My FIRST life-change-iversary – the good, the bad and the unexpected

My very first life-change-iversary

*SPOILER ALERT* This is going to be a long post. It’s also likely to be my last post for a little while at least. If you make it through the next 3000 words, I’ll see you on the other side…

Life-change-iversary, it’s a word. Right? And if it’s not, it should be. Because it’s been a year since I got on a plane and headed scared sh*tless boldly into a new life.

On the lookout for nature at Arenal's hanging bridges

Can’t see the end of the road yet

I celebrated July 19th 2016 as the anniversary of the day I changed my life forever. Not just because it’s the date I left England, marking the culmination of months of planning and stress, but because ever since that day I have lived life in a whole new way: with uncertainty, with purpose, and with a whole lot of adventure in between the two ends of the spectrum.

Playa la Penca

Needless to say, it’s been a big year. In the last 12 months I have had the privilege of living in four very different countries, of making new friends and trying new things, of taking myself from novice diver to instructor in the space of six months, and of slowly learning to accept the great unknown that my life now is. As I’ve gone along, I’ve tried to keep a fairly consistent record of the highs, the lows, and the surprises that have defined my experience which I look back on fondly as a sort of travel journal. So on this special anniversary I’m grabbing hindsight firmly by the horns and casting my mind over the good, the bad, and the truly unexpected moments of this entire first, incredible year.


The good

Swimming with sharks

How many sharks have I swam with? Well gee, I’ve kind of lost count! Just how amazing is that?! Seeing my very first shark underwater – a majestic silky shark cruising past at 30 metres – was a moment that has been beautifully tattooed onto my long-term memory, an eternal keepsake of the very-first adrenaline-fuelled encounter with these prehistoric beasts.

Silky shark, Roatan

Since then, I am lucky enough to have seen a hammerhead in the Caribbean, white-tips in Costa Rica and black-tips in Malaysia on a near-daily basis. And the novelty just doesn’t wear off. Sharing your personal space with something as intelligent, elegant and innately powerful as a shark is something I would never have gotten to do behind a desk, and is a highlight of this past year that I will cherish forever.

Hammerhead shark, Roatan

It is a true tragedy that these jaw-droppingly beautiful creatures continue to be hunted and slaughtered in their millions. I don’t get up on my soap-box for any old cause, but it sickens and saddens me that the privilege of enjoying these animals in the wild is one that could be denied to future generations purely to satisfy the greed and vanity of an ignorant, status-fuelled wealthy elite. Don’t believe me? Take two minutes to let the power of Shark Water convince you…

Diving in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Celebrating my first wedding anniversary

For those that don’t buy the legitimacy of a very first life-change-iversary as a major life event, there can be no denying that a very first wedding anniversary is a pretty big deal. If you’d have asked me five years ago to describe what I thought my first anniversary might look like, I’d have taken a fairly confident guess that it’d be spent on a beach, in some beautiful far-flung location, sipping on champagne and watching an exotic sun setting beneath a warm ocean. Hey – I like the finer things every now and then.

St Lucia sunset

But I’d have assumed it would have been a holiday, a blow-out treat which we’d have been saving for ever since the crippling costs of the wedding itself, not simply a small moment of luxury captured in between what has become daily life.

But, as the big day rolled around, James and I realised that we were living a life that we’d previously have treated as a rare luxury. With the beach on our doorstep, we decided to give a nod to our former selves and spend the evening celebrating in the best way we know how – sunsets, champagne and all-out luxury.

While we sipped on Moet – a rare indulgence these days – and dug our toes into the warm Malaysian sand, we mused on the bizarre beauty of the fact that, a year ago, we would have been unable to predict where we’d end up on our first wedding anniversary. As the waves rolled in the background and the sun began to shroud itself in mauve, we relived the exceptional journey that this first year has been, leading us right up to that moment, that evening on the beach, and marvelled at just how fortunate we are to have shared so many incredible experiences together.

