So…here we go. The post I’ve been meaning to write for months. Settle in — it’s going to be a monster of a thing.
The best year of my life. Where to begin?
I’ve mentioned in the past that I find it harder to write about the good stuff in my life than the bad. The things that make me angry, rather than blissfully happy. Anger is easy — it doesn’t require much intelligence, or insight, or self-control. The good stuff. There’s a lot of pressure to overwrite all the negative that’s happened over the course of the past twelve months, especially at this time of year, with words alone.
You’ll have to trust me on this: there have been many, many, many moments throughout 2014 in which I’ve felt so happy I could have burst out laughing out of context, or let salty tears of joy mingle with my smile.
Let’s get the shred of negative out of the way now, before I get carried away. 2014 did get off to a shitty start, indeed. You might remember my endless whining about Hanoi (okay, perhaps it was brief in my blog posts, but it seemed endless in my head) — the grey, cold, wet (I’m not shitting you when I say it rained for a month straight — there was fungus on my clothes and everything, because nothing ever dried out), hostile city in Vietnam in which I never got any sleep, due to the house being practically shook by the noise of my eccentric, boisterous artist housemates, and the only good thing that happened was learning to ride a scooter in the utterly mental Hanoian traffic — hot damn, that was fun, although quite possibly life threatening.
Caving to my flight response, I booked a plane ticket back home in May to fling my melancholic self at my family again, but not before paying another visit to one of my favourite places in the world: Kailash Akhara, in northeastern Thailand. The place I go to reset, where everything that was bad and scary and saddening is made okay again.
A few days after arriving, I met someone.
He was not a likely-looking person who would, in mere weeks, completely change the way I think about nearly everything — though I don’t really know what such a person would look like. He had wild, ringletty blonde hair and one of the softest pairs of eyes I’ve ever seen, and wore a near-permanent goofy grin. We got to talking a few minutes after he arrived, and didn’t really stop until 1am the following day. Well, shit, we didn’t really stop talking for weeks. I hadn’t encountered someone in quite some time with whom I could talk to like that.
I resisted his influence at first. I circled the property early each morning and at sundown, past the worm shed and fruit gardens and chicken coops and clay houses and the lake, mulling things over, agonising, wondering why I had to deal with more emotional stuff after just escaping from months of stupid emotional stuff. I lay awake some nights, calming myself with music, shifting out into the night air and staring up at the moon on occasion.
So emotively indulgent, it all was. I could practically hear the violin sounds snaking over the meditation huts.
In the end, I decided to stop being such a baby about it, and go with the flow. I was at a yoga retreat, after all. And with that, the rest of my year seemed to unfurl before me, like the damn Nile with its smooth straights and exhilarating, terrifying, nard-shrinking rapids.
All I had to do was grab my paddle, steel myself against the oncoming waves, hold the fuck on, try not to drown, and laugh like hell when I came out the other side unscathed.
Which I did. Oh my god, how I laughed like hell this year. Saved myself from drowning a few times, too, for that matter.
Throughout this mad whitewater rafting ride (because I still refuse to use the phrase “rollercoaster”), I picked up some valuable lessons. Most were ones I’d learned before, mind, but had never been explained or demonstrated to me in a way that stuck. One or two, however, caught me by surprise, and truly changed the way I view and react to people, and life.
Twelve lessons learned (willingly or not) over the course of twelve months; a synopsis of the year I finally, after years upon years of trying, gained the power of self-respect, and stopped being such a flappable stresshead all the time.
I hope these truth nuggets might help you out as much as they did me.
Lesson one: the reactions of other people have got nothing to do with me.
This, right here, is one of the big ones…quite possibly the biggest. I had never, ever considered this before, and the force of learning it damn near caused my brains to blow out my ears.
Think of the last thing someone said that rubbed you the wrong way…what were your thoughts? Something along the lines of “What did I do wrong?” Well, I can guarantee you that in almost every single case, the answer will be nothing. Truthfully.
The reactions of other people have got nothing to do with me, or you.
If, by chance, you did do something that directly offended another human being, know that it’s likely been taken the wrong way because of something else that’s happened in that person’s life. It may have nothing in common with what they’re actually heating up about. How other people choose to respond to you is their prerogative, and their problem. Don’t make it yours, too.
(But, y’know, don’t go around acting like a twat for no good reason, either).
Lesson two: there is beauty in imperfection.
I’ve heard variations of this one before. “No one’s perfect”, “You’re brilliant just the way you are”, “Learn to embrace what you have”. That’s all well and good to just say, but to mean it is something else entirely. To not only accept, but be okay with, the fact there are things about yourself that will probably never improve or go away, requires self-confidence, and no short supply of it.
