“I could feel my heart pounding,” says Courtney Cash, describing being pushed out of an overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi, India. It was 3 a.m., and amongst a sea of staring faces, she picked herself up from the platform and wondered where she was. In retrospect, she loved the experience, she says. And it was because she was pushed out that she realizes what the locals who did it were trying to tell her — that it was her stop.
“I was looking for an experience — that’s exactly why I was there,” she explains.
Whether you’re seeking the holy city of Varanasi in India or trekking through Thai rainforest, backpacking is all about “the experience.” That experience is often a revealing test of oneself against the foreign. In fact, sojourning abroad can be more a rite of passage than just an adventure.
Cash, who recently graduated with a B.A. in politics and sociology, spent ten months finding her way through 12 countries. She doesn’t hesitate to point out how scared and naïve she was at the beginning of her experience. Before leaving, her idea of travelling, she explains, was staying in five-star resorts with her parents in places like Whistler or Aspen. “Places where they give you your own bathrobe and fresh towels,” she laughs.
So after arriving in Paris during the first leg of her odyssey, having done no planning, she admits she was “absolutely petrified.”
“I looked up and there was the Eiffel Tower. I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit, what am I about to do?”
Her inexperience became apparent when she later returned to a Paris train station to pick up her backpack from a locker. The building was unexpectedly closed for the night. She slept in a nearby construction site and awoke the next morning covered in sawdust.
“I needed someone to show me the ropes,” recalls Cash. “I didn’t know how to get on a train. I didn’t know what a hostel was or how to find one—I didn’t know anything.”
But after many helping hands from fellow travellers and many hard lessons, Cash started to learn how to backpack on a budget. Europe passed by in a happier way over the next few months.
When she was done with wiener schnitzel and Dutch clogs, Cash flew to South Africa, “the most beautiful country I have ever seen in my life.” Guesthouses with down-filled comforters and stained-glass windows were her camps for six dollars a day.
Unfortunately, the comfort didn’t last. Cash joined her parents in Johannesburg for an arduous seven-week organized tour through Eastern Africa with “other Westerners,” travelling between campsites. During the last week, though, she began to wonder why she was the only one wearing a wool sweater.
When she then flew to Bangkok to travel with her boyfriend, her chills turned into a fever.
It was in Lau, a village a few kilometres from the Chinese border, that she began to vomit, urinate blood and lose sensation in her legs. “Oh, and I had the runs,” she laughs, “but you can only include that if you try to make it sound funny.”
Time was running out. Panic set in. Miraculously, a white van painted with the words “Thailand Travel Medical Centre” was spotted and stopped. A man stepped out of the van and said, “Hi, I’m a Thai doctor and this is my American nurse.”
Cash was taken to the closest hospital, where there was no electricity and a mirror had to be used to reflect the light of the sun onto the blood sample being examined under the microscope. Cash was diagnosed with middle-stage vivax malaria—”the kind that doesn’t kill you”—and given medication and an order for plenty of rest.
She thought about returning home at this point. “But I knew that once I got home,” says Cash, “I would just want to be there again. And besides, if I went home weak, my mother would kill me.”
Instead, when her boyfriend returned home, Cash swung over to India to recuperate. She ditched everything in her backpack except the basics and bought fabric that she made into local garb. “I looked more like an Indian man than an Indian woman,” she laughs.
That didn’t fend off the unwanted attention that she had to contend with. Despite being followed and touched by locals — even having her toes licked while asleep on a train — Cash says she doesn’t resent the way she was treated in many parts of India. She recognizes she was a novelty to the locals. In fact, being a lone foreign woman made her feel stronger. “Some of the women I encountered were amazed I could do something like this,” she says.
In the last weeks of her odyssey, Cash stayed in Rishikesh, the unofficial yoga capital of the world.
Doing yoga three times a day helped her regain her strength and gave her much needed-perspective before returning to Canada.
“Most people did not have any faith that I would be able to make it,” says Cash. “They thought I would be coming home a lot sooner…I don’t think people really thought that I’d be someone that would be able to rough it like that — it was easy.”
Self-awareness, confidence and an open mind allowed her to happily survive her trip, she says. “And if that means flushing your bum with a bucket of water for half an hour because you don’t have toilet paper, so be it.”