Final reflections from the quartergapyear…

I can’t quite believe that my amazing journey is finally coming to an end. It is exactly 13 weeks ago to the day that I set out from my flat in Blackheath for Heathrow airport, the BA business class lounge, a glass of champagne and a huge sense of excitement and trepidation about what lay ahead. In just 2 hours time, I will be making my way to Bangkok airport. Yes, I will again be enjoying the fine hospitality of BA, and even though I will be sad to say goodbye to travels and be returning to work on Monday morning, I have a different sense of excitement and trepidation about what life will have in store for me. And also a lot of anticipation about what promises to be the best EVER homecoming weekend choreographed by the hostess with the mostest, Mel. Can’t wait to see the girls.

Such were the expectation on the quartergapyear that there was a very big danger of it disappointing, and not managing to live up to what I had dreamed it could be. I have to say, though, that it has truly been the most amazing, most wonderful 3 months of my life. I have pushed myself to be independent and brave; I have met so many great people and new friends; every day has brought a new memory, moment and experience to savour for a lifetime; I have learned new skills; I have found out good things about myself that I didn’t know; I have come to love and appreciate my family and friends even more than I did before; I have said goodbye to the last stage of my life, but with fondness, positivity and goodwill; I have come to understand what the future can hold for me, and to accept the need to take each day as it comes, listen to myself, and embrace new realities with an open heart and an open mind; and most importantly, I have remembered how to live for the moment and wring every last drop of fun, enjoyment and happiness from life. Of everything, it is the last feeling that I hope I can hold on to when I am back.

I have been reading back through my journals, reflecting on the amazing things I have done. It gives me so much pleasure to think how much fun I have managed to pack into 3 months,, how many memories made, how much I have grown and learned as a person. If only every 3 months of my life could be the same. Here are some of the selected highlights:

Friends: a wonderful send off from the girls in Blackheath the night before I left; long emails from Mel and my mum packed with news from home and funny anecdotes; FB chats with all the girls filling them in on the details that haven’t made it onto this blog; a valentines text from my sister; xmas with the delightful Roberts family; sing-a-long Grease with Dan and the boys; dancing in Palms with Dan and Tony; Lou Lou’s birthday celebrations; tears at midnight as the fireworks went off over the Sydney Harbour bridge; last night drinks at the Sydney Opera bar; great news friends like Rebecca and Chris, Jonni and Louisa, Becca and Johannes, Matthew, Arian, Tamara, Jo and Dan, and many more; my lovely scuba instructor Billy and our big tequilla night out.

Personal achievements: feeling truly alive again; sleeping soundly for the first time in ages; scaring myself and enjoying it; being proud of myself for travelling alone and making the whole thing work; listening to myself; fending off the rats; being chilled out when I realised I had missed my flight from Phnom Penh to Bangkok; learning to scuba dive and then getting my advanced qualification.

So many ‘firsts’: scuba diving to 35 metres and seeing a turtle swimming underwater; watching my first 3D film; swimming in a river; seeing a flying fish; staying in a bamboo hut; sleeping under a mosquito net; sleeping outdoors on the top deck of the boat off Richelou Rock; seeing a salt farm; seeing someone eat a deep fried spider; doing a night dive.

Music: open mic night in Cairns; 2 nights jamming with the locals in Kalaw; playing guitar on boats; beers and guitar playing on the rooftop terrace on Bribie Island; learning lots of new songs.

Travel experiences: going back to basics; the roof top bar in Bangkok that was so full of life and fun; temple gazing in Bangkok; picking up fresh pineapple and mango on the go; getting my first glimpse of Burma from the plane as we came in to land; beautiful but crumbling architecture of Yangon; cooling off with the fan in my room in Yangon after a busy day sightseeing; being at Schwedagon Pagoda as my divorce came through on 9 January; reading Burmese Days by Kandawgyi Lake; the sense of camaraderie among female bus travellers as we all troop into the ladies toilets together on stops; Ang Sang Suu Kyi’s writings on friendship in Letters from Burma; the dawn bus ride from Kalaw to Nagschwe as the mist rose over the hills and through the trees; catching up with Kalaw friends at Inle Lake; bike ride with Matthew and Arian through the beautiful Burmese countryside and feeling an impulsive smile strech wide across my face as I felt so truly happy; Bagan temples by horse cart and hot air balloon; the boat ride from Nuang U to Mandalay with beers and guitar on deck and amazing sun rise and sun set; the motorbike ride along the beach with Ray in Ngwe Saung; crazy nights out with Tamara in Siem Reap; sad historical truths in Phnom Penh at S21 prison and the killing fields; watching a family playing together on Otres beach; feeling like I was at the edge of the world at the old casino on Bokhill Mountain; the 1965 film at the National Museum of Cambodia; Cambodian cooking course; my island paradise in Koh Pagnang; my luxury boutique hotel in Bangkok.