My self-esteem was as crap as it’s ever been at the beginning of the year. But in late April, I parted ways from my new friend and mentor with a token around my neck that reminds me of imperfect beauty, about finding little quirks and details that people you meet, at first glance, might be trying to hide from you. Looking at it, holding it fills me with the courage I need to stop caring about the criticisms of people who don’t bother to seek those details out.
To quote Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, “People call those imperfections. But no, that’s the good stuff.”
Lesson three: say yes, ask questions later.
In June, I was offered a job in Africa, leading overland tours from Nairobi to Cape Town. When I first received the news, I screamed out loud with excitement. I was going to Africaaaaaaa! But then, I read the rest of the email, and realised they wanted me in Kenya by the end of the month, giving me a whole nine days to buy my plane tickets and all the equipment I needed, pack up my life at home, say goodbye to everyone, and go.
My heart sank. I spent the first day or two after that thinking I’d have to turn down the offer, fearing it would prove too expensive, too sudden, too this and that. My parents were more opportunistic; they simply said, “Don’t be silly. You’re going.” And when I protested, they deflected all my excuses with, “Well, even if it doesn’t work out…you can always come back, and you’ll have still had an incredible life experience.”
Of course, they were right, and my parents and I spent the following week running around like headless chooks trying to get everything done in time. But if I’d walked away from the opportunity, I’d have missed out on what was, hands down, the most rewarding experience of my entire life.
If you’re presented with a chance to do something spectacular, something mad and daring, and your first reaction is to jump around, squeal, tell the world, hug yourself, cry with mirth, whatever — you’re probably meant to go through with it.
Even if it’s terrifying, even if everything goes tits-up afterwards…it was all worth it in the end.
Lesson four: whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I would probably call myself a writer if someone asked what I did for a living. Yet, aside from blog posts (with, ahem, modest-sized audiences) and the odd freelance piece, I haven’t written a full-length story (my ultimate goal is publishing at least one novel) since I was in my teens.
What’s the difference between now and then?
In my early teenage years, I was a big fish in a small pond — or, you know, a halfway-talented writer in a rural Northern Territorian community — and never short of compliments about how I was going places. There was never a doubt in my mind I couldn’t achieve my goals, so I constantly took steps towards them.
Then, I grew up a little and moved to the city, and realised there are rather a lot of talented people out there. To quote Danny DeVito in Big Fish, “This here’s the ocean, and you’re drowning.” Rather than reading more, learning from others more talented than me, making the most of my cultured new world, I pushed my big dream aside, convinced I’d never make the cut.
This year, however, I said feck it to all my insecurities of the past. Rather than criticising myself, I instead thought of ways to make the impossible work for me. I thought of something that tends to motivate me — food — and incorporated eating into my writing habits.
Now, I don’t get breakfast until I’ve written 500 words, and I’m making more progress than ever. I write better and quicker the more I write — and now, I’m more sure I’ll have a book of my own on the shelves one day.
It just takes selective ignorance of those who tell you you can’t, and thinking creatively about how you can.
Lesson five: getting fired really, really sucks…but it’s not as bad as you might have feared.
October 15th, 2014 — a date I won’t forget any time soon.
We’d just pulled up at a shopping centre in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and I was buying groceries for an overnight train trip. My passengers were about, asking questions regarding what they’d need for the trip, where the ATMs and toilets were, and so on. Out of the blue, I got a phone call from head office. They were pulling me from the tour, despite having said they wouldn’t a mere week and a half before, and I had two days to get everyone to Victoria Falls and hand over to another Tour Leader. They were letting me go, in the middle of Africa, with two days’ notice.
That sucked. Having to get through the next two days like nothing was amiss sucked even harder, especially when I also managed to drop my camera from the top bunk of the train and permanently damage it.
I had some days of moping, sure…but then I shrugged. I still had my memories — an overwhelming majority of them good — I still had some time in Africa, and I still had another life experience to check off the list.
And now I’m back home, I realise being fired isn’t necessarily the black mark on your record you expect it to be. People still want to hire you. It’s not the end of the world.
Lesson six: don’t ever, EVER ask someone for directions to the nearest ATM.
To do so sends a blaring signal that you have no idea where you are in a foreign country, and there’s a chance you might be followed, tricked, and robbed of your bank card like I was in Cape Town. Just refuse help and spend the extra time looking around, or simply move to another building.
Lesson seven: don’t ever, EVER drink banana wine that’s been left to ferment in a boiling hot locker for three weeks.
You will get drunk five times quicker than usual. You will get queasy. You will take refuge in the back of a dusty, sweltering truck and get well acquainted with the floor. You will get discovered by people you don’t want to be discovered by. They will assume you’re a drunkard. You will lose respect.
Not worth trying to make the most of the whole two bucks you spent on a six-pack in rural Rwanda.
Lesson eight: give everyone a chance.
