2018: a year of upheaval + falling back in love {with life}

Every year, I sit down and write about an essay to summarize the year that was. You can read the previous end of the year essays here: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014. This year’s essay contains never-before-seen pics from my phone. I know they aren’t as pretty, but we see so many Instagram-worthy-delicately-edited-with-Lightroom photos. I thought maybe you’d like these for a change on this site. xx

If you would have told me a year ago that I’d be celebrating a new year in England and that I was starting to make my living as a writer, I would have told you to get lost. If you would have told me this time last year that I’d be going to New Zealand twice in 2018, I probably would have thought it a cruel joke. If you’d have told me future Tara would spend 2018 revisiting favourite countries, getting compensated hotel stays and tours, working with brands I love, and that I’d be writing at a British-owned and Chinese-based publication, I’d have told you to get the hell out.

That’s because a year ago i was in a very sad place.

SKYPING CULLEN FROM CHINA

SKYPING CULLEN FROM CHINA

SKYPING KEEGAN FROM CHINA

SKYPING KEEGAN FROM CHINA

At the end of 2017, I felt alone in a place I didn’t love, away from the people I love, in the middle of an utter emotional shit storm with someone I’d been in a complicated friendship/relationship/soup snake-ship{?} with. I was sick from the drastic pollution, my dad had had a stroke, my phone would hardly work which made me feel extra isolated, and through all of this my content was being imitated hard out {to the point where I took screenshots, then thought, what’s the point?, and then shut my site down for what I thought was going to be forever}.

So, it’d be honest to say that the end of 2017 was a far shout from the magical 2017 that I had been so fully in love with up until November. A year spent traveling through places like Cuba, Germany, England, the Netherlands, China, France, Myanmar, Indonesia, South Korea, New York City, Northern Ireland, Charleston, and Washington state having great adventures fizzled out. I had adored life for the most part up until November. What started as a fantastic year finished off with a few months that felt like they might swallow me whole.

LOVES OF MY LIFE—ALL MY FRIENDS LEAVING MY ASS AT THE RIVER…JUST KIDDING, I CAUGHT UP | JANUARY 2018

LOVES OF MY LIFE—ALL MY FRIENDS LEAVING MY ASS AT THE RIVER…JUST KIDDING, I CAUGHT UP | JANUARY 2018

HIKING WITH TASHY | JANUARY 2018

HIKING WITH TASHY | JANUARY 2018

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Luckily, I kicked off 2018 by returning to New Zealand in January and then a trip to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. My first return to New Zealand in 2018 was filled with beach rugby, riverside hangs, BBQs, and long chats with my people. My actual idea of heaven. My time in South Korea gave me a taste of what the highly underrated country has to offer. Attending the Winter Olympics was a true bucket list moment. Watching the U.S. play hockey at an Olympic game…I mean…surreal. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I can’t really put into words. Sports and Seoul and a dog cafe {I still don’t know how I feel about}— it was a fun time.

ME MAKING FRIENDS AT A DOG CAFE IN SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA | FEBRUARY 2018

ME MAKING FRIENDS AT A DOG CAFE IN SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA | FEBRUARY 2018

But with every incredible trip came a return flight to China that ended in me feeling like I was in a fog of sorts. Every plane ticket away came with a plane ticket back. I remember my friend, Amy, refusing to let me sleep alone when I came back from New Zealand in January. She said, “You’re going to be sad and this place is horrible. I can’t let you be alone on your first night back.” This is a prime example of the remarkable friendships I made in China. Micheal, Russ, James, Katie, Amy, and I held each other together. Once, after falling out of my shower onto the tile floors in my bathroom, just days after I’d moved in, Russel and James came over and literally tucked me into bed. James cleaned up the minor blood from the floor while Russ {who speaks Chinese} took me to the doctor to check if I’d gotten a concussion. What kind of friends do that?! What kind of people will literally clean up your blood and carry your towel-covered body into a Chinese clinic?!? Good friends and good people, that’s who.

MY FINAL DINNER IN CHINA WITH MICHAEL, KATIE, AMY, JENNY, + ADAM | AUGUST 2018

MY FINAL DINNER IN CHINA WITH MICHAEL, KATIE, AMY, JENNY, + ADAM | AUGUST 2018

Despite the connective friendships in China, I still felt disconnected from myself. Once Luke arrived to the mainland, things shifted slightly. I don’t think anyone really knew how bad China felt. Maybe the people who know me best saw it. I think my family suspected I hated it more than I let on. But, for the most part, Tash, Keegan, and Luke were the only three people who fully understood that I was just not me. There were so many stories I didn’t share {like the taxi driver who followed me into my apartment building or the group of drunk men who surrounded me and smashed beer bottles at my feet in unison} because I didn’t know how. These bad stories could have happened anywhere, but they didn’t. They happened in a place I didn’t like during a time in my life when I was barely functioning.

