Saward Abroad

"I shall always be haunted by thoughts of a sundrenched elsewhere." Isabelle Eberhardt

Tag: mental health

Trouble in Toronto

We’re barrelling down the I-95 North to catch a flight to Toronto when I feel the car swerve under us. Half an hour until check in closes, 45 minutes driving left and the back right tire is gone. Max, my host in Rhode Island is frantically making phone calls and I’m left in the passenger seat wondering why my father, a mechanic in the British Army for over 30 years, never taught me to change a tire. I’m pretty sure a jack and a tire iron are involved somehow? I can rewire a plug, skin a rabbit and gut a fish but weirdly tires have me stumped. Triple A tell us that they can’t get anyone to us in time for me to make the flight so we sit, in a parking lot somewhere in Providence and watch the minutes tick past.

“There’s no way we would have made it anyway.”

Max scowls at me. He’s feeling guilty that he made me miss my flight.

“I mean really it’s my fault because I got the time wrong.”

A disgruntled huff from the driver’s seat.

“I mean, I do have number dyslexia so honestly, I shouldn’t be trusted to read numbers unsupervised.”

That at least gets a laugh out of him. Thankfully my phone data plan works in the US and within a few minutes I’ve got myself on a later flight to Toronto covered by my travel insurance (pro tip guys: invest in decent insurance). It takes hours for the tire to get fixed. We have to wait for Triple A to come and switch out the busted one for the spare, then carefully drive to a garage and wait for someone to put a new one on. I’m tempted to ring my Dad and ask him to walk me through changing a tire over FaceTime but given the time difference, I’d doubt he’d appreciate it.

Skip forward 8 hours and I’m in another car, trying to explain where my Air BnB is to an overworked Indian taxi driver who doesn’t understand my accent. We spend a solid 20 minutes driving the wrong way up Dundas St West because he misheard what number I said. Once again numbers screw me over. He’s very sweet about the whole thing and gets very excited when he finds out I’m an ESL teacher back home. We have a good discussion about the difference between British, Canadian and Indian English. He tells me that he’s been in Canada for 10 years and he still finds the accent hard to understand. Everyone here talks too fast. He misses home. He misses his brothers and sisters and is sad that his daughters don’t want to go back and visit more. Our taxi drive turns into quite the heart to heart. When we finally find my Air BnB he looks dubious. I don’t think he believes that the dark warehouse is a good place to drop a young woman off by herself. He waits until my hosts answer the door and he’s had a good look at them before getting back in his cab.

I am not good at being alone. Even now, when I’m trying to get job applications and blogs and the next chapter of my novel done, I’m sat at my SO’s, just for the company. I’m the kind of person that needs another human around most of the time, just for the reassuring presence. I don’t need to talk to them, or interact other than sporadically. It’s why I travel so much alone. I’m very much of the face your fears persuasion. Afraid of flying? Go to Australia alone. Afraid of driving long distances in case your car spontaneously blows up? Drive to Cornwall single handedly. Afraid of being alone? Visit new, exciting places, make new friends, discover new distractions. And usually it works like a dream.

In Toronto, however, I feel awful. I don’t know what it was. But something about the city, where I’m staying, the weather makes me tip over into a depression fog. I can’t tell you much about where I stayed or what I got up to. I can’t remember much of it. I’m staying on Dundas Street West and the AirBnB is lovely, a tiny basement studio with an ensuite. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I spend my first morning curled in bed reading Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig. It’s reassuring, to know I’m not alone in feeling crap. Come the afternoon though I have somewhere to be. I have to get on a bus to Niagara Falls.

The subway isn’t difficult in Toronto. There’s 3 lines and one of them is on the end of another. But somehow I manage to cock up buying a ticket, end up on the wrong platform and go to the wrong place. I end up wandering around a shopping mall trying to find the bus station. It is not in the shopping mall. I miss my bus and have to wait 2 hours for the next one. This is one of the things I never expected about depression. It fogs your brain and makes you so exhausted that simple things become almost impossible. People tell you this. But until it actually happens, it doesn’t really sink in. Me writing this now, it might not explain to you just how jarring this is. If you’ve read my other blogs, I’m fairly competent usually. I managed to get around Seoul alone, where I couldn’t even guess the alphabet but now I’m lost in Toronto.

