Lessons from Asia

It’s been a long time. Many months have passed since I last wrote anything on here. While I was traveling around Asia, I hardly took the time to write down my experiences or my thoughts. Every day I was mostly planning what to see next, which hostel to book, which plane or train to catch, what monument to visit, etc. Few people have heard about my experiences, and many have asked me what I have learned, or how has the trip changed me. 4 weeks have now passed since my trip ended, and I now feel ready to write about it. It took a long time to let everything sink but my mind feels peaceful and inspired so I will use that to write.

   What have I learned from traveling around Asia for 6 months?

Firstly, that traveling around intensively on a budget is tiring. Not so much physically, although long train/bus rides and early flights did wear me out, but mentally it is very draining. Living out of a backpack (which only became lighter and lighter for some reason) and sleeping in different beds nearly every day got to me, especially from the moment I reached Thailand.  

 One thing I avoid like the plague are mosquitoes! My room needs to be mosquito proof, either through a screen or a mosquito net. If not they ruin my mood and my night. I remember sitting outside my beach shack in Palolem, India, in the afternoon reading a book and from the moment the sun starts to set, mosquitoes come out for an early dinner. This forced me to get changed into long sleeve trousers and t-shirt to avoid their nasty bites and especially the diseases they may carry (as a microbiologist or maybe a hypochondriac, that thing is hard to forget or ignore) and long sleeves with hot and humid weather is not pleasant. We all have had a night when you can just hear that damn mosquito fly by your ear, waking you up, “I’m gonna get you” type of buzz that just drives you insane especially when the mosquito managed to bite you in your little toe. Uuuu just thinking about it again makes me want to get into mosquito extermination research! 

Another bug I hated and had even occasional dreams with were bedbugs. Oh boy these little suckers just love to hide during the day but come out only at night to feed and once you got one in your clothes, you can be pretty sure there’s more of them in your precious bag. Whenever this happened, all I could do was empty out my rucksack and wash and dry in ultra high power to kill off any biological organism I was carrying. Whenever I felt something weird on my foot or leg, I would jump up immediately feeling grossed out even though I hardly ever caught any bedbugs like that. The only moment I came across them was when I was getting dressed with what I thought was a clean t-shirt. 

And of course traveling on a tight budget is hard, especially when you really want to go on a shopping spree (which I really wanted to do in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo!) or when you want to eat at fancy restaurants. Don’t get me wrong though, street food in Southeast Asia is so good! I have eaten such nice dishes there, hmm, my mouth is already watering. For me the food started to become exceptionally well from the moment I arrived in Vietnam and became better until it reached its peak in… Hong Kong. Seriously, HK is heaven for food. People in HK are so inventive and creative with food! I wish I remembered the names of all the delicious meals I had there, but one of my favourite ones were steamed dumplings with a little soup inside which you had to bite to get to so you could suck it out before eating the rest of the dumpling. Pure bliss I tell you! However, there were many times when I was craving western food sooo badly. This was especially the case in India. Indian food is not one of my favourites because of all the spices. Some dishes were so spicy, I couldn’t taste the ingredients anymore since my tongue had become numb, my nose dripping, and my ears passing hot fumes. Anyway at times like those all you want is a bland spaghetti but Western food is more expensive so this was a treat I could only have occasionally. 

So yes a lot of it is tiring and repetitive, visiting temples becomes old quickly. But the best moments that bring me back a lot of nostalgia are simple things or experiences with locals. For example, the train announcements on the Indian Railway platforms, or on the Metrolines in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Seoul and Japan. I sometimes search these on YouTube just to let my memories flow back. I also remember many fun locals I met across India, talking about their president and economy, taking photos with strangers as if we knew each other for a long time, even teaching local Indians how to swim in the sea! Oh this was so much fun and felt so rewarding. These were the moments that made traveling around incredible. If I have to give one tip to people who are thinking about traveling like I did, it is this, don’t focus too much on seeing different sights, they are wonderful to see yes, but it gets repetitive and in the end, what have I gained from seeing another temple or museum aside from some historical knowledge and enough photos to fill several harddrives. Spend time with locals, volunteer with charities, participate in national holidays, stay with families and share your experiences with each other, these things cost you so little but will inspire you for life! And that is was I most enjoyed about traveling.

