Ivona Kafedjiska is the owner of the blog Jungle Dancer. Jungle Dancer is a great blog filled with amazing personal stories, great advice and some wonderful blogs on how to improve your mental health. She is very talented with a wonderful set up and we can't wait to collaborate with her more and more throughout both of our journeys.
It was the end of November, 2016 and my fifth night sleeping in the office. I was finally writing my masters thesis, when after countless frustrating months of failures and unsuccessful experiments in the lab, somehow, in a series of “happy circumstances”, I had obtained results worth writing a master thesis about. In parallel, I was attending classes for my second masters studies. Mildly put, I did not know what day it was, what my name was, and what my life in science would look like after all of that was over.
I guess that the people who do not work in science have a very different image of what actually working in science looks like. Basically, I spend a lot of time on experiments that only help me to conclude in a highly complex way that something does not work. Which is why when something does work, you read about it in the newspapers.
One might then wonder why scientists do what they do. What kind of a pleasure do we get from being stuck in a vicious circle of diligently planning a highly-involved experiment, only to exclude one more option as a solution to a clearly defined problem? The truth is, it is thrilling. But, also highly frustrating and sometimes all gets a little bit too much.
As in any job, we all reach a point when we simply say: “I am exhausted”. And during that fifth night of sleeping in the office, I finally murmured: “I am exhausted”.
In full honesty, I do not really remember much about my emotions back then. I was too tired to feel anything else than absolutely burnout. I think, the only thing worse than feeling miserable is feeling nothing at all. Having no strength to put your feelings – or the lack of them thereof - into words.
Around 1:00 am, on that fifth day, I left the office to get some fresh air. It is honestly amusing how our brain sorts preservation-worthy information. Most of my memories correlated to that period are fragments of chaotic images of me sitting at the desk; typing like a lunatic; then, sleeping, then typing again. Telling myself “you are not a quitter; you can do this, just a little bit more. Hang in there”. The rest – a total blank.
Except for this after-midnight break. I remember it so vividly that even as I write about it, I can now feel the evening chill on my skin, I can hear the silence on the streets in front of my office (yes, you can hear silence too), I can see the mild twinkling of the stars in the night sky.
Some years later, I started wondering why I remember this particular break so well. It took me a while to find the answer, but now I know that this was the first night, in a very long time, when I felt hopeful for the future. Have you ever experienced such a spur of hope that you simply can never forget it?
I know it can sound either silly or depressing – depending on your point of view – but finding that hope was a game changer for me. All of a sudden, standing alone on the street, tears of burnout mixed with tears of joy, I felt hopeful that all of my work will one day pay off. It felt so good to trust in myself for even a brief moment. But, above all, it felt liberating to find a way to give myself an acknowledgement for my work and start believing that I, despite all troubles and obstacles, did a good job. Right there and then I had realised – probably for the first time in my life – that no one’s acknowledgement or praise will ever be sufficient for me unless I believe in myself too. I have carried this thought with me ever since.
The unexpected and unplanned trip
So, what did I do next? Well, I continued writing my thesis, of course. That is the boring answer. Another, more amusing answer, is that I had decided that on the dayI would submit my thesis I would go to Portugal. Yes, things escalated quickly, didn’t they? From feeling miserable, to feeling hopeful, to booking flights to Portugal. Everything in roughly ten minutes.
Here is the thing though. Once I gave myself the acknowledgement I needed, I felt worthy of rewarding myself for my hard work in the past year. And my favourite reward has always been and always will be - traveling.
I particularly enjoy traveling alone. It feels like I am realising myself from the chains of my everyday life! Going wherever I want, dressed however I want, exploring at my own pace. Not negotiating what to have for lunch, where to go for dinner or clubbing, deciding on my budget. No compromises, no explanations, no discussions. Just me, my thoughts, my notebooks and pencils, and the willingness to embrace each mini adventure as well as I can. Absolute freedom! And oh my, did I not need absolute freedom after that stressful year!?
As promised, the day I submitted my thesis was also the day I flew to Portugal AND moved out of my room. I had decided last minute that I will sublet it to another student; I thought the money would come in nicely for my trip. I guess that is the benefit of studying abroad: among all the nostalgia for your family, friends, and motherland, you do get one perk: you are able to pack your life in two suitcases in one hour and be ready to hit the road in less than a day.
So, in less than a day, I went from a panicked student who is about to submit her thesis, to a fully packed, ready-to-move student who boarded on an airplane to Portugal. Since I was constantly working on my thesis, after I booked my flights, I had no time to plan where I was going and what I was going to do once I had arrived. I only had the luck to have two friends living in Lisbon and they were super kind to offer me a couch in their lovely flat at the time. For the first time in my life, I had decided to go completely with the flow, find further accommodation and make other travel plans once I had actually reached Lisbon.
Reaching and enjoying Portugal
“Welcome to Lisbon, the local temperature is 16°C and the local time is 9pm” – was the first sentence I heard in Portugal. Unsurprisingly, I slept through the whole flight. Excited and happy, but somehow not fully aware what was going on, I walked to the metro and started what later turned out to be one of the most wonderful trips of my life.
