“What are you doing here?” A Burmese woman levels this question at me, a bemused expression on her face, on the three-hour circle train that loops around the perimeter of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, the old capital of Myanmar. Truth be told, it’s a difficult question for me to answer.

On the surface, it’s simple. I quit my job in an advertising agency in Dublin in September and bought a ticket to Bangkok, with no fixed plan, just the idea that I wanted to travel all around south-east Asia by myself for a few months. I didn’t go with a fixed itinerary in mind, but had a jumbled list of countries that interested me: Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia. I really didn’t know. And that was kind of the point.

But the answer to that woman’s kind, genuine enquiry on the train has its roots long before I took off for Bangkok in October. What was I doing there?

I know a lot of people back home who would have loved to ask me the same question. What was I up to quitting a perfectly good job and uprooting a nice life to spend my days in sticky hostel dorms alone?

Fiona Hyde at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Fiona Hyde at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ireland doesn’t yet have quite as strong a culture of “overseas experience” that New Zealand has or “gap years” like the British. Until relatively recently, to go against the grain in Ireland and eschew security for feckless adventure wasn’t seen as bravery, but some sort of unseemly brand of perversity. “Don’t rush into anything,” my mother said when I told her I was going to hand in my notice that Friday. “Wait for a few weeks and see if this feeling passes.” I did, but it didn’t.

Look: firstly, there’s the big caveat that I was in the privileged position of having a pot of savings to be able to make the choice to travelling. In today’s economic climate, that’s no small thing. I don’t take it for granted. That said, the dominant narrative when it comes to savings is that they are to be spent in a very specific way – the deposit on a house, the bedrock of a wedding fund or a fancy baby carseat, or preferably all three. I’m in my late 20s (pushing 30 really, if I’m feeling honest) and my social media timelines are a constantly refreshing ticker of friends and colleagues tying the knot. The issue of not having a serious boyfriend quite aside for a moment, none of that appealed to me, but cutting loose and travelling did. Frankly, I wasn’t – and am not, at the time of writing – ready for my life trajectory to solidify in such a scary manner.

Why should I save my money for a hypothetical future with a husband and a south-facing back garden when I could spend it today, on myself, doing something fun? 

In recent years, there’s been a lot of freewheeling guff written about millennials without much genuine insight. Faintly ludicrous headlines asking why we aren’t “buying diamonds” and the near-ubiquitous media contention that if we simply gave up the avocado toast and our fondness for complaining, we’d be on the property ladder already. That said, the oft-trotted-out idea that millennials value experiences over material objects rings true for me. Why should I save this money for a hypothetical future with a husband and a south-facing back garden when I could spend it today, on myself, doing something fun? Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.

In fact over the last few years, that feeling of uncertainty has been dialled up to the max. Elections and referendums at home and abroad have carried a distinct feeling that the rulebook has been torn up and thrown away, for good or bad. The political landscape for our closest neighbours has gone off the reservation entirely. Sometimes it feels like a large mask has slipped and it’s painfully apparent that no one in positions of power has a bloody clue what they’re doing. Not only that, but life doesn’t feel as linear as it once did just a few decades ago. Closer to home, 30-somethings are back living with their parents en masse, trying to cobble together a deposit, and these days an undergrad degree or even a Master’s is no guarantee to a place at interview, let alone a job.

It’s a leap into the unknown, but for many careers these days, the gig-economy and zero-hour-contract and internship era, there’s precious little certainty anyway

Slashed social welfare for young people, emigration seemingly encouraged by the dole office, acres of unpaid internships. A supposed recovery at the expense of the thousands of young people, my peers, who emigrated to alleviate pressure on the system. A lost generation of friends who may never return, watching from afar the immense pressure and difficulty in attempting to live in inhospitable Irish cities.

Fiona Hyde inside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Fiona Hyde inside Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia

What the term “snowflakes” and other wrong-headed analyses on millennials misses is that the economic landscape for young people in 2018 was radically different to anything we’ve seen in the last god-knows-how-many years. Why not opt out of a system that doesn’t seem to place very much value on your contribution? Why not just jack it all in if you can? And sure, it’s a leap into the unknown, but for many careers these days, in the gig-economy and zero-hour-contract and internship era, there’s really precious little certainty anyway. For many not as lucky as me, it’s hard to plan for a future that seems increasingly out of reach, pushed out into a commuter belt to buy or forced back home by rising rents.

I was fortunate. I had a job to quit, I wasn’t dealing with rent hikes, which enabled me to save and afforded me the opportunity to escape like I did. It felt like it was time for me. I resisted the pressure to go in 2008 when many of my school friends legged it to Australia, especially those who did apprenticeships and faced a collapsed construction industry. Things were similarly bleak in 2012 when I left university, with a pile of people taking their grad visas and fleeing to the US, with another healthy chunk decamping to London and Canada.

There’s the feeling that if I don’t do it now, I never will

I’ll admit there was a certain element of FOMO (fear of missing out) in having stayed behind in Ireland during those Generation Emigration years. There was a feeling when these far-flung former peers who returned home for 12 Pubs at Christmas, mostly unspoken but still somehow communicated, that real life hadn’t really begun if you chose (or managed) to stay at home and make a go of it in Ireland. As someone fiercely proud of Ireland, despite its many faults, I had to grit my teeth and drink my pint as the returned emigrants would pontificate about how terrible things were back here and how long it had taken for their train into town to arrive compared to the Tube. There was a strange mood that having stuck it out at home and not having gone anywhere was almost some sort of character flaw, speaking to a slight lack of guts.

There’s also the feeling – perhaps strongest of the wave I experienced when clicking to confirm that British Airways flight out of dodge – that if I don’t do it now, I never will. Right now, I don’t have any responsibilities, but it felt like they were looming. Once I’d handed in my notice at work, there were no ties that would hold me back from doing a midnight flit. I didn’t have a partner I needed to convince to come along, or break up with to go. Another consideration that weighed on my mind (when I let it) was that my parents are getting older, too – it might not be so easy to take off in a few years’ time because I will want to be around for them.

Fiona Hyde beachcombing on Ngapali Beach in Myanmar
Fiona Hyde beachcombing on Ngapali Beach in Myanmar

Long-term travel is kind of a halfway house for someone like me, who doesn’t want to live or work permanently outside Ireland, but also wants to see something of the world. Jacking it all in for a few months or a year is the acceptable level of escape for someone who deep down always intends on coming back home. Although I’m keenly aware that’s what they all say, then find themselves married and living in Vancouver five years down the line. Along the way, I’ve met lots of people who feel the same way – people who don’t feel that committing to real life and settling down are quite right yet, people working in hostels or teaching English or eking out the last of their savings to postpone what slowly stops seeming like inevitable.

It’s so easy to slip day-to-day into month-to-month without asking ourselves if we enjoy our jobs, if we’re happy with where our lives are going

At the end of it all, there are these excuses but then there’s the other, huge, totally obvious one: travelling looked like a lot of fun. So what really triggered it for me was being alone on holiday for a week in the summer before I decided to head off. I enjoyed it so much that it made me take stock of what I was returning to, something I don’t think any of us do enough. It’s so easy to slip day-to-day into month-to-month without asking ourselves if we enjoy our jobs, if we’re happy with where our lives are going, if there’s a trip we always meant to take but never worked up the nerve. I knew I had those savings, and I realised that maybe today was my rainy day, not some far-off daydream of a house deposit or wedding that may never come true.

“What am I doing here?” Well, long story short, I’m having the time of my life.

This is the first in a series of monthly columns by Fiona Hyde on long-term travel

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