Between August and November 2016 I, alongside my fiancé, stepped out of my comfort zone and backpacked through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The trip tested me and my anxieties in many ways, as I had never been away from my family and my home for anything more than a few weeks.
There were difficult moments, we began to run out of money, survived on basic food and stayed in some pretty awful places. However those difficult moments were outshone by the sheer beauty and wonderment of the countries that we visited, as well as the people and cultures that inhabited them.
Never in my life did I think that I would see the sunrise over the ancient temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Long Neck Hill Tribes of northern Thailand. My dreams as an overweight and shy teenager were just never that big, however now as a 6-stone lighter adult, I am exceeding my wildest dreams. Even just over one year ago when I was struggling to get out of bed and losing faith in life due to depression did I ever think that I would achieve as much as I have done in the past 12 months.
Travelling gave me a new lease of life, a purpose, and as a photographer I now dream of capturing the many incredible sights in this world that I have yet to see. Currently my fiancé and I reside in Da Nang, a city in central Vietnam, and a city that few know of, but houses some truly incredible sights.
For instance we have one of the largest Ferris Wheels in the world, one of the longest cable car journeys in the world, a Buddha statue larger than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, and a bridge shaped like a dragon that breathes real flames upon evenings. We visited Da Nang during our travels last year and fell in love with it then. So in February of this year, when we got the chance to return to work and live for a few months we just couldn’t turn it down.
Four months later and we’re still here, just, although it has been of the most challenging times of my life. Me and my partner have faced so many problems during our time here, things that really push you to the limit. We’ve had to move several times through no fault of our own, attempt to survive being paid an equivalent of £1 an hour, we’ve been threatened for accidentally taking a wash basket (no joke, that did actually happen). We’ve also had the trust that we put in some local Vietnamese people thrown back in our faces on too many occasions. But we’ve got through it all, we are still here fighting and saving for our return to England.
My anxieties and depression have been a battle like always, I’ve had to push through the negative thoughts just to turn up for work each day. Here we simply can’t afford to miss out on money, and we have responsibilities now. For 2 months ago we rescued a little white dog that we named Princess from a life of neglect and sadness, she wasn’t having a great time in a so-called ‘pet coffee shop’. She would cower in the corner and showed signs of previous abuse, and so we raised the money that the shop demanded to get her out of there and take her home to safety. There’s been no time for anxiousness, now I need to do all I can to stay strong, which is by no means an easy task.
I mention about the need for staying strong because of what happened just a few weeks after we arrived in Da Nang back in February. I let my anxiety win and did what I always do when I get scared, I ran. Things were not quite working out as planned during our first few weeks in the city as the proposed work that we specifically came out here for fell through.
Instead of staying and looking for new opportunities I panicked and booked the next flight back to England, my partner on the other hand wanted to stay and see how things worked out and so I respected her decision and supported her fully. Boarding that plane is a decision that I regret to this day, but at the time my mind was still not in a great place and I felt going home was the only option, home to safety and a bubble-wrapped life. However I knew that I was making a mistake, I should not leave my fiancé behind, anxiety was not going to rule my life once again. So, despite boarding the plane out of Da Nang, I never returned to England.
The intended journey took me to Haikou, China where I was to wait overnight for a flight to London, however a chain of events led to me making the best decision that I have probably made in my adult life.
The Vietnamese airline that I took in order to get out of Da Nang misplaced my luggage and so I had to wait around till 6am the next morning to retrieve it, just 45 minutes before my flight home was to depart. As I recovered my lost luggage I raced to the International Airport still with thoughts in my head that I was making a big mistake, that I should not get on this plane home.
I saw these machines which offered a quick check-in service, whereby I assumed you placed your passport in the slot, which then collected your information and printed out your boarding pass. I was wrong, that slot was nothing but a place to dispose of unwanted receipts and so my passport slipped into the rubbish heap.
The lack of English speaking staff at this remote Chinese airport meant that it took me a good half an hour to explain where my passport was and that I was close to missing my flight. The passport was fished out and again I was racing to the check-in desk, where I was told that I had indeed missed the opportunity to board. At the time I didn’t know how to feel, but I knew that the next plane that I would be boarding was not one to England.
I’m forever grateful to my family, my partner and her family for doing all they can to help me during the ordeal in China and paying for my tickets back to Da Nang. I’d love to say that the nightmare ended there, but it did not.
As I went to board my flight to Vietnam I was informed that my temporary 2-day Chinese visa had expired and that I could not take my seat on the plane unless I paid a fine, a fine which I could not pay because I had no money to my name. Frantically I called my father who could help, but sadly not in time, and so again I missed another flight. I was beginning to think that I was doomed to be holed up on this Chinese island for the rest of my days wandering around with my backpack and worries weighing me down.
Thankfully I was not destined to become an unintentional Chinese resident for too long. A day of Google translating my way to an administration building around an hour from the airport passed and I finally had an extended visa just hours before my rescheduled flight to Vietnam. I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing, but now with time to reflect it really did put me in some tough situations that I had to figure out on my own.
There was simply no time for the anxious Simon who never takes control and would rather follow and let others do the talking. Looking back I am proud of myself for pushing my anxieties out of the way and getting myself out of the situations that I faced, I, of course, however could not have done it without the support and funds of those close to me. One of the toughest and loneliest experiences of my life was finally over and that night I boarded the plane back to Vietnam and back to my fiancé.
It is now June and China is a distant memory, it taught me to be stronger and have more confidence in myself, but the challenges never stopped there, they seem to like to follow us everywhere. Sorry if I’m rambling, sometimes it’s good to write and reflect, makes me realise what I’ve achieved.
Anyway, our current challenge is that my partner has been offered a job teaching English to school kids, thus doubling her salary from that of which she earned at the hotel we both worked at. See how I used the past tense “worked”, well upon telling our boss of her imminent departure they did not take kindly to the news and requested that I too cease working for the hotel. No reason to let me go, I guess out of spite perhaps.
You may wonder why I don’t teach also; well my good old friend 'anxiety' put a stop to that. Both my partner and I were scheduled for a trial day to see how we got on teaching a class of 15 kids, she did great, I however didn’t even make it through the door. The closer I got to the classroom the more nauseous I felt and as soon as I saw that door I froze, turned back, and ran to the toilets to throw up. They say in these situations your mind has two choices, fight or flight. Well mine definitely chose to fly. So whilst my partner was teaching, I was laying on a bed in the staff room trying not to fly any further.
I felt embarrassed as the school was relying on me to fill the gap left by other foreign teachers. I let them down and I was deeply sorry for wasting their time, however I could not be a teacher for them. I’ve come far since the days of not even being able to walk into a supermarket or wander through busy streets without feeling anxious and wanting to return home to the safety net that I had created. But just not far enough to lead a class of school children that depend on you in order to learn.
Within the next few months we will return to England, and I often doubt whether I will fully push past my anxious and negative thoughts. However, when I look at how far I have come to even attempt a new life in Vietnam, well I guess there is still hope for me yet.
Simon has clearly found a stunning piece of the world to call home and the fact that he has found a way to manage his anxiety as much as he can is a testament to his strength. How do you manage your own anxiety? Have you found yourself in a strange country and still had to manage? Let us know in the comments below.
You can read more from Simon via his own blog over at anxietyandadventure.wordpress.com. In addition, you can keep up-to-date with him on Twitter, where he's @SimonJJacobs or on Instagram at Anxiety & Adventure