You walked away from the most degrading experience of your corporate life for the sake of your sanity. And for the sake of making the food poisoning story more convincing, you took the rest of the week off. You spent it reading up on Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, looking for cheap flights, and canvassing your mates to see if anyone could be persuaded to come with you. Chucking in the course like that was a snap decision, but it very quickly feels like absolutely the right thing to have done.

The power of suggestion is quite amazing. It only takes you saying ‘Yes, I was sick all week, I didn’t eat for days,’ a couple of times for people to start replying in the affirmative and adding ‘You look like you’ve lost weight’, to corroborate your story.

You know your story has convinced when Joan, the most sceptical co-worker of all, says you’re looking skinny. ‘I could do with a bout of food poisoning’ she adds. It’d take more than a mild bout, you think to yourself.

At some point you know you need to front up to Wingnut about the fact you didn’t finish the course. He beats you to it, summoning you to a ‘one-to-one’ on Monday afternoon. You express some regret, sadness even, that you didn’t get to complete the course, as it was shaping up to be an interesting and instructive week. Wingnut agrees that it’s a shame, especially as the next course is 3 months away, by which time all the ILP rotations will be filled, forcing you to wait another 3-6 months before you can get on one. That’s okay, you tell him.

‘Wingnut’s not happy,’ you say to Joan as you return to your desk.

‘Why’s that?’

‘I told him I didn’t want to do ILP after all. He looked at me like I was breaking up with him. He asked me where I thought this was going – like as if he wanted to know if I saw a future for us together. Me, him and the International Leadership Programme. Very odd.’

‘He’s got a point. Where do you think this is going, if you’re not going to take up a chance like ILP? I thought you wanted to go abroad anyway?’

‘I do, I do. But just not with work. I think I’m going to go travelling instead. At some point, when I’ve saved enough money anyway.’

You deliberately left Joan with the impression the travelling plan was something vague and distant. You don’t want to be the subject of office rumours about when you’re going to quit. It puts too much pressure on.

As it happened you should have had greater faith in your ability to follow through. You save every spare penny for a few weeks, cajole a small loan from your parents, and before the end of the summer you are ready to book your flights and hand in your notice. The timing is perfect: you’ll leave London before the leaves turn brown and the nights draw in, and return in the spring. Christmas and New Year on a beach somewhere exotic will be amazing (even more so if you can persuade someone to join you).

So you’re really doing it, going off on your big adventure, all on your own. Fortunately Alice is coming with you for the first two weeks, so you can chill out on a beach together before you go and do the big brave adventurous thing. Beyond that first fortnight it’s a slightly daunting prospect. But you tell yourself that between the diving school, the organised tour of Cambodia, and the backpacker communities that dot the beaches of that part of the world, you’ll be fine.

You spend much of your going away party persuading people to come out and see you on an exotic beach somewhere. Simon is always looking for an excuse to avoid family Christmas, and Cambodia has been on his wish list for a while, so that’s an easy sell. You promote New Year on a beach in Bali to the rest of the gang, but can only secure tentative promises to look into flights. So you really will be on your own for some of the trip. You try not to shudder at the thought – after all, this is what you wanted. This is why you’ve chucked in your job, to do the cool, single, independent thing.

Still, when Charlie says ‘I always thought we’d do that trip together,’ it’s all you can do to throw yourself on him and wail ‘Come with me!’

At some point you seem to lose sight of the fact you’re going to doss around South East Asia for a few months (albeit on your own). You start to talk to your friends as if you’re going off to climb Everest, or be a human shield in Israel, and might never return. You make some ponderous declarations of everlasting friendship, and make them promise not to forget you when you’re gone. ‘You’ll see us all in a few weeks, one way or another,’ says Alice as you get all emotional.

You nod. ‘I’ll miss you till then though,’ you mumble through your tears.

The chaotic hustle and bustle of Bangkok is a cultural shock you’re happy to defer. You and Alice spend one night there before heading to the calm of islands with perfect beaches, recognisable food and drink, and hot Australian beach bum types. It’s bliss, and rather like a holiday. Anaesthetised by the fortnight’s lazing around, you wave Alice off as if she was going away for the weekend – not going home and leaving you alone on the other side of the world, all on your lonesome. Gosh. The holiday’s over.

