It is the night before everything will change. While I am waiting for my order in a Polish bar in Offenbach, a German city fifteen kilometers away from Frankfurt, I think about the questions that I have been asking myself since January 2009: “How far would you go? How far would you go for love? How far would you go to live, not just to live, but to really feel alive? And how far would you go to finally overcome this forever seeming, depressing chapter of your life?’.
On the surface, in early 2009 life seemed to be great. I was getting closer and closer to the goal that I once thought was unachievable for me, to graduate from the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Moreover, at the market research institute where I was working, I was offered a higher position to monitor and to coach other interviewers. And my family seemed glad to see the progress in my life after all the troubles that I had gotten myself into in the previous years. It seemed like I had once and for all left behind my sometimes rather self-destructive lifestyle that had been developing since my adolescent years. It only seemed like that.
Not only was the unbearable routine and the uncertainty in terms of future perspectives still a source of tension for me. As all of us have felt at some point in our lives, deep inside I was dealing with a rollercoaster ride of emotions, and that rollercoaster was driving me insane, driving so uncontrollably that it was about to derail, as the screws continued getting loose. And the driving force of that rollercoaster was love.
'Love Turns Hate'
As usual, I dealt with all the negative feelings by turning it into something artistic, writing songs and rehearsing them with my band 'Love Turns Hate', before presenting the songs on stage. In winter, we were already looking forward to next summer, not because of the weather, but because we had learned that on July 24th, we would have the opportunity to give our longest concert ever. Although that date was still far away, I had already decided to make this date my personal turning point of the year. To me this was not only about us making music. Something inside of me insisted that I needed to do something that will have a real and significant impact on my life. Otherwise, I was sure, everything in my life would go downward spiral. Thus, I made a promise to myself that once that night is over, I would do all the things of which I thought I was not able to do: To quit smoking, to quit drinking, and to fast all thirty days of Ramadan in late summer, something which I had never done before, despite having a Muslim background. In early 2009, I was still in a transition phase from agnostic to becoming a believer, albeit far from being pious... very far.
Having had all those plans after July 24th early on, the feeling still did not leave me that I needed to do more to entirely turn my life upside down, before it would be too late. My early premonition made me conclude that I needed some kind of an 'emergency exit' if my previous attempts of changing my life would fail, a way to bypass a potential future reality that I did not want to face. Replacing such an undesired reality, I assumed, is most likely achievable in an environment, where nothing could remind me of that undesired reality, which is why I began craving for distance, feeling the need to go somewhere far, far away.
Dreams and Memories
Maybe I just started to feel burnt out and needed holidays? My friends and I have already come up with plans to travel to Amsterdam in late summer. But apart from temporarily having a good time, what would it really change? It doesn't matter if it is a few days in Amsterdam or a one-week all-inclusive trip to Ibiza just to briefly escape the daily routine, this would only lead to more frustration, because after feeling relief only for a short while, I would fall back in this hole again. It would not have the intended impact on my life to close this chapter of my life. The undertaking needed to be much bigger.
It did not happen more than once in a year that I could at least afford a short trip to a neighbouring country. This time I had enough money to come up with a more ambitious plan. So, on a day that seemed like any other, where I was daydreaming, thinking about traveling to many different remote places, I started to look at a variety of beautiful and unique sights from all over the world, which made me forget for a while that I am just a poor student, who hopes to graduate from university next year, neither having the time nor the money to initiate a life-changing journey.
At least I knew that I could save enough money to travel to a more remote place this time, but where should it be? As much as I felt the urge to travel to a culturally unfamiliar country such as China, where nothing would remind me of my usual environment, I could not ignore the idea of returning to my country of origin to meet all my relatives again, whom I haven't seen since I was a child. Maybe all I really needed was to remember where I come from. But there was a third country that came to my mind. Given that I hope to receive my MA degree in American Studies by the end of next year, the scenario of returning to New York seemed only fitting, especially because it reminded me of those precious memories ten years ago, when as a kid I was overwhelmed by all I had seen and experienced in the Big Apple, things I had previously only seen in the movies.
