Introduction: En Route with Random Thoughts

Beach with sun and shadow on sand. Turquoise blue water looks out to mountains across the horizon. In the forefront is a Thai man carrying a yoke with two baskets of goods on either side. There is a plant in front of him.
Hat Mae Nam, Thailand

I spent several months travelling around Southeast Asia in 2010. After a few weeks, I became restless in my mind, and turned my attention to writing about what I was seeing, doing and feeling, sending long journal-like emails to friends and family. These will be released one ‘chapter’ at a time for your reading pleasure. In order to make sense of my journey, you will need to read these entries in order. This first installment is the Introduction, providing you with some background on my life and relationship at the time, as well as my first departing moments. Please note that moving forward, this is purely my subjective interpretation of my travels. I am in no way an authority on Southeast Asia!

Introduction: En Route with Random Thoughts

Pearson International Airport
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
March 23, 2010

Could this be any more exciting? I am free. Eager. I feel like I packed way too much stuff. Am I shedding an old life? Will I return to Toronto with new lessons learned? Possibly. Hopefully. There is a chance not. Each day will be an adventure and I cannot wait to see what will become of me. I don’t feel at all sad leaving my friends and family on the other side of the world for a while. I am finally secure enough in all of my relationships to take a timeout, knowing they will be there for me upon my return. As one with more than a mild case of abandonment syndrome, I haven’t always felt that.

Traveling at the age of thirty-five feels one hundred percent right. One hundred percent right for me, that is. While most of my peers are in the midst of starter marriages or dating like it’s 1999, others are nurturing babies or careers or both. I have never been particularly good at any of those things. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have never really wanted any of those things, equating these life landmarks with feeling trapped in an itchy turtleneck with nary an escape. Or, if I’m to take the mature approach, perhaps it is because, in my heart of hearts, I have always known that before I can commit to anything or anyone, I need to travel for an indefinite period of time.

“Lately, travelling, or perhaps not travelling, has been a monkey on my back, distracting me from being a completely present participant in my own life.”

Melissa is standing on some rocks with the ocean out behind her, and an escarpment in the distance. She is in shorts and a long sleeved top. The sky is blue with wispy clouds behind her.
The Galapagos!

While I have spent a couple of months in Europe as a naive teenager and gone on many fabulous three week adventures in my twenties and thirties, traveling without a known expiry date has preoccupied my mind as of late. We are in a time where travel is more and more accessible as well as accepted, but for some reason, I just kept talking myself out of an extended adventure. I was getting too old, a family member was struggling, it was a financial risk, I convinced myself that with each new job I took (and none of them were great), I would be fulfilled and the urge would pass. The thing is, our gut knows way more than we do about what we want most in life. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, our bodies do not let us ignore what is most important. Lately, travelling, or perhaps not travelling, has been a monkey on my back, distracting me from being a completely present participant in my own life. I have finally given in and I’m doing it. And by the way, I recognize that I am waffling on about first world problems.

There are some uncomfortable moments when you move at a slower rate of development than most thirty-somethings, when you still feel eighteen but the world reminds you that eighteen you are not. There is that quizzical look others give you about why things haven’t quite ‘worked out’ yet, or your uncontained laughter when the doctor asks if you are planning on having kids any time soon, until you clue in that this is a reasonable question to ask a woman your age. There is that realization your six-year-old nephew will probably have a car and a better job long before you will, and then you find you are even fielding his questions about why you show up to family events alone. I could go on but I really don’t want to. Bartender! It must be noon somewhere. Here is the silver lining. Outside of these emotional assaults exists the freedom to easily ditch your underpaid, going nowhere job and quickly sublet your tiny rented apartment. With no mouths to feed, no pets to tend to, and not even a single plant to water, you can drop everything and take off with your British boyfriend who just so happens to work in luxury travel and is embarking on a research trip around Southeast Asia to discover the best travel routes and most luxurious hotels. Although, I am your classic late bloomer, a fool I am not.

O’Hare International Airport
Chicago, Illinois, USA
March 23, 2010

Layover. I am in Oprah’s Windy City. Oddly, she wasn’t here to meet me for a Jamba Juice. I just caught Obama confirming Obama Care on a departure lounge TV. This could be one of those ‘where were you when’ moments. I was eating a Luna Bar at a kiosk in O’Hare Airport and seemed much more interested in this newsworthy event than the American woman stocking the Sunglass Hut. Maybe she already has dental.

