I've read travel memoirs by the dozens, and have always loved their stories of change and growth. This change comes in various forms; the emotionally distant person able to love, the poor navigator finding their way, the listless finding a purpose. And I certainly had life-changing, worldview-altering, soul-shattering experiences on the trip, which are perhaps stories best left for another time.
But after six months of traveling around the world with nothing but a carry-on suitcase, I realized that something far more fundamental than outlook changes. Something at the core of you, nearly molecular, shifts subtly, so that the foundation seems to be comprised of other elements altogether.
I noticed it for the first time in Bali, hopelessly lost as I searched for a pharmacy in Ubud. My skin, unused to the utter humidity and sharp change in diet, had erupted in spots. Already fighting a mild burn, I now had a scaly rash on my neck and chest and felt on fire. This external agitation reflected my internal conflict; at the beginning of my trip, not sure what I was getting into, the patterns on my skin was a roadmap of my inexperience and doubt. My hair, worn straight at home, could not be tamed. Its frizzed curls stood on end as though running away from my scalp, and I, startled by its escape, look perpetually surprised in photos from my time in Indonesia.
I noticed it again in Greece when, having adopted a rather voluptuous coffee habit, I no longer slept. My sleeping came in naps throughout the day, my work squeezed in around it. I became moody and morose. The shape of my face seemed to change, hollowed, shadowed.
In Turkey, the rhythm of my walk, which I had once known so intimately I never gave it much thought, slowed and changed as I became aware of the attention I was receiving in certain quarters. My stride, once so sure, became halting and hesitant so that I felt like I had years earlier after a hiking injury, when I had to let my legs walk slowly when all I wanted was to run.
In Croatia, after months of eating whatever was at hand, I found a café in Zagreb that served tofu in their salad and ate there so often that the wait staff came to know me by name. There, I also found a health food store that sold an array of the items I had eaten back at home. My stomach, my skin, my mind, my health, settled back in during that week of implied familiarity.
In Switzerland, I ran out of the body oil I had carefully packed into a 4 oz bottle in my carry-on and used sparingly to fight off mosquitoes in Indonesia and rashes in Greece. I switched to a lotion I bought at the local grocery, a cream that smelled lightly of lavender. Unused to the strange scent, I found myself distracted by it throughout the day, and would frequently sniff the air to locate the source of the odd smell, only to realize it was me.
In Paris, I ate too much cheese, and too many madeleines (which, one could argue, there is no such thing.) My stomach rebelled and could only be soothed with tea. I was six months into a Nutella habit at this point, which made me break out in such sweeping determination that I was once again a teenager. My make-up, long gone since Indonesia, and my daily cleanser, which ran out in Greece, had been replaced by items in foreign languages which I now suspect were not personal beauty items but were in fact home cleansing items. (My Greek is terrible, and I tended to get lost in the local grocery store.)
In Ireland, I slowly weaned myself off my coffee habit and my skin began to once again feel like my own. I fell in love with a hummus sold at a local shop and its presence felt familiar and comforting. I began to long for the routines of home, for taking things for granted, for skin that felt and smelled like my own, for a rhythm to my walk I didn't have to consider with every step, for the familiarity of old friends over the excitement of new ones. I longed to look in the mirror and see a face I recognized, to have my fingerprints once again be my own, to be recognizable to myself and the people who love me. After six months, I went home again.
Six months after that, I began planning for my next trip around the world.
Molly McCluskey is a full-time freelance writer covering business, travel and culture. Follow her on Twitter @MollyEMcCluskey.