There I was. Sprinting down the seemingly endless flights of stairs in my residence hall, located on the far west side of Singapore. Sweat rolled down the sides of my face. It trickled past the bags under my eyes and even past the permanent layer of filth that had accumulated during my days spent frolicking about Indonesia. White sandy beaches, friends from a world foreign to my own, and the excitement of many window seat plane rides in the months yet to come. I was still just as exhilarated as I was when I landed that January day. But now, I only felt sweaty palms, my heart beating faster than my lungs could expel air, and regret.
I arrived to my new temporary home in a hurry. Chinese New Year celebrations began taking place downtown. I swiftly removed the filth that had become my second layer of skin with a well-deserved shower. I threw my clothes and backpack into the laundry machine and I even made sure to clear every pocket of my backpack, except, of course, the one including my passport.
The fact that I may have ruined my passport a month into exchange and a week before the longest break I would have to travel suddenly silenced all other thoughts.
I ran to the laundry machine. I began prying each rose scented, passport page from one another, looking at visas that used to be, wondering if the electronic chip inside the passport would still allow me to travel. Over the next few days I keenly listened to the travel plans of my friends as they spoke of grand sunrises and all the wonder they anticipated finding. I entertained these conversations through the panicked trips to the embassy, the phone calls, the hopeful opinions, and the words from my very far away, very exasperated parents. Between all the train fares, hours spent twiddling my thumbs waiting for appointments, and the worry of my careless actions, I can say I’m happy that I almost took the travel out of study abroad. My series of unfortunate laundry events forced me to come to a few realizations:
- Clear all your pockets when you wash things. Check again, you’re quite forgetful.
- As long as my arms and legs are (mostly) attached and my heart still pumps, any material thing can be replaced. Even if it means missing out on some other things.
- You screwed up. It happens. Believe it or not, lots of other Americans too, have the same careless manner as you and have washed their passports. Own up to it. Take the action needed: self-accountability is a nifty life hack.
- Passports are very durable. This I learned from the trip to Thailand I was able to attend two weeks later. This was also something I learned from a Canadian, who claimed to have spilt Vodka on her passport and who also went on said Thailand trip.
So, you should expect the unexpected. This was reinforced while walking along a beach in Singapore one warm night, as I stumbled upon a group of people kneeling over a thirty-something-year-old Hungarian man. He was intoxicated to the point of losing consciousness. His face, turned down buried in the sand and as blue as the water. If I ever needed a reminder of how quickly a harmless situation can turn bad, there it was. I watched as his breathing slowed. Alongside that, stories of rape, foreign hospital trips, and friends who were robbed, I learned I must always expect the unfortunate unexpected.
A wise person once said, “It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” That person must have had some foolish friends.
Exchange in Southeast Asia has led me to some beautiful moments, most of which were random and unanticipated. The best pad Thai of my life, a sunrise on Batur Volcano in Bali, the nickname ‘Nanners’ from sleeping so well one night in Thailand, that my friends claimed to have put bananas on my face without waking me, and even a monkey hopping on my shoulder. It has led me to many sleepless nights, some 2 a.m. wake up calls, delayed flights, culture shock, squatter toilets and their lack of toilet paper, the flu, and the continuous fear of bedbugs- all these feelings and experiences, which I never would have had if I stayed in Athens for fest season.
In life, and especially study abroad, expect the unexpected. It will lead you to beauty, people, and conversations- the kind you replay in your head before you drift to sleep. Your comfort zone will remain amidst the Athens bricks. Parts of you that you didn’t even know existed will begin to fit together like puzzle pieces. So leave Big Mama’s and Donkey coffee for a bit, the burrito will be awaiting your return; and please, listen to the flight attendant when she does the seat-belt demo.
Madison Carlson is a sophomore studying biology and pre-medicine. She is currently studying abroad at NTU in Singapore.