Do I still belong in Ireland? I’m 30, jobless and returning after travelling 13 countries

Katie Ryan on moving home to Co Clare during the Covid-19 pandemic and finding happiness

Katie Ryan at an ancient Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

Katie Ryan at an ancient Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

 

I’m 30 years old, jobless and all my future plans are currently on hold. I’ve travelled 13 countries in the last few years and now I’m back in Ireland. I wasn’t supposed to be just as happy living at home on the Wild Atlantic Way as I was at any of the far-flung places I’d travelled to - but I am.

As a backpacker, I’m used to waking up every day in a bunk bed. But waking up back in my childhood bunk bed after three years of travelling around the world is taking time to get used to. Staring up at the stickers and scrawl across my bottom bunk gives me a feeling of warmth and familiarity I hadn’t felt in ages. The “butter wouldn’t melt” grins of my favourite bands 1990s bands, Take That and S Club 7, bring me back to the good old days. Days I spent choreographing bad playground dance routines and whispering gossip over landlines in the living room.

To be home right now was not part of the plan. I was supposed to be spending months scrubbing marble floors in an Ashram monastery in India and throwing fluorescent powder at happy people dressed in white. I was supposed to be enjoying my last hurrah before moving to Australia to live with my craft-beer loving, sourdough-obsessed boyfriend Scotty.

Katie Ryan on the train to Ella in Sri Lanka.
Katie Ryan on the train to Ella in Sri Lanka.

In January this year, I was volunteering at a hostel in south Sri Lanka and studying yoga at a local Buddhist temple. I hadn’t planned much further than my next meal despite people saying things such as: “Coronavirus is near your neck of the woods isn’t it? Aren’t you worried?” Sri Lankans weren’t wearing masks or fighting over toilet paper so I figured I’d be fine. I was living in a tranquil, tropical bubble and in a few weeks I’d be travelling India with Scotty.

February was of a whirlwind of activity. We hiked tea plantations, hung our feet out train doors watching the Indian countryside roll by, and became very sick from prawns in Goa. We were oblivious to the fact that this was our last hurrah and the growing Covid-19 crisis.

When Scotty returned to Sydney, Australia on the first week of March, Covid-19 still wasn’t on the forefront of our minds. He was going back to work and I was going back to a carefree yogi life for as long as I could afford to.

Carefree turned to catastrophe on March 12th when India stopped issuing most visas. I hadn’t applied for my Australian tourist yet and my Indian visa was expiring soon. Flight prices were tripling by the day. So I pinned all hope on the Indian foreigners’ relations office. The only place in Bangalore where people were wearing masks, sanitising excessively and blasting you with a thermometer gun. Surely they would let me stay or help me leave? It wasn’t straight forward. But I wasn’t alone in any of this though. The small, windowless office was full of backpackers needing the same thing and getting nowhere. It took five long days to get my exit visa.

With both my exit visa and Australian tourist visa finally snug in my inbox I booked my flight to Sydney. It cost AUS$1,200 (€735). After I peeled myself off the ceiling at the price of it, I managed to have the best night’s sleep I’d had in a week. The relief was short lived. I woke up the next day to numerous missed calls and the one text I didn’t want to read: “I’m so sorry. They’re closing the border tomorrow”. The cut off time was 9pm but my flight wasn’t going to make it. I missed the cut off by two hours. I sat staring at my phone, listening to it vibrate, too numb to take anything in.

Australia was out. Now what?

Home, I guess.

Heartbroken and disappointed that I couldn’t join my boyfriend in Australia and all my plans fast disappearing, I headed to Bangalore airport. The eerily empty departures lounge matched my mood. I finally got on the plane.

Circling the Dublin skyline I felt like I wasn’t ready. What would I even do here? Did I still belong in Ireland? The neon Dublin Airport sign glowed amid the rain as we rolled to the gate. I was relieved to finally see it and I knew everything would be okay.

Katie Ryan with a group of women in the town of Kalawewa in Sri Lanka. 

Part of the allure of Myanmar, India and all the countries I visited was taking in the culture of compassion, gratitude and kindness. These were their pillars of prosperity, even if they didn’t have money. I used to think this culture only existed in such countries that it wasn’t the same back home in Ireland. So I kept travelling.

But I was wrong. Now I’m home again, I'm finding happiness and compassion everywhere. I see it in the “great to see you again” smiles, the friendly banter in Covid-19 queues and the eagerness of people to “be there” for me if I ever want to chat. Everyone knows I’ve been away, and concerned that I’m finding this transition difficult, especially as my boyfriend is oceans away. Their compassion has meant the world.

It’s been a tough transition but despite all the challenges, it’s good to be home in Co Clare. I’ve realised happiness isn’t one location. It’s the people you surround yourself with. It’s a feeling you create within yourself and pay forward. Its kindness, love and support. It’s been here at home all along but it took me a few years, 13 countries, a coronavirus pandemic and way too many bunk beds to realise it.

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