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A solo female backpacker in Malaysia faces discomfort and self-consciousness as she dines alone in a grimy restaurant. This story forms part of our How Travel Changed Me series.

“So, how was your trip?”

I stare blankly as they await my answer – my facial expression fixed in flustered blinking and an ajar mouth – rapidly whizzing through a mental thesaurus for a word with a bit more depth than “amazing,” tripping on my tongue as I try to mount the task of condensing an experience that realigned my internal cogs into a single, all-encompassing, awe-inspiring, cliché-defying sentence.

This task, I can ensure you, is impossible.

For how can I possibly explain to Freda the power of the unexpected friendships I formed; the pathetically tearful gratitude for the strangers who showed me kindness; the apprehensive delight of arriving in a new destination not knowing what Eden or evil I’m face-planting into; the understatement of even referring to it as a trip, how about my journey or my education or my becoming; the all-consuming fear, the exhibition of fearlessness, the irreversible independence, the humble realizations, and the gut-wrenching loneliness that comes with being a solo, female backpacker?

Quite frankly, truly from the bottom of her heart, Freda does not care how my “trip” was. We are a self-absorbed species, and the only person who truly cares about my travels is me. And that makes it even more worthwhile.

*****

It was early August – the start of hot and humid Malaysian summer – and I had just catapulted into Kuala Lumpur: stop one on my solo adventure through Asia. After my failed attempt of befriending my uninterested hostel roommates, I wondered through the capital city aimlessly and anxiously, rapidly twisting my neck like a lost kitten watching for prey. On that rainy evening, my mission was simple: food. Droplets of rain rolled down my forehead and hydrated my jet-lagged eyes, smearing my vision until smell was my strongest sense. I was guided through the pavement chaos by a scented trail – tangy rice and spicy curry and frying grease – pouring from a nearby restaurant like someone was standing in their kitchen wafting two big banana leaves. The smell became so strong I was practically drooling at the mouth and licking phantom chicken – “We’re here!” my stomach was cheering – but when I blinked away the rain, I unveiled a dirty-looking restaurant with scabby white walls and numerous two-people plastic tables that looked like they had stockpiled multiple layers of unwashable grime. As I debated whether to enter (I hadn’t yet become accustomed to Asian hygiene standards) my stomach squeezed viciously, a painful grrrrr that was audible above the late-evening commotion and the soft pitter of rain. Reluctantly, I advanced, but suddenly my foot unexpectedly halted in the air – mid-stride – and I was shoved by a blast of windy rain so fierce it was like the heavens were trying to warn me of something. Then it dawned: I had never, in my whole twenty-one years of life, dined alone in a restaurant before.

I stopped, oblivious to the inconvenience of a human-sized obstacle in everyone’s path, and observed the couples inside, watching timidly as they laughed under the array of tatty paper lanterns sprouting from the cobweb-drooped ceiling. A little girl with her fingers in her mouth and a curious face blinked back at me, probably trying to work out if she knew the hooded psychopath analyzing them all like a stalker in a murder film. But I couldn’t move. I was self-conscious, scared to enter; I was as friendless as an outcast camel in the middle of the Gobi Desert. I tried to reach for the door but automatically backtracked as though noticing it was electric. As the laughter and chatter in the restaurant amplified, I puppy-eyed the troll bridge blocking my path – it’s ugly mouth shrieking “LONERS SHALL NOT PASS” – and begged it to move aside.

When I finally regrouped my courage and reason, I scurried into the restaurant and flung myself into the nearest plastic seat – wincing at the sharp skkkkr it made as it skidded along the tiles – and purposely faced my back to the room. Paranoid of all the eyes definitely staring at me – the solitary randomer who had the audacity to enter – I instinctively grabbed the silver knife in front of me and closely examined its intertwining flower design like it was the most stupendously fascinating thing in the world. The restaurant chatter teased the air, the words shapeshifting as they entered my ears to personal offenses and assumptions and insults. My face reflected in the shiny cutlery holder on the table: a sweating tomato face drenched in panic and unease. Heart hammering, I quickly stole a glance behind. Realizing that not one person was gawping or even remotely cared of my existence in that restaurant, I put down the sharp knife that was two centimeters from my eyeball. Tentatively, I unhunched my back and uncurled my toes and apprehensively surveyed the smiley waiter as he welcomed me and asked what I wanted to order.