If you’ve got a question, ask everyone within earshot. The most unlikely people will be able to generate the answers. For example, I met a reggae cafe owner in Chitimba, Malawi, who was practically a scholar on English history and Shakespeare. You never can tell if you don’t ask.
If you meet someone you have a reason for disliking, let them speak their piece. I begrudgingly shared a beer with the Tour Leader who was taking my job; he actually provided some useful advice for continuing to work on the road, and even offered to contact some of his international hospitality friends for me.
If you’ve had a run-in with someone, give the relationship another shot. The Tour Leader on my training trip was often grumpy, and took things out on me. I had a hard time liking him, but persisted. (What choice did I have?). It turns out, he was cracking down on me in attempt to bring out the “tough biscuits” he suspected I was made of. So, even if it meant I had to tolerate a little extra anger, at least I finally knew where he was coming from.
Lesson nine: but know that not everyone will like you in the end.
Unfortunately, I got on the wrong side of one of my passengers — and no matter how many times I tried to repair the damage, she wouldn’t have a bar of it. I got called lots of things I’d never been called before — selfish, immature, careless — and she saw to it that I ultimately lost my job.
You can’t please everyone in life. What works for one person will not work for the next, and some people are simply determined to take you down.
Remember lesson one, and try and put it out of your mind. A handful of nay-sayers are rarely worth the effort.
Lesson ten: don’t assume, for it makes an ass out of u and me.
I got this handy little saying from another one of my passengers; she’d been through hell and back before coming to Africa, but still proved to be one of the wisest, strongest, and kindest characters I had the good fortune to meet.
This one’s pretty self-explanatory: pass judgment without certainty, and you’re an idiot. I made assumptions about locations, facilities, and passenger preferences many, many times while on tour, and always looked like a tosser when proven wrong.
Lesson eleven: for every a-hole who just wants to crap all over everything, know there are nine more people who will help you clean up their mess.
So, as lesson six implied, some jackass and his cronies from Cape Town decided to nick my bank card in broad daylight, in the middle of a packed shopping mall, and speed off in a car parked outside before I could catch them. I’d pleaded with the security guard to help me out, but he just stared blankly and did nothing. (As another Cape Townite pointed out later, he’s probably not paid enough to put his life in danger for every gullible tourist. Fair, I suppose).
Alerted by my shouts and ample swearing, a whole swarm of people rushed to my aid. They comforted me, lent me phones so I could contact my bank, bought me lunch, and even provided spare cash to get to the airport the following day. All people I’d never met before, mind — but they sensed someone in trouble and rushed to help. With their support, I cancelled my card, and lost nothing except my pride.
Always trust in the goodness of people, have the stones to help out someone else when your turn comes, and take solace in the fact that the douchemops who did you wrong will probably contract syphilis or something.
Lesson twelve: the ability to back yourself is the best gift you can ever impart.
For you are the best support you will ever have. Do whatever it takes to achieve self-respect, and you can count on yourself in any situation life throws at you.
I want to take this chance to thank everyone who helped make 2014 such a rollicking good time. (Hopefully you all know who you are). I’ll never forget crossing into African soil for the first time, steeling my nerves on a scooter in Vietnam and northeast Thailand, mud wrestling in Phong Nha, hurling buckets of water from the back of a ute during Songkran, every fucking perfect African sunrise and sunset, being thrown pants-less into the Nile, jumping off Victoria Falls bridge (twice), exploring the perks of single life, sneaking into an empty amusement park, eating sadza and playing bao with dried maize kernels, frantically patching up passengers who injured themselves seeing the gorillas, pike-diving off a dhow in Zanzibar, falling backwards off chairs, falling backwards off rocks, falling backwards off boats, nearly drowning in the Nile (four times), nearly drowning in a rock pool, losing countless pairs of thongs (flip-flops, for all you non-Aussies), stealing glasses and a plastic moustache, smashing my tailbone and ripping my jeans at a friend’s Christmas party, spotting zebras grazing by Nairobi airport at 3am, successfully bribing a Tanzanian police officer with my charm, bribing another Tanzanian police officer with a carrot, not catching malaria, having my face licked by a giraffe, hurtling down a treacherous hill on the back of a bicycle during a race, eating fried fish and drinking a cold one on the edge of Lake Victoria, learning to ride a horse, petting a giant tortoise, cringing during Cards Against Humanity, pitching tents, building fires (and promptly watching them die), stargazing, the seemingly endless laughter, the tears, the triumphs.
And more. So, so much more.
To (kinda) quote Ted Mosby:
This was the year I got fired. The year I got robbed. The year I fell out with people I trusted. The year I crossed the crazy Canadian lady with tattoos. And dammit, if it wasn’t the best year of my life. Because if any one of those things hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have gone to Africa. I wouldn’t have met the man from Maryland. I wouldn’t have come out the other side as the self-assured, tough, determined, laidback person I am now.
Top that, 2015.