Backstory: The old crossroads

Viola Pruss remembers the simplicity of life as a backpacker. (Viola Pruss/AQ)

At six in the morning the birds are my only company. I lean against the old, stonewall and listen to the chirps and sounds of flapping wings high above me.

I am alone in the small temple outside of town and indulge in the beauty of the 15-metre Buddha statue towering over my head. His long, golden fingers stretch across his white-marmot knees, dark eyes staring into mine. For a moment, I close them and feel his soothing presence. Then I take off down the road again, on the broken bicycle. Off to the next encounter in a town that I can barely pronounce, in a language that I can hardly decipher.

It’s been three years since I travelled to Thailand and Laos. For a month, it was just the road under my feet and the people I met on its sidewalks. My mind was emptied of school, worries, lovers and life. It’s been three years, and it’s been too long.

Travelling is a passion, handed on to me from one generation to another.

My great-grandfather emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. He was barely 16 when he joined the German Navy and, by the time he died, he’d travelled the world in a zeppelin – as captain of the Hindenburg. My grandfather was a journalist. His son, my dad, inherited both – the love for writing and the open road.

I remember most of my childhood from the backseat of a car driving along the crossroads of North America. By the time I was 11 years old, my parents decided to see more of Europe and Asia. At 15, I spent three weeks in China and my 17th year with a host family in cornfield flat Indiana.
The slow, back-country life did little to hold my fancy with its hamburger and soap opera filled days, though it lead me to my final decision to leave home.

At 20 years of age, I moved to Canada.

University is supposed to be a new life. A place where you wash off those old roles from your high-school community and re-invent and prepare yourself for the exciting world of adulthood. You come home in the middle of night and no one waits for you. You fall in love every hour and make friends in a minute. The future is close enough to make you work, and still far enough to dream about.

I am now in my fourth year and the glamour has worn off. My days are filled with never-ending paper work and even my free time is sorted neatly in my calendar between minuscule minutes and hours of writing and reading.

Most of my friends back home are headed toward steady careers. Between Friday nights at the cocktail bar and yoga on Tuesdays, the first whispers of marriage and children swim through the air.

I always thought I’d be a lone mother, someone who travels the world and writes about the people they meet and the places they see. The little picket-fenced house and perfect husband were never part of that dream.

Now, the bookshelf in the corner of my room is a dusty museum of science-fiction dreams and never-opened travel catalogues. I worry where I will be in a year or if my boyfriend still loves me in two years. More so, I worry about my independence.

Some nights, I lay awake and think back at the sounds and smells from street vendors cooking curry and fish outside my window and the thick, wet air of the tropics and the mysterious smiles of its people. Then, I feel the urge to put on my old backpack and leave. I yearn for the freedom of that month on the open road, when no one asked you to stay and the days held little expectation but a new mark on your map.

After years on the road of independence, it’s hard to think of settling down. I still want to be that writer, the one who travels the world, though not alone anymore. I found a home in the thick, green forests and river valleys of Eastern Canada, and it breaks my heart to think about leaving.

The future holds a bittersweet taste, one of uncertainty and new expectations, of choices between childhood dreams and growing up. And there are still no answers to what I will find at the old crossroads.