Admittingly, this scene was re-enacted multiple times in numerous restaurants in several destinations. And not only in restaurants. Oh no, why limit myself to a single context for burning self-consciousness when I could reach for the stars and extend my skills to group tours, organized pub crawls, choosing a seat on the bus, hostel check-ins, hostel check-outs, airports (surely everyone is with me on that one?), sunbathing on a busy beach, sunbathing on an empty beach, walking through a crowd, and any time after sunset no matter where my location?

But something happened. It wasn’t a flick of a switch, or a single ground-breaking encounter, or an overnight miracle. The more people I met, the more cultures I lived amongst, the more I was exposed to situations that unnerved me, the more I survived alone, the more I changed. I became independent and self-assured and grateful. I learned to stand up for myself against pushy sellers, to rely on my intuitions, to interact with new people and cultures. Travel had all kinds of challenges, including ones that were impossible to pre-empt until they were there blocking my path, gormlessly grinning and manically waving with both hands, forcing me to collide with them head-on. But accomplishing new fears and obstacles when I had no one to rely on but myself brought a sense of confidence so deeply rooted – a sprouted seed of confidence that shot through my core and intertwined with my rib cage and tinselled my bones, rising upward until it poked out of my nose and eyes and mouth and radiated like a protective halo around my being – that it settles for life.

I realised I could do anything, achieve anything, be anything. My perspective expanded, like every moment I spent traveling was another turn of the handle that tore my brain down the middle, physically opening it up to allow for more ideas and attitudes and angles to nestle inside. My newfound confidence ran through my body like I was being hydrated for the very first time, and when I noticed this feeling anchored inside me – the feeling that cried “YOU GOT THIS” and “YAS QUEEN” as I sashayed through the streets with my head held high – all I could think was, where had I been my whole life?

Weeks later I found myself back in Kuala Lumpur. After another failed attempt at befriending my uninterested hostel roommates (I swear, it’s not me), I decided to treat myself and hop on a bus then a train and head to the Traders Hotel: a classy accommodation for “quality-conscious” travelers that has a sky bar with a first-class view of the Petronas Towers, the largest twin towers in the world. So, on this evening, I scrubbed my thick layer of accumulated traveler dirt until my limbs looked like raw salmon fillets, brushed my long hair for the first time in God knows how long, and boldly rocked up to this ritzy hotel which practically sparkled in its glamor. Basically, I couldn’t have been more out of place if I had been a stripper in a nunnery. I zoomed upwards in the lift and was ushered to the thirty-third floor by a man wearing a black suit so perfect it must have been freshly unpackaged that day. I was seated on a high stool in the center of the room, facing a rectangular swimming pool (a swimming pool in a bar?!), and near a large window view of the magnificent Petronas Towers backdropped with a lilac-tinged sky. Yes, I was alone in a designer cocktail bar, friendless and most likely still dirty and stinking of cheap hostel soap, but I was relaxed, unfazed, alive. As I gobbled the free peanuts from the glass dish, I absorbed my surroundings with an air of belonging like I had never once doubted who I was.

Travel is not an experience that can be explained. If you want to reap the rewards of travel, simply, you must go and let them find you.

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Hannah Hughes

Author Hannah Hughes

Hannah Hughes is a Liverpool-based writing and travel enthusiast. She graduated from The University of Leeds with a degree in English Language & Linguistics, and during her third year completed a study abroad year at the Australian National University. During her time living abroad she backpacked through Australasia and South-East Asia, where she found her love for meeting new people, egg coffee, and crazy beach parties.

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