Out of the Cocoon
My story begins in Clermont-Ferrand, my birthplace in France, a city rich in history and culture, where the first Christian crusade was initiated.
My parents first arrived in this town after immigrating from Algeria during the national crisis in the 80s. Since its independence in 1962, Algeria was ruled by the NLF (National Liberation Front), a socialist political party. Throughout the years, several social movements rose to protest against this autocratic regime, making the country an unsafe place to stay.
In 1986, my father, 18 at the time, joined his mother in France. My mother, who had lost her own mother when she was a little girl, came to France shortly after her father passed away when she was 15. She lived under the care of my paternal grandmother, who married her off to my father a few years later.
I was born in the beautiful fall of 1991.
My parents didn’t get a chance to receive higher education. However, they understood the importance of having a good command of the French language. They took every opportunity to improve their language skills and found jobs while living with my grandmother and her six other children. Eventually, they were able to get their own apartment in a district where a lot of Algerian and Turkish people lived.
Carrying an immigrant background was not easy, especially for people from Algeria where the war of independence from France had been so violent. I could sense that I was unwelcomed and despised. Some people would tell me to go back to “my country.” I grew up with the feeling that I didn’t belong to the only country I knew and could call home. Over time, this turned me into a shy and introverted child who was afraid of making contact.
My parents didn’t want us to stay in the Algerian community forever. Their dream, like other immigrants, was to have all their children study and find a “good” job, essentially a high-paying job, in the future. Their poverty didn’t allow them to be happy. They didn’t get to choose their own destiny — not where they longed to live, not what they dreamed to become, not whom they wanted to marry…Everything had been decided for them without much of a choice, due to their impoverished status.
This brought them to the conclusion that money equated to happiness. They wanted me and my siblings to become wealthy enough to live comfortably. This idea was the center of our education. My success was not a duty to myself only. It was also for my parents, who never had the same opportunities that we, the next generation, did.
When I was eight, our family moved to live in a little seaside village in the south of France. It was a big change in our lives. From the omnipresent concrete buildings to the vineyards, the hills, the canal crossing, the village and the little farmhouses, it was a new world to us. We spent countless happy hours at the beach. At that time, I had one brother and one sister. This new life was paradise for the five of us. My last sister, who first saw the world in 2005, would be the only one native to our new hometown.
Even though I still struggled to socialize with other children, I began to make friends. My origins caused me less issues here than in Clermont-Ferrand. I peacefully grew up among other children of the village. I particularly excelled in Math and Physics. This earned me status in the community. Some of the villagers asked me to help their children with their homework.
You can imagine how proud my parents were of my reputation. When my grandmother, aunts and uncles visited us, there was always a moment to talk about my good results in studies. They would talk about how it was certain that I would become a successful engineer and reach a “good situation.” I didn’t even know what being an engineer entailed. I doubt anyone in my family knew better.
For me, having good marks at school wasn’t the result of a passion for my subjects. I was just working as my parents taught me to. My true passion resided in somewhere else, somewhere less prosperous in terms of money.
Some of my free time was spent playing football or video games, but most of it was spent reading. I was reading a lot. I discovered a passion for books. During my first year at secondary school, we studied A Stranger Is Watching by Mary Higgins Clark. I was inspired. I went on to read a dozen of her novels. After that, I read every single story of Sherlock Holmes. Reading was my escape to another world. I subscribed to a book club. I received from them a welcome gift: the entire trilogy of The Lord of the Rings. The books were my first step in the world of fantasy. I began to imagine my own fantasy stories. At the age of 14, with the help of my French teacher, I wrote a short story. Somewhere in my heart, I dreamed to become a famous writer someday.
Yet I never had the courage to follow that dream. I had a role. I was the pride of my parents. I was expected to study sciences and become the first engineer in my family. Failure to pursue scientific studies would gravely disappoint them. I was so afraid of this that I conveniently abandoned my dream of writing. I told myself that I had to be reasonable. It was easier than confronting my parents and confessing that it was literature, not science, that was my real passion. I simply chose scientific specialty at high school at which I excelled.
