Lost Girl of the Week: Melanie Ehler

Lost Girl of the Week — By on October 20, 2010 at 6:00 am

Perhaps my story will be the plainest one you will ever read on Lost Girls. I was never a powerful executive, had a cutting-edge career, made a lucrative income, or had an Orlando Bloom clone for a boyfriend, like so many of the other featured lost girls. My only real advantage has been my education.

I earned my degree in English by almost an accident of education. I love books – so much so that I simply kept taking more and more university classes in order to read and discuss as many books as possible. I didn’t attend university with any real foresight as to how I would build my career – or my real life – from its foundations.

Certainly, I obtained enough book knowledge, but aside from one golden summer in Greece when I was just a teenager, I did not know much about the world itself.

Then several years after graduating with an M.A. in English, I applied for a scholarship to an additional summer graduate course in poetry. I chose this particular course simply because the classes were being taught by Richard Jackson and Michael Collier, poets I greatly admire, and I wanted to improve my writing.

As a matter of mere coincidence, the program was being held at Karlovy University in Prague. That summer, I meandered through the twisty, cobbled streets of medieval Czech towns; I ate shark with strawberry sauce in Hungary; I wandered lost through an art park in Slovakia; I walked hours and days through the labyrinth of Italy’s Venetian canals. I was not a good student. But still, I felt I had learned a great deal over the course of that summer. And when it was finished, I knew I wanted to see more of the world – all of it, in fact.

My summer in Prague made me realize that I have the inner resources to move through the world by myself. Financial resources, however, were another matter. When I finally decided to actualize my dream and save money for RTW travel, Michigan had gone into a recession. Most of the available jobs offered salaries that were just above minimum wage with no health insurance. But I was determined to save money for a RTW trip, and heaven knows, I’m one of the most stubborn people alive. So I worked a variety of jobs – online editing, clerk at a bookbinding shop, standardized test scorer, and purchasing team member for a car company.

During the two years I was saving for my trip, I was often working two or more of these jobs at the same time, in addition to special seasonal work. It was not uncommon for me to work 70 hours or more a week. My level of exhaustion was staggering. One night, after coming home from one of my jobs, I feel asleep on my bedroom floor, wearing my coat and all my clothes, because I was too tired to walk the last 20 feet to my bed.

Some days, I would even become so physically ill from the stress and sleeplessness that I had trouble keeping food down, but I persevered – and I was rewarded by my savings. By the fall of 2008, I had saved over $10,000. It was enough for me to go on a 6 month RTW backpacking trip, I decided. I would just continue working and saving whatever extra money I could until the spring, so that when I arrived in Barcelona, my first intended destination, the weather would be fresh. But then, when it seemed like my long-dreamed goal was about to reach fruition, my beloved cat, Bacci, became seriously ill.

When I took Bacci to the animal hospital, the vet told me he was dying. If he were given an operation and intensive care, he would have a 50% chance of living, just a 50% chance. And the overall cost? Thousands of dollars. I thought of the days and nights I’d spent working. I thought of how traveling around the world had been my dream for over two years. I thought of all the travel books I’d bought, pages dog-eared from rereading, the travel blogs I’d followed and the websites I’d bookmarked. I thought of all the times I’d denied myself eating dinner out or watching a movie at the theatre, or even the time I got food poisoning and refused to see a doctor – all because I was so focused on saving money for my goal.

And then I thought of Bacci, who I’d gotten from an animal rescue group, taking him home with me when he was so small his entire kitten body fit in the palm of my hand. I thought of how he would follow me through the house, how he’d begrudgingly come to me whenever I called him, how he would bury his favorite toys in the food bowl, how he always tried to steal my pillow as we slept curled on the same bed. I loved Bacci. Money, I figured, I could earn again. “Do whatever it takes to save him,” I told the vet.

My beloved cat lived through the operation, intensive care at the animal hospital, and then the personal intensive care I gave him at home. But by the time he was saved, I had spent over half my money.  At that point, I gave up on my dreams.  But hope dies hard, and about six months later, I again became determined to find a way to travel abroad. While browsing different travel sites online, I saw a posting for an editorial job at a prestigious university in South Korea. I e-mailed my resume, did a phone interview, and was soon thereafter on a plane to Seoul. It is where I currently live.

After one year of living and working here, I have easily saved enough money for a RTW trip. However, I enjoy my life in Korea so much that I’ve decided to stay a second year. In the meantime, while my long awaited RTW trip remains in the future, I fulfill my travel ambitions by going on weekend trips to different cities in Korea. October is festival season here:  this month I’ve been to the Andong Mask Festival, Jinju Lantern Festival, and Jarasum International Jazz Festival. And my enjoyment of festivals extends beyond just this month and beyond just this country – within the past year, I’ve also gone to a winter snow festival in Sapporo, Japan, a swing dancing festival in Beijing, China (we danced on the Great Wall!), and the highly-celebrated sakura festival in Kyoto, Japan. I’m in love with my life.

But this story isn’t just for me to brag about everything I’ve seen and done. It’s for you, especially the sweet daydreamers who read about travel but have no stamps in their passports. It’s to let you know that if you dream about traveling the world, you can find a way to make it happen. Don’t stay wrapped up in what’s most comfortable; stretch your limits. You must ask yourself, as the poet Mary Oliver asks, “What are you doing with your one wild and precious life?”

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    6 Comments

  • Melanie says:

    If you want to read more about my travels, please follow my blog at http://odysseusdrifts.blogspot.com/

    ~Melanie <3

  • Wannabe says:

    This has been definitely one of the more inspiring profiles! Melanie, you’re a total inspiration! Totally snapped me out of my glum “I’m never gonna get to travel aroudn the world like others” attitude. Realize I can/and have to do a lot more to make this dream come true!

    Melanie Reply:

    Thanks so much, Wannabe. That’s the best compliment I could get.

  • Eeva says:

    Melanie,

    Your story is certainly NOT plain. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I too have a desire to travel RTW. It has been my dream for 20 years. I am hoping, praying, anticipating that it will come to fruition in 18 months, give or take. Like you, it’s the saving the money part I struggle with(although I don’t think I’m a stubborn as you but probably should be). It is so frustrating when I sometimes think my dream will not come true but you posting your tale has given me renewed vigor to continue to make my dream a reality. Thank you!

  • Gar says:

    Way to go girl. You’ve got what it takes. I’m an old(er) guy and I’ve been dreaming about traveling RTW for a long, long time. Now, I am finally making it happen. I’ll remember you when I’m dancing on the Great Wall! — Gar

  • Touche. Sound arguments. Keep up the good spirit.