The bus to Niagara Falls is one of my favourite parts of my trip. It’s peaceful, driving around Lake Ontario, watching the city get further and further north of us. It looks beautiful across the water, skyscrapers reflected in the lake. The skyscrapers still throw me. Nothing in England is like this. Seoul was similar but there were old buildings too, palaces and houses and museums cutting through the modernity. Toronto is my first big city, on a northern American scale. Seeing it from this distance makes the buildings even more awe inspiring. The CN Tower, which until last night I’d only seen on the cover of a Drake album, is colossal. I’m twisted in my seat, watching it disappear behind us as we travel further along Lake Ontario.

Niagara Falls is not like Toronto. There’s very few skyscrapers here. When we pull into the bus station it’s jarringly empty. Easter isn’t peak tourist time I feel. There’s a few backpackers loitering and we mill around, trying to figure out how to get down to the waterfalls. A small bus arrives and it’s completely packed. That’s where all the tourists are apparently. There’s no space for me on it so a guy who works for the Niagara Falls Parks Service gives me a lift in his minibus. He buys me a coffee too. So far Canadians seem to be living up to national stereotypes of being friendly. The coffee’s not great, slightly burnt and bitter but it’s warm and Canada has surprised me with its April climate. We talk about the UK and Canada and the weather because that’s what British people do when stuck in small talk. Apparently it’s quite warm for this time of year. Snuggling into my jumper and coat, I don’t really believe him.

We get to downtown Niagara and I can hear the falls before I leave the mini bus. It’s a world famous sound and can be infuriating for the locals. In fact, Robert Land who was one of the first Europeans to settle in the region, fled after 3 years because of the noise. I like it though. It’s loud enough to block out the city and makes me feel weirdly isolated while walking down the street, even though there’s hundreds of tourists here jostling against me. I’ve got a boat tour booked, which means finding yet another form of transport. I manage it this time and get a gorgeous red poncho ready for my ride under the falls.

I realise quickly, there’s a time and a place for wearing a full face of make-up. Going on a boat near where four million cubic feet of water falls is not it. We go past the American Falls and the combination of the noise and the water pounding into my face gets into my head. I’m here. Still foggy but I don’t feel like I’m behind a weird screen anymore. It’s gorgeous. The writer in me is left speechless because how in hell do you describe something as incredible as this. If a friend were here with me, I’d just be screaming, ‘Nature is so fucking cool’ at them over and over. So that’s what you’re going to get here. Nature is so fucking cool guys. We may have built bridges and boats and hydroelectric dams and power stations and zip wires around the Falls but at the heart of it, the draw of Niagara Falls is the sheer power of all that water.

The boat takes us right up close to all three falls, the American, Horseshoe and Bridal Veil. The Horseshoe Falls are possibly the most famous, mainly because of the amount of people who’ve tried to go over them and survive. Annie Edson Taylor became the first person in 1901 to go over the Falls in a barrel and survive. She was 63 at the time. 63 years old and she decided to go over a huge waterfall in a wooden barrel. At the bottom when she was fished out all she had is a few cuts. No such luck for Bobby Leach in 1911 who broke both knee caps and his jaw. People are still throwing themselves off the top of Niagara, both those who hope to survive it and those who don’t. In April 2017 Kirk Jones became the latest victim to the Falls, attempting to go over them in an inflatable ball. His body was recovered almost a month later.

I’m looking up at all that water. No matter how bad I get, or how reckless I feel, I’m never going to think that going down it in a barrel is a good idea. Salmon regularly make it down alive and one guy a few years back got hit in the face by one as it was flung out of the Bridal Veil. I don’t like my chances though.

