This year has come to a sudden and abrupt end, in the same way you quickly find your seatback upright and tray table stowed, immediately before bouncing along a runway at the end of a long haul flight. It has very much been my year of travel; 12 foreign countries – 10 of them new, 36 flights, an obscene amount of miles and countless new friends. I’ve experienced a lot, and definitely grown and changed as a person as a result.
So what exactly did I get up to this year?
2013 started off with a bang, and not in a good way. My long distance relationship of two and a half years disintegrated. I can’t say I was surprised; things had been in a bad way for a while, and my taking my engineering job with its unpredictable schedule and no guarantee of being able to see each other was the final nail in the coffin. Having barely recoiled from that drama, I found myself flying to Gothenburg with work, feeling cold and empty, as I ventured into the equally cold and empty Swedish winter.
My first foreign deployment was difficult; I found myself on nightshift for about 2 weeks, and this combined with the short days and frigid temperatures saw me struggling with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Additionally the job itself was technically challenging; things didn’t work and the cold caused further problems. I shuddered as I saw foot long icicles grow repeatedly throughout the night and huddled next to my industrial heater, blasting out a protective cocoon of ambient air as I read the weather report in despair. When my working hours returned to something relatively normal, I found myself equally as alone as I had felt while isolated in the freezing darkness, my breath steaming in front of me and my work boots freezing to the concrete beneath me. I struggled to make friends locally, let alone rebound from my breakup. It was a bleak existence.
Naturally I began to question my suitability for the job, or the job’s suitability for me. When a recruiter contacted me, I seriously considered the offer to start somewhere fresh in the coming summer. Somehow, I managed to survive; I changed my attitude and make the most of my difficult situation. I got out of my rut, began to explore Gothenburg, exploring its attractions and sampling it’s fine foods – my favourite ritual after a hard day at work being to go for chokolattryffel and red wine (or pear cider) at Bee, Sweden’s best gay bar. My change in outlook helped make me stronger and grow as a person, and is one of the most valuable things I have learned and maintained this year.
Returning from Sweden, I found myself back in northern England, my SAD soothed by my excitement at the sight of rain for the first time in weeks (it was actually warm enough for rain!). Continuing with an attitude of Carpe Diem, I began to explore the restaurants, bars and attractions of Warrington, Manchester and Liverpool (the latter I had never been to before despite working only 20 mins drive away). I also took a trip back to Munich to try to work things out this my on-off relationship, only to be pushed into officially, absolutely, finally breaking up with no hope of ever getting back together an hour before I went to fly home – I was in such a state UK immigration almost didn’t let me back into the country as my red, tearful face didn’t match my passport photo. Germany was now out of the picture for the time being…
Though I remained in England during this time, I spent some time in London applying for visas and visiting friends, giving me the opportunity to explore the city I had only visited as an adult for the first time a year before. My new found single status gave me the chance to actually start dating – something I never done before (I sort of fell into my ill-fated relationship very quickly). Online dating was the source of all my romantic material, and while much didn’t come of it, I found some good friendships, making it my tried-and-tested template for making friends while traveling.
On a whim, I found myself in Gibraltar for a few days, rediscovering familiar streets and sights from my childhood. My time was spent enjoying photography (something I had started to get into in Morocco in December 2012), exploring the secluded alleys and rocky paths, and learning about the history and politics that had shaped the British Overseas Territory over the centuries. One of my most valuable experiences was sitting in Charles’ Hole in the Wall, alone with Charles, the owner, and listening to his stories of the gay rights movement in Gibraltar, how life in general is changing and stories – more often than not absolutely hilarious – from his life there. It was in those quiet evenings, I learned that for me to grow and develop into the man I wanted to be, I needed to spend a lot of time listening and soaking up the experience and wisdom of people older than me. It was a real privilege to get to know Charles and I really appreciated the time spent with him.
