Life in a Backpack with Melissa Legarda

Writer & Photographer | Melissa Legarda

Barefoot, hair wild, soft breeze kissing brown skin. I live for these days when we laugh and dance and forget to doubt and fear, as our brains are so inclined to do. Today, remember to breathe.

– Mel’s Diary, June 2016

I used to think that London was the centre of the universe. I always identified myself as a Londoner, despite being the daughter of Filipino-Spanish parents who left their homelands and carved out a place for themselves in the UK. I didn’t really think about my roots or ancestors. I thought I’d grow up, get married, and start a family in Notting Hill, where my kids would have the exact same childhood as me.

Never did I think I would be sat on a warm beach somewhere in Indonesia, barefoot and hair wild, a soft breeze kissing my tanned skin, writing about life on the road after one year of calling the Philippines home. But here I am. Anything is possible. You just have to be brave enough to begin.

A Wandering Childhood

My parents are citizens of the world. I’ve travelled since I was a foetus in the womb. Growing up, my folks brought me on their work trips abroad, we took frequent family road trips and holidays. I grew up exposed to different cultures and foods and countries.

Growing up, we had annual holidays to the Philippines, where we usually spent Christmas with family, and to Spain, where we visited my aunts every summer. I loved airports. I loved train rides. When we lived in Poland during the millennium, we took family roadtrips around Eastern Europe, passing through countries including Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Czech Republic. In our trusty teal Mazda MPV – Maizie, she was called – we would sing along to ‘90s hits on the car radio, eat fresh strawberries from Polish roadside stalls, and shiver as we drove through freezing mountains and pitch-black forests. In every country we stopped in, I’d buy location stickers – España, Österreich, Deutschland – from gas stations and proudly stick them to the windows.

I look back at my childhood as golden. Idyllic years spent bonding with my parents in an ever-changing backdrop of countries and cultures. I’m so grateful for those memories. These days, since becoming an “Adult” – whatever that means – my parents have wholeheartedly supported my decisions and journeys every step of the way, despite the many questionable, often idiotic, choices I’ve made.

Escaping the Expected Path

Travelling so much as a kid left its mark on me. A number of years went by in my teens where I thought I was destined to stay in London forever. It was a bubble – good, bad – but it was home to me. It wasn’t until I left university and started my very first job that I began to experience this overwhelming, crushing sensation that surely, surely, there was more out to life than taking the Tube every morning to crunch numbers and hit sales targets for a money-hungry firm. Doubt and sadness crept up on me. I felt trapped, isolated, and honestly, incredibly lost.

Suddenly, an opportunity to work in the Philippines came up out of the blue. Fate was giving me an out. A chance to explore the roots of my heritage, of my parents, as well as live in a foreign country that was somewhat familiar, and be able to travel freely around Asia? I jumped at the chance.

Two months later, I had moved to Manila. I was lucky enough to find myself running down an amazing career path that allowed me to travel extensively and immerse myself in what I was passionate about – writing and cinema. Not only that, but being based in the Philippines, flights around Asia became incredibly affordable. The Philippines itself, being an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, even, is an incredible country to explore.

In just one year, based in Asia, I travelled more than I ever had before. Between 2015 and 2016, I visited Brussels, Uganda, Japan, America, Italy, the Philippines, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Bali, not to mention the islands I have travelled around in the Philippines itself. I have yet to visit some of the most well known destinations and countries around Asia, but all in good time. That’s the beauty of travelling. You never know where you’ll head to next. How many flights you’ll miss, on purpose. What kind of people you’ll meet, that will change your life. Realising these things makes life incredibly exciting.

Been feeling a little hazy when thinking about the future, lately. How will I continue to keep myself financially sustainable on the road? What kind of projects will make me the happiest? – Mel’s Diary, May 2016

New Worlds

Travelling has opened up different worlds to me. Travel continually deepes my understanding of what “home” is. Of what “friendship” is. Of how I connect to people, of what makes me comfortable, of how I experience the world, of what I want in life. Whenever I get much-needed distance from cosmopolitan, capitalist society, I realise how much of the average person’s daily “stress” is artificial. Artificially imposed deadlines, taxes, advertisements from corporations and companies that don’t give a hoot about our wellbeing, only about our wallets.