As darkness crept in, we took a boat to Tioman island’s only luxury hotel – a remote haven of opulence and tranquility. After months of basic food consisting primarily of simple carbohydrates, it was bliss to indulge in expertly blended cocktails, delicate appetisers and one of the most delicious meals I’d eaten in a year. Our first year of marriage has been unpredictable, adventurous, wild and vivacious; taking the time to let it all sink in, to talk and relax and laugh, to reminisce on the past and ruminate on the future, was the best way I could have imagined spending such a poignant celebration with my very best of friends.

The highlight of the evening came as we took our boat home again. In the stillness and silence of island darkness, we were surrounded by a night sky so beautiful that it almost felt crude to stare it in the face. Stars glistened like glitter strewn across indigo silk and the moon glowed with angelic radiance. And beneath us, the ocean swelled and sparkled with a strange light of its own; vivid blues and turquoises sparked like embers as the boat churned up the bioluminescence in the water. There are some things truly that money can’t buy, and to experience the sight of that strange, swirling spectacle unfurling beneath our salt-flecked faces was to know happiness.

The bad

Battling homesickness

Why don’t they make travel-sized versions of friends? Like the teeny-weeny shampoos you can buy at airports, pocket-sized pals that you can stash in your hand luggage? Try as I might to convince everyone at home to spend every spare day of annual leave and penny of their savings on visiting my various new homesteads, the fact remains that I don’t get to see my nearest and dearest half as much as I would really like to.

What makes it so difficult is that it feels like I’ve lost pretty much everyone that I know and love in one fell swoop; I’ve missed people or places before of course, when friends and family have moved away or life has made it harder to see each other, but the edge of that ache has always been softened in knowing that it wasn’t for long and that there were still many other lovely people just down the road. Not this time. This time the absence of my oldest and closest friends has been a long, often painful slog. I went from being a sociable person who enjoyed having her calendar full to bursting with nights out, weekends away and evening catch ups with the wonderful people I know the best, to having nothing better than Whatsapp and FaceTime to stay connected with those who define me. It’s been tough.

How lucky am I

Somedays I teeter on the edge of making the decision to pack up and head home in order to return to the embrace of a warm, busy social life that I so enjoyed before. It can feel counterintuitive to spend time fostering new relationships with people that you know will be moving on in just a few short months, when you have an embarrassment of riches in the friend-bank back at home. People who can make you laugh so hard that your ribcage aches for days after. People for whom fun isn’t an activity or an agenda, but an easy, inevitable, unpredictable way of being. People who would know all the right things to say when you’re feeling down and, when words aren’t enough, would be sitting there next to you in a heartbeat, reminding you that you’ve got things pretty damn good. Surely only a fool would turn their back on that sort of blessed good fortune. And so the cogs of worry start churning in my mind, and my fingers start unconsciously tapping ‘flights to London’ into Skyscanner, and I begin to question if I’m making all the wrong choices.

How lucky am I...

There’s no such thing as a perfect life. I want be able to see my friends whenever I want, to enjoy the easy closeness that makes me so happy, to be there for them when they need me and to share in all the highs and lows of their lives alongside them. I also want to travel, to live away from the confines of the normal life I had before, even if just for a little while longer. And never the twain shall meet.

The ache of homesickness isn’t going to go away. But in all honesty I wouldn’t want it to. Whilst it continues to gnaw at the pit of my stomach, I know that my friendships are still king. I am proud of the fact that my love for my friends and family has been a defining part of this past year because, heartbreaking though it is to be away from them, I know it’ll power me to maintain and cherish the relationships that matter to me the most. It’s homesickness that inspired me to fly home for my sister’s 30th birthday, homesickness that saw me change my entire 2016 schedule to meet my baby nephew and watch my best friends get married. It’s homesickness that has me giddy with glee at the prospect of people coming out to visit me overseas, and it’s homesickness that makes me confident that friends and family as golden as mine will still be there for me when I finally make it home.

