Midnight in Sri Lanka. A full moon in Virgo is rising, ripe time for getting lives in order. From my hotel balcony I can see into an inner courtyard ringed with banana, coconut and frangipani trees, circling a central pond. As fish come up to gulp air, the water ripples and disturbs the reflection of the moon. From the northern corner, a massive flowering pink rain tree stretches its branches tall over the pond from one end to the other, as though it were cradling the water in its arms. During the day, Sri Lankan kingfishers flit restlessly around its branches, the beauty of their bright blue wings and delicate calls such a contrast to their clumsy stocky bodies.
Here, everything is other. Nothing feels like home. I am untethered, again, as always.
Six months ago, I left the last place I called home. Three months before that, my bags had been packed again. Seven months even earlier, I was leaving somewhere else. The Netherlands to the States to Germany to South Korea to Georgia to Laos to Australia, plus the periods of aimless wandering in between – in the past two and a half years alone, I’ve spent more time living out of a backpack than in an apartment. If you’re reading this, I imagine it’s because wanderlust is an interminable part of your life too. It flows like blood from the lust in our hearts, up to the planning in our brains, and down to the movement in our limbs. In my case, it might be a Gemini thing – always feeling more comfortable being baffled by the foreign than familiar with the known.
But there’s something I’ve realised lately, and it’s come with this latest jaunt to Asia. After arriving in Singapore in December and hitting the backpacking trail again, sleeping in hostels, eating street food, getting dusty on long-distance buses, developing travel friendships that blaze and burn like fireworks, and diving into the intrepid travel adventures of the road, I noticed that something was off. The things that used to thrill me were suddenly stressing me out. Instead of the Naomi who used to religiously comb blogs and guidebooks to make sure she saw and did ‘everything,’ the new Naomi was listless and just wanted to go for a wander in the neighbourhood. Instead of the Naomi who loved meeting other travellers, the new Naomi worried over the inevitable goodbyes. And instead of the old Naomi who thought nothing of being drenched in sweat and dressed in torn clothing, the new Naomi was too delicate to go outside during the heat of the Southeast Asian afternoons. Waking up most days uncomfortable in my skin and the place I’d put myself, I had to wonder – what’s wrong with me? What’s changed? Am I just getting old? Craving comfort, whereas before I was a happily a grungy traveller?
But, truth be told, the discomfort that I’ve felt on the road these past months wasn’t coming from my barebones-budget-travel style – rather, it was coming from an increasing feeling of aimlessness.
Sitting down to dinner one night in Tangalle, a small Sri Lankan beach town that could make postcards drool, my travel buddies and I starting talking about our upcoming plans. Jordan, a twenty-something Manchesterite who’d come to Sri Lanka for a three week vacation, was airport bound later that week. Though he’d had the adventures of renting a 250cc dirt bike and driving through the country from misty hill towns to sun-drenched beaches, stumbling across small-town festivals and exploring Sri Lanka’s ancient cities, he still smiled widely when he said, ‘I’m flying out on Sunday. And then I get to go home!‘
Instantly, I felt envy.
Jordan’s excitement at going home didn’t mean he didn’t enjoy his travels, it simply meant he was also looking forward to returning to the familiar. And for me, I feel the same way. Only problem is, I persist destroy the familiar.
A few days before I flew out of Melbourne, I took a look around the room that I was packing up, my cozy little home reduced to a mess of scattered clothes and half-filled boxes, and thought, ‘Jesus, I hate packing.‘ Not only were the physical signs of the life I’d built dissipating around me, but I was the one urging them on. I looked at the millionth move I was forcing myself to make, and wondered when my heart had stopped being in it.
I understand, of course, that this life is entirely a choice. There are moments, every day, when something strikes me, catches my eye or moves me, and I feel intensely humbled and thankful to be able to make that choice. To go on the road. To see the world in its splendour. To have the ability to listen to and follow my heart exactly as it leads me. No matter what any long-term traveller will say (as so many claim that travel is effortless and it’s only up to you to take the first step), travel is a gift and a privilege. So, I have to admit that I’m worried that admitting to depression during travel will come off as ungrateful. The day I lose perspective and take this freedom for granted, please take my passport and burn it. But, after long trial and error, I realise now that satiating wanderlust doesn’t just mean whittling your life’s possessions down to the bare essentials and hitting the road, completely untethered. You can live settled in an apartment, routine and social group, while still indulging your wanderlust every day. I felt this in Seoul, in Luang Prabang, in Melbourne – all the places I’ve been lucky enough to call home. But all of those homes, I eventually left.
Now, I’m realising that a new phase of life is beginning, and how much value and joy exists in having a long-term – dare I say, permanent?! – home somewhere. A place to use as both a jumping off point and a landing pad. An apartment that actually feels lived-in. A group of friends that won’t be left after six months. A chance to get to know a city deeply, and more intimately than if you were just passing through. An ability to build community. And to suddenly feel this need in myself, a gal thought she would live untethered forever, is knocking me off balance.
Right now, I have no idea where this home will be. Visa rules and regulations are a bitch, so even when I finally return to Melbourne in June, there is a very good chance that I only have a year more there. So where to nest? Where to settle? Berlin, Istanbul, Tokyo, Vancouver, London, or (by some benevolence of the Immigration Gods) Melbourne? Not a single clue. I have to consider if I can work somewhere, afford somewhere, enjoy somewhere, and make friends somewhere, before I find a real home.
But I’m hoping my heart will lead me there. After all, it’s taken me this far.