And that, as they say, is a wrap.

I now have an hour to shower and prep for my trip to the airport and then it’s head down and wake up in London.

In many ways, I don’t want this adventure to end, don’t want to come home and back to reality. But then I remember Anna’s wise words ” you will remember that the world is such an amazing place, and you have barely begun to scratch the surface. So much more to see and do.” I already have plans for where I will go next – not for so long next time, unfortunately, but travel is part of who I am and the desire to explore, learn and grow is stronger than ever in me.  As I said in one of my previous blog posts, ” the fire of adventure has been lit, and its embers will continue to glow in my head and in my heart, the desire to explore and grow have been reawoken in my soul.” It is that thought that I take with me as I bring this brilliant, wonderful, life changing adventure to a close. And come home to start the new chapter of my life.

Quartergapyear Book Club

One of the many amazing luxuries of having 3 months away travelling is having the time to read. I was lucky to get recommendations from many friends. Alas, I didn’t have time to read everything that was suggested, but thanks must go to the following people for offering great suggestions: Mel, Teresa, Jen, Anna, Vidhya, Matt, Matthew, Johannes and Pete, along with the people who compile lists of the 100 books you must read before you die, which I scoured before I left. There are still many great books left to read on my kindle, so there’s something to look forward to when I get home.

Here are the choice works of literature that I read:

A Street Cat Named Bob, James Bowen
The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling
Burmese Days, George Orwell
Letters from Burma, Ang Sang Suu Kyi
The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch
Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
The War of the Worlds, HG Wells
First They Killed My Father, Loung Ung
Travels with my Aunt, Grahame Greene
The Long Shot, Stephen Leather
A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Money, Martin Amis
Fatherland, Robert Harris
God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens
Bring up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
MI6: Life and Death in the British Secret Service, Gordon Corera

Scuba diving off Richelou Rock

I just spent 5 days scuba diving on a live aboard boat off the west coast of Thailand. We took in the Similan Islands and the famous dive spot off Richelou Rock, among the top ten places to dive in the world. It was a truly fantastic trip on so many different levels – amazing diving, fantastic people, and out of this world scenery from the boat.

There were so many good things, it’s difficult to know where to start and I wouldn’t come close to doing the trip justice. But here are some of the highlights: gaining my PADI advanced qualification under the careful supervision of the lovely Billy; seeing so many new sea creatures I haven’t seen before, including a couple of turtles and some cuttle fish; doing my first night dive, seeing the plankton that glow when you move the water, and gazing up at the stars afterwards as we waited for the boat to pick us up (thinking to myself, ” life is good”); mountains of amazing Thai food prepared by the lovely Burmese chef; the fun loving Burmese crew who always noticed when I needed help hauling my gear onto my back, and help me get my fins on every time; Vernon’s brief briefings (we will go out, we will explore, we will see fish – enjoy!); the funny French guy in our dive group who taught me to swim with my arms crossed in front of me and to slow down my kicking to conserve more air and generally make life a lot easier for me; the soft coral at Richelou Rock that looked like purple sprouting broccoli; swarms of thousands of fish, flitting from synchronised dance routine to standing army pose; sleeping on the roof of the ship on my final night, first time I have slept under the stars; drinking very strong shots with the lovely Czech family on my first night and again to celebrate me qualifying on the last night; managing to swim against a really strong current off Koh Tachai Pinnacle; nightime chats with my room mate; playing the guitar on deck at night to an appreciative audience; sitting on the front deck drying off in the sun after each dive; and the beautiful greens and blues of the sea around Shark Reef on day one.

