Thirty thousand feet in the air, on a flight bound from London’s Gatwick airport to Barcelona, my third trip to the eastern Spanish coast in the last two years, I couldn’t help but think about how I ended up here. 3500 miles from the small Ontario town I grew up in; the south London neighbourhood of Brixton, where my day began, is now home.
Each traveller has their own reason as to why they pack their bags and catch yet another flight, pouring their savings into a new experience or another visit to a city that has captured part of their hearts. Travellers as people are driven by a personal want to experience the world as much as possible, and each person has their own personal reasons for doing so.
My love for Europe was born two years ago, when my first backpacking trip began in Glasgow and was made up of six weeks backpacking across Western Europe from Scotland to Italy. It is how I ended up packing my belongings into a suitcase and moving across the Atlantic to start a new life in London, to be closer to the continent that had stolen my heart. It was where my love of travelling was cemented for good into who I am, but it was not where it began. For that, I have to trace back even further.
Looking back now, I can pinpoint the exact moment it started. Not the love of traversing the globe at least, but the battle with my own brain that would eventually lead to that very discovery.
At the time, I had no idea what the symptoms of depression were, especially when mixed into a potent anxiety cocktail. I thought I was just having a bad day. I’d had a normal school day, followed by the myriad of basketball and other sports I was involved with at the time. I got home as usual, my parents were at work, my brother out somewhere with his friends. I sat down to eat the dinner left in the fridge by my mother and began to feel the onset of what I now know to be symptoms of anxiety. It doesn’t hit you all at once, it slowly creeps into your body and mind like an IV drip into your blood. It poisons your brain, fooling it into imagining all kinds of things, both mental and physical.
It began with a feeling of weakness. For that first night, I felt like I was coming down with the flu. Just getting up from a chair felt like a monumental task. I went to bed, hoping a good night’s sleep would abate the sickness and I would wake up feeling better.
Over the course of the next few days and weeks, as it progressed further, the anxiety symptoms were the ones that continued to present themselves physically. The first time I had a panic attack, I was sitting in class and all of a sudden started feeling short of breath. Developing a sort of tunnel vision, I excused myself from class in an attempt to find a quiet place to calm down. As I sat in the back stairwell of my high school, I began to feel scared.
What was happening to me?
Worried thoughts would compound the issue and over the next weeks and months, the attacks would come and go more and more often, always at the most seemingly random of times. Basketball practice, dinner with my family, at the movies. As is typical with most people experiencing these things, I was afraid to tell anyone. To this day, none of my friends at the time, or even my family know what I was experiencing back then. It was to no fault of any of them. I tried my best everyday to not give anyone cause for worry, making every attempt to hide the panic attacks and carry on as if everything was normal. I didn’t want to burden anyone with it, so the worries remained my own.
If anxiety is worrying, depression is frightening.
It’s frightening because you don’t realize it was there until you resurface from it.
If you resurface from it.
Everyone describes the feeling of depression differently. I felt that it was as if someone attached a boat anchor to my ankle and then told me to swim. Most days became an exercise in making it back home, into my room where I could stop putting on the fake smile and pretending like everything was okay. Depression is like having a person stand next to you, all day, whispering in your ear.
“You’re not good enough”.
“They don’t actually like you”.
“Why do you even get out of bed in the morning?”.
Now at 23, I can’t imagine what 16 year-old me could possibly have had to worry about that could’ve started such a downturn. I had just gone through my growth spurt, gaining nearly a foot in a little over a year. I was a straight A student, well on my way to getting into the engineering program of my choice and had a good group of friends to cause trouble with on the weekends.
That’s the part about depression that people who have never experienced it don’t understand. There doesn’t have to be a reason, it can hit, and hit hard even when you have every reason to be happy. One day you are yourself and the next you are wallowing at the bottom of a well of self-pity and despair.
The next few months would progress into a further state of misery, while gradually becoming better and better at putting on the mask in the hopes that I would not be a burden on anyone. After all, it was all just in my head right?
That is where I reached a fork in the road.
To the left was a treacherous path, paved with anxiety and the black shadow of depression as my only guide, leading me to places I can only imagine now.
To the right was a hike up a mountain where the air at the summit is so clear, the peacefulness drowns out even the most cynical of voices in your head.
If only we knew how important some of the decisions we have made were before we made them.
That day, there were two voices that pushed me down the correct path and one that urged me to the left. The first came in the form of our school’s unsuspecting secretary, making her daily announcements. Our school board would be accepting applicants for a new program, taking a trip to El Salvador to participate in a house build with Habitat for Humanity.
Like a devil on my shoulder, the other voice spoke up in retort.
“They wouldn’t accept you even if you tried”.
Thankfully, there was a third voice that day.