Back in Toronto that evening I make plans to meet up with a Tinder date who drags me out and says that I can’t spend an evening inside in a new city. He drives me around for hours, showing me the different districts and we talk about what it is that draws people to travelling. Is it the discovery, meeting new people, running away from your problems back home? It gets me thinking. I think I travel to confront myself. Back home it’s all too easy to surround myself with friends, keep myself busy, always find a new distraction. But when you’re somewhere alone, you have to keep yourself company. You can’t just ring someone to come and pull you out of yourself. Even this situation, meeting a guy off Tinder, that requires a lot of putting yourself out there. Travel makes me push right up against my comfort zones and find out what and where they are. Which is pretty cool. If an expensive way to do it. And kind of pretentious.

I grew up on an army base where there were dozens of kids my age. I then moved to a boarding school where you’re with your friends constantly. Then university halls, where locking yourself in your room is frowned on – I was in a shared room there as well so it wasn’t like I had that option. Student housing for another two years. Come graduating and taking a job at a boarding school I realised that I was alone for probably the first time in my life. And it sucked. I cried a lot. And that’s when I started travelling solo.

It’s not a revelation really that we need to learn to be alone. As a product of the Internet Age, when we have friends and services and instant connection at our finger tips, millennials are used to having whoever and whatever we want, when we want it. Which isn’t really how the world works. It’s one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn. I’m still not there. I still find myself staring at my phone screen or pacing my kitchen waiting for someone to distract me from my thoughts. But I’m getting better. And Toronto helped with that.

 

This is the latest in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘. 

Milkshakes in the Ocean State

Cabinets taste pretty good

What does the word cabinet put you in mind of? Wooden cupboards, fancy carving, dusty bottles of forgotten spirits that your parents got for Christmas 15 years ago? Milkshakes? Yeah, me neither. In Rhode Island, however, that’s what milkshakes are called. Apparently. This might all be a big joke on me. Maybe the folks in the Ocean State got together and decided to pull an epic prank on me. Whether it’s true or not, cabinets were a revelation to me, a flavour sensation. I tried my first one in Brickley’s Ice Cream on Boston Neck Road in Narragansett. It was so thick I couldn’t drink it through a straw and had to scoop it out of the Styrofoam cup drop by delicious peppermint drop. I’d expected it to be green, taste like cheap mint choc chip ice cream, all synthetic flavours and food colouring. Brickley’s have got cabinets right though. Their peppermint stick one is more like the inside of an after eight – slightly grainy, creamy and refreshing.

The basis for a good cabinet seems to be homemade ice cream. Rhode Island has a thing for this. In my week there, we drove past dozens of creameries, all selling their own versions of cabinets, milkshakes, thick shakes and a whole heap of other names. There’s Brickley’s, Nana’s, Moo Moos – and that’s just in Narragansett. Head out of town and you’ll find the Newport Creamery, home of the Awful Awful, so named because they’re awfully awfully good. With a promise like that, they were just begging to be compared to Brickley’s cabinets. For fairness, I went with another peppermint one. Awfully sweet and awfully good, it was impossible to choose between the two.

Awfully good milkshakes, awfully bad lighting

Why am I waxing lyrical about milkshakes? Is it the weird names which appeal so much to the English scholar in me? Or is it that I’m getting free ice cream for life in return for reviewing them? Neither (though free ice cream would be pretty rad). When I think back to my trip to Rhode Island, it’s the milkshakes that stick in my mind.

I’d ended up here after a chance meeting in a kebab shop in Berlin last summer. The friend I was travelling with at the time was ordering doner kebabs for us, a staple for any visit to Berlin, and offered to help the baffled looking American standing next to us in line. We weren’t in a particularly touristy area and the guy running the shop was insistent that we all practised our German with him. Not an issue for my friend and I but when you speak absolutely none of the language, it can sound quite intimidating. After successfully ordering for him, we discovered that we were all staying in the same hostel down the street. It was one of those friendships that only really happen when you’re travelling – a chance meeting with someone who you end up schlepping from hostel to hostel with for the foreseeable future. Max was 19, long haired, tattooed and at the end of his first year of college. He’d never left the US before and had just arrived in Berlin with no plan other than when he had to be on a plane home. That evening in the hostel over a few beers we compared tattoos, crazy stories about tattoos (he easily beats my nerd ones with the symbol for the rap group he and his friends formed while frying clam cakes) and managed to cram our life stories into a few hours. By the end of the night, we’d persuaded him to abandon his plans to go to Frankfurt and come to Prague with us the next day.