I have an underwater photo of me coming from one of my fellow divers soon, but in the meantime a few shots from the boat:

In Ranong harbour before we set off:



Out on the high seas:



In the Cactus bar back in Ranong, celebrating me joining the illustrious ranks of PADI advanced divers (lowest depth of the trip – 35 metres!!):




Needless to say, I didn’t see a.m. the next day…

Summing up the last 2 weeks…

Blissfully, there has been so little to report from the past 2 weeks. Beach. Books. Food. Guitar. Sleep. Repeat. As there is a very real risk of my loyal blog readers deserting me in favour of some young whipper snapper with tales of trekking, cultural insights and meaningful interaction with the locals, I thought I better fill the void with some photos. Sorry, its all I have for you…

Beach art:



Sensational colours:


Books, lots of them:


Chilling out:


Shark-shaped cloud:




The End.

On friendship and future adventures…

Today I awoke to a wonderful email from my lovely friend, Anna. She had read one of my recent posts, questionning how I would be able to leave this adventure behind and come back to the reality of life in London. It made me think a lot, both about this and future adventues, but also about how lucky I am to have such wonderful friends. I hope she doesn’t mind me reproducing some of her email here:

”I just read your last blog with the usual fascination and jealousy and felt impelled to impart some traveller-to-traveller insight into your ponderings on whether this can change you. The simple answer is you have already been changed by the experiences you have had and those will never leave you. Ýou can’t stay the same as you are now otherwise you wouldn’t be able to operate in London, but somehow deep inside you are different. I think, for me at least, this comes out most in times of the usual rat run crises, stresses and strains. There is something of travelling as you have done which means that perspective can be easier to come by. Hold onto this, as it is one of your most valuable lessons in life. Not that it is all zen, but you can remember much quicker that life is good. And most importantly, you will remember that the world is an amazing place, and you have barely begun to scratch the surface. So much more to see and do. Relish these last moments but know that your return to Blighty is not the end, just a new beginning.”

My email from Anna made me pause to think about two things: friends and future travels.

I feel so very lucky to have such amazing friends in my life, family included. While I am sad to see my journey come to an end, it is the thought of their smiling faces, their laughter, their arms reaching for the bottle to pour me another glass that makes me feel happy about going home and not dwell on the sadness I feel about this wonderful journey ending. They have shown me such kindness and warmth, humour and love inspite of the distance and time differences while I have been away – Mel’s long emails about life back home, packed with hilarious anecdotes and the news items that really matter to me; Louise’s spontaneous text messages to tell me she misses me and can’t wait for me to get home; FB messages from Alice adressing me as ‘Miss Briggs’ and always so positive and encouraging of the wierd and wonderful things I have been up to; Teresa thinking of me all day on 9 January; emails from my mum and dad, so thoughtfully written and wrapped with love; the valentine’s day text from my sister; random FB chats with Dan; and messages from friends, both close and less close, celebrating my decision to travel and showing their support. I have appreciated every single one.

I have never believed that ‘á problem shared is a problem halved’ – a problem shared is merely a problem that more people know about. My independence of spirit and mind has made me guard this principle a little too firmly in the past. But over the last year, my friends have been invaluable. I am not convinced that they solved my problems for me – I maintain the key to anyone’s happiness lies with themself. But a problem shared kind of was a problem halved, as their support made it much easier for me to do my job of reflecting, processing, problem solving and starting again.

When I was in Burma I read the beautifully written Letters from Burma, which as well as giving an insight into life in the country, also provides some wonderful quotes on friendship. First: a saying from the Lokaniti, a guide to prudent living, says ”the friends who stand by you in severe ailment, in times of scarcity, or in misfortune, when captured by an enemy, at a kings door, or in the Charnel-house, they indeed are good friends.”

Second: ‘Áccording to the teachings of Buddhism, a good friend is one who gives things that are hard to give, does what is hard, bears hard words, tells you his secrets, guards your secrets assiduously, does not forsake you in times of want and does not condemn you when you are ruined. With such friends, one can travel the roughest road and not be defeated by hardship. Indeed, the rougher the path, the greater the delight in the company of Kalyanamitta, good and noble friends who stand by us in times of adversity.”

And this brings me back to this adventure. I suppose in many ways I need to switch my thinking. Yes, this physical journey is ending; in 2 weeks time I will be in cold and rainy London rather than coccooned in my travelling paradise. But I know it will continue – the fire of adventure has been lit, and its embers will continue to glow in my head and in my heart. The desire to explore and grow have been reawoken. Anna is right that I have already changed and will definitely come back different. I can say for sure that life will never be the same again. And I know for a fact that the most important constant in my life will continue to be my family and friends.  Wherever I am, and whatever I am doing.