Came for the places and the chance for a month-long quality time with myself, but stayed for all the serendipitous encounters and happenstances that I never anticipated to happen.
That is perhaps how my recent travels to the UK, Ireland, and other British Crown dependencies in-between in May 2022 were best summarized.
It was the first time I solo travelled after a long-overdue five-year, also the first in my late twenties. Perhaps the title that is most fitting to label the trip was an “ultimate bachelorette solo pilgrimage,” considering this might have been the all-in journey that uplifted me emotionally and spiritually in a way, almost like a personal pilgrimage, and also possibly the peak of travels I’d be able to do in my unmarried years considering my hectic daily 8-to-5 job in that would most likely stay so in the next few years.
I remember that my younger self used to consider solo travelling as an outlet to be fully alone with myself – a time where I would allow my introverted side to shine unabashedly.
However, it was a much different one this year. Being 28, I had approached the chance to wander around a foreign territory all by myself differently, without even realizing it in the first place.
To start, I met and connected with dozens of interesting souls that I’d definitely lose count of had I not jotted their names down a list in my private notes. I witnessed how my best personality I had forgotten to possess bloomed and lingered given the right circumstances. I experienced a handful of surprising, even to some extent life-altering occurrences that I hadn’t even thought about ever coming about. I also had a few moments of deep ponders and contemplations about life that led me to revisit my childhood dreams, ask myself about what rings the truest to my heart, and notice all the different spectrums of emotions I could be immersed in had I just allowed myself to sense and absorb them mindfully.
It is perhaps impossible to include all those stories about rewarding and meaningful occurrences within a blog post. A whole book is what would be needed to elaborate all the intricate details – the tiny bits that led to the bigger picture of recalibrating my north star, redefining my core, and rediscovering joy and love. And I certainly did not expect a month trip to lead to this much of serendipitous encounters and findings.
But this post will be the start – the prequel that perhaps serves as an epitome to the thirty-day journey, which to me meant way so much more than just visiting and seeing new places halfway across the globe after years of deferral. To me, it’s the people, and the compassion from them and the universe that had made all the differences.
New Friends, Made
Perhaps the most memorable bit of my travels, the opportunity to cross paths with these strangers-turned-friends was absolutely one to cherish. It’s rather surprising to believe that I, a self-labelled introvert, had made 24 new connections during this one-month trip – almost one for each travelling day. Most were from Couchsurfing, either hosts or locals I simply hung out with, while a handful of them were friends of someone I just met as well or people I met during certain day tours.
Each of these 24 souls was not even just an individual I met briefly. We shared meaningful and rewarding conversations at some point, and today, we remain under each other’s radar thanks to social media and whatnot.
From a friend who handed me the unanticipated chances to unlearn the initially very binary concepts of friendship I used to hold on to, and to later rectify the intriguing spectrum it could be instead; a host-turned-flat-mate whom I had unofficially adopted as my older sister where I could bounce off cool ideas off the top of my head and deep contemplations with; a girl-boss kind of middle-aged woman whom I aspire to be decades from now; the most well-travelled person in the entire island who defies the stereotype of typical locals who were generally not very open with the idea of seeing the larger world; individuals who remind me the importance of choosing your peace and tranquillity over self-depriving, soul-sucking corporate hustles; to souls with the most well-versed thoughts who helped me carve out my initial pathway towards the unknown territory about what I truly seek for in life – I’m thankful that they filled certain pages of my book of life and they are absolutely ones to re-read in the future.
These people helped me realize the comfort and delight of someone’s company when I thought I’d come all the way here to solely enjoy my solitude; made me feel safe, welcomed, and loved in their once-foreign presence; and even invited me to their personal safe space where I made bits of it my own as well.
Old Friendship, Rekindled
What marked the start of the trip was actually sharing the first leg of the flight connections with a good friend of mine of eleven years that I barely saw these days due to her work placement. We parted ways in Dubai, but it was delightful to start a trip of everything unknown with a familiar face.
