Journey with Intent: How a Leech Changed the Way I Travel
I am not a death-defying adventurer or an adrenaline junkie. I am an introvert who hides under hats and bangs. In my current city of Boston, I burrow myself into my coat like a turtle if I even think someone might be looking my way. So I'm not one to have dreams of bungee jumping or spending a week trekking in the tiger inhabited jungles of India.
However, introverted nature notwithstanding, I did find myself wanting to get out and have new experiences. I wanted to see temples, eat sushi, see the Taj Mahal, taste a true Thai Red Chili, and learn how to play the Indian flute. I wanted to do something completely outside of myself. I wanted other people to view my Facebook page with jealousy until sadness and envy forced them to binge watch The Office for the 5th time.
Really, I just wanted to feel confident in who I was and the life I was living.
So I began to travel. I started my adventures in South Korea, living as an Expat English teacher and learning to revel in awkward situations. Though I was having new experiences, I still didn’t feel the contentment and satisfaction within myself and in my surroundings that I longed for. In fact, my anxiety became even worse as questions about my future and my worth plagued me even more intensely. To try and remedy this, I decided to take my journey a step further and go to India. Alone. My trip would be for an undetermined amount of time, with no planned schedule beyond the first month.
I had watched documentaries of the chaotic streets, the poverty, color and music of my new destination. I had rented a book on Indian history, and thought if India didn’t kill me, perhaps I would finally find what I had been looking for.
I woke up early on a hot August morning and made my way to the airport. I had said goodbye to my boyfriend a week before after deciding to put all we were into a phrase ending with a question mark.
I love you. What lies ahead?
After a hellish plane ride, an astronomically expensive taxi ride to a leaky hotel, and then on to a train with no markings or station stops, I made it to my new destination: Gorbuthan, India.
From the beginning things started to go wrong. I arrived earlier than expected only to find that Darjeeling train stations do not have wifi, and I could contact no one on my smartphone, least of all my host family.
I waited for half an hour before mustering the courage to borrow a phone from an Indian man waiting nearby.
I tried calling my host family. There was no answer.
Fortunately, my host family found the foreigner who was sticking out like a sore thumb in the crowd, and all was well.
That is until I had my first violent toilet experience. I had decided to spend my first month in India living with a host-family in a tiny town, four hours away from Darjeeling. I was the only foreigner in the whole village, so there was no one to warn me about the effect that homemade curd and Indian spices would have on my delicate western stomach. I spent the first night in my new home pretending that a toilet with no toilet paper would suffice as a bed. In the morning I told my host family of my ordeal, which they assured me was customary and to be expected.
Not even a week later, I tumbled down a mountain path that children run down barefoot and walked like an elderly woman for days afterward. And then I offended my host mother. And then I sweated out half of my body weight. And then I got bitten by a leech.
I was teaching English to some poor and low caste children in a swampy back roads area of Gorbuthan. The kids and I had finished our lesson and were playing a game of red rover, red rover in a yard of knee high swamp grass. I ran after them in the way that adults run after children and fell in the grass with them as we played ring around the rosie. I felt light and buoyant. As their little hands held mine and hugged me goodbye, I felt a rush of the sameness that bonds people together, regardless of country of origin. Soon the sun began to set and I rode back to my host family’s house. I was enjoying the view from my window and felt fully content. My enjoyment of the evening was only dampened somewhat by a distracting burning and itching sensation in my armpit.
I entered my host family’s house and looked under my shirt to find a leech sucking blood from my armpit. Anxiety and fear hit me like a freight train.
Not only had I never seen a leech, but I had no idea they could crawl onto an unsuspecting ankle all the way up the body to make their home in an ignorant moist armpit, and I definitely didn’t know how much the blood sucking would hurt. More importantly, I had no idea how hard it was to get a leech off. Or that they could be torn in half and still keep on sucking. Or that they could neither be washed down the sink nor flushed down the toilet.
Finally, after an hour of struggle, I held the blood-sucking leech at the bottom of the toilet bowl and forced it down with a stick. With the help of the deluge of water that came from the toilet flushing, I finally was rid of the thing and retreated to my bedroom to decompress.
As I sat on my bed, breathing deeply and looking at the 4 red spots in my armpit from which tiny drops of blood were leaking, I began to laugh. I let out a little chuckle that began and ended in my throat and then I let out a giggle and then another and another until I was rolling around on my bed in a fit of deep-bellied unstoppable laughter.
Once I recovered, I picked up my notebook and began to write. I wrote about everything I had encountered with as much detail as possible. I even described the shape of the floorboards at my feet and the way the light above my bed flickered during the summer rain.
I began to travel differently after that night. I felt fully awake. I had made a plan from daydreams but this reality was so much better than my travel fairy tale. I met crazy, kind, angry, selfish people from all around the world, now 30 countries and counting. I went hang gliding. I cried at a Thai funeral of someone I had never known. I was cared for by a stranger when I got food poisoning. I met my personal guru who happened to be just an ordinary man who helped blow the cobwebs out of my head. I was miserable, scared, ecstatic, nervous, joyful, creative, positive and felt all of these things acutely, without shame or worry for the future. I gained a deeper and different understanding of the world, and when I came back home I really was different than when I’d left.
But my journey is not a singular one. In fact, it is rather common place. It all comes down to a simple understanding: you can live your life in a suit of skin that others chose for you, or you can seek a life living in your own and watch as it grows with you. The choice is yours.