You have a couple of weeks to acclimatise, and week to learn how to dive, before returning to Bangkok. The diving course was a great idea, giving you something to focus on and a ready made social life. By the end of it, you’re used to the temperature and humidity, have adopted a favourite local beer (Chang), and feel ready to do some proper travelling.

The teeming life of Bangkok is less of a shock the second time around. You spend a couple of days looking for transport to and around Cambodia. You drink in the same bars as the rest of the backpackers, and at night you could almost be in some random Camden bar, and not on the other side of the world. Already comfortable with the casual racism of the backpacker, you know to avoid the Israelis (too aggressive) and the Australians (no cultural sensitivity), and seek out more sympathetic souls, some nice Cornish surfer dudes, and some very sweet Dutch girls. It’s fun, meeting new people, swapping plans and travellers tips. You feel most intrepid.

From Bangkok you will fly to Pnom Penh, ready to see more of the world. Check you out! Actually, travelling en masse with four quite sensible Dutch girls and two German boys they picked up on the way isn’t all that intrepid. So you see the killing fields and the Khmer temples at Angkor from an air-conditioned minibus, and in some worthy (if a bit dull) company. Still, it beats being on your own. When you return to Pnom Penh it’s time to wave goodbye to your new friends. They are off to Singapore and Malaysia, and, grateful though you’ve been for their company, you aren’t about to change your plans to spend more time with them. You’ll press on to Vietnam alone.

You’ve been away from home for seven weeks but this is the first time you’ve been left to your own devices. Navigating the journey from Pnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh keeps you occupied at first. Once you’ve found a hotel you reward yourself with a cocktail at Vasco’s Bar, which you’ve read is popular with the expat crowd. It’s a bit lazy of you really, but you like the idea of being surrounded by Western voices, having been in transit for too long.

Ho Chi Minh, or Saigon as you have taken to calling it (like the locals and backpackers do), is surprisingly entertaining. You enjoy a few days there, sampling the markets, pagodas and time warp palaces and museums, before heading to the coast.

You plan on spending three weeks or so checking out the various beaches, trying to work out where best to spend Christmas and the New Year. Somewhere that feels exotic and far flung, but has a couple of backpacker bars for those long evenings, would be perfect. And you need somewhere with decent internet, so you can keep updating your facebook status with things like ‘Sarah is impressed by the internet speed in Phan Thiet’, ‘Sarah is sipping a Saigon lager on the beach’ or ‘Sarah is running out of bikinis’.

The days are long and lazy and there’s little to do except chill out, read and sunbathe. The evenings, on your own, are harder to fill. You drink cheap beers with backpackers and have those traveller conversations about where you’ll go next. It takes a while before the constant humidity and lack of home comforts start to grate. But when they do – they really do.

Suddenly the loneliness and unfamiliarity hit you like a wall. You’re tired of waking up every morning to random Christmas music blaring out from the bar down the beach. You miss your bed with feather pillows. You miss proper tea and digestives. And you miss, most of all, the people who know you and get your jokes without explanation.

Thank goodness for Simon’s forthcoming visit. You email him to make plans and pester him to see if he’s booked his flight yet (his plan of leaving it as late as possible makes you nervous, though he insists it’s the best way to get a bargain).

‘I’m in this amazing village with the most perfect white sandy beach you’ve ever seen. It’s quiet though – bar shuts at about 9pm. I thought when you’re here we could head to Mui Ne which is apparently a bit livelier.’

For once the time difference, your completely different schedules, and the cronky internet connection all conspire to give you a prompt reply.

Your face drops as you read his email. His mother is guilting him out about being away from Christmas. His grandma’s had a fall, gone into hospital, and is very frail. Simon dotes on his grandma, and feels too bad being away from home for her ‘last Christmas’. He apologises effusively, and promises to look into flights for New Year instead. But your spirit is dented. With a lump in your throat and blinking back tears you write that you understand, and yes, New Year will be just as much fun.