A Man Obsessed
‘How I wished that I could travel to all three of those countries’, I was thinking, and just out of boredom and curiosity, I started to check how much it would cost to combine several flights, which was of course way too expensive. To get some inspiration, I continued googling about traveling, until I landed on the website of STA Travel, a travel agency that offers around-the-world trips. ‘How I wished that I could afford to make this dream of traveling the world come true’, I began to fantasize even more. - Traveling the world! For a second I couldn't believe that I was even looking this up and taking it so seriously like I would really ever travel the world. The next second I knew that this is exactly what I must do. The despair and the desire for change had become so strong that they completely erased the thought in my head that doing a world trip is a luxury reserved only for the rich, a widely spread misperception. Convincing myself that there must be a way, I was having a second look at the prices, when I noticed that the combined tickets of STA Travel are considerably cheaper than booking each flight separately, because the stopovers are included in the price as additional, free destinations.
Was this, as usual, another one of those meaningless moments of short-lived euphoria, moments in which we come up with big ideas and plans for our lives, only to forget about everything the very next day? Is it just a temporary distraction from my everyday reality? Was I doing nothing but killing time, or bringing a substantial idea to life? This time something was different. ‘There must be a way!’, I kept saying to myself repeatedly, no matter how far-fetched traveling around the world sounded.
Once I did some calculations and realized that even if I work day in and day out and thereby neglect my studies, I could only visit very few countries, which just did not feel enough. "But there must be a way!", I kept telling myself. Like a man obsessed, I spent the next weeks analyzing in detail, just how much I needed to reduce my spending every month to make this world trip twice as big. Since I want to visit relatives who live in different countries around the world, I figured out that I could additionally save a lot of money on accomodation. Finally, I concluded that if I was patient and determined enough to initiate the trip not too soon, if I want it so much that I don't give up on that though and implement a one-year-plan, if I want it so much that I would be ready to make all these sacrifices, traveling around the world would no longer be just a dream.
Months passed, but not one day, in which I neglected my goal to earn enough money to be able to afford the around-the-world trip. The cute girl who works at my place, the girl that I couldn't get out of my head, made time fly whenever she was there, and made it feel like an eternity whenever she was not around, a source of inspiration for the concert on July 24th. In order to save yet more money, I went out more rarely and relinquished many of those things that young single men in Germany do. Instead, I used the time to regularly and precisely calculate how much I spent on a daily, weekly and annual basis for everything.
The amount of money on my account kept increasing steadily. Although it was not much money, it was more than I had ever saved in my life, which boosted my confidence. Before July 24th, I had already saved enough money to book an around-the-world ticket, albeit only the cheapest ticket available, with not more than five destinations included. When I first looked at my possiblities to travel, it seemed like traveling to three different destinations was impossible, and now, just a few months later, visiting five countries around the world was not enough for me. Certain destinations were not listed on the website of STA Travel, but I was sure that if I can ever pull this off, I will not do it without returning to my country of origin Pakistan to visit all my relatives, even if this means that I would have to create a more expensive, personalized itinerary.
There was not much concern in terms of spending the money that I had saved for something else, because I was convinced that no smartphone, no car, no flat, not even girls or my guitar could soothe my soul anymore. It was too late for that. A much bigger problem was time, because if I booked the ticket for next year, the journey would coincide with the final phase of my studies, not allowing me to travel for too long. But my decision to go ahead with my plans was final, because in spite of those time constraints, I was convinced that such a journey would be filled with moments that I would never forget, potentially even replace the memories that I wanted to forget and enable me to finally move on with my life, because my concern was not how much money I needed to spend, how much time I needed to invest, and I didn't think about all the things that could go wrong traveling the world with all my inexperience. My fear was only that everything stayed the same.
The Turning Point
For more than half a year I had been waiting for this night. On 24th of July I was not concerned about anything going wrong giving our longest concert ever. Instead, I mentally prepared for all that I intended on doing, or on not doing anymore, after tonight. Once we played our final song, a Michael Jackson medley dedicated to the King of Pop who had died only recently, I was celebrating with my friends, until I ended up drunk in a corner somewhere, asking myself that question again: ‘How far would you go?’.
The next day, I did not touch any cigarettes or any alchohol, and nor did I do so in the following days and weeks and months. Because I was suddenly able to refuse to smoke or drink alcohol for a longer period than I had ever done before in my life, something that previously seemed impossible to me, my confidence in traveling the world, which just a few months ago also seemed impossible to me, increased even more. But this was not enough. And I asked myself again: How far would you go?