Touch Base

At first I thought I should apologise to my readers for taking so long to write another blog post, but then I realised that I don’t have to apologise about anything, what started off as a blog for me to write my thoughts eventually became a pressure to write a weekly post, mainly to keep the flow running and to remain consistent to become a popular blog. Woomp woomp, wrong! I created this pressure myself and I now see that clearly. Yes, I did say I would write about my travels, but here I am, one month has passed and I haven’t said a word yet. There are several reasons for this.
Ever since I arrived in India, all I have done was sightseeing, taking photos, planning my next destinations, and mingle with other travellers. All this has kept my mind so occupied, almost on auto-pilot, that I could not think of what to write.
I did not want my blog to become a daily travel journal “Today I saw this, that food was super spicy, and the hotel I stayed at was awesome” I may blog about certain experiences but not today.
Inspiration to write simply wasn’t there. I didn’t want to force myself to write whatever just to keep the flow going because it would become boring to write and read.

So today there will be no wonderful stories or impressive anecdotes about my travels but something I came across that inspired me to share with you. I’m currently in beautiful Palolem, a small costal village in South Goa. I’ve been here for a week doing nothing. Yep nothing at all, just BEING. It feels great after such a busy month in North India. I got myself a new book called A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Without saying much, I already highly recommend it to everyone interested in the dysfunction and consciousness of human beings. There was one passage that really hit me, it is about “Who am I, how do I define myself?”. This is what my very first blogpost was about. He says:

Your sense of who you are determines what you perceive as your needs and what matters to you in life – and whatever matters to you will have the power to upset and disturb you. You can use this as a criterion to find out how deeply you know yourself. What matters to you is not necessarily what you say or believe, but what actions and reactions reveal as important and serious to you. So you may ask yourself the question: What are the things that upset and disturb me?

So to answer that question, right now, lack of finances disturb me a lot (like I mentioned in my previous post), so much that I prevent myself from enjoying my present state, which I have longed for so badly when I was back in the UK. The problem is not that I don’t have enough finances, but my fear of running out before the end of the trip. I have met many travellers who are in the same situation but their worries don’t interfere with their enjoyment. So I recognise that under financial insecurity – which for me really is all about the fear of not having certainty – I don’t cope well, my mind goes into story mode and imagines worst-case scenarios. These are the moments my mind becomes very sensitive to negative experiences and exaggerates them. At least now I recognise and acknowledge this, being aware is already the first step to separating the fear of insecurity from who I am. Not just for the sake of enjoying my travels, but for the sake of my financial sanity in my future career.

There are many more things that disturb or upset me such as sickness, body-image, and underachieving. These are some of my ‘trigger points’, these are all related to my self-image, the content of my ego, the non-stop and occasional evil voices in my head, my unconscious dysfunctional mind – but these have no place in the present moment, where past conditioning or future fears have no power. This requires constant awareness of my thoughts and so, I am a work in progress.

The truth is we all have an idea who we are and how we cope in different situations, but unless you’re going through it, it is all speculation. How has this helped to know who I am? I am awareness, all the rest is transient.

What are the things that upset and disturb you?

Anxiety and Excitement

Here I am, one day before I leave on my big trip. I’ve been quiet for a while because of all the preparing and planning. It’s still hard to believe I’m really doing this tomorrow. Every day that passed I got more excited but at the same time, I have to admit that I also am quite anxious. Sometimes I even get terrified. Here are some of the scary thought going on in my head.

A little over a month ago, I got a tonsillitis. I felt pretty rough for about 4 days which for me seemed like an eternity because there is nothing more that I hate than being sick. In fact, not feeling how I normally feel is something I don’t like (by the way this is also why I don’t drink any alcohol or do any drugs, out of fear of feeling things I can’t control). The only things I could think of was my intense desire to get well, the terrible pain I was experiencing in my back and me feeling very sick. On top of that, I also got a load of anxiety. Being ill at home is already bad enough, but getting ill while travelling in a foreign country scares me. And it is very likely to happen at some point due to being in a new environment and eating different food.