Meeting my adorable little nephew

Battling sickness-sickness

Ear infection. Stomach flu. Bladder infection. Broken toe. Food poisoning. What do all these things have in common? They’ve all managed to put a real downer on my travels at one point or another. No one actually likes being ill, but there’s a certain meagre consolation I used to enjoy back at home when I was struck down with something nasty – a warm, snuggly duvet, a hot cup of sweet tea, and a soppy rom-com go along way to making me feel better. But when the heat is soaring like a kite and you’re stuck with nothing but a feeble fan wafting warm air over your sweaty forehead, and the whine of mosquitos that persists throughout the dank days and clammy nights whispers the promise of dengue into your ear, there’s no silver lining to being ill abroad. To add insult to injury, the humidity seems to provide any bugs or viruses with the perfect hothouse in which to thrive which makes a full recovery even more of a challenge.

Getting sick abroad - never fun

Sickness is, of course, a part of life, and its role in the last year’s worth of adventures has been inevitable. I am lucky enough not to have suffered from anything too severe or debilitating and I’m very grateful for that. Because at the first sign of unhealthy feebleness, home suddenly feels like a very long way away.

The unexpected

How pointless planning is

This past year has been an exercise in seeing how prone even the best laid of plans are to complete deconstruction at any moment. As a result, I’ve started to slowly (and often reluctantly) accept that planning in general does not have the standing in my life that it used to. That’s hard for me to say, hard for me to swallow. I am, inherently a planner and a doer; the run up to this lifestyle change took months of meticulous, fretful organisation.

Planning to travel - organisation

Was it necessary? Probably not. Since leaving home, I’ve met so many inspiring people who travel the world with a backpack, an ever ebbing-and-flowing float of cash, and a devil-may-care attitude to what comes next. They don’t book their onward travel until the morning they decide to move on, and they care little for what life will look like in 6 weeks time, let alone 6 months. Much as I admire and often envy those who can relax into this level of nomadic uncertainty, I also know deep down that I will never be able to emulate them.

I can however learn from them, and keep the whirlwind of thoughts that is my continual planning process confined strictly to the theoretical and away from the practical. I’ve paid to change flights, or booked tickets for things I later cannot commit to, or created a mental itinerary for a whole new chapter of living that fails to materialise, one too many times to know that there’s no point pinning down a loose plan to specific dates and details until little more than a few weeks in advance. And hard though that is for me – especially on long, sleepless nights – it’s surprisingly liberating in its vagueness.

It’s hard to pick just a few, succinct stories in which to distill a year’s worth of change. In between these distinct memorial milestones have been a myriad of moments which have made my heart soar and plummet. I’m delighted to say that not one of these, however euphoric or disastrous, have given me cause for regret. This helps to soothe my manic mind in its more anxious hours, and gives me the confidence to commit to prolonging this adventure. 

So, as I look to the future, I want to voice my wishes for the next big year of my life…

My SECOND life-change-iversary goals

Tick something off my ‘Diving Big 5’ list

When I first caught the diving bug – after passing my Open Water in Malta all those years ago – I started to become obsessed with the allure of all the strange and beautiful creatures that lay waiting for me just below the surface of the ocean. It seemed magical that we had so much mysterious and highly-evolved life hiding beneath the waves, and all we needed to do was throw on some scuba equipment to enjoy it up close and personal. I made it my mission to discover as much marine life as possible. But there were 5 things in particular that I was dying to see with my own eyes: a sea-horse, a hammerhead, a whale-shark, a manta ray and a humpback whale. Dream big.

Diving Big 5

In 2014, I ticked off my first ‘spot’, a beautiful yellow seahorse in the shallow reefs of St Lucia. In 2015, the hammerhead in Roatan was the next to be ticked off the list. Half way through 2016 and I’m ready for the next!

