream I experience. It defined me for a good while, and when it ended so abruptly, I was forced to create a new definition for myself, something I had also learned to find while abroad and independent. It’s changed me, and while I’m lost now because my world is so different coming back, it’s good to see the world as I feel like I was meant to. I still miss the smells of home, but maybe one day I’ll find my way back and remember those experiences again. Maybe I’ll be able to ride through the forest again, mystified by the dew on the hundred-year-old trees around me, feeling the cool air on my face as I hold onto the back of a duct-taped together motorbike. It’s a naïve hope, and I know that, but sometimes hope is the most important emotion to cling to when most everything else is still finding its place.
I miss it so much it hurts.