So many people I know see 2015 as a year to do something different. A year to step outside their comfort zone.
2015, it seems, is set to be an uncomfortable year. And that's a good thing.
In November and December I travelled through 10 countries in 3 weeks. Some of it was for work; some of it was some much-needed time away with my partner. While the work trip to Europe—which was to do further research for a future project and also photograph places for a London travel guide—was wonderful, the Asian Christmas trip (which I departed for only a few days after arriving home!) was by far the more memorable. And I think it was because we stepped out of our comfort zone and into places far off the tourist radar.
Flying deep into the jungles of Java in a tiny plane to a tinier airport, where signs were written wonkily on cardboard and luggage rolled off an abbreviated conveyor belt that stopped abruptly after a few feet, so that bags fell over each other over in the two-foot-long airport, we tried not to laugh. We tried not to laugh, and we failed. Because there, in this strange, exotic, far-flung, jungle-y place, we realised this was what travel was all about. We had clearly left familiarity far behind. And it felt good.
Like a decluttering of the soul.
The mist rising over the valley of Borobodur, deep in the heart of Java.
Rice paddies in East Java, with a single moped the only traffic in sight
Our beautiful hotel, Plataran Borobodur, built so that's its gardens seamlessly integrate into a local village.
Quiet afternoons at the Plataran Borobodur.
The trip had been part of a larger life-long plan to visit the world's more remote UNESCO sites, but we came home feeling profoundly touched by everything we'd seen. Getting out of your familiarity zone does that to a person. It seems to reignite that dormant sense of adventure that's often lost in the endless Immigration Halls of the world.
The ancient temple of Borobodur, the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Built 300 years before Ankor Wat it was lost to the jungle for centuries until Sir Stanford Raffles heard about its existence and funded its discovery and restoration.
During those two weeks we visited places so utterly untouched by the modern world that in one part of Java, on top of the ancient Borobodur temple, we and another couple were the only foreigners in sight. The local kids gazed with awe at our iPads, and touched my partner's strawberry blonde hair with undisguised fascination.
Now my partner, who is a taciturn sort of person, was so captivated by this off-the-beaten-track adventure, he started chatting and didn't stop. Not for 10 days! The man changed so much I could barely recognise him!
For exercise, we hired bikes and rode long, spectacular loops along the palm tree-lined backroads and rice paddies of Java, through clusters of Indonesian villages and around the ancient temples of Borobodur, waving at all the locals. We took a tuk-tuk to the legendary Amanjiwo Hotel (above) for lunch, where Richard Gere and David and Victoria Beckham have stayed, but its glamour and grandeur seemed incongruous amidst the poverty. (And we couldn't afford it either!) So we tuk-tukked away again.
At every corner, the local villages waved and smiled at us, wanting us to stop and chat. These villagers were so poor they could barely afford floors (a tiled verandah was the sign of wealth; good teeth were the sign of undisputed affluence), but still they offered us their water, their fruit, a handshake, a wave goodbye. By the end of the week, we felt very, very humble. We had also changed—almost imperceptibly, but it was there nonetheless. A distinct shift in attitude.
All through the next week, visiting the ancient UNESCO temples of Ankor Wat in Sieam Reap, Cambodia, a country further north (and admittedly a little more crowded than Java's Borobodur region), our adventure left us feeling like new people.
The magnificent tree roots enveloping the ruins of Ta Prohm, in Siem Reap, a temple made famous by Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie.
All throughout our trip, we happily donated money to people who desperately needed it, but the philanthropy seemed to go the other way: we felt as though we were the fortunate ones. In recent months, I've become fiercely driven in business: no-nonsense, pragmatic and perhaps also hard-nosed, but here we both melted before the gracious, constantly grinning locals. Seeing the civility and kindness of these poor-but-dignified people, well, it reassured me that there is still decency within us all. And that gave me hope for the future. That's what getting out of a comfort zone did for me.
We each have the power to do so much; affect others in so many ways. All it takes is a smile, a laugh, a kind word or gesture; a conversation; perhaps a few dollars, and a curiosity about people, and about the strange world on the other side of your familiar city.
My favourite person on the trip: our gorgeous tuk-tuk driver.
I loved this man. So professional, so dignified, so happy.
And so I encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zones this year. Be brave. Embrace the adventure. Whether it's for travel, for a new business venture or to research opportunities, find new inspiration, or just motivate your mind and revive your stagnated old soul, do something different in 2015.
You will be glad you did, I promise you.
You will be glad you got uncomfortable.
"Move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else's shoes. Open your mind, get off the couch. Move."
— Anthony Bourdain.
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Where we stayed: Plataran Borobodur, Java.
A reasonably priced colonial-style hideaway high in the hills above Borobodur. Its gardens are magnificent – gardenia hedges, grand palms, winding paths between frangiapani.
And in Siem Reap, Cambodia, at the newly restored Park Hyatt.
(Formerly the Hotel de la Paix.)
The Paix was legendary in its time and thankfully the Park Hyatt hasn't ruined its soul. The library / reception area is a paen to pink, with Art Deco sofas and polished chocolate floors, but it's the only shot of colour in the hotel: the rest is all cool glamour and classic colonial elegance.
Note: We loved the Park Hyatt (and there are specials on at the moment for this year: $1300 for 6 days), but probably wouldn't spend so much on a hotel next time. I felt uncomfortable doing so when the locals were so poor, and would probably stay in a guesthouse to try and get to know the locals a little better. But that's just me. You are welcome to stay wherever you want! I hope you go to either Java or Cambodia, or indeed anywhere off the beaten track this year. Write and tell me if you do: I'd love to hear all about it!