I met a handful of friends I had not seen in years – the longest was one of my first friends in Canada whom I had not seen in five years and only started talking to again last year, following four years of dormant friendship.
In an edgy bar filled with booths with its personal vinyl player, the freshly-plowed back garden of a house where emotional baggage from a few years back was unintentionally unloaded, busy streets of a town filled with humans I assumed to have mostly IQs higher than 140, hectares of green grass where little humans were exploring the fountain, streets filled with pastel-coloured facades of various houses, these old friends and I had all sorts of conversations about past, present, and future, and relentless idea exchanges. With the slowly vanishing odour of burnt cannabis, the midnight sky that would never turn pitch black, or a large cup of tea and chai that turned cold way too fast, I was made to appreciate the presence of familiar faces among everything foreign.
Almost Something, Remembered
London was truly the place for unforeseen encounters. It started with a stranger from a flight who saved me from the dullness of a two-hour immigration queue. We did not end up exchanging names or contacts by choice, but it was still a delightful mini story to remember the London Heathrow Airport by, which got me all giggly every time I revisit the memory. Sometimes I still wonder if I had lost a chance to make a friend that I’ll most likely get on with, but at the same time, I believe it’s for the best due to certain reasons that only wise ones would comprehend.
Faces from the Screen, Surfaced
On the following day after that romcom-material little airport story, my withstanding lucky streak led me to a very random encounter with a solo hijabi travel blogger I had looked up to since I was younger. The scene remained in London. She was presumably supposed to be living halfway across the globe from where I bumped into her that morning, and it just turned out that she only moved to London a day before and had not announced it in any of her socials. Then in a place as crowded, restless, and perplexing as the Borough Market, we happened to pass by a quiet corner at the exact same time, and that was when I ran into her and immediately struck up a conversation with this role model whose life I’ve followed from behind a screen for the last six years. Could you imagine how starstruck I was?
Then, towards my last days in London, a new friend and I went to see Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebration with thousands of other city dwellers. With no particular goal in mind, we decided to perch on one of the rows by the sidewalk next to the Horse Guards Parade. Out of sheer luck, the route was actually passed by the royal families, among which were Kate Middleton(!) and Meghan Markle(!!), who passed by in front of us and waved to us during the parade! Imagine the surprise. This was perhaps the coolest thing that could possibly ever happen during my travels, not to mention that I’m also happy about whom I shared that particular experience with.
Blessings and Protection, Not Taken for Granted
I had my fair share of experiences that allowed me to see how much protection He and the universe have granted me during these travels. From meetings with only the kindest, most heartwarming souls including Couchsurfing hosts who generously provided me with immense hospitality and feelings of safety, comfort, and warmth; new friends with whom I shared only the nicest hang out together which felt very safe all the time even when we were out until midnight; to strangers who were the absolute source of massive help in times of dire need.
But perhaps the most significant one took place on my last day of travel. In the afternoon, I had thought to have lost my camera containing thousands of pictures I foolishly hadn’t backed up yet. Feeling devastated but still trying to be logical, I emailed, called, and visited every crime scene and lost-and-found office possible. But I was very fortunate that the camera, which was apparently accidentally left on a bus, was found by someone whose compassion told them to give the camera to the bus driver and thus the lost and found section at the bus office where I was able to retrieve it. The staff from the bus office, noticing that I was a fellow Muslim, even went through the trouble of driving me back to the Tottenham Hale Station so I could catch a tube from there to go back to London.
Truly grateful for these people, for their help was truly a reminder of how much I had been blessed with kindness and protection during my time in this foreign land.
Things Meant to Hear and See, Heard and Seen
I came to this vacation being aware that I had certain doubts about life I would love to get answers from, and an intuition that these travels would at least help to show me the route that will lead there.
From quiet evening long walks home where particular thoughts became more crystallized; conversations with people who offered different perspectives and had their questions figured out in their own ways; to honest and genuine affirmations from people I had only known briefly, but rather intensely, about how they perceived me and what I was capable of – I learned to absorb and digest every talk and passing thoughts mindfully, with the sole hope of finding (clues to) an answer.
