I remember sitting in my living room the day before I left my house for the last time. I’d sold my car the previous day. I had no furniture left to my name. I’d just driven one last load of household stuff and clothing to the DI truck in my rental car. My bedroom was empty. My cupboards bare. Everything I owned was now packed into one suitcase and a backpack.
Nestled into a camping chair I mentally checked things off numerous To-do lists. I was exhausted, nervous and excited. I was actually doing it. I’d sold or given away everything I owned and had taken a six-month work sabbatical to travel the world. It was the end-product of seven years’ saving and two years of planning. It was something I hadn’t been certain even two months before that I’d actually do.
That last night at home, when all of the to-do checklists were as done as they could be I began to compile the first list of things I wanted to accomplish in the next six months. I’d been thinking about those objectives on and off for two years but had never made an actual, all-together list until then. On the list were things like: Live in a hut on a tropical beach. Sail. Go to Angkor Wat, Tahiti, Bali, Australia, New Zealand. Go everywhere. Live in Rome. See cool stuff. Meet amazing people. Don’t make plans, just go.
As the evening wore on I found myself adding more and more things to the list, things that were less in-the-moment and more life goals:
Rest. Recover my health. Renew my creativity. Write a travel blog. Finish my last online class and earn my Bachelor Degree. Learn Italian enough to speak it fluently while living in Rome. Work on my photography skills. Write a book. Come home with enough money to buy a car and get life started all over again. Meet Mr. Eternal Companion and elope to a Temple… question mark?
And then before nodding off to sleep that night on a borrowed air mattress, for good measure I threw in: draw nearer to my Father in Heaven. I missed feeling close to Him. I’d had that once, a long time ago. But time and life happened. My job happened. And I didn’t know how to arrive at feeling that way any more. I wanted it back.
Kind of a hefty to-do list for six months, I knew it. But I’ve always been an over-achiever and I was going to own that list.
The first three months were a fairly typical travel-blogger fairy tale come true: A cruise from LA to Australia with stops in Hawaii, American Samoa, New Caledonia. Six weeks sailing on a sailboat in the Vanuatu Islands. A month island hopping in French Polynesia. Hiking barefoot through jungles to active volcanoes and tropical waterfalls, visiting with native island tribes still living in primitive thatched-roof huts, snorkeling untouched coral reefs, swimming with dolphins, manta rays and a million varieties of tropical fish. You get the general idea.
Photo copyright Christy Warnick/@deprturediaries, all rights reserved.
I’d decided sometime before I left that the way I was going to involve the Lord in my trip would be to add a humanitarian component to my travel blog and ask Him to guide me to the places I could be the most help. This was also going to be how I’d improve my relationship with Him. Done and done. Multitasking at it’s finest.
Those first three months I’d felt moderately successful in those goals. I curated a good list of service projects for my blog and even had a few experiences being ‘led by the spirit’ to that point. After three months of the South Pacific I felt it was time to move on and booked flights: from Tikehau to Papeete to Auckland to Sydney to Brisbane and finally, Bali. It would be a punishing two days of travel but it was the cheapest route by nearly $1400. In the short-term If I’d known what would happen next I might have gladly paid more for my flights. In the long-run, I’m grateful.
When one island hops by plane in French Polynesia its best to leave your large luggage in a secure location on the main island and pack a small carry-on size bag. Inter-island aircraft are generally small and they don’t allow for much luggage. Thus I packed light for Tikehau, the coral atol I’d be finishing out French Polynesia with. While packing I unintentionally ignored a repeated prompting to bring antibiotics with me to the remote, spartan island and consequently failed to have any with me when I contracted a ridiculously intense case of food poisoning.
After the fact I knew that the little nagging feeling I’d had to bring medication was actually a prompting and not just my usual over-preparation paranoia talking. I’d missed it because I wasn’t spiritually prepared both to listen and to know the difference between my own thoughts and promptings. I knew that there was a better way and I knew I had to do better if I was to survive my trip around the world. I just didn’t know how.