When I think about standard office jobs only allowing workers 28 days a year to explore the entire world, it makes me shudder. It’s perfectly acceptable if you’re happy, if you love your job – but for me, I know that I need more than that. I need to create a life that works for my happiness, even at the risk of financial instability. If that’s what you want to, you need to forget about hearing other people’s judgements or opinions. You need to find out what you want. Pinpoint what makes you happy, and then work on replicating that happiness in a way that is financially sustainable.

Living in a foreign country, without backup plans or stable finances, is not easy. I’ve battled with long-distance relationships, culture shock, been so indecisive that I’ve had panic attacks, felt loneliness so strong that I break down and weep. But you have to take the pain in your stride. You grow stronger. Having faith and common sense and finding meaning in what you’re doing, and being passionate about the journey you’re taking – that’s what you have to focus on. Embracing the unknown, taking it one day at a time, putting in the work, brick by steady brick, to create a sustainable and exciting future for myself, is something that I am actively working on, second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour.

Living alone, abroad, away from family, best friends, and home comforts gets crushingly lonely at times. Even simple things like hugs, linking arms and holding hands, I realise I’ve taken for granted.

– Mel’s Diary, April 2016


Embracing the Unknown

We are lucky to be alive in such an exciting time. Our generation is one of freedom – and yet, on the other hand, the world seems to be scarier, and more uncertain for us than it was for our elders. There is no set way to live life anymore. People are pushing past social constructs, waking up, and vigorously pursuing self-actualization. We are the digital generation, and in many ways, yes, the selfish generation – but is it really selfish to want to spend our short years of life experiencing the world in all its glory?

My mother always tells me: “Shape your environment.” Whenever I’m low, when I call her to cry or complain or just for a reassuring voice of calm, she tells me again. It’s the best advice she ever could have given me. Shape your environment. In other words, if you want a certain lifestyle, you have to go out and get it.

So many questions, but on the flip side, so many opportunities. Hard work, purpose, gratitude and perspective: as long as I, we, put these things into practice, bright and fruitful futures await! – Mel’s Diary, May 2016

In this digital era, people don’t see the hard work. They see the curated sunset photos on Facebook, the seemingly overnight success, the beautiful ending. They don’t see the hours of marketing, the gut-wrenching stomach poisoning, the dangerous hike up the mountain, the stress of a dwindling bank account, the constant rejection when applying for opportunities, the paranoia after turning down sensible financial options and personal relationships in exchange for freedom. They are openly critical.

But you have to learn to ignore the naysayers. Because it’s not their life. It’s yours. It’s a constant battle to have faith that things will fall into place. A constant battle against applying for a job you know you’ll hate, just to have a steady income stream. I’ve found that the more you put yourself on the line, the more people respond with their similar stories about hard times and vulnerability. I’m so grateful to everyone who has ever helped me out, or shared words of encouragement, or held my hand in the hard times. It reminds me that we’re all in this together.

On the days when life feels like it’s a little too much, and you feel vulnerable, scared, and close to giving up, remember – we all feel the same. Take a minute to remember that you’re alive and healthy with a roof over your head, food in your stomach, and clothes on your back.

Breathe deeply, refocus, and keep moving forward. Patience, gratitude, hard work, and perspective. Those are the keys to beginning a successful journey of living on the road – although anti-diarrhoea tablets and a bit of dosh are always handy, too.



I keep thinking about comfort zones.

I’ve pushed myself so far in the past 12 months. 

I’ve learned that taking chances is the only way to reach new heights, to achieve new things.

Even so, I’m constantly battling self doubt.

On the road, free as a bird, decisions are quick.

Made with the gut, they lead to adventure and awe and growth. 

In routines, on home turf, decisions are deliberated.

Risks are riskier. Anxiety, nervousness, doubt. They seep in.
“What if they judge me? What will they say?”
But then, I mean, really. Who actually cares?

Life is fucking short.
Let them say. Let them judge.
Reject the fear of rejection.
Reject anything less than your best.
Work hard with infinite passion. That’s what I’m trying to do. What we’re all trying to do.
Find that silver lining and flourish.
Why give to the world if you won’t give yourself to the world?

  • Mel’s Diary, July 2016


Melissa Legarda Alcantara is a freelance journalist chasing sunsets around the world. Based between the Europe and Asia, she writes inspiring tales of travel at (@illumelation).

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