This eventually led me to a renowned aeronautics and aerospace engineering school in 2012. There, I realized my mistake. Solid mechanics, thermodynamics, structures… almost every single subject disgusted me. Every day in the workshop reminded me of the fact that I didn’t belong there. I was not inspired by calculating cost efficiencies or energy consumption. Some of my classmates were really passionate about engines and systems, but some were also arrogant. They felt superior to the rest of the society and were driven by money. This was not surprising as our teachers referred to us as “the elite”. I stayed there for a year, the saddest year of my life.
I left the school with no goal in mind. I moved on to study Mathematics in order to get my Bachelor’s degree. It was something I could do easily. At that time, I actually thought it was the only thing I could do. During all those years I never considered that I could follow a path outside the sphere of sciences. I was lost.
Quitting engineering school resulted in a huge argument with my parents. In the year that followed, we didn’t talk once, not even a text. My days consisted of going to class when I felt like it, followed by a trip to the shop to buy soda, baguette and cheese, returning to my flat and wasting countless hours on video games. I was neglecting my body and my social life.
For more than six months, I existed as an aimless empty shell, until one night, my best friend came to my apartment and punched me. He then preached a long sermon which I can summarize in a short sentence: “I’m fed up to see you like this. Now you need to move your ass or you can forget our friendship.”
His words shook me. He was right. My room and my computer had become my shelter. There I avoided facing the world and facing my life. My time in my comfortable prison had to come to an end. I posed a question to myself, “What do you want to do?” I asked myself what truly attracted me and what kind of people would inspire me.
The first answer coming into my mind was to see the world. How many gorgeous landscapes and fascinating monuments exist out there? Why should I hide in my video games while the world, the beautiful world, is waiting for me to see? There, I decided to travel.
By then my mother had had accepted that I needed to find my way, but my father continued to think that I was wasting my time and my potential, calling me a disappointment. However, I had made my choice.
I needed some money, so after the school year ended, I found a summer job and made a little saving. I started with an easy destination: England. It was my first time traveling alone and I ended up staying there for over two years. During this time, I worked in shops or restaurants, improved my English skills and hosted many travelers from all around the world, making friends from everywhere. I rediscovered my love for books and started to read again. I revived.
One day, I hosted an Indian man who invited me to his country to attend his cousin’s wedding. That was my moment! I felt like it was a sign. An opportunity for me not only to see an Indian wedding but to have a first step in Asia before traveling there all on my own. I didn’t hesitate. I bought a ticket, packed a bag and set out for a new adventure. It was in November 2017. My siblings called me crazy but couldn’t hide their admiration for my courage. What they didn’t know was it was more than just courage. I was feeling a burning desire to explore the world and I couldn’t ignore it.
I joined my friend in Delhi and stayed there for about one week. His cousin’s wedding was the most sumptuous event I have never attended and will always remember. After the wedding, I waved him goodbye and went on the road, to discover India by myself. My objective was to travel north India from Delhi to Calcutta passing by Darjeeling and then head for South-East Asia.
I saw the Taj Mahal, I went to the Himalayas, and I was amazed by the stunning sunsets in Orchha and the wonderful waterfalls in many places. I slept in the street in Gaya as I couldn’t find a place to stay. I met random people in the places I visited and some of them hosted me for the night. I experienced life to its core!
Just as I’m telling this story, I’m still in the middle of this adventure. After two months in India, I stayed three months in Thailand where I worked on a farm for a few weeks. I’m now in Laos, and my next stops are Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s not easy every day as I’m travelling without much money. There are days I miss the comfort of a hot shower and the taste of good cheese, but I’m feeling alive, more than ever. And most importantly, I started writing again. Whether it is on the roads, in the mountains or by a river, everything here is a new source of inspiration.
Today, I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel like I’ve found myself. I’m outside the cocoon in which I was trapped during my younger years. The freshness, the freedom, the passion…and the happiness. The rest of my story is yet to be written as I continue with my travel.
This is the story of Mehdi Benaouda
Born in France, Mehdi has spent the major part of his life living for his parents and trying to become an engineer to make a “better” living, as he thought it was his duty. But living the life others wanted him to live brought him despair. It almost killed his dreams, until he realized that going against our own nature, against what inspires us, was actually the less realistic thing to do, so he quit. His true passion lies in literature. Mehdi is currently travelling and experiencing the world to get inspired as a writer. At the time when this story is being told, he is in Laos.
Life Log #80
| Writer: Mehdi Benaouda | Editor: Manqing Jin; Adam Savage |