A few days after Christmas I was sitting in the living room of my parents’ house, still sunburnt on my face and feet from the Cambodian sun, enjoying the company of my brothers. I wasn’t supposed to be home for the holidays, but instead still teaching English in Hanoi, Vietnam. My contract wasn’t up until January 15th, 2016, but to be honest, I’d had my fill of teaching. We’d made it through the curriculum and several weeks of testing lay ahead of me. The next pay day was scheduled for December 10th, giving me just enough time to do some actual backpacking before heading back to the States before Santa Claus. I decided to do a runner and flew off to Cambodia for a week of adventures before heading back home on the 18th. So here I was, having done my first ever great escape from a Communist country, enjoying my family maybe more than I ever have, when I check Facebook on my phone and feel my heart sink to my feet. A girl I’d met not a week and half prior, someone I’d laughed with, had dinner with in a Cambodian roadside restaurant with a few other new friends, someone I thought looked so happy with her life in a backpack, was dead.
J.R.R Tolkien seems to have become the patron saint of backpackers everywhere. I grew up on the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and had forever wanted to pack a bag and go on a grand adventure. Many travelers I’ve met out on the trail, whether in Spain along the Camino de Santiago or somewhere in Southeast Asia, have adopted one of Tolkien’s more famous quotes, “Not all who wander are lost.” I, too, have an obvious fondness for that quote. Every time I’d stand on a new mountain top and stare out into the great expanse, I knew that it was exactly where I was meant to be in that very moment. I know many of my friends feel the same way on each of their adventures. There’s something deep inside that drives all of us to challenge the boundaries that have been laid before us, to go somewhere new and feel something great. We love deeply and we drink deeper. We appreciate each other and we put on our backpacks and we smile because where else would you rather be?
Iida was quiet when we officially met in Siem Reap, Cambodia in the lobby of our hostel. I had actually noticed her in Phnom Penh a couple days before, reading something while Interstellar played in the hostel we shared there, as well. She was alone but not lonely. I remember that distinctly. Travelers, or good ones at least, are typically pretty great at including someone who looks like they need the company. But she shared a few laughs with a couple guys nearby and went back to her book. I went about my business sightseeing and eventually leaving Phnom Penh the next day. When I saw Iida again, she was chatting with a few friends I had already made in Siem Reap, including an old college buddy. We all went out for dinner and grabbed a few beers and a traditional khmer curry. Iida and I sat on opposite ends of the table. I barely even spoke with her at dinner. When we get back to the hostel we started talking about our future plans. I was headed back to the States, a couple others were staying in Cambodia, one was headed to Vietnam for a while. I asked Iida what she wanted to do next. Her answer is why I remember her so well and why her death rattled me to the core.
“I really like it here,” she responded in her Finnish accent, flashing a shy smile. She was young, maybe 20 tops. Incredibly young to be doing this alone, I remember thinking. “I think I’m just going to stay here for a while.”
Do you want to work, I asked her. Do you know what you’ll do?
“Not really, I just want to be here for now.”
I was jealous that she got to stay, but I was ready to see my family, so I was content with this adventure coming to an end. I wished her well on her own adventures.
A few minutes later she smiled out of the side of her mouth and excused herself from the table. I never saw her again, my flight was later that night and it’s impossible to say goodbye to everyone you’ve met on the road. It was just one of those things.
Until I saw a picture of Iida come up on my Facebook feed with a poem edited onto it. Never a good sign. I clicked, fearing the worst but still hoping. Iida’s older sister had posted the photo. This was the poem:
Farewell our beloved Iida,
fly slowly towards the angels
and remember that we loved you
and you will always be in our hearts.
Iida’s body had been found the week before in Cambodia, her sister wrote. She was asking for details of her sister’s trip. She was searching for answers. I looked for some of my own, searching local newspapers online to no avail. I didn’t and never will have the heart to ask her sister the circumstances of Iida’s death. All I knew was that I was home with my family, when I really shouldn’t have been, and she never would be again. It’s been a month since then and I’ve only just now been able to put this to words.
Travel is an amazing thing and I feel so very fortunate to have been able to see some amazing places and to have had the year I’ve just had. I feel like I’m a better person for it and I have met so many amazing people from all around the world. But it hurts to know that one of those travelers, someone I barely even knew really but with whom I shared a burning desire to see the world, is at the end of her road.
Some people who wander are lost. Iida is lost to all of us, that’s just a sad fact of life now. I hope she herself was not lost, that she was exactly where she wanted to be before she met her unfortunate end. Her friendship, however brief it was, and her death will stick with me for a long time. Again, that’s just a sad fact. I will also hold with me the sparkle in her eye when she told me her plans for the future. For as long as I’m able, I’ll keep wandering with the same sparkle in my eye, holding with me the memories of everyone I’ve met along the way.