Personal Growth / Travel Stories

The Best, The Worst, and the What If of my 2012 Travel

I was lying in Savasana (corpse pose) at the end of today’s yoga practice when the past year flashed before my eyes.

2012 was probably the most important year I have had yet. I fell in love with someone and then left them to travel to the other side of the world. I applied for and received $5,000 in scholarships so I could study abroad. I graduated college. Then I put on a backpack, bought a one-way train ticket, and traveled alone for three months never knowing exactly where I was going or how long I would stay.

The countries I traveled to were Australia, Thailand and Malaysia. Here’s a reflection on my best times, worst times, and what-if times:

BEST DESTINATION: Koh Phangan, Thailand


Thai kids playing on the beach at sunset, Koh Phangan, August 2012

My criteria for this section is to ask myself: of all the places I traveled to, which would I most likely consider living in permanently?

The runner-up was Byron Bay, Australia. I love both of these places on a seemingly superficial level: they are hippie towns. Both are filled with yoga studios, detox retreats, vegan restaurants, and reggae bars. However, my appreciation for these types of establishments goes deeper than their image. I want to live the fullest, most holistic, closest-to-god life that I possibly can. While I do believe most of that power lies within and it can be accomplished anywhere, I know that being surrounded by supportive, like-minded people and resources can make it a lot easier.

I chose Koh Phangan over Byron Bay because of the food. If I had to eat one cuisine for the rest of my life, I would take Thailand’s exotic fruits and daily rice over Oz’s overpriced Woolworth’s groceries in an instant! (Side note: Byron Bay has the MOST expensive Woolworth’s grocery store in all of Australia– and probably the biggest dumpster diving community, too!)



Mindil Beach, Darwin, Australia. July 2012.

I slept in a lot of funky, free places while traveling. Couches, airport floors, cars, boats, hammocks, trains, ashrams– you name it, I’ve slept in it.

Above all, my favorite accommodation was sleeping on the sand dunes of Mindil Beach in Darwin, Australia.

When I arrived in Darwin after a three-week road trip through the desert, my friends and I had to return the rental van, despite having learned that every hostel in town was booked for weeks. When they suggested to me that we simply camp out on the beach, I thought they were joking. Then we did it every night for a week.

I loved sleeping beside my friends under the bright southern sky each night and waking up at sunrise to the sounds of waves crashing on the beach. I felt connected to nature. Yes, there was some stress of hiding from security officers and I did wake up with sand in unheard of places, but it only added to the hilarity of it all.



Harke, the dutch sailor, and his boat Serendipity. Cullen Bay, Darwin, Australia. July 2012.

The most important lesson I learned while traveling can be summarized in one word: serendipity.

Serendipity is “the occurrence  and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way: “a fortunate stroke of serendipity,” (

On these travels I learned that if I stop trying to plan and manipulate my life and instead surrender to the universe, things will serendipitously work themselves out.

My favorite example of this is the story of what happened just after my week of homelessness on the beach. By the end of that week, I had become ill. I had terrible pain in my throat and an infection in my mouth. I knew that sleeping outdoors every night was probably exacerbating the problem, but I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I tried to relax and look for signs.

One day in the supermarket, my French friend bumped into a Dutch sailor she had met months back in Brisbane (a city thousands of miles away). His name was Harke and he was a very kind man. He started visiting us on the beach every day and bringing us offerings of fruit. Harke noticed that I was sick and he offered to host me on his boat. At first I felt nervous about staying with an unfamiliar man on a boat, but I tried to keep an open and trusting heart. I told him I’d come visit first to feel it out. When the dinghy approached the boat, I read the name painted in white on it’s side.


Once on the boat, I realized that it was a safe, comfortable place. Harke served  tea and lunch and we connected. I learned there was a German girl named Jenny of my same age on board, who was working as his crew.

The next day, I moved my backpack to Serendipity and stayed there with Harke and Jenny for the next week. They nursed me to health and the three of us became a family.

BIGGEST ‘WHAT IF?’: What if I had sailed to Indonesia?


I turned down an invitation to sail to Indonesia and flew to Thailand instead. Bangok, July 2012

I don’t really believe in mistakes or regret” I believe that individuals work with the universe to shapes our paths the way they are meant to be. I try to think of “mistakes” as “learning experiences” and to have no regrets at all. I find it is possible to completely let go of the “what ifs” and accept that things went the way they did for a beautiful reason.

However, there was ONE opportunity during my travels which I sometimes still cannot believe I let go.

While I was staying on Serendipity, Harke and Jenny were preparing to set sail to Indonesia. To my surprise, Harke invited me to be a second crew member and sail along with them. Had I accepted, I would have had my first sailing experience and received free transportation to Indonesia. I took a different path and bought a plane ticket to Thailand, where I had an amazing two months of other memorable, serendipitous experiences. I don’t really “regret” the choice, but I do often wonder ‘what if’ I had set sail instead?


Martinique - Ramboutans

PC: Raymond Schaeffer

I loved all the food in Thailand so much. I especially loved the abundance of tropical fruits like banana, pineapple, mango, guava, and less familiar ones like mangosteen, durian, and ramboutan.

Ramboutan strikes me as my favorite. I remember when I ate my first one. I was sitting on a bus and a Thai woman next to me had bundles of the round, furry, red fruit on her lap. She smiled at me and handed me a bunch of them, then taught me how to break through the tough, inedible skin by piercing it with a fingernail and twisting it off to reveal white, juicy fruit. I ate them nearly every day after that. I loved the color, smell, and texture of them. Best of all though was savoring the edible pit in the center, which tasted like a nut.

MOST HORRIFYING EXPERIENCE: Motorbike accident and Thai hospital visit


Ouch. Koh Phangan, Thailand, August 2012

In Koh Phangan, Thailand, I rented a scooter and got in an accident my second day of driving. I lost control of the bike, sped down a steep dirt road, fell off and fractured my left wrist.

As if the accident itself weren’t scary enough, I found myself in a horrifying hospital experience moments later. I didn’t have travel insurance, so I went to the Thai government clinic hospital to avoid “tourist prices” in the private one. This is where it gets blurry. After an x-ray, I remember lying on a table with about a dozen adorable Thai nurses in yellow outfits crowding around me, smiling. Then the doctor came in, looked at my arm, and mumbled things in Thai to the nurses. Before I could wonder what he had said, he was tugging on my arm, resetting my fractured wrist by hand, the nurses holding down my other arm and legs as I shrieked in pain.

Moments later as the fresh cast was still drying on my arm the doctor looked at me and with his best attempt at English said, “Broken. One month,” pointing to the cast.

MOST GRATEFUL FOR: My French fairy godmother


Michele, Koh Phangan, Thailand, August 2012

As I cried in miserable pain, I gazed across the room at Michele, an older french woman who had rescued my friend and I off the road after the accident and driven us to the hospital. Though we had only just met, her presence in the room was peaceful and comforting, as if she were my own grandmother.

When I left the hospital scared and exhausted in a cast and sling, Michele offered to host me and my friend at her home in the jungle. She said she had a spare bed, a bathtub, and plenty of food. We ended up staying with her in her beautiful home, free of cost for the next two weeks. To this day I am humbled by Michele’s generosity and kindness. Every day she cooked for us, looked after my arm, and saw us through a difficult time. Michele lived alone and she seemed to enjoy our company during our stay. I have often thought that our accident was in fact a blessing for Michele.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like for us to recover from the accident in a guesthouse on our own. I am so grateful that Michele was the next person to drive down the road after our accident.



**All photos property of Emily Sussell. All rights reserved.**

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