A few years ago I sold most of my belongings, quit my job and traded my briefcase for a backpack.
I spent one year traveling around the world, making my way through South America, Africa and Asia on a shoestring budget. At the time, I thought it was the hardest thing I’d ever do. Then I returned home to California, got pregnant and embarked on a whole new adventure.
After making the transition from knapsack to knocked up, I realized that being a traveler actually made my pregnancy experience easier. Here’s how one year of hoisting 30 pounds on my back prepared me for the long months of waddling around with 30 pounds on my front.
I take sleep any way I can get it.
While backpacking, overnight rides were the cheapest way to get from place to place — transportation and a place to sleep, all in one! — so I took a lot of sleeper trains and overnight buses. At first it was awkward and unnatural, particularly as a tall woman wedged into a tiny seat, but eventually I learned to fall asleep anywhere, even when that meant sticking my feet out a bus window. I’ve even been known to sleep on a bench at a bus stop, curled up like a salad shrimp, using my backpack as a pillow.
This skill came in handy during pregnancy, when all I wanted to do was sleep and needed to do so often. I snoozed everywhere, from the passenger seat in a car while my husband drove, to a fire ant-infested beach in Mexico. Nothing came between me and my zzzzs.
I can work a limited wardrobe.
With little room in my backpack, travel meant rotating through the same outfits all over the world. The khaki pants I wore hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu were the same pants I wore on safari in South Africa. As for my four shirts, every day was a “Project Runway” challenge — I layered my tees, wore them inside-out, accessorized with scarves, and did whatever I could to make my outfit interesting.
Maternity clothes proved to be a similar sartorial challenge, since they’re basically grim circus tents. I didn’t see the point in dropping a lot of cash on something I would only wear a few months, so I bought a few key pieces and tried to keep them looking fresh. With a few accessories, my grey dress went from professional conferences to formal occasions, while my elastic-waisted jeans stayed with me through every season. Also, I finally made good use of the sarong I bought on the beach in Goa, as it became the perfect belly-skimming skirt for my final month of pregnancy.
I’ve seen heinous things.
Urine. Mucus. Poop.
I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I’ve seen the trifecta of bodily excretions all over the world. Sometimes all at once. And I came to discover that’s what pregnancy is all about too. Fortunately, ever since a woman in South America urinated on my backpack, I’ve been unflappable. Nothing can gross me out anymore.
I know discomfort is temporary.
It was seven hours into a wearisome minibus trip in Ethiopia, crammed into a clanking vehicle with 24 other people and a pregnant goat, and I had to go to the bathroom. I asked the driver to stop, but he refused, and we were still four hours from our destination. I told myself, This is just four hours, not forever. If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything.
Well, I made it. And I made it through the most awkward, agonizing parts of pregnancy too, even when my body pulled every weird trick. Some days I woke up and my feet were too bloated for flip-flops. Other times my baby kicked so hard my whole body thrummed. A few times my hand went numb. All of it was temporary, and therefore, manageable.
It won’t go as planned.
Before I left California, I envisioned my backpacking trip going off without a hitch. In my mind I caught every train on time, I never felt ill or bored or scared, and I always looked like Ingrid Bergman, effortlessly beautiful, wearing a cute trench coat and carrying a hat box. It was so glamorous, that imaginary, jet-setting life of mine.
Despite meticulous planning unexpected things happen, leaving you split open and vulnerable to the world. Like the time a guide stranded my entire tour group at the edge of the Bolivian salt flats. Or the time I fell down a crumbling staircase in Bangkok and broke my foot in three places. Or when the Arab Spring broke out in Egypt the day I arrived in Cairo. It was decidedly not glamorous, and it definitely wasn’t what I imagined.
Likewise, I had a vision for my labor and delivery. It was going to be a blissful, all-natural, earth mama kind of affair, so I rolled up to the hospital with essential oils, a birth ball, candles and a doula. Suddenly my baby’s heartbeat began to decelerate with every contraction, dramatically slowing down for extended periods. I ended up with an epidural before I was wheeled into a cold operating room for an emergency Cesarean section. The last thing I saw before surgery was my birth plan, which had fallen to the floor, where doctors literally walked all over it.
It’s worth it.
The money I spent on excursions, experiences and plane fare. The exhaustion. The burrowing flies that made a home in my stomach flesh. It was all worth it. Every minute, every cramp, every worry. Because what I gained was Angkor Wat at dawn. Hiking within an arm’s length of rare mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Dipping my bare feet in the place where three bodies of water meet at the bottom tip of India, while a warm breeze ruffled my hair.
That’s how I feel now as a brand-new mother. I’ve learned that I don’t mind the stretch marks. The dark circles under my eyes. The extra pounds widening my hips. Because instead of limiting my world, my child has done so much to expand it.
Today my son snuggled up like a like cashew on my chest, and I could feel his hot breath on my skin. The purple veins on the pale skin of his closed eyelids looked like roads on a map. I inhaled the sweet, yeasty scent of him and thought about how anxious I am to teach him the lessons I’ve learned — that every day can be an adventure, every journey is worth taking, and if you travel far enough, you’ll always find your way back home again.
Maggie Downs is a writer in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the BBC, Eating Well and The Rumpus, among other publications. She has an MFA in nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert.