Ten years ago today I touched down in Colombia for the very first time.
It was a trip I’d dreamed of for years, saved up for for months, but only ended up taking at the very last minute.
For seven months I’d had barely any social life – working extra hours and saving up as much as I could to start a new life in Colombia with the man I loved. The plans were made, everything was ready – and then he broke my heart, and went off to the life we’d planned together without me. It was all over.
I was twenty-six then, living in London, with a good job, great friends and a broken heart. I’d saved enough money to live in Colombia for a year without working – or, in 2007, enough to get a mortgage on a flat in south-east London. The broken heart aside, I was, by every text book definition, a success.
And with success, comes pressure. Higher targets at work, the prospect of a promotion, the pressure to get on the housing ladder (alongside the warnings of an advancing property boom). Everything I supposedly should want out of life was available to me now – or never (cue ominous music – dum dum duuuuum).
I panicked. Upping sticks and moving to what was known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, on my own, wasn’t the most appealing prospect. What if people thought I was pathetic, chasing a man who didn’t love me? And as for the money… spending so much on an extended holiday did seem a little reckless. I still wanted to go travelling – but was now a good time?
I met with a mortgage advisor, and started flat-hunting. My heart wasn’t really in it, trawling through rightmove wasn’t nearly as fun as trawling through the Lonely Planet. But everyone was telling me that this was what I *should* be doing, and so I did. I found a good sized studio apartment in my price range, and decided to go for it. I put in an offer, and took myself off to Italy for a long weekend while the estate agent negotiated on my behalf.
I spent five days alone, eating gelato, drinking chianti, and enjoying having every single (and married!) man I spoke to, regardless of his age, call me ‘Bella’. I remembered how good it felt to be a foreigner, and I knew what I had to do. Two days later I withdrew my offer on the flat, handed in my notice on my apartment and my job, and six weeks later I was walking out of an airport that looked like a cow shed, trying to fight my way through a crowd of cab drivers who were all trying to hustle me into their taxis. The adventure had begun!
And what an adventure it was. In the next nine months I dived in the Caribbean, hiked in the Andes and sailed on the Amazon. I slept in hammocks, on buses, in bunkbeds and in a brothel. I danced in the rain, and in carnival processions. I fell in love once, and was mugged four times. I qualified as a TEFL teacher, volunteered in an orphanage, and worked behind a bar. I was bitten by a million mosquitos, lost half my body weight to typhoid, and had the best tan I’ve ever had in my entire life. I spent every single penny, and a thousand pounds more.
That was the trip that defined who I am. The trip that changed my life, and brought me right back to where I am today.
If I hadn’t taken that trip, there’d be so many people I hadn’t met, so many good friends missing from my life. There’d be spaces on my walls for photos I hadn’t taken. There’d be no stories to tell – only others to listen to.
If I hadn’t taken that trip, would I have qualified as a teacher? Would I have left my sales job when I felt like I was drowning? Would I have had the confidence to go and live in Spain, find a job, more friends, fall in love again and leave it all behind to go back to Colombia?
And would I have ended up back here, in Liverpool, in a house – an actual house – that cost me less than that studio would have ten years ago?
Maybe I would. And of course I’m being dramatic, of course there’d still be photos, still be stories, still be friends – just different ones. But I don’t want different ones. I love the ones I’ve got. And if I could turn the clock back to ten years ago today, I’d do it all again, exactly the same.
Actually no, that’s a lie. There’s one thing I’d do differently. I wouldn’t drink the water that came off the roof of our rainforest hut during that storm . I’m pretty sure that was the water that left me sweating and shaking with typhoid a week later. That definitely wasn’t my finest moment, and I don’t recommend it.
I recommend everything else though. If there’s a change you want to make, a risk you want to take, something that your heart is aching for, don’t let your mind shut it down. Try and make it happen – even if it doesn’t look exactly as you pictured it, just do it! Do it soon, before it’s too late. Don’t risk losing your chance.
That flat I nearly bought, for £105,000, is on sale today for £250,000. Financially I’d be a lot better off if I’d stayed. But only financially. As a lovely Danish divemaster who I met a few years ago in India told me: ‘I’m not rich in money, but I am rich in life.’
That might sound naive and idealistic, but on a beach in Goa, it made perfect sense, and I remind myself of those words quite often. Every time I think about that trip (pretty much every day), I’m so proud of myself for being brave, for taking the risk, and giving myself the chance to live my dreams. There isn’t one other thing in my house that gives me a similar sense of achievement, that’s why I still prefer to spend my money on experiences rather than objects – I really learnt the value of things when I had to learn to live with only what I can carry – especially as I’m not very strong!
I’m rich in life, even if not in money. So what if I haven’t got carpet on my landing? I’d much rather have photos, stories, and memories instead!
It’s funny isn’t it, how a broken heart led me to one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s hard to believe it was ten years ago. I still can’t quite believe it ever happened at all.