By the time I reached the main island, Tahiti, my bags and supply of antibiotics, I was nearly to the point of needing to be hospitalized. I could barely walk and yet I would shortly need to take my bags and schlep them through airports, walk miles through international airport terminals, pass through customs in not one, not two, not three, but four different countries and at any point any of those countries could turn me away for being ill. And I LOOKED ill: pale, sweaty, weak, dark circles under my eyes. If I’d been working at border control I would have turned me away for fear of an epidemic.
I began to pray and didn’t stop. I prayed the course of antibiotics I’d finally been able to start would work miraculously fast. I prayed for miraculous healing and when that didn’t come I prayed that I’d simply make it to and through each flight without throwing up or being kicked off.
And then things got worse.
I realized in New Zealand I’d have to claim my bags, carry them through customs and immigration and recheck them between each country. It’s the way things are with International travel sometimes. It is not an exaggeration to say that I could barely stand on my own without the extra one hundred and ten pounds of luggage weighing me down. So again I began to pray. For healing. For strength. For customs and immigration agents to not notice me. But I only grew more tired and more ill.
Somehow I made it through Auckland to Sydney, where I stood around and waited for my bags to arrive for more than an hour. I just stood there, feeling clammy and feverish and tried to casually not puke on the floor as everyone I recognized from my flight disappeared with their luggage. Finally I filed a claim at a very chaotic luggage bureau and then got into a line a mile long to pass through immigration. I was “flagged” by an immigration worker who looked suspiciously at me, a sickly international traveler with zero luggage, and was subjected to a lovely search and questioning process. Once through, miraculously, I realized that my bags being missing was actually some kind of twisted blessing – because I wouldn’t have to carry them – and I earnestly thanked God for the lack of luggage. And then I naively thought that if God was thoughtful enough to take my luggage away in my time of need He’d have my bags waiting for me on the other end in Bali, no problem! Ugh. I blame this ridiculous frame of mind on the illness. Obviously.
Eventually I made it through the rest of my flights. I was able to buy some toiletries in the airports along the way and arrived in Bali with only a small carry-on bag containing my antibiotics, makeup, contact lenses and laptop. For four nights I hand washed my only clothing and slept in a towel as my things dried. For five days I slept, took my antibiotics, called the airline to pester them about my bags and plead with the Lord that I’d get them back – the suitcases that contained everything I had left in the world to my name. I also asked that I’d be able to leave Bali, which I hated because I was so miserable. When you’re sick you want home comforts and Bali was about as opposite to America as it gets. Plus all I’d seen of it was my budget hotel and a terrible shopping mall where this tall, western-sized gal was somehow able to buy a swimsuit that fit on an island full of tiny Asians. It may not seem like much, but the struggle is real.
On day five one of my bags arrived. Hallelujah! It was my smaller bag, the bag I usually didn’t pack any clothing in but had, for some reason, shoved laundry inside prior to flying to Bali. Clothing! I didn’t have to hand-wash a single outfit every night any longer! Queue heavenly choir! In said laundry there was a church outfit. I washed it and hung it to dry that night, Saturday night, knowing I didn’t actually need a skirt to go to church, but feeling so incredibly grateful and comforted to have it. The next day I went to church. It was a tiny Branch with about ten people in attendance, most of which were an American family recently moved to Bali so the children could attend a local International School. Maybe for no other reason than because we were all American + Mormon on an island of non-American + non-Mormons this family and I hit it off immediately. They had just moved to Ubud, a city popular among the expatriate crowd, which they highly recommended I visit. I still had no desire to stay on Bali, but I decided to wait for my other bag and pray and ask for direction. The bag did not come that night, but the direction did: I had a very strong feeling I needed to stay put. I fought that answer. I struggled miserably with it for days.
