People often ask me why I took a gap year or what I have done. It is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The answer is so huge; I’ve done so many different things that I don’t even know where to begin. And before I know it, the conversation has moved on. All my experiences – the person I have become, my love for this country – is easily missed. And that’s okay. I never expected people to sit down and listen to everything. I don’t think I’m even able to explain all those amazing experiences that I’ve had, all those moments that were hard but worthwhile and opened my eyes. And so when the question crops us, I reply with “yeah I lived in Indonesia. I was volunteering and travelling. It was really amazing” and sound like I didn’t really do anything at all.
But I did.
Exactly a year ago I started a blog called ‘Maleeha Ke Mana?’. It means something like ‘where is Maleeha going?’ or ‘what’s up?’ or ‘how’s it going?’. I only need to look at my first ever post to see how much “going” I did. That post told stories of sweat and blood and Jakarta and Singapore and starting a gap year. I wrote anecdotes, made a joke, explained a bit of culture, moved on. I look at it now and see all the ways I have grown and developed.
So, a year ago I embarked on the biggest adventure of my life (so far). Over the last fifteen months, I have worked for a writing festival; shadowed doctors in a poor hospital in Sumba; taught English in a residential farming school; lived for two months deep in a village in Flores; and travelled to eight different countries. I’ve been on thirty-five flights (not including stopovers), spent £1700 and learnt a new language. I’ve learned about life and culture; about being afraid and forcing yourself to be brave; I’ve learned to trust myself and my instincts, to believe I can do anything I want, to trust strangers and take risks, to know when to say no and when to say yes and to take everything life gives me with open hands.
And I’ve learnt (even more) about saying goodbye.
As I write this I am sitting on the airplane on my way from Jakarta to London. Twelve hours ago I said goodbye to Mummy and Amaala. I said goodbye to a country that I love in order to fly back to another country that I love and I really really don’t want to go. Because in leaving Indonesia I’m not just leaving my family, I’m also leaving the version of myself that was fluent in another language, the girl that was happy in a country and community that wasn’t her own.
And now I am absolutely terrified that I will forget all the things I learnt and the people I knew. I’m scared that in going back to England I will lose the person I’ve become and that no one will care enough to look beyond the surface and see all the million ways I have changed. I’m scared of going to university and not seeing my parents for thirteen weeks and being cold.
Logically I know that these are unreasonable fears. No one can take away the impact of the last fifteen months on who I am. All those experiences and changes are a part of me. That is all that really matters.
But if I’m really truthful, the thing that I’m saddest about is this. In leaving Indonesia, I am leaving behind a whole chapter of my life. Leaving Indonesia is leaving Amaala and Phun and Trinder; it’s leaving waking up at 05:30 for school and watching films when I didn’t have homework; it’s leaving picking Amaala up from the childminders in England and making pasta bake. Essentially, it’s leaving childhood behind and having to accept that I am now, well and truly, an adult.
I’m not being dramatic. I know I’m coming back to Indonesia at Christmas. I’ll see my friends again and I will go back to Flores and Karang Widya. But I will never again be nineteen and on a gap year, sleeping in a room with Phun or showering in a stream in Flores.
There have been times when being alone in a different country was really hard. There were times when I was scared and lonely and alone; times I felt like I was doing the wrong thing. I felt guilty about taking more than I could give and hopeful that what I could give was enough. I felt stressed and tired and annoyed with myself for always pushing myself to do new things. But I was also happy. I made amazing friends and had incredible experiences; I saw manta rays and learnt to ride a motorbike. I ran through villages and drank coffee with old ladies and I loved (almost) every single second. This year has given me so so much.
But I know, somewhere deep inside of me, that it is now time to move on. I can’t live on a gap year forever. I can’t live at home forever. And I want to learn new things – a skill and a profession – so that I can go out in to the world with something to give. So I guess, if I have to be, I’m ready. I hope.