When I was in college, they offered a program to go to a variety of different countries around the world during what would have been Spring Break. The problem? You still had to pay for it yourself.
I somehow had to get an extra $1,500 plus extra spending money in less than a year to be able to go Taiwan. During this time I was working at Starbucks about 35 hours a week on top of college classes. I’m talking about 5 am morning shifts and an 11 am class right after.
Meanwhile, Mitchell (who had just proposed to me) had gotten the chance to go to Los Angeles for a semester for a special program with Indiana University. So during this time I was managing a long-term relationship, juggling crazy classes, and trying to survive an almost full-time job.
It’s no wonder that I lost a lot of weight (and hair) and began to slip into what most people would consider depression. Though I was never officially diagnosed — partially because I was too afraid — I had a lot of the symptoms. I just knew I wasn’t okay.
But I was determined. I knew that if I could just make it to Taiwan, be able to experience a culture that I’ve loved since I was a little kid, I would be okay.
And somehow the money came.
College was not a good experience for me. Our college was set up in a way where we would take twice as many classes for a shorter amount of time. This setup resulted in ridiculously hard and disorganized classes that made my head spin.
Needless to say, when I realized we would be staying at another college with students, I was nervous.
But the college was different than I had expected. Much like the rest of Taiwan it was a combination of nature, tradition, and industrialization.
Traveling let me see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Being in Taiwan was like walking through the world as an infant again. I knew almost no Chinese, and I depended on our guide Matthew (the college Principle) and several of the students to help us wherever we went.
I didn’t have to worry about homework or work. I didn’t have to think about what I was going to do all day. I was able to view a new world through experienced eyes.
Because I was in Taiwan, I could only really use my phone when I had access to WIFI. This access became more complicated by the fact that Taiwan was 12 hours ahead of Indiana and 15 hours ahead of Los Angeles.
I was also traveling with people I didn’t or barely knew. I ended up befriending a lot of the students, who told me stories about their lives and families.
For the first time in a long time, I realized that my life and my story are in my hands.
Because I was on my own for most of the trip, I was forced to face myself. Did I like who I was becoming? Was I really trying at all? I no longer had anyone to hide behind. Who I was depended only on me.
I was also met with unbelievable kindness and hospitality wherever we went. People would feed us and offer us tea even though we were complete strangers. It was love like I have never known. Love that I knew I had neither earned nor deserved. Being faced with this kind of kindness, I began to feel again.
Before this trip, I was counting calories and making sure I had about 800-1,000 deficit everyday. I was afraid of things like junk food, but then I would binge on a sweet just to feel guilty afterwards.
Though my issues with food were mild, I knew that I was unhealthy. I could tell I was skinnier than I had ever been. When I looked at my hands they felt like paper. Like I could see through them.
Eating was out of my hands during this trip. We ate breakfast and sometimes dinner at the college cafeteria, which had two or three choices each time. When we went out, we ate whatever Matthew, ordered for us.
Food became less about fear and more about fuel.
Several times I was afraid of what I was eating (this was before I was Vegan). But I made a pact with our group leader John that I would eat anything put in front of me. We both thought it was rude to refuse to eat something that someone else had either made or bought for us.
So I experienced food like a local. Candied tomatoes on a stick, pig ears, fish eyeballs. Good stuff too, don’t worry. Lots of dumplings, shaved ice cream, sushi, and soups. And rice. LOTS of rice.
Food was not supposed to be scary. Food was supposed to be fuel and a time to gather as a community. After this trip I began to study my eating habits a lot more closely. I became Vegan (you can check out that article here), where my food choices became less about me and more about my community.
I can proudly say that I’m no longer having eating problems, and I have gained several healthy pounds. I look back at pictures during this time and don’t recognize my thin face and body. But I’m proud of how far I’ve come.
Before my trip, I would run every morning because I was obsessed. I felt like if I didn’t run, even if I still got a ton of walking in that day, I would gain weight.
Even though running was great for me, and it had helped me grow in my confidence, it had become something twisted and unhelpful.
I ran a couple times during this trip, but ultimately I realized that exercising for the sake of losing weight was not going to motivate me forever.
During the trip, we walked every day almost everywhere we went, taking public transportation or cars only when we visited the mountains or museums.
I began to listen to my body and realized I had been working it down to the bone.
Each day I realized that we had walked more than I usually ran, but I wasn’t exhausted. I wasn’t dreading waking up each morning to go running even if it hurt me.
Instead, I listened to my body. When I was tired, I sat down for a while. If I felt okay, I would stand on the subways or buses. I wasn’t worried about how many calories I had burned that day. I was just living.
I love taking pictures. I love creating art and experiencing culture outside of my little world. Through getting to know the students at the college and the locals in the mountain, I saw my life in my own hands for the first time in a long time.
Traveling enabled me to see how other people live, talk to people who lived their lives so peacefully and simply, and realize that I am incredibly lucky to be alive each day. These are the things I learned from this trip.
Even though going home was difficult, and college was yet to get harder, I knew that I had hit a major breakthrough in my mental health. The amazing students who had told me about their lives made me realize that I have a story too. A story that needs to continue.
So I encourage you, wherever you are or whatever you’re going through, if you ever get the chance to travel try your hardest to make it happen.
And no matter what, remember that you too have a story that isn’t finished. You are amazing. You life has purpose. Don’t give up.
Have you gone on trips that changed your life? Comment below about your experiences if you’d like to share.