Nursing a beer at the Happy Times bar, you look out at the beach, where the crystal clear water kisses the fine white sand, and a bunch of raggedy kids squeal and splash each other as their fathers pull in lobster nets nearby. If you ignore the massive rubbish dump a few hundred yards down the coast it’d be absolutely idyllic. But you are here alone, and a tear makes its way slowly down your cheek as you start to really wallow. You miss home, you miss your friends, and you’re tired of being alone.

The sound of other Westerners arriving in the bar forces you to wipe the tears from your face. You pick up the battered copy of Madame Bovary you have been carrying around all week and try to look like you don’t want to be disturbed. You have a feeling you recognise that Cornish burr, as they order their beers, and you’re not really up for small talk.

It doesn’t work. Backpackers don’t recognise the parameters of polite social intercourse. Especially when they feel they know you. You shared a couple of beers with Christian and his surfer mates back in Bangkok, but they greet you as if you were long lost family.

After a week in Bangkok they flew straight to Saigon, and have been bumming up and down the coastline ever since. You tell them about your tour of Cambodia, as they plan on doing something similar. And you all swap stories of dubious mushroom milkshakes, amusing bureaucracy, less amusing long waits for border checkpoints to open, and the usual scams and con tricks you are proud to have avoided. You do your best to put a brave face on your bad mood, but it’s clearly not very convincing.

As the lads start arguing about the best Vietnamese beer, Christian looks at you and says, quietly,

‘You look a bit down. Are you okay?’

‘Oh, I’m alright. You just caught me at a bit of a low point. My mate who was coming out in a couple of weeks just cancelled. So now I’m looking at the prospect of Christmas alone and I don’t really know what to do.’

‘Cheer up,’ he says. ‘You can spend Christmas with us. We’re planning on going down to Cambodia for a few weeks.’

You smile, and say thanks. ‘I might take you up on it. But I’ll come back up for New Year, hopefully some of my mates will come out then.’

You try to cheer yourself up. New Year isn’t that far away. And Simon might have a bit of luck persuading some of the others – maybe Charlie, or Nita and Jay – to come out with him. Ah, it’ll be good to see those guys again.

The combination of some good company and a few more beers than usual leave you feeling pretty merry by the end of the evening. And you are even more cheered by a drunken moonlit snog with Christian. With a marked absence of coyness you invite him back to your beach hut. Brilliant. This is what travelling is all about!

You arrive to find the flimsy door swinging from its hinges.

‘That’s funny,’ you say, ‘I’m sure I locked it.’

You peer in, holding Christian’s hand as you do, to see your worst fears realised. Your little shack, your sweet little home on the beach, has been ransacked. Your cash, your rucksack, your ipod, both pairs of flip flops, and goodness knows what else, have been taken.

Being robbed and left with nothing is not what travelling is all about. Is it?

‘Oh shit,’ says Christian, realising you have actually been robbed, and aren’t just phenomenally untidy.

You start to sob, almost uncontrollably. Christian tries to comfort you, and you let him, mainly because you want him to stay the night still. So you have some fairly pedestrian sex and curl up in his arms, where you feel a little safer. But this is a real low point. You’re all on your own, a million miles from home, all your stuff has been nicked, and you have to sort it all out by yourself. You are truly miserable.

The next day you decide to pull your socks up and get on with it. You can buy new kit out there pretty cheaply. You just need to get some replacement tickets. As you explore the details of your travel insurance, and the ticketing policies of the airline, an option presents itself. You could just cut your trip short, take an earlier flight home, and surprise your family for Christmas.

No, that’s just giving up, isn’t it? And what a waste. You’d miss out on Hanoi, not to mention Malaysia and Singapore. If you go back now, who knows when you’d find the time and the money to come this far East again? And what would everyone say when you got home so early? What kind of loser comes home from an exciting trip abroad two months early – basically because some of her stuff got nicked?

Then again, what kind of loser forces herself to have a miserable two months on her own, rather than lose face?

 

One last decision to make:

 

If you decide to be brave, stick it out and see some more of the world, go to Chapter Seven IX to face the consequences

If you decide to go home for Christmas go to Chapter Seven XV to face the consequences