While passing the time, I discovered the revolving toilet seat cover in the women’s washroom. Bravo, O’Hare! Perhaps this efficient and sanitary system will remove the image of my late Grandma Rodway embarrassing me as a child by yelling in crowded public restrooms to always put paper down on the seat.

My next flight takes me to Tokyo, and from there I board a plane to Bangkok where James will be waiting for me at the arrivals gate. I met James about four years ago in Cuba on an eight-day group cycling tour with G Adventures. I was thirty-one at the time and living in Toronto while twenty-eight-year-old James, a Brit, was living in London. Oh, the horror of a younger man! I may be a late bloomer but when it comes to my taste in men, older and wiser have always been my preference. James and I quickly struck up a friendship within a day, connecting over our love of travel, ease of conversation, and frequent beer habit. Plus, he was the only one who could keep up with me on a bike.

“We are both wanderlust dreamers and that is an undeniably potent drug when equally shared.”

A red and a white margarita sit on a table on an outdoor patio. There is no one in the picture, just empty tables. It gives the essence of a warm climate.
Nothing says Mexico like a patio margarita!
Zihuatanejo, Mexico

I had been on several group trips with G Adventures in the past and liked to do them on my own. I loved the freedom of leaving everything and everyone behind, finding new friendships in a temporary group of travel mates. It’s such a laugh and is a big part of the experience. This time, it was different. I was the only single girl (which meant I had my own room, fabulous) and was surrounded by nice but quiet couples, excluding a loud American duo decked out in ridiculous head to toe biker gear while always equipped with their intrusive telescopic camera. Seeing as though Americans were not allowed into Cuba at this time, I’m not entirely sure how they pulled this off.

My usual habit was to scope out who would be the most compatible for me as a travel buddy – in this group, James easily became that person. He was fun, laid back, very kind, and spoke Spanish fluently. I enjoyed riding with him every day. While the rest of the group lagged miles behind, we rode through the Cuban countryside in the hot sun, easily discussing our lives back home and our previous travel experiences. James had done everything I had wanted to do, but hadn’t. He had studied languages at university and spent one year going to school in Guadalajara, Mexico. After graduation, he joined the banking industry in London and quickly decided he hated it. He soon quit and went backpacking through all of Central and South America for a year and a half. He left no country untouched and his incredible Spanish proved it. The beauty of James was that he was very humble about all that he had done. I would have been shouting it from the rooftops. I found him so interesting and worldly, but initially only as a pal.

“I think sometimes it is this conversation in the back of a rickety old Cuban van that has kept us together, both of us silently promising ourselves and each other that come hell or high water, we would do this trip.”

As the days went on, I started to think that when I got back to Canada, I should find a guy just like him and it excited me to think people like James actually existed. He gave me hope. And then, out of the bottom of my Cristal beer can, a bright light went off. Maybe this was the guy! Maybe I didn’t have to look, maybe I’d already found him! Everything I had ever wanted, someone this interested in travel who was genuinely nice and seemed completely baggage-free (except for that pesky ocean between us) was right in front of me. Apparently James was having similar thoughts, and our biking friendship went up a gear. We had an extremely tearful goodbye in Havana. I cried the whole way back to Canada and for days afterward. About two weeks later, he landed in Toronto for a long weekend. Six weeks later, we were in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Fast-forward two years, we had survived a long-distance relationship full of adventure with trips to Mexico, Ecuador, the Galapagos, New York, England and Canada.

Melissa is to the right of a traditional London telephone phone booth. She is dressed in jeans and a black jacket.
My first visit to London! My fascination with the phone booth begins!

