Social media makes travel seem like a reel of perfect moments, your hair never mussed. The reality is often a mission - but that's why it's worth the ride.
They say there’s no better place to start than the beginning – and so that’s where this blog will set off. At that point when you’ve over-packed your suitcase, stuffed your pockets full of foreign currency and are gazing up at the departures board, dazzled by its ever-shifting array of destinations.
The beginning of the journey.
As a child on family holidays, I used that board as a bucket list. I’d pick out the furthest, dreamiest cities and determine to find my way there: Sapporo, Sydney, Santiago.
Looking at the list of departures felt like the most wondrous form of window shopping. Maybe, if I just gave my parents the slip as they refuelled in Starbucks, I could stowaway on one of those far-flung flights and wake up on the other side of the world.
Because it seems so simple – in movies and hotel brochures and Insta stories. One smooth plane ride binge-watching all eight instalments of Harry Potter and poof – you’re in paradise.
In reality, the beginning is never that easy.
To say my arrival in Tokyo was a messy landing would be a serious understatement. I’d made the rookie error of booking the cheapest flight I could find – which meant my trip to Japan was preceded by a twenty-hour layover in Abu Dhabi. I’ve no doubt it’s a wonderful city to visit with some friends and cash in tow – but for a solo female traveller with just enough for the public bus, it was a sweaty, exhausting nightmare. Walking proved impossible in the 40 degree midsummer haze, so I hopped from bus to bus, unable to explore any of the sightseeing spots I’d plotted out.
After seven cramped hours in the sky, unable to shower or sleep, I arrived in Tokyo too blurry-eyed to remember the Kanji I’d memorised. I boarded the wrong train within ten minutes on Japanese soil.
Here’s the catch you might not know about Narita airport – it’s actually way out in the wilderness. So taking the fast train was not in my budget. Arriving at Ueno station wasn’t what I’d planned. Suitcase bumping down the many stairs behind me, I meandered through the sea of people swarming Tokyo’s maze of subway stations in search of my stop. When I finally made it above ground, I couldn’t find the hostel. The light was darkening to dusk, and my last dregs of energy were fading fast.
I stood at the roadside, staring down at Google Maps. The app assured me that my destination was just four minutes away, but with no WiFi in reach, it resolutely refused to reveal which direction I should walk in. I caved and activated my data on the other side of the world, trying my hardest not to calculate the hit my phone bill would take.
When I finally reached my solitary bunk in the corner of the stark, minimalist hostel dorm, I was so relieved that the thin walls and creaky bed springs barely registered. Stomach hollow, I ditched my scuffed suitcase and holed up in the tiny Korean restaurant across the alleyway, to munch bulgogi and soak in the sense of pride.
I made it.
This might just be the real reason why we travel. Anyone can book a package deal to Tenerife and lounge poolside. But to travel takes guts. It takes courage to carry on – to move beyond that dizzying moment when you realise you're all alone in a vast, incomprehensible city. When you gaze up at the tiny plane trails streaking the sky to discover how small you truly are.
But there’s something – about that sense of utter freedom that comes with being untethered from your ingrained daily slog from home to work to the pub and back – that gives us a wild kick of wonder.
Why else would we do it?
My bed at home is much comfier. But the thrill is in the unknown. And the way I know I'll level up with every hurdle I clamber across.
So next time you’re standing beneath the departures board, take a deep breath. It might be a bumpy ride. There will be many late night convenience store meals, blisters and lonely moments that never make it to your Insta feed.
But these are the times you remember at the end of the road, the tales you’ll tell your grandkids when they’re planning gap years to Mars. Because those battle scars are evidence that you hauled yourself halfway around the world in one piece.
So treasure the highs and lows equally. And always bring a legit, old school map.