A year ago, I left my job to go fulfill a childhood dream so I packed a 45L backpack and boarded a plane to Kazakhstan.
I decided I’ll travel differently this time – to go to places less heard of, to do things that are less conventional. I wasn’t leaving to run away, in fact, I left to run towards something big. Something important. It was a hunger to grow, a hunger to learn.
Traveling as a minimalist taught me many things. Here are the 4 lessons that I will take with me as I continue down this journey of life.
Lesson 1 in the Himalayas: the beauty of anti-ownership
Ping! I get a message. I dove across my 200sq ft apartment and yanked my phone from the charger. It was Al. My heart quivered every so slightly but I waved it off. If I ever want to see him tonight, I better get a move on. I sprinted to the bathroom and started volumizing my messy curls. I looked in the mirror and a dissatisfied made-up version of me stared back. I need some lipstick. I opened the side cabinet only find asprin, tyneol, ibuprofen and other close family members. I opened the cabinet on the other side and only find rings, earrings and other knick-knacks. I grabbed 4 gold rings and strategically spread them across my fingers. Where is my new lipstick? I danced past 6 other tops I tried on earlier, strewn helplessly across the floor, and picked up a patent leather clutch. I looked in my desk. No lipstick. What the heck. Half an hour later, I panted out the front door, lips a shade of the latest deepest purple, left hand clutching my pair of 4-inch heels, right hand locking up my Wall Street apartment, right arm still struggling its way into the sleeve of my winter coat.
New York City in my early 20s. It was dates, drinks, and parties. It was a chase to be with the most desirable man, to be complimented in the newest outfit, to be seen in the hottest clubs. I wanted so much and I wanted more.
Fast-forward. In April, I spent 20 days trekking the Annapurna mountain range at the roof of the world. Moneyless and everything I owned on my back, I walked. Just me, my backpack and my thoughts.
I distinctly remember sitting in front of a remarkably handsome glacier. The air was a crispy silence and I breathed in deeply, without regret. The sun was rising beyond the peaks and the rays started illuminating the mountain tops with a warm orangey glow – like the kind you’d find lounged in a lazy daydream from a faraway memory. It was mesmerizing and I was mesmerized. I felt overwhelmed. I felt the power and arrogance of the mountains; I felt its secrets and the tenderness. I felt tears creep into the back of my eyes.
That moment, it hit me. I learned the beauty of simplicity and existence. How remarkable is it that we need so little to live such rich lives! Our society has ironically inscribed an idea upon us – that we need to chase goods, chase people, chase love. Our concept of happiness has been distorted so that we feel joy at our friend’s jealousy of how big our houses are, or how expensive our cars are, but in essence, all we need is connection.
In that split second of my unparalleled happiness, I had nothing but the richness of the moment. When you own less, you learn to live more.
Lesson 2 in Pakistan: expect non-expectations
I sat down on a curb in Seattle and started crying. My career and aspirations flashed before my eyes. I worked hard this year and expected a raving review. I shipped multiple features, I fixed countless of bugs, I built immense camaraderie at work. I expected a promotion. My review at work ended up being just average and suddenly, I felt like a complete failure. I saw my track to promotion, my path to leading a team, my chances at owning a large-scale product crumbling into sawdust. I was a failure. The tears kept coming.
Work. It consumes us when we love it, it kills us when we hate it. Like most driven, diligent workers, I thought things come when I wanted them to. I expected pats on the head.
Fast-forward to this past March. I decided to travel to Pakistan to learn more about the country’s rich culture and explore its northern region. Places like Skardu in Northern Pakistan are famed for its summer meadows and endless greenery. I excitedly called my two local friends, Zan and Mari, and told them about my plans. There was a moment’s pause before they questioned my timing. “Hedge your expectations” they advised “it’s still the tailend of winter and the roads are icy. There will be no flowers, nor no summer skies”.
I was torn but ultimately figured why not? Traveling should be the adventure itself. And surely enough, I ended up falling madly in love with Skardu. I loved the barren landscape – the jagged dead-grey mountains juxtaposed against pops of dirty pink from flowering cherry blossoms. I loved the cold rocky deserts next to icy pale blue rivers rushing with life.
Expectations lead to unrealistic outcomes that you project onto other things or beings. The problem with expectations is that your happiness is predestined by uncontrollable data points. We often forget life happens and things often go wrong. Without flexibility and optimism of a situation, you are bound to be unhappy or unsatisfied.
Skardu has taught me to appreciate the now, and to quell expectations for people nor places. Without expectations, your baseline is zero and therefore, outcomes can only be positive and better.
Lesson 3 in Tajikistan: the art of letting go
I sat next to two girlfriends of mine, Terese and Aisha. We’re on our second glass of wine waiting for our third friend, Marina, to show up. We made reservations weeks ago at this cute restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. It was for Valentine’s day and we figured there’s no better way to celebrate our friendship and our singlehood than with oysters and LBDs. It was a busy month filled with papers and exams but we decided to prioritize our get-together as a much-needed escape from the library. We lounged carelessly across the velvet seats, giggling mischievously as we exchanged recent gossip. Every so often, one of us would check our phones. The WhatsApp group was filled with double blue ticks and no response.
Another half hour passed. A quick vibration followed by a sorry – can’t make it. Just got asked on a last minute date.
Marina and I used to be very close friends. When we met, she was kind, considerate and driven. Beautiful on the outside and inside, a smart lady you’d want to spend hours with because she’s simply so lovely. It’s a classic Mean Girl kind of story. She built up an ego, started prioritizing social clout. She would commit to plans then back out suddenly if someone ‘more impressive’ messaged her.
Losing a friend is hard to stomach, seeing a close friend change into someone you barely recognize or respect is impossible to forget. You feel foolish, betrayed, and duped. You’re angry at them and you’re angry at yourself. The opposite of love is indifference and you simply cannot let go of who they once were.
Fast-forward to last November, I travelled to Tajikistan with my boyfriend, Jack. We decided to do the ultimate road trip and drive from southern Kyrgyzstan into central Tajikistan. The trip was on a jarring road next to the cliffs of Tajikistan and the border of Afghanistan. Jack and I coordinated with an agency to help us source a good car, driver and to figure out the logistics. We were excited to spend a week living with local villagers and assimilate into their culture.
On day 2 of 7, we realized that our driver was dishonest. He was cutting our trip down to 4 days as he had to get to the capital earlier than expected and can no longer carry out our itinerary. Jack and I were furious. Not only did we pay too much amount for the trip, the shortened journey meant less exploration and more time sitting in the car. Had we known this ahead of time, we would not have gone ahead.
That day we learned a new ‘emotional minimalism’ – the art of detaching and of letting go. We removed ourselves from the aggravating scenario to focus on facts. We were in the middle of nowhere and our options were limited: to either stay annoyed and let the situation ruin the rest of our trip, or, to move on and make the most of our remaining time. Furthermore, the driver seemed dishonest to us but we do not know what’s going on in his life.
You can only see the sun when you step out of the shade. Once you let the negatives depart, you will start recognizing the positives of your situation and appreciating the Now.
(Sent from Bangthali, Nepal)