These experiences were amazing and were some of the best of my life, but the long-distance thing was not always easy. I actually quite liked our situation. Still in my early thirties and always a bit of an independent spirit, I wasn’t ready to settle into a ‘normal’ relationship. Having had several boyfriends already, I enjoyed the lack of daily sacrifices, and relished in the freedom to come and go as I pleased while knowing I had someone in my life – it gave me the best of both worlds. I did miss him, but emails, texts and phone calls kept things going and my life carried on, only to be interrupted by us jetting off on a trip together, or visiting one another in our respective countries. It was always a spectacular adventure but sometimes it required us to find our footing again after not having seen each other for a while. James could adapt right away, but I could not. For the most part, I really loved our set-up and the world really did seem like our oyster. James however, did not like it as much.

Being much more grown-up and traditional than I was, James realized that we had to be in the same city to truly know if we could make this work. Despite my nausea and trepidation, he secured a luxury travel job in Toronto that paid probably a third of what he made in London. He left everything and everyone, and moved here for us, enabling our adventures to continue with big trips to Nicaragua and Québec while also testing out a more ‘normal’ day-to-day life.

It wasn’t easy. It’s a challenge for both partners when one half has left their life behind, instantly morphing a long-distance relationship (based solely on a shared passion for travel and adventure), into a regular daily relationship; there isn’t a natural progression of time to figure out if you even like this person. Everything is suddenly on speed dial, bringing ridiculous expectations, unfortunate resentment and sometimes a little smothering….especially if you’re the person prone to suffering under that itchy turtleneck. One is starting from scratch while the other suddenly has to weave them into their precious, independent life. The latter was simply not my forte. Fitting James in with my friends, family and hobbies was not seamless and admittedly, I did not always handle it well. I come from divorced parents where the main message delivered since childhood was to remain solo. It was viewed as being weak and wrong to need, to want and to have someone as according to what I had been told, they would create limitations in my life. For the past two years, James had been my escape from the real world, and now that he was living and breathing in Toronto, that fantasy was over. I know, poor James.

“I loved the freedom of leaving everything and everyone behind, finding new friendships in a temporary group of travel mates.”

Melissa is on a beach in Nicaragura, pointing to the volcano behind her. It is a sunny day, but there are beautiful white fluffy clouds in the sky.
Nicaragua beach time! We climbed that beast the following day! Love Nica!

Despite my immaturity and selfishness, there were many, many wonderful times. It was fun exploring my city (and country) with his curious new eyes, forcing me to get out there and appreciate where I was living, having moved to Toronto myself only two years before meeting him. When it was just us and I didn’t feel the stress of juggling him with the rest of my life, I had never been happier and I could see the appeal of settling down. James was a true partner and showed me what that felt like – I often really loved our life together, and believed I had won the lottery.

I will always remember this day, during the week that we met in Cuba. We were sitting in the back of the travel van, James holding my hand proudly, me feeling shy that the rest of our group would see this blooming relationship, still wanting to keep it just for us. We were already discussing going on a big trip together to Southeast Asia. I sometimes think it is this conversation in the back of a rickety old Cuban van that has kept us together, both of us silently promising ourselves and each other that come hell or high water, we would do this trip. Four years and lots of experiences later, we are finally going. It is inevitable. We are both wanderlust dreamers and that is an undeniably potent drug when equally shared.

“Who needs a therapist when there are psychics on every corner of Toronto and for a fraction of the price?”

Determined to grow his already blooming career as an expert trip designer, James has arranged for us to stay in some luxury hotels while researching travel routes through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and India. In true James fashion, he will do all of this even if it kills him. As for me, I am on the trip for as long as I want to be, with the belief that I will know when it’s time to come home. I will listen to my gut. Psychic Zina confirmed this for me last year when I visited her in desperation about my life. She told me I needed to go away but not necessarily for a year, and that I would know when my time was up. Who needs a therapist when there are psychics on every corner of Toronto and for a fraction of the price? This trip will be part luxury and part backpacker style which is important to both of us. We want to feel like we are actually traveling. It will be a trip of extremes, which as an extremist, is perfect for me.

James left Toronto a week ago to visit his family in London. The prodigal son returns, only to leave again. He intends to move back to Toronto eventually and is in the formal process of immigration, but will return to London once the trip is over to work temporarily for the travel company that has helped us out with so many of our upcoming hotels. He will also stay there until his Canadian status comes through. So many questions end this adventure before it has even begun. But for now, here we are, hours away from meeting up in Bangkok where we will hit the road again, one more time.

Click here for Chapter One!