LUKE + I IN BEER, DEVONSHIRE AFTER A MORNING TREK TO BRANSCOMBE | AUGUST 2018

LUKE + I IN BEER, DEVONSHIRE AFTER A MORNING TREK TO BRANSCOMBE | AUGUST 2018

In a lot of ways, {and this is going to sound absolutely dramatic, but it’s 100% honest} I think Luke saved me. If “saved” is a word people are uncomfortable with, I’d say he reminded me of who I was and what I deserved. I wasn’t taking care of myself in China. I lived in this beautiful apartment, making great money, with really tuned-in friends, but I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly. I wasn’t creating or writing— in fact, I took down this site. I wasn’t running or hiking because the air was bad and my health was shit, so even the athletic, nature-loving side of myself felt lightyears away. Though I knew exactly why I was struggling, I was still having a rough time. I think I was simple out of love with my life. The magic of it all felt worn off. And I’d never been out of love with life before.

Luke forced me to eat. He forced me to call in sick from work to rest and see the doctor when my pollution sickness got too bad. He even walked me to the front door of The Nanjinger office when the editor asked to meet me. He wiped the tears from my nervous face, and reminded me that I had everything I already needed in me. Luke encouraged me to read and run and dance and be silly. The months before he got to China were the closest I’ve ever felt to depression {on par with the worst breakup I’ve ever had} as it’s been explained to me {though, yes, I know actual depression is much scarier and diagnosable and not at all what I was going through}. But, it felt grim and dark and horrible.

Slowly, all the dancing while cooking dinners together and everything I was learning from writing at The Nanjinger started to lighten the load I felt on my heart. During that entire foggy time, Luke never once tried to be a hero. He’s constantly reminded me that I’ve never needed a hero, because I’ve always been capable of saving myself. That’s one of the many things I appreciate most about Luke as a person, and I know, whatever future does or does not exist for us, he will always have a special place in my heart as the person who dared to be my best friend when I didn’t feel worthy of platonic or romantic love.

I had been torn apart and he flew to China with a little thread and needle, handed it to me, and watched carefully as I learned how to sew myself back together.

LUKE + I IN PRAGUE | DECEMBER 2018

LUKE + I IN PRAGUE | DECEMBER 2018

While I was busy metaphorically sewing away, Luke went home to the U.K. for a week. Upon his return to China, we sat on my bed eating the Haribo he’d brought back with him, when he suddenly turned to me. “Do you want to leave China?,” he asked. I did. And he did. So, we made a plan to travel. It was as easy as that.

Making the choice to leave China was made even easier by the Universe’s many signs. I landed a writing assignment in Nepal and had saved money for a month or two in Sri Lanka. Together, we’d booked time to travel around rural China, the places tourists don’t always go, while our visas were still valid. We were both incredibly excited. I felt instantly lighter. It was all coming together— the writing, the traveling, all of it.

COURTESY OF WHERE GOES ROSE | JULY 2018

COURTESY OF WHERE GOES ROSE | JULY 2018

BIKING THROUGH THE RICE FIELDS OF HOI AN | JULY 2018

BIKING THROUGH THE RICE FIELDS OF HOI AN | JULY 2018

In the middle of us booking our travels, like some kind of miracle, a fellow blogger found an opportunity for travel writers to stay in exchange for accommodation, a food stipend, a motorbike, and free Muay Thai/Yoga classes to help create content in Vietnam. She suggested we both apply. Eventually, we got accepted, and went. I spent nearly a month in Hoi An, making new friends with the likes of Rose of Where Goes Rose, Lola of Miss Filatelista, Flo {a neuroscientist who built her own bike and road it across South America}, and countless others. They’ve all been such inspiring women to meet. They’ve also helped me while I learn the ropes of freelancing— a debt I could never repay. Most importantly, they are women who cheer one another on {empowered women empower women, amirite?}. It was during this time that another writing assignment serendipitously fell into my lap courtesy of BeBe Tailor and their new website. I was fully in my stride, creating and traveling and moving towards the ultimate goal of writing for a living.

Three weeks into my return to Vietnam, Luke’s mother passed away. Everything changed. We canceled our travel plans. Our collective focus shifted to Luke’s family’s loss. Instead of staying in Hoi An for the extra week, I returned to China to pack up my apartment and I flew to England to meet up with him.

A VERY PUFFY-EYED ME WITH SANDY | EARLY SEPTEMBER 2018

A VERY PUFFY-EYED ME WITH SANDY | EARLY SEPTEMBER 2018

While in England, Luke and I had to decide what we wanted to do, and if what we wanted to do allowed us to be together. After China, my dad’s heart, and Luke’s mother…neither of us were sure if our relationship would hold up. It was the last thing we were really concerned with. I knew how complicated {albeit wonderful} distance relationships could be. I never wanted either of us to be half-happy. Or happy only when we got to be together. That’s not real love, is it? Real love requires “crying in the car park” honesty and sacrifices. I’m a realist these days when it comes to relationships and I keep my heart guarded {which is problematic in its own right}. The remnants of my history, I guess. I didn’t know how I ended up in a similar relationship to the one I’d been in before {i.e. dating someone from another country without the proper visa}, but I knew Luke was someone who wanted to do life with me, not intermittently.