Another worry is my financial situation for this trip. I feel like a control freak when it comes to planning my expenses, especially because I do it over and over again to make sure I won’t run out of money before the end of the trip. It is very hard to make a good estimate of how much the trip can cost me, I’ve been looking online for some estimates but they all vary so much so it’s hard to tell.

Then there’s the whole preparation: cancelling contracts, shipping my belongings, visa applications, emptying my apartment, donating/throwing out old clothes and small appliances, seeing my friends before leaving, etc.

All this anxiety has triggered a need for me to pay attention to where my fears are coming from and how to face them. I read a great book by Ruby Wax called A Sane New World which is about the mental stress we go through in our everyday lives and how to deal with it. Reading about this was great and did help but it is only half the work. The other half is by just going through the fear, rationalising it, and putting it into perspective. Sometimes your brain knows things better but when the time comes it’s not always easy to walk the talk. So this trip will hopefully teach me to let go of these fears, to learn how to embrace the present moment just as it is without focusing on fears based on past experiences or possible future occurrences.

I’ve chosen the scary looking path, but it may not be scary at all, just a brand new experience which will enlighten me that much more. I look forward to writing more for you all again and to keep you posted.

This is it!

I present to you my plan for the next 6 months. To break away from my cycles of life crisis, I have decided to immerse myself with the people and cultures across India, Southeast Asia, and Japan! What better way to find myself than by losing myself in raw life, away from social pressures, financial responsibilities, or career plans? Meeting, seeing, and experiencing other people’s lives to open up my mind and expand my awareness of living a life. There are billions of ways to live a life, in fact, every single life that has ever lived, was and will be lived differently. I know that this will be a trip of a lifetime and I will be a changed man after it.

This is what my Asian trip looks like so far:
5th October 2014 Manchester, UK to Mumbai, India
November 2014 India to Singapore and Bali, Indonesia
December 2014 Malaysia and Thailand
January 2015 Thailand and Cambodia
February 2015 Vietnam, Hong Kong and Macau
March 2015 South Korea and Japan
17th March 2015 Tokyo, Japan to Brussels, Belgium

Nothing is written in stone but this is a rough idea of where I’ll be going. I’m open for recommendations and itinerary tips. As you can see I’m returning to Brussels, Belgium after my trip around Asia because this is where my family lives so I will be spending some time with them. But this won’t be the place where I will settle. I have decided to move to Brazil late Spring 2015. The opportunity to move there has arisen and I feel I should embrace it.

I am beyond excited for this trip I have planned, never would I have imagined that I would do such a thing. This reminds me of a Spanish saying my uncle told me several times “La vida da muchas vueltas” which literally means “Life does a lot of turns” or you never know where life will take you. In the past I thought I was very much in control of the direction I was going to, but I have learned that this is just an illusion, life circumstances really do change all the time.
I’m so happy and grateful for all the support I have received from family and friends even though I have rejected a PhD offer, left my job, and am walking away from my work field.

This announcement makes the first post of my new Life Category: Travel where I will be sharing stories from my travels. I hope you’ll join me on this amazing experience even if it is just virtually, your presence makes this trip that more magical.

A new beginning

I finally did it. I handed in my 4-week notice to leave my job. In 4 weeks time I will no longer be a sexual health scientist working for an NGO. Not only have I decided to quit my job, I have also decided I’m moving away from the UK. Now, there are many reasons why I have decided to do so, one of which you may already know, it’s the whole reason why I started out this blog: I don’t know what I want to do with my life.