I stayed in Portugal in total for around ten days. I spent my time in Lisbon, Sintra and Porto. Nothing unconventional for a tourist in the oasis on the Atlantic Ocean; but, since this was my first visit to Portugal I loved every minute of it.
I know that if you talk to the usual tourist, then many of them would talk about Portugal’s amazing weather, or food, or the hospitality of the people. This is all without doubt - true. For me, however, Portugal offered so much more and it is mostly because of how and when I ended up visiting this country.
I arrived in Portugal at a very crucial part of my life. Not only because I had this whole stressful period around my research and thesis; but also because I went through a year of almost negligible ups and significant downs. This year remains until today (even with 2020 and all of its bullshit taken into consideration), one of the worst years of my life.
2016 started nicely, with meeting someone I really liked and then quickly breaking it apart because the distance between us was simply too large to maintain the “relationship”. The year then proceeded into being a constant battle of balancing between two extremely challenging masters studies, no wish to socialise despite feeling more isolated and lonelier than ever, and absolutely no wish to reach out to family and friends and share my burdens.
It might seem ironic that I am now writing so openly about it; but, that day when I submitted my first masters thesis and boarded on an airplane to Portugal I denoted the end of this period. I just never got the chance to say it so openly until now. It wasn’t only a metaphorical end. It was a literal one and it was the mark of a new cycle in my life.
Portugal everlastingly imprinted the memory of sinking many of my doubts, fears, feelings of low self-esteem and high unworthiness at the bottom of the ocean. The smell of the endless, salty blue in the air, the heart-warming sun on my face, the sand on my feet – they all awakened such a genuine, almost child-like, joy in my soul. True. Honest. Unpolished, unfiltered, unedited for social media. I felt like a superhero. My friend from Lisbon even took a picture of me, walking along the coastline, with my sweater swinging backwards like a super-hero’s cape.
From that moment on, my trip just kept on getting better and better. I remember this one particular day in Porto when I woke up with an incredible desire to go for a run. Sadly, in the hurry to pack, I had forgotten my running shoes back in Germany. So, I went into a shop and bought a cheap pair of sneakers (sorry, asics). I tied the shoelaces and started running around the town.
Have you ever been in Porto? It is hilly! But, I did not care. I kept on running, going faster and faster, speeding up with the rhythm of the songs on my playlists. Many people would find themselves struggling to breathe, but I was smiling, almost laughing. People were staring at me, maybe wondering if I were high or on something. Some started waving. I am sure they had seen women run, but I am not sure if they had ever seen such a happy woman running. And happiness, unlike sadness, is contagious.
My trip continued with visiting “clubs” with live jazz music, while enjoying a nice drink and the blessing of sitting alone at a table without being bothered with the question “can I offer to buy you a drink?”. Exploring the amazing taste of the Port wine or the comforting and delicate taste of the Portuguese cuisine. Even biking around Porto and reaching some breath-taking beaches.
The importance of the feeling, not the location
I could go into much more details of what I did in Portugal, but you see, the whole point is how I felt in Portugal. This world is a glorious place – you can see natural or man-made wonders in any country, in any street, and you will admire them all. However, if you are particularly lucky, once in a while in your life you will end up going somewhere where your destination will inject you with exactly what you are craving at that particular moment. I promise you, it will be glorious. Unforgettable. And very likely, unrepeatable.
At least, Portugal has never repeated for me. But, that’s okay. I feel blessed that during the ten days I spent in this mesmerising country, I had it all: a full restart of my psychological and physical well-being; a re-emerging of my desire to run; and the hopeful intuition that no other year in the near future will be as bad as 2016. I had hoped that from that moment on, things could only get better.
Naturally, my life has not been a fairy tale since then. To say so, would be a lie. I have encountered many other struggles and obstacles since then, but I now perceive these as part of the natural course of my everyday life. I see them as only chances to develop emotionally and intellectually and too mature into the person I know I can be one day.
Last, but not least, I am not saying that a trip can always cure all of your sorrows. Maybe I just got lucky, who knows. I am also well aware that we cannot all go on a spontaneous, out-of-nowhere trips when we feel crushed and disappointed. Especially not now, when ironically, people feel more devastated than ever. Our mental health is spiralling downwards as the pandemics is tearing apart families, friends and colleagues and I know that we would all like to escape somewhere better. Sadly, this is now not possible and traveling – as our lives – must remain on a hold for a little bit longer.
Nevertheless, if you feel hopeless, let me tell you this. I neither know when all of this will be over, nor what the aftermath of the pandemic will be in terms of traveling and even more so in terms of our psychological and emotional well-being. However, I know this much: every sorrow, every obstacle, every challenge is temporary, even if “temporary” feels like an eternity right now. Do not give up. You will be fine once again, I promise you.
By Ivona Kafedjiska, owner of the blog Jungle Dancer
Thank you for reading guys and thank you once again to Ivona for sharing! Please go and look at some of her other posts as well as following her social medias.