Instead of having a conversation over Haribo this time, we sort of didn’t have a conversation at all. We both knew we had to just go for it, whatever “it” was to each of us and hope that it worked out. After Luke’s mother passed, we both fully understood that life is finite. You have a limited amount of time to do the big, scary things you dream of doing. Everyone says it. You hear it so often it becomes a cliche. But it rings loud and clear with meaning when someone dies. Your dreams will always just be dreams if you don’t do the damn thing.

So, I decided to become a full-time freelancer, pairing my love of words with my enthusiasm for photography. That decision has given me the freedom to travel full-time, and work with some dreamy companies. It’s also given me the opportunity to have time with Luke in Laos.

THE BEST SUNSET SPOT IN LUANG PRABANG, LAOS, IS ONLY STEPS FROM MY LOFT…AND I LIKE TO THINK THAT’S NOT A MISTAKE | EARLY DECEMBER 2018

THE BEST SUNSET SPOT IN LUANG PRABANG, LAOS, IS ONLY STEPS FROM MY LOFT…AND I LIKE TO THINK THAT’S NOT A MISTAKE | EARLY DECEMBER 2018

XENG LEE + I ON MY BIRTHDAY | SEPTEMBER 2018

XENG LEE + I ON MY BIRTHDAY | SEPTEMBER 2018

Freelancing isn’t all rainbows and sunshine but, for now, it’s working out. It might not be a forever thing but, if I’m lucky {and hard-working enough}, it’s something I could see continuing on for a good while. Writing for work has allowed me to return to Thailand {twice}, and back over to Laos where Luke has been setting up a own social enterprise, the success of which has been overwhelming and wonderful. There’s an office space with plants and textiles, and I’m currently staying in the loft space owned behind/above it. This is kind of an added perk, because it means I have a base in Laos that’s rent-free. More money for travels, am I right?

AIRPORT PICKUP | JANUARY 2018

AIRPORT PICKUP | JANUARY 2018

HIKING THE MOUNT | NOVEMBER 2018

HIKING THE MOUNT | NOVEMBER 2018

KEEGS + I IN TAKUPUNA | NOVEMBER 2018

KEEGS + I IN TAKUPUNA | NOVEMBER 2018

It wasn’t just New Zealand, China, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, and Laos that I’ve gotten to travel around this year. I returned to Kuala Lumpur {this time to do it properly, not like I had done in 2016} and visited Penang for the first time {with a stay at the DoubleTree by Hilton} to reset my visa in October. I spent about a month back in New Zealand in November, which is always the best way to spend time if you ask me. In December, I returned to Laos for a week before flying off to England. Two days after landing in London and setting up a Christmas tree with Luke’s family, I headed to Germany , and a week later I was off to Czech Republic.

My mother used to always tell me that “the best of romances deserve second chances.” I know she was referring to a certain relationship, but 2018 seems to be the year where life went upside down and, once the dust settled, I fell back in love with it.

2018, the year that started with me living a life that didn’t feel like my own, shaped up to be a year with me in the driver’s seat of something I consciously manifested

All the upheaval and unknown that existed this year somehow lead me back to the place where I was in deep love with my life. I fell in love with my persistence and perseverance. I fell in deeper love with my friends. I fell in love with travel and writing again. Ultimately, somehow, I found my way through the upheaval back to the things and people I love.

ENJOYING SOME SPECIAL TIME WITH SOMEONE + AUDREY IN UPPER HUTT | JANUARY 2018

ENJOYING SOME SPECIAL TIME WITH SOMEONE + AUDREY IN UPPER HUTT | JANUARY 2018

SUNSETS IN NZ | JANUARY 2018

SUNSETS IN NZ | JANUARY 2018

If you’ve made it through this year’s essay, and especially if you read these every year, I can’t thank you enough for your time and support. I know it can be exhausting keeping up with where I am or what the “plan” is. I learned this year, however, that plans change in a moment. So, the only plan I have is one that requires focusing on my health, my people, my love of travel, and mastering my craft. I have my blinders on and I’m focused on spending my energy on all those things I fell back in love with and learning as much as possible about creating content, writing, photography, and videography.

Stepping into 2019, I feel impossibly far from the Tara I was in China. iI’m finally thriving again. Sometimes, I wonder how the year turned out to be so sparkly and how I could possibly feel so optimistic. I suppose my positivity comes from the fact that 2019 feels like a clean slate I fought tooth and nail for. I have so many exciting partnerships and creative collaborations lined up, it has me completely buzzing for the new year. I cannot wait to share everything that’s in store. And, of course, I am looking forward to traveling. Tickets are booked, itineraries are outlined. You’ll find me wandering through Hong Kong, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, the African continent, and…New Zealand. .

But, I’LL SAVE all THAT FOR another post.


Again, you can read about previous years in essay form here: 2017, 2016, 2015 , 2014


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