On day nine my second bag arrived totally intact with nothing missing and I moved out of Kuta, a busy, noisy, urban area of Bali over to Ubud. Where Kuta was loud and abrasive Ubud was quiet, introspective and focused. It was the Berkeley of Southeast Asia – where all of the hippies communed and vegan-ed and yoga-ed and meditated. I flatly refused to do any of that hippie nonsense and instead filled my days with hikes through jungles and alongside terraced rice-paddies, zipping around the territory on a scooter, getting incredibly cheap spa services, reading, poolside-lounging and the like. Amidst all of this I found myself beginning to like Bali. Go figure.
After two months of toughing it out with weekly massages and pedicures (things I rarely indulged in at home, but at $15 for a great massage and $5 for a pedicure, why not!?) I still felt I needed to be on Bali, but I also felt lost, adrift and totally useless. I hadn’t found much of anything of consequence to do. I was confused and disappointed. Why on earth would I be led to a place if there were no greater purpose in being there? What’s more why would I be led to a place in such a humbling, painful and trying way? And In a way that caused me to rely so fully on the Lord for guidance, and then, having received that guidance… nothing.
I toyed with the idea of going home and back to my job. I played with the idea of totally giving up on the whole “being led” thing and flying directly to Rome to live out the rest of my time La Vita Dolce style. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it because my need to connect with my Father in Heaven was greater than my desire for Gelato and Ancient Ruins and I hadn’t done that yet. I hadn’t improved my relationship with God at all. While I knew I could be humbled in times of duress and receive direction then, I still couldn’t sustain that on a daily level.
I realized that if I really wanted to improve my relationship with my Father in Heaven that I had to change. I was my biggest enemy in this excursion. I had to sacrifice those parts of me that were willful, proud, lustful, indulgent, lazy and selfish – and I had (and still have) a lot of those parts in me – in order to become more in tune with the Spirit. But it’s not so easy to self-examine and simply pluck out undesirable attributes as though they’re bad circuits on a circuit board to be replaced. A Self is too big, broad and vast and to find the root of bad traits within that vast empire requires introspection, deep reflection and often times assistance. Self-improvement is such an overwhelming thing to most people that there are entire sections dedicated to it in bookstores. Where could I possibly even begin my own improvements?
Dieter F. Uchtdorf recently gave some beautiful counsel on this subject. “…start where you are.” He said. “…God will take you as you are at this very moment and begin to work with you. All you need is a willing heart, a desire to believe, and trust in the Lord.” [i]
Gosh I wish that talk had been available while I was in Bali! As it was, after some pondering I thought a good approach would be to jump in headlong and to give up something important to me. Having already sold practically everything I owned the most important thing to me at the time was what I had left – my somewhat substantial bank balance. I was quite proud of it. My savings was my lifeline, my source of security, my way out, my way back to “real life”. It was what I’d worked crazy hours for much of my adult life to achieve. I’d sacrificed my talents, time, physical health and, if I was going to be any kind of honest with myself, my spiritual health for that bank account balance. So maybe that was what I needed to disconnect myself from in order to Spiritually connect. The more I mulled it over the more it made sense. So finally I prayed about it and presented my plan to Father. I would start my spiritual journey with a promise to God: I would “give” him my bank balance and my time and effort if He would guide me to use it to both draw nearer to Him and do the most good possible. If He wanted me to fly to Africa and feed starving children I would do it. If He simply wanted me to write out a large check to an aid organization and then go home and back to work I’d do it. The money wasn’t mine any longer I was now just the administrator.
Days passed and not much happened. I self-examined again. What wasn’t I doing that was separating me from the Lord? I was praying, I was reading scriptures, I was going to church. But I wasn’t feasting. My study was topical, a checklist item. So I gave those things more effort and began noticing change slowly, almost painfully slowly. I continued to shift my priorities over days and weeks and the Lord sent me Tender Mercies and much encouragement in a variety of ways. I committed to watching less TV and rooting out programs that offended the Spirit. I started listening to conference talks daily and taking notes in church. I looked for patterns in inspiration and studied those things I recognized. I began to feel again. I began to understand how numb I’d been.