The month of Ramadan was approaching. Because I had fasted very rarely in my life and I am not used to this, fasting even only a few days seemed like a tough challenge, but in my eyes this spiritual challenge was my final challenge to prove to God and to myself how big my desire to travel really is: If I manage to fast all 30 days, I said to myelf, I will also manage to travel the world. I still hadn't talked about my travel plans to anybody, so I was talking only to God about it, prayed to him, and asked him to give me one chance to make the impossible possible, to let this much needed miracle happen.
However, there was one thing that I had not considered in my plans. It was late summer. Some of the last days of Ramadan would coincide with me flying to Amsterdam with my friends to party, something we had been planning for quite a while. I needed to fast, but I also needed this break. I will have to make a tough decision, like in that scene from the movie The Matrix, where Morpheus asks the protagonist Neo to make a choice: To either eat the blue pill and live in this unreal world that gives him a false sense of security, or to eat the red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, to seek the truth. The problem is that I am way too curious and I want to find out everything. If I was in his situation, I could never decide for one pill only, and just eat both pills at once. With respect to my real life dilemma, this was the solution in my eyes: To do both, to travel to one of Europe’s biggest nightlife destinations with my friends, but without abandoning my plan to fast every day. As we finally spent some joyful days in Amsterdam, I was more motivated than ever before, because for once in my life I managed to resist all the temptations in an ultra-hedonistic environment, stayed straight edge, and fasted every single day of Ramadan, which in hindsight was much, much easier than I had thought it would be. Back in Germany, everything I did just felt good and right, and even the girl I fell in love with seemed to connect with me more and more.
“Another beer please”, I call the barkeeper and open another bottle, before I continue reminiscing about my more pious times, trying to remember just how the hell I managed not to drink or smoke for three months. Some people had this perception that just because I started to believe to God, I would become something like a saint, but despite of all the progress that I had made, all the concerns about the future, the pressure of working daily while not neglecting my studies, as well as being ridiculously and hopelessly in love with a girl who turned out to be in love with somebody else, made me realize that I had reached a dead end, and I felt that the only way out was to turn around and to give in to all kinds of temptations, until I found myself at yet another dead end, and not even writing songs, playing guitar and screaming out my soul on stage would be able to navigate me through this labyrinth of life anymore. I seemed trapped, as the threatening reality that I foresaw in the beginning of this year was becoming real. There was only one more thing left that I felt I could do.
The Secret Plan
All too often in my life I only talked about big plans and big ideas, how I could do this and that, without ever doing any of those things. Eventually I got sick of talking, which is why in all those months I had not talked to anyone about my plans to travel the world, nobody knew, and nobody needed to know. Some would discourage me from doing it, others would support it, either way, nobody would really believe in it, and sooner or later I would probably not believe in it either. So, therefore, in late September, without saying a word to anyone, I visited the office of the STA travel agency to discuss the possibilities. In the end of the same month, having thought everything through, I knew that if I really want to dare this step, it needed to happen within the next days.
On the 1st of October 2009, in a moment of utter frustration, having had a bad day at work while at the same time being reminded that I can never be with the girl that I like, thinking about this cruel phenomenon in life of somebody feeling attraction towards you the more you try to stay away from that person, while feeling rejection the more you express your adoration, thinking about how I can no longer function like a machine with all the intimidating social constraints to not feel like a human, to not say what is really on your mind, and to not talk about how you really feel, I began to masochistically force myself to solely focus on all the negative moments, provoking myself to feel rage, reminding myself of as many failures and moments of humiliation in my life as possible, forcing myself to solely and one-sidedly focus on all the negative moments, until I felt like enough is enough and realized that it is now or never, prompting me to storm out of my flat to finally make the counter-reality that I had envisioned once and for all real. The next two hours I felt like I was in a trance condition, withdrawing the thousands of Euros from the bank, visiting the travel agency in Frankfurt again, compiling my personal travel itinerary with the STA crew, giving them all the money that I had saved for so long, after which I received an invoice and a booking confirmation.
In the metro, on my way back home, I was staring at the ticket, at the amount that I had paid and the confirmed destinations. On April 1st, 2010, it was now confirmed, I would be going to take twelve flights to visit ten countries on four continents, traveling around the world in six weeks. My heart started beating faster, and I asked myself: ‘What on earth have I just done?’. One more time I looked at the pieces of paper, which confirmed that in six months the biggest journey in my life would start. Only then I really began to think about all the things that could go wrong. It was too late for doubts or second-guessing.