When I was young, I started out wanting to be an archaeologist, my dream was to discover hidden ruins and secret tombs nobody had set foot in for centuries or millennia. That dream quickly died out once I began my first excavations because that is not what archaeology is about, obviously. But when you’re young, your future job always looks magical and full of adventure. At 19, crisis number 1 hits. I knew I did not want to study archaeology anymore. I was starting my second year at university and all I could think of was that I needed to change my degree asap! After one crazy and unnecessary dramatic week, I decided to study biomedical sciences because I had focused on studying medicine afterwards. Thinking back now, a lot of biomedical sciences students actually choose this degree because they’re interested in medicine. But as the years went by and I started my third year, I was confronted with reality again. Medicine is really interesting, but as a job, it would consume my life and my spare time which I value too much to do other things. So crisis number 2 at 21: what the hell am I going to do with a bachelor in biomedical sciences? I thought diagnosing infections in hospitals would be my thing so I continued in the direction of medical microbiology for my master’s degree. At the same time I had started a modeling hobby on the side. It was great fun and I met very different-minded people compared to my uni peers which was interesting. I built up a nice portfolio which you can see here but I left it aside after trying to break into the industry because I came to terms with my short height, I’m not tall enough for this work (5’9″ vs 6′). As I was finishing my master’s, crisis number 3 hits: I hated laboratory work and could not imagine myself working in a lab day shifts, night shifts, and weekend shifts. So I looked for another field which I found interesting and that was sexual health. I got my first work experience in New York working with STI and HIV prevention in LGBT teenagers who were at risk of becoming homeless or were involved with recreational drugs. I enjoyed this a lot because for the first time I felt I found a job where I actually helped another human being, this was more meaningful and satisfying work. Thus I changed my career direction into public health. For one year I have worked in the same field with black and minority ethnic communities in Manchester. I was so close to starting a PhD in sexual shame and sexual health at which point crisis number 4 hit, a major one. I realised that I was looking for a PhD because it would give me security for the next 4 years and I could then build up a career after that for another 5 years to become a public health consultant after a total of 9 years. But I started to disagree with the politics and management of my field. I do not want to be part of something I don’t believe in so here I am. No more PhD and no more job.

As you can see, for years I have changed my mind over and over again. I have gone through 7 different work interests from 18-25 and none have been able to give me what I’m looking for. But how can I find that when I don’t even know what I’m looking for? All I know is that I’d like to do something meaningful with my life, offer my help, skills, knowledge, etc. to someone in need. Some people may think I’m a quitter and not dedicated enough to one field only, but I am actually very happy that I have been able to acknowledge my unhappiness and did something about it. So instead of continuing this ridiculous cycle of crises, I have decided to stop. I was always planning my life, always on the move, thinking about the future. But now the deepest part of me is crying out for me to stop and to live for a while! To just be, explore, and be in touch with my deepest passions. And that is exactly what I am going to do!

Bucket lists

You’ve probably created one in the past or at least thought of things you’d really like to do at some point in your life. I have thought of many things I’d like to do in my life such as: learn how to play the violin, learn to paint and sculpt, take vocal lessons, start my own business, and volunteer around the world. Many people I know have big bucket lists with great dreams and longing desires but seem to postpone it all the time, even me. So what’s stopping me?

Yes this is most likely one of the biggest barriers that the majority will mention. With all the financial commitments and debts many of us live with, money can indeed appear to be a barrier. However, I believe this is only partly true. Ok I cannot leave tomorrow to travel around the world because I need to save money for that, but if I make a calculation of how much my trip could cost me, and I manage my finances properly so that I can set some money aside every month, I can pick a date in the future to execute my plan. What if I have no money over at the end of the month to save? Then I need to prioritise my expenses more and cut out what is not necessary for me to save enough money. Stop eating out and cook at home, reduce nights out, shop carefully making use of promotions and watching the price per weight, etc. It may take longer to get there, but with good financial management and a focus on my goal it is possible, even in the most improbable of situations.

I’m in a committed relationship.
I recently came across a bucket list that someone made after ending a long-term relationship. While I think it is great that people get to the stage where they acknowledge the things they’ve always wanted to do and execute them, I can’t help but wonder why they had to wait until ending a relationship to do the things they’ve always wanted to do. Why would you be in a relationship with someone who ‘doesn’t allow you’ to do the things you want to? Shouldn’t you be able to share all your desires and dreams with your partner or spouse? The truth is, it is much easier to blame other people for holding you back from executing your bucket list than to accept the fact that it is your own choice to not pursue your desires and dreams. I understand that having children can appear to complicate things but the possibility of going after your bucket list is still very much there. A relationship should not ever stop you from living your life. If you are with someone who acknowledges your desires and dreams and also shows you that they support your pursuit, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot. This goes both ways of course. Being in a relationship is about give and take, about compromising, obviously never doing something you really don’t want to, but communicating about this is key. Relationships require a lot of work like I mentioned in a previous post. Compromising should never come at the expense of your own bucket list, instead think of it this way: “Today, we’ll go do that thing that you’ve been telling me about, for my next birthday let’s visit my dream holiday destination.” This is why you are companions, because you’d like to share your whole selves.