Still on my last day of travel which turned out to be quite an intense one indeed, I decided on the spur of a moment to book a jukebox musical theatre that was & Juliet. I had had some ideas beforehand that it was meant to be a fun and joyful musical – so it came as a surprise for me that I actually spent the last twenty minutes of the play only sobbing and crying following their dialogues and singing, although I embraced the tears willfully.
For instance, the moment when Juliet confronted everyone, saying, “Why is everyone saying, ‘Juliet must’? Why doesn’t anyone ask me about what I want instead?” followed by the scene where P!nk’s “Perfect” was sung for her, and every scene that followed ever since, I felt like I was meant to witness all of those, because I needed someone to affirm those things for me as well. It was worth all the ugly tears that I could barely control let alone contain until I was the last person to leave the theatre and had to be escorted to find the exit. And even then, I still sobbed some more during the curious yet pleasant walk along London’s bustling West End nightlife on that Friday night and also on the tube ride home.
It felt as if I was meant to hear and see those things, and so the universe made sure I heard and saw them firsthand.
Something that would always pique my curiosity when I am solo travelling is how much I seem to be able to unleash the better parts of my personality – particularly those I don’t normally observe when I am back to my routine in Indonesia.
I was reminded about how much of a lovely and delightful person I could become – to the point I felt that it might be unfair for my loved ones back home that they perhaps barely saw these sides of me. At the same time, it made me appreciate these people at home even more, since they still stick and bear with me regardless.
There is something about solo travels that makes me effortlessly connect well with everyone I am having a conversation with, want to stop and smell the blooming roses after the rain and just appreciate the tiniest intricate detail on the streets that I encounter with every walk, smile genuinely and say hi at strangers, wave at every driver who lets me cross the road before them, help a stranger who trips at the slippery sidewalk and offer them my limited-edition Star Wars plaster, and overall become a more delightful person who is such a joy to be around.
I hope this person stays. I hope this woman, who wakes up out of the blue from her cocoon, chooses to hang around for a longer while. I hope her happiness persists and more of the world gets to enjoy that side of hers. I hope her insecurities in the past are truly embarrassed to ever show up and haunt her in the first place, for she could be as amazing as she never really thought she could be, had she believed in what’s underneath the only layer she has been preemptively showing the world these days.
After all, that vacation wasn’t really about (just) the places. The moment those travels were happening in each second, it might have been the places that excited me the most; but weeks, months, and definitely years from then on, I know that it’s the faces and shared joys that I would remember the best.
The girls who told me to read a certain book upon hearing my travel quest;
the guy who said his highlight of the weekend was to see me chasing a random stranger for blocks just because I wanted to take a clear shot of her cool hairstyle for my reference;
the girl who wants to take a gap year in her thirties and keeps offering me the most thought-provoking true stories;
the guy without whom I would not realize I’d been carrying a very disturbing postcard that I had foolishly meant to give out as souvenirs for my Couchsurfing hosts;
the girl who turned her life around out of a series of trial and error that ended up in a life-altering moment involving a hospital bed;
the guy with whom I pondered about life on a steep hill covered in wildflowers overlooking the most picturesque coastal scene;
the girl who stopped to take a mindful minute to smell and appreciate the beauty of the flowers;
the guy who was a recovering addict of temporary love;
the girl who was torn between choosing to submit to her logic or to follow her intuition because she did not know anyone to look up to who had ever done the latter;
the guy who vanished into thin air;
the girl who reappears, lives, and promises to persist and bloom, wherever it may be;
everyone remains as permanent chapters in an anthology that wrote itself out even without me holding the pen. I will be carrying scattered memories of them in the back of my mind just like they carry what’s of mine, and when I steal a glimpse of those recollections, my heart will also tingle a little for I will be reminded of how very full it once was, back in early Spring of 2022, when I was a temporary home away from home.