May began with me fulfilling a 5-year dream; visiting Russia. I was a little apprehensive at first, but I quickly found my feet, especially as the only person in my group of friends who spoke any Russian. Visiting both Moscow and St Petersburg, I found Moscow’s stark, communist grandeur to be more to my liking than St Petersburg’s often nauseating opulence. One of my favourite highlights was visiting the ballet at the Kremlin Theatre, which I thoroughly enjoyed and would redo without a moment’s hesitation. Despite the delight of being in a new country, one that I had been wanting to experience for many years, the trip was somewhat soured when my friends and I fell prey to a scam, and I found myself sick and grumpy due to a combination of over-tiredness, relentless sightseeing and a lack of “me time” to disconnect and recharge my batteries. I left Russia with the sense that one day I might go back, but with no sense of urgency to do so –“Maybe in twenty years…” I told myself – however I also left with a better understanding of my needs when traveling, which has been a huge help to me, especially during the more challenging periods of my jet-setting career since.
I couldn’t contain my excitement as I finally boarded my delayed flight to Toronto to attend TBEX North America – a big travel blogging conference held every year. This was my first time visiting North America, and I had been keen to visit Toronto for some time. I spent a few days prior to the conference sightseeing – including a very good tour around Church and Wellesley, Toronto’s gay district. From the conference itself I learned a lot about travel, the travel industry, and also about myself. I also made new friends, as well as finally had the chance to meet some people whom I had gotten to know online over recent months while working alone in the field.
Meeting bloggers in the flesh was a little strange at first – most people I knew I had only ever interacted with via twitter – and I was glad that a lot of people I had previously networked with were not only very friendly, but not carbon copies of a gazillion other bloggers writing about the same destinations and experiences. I was particularly grateful to be invited for drinks with some luxury travel bloggers at the Four Seasons by Lola at Lola’s Travels. At first I was a little uncomfortable to be in such lush surroundings, and after a couple of rounds of cocktails I realised I’d have to visit the ATM. As another lump of currency landed in my wallet, I struck upon a realisation; “Joshua, you are on holiday, you are having fun, and unlike many travel bloggers out there you have a job that pays good money and very little to spend it on.” This realisation has gone on to affect, not only my social life, but lifestyle in general while traveling for business or pleasure, and as a result, somewhat changed the things I’ve focused writing on.
I returned back to the UK, only to days later fly out to Myanmar (Burma) for work. Arriving in Yangon, not knowing what to expect, I quickly discovered that the country was changing so fast that information about Myanmar – even from a few months beforehand – was already out of date. Seeing this as an opportunity, I made a serious effort to share as much information about Myanmar as I could, while endeavouring to give an honest and deeper portrayal of the country. I also fully immersed myself into expat life, mixing with UN and NGO staff, business people and English teachers alike. Yangon was definitely one of the best places I’ve worked in terms of the quality of life I had, and the fun and friendships I made there, and I’d go back without a moment’s hesitation.
The project I was working on in Yangon wound up at the start of July. As a reward to myself, I decided to splash out on a little luxury in Bagan, one of Myanmar’s ancient capitals and the site of over 3000 temples of various states of grandeur and disrepair. My time in Bagan was truly memorable, and was the perfect way to end my time in Burma. I left the country with positive spirits; this was a country I’d gladly pay to revisit.
Arriving in Kuala Lumpur for a weekend of expected luxury (before going back to the grindstone in Australia), started off well; that weekend I gorged myself among the rest of the population breaking their Ramadan fast, I got hot and sweaty partying with new friends on a rooftop bar, and took in some of KL’s cultural attractions. By Monday things started to go downhill – my Australian visa still hadn’t come through – and I ended up backpacking around Southeast Asia (something I had vowed never to do), also visiting Singapore, Thailand and Sri Lanka, and doing my best to make the most of my situation. Finally, after four weeks of being in the lurch (albeit in some very exotic locales), I was allowed to fly home, only to have my visa approved as I boarded the plane.
Arriving back in the UK, I was keen to get back to work and have some semblance of routine. Once again, I found myself in Northwest England, getting back in touch with old friends, going on dates with new faces and continuing to discover what Manchester and Liverpool had to offer. I returned to Scotland on a couple of occasions, as well as London where I met up with various friends from around the world. For me, it was good reconnecting with my “normal” life after so long being disconnected and dealing with so much uncertainty; clearly it is important to make the most of now and seize opportunities while you can.