I have no time!
Time is a major issue to many. This just requires very good time management which for some people is easier than for others. There are many great books on time management which can definitely help. I have found dividing my day in time slots useful. My morning slots of free time I use for reading and research. It greatly helps to get up early even in the weekends because I get a lot done and have very few distractions in the morning. My evenings I tend to use for things that don’t require much concentration because that’s when I’m least productive. Just like money, time is also about prioritising, and it’s completely up to you how you use it because it needs to fit your own needs and productivity.

How to execute it?
Whether it is opening your own business, travelling to world, learning how to play an instrument, or any other aspiration, don’t lose sight of it.  Make your bucket list with the highest priority on top and the lowest on the bottom. Then calculate how much money your first item on the list will cost you and how you can make smart financial decisions towards saving the money you need. If you’re in a long-term relationship or have a family to sustain, share your desire, don’t be put off. What about time? Well the best way to explain this is like this: You don’t want to be on your deathbed wishing you had executed and experienced the wonderful things you wrote down on your bucket list. Don’t postpone it anymore, start today.

La vita è bella

This morning I was completely shocked by the passing of one of my favourite actors of all time – Robin Williams. Being only 63, he still had so much life ahead. His movies were part of my childhood and I am forever grateful for that. This is how I will forever remember him.
What I can’t understand is why so many talented celebrities get into severe addictions, depression, and mental health problems and we end up losing them too soon. Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the list just goes on and on and on. So many people look up to these amazing artists, they are their inspiration, their hopes, their dreams, their support during dark times. Many people crave their success and fame but at what cost? Obviously, I don’t know what was going on in their lives and so I’m not here to judge them or anybody else for their actions and decisions. But I am here to reaffirm the immense joy they have given us, to acknowledge that they are human beings like you and me, with hopes, dreams, and struggles of their own. Today’s post is not about death, but about life. For all those who are going through tough times, who are struggling with deep unhappiness, with immense pain, or with mental health issues.

Here are some reminders why life is beautiful.

There is no one like YOU
Out of all the 7 billion people living on this planet, that’s one little person in this huge list, nobody’s mind, body, and life circumstances have been created exactly the same way as yours in the whole history of us homo sapiens. That already makes you pretty special and unique. This means that nobody is just another number, but a valuable life that is worth expressing its uniqueness.

YOU are worthy of love
It doesn’t matter what you did, who you did, what you didn’t do, or what others have done to you, you are worthy of love simply because you exist, it is your birthright. You don’t have to prove yourself  for that, not with a fancy degree, nor with an impressive career, nor with fame and fortune or any other ‘success‘ in life. It is your right to be worthy of love and nobody can take that away from you.

There is always a choice
There may be times in your life where you believe that you have absolutely no choice how you live your life, what decisions you can take, or how you should experience certain events, but the truth is you always do. What makes you believe you don’t have a choice, is the fear of making different choices that could upset others, or out of fear of change and the unknown. Every minute of every day you make choices, how you talk, how you react, how you decide, how you love, and so on. Recognize that power, it is yours.

The small things in life
The warm feeling of the sun on your face after a long winter, the loving eyes of your pet looking gratefully at you, the quiet Sunday mornings, a delicious homemade meal, the expression of the human experience through conversations, emotions, laughter, and connection. The daily things we take for granted are all gifts. Change your perception towards these mundane things and you will see more beauty out there than you think. Try it out by looking around you right now, find something you think is beautiful, I’m sure you can find at least one thing.

Compassion exists
Compassion, a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress with a desire to alleviate it. We are capable of compassionate living. In fact, if we were all more compassionate and less judgemental, less people would go through deep pain or isolation and more people would realize the above mentioned topics and live happier and freely. Acknowledge someone’s pain, your compassion can alleviate their suffering. The choice is yours to show up.

Remember these things in dark and painful moments. You are unique, you are worthy of love, you have the power to choose, you can find beauty in the day-to-day life, you and others are able to compassionate living.

Why is life beautiful? Share below.


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