The number of countries I’ve cried over.

It’s also the number of people I’ve cried over.

Something in me just clicked with the four, unexpectedly. The four that left me with an empty heart at the end. The pain faded, the tears dried up, I grew from the experience and I’ve no regrets. The sole reason being it felt like home, yet there were sparks in me at the same time, a combination I always seek in what I do. And I couldn’t agree more with Pico Iyer’s words: And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, in dimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

To me, ever since the first time I flew solo to Chiang Mai in Jan 2007, I’ve felt that travel and love follow the same path. There are countless places to travel to, just like there are countless human beings I could be with. But I’m not one who goes for the sake of going, nor do I seek the company of someone unless I get that home/sparks deal. People aren’t a cure for my problems and what makes me sad is how I’ve been made to feel that by some people. Once my heart felt the effects of travel and love (though there were one-sided), it’s never been the same. Not that I want to shut that door as flying and looking at the sky are much better. Leave it to Leonardo da Vinci to sum it up: For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.

England was always in my plan. Ever since Tay wrote to the family when I was a young girl. It was the burning curiosity, the hunger to explore the unknown; it was also years of working hard and saving harder, refusing money from anyone else so that it’d all be on my shoulders, come what may. It was the giddy excitement for when I got the call to collect my passport with a work-holiday visa after a nerve-wracking interview. It was the unknown the drew me, frightened me.

Oct 2007: London (finally!!), three heavy bags, the amazing Tube system with the endless stairs, brown leaves everywhere. After the initial excitement, reality hit me. Finding an office job would be a DREAM in the middle of the economic downturn. A job in a Chinese restaurant, a tiny room at a B&B on Hooker Road, stuffing my tummy with as much toast and tea as I could as breakfast was free so that I could save a meal each day by skipping lunch and having an early dinner. Anything that could save me some pounds.

Long story short, the job of about a week killed my spirit and I called up a number to help me find a live-in job. The day finally came when I could leave London (by then, I realised that I’d love to visit London but I’d go mad living there). I packed up again and boarded a train to Taunton, where upon arrival I thought to myself, it’s not that bad. There’s the train and bus stations, the high street, all the shops etc as I waited for one of the bosses of the new place to pick me up. He arrived in a silver VW Golf with black leather seats and I started getting very worried as the longer the drive went on, the more rural the destination seemed. There were moments I wondered if he’d rape and kill me. After about 45 minutes of driving along narrow roads in the midst of endless hills and hedges, we arrived at The Crown Hotel, Exford (NOT oxford, as I had to tell some people countless times) in Somerset. It surely wasn’t what I’d expected AT ALL when I accepted the job offer and the knee-jerk reaction was to run back to London, where it was familiar though I felt trapped there. I was shown my room then given an introduction to the place and the other staff who were around. I shut the door, sat in the cold and empty room, banked the tears and decided to give it a week or two. Surprisingly, I fell in love with the place, and it got me wondering if the place found me or I found it.

The creek, which flow of water I could hear when it was really quiet; the sound and the smell of horses, sheep and cows; the endless roads for walking and the views of all the green; the couple with the corgi who ran the shop just next door; the former MAS air hostess who worked in the post office; John the mail man whom I’m forever grateful to as he offered me a lift in the postal vehicle from Exford to Minehead though he wasn’t supposed to or I’d have missed my trip to Austria with my siblings as snow stalled all bus services to and from the village.

Then there was him with the pink cheeks and the fair skin. He who sneaked me scallops as he helped the chefs prep dinner while I struggled to catch up with the endless flow of pots and pans to scrub. He who understood how it felt to be the ‘odd’ one there and ‘being taken advantage of’ just because we were foreigners though he was white and me Asian. The time spent at our spot just outside the staff quarters, cooling down after a sweaty day working indoor, seeing the fall of snow and our breath becoming white puffs of air, sledging down the slope in the village green with two 10-year-olds one morning when we had the day off, both of us ending up muddy and freezing.

And then he was gone when I returned from Austria. I found out from the guys in the kitchen-when they said he went home, I assumed they meant London as he’d been for a while before then. It turned out home was Jo’burg.

our spot, bare. then spring arrived.