Work Hard, Play Hard
To my friends and family I finally announced that I have booked an around-the-world ticket. As expected, the reactions ranged from disbelief to support to discouragement and envy. Some found it suspicious that my trip around the world would start on April Fool’s day and thought that I was joking, which was understandable. Had somebody told me in the beginning of the year that I would book an around the world-ticket, I would certainly not have taken it seriously. My mother was almost hoping that it was a joke: ‘How will you manage to attend twelve flight in six weeks, when you even oversleep your band rehearsals that are scheduled for 8 pm?’. Point made. I tried not to think about my insomnia, and instead kept myself busy with work, studies and organizing the around-the-world trip, while the word of me traveling around the world kept spreading in my hometown of Offenbach. Luckily, many people in my environment were supportive, but there were also critical voices claiming that my world trip is too short and I will miss out on so many things. I did not know how to react to that criticism, and was wondering if I should just say: „Yes, you are right, I will not fly around the world to visit ten countries and stay in Offenbach instead, to make sure that I will not miss out on anything”. But the discouraging words did not matter anyway, because the flights were already booked. Now there was no turning back.
Meanwhile, new opportunities started to arise for our band in the beginning of 2010. Two weeks ago, we participated in the qualification round of the world’s biggest contest for unsigned bands, where the winners of each region in each country would have the chance to record a studio album and to sign a contract with a label. With the help of our supporters we became the number one band in the qualification Round in Frankfurt on that night and have now made it to the semi-finals in our region, scheduled to take place in eight days. The problem is that my around the World trip starts tomorrow. As much as I hate the fact that I cannot be with my friends to give our band's most important concert ever, I know that Love Turns Hate can make it to the final round without me. There is just no way that I could cancel the biggest and most important journey of my life.
The Night Before Everything Will Change
Just shortly before I ended up in this bar, where I order another beer, I bid farewell to my brother, with whom I have been philosophizing about the world and about God extensively. He gave me a book with Quranic verses, after which my mother gave me a necklace with Quranic verses and said some prayers for me, which I myself say too rarely. Friends of mine surprised me with a certain amount of US-dollars as a gift, whereas my dad gave me a mobile phone. Although I usually never use mobile phones, it may come in handy during my journey, especially in case of emergency.
On the one hand, I think that I am ready and well prepared. On the other hand, not everyone seems to feel the same way, since I am known to be a chaotic person. Just last week, for instance, I lost my bank card. Fortunately, I found it again a few days later. ‘Maybe it was good that this happened to me shortly before the around-the-world trip begins, since it serves as a reminder, just how much a I have to take care of my valuables when I am abroad’, I tried to calm my mother down in a diplomatic way. Somehow she was not really convinced.
On my way back home, I meet an Afghani guy named Faiz. “Do you know if there is a bar open here?”, he asks. ‘Well I just came from a bar’, I reply, and he offers me to join him in the same bar to have some drinks. For a moment I think about the fact that I have less than eight hours left to take my first flight of the around-the-world trip, how I should better take the biggest undertaking of my life seriously, stay fit, focused and be prepared for tomorrow. After finishing my thought, we enter the bar and have just one more drink, after which we have just another drink, and a couple more, until I realize how late it is getting, prompting me to drag my intoxicated body back home, where I sit in front of the computer for a while and look at all my plans for the journey, not because I understand anything of what I am doing in my current condition, but because I feel like this is what globetrotters do.
Hardly able to concentrate, I look at the different entry requirements, visa regulations, public transport systems, health aspects, financial plans, accommodation options, bla, bla, bla, screw that, screw life, and screw the girl that I can never have, too, screw spelling erors as well, ain't no longer afraid to make misstakes, screw everything. There we go, now I become menalcoholic, poetically and pathetically falling into self-pity, thinking about all my failures instead of my success moments, after which I switch on some music. Let’s listen to something calm tonight. “Running up that Hill” by PlaceBo. Sounds good to me. Finally, I lay down, close my eyes and dream about traveling far away one last time, before making it real, and I ask myself one more time: How far would you go? Around the world and further.