|The bamboo hut I "should" have loved...|
I’m not exactly sure when the travel bug first bit me, but ever since I packed my bags and moved to Japan I could safely think of myself as somebody a little adventurous. While I haven’t travelled anywhere near as much as some of my friends, I have made it to 22 countries, most of them in the last three years. Like many travellers, I like to see myself as somehow better than your run-of-the-mill backpacker – somebody who doesn’t fall for tourist traps, who gets in there and experiences the “real” feel of a country, and who doesn’t need any luxury to get by. At least, that’s what I thought before I set off on my backpacking honeymoon.
Before setting out, I told my best friend that the majority of the honeymoon would be spent Couchsurfing, volunteering and generally slumming it. She was horrified – surely a honeymoon should be spent in luxury resorts, getting pampered, she argued. I refused to hear any of it – not only could we not afford five (or even three) star hotels; we didn’t want to waste our money on such excessive, unnecessary things as hot baths and soft pillows. We weren’t going to be part of the problem (and tourism DOES ruin local ecosystems) – we were going to save our money and get some real experience.
On our first night at a farm in the middle of the Thai mountains, where volunteers grew and cooked their own food, went to the forest to chop wood for the fire, and slept in bamboo huts with mosquito nets, I realised that things wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped. I could cope with the cold trickle of rainwater that was the shower and the squat toilet covered with ants, but as I lay there on my hard bed, listening to the weird frog sounds outside our hut, I started to doubt the “slumming it” plan. We stuck it out for two nights, went back into the city and promptly cancelled our upcoming volunteering (which I had been really excited about, as it would have meant experiencing life on a self-sustaining farm). I think I could have adapted to the lifestyle there after a few days, but the heat and the million ants that made their way into my backpack - combined with the mosquito bites all over my body - had me craving air-conditioning and a nice latte.
I felt so bad. What a horrible, spoilt, first-world child I was! How dare I want to slip back into easy and comfortable, when it was an impossibility for millions of people out here in Asia? Then again, on the other hand, wasn’t it a bit insulting, somehow, to “play poor” by going out of my way to flirt with romanticised version of a life that is an inescapable reality for millions? I wanted to be able to throw away the luxuries that I was accustomed to, but after only 24 hours of weeding in the sun and being bitten, I was fantasising about nice meals and shopping malls. I disgusted myself.
You might have experienced a similar thing yourself. You want to feel a certain way (strong, serious or easy-going), and yet you just can’t stop yourself from thinking about that forbidden thing; that thing that you shouldn’t want. It might be dreaming of chocolate cake when you “should” be dieting, catching yourself thinking “thank God it didn’t happen to me” when you see someone else’s misfortunes, or looking at something (or someone!) your friend has that belongs to them; something you “shouldn’t” want. After a while (OK, a day or two later when I was sipping a coconut shake and eating Pad Tai… Thailand is amazing…) I came to thinking – what’s the point of beating ourselves up for nothing more than thoughts? How can we make ourselves guilty for having desires and wants?
Now, I’m not saying that you should give in to all of your desires… just because you want to stuff your face with cake, to tell your boss where to go, or to jump your friend’s man doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea. Actions have consequences. But thoughts? They’re going to happen, whether we want them to or not. The trick is to realise that a lot of them pop up without much input from us. As they teach in Buddhism – you are not your thoughts.
If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you’ll find that while you “clear your mind”, hundreds of random thoughts start to pop up. The same thing happens when you start falling asleep – your brain throws up random images, which may or may not (depending on your belief) have any further meaning. Sometimes, thoughts of how nice it would be to grab that dress and run out of the shop will just pop into your head. It doesn’t mean that you are weak, bad or evil. It doesn’t mean that you have somehow failed on your mission.
The more “should”s and “shouldn’t”s you fill your life with, the unhappier you’ll be. If you really stop to think, there are a ton of things you can wish you had done or not done, and even more things that you can reprimand yourself for thinking and feeling. Ask yourself where that guilt comes from. In my case, it came from my belief that being dependent on first-world comforts somehow made me weak, and from my wish to be self-sufficient. As I’m not Mowgli, I’m faced with a choice – I can either learn to become that person (or a close estimation), or I can come to accept the fact that I am the product of my society and forgive myself for it. After that, I can start to slowly work on making myself more independent, if I choose to. The third option is to beat myself up about it, call myself names like “weak” and “spoilt”, and feel miserable.
So, what’s your should be/think/feel? What thoughts do you beat yourself up for? Whatever they are, you’re faced with the same choices. Feel bad about them, and be unhappy; change yourself so that you come closer to what you want to be; or accept yourself for who you are and forgive yourself for having those thoughts.
I’m no princess – I didn’t use a hairdryer or wear make-up for the entire honeymoon (lucky him!), I can happily crash on a sofa or mattress anywhere, but I do get squeamish about bugs and I feel drained in extreme heat. But then again, I grew up in the UK around people who would have a nervous breakdown when faced with a no-flush squat toilet and no paper, so in reality I should be proud of myself for being a little tougher than I was likely to be. Travelling made me realise that I am more of a first-world child than I thought I was, but it also taught me not to feel bad about craving a nice drink and a little five-star class every now and again (even if it stretches the budget a little)!