September was much like August – I was in many of the same places, yet I spent so much more time on the road too, changing my location regularly. I was really glad to catch up with some blogging friends in London and do my best to take every opportunity to enjoy life. There was a lot of uncertainty too; I was due to go to India at some point, but unsurprisingly I had visa complications, AGAIN. I also hoped to attend TBEX in Dublin, but I had to watch as work snowballed and my hoped-for time off vanished into thin air. It was disappointing, but I knew that disappointment would often come with the job. Instead of wallowing, I took comfort in the fact new opportunities would present themselves and I wouldn’t be living this lifestyle forever.
After finally coming out to my parents, I was relieved to be suddenly whisked away to India, giving us all space to recoil. The challenges of the job gave me little time to reflect at first, and I found, myself dealing with a steep learning curve and a challenging working environment. I was working in Gujarat, in an industrial area in the middle of nowhere; there was little on offer outside of the “man camp”, and even then I was working so much that I wouldn’t have had time to see it anyway. A month quickly flew by and very soon it was…
At first I’d had a positive outlook on my time in India, despite a lot of apprehension before going to India, however my experience of India quickly became negative. Work was draining; I yearned for a decent day off, my days were long and I desperately needed a change of scenery. Diwali brought some excitement and a change to the monotony, but once it was by I found myself increasingly frustrated with India. The culture was tedious: I was tired at being stared at everywhere I went (it’s not as if the labourers had never seen white people before); at the poor work ethic and at things only being done properly did them myself. Worse was finding myself a target of sexual harassment while at work, which was only made worse by the constant leering by the locals. I found myself breaking down and apprehensive as I walked around site. Then some expensive equipment was stolen from work. It couldn’t get much worse.
Booking my flight out of there was a huge relief – I couldn’t have lasted much longer. As I drove away from camp, the sun shining and seeing fresh sights for the first time in over 6 weeks, I felt a positive glow in my heart. I thought maybe India wasn’t that bad after all, that maybe I should have spent a couple of days in Mumbai, or Goa, or somewhere in Kashmir. And then I had three hours of chaos in Mumbai airport transferring to my next flight. Nightmare. My patience finally and completely exhausted; I realised India had brought out the absolute worst in me. Enough was enough – India had its chance and blew it spectacularly. I will never return as a result.
After months in warm climes, a frosty London morning was a shock to the system, especially as I lacked warm clothes at that point. I spent the next couple of weeks in the UK, soothing the damage India had wrought with copious amounts of cake. I returned to see my family, apparently in denial about my previous visit – keep calm and carry on. November ended with us having an early Christmas dinner as days later I was packing once again.
Aside from my third visit to a surprisingly Christmassy Singapore, the festive season has been decidedly un-festive – I’ve been sweltering in the Australian outback is some coal and mining town. I’m enjoying the peace and quiet, the pleasant weather, the opportunity to cook again, being around colleagues for a change… It’s like I have some semblance of a normal life again. I’ve been taking the opportunity to make changes to my life where I’ve not been happy: I’ve started running at sunrise, I’m back in the gym, I’ve shifted my diet to be largely vegetarian, I’ve made my plans for the future and know where I’ll be (roughly) in 5 years’ time, and my attitude to and state of my love life is in a completely different state to what it was a year ago. Already I’ve seen changes in my body, my mood and my outlook for the future.
As midnight has just passed here in Australia and I welcome 2014 with open arms, I’m glad – truly – that this is how things have turned out after a year of growth and challenges. 2013 has been a great year – a year of travel – and the journey has not just been a physical one. Looking back at how much I’ve developed as a person is fascinating. The bad times have contributed just as much as the good. I owe a great debt to the many, many new friends I’ve made and the old friends who have continued to support me. Sometimes I feel a little sad that my adventures and my life in general are maturing; that I’m getting old, but when I look forward to the future I realise that’s not the case. There is so much more in store for me, and my life is only just beginning…