Another day, another beverage, yet another selfie

Fast forward to December 2016 and my depression and SAD reaching a new low. Max and I had continued talking after parting ways in Prague and he offered for me to come and stay with him to get away from work. The idea of travelling to destress isn’t revolutionary. People travel for various reasons: escape, adventure, romance. When I’m at my lowest, I book trips to keep me alive. Knowing that I’ve got a tangible, concrete event coming up, where I can get away from things, one where I have made a significant financial and temporal commitment that I can’t flake out of, that’s what keeps me going.

Rhode Island had never been on the top of destinations list. To be perfectly honest before I left I knew next to nothing about it. The limit of my knowledge was the one of the characters in Miss Congeniality was representing RI. When I arrived though, I instantly fell in love. I’m a water baby. I love any kind of water. Fountains, buckets, the ocean, rivers, puddles, anything wet, you name it, as a kid my parents had to pull me out of it. But we have oceans and beaches here. We’re an island. Go far enough in any direction and you’ll end up soggy. The difference is that the beaches in Rhode Island are gorgeous. There’s a distinct lack of rocks, pebbles, used condoms, hypodermic needles or used car parts. I mean, I’m sure that Rhode Island has its own delightful beach flora and fauna. But, not for nothing is Rhode Island called the Ocean State. 14% of its total area is made up of bays and inlets. That’s a lot of beach for this water baby to explore.

I’d picked totally the wrong time of year to visit, just when it’s sunny enough for the water to look inviting but nowhere near warm enough to swim. Max took me to Narragansett Beach, Point Judith and its lighthouse, Matunuck Beach and Hazard Rock. Every morning we’d head to Coffee Connection, local haunt of URI students, grab bagels and coffee and head off to drive along the coast.

I’m not a visual person. I struggle to remember people’s faces, places I’ve been to, clothes I own. It’s why I take so many photos, to help me out. Travelling for me, therefore, centres heavily around food – you just have to look at previous blog posts to know that. It’s what I remember most clearly. The first time I ate Dutch pannenkoeken was on a boat in Amsterdam. Now when I’m on a boat I can taste the apples that were baked into the pancakes, the cinnamon mixed into the batter, smell the burnt coffee of that trip. On this trip, it was a lot simpler. Milkshakes, coffee and bagels. The bitterness of filter coffee, the elastic chewiness of a good bagel with whatever the weirdest cream cheese I could see on the menu that morning, the sickly sweet cabinet or awful awful. Those are the taste of Rhode Island to me. Not a clam cake or bowl of chowder in sight.

The trip itself was a chance to pull my brain together, bring myself out of the fog that depression lays thick and dark over everything. Sometimes that requires a big adventure, like my trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2016. And sometimes all it takes is a little sunshine, some salt air and a cabinet or two.

This is the second in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Catch flights not feelings‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto‘. 

Catch flights, not feelings: Is that really the way to go?

People often ask me how I can afford to travel. It’s a common question, I think, for anyone who takes more than the occasional holiday. Usually I pass it off with a shrug and a ludicrous reason (bank robbing and black market organ donations being my favourites). But somehow, as I’m sat here flying over the Atlantic coast of Canada and the US, it feels disingenuous. I’m incredibly privileged. This time last year I was staring in awe at the red dirt of Australia, trying to follow the traceries of roads and rivers. Now I’m watching snow and craggy coast lines pass under us and wondering how the hell anyone made it over this landscape before cars and planes. Being able to travel is a luxury that I never have, and hope never will, taken for granted.

