My eyes roam over the skin browned from months of sun and starkly patterned with tan lines around the shoulders. I’m standing in front of a mirror and I’m not sure if it’s my reflection that I’m looking at, so I stare for another minute. I wonder how I feel about it. I’ve been on the road with my partner in crime for 6 months and so much is different now, even this shade of tan that I’ve never been and don’t quite recognize.
When I was a little girl growing up in Malaysia, I remember being scolded for playing in the sun. I couldn’t help it, I loved the waters and roller skating. I loved handball. I loved running around the playground for no reason at all. But whenever my skin turned darker from being outside, everyone would comment on it. If I ever had a fall, everyone would worry about whether it’d leave a scar. I understood those intonations then- that darker, marked skin was somehow frowned upon, and that fairer, smoother skin was favored, maybe even loved.
As a very shy little girl, I absorbed those messages quickly and my introverted soul pulled me indoors. I loved on my books, my dolls and my computer games. I stopped cycling after a big fall and hated cycling ever since. I hid away my skates and I don’t remember ever climbing a tree. I never went outside ‘just to play’ and heaven forbid that I ever got a ‘tan’ – I didn’t even understand that word.
But life has a way of teaching great lessons. I moved away from home to Australia in pursuit of higher education, which I had thought at the time was a degree in Psychology. As I adapted to a new culture, I started to see that life was much bigger than my reality.
Here in Australia, going to the beach for a tan was the topic of the season, outdoorsy girls were viewed as fun and if you ever broke a bone (and survived with a scar), you were revelled as a superhero.
First, I was amused, then confused, before I became very curious. I started going to the beach. I said yes to rock climbing. Sometimes I lied on a big open lawn just because. Before I knew it, I found myself spending less time in the shadows and more time in the sun, wondering what else was out there in the world. It started to occur to me that my higher education came from outside the lecture halls.
New dreams came to me slowly at first, then all at once. Initially, all I wanted to do was to lie in a park with a book in my hands. Then I wanted to hike. I wanted to dive. I wanted to learn new languages so that I can speak to people from different countries. I wanted to cycle around a city in those different countries even if it meant falling and getting scars.
And sometimes, I wanted to be outside – just to get a tan. Imagine that.
Gosh, how I wanted to see the world. Yes, I wanted to see the world! I wanted to see her round edges and sharp curves. I wanted to see how others lived and how tall mountains can be. I wanted to see all different kinds of animal and every shade of blue. I wanted to be stuck somewhere so rural that I’d wonder what I’d have for dinner but be able to stand there and say, “Wow, isn’t this amazing?”
So, here I am. 6 months living out of a backpack with my husband and changing homes every few days. I didn’t meet another Malaysian backpacker all through the way.
The journey wasn’t easy – there were sick nights, sick weeks, intense loneliness, terrible foods, vividly scary moments and bus rides so long they generated more sick nights. But what we got in return were life changing.
We saw the remains of ancient civilizations and corkscrew-like skyscrapers. We saw the edges of seas and curves of multi-colored mountains, some which we even hiked amidst hail storms. We drove through the highlands where guanacos fed and fought. We swam with penguins, sea lions and sharks. We sailed the seas where orcas dived around us. Once, we were in the middle of a Bolivian desert poking at our meat, wondering what it was, but woke up the next morning to watch every shade of blue turn into light as the sun rose over the Uyuni salt flats. We were ‘seeing the world’. I, was seeing the world.
It’s almost hard to believe who I’ve become. Now I’m the one who says, ‘let’s go!’ when I see a wall of rocks we could climb. The one who looks for ways to jump into the water from a cliffside. The one who shoves hiking maps under my husband’s nose. The one who is looking for our next dive spot, even if diving took me some time to warm up to. The one who tepidly suggests something crazy but secretly hopes that others would say yes so that I have partners in crime.
I still hate cycling and maybe that will never change. I have new loves though. I love the jungles that call to me and the night skies that blink at me. I love the deep seas that throw me and snow-capped mountains that envelope me. I’m madly in love with wild animals because they know my soul in a way that I don’t. I can’t even recall how all of that happened, how I’ve changed. Was it like my dreams- did it happen slowly then all at once?
Here I am with this tan now that’s my badge of honor – my proof that the last 6 months was real. Proof and reminder that somewhere along my life, I made a choice and I chose myself.
I went and walked on Incan ruins, drove the dessert of Dali, swam in seas with sharks and climbed the mountains of condors. Whilst I didn’t stop being scared, I started being brave.
So, I can only I smile as I trace my tan lines – a secret map of where I’ve been and who I’ve become. I feel strangely proud of how brown I am. I suppose this is one of life’s many great lessons; realizing that how I look and what I do doesn’t determine if others love me. Others will love me for who I am, once I love myself first.