It’s incredible how your parents can come through for you time and time again, sometimes without even realizing that they have. I believe the term is parental instinct. Regardless of what you call it, that night I went home as usual, and mentioned over dinner about the program. I’m not sure if depression was hoping my parents would say no so I wouldn’t have to bother, or if deep down somewhere I was beginning to fight it’s tyrannical reign over my mind. Despite the fact that we had little to no information about the program, and the only information we had about El Salvador was a brief Google search, my mother and father decided that I should at the very least apply, guiding me towards the correct path, completely unaware at the time that it was some of the most important advice they would give me.
The application process became a distraction for me. It was a focus point amidst all the noise going on inside my head, allowing for brief moments of clarity. After submitting the application and progressing to the interview stage, it eventually came back that I had been accepted. There were to be 11 students, each from a different school that would be making the trip south along with 8 teachers, also from various schools across the region.
I had reached base camp.
Getting accepted to the program was enough to slightly restore confidence in myself. It was the first small step in a battle against the voices in my head that had withered away my mental state over the course of the previous months. Leading up to the trip which was to be at the end of June that year, we met each week to participate in activities that would help us on our trip. Spanish lessons, brick laying and information about the country we would call home for two weeks. These sessions became my escape, something I looked forward to each week and one of the few places I found myself actually smiling. The people were incredible, both students and teachers, joking and learning together as we attempted to prepare ourselves for our journey.
When the day finally came, I was in a better mental state than I had been in months. I was legitimately excited, a feeling I had rarely had in the previous year. Our flight was rather uneventful, and we landed safely at the Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Salvador.
As we walked out of the airport we were hit with a wall of both blazing humidity and overwhelming culture shock. Outside the entrance were hundreds of El Salvadorans waving and smiling at everyone who exited the terminal. Some greeting loved ones and others seemingly just greeting every new visitor to their home.
The mountain awaited.
We spent the first day split between a morning playing with the most adorable children at a local orphanage and an afternoon hike up to the mountains with a breathtaking view over the tropical landscape. The immersion into the local culture was an experience that was completely new to me, and I was enjoying every second of it.
Our residence was to be in a small town outside of San Salvador called Zacatecoluca. The town was vibrant in both architecture and personality. Our first visit to the local market left such an impression that still, wherever it is that I visit, I am drawn to local markets as they often yield a more truly honest glimpse into the culture of a city than any other place you can explore. Our residence was a small compound of hostel-style rooms with bunk beds, cold showers and a wonderfully friendly man named Carlos who maintained the place. Throughout the course of the week, using our broken Spanish and his broken English, the language barrier was slowly broken down and we were able to communicate with our new friend.
If the town was a cultural shock, arriving at our build site was a complete revelation. Over the course of the ten days, it would draw emotions from us all, some that we didn’t even know were possible to feel all at once. We were there to build a house for a family of twelve. It would be far too easy on a trip like ours to pretend that we were there solely to help the family, that we were part of the greater good and that we were changing their lives. We were building a house no bigger than most of our garages back home for a family of twelve. This was to allow the family to move out of a house the same size that they currently shared with another family of twelve. Throughout the course of the trip, we all quickly realized that to assume we were there to help them and help them alone was not only wrong, but ignorant.
Each day on the site the family prepared meals for us at lunch, and afterwards we would break from our labouring to play soccer and other games with the children of the family. I can still picture their smiles and their laughter when I think back to it. When we surprised them one day with a brand new soccer ball, the pure joy that erupted from their tiny faces was, at the time, a happiness I was not sure I had ever experienced.
Depression is a fickle creature. Despite the joy surrounding me, the voices in my head made me feel guilty.
“All it took for them to be happy was a soccer ball, what’s your problem?”
No one ever said climbing a mountain was going to be easy.
The rest of the week would go on, as the house neared completion, so did the end of our trip. The final day, we said our goodbyes, and nearly every one of us was in tears as our van pulled out of the site for the last time. The effect the family had on us, sharing their culture, their joys and their love, left us all feeling a mixture of emotions ranging from guilt to thankfulness. They had expanded our small bubbles of existence to include a piece of their own world in it.
That is why we travel.
Each experience, each person along the way becomes a part of our own world. Shaping how we view the worlds of others, and how we live in our own.
Sitting now, staring out the window of this airplane, just as I was seven years ago on our way back home from our adventure, I can remember what it felt like to reach that summit for the first time. The realization that there was so much beauty in this world I had yet to see, and so many worlds of others left to impact upon my own, had conquered the darkness in my own head, holding it at bay.
The clarity would not be something easily noticed if it had always been there. The climb is never simple, and will surely have to be made more times throughout my years ahead. Each time it becomes a little easier, signposts left along the way, inspiration to keep pushing along, the memory of what it felt like to reach the summit.
But up here, at thirty thousand feet, it is joy. It is the joy of exploring a new city for the first time, a pint shared with travellers from across the globe and the joy of a brand new soccer ball, kicked back and forth across a dirt road.
That is why I travel.