Establish a more stable medium-term career plan

Who the hell puts paying their taxes on a wish list?! This girl. That’s right – much as I’ve loved living foot-loose and fancy-free for a year, I’m ready to start creating some semblance of ‘real life’ around the peripheries of the dream. With the growing acceptance that this is more than just a brief foray into “travelling” comes the nagging voice that tells me it’s time to legitimise this quest for a life that embraces reading and writing as core component of my career.

Travel writing in Venice

Every time someone wheels out the old “but isn’t your life is just one big holiday” conversation, I have to resist the urge to roll my eyes and walk them through the careful budgeting, the compromise and the hard work that has allowed me to support myself for a year. And yet, a nagging voice in the back of my head whispers that, perhaps, the lady doth protest too much. If this really is to be a way-of-life, a foray into a new career path, and a commitment to all the insecurity and risk that comes with turning your back on a stable pay-cheque, a pension plan and a welfare system, I want to claw back some semblance of security by validating a career that will allow me to earn and enjoy all the peace-of-mind that sensible, stable tax-payers take for granted! 

Take a holiday

…she says, pouring copious amounts of highly-flammable fuel all over the aforementioned “but isn’t your life is just one big holiday” conversation: watch as the fire rages!

I see this goal as the other side of the coin, the yin to the ‘stability and responsibility’ goal’s yang. It’s been an intense, action-fuelled whirlwind of a year, defined by new experiences, change, momentum and steep learning curves. I want the whirlwind to keep on spinning, I want to live in the typhoon of variety and exhilaration it brings, I’m not ready for the pace to slow or stop. But I also want to take a moment to sit in the eye of the storm and take in the vastness and drama of the new life that’s spinning around me in the relative peace that only a holiday can bring.

Travelling the world

Stop worrying

Ha! No seriously.

Money. Security. Career. My relationship with my friends. My relationship with my family. My health. My future. FOMO. An impressive list of ingredients which all mix together to make the most repulsive of cocktails – worry.

Arenal, Arenal National Park

I would love to be able to lay to rest the section of my brain that must light up like a Christmas tree every my internal monologue starts up a persistent string of worried questioning. Be it through mindfulness or meditation, through some sort of practical acceptance exercise, or through a more intrinsic embracing of my fate, I am trying to work on worrying less and living more. I spend too many hours anxiously pondering theoretical issues that haven’t even happened yet; I’ve been known to lie awake worrying that my friends don’t miss me, or that I’m making bad choices, or that I’m spending too much money, or not enough money, or that I’ll become a desperate, impoverished thirty-something who’ll never find the career that revolved around the words that have become my bread and butter, leaving me shoehorned into a menial office role, craving the life I left behind simply because I was too worried to live out its entirety. Seriously, you don’t want to be in my head – it gets ugly in there.

Mayoka Lodge, Roatan

It’s not only unhealthy and depressing, it’s also completely pointless. It brings out a paranoid, needy side of myself that I hoped would be left at home a year ago. This year, I’m determined to send it packing for good. Wish me luck…

So there you have it. One year on a page. I’ve meandered down memory lane and peeked into the tunnel of the future, perched on the milestone of this anniversary. It’s been surprisingly challenging to try and sum up a full year in just a few key moments, but I’ve realised just how meaningful it is to have this little blog as a kind of digital memory-bank. And so, as I step foot into Year Two, I will try my best to keep my fingers scribbling in time with my wandering feet. Brace yourself for the next chapter, whatever form that may take…

The legend of Tioman, Malaysia

Still here? Thanks for sticking around. And to all of you who’ve come along for the journey, whether you’ve been reading from Day 1 or you simply stumbled upon this personal little pocket of the internet mere days ago, thanks for your interest, support and enthusiasm. I am still writing, I promise I am. It’s just you’re less likely to hear about it over here these days. There’s a pesky little item on that bucket list that I’m itching to tick off first…