Photo copyright Christy Warnick/@deprturediaries, all rights reserved.
Shortly thereafter an opportunity to babysit my American friends’ three kids for a week was pretty much thrust upon me and I spent the week in their beautiful home nestled amongst Balinese Rice Paddies. Something shifted in me that week as I helped with homework and drew and read and colored and cooked with those kids. I felt protective of them, encouraging, proud when they achieved. I suddenly felt it was okay to give them my time and share my insights with them. I’d carefully distanced myself from all of that over the years. I’d sold myself on the great lie that because I was needed at my job and busy working that I was fulfilled. But that kind of fulfillment is empty. It’s a never-ending cycle of black-hole-ness. I felt important so I gave more to the job and less to friends and church callings. I prioritized my work so I could feel more important, eventually leading to frequent skipping church to work, refusing to make commitments to do things with friends because I might need to work and, at one point, a lapsed Temple Recommend simply because I ‘didn’t have time to go for an interview’.
But in Bali I rediscovered that I wasn’t my work. And it was okay to connect with other humans and make commitments. It was something I’d shoved way down deep into the recesses of my thirty-five-and-never-married soul and nearly forgotten about. Family. I have brothers and a sister and parents and nieces and nephews whom I love dearly. But living alone year after year, somewhere along the path of my life I’d convinced myself that I didn’t need one of those family unit things. The husband the dog and the standard Mormon-issue twelve kids. Not that I didn’t want to get married – I did. Maybe? – but it just hadn’t happened (and still hasn’t) and without any prospects on the horizon probably wasn’t going to and I would continue to be just fine without it. But there is a connection between mothering and service to children, home, family, friends and church and womanhood and the Spirit that is strong and vital to who we are as Spirit Beings having a Mortal Experience. We crave it whether we want to admit it or not in this intellectualized world.
In the following months I continued to travel internationally, eventually leaving Bali for more of South East Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. I purposefully continued to grow my relationship with the Lord by putting Him first every day. I read my scriptures first, every day. Every day I listened to a conference talk, or three. Every Sunday I went to all three hours of church and tried to be social and meet people, something that is difficult for me to do. I began to have missionary experiences, and experiences with missionaries along the way. My answers and direction became more and more clear – not always in the time frame I wanted – that’s an important thing to remember – the Lord’s timing is not our timing. But if we’re worthy and listening when the time is right the answers are clear, strong and often orchestral in quality. Sometimes I have been blessed to know exactly why I was sent to a certain place and other times that purpose was never made clear. But every step and every stop taught me something; is still teaching me.
The night I sat in the camping chair, the last night in my house in California, was in September of 2013. As I write this it is some twenty-seven months later, December 2015, and I’m still traveling. It wasn’t until a few days after I’d made my covenant with the Lord back on Bali I realized I’d been loose and fast with the terms. It had been extremely important to me to have enough money to start up my life again when I was done with my journey – buy a car, get an apartment, that sort of thing. That was so important to me, in fact, that I’d just assumed He knew that. I hadn’t really included that in my promise to Him. I’d told Him he could have all of the money. All of it. When I realized my mistake I laughed it off to myself saying “oh, Heavenly Father wouldn’t actually take every penny and leave me with nothing…” In fact He accepted my offering of every single penny and then required even more. Quite literally everything that I had. Everything that I was and am. And He has required my continuing time as well, because I promised it to Him for as long as it takes.
But He has not left me without means to progress, not for one minute. And He has never left me comfortless or without a roof over my head or hungry. He turned my six-month travel sabbatical into a twenty-seven month (and counting) odyssey of service, learning, suffering, humbling and growth. He has blessed me far beyond merit or measure and carried me during the lowest and toughest parts of my journey and my life. I have become more quiet, more able to listen and ‘tune in’, more full of gratitude and thereby more able to see the sometimes minute-by-minute ministrations of the Lord.
This journey as a whole is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Because all of the very best things are that way.
[i] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, It Works Wonderfully! October, 2015 General Conference, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.