Time to be honest though. I am not a bank robber. As far as I know I still have all my organs. I don’t have to scrimp and save for my trips. All this travelling, as with so many things in my life (learning to drive, my 1st car, my postgraduate studies) are all thanks to my mother.

Louise Dorothy Adams was a complicated woman. My mother, a sister, an aunt, a daughter, she had a wicked sense of humour and was well known for laughing so hard she’d collapse on the floor. She used to buy me pomegranates and make me eat it with a darning needle to make it last longer. When I was a baby she would put Marmite on my dummy to keep me quiet. If she couldn’t sleep she’d watch horror movies because they made her realise everything could be a lot worse. When she was doing good, she was a riot, wickedly funny, smart and sarcastic.

But bi-polar is a bitch. It sneaks up on you and grabs you by the ankles and pulls, knocking you on your arse. Coupled with alcoholism, the lows get lower until you’re trapped inside your own head. Mum would disappear into herself for days and weeks until eventually she didn’t come back. She killed herself in 2013, just as I’d finished my first year of university. The bottom of my world dropped out. I could go through the cliches here but I think Lemony Snicket says it best with: “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.”

A few months after she died, we discovered she’d some money saved. Not a lot but enough that with some careful investment and a lot of advice from my family I was able to start travelling. But why am I talking about this now? I guess it’s because I’ve been struggling so much with my own mental health for the past year or so. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2012, with PTSD added along the way. When my mum died, however, I decided to do the British thing and pretend everything was fine. It got me through my degree with a damn good grade too.

After graduation though, I started to unravel. During a particularly low dip, I did what anyone with social anxiety coupled with a helpful fear of being alone would do: book a solo trip to Australia and New Zealand. I bought into the whole ‘catch flights not feelings’ deal. And if it works for you, great. Do what you got to do. But as I was crying my eyes out eight hours into a flight to Malaysia and questioning what the fuck I was doing, it wasn’t working for me. The whole first week of that trip, I learnt a hard and very important lesson. Being alone is difficult.

Don’t get me wrong. Travelling alone gave me such a tremendous sense of self-assurance and power. I’d managed to get myself to the other side of the world without a hitch. Sydney was a wonderful first place to visit on a solo trip. I felt safe getting around on public transport, didn’t feel weird eating alone and I could wander around by myself comfortably. It wasn’t the city. It was me. I’d booked this trip hoping that by leaving the UK I’d magically leave my depression behind. Turns out it had a passport too. There’s one afternoon that sticks out, sitting on the edge of Sydney Harbour for hours, chain smoking and feeling that horrifying, paralysing numbness. Here I was, on the other side of the world, in sunshine, by the water and I couldn’t think of anything. My brain was just fogged out and gone.

I started this talking about how I afford all this travel. Truth is, I kind of wanted to address the whole travel solving all your problems attitude that’s floating around at the moment. I wanted to be honest about my mental health. I love being in new places, getting myself lost in new cities and people and cultures. The prospect of a new trip is sometimes all that keeps me going back home. But mental health is complicated. My mother proved that. I’m proving it right now. I’m in Rhode Island, Ocean State having spent the last few days at the beach. And I feel like crap. Numbed out as I am back home, with a whole new heaping of guilt because why am I not enjoying this fantastic, amazing chance that I’m having.

This has been somewhat rambling. I guess what I’m trying to say is, it is okay to not be on fantastic form when you’re travelling. What with Instagram and other social media platforms, it’s so easy to get caught up in chasing that perfect trip. Let yourself be down. Roll with it. Know your own limitations. Don’t feel that it’s wrong to need friends and travel buddies. Solo travel is great for some of us. Big groups are great for some of us. And sometimes you need to curl up in bed for a few hours. And that’s okay too.

This is the first in a series about mental health and travelling. For other pieces, look at ‘Milkshakes in the Ocean State‘ and ‘Trouble in Toronto’.

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