His leaving was a blessing as they couldn’t find a permanent kitchen porter and I filled in shift after shift until I was too tired to feel and think of anything much except recognise exhaustion on most days for several months. All I could think about then after those long hours in the kitchen were sleep and rest. One day, it was as if a switch had been flipped and the pain didn’t feel that deep and smiling felt easier. Soon I had to leave my home of about two years before my visa ran out. As pissed as I was on all the JD and Coke’s I had in the hotel bar my last night there, I shed tears as I left my room for the last time, carrying the same three bags I’d arrived with, recalling how Michael Bublé’s ‘Home’ used to make me cry when I first got there. The irony of the situation dawned on me later.

Fast forward to Oct 2010, almost 12 months after my return to KL, when my sister and I left for NZ. Apparently, the itch to just go hadn’t disappeared and there was still one country I could go to for another work-holiday before I hit 30 and there’d be no options left. The boss didn’t want me to resign from the job again and accepted my request for a sabbatical. Again, like Exford, I fell for NZ and the family we lived with for nine months in Te Puke, among humans, friends, friends of friends, dogs, cats and chooks.

Miles upon miles of coastline, how easy it was to get to the sea, kiwifruits-from the bare trees to buds then fruits, all the green, the ungodly hours of work until we wished for a day of rain just to get a day off work, waiting impatiently to move in to 72 Macloughlin Drive from the houseful of Malaysian Chinese, planning road trips, the time spent on the beach with the dogs, eggnog, pretending to be asleep one Xmas morning to avoid Don, spending time with Pinky until his wife became suspicious, the last family dinner, our last hug after I ran down from the bus with tears for that.

Returning to KL was tough and going back to a deskbound job was HELL. I cried for no reason in the middle of work, I lost sleep, I became a zombie, all because I missed my life in NZ. Then as it got better, I started getting some vibes from her whenever I went over to the other side of the office. I finally figured out what the vibes were about, went through another round of sleepless nights and crying, then admitted to myself that my life just wasn’t what I’d expected it to be.

I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings, and I didn’t and still don’t fancy keeping them under wraps. It was only a matter of time when I’d mention that bi fact to those I’m close with just like how I’d say ‘I don’t like that movie.’. It took months before Mum could look at my face whenever we spoke and now ‘gay’ is just another word we use. After sorting myself out, I realised that my feelings for her weren’t because she opened that door in me. What I felt for her was what I felt for him, that was the gist of it. Minus those niggling issues about gender (in)equality. Visit after visit, when I thought there was finally a hint of an us, she disappeared and round three of post-NZ depression started. My cure was sweating, seeking comfort in nature to heal my heart.

I’ve no idea how they are doing and I can now say it doesn’t hurt to think about them. Just like England and NZ, because of the pull to my heart, I gave it all I had but it wasn’t enough for us to have a future. I’m not sure if I’ve always gone with the ‘give it everything I have so I don’t regret a thing’ attitude or if I developed that after Grandpa passed away two weeks before my siblings and I were due to be back home from Europe. And I learned that there may never be a ‘next time’ as we’re so wont of saying-there’s only now.

Never have I felt that so deeply than the moment I collapsed on my knees in front of his coffin at home, sobbing and heaving uncontrollably. I can still remember telling that we’d be back pretty soon before hanging up the last time we spoke on the phone, that last time I heard his voice after not seeing him for about a year. The hello and the bye I never got to say to him-that’s what taught me that ‘next time’, ‘later’ etc isn’t a given and certain moments or opportunities don’t reappear after they’ve gone.

The sky is where I look to, to remind me to breathe, hang on and let go, and also that it’s never the same twice, just like the clouds. I went after those loves that gave me so much as they were what I wanted at some point in my life and there’d be only regret if I hadn’t gone down those paths. I’m just not keen on looking back, wishing I’d gone after what I longed for, despite the pain that came along when things went south. I didn’t know what the future held with those loves back then but I knew I held part of the future in my hands when I was with them.

At my lowest points, I swore to myself I’d stop wandering around and not pursue anyone as they were just pointless and part of me just felt dead. However, after I healed enough, I learned that travel IS like love and both involve very similar risks, risks I told myself I’d NEVER take again when everything hurt, risks I’m willing to take again so that life’s richer.

It’s been nearly 11 years since I first flew off alone and I know that travelling isn’t my escape-it’s something I do regardless of my state of mind. What has changed is I’m content being where I am after trying to outrun myself for so long. I’m back where I started, having returned after all those trips, realising that everything has changed, yet nothing has changed. And that coming back to the starting point isn’t the same as not having left at all.


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