“It’s not safe out there. I think you should head home.”
Over three years of travel have made me no stranger to this phrase. To everybody else with the exception of fellow voyagers on the same long-term somewhat extreme course, the dangers of the road always loomed: sexual predators on the back of a steering wheel, an accident waiting to happen, the threat of another ovarian cyst, a bandit waiting at the back of a dark alley in a gritty city, a hungry wolf howling in the middle of the night and now, getting infected by a disease that gave birth to a global pandemic.
I have always been advised to drop the rucksack and head home in the face of extreme adversities.
When I almost got raped and died in Thailand, people near and dear to me begged me to quit hitchhiking. Likewise, when my backpack got stolen during another hitch (in Thailand again, surprise!), my friends and family asked me to travel cheaply but “normally,” which translated to being crammed in border-crossing busses, taking cheap tours and occupying the vacant bunks of inexpensive hostels.
I heard the same response when the borders closed in Kazakhstan.
After all, the most logical thing to do during a crisis that could possibly affect your health and endanger your life was to be with your loved ones, was to be where it was safe, comfortable and more certain.
I phoned friends who were traveling to see where they were and how they were doing during the lockdown. Most of them headed back home. Some stuck with their countrymen, waiting for their respective embassies’ resolutions. Others fled to countries with open borders, determined to keep traveling before total lockdown. Some chose to stay where they were and wait it out, hopeful the regulations would be more relaxed when summer comes. Others found temporary work, seizing the opportunity to sit still in one place and earn.
As the world of travel slowly stood in a standstill, I too stopped along with it.
Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan and Iran were obviously a no-go. Their embassies were no longer issuing any travel documents for tourists. Staying for a longer period in Kazakhstan was not possible. It was too risky without regulations. Neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where I could obtain a visa on arrival, just shut their borders to foreigners.
At that moment, there were only two forks on the road: stay in Almaty or head home; home, where I could legally reside; home, where the road ends and all paths lead to comfort and less risk.
It was the easiest thing to do. Besides, three years of tough times roughing it out on the road should have already satiated my wanderlust.
Yet as I stood looking at those two forks on the road, I looked back and saw all the summits I’ve conquered in full view: a 20-kilogram cyst mid-journey in Kyrgyzstan, 110 kilometers of winter walking in the Wakhan, nearly getting imprisoned in China for an accidental overstay, losing my passport while applying for an exit visa, every discrimination I’ve withstood on every land border where immigration lawyers scanned me from head to toe and put me in a box labeled “illegal immigrant,” the day-to-day struggles of being a solo female hiker and hitchhiker.
Both paths were bleak, but the road that led to home had a dim end as opposed to the mist-shrouded walkway with quicksand bricks that begged me to get stuck again.
So I put a foot forward on the road of the latter, the quicksand quickly enveloping my ankles. If I stood still, moved slowly and thought about my every step, I could break free. I would break free.
And that I did.
I waited and watched, putting my faith on open borders by summer of that year. Summer swang, and I put my faith on autumn. I turned 24, and I thought I would already make it out. In times of despair, I looked to the horizon where my summits were.
I did not come this far to head home. I did not walk and hitchhike across 17 countries and cover over 5,000 kilometers for three years just to back down at the sight of towering walls and barricades. I did not sift through all those files and apply for all those visas just to purchase a flight ticket that would bring me back to square one. I did not put my life on the line during a surgery abroad without family just to turn around at another health risk.
I did not survive all this—sexual harassment, abuse, theft, constant goodbyes and hellos, spontaneous anxiety attacks, a sandstorm in a moonless dessert night—just to give up upon the arrival of another tempest. This is my dream, my happiness, and I would do anything to keep it.
By the end of October, a tree’s branch bent over towards where I was submerged. A vacancy for a volunteer teacher opened up in an alternative school in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine. The opportunity sounded perfect, and the principles of the institution were right up my alley.
I began to wriggle my legs, moving cautiously and deliberately. I leaned back and did one of the things I learned best in my adventures: I let go. I let myself float.
Inch by inch, I made my way out of the quicksand: job application, job interview, a trial class, exit documents, volunteer visa, negotiations, flight hunting. The road ahead was clearer now as if the mist was never there in the first place, and again it proves that once you’ve laid claim on your dreams, nothing stops them from materializing into realities.
Now, as I look back and write this from the comforts of my apartment in Ukraine happy and content with my temporary career, my newfound friends and my chance to grow professionally, I knew I picked the right path. I knew it wasn’t time to give up.
People always ask me why I haven’t gone home. Sometimes, I think it’s time that I do. After all, It’s been three years. It’s been a good run. I’ve lived a life most 24-year-olds from my country can only dream of. I’ve ticked most of the items on my bucket list, and I’ve had so many chances to put down the backpack and hang up the trekking boots.
But as I continue to persist amidst a pandemic that’s put plenty of hopes and dreams on hold, I repeat the reason why I haven’t turned